The story takes place in a Californian community known as Poker Flat, near the town of La Porte. Poker Flat is, in the opinions of many, on a downward slope. The town has lost thousands of dollars, and has experienced a moral decline. In an effort to save what is left of the town and reestablish it as a "virtuous" place, a secret society is created to decide whom to exile and whom to kill.
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The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Tales
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Published by Sovereign Classic
First published in 2016
Copyright © 2016 Sovereign
All Rights Reserved.
THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT
THE IDYL OF RED GULCH
BROWN OF CALAVERAS
A LONELY RIDE
THE MAN OF NO ACCOUNT
THE RIGHT EYE OF THE COMMANDER
NOTES BY FLOOD AND FIELD
AN EPISODE OF FIDDLETOWN
A YELLOW DOG
A MOTHER OF FIVE
IN THE TULES
A CONVERT OF THE MISSION
THE INDISCRETION OF ELSBETH
THE DEVOTION OF ENRIQUEZ
The life of Bret Harte divides itself, without adventitious forcing, into four quite distinct parts. First, we have the precocious boyhood, with its eager response to the intellectual stimulation of cultured parents; young Bret Harte assimilated Greek with amazing facility; devoured voraciously the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Irving, Froissart, Cervantes, Fielding; and, with creditable success, attempted various forms of composition. Then, compelled by economic necessity, he left school at thirteen, and for three years worked first in a lawyer’s office, and then in a merchant’s counting house.
The second period, that of his migration to California, includes all that is permanently valuable of Harte’s literary output. Arriving in California in 1854, he was, successively, a school-teacher, drug-store clerk, express messenger, typesetter, and itinerant journalist. He worked for a while on the NORTHERN CALIFORNIA (from which he was dismissed for objecting editorially to the contemporary California sport of murdering Indians), then on the GOLDEN ERA, 1857, where he achieved his first moderate acclaim. In this latter year he married Anne Griswold of New York. In 1864 he was given the secretaryship of the California mint, a virtual sinecure, and he was enabled do a great deal of writing. The first volume of his poems, THE LOST GALLEON AND OTHER TALES, CONDENSED NOVELS (much underrated parodies), and THE BOHEMIAN PAPERS were published in 1867. One year later, THE OVERLAND MONTHLY, which had aspirations of becoming “the ATLANTIC MONTHLY of the West,” was established, and Harte was appointed its first editor. For it, he wrote most of what still remains valid as literature—THE LUCK OF ROARING CAMP, THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT, PLAIN LANGUAGE FROM TRUTHFUL JAMES, among others. The combination of Irvingesque romantic glamor and Dickensian bitter-sweet humor, applied to picturesquely novel material, with the addition of a trick ending, was fantastically popular. Editors began to clamor for his stories; the University of California appointed him Professor of recent literature; and the ATLANTIC MONTHLY offered him the practically unprecedented sum of $10,000 for exclusive rights to one year’s literary output. Harte’s star was, briefly, in the ascendant.
However, Harte had accumulated a number of debts, and his editorial policies, excellent in themselves, but undiplomatically executed, were the cause of a series of arguments with the publisher of the OVERLAND MONTHLY. Fairly assured of profitable pickings in the East, he left California (permanently, as it proved). The East, however, was financially unappreciative. Harte wrote an unsuccessful novel and collaborated with Mark Twain on an unremunerative play. His attempts to increase his income by lecturing were even less rewarding. From his departure from California in 1872 to his death thirty years later, Harte’s struggles to regain financial stability were unremitting: and to these efforts is due the relinquishment of his early ideal of “a peculiarly characteristic Western American literature.” Henceforth Harte accepted, as Prof. Hicks remarks, “the role of entertainer, and as an entertainer he survived for thirty years his death as an artist.”
The final period extends from 1878, when he managed to get himself appointed consul to Crefeld in Germany, to 1902, when he died of a throat cancer. He left for Crefeld without his wife or son—perhaps intending, as his letters indicate, to call them to him when circumstances allowed; but save for a few years prior to his death, the separation, for whatever complex of reasons, remained permanent. Harte, however, continued to provide for them as liberally as he was able. In Crefeld Harte wrote A LEGEND OF SAMMERSTANDT, VIEWS FROM A GERMAN SPION, and UNSER KARL. In 1880 he transferred to the more lucrative consulship of Glasgow, and ROBIN GRAY, a tale of Scottish life, is the product of his stay there. In 1885 he was dismissed from his consulship, probably for political reasons, though neglect of duty was charged against him. He removed to London where he remained, for most part, until his death.
Bret Harte never really knew the life of the mining camp. His mining experiences were too fragmentary, and consequently his portraits of mining life are wholly impressionistic. “No one,” Mark Twain wrote, “can talk the quartz dialect correctly without learning it with pick and shovel and drill and fuse.” Yet, Twain added elsewhere, “Bret Harte got his California and his Californians by unconscious absorption, and put both of them into his tales alive.” That is, perhaps, the final comment. Much could be urged against Harte’s stories: the glamor they throw over the life they depict is largely fictitious; their pathetic endings are obviously stylized; their technique is overwhelmingly derivative. Nevertheless, so excellent a critic as Chesterton maintained that “There are more than nine hundred and ninety-nine excellent reasons which we could all have for admiring the work of Bret Harte.” The figure is perhaps exaggerated, but there are many reasons for admiration. First, Harte originated a new and incalculably influential type of story: the romantically picturesque “human-interest” story. “He created the local color story,” Prof. Blankenship remarks, “or at least popularized it, and he gave new form and intent to the short story.” Character motivating action is central to this type of story, rather than mood dominating incident. Again Harte’s style is really an eminently skilful one, admirably suited to his subjects. He can manage the humorous or the pathetic excellently, and his restraint in each is more remarkable than his excesses. His sentences have both force and flow; his backgrounds are crisply but carefully sketched; his characters and caricatures have their own logical consistency. Finally, granted the desirability of the theatric finale, it is necessary to admit that Harte always rings down his curtain dramatically and effectively.
ARTHUR ZEIGER, M.A.
