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CAPTAIN JIM'S FRIEND (2)

2006-09-07 20:38

    II. Three years had passed. The pioneer stage-coach was sweeping down the long descent to the pastoral valley of Gilead, and I was looking towards the village with some pardonable interest and anxiety. For I carried in my pocket my letters of promotion from the box seat of the coach——where I had performed the functions of treasure messenger for the Excelsior Express Company——to the resident agency of that company in the bucolic hamlet before me. The few dusty right-angled streets, with their rigid and staringly new shops and dwellings, the stern formality of one or two obelisk- like meeting-house spires, the illimitable outlying plains of wheat and wild oats beyond, with their monotony scarcely broken by skeleton stockades, corrals, and barrack-looking farm buildings, were all certainly unlike the unkempt freedom of the mountain fastnesses in which I had lately lived and moved. Yuba Bill, the driver, whose usual expression of humorous discontent deepened into scorn as he gathered up his reins as if to charge the village and recklessly sweep it from his path, indicated a huge, rambling, obtrusively glazed, and capital-lettered building with a contemptuous flick of his whip as we passed. "Ef you're kalkilatin' we'll get our partin' drink there you're mistaken. That's wot they call a TEMPERANCE HOUSE——wot means a place where the licker ye get underhand is only a trifle worse than the hash ye get above-board. I suppose it's part o' one o' the mysteries o' Providence that wharever you find a dusty hole like this——that's naturally THIRSTY——ye run agin a 'temperance' house. But never YOU mind! I shouldn't wonder if thar was a demijohn o' whiskey in the closet of your back office, kept thar by the feller you're relievin'——who was a white man and knew the ropes."

    A few minutes later, when my brief installation was over, we DID find the demijohn in the place indicated. As Yuba Bill wiped his mouth with the back of his heavy buckskin glove, he turned to me not unkindly. "I don't like to set ye agin Gile-ad, which is a scrip-too-rural place, and a God-fearin' place, and a nice dry place, and a place ez I've heard tell whar they grow beans and pertatoes and garden sass; but afore three weeks is over, old pard, you'll be howlin' to get back on that box seat with me, whar you uster sit, and be ready to take your chances agin, like a little man, to get drilled through with buckshot from road agents. You hear me! I'll give you three weeks, sonny, just three weeks, to get your butes full o' hayseed and straws in yer har; and I'll find ye wadin' the North Fork at high water to get out o' this." He shook my hand with grim tenderness, removing his glove——a rare favor——to give me the pressure of his large, soft, protecting palm, and strode away. The next moment he was shaking the white dust of Gilead from his scornful chariot-wheels.

    In the hope of familiarizing myself with the local interests of the community, I took up a copy of the "Gilead Guardian" which lay on my desk, forgetting for the moment the usual custom of the country press to displace local news for long editorials on foreign subjects and national politics. I found, to my disappointment, that the "Guardian" exhibited more than the usual dearth of domestic intelligence, although it was singularly oracular on "The State of Europe," and "Jeffersonian Democracy." A certain cheap assurance, a copy-book dogmatism, a colloquial familiarity, even in the impersonal plural, and a series of inaccuracies and blunders here and there, struck some old chord in my memory. I was mutely wondering where and when I had become personally familiar with rhetoric like that, when the door of the office opened and a man entered. I was surprised to recognize Captain Jim.

    I had not seen him since he had indignantly left us, three years before, in Eureka Gulch. The circumstances of his defection were certainly not conducive to any voluntary renewal of friendship on either side; and although, even as a former member of the Eureka Mining Company, I was not conscious of retaining any sense of injury, yet the whole occurrence flashed back upon me with awkward distinctness. To my relief, however, he greeted me with his old cordiality; to my amusement he added to it a suggestion of the large forgiveness of conscious rectitude and amiable toleration. I thought, however, I detected, as he glanced at the paper which was still in my hand and then back again at my face, the same uneasy canine resemblance I remembered of old. He had changed but little in appearance; perhaps he was a trifle stouter, more mature, and slower in his movements. If I may return to my canine illustration, his grayer, dustier, and more wiry ensemble gave me the impression that certain pastoral and agricultural conditions had varied his type, and he looked more like a shepherd's dog in whose brown eyes there was an abiding consciousness of the care of straying sheep, and possibly of one black one in particular. He had, he told me, abandoned mining and taken up farming on a rather large scale. He had prospered. He had other interests at stake, "A flour-mill with some improvements——and——and"——here his eyes wandered to the "Guardian" again, and he asked me somewhat abruptly what I thought of the paper. Something impelled me to restrain my previous fuller criticism, and I contented myself by saying briefly that I thought it rather ambitious for the locality. "That's the word," he said with a look of gratified relief, "'ambitious'——you've just hit it. And what's the matter with thet? Ye kan't expect a high-toned man to write down to the level of every karpin' hound, ken ye now? That's what he says to me"-He stopped half confused, and then added abruptly: "That's one o' my investments."

