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Gentleman Dick by W. Mackay Laffan

 

They had, all of them, nicknames themselves, for in a Colorado mining-community it was not difficult to acquire a title, and they called him Gentleman Dick. It was rather an odd name, to be sure, but it was very expressive, and conveyed much of the prevailing opinion and estimate of its owner. They laughed when he expressed a desire to join the party in Denver, and Old Platte looked at his long, delicate hands, so like a woman's, with a smile of rough, good-humored pity, mingled, perhaps, with a shade of contempt for the habits and occupation that had engendered such apparent effeminacy. But he pleaded so earnestly and talked with such quiet energy and confidence of what he could and would do, and moreover had about him so much of that spirit of subdued bonhomie that always captivates the roughest of the rough, that they relented, took his money and put it in the "pot," and informed him that he was one of them. Their decision was not altogether unconnected with the fact that he had given evidence of considerable surgical skill in his treatment of Mr. Woods, more familiarly known as "Short-card William," who had been shot a week or so previously over a game of poker by an independent bull-whacker whom he had attempted to defraud. The sense of the community had sustained the act; and while the exhibition of his skill in dealing was universally condemned as having been indiscreet under the circumstances, still he was accounted a live man among them, and the discovery of a surgeon to dress his wound was hailed with a somewhat general feeling of relief. Had it not been for the fact that the sobriquet of Gentleman Dick was already conferred and accepted universally as his name, he certainly would not have escaped that of "Doctor," and as it was, Mr. Woods, who was profuse as well as profane in his gratitude, insisted upon so calling him. A doctor, or anything bearing even a resemblance to a member of that sadly-represented profession, was regarded with a certain degree of reverence among a community whose peculiar habits often gave rise to pressing and immediate need of surgical attendance. Consequently, Gentleman Dick rapidly attained an elevated position in their regard, and became a great favorite with Old Platte's party, although they still looked doubtfully at his slender figure and felt "kind o' bothered" by the air of gentility and good-breeding which hung around him in spite of the rough miner's garments that he had chosen to assume. By the time they left Denver for the Blue he was deemed as indispensable to the company as Old Platte himself.


The forest of dark pines and firs that covered both sides of the valley of the Blue grew down to the bars of the river, which along its banks was thickly grown with wild gooseberry and raspberry bushes, and piled up here and there with great tangled heaps of driftwood which the spring floods brought down and left in masses of inextricable confusion along its sides. Back a little distance from one of these sandy flats, and nestled right in the shadow of the forest's edge, they built a long rough cabin early in June. In summer-time the spot was a wild and picturesque one. Green and luxuriant vegetation made a soft and brilliant carpet at the feet of the stately old pines; huge boulder-like rocks, their edges softened and rounded in the grasp of one of Agassiz' pre-Adamite glaciers that had ground its icy way down from the melting snow-caps above—rocks covered with bright lichens and tufts of moss—- lay piled on one another at the foot of the steep mountain-side; while gnarled cedars twisted around about them, their rough red roots twining here and there in search of sustenance. Below the cabin a little way lay the bar—Chihuahua Bar they had christened it, out of deference to "Jones of Chihuahua," whose prospecting-pan had developed the fact that gold in promising quantities lay beneath it—and a little farther on the Blue sang merrily in its gravelly bed. Down the river, about two miles, was Blue Bar, where about two hundred miners had formed a settlement, and where a red-headed Scotchman, who combined the duties of a self-constituted postmaster with the dispensation of a villainous article of whisky, kept a lively grocery and provision store.

