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A Little Bit o' Somthin' - fromt the Harriet Murphey Chronicles
By Janet K Brennan
Thursday, February 15, 2007
Not rated by the Author.
Get your first glimpse of one of my Harriet Murphey Stories. She is a unique character you will want to get to know more about. Soon to be published in serial form by Casa de Snapdragon Publishing
I guess you can’t really call Old Pine a ghost town, though for some reason or other, people like to think it is. If they are referring to all the strange calls and sighs through the long nights, well they had best look into their own souls for an answer to what they say they hear. I myself have only had the lucky occasion of running into a few ghosts, some of them my own, I suspect, and they seemed like harmless critters to me. .. I guess there probably are several of those restless spirits lingering up in these hills and, to my way of thinking, if they are happy hanging around a dusty old, half deserted town, then more power to ‘em.
During the peak of the Gold Rush, this old town was booming with folks living in tents or make shift cabins, but after a few years, when it became abundantly clear that California was going to run out of gold, most of them high tailed it back to where they came from either taking their booty with 'em for braggin' rights or with their tails between their legs. The smart ones stayed and invested their money into land or fruit. They were the ones who just kept getting richer by the day, turning their gold into the rich, fertile farming lands of the Sacramento Valley.
My parents came west a year after the first bit of the shine was discovered, so they never really called themselves certifiable 49ers. The gold brought them west, though, no doubt about it. My mother, being a Smyth from the Smyth’s of Boston, was reluctant to leave her fine and noble town, but my father, a Murphy of the South Boston Murphys, decided he was goin’ west. Mother, loving him so, and being only sixteen years old, was not about to let her man go without her and she joined him on the trip West to Missouri and then on a wagon train across the high Sierra Nevada. Their destination was none other than the gold mines that lie along the rich American River in the foothills of the Tahoe.
They got lucky enough and hit a small vein along the Devil’s Ford. Being prudent people, and not ones to squander their riches, they quickly placed most of their diggings in a vault in Auburn Town. The rest went into the building of a log cabin, fit and proper. Back then, the cabins were constructed from the bare ground up. They had but dirt floor and canvas rooves that would not prove to be the specifications of our home. No siree! My Papa thought it best to provide a wooden floor set up on large, flat boulders, one next to the other to provide stability. Over the years, as the other cabins slowly became one with the ground they set on, our fit cabin never budged an inch. He set forth a double row of logs, all the way around to provide proper insulation during the cold winter months. The windows were plentiful to let in the gentle breezes of spring, summer and fall. Bedrooms were up a narrow stairwell and open to receive the warmth of the fire on cold nights.
He loved the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, with its sunny, gay springtime and gentle warm summer. Autumn was pleasant enough and, if one were to live far enough down on the hill, winters were not quite so jaw tearing
It wasn’t long before both my parents realized that gold was not going to go on forever and they decided to retire from the blasting and tedious panning for placer. They soon planted twenty apple trees. Being the visionary that he was, the trees proved to be a second pot of gold. Every year, as the good Lord smiled down upon our apples, they ripened into the most succulent pieces of fruit. Other than saving a bounty for our own table, they were carted off to the mercantile on Sam’s Ridge and sold for a good profit that kept us comfortable throughout the year.
It was eighteen hundred and seventy five, the Indian Wars were just beginning and women were marching against the sale of liquor in upstate New York. I came into the world amidst all of the crazy shenanigans that were going on around me. My mother, a tad older for birthing, had her own set of ideas about raising a child and I suspect that accounts for many of my differences.
I was baptized Henrietta Murphy, as was deemed a fit and proper a name by my mother. It never bothered me that I was not given a middle name. As to my way of thinking, middle names were only good for cussing out when needed or to prove who your daddy was. I got plenty of cussin’ out as a child and for the longest time I thought my true middle name was “dang.” I knew who my daddy was and I didn’t really mind the dang. It was not long before they dropped the prim and proper Henrietta and began calling me Harriet. Then I was Harriet “Dang” Murphy. I have since shortened my name to Harriet D. Murphy
When I was five years old, a collision with a stage and a runaway mare took my Papa’s life on a trip back from Sacramento. When that happened, my mother immediately took off her apron and bought four horses. Not long after that a corral was built and the following year a lean-to for shelter and hay. “Proper folks own horses,” she told me. I never once saw her mourn for her lost husband and I guessed that was because she was so darned busy working the orchard, maintaining our garden, and cutting wood for the fire. She taught me early on how to survive in the hills without need of another human being. That was a weakness of the soul and body and would not be tolerated. She died when I was twenty and five years old, some ten years ago, never once complaining about the pain she felt in her left breast which eventually consumed her entire body and brain.
The year after mother passed was the most difficult for me. The first winter, I lost ten apple trees. That was fine with me as it was ten more apple trees than I could handle by myself. The remaining ten were healthy and did well. The fair profit continued for me and that, along with the Auburn Town’s savings, would provide for me for the rest of my natural life, God willing.