    "Why, Captain Jim, I never suspected that you"-

    "Oh, I don't WRITE it," he interrupted hastily. "I only furnish the money and the advertising, and run it gin'rally, you know; and I'm responsible for it. And I select the eddyter——and"——he continued, with a return of the same uneasy wistful look——"thar's suthin' in thet, you know, eh?"

    I was beginning to be perplexed. The memory evoked by the style of the editorial writing and the presence of Captain Jim was assuming a suspicious relationship to each other. "And who's your editor?" I asked.

    "Oh, he's——he's——er——Lacy Bassett," he replied, blinking his eyes with a hopeless assumption of carelessness. "Let's see! Oh yes! You knowed Lacy down there at Eureka. I disremembered it till now. Yes, sir!" he repeated suddenly and almost rudely, as if to preclude any adverse criticism, "he's the eddyter!"

    To my surprise he was quite white and tremulous with nervousness. I was very sorry for him, and as I really cared very little for the half-forgotten escapade of his friend except so far as it seemed to render HIM sensitive, I shook his hand again heartily and began to talk of our old life in the gulch——avoiding as far as possible any allusion to Lacy Bassett. His face brightened; his old simple cordiality and trustfulness returned, but unfortunately with it his old disposition to refer to Bassett. "Yes, they waz high old times, and ez I waz sayin' to Lacy on'y yesterday, there is a kind o' freedom 'bout that sort o' life that runs civilization and noospapers mighty hard, however high-toned they is. Not but what Lacy ain't right," he added quickly, "when he sez that the opposition the 'Guardian' gets here comes from ignorant low-down fellers ez wos brought up in played-out camps, and can't tell a gentleman and a scholar and a scientific man when they sees him. No! So I sez to Lacy, 'Never you mind, it's high time they did, and they've got to do it and to swaller the "Guardian," if I sink double the money I've already put into the paper.'"

    I was not long in discovering from other sources that the "Guardian" was not popular with the more intelligent readers of Gilead, and that Captain Jim's extravagant estimate of his friend was by no means indorsed by the community. But criticism took a humorous turn even in that practical settlement, and it appeared that Lacy Bassett's vanity, assumption, and ignorance were an unfailing and weekly joy to the critical, in spite of the vague distrust they induced in the more homely-witted, and the dull acquiescence of that minority who accepted the paper for its respectable exterior and advertisements. I was somewhat grieved, however, to find that Captain Jim shared equally with his friend in this general verdict of incompetency, and that some of the most outrageous blunders were put down to HIM. But I was not prepared to believe that Lacy had directly or by innuendo helped the public to this opinion.

    Whether through accident or design on his part, Lacy Bassett did not personally obtrude himself upon my remembrance until a month later. One dazzling afternoon, when the dust and heat had driven the pride of Gilead's manhood into the surreptitious shadows of the temperance hotel's back room, and had even cleared the express office of its loungers, and left me alone with darkened windows in the private office, the outer door opened and Captain Jim's friend entered as part of that garish glitter I had shut out. To do the scamp strict justice, however, he was somewhat subdued in his dress and manner, and, possibly through some gentle chastening of epigram and revolver since I had seen him last, was less aggressive and exaggerated. I had the impression, from certain odors wafted through the apartment and a peculiar physical exaltation that was inconsistent with his evident moral hesitancy, that he had prepared himself for the interview by a previous visit to the hidden fountains of the temperance hotel.

