The Courting Of Griselda
L'amour, Louis - Sackett's 07
When It Came To Griselda Popley, I Was Down To Bedrock And Showing No Color.
What I mean is, I wasn't getting anyplace. The only thing I'd learned sinc e leaving the Cumberland in Tennessee was how to work a gold placer claim, but I w as doing no better with that than I was with Griselda.
Her pa, Frank Popley, had a claim just a whoop and a holler down canyon from me.
He had put down a shaft on a flat bench at the bend of the creek and he was dow n a ways and making a fair cleanup.
He was scraping rock down there and panning out sixty to seventy dollars a day , and one time he found a crack where the gold had seeped through and filled in a space under a layer of rock, and he cleaned out six hundred dollars in four o r five minutes.
It sure does beat all how prosperity makes a man critical of all who are les s prosperous. Seems like some folks no sooner get two dollars they can rattl e together than they start looking down their noses at folks who only have tw o bits.
We were right friendly while Popley was sinking his shaft, but as soon as h e began bringing up gold he started giving me advice and talking me down t o Griselda. From the way he cut up, you'd have thought it was some ability o r knowledge of his that put that gold there. I never saw a man get superior s o fast. He was running me down and talking up that Arvie Wilt who had a clai m nearby the Popley place, and Arvie was a man I didn't cotton to.
He was two inches taller than my six feet and three, and where I pack on e hundred and eighty pounds on that lean a frame, most of it in my chest , shoulders, and arms, Arvie weighed a good fifty pounds more and he swaggered i t around as if almighty impressed with himself.
He was a big, easy-smiling man that folks took to right off, and it took them a while to learn he was a man with a streak of meanness in him that was nigh ont o downright viciousness. Trouble was, a body never saw that mean streak unless h e was in a bind, but when trouble came to him, the meanness came out. But Arvi e was panning out gold, and you'd be surprised how that increased his socia l standing there on Horse Collar Creek.
Night after night he was over to the Popleys', putting his big feet under thei r table and being waited on by Griselda. Time to time I was there, too, but the y talked gold and how much they weighed out each day while all I was weighing ou t was gravel.
He was panning a fine show of color and all I had was a .44 pistol gun, a Henr y rifle, and my mining tools. And as we all know it's the high card in a man's hand to be holding money when he goes a-courting.
None of us Sacketts ever had much cash money. We were hardworking mountain fol k who harvested a lean corn crop off a sidehill farm, and we boys earned wha t clothes weren't made at home by trapping muskrats or coon. Sometimes we'd get u s a bear, and otherwise we'd live on razorback hog meat or venison.
Never will forget the time a black bear treed old Orrin, that brother of mine , and us caught nine miles from home and none of us carrying iron.
You ever tackle a grown bear with a club? Me and Tyrel, we done it. We chunke d at him with rocks and sticks, but he paid them no mind. He was bound an d determined to have Orrin, and there was Orrin up high in the small branches o f that tree like a possum huntin' persimmons.
Chunking did no good, so Tyrel and me cut us each a club and we had at tha t bear. He was big and he was mean, but while one of us closed in on him before , the other lambasted him from behind. Time to time we'd stop lambasting that bea r to advise Orrin.
Finally that old bear got disgusted and walked off and Orrin came down out o f that tree and we went on to the dance at Skunk Hollow School. Orrin did hi s fiddling that night from a sitting stool because the bear had most of his pants.
Right now I felt like he must have felt then. Every day that Griselda girl wen t a-walking past my claim paying me no mind but switching her skirts until I wa s fair sweating on my neck.
Her pa was a hard man. One time I went over there for supper like I had when I'd been welcome, back when neither of us had anything. He would stand up there i n his new boots, consulting a new gold watch every minute or two, and talking hig h and mighty about the virtues of hard work and the application of brains. And al l the time that Arvie Wilt was a-setting over there making big eyes at Griselda.
