Uncle Jim and Uncle Billy by Bret Harte
They were partners. The avuncular title was bestowed on them by Cedar
Camp, possibly in recognition of a certain matured good humor, quite
distinct from the spasmodic exuberant spirits of its other members, and
possibly from what, to its youthful sense, seemed their advanced ages—which
must have been at least forty! They had also set habits even in their
improvidence, lost incalculable and unpayable sums to each other over
euchre regularly every evening, and inspected their sluice-boxes
punctually every Saturday for repairs—which they never made. They
even got to resemble each other, after the fashion of old married couples,
or, rather, as in matrimonial partnerships, were subject to the domination
of the stronger character; although in their case it is to be feared that
it was the feminine Uncle Billy—enthusiastic, imaginative, and
loquacious—who swayed the masculine, steady-going, and practical
Uncle Jim. They had lived in the camp since its foundation in 1849; there
seemed to be no reason why they should not remain there until its
inevitable evolution into a mining-town. The younger members might leave
through restless ambition or a desire for change or novelty; they were
subject to no such trifling mutation. Yet Cedar Camp was surprised one day
to hear that Uncle Billy was going away.
The rain was softly falling on the bark thatch of the cabin with a muffled
murmur, like a sound heard through sleep. The southwest trades were warm
even at that altitude, as the open door testified, although a fire of pine
bark was flickering on the adobe hearth and striking out answering fires
from the freshly scoured culinary utensils on the rude sideboard, which
Uncle Jim had cleaned that morning with his usual serious persistency.
Their best clothes, which were interchangeable and worn alternately by
each other on festal occasions, hung on the walls, which were covered with
a coarse sailcloth canvas instead of lath-and-plaster, and were
diversified by pictures from illustrated papers and stains from the
exterior weather. Two "bunks," like ships' berths,—an upper and
lower one,—occupied the gable-end of this single apartment, and on
beds of coarse sacking, filled with dry moss, were carefully rolled their
respective blankets and pillows. They were the only articles not used in
common, and whose individuality was respected.
Uncle Jim, who had been sitting before the fire, rose as the square bulk
of his partner appeared at the doorway with an armful of wood for the
evening stove. By that sign he knew it was nine o'clock: for the last six
years Uncle Billy had regularly brought in the wood at that hour, and
Uncle Jim had as regularly closed the door after him, and set out their
single table, containing a greasy pack of cards taken from its drawer, a
bottle of whiskey, and two tin drinking-cups. To this was added a ragged
memorandum-book and a stick of pencil. The two men drew their stools to
"Hol' on a minit," said Uncle Billy.
His partner laid down the cards as Uncle Billy extracted from his pocket a
pill-box, and, opening it, gravely took a pill. This was clearly an
innovation on their regular proceedings, for Uncle Billy was always in
"What's this for?" asked Uncle Jim half scornfully.
"You ain't got no ager," said Uncle Jim, with the assurance of intimate
cognizance of his partner's physical condition.
"But it's a pow'ful preventive! Quinine! Saw this box at Riley's store,
and laid out a quarter on it. We kin keep it here, comfortable, for
evenings. It's mighty soothin' arter a man's done a hard day's work on the
river-bar. Take one."
Uncle Jim gravely took a pill and swallowed it, and handed the box back to
"We'll leave it on the table, sociable like, in case any of the boys come
in," said Uncle Billy, taking up the cards. "Well. How do we stand?"
Uncle Jim consulted the memorandum-book. "You were owin' me sixty-two
thousand dollars on the last game, and the limit's seventy-five thousand!"
"Je whillikins!" ejaculated Uncle Billy. "Let me see."
He examined the book, feebly attempted to challenge the additions, but
with no effect on the total. "We oughter hev made the limit a hundred
thousand," he said seriously; "seventy-five thousand is only triflin' in a
game like ours. And you've set down my claim at Angel's?" he continued.
"I allowed you ten thousand dollars for that," said Uncle Jim, with equal
gravity, "and it's a fancy price too."
The claim in question being an unprospected hillside ten miles distant,
which Uncle Jim had never seen, and Uncle Billy had not visited for years,
the statement was probably true; nevertheless, Uncle Billy retorted:—
"Ye kin never tell how these things will pan out. Why, only this mornin' I
was taking a turn round Shot Up Hill, that ye know is just rotten with
quartz and gold, and I couldn't help thinkin' how much it was like my ole
claim at Angel's. I must take a day off to go on there and strike a pick
in it, if only for luck."
Suddenly he paused and said, "Strange, ain't it, you should speak of it
to-night? Now I call that queer!"
He laid down his cards and gazed mysteriously at his companion. Uncle Jim
knew perfectly that Uncle Billy had regularly once a week for many years
declared his final determination to go over to Angel's and prospect his
claim, yet nevertheless he half responded to his partner's suggestion of
mystery, and a look of fatuous wonder crept into his eyes. But he
contented himself by saying cautiously, "You spoke of it first."
"That's the more sing'lar," said Uncle Billy confidently. "And I've been
thinking about it, and kinder seeing myself thar all day. It's mighty
queer!" He got up and began to rummage among some torn and coverless books
in the corner.
"Where's that 'Dream Book' gone to?"
"The Carson boys borrowed it," replied Uncle Jim. "Anyhow, yours wasn't no
dream—only a kind o' vision, and the book don't take no stock in
visions." Nevertheless, he watched his partner with some sympathy, and
added, "That reminds me that I had a dream the other night of being in
'Frisco at a small hotel, with heaps o' money, and all the time being sort
o' scared and bewildered over it."
"No?" queried his partner eagerly yet reproachfully. "You never let on
anything about it to ME! It's mighty queer you havin' these strange
feelin's, for I've had 'em myself. And only to-night, comin' up from the
spring, I saw two crows hopping in the trail, and I says, 'If I see
another, it's luck, sure!' And you'll think I'm lyin', but when I went to
the wood-pile just now there was the THIRD one sittin' up on a log as
plain as I see you. Tell 'e what folks ken laugh—but that's just
what Jim Filgee saw the night before he made the big strike!"
They were both smiling, yet with an underlying credulity and seriousness
as singularly pathetic as it seemed incongruous to their years and
intelligence. Small wonder, however, that in their occupation and
environment—living daily in an atmosphere of hope, expectation, and
chance, looking forward each morning to the blind stroke of a pick that
might bring fortune—they should see signs in nature and hear mystic
voices in the trackless woods that surrounded them. Still less strange
that they were peculiarly susceptible to the more recognized diversions of
chance, and were gamblers on the turning of a card who trusted to the
revelation of a shovelful of upturned earth.
