THE IDYL OF RED GULCH
by Bret Harte
Sandy was very drunk. He was lying under an azalea bush,
in pretty much the same attitude in which he had fallen
some hours before. How long he had been lying there he
could not tell, and didn't care; how long he should lie
there was a matter equally indefinite and unconsidered.
A tranquil philosophy, born of his physical condition,
suffused and saturated his moral being.
The spectacle of a drunken man, and of this drunken man in
particular, was not, I grieve to say, of sufficient novelty
in Red Gulch to attract attention. Earlier in the day some
local satirist had erected a temporary tombstone at Sandy's
head, bearing the inscription, "Effects of McCorkle's
whisky,--kills at forty rods," with a hand pointing to
McCorkle's saloon. But this, I imagine, was, like most local
satire, personal; and was a reflection upon the unfairness
of the process rather than a commentary upon the impropriety
of the result. With this facetious exception, Sandy had been
undisturbed. A wandering mule, released from his pack, had
cropped the scant herbage beside him, and sniffed curiously
at the prostrate man; a vagabond dog, with that deep sympathy
which the species have for drunken men, had licked his dusty
boots, and curled himself up at his feet, and lay there,
blinking one eye in the sunlight, with a simulation of
dissipation that was ingenious and doglike in its implied
flattery of the unconscious man beside him.
Meanwhile the shadows of the pine trees had slowly swung
around until they crossed the road, and their trunks barred
the open meadow with gigantic parallels of black and yellow.
Little puffs of red dust, lifted by the plunging hoofs of
passing teams, dispersed in a grimy shower upon the recumbent
man. The sun sank lower and lower; and still Sandy stirred
not. And then the repose of this philosopher was disturbed,
as other philosophers have been, by the intrusion of an
"Miss Mary," as she was known to the little flock that
she had just dismissed from the log schoolhouse beyond
the pines, was taking her afternoon walk. Observing an
unusually fine cluster of blossoms on the azalea bush
opposite, she crossed the road to pluck it,--picking her
way through the red dust, not without certain fierce
little shivers of disgust, and some feline circumlocution.
And then she came suddenly upon Sandy!
Of course she uttered the little staccato cry of her sex.
But when she had paid that tribute to her physical weakness
she became overbold, and halted for a moment,--at least
six feet from this prostrate monster,--with her white skirts
gathered in her hand, ready for flight. But neither sound nor
motion came from the bush. With one little foot she then
overturned the satirical headboard, and muttered, "Beasts!"--an
epithet which probably, at that moment, conveniently classified
in her mind the entire male population of Red Gulch. For Miss
Mary, being possessed of certain rigid notions of her own, had
not, perhaps, properly appreciated the demonstrative gallantry
for which the Californian has been so justly celebrated by his
brother Californians, and had, as a newcomer, perhaps fairly
earned the reputation of being "stuck-up."
As she stood there she noticed, also, that the slant sunbeams
were heating Sandy's head to what she judged to be an unhealthy
temperature, and that his hat was lying uselessly at his side.
To pick it up and to place it over his face was a work requiring
some courage, particularly as his eyes were open. Yet she did it
and made good her retreat. But she was somewhat concerned, on
looking back, to see that the hat was removed, and that Sandy
was sitting up and saying something.
The truth was, that in the calm depths of Sandy's mind he was
satisfied that the rays of the sun were beneficial and healthful;
that from childhood he had objected to lying down in a hat; that
no people but condemned fools, past redemption, ever wore hats;
and that his right to dispense with them when he pleased was
inalienable. This was the statement of his inner consciousness.
Unfortunately, its outward expression was vague, being limited
to a repetition of the following formula,--"Su'shine all ri'!
Wasser maar, eh? Wass up, su'shine?"
Miss Mary stopped, and, taking fresh courage from her vantage of
distance, asked him if there was anything that he wanted.
"Wass up? Wasser maar?" continued Sandy, in a very high key.
"Get up, you horrid man!" said Miss Mary, now thoroughly incensed;
"get up, and go home."
Sandy staggered to his feet. He was six feet high, and Miss Mary
trembled. He started forward a few paces and then stopped.
"Wass I go home for?" he suddenly asked, with great gravity.
"Go and take a bath," replied Miss Mary, eyeing his grimy person with
To her infinite dismay, Sandy suddenly pulled off his coat and vest,
threw them on the ground, kicked off his boots, and, plunging wildly
forward, darted headlong over the hill, in the direction of the river.