THE OUTCASTS OF POKER FLAT
As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in its moral atmosphere since the preceding night. Two or three men, conversing earnestly together, ceased as he approached, and exchanged significant glances. There was a Sabbath lull in the air which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous.
Mr. Oakhurst’s calm, handsome face betrayed small concern in these indications. Whether he was conscious of any predisposing cause was another question. “I reckon they’re after somebody,” he reflected; “likely it’s me.” He returned to his pocket the handkerchief with which he had been whipping away the red dust of Poker Flat from his neat boots, and quietly discharged his mind of any further conjecture.
In point of fact, Poker Flat was “after somebody.” It had lately suffered the loss of several thousand dollars, two valuable horses, and a prominent citizen. It was experiencing a spasm of virtuous reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that had provoked it. A secret committee had determined to rid the town of all improper persons. This was done permanently in regard of two men who were then hanging from the boughs of a sycamore in the gulch, and temporarily in the banishment of certain other objectionable characters. I regret to say that some of these were ladies. It is but due to the sex, however, to state that their impropriety was professional, and it was only in such easily established standards of evil that Poker Flat ventured to sit in judgment.
Mr. Oakhurst was right in supposing that he was included in this category. A few of the committee had urged hanging him as a possible example, and a sure method of reimbursing themselves from his pockets of the sums he had won from them. “It’s agin justice,” said Jim Wheeler, “to let this yer young man from Roaring Camp—an entire stranger—carry away our money.” But a crude sentiment of equity residing in the breasts of those who had been fortunate enough to win from Mr. Oakhurst overruled this narrower local prejudice.
Mr. Oakhurst received his sentence with philosophic calmness, none the less coolly that he was aware of the hesitation of his judges. He was too much of a gambler not to accept Fate. With him life was at best an uncertain game, and he recognized the usual percentage in favor of the dealer.
A body of armed men accompanied the deported wickedness of Poker Flat to the outskirts of the settlement. Besides Mr. Oakhurst, who was known to be a coolly desperate man, and for whose intimidation the armed escort was intended, the expatriated party consisted of a young woman familiarly known as the “Duchess”; another, who had won the title of “Mother Shipton”; and “Uncle Billy,” a suspected sluice-robber and confirmed drunkard. The cavalcade provoked no comments from the spectators, nor was any word uttered by the escort. Only, when the gulch which marked the uttermost limit of Poker Flat was reached, the leader spoke briefly and to the point. The exiles were forbidden to return at the peril of their lives.
As the escort disappeared, their pent-up feelings found vent in a few hysterical tears from the Duchess, some bad language from Mother Shipton, and a Parthian volley of expletives from Uncle Billy. The philosophic Oakhurst alone remained silent. He listened calmly to Mother Shipton’s desire to cut somebody’s heart out, to the repeated statements of the Duchess that she would die in the road, and to the alarming oaths that seemed to be bumped out of Uncle Billy as he rode forward. With the easy good humor characteristic of his class, he insisted upon exchanging his own riding horse, “Five Spot,” for the sorry mule which the Duchess rode. But even this act did not draw the party into any closer sympathy. The young woman readjusted her somewhat draggled plumes with a feeble, faded coquetry; Mother Shipton eyed the possessor of “Five Spot” with malevolence, and Uncle Billy included the whole party in one sweeping anathema.
The road to Sandy Bar—a camp that, not having as yet experienced the regenerating influences of Poker Flat, consequently seemed to offer some invitation to the emigrants—lay over a steep mountain range. It was distant a day’s severe travel. In that advanced season, the party soon passed out of the moist, temperate regions of the foothills into the dry, cold, bracing air of the Sierras. The trail was narrow and difficult. At noon the Duchess, rolling out of her saddle upon the ground, declared her intention of going no farther, and the party halted.
The spot was singularly wild and impressive. A wooded amphitheater, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped gently toward the crest of another precipice that overlooked the valley. It was, undoubtedly, the most suitable spot for a camp, had camping been advisable. But Mr. Oakhurst knew that scarcely half the journey to Sandy Bar was accomplished, and the party were not equipped or provisioned for delay. This fact he pointed out to his companions curtly, with a philosophic commentary on the folly of “throwing up their hand before the game was played out.” But they were furnished with liquor, which in this emergency stood them in place of food, fuel, rest, and prescience. In spite of his remonstrances, it was not long before they were more or less under its influence. Uncle Billy passed rapidly from a bellicose state into one of stupor, the Duchess became maudlin, and Mother Shipton snored. Mr. Oakhurst alone remained erect, leaning against a rock, calmly surveying them.
Mr. Oakhurst did not drink. It interfered with a profession which required coolness, impassiveness, and presence of mind, and, in his own language, he “couldn’t afford it.” As he gazed at his recumbent fellow exiles, the loneliness begotten of his pariah trade, his habits of life, his very vices, for the first time seriously oppressed him. He bestirred himself in dusting his black clothes, washing his hands and face, and other acts characteristic of his studiously neat habits, and for a moment forgot his annoyance. The thought of deserting his weaker and more pitiable companions never perhaps occurred to him. Yet he could not help feeling the want of that excitement which, singularly enough, was most conducive to that calm equanimity for which he was notorious. He looked at the gloomy walls that rose a thousand feet sheer above the circling pines around him; at the sky, ominously clouded; at the valley below, already deepening into shadow. And, doing so, suddenly he heard his own name called.
A horseman slowly ascended the trail. In the fresh, open face of the newcomer Mr. Oakhurst recognized Tom Simson, otherwise known as the “Innocent” of Sandy Bar. He had met him some months before over a “little game,” and had, with perfect equanimity, won the entire fortune—amounting to some forty dollars—of that guileless youth. After the game was finished, Mr. Oakhurst drew the youthful speculator behind the door and thus addressed him: “Tommy, you’re a good little man, but you can’t gamble worth a cent. Don’t try it over again.” He then handed him his money back, pushed him gently from the room, and so made a devoted slave of Tom Simson.