It was quite natural, therefore, that they should return from their
abstract form of divination to the table and their cards. But they were
scarcely seated before they heard a crackling step in the brush outside,
and the free latch of their door was lifted. A younger member of the camp
entered. He uttered a peevish "Halloo!" which might have passed for a
greeting, or might have been a slight protest at finding the door closed,
drew the stool from which Uncle Jim had just risen before the fire, shook
his wet clothes like a Newfoundland dog, and sat down. Yet he was by no
means churlish nor coarse-looking, and this act was rather one of
easy-going, selfish, youthful familiarity than of rudeness. The cabin of
Uncles Billy and Jim was considered a public right or "common" of the
camp. Conferences between individual miners were appointed there. "I'll
meet you at Uncle Billy's" was a common tryst. Added to this was a tacit
claim upon the partners' arbitrative powers, or the equal right to request
them to step outside if the interviews were of a private nature. Yet there
was never any objection on the part of the partners, and to-night there
was not a shadow of resentment of this intrusion in the patient,
good-humored, tolerant eyes of Uncles Jim and Billy as they gazed at their
guest. Perhaps there was a slight gleam of relief in Uncle Jim's when he
found that the guest was unaccompanied by any one, and that it was not a
tryst. It would have been unpleasant for the two partners to have stayed
out in the rain while their guests were exchanging private confidences in
their cabin. While there might have been no limit to their good will,
there might have been some to their capacity for exposure.
Uncle Jim drew a huge log from beside the hearth and sat on the driest end
of it, while their guest occupied the stool. The young man, without
turning away from his discontented, peevish brooding over the fire,
vaguely reached backward for the whiskey-bottle and Uncle Billy's tin cup,
to which he was assisted by the latter's hospitable hand. But on setting
down the cup his eye caught sight of the pill-box.
"Wot's that?" he said, with gloomy scorn. "Rat poison?"
"Quinine pills—agin ager," said Uncle Jim. "The newest thing out.
Keeps out damp like Injin-rubber! Take one to follow yer whiskey. Me and
Uncle Billy wouldn't think o' settin' down, quiet like, in the evening
arter work, without 'em. Take one—ye 'r' welcome! We keep 'em out
here for the boys."
Accustomed as the partners were to adopt and wear each other's opinions
before folks, as they did each other's clothing, Uncle Billy was,
nevertheless, astonished and delighted at Uncle Jim's enthusiasm over HIS
pills. The guest took one and swallowed it.
"Mighty bitter!" he said, glancing at his hosts with the quick Californian
suspicion of some practical joke. But the honest faces of the partners
"That bitterness ye taste," said Uncle Jim quickly, "is whar the thing's
gittin' in its work. Sorter sickenin' the malaria—and kinder
water-proofin' the insides all to onct and at the same lick! Don't yer
see? Put another in yer vest pocket; you'll be cryin' for 'em like a child
afore ye get home. Thar! Well, how's things agoin' on your claim, Dick?
The guest raised his head and turned it sufficiently to fling his answer
back over his shoulder at his hosts. "I don't know what YOU'D call'
boomin','" he said gloomily; "I suppose you two men sitting here
comfortably by the fire, without caring whether school keeps or not, would
call two feet of backwater over one's claim 'boomin';' I reckon YOU'D
consider a hundred and fifty feet of sluicing carried away, and drifting
to thunder down the South Fork, something in the way of advertising to
your old camp! I suppose YOU'd think it was an inducement to investors! I
shouldn't wonder," he added still more gloomily, as a sudden dash of rain
down the wide-throated chimney dropped in his tin cup—"and it would
be just like you two chaps, sittin' there gormandizing over your quinine—if
yer said this rain that's lasted three weeks was something to be proud
It was the cheerful and the satisfying custom of the rest of the camp, for
no reason whatever, to hold Uncle Jim and Uncle Billy responsible for its
present location, its vicissitudes, the weather, or any convulsion of
nature; and it was equally the partners' habit, for no reason whatever, to
accept these animadversions and apologize.
"It's a rain that's soft and mellowin'," said Uncle Billy gently, "and
supplin' to the sinews and muscles. Did ye ever notice, Jim"—ostentatiously
to his partner—"did ye ever notice that you get inter a kind o'
sweaty lather workin' in it? Sorter openin' to the pores!"
"Fetches 'em every time," said Uncle Billy. "Better nor fancy soap."
Their guest laughed bitterly. "Well, I'm going to leave it to you. I
reckon to cut the whole concern to-morrow, and 'lite' out for something
new. It can't be worse than this."
The two partners looked grieved, albeit they were accustomed to these
outbursts. Everybody who thought of going away from Cedar Camp used it
first as a threat to these patient men, after the fashion of runaway
nephews, or made an exemplary scene of their going.
"Better think twice afore ye go," said Uncle Billy.
"I've seen worse weather afore ye came," said Uncle Jim slowly. "Water all
over the Bar; the mud so deep ye couldn't get to Angel's for a sack o'
flour, and we had to grub on pine nuts and jackass-rabbits. And yet—we
stuck by the camp, and here we are!"
The mild answer apparently goaded their guest to fury. He rose from his
seat, threw back his long dripping hair from his handsome but querulous
face, and scattered a few drops on the partners. "Yes, that's just it.
That's what gets me! Here you stick, and here you are! And here you'll
stick and rust until you starve or drown! Here you are,—two men who
ought to be out in the world, playing your part as grown men,—stuck
here like children 'playing house' in the woods; playing work in your
wretched mud-pie ditches, and content. Two men not so old that you
mightn't be taking your part in the fun of the world, going to balls or
theatres, or paying attention to girls, and yet old enough to have married
and have your families around you, content to stay in this God-forsaken
place; old bachelors, pigging together like poorhouse paupers. That's what
gets me! Say you LIKE it? Say you expect by hanging on to make a strike—and
what does that amount to? What are YOUR chances? How many of us have made,
or are making, more than grub wages? Say you're willing to share and share
alike as you do—have you got enough for two? Aren't you actually
living off each other? Aren't you grinding each other down, choking each
other's struggles, as you sink together deeper and deeper in the mud of
this cussed camp? And while you're doing this, aren't you, by your age and
position here, holding out hopes to others that you know cannot be
Accustomed as they were to the half-querulous, half-humorous, but always
extravagant, criticism of the others, there was something so new in this
arraignment of themselves that the partners for a moment sat silent. There
was a slight flush on Uncle Billy's cheek, there was a slight paleness on
Uncle Jim's. He was the first to reply. But he did so with a certain
dignity which neither his partner nor their guest had ever seen on his
"As it's OUR fire that's warmed ye up like this, Dick Bullen," he said,
slowly rising, with his hand resting on Uncle Billy's shoulder, "and as
it's OUR whiskey that's loosened your tongue, I reckon we must put up with
what ye 'r' saying, just as we've managed to put up with our own way o'
living, and not quo'll with ye under our own roof."
The young fellow saw the change in Uncle Jim's face and quickly extended
his hand, with an apologetic backward shake of his long hair. "Hang it
all, old man," he said, with a laugh of mingled contrition and amusement,
"you mustn't mind what I said just now. I've been so worried thinking of
things about MYSELF, and, maybe, a little about you, that I quite forgot I
hadn't a call to preach to anybody—least of all to you. So we part
friends, Uncle Jim, and you too, Uncle Billy, and you'll forget what I
said. In fact, I don't know why I spoke at all—only I was passing
your claim just now, and wondering how much longer your old sluice-boxes
would hold out, and where in thunder you'd get others when they caved in!
I reckon that sent me off. That's all, old chap!"
Uncle Billy's face broke into a beaming smile of relief, and it was HIS
hand that first grasped his guest's; Uncle Jim quickly followed with as
honest a pressure, but with eyes that did not seem to be looking at
Bullen, though all trace of resentment had died out of them. He walked to
the door with him, again shook hands, but remained looking out in the
darkness some time after Dick Bullen's tangled hair and broad shoulders
Meantime, Uncle Billy had resumed his seat and was chuckling and
reminiscent as he cleaned out his pipe.