"Goodness Heavens!--the man will be drowned!" said Miss Mary; and then,
with feminine inconsistency, she ran back to the schoolhouse, and locked
That night, while seated at supper with her hostess, the blacksmith's
wife, it came to Miss Mary to ask, demurely, if her husband ever got
drunk. "Abner," responded Mrs. Stidger, reflectively, "let's see: Abner
hasn't been tight since last 'lection." Miss Mary would have liked to
ask if he preferred lying in the sun on these occasions, and if a cold
bath would have hurt him; but this would have involved an explanation,
which she did not then care to give. So she contented herself with
opening her gray eyes widely at the red-cheeked Mrs. Stidger,--a fine
specimen of Southwestern efflorescence,--and then dismissed the subject
altogether. The next day she wrote to her dearest friend, in Boston:
"I think I find the intoxicated portion of this community the least
objectionable. I refer, my dear, to the men, of course. I do not know
anything that could make the women tolerable."
In less than a week Miss Mary had forgotten this episode, except that
her afternoon walks took thereafter, almost unconsciously, another
direction. She noticed, however, that every morning a fresh cluster of
azalea blossoms appeared among the flowers on her desk. This was not
strange, as her little flock were aware of her fondness for flowers, and
invariably kept her desk bright with anemones, syringas, and lupines;
but, on questioning them, they, one and all, professed ignorance of the
azaleas. A few days later, Master Johnny Stidger, whose desk was nearest
to the window, was suddenly taken with spasms of apparently gratuitous
laughter, that threatened the discipline of the school. All that Miss
Mary could get from him was that someone had been "looking in the
winder." Irate and indignant, she sallied from her hive to do battle
with the intruder. As she turned the corner of the schoolhouse she came
plump upon the quondam drunkard, now perfectly sober, and inexpressibly
sheepish and guilty-looking.
These facts Miss Mary was not slow to take a feminine advantage of,
in her present humor. But it was somewhat confusing to observe, also,
that the beast, despite some faint signs of past dissipation, was
amiable-looking,--in fact, a kind of blond Samson whose corn-colored,
silken beard apparently had never yet known the touch of barber's razor
or Delilah's shears. So that the cutting speech which quivered on
her ready tongue died upon her lips, and she contented herself with
receiving his stammering apology with supercilious eyelids, and the
gathered skirts of uncontamination. When she re-entered the schoolroom,
her eyes fell upon the azaleas with a new sense of revelation. And
then she laughed, and the little people all laughed, and they were all
unconsciously very happy.
It was on a hot day--and not long after this--that two short-legged
boys came to grief on the threshold of the school with a pail of water,
which they had laboriously brought from the spring, and that Miss Mary
compassionately seized the pail and started for the spring herself. At
the foot of the hill a shadow crossed her path, and a blue-shirted arm
dexterously, but gently, relieved her of her burden. Miss Mary was both
embarrassed and angry. "If you carried more of that for yourself," she
said, spitefully, to the blue arm, without deigning to raise her lashes
to its owner, "you'd do better." In the submissive silence that followed
she regretted the speech, and thanked him so sweetly at the door that
he stumbled, which caused the children to laugh again,--a laugh in which
Miss Mary joined, until the color came faintly into her pale cheeks.
The next day a barrel was mysteriously placed beside the door, and as
mysteriously filled with fresh spring water every morning.
Nor was this superior young person without other quiet attentions.
"Profane Bill," driver of the Slumgullion Stage, widely known in the
newspapers for his "gallantry" in invariably offering the box seat to
the fair sex, had excepted Miss Mary from this attention, on the ground
that he had a habit of "cussin' on upgrades," and gave her half the
coach to herself. Jack Hamlin, a gambler, having once silently ridden
with her in the same coach, afterwards threw a decanter at the head of
a confederate for mentioning her name in a barroom. The overdressed
mother of a pupil whose paternity was doubtful had often lingered near
this astute Vestal's temple, never daring to enter its sacred precincts,
but content to worship the priestess from afar.
With such unconscious intervals the monotonous procession of blue
skies, glittering sunshine, brief twilights, and starlit nights
passed over Red Gulch. Miss Mary grew fond of walking in the sedate
and proper woods. Perhaps she believed, with Mrs. Stidger, that the
balsamic odors of the firs "did her chest good," for certainly her
slight cough was less frequent and her step was firmer; perhaps she
had learned the unending lesson which the patient pines are never
weary of repeating to heedful or listless ears. And so, one day,
she planned a picnic on Buckeye Hill, and took the children with her.