There was a remembrance of this in his boyish and enthusiastic greeting of Mr. Oakhurst. He had started, he said, to go to Poker Flat to seek his fortune. “Alone?” No, not exactly alone; in fact (a giggle), he had run away with Piney Woods. Didn’t Mr. Oakhurst remember Piney? She that used to wait on the table at the Temperance House? They had been engaged a long time, but old Jake Woods had objected, and so they had run away, and were going to Poker Flat to be married, and here they were. And they were tired out, and how lucky it was they had found a place to camp and company. All this the Innocent delivered rapidly, while Piney, a stout, comely damsel of fifteen, emerged from behind the pine tree, where she had been blushing unseen, and rode to the side of her lover.
Mr. Oakhurst seldom troubled himself with sentiment, still less with propriety; but he had a vague idea that the situation was not fortunate. He retained, however, his presence of mind sufficiently to kick Uncle Billy, who was about to say something, and Uncle Billy was sober enough to recognize in Mr. Oakhurst’s kick a superior power that would not bear trifling. He then endeavored to dissuade Tom Simson from delaying further, but in vain. He even pointed out the fact that there was no provision, nor means of making a camp. But, unluckily, the Innocent met this objection by assuring the party that he was provided with an extra mule loaded with provisions and by the discovery of a rude attempt at a log house near the trail. “Piney can stay with Mrs. Oakhurst,” said the Innocent, pointing to the Duchess, “and I can shift for myself.”
Nothing but Mr. Oakhurst’s admonishing foot saved Uncle Billy from bursting into a roar of laughter. As it was, he felt compelled to retire up the canyon until he could recover his gravity. There he confided the joke to the tall pine trees, with many slaps of his leg, contortions of his face, and the usual profanity. But when he returned to the party, he found them seated by a fire—for the air had grown strangely chill and the sky overcast—in apparently amicable conversation. Piney was actually talking in an impulsive, girlish fashion to the Duchess, who was listening with an interest and animation she had not shown for many days. The Innocent was holding forth, apparently with equal effect, to Mr. Oakhurst and Mother Shipton, who was actually relaxing into amiability. “Is this yer a damned picnic?” said Uncle Billy with inward scorn as he surveyed the sylvan group, the glancing firelight, and the tethered animals in the foreground. Suddenly an idea mingled with the alcoholic fumes that disturbed his brain. It was apparently of a jocular nature, for he felt impelled to slap his leg again and cram his fist into his mouth.
As the shadows crept slowly up the mountain, a slight breeze rocked the tops of the pine trees, and moaned through their long and gloomy aisles. The ruined cabin, patched and covered with pine boughs, was set apart for the ladies. As the lovers parted, they unaffectedly exchanged a kiss, so honest and sincere that it might have been heard above the swaying pines. The frail Duchess and the malevolent Mother Shipton were probably too stunned to remark upon this last evidence of simplicity, and so turned without a word to the hut. The fire was replenished, the men lay down before the door, and in a few minutes were asleep.
Mr. Oakhurst was a light sleeper. Toward morning he awoke benumbed and cold. As he stirred the dying fire, the wind, which was now blowing strongly, brought to his cheek that which caused the blood to leave it—snow!
He started to his feet with the intention of awakening the sleepers, for there was no time to lose. But turning to where Uncle Billy had been lying, he found him gone. A suspicion leaped to his brain and a curse to his lips. He ran to the spot where the mules had been tethered; they were no longer there. The tracks were already rapidly disappearing in the snow.
The momentary excitement brought Mr. Oakhurst back to the fire with his usual calm. He did not waken the sleepers. The Innocent slumbered peacefully, with a smile on his good-humored, freckled face; the virgin Piney slept beside her frailer sisters as sweetly as though attended by celestial guardians; and Mr. Oakhurst, drawing his blanket over his shoulders, stroked his mustaches and waited for the dawn. It came slowly in a whirling mist of snowflakes that dazzled and confused the eye. What could be seen of the landscape appeared magically changed. He looked over the valley, and summed up the present and future in two words—”snowed in!”
A careful inventory of the provisions, which, fortunately for the party, had been stored within the hut and so escaped the felonious fingers of Uncle Billy, disclosed the fact that with care and prudence they might last ten days longer. “That is,” said Mr. Oakhurst, sotto voce to the Innocent, “if you’re willing to board us. If you ain’t—and perhaps you’d better not—you can wait till Uncle Billy gets back with provisions.” For some occult reason, Mr. Oakhurst could not bring himself to disclose Uncle Billy’s rascality, and so offered the hypothesis that he had wandered from the camp and had accidentally stampeded the animals. He dropped a warning to the Duchess and Mother Shipton, who of course knew the facts of their associate’s defection. “They’ll find out the truth about us all when they find out anything,” he added, significantly, “and there’s no good frightening them now.”
Tom Simson not only put all his worldly store at the disposal of Mr. Oakhurst, but seemed to enjoy the prospect of their enforced seclusion. “We’ll have a good camp for a week, and then the snow’ll melt, and we’ll all go back together.” The cheerful gaiety of the young man, and Mr. Oakhurst’s calm, infected the others. The Innocent with the aid of pine boughs extemporized a thatch for the roofless cabin, and the Duchess directed Piney in the rearrangement of the interior with a taste and tact that opened the blue eyes of that provincial maiden to their fullest extent. “I reckon now you’re used to fine things at Poker Flat,” said Piney. The Duchess turned away sharply to conceal something that reddened her cheeks through its professional tint, and Mother Shipton requested Piney not to “chatter.” But when Mr. Oakhurst returned from a weary search for the trail, he heard the sound of happy laughter echoed from the rocks. He stopped in some alarm, and his thoughts first naturally reverted to the whisky, which he had prudently cached. “And yet it don’t somehow sound like whisky,” said the gambler. It was not until he caught sight of the blazing fire through the still-blinding storm and the group around it that he settled to the conviction that it was “square fun.”
