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taking on the shade and color of contiguous moods and feelings. He had evidently just left some hilarious companions, and did not at first notice the gravity of the group, but clapped the shoulder of the nearest man jocularly, and threw himself into a vacant chair.
" Jest heard the best thing out, boys! Ye know Smiley, over yar - Jim Smiley --- funniest man in the Bar? Well, Jim was jest telling the richest yarn about "
“Smiley 's a fool!” interrupted a gloomy voice. “A particular
skunk!” added another in sepulchral accents.
A silence followed these positive statements. The Old Man glanced quickly around the group.
Then his face slowly changed. “ That's so," he said reflectively, after a pause, “ certingly a sort of a skunk and suthin' of a fool. In course." silent for a moment as in painful contemplation of the unsavoriness and folly of the unpopular Smiley. “Dismal weather, ain't it ?” he added, now fully embarked on the current of prevailing sentiment. “Mighty rough papers on the boys, and no show for money this season. And to-morrow's Christmas."
There was a movement among the men at this announcement, but whether of satisfaction or disgust was not plain. “Yes," continued the Old Man in the lugubrious tone he had, within the last few moments, unconsciously adopted, yes, Christmas, and to-night's Christmas Eve. Ye see, boys, I kinder thought — that is, I sorter had an idee, jest passin' like, you know that maybe ye’d all like to come over to my house to-night and have a sort of tear round. But I suppose, now, you would n't? Don't feel like it, maybe?” he added with anxious sympathy, peering into the faces of his companions.
“Well, I don't know," responded Tom Flynn with some cheerfulness. “P’r’aps we may. But how about your wife, Old Man? What does she say to it?”
The Old Man hesitated. His conjugal experience had not been a happy one, and the fact was known to Simpson's Bar. His first wife, a delicate, pretty little woman, had suffered keenly and secretly from the jealous suspicions of her husband, until one day he invited the whole Bar to his house to expose her infidelity. On arriving, the party found the shy, petite creature quietly
engaged in her household duties, and retired abashed and discomfited. But the sensitive woman did not easily recover from the shock of this extraordinary outrage. It was with difficulty she regained her equanimity sufficiently to release her lover from the closet in which he was concealed, and escape with him. She left a boy of three years to comfort her bereaved husband. The Old Man's present wife had been his cook. She was large, loyal, and aggressive.
Before he could reply, Joe Dimmick suggested with great directness that it was the “ Old Man's house," and that, invoking the Divine Power, if the case were his own, he would invite whom he pleased, even if in so doing he imperilled his salvation. The Powers of Evil, he further remarked, should contend against him vainly. All this delivered with a terseness and vigor lost in this necessary translation.
“ In course. Certainly. Thet's it,” said the Old Man, with a sympathetic frown. “ Thar 's no trouble about thet. It's my own house, built every stick on it myself. Don't you be afeard o' her, boys. She may cut up a trifle rough - ez wimmin do but she 'll come round." Secretly the Old Man
trusted to the exaltation of liquor and the power of courageous example to sustain him in such an emergency.
As yet, Dick Bullen, the oracle and leader of Simpson's Bar, had not spoken. He now took his pipe from his lips. “Old Man, how's that yer Johnny gettin' on? Seems to me he did n't look so peart last time I seed him on the bluff heavin' rocks at Chinamen. Did n't seem to take much interest in it. Thar was a gang of 'em by yar yesterday, — drownded out up the river, — and I kinder thought o' Johnny, and how he'd miss 'em! Maybe now, we'd be in the way ef he wus sick ?”
The father, evidently touched not only by this pathetic picture of Johnny's deprivation, but by the considerate delicacy of the speaker, hastened to assure him that Johnny was better and that a “ little fun might 'liven him up.” Whereupon Dick arose, shook himself, and saying, “ I'm ready. Lead the way, Old Man : here goes,” himself led the way with a leap, a characteristic howl, and darted out into the night. As he passed through the outer room he caught up a blazing brand from the hearth. The action was repeated by the rest of the party, closely fol
lowing and elbowing each other, and before the astonished proprietor of Thompson's grocery was aware of the intention of his guests the room was deserted.
The night was pitchy dark. In the first gust of wind their temporary torches were extinguished, and only the red brands dancing and fitting in the gloom like drunken will-o'-the-wisps indicated their whereabouts. Their way led up Pine Tree Cañon, at the head of which a broad, low, bark-thatched cabin burrowed in the mountain-side. It was the home of the Old Man, and the entrance to the tunnel in which he worked when he worked at all. Here the crowd paused for a moment, out of delicate deference to their host, who came up panting in the rear.
“P'r'aps ye'd better hold on a second out yer, whilst I go in and see that things is all right," said the Old Man, with an indifference he was far from feeling. The suggestion was graciously accepted, the door opened and closed on the host, and the crowd, leaning their backs against the wall and cowering under the eaves, waited and listened.
For a few moments there was no sound but the dripping of water from the eaves, and the stir and rustle of wrestling boughs