The Gray Dawn by Stewart Edward White
It happened on this day that Nan Keith had refused an invitation to ride with Ben Sansome, but had agreed as a compromise to give him a cup of tea late in the afternoon. Nan's mood was latterly becoming more and more restless. It was an unconscious reflection of the times, unconscious because she had no real conception of what was going on. In obedience to Keith's positively expressed request she had kept away from the downtown districts, leaving the necessary marketing to Wing Sam. For the moment, as has been explained, her points of touch with society were limited. It happened that before the trouble began the Keiths had been subscribers to the Bulletin and the Herald, and these two journals continued to be delivered. Neither of them gave her much idea of what was really going on. For a moment her imagination was touched by the blank space of white paper the Bulletin left where King's editorials had usually been printed, but Thomas King's subsequent violence had repelled her. The Herald, after rashly treating the "affray" as a street brawl, lost hundreds of subscribers and most of its advertising. It shrunk to a sheet a quarter of its usual size. Naturally, its editor, John Nugent, was the more solidly and bitterly aligned with the Law and Order party. The true importance of the revolt, either as an ethical movement or merely as regards its physical size, did not get to Nan at all. She knew the time was one of turmoils and excitements. She believed the city in danger of mobs. Her attitude might be described as a mixture of fastidious disapproval and a sympathetic restlessness.
About the middle of the afternoon Mrs. Sherwood came up the front walk and rang the bell. Nan, sitting behind lace curtains, was impressed by her air of controlled excitement. Mrs. Sherwood hurried. She hurried gracefully, to be sure, and with a reminiscence of her usual feline indolence; but she hurried, nevertheless. Therefore, Nan herself answered the bell, instead of awaiting the deliberate Wing Sam.
"My dear," cried Mrs. Sherwood, "get your mantle, and come with me. There's something going to happen-something big!"
She refused to answer Nan's questions.
"You'll see," was all the reply she vouchsafed. "Hurry!"
They crossed by the new graded streets where the sand hills had been, and soon found themselves on the low elevations above the county jail. Mrs. Sherwood led the way to the porch of a onestory wooden house that appeared to be unoccupied.
"This is fine!" she said with satisfaction.
The jail was just below them, and they looked directly across the open square in front of it and the convergence of two streets. The jail was buzzing like a hive: men were coming and going busily, running away as though on errands, or darting in through the open door. Armed men were taking their places on the flat roof.
In contrast to this one little spot of excited activity, the rest of the scene was almost superlatively peaceful. People were drifting in from all the side streets, but they were sauntering slowly, as though without particular interest; they might have been going to or coming from church. A warm, basking, Sunday feel was in the sunshine. There was not the faintest breeze. Distant sounds carried clearly, as the barking of a dog-- it might have been Gringo shut up at home--or the crowing of a distant cock. From the square below arose the murmur of a multitude talking. The groups of people increased in frequency, in numbers. Black forms began to appear on roof tops all about; white faces at windows. It would have been impossible to say when the scattered groups became a crowd; when the side of the square filled; when the converging streets became black with closely packed people; when the windows and doors and balconies, the copings and railings, the slopes of the hills were all occupied, but so it was. Before she fairly realized that many were gathering, Nan looked down on twenty thousand people. They took their positions quietly, and waited. There was no shouting, no demonstration, so little talking that the low murmur never rendered inaudible the barking of the dog or the crowing of the distant cock. The doors of the jail had closed. Men ceased going in and out. The armed forces on the roof were increased.
Nan had left off asking questions of Mrs. Sherwood, who answered none. The feeling of tense expectation filled her also. What was forward? Was this a mob? Why were these people gathered? Somehow they gave her the impression that they, too, like Mrs. Sherwood and herself, were waiting to see.
After a long time she saw the closely packed crowd down the vista of one of the converging streets move in the agitation of some disturbance. A moment later the sun caught files of bayonets. At the same instant the same thing happened at the end of the other converging street. The armed columns came steadily forward, the people giving way. Their men were dressed in sober citizens' clothes. The shining steel of the bayonets furnished the only touch of uniform. Quietly and steadily they came forward, the snake of steel undulating and twisting like a living thing. The two columns reached the convergence of the street together. As they entered the square before the jail, a third and fourth column debouched from side streets, and others deployed into view on the hills behind. The timing was perfect. One minute the prospect was empty of all but spectators, the next it was filled with grim and silent armed men.