"Kinder reminds me of Jo Sharp, when he was cleaned out at poker by his
own partners in his own cabin, comin' up here and bedevilin' US about it!
What was it you lint him?"
But Uncle Jim did not reply; and Uncle Billy, taking up the cards, began
to shuffle them, smiling vaguely, yet at the same time somewhat painfully.
"Arter all, Dick was mighty cut up about what he said, and I felt kinder
sorry for him. And, you know, I rather cotton to a man that speaks his
mind. Sorter clears him out, you know, of all the slumgullion that's in
him. It's just like washin' out a pan o' prospecting: you pour in the
water, and keep slushing it round and round, and out comes first the mud
and dirt, and then the gravel, and then the black sand, and then—it's
all out, and there's a speck o' gold glistenin' at the bottom!"
"Then you think there WAS suthin' in what he said?" said Uncle Jim, facing
An odd tone in his voice made Uncle Billy look up. "No," he said quickly,
shying with the instinct of an easy pleasure-loving nature from a possible
grave situation. "No, I don't think he ever got the color! But wot are ye
moonin' about for? Ain't ye goin' to play? It's mor' 'n half past nine
Thus adjured, Uncle Jim moved up to the table and sat down, while Uncle
Billy dealt the cards, turning up the Jack or right bower—but
WITHOUT that exclamation of delight which always accompanied his good
fortune, nor did Uncle Jim respond with the usual corresponding simulation
of deep disgust. Such a circumstance had not occurred before in the
history of their partnership. They both played in silence—a silence
only interrupted by a larger splash of raindrops down the chimney.
"We orter put a couple of stones on the chimney-top, edgewise, like Jack
Curtis does. It keeps out the rain without interferin' with the draft,"
said Uncle Billy musingly.
"What's the use if"—
"If what?" said Uncle Billy quietly.
"If we don't make it broader," said Uncle Jim half wearily.
They both stared at the chimney, but Uncle Jim's eye followed the wall
around to the bunks. There were many discolorations on the canvas, and a
picture of the Goddess of Liberty from an illustrated paper had broken out
in a kind of damp, measly eruption. "I'll stick that funny handbill of the
'Washin' Soda' I got at the grocery store the other day right over the
Liberty gal. It's a mighty perty woman washin' with short sleeves," said
Uncle Billy. "That's the comfort of them picters, you kin always get
somethin' new, and it adds thickness to the wall."
Uncle Jim went back to the cards in silence. After a moment he rose again,
and hung his overcoat against the door.
"Wind's comin' in," he said briefly.
"Yes," said Uncle Billy cheerfully, "but it wouldn't seem nat'ral if there
wasn't that crack in the door to let the sunlight in o mornin's. Makes a
kind o' sundial, you know. When the streak o' light's in that corner, I
says 'six o'clock!' when it's across the chimney I say 'seven!' and so
It certainly had grown chilly, and the wind was rising. The candle
guttered and flickered; the embers on the hearth brightened occasionally,
as if trying to dispel the gathering shadows, but always ineffectually.
The game was frequently interrupted by the necessity of stirring the fire.
After an interval of gloom, in which each partner successively drew the
candle to his side to examine his cards, Uncle Jim said:—
"Well!" responded Uncle Billy.
"Are you sure you saw that third crow on the wood-pile?"
"Sure as I see you now—and a darned sight plainer. Why?"
"Nothin', I was just thinkin'. Look here! How do we stand now?"
Uncle Billy was still losing. "Nevertheless," he said cheerfully, "I'm
owin' you a matter of sixty thousand dollars."
Uncle Jim examined the book abstractedly. "Suppose," he said slowly, but
without looking at his partner, "suppose, as it's gettin' late now, we
play for my half share of the claim agin the limit—seventy thousand—to
"Your half share!" repeated Uncle Billy, with amused incredulity.
"My half share of the claim,—of this yer house, you know,—one
half of all that Dick Bullen calls our rotten starvation property,"
reiterated Uncle Jim, with a half smile.
Uncle Billy laughed. It was a novel idea; it was, of course, "all in the
air," like the rest of their game, yet even then he had an odd feeling
that he would have liked Dick Bullen to have known it. "Wade in, old
pard," he said. "I'm on it."
Uncle Jim lit another candle to reinforce the fading light, and the deal
fell to Uncle Billy. He turned up Jack of clubs. He also turned a little
redder as he took up his cards, looked at them, and glanced hastily at his
partner. "It's no use playing," he said. "Look here!" He laid down his
cards on the table. They were the ace, king and queen of clubs, and Jack
of spades,—or left bower,—which, with the turned-up Jack of
clubs,—or right bower,—comprised ALL the winning cards!
"By jingo! If we'd been playin' four-handed, say you an' me agin some
other ducks, we'd have made 'four' in that deal, and h'isted some money—eh?"
and his eyes sparkled. Uncle Jim, also, had a slight tremulous light in
"Oh no! I didn't see no three crows this afternoon," added Uncle Billy
gleefully, as his partner, in turn, began to shuffle the cards with
laborious and conscientious exactitude. Then dealing, he turned up a heart
for trumps. Uncle Billy took up his cards one by one, but when he had
finished his face had become as pale as it had been red before. "What's
the matter?" said Uncle Jim quickly, his own face growing white.
Uncle Billy slowly and with breathless awe laid down his cards, face up on
the table. It was exactly the same sequence IN HEARTS, with the knave of
diamonds added. He could again take every trick.
They stared at each other with vacant faces and a half-drawn smile of
fear. They could hear the wind moaning in the trees beyond; there was a
sudden rattling at the door. Uncle Billy started to his feet, but Uncle
Jim caught his arm. "DON'T LEAVE THE CARDS! It's only the wind; sit down,"
he said in a low awe-hushed voice, "it's your deal; you were two before,
and two now, that makes your four; you've only one point to make to win
the game. Go on."
They both poured out a cup of whiskey, smiling vaguely, yet with a certain
terror in their eyes. Their hands were cold; the cards slipped from Uncle
Billy's benumbed fingers; when he had shuffled them he passed them to his
partner to shuffle them also, but did not speak. When Uncle Jim had
shuffled them methodically he handed them back fatefully to his partner.
Uncle Billy dealt them with a trembling hand. He turned up a club. "If you
are sure of these tricks you know you've won," said Uncle Jim in a voice
that was scarcely audible. Uncle Billy did not reply, but tremulously laid
down the ace and right and left bowers.
He had won!
A feeling of relief came over each, and they laughed hysterically and
discordantly. Ridiculous and childish as their contest might have seemed
to a looker-on, to each the tension had been as great as that of the
greatest gambler, without the gambler's trained restraint, coolness, and
composure. Uncle Billy nervously took up the cards again.
"Don't," said Uncle Jim gravely; "it's no use—the luck's gone now."
"Just one more deal," pleaded his partner.
