An Apostle of
the Tules by Bret Harte
On October 10, 1856, about four hundred people were camped in
Tasajara Valley, California. It could not have been for the prospect,
since a more barren, dreary, monotonous, and uninviting landscape never
stretched before human eye; it could not have been for convenience or
contiguity, as the nearest settlement was thirty miles away; it could
not have been for health or salubrity, as the breath of the
ague-haunted tules in the outlying Stockton marshes swept through the
valley; it could not have been for space or comfort, for, encamped on
an unlimited plain, men and women were huddled together as closely as
in an urban tenement-house, without the freedom or decency of rural
isolation; it could not have been for pleasant companionship, as
dejection, mental anxiety, tears, and lamentation were the dominant
expression; it was not a hurried flight from present or impending
calamity, for the camp had been deliberately planned, and for a week
pioneer wagons had been slowly arriving; it was not an irrevocable
exodus, for some had already returned to their homes that others might
take their places. It was simply a religious revival of one or two
denominational sects, known as a "camp-meeting."
A large central tent served for the assembling of the principal
congregation; smaller tents served for prayer-meetings and class-
rooms, known to the few unbelievers as "side-shows"; while the actual
dwellings of the worshipers were rudely extemporized shanties of boards
and canvas, sometimes mere corrals or inclosures open to the cloudless
sky, or more often the unhitched covered wagon which had brought them
there. The singular resemblance to a circus, already profanely
suggested, was carried out by a straggling fringe of boys and
half-grown men on the outskirts of the encampment, acrimonious with
disappointed curiosity, lazy without the careless ease of vagrancy, and
vicious without the excitement of dissipation. For the coarse poverty
and brutal economy of the larger arrangements, the dreary panorama of
unlovely and unwholesome domestic details always before the eyes, were
hardly exciting to the senses. The circus might have been more
dangerous, but scarcely more brutalizing. The actors themselves, hard
and aggressive through practical struggles, often warped and twisted
with chronic forms of smaller diseases, or malformed and crippled
through carelessness and neglect, and restless and uneasy through some
vague mental distress and inquietude that they had added to their
burdens, were scarcely amusing performers. The rheumatic Parkinsons,
from Green Springs; the ophthalmic Filgees, from Alder Creek; the
ague-stricken Harneys, from Martinez Bend; and the feeble-limbed
Steptons, from Sugar Mill, might, in their combined families, have
suggested a hospital, rather than any other social assemblage. Even
their companionship, which had little of cheerful fellowship in it,
would have been grotesque but for the pathetic instinct of some mutual
vague appeal from the hardness of their lives and the helplessness of
their conditions that had brought them together. Nor was this appeal to
a Higher Power any the less pathetic that it bore no reference whatever
to their respective needs or deficiencies, but was always an invocation
for a light which, when they believed they had found it, to
unregenerate eyes scarcely seemed to illumine the rugged path in which
their feet were continually stumbling. One might have smiled at the
idea of the vendetta-following Ferguses praying for "justification by
Faith," but the actual spectacle of old Simon Fergus, whose shot-gun
was still in his wagon, offering up that appeal with streaming eyes and
agonized features was painful beyond a doubt. To seek and obtain an
exaltation of feeling vaguely known as "It," or less vaguely veiling a
sacred name, was the burden of the general appeal.
The large tent had been filled, and between the exhortations a
certain gloomy enthusiasm had been kept up by singing, which had the
effect of continuing in an easy, rhythmical, impersonal, and
irresponsible way the sympathies of the meeting. This was interrupted
by a young man who rose suddenly, with that spontaneity of impulse
which characterized the speakers, but unlike his predecessors, he
remained for a moment mute, trembling and irresolute. The fatal
hesitation seemed to check the unreasoning, monotonous flow of emotion,
and to recall to some extent the reason and even the criticism of the
worshipers. He stammered a prayer whose earnestness was undoubted,
whose humility was but too apparent, but his words fell on faculties
already benumbed by repetition and rhythm. A slight movement of
curiosity in the rear benches, and a whisper that it was the maiden
effort of a new preacher, helped to prolong the interruption. A heavy
man of strong physical expression sprang to the rescue with a
hysterical cry of "Glory!" and a tumultuous fluency of epithet and
sacred adjuration. Still the meeting wavered. With one final paroxysmal
cry, the powerful man threw his arms around his nearest neighbor and
burst into silent tears. An anxious hush followed; the speaker still
continued to sob on his neighbor's shoulder. Almost before the fact
could be commented upon, it was noticed that the entire rank of
worshipers on the bench beside him were crying also; the second and
third rows were speedily dissolved in tears, until even the very
youthful scoffers in the last benches suddenly found their
half-hysterical laughter turned to sobs. The danger was averted, the
reaction was complete; the singing commenced, and in a few moments the
hapless cause of the interruption and the man who had retrieved the
disaster stood together outside the tent. A horse was picketed near
The victor was still panting from his late exertions, and was more
or less diluvial in eye and nostril, but neither eye nor nostril bore
the slightest tremor of other expression. His face was stolid and
perfectly in keeping with his physique,—heavy, animal, and
"Ye oughter trusted in the Lord," he said to the young preacher.
"But I did," responded the young man, earnestly.
"That's it. Justifyin' yourself by works instead o' leanin' onto
Him! Find Him, sez you! Git Him, sez you! Works is vain. Glory! glory!"
he continued, with fluent vacuity and wandering, dull, observant
"But if I had a little more practice in class, Brother Silas, more
"The letter killeth," interrupted Brother Silas. Here his wandering
eyes took dull cognizance of two female faces peering through the
opening of the tent. "No, yer mishun, Brother Gideon, is to seek Him in
the by-ways, in the wilderness,—where the foxes hev holes and the
ravens hev their young,—but not in the Temples of the people. Wot
sez Sister Parsons?"