If anything, Arvie had more gold than Popley did and he was mighty welcome a t table, but for me the atmosphere was frosting over a mite, and the only reason I d ug in and held on was that I'd scraped my pot empty of beans and for two day s I'd eaten nothing but those skimpy little wild onions.
Now when it came right down to it, Popley knew I'd worked hard as either o f them, but I was showing no color and he wanted a son-in-law who was prosperous , so needing to find fault, he taken issue with me on fighting.
We boys from the high-up hills aren't much on bowing and scraping, but alon g about fighting time, you'll find us around. Back in the Cumberland I grew up t o knuckle-and-skull fighting, and what I hadn't learned there I picked up workin g west on a keelboat.
Pa, he taught us boys to be honest, to give respect to womenfolk, to avoi d trouble when we could, but to stand our ground when it came to a matter o f principle, and a time or two I'd stood my ground.
That old six-shooter of mine was a caution. It looked old enough to have wor n out three men, but it shot true and worked smooth. My hands are almighty big bu t I could fetch that pistol faster than you could blink. Not that I made an issu e of it because Pa taught us to live peaceable.
Only there was that time down to Elk Creek when a stranger slicked an ace of f the bottom, and I taken issue with him. He had at me with a fourteen-inch blad e and my toothpick was home stuck in a tree where I'd left it after skinning out a deer, so I fetched him a clout alongside the skull and took the blade from him.
A friend of his hit me from behind with a chair, which I took as unfriendly, an d then he fetched out his pistol, so I came up a-shooting.
Seemed like I'd won myself a name as a bad man to trouble, and it saved me som e hardship. Folks spoke polite and men seeking disagreement took the other side o f the road, only it gave Popley something he could lay a hand to, and he bega n making slighting remarks about men who got into brawls and cutting scrapes.
Words didn't come easy to me and by the time I'd thought of the right answer I w as home in bed, but when Popley talked I felt like I was disgracing Griselda b y coming a-courting. So I went back to my claim shanty and looked into the bea n pot again, but it was still empty, and I went a-hunting wild onions.
Nobody could ever say any of us Sacketts fought shy of work, so I dug away at m y claim until I was satisfied there was nothing there but barren gravel. Climbin g out of that shaft I sat down and looked at my hole card.
There was nothing left but to load up my gear on that spavined mule I had an d leave the country. I was out of grub, out of cash money, and out of luck. Onl y leaving the country meant leaving Griselda, and worst of all, it meant leavin g her to Arvie Wilt.
Time or two I've heard folks say there's always better fish in the sea, but no t many girls showed me attention. Many a time I sat lonely along the wall, feare d to ask a girl to dance because I knew she'd turn me down, and no girl had pai d me mind for a long time until Griselda showed up.
She was little, she was pert, and she had quick blue eyes and an uptilted nos e and freckles where you didn't mind them. She'd grown into a woman and wa s feeling it, and there I was, edged out by the likes of Arvie Wilt.
Popley, he stopped by. There I was, a-setting hungry and discouraged, and h e came down creek riding that big brown mule and he said, "Tell, I'd take i t kindly if you stayed away from the house." He cleared his throat because I had a bleak look to my eye. "Griselda is coming up to marrying time and I don't wan t her confused. You've got nothing, and Arvie Wilt is a prosperous mining man.
Meaning no offense, but you see how it is."
He rode on down to the settlement and there was nothing for me to do but go t o picking wild onions. The trouble was, if a man picked all day with both hands h e couldn't pick enough wild onions to keep him alive.
It was rough country, above the canyons, but there were scattered trees and hig h grass plains, with most of the ridges topped with crests of pine. Long abou t sundown I found some deer feeding in a parklike clearing.
They were feeding, and I was downwind of them, so I straightened up and starte d walking toward them, taking my time. When I saw their tails start to switch, I s topped.
A deer usually feeds into the wind so he can smell danger, and when his tai l starts to wiggle he's going to look up and around, so I stood right still. Dee r don't see all too good, so unless a body is moving they see nothing to be afrai d of. They looked around and went back to feeding and I moved closer until thei r tails started again, and then I stopped.