Uncle Jim looked at the fire, Uncle Billy hastily dealt, and threw the two
hands face up on the table. They were the ordinary average cards. He dealt
again, with the same result. "I told you so," said Uncle Jim, without
It certainly seemed a tame performance after their wonderful hands, and
after another trial Uncle Billy threw the cards aside and drew his stool
before the fire. "Mighty queer, warn't it?" he said, with reminiscent awe.
"Three times running. Do you know, I felt a kind o' creepy feelin' down my
back all the time. Criky! what luck! None of the boys would believe it if
we told 'em—least of all that Dick Bullen, who don't believe in
luck, anyway. Wonder what he'd have said! and, Lord! how he'd have looked!
Wall! what are you starin' so for?"
Uncle Jim had faced around, and was gazing at Uncle Billy's good-humored,
simple face. "Nothin'!" he said briefly, and his eyes again sought the
"Then don't look as if you was seein' suthin'—you give me the
creeps," returned Uncle Billy a little petulantly. "Let's turn in, afore
the fire goes out!"
The fateful cards were put back into the drawer, the table shoved against
the wall. The operation of undressing was quickly got over, the clothes
they wore being put on top of their blankets. Uncle Billy yawned, "I
wonder what kind of a dream I'll have tonight—it oughter be suthin'
to explain that luck." This was his "good-night" to his partner. In a few
moments he was sound asleep.
Not so Uncle Jim. He heard the wind gradually go down, and in the
oppressive silence that followed could detect the deep breathing of his
companion and the far-off yelp of a coyote. His eyesight becoming
accustomed to the semi-darkness, broken only by the scintillation of the
dying embers of their fire, he could take in every detail of their sordid
cabin and the rude environment in which they had lived so long. The dismal
patches on the bark roof, the wretched makeshifts of each day, the dreary
prolongation of discomfort, were all plain to him now, without the
sanguine hope that had made them bearable. And when he shut his eyes upon
them, it was only to travel in fancy down the steep mountain side that he
had trodden so often to the dreary claim on the overflowed river, to the
heaps of "tailings" that encumbered it, like empty shells of the hollow,
profitless days spent there, which they were always waiting for the stroke
of good fortune to clear away. He saw again the rotten "sluicing," through
whose hopeless rifts and holes even their scant daily earnings had become
scantier. At last he arose, and with infinite gentleness let himself down
from his berth without disturbing his sleeping partner, and wrapping
himself in his blanket, went to the door, which he noiselessly opened.
From the position of a few stars that were glittering in the northern sky
he knew that it was yet scarcely midnight; there were still long, restless
hours before the day! In the feverish state into which he had gradually
worked himself it seemed to him impossible to wait the coming of the dawn.
But he was mistaken. For even as he stood there all nature seemed to
invade his humble cabin with its free and fragrant breath, and invest him
with its great companionship. He felt again, in that breath, that strange
sense of freedom, that mystic touch of partnership with the birds and
beasts, the shrubs and trees, in this greater home before him. It was this
vague communion that had kept him there, that still held these world-sick,
weary workers in their rude cabins on the slopes around him; and he felt
upon his brow that balm that had nightly lulled him and them to sleep and
forgetfulness. He closed the door, turned away, crept as noiselessly as
before into his bunk again, and presently fell into a profound slumber.
But when Uncle Billy awoke the next morning he saw it was late; for the
sun, piercing the crack of the closed door, was sending a pencil of light
across the cold hearth, like a match to rekindle its dead embers. His
first thought was of his strange luck the night before, and of
disappointment that he had not had the dream of divination that he had
looked for. He sprang to the floor, but as he stood upright his glance
fell on Uncle Jim's bunk. It was empty. Not only that, but his BLANKETS—Uncle
Jim's own particular blankets—WERE GONE!
A sudden revelation of his partner's manner the night before struck him
now with the cruelty of a blow; a sudden intelligence, perhaps the very
divination he had sought, flashed upon him like lightning! He glanced
wildly around the cabin. The table was drawn out from the wall a little
ostentatiously, as if to catch his eye. On it was lying the stained
chamois-skin purse in which they had kept the few grains of gold remaining
from their last week's "clean up." The grains had been carefully divided,
and half had been taken! But near it lay the little memorandum-book, open,
with the stick of pencil lying across it. A deep line was drawn across the
page on which was recorded their imaginary extravagant gains and losses,
even to the entry of Uncle Jim's half share of the claim which he had
risked and lost! Underneath were hurriedly scrawled the words:—
"Settled by YOUR luck, last night, old pard.—JAMES FOSTER."
It was nearly a month before Cedar Camp was convinced that Uncle Billy and
Uncle Jim had dissolved partnership. Pride had prevented Uncle Billy from
revealing his suspicions of the truth, or of relating the events that
preceded Uncle Jim's clandestine flight, and Dick Bullen had gone to
Sacramento by stage-coach the same morning. He briefly gave out that his
partner had been called to San Francisco on important business of their
own, that indeed might necessitate his own removal there later. In this he
was singularly assisted by a letter from the absent Jim, dated at San
Francisco, begging him not to be anxious about his success, as he had
hopes of presently entering into a profitable business, but with no
further allusions to his precipitate departure, nor any suggestion of a
reason for it. For two or three days Uncle Billy was staggered and
bewildered; in his profound simplicity he wondered if his extraordinary
good fortune that night had made him deaf to some explanation of his
partner's, or, more terrible, if he had shown some "low" and incredible
intimation of taking his partner's extravagant bet as REAL and binding. In
this distress he wrote to Uncle Jim an appealing and apologetic letter,
albeit somewhat incoherent and inaccurate, and bristling with misspelling,
camp slang, and old partnership jibes. But to this elaborate epistle he
received only Uncle Jim's repeated assurances of his own bright prospects,
and his hopes that his old partner would be more fortunate, single-handed,
on the old claim. For a whole week or two Uncle Billy sulked, but his
invincible optimism and good humor got the better of him, and he thought
only of his old partner's good fortune. He wrote him regularly, but always
to one address—a box at the San Francisco post-office, which to the
simple-minded Uncle Billy suggested a certain official importance. To
these letters Uncle Jim responded regularly but briefly.
From a certain intuitive pride in his partner and his affection, Uncle
Billy did not show these letters openly to the camp, although he spoke
freely of his former partner's promising future, and even read them short
extracts. It is needless to say that the camp did not accept Uncle Billy's
story with unsuspecting confidence. On the contrary, a hundred surmises,
humorous or serious, but always extravagant, were afloat in Cedar Camp.
