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"We managed in this way to snake out the judge, jest ez he was
sailin' round on the home stretch, passin' the quarter post two
lengths ahead o' the can. A good deal o' the ice cream had washed
away, but it took us ten minutes to shake the cracked ice and
powdered salt out o' the old man's clothes, and warm him up again
in the laurel bush where he was clinging. This sort o' 'Here we go
round the mulberry bush' kep' on until most o' the humans was got
out, and only the furniture o' the picnic was left in the race.
Then it got kinder mixed up, and went sloshin' round here and
there, ez the water kep' comin' down by the trail. Then Lulu
Piper, what I was holdin' up all the time in a laurel bush, gets an
idea, for all she was wet and draggled; and ez the things went
bobbin' round, she calls out the figures o' a cotillon to 'em.
'Two camp-stools forward.' 'Sashay and back to your places.'
'Change partners.' 'Hands all round.'

"She was clear grit, you bet! And the joke caught on and the other
girls jined in, and it kinder cheered 'em, for they was wantin' it.
Then Fludder allowed to pacify 'em by sayin' he just figured up the
size o' the reservoir and the size o' the canyon, and he kalkilated
that the cube was about ekal, and the canyon couldn't flood any
more. And then Lulu--who was peart as a jay and couldn't be
fooled--speaks up and says, 'What's the matter with the ditch,
Dick?'

"Lord! then we knew that she knew the worst; for of course all the
water in the ditch itself--fifty miles of it!--was drainin' now
into that reservoir and was bound to come down to the canyon."

It was at this point that the situation became really desperate,
for they had now crawled up the steep sides as far as the bushes
afforded foothold, and the water was still rising. The chatter of
the girls ceased, there were long silences, in which the men
discussed the wildest plans, and proposed to tear their shirts into
strips to make ropes to support the girls by sticks driven into the
mountain side. It was in one of those intervals that the distinct
strokes of a woodman's axe were heard high on the upland at the
point where the trail descended to the canyon. Every ear was
alert, but only those on one side of the canyon could get a fair
view of the spot. This was the good fortune of Captain Fairfax and
Georgy Piper, who had climbed to the highest bush on that side, and
were now standing up, gazing excitedly in that direction.

"Some one is cutting down a tree at the head of the trail," shouted
Fairfax. The response and joyful explanation, "for a dam across
the trail," was on everybody's lips at the same time.

But the strokes of the axe were slow and painfully intermittent.
Impatience burst out.

"Yell to him to hurry up! Why haven't they brought two men?"

"It's only one man," shouted the captain, "and he seems to be a
cripple. By Jiminy!--it is--yes!--it's Tom Sparrell!"

There was a dead silence. Then, I grieve to say, shame and its
twin brother rage took possession of their weak humanity. Oh, yes!
It was all of a piece! Why in the name of Folly hadn't he sent for
an able-bodied man. Were they to be drowned through his cranky
obstinacy?

The blows still went on slowly. Presently, however, they seemed to
alternate with other blows--but alas! they were slower, and if
possible feebler!

"Have they got another cripple to work?" roared the Contingent in
one furious voice.

"No--it's a woman--a little one--yes! a girl. Hello! Why, sure as
you live, it's Delaware!"

A spontaneous cheer burst from the Contingent, partly as a rebuke
to Sparrell, I think, partly from some shame over their previous
rage. He could take it as he liked.

Still the blows went on distressingly slow. The girls were hoisted
on the men's shoulders; the men were half submerged. Then there
was a painful pause; then a crumbling crash. Another cheer went up
from the canyon.

"It's down! straight across the trail," shouted Fairfax, "and a
part of the bank on the top of it."

There was another moment of suspense. Would it hold or be carried
away by the momentum of the flood? It held! In a few moments
Fairfax again gave voice to the cheering news that the flow had
stopped and the submerged trail was reappearing. In twenty minutes
it was clear--a muddy river bed, but possible of ascent! Of course
there was no diminution of the water in the canyon, which had no
outlet, yet it now was possible for the party to swing from bush to
bush along the mountain side until the foot of the trail--no longer
an opposing one--was reached. There were some missteps and
mishaps,--flounderings in the water, and some dangerous rescues,--
but in half an hour the whole concourse stood upon the trail and
commenced the ascent. It was a slow, difficult, and lugubrious
procession--I fear not the best-tempered one, now that the stimulus
of danger and chivalry was past. When they reached the dam made by
the fallen tree, although they were obliged to make a long detour
to avoid its steep sides, they could see how successfully it had
diverted the current to a declivity on the other side.

But strangely enough they were greeted by nothing else! Sparrell
and the youngest Miss Piper were gone; and when they at last
reached the highroad, they were astounded to hear from a passing
teamster that no one in the settlement knew anything of the
disaster!

This was the last drop in their cup of bitterness! They who had
expected that the settlement was waiting breathlessly for their
rescue, who anticipated that they would be welcomed as heroes, were
obliged to meet the ill-concealed amusement of passengers and
friends at their dishevelled and bedraggled appearance, which
suggested only the blundering mishaps of an ordinary summer outing!
"Boatin' in the reservoir, and fell in?" "Playing at canal-boat in
the Ditch?" were some of the cheerful hypotheses. The fleeting
sense of gratitude they had felt for their deliverers was dissipated
by the time they had reached their homes, and their rancor increased
by the information that when the earthquake occurred Mr. Tom
Sparrell and Miss Delaware were enjoying a "pasear" in the forest--
he having a half-holiday by virtue of the festival--and that
the earthquake had revived his fears of a catastrophe. The two had
procured axes in the woodman's hut and did what they thought was
necessary to relieve the situation of the picnickers. But the very
modesty of this account of their own performance had the effect of
belittling the catastrophe itself, and the picnickers' report of
their exceeding peril was received with incredulous laughter.

For the first time in the history of Red Gulch there was a serious
division between the Piper family, supported by the Contingent, and
the rest of the settlement. Tom Sparrell's warning was remembered
by the latter, and the ingratitude of the picnickers to their
rescuers commented upon; the actual calamity to the reservoir was
more or less attributed to the imprudent and reckless contiguity of
the revelers on that day, and there were not wanting those who
referred the accident itself to the machinations of the scheming
Ditch Director Piper!

It was said that there was a stormy scene in the Piper household
that evening. The judge had demanded that Delaware should break
off her acquaintance with Sparrell, and she had refused; the judge
had demanded of Sparrell's employer that he should discharge him,
and had been met with the astounding information that Sparrell was
already a silent partner in the concern. At this revelation Judge
Piper was alarmed; while he might object to a clerk who could not
support a wife, as a consistent democrat he could not oppose a
fairly prosperous tradesman. A final appeal was made to Delaware;
she was implored to consider the situation of her sisters, who had
all made more ambitious marriages or were about to make them. Why
should she now degrade the family by marrying a country storekeeper?

It is said that here the youngest Miss Piper made a memorable
reply, and a revelation the truth of which was never gainsaid:--

"You all wanter know why I'm going to marry Tom Sparrell?" she
queried, standing up and facing the whole family circle.

"Yes."

"Why I prefer him to the hull caboodle that you girls have married
or are going to marry?" she continued, meditatively biting the end
of her braid.

"Yes."

"Well, he's the only man of the whole lot that hasn't proposed to
me first."

It is presumed that Sparrell made good the omission, or that the
family were glad to get rid of her, for they were married that
autumn. And really a later comparison of the family records shows
that while Captain Fairfax remained "Captain Fairfax," and the
other sons-in-law did not advance proportionately in standing or
riches, the lame storekeeper of Red Gulch became the Hon. Senator
Tom Sparrell.





Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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