Whether Mr. Oakhurst had cached his cards with the whisky as something debarred the free access of the community, I cannot say. It was certain that, in Mother Shipton’s words, he “didn’t say cards once” during that evening. Haply the time was beguiled by an accordion, produced somewhat ostentatiously by Tom Simson from his pack. Notwithstanding some difficulties attending the manipulation of this instrument, Piney Woods managed to pluck several reluctant melodies from its keys, to an accompaniment by the Innocent on a pair of bone castanets. But the crowning festivity of the evening was reached in a rude camp-meeting hymn, which the lovers, joining hands, sang with great earnestness and vociferation. I fear that a certain defiant tone and Covenanter’s swing to its chorus, rather than any devotional quality, caused it speedily to infect the others, who at last joined in the refrain:
“I’m proud to live in the service of the Lord,
And I’m bound to die in His army.”
The pines rocked, the storm eddied and whirled above the miserable group, and the flames of their altar leaped heavenward as if in token of the vow.
At midnight the storm abated, the rolling clouds parted, and the stars glittered keenly above the sleeping camp. Mr. Oakhurst, whose professional habits had enabled him to live on the smallest possible amount of sleep, in dividing the watch with Tom Simson somehow managed to take upon himself the greater part of that duty. He excused himself to the Innocent by saying that he had “often been a week without sleep.” “Doing what?” asked Tom. “Poker!” replied Oakhurst, sententiously; “when a man gets a streak of luck,—nigger luck—he don’t get tired. The luck gives in first. Luck,” continued the gambler, reflectively, “is a mighty queer thing. All you know about it for certain is that it’s bound to change. And it’s finding out when it’s going to change that makes you. We’ve had a streak of bad luck since we left Poker Flat—you come along, and slap you get into it, too. If you can hold your cards right along you’re all right. For,” added the gambler, with cheerful irrelevance,
“’I’m proud to live in the service of the Lord,
And I’m bound to die in His army.’”
The third day came, and the sun, looking through the white-curtained valley, saw the outcasts divide their slowly decreasing store of provisions for the morning meal. It was one of the peculiarities of that mountain climate that its rays diffused a kindly warmth over the wintry landscape, as if in regretful commiseration of the past. But it revealed drift on drift of snow piled high around the hut—a hopeless, uncharted, trackless sea of white lying below the rocky shores to which the castaways still clung. Through the marvelously clear air the smoke of the pastoral village of Poker Flat rose miles away. Mother Shipton saw it, and from a remote pinnacle of her rocky fastness hurled in that direction a final malediction. It was her last vituperative attempt, and perhaps for that reason was invested with a certain degree of sublimity. It did her good, she privately informed the Duchess. “Just you go out there and cuss, and see.” She then set herself to the task of amusing “the child,” as she and the Duchess were pleased to call Piney. Piney was no chicken, but it was a soothing and original theory of the pair thus to account for the fact that she didn’t swear and wasn’t improper.
When night crept up again through the gorges, the reedy notes of the accordion rose and fell in fitful spasms and long-drawn gasps by the flickering campfire. But music failed to fill entirely the aching void left by insufficient food, and a new diversion was proposed by Piney—storytelling. Neither Mr. Oakhurst nor his female companions caring to relate their personal experiences, this plan would have failed too but for the Innocent. Some months before he had chanced upon a stray copy of Mr. Pope’s ingenious translation of the ILIAD. He now proposed to narrate the principal incidents of that poem—having thoroughly mastered the argument and fairly forgotten the words—in the current vernacular of Sandy Bar. And so for the rest of that night the Homeric demigods again walked the earth. Trojan bully and wily Greek wrestled in the winds, and the great pines in the canyon seemed to bow to the wrath of the son of Peleus. Mr. Oakhurst listened with quiet satisfaction. Most especially was he interested in the fate of “Ash-heels,” as the Innocent persisted in denominating the “swift-footed Achilles.”
So with small food and much of Homer and the accordion, a week passed over the heads of the outcasts. The sun again forsook them, and again from leaden skies the snowflakes were sifted over the land. Day by day closer around them drew the snowy circle, until at last they looked from their prison over drifted walls of dazzling white that towered twenty feet above their heads. It became more and more difficult to replenish their fires, even from the fallen trees beside them, now half-hidden in the drifts. And yet no one complained. The lovers turned from the dreary prospect and looked into each other’s eyes, and were happy. Mr. Oakhurst settled himself coolly to the losing game before him. The Duchess, more cheerful than she had been, assumed the care of Piney. Only Mother Shipton—once the strongest of the party—seemed to sicken and fade. At midnight on the tenth day she called Oakhurst to her side. “I’m going,” she said, in a voice of querulous weakness, “but don’t say anything about it. Don’t waken the kids. Take the bundle from under my head and open it.” Mr. Oakhurst did so. It contained Mother Shipton’s rations for the last week, untouched. “Give ‘em to the child,” she said, pointing to the sleeping Piney. “You’ve starved yourself,” said the gambler. “That’s what they call it,” said the woman, querulously, as she lay down again and, turning her face to the wall, passed quietly away.
The accordion and the bones were put aside that day, and Homer was forgotten. When the body of Mother Shipton had been committed to the snow, Mr. Oakhurst took the Innocent aside, and showed him a pair of snowshoes, which he had fashioned from the old pack saddle. “There’s one chance in a hundred to save her yet,” he said, pointing to Piney; “but it’s there,” he added, pointing toward Poker Flat. “If you can reach there in two days she’s safe.” “And you?” asked Tom Simson. “I’ll stay here,” was the curt reply.
The lovers parted with a long embrace. “You are not going, too?” said the Duchess as she saw Mr. Oakhurst apparently waiting to accompany him. “As far as the canyon,” he replied. He turned suddenly, and kissed the Duchess, leaving her pallid face aflame and her trembling limbs rigid with amazement.
Night came, but not Mr. Oakhurst. It brought the storm again and the whirling snow. Then the Duchess, feeding the fire, found that someone had quietly piled beside the hut enough fuel to last a few days longer. The tears rose to her eyes, but she hid them from Piney.
The women slept but little. In the morning, looking into each other’s faces, they read their fate. Neither spoke; but Piney, accepting the position of the stronger, drew near and placed her arm around the Duchess’s waist. They kept this attitude for the rest of the day. That night the storm reached its greatest fury, and, rending asunder the protecting pines, invaded the very hut.
