What They Told Me at Wilson's Bar

by Frances Fuller Victor

The mining season was ended in the narrow valley of one of the Sacramento's northern tributaries, as, in fact, it was throughout the whole region of "placer diggings;" for it was October of a dry year, and water had failed early in all the camps. The afternoon of a long, idle day at Wilson's Bar was drawing to a close. The medium through which the sun's hot rays reached the parched earth was one of red dust, the effect of which was that of a mellow Indian summer haze, pleasing to the eye, if abhorred by the skin and lungs, compelled to take it in, whether brute or human. In the landscape was an incongruous mingling of beauty and deformity; the first, the work of nature; the last, the marring of man.

To the east and to the west rose hills, whose ruggedness was softened by distance to outlines of harmonious grandeur. Scattered over the valley between them, the stately "digger," or nut-pines, grew at near intervals, singly or in groups of three or five, harmonizing by their pale gray-green with the other half-tints of earth, air, and sky. Following the course of the dried up river was a line, more or less continuous, of the evergreen oaks, whose round, spreading tops are such a grateful relief to the eye in the immense levels of the lower Sacramento and upper San Joaquin valleys. Depending from these, hung long, venerable-looking beards of gray moss, as devoid of color as everything else in the landscape; everything else, except the California wild grape, which, so far from being devoid of color, was gorgeous enough in itself to lighten up the whole foreground of the picture. Growing in clumps upon the ground, it was gay as a bed of tulips. Clambering up occasional tall trees, it flaunted its crimson and party-colored foliage with true bacchanalian jollity, each leaf seeming drunk with its own red wine. There is truly nothing that grows in the Golden State more beautiful than the Vitus Californica in October.

That was Nature's side of the picture. The reverse was this: the earth everywhere torn and disfigured by prospectors, whose picks had produced the effect of some huge snout of swine, applied with the industry characteristic of that animal in forbidden grounds. Rude cabins were scattered about, chiefly in the neighborhood of the stream. Rockers, sluice-boxes, and sieves strewed its borders. Along the dusty road which led to Wilson's Bar toiled heavily laden trains of freight-wagons, carrying supplies for the coming winter. At each little deviation from the general level, the eight-mule teams strained every muscle; the dust-enswathed drivers swore frantically and whipped mercilessly; the immense wagons groaned and creaked, and—the world moved on, however much the pained observer might wish to bring it to a stand-still.

A rosy sunset beyond the western mountains was casting its soft glamour over the scene—happily not without one appreciative beholder—when Bob Matheny's wagon drew up in front of the Traveler's Rest, the principal hotel of Wilson's Bar. From the commotion which ensued immediately thereupon, it would appear that Matheny was a person widely and also somewhat favorably known; such ejaculations as "Hulloa! thar's Bob Matheny," "How-dy, old feller!" and many other similar expressions of welcome greeting him on all sides, as he turned from blocking the wheels of his wagon, which else might have backed down the slight incline that led to Traveler's Rest.

At the same moment that the hand-shaking was progressing, a young woman, mounted on a handsome filly, rode up to the rude steps of the hotel and prepared to dismount; and Bob Matheny instantly broke away from his numerous friends, to lift her from the saddle, which act occasioned a sympathetic smile in that same numerous circle, and a whisper ran round it, half audible, to the effect that Bob had "bin gittin' married," "A dog-goned purty gal," "The old cock's puttin' on frills," and similar appropriate remarks, ad infinitum. In the meantime—the young woman disappearing within the hotel, and Matheny occupying himself firstly with the wants of his team, and lastly with his own and those of his traveling companion—gossip had busily circulated the report among the idlers of Wilson's Bar that Bob Matheny had taken to himself a young wife, who was accompanying him on his monthly trip to the mountains. This report was published with the usual verbal commentaries, legends, and annotations; as relevant and piquant as that sort of gossip usually is, and as elegant as, from the dialect of Wilson's Bar, might be expected.

Late that evening, a group of honest miners discussed the matter in the Star Empire Saloon.