The partners had quarreled over their clothes—Uncle Jim, who was
taller than Uncle Billy, had refused to wear his partner's trousers. They
had quarreled over cards—Uncle Jim had discovered that Uncle Billy
was in possession of a "cold deck," or marked pack. They had quarreled
over Uncle Billy's carelessness in grinding up half a box of "bilious
pills" in the morning's coffee. A gloomily imaginative mule-driver had
darkly suggested that, as no one had really seen Uncle Jim leave the camp,
he was still there, and his bones would yet be found in one of the
ditches; while a still more credulous miner averred that what he had
thought was the cry of a screech-owl the night previous to Uncle Jim's
disappearance, might have been the agonized utterance of that murdered
man. It was highly characteristic of that camp—and, indeed, of
others in California—that nobody, not even the ingenious theorists
themselves, believed their story, and that no one took the slightest pains
to verify or disprove it. Happily, Uncle Billy never knew it, and moved
all unconsciously in this atmosphere of burlesque suspicion. And then a
singular change took place in the attitude of the camp towards him and the
disrupted partnership. Hitherto, for no reason whatever, all had agreed to
put the blame upon Billy—possibly because he was present to receive
it. As days passed that slight reticence and dejection in his manner,
which they had at first attributed to remorse and a guilty conscience, now
began to tell as absurdly in his favor. Here was poor Uncle Billy toiling
though the ditches, while his selfish partner was lolling in the lap of
luxury in San Francisco! Uncle Billy's glowing accounts of Uncle Jim's
success only contributed to the sympathy now fully given in his behalf and
their execration of the absconding partner. It was proposed at Biggs's
store that a letter expressing the indignation of the camp over his
heartless conduct to his late partner, William Fall, should be forwarded
to him. Condolences were offered to Uncle Billy, and uncouth attempts were
made to cheer his loneliness. A procession of half a dozen men twice a
week to his cabin, carrying their own whiskey and winding up with a "stag
dance" before the premises, was sufficient to lighten his eclipsed gayety
and remind him of a happier past. "Surprise" working parties visited his
claim with spasmodic essays towards helping him, and great good humor and
hilarity prevailed. It was not an unusual thing for an honest miner to
arise from an idle gathering in some cabin and excuse himself with the
remark that he "reckoned he'd put in an hour's work in Uncle Billy's
tailings!" And yet, as before, it was very improbable if any of these
reckless benefactors REALLY believed in their own earnestness or in the
gravity of the situation. Indeed, a kind of hopeful cynicism ran through
their performances. "Like as not, Uncle Billy is still in 'cahoots' [i.
e., shares] with his old pard, and is just laughin' at us as he's sendin'
him accounts of our tomfoolin'."
And so the winter passed and the rains, and the days of cloudless skies
and chill starlit nights began. There were still freshets from the snow
reservoirs piled high in the Sierran passes, and the Bar was flooded, but
that passed too, and only the sunshine remained. Monotonous as the seasons
were, there was a faint movement in the camp with the stirring of the sap
in the pines and cedars. And then, one day, there was a strange excitement
on the Bar. Men were seen running hither and thither, but mainly gathering
in a crowd on Uncle Billy's claim, that still retained the old partners'
names in "The Fall and Foster." To add to the excitement, there was the
quickly repeated report of a revolver, to all appearance aimlessly
exploded in the air by some one on the outskirts of the assemblage. As the
crowd opened, Uncle Billy appeared, pale, hysterical, breathless, and
staggering a little under the back-slapping and hand-shaking of the whole
camp. For Uncle Billy had "struck it rich"—had just discovered a
"pocket," roughly estimated to be worth fifteen thousand dollars!
Although in that supreme moment he missed the face of his old partner, he
could not help seeing the unaffected delight and happiness shining in the
eyes of all who surrounded him. It was characteristic of that sanguine but
uncertain life that success and good fortune brought no jealousy nor envy
to the unfortunate, but was rather a promise and prophecy of the
fulfillment of their own hopes. The gold was there—Nature but
yielded up her secret. There was no prescribed limit to her bounty. So
strong was this conviction that a long-suffering but still hopeful miner,
in the enthusiasm of the moment, stooped down and patted a large boulder
with the apostrophic "Good old gal!"
Then followed a night of jubilee, a next morning of hurried consultation
with a mining expert and speculator lured to the camp by the good tidings;
and then the very next night—to the utter astonishment of Cedar Camp—Uncle
Billy, with a draft for twenty thousand dollars in his pocket, started for
San Francisco, and took leave of his claim and the camp forever!
When Uncle Billy landed at the wharves of San Francisco he was a little
bewildered. The Golden Gate beyond was obliterated by the incoming
sea-fog, which had also roofed in the whole city, and lights already
glittered along the gray streets that climbed the grayer sand-hills. As a
Western man, brought up by inland rivers, he was fascinated and thrilled
by the tall-masted seagoing ships, and he felt a strange sense of the
remoter mysterious ocean, which he had never seen. But he was impressed
and startled by smartly dressed men and women, the passing of carriages,
and a sudden conviction that he was strange and foreign to what he saw. It
had been his cherished intention to call upon his old partner in his
working clothes, and then clap down on the table before him a draft for
ten thousand dollars as HIS share of their old claim. But in the face of
these brilliant strangers a sudden and unexpected timidity came upon him.
He had heard of a cheap popular hotel, much frequented by the returning
gold-miner, who entered its hospitable doors—which held an easy
access to shops—and emerged in a few hours a gorgeous butterfly of
fashion, leaving his old chrysalis behind him. Thence he inquired his way;
hence he afterwards issued in garments glaringly new and ill fitting. But
he had not sacrificed his beard, and there was still something fine and
original in his handsome weak face that overcame the cheap convention of
his clothes. Making his way to the post-office, he was again discomfited
by the great size of the building, and bewildered by the array of little
square letter-boxes behind glass which occupied one whole wall, and an
equal number of opaque and locked wooden ones legibly numbered. His heart
leaped; he remembered the number, and before him was a window with a clerk
behind it. Uncle Billy leaned forward.
"Kin you tell me if the man that box 690 b'longs to is in?"
The clerk stared, made him repeat the question, and then turned away. But
he returned almost instantly, with two or three grinning heads besides his
own, apparently set behind his shoulders. Uncle Billy was again asked to
repeat his question. He did so.
"Why don't you go and see if 690 is in his box?" said the first clerk,
turning with affected asperity to one of the others.
The clerk went away, returned, and said with singular gravity, "He was
there a moment ago, but he's gone out to stretch his legs. It's rather
crampin' at first; and he can't stand it more than ten hours at a time,
But simplicity has its limits. Uncle Billy had already guessed his real
error in believing his partner was officially connected with the building;
his cheek had flushed and then paled again. The pupils of his blue eyes
had contracted into suggestive black points. "Ef you'll let me in at that
winder, young fellers," he said, with equal gravity, "I'll show yer how I
kin make YOU small enough to go in a box without crampin'! But I only
wanted to know where Jim Foster LIVED."
At which the first clerk became perfunctory again, but civil. "A letter
left in his box would get you that information," he said, "and here's
paper and pencil to write it now."
Uncle Billy took the paper and began to write, "Just got here. Come and
see me at"—He paused. A brilliant idea had struck him; He could
impress both his old partner and the upstarts at the window; he would put
in the name of the latest "swell" hotel in San Francisco, said to be a
fairy dream of opulence. He added "The Oriental," and without folding the
paper shoved it in the window.
"Don't you want an envelope?" asked the clerk.
"Put a stamp on the corner of it," responded Uncle Billy, laying down a
coin, "and she'll go through." The clerk smiled, but affixed the stamp,
and Uncle Billy turned away.