Upshot of it was, I got a good big buck, butchered him, and broiled a stea k right on the spot, I was that hungry. Then I loaded the best cuts of meat int o the hide and started back, still munching on wild onions. Down on the cree k again the first person I saw was Griselda, and right off she began switching he r skirts as she walked to meet me.
"I passed your claim," she said, "but you were not there."
She had little flecks of brown in her blue eyes and she stood uncomfortabl y close to a man. "No, ma'am, I've give ... given ... it up. Your pa is right.
That claim isn't up to much."
"Are you coming by tonight?"
"Seems to me I wore out my welcome. No, ma'am, I'm not coming by. However, i f you're walking that way, I'll drop off one of these here venison steaks."
Fresh meat was scarce along that creek, and the thought occurred that I migh t sell what I didn't need, so after leaving a steak with the Popleys, I peddle d the rest of it, selling out for twelve dollars cash money, two quarts of beans , a pint of rice, and six pounds of flour.
Setting in my shack that night I wrassled with my problem and an idea that ha d come to me. Astride that spavined mule I rode down to the settlement and spen t my twelve dollars on flour, a mite of sugar, and some other fixings, and back a t the cabin I washed out some flour sacks for aprons, and made me one of thos e chef hats like I'd seen in a newspaper picture. Then I set to making bear-sign.
Least, that's what we called them in the mountains. Most folks on the flatlan d called them doughnuts, and some mountain folk did, but not around our house. I m ade up a batch of bear-sign and that good baking smell drifted down along th e creek, and it wasn't more than a few minutes later until a wild-eyed miner cam e running and falling up from the creek, and a dozen more after him.
"Hey! Is that bear-sign we smell? Is them doughnuts?"
"Cost you," I said. "I'm set up for business. Three doughnuts for two bits."
That man set right down and ate two dollars' worth and by the time he wa s finished there was a crowd around reaching for them fast as they came out of th e Dutch oven.
Folks along that creek lived on skimpy bacon and beans, sometimes some sod a biscuits, and real baking was unheard of. Back to home no woman could mak e doughnuts fast enough for we Sackett boys who were all good eaters, so we too k to making them ourselves. Ma often said nobody could make bear-sign like he r son, William Tell Sackett.
By noon I was off to the settlement for more makings, and by nightfall everybod y on the creek knew I was in business. Next day I sold a barrel of doughnuts, an d by nightfall I had the barrel full again and a washtub also. That washtub wa s the only one along the creek, and it looked like nobody would get a bath unti l I'd run out of bear-sign.
You have to understand how tired a man can get of grease and beans to understan d how glad they were to taste some honest-to-gosh, down-to-earth doughnuts.
Sun-up and here came Arvie Wilt. Arvie was a big man with a big appetite and h e set right down and ran up a bill of four dollars. I was making money.
Arvie sat there eating doughnuts and forgetting all about his claim.
Come noon, Griselda showed up. She came a-prancing and a-preening it up the roa d and she stayed around, eating a few doughnuts and talking with me. The more sh e talked the meaner Arvie got.
"Griselda," he said, "you'd best get along home. You know how your pa feel s about you trailing around with just any drifter."
Well, sir, I put down my bowl and wiped the flour off my hands. "Are you aimin g that at me?" I asked. "If you are, you just pay me my four dollars and get of f down the pike."
He was mean, like I've said, and he did what I hoped he'd do. He balled up a fist and threw it at me. Trouble was, he took so much time getting his fis t ready and his feet in position that I knew what he was going to do, so when h e flung that punch, I just stepped inside and hit him where he'd been puttin g those doughnuts.
He gulped and turned green around the jowls and white around the eyes, so I k nocked down a hand he stuck at me and belted him again in the same place. The n I caught him by the shirt front before he could fall and backhanded him twic e across the mouth for good measure.