"He's the last man I'd a-suspected ov doin' sech a act," said Tom Davis, with a manly grief upon his honest countenance, as he hid the ace and right-bower under the brim of his ragged old sombrero, and proceeded to play the left upon the remainder of that suit—with emphasis, "the very last man!"

"It's a powerful temptation to a feller in his shoes," remarked the tall Kentuckian on his right. "A young gal is a mighty purty thing to look at, and takes a man's mind off from his misfortin's. You mind the verse, don't ye:

'Sorrows I divide, and joys I double?'"

"And give this world a world o' trouble," subjoined Davis's partner, with a good natured laugh at his own wit. "It's your deal, Huxly. Look and see if all the cards are in the pack. Deuced if I don't suspect somebody's hidin' them."

"Every keerd's thar thet I hed in my hands, ef you mean me," said the Kentuckian, sharply.

"Waal, I don't mean you. A feller may have his little joke, I suppose."

"Depends on the kind o' jokes. Here's the two missin' keerds on the floor. Now, ef you say I put 'em thar, it's a little joke I reckon I won't stand. Sabe?"

"Come, I'll pay for the drinks, old fel', if you'll allow me to apologize. Waiter, drinks all round. What'll you take, gentlemen?"

"Now, that's what I call blarsted 'an'some," remarked Huxley, who was an Englishman from Australia:

"'Friend of me soul, this goblet sip,

'Twill dry the starting tear;

'Tis not so bright as woman's lip,

But oh, 'tis more sincere!'

Here's to ye, me hearties."

"Which brings us back to our subject," responded Davis's partner, commonly called "Gentleman Bill," as the glasses were drained and sent away. "Do you believe in curses, Kentuck?"

"B'lieve in cusses? Don't the Bible tell about cussin'? Wasn't thar an old man in the Bible—I disremember his name—that cussed one of his sons, and blessed t'other one? I reckon I do b'lieve in cussin'."

His interlocutor laughed softly at the statement and argument. "Did you ever know any body to be cursed in such a manner that it was plain he was under a ban of unintermitting vengeance?"

"Ef you mean did I ever know a man as was cussed, I ken say I did, onct. He was a powerful mean man—a nigger-driver down in Tennessee. He was orful to swear, and cruel to the niggers, an' his wife besides. One day she died an' left a mite of a baby; an' he was so mad he swore he 'wouldn't bury her; the neighbors might bury her, an' the brat, too, if they liked.' As he was a-swearin' an' a-tearin' with all his might, an' a-callin' on God to cuss him ef he didn't do so an' so, all of a suddent, just as his mouth opened with a oath, he was struck speechless, an' never has spoke a word till this day!—leastways, not that I ever heard ov."

"That is what I should call a special example of Divine wrath," said Gentleman Bill, deftly dealing the cards for a new game. "What I meant to ask was, whether any one, yourself especially, had ever known one man to curse another man so as to bring ruin upon him, in spite of his will to resist it."

"Waal, I've heern tell of sech things; can't say as I know such a man, without it's Bob Matheny. He says he's cussed; an' I reckon he is. Everybody in Wilson's Bar has heern about that."

"Not everybody, for I am still ignorant of his story. Was that why Mr. Davis objected so strongly to his marriage? I begin to be interested. Count me another game, partner. I should like to hear about Mr. Matheny."

"You may tell the story, Davis," said Kentuck, magnanimously. "I want ter chaw terbacker fur awhile, an' I can't talk an' chaw."

Tom Davis gladly took up the theme, as it gave him an opportunity to display his oratorical and rhetorical abilities, of which he was almost as proud as he was of his skill in hiding cards in his sleeves, his hat, his hair, his boots.