One of the female faces detached itself from the tent flaps, which
it nearly resembled in color, and brought forward an angular figure
clothed in faded fustian that had taken the various shades and odors of
"Brother Silas speaks well," said Sister Parsons, with stridulous
fluency. "It's fore-ordained. Fore-ordinashun is better nor ordinashun,
saith the Lord. He shall go forth, turnin' neither to the right hand
nor the left hand, and seek Him among the lost tribes and the ungodly.
He shall put aside the temptashun of Mammon and the flesh." Her eyes
and those of Brother Silas here both sought the other female face,
which was that of a young girl of seventeen.
"Wot sez little Sister Meely,—wot sez Meely Parsons?"
continued Brother Silas, as if repeating an unctuous formula.
The young girl came hesitatingly forward, and with a nervous cry of
"Oh, Gideon!" threw herself on the breast of the young man.
For a moment they remained locked in each other's arms. In the
promiscuous and fraternal embracings which were a part of the
devotional exercises of the hour, the act passed without significance.
The young man gently raised her face. She was young and comely, albeit
marked with a half-frightened, half-vacant sorrow. "Amen," said Brother
He mounted his horse and turned to go. Brother Silas had clasped his
powerful arms around both women and was holding them in a ponderous
"Go forth, young man, into the wilderness."
The young man bowed his head, and urged his horse forward in the
bleak and barren plain. In half an hour every vestige of the camp and
its unwholesome surroundings was lost in the distance. It was as if the
strong desiccating wind, which seemed to spring up at his horse's feet,
had cleanly erased the flimsy structures from the face of the plain,
swept away the lighter breath of praise and plaint, and dried up the
easy-flowing tears. The air was harsh but pure; the grim economy of
form and shade and color in the level plain was coarse but not vulgar;
the sky above him was cold and distant but not repellent; the moisture
that had been denied his eyes at the prayer-meeting overflowed them
here; the words that had choked his utterance an hour ago now rose to
his lips. He threw himself from his horse, and kneeling in the withered
grass—a mere atom in the boundless plain—lifted his pale
face against the irresponsive blue and prayed.
He prayed that the unselfish dream of his bitter boyhood, his
disappointed youth, might come to pass. He prayed that he might in
higher hands become the humble instrument of good to his fellow- man.
He prayed that the deficiencies of his scant education, his self-taught
learning, his helpless isolation, and his inexperience might be
overlooked or reinforced by grace. He prayed that the Infinite
Compassion might enlighten his ignorance and solitude with a
manifestation of the Spirit; in his very weakness he prayed for some
special revelation, some sign or token, some visitation or gracious
unbending from that coldly lifting sky. The low sun burned the black
edge of the distant tules with dull eating fires as he prayed, lit the
dwarfed hills with a brief but ineffectual radiance, and then died out.
The lingering trade winds fired a few volleys over its grave and then
lapsed into a chilly silence. The young man staggered to his feet; it
was quite dark now, but the coming night had advanced a few starry
vedettes so near the plain they looked like human watch-fires. For an
instant he could not remember where he was. Then a light trembled far
down at the entrance of the valley. Brother Gideon recognized it. It
was in the lonely farmhouse of the widow of the last Circuit
The abode of the late Reverend Marvin Hiler remained in the
disorganized condition he had left it when removed from his sphere of
earthly uselessness and continuous accident. The straggling fence that
only half inclosed the house and barn had stopped at that point where
the two deacons who had each volunteered to do a day's work on it had
completed their allotted time. The building of the barn had been
arrested when the half load of timber contributed by Sugar Mill
brethren was exhausted, and three windows given by "Christian Seekers"
at Martinez painfully accented the boarded spaces for the other three
that "Unknown Friends" in Tasajara had promised but not yet supplied.
In the clearing some trees that had been felled but not taken away
added to the general incompleteness.
Something of this unfinished character clung to the Widow Hiler and
asserted itself in her three children, one of whom was consistently
posthumous. Prematurely old and prematurely disappointed, she had all
the inexperience of girlhood with the cares of maternity, and kept in
her family circle the freshness of an old maid's misogynistic
antipathies with a certain guilty and remorseful consciousness of
widowhood. She supported the meagre household to which her husband had
contributed only the extra mouths to feed with reproachful astonishment
and weary incapacity. She had long since grown tired of trying to make
both ends meet, of which she declared "the Lord had taken one." During
her two years' widowhood she had waited on Providence, who by a
pleasing local fiction had been made responsible for the disused and
cast-off furniture and clothing which, accompanied with scriptural
texts, found their way mysteriously into her few habitable rooms. The
providential manna was not always fresh; the ravens who fed her and her
little ones with flour from the Sugar Mills did not always select the
best quality. Small wonder that, sitting by her lonely
hearthstone,—a borrowed stove that supplemented the unfinished
fireplace,— surrounded by her mismatched furniture and clad in
misfitting garments, she had contracted a habit of sniffling during her
dreary watches. In her weaker moments she attributed it to grief; in
her stronger intervals she knew that it sprang from damp and
In her apathy the sound of horses' hoofs at her unprotected door
even at that hour neither surprised nor alarmed her. She lifted her
head as the door opened and the pale face of Gideon Deane looked into
the room. She moved aside the cradle she was rocking, and, taking a
saucepan and tea-cup from a chair beside her, absently dusted it with
her apron, and pointing to the vacant seat said, "Take a chair," as
quietly as if he had stepped from the next room instead of the outer
"I'll put up my horse first," said Gideon gently.