    "We don't seem to have run agin each other since you've been here," he said with an assurance that was nevertheless a trifle forced "but I reckon we're both busy men, and there's a heap too much loafing goin' on in Gilead. Captain Jim told me he met you the day you arrived; said you just cottoned to the 'Guardian' at once and thought it a deal too good for Gilead; eh? Oh, well, jest ez likely he DIDN'T say it——it was only his gassin'. He's a queer man——is Captain Jim."

    I replied somewhat sharply that I considered him a very honest man, a very simple man, and a very loyal man.

    "That's all very well," said Bassett, twirling his cane with a patronizing smile, "but, as his friend, don't you find him considerable of a darned fool?"

    I could not help retorting that I thought HE had found that hardly an objection.

    "YOU think so," he said querulously, apparently ignoring everything but the practical fact,——"and maybe others do; but that's where you're mistaken. It don't pay. It may pay HIM to be runnin' me as his particular friend, to be quotin' me here and there, to be gettin' credit of knowin' me and my friends and ownin' me——by Gosh! but I don't see where the benefit to ME comes in. Eh? Take your own case down there at Eureka Gulch; didn't he send for me just to show me up to you fellers? Did I want to have anything to do with the Eureka Company? Didn't he set me up to give my opinion about that shaft just to show off what I knew about science and all that? And what did he get me to join the company for? Was it for you? No! Was it for me? No! It was just to keep me there for HIMSELF, and kinder pit me agin you fellers and crow over you! Now that ain't my style! It may be HIS——it may be honest and simple and loyal, as you say, and it may be all right for him to get me to run up accounts at the settlement and then throw off on me——but it ain't my style. I suppose he let on that I did that. No? He didn't? Well then, why did he want to run me off with him, and out the whole concern in an underhand way and make me leave with nary a character behind me, eh?

    Now, I never said anything about this before——did I? It ain't like me. I wouldn't have said anything about it now, only you talked about MY being benefited by his darned foolishness. Much I've made outer HIM."

    Despicable, false, and disloyal as this was, perhaps it was the crowning meanness of such confidences that his very weakness seemed only a reflection of Captain Jim's own, and appeared in some strange way to degrade his friend as much as himself. The simplicity of his vanity and selfishness was only equalled by the simplicity of Captain Jim's admiration of it. It was a part of my youthful inexperience of humanity that I was not above the common fallacy of believing that a man is "known by the company he keeps," and that he is in a manner responsible for its weakness; it was a part of that humanity that I felt no surprise in being more amused than shocked by this revelation. It seemed a good joke on Captain Jim!

    "Of course YOU kin laugh at his darned foolishness; but, by Gosh, it ain't a laughing matter to me!"

    "But surely he's given you a good position on the 'Guardian,'" I urged. "That was disinterested, certainly."

    "Was it? I call that the cheekiest thing yet. When he found he couldn't make enough of me in private life, he totes me out in public as HIS editor——the man who runs HIS paper! And has his name in print as the proprietor, the only chance he'd ever get of being before the public. And don't know the whole town is laughing at him!"

    "That may be because they think HE writes some of the articles," I suggested.

    Again the insinuation glanced harmlessly from his vanity. "That couldn't be, because I do all the work, and it ain't his style," he said with naive discontent. "And it's always the highest style, done to please him, though between you and me it's sorter castin' pearls before swine——this 'Frisco editing——and the public would be just as satisfied with anything I could rattle off that was peart and sassy,——something spicy or personal. I'm willing to climb down and do it, for there's nothin' stuck-up about me, you know; but that darned fool Captain Jim has got the big head about the style of the paper, and darned if I don't think he's afraid if there's a lettin' down, people may think it's him! Ez if! Why, you know as well as me that there's a sort of snap I could give these things that would show it was me and no slouch did them, in a minute."

    I had my doubts about the elegance or playfulness of Mr. Bassett's trifling, but from some paragraphs that appeared in the next issue of the "Guardian" I judged that he had won over Captain Jim——if indeed that gentleman's alleged objections were not entirely the outcome of Bassett's fancy. The social paragraphs themselves were clumsy and vulgar. A dull-witted account of a select party at Parson Baxter's, with a point-blank compliment to Polly Baxter his daughter, might have made her pretty cheek burn but for her evident prepossession for the meretricious scamp, its writer. But even this horse-play seemed more natural than the utterly artificial editorials with their pinchbeck glitter and cheap erudition; and thus far it appeared harmless.