During the early part of the season they had prospected up along the river, finding gold all the way, but not in quantities sufficiently large to warrant working. At the place, however, which they subsequently named Chihuahua (pronounced in the vernacular Chee-waw-waw) the perspicacious Jones had given it as his opinion, formed after mature deliberation and a sapient examination of some two or three shovelsful of dirt, that there was a satisfactory "color in that ar bank." Some hard work of about a week demonstrated that there were excellent diggings there, and then work was commenced upon it in good earnest. The cabin was built, Gentleman Dick's choice of location being unanimously approved; two or three trips were made across the "Range" to the nearest settlement for materials and provisions; and then the real labor began. As they cut through the heavy bank of mould and gravel, gradually eating a long trench to the bed-rock, prospects grew better and better. At last, one day a narrow ledge of brittle, shaly rock came in view, covered with a coating of thick, heavy yellow mud, of which Old Platte gathered a panful and betook himself down to the river-side. A war-whoop from the direction in which he had disappeared came ringing through the gooseberry bushes to their ears, and with a responsive yell and a simultaneous dropping of shovels and picks they all dashed off to his side. He was discovered in a condition of great excitement, dancing wildly round the pan, in the bottom of which about half a teaspoonful of coarse yellow nuggets were shining among the black sand. It was a grand prospect, and with the exception of Gentleman Dick, whose exultation was of a very mild and reserved order, the proprietors of the Chihuahua Claim behaved in a very undignified and unseemly way; Thompson and Jones organizing an impromptu sparring-match, and Old Platte standing indecorously on his head in a neighboring clump of bushes. Sundry war-whoops and divers indications of activity showed that work of a very lively and energetic character was being prosecuted that afternoon on the bar; and when the sun sunk to rest behind the purple mountains, and the blue mists of evening rose in the valley, they had their sluice-boxes and "riffles" in order, and were ready to commence washing at sunrise.

It did not take very long to clean the ledge, and early in the afternoon the water was shut off. When it was found that the "riffles" yielded thirteen ounces of gold that would coin eighteen dollars and a half to the ounce, a firm conviction seemed to settle upon the camp that this was an occasion which it would be improper to pass over without a thorough and practical acknowledgment of its importance in the shape of a regular celebration. The gold was weighed and divided, all sitting in a circle in the middle of the cabin floor, while Old Platte officiated at the scales with all the gravity and dignity which the responsible position called for.

Mr. McNab's grocery and post-office at Blue Bar was the scene of much excitement and noisy revelry that evening and all the next day while the gold lasted. Miners who had heard of the Chihuahua "streak" flocked up to Blue Bar to get the particulars, and naturally joined in the general feeling of exultation and hilarity that seemed to pervade that community. Old Platte got terribly drunk, and Thompson and Jones developed the strangest eccentricities of gait, manner and speech, and finally subsided into a deep slumber in the dust and sand of the main thoroughfare of the Bar. Gentleman Dick's absence from the festivities was not noticed that evening, but the next day Thompson, who seemed to feel aggrieved on the subject, announced his intention of going up to Chihuahua to fetch him down. He left Mr. McNab's on his charitable mission armed with a bottle of rum, and proceeded up the creek in a condition of moderate intoxication. That he was somewhat sobered on his arrival at the cabin was perhaps due to the fact that the cork was fixed very firmly in the neck of his bottle: at any rate, he did not ask his friend to drink when he found him.

Gentleman Dick had just directed and sealed a letter, and was about to start for the settlement of Gold Dirt, when Thompson loomed up unsteadily in the doorway, surveyed him inquiringly for a moment and asked undecidedly and apologetically, "Wass' up? W'ere you goin'?"

Gentleman Dick, apparently overlooking his somewhat dubious condition, told him he had been writing a letter to some one who lived in the States: he was going to Gold Dirt to mail it, and a ring of Blue Creek gold was to accompany it to its destination. Thompson said no more, but stood there in the doorway with McNab's rum under his arm. He did not stir, nor did he seem to notice the "good-bye" that came down the winding trail through the pines, but remained there stolid and immovable, gazing vacantly at the writing-paper on the rough table. Suddenly he straightened himself up to his full height, and taking the bottle from under his arm, held it out at arm's length and apostrophized it in terms which Mr. McNab would have regarded as a personal insult, and which the community on the Blue might possibly have resented with a challenge to mortal combat. His next step, had they witnessed it, would certainly have led to the conclusion that he was a dangerous lunatic, and one, at that, whose peculiar madness was of a kind specially objectionable to the residents of Blue Bar. He placed the object toward which his feelings had undergone so sudden a revulsion carefully on the ground, and seizing in his hands a huge boulder, he proceeded to let it drop accurately upon it. He oscillated critically over the fragments, as if to assure himself that the result had been satisfactorily attained, and then strode rapidly and unsteadily into the forest. How such unsound principles of economy came to be adopted by him never very clearly appeared; and the problem of his absence from camp for two whole days, and his subsequent reform upon the subject of whisky, were matters very freely discussed at McNab's hut, without any definite or reliable result being arrived at.