"So do," responded the widow briefly.
Gideon led his horse across the inclosure, stumbling over the heaps
of rubbish, dried chips, and weather-beaten shavings with which it was
strewn, until he reached the unfinished barn, where he temporarily
bestowed his beast. Then taking a rusty axe, by the faint light of the
stars, he attacked one of the fallen trees with such energy that at the
end of ten minutes he reappeared at the door with an armful of cut
boughs and chips, which he quietly deposited behind the stove.
Observing that he was still standing as if looking for something, the
widow lifted her eyes and said, "Ef it's the bucket, I reckon ye'll
find it at the spring, where one of them foolish Filgee boys left it.
I've been that tuckered out sens sundown, I ain't had the ambition to
go and tote it back." Without a word Gideon repaired to the spring,
filled the missing bucket, replaced the hoop on the loosened staves of
another he found lying useless beside it, and again returned to the
house. The widow once more pointed to the chair, and Gideon sat down.
"It's quite a spell sens you wos here," said the Widow Hiler, returning
her foot to the cradle-rocker; "not sens yer was ordained. Be'n
practicin', I reckon, at the meetin'."
A slight color came into his cheek. "My place is not there, Sister
Hiler," he said gently; "it's for those with the gift o' tongues. I go
forth only a common laborer in the vineyard." He stopped and hesitated;
he might have said more, but the widow, who was familiar with that kind
of humility as the ordinary perfunctory expression of her class,
suggested no sympathetic interest in his mission.
"Thar's a deal o' talk over there," she said dryly, "and thar's
folks ez thinks thar's a deal o' money spent in picnicking the Gospel
that might be given to them ez wish to spread it, or to their widows
and children. But that don't consarn you, Brother Gideon. Sister
Parsons hez money enough to settle her darter Meely comfortably on her
own land; and I've heard tell that you and Meely was only waitin' till
you was ordained to be jined together. You'll hev an easier time of it,
Brother Gideon, than poor Marvin Hiler had," she continued, suppressing
her tears with a certain astringency that took the place of her lost
pride; "but the Lord wills that some should be tried and some not."
"But I am not going to marry Meely Parsons," said Gideon
The widow took her foot from the rocker. "Not marry Meely!" she
repeated vaguely. But relapsing into her despondent mood she continued:
"Then I reckon it's true what other folks sez of Brother Silas Braggley
makin' up to her and his powerful exhortin' influence over her ma.
Folks sez ez Sister Parsons hez just resigned her soul inter his
"Brother Silas hez a heavenly gift," said the young man, with gentle
enthusiasm; "and perhaps it may be so. If it is, it is the Lord's will.
But I do not marry Meely because my life and my ways henceforth must
lie far beyond her sphere of strength. I oughtn't to drag a young
inexperienced soul with me to battle and struggle in the thorny paths
that I must tread."
"I reckon you know your own mind," said Sister Hiler grimly. "But
thar's folks ez might allow that Meely Parsons ain't any better than
others, that she shouldn't have her share o' trials and keers and
crosses. Riches and bringin' up don't exempt folks from the shadder. I
married Marvin Hiler outer a house ez good ez Sister Parsons', and at a
time when old Cyrus Parsons hadn't a roof to his head but the cover of
the emigrant wagon he kem across the plains in. I might say ez Marvin
knowed pretty well wot it was to have a helpmeet in his ministration,
if it wasn't vanity of sperit to say it now. But the flesh is weak,
Brother Gideon." Her influenza here resolved itself into unmistakable
tears, which she wiped away with the first article that was accessible
in the work-bag before her. As it chanced to be a black silk
neckerchief of the deceased Hiler, the result was funereal, suggestive,
but practically ineffective.
"You were a good wife to Brother Hiler," said the young man gently.
"Everybody knows that."
"It's suthin' to think of since he's gone," continued the widow,
bringing her work nearer to her eyes to adjust it to their tear- dimmed
focus. "It's suthin' to lay to heart in the lonely days and nights when
thar's no man round to fetch water and wood and lend a hand to doin'
chores; it's suthin' to remember, with his three children to feed, and
little Selby, the eldest, that vain and useless that he can't even tote
the baby round while I do the work of a hired man."
"It's a hard trial, Sister Hiler," said Gideon, "but the Lord has
His appointed time."
Familiar as consolation by vague quotation was to Sister Hiler,
there was an occult sympathy in the tone in which this was offered that
lifted her for an instant out of her narrower self. She raised her eyes
to his. The personal abstraction of the devotee had no place in the
deep dark eyes that were lifted from the cradle to hers with a sad,
discriminating, and almost womanly sympathy. Surprised out of her
selfish preoccupation, she was reminded of her apparent callousness to
what might be his present disappointment. Perhaps it seemed strange to
her, too, that those tender eyes should go a-begging.
"Yer takin' a Christian view of yer own disappointment, Brother
Gideon," she said, with less astringency of manner; "but every heart
knoweth its own sorrer. I'll be gettin' supper now that the baby's
sleepin' sound, and ye'll sit by and eat."
"If you let me help you, Sister Hiler," said the young man with a
cheerfulness that belied any overwhelming heart affection, and awakened
in the widow a feminine curiosity as to his real feelings to Meely. But
her further questioning was met with a frank, amiable, and simple
brevity that was as puzzling as the most artful periphrase of tact.