"Gentlemen," he began, hesitating an instant—while, attention being fixed on what he was about to say, he stocked the cards—"gentlemen, it's one of the curusest things you ever heerd in yer life. It seems thar was a woman at the bottom of it—I believe thar allers is at the bottom of everything. Waal, he stole another man's sunflower—I've heerd Bob say so, hisself—an' the other feller got mad—as mad as thunder—an', when he found his gal had vamosed with Bob, he cursed him; an' his curse was this: that as long as he lived all that he did should prosper for a little while, an' jest when he begun to enj'y it, a curse should come onto it. Ef it wor business, when he thought he was sure of a good thing, it should fail. Ef it wor love, the woman he loved should die. Ef it wor children, they should grow up, and turn agin' him; or, if they stuck to him, the same curse should be on them; what they undertook should fail; what they loved should die."

"Did the woman he loved die? did his children desert him?" asked the Englishman, eagerly.

"His wife died seven year arter he married her; one ov his boys was killed by his horse fallin' on him; the other got into bad company down to Red Bluffs, an', arter leadin' the old man a devil of a life for two year or more, run off, an' got taken by the lynchers—so folks said. I b'lieve he has a gal, back in the States; but his wife's folks won't let her come to Californy. They're a-eddicatin' her quite grand, an' she writes a powerful nice letter. The old man showed me one, last time he was up to the Bar. Han'some as any school-marm's ever ye saw. But Bob says he don't see what's the use; somethin's sure to happen her; somethin' allers does happen to him an' to his chillern."

"Is that why he thinks he's cursed—because 'something always happens?'" asked Gentleman Bill, indifferently.

"Sart'in; an' it's so, as sure as yer born. Nothin' never pans out long with Bob Matheny. His beginnin's is all good, an' his endin's all bad. I reckon thar never was a man to Wilson's Bar has been cleaned eout, down to the bed-rock, as often as Matheny."

"Is he a good man?" asked the Englishman, interested.

"Never had a better man to Wilson's Bar," responded Kentuck, decidedly, as he cast his quid under the table. "He ain't a lucky feller, an' he's mighty superstitious an' the like; but I make a heap o' Bob Matheny. His luck an' his cuss don't hurt him none for me. It's jest a notion, mebbe."

"Notion or no notion," said Davis, with a knowing leer, "he's not the man to marry a nice gal like that 'un he's got up to the Rest. Better let her be for some lucky young feller as could make her happy. Don't you say so, boys?"

While the laugh went round, the crowd that had been gradually collecting and listening to the story, began to move, and then to part, as the man so much talked of forced his way toward the group of speakers.

"Hold yer tongue, Tom Davis," said Kentuck. "Hulloa, Bob! take my hand, won't ye? I'll introduce ye to my friends. My pardner is Huxly—a tip-top feller, as you'll diskiver fur yerself. Davis' pardner is Randolph—Gentleman Bill, we call him fur short, he's so nice and perlite. He's from yer State, too, I reckon."

"Randolphs of Booneville," said Gentleman Bill; rising and extending his hand.

Matheny, who was a mild-looking man of about fifty, with a hesitating manner and rather care-worn countenance, half concealed under a wide-brimmed, dusty black hat, instead of meeting half-way the extended hand of his friend's friend, thrust his own into his pockets and gazed fixedly at young Randolph. "Be ye Boone Randolph, or be ye his sperrit?" he asked, hoarsely.

"Neither, quite," said the young man, smiling, yet a little flushed. "I am son of Boone Randolph of Booneville, if you know who he was."

Matheny turned and hurried out of the crowd, followed by Kentuck, who wanted to have explained this singular conduct of Bob's towards his friends. As there was no witness of their conversation, its meaning can only be guessed at by another which took place two hours later, after Matheny had turned in at the Traveler's Rest. It was late, even for him, when Kentuck started for his lodgings at the other end of the long, densely crowded street—crowded not only with buildings of wood and canvas, but choked up with monstrous freight wagons, and their numerous horse and mule-teams, for which there was not stable-room enough in all Wilson's Bar. Stumbling along the uneven sidewalk, often touching with his feet some unhoused vagabond, Kentuck was about to mount the stairs which led to his bedroom, when some one touched him on the shoulder, and the voice of Gentleman Bill addressed him:

"I beg your pardon, Kentuck; but you've been with Matheny, haven't you? I want to know why he wouldn't shake hands. He told you, of course?"