But it was a short-lived triumph. The disappointment at finding Uncle
Jim's address conveyed no idea of his habitation seemed to remove him
farther away, and lose his identity in the great city. Besides, he must
now make good his own address, and seek rooms at the Oriental. He went
thither. The furniture and decorations, even in these early days of
hotel-building in San Francisco, were extravagant and over-strained, and
Uncle Billy felt lost and lonely in his strange surroundings. But he took
a handsome suite of rooms, paid for them in advance on the spot, and then,
half frightened, walked out of them to ramble vaguely through the city in
the feverish hope of meeting his old partner. At night his inquietude
increased; he could not face the long row of tables in the pillared
dining-room, filled with smartly dressed men and women; he evaded his
bedroom, with its brocaded satin chairs and its gilt bedstead, and fled to
his modest lodgings at the Good Cheer House, and appeased his hunger at
its cheap restaurant, in the company of retired miners and freshly arrived
Eastern emigrants. Two or three days passed thus in this quaint double
existence. Three or four times a day he would enter the gorgeous Oriental
with affected ease and carelessness, demand his key from the hotel-clerk,
ask for the letter that did not come, go to his room, gaze vaguely from
his window on the passing crowd below for the partner he could not find,
and then return to the Good Cheer House for rest and sustenance. On the
fourth day he received a short note from Uncle Jim; it was couched in his
usual sanguine but brief and businesslike style. He was very sorry, but
important and profitable business took him out of town, but he trusted to
return soon and welcome his old partner. He was also, for the first time,
jocose, and hoped that Uncle Billy would not "see all the sights" before
he, Uncle Jim, returned. Disappointing as this procrastination was to
Uncle Billy, a gleam of hope irradiated it: the letter had bridged over
that gulf which seemed to yawn between them at the post-office. His old
partner had accepted his visit to San Francisco without question, and had
alluded to a renewal of their old intimacy. For Uncle Billy, with all his
trustful simplicity, had been tortured by two harrowing doubts: one,
whether Uncle Jim in his new-fledged smartness as a "city" man—such
as he saw in the streets—would care for his rough companionship; the
other, whether he, Uncle Billy, ought not to tell him at once of his
changed fortune. But, like all weak, unreasoning men, he clung desperately
to a detail—he could not forego his old idea of astounding Uncle Jim
by giving him his share of the "strike" as his first intimation of it, and
he doubted, with more reason perhaps, if Jim would see him after he had
heard of his good fortune. For Uncle Billy had still a frightened
recollection of Uncle Jim's sudden stroke for independence, and that rigid
punctiliousness which had made him doggedly accept the responsibility of
his extravagant stake at euchre.
With a view of educating himself for Uncle Jim's company, he "saw the
sights" of San Francisco—as an overgrown and somewhat stupid child
might have seen them—with great curiosity, but little contamination
or corruption. But I think he was chiefly pleased with watching the
arrival of the Sacramento and Stockton steamers at the wharves, in the
hope of discovering his old partner among the passengers on the
gang-plank. Here, with his old superstitious tendency and gambler's
instinct, he would augur great success in his search that day if any one
of the passengers bore the least resemblance to Uncle Jim, if a man or
woman stepped off first, or if he met a single person's questioning eye.
Indeed, this got to be the real occupation of the day, which he would on
no account have omitted, and to a certain extent revived each day in his
mind the morning's work of their old partnership. He would say to himself,
"It's time to go and look up Jim," and put off what he was pleased to
think were his pleasures until this act of duty was accomplished.
In this singleness of purpose he made very few and no entangling
acquaintances, nor did he impart to any one the secret of his fortune,
loyally reserving it for his partner's first knowledge. To a man of his
natural frankness and simplicity this was a great trial, and was, perhaps,
a crucial test of his devotion. When he gave up his rooms at the Oriental—as
not necessary after his partner's absence—he sent a letter, with his
humble address, to the mysterious lock-box of his partner without fear or
false shame. He would explain it all when they met. But he sometimes
treated unlucky and returning miners to a dinner and a visit to the
gallery of some theatre. Yet while he had an active sympathy with and
understanding of the humblest, Uncle Billy, who for many years had done
his own and his partner's washing, scrubbing, mending, and cooking, and
saw no degradation in it, was somewhat inconsistently irritated by menial
functions in men, and although he gave extravagantly to waiters, and threw
a dollar to the crossing-sweeper, there was always a certain shy avoidance
of them in his manner. Coming from the theatre one night Uncle Billy was,
however, seriously concerned by one of these crossing-sweepers turning
hastily before them and being knocked down by a passing carriage. The man
rose and limped hurriedly away; but Uncle Billy was amazed and still more
irritated to hear from his companion that this kind of menial occupation
was often profitable, and that at some of the principal crossings the
sweepers were already rich men.
But a few days later brought a more notable event to Uncle Billy. One
afternoon in Montgomery Street he recognized in one of its smartly dressed
frequenters a man who had a few years before been a member of Cedar Camp.
Uncle Billy's childish delight at this meeting, which seemed to bridge
over his old partner's absence, was, however, only half responded to by
the ex-miner, and then somewhat satirically. In the fullness of his
emotion, Uncle Billy confided to him that he was seeking his old partner,
Jim Foster, and, reticent of his own good fortune, spoke glowingly of his
partner's brilliant expectations, but deplored his inability to find him.
And just now he was away on important business. "I reckon he's got back,"
said the man dryly. "I didn't know he had a lock-box at the post-office,
but I can give you his other address. He lives at the Presidio, at
Washerwoman's Bay." He stopped and looked with a satirical smile at Uncle
Billy. But the latter, familiar with Californian mining-camp nomenclature,
saw nothing strange in it, and merely repeated his companion's words.
"You'll find him there! Good-by! So long! Sorry I'm in a hurry," said the
ex-miner, and hurried away.
Uncle Billy was too delighted with the prospect of a speedy meeting with
Uncle Jim to resent his former associate's supercilious haste, or even to
wonder why Uncle Jim had not informed him that he had returned. It was not
the first time that he had felt how wide was the gulf between himself and
these others, and the thought drew him closer to his old partner, as well
as his old idea, as it was now possible to surprise him with the draft.
But as he was going to surprise him in his own boarding-house—probably
a handsome one—Uncle Billy reflected that he would do so in a
He accordingly went to a livery stable and ordered a landau and pair, with
a negro coachman. Seated in it, in his best and most ill-fitting clothes,
he asked the coachman to take him to the Presidio, and leaned back in the
cushions as they drove through the streets with such an expression of
beaming gratification on his good-humored face that the passers-by smiled
at the equipage and its extravagant occupant. To them it seemed the not
unusual sight of the successful miner "on a spree." To the unsophisticated
Uncle Billy their smiling seemed only a natural and kindly recognition of
his happiness, and he nodded and smiled back to them with unsuspecting
candor and innocent playfulness. "These yer 'Frisco fellers ain't ALL
slouches, you bet," he added to himself half aloud, at the back of the
Their way led through well-built streets to the outskirts, or rather to
that portion of the city which seemed to have been overwhelmed by shifting
sand-dunes, from which half-submerged fences and even low houses barely
marked the line of highway. The resistless trade-winds which had marked
this change blew keenly in his face and slightly chilled his ardor. At a
turn in the road the sea came in sight, and sloping towards it the great
Cemetery of Lone Mountain, with white shafts and marbles that glittered in
the sunlight like the sails of ships waiting to be launched down that
slope into the Eternal Ocean. Uncle Billy shuddered. What if it had been
his fate to seek Uncle Jim there!
"Dar's yar Presidio!" said the negro coachman a few moments later,
pointing with his whip, "and dar's yar Wash'woman's Bay!"