Griselda was a-hauling at my arms. "Stop it, you awful man! You hurt him!"
"That ain't surprising, Griselda," I said. "It was what I had in mind."
So I went back to making bear-sign, and after a bit Arvie got up, with Griseld a helping, and he wiped the blood off his lips and he said, "I'll get even! I'l l get even with you if it's the last thing I do!"
"And it just might be," I said, and watched them walk off together.
There went Griselda. Right out of my life, and with Arvie Wilt, too.
Two days later I was out of business and broke. Two days later I had a barrel o f doughnuts I couldn't give away and my private gold rush was over. Worst of all , I'd put all I'd made back into the business and there I was, stuck with it. An d it was Arvie Wilt who did it to me.
As soon as he washed the blood off his face he went down to the settlement. He had heard of a woman down there who was a baker, and he fetched her back up th e creek. She was a big, round, jolly woman with pink cheeks, and she was a first-rate cook. She settled down to making apple pies three inches thick an d fourteen inches across and she sold a cut of a pie for two bits and each pi e made just four pieces.
She also baked cakes with high-grade all over them. In mining country rich or e is called high-grade, so miners got to calling the icing on cake high-grade, an d there I sat with a barrel full of bear-sign and everybody over to the bake r woman's buying cake and pie and such-like.
Then Popley came by with Griselda riding behind him on that brown mule, heade d for the baker woman's. "See what a head for business Arvie's got? He'll make a fine husband for Griselda."
Griselda? She didn't even look at me. She passed me up like a pay-car passing a tramp, and I felt so low I could have walked under a snake with a high hat on.
Three days later I was back to wild onions. My grub gave out, I couldn't peddl e my flour, and the red ants got into my sugar. All one day I tried sifting re d ants out of sugar; as fast as I got them out they got back in until there wa s more ants than sugar. So I gave up and went hunting. I hunted for two days an d couldn't find a deer, nor anything else but wild onions.
Down to the settlement they had a fandango, a real old-time square dance, and I h ad seen nothing of the kind since my brother Orrin used to fiddle for them bac k to home. So I brushed up my clothes and rubbed some deer grease on my boots, an d I went to that dance.
Sure enough, Griselda was there, and she was with Arvie Wilt.
Arvie was all slicked out in a black broadcloth suit that fit him a little to o soon, and black boots so tight he winced when he put a foot down.
Arvie spotted me and they fetched to a halt right beside me. "Sackett," Arvi e said, "I hear you're scraping bottom again. Now my baker woman needs a helper t o rev up her pots and pans, and if you want the job--"
"Just thought I'd ask,"--he grinned maliciously--"seein' you so good at woman's work."
He saw it in my eyes so he grabbed Griselda and they waltzed away, grinning.
Thing that hurt, she was grinning, too.
"That Arvie Wilt," somebody said, "there's a man will amount to something.
Popley says he has a fine head for business."
"For the amount of work he does," somebody else said, "he sure has a lot o f gold. He ain't spent a day in that shaft in a week."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Ask them down to the settlement. He does more gambling than mining, accordin g to some."
That baker woman was there, waltzing around like she was light as a feather, an d seeing her made me think of a Welshman I knew. Now you take a genuine Welshman , he can talk a bird right out of a tree ... I started wondering ... how would h e do with a widow woman who was a fine baker?
That Welshman wasn't far away, and we'd talked often, the year before. He like d a big woman, he said, the jolly kind and who could enjoy making good food. I sa t down and wrote him a letter.
Next morning early I met up with Griselda. "You actually marrying that Arvie?"
Her pert little chin came up and her eyes were defiant. "A girl has to think o f her future, Tell Sackett! She can't be tying herself to a -- a ne'er-do-well! Mr.Wilt is a serious man. His mine is very successful," her nose tilted, "and so i s the bakery!"
She turned away, then looked back, "And if you expect any girl to like you , you'd better stop eating those onions! They're simply awful!"