It was the alone time that almost got the best of me. Due to this unexpected emotional twist in my life, I soon learned that a little bit of company could always be found at Seb’s Tavern. That and a bit of Irish Whiskey seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. Most nights, with the exception of the bar maids, I was the only woman drinking at Seb’s, but it made no difference to me. I enjoyed the ribald stories and jokes the men had to offer and they were mostly gents as they had all crawled through a mine or two with my Papa. It didn’t hurt none that overalls were my customary way of dress and most of the men turned a blind eye to the fact that they were drinking with a woman.
The women of Old Pine noticed the sudden addition of the fair gender amongst their men and were not at all pleased. They seldom spoke to me on a good Saturday afternoon and simply nodded their salutations to me in Sunday morning service as if it was their God given duty to acknowledge me. I knew however, that if God himself was to raise His hand in protest, saying “Never speak to that sinner of a woman again,” they would have sighed a collective sigh of relief. The hysterical truth of it was that most of them were active in the Womens’ Temperance, yet were addicted to all kinds of the new medicines that were being sold in Old Pine. I was pretty dang sure that they all contained generous servings of alcohol.
One night, it was my misfortune to leave Old Seb’s after having a bit more of the Irish than was my habit. My cabin was a good walk and on such a night, it was my feeling that I would enjoy the crisp, late autumn, night air. As I approached the old stamp mill, I made a decision to cut across the Old Pine Cemetery, as it would take me home by way of ten minutes faster. No sooner had I trespassed on the holy ground, than I heard the soft sound of whimpering straight ahead of me. I saw no one but as I grew closer to the sound it was obvious to me that someone or something was in dire need of help. Sure as a sure- footed mule on a soggy bottom meadow, a great hole in the ground opened up before me and I knew I had come upon a half dug grave.
“Who’s there? Who is that crying into the night? Speak up?”
“I am here, Oh my Lordie, I am down here.” Just then, the moon passed from behind the clouds and I was able to see the image of a middle-aged women crouched in the corner of the dirt at the bottom of the grave. She was covered in mud and I almost took her for a woman of color.
“What in Sam Hell are you doing down there, Ma’am?”
She began to sob. “I was coming back from choir and decided to take the short way through the cemetery, as it was beginning to get dark, and I knew my husband would be out looking for me. I never did see the hole, sir, and down I fell. I do believe that I have broken my leg.”
“I am not a sir, in fact I am Harriet Murphy, and yes Ma’am I know you have heard vile stories about me. I can only tell you that half of them are true . Now, I can get you out of there, but you are most likely not going to like my methods.”
With these words, she screamed for help “Please, please, Harriet Murphy. Any way you consider to be proper, will be just fine with me.”
She never did seem to mind at all that I was taking off my shirt and overalls and tying the two together to make what proved to be fairly sturdy line for rescue. Tossing it down to her, she grabbed on to it, and I began tugging as hard as I could. Well, Lord have mercy, if it didn’t take me the rest of the night to finally hoist this woman free of her early grave! Moreover, as she came tumbling out of the hole, what do you suppose fell from her ruffled skirt pockets? Damned, if at least a dozen tiny vials of medicine didn’t fall to the ground!
“Ma’am, I beg of you, do not expose my tender secret to anyone. I must take the syrup, for it helps the ache in my back . . . and it does relax me so. All of the women in Old Pine take it, but as my husband does not approve of the situation, I would ask for your pledge of secrecy.“
Putting the bottle to my nose, pure alcohol assailed my senses and dang near brought me back into the drunken state I had just worked my way out of.
Round about sun up, when the first churchgoers began passing in their carriages, you can only imagine the surprise on their faces to see a near naked woman carrying the choir mistress out of Old Pine Cemetery .
Not long after, it came to me that I had become the Old Pine hero for having saved the choir mistress’s life in an accident in the cemetery. Not a word was said about my lack of overalls and I prudently kept the vial of medicines I had found that night a forever secret. There were whispers about town amongst the female population that someone had found out about their little vials of tonic, but no one was entirely sure just who that “someone” might be.
The incident did shake my soul a bit and after that I contained my Saturday night visits to Old Seb’s Tavern to a once a month treat. God knows, it could have been me down at the bottom of that “early grave” with no one willing enough to take their britches off for me.
As my visits to Old Seb’s tavern became less frequent, the ladies of Old Pine found it in their hearts to be a bit more favorable. And, the more favorable they became, the more I noticed a strange new way of walking amongst them. A bit unladylike I might add. Their right arms always seemed to be hidden amongst the folds of their ruffled skirt pockets.
To be sure, I relayed this somewhat humorous story to my mother who I felt sure was listening from her perch in heaven. She always was a good listener. I could have sworn I heard her whisper in the wind through the old Sequoia, that I had better learn something from the whole incident. Therefore, upon contemplation, I did learn three things. One is that Irish whiskey is no solution for long, lonely nights. I also realized that just about everyone carries around a little bit of somethin’ in their secret, hideaway pockets; but that doesn’t mean the preaching stops. Most important and, of course the most obvious of all, is ... it better be just a little bit of somethin’ a person carries around in their pocket, because a lot of somethin’ can lead you to an “early grave.”
No, I can’t say as I ever minded my “dang” middle name, it came home to roost many times in my life and each time was one more "little bit of somethin’" to carry around in my soul.
Site: JB Stillwater, Inc
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