"Waal, I'm a friend of Bob's, ye know, Bill; an' he is mighty rough on you, sure. Better not say nothin' about it."

"That wouldn't suit me, Kentuck. I want to understand something about the matter which concerns me so evidently. Come, out with it, and I'll leave you to go to bed."

"Waal, you heerd Tom Davis' blab this evenin'; an' you know that Bob's got the idee into his intelleck that the cuss of a sart'in man as he onct wronged is a-stickin' to him yit, an' never will let loose till he passes in his checks?"

"Who was the man?"

"Boone Randolph, of Booneville."

"My father?"

"Yaas, yer pap. He's down powerful on your pap, that's sart'in. Sez he to me: 'Loh! that's the ornary whelp ov the devil that cussed me. Old's I am I'd like to fight him, fur the sake o' the man that I knowed onct. I feel my young blood a-risin'; he looks so mighty like Boone Randolph.' But I tole him he war a fool to talk ov fightin' yer; ye'd whip him all ter flinders."

"I wouldn't fight him, of course: he's too old for me. And then he's just married, too, isn't he? I have no wish to make that young woman a widow."

"A widow!" said Kentuck, laughing. "That girl's name is Anne Matheny; but she ain't Bob's wife, not by a long shot. Why, she's Bob's darter, as has just come out to see her old pap."

"Well, I like that. I am less than ever inclined to fight the man who owns such a daughter. I must find a way to make friends with him, even if I have to quarrel with him to do it. Good-night, Kentuck. Pleasant dreams to you."

Gentleman Bill felt more than ordinarily wide-awake, whether it was from the novel excitement of the brief encounter with Matheny or not. When Kentuck had left him, he stood for some time irresolute, with no wish for rest, and no desire to go anywhere in particular. He looked up to the sky. It was murky with filmy fog-clouds and dust not yet settled to the earth. Not a star was visible in the whole arch of heaven. He looked down the street, and his eyes, accustomed to the darkness, could just faintly distinguish the outlines of the wagons that crowded it. Every sound was hushed, except the occasional movement of a restless animal, or the deep sighing of a sleeping one. Not a light was burning anywhere along the street. While gazing aimlessly into the gloom he saw, all at once, as if lighted by a flash from the sky, a sudden illumination spring up, and a column of flame stand erect over the Traveler's Rest.

Now, Wilson's Bar did not boast a fire company. At some seasons of the year, had a fire broken out, there would have been a chance of its extinguishment, inflammable as were the materials of which the place was built; but just after the long, hot summer, when the river was all but dried up, and every plank in houses, fences, and sidewalks so much tinder, a fire that should get under headway would have everything its own way. Seeing the danger, Gentleman Bill started down the street on a run, shouting, in his clarion tones, that ever-thrilling cry of "Fire! fire! fire!" till it seemed to him he must wake the dead. But it was that hour of the night, or rather morning, when sleep is heaviest, and the watchful senses off their guard. The teamsters, who slept in their wagons, were the first to be aroused; but they, seeing the peril which might come to their teams, and destruction to their property, kept by their own. The inhabitants of the dwellings awoke more slowly, and came pouring into the street only in time to see the roof of the Traveler's Rest falling in, although the lower story was not yet consumed.

Nobody knew much about the details of the scene that ensued. The current of heated air produced the usual rush of cold wind, which spread and fed the flames, until, in half an hour, all hope of saving any part of the principal street in the Bar was abandoned, and people were flying for safety to the outskirts of the town.

On a little eminence, overlooking the burning buildings, together stood Gentleman Bill and a young woman he had rescued from smoke and flame just in time to save her from suffocation. Together they looked down upon the conflagration, and together listened to the horrible medley of sounds proceeding from it.

"If I could only know that my father is safe!" was the repeated moan of Anne Matheny, as she gazed intently upon the scene of distress.

