Stories in Light and Shadow
Uncle Jim And Uncle Billy
They were partners. The avuncular title was bestowed on them by Cedar Camp,
possibly in recognition of a certain matured good humor, quite distinct from the
spasmodic exuberant spirits of its other members, and possibly from what, to its
youthful sense, seemed their advanced ages—which must have been at least
forty! They had also set habits even in their improvidence, lost incalculable and
unpayable sums to each other over euchre regularly every evening, and
inspected their sluice-boxes punctually every Saturday for repairs—which they
never made. They even got to resemble each other, after the fashion of old
married couples, or, rather, as in matrimonial partnerships, were subject to the
domination of the stronger character; although in their case it is to be feared that
it was the feminine Uncle Billy—enthusiastic, imaginative, and loquacious—who
swayed the masculine, steady-going, and practical Uncle Jim. They had lived in
the camp since its foundation in 1849; there seemed to be no reason why they
should not remain there until its inevitable evolution into a mining-town. The
younger members might leave through restless ambition or a desire for change
or novelty; they were subject to no such trifling mutation. Yet Cedar Camp was
surprised one day to hear that Uncle Billy was going away.
The rain was softly falling on the bark thatch of the cabin with a muffled murmur,
like a sound heard through sleep. The southwest trades were warm even at that
altitude, as the open door testified, although a fire of pine bark was flickering on
the adobe hearth and striking out answering fires from the freshly scoured
culinary utensils on the rude sideboard, which Uncle Jim had cleaned that
morning with his usual serious persistency. Their best clothes, which were
interchangeable and worn alternately by each other on festal occasions, hung on
the walls, which were covered with a coarse sailcloth canvas instead of lath-and-
plaster, and were diversified by pictures from illustrated papers and stains from
the exterior weather. Two "bunks," like ships' berths,—an upper and lower one,—
occupied the gable-end of this single apartment, and on beds of coarse sacking,
filled with dry moss, were carefully rolled their respective blankets and pillows.
They were the only articles not used in common, and whose individuality was
Uncle Jim, who had been sitting before the fire, rose as the square bulk of his
partner appeared at the doorway with an armful of wood for the evening stove.
By that sign he knew it was nine o'clock: for the last six years Uncle Billy had
regularly brought in the wood at that hour, and Uncle Jim had as regularly closed
the door after him, and set out their single table, containing a greasy pack of
cards taken from its drawer, a bottle of whiskey, and two tin drinking-cups. To
this was added a ragged memorandum-book and a stick of pencil. The two men
drew their stools to the table.
"Hol' on a minit," said Uncle Billy.