Summer had melted imperceptibly into autumn; and the bright tints that glittered on the mountain-slopes and through the sturdy undergrowth of the forest told that it in its turn was soon to give way to winter. Chihuahua Bar was piled with great heaps of boulders and gravel, furrowed here and there with deep ditches and trenches, and otherwise gave ample evidence of the hard work that had been done. But, as Old Platte, remarked, "The luck was down on them," and the partners had very little to show for their long months of toil. Gentleman Dick had worked as hard and earnestly as the others, and had never been known to utter a word of complaint through the many hardships and mishaps they endured. But a great change had come over him. No one who saw him when he joined the party in Denver would have ventured to call him strong or robust, but, delicate as he was then, he was now a mere shadow by comparison. The change had been more marked and rapid during the last few weeks. He had seemed to fade gradually away, growing daily weaker and weaker, until at last a knowledge of his increasing debility forced itself upon the not very observant faculties of his companions—coming rather as a sense of indefinable uneasiness on his behalf than any actual apprehension of his real condition. His great expressive eyes shone out with an unnatural brilliancy from his pale, sunken cheeks, and a deeper shade of melancholy seemed settling on his naturally thoughtful face. Thompson probably noticed it more than anybody else, but said nothing, while Old Platte and Jones exchanged ideas on the subject with a sort of puzzled anxiety, mingled, it might be, with some genuine alarm. They noticed that the work began to fatigue him more and more, and that he often had to pause in the middle of it weary and exhausted.

At last, one day, about the first of November, he remained in his bunk in the cabin, unable to come down to the claim. In their rough, uncouth way they pitied him, and would have given anything they could command to be able to relieve him. But they seemed instinctively to feel that his case was something out of their reach, and with the exception of a weak suggestion from Jones, that he should try some of "them ar antibilious pills as he had in his box," no course of medical treatment was contemplated. Besides, was he not himself a doctor? and if he could do nothing, what should they be able to effect? The argument was sufficiently conclusive; at least, Jones accepted it as such, and retired in some confusion, comforting himself by the perusal of the label on his box of pills, which really seemed to justify the suggestion he had made. Twice after this, on days when the warm sunshine tempted him out of doors, he came down to the claim and sat by the wheel and watched them working; but he never did any more work. He did not tell them he could not do it, or complain that he was too weak: it was tacitly understood that his share of the season's labor was over.

About the middle of November the winter stepped in in its sudden way and commenced to take possession of the valley of the Blue, and by the first of December the ice was so thick that the partners reluctantly stopped work. "Jones of Chihuahua" had expressed his determination of going south to Santa Fé, to stay until spring among the "Greasers," but Old Platte and Thompson would stay on the Blue for the winter, and to that end had laid in such provisions as were deemed necessary. The settlement below on the Bar had been abandoned early in November; and it was doubtful if a white man besides themselves could be found by its waters any nearer than the end of the Great Cañon of the Rio Colorado. But they cared very little for that, and looked forward to their voluntary hibernation without any feeling of apprehension on the score of loneliness. Both were hardy mountaineers. Thompson had been the first man that ever performed the feat of crossing the range at Grey's Peak in the middle of winter, with the aid of a pair of snow-shoes; and he and Old Platte knew that if their provisions gave out they could readily reach some of the Clear Creek diggings in the same way. So Jones strapped his belt of gold-dust around his waist and prepared to depart. He shook hands with the partners, and when Gentleman Dick, with a forced cheeriness of manner and with wishes for a pleasant winter in New Mexico, remarked, "Next spring the boys will give you a third of my share, Jones," he stoutly and earnestly repudiated the implied idea, but with a confusion and uncertainty of manner that indicated a serious doubt in the soundness of his own assertions.