Seeing the fright and trouble in her eyes, her companion cunningly diverted her attention for one moment to the weird landscape stretching away toward the western mountains. It was the same scene she had beheld for the first time with such interest twelve hours before; but in what a different aspect! The murky heavens reflected the red glare of the flames upon every object for miles around, tinging each with a lurid gleam like nothing in nature. The dark neutrals of the far-off mountains, the gray-green of the pines, the sere colors of the parched valley, the dark dull-green of the oaks, garlanded with hoary moss, and the gay foliage of the wild grape; all came out distinctly in this furnace-glow, but with quite new effects. In the strong and strange fascination of the scene, both these young people, so singularly situated, forgot for three minutes their mutual anxiety. Longer it would be impossible to forget it.

"Do not you think I might go to look for my father now, Mr. ——?"

"Randolph"—supplied that gentleman.

"Oh, thank you!—Mr. Randolph?"

"I do not see how you could, really;" and, without intending it in the least, but simply through his embarrassment, Randolph glanced hastily at her scanty dress, which thereby she blushingly understood to be his objection.

"If I could get only a blanket from father's wagon! Do you think it would be possible? Would you be running a risk to try for a blanket, do you think, Mr. Randolph? If there is any risk, please do not go; but I am so anxious—so terribly anxious."

He knew she was, and knew the reason she had for her apprehensions; so, although he mistrusted the result of his errand, he answered simply: "Certainly; I will go, if you are not afraid to be left alone. I shall be in no danger."

"O, thank you—thank you! You will bring me a message from my father?"

"I hope so, indeed, since you desire it so much. I think you had better sit down on this newspaper, and let me cover your shoulders with my coat."

"No, indeed. If you are going near the fire, you will need it to protect you from cinders."

But Randolph quickly divested himself of his upper garment, and laid it lightly over her shivering form; then quietly charging her to feel no alarm, and as little anxiety as possible, strode rapidly away toward the fire. Fifteen minutes afterward he returned more slowly, with a blanket, which Anne rose up to receive.

"My father? Did you see my father?"

"I did not see him. He must have taken his horses off a little distance for safety, and you may not see him for several hours. Do not indulge in apprehensions. In the morning we shall find him: it is almost daylight now."

He pointed to a faint light along the eastern horizon; but her eyes were blinded with tears.

"It is not like my father to leave me so long—at such a time, too! He would not care for his horses, nor for anything but me. O, can he have perished!"

She spoke as though the awful significance of her loneliness had just dawned upon her. Randolph, from whom the thought had never been absent from the moment he saw the pillar of flame shooting up over the Traveler's Rest, was startled by the suddenness of her anguish; and an expression of profound grief came over his face, noticeable even to her inattentive eyes, and which comforted her by its sympathy, even in the midst of her alarm and distress.

The day had dawned when Anne Matheny lifted her tear-swollen face from her knees, and looked upon the smoking ruins of Wilson's Bar. It was but a blackened heap of rubbish; yet somewhere in its midst, she felt assured, were buried the charred remains of her father. Each moment that he came not deepened her conviction, until at last her companion ceased his efforts to inspire hope, and accepted her belief as his own. Then, with the inconsistency of sorrow, she violently repudiated the suspicion of her father's death, and besought him piteously to seek and bring him to her side.

It was while obeying this last command that Gentleman Bill encountered Kentuck, who, after the confusion of the fire was over, was, like himself, looking for Matheny. When they had consulted together, the two returned to the place where Anne was awaiting them.

"There is one request I have to make, Kentuck: which is, that you will not inform Miss Matheny of the enmity of her father toward my father and myself. It would only distress her. Besides, I should like to befriend her, poor girl! and I could not, if she looked upon me with her father's eyes."

"No, 'tain't no use to tell her nothin' about that, sure enough. It's mighty curus, though, 'bout that fire: not another man got hurt, not a mite; and Bob Matheny dead! I'll be hanged if it ain't mighty curus. I hope ye won't hurt the gal, bein' yer the son of yer father."