Away from the dusty road, the straggling shanties, the yellow ditches,
the clamor of restless engines, the cheap finery of shop windows, the
deeper glitter of paint and colored glass, and the thin veneering
which barbarism takes upon itself in such localities--what infinite
relief was theirs! The last heap of ragged rock and clay passed, the
last unsightly chasm crossed,--how the waiting woods opened their long
files to receive them! How the children--perhaps because they had not
yet grown quite away from the breast of the bounteous Mother--threw
themselves face downward on her brown bosom with uncouth caresses,
filling the air with their laughter; and how Miss Mary herself--felinely
fastidious and intrenched as she was in the purity of spotless skirts,
collar, and cuffs--forgot all, and ran like a crested quail at the head
of her brood, until, romping, laughing, and panting, with a loosened
braid of brown hair, a hat hanging by a knotted ribbon from her throat,
she came suddenly and violently, in the heart of the forest, upon--the
The explanations, apologies, and not overwise conversation that ensued,
need not be indicated here. It would seem, however, that Miss Mary had
already established some acquaintance with this ex-drunkard. Enough that
he was soon accepted as one of the party; that the children, with that
quick intelligence which Providence gives the helpless, recognized a
friend, and played with his blond beard, and long silken mustache, and
took other liberties,--as the helpless are apt to do. And when he had
built a fire against a tree, and had shown them other mysteries of
woodcraft, their admiration knew no bounds. At the close of two such
foolish, idle, happy hours he found himself lying at the feet of the
schoolmistress, gazing dreamily in her face, as she sat upon the sloping
hillside weaving wreaths of laurel and syringa, in very much the same
attitude as he had lain when first they met. Nor was the similitude
greatly forced. The weakness of an easy, sensuous nature, that had found
a dreamy exaltation in liquor, it is to be feared was now finding an
equal intoxication in love.
I think that Sandy was dimly conscious of this himself. I know that
he longed to be doing something,--slaying a grizzly, scalping a savage,
or sacrificing himself in some way for the sake of this sallow-faced,
gray-eyed schoolmistress. As I should like to present him in a heroic
attitude, I stay my hand with great difficulty at this moment, being
only withheld from introducing such an episode by a strong conviction
that it does not usually occur at such times. And I trust that my
fairest reader, who remembers that, in a real crisis, it is always some
uninteresting stranger or unromantic policeman, and not Adolphus, who
rescues, will forgive the omission.
So they sat there, undisturbed--the woodpeckers chattering overhead,
and the voices of the children coming pleasantly from the hollow below.
What they said matters little. What they thought--which might have
been interesting--did not transpire. The woodpeckers only learned how
Miss Mary was an orphan; how she left her uncle's house, to come to
California, for the sake of health and independence; how Sandy was an
orphan, too; how he came to California for excitement; how he had lived
a wild life, and how he was trying to reform; and other details, which,
from a woodpecker's viewpoint, undoubtedly must have seemed stupid, and
a waste of time. But even in such trifles was the afternoon spent; and
when the children were again gathered, and Sandy, with a delicacy which
the schoolmistress well understood, took leave of them quietly at the
outskirts of the settlement, it had seemed the shortest day of her weary
As the long, dry summer withered to its roots, the school term of Red
Gulch--to use a local euphuism--"dried up" also. In another day Miss
Mary would be free; and for a season, at least, Red Gulch would know her
no more. She was seated alone in the schoolhouse, her cheek resting on
her hand, her eyes half-closed in one of those daydreams in which Miss
Mary--I fear, to the danger of school discipline--was lately in the habit
of indulging. Her lap was full of mosses, ferns, and other woodland
memories. She was so preoccupied with these and her own thoughts that a
gentle tapping at the door passed unheard, or translated itself into the
remembrance of far-off woodpeckers. When at last it asserted itself more
distinctly, she started up with a flushed cheek and opened the door.
On the threshold stood a woman, the self-assertion and audacity of whose
dress were in singular contrast to her timid, irresolute bearing.
Miss Mary recognized at a glance the dubious mother of her anonymous
pupil. Perhaps she was disappointed, perhaps she was only fastidious;
but as she coldly invited her to enter, she half-unconsciously settled
her white cuffs and collar, and gathered closer her own chaste skirts.
It was, perhaps, for this reason that the embarrassed stranger, after a
moment's hesitation, left her gorgeous parasol open and sticking in the
dust beside the door, and then sat down at the farther end of a long
bench. Her voice was husky as she began:
"I heerd tell that you were goin' down to the Bay tomorrow, and I
couldn't let you go until I came to thank you for your kindness to my
Tommy, Miss Mary said, was a good boy, and deserved more than the poor
attention she could give him.