Uncle Billy stared. A huge quadrangular fort of stone with a flag flying
above its battlements stood at a little distance, pressed against the
rocks, as if beating back the encroaching surges; between him and the fort
but farther inland was a lagoon with a number of dilapidated, rudely
patched cabins or cottages, like stranded driftwood around its shore. But
there was no mansion, no block of houses, no street, not another
habitation or dwelling to be seen!
Uncle Billy's first shock of astonishment was succeeded by a feeling of
relief. He had secretly dreaded a meeting with his old partner in the
"haunts of fashion;" whatever was the cause that made Uncle Jim seek this
obscure retirement affected him but slightly; he even was thrilled with a
vague memory of the old shiftless camp they had both abandoned. A certain
instinct—he knew not why, or less still that it might be one of
delicacy—made him alight before they reached the first house.
Bidding the carriage wait, Uncle Billy entered, and was informed by a
blowzy Irish laundress at a tub that Jim Foster, or "Arkansaw Jim," lived
at the fourth shanty "beyant." He was at home, for "he'd shprained his
fut." Uncle Billy hurried on, stopped before the door of a shanty scarcely
less rude than their old cabin, and half timidly pushed it open. A
growling voice from within, a figure that rose hurriedly, leaning on a
stick, with an attempt to fly, but in the same moment sank back in a chair
with an hysterical laugh—and Uncle Billy stood in the presence of
his old partner! But as Uncle Billy darted forward, Uncle Jim rose again,
and this time with outstretched hands. Uncle Billy caught them, and in one
supreme pressure seemed to pour out and transfuse his whole simple soul
into his partner's. There they swayed each other backwards and forwards
and sideways by their still clasped hands, until Uncle Billy, with a
glance at Uncle Jim's bandaged ankle, shoved him by sheer force down into
Uncle Jim was first to speak. "Caught, b' gosh! I mighter known you'd be
as big a fool as me! Look you, Billy Fall, do you know what you've done?
You've druv me out er the streets whar I was makin' an honest livin', by
day, on three crossin's! Yes," he laughed forgivingly, "you druv me out er
it, by day, jest because I reckoned that some time I might run into your
darned fool face,"—another laugh and a grasp of the hand,—"and
then, b'gosh! not content with ruinin' my business BY DAY, when I took to
it at night, YOU took to goin' out at nights too, and so put a stopper on
me there! Shall I tell you what else you did? Well, by the holy poker! I
owe this sprained foot to your darned foolishness and my own, for it was
getting away from YOU one night after the theatre that I got run into and
"Ye see," he went on, unconscious of Uncle Billy's paling face, and with a
naivete, though perhaps not a delicacy, equal to Uncle Billy's own, "I had
to play roots on you with that lock-box business and these letters,
because I did not want you to know what I was up to, for you mightn't like
it, and might think it was lowerin' to the old firm, don't yer see? I
wouldn't hev gone into it, but I was played out, and I don't mind tellin'
you NOW, old man, that when I wrote you that first chipper letter from the
lock-box I hedn't eat anythin' for two days. But it's all right NOW," with
a laugh. "Then I got into this business—thinkin' it nothin'—jest
the very last thing—and do you know, old pard, I couldn't tell
anybody but YOU—and, in fact, I kept it jest to tell you—I've
made nine hundred and fifty-six dollars! Yes, sir, NINE HUNDRED AND
FIFTY-SIX DOLLARS! solid money, in Adams and Co.'s Bank, just out er my
"Wot trade?" asked Uncle Billy.
Uncle Jim pointed to the corner, where stood a large, heavy
crossing-sweeper's broom. "That trade."
"Certingly," said Uncle Billy, with a quick laugh.
"It's an outdoor trade," said Uncle Jim gravely, but with no suggestion of
awkwardness or apology in his manner; "and thar ain't much difference
between sweepin' a crossin' with a broom and raking over tailing with a
rake, ONLY—WOT YE GET with a broom YOU HAVE HANDED TO YE, and ye
don't have to PICK IT UP AND FISH IT OUT ER the wet rocks and
sluice-gushin'; and it's a heap less tiring to the back."
"Certingly, you bet!" said Uncle Billy enthusiastically, yet with a
certain nervous abstraction.
"I'm glad ye say so; for yer see I didn't know at first how you'd tumble
to my doing it, until I'd made my pile. And ef I hadn't made it, I
wouldn't hev set eyes on ye agin, old pard—never!"
"Do you mind my runnin' out a minit," said Uncle Billy, rising. "You see,
I've got a friend waitin' for me outside—and I reckon"—he
stammered—"I'll jest run out and send him off, so I kin talk
comf'ble to ye."
"Ye ain't got anybody you're owin' money to," said Uncle Jim earnestly,
"anybody follerin' you to get paid, eh? For I kin jest set down right here
and write ye off a check on the bank!"
"No," said Uncle Billy. He slipped out of the door, and ran like a deer to
the waiting carriage. Thrusting a twenty-dollar gold-piece into the
coachman's hand, he said hoarsely, "I ain't wantin' that kerridge just
now; ye ken drive around and hev a private jamboree all by yourself the
rest of the afternoon, and then come and wait for me at the top o' the
Thus quit of his gorgeous equipage, he hurried back to Uncle Jim, grasping
his ten-thousand dollar draft in his pocket. He was nervous, he was
frightened, but he must get rid of the draft and his story, and have it
over. But before he could speak he was unexpectedly stopped by Uncle Jim.
"Now, look yer, Billy boy!" said Uncle Jim; "I got suthin' to say to ye—and
I might as well clear it off my mind at once, and then we can start fair
agin. Now," he went on, with a half laugh, "wasn't it enough for ME to go
on pretendin' I was rich and doing a big business, and gettin' up that
lock-box dodge so as ye couldn't find out whar I hung out and what I was
doin'—wasn't it enough for ME to go on with all this play-actin',
but YOU, you long-legged or nary cuss! must get up and go to lyin' and
"ME play-actin'? ME lyin'?" gasped Uncle Billy.
Uncle Jim leaned back in his chair and laughed. "Do you think you could
fool ME? Do you think I didn't see through your little game o' going to
that swell Oriental, jest as if ye'd made a big strike—and all the
while ye wasn't sleepin' or eatin' there, but jest wrastlin' yer hash and
having a roll down at the Good Cheer! Do you think I didn't spy on ye and
find that out? Oh, you long-eared jackass-rabbit!"
He laughed until the tears came into his eyes, and Uncle Billy laughed
too, albeit until the laugh on his face became quite fixed, and he was
fain to bury his head in his handkerchief.
"And yet," said Uncle Jim, with a deep breath, "gosh! I was frighted—jest
for a minit! I thought, mebbe, you HAD made a big strike—when I got
your first letter—and I made up my mind what I'd do! And then I
remembered you was jest that kind of an open sluice that couldn't keep
anythin' to yourself, and you'd have been sure to have yelled it out to ME
the first thing. So I waited. And I found you out, you old sinner!" He
reached forward and dug Uncle Billy in the ribs.
"What WOULD you hev done?" said Uncle Billy, after an hysterical collapse.
