Just a Girl
The Table of Contents has been created by the Transcriber.
The original text deliberately leaves a space after a dash (a spaced mdash)in some dialog, and capitalizes the following word, when it describesa disjointed thought. For example ‘isn’t it— Is this all’, incontrast to ‘Is—is the place’. This spaced mdash is retained inthe etext.
Some minor changes to the text are noted at the end of the book.
JUST A GIRL
By CHARLES GARVICE
GROSSET & DUNLAP
PUBLISHERS . . . NEW YORK
Copyright 1895, by George Munro’s Sons.
JUST A GIRL.
There was really a lovely row on at Dan MacGrath’sEldorado Saloon in Three Star Camp.
The saloon, a long and narrow room, built of rough, feather-edgedboards and decorated with scraps of turkey-red cottonand cheap calico lining, with occasional portraits of localcelebrities rudely drawn in charcoal, was well filled with thecrew of miners and camp followers which made up the populationof Three Star Camp—Three Star, it is needless toexplain, after the well-known legend on the brandy bottles.
At one end of the saloon was a drinking-bar, at the other acard-table; in the center a billiard-table, spotted with candlegrease and stained with the rims and bottoms of wet glasses.Men were lounging at the bar or playing a noisy game atpool, or gathered round the faro-table, over which presidedMr. Varley Howard, the professional gambler of Three Starand other camps.
Whether the really lovely row commenced at the bar, beganat the billiard-table or originated at the faro, it would be difficultto say; rows sprung up very quickly at Three Star Campat all times, but especially at this season, when the weatherwas disgustingly hot and everybody feverish and overstrained.
Rows not only began with great facility, but spread withmarvelous ease and rapidity. You had only to refuse a drink;to take up somebody’s glass; to push against a man accidentally;to observe that it was cooler than yesterday, when theman you addressed happened to be particularly hot; or towear a tall hat—an article of attire held in special detestationby the whole of Three Star, and only permitted to Mr. VarleyHoward as a special recognition of his peculiar qualities asa gambler, a man of fashion, and the promptest and deadliestshot in the district—to raise a shindy directly. On this nightthe row was generally welcomed, for everybody felt blasé andbored and thirsting for any excitement to relieve the dullmonotony of an existence in which bad luck and the perpetualheat fought for predominance.
So it was with cheerful alacrity that the men gathered roundthe two who were credited with starting the shindy, and pulledout revolvers and bowie-knives for the free fight which everybodyknew would set in with the usual severity.
Varley Howard was the only man who did not rise. Heleaned back in his chair and passed his white hand over hispale, unwrinkled brow and smoothed his black, gray-streakedhair with a gesture and manner of languid indifference. Hisrevolver lay on the table beside a new pack of cards and readyto his hand if he should need it; but it would not amuse himto kill any one, and it was not very likely that any one of thedesperadoes, however excited, would desire to kill him. Ashe leaned back and turned the diamond ring on his finger, hehummed an air from “Olivette” and looked on at the rowdyscene through half-closed eyes.
Shots were fired, knives gleamed in the light of the hangingparaffine-lamp, two or three men were carried out, severalothers leaned against the wall stanching more or less seriouswounds; Dan MacGrath himself stood behind the bar,revolver in one hand, a bottle of his famous—some called it“infamous”—whisky in the other. Every now and then,as a stray bullet came his way, he ducked his head, but alwaysclung to the revolver and the bottle, as if they were theemblems of defense and conciliation: if the fight continuedhe might want the one, if it continued, or ended, his customerswould certainly want the other.
When the row was at its height, a man came in at thedoor—an oldish man, with a grizzled beard and a face scarredand seamed by weather and a long series of conflicts with manand beast. He held a bundle in his arms, and as he enteredhe put it under his coat and turned sideways, as if to protect itfrom the various missiles which were hurtling through thetobacco-laden air.
“Stop it, boys!” he shouted in a leather-lunged voice.“Stop it, or some of you will be plugging Her Majesty’smail.”
He was the Three Star postman.
At the sound of his voice the row ceased as if by magic.Men stuck their revolvers and knives in their belts and turnedtoward him, as if there had never been any fight going on atall.
He strode up to the faro-table, and still with his bundleunder his arm, took a leather wallet from a side-pocket andflung it on the table.
The men flocked around with cries of “Got anything forme, Bill?” “Hand out that check I’ve been waiting for!”“Got a message for me, Willyum?” and so on; most of themin accents of simulated indifference or burlesque anxiety.
He dealt out the letters with a remark more or less facetiousaccompanying each; then, when the distribution wascomplete, placed the bundle gingerly on the table in front ofVarley Howard.
“What have you got there, William?” asked that gentlemanin the soft and low and musical voice which was one ofhis most dangerous fascinations.
The other men looked up from their letters and stared atthe bundle, a soft something wrapped in an old mail-bag.