Accustomed as she was to the loquacity of grief and the confiding
prolixity of disappointed lovers, she could not understand her guest's
quiescent attitude. Her curiosity, however, soon gave way to the
habitual contemplation of her own sorrows, and she could not forego the
opportune presence of a sympathizing auditor to whom she could relieve
her feelings. The preparations for the evening meal were therefore
accompanied by a dreary monotone of lamentation. She bewailed her lost
youth, her brief courtship, the struggles of her early married life,
her premature widowhood, her penurious and helpless existence, the
disruption of all her present ties, the hopelessness of the future. She
rehearsed the unending plaint of those long evenings, set to the music
of the restless wind around her bleak dwelling, with something of its
stridulous reiteration. The young man listened, and replied with softly
assenting eyes, but without pausing in the material aid that he was
quietly giving her. He had removed the cradle of the sleeping child to
the bedroom, quieted the sudden wakefulness of "Pinkey," rearranged the
straggling furniture of the sitting-room with much order and tidiness,
repaired the hinges of a rebellious shutter and the lock of an
unyielding door, and yet had apparently retained an unabated interest
in her spoken woes. Surprised once more into recognizing this devotion,
Sister Hiler abruptly arrested her monologue.
"Well, if you ain't the handiest man I ever seed about a house!"
"Am I?" said Gideon, with suddenly sparkling eyes. "Do you really
"Then you don't know how glad I am." His frank face so unmistakably
showed his simple gratification that the widow, after gazing at him for
a moment, was suddenly seized with a bewildering fancy. The first
effect of it was the abrupt withdrawal of her eyes, then a sudden
effusion of blood to her forehead that finally extended to her
cheekbones, and then an interval of forgetfulness where she remained
with a plate held vaguely in her hand. When she succeeded at last in
putting it on the table instead of the young man's lap, she said in a
voice quite unlike her own,—
"I mean it," said Gideon, cheerfully. After a pause, in which he
unostentatiously rearranged the table which the widow was abstractedly
disorganizing, he said gently, "After tea, when you're not so much
flustered with work and worry, and more composed in spirit, we'll have
a little talk, Sister Hiler. I'm in no hurry to-night, and if you don't
mind I'll make myself comfortable in the barn with my blanket until
sun-up to-morrow. I can get up early enough to do some odd chores round
the lot before I go."
"You know best, Brother Gideon," said the widow, faintly, "and if
you think it's the Lord's will, and no speshal trouble to you, so do.
But sakes alive! it's time I tidied myself a little," she continued,
lifting one hand to her hair, while with the other she endeavored to
fasten a buttonless collar; "leavin' alone the vanities o' dress, it's
ez much as one can do to keep a clean rag on with the children climbin'
over ye. Sit by, and I'll be back in a minit." She retired to the back
room, and in a few moments returned with smoothed hair and a palm-leaf
broche shawl thrown over her shoulders, which not only concealed the
ravages made by time and maternity on the gown beneath, but to some
extent gave her the suggestion of being a casual visitor in her own
household. It must be confessed that for the rest of the evening Sister
Hiler rather lent herself to this idea, possibly from the fact that it
temporarily obliterated the children, and quite removed her from any
responsibility in the unpicturesque household. This effect was only
marred by the absence of any impression upon Gideon, who scarcely
appeared to notice the change, and whose soft eyes seemed rather to
identify the miserable woman under her forced disguise. He prefaced the
meal with a fervent grace, to which the widow listened with something
of the conscious attitude she had adopted at church during her late
husband's ministration, and during the meal she ate with a like
consciousness of "company manners."
Later that evening Selby Hiler woke up in his little truckle bed,
listening to the rising midnight wind, which in his childish fancy he
confounded with the sound of voices that came through the open door of
the living-room. He recognized the deep voice of the young minister,
Gideon, and the occasional tearful responses of his mother, and he was
fancying himself again at church when he heard a step, and the young
preacher seemed to enter the room, and going to the bed leaned over it
and kissed him on the forehead, and then bent over his little brother
and sister and kissed them too. Then he slowly re-entered the
living-room. Lifting himself softly on his elbow, Selby saw him go up
towards his mother, who was crying, with her head on the table, and
kiss her also on the forehead. Then he said "Good-night," and the front
door closed, and Selby heard his footsteps crossing the lot towards the
barn. His mother was still sitting with her face buried in her hands
when he fell asleep.
She sat by the dying embers of the fire until the house was still
again; then she rose and wiped her eyes. "Et's a good thing," she said,
going to the bedroom door, and looking in upon her sleeping children;
"et's a mercy and a blessing for them and—for—me.
But— but—he might—hev—said—he—loved
Although Gideon Deane contrived to find a nest for his blanket in
the mouldy straw of the unfinished barn loft, he could not sleep. He
restlessly watched the stars through the cracks of the boarded roof,
and listened to the wind that made the half-open structure as vocal as
a sea-shell, until past midnight. Once or twice he had fancied he heard
the tramp of horse-hoofs on the far-off trail, and now it seemed to
approach nearer, mingled with the sound of voices. Gideon raised his
head and looked through the doorway of the loft. He was not mistaken:
two men had halted in the road before the house, and were examining it
as if uncertain if it were the dwelling they were seeking, and were
hesitating if they should rouse the inmates. Thinking he might spare
the widow this disturbance to her slumbers, and possibly some alarm, he
rose quickly, and descending to the inclosure walked towards the house.
As he approached the men advanced to meet him, and by accident or
design ranged themselves on either side. A glance showed him they were
strangers to the locality.