    I grieve to say that these appearances were deceptive. One afternoon, as I was returning from a business visit to the outskirts of the village, I was amazed on reentering the main street to find a crowd collected around the "Guardian" office, gazing at the broken glass of its windows and a quantity of type scattered on the ground. But my attention was at that moment more urgently attracted by a similar group around my own office, who, however, seemed more cautious, and were holding timorously aloof from the entrance. As I ran rapidly towards them, a few called out, "Look out——he's in there!" while others made way to let me pass. With the impression of fire or robbery in my mind, I entered precipitately, only to find Yuba Bill calmly leaning back in an arm-chair with his feet on the back of another, a glass of whiskey from my demijohn in one hand and a huge cigar in his mouth. Across his lap lay a stumpy shotgun which I at once recognized as "the Left Bower," whose usual place was at his feet on the box during his journeys. He looked cool and collected, although there were one or two splashes of printer's ink on his shirt and trousers, and from the appearance of my lavatory and towel he had evidently been removing similar stains from his hands. Putting his gun aside and grasping my hand warmly without rising, he began with even more than his usual lazy imperturbability:"Well, how's Gilead lookin' to-day?"

    It struck me as looking rather disturbed, but, as I was still too bewildered to reply, he continued lazily:

    "Ez you didn't hunt me up, I allowed you might hev got kinder petrified and dried up down yer, and I reckoned to run down and rattle round a bit and make things lively for ye. I've jist cleared out a newspaper office over thar. They call it the 'Guardi-an,' though it didn't seem to offer much pertection to them fellers ez was in it. In fact, it wasn't ez much a fight ez it orter hev been. It was rather monotonous for me."

    "But what's the row, Bill? What has happened?" I asked excitedly.

    "Nothin' to speak of, I tell ye," replied Yuba Bill reflectively. "I jest meandered into that shop over there, and I sez, 'I want ter see the man ez runs this yer mill o' literatoor an' progress.' Thar waz two infants sittin' on high chairs havin' some innocent little game o' pickin' pieces o' lead outer pill-boxes like, and as soon ez they seed me one of 'em crawled under his desk and the other scooted outer the back door. Bimeby the door opens again, and a fluffy coyote-lookin' feller comes in and allows that HE is responsible for that yer paper. When I saw the kind of animal he was, and that he hadn't any weppings, I jist laid the Left Bower down on the floor. Then I sez, 'You allowed in your paper that I oughter hev a little sevility knocked inter me, and I'm here to hev it done. You ken begin it now.' With that I reached for him, and we waltzed oncet or twicet around the room, and then I put him up on the mantelpiece and on them desks and little boxes, and took him down again, and kinder wiped the floor with him gin'rally, until the first thing I knowed he was outside the winder on the sidewalk. On'y blamed if I didn't forget to open the winder. Ef it hadn't been for that, it would hev been all quiet and peaceful-like, and nobody hev knowed it. But the sash being in the way, it sorter created a disturbance and unpleasantness OUTSIDE."

    "But what was it all about?" I repeated. "What had he done to you?"

    "Ye'll find it in that paper," he said, indicating a copy of the "Guardian" that lay on my table with a lazy nod of his head. "P'r'aps you don't read it? No more do I. But Joe Bilson sez to me yesterday: 'Bill,' sez he, 'they're goin' for ye in the "Guardian."' 'Wot's that?' sez I. 'Hark to this,' sez he, and reads out that bit that you'll find there."

    I had opened the paper, and he pointed to a paragraph. "There it is. Pooty, ain't it?" I read with amazement as follows:-

    "If the Pioneer Stage Company want to keep up with the times, and not degenerate into the old style 'one hoss' road-wagon business, they'd better make some reform on the line. They might begin by shipping off some of the old-time whiskey-guzzling drivers who are too high and mighty to do anything but handle the ribbons, and are above speaking to a passenger unless he's a favorite or one of their set. Over-praise for an occasional scrimmage with road agents, and flattery from Eastern greenhorns, have given them the big head. If the fool-killer were let loose on the line with a big club, and knocked a little civility into their heads, it wouldn't be a bad thing, and would be a particular relief to the passengers for Gilead who have to take the stage from Simpson's Bar."