Toward morning they found themselves unable to feed the fire, which gradually died away. As the embers slowly blackened, the Duchess crept closer to Piney, and broke the silence of many hours: “Piney, can you pray?” “No, dear,” said Piney, simply. The Duchess, without knowing exactly why, felt relieved, and, putting her head upon Piney’s shoulder, spoke no more. And so reclining, the younger and purer pillowing the head of her soiled sister upon her virgin breast, they fell asleep.
The wind lulled as if it feared to waken them. Feathery drifts of snow, shaken from the long pine boughs, flew like white-winged birds, and settled about them as they slept. The moon through the rifted clouds looked down upon what had been the camp. But all human stain, all trace of earthly travail, was hidden beneath the spotless mantle mercifully flung from above.
They slept all that day and the next, nor did they waken when voices and footsteps broke the silence of the camp. And when pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned. Even the law of Poker Flat recognized this, and turned away, leaving them still locked in each other’s arms.
But at the head of the gulch, on one of the largest pine trees, they found the deuce of clubs pinned to the bark with a bowie knife. It bore the following, written in pencil, in a firm hand:
BENEATH THIS TREE
LIES THE BODY
WHO STRUCK A STREAK OF BAD LUCK
ON THE 23D OF NOVEMBER, 1850,
HANDED IN HIS CHECKS
ON THE 7TH DECEMBER, 1850.
And pulseless and cold, with a Derringer by his side and a bullet in his heart, though still calm as in life, beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.
We were eight, including the driver. We had not spoken during the passage of the last six miles, since the jolting of the heavy vehicle over the roughening road had spoiled the Judge’s last poetical quotation. The tall man beside the Judge was asleep, his arm passed through the swaying strap and his head resting upon it—altogether a limp, helpless-looking object, as if he had hanged himself and been cut down too late. The French lady on the back seat was asleep, too, yet in a half-conscious propriety of attitude, shown even in the disposition of the handkerchief which she held to her forehead and which partially veiled her face. The lady from Virginia City, traveling with her husband, had long since lost all individuality in a wild confusion of ribbons, veils, furs, and shawls. There was no sound but the rattling of wheels and the dash of rain upon the roof. Suddenly the stage stopped and we became dimly aware of voices. The driver was evidently in the midst of an exciting colloquy with someone in the road—a colloquy of which such fragments as “bridge gone,” “twenty feet of water,” “can’t pass,” were occasionally distinguishable above the storm. Then came a lull, and a mysterious voice from the road shouted the parting adjuration:
We caught a glimpse of our leaders as the vehicle slowly turned, of a horseman vanishing through the rain, and we were evidently on our way to Miggles’s.
Who and where was Miggles? The Judge, our authority, did not remember the name, and he knew the country thoroughly. The Washoe traveler thought Miggles must keep a hotel. We only knew that we were stopped by high water in front and rear, and that Miggles was our rock of refuge. A ten minutes splashing through a tangled by-road, scarcely wide enough for the stage, and we drew up before a barred and boarded gate in a wide stone wall or fence about eight feet high. Evidently Miggles’s, and evidently Miggles did not keep a hotel.
The driver got down and tried the gate. It was securely locked. “Miggles! O Miggles!”
“Migg-ells! You Miggles!” continued the driver, with rising wrath.
“Migglesy!” joined the expressman, persuasively. “O Miggy! Mig!”
But no reply came from the apparently insensate Miggles. The Judge, who had finally got the window down, put his head out and propounded a series of questions, which if answered categorically would have undoubtedly elucidated the whole mystery, but which the driver evaded by replying that “if we didn’t want to sit in the coach all night, we had better rise up and sing out for Miggles.”
So we rose up and called on Miggles in chorus; then separately. And when we had finished, a Hibernian fellow-passenger from the roof called for “Maygells!” whereat we all laughed. While we were laughing, the driver cried “Shoo!”
We listened. To our infinite amazement the chorus of “Miggles” was repeated from the other side of the wall, even to the final and supplemental “Maygells.”
“Extraordinary echo,” said the Judge.
“Extraordinary damned skunk!” roared the driver, contemptuously. “Come out of that, Miggles, and show yourself! Be a man, Miggles! Don’t hide in the dark; I wouldn’t if I were you, Miggles,” continued Yuba Bill, now dancing about in an excess of fury.
“Miggles!” continued the voice. “O Miggles!”
“My good man! Mr. Myghail!” said the Judge, softening the asperities of the name as much as possible. “Consider the inhospitality of refusing shelter from the inclemency of the weather to helpless females. Really, my dear sir—” But a succession of “Miggles,” ending in a burst of laughter, drowned his voice.
Yuba Bill hesitated no longer. Taking a heavy stone from the road, he battered down the gate, and with the expressman entered the enclosure. We followed. Nobody was to be seen. In the gathering darkness all that we could distinguish was that we were in a garden—from the rosebushes that scattered over us a minute spray from their dripping leaves—and before a long, rambling wooden building.
“Do you know this Miggles?” asked the Judge of Yuba Bill.
“No, nor, don’t want to,” said Bill, shortly, who felt the Pioneer Stage Company insulted in his person by the contumacious Miggles.
“But, my dear sir,” expostulated the Judge as he thought of the barred gate.
“Lookee here,” said Yuba Bill, with fine irony, “hadn’t you better go back and sit in the coach till yer introduced? I’m going in,” and he pushed open the door of the building.
A long room lighted only by the embers of a fire that was dying on the large hearth at its farther extremity; the walls curiously papered, and the flickering firelight bringing out its grotesque pattern; somebody sitting in a large armchair by the fireplace. All this we saw as we crowded together into the room, after the driver and expressman.
“Hello, be you Miggles?” said Yuba Bill to the solitary occupant.
The figure neither spoke nor stirred. Yuba Bill walked wrathfully toward it, and turned the eye of his coach lantern upon its face. It was a man’s face, prematurely old and wrinkled, with very large eyes, in which there was that expression of perfectly gratuitous solemnity which I had sometimes seen in an owl’s. The large eyes wandered from Bill’s face to the lantern, and finally fixed their gaze on that luminous object, without further recognition.