"We're lookin' fer the preacher that lives here," said one, who
seemed to be the elder. "A man by the name o' Hiler, I reckon!"
"Brother Hiler has been dead two years," responded Gideon. "His
widow and children live here."
The two men looked at each other. The younger one laughed; the elder
mumbled something about its being "three years ago," and then turning
suddenly on Gideon, said:
"P'r'aps YOU'RE a preacher?"
"Can you come to a dying man?"
The two men again looked at each other. "But," continued Gideon,
softly, "you'll please keep quiet so as not to disturb the widow and
her children, while I get my horse." He turned away; the younger man
made a movement as if to stop him, but the elder quickly restrained his
hand. "He isn't goin' to run away," he whispered. "Look," he added, as
Gideon a moment later reappeared mounted and equipped.
"Do you think we'll be in time?" asked the young preacher as they
rode quickly away in the direction of the tules.
The younger repressed a laugh; the other answered grimly, "I
"And is he conscious of his danger?"
Gideon did not speak again. But as the onus of that silence seemed
to rest upon the other two, the last speaker, after a few moments'
silent and rapid riding, continued abruptly, "You don't seem
"Of what?" said Gideon, lifting his soft eyes to the speaker. "You
tell me of a brother at the point of death, who seeks the Lord through
an humble vessel like myself. HE will tell me the rest."
A silence still more constrained on the part of the two strangers
followed, which they endeavored to escape from by furious riding; so
that in half an hour the party had reached a point where the tules
began to sap the arid plain, while beyond them broadened the lagoons of
the distant river. In the foreground, near a clump of dwarfed willows,
a camp-fire was burning, around which fifteen or twenty armed men were
collected, their horses picketed in an outer circle guarded by two
mounted sentries. A blasted cotton-wood with a single black arm
extended over the tules stood ominously against the dark sky.
The circle opened to receive them and closed again. The elder man
dismounted and leading Gideon to the blasted cotton-wood, pointed to a
pinioned man seated at its foot with an armed guard over him. He looked
up at Gideon with an amused smile.
"You said it was a dying man," said Gideon, recoiling.
"He will be a dead man in half an hour," returned the stranger.
"We are the Vigilantes from Alamo. This man," pointing to the
prisoner, "is a gambler who killed a man yesterday. We hunted him here,
tried him an hour ago, and found him guilty. The last man we hung here,
three years ago, asked for a parson. We brought him the man who used to
live where we found you. So we thought we'd give this man the same
show, and brought you."
"And if I refuse?" said Gideon.
The leader shrugged his shoulders.
"That's HIS lookout, not ours. We've given him the chance. Drive
ahead, boys," he added, turning to the others; "the parson allows he
won't take a hand."
"One moment," said Gideon, in desperation, "one moment, for the sake
of that God you have brought me here to invoke in behalf of this
wretched man. One moment, for the sake of Him in whose presence you
must stand one day as he does now." With passionate earnestness he
pointed out the vindictive impulse they were mistaking for Divine
justice; with pathetic fervency he fell upon his knees and implored
their mercy for the culprit. But in vain. As at the camp-meeting of the
day before, he was chilled to find his words seemed to fall on
unheeding and unsympathetic ears. He looked around on their abstracted
faces; in their gloomy savage enthusiasm for expiatory sacrifice, he
was horrified to find the same unreasoning exaltation that had checked
his exhortations then. Only one face looked upon his, half
mischievously, half compassionately. It was the prisoner's.
"Yer wastin' time on us," said the leader, dryly; "wastin' HIS time.
Hadn't you better talk to him?"
Gideon rose to his feet, pale and cold. "He may have something to
confess. May I speak with him alone?" he said gently.
The leader motioned to the sentry to fall back. Gideon placed
himself before the prisoner so that in the faint light of the camp-
fire the man's figure was partly hidden by his own. "You meant well
with your little bluff, pardner," said the prisoner, not unkindly, "but
they've got the cards to win."
"Kneel down with your back to me," said Gideon, in a low voice. The
prisoner fell on his knees. At the same time he felt Gideon's hand and
the gliding of steel behind his back, and the severed cords hung
loosely on his arms and legs.
"When I lift my voice to God, brother," said Gideon, softly, "drop
on your face and crawl as far as you can in a straight line in my
shadow, then break for the tules. I will stand between you and their
"Are you mad?" said the prisoner. "Do you think they won't fire lest
they should hurt you? Man! they'll kill YOU, the first thing."
"So be it—if your chance is better."
Still on his knees, the man grasped Gideon's two hands in his own
and devoured him with his eyes.
"You mean it?"
"Then," said the prisoner, quietly, "I reckon I'll stop and hear
what you've got to say about God until they're ready."
"You refuse to fly?"
"I reckon I was never better fitted to die than now," said the
prisoner, still grasping his hand. After a pause he added in a lower
tone, "I can't pray—but—I think," he hesitated, "I think I
could manage to ring in a hymn."
"Will you try, brother?"
With their hands tightly clasped together, Gideon lifted his gentle
voice. The air was a common one, familiar in the local religious
gatherings, and after the first verse one or two of the sullen
lookers-on joined unkindly in the refrain. But, as he went on, the air
and words seemed to offer a vague expression to the dull lowering
animal emotion of the savage concourse, and at the end of the second
verse the refrain, augmented in volume and swelled by every voice in
the camp, swept out over the hollow plain.
It was met in the distance by a far-off cry. With an oath taking the
place of his supplication, the leader sprang to his feet. But too late!