    "That's my stage," said Yuba Bill quietly, when I had ended; "and that's ME." "But it's impossible," I said eagerly. "That insult was never written by Captain Jim."

    "Captain Jim," repeated Yuba Bill reflectively. "Captain Jim,—— yes, that was the name o' the man I was playin' with. Shortish hairy feller, suthin' between a big coyote and the old-style hair- trunk. Fought pretty well for a hay-footed man from Gil-e-ad."

    "But you've whipped the wrong man, Bill," I said. "Think again! Have you had any quarrel lately?——run against any newspaper man?" The recollection had flashed upon me that Lacy Bassett had lately returned from a visit to Stockton.

    Yuba Bill regarded his boots on the other arm-chair for a few moments in profound meditation. "There was a sort o' gaudy insect," he began presently, "suthin' halfway betwixt a boss-fly and a devil's darnin'-needle, ez crawled up onter the box seat with me last week, and buzzed! Now I think on it, he talked high- faluten' o' the inflooence of the press and sech. I may hev said 'shoo' to him when he was hummin' the loudest. I mout hev flicked him off oncet or twicet with my whip. It must be him. Gosh!" he said suddenly, rising and lifting his heavy hand to his forehead, "now I think agin he was the feller ez crawled under the desk when the fight was goin' on, and stayed there. Yes, sir, that was HIM. His face looked sorter familiar, but I didn't know him moultin' with his feathers off." He turned upon me with the first expression of trouble and anxiety I had ever seen him wear. "Yes, sir, that's him. And I've kem——me, Yuba Bill!——kem MYSELF, a matter of twenty miles, totin' a GUN——a gun, by Gosh!——to fight that——that——that potatar-bug!" He walked to the window, turned, walked back again, finished his whiskey with a single gulp, and laid his hand almost despondingly on my shoulder. "Look ye, old—— old fell, you and me's ole friends. Don't give me away. Don't let on a word o' this to any one! Say I kem down yer howlin' drunk on a gen'ral tear! Say I mistook that newspaper office for a cigar- shop, and——got licked by the boss! Say anythin' you like, 'cept that I took a gun down yer to chase a fly that had settled onter me. Keep the Left Bower in yer back office till I send for it. Ef you've got a back door somewhere handy where I can slip outer this without bein' seen I'd be thankful."

    As this desponding suggestion appeared to me as the wisest thing for him to do in the then threatening state of affairs outside,—— which, had he suspected it, he would have stayed to face,——I quickly opened a door into a courtyard that communicated through an alley with a side street. Here we shook hands and parted; his last dejected ejaculation being, "That potatobug!" Later I ascertained that Captain Jim had retired to his ranch some four miles distant. He was not seriously hurt, but looked, to use the words of my informant, "ez ef he'd been hugged by a playful b'ar." As the "Guardian" made its appearance the next week without the slightest allusion to the fracas, I did not deem it necessary to divulge the real facts. When I called to inquire about Captain Jim's condition, he himself, however, volunteered an explanation.

    "I don't mind tellin' you, ez an old friend o' mine and Lacy's, that the secret of that there attack on me and the 'Guardian' was perlitikal. Yes, sir! There was a powerful orginization in the interest o' Halkins for assemblyman ez didn't like our high-toned editorials on caucus corruption, and hired a bully to kem down here and suppress us. Why, this yer Lacy spotted the idea to oncet; yer know how keen be is."

    "Was Lacy present?" I asked as carelessly as I could.

    Captain Jim glanced his eyes over his shoulder quite in his old furtive canine fashion, and then blinked them at me rapidly. "He war! And if it warn't for HIS pluck and HIS science and HIS strength, I don't know whar I'D hev been now! Howsomever, it's all right. I've had a fair offer to sell the 'Guardian' over at Simpson's Bar, and it's time I quit throwin' away the work of a man like Lacy Bassett upon it. And between you and me, I've got an idea and suthin' better to put his talens into."

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