"Thank you, miss; thank ye!" cried the stranger, brightening even
through the color which Red Gulch knew facetiously as her "war paint,"
and striving, in her embarrassment, to drag the long bench nearer the
schoolmistress. "I thank you, miss, for that; and if I am his mother,
there ain't a sweeter, dearer, better boy lives than him. And if I ain't
much as says it, thar ain't a sweeter, dearer, angeler teacher lives
than he's got."
Miss Mary, sitting primly behind her desk, with a ruler over her
shoulder, opened her gray eyes widely at this, but said nothing.
"It ain't for you to be complimented by the like of me, I know," she
went on, hurriedly. "It ain't for me to be comin' here, in broad day,
to do it, either; but I come to ask a favor,--not for me, miss,--not
for me, but for the darling boy."
Encouraged by a look in the young schoolmistress's eye, and putting her
lilac-gloved hands together, the fingers downward, between her knees,
she went on, in a low voice:
"You see, miss, there's no one the boy has any claim on but me, and I
ain't the proper person to bring him up. I thought some, last year, of
sending him away to 'Frisco to school, but when they talked of bringing
a schoolma'am here, I waited till I saw you, and then I knew it was all
right, and I could keep my boy a little longer. And O, miss, he loves
you so much; and if you could hear him talk about you, in his pretty
way, and if he could ask you what I ask you now, you couldn't refuse
"It is natural," she went on, rapidly, in a voice that trembled
strangely between pride and humility,--"it's natural that he should
take to you, miss, for his father, when I first knew him, was a
gentleman,--and the boy must forget me, sooner or later,--and so
I ain't a-goin' to cry about that. For I come to ask you to take
my Tommy,--God bless him for the bestest, sweetest boy that
lives!--to--to--take him with you."
She had risen and caught the young girl's hand in her own,
and had fallen on her knees beside her.
"I've money plenty, and it's all yours and his. Put him in
some good school, where you can go and see him, and help him
to--to--forget his mother. Do with him what you like. The worst
you can do will be kindness to what he will learn with me. Only
take him out of this wicked life, this cruel place, this home
of shame and sorrow. You will; I know you will,--won't you? You
will,--you must not, you cannot say no! You will make him as
pure, as gentle as yourself; and when he has grown up, you will
tell him his father's name,--the name that hasn't passed my lips
for years,--the name of Alexander Morton, whom they call here
Sandy! Miss Mary!--do not take your hand away! Miss Mary, speak
to me! You will take my boy? Do not put your face from me. I
know it ought not to look on such as me. Miss Mary!--my God,
be merciful!--she is leaving me!"
Miss Mary had risen, and, in the gathering twilight, had felt
her way to the open window. She stood there, leaning against
the casement, her eyes fixed on the last rosy tints that were
fading from the western sky. There was still some of its light
on her pure young forehead, on her white collar, on her clasped
white hands, but all fading slowly away. The suppliant had
dragged herself, still on her knees, beside her.
"I know it takes time to consider. I will wait here all night;
but I cannot go until you speak. Do not deny me now. You will!--I
see it in your sweet face,--such a face as I have seen in my dreams.
I see it in your eyes, Miss Mary!--you will take my boy!"
The last red beam crept higher, suffused Miss Mary's eyes
with something of its glory, flickered, and faded, and went
out. The sun had set on Red Gulch. In the twilight and
silence Miss Mary's voice sounded pleasantly.
"I will take the boy. Send him to me tonight."
The happy mother raised the hem of Miss Mary's skirts to her
lips. She would have buried her hot face in its virgin folds,
but she dared not. She rose to her feet.
"Does--this man--know of your intention?" asked Miss Mary,
"No, nor cares. He has never even seen the child to know it."
"Go to him at once,--tonight,--now! Tell him what you have done.
Tell him I have taken his child, and tell him--he must never
see--see--the child again. Wherever it may be, he must not come;
wherever I may take it, he must not follow! There, go now,
please--I'm weary, and--have much yet to do!"
They walked together to the door. On the threshold the woman
She would have fallen at Miss Mary's feet. But at the same
moment the young girl reached out her arms, caught the sinful
woman to her own pure breast for one brief moment, and then
closed and locked the door.
It was with a sudden sense of great responsibility that Profane
Bill took the reins of the Slumgullion Stage the next morning,
for the schoolmistress was one of his passengers. As he entered
the high road, in obedience to a pleasant voice from the "inside,"
he suddenly reined up his horses and respectfully waited, as "Tommy"
hopped out at the command of Miss Mary.
"Not that bush, Tommy--the next."
Tommy whipped out his new pocket-knife, and, cutting a branch from
a tall azalea bush, returned with it to Miss Mary.
"All right now?"
And the stage door closed on the Idyl of Red Gulch.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~