Uncle Jim's face grew grave again. "I'd hev—I'd—hev cl'ared
out! Out er 'Frisco! out er Californy! out er Ameriky! I couldn't have
stud it! Don't think I would hev begrudged ye yer luck! No man would have
been gladder than me." He leaned forward again, and laid his hand
caressingly upon his partner's arm—"Don't think I'd hev wanted to
take a penny of it—but I—thar! I COULDN'T hev stood up under
it! To hev had YOU, you that I left behind, comin' down here rollin' in
wealth and new partners and friends, and arrive upon me—and this
shanty—and"—he threw towards the corner of the room a terrible
gesture, none the less terrible that it was illogical and inconsequent to
all that had gone before—"and—and—THAT BROOM!"
There was a dead silence in the room. With it Uncle Billy seemed to feel
himself again transported to the homely cabin at Cedar Camp and that
fateful night, with his partner's strange, determined face before him as
then. He even fancied that he heard the roaring of the pines without, and
did not know that it was the distant sea.
But after a minute Uncle Jim resumed:—
"Of course you've made a little raise somehow, or you wouldn't be here?"
"Yes," said Uncle Billy eagerly. "Yes! I've got"—He stopped and
stammered. "I've got—a—few hundreds."
"Oh, oh!" said Uncle Jim cheerfully. He paused, and then added earnestly,
"I say! You ain't got left, over and above your d—d foolishness at
the Oriental, as much as five hundred dollars?"
"I've got," said Uncle Billy, blushing a little over his first deliberate
and affected lie, "I've got at least five hundred and seventy-two dollars.
Yes," he added tentatively, gazing anxiously at his partner, "I've got at
"Je whillikins!" said Uncle Jim, with a laugh. Then eagerly, "Look here,
pard! Then we're on velvet! I've got NINE hundred; put your FIVE with
that, and I know a little ranch that we can get for twelve hundred. That's
what I've been savin' up for—that's my little game! No more minin'
for ME. It's got a shanty twice as big as our old cabin, nigh on a hundred
acres, and two mustangs. We can run it with two Chinamen and jest make it
howl! Wot yer say—eh?" He extended his hand.
"I'm in," said Uncle Billy, radiantly grasping Uncle Jim's. But his smile
faded, and his clear simple brow wrinkled in two lines.
Happily Uncle Jim did not notice it. "Now, then, old pard," he said
brightly, "we'll have a gay old time to-night—one of our jamborees!
I've got some whiskey here and a deck o' cards, and we'll have a little
game, you understand, but not for 'keeps' now! No, siree; we'll play for
A sudden light illuminated Uncle Billy's face again, but he said, with a
grim desperation, "Not to-night! I've got to go into town. That fren' o'
mine expects me to go to the theayter, don't ye see? But I'll be out
to-morrow at sun-up, and we'll fix up this thing o' the ranch."
"Seems to me you're kinder stuck on this fren'," grunted Uncle Jim.
Uncle Billy's heart bounded at his partner's jealousy. "No—but I
MUST, you know," he returned, with a faint laugh.
"I say—it ain't a HER, is it?" said Uncle Jim.
Uncle Billy achieved a diabolical wink and a creditable blush at his lie.
And under cover of this festive gallantry Uncle Billy escaped. He ran
through the gathering darkness, and toiled up the shifting sands to the
top of the hill, where he found the carriage waiting.
"Wot," said Uncle Billy in a low confidential tone to the coachman, "wot
do you 'Frisco fellers allow to be the best, biggest, and riskiest
gamblin'-saloon here? Suthin' high-toned, you know?"
The negro grinned. It was the usual case of the extravagant spendthrift
miner, though perhaps he had expected a different question and order.
"Dey is de 'Polka,' de 'El Dorado,' and de 'Arcade' saloon, boss," he
said, flicking his whip meditatively. "Most gents from de mines prefer de
'Polka,' for dey is dancing wid de gals frown in. But de real prima facie
place for gents who go for buckin' agin de tiger and straight-out gamblin'
is de 'Arcade.'"
"Drive there like thunder!" said Uncle Billy, leaping into the carriage.
True to his word, Uncle Billy was at his partner's shanty early the next
morning. He looked a little tired, but happy, and had brought a draft with
him for five hundred and seventy-five dollars, which he explained was the
total of his capital. Uncle Jim was overjoyed. They would start for Napa
that very day, and conclude the purchase of the ranch; Uncle Jim's
sprained foot was a sufficient reason for his giving up his present
vocation, which he could also sell at a small profit. His domestic
arrangements were very simple; there was nothing to take with him—there
was everything to leave behind. And that afternoon, at sunset, the two
reunited partners were seated on the deck of the Napa boat as she swung
into the stream.
Uncle Billy was gazing over the railing with a look of abstracted relief
towards the Golden Gate, where the sinking sun seemed to be drawing
towards him in the ocean a golden stream that was forever pouring from the
Bay and the three-hilled city beside it. What Uncle Billy was thinking of,
or what the picture suggested to him, did not transpire; for Uncle Jim,
who, emboldened by his holiday, was luxuriating in an evening paper,
suddenly uttered a long-drawn whistle, and moved closer to his abstracted
partner. "Look yer," he said, pointing to a paragraph he had evidently
just read, "just you listen to this, and see if we ain't lucky, you and
me, to be jest wot we air—trustin' to our own hard work—and
not thinkin' o' 'strikes' and 'fortins.' Jest unbutton yer ears, Billy,
while I reel off this yer thing I've jest struck in the paper, and see
what d—d fools some men kin make o' themselves. And that theer
reporter wot wrote it—must hev seed it reely!"
Uncle Jim cleared his throat, and holding the paper close to his eyes read
"'A scene of excitement that recalled the palmy days of '49 was witnessed
last night at the Arcade Saloon. A stranger, who might have belonged to
that reckless epoch, and who bore every evidence of being a successful
Pike County miner out on a "spree," appeared at one of the tables with a
negro coachman bearing two heavy bags of gold. Selecting a faro-bank as
his base of operations, he began to bet heavily and with apparent
recklessness, until his play excited the breathless attention of every
one. In a few moments he had won a sum variously estimated at from eighty
to a hundred thousand dollars. A rumor went round the room that it was a
concerted attempt to "break the bank" rather than the drunken freak of a
Western miner, dazzled by some successful strike. To this theory the man's
careless and indifferent bearing towards his extraordinary gains lent
great credence. The attempt, if such it was, however, was unsuccessful.
After winning ten times in succession the luck turned, and the unfortunate
"bucker" was cleared out not only of his gains, but of his original
investment, which may be placed roughly at twenty thousand dollars. This
extraordinary play was witnessed by a crowd of excited players, who were
less impressed by even the magnitude of the stakes than the perfect
sang-froid and recklessness of the player, who, it is said, at the close
of the game tossed a twenty-dollar gold-piece to the banker and smilingly
withdrew. The man was not recognized by any of the habitues of the place.'
"There!" said Uncle Jim, as he hurriedly slurred over the French
substantive at the close, "did ye ever see such God-forsaken foolishness?"
Uncle Billy lifted his abstracted eyes from the current, still pouring its
unreturning gold into the sinking sun, and said, with a deprecatory smile,
Nor even in the days of prosperity that visited the Great Wheat Ranch of
"Fall and Foster" did he ever tell his secret to his partner.