The cry was repeated as a nearer slogan of defiance—the plain
shook—there was the tempestuous onset of furious hoofs—a
dozen shots—the scattering of the embers of the camp-fire into a
thousand vanishing sparks even as the lurid gathering of savage
humanity was dispersed and dissipated over the plain, and Gideon and
the prisoner stood alone. But as the sheriff of Contra Costa with his
rescuing posse swept by, the man they had come to save fell forward in
Gideon's arms with a bullet in his breast—the Parthian shot of
the flying Vigilante leader.
The eager crowd that surged around him with outstretched helping
hands would have hustled Gideon aside. But the wounded man roused
himself, and throwing an arm around the young preacher's neck, warned
them back with the other. "Stand back!" he gasped. "He risked his life
for mine! Look at him, boys! Wanted ter stand up 'twixt them hounds and
me and draw their fire on himself! Ain't he just hell?" he stopped; an
apologetic smile crossed his lips. "I clean forgot, pardner; but it's
all right. I said I was ready to go; and I am." His arm slipped from
Gideon's neck; he slid to the ground; he had fainted.
A dark, military-looking man pushed his way through the
crowd—the surgeon, one of the posse, accompanied by a younger man
fastidiously dressed. The former bent over the unconscious prisoner,
and tore open his shirt; the latter followed his movements with a flush
of anxious inquiry in his handsome, careless face. After a moment's
pause the surgeon, without looking up, answered the young man's mute
questioning. "Better send the sheriff here at once, Jack."
"He is here," responded the official, joining the group.
The surgeon looked up at him. "I am afraid they've put the case out
of your jurisdiction, Sheriff," he said grimly. "It's only a matter of
a day or two at best—perhaps only a few hours. But he won't live
to be taken back to jail."
"Will he live to go as far as Martinez?" asked the young man
addressed as Jack.
"With care, perhaps."
"Will you be responsible for him, Jack Hamlin?" said the sheriff,
"Then take him. Stay, he's coming to."
The wounded man slowly opened his eyes. They fell upon Jack Hamlin
with a pleased look of recognition, but almost instantly and anxiously
glanced around as if seeking another. Leaning over him, Jack said
gayly, "They've passed you over to me, old man; are you willing?"
The wounded man's eyes assented, but still moved restlessly from
side to side.
"Is there any one you want to go with you?"
"Yes," said the eyes.
"The doctor, of course?"
The eyes did not answer. Gideon dropped on his knees beside him. A
ray of light flashed in the helpless man's eyes and transfigured his
"You want HIM?" said Jack incredulously.
"Yes," said the eyes.
The lips struggled to speak. Everybody bent down to hear his
"You bet," he said faintly.
It was early morning when the wagon containing the wounded man,
Gideon, Jack Hamlin, and the surgeon crept slowly through the streets
of Martinez and stopped before the door of the "Palmetto Shades." The
upper floor of this saloon and hostelry was occupied by Mr. Hamlin as
his private lodgings, and was fitted up with the usual luxury and more
than the usual fastidiousness of his extravagant class. As the dusty
and travel-worn party trod the soft carpets and brushed aside their
silken hangings in their slow progress with their helpless burden to
the lace-canopied and snowy couch of the young gambler, it seemed
almost a profanation of some feminine seclusion. Gideon, to whom such
luxury was unknown, was profoundly troubled. The voluptuous ease and
sensuousness, the refinements of a life of irresponsible indulgence,
affected him with a physical terror to which in his late moment of real
peril he had been a stranger; the gilding and mirrors blinded his eyes;
even the faint perfume seemed to him an unhallowed incense, and turned
him sick and giddy. Accustomed as he had been to disease and misery in
its humblest places and meanest surroundings, the wounded desperado
lying in laces and fine linen seemed to him monstrous and unnatural. It
required all his self-abnegation, all his sense of duty, all his deep
pity, and all the instinctive tact which was born of his gentle
thoughtfulness for others, to repress a shrinking. But when the
miserable cause of all again opened his eyes and sought Gideon's hand,
he forgot it all. Happily, Hamlin, who had been watching him with
wondering but critical eyes, mistook his concern. "Don't you worry
about that gin-mill and hash- gymnasium downstairs," he said. "I've
given the proprietor a thousand dollars to shut up shop as long as this
thing lasts." That this was done from some delicate sense of respect to
the preacher's domiciliary presence, and not entirely to secure
complete quiet and seclusion for the invalid, was evident from the fact
that Mr. Hamlin's drawing and dining rooms, and even the hall, were
filled with eager friends and inquirers. It was discomposing to Gideon
to find himself almost an equal subject of interest and curiosity to
the visitors. The story of his simple devotion had lost nothing by
report; hats were doffed in his presence that might have grown to their
wearers' heads; the boldest eyes dropped as he passed by; he had only
to put his pale face out of the bedroom door and the loudest
discussion, heated by drink or affection, fell to a whisper. The
surgeon, who had recognized the one dominant wish of the hopelessly
sinking man, gravely retired, leaving Gideon a few simple instructions
and directions for their use. "He'll last as long as he has need of
you," he said respectfully. "My art is only second here. God help you
both! When he wakes, make the most of your time."
In a few moments he did waken, and as before turned his fading look
almost instinctively on the faithful, gentle eyes that were watching
him. How Gideon made the most of his time did not transpire, but at the
end of an hour, when the dying man had again lapsed into
unconsciousness, he softly opened the door of the sitting-room.