Near the two women and among chance spectators on the piazza of the deserted house a well-known character of the times leaned against one of the pillars. This was Colonel Gift. Our chronicler, who has an eye for the telling phrase, describes him as "a tall, lank, empty-bowelled, tobacco- spurting Southerner, with eyes like burning black balls, who could talk a company of listeners into an insane asylum quicker than any man in California, and whose blasphemy could not be equalled, either in quantity or quality, by the most profane of any age or nation." In this crisis Colonel Gift's sympathies may be guessed. He watched the scene below him with a sardonic eye. As the armed columns wheeled into place and stood at attention, he turned to a man standing near.
"I tell you, stranger," said he, "when you see those damned psalm-singing Yankees turn out of their churches, shoulder their guns, and march away of a Sunday, you may know that hell is going to crack shortly!"
Mrs. Sherwood turned an amused eye in his direction. The colonel, for the first time becoming aware of her presence, swept off his black slouch hat and apologized profusely for the "damn."
The armed men stood rigid, four deep all around the square. Behind them the masses of the people watched. Even the murmur died. Again everybody waited.
Now, at a command, the ranks fell apart and from the side street marched the sixty men chosen by Olney dragging a field gun at the end of a rope. Their preliminary task of watching the jail for a possible escape finished, they had been again gathered. With beautiful military precision they wheeled and came to rest facing the frowning walls of the jail, the cannon pointed at the door.
Nan gasped sharply, and seized Mrs. Sherwood's arm with both hands. She had recognized Keith standing by the right wheel of the cannon. He was looking straight ahead, and the expression on his face was one she had never seen there before. Suddenly something swelled up within her breast and choked her. The tears rushed to her eyes.
Quite deliberately, each motion in plain sight, the cannon was loaded with powder and ball. A man lit a slow match, blew it painstakingly to a glow, then took his position at the breech. The slight innumerable sounds of these activities died. The bustle of men moving imperceptibly fell. Not even the coughing and sneezing usual to a gathering of people paying attention was heard, for the intense interest inhibited these nervous symptoms. Probably never have twenty thousand people, gathered in one place, made their presence so little evident. A deep, solemn stillness brooded over them. The spring sun lay warm and grateful on men's shoulders; the doves and birds, the distant dogs and roosters, cooed and twittered, barked and crowed.
Nothing happened for full ten minutes. The picked men stood rigid by the gun in the middle of the square; the slow match burned sleepily, a tiny thread of smoke rising in the still air; the sunlight gleamed from the ranks of bayonets; the vast multitude held its breath, the walls of the jail remained blank and inscrutable.
Then a man on horseback was seen pushing his way through the crowd. He rode directly up to the jail door, on which he rapped thrice with the handle of his riding whip. Against the silence these taps, but gently delivered, sounded sharp and staccato. After a moment the wicket opened. The rider, without dismounting, handed through it a note; then, with a superb display of the old-fashioned horsemanship, backed his horse half the length of the square where he, too, came to rest.
"Who is he?" whispered Nan. Why she whispered she could not have told.
"Charles Doane," answered Mrs. Sherwood, in the same voice.
Another commotion down the street. Again the ranks parted and closed again, this time to admit three carriages driven rapidly. As they came to a stop the muskets all around the square leaped to the "present." So disconcerting was this sudden slap and rattle of arms after the tenseness of the last half hour, that men dodged back as though from a blow. With admirable precision, Olney's men, obeying a series of commands, moved forward from the gun to form a hollow square around the carriages. Only the man with the burning slow match was left standing by the breech.
From the carriages then descended Coleman, Truett, Talbot Ward, Smiley, and two other men whom neither Nan nor Mrs. Sherwood recognized. Amid the dead silence they walked directly to the jail door, Olney's Sixty breaking the square and deploying close at their heels. A low colloquy through the wicket now took place. At length the door swung slowly open. The committee entered. The door swung shut after them. Again the people waited, but now once more arose the murmur of low-toned conversation.