And if I stopped eating wild onions, I'd starve to death. Not that I wasn't half-starved, anyway.
That day I went further up the creek than ever, and the canyon narrowed to hig h walls and the creek filled the bottom, wall to wall, and I walked ankle deep i n water going through the narrows. And there on a sandy beach were deer tracks , old tracks and fresh tracks, and I decided this was where they came to drink.
So I found a grassy ledge above the pool and alongside an outcropping of rock , and there I settled down to wait for a deer. It was early afternoon and a goo d bit of time remained to me.
There were pines on the ridge behind me, and the wind sounded fine, hummin g through their needles. I sat there for a bit, enjoying the shade, and then I r eached around and pulled a wild onion from the grass, lifting it up to brus h away the sand and gravel clinging to the roots ...
It was sundown when I reached my shanty, but I didn't stop, I rode on into th e settlement. The first person I saw was the Welshman. He was smiling from ear t o ear, and beside him was the baker woman.
"Married!" he said cheerfully. "Just the woman I've been looking for!"
And off down the street they went, arm in arm. Only now it didn't matte r anymore.
For two days then I was busy as all get-out. I was down to the settlement an d back up above the narrows of the canyon, and then I was down again.
Putting my few things into a pack, and putting the saddle on that old mule o f mine, I was fixing to leave the claim and shanty for the last time when wh o should show up but Frank Popley.
He was riding his brown mule with Griselda riding behind him, and they rode u p in front of the shack. Griselda slid down off that mule and ran up and threw he r arms around me and kissed me right on the lips.
"Oh, Tell! We heard the news! Oh, we're so happy for you! Pa was just sayin g that he always knew you had the stuff, that you had what it takes!"
Frank Popley looked over at me and beamed. "Can't keep a good man down, boy! Yo u sure can't! Griselda, she always said, 'Pa, Tell is the best of the lot' an' sh e was sure enough right!"
Suddenly a boot crunched on gravel, and there was Arvie, looking mighty mean an d tough, and he was holding a Walker Colt in his fist, aimed right at me. Did yo u ever see a Walker Colt? Only thing it lacks to be a cannon is a set of wheels.
"You ain't a-gonna do it!" Arvie said. "You can't have Griselda!"
"You can have Griselda," I heard myself say, and was astonished to realize tha t I meant it.
"You're not fooling me! You can't get away with it." And his thumb came forwar d to cock that pistol.
Like I said, Arvie wasn't too smart or he'd have cocked his gun as he drew it , so I just fetched out my six-shooter and let the hammer slip from under my thum b as it came level.
Deliberately, I held it a little high, and the .44 slug smashed him in th e shoulder. It knocked him side-wise and he let go of that big pistol an d staggered back two steps and sat down hard.
"You're a mighty disagreeable man, Arvie," I said, "and not much account. Whe n the boys down at the settlement start finding the marks you put on those card s you'll have to leave the country, but I reckon you an' Griselda deserve eac h other."
She was looking at me with big eyes and pouty lips because she'd heard the news , but I wasn't having any.
"You-all been washing gold along the creek," I said, "but you never stopped t o think where those grains of gold started from. Well, I found and staked th e mother lode, staked her from Hell to breakfast, and one day's take will be mor e than you've taken out since you started work. I figure now I'll dig me out a goodly amount of money, then I'll sell my claims and find me some friends tha t aren't looking at me just to see what I got."
They left there walking down that hill with Arvie astride the mule making paine d sounds every time it took a step.
When I had pulled that wild onion up there on that ledge overlooking the dee r run, there were bits of gold in the sand that clung to the roots, and when I s craped the dirt away from the base of that outcrop, she was all there ... wir e gold lying in the rock like a jewelry store window.
Folks sometimes ask me why I called it the Wild Onion Mining Company.
[28 May 2002] Scanned and proofed by (unknown) on a . B. E-b [04 Jun 2002] converted to HTML by NickL