Hamlin started hastily to his feet. He had cleared the room of his
visitors, and was alone. He turned a moment towards the window before
he faced Gideon with inquiring but curiously-shining eyes.
"Well?" he said, hesitatingly.
"Do you know Kate Somers?" asked Gideon.
Hamlin opened his brown eyes. "Yes."
"Can you send for her?"
"To marry him," said Gideon, gently. "There's no time to lose."
"To MARRY him?"
"He wishes it."
"But say—oh, come, now," said Hamlin confidentially, leaning
back with his hands on the top of a chair. "Ain't this playing it a
little—just a LITTLE—too low down? Of course you mean well,
and all that; but come, now, say—couldn't you just let up on him
there? Why, she"—Hamlin softly closed the door—"she's got
"The more reason he should give her one."
A cynical knowledge of matrimony imparted to him by the wives of
others evidently colored Mr. Hamlin's views. "Well, perhaps it's all
the same if he's going to die. But isn't it rather rough on HER? I
don't know," he added, reflectively; "she was sniveling round here a
little while ago, until I sent her away."
"You sent her away!" echoed Gideon.
"Because YOU were here."
Nevertheless Mr. Hamlin departed, and in half an hour reappeared
with two brilliantly dressed women. One, hysterical, tearful,
frightened, and pallid, was the destined bride; the other, highly
colored, excited, and pleasedly observant, was her friend. Two men
hastily summoned from the anteroom as witnesses completed the group
that moved into the bedroom and gathered round the bed.
The ceremony was simple and brief. It was well, for of all who took
part in it none was more shaken by emotion than the officiating priest.
The brilliant dresses of the women, the contrast of their painted faces
with the waxen pallor of the dying man; the terrible incongruity of
their voices, inflections, expressions, and familiarity; the mingled
perfume of cosmetics and the faint odor of wine; the eyes of the
younger woman following his movements with strange absorption, so
affected him that he was glad when he could fall on his knees at last
and bury his face in the pillow of the sufferer. The hand that had been
placed in the bride's cold fingers slipped from them and mechanically
sought Gideon's again. The significance of the unconscious act brought
the first spontaneous tears into the woman's eyes. It was his last act,
for when Gideon's voice was again lifted in prayer, the spirit for whom
it was offered had risen with it, as it were, still lovingly hand in
hand, from the earth forever.
The funeral was arranged for two days later, and Gideon found that
his services had been so seriously yet so humbly counted upon by the
friends of the dead man that he could scarce find it in his heart to
tell them that it was the function of the local preacher— an
older and more experienced man than himself. "If it is," said Jack
Hamlin, coolly, "I'm afraid he won't get a yaller dog to come to his
church; but if you say you'll preach at the grave, there ain't a man,
woman, or child that will be kept away. Don't you go back on your luck,
now; it's something awful and nigger-like. You've got this crowd where
the hair is short; excuse me, but it's so. Talk of revivals! You could
give that one-horse show in Tasajara a hundred points, and skunk them
easily." Indeed, had Gideon been accessible to vanity, the spontaneous
homage he met with everywhere would have touched him more
sympathetically and kindly than it did; but in the utter
unconsciousness of his own power and the quality they worshiped in him,
he felt alarmed and impatient of what he believed to be their weak
sympathy with his own human weakness. In the depth of his unselfish
heart, lit, it must be confessed, only by the scant, inefficient lamp
of his youthful experience, he really believed he had failed in his
apostolic mission because he had been unable to touch the hearts of the
Vigilantes by oral appeal and argument. Feeling thus the reverence of
these irreligious people that surrounded him, the facile yielding of
their habits and prejudices to his half-uttered wish, appeared to him
only a temptation of the flesh. No one had sought him after the manner
of the camp-meeting; he had converted the wounded man through a common
weakness of their humanity. More than that, he was conscious of a
growing fascination for the truthfulness and sincerity of that class;
particularly of Mr. Jack Hamlin, whose conversion he felt he could
never attempt, yet whose strange friendship alternately thrilled and
It was the evening before the funeral. The coffin, half smothered in
wreaths and flowers, stood upon trestles in the anteroom; a large
silver plate bearing an inscription on which for the second time Gideon
read the name of the man he had converted. It was a name associated on
the frontier so often with reckless hardihood, dissipation, and blood,
that even now Gideon trembled at his presumption, and was chilled by a
momentary doubt of the efficiency of his labor. Drawing unconsciously
nearer to the mute subject of his thoughts, he threw his arms across
the coffin and buried his face between them.
A stream of soft music, the echo of some forgotten song, seemed to
Gideon to suddenly fill and possess the darkened room, and then to
slowly die away, like the opening and shutting of a door upon a flood
of golden radiance. He listened with hushed breath and a beating heart.
He had never heard anything like it before. Again the strain arose, the
chords swelled round him, until from their midst a tenor voice broke
high and steadfast, like a star in troubled skies. Gideon scarcely
breathed. It was a hymn—but such a hymn. He had never conceived
there could be such beautiful words, joined to such exquisite melody,
and sung with a grace so tender and true. What were all other hymns to
this ineffable yearning for light, for love, and for infinite rest?
Thrilled and exalted, Gideon felt his doubts pierced and scattered by
that illuminating cry. Suddenly he rose, and with a troubled thought
pushed open the door to the sitting-room. It was Mr. Jack Hamlin
sitting before a parlor organ. The music ceased.
"It was YOU," stammered Gideon.
Jack nodded, struck a few chords by way of finish, and then wheeled
round on the music-stool towards Gideon. His face was slightly flushed.
"Yes. I used to be the organist and tenor in our church in the States.