Bill restrained himself with an effort.
“Miggles! Be you deaf? You ain’t dumb anyhow, you know”; and Yuba Bill shook the insensate figure by the shoulder.
To our great dismay, as Bill removed his hand, the venerable stranger apparently collapsed—sinking into half his size and an undistinguishable heap of clothing.
“Well, dern my skin,” said Bill, looking appealingly at us, and hopelessly retiring from the contest.
The Judge now stepped forward, and we lifted the mysterious invertebrate back into his original position. Bill was dismissed with the lantern to reconnoiter outside, for it was evident that from the helplessness of this solitary man there must be attendants near at hand, and we all drew around the fire. The Judge, who had regained his authority, and had never lost his conversational amiability—standing before us with his back to the hearth—charged us, as an imaginary jury, as follows:
“It is evident that either our distinguished friend here has reached that condition described by Shakespeare as ‘the sere and yellow leaf,’ or has suffered some premature abatement of his mental and physical faculties. Whether he is really the Miggles—”
Here he was interrupted by “Miggles! O Miggles! Migglesy! Mig!” and, in fact, the whole chorus of Miggles in very much the same key as it had once before been delivered unto us.
We gazed at each other for a moment in some alarm. The Judge, in particular, vacated his position quickly, as the voice seemed to come directly over his shoulder. The cause, however, was soon discovered in a large magpie who was perched upon a shelf over the fireplace, and who immediately relapsed into a sepulchral silence which contrasted singularly with his previous volubility. It was, undoubtedly, his voice which we had heard in the road, and our friend in the chair was not responsible for the discourtesy. Yuba Bill, who re-entered the room after an unsuccessful search, was loath to accept the explanation, and still eyed the helpless sitter with suspicion. He had found a shed in which he had put up his horses, but he came back dripping and skeptical. “Thar ain’t nobody but him within ten mile of the shanty, and that ‘ar damned old skeesicks knows it.”
But the faith of the majority proved to be securely based. Bill had scarcely ceased growling before we heard a quick step upon the porch, the trailing of a wet skirt, the door was flung open, and with flash of white teeth, a sparkle of dark eyes, and an utter absence of ceremony or diffidence, a young woman entered, shut the door, and, panting, leaned back against it.
“Oh, if you please, I’m Miggles!”
And this was Miggles! this bright-eyed, full-throated young woman, whose wet gown of coarse blue stuff could not hide the beauty of the feminine curves to which it clung; from the chestnut crown of whose head, topped by a man’s oilskin sou’wester, to the little feet and ankles, hidden somewhere in the recesses of her boy’s brogans, all was grace—this was Miggles, laughing at us, too, in the most airy, frank, offhand manner imaginable.
“You see, boys,” said she, quite out of breath, and holding one little hand against her side, quite unheeding the speechless discomfiture of our party, or the complete demoralization of Yuba Bill, whose features had relaxed into an expression of gratuitous and imbecile cheerfulness—”you see, boys, I was mor’n two miles away when you passed down the road. I thought you might pull up here, and so I ran the whole way, knowing nobody was home but Jim,—and—and—I’m out of breath—and—that lets me out.”
And here Miggles caught her dripping oilskin hat from her head, with a mischievous swirl that scattered a shower of raindrops over us; attempted to put back her hair; dropped two hairpins in the attempt; laughed and sat down beside Yuba Bill, with her hands crossed lightly on her lap.
The Judge recovered himself first, and essayed an extravagant compliment.
“I’ll trouble you for that thar harpin,” said Miggles, gravely. Half a dozen hands were eagerly stretched forward; the missing hairpin was restored to its fair owner; and Miggles, crossing the room, looked keenly in the face of the invalid. The solemn eyes looked back at hers with an expression we had never seen before. Life and intelligence seemed to struggle back into the rugged face. Miggles laughed again—it was a singularly eloquent laugh—and turned her black eyes and white teeth once more toward us.
“This afflicted person is—” hesitated the Judge.
“Jim,” said Miggles.
Miggles darted a quick, half-defiant glance at the two lady passengers who I had noticed did not participate in the general masculine admiration of Miggles, and said gravely, “No; it’s Jim.”
There was an awkward pause. The lady passengers moved closer to each other; the Washoe husband looked abstractedly at the fire; and the tall man apparently turned his eyes inward for self-support at this emergency. But Miggles’s laugh, which was very infectious, broke the silence. “Come,” she said briskly, “you must be hungry. Who’ll bear a hand to help me get tea?”
She had no lack of volunteers. In a few moments Yuba Bill was engaged like Caliban in bearing logs for this Miranda; the expressman was grinding coffee on the veranda; to myself the arduous duty of slicing bacon was assigned; and the Judge lent each man his good-humored and voluble counsel. And when Miggles, assisted by the Judge and our Hibernian “deck passenger,” set the table with all the available crockery, we had become quite joyous, in spite of the rain that beat against windows, the wind that whirled down the chimney, the two ladies who whispered together in the corner, or the magpie who uttered a satirical and croaking commentary on their conversation from his perch above. In the now bright, blazing fire we could see that the walls were papered with illustrated journals, arranged with feminine taste and discrimination. The furniture was extemporized, and adapted from candle boxes and packing-cases, and covered with gay calico, or the skin of some animal. The armchair of the helpless Jim was an ingenious variation of a flour barrel. There was neatness, and even a taste for the picturesque, to be seen in the few details of the long low room.
The meal was a culinary success. But more, it was a social triumph—chiefly, I think, owing to the rare tact of Miggles in guiding the conversation, asking all the questions herself, yet bearing throughout a frankness that rejected the idea of any concealment on her own part, so that we talked of ourselves, of our prospects, of the journey, of the weather, of each other—of everything but our host and hostess. It must be confessed that Miggles’s conversation was never elegant, rarely grammatical, and that at times she employed expletives the use of which had generally been yielded to our sex. But they were delivered with such a lighting-up of teeth and eyes, and were usually followed by a laugh—a laugh peculiar to Miggles—so frank and honest that it seemed to clear the moral atmosphere.