“Who have you been robbing now, Bill?” inquired one.
“It’s a new dress he lifted from the store at Dog’s EarCamp for his missis,” suggested a humorist.
Bill twisted his huge mouth into a smile.
“Guess again,” he said, “though you wouldn’t hit it ifyou tried all night. Hands off!” he added, as one of themmade for the bundle. “What do you say, Varley?”
Varley Howard shrugged his shoulders and took up a packof cards.
“Take the child home to its mother,” he said.
Bill smacked the table noiselessly, and eyed Varley Howardwith admiration.
“Right the first time, Mr. Howard!” he said. “There’sno getting a rise out of you.”
He opened the old mail-sack as he spoke, and disclosed tothe gaze of the astonished crowd a little child. It wasasleep, and as peacefully and soundly as if it were in a satin-linedcradle.
“Why, it is a kid!” exclaimed one, as the men pressedround closer and stared at the sleeping child.
Questions were hurled at Bill’s head from every direction.
“Where did you get it?” “Is it a boy or a girl?”“How old is it?” “Can it walk?” “Can it talk?”“What’s the color of its eyes?” “Just take it out of thatdarned old bag and let’s have a look at it!”
But though the questions were numerous and graphic, thetones in which they were uttered were subdued and hushed;for a child of tender years was a novelty at Three Star Camp,and produced a curious effect upon the rough men. Some ofthem had not seen a child for years; some of them had leftjust such a baby in England; some of them had stood besidea grave about the size of this bundle. Their faces softenedand grew serious as they looked down at it.
Bill the postman glanced round with an air of triumph andsatisfaction.
“If any of yer had got a spark of human kindness insideyer hides, you’d offer a man a drink,” he remarked in a voiceof suggestive huskiness.
A dozen men started for the bar, and one secured somewhisky and thrust it into Bill’s hand.
“Drink it and start on your tale, you blank old fraud!” hesaid. “Where did you get the kid?”
Bill drank his whisky with aggravating slowness, and, stoopingdown, wiped his mouth on a corner of the mail-sack withstill more exasperating elaboration.
“It’s this way,” he said at last. “I was about threemile from Dog’s Ear when I see something lying in the road.I was near lying in the road myself, for that darned mare ofmine shied as if she had seen the ghost of a hay-stack. Igot down, and ther’ was a woman lying full length, with herface turned up as if she was asleep. She was as dead as aherring. Underneath her shawl, and lyin’ couldbe, was this here young ’un.”
He paused and looked round to enjoy the effect of hisstory.
“How the woman come there, and what she’s died of, I’mblamed if I know; but there she was, and there she is now.I wrapped the kid in this yere old sack and brought it on.It’s true there ain’t no direction on it, and I suppose it’s myduty to return it to the Dead-Letter office, till it’s claimed bythe rightful owner.”
He smiled at the feeble joke, and one or two of the menlaughed, but in a subdued way. Even their rough natureswere touched by the presence of the motherless child lying soplacidly, so unconscious of its loss, on the stained and batteredgambling-table.
One of the men cursed the Dead-Letter office.
“It’s yours, Bill,” he said; “leastways, till somebody upand claims it.”
“What’s the good of it to me?” demanded Bill. “I ain’tgot no missis to look after it, and I’d look pretty carrying alive infant in front of me on the mare! I’d best take herback to Dog’s Ear, for I reckon that’s where her mother’dcome from.”
“Oh, it’s a ‘her’?” said one.
“It are,” said Bill, sententiously.
“You’ve no evidence to prove that the woman came fromDog’s Ear,” remarked, with a judicial air, the lawyer of thecamp. “Did you find any papers on her?”
“I didn’t find anything but this,” replied Bill, nodding atthe child. “I didn’t look. I was late a’ready. There maybe papers, or there mayn’t be.”
There was a pause, then Varley Howard said in his slow,languid voice:
“Let three or four of the men go and bring the womanhere.”
His leadership was never disputed, and four men started toobey him, carrying for a bier the top of a table from whichthey had knocked off the rickety legs.
“Meanwhile,” said Dan MacGrath, “what’s to be donewith the kid?”
The question, though addressed generally, was answered byVarley Howard.
“Send for one of the women,” he said.
The female sex were in a minority at Three Star; therewere only three women in the camp. After a conference,conducted in eager but hushed tones, an old woman, whowent by the name of Mother Melinda—though why “Mother”and why “Melinda” no one knew—was chosen and sent for.
She arrived, and at once took possession of the child, andby her gentle handling of it, and the tender smile with whichshe viewed it as she pressed it against her battered old heart,proved her right to the maternal title. When she had disappearedwith the orphan, the saloon resumed its business; butthe men drank and played in a half-hearted way and with anair of expectancy, and when the four men returned, the crowdcollected round them with eager curiosity. They had takenthe woman to Mother