Gentleman Dick released the big hand as he lay in his blankets, and said for the last time, "Good-bye, Jones."

"Good-bye, old man."

Jones strode away abruptly on his journey, and if the moisture about his eyes was in excess of what was required in their normal condition, it was probably due to the bracing and biting frostiness of the morning air.

And so they resigned themselves to their winter's prison on the Blue—Old Platte stolidly and contentedly, Thompson uneasily and restlessly, and Gentleman Dick peacefully and calmly, knowing full well that spring would never bloom again for him. Thus the December days flew by, growing colder and colder, and the snow-line crept gradually down the slopes of the range until it reached the edge of the timber, where it seemed to pause for a few days in its advance. It had already snowed several times in the valley, and the afternoon sun had always melted it away; but they knew by experience that it would soon come down in good earnest and cover everything up for the winter in a mantle of snow some six or seven feet deep. And as the days sped on Gentleman Dick grew paler and paler, and his bright eyes shone with a brighter lustre, while he seemed to be gradually slipping away, losing little by little his hold upon life. He was a mystery to his companions, for he had no disease that could be detected, and why he should sink thus without any apparent cause was more than they could understand.


The wind came roaring down the cañon in wild, fierce gusts; the dead, frost-hardened, brittle branches of the sturdy old pines rattled and cracked and broke as it swept by laden with glittering crystals, stolen from the range above, where it circled madly around the snowy peaks, and whirled away great winding-sheets of snow—fine, sleety snow, that filled the atmosphere with sharp prickly needles, that made their way inside Old Platte's rough woolen shirt as he chopped away at the woodpile, and made him shiver as they melted down his back. Everything was frozen hard and fast; the Blue was silent in its bed; stones and sticks adhered to the ground as if part and parcel of it, and each piece of wood in the pile that Old Platte was working at stood stiffly and firmly in its place. The wind, just before a snow-storm, always comes down the cañons in fierce premonitory gusts, and as it was desirable to get in a good stock of wood before the snow-drifts gathered around the cabin, Old Platte had been hacking manfully for some hours. The sun sunk low in the hollow of the hills to the westward while he was still working, and lit up with a cold yellow glare the snowy wastes and icy peaks of the mighty mountains that stood guard over the Blue. The whistling of the wind among the pines died gradually away, and the silence that seemed to fall with the deepening shadows was only broken by the ringing strokes of the axe and the crack of the splitting wood. When he ceased the valley had faded into darkness, and the range with its sharp outlines was only faintly discernible against the sombre gray pall that had overspread the sky.

He made a broad stack of logs by the fireplace and a larger one outside the door, and then stood by the threshold to take a look at the weather. A great soft feather of snow came sailing slowly down and nestled in his shaggy beard, and another fluttered on to the back of his hand. He looked up through the darkness and saw that it was already beginning to fall thickly, and then, with a self-satisfied glance of approval at his provident woodpile, went into the cabin and fastened the door.

