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It was a pretty sight to view this sparkling procession--the girls
cool and radiant in their white, blue, and yellow muslins and
flying ribbons, the "Contingent" in its cleanest ducks, and blue
and red flannel shirts, the judge white-waistcoated and panama-
hatted, with a new dignity borrowed from the previous circumstances,
and three or four impressive Chinamen bringing up the rear with
hampers--as it at last debouched into Reservoir Canyon.

Here they dispersed themselves over the limited area, scarcely half
an acre, with the freedom of escaped school children. They were
secure in their woodland privacy. They were overlooked by no high
road and its passing teams; they were safe from accidental
intrusion from the settlement; indeed they went so far as to effect
the exclusiveness of "clique." At first they amused themselves by
casting humorously defiant eyes at the long low Ditch Reservoir,
which peeped over the green wall of the ridge, six hundred feet
above them; at times they even simulated an exaggerated terror of
it, and one recognized humorist declaimed a grotesque appeal to its
forbearance, with delightful local allusions. Others pretended to
discover near a woodman's hut, among the belt of pines at the top
of the descending trail, the peeping figure of the ridiculous and
envious Sparrell. But all this was presently forgotten in the
actual festivity. Small as was the range of the valley, it still
allowed retreats during the dances for waiting couples among the
convenient laurel and manzanita bushes which flounced the mountain
side. After the dancing, old-fashioned children's games were
revived with great laughter and half-hearted and coy protests from
the ladies; notably one pastime known as "I'm a-pinin'," in which
ingenious performance the victim was obliged to stand in the centre
of a circle and publicly "pine" for a member of the opposite sex.
Some hilarity was occasioned by the mischievous Miss "Georgy" Piper
declaring, when it came to her turn, that she was "pinin'" for a
look at the face of Tom Sparrell just now!

In this local trifling two hours passed, until the party sat down
to the long-looked for repast. It was here that the health of
Judge Piper was neatly proposed by the editor of the "Argus." The
judge responded with great dignity and some emotion. He reminded
them that it had been his humble endeavor to promote harmony--that
harmony so characteristic of American principles--in social as he
had in political circles, and particularly among the strangely
constituted yet purely American elements of frontier life. He
accepted the present festivity with its overflowing hospitalities,
not in recognition of himself--("yes! yes!")--nor of his family--
(enthusiastic protests)--but of that American principle! If at one
time it seemed probable that these festivities might be marred by
the machinations of envy--(groans)--or that harmony interrupted by
the importation of low-toned material interests--(groans)--he could
say that, looking around him, he had never before felt--er--that--
Here the judge stopped short, reeled slightly forward, caught at a
camp-stool, recovered himself with an apologetic smile, and turned
inquiringly to his neighbor.

A light laugh--instantly suppressed--at what was at first supposed
to be the effect of the "overflowing hospitality" upon the speaker
himself, went around the male circle until it suddenly appeared
that half a dozen others had started to their feet at the same
time, with white faces, and that one of the ladies had screamed.

"What is it?" everybody was asking with interrogatory smiles.

It was Judge Piper who replied:--

"A little shock of earthquake," he said blandly; "a mere thrill! I
think," he added with a faint smile, "we may say that Nature
herself has applauded our efforts in good old Californian fashion,
and signified her assent. What are you saying, Fludder?"

"I was thinking, sir," said Fludder deferentially, in a lower
voice, "that if anything was wrong in the reservoir, this shock,
you know, might"--

He was interrupted by a faint crashing and crackling sound, and
looking up, beheld a good-sized boulder, evidently detached from
some greater height, strike the upland plateau at the left of the
trail and bound into the fringe of forest beside it. A slight
cloud of dust marked its course, and then lazily floated away in
mid air. But it had been watched agitatedly, and it was evident
that that singular loss of nervous balance which is apt to affect
all those who go through the slightest earthquake experience was
felt by all. But some sense of humor, however, remained.

"Looks as if the water risks we took ain't goin' to cover
earthquakes," drawled Dick Frisney; "still that wasn't a bad shot,
if we only knew what they were aiming at."

"Do be quiet," said Virginia Piper, her cheeks pink with excitement.
"Listen, can't you? What's that funny murmuring you hear now and
then up there?"

"It's only the snow-wind playin' with the pines on the summit. You
girls won't allow anybody any fun but yourselves."

But here a scream from "Georgy," who, assisted by Captain Fairfax,
had mounted a camp-stool at the mouth of the valley, attracted
everybody's attention. She was standing upright, with dilated
eyes, staring at the top of the trail. "Look!" she said excitedly,
"if the trail isn't moving!"

Everybody faced in that direction. At the first glance it seemed
indeed as if the trail was actually moving; wriggling and
undulating its tortuous way down the mountain like a huge snake,
only swollen to twice its usual size. But the second glance showed
it to be no longer a trail but a channel of water, whose stream,
lifted in a bore-like wall four or five feet high, was plunging
down into the devoted valley.

For an instant they were unable to comprehend even the nature of
the catastrophe. The reservoir was directly over their heads; the
bursting of its wall they had imagined would naturally bring down
the water in a dozen trickling streams or falls over the cliff
above them and along the flanks of the mountain. But that its
suddenly liberated volume should overflow the upland beyond and
then descend in a pent-up flood by their own trail and their only
avenue of escape, had been beyond their wildest fancy.

They met this smiting truth with that characteristic short laugh
with which the American usually receives the blow of Fate or the
unexpected--as if he recognized only the absurdity of the
situation. Then they ran to the women, collected them together,
and dragged them to vantages of fancied security among the bushes
which flounced the long skirts of the mountain walls. But I leave
this part of the description to the characteristic language of one
of the party:--

"When the flood struck us, it did not seem to take any stock of us
in particular, but laid itself out to 'go for' that picnic for all
it was worth! It wiped it off the face of the earth in about
twenty-five seconds! It first made a clean break from stem to
stern, carrying everything along with it. The first thing I saw
was old Judge Piper, puttin' on his best licks to get away from a
big can of strawberry ice cream that was trundling after him and
trying to empty itself on his collar, whenever a bigger wave lifted
it. He was followed by what was left of the brass band; the big
drum just humpin' itself to keep abreast o' the ice cream, mixed up
with camp-stools, music-stands, a few Chinamen, and then what they
call in them big San Francisco processions 'citizens generally.'
The hull thing swept up the canyon inside o' thirty seconds. Then,
what Captain Fairfax called 'the reflex action in the laws o'
motion' happened, and darned if the hull blamed procession didn't
sweep back again--this time all the heavy artillery, such as camp-
kettles, lager beer kegs, bottles, glasses, and crockery that was
left behind takin' the lead now, and Judge Piper and that ice cream
can bringin' up the rear. As the jedge passed us the second time,
we noticed that that ice cream can--hevin' swallowed water--was
kinder losing its wind, and we encouraged the old man by shoutin'
out, 'Five to one on him!' And then, you wouldn't believe what
followed. Why, darn my skin, when that 'reflex' met the current at
the other end, it just swirled around again in what Captain Fairfax
called the 'centrifugal curve,' and just went round and round the
canyon like ez when yer washin' the dirt out o' a prospectin' pan--
every now and then washin' some one of the boys that was in it,
like scum, up ag'in the banks.




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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