Once during the meal we heard a noise like the rubbing of a heavy body against the outer walls of the house. This was shortly followed by a scratching and sniffling at the door. “That’s Joaquin,” said Miggles, in reply to our questioning glances; “would you like to see him?” Before we could answer she had opened the door, and disclosed a half-grown grizzly, who instantly raised himself on his haunches, with his forepaws hanging down in the popular attitude of mendicancy, and looked admiringly at Miggles, with a very singular resemblance in his manner to Yuba Bill. “That’s my watch dog,” said Miggles, in explanation. “Oh, he don’t bite,” she added, as the two lady passengers fluttered into a corner. “Does he, old Toppy?” (the latter remark being addressed directly to the sagacious Joaquin). “I tell you what, boys,” continued Miggles after she had fed and closed the door on URSA MINOR, “you were in big luck that Joaquin wasn’t hanging round when you dropped in tonight.” “Where was he?” asked the Judge. “With me,” said Miggles. “Lord love you; he trots round with me nights like as if he was a man.”
We were silent for a few moments, and listened to the wind. Perhaps we all had the same picture before us—of Miggles walking through the rainy woods, with her savage guardian at her side. The Judge, I remember, said something about Una and her lion; but Miggles received it as she did other compliments, with quiet gravity. Whether she was altogether unconscious of the admiration she excited—she could hardly have been oblivious of Yuba Bill’s adoration—I know not; but her very frankness suggested a perfect sexual equality that was cruelly humiliating to the younger members of our party.
The incident of the bear did not add anything in Miggles’s favor to the opinions of those of her own sex who were present. In fact, the repast over, a chillness radiated from the two lady passengers that no pine boughs brought in by Yuba Bill and cast as a sacrifice upon the hearth could wholly overcome. Miggles felt it; and, suddenly declaring that it was time to “turn in,” offered to show the ladies to their bed in an adjoining room. “You boys will have to camp out here by the fire as well as you can,” she added, “for thar ain’t but the one room.”
Our sex—by which, my dear sir, I allude of course to the stronger portion of humanity—has been generally relieved from the imputation of curiosity, or a fondness for gossip. Yet I am constrained to say that hardly had the door closed on Miggles than we crowded together, whispering, snickering, smiling, and exchanging suspicions, surmises, and a thousand speculations in regard to our pretty hostess and her singular companion. I fear that we even hustled that imbecile paralytic, who sat like a voiceless Memnon in our midst, gazing with the serene indifference of the Past in his passionate eyes upon our wordy counsels. In the midst of an exciting discussion the door opened again, and Miggles re-entered.
But not, apparently, the same Miggles who a few hours before had flashed upon us. Her eyes were downcast, and as she hesitated for a moment on the threshold, with a blanket on her arm, she seemed to have left behind her the frank fearlessness which had charmed us a moment before. Coming into the room, she drew a low stool beside the paralytic’s chair, sat down, drew the blanket over her shoulders, and saying, “If it’s all the same to you, boys, as we’re rather crowded, I’ll stop here tonight,” took the invalid’s withered hand in her own, and turned her eyes upon the dying fire. An instinctive feeling that this was only premonitory to more confidential relations, and perhaps some shame at our previous curiosity, kept us silent. The rain still beat upon the roof, wandering gusts of wind stirred the embers into momentary brightness, until, in a lull of the elements, Miggles suddenly lifted up her head, and, throwing her hair over her shoulder, turned her face upon the group and asked:
“Is there any of you that knows me?”
There was no reply.
“Think again! I lived at Marysville in ‘53. Everybody knew me there, and everybody had the right to know me. I kept the Polka saloon until I came to live with Jim. That’s six years ago. Perhaps I’ve changed some.”
The absence of recognition may have disconcerted her. She turned her head to the fire again, and it was some seconds before she again spoke, and then more rapidly:
“Well, you see I thought some of you must have known me. There’s no great harm done, anyway. What I was going to say was this: Jim here”—she took his hand in both of hers as she spoke—”used to know me, if you didn’t, and spent a heap of money upon me. I reckon he spent all he had. And one day—it’s six years ago this winter—Jim came into my back room, sat down on my sofy, like as you see him in that chair, and never moved again without help. He was struck all of a heap, and never seemed to know what ailed him. The doctors came and said as how it was caused all along of his way of life—for Jim was mighty free and wild-like—and that he would never get better, and couldn’t last long anyway. They advised me to send him to Frisco to the hospital, for he was no good to anyone and would be a baby all his life. Perhaps it was something in Jim’s eye, perhaps it was that I never had a baby, but I said ‘No.’ I was rich then, for I was popular with everybody—gentlemen like yourself, sir, came to see me—and I sold out my business and bought this yer place, because it was sort of out of the way of travel, you see, and I brought my baby here.”
With a woman’s intuitive tact and poetry, she had, as she spoke, slowly shifted her position so as to bring the mute figure of the ruined man between her and her audience, hiding in the shadow behind it, as if she offered it as a tacit apology for her actions. Silent and expressionless, it yet spoke for her; helpless, crushed, and smitten with the Divine thunderbolt, it still stretched an invisible arm around her.
Hidden in the darkness, but still holding his hand, she went on:
“It was a long time before I could get the hang of things about yer, for I was used to company and excitement. I couldn’t get any woman to help me, and a man I dursen’t trust; but what with the Indians hereabout, who’d do odd jobs for me, and having everything sent from the North Fork, Jim and I managed to worry through. The Doctor would run up from Sacramento once in a while. He’d ask to see ‘Miggles’s baby,’ as he called Jim, and when he’d go away, he’d say, ‘Miggles; you’re a trump—God bless you’; and it didn’t seem so lonely after that. But the last time he was here he said, as he opened the door to go, ‘Do you know, Miggles, your baby will grow up to be a man yet and an honor to his mother; but not here, Miggles, not here!’ And I thought he went away sad—and—and—” and here Miggles’s voice and head were somehow both lost completely in the shadow.