"Hurt her! I'd——"

Gentleman Bill did not say what he would do: but Kentuck, glancing his way, caught a perfectly comprehensible expression, and muttered softly to himself:

"Waal, if that ain't the dog-gondest curusest sarcumstance I ever seed. Hit, the first pop! Waal, I'm not the feller to come atween 'em ef thet's ther notion. Far play's my rule."

To Bill, aloud, he said: "Reckon you'll hev' to let me be her uncle for awhile yet. Yer most too young a feller to offer to take car' of a gal like that. Bob Matheny's darter has a right to what leetle dust pans out o' Kentuck's claim. Thet's my go."

Just at this moment Anne, who had been watching for the return of her friend, seeing two figures approaching, uttered a cry of joy and ran forward to meet them. The shock of her disappointment at seeing a stranger in place of her father, caused her nearly to swoon away in Kentuck's arms.

"Neow, don't ye, honey," he said, soothingly, in his kind Kentucky dialect. "Sho! don't ye take on. We's all got to die, sometime or 'nother. Don't mind me: I'm yer pap's oldest friend on this coast—hev' prospected an' dug an' washed up with him sence '49; and a kinder comrade a man never hed. In course, I consider it my dooty an' privilege to see that you're took car' ov. The Bar's purty much cleared eout—thet's so; but I'll soon hev' a cabin up somewhere; an' ye can jest run my shebang anyway ye like. Reckon I can find some nice woman to stay along with ye, fur comp'ny."

This was just the kind of talk best calculated to engage the attention of one in Anne's situation—half soothing and half suggestive—and by degrees her father's old friend succeeded in arousing her to face her loss, and the prospects of her future.

They told me at Wilson's Bar, only last October—it must have been about the anniversary of the fire—that in two or three months Anne had recovered her spirits and health so far as to essay teaching the little flock of children at the Bar, with flattering success; and that in two or three more it began to be observed that Gentleman Bill—now more commonly called Mr. Randolph, out of respect to Miss Matheny—generally happened to be in the neighborhood of the school-house about the hour of closing, in order that he might walk home with the teacher. In truth, the young people had taken to looking and sighing after each other in a way that provoked remark, and augured a wedding. As Anne insisted on completing her term of teaching, as well as on taking a little time for preparation, the wedding did not come off until the first part of September.

On this occasion—the only one of the kind Kentuck had ever had anything to do with—the rude, but generous-hearted Kentuckian made a point of displaying his hospitality on a scale commensurate with his ideas of its importance; and the êlite of Wilson's Bar were invited to eat, drink, and dance from dusk till dawn of that memorable day. As for the bride, she looked as lovely as it is the right and duty of all brides to look—even lovelier than the most; and the groom was the very prince of bridegrooms—so all the maiden guests declared.

On the following morning, when the young couple were to go away, Annie kissed and cried over Kentuck, her second father, in a truly gratifying fashion; and Randolph behaved very gentlemanly and kindly—as, in fact, he always did; and Kentuck put on paternal airs, blessing his children in all the honeyed epithets of a true Kentuckian.

Alas, that the legend does not end here! If the reader is of my mind, he will wish that it had. But if he is of that sanguinary sort who always insist upon seeing the grist the gods send to their slow-grinding mills, he will prefer to know the sequel. As I have already told you, it was in September they were married. On the morning they left Kentuck the weather was extremely hot, with queer little clouds hanging about the mountains. They took the road up the cañon, toward McGibeney's ranch—laughing and chatting, as they rode along side by side, Anne replying to every lark singing by the roadside in a voice almost as musical.

Well, if it must be told, there was a cloud-burst on the mountains about noon that day. Not four hours after they had taken leave of him, Kentuck received their poor bruised bodies at his very threshold, brought there without the interposition of human hands. Wilson's Bar will long remember that day. The fire took chiefly that which could be replaced; but the flood washed out claims, ruined aqueducts, and destroyed lives of men and brutes, carrying away with it the labors and hopes of years.