Thompson had shot a fine argal or Rocky Mountain sheep that morning, and the broiled steaks were giving forth a most acceptable odor. He had tried to get Gentleman Dick to taste of a choice piece, but he shook his head wearily, as he had every time for some two weeks or more when proffered food. He could eat nothing, and lay there propped up on rough pillows, seeming scarcely conscious of their presence; his dreamy eyes, with lids half drooping, looking fixedly into the blazing fire. Even the coffee, civilized as it was by the addition of some patent condensed milk, and upon the manufacture of which Thompson had prided himself not a little, stood untouched by his bedside. Old Platte lit his pipe and dragged his three-legged stool into a corner of the wide chimney, and Thompson, after moving the things away to a corner, sat down opposite, mending his snow-shoes with a bundle of buckskin thongs. They did not talk much in that family of evenings: men of this class are not conversational in their habits, and a stranger who should look in would be apt to think them an unsocial set. Old Platte puffed steadily at his pipe, blinking and winking at the fire, which he poked occasionally with a stick or fed with a log of wood from the pile by his side. Thompson worked quietly with knife and awl at his dilapidated shoes, and the pale, patient face beyond still gazed dreamily into the fire. There were old scenes, doubtless, in among those burning logs—old familiar faces, dear memories of the past and weird fantastic visions pictured in the glowing coals. At last the eyes left the fire for a moment, resting on the two that sat by it, and he said, "Boys, it's Christmas Eve."

Thompson started, for he had not heard him speak with so much energy for weeks.

"Christmas Eve!" he repeated absently. "Christmas Eve, and to-morrow will be Christmas Day. Last Christmas was not like this: all was bright and fair, and she—"

The rest of the sentence was lost as he muttered it uneasily to himself and resumed his watching of the fire. Christmas Eve! So it was, but they had not thought of it. Christmas Eve! The name seemed out of place among those rocky fastnesses. What could the pines and the solitude, the snow and the ice, have in common with Christmas? Christmas Eve down in that desolate valley, in the quiet depths of the forest, away, miles away, from human habitation of any kind? Christmas Eve! It seemed absurd, but Christmas Eve it was nevertheless, there as everywhere else.

Old Platte took his blackened old pipe from between his lips and mechanically repeated the words. "Christmas Eve!" he half growled, as if some perplexing ideas had been called into existence by the suggestion, and his pipe went out as he listlessly shoved some stray coals back into the fire with his foot. But his meditations, to judge from his countenance, were neither interesting nor profitable. Probably his Christmases had never been passed in a way that was calculated to make them pleasingly conspicuous in the background of his life. Most of his early recollections were associated with a villainous roadside groggery in Pike county, Missouri, of which his father was the proprietor. Any questions relating to this parent and home he had been known to invariably evade, and whenever conversation tended in that direction he strenuously discouraged it. Why he did so never very clearly appeared. Some people who pretended to know used to say that the old gentleman had been doing a lively trade in horseflesh without going through the customary formalities of finance, and that some people with whom his dealings had been unsatisfactory, in consequence of this unbusinesslike habit of his, had called at his house one evening and invited him to walk out with them. The invitation was one he would have liked to decline, but extra inducements in the shape of the cold muzzle of a revolver pressed against his forehead and a low but determined "Dry up and come along!" caused him to put on his hat and step out. He was found next morning hanging from a branch of a neighboring tree with a brief but expressive obituary written in pencil on a scrap of paper and pinned on his coat: "Horse-thief! Jerry Moon and Scotty, take notice." Inasmuch as one of the latter individuals was the chief authority for the story, and had expedited his departure from Pike county in consequence of the intimation contained in the lines on the same bit of paper, it may be safely inferred that there was some foundation for the numerous stories of a similar nature that were in circulation. So Christmas spent as his had been had no particular interest for Old Platte, and was pretty much the same as any other kind of day upon which there would be an equally good excuse for stopping work and getting venomously drunk. At any rate, the memories that clung around that Pike county whisky-shop were none of the pleasantest or most gratifying; and with a grunt of general dissatisfaction he rekindled his pipe, put a couple of sticks on the fire and allowed his mind to slide off into a more congenial train of reflection.