I used to snatch the sinners bald-headed with that. Do you know I
reckon I'll sing that to-morrow, if you like, and maybe afterwards
we'll—but"—he stopped—"we'll talk of that after the
funeral. It's business." Seeing Gideon still glancing with a troubled
air from the organ to himself, he said: "Would you like to try that
hymn with me? Come on!"
He again struck the chords. As the whole room seemed to throb with
the music, Gideon felt himself again carried away. Glancing over Jack's
shoulders, he could read the words but not the notes; yet, having a
quick ear for rhythm, he presently joined in with a deep but
uncultivated baritone. Together they forgot everything else, and at the
end of an hour were only recalled by the presence of a silently
admiring concourse of votive-offering friends who had gathered round
The funeral took place the next day at the grave dug in the public
cemetery—a green area fenced in by the palisading tules. The
words of Gideon were brief but humble; the strongest partisan of the
dead man could find no fault in a confession of human frailty in which
the speaker humbly confessed his share; and when the hymn was started
by Hamlin and taken up by Gideon, the vast multitude, drawn by interest
and curiosity, joined as in a solemn Amen.
Later, when those two strangely-assorted friends had returned to Mr.
Hamlin's rooms previous to Gideon's departure, the former, in a manner
more serious than his habitual cynical good-humor, began: "I said I had
to talk business with you. The boys about here want to build a church
for you, and are ready to plank the money down if you'll say it's a go.
You understand they aren't asking you to run in opposition to that
Gospel sharp—excuse me—that's here now, nor do they want
you to run a side show in connection with it. They want you to be
independent. They don't pin you down to any kind of religion, you know;
whatever you care to give them—Methodist, Roman Catholic,
Presbyterian—-is mighty good enough for them, if you'll expound
it. You might give a little of each, or one on one day and one
another—they'll never know the difference if you only mix the
drinks yourself. They'll give you a house and guarantee you fifteen
hundred dollars the first year."
He stopped and walked towards the window. The sunlight that fell
upon his handsome face seemed to call back the careless smile to his
lips and the reckless fire to his brown eyes. "I don't suppose there's
a man among them that wouldn't tell you all this in a great deal better
way than I do. But the darned fools—excuse me—would have ME
break it to you. Why, I don't know. I needn't tell you I like
you—not only for what you did for George—but I like you for
your style—for yourself. And I want you to accept. You could keep
these rooms till they got a house ready for you. Together— you
and me—we'd make that organ howl. But because I like it—
because it's everything to us—and nothing to you, it don't seem
square for me to ask it. Does it?"
Gideon replied by taking Hamlin's hand. His face was perfectly pale,
but his look collected. He had not expected this offer, and yet when it
was made he felt as if he had known it before—as if he had been
warned of it—as if it was the great temptation of his life.
Watching him with an earnestness only slightly overlaid by his usual
manner, Hamlin went on.
"I know it would be lonely here, and a man like you ought to have a
wife for—" he slightly lifted his eyebrows—"for example's
sake. I heard there was a young lady in the case over there in
Tasajara— but the old people didn't see it on account of your
position. They'd jump at it now. Eh? No? Well," continued Jack, with a
decent attempt to conceal his cynical relief, "perhaps those boys have
been so eager to find out all they could do for you that they've been
sold. Perhaps we're making equal fools of ourselves now in asking you
to stay. But don't say no just yet—take a day or a week to think
Gideon still pale but calm, cast his eyes around the elegant room,
at the magic organ, then upon the slight handsome figure before him. "I
WILL think of it," he said, in a low voice, as he pressed Jack's hand.
"And if I accept you will find me here to-morrow afternoon at this
time; if I do not you will know that I keep with me wherever I go the
kindness, the brotherly love, and the grace of God that prompts your
offer, even though He withholds from me His blessed light, which alone
can make me know His wish." He stopped and hesitated. "If you love me,
Jack, don't ask me to stay, but pray for that light which alone can
guide my feet back to you, or take me hence for ever."
He once more tightly pressed the hand of the embarrassed man before
him and was gone.
Passers-by on the Martinez road that night remembered a mute and
ghostly rider who, heedless of hail or greeting, moved by them as in a
trance or vision. But the Widow Hiler the next morning, coming from the
spring, found no abstraction or preoccupation in the soft eyes of
Gideon Deane as he suddenly appeared before her, and gently relieved
her of the bucket she was carrying. A quick flash of color over her
brow and cheek-bone, as if a hot iron had passed there, and a certain
astringent coyness, would have embarrassed any other man than him.
"Sho, it's YOU. I reck'ned I'd seen the last of you."
"You don't mean that, Sister Hiler?" said Gideon, with a gentle
"Well, what with the report of your goin's on at Martinez and
improvin' the occasion of that sinner's death, and leadin' a revival, I
reckoned you'ld hev forgotten low folks at Tasajara. And if your goin'
to be settled there in a new church, with new hearers, I reckon you'll
want new surroundings too. Things change and young folks change with
They had reached the house. Her breath was quick and short as if she
and not Gideon had borne the burden. He placed the bucket in its
accustomed place, and then gently took her hand in his. The act
precipitated the last drop of feeble coquetry she had retained, and the
old tears took its place. Let us hope for the last time. For as Gideon
stooped and lifted her ailing babe in his strong arms, he said softly,
"Whatever God has wrought for me since we parted, I know now He has
called me to but one work."
"And that work?" she asked, tremulously.
"To watch over the widow and fatherless. And with God's blessing,
sister, and His holy ordinance, I am here to stay."