To Thompson, Gentleman Dick's words had come as a sort of revelation. He knew well enough that Christmas came in December, and also upon what day of that month it fell, but of late the days had gone by so monotonously, and  had so little to distinguish them one from another, that he had kept no account of them, and had no idea that it was so near. Some indefinable influence that he could not account for had of late sent his mind groping into old and better channels, and consequently when he was reminded of the presence of Christmas he felt disposed to accord it a measure of consideration rather different from that with which several of its predecessors had met. Like Old Platte, he had regarded it as a good day to go on a "bust" and initiate a "drunk" of more or less duration, but just now he seemed as if inclined to take a different view of it. His eyes could take a clearer and healthier view of the past than he had for a long time had, and its old memories and scenes flocked up before him now, bright through the dim mist that time had cast over them, and fresher and sweeter than ever by contrast with the gloomy present. The snow-shoes slid from his lap and one by one the thongs of buckskins dropped upon the floor, as he leaned back in the corner of the broad chimney, his face resting upon his sinewy hand and his eyes looking through the fire into the world of the past.

Old Platte lay curled up in his bearskins and blankets fast asleep, but the other still sat by the fire in the same position—still dreamily thinking. How long he had sat there he did not know. The fire had sunk into a glowing heap of coals, fast changing into soft white ashes, on which now and then a melting snow-flake that had stolen down through the chimney would fall and disappear with a short angry sizz, and the shadows in the cabin were deep and dark. Suddenly it seemed to him in his dreaming that a voice called him by name, and he awoke from his reverie with a chill and a shudder and a sense of indefinable dread creeping over him—a dread of what, he could not tell. A handful of chips blazed up brightly and lit up the cabin with their flickering light as he turned nervously toward the patient, quiet face behind him. The eyes, shaded by the long black eyelashes, were still on the fire, and while he was confident that he had not been called, he was dimly conscious of a great change that had taken place. As he still looked anxiously at the faded features, the eyes left their long watching of the embers and were raised to meet his. He felt he was wanted, and was by his side in a moment: "How d'yer feel, old man?"

Gentleman Dick smiled as he laid his wasted fingers across the sturdy brown hand that leaned on the edge of his bunk, and turning with difficulty on his pillow, he said in a voice scarce above a whisper, "Thompson, old fellow, you and Platte have been kind, very kind, to me. I won't trouble you much more now. I'm going to say—good-bye to you; and—Thompson—I want you to do one little thing for me—when spring comes." He reached into a chink among the logs by his side and drew forth an envelope containing a few letters, a photograph of a woman's face, fair and tender, and a gold ring.

Thompson took it with a hand that shook as his rarely did.

"Send it soon—it's addressed and all—send it to her. Maybe she will be glad to know I am—gone—at last—out of her path—out of the way—and the world. She sent it back to me—would not have it—or me. Now—" Then his mind seemed to wander, and he rambled incoherently, repeating over and over again a name that sounded like that on the envelope. "You will do it, won't you, Thompson?" said he, rallying suddenly.

Thompson's voice was husky and thick as he answered impressively, "Damn me ef I don't!" adding mentally, as he glanced at the package, "Damn her skin, whoever she is! She's at the bottom of all this here business, you bet."

Gentleman Dick's lips moved as if he were speaking, and as Thompson leaned over him he could hear, in a broken whisper, "Gold—in old boot—under bed—Old Platte half."

He heard no more. The pressure of the wasted fingers relaxed, the weary head sunk slowly back on the pillow, and the tired eyelids drooped over the glazing eyes.

"Dick!" said Thompson—"Dick, old man!"

Too late. Away through the softly-falling snow, from the Blue with its stillness and solitude, from its heartaches and sorrows and troubles, the weary spirit had fled, and Gentleman Dick was at rest.


Spring had come again; the snow had melted from the valleys; the grass and the ferns and the green grass and bright lichens once more peeped out among the gray boulders and about the feet of the stately pines; and the Blue, freed from its wintry prison, sang merrily over the gravelly reaches. And as the miners flocked down that spring from over the range, they saw near by the Chihuahua Claim and the deserted cabin, in a square formed by four gigantic pines, a neatly-built cairn of boulders. One big gray boulder rested securely on top of all, and on it was hacked, in rough and simple letters, GENTLEMAN DICK.

W. MACKAY LAFFAN.