“The folks about here are very kind,” said Miggles, after a pause, coming a little into the light again. “The men from the fork used to hang around here, until they found they wasn’t wanted, and the women are kind—and don’t call. I was pretty lonely until I picked up Joaquin in the woods yonder one day, when he wasn’t so high, and taught him to beg for his dinner; and then thar’s Polly—that’s the magpie—she knows no end of tricks, and makes it quite sociable of evenings with her talk, and so I don’t feel like as I was the only living being about the ranch. And Jim here,” said Miggles, with her old laugh again, and coming out quite into the firelight, “Jim—why, boys, you would admire to see how much he knows for a man like him. Sometimes I bring him flowers, and he looks at ‘em just as natural as if he knew ‘em; and times, when we’re sitting alone, I read him those things on the wall. Why, Lord!” said Miggles, with her frank laugh, “I’ve read him that whole side of the house this winter. There never was such a man for reading as Jim.”
“Why,” asked the Judge, “do you not marry this man to whom you have devoted your youthful life?”
“Well, you see,” said Miggles, “it would be playing it rather low down on Jim, to take advantage of his being so helpless. And then, too, if we were man and wife, now, we’d both know that I was bound to do what I do now of my own accord.”
“But you are young yet and attractive—”
“It’s getting late,” said Miggles, gravely, “and you’d better all turn in. Good night, boys”; and, throwing the blanket over her head, Miggles laid herself down beside Jim’s chair, her head pillowed on the low stool that held his feet, and spoke no more. The fire slowly faded from the hearth; we each sought our blankets in silence; and presently there was no sound in the long room but the pattering of the rain upon the roof and the heavy breathing of the sleepers.
It was nearly morning when I awoke from a troubled dream. The storm had passed, the stars were shining, and through the shutterless window the full moon, lifting itself over the solemn pines without, looked into the room. It touched the lonely figure in the chair with an infinite compassion, and seemed to baptize with a shining flood the lowly head of the woman whose hair, as in the sweet old story, bathed the feet of him she loved. It even lent a kindly poetry to the rugged outline of Yuba Bill, half-reclining on his elbow between them and his passengers, with savagely patient eyes keeping watch and ward. And then I fell asleep and only woke at broad day, with Yuba Bill standing over me, and “All aboard” ringing in my ears.
Coffee was waiting for us on the table, but Miggles was gone. We wandered about the house and lingered long after the horses were harnessed, but she did not return. It was evident that she wished to avoid a formal leave-taking, and had so left us to depart as we had come. After we had helped the ladies into the coach, we returned to the house and solemnly shook hands with the paralytic Jim, as solemnly settling him back into position after each handshake. Then we looked for the last time around the long low room, at the stool where Miggles had sat, and slowly took our seats in the waiting coach. The whip cracked, and we were off!
But as we reached the highroad, Bill’s dexterous hand laid the six horses back on their haunches, and the stage stopped with a jerk. For there, on a little eminence beside the road, stood Miggles, her hair flying, her eyes sparkling, her white handkerchief waving, and her white teeth flashing a last “good-by.” We waved our hats in return. And then Yuba Bill, as if fearful of further fascination, madly lashed his horses forward, and we sank back in our seats. We exchanged not a word until we reached the North Fork, and the stage drew up at the Independence House. Then, the Judge leading, we walked into the barroom and took our places gravely at the bar.
“Are your glasses charged, gentlemen?” said the Judge, solemnly taking off his white hat.
“Well, then, here’s to MIGGLES. GOD BLESS HER!”
Perhaps He had. Who knows?
I do not think that we ever knew his real name. Our ignorance of it certainly never gave us any social inconvenience, for at Sandy Bar in 1854 most men were christened anew. Sometimes these appellatives were derived from some distinctiveness of dress, as in the case of “Dungaree Jack”; or from some peculiarity of habit, as shown in “Saleratus Bill,” so called from an undue proportion of that chemical in his daily bread; or for some unlucky slip, as exhibited in “The Iron Pirate,” a mild, inoffensive man, who earned that baleful title by his unfortunate mispronunciation of the term “iron pyrites.” Perhaps this may have been the beginning of a rude heraldry; but I am constrained to think that it was because a man’s real name in that day rested solely upon his own unsupported statement. “Call yourself Clifford, do you?” said Boston, addressing a timid newcomer with infinite scorn; “hell is full of such Cliffords!” He then introduced the unfortunate man, whose name happened to be really Clifford, as “Jay-bird Charley”—an unhallowed inspiration of the moment that clung to him ever after.
But to return to Tennessee’s Partner, whom we never knew by any other than this relative title; that he had ever existed as a separate and distinct individuality we only learned later. It seems that in 1853 he left Poker Flat to go to San Francisco, ostensibly to procure a wife. He never got any farther than Stockton. At that place he was attracted by a young person who waited upon the table at the hotel where he took his meals. One morning he said something to her which caused her to smile not unkindly, to somewhat coquettishly break a plate of toast over his upturned, serious, simple face, and to retreat to the kitchen. He followed her, and emerged a few moments later, covered with more toast and victory. That day week they were married by a justice of the peace, and returned to Poker Flat. I am aware that something more might be made of this episode, but I prefer to tell it as it was current at Sandy Bar—in the gulches and barrooms—where all sentiment was modified by a strong sense of humor.
Of their married felicity but little is known, perhaps for the reason that Tennessee, then living with his Partner, one day took occasion to say something to the bride on his own account, at which, it is said, she smiled not unkindly and chastely retreated—this time as far as Marysville, where Tennessee followed her, and where they went to housekeeping without the aid of a justice of the peace. Tennessee’s Partner took the loss of his wife simply and seriously, as was his fashion. But to everybody’s surprise, when Tennessee one day returned from Marysville, without his Partner’s wife—she having smiled and retreated with somebody else—Tennessee’s Partner was the first man to shake his hand and greet him with affection. The boys who had gathered in the canyon to see the shooting were naturally indignant. Their indignation might have found vent in sarcasm but for a certain look in Tennessee’s Partner’s eye that indicated a lack of humorous appreciation. In fact, he was a grave man, with a steady application to practical detail which was unpleasant in a difficulty.
Meanwhile a popular feeling against Tennessee had grown up on the Bar. He was known to be a gambler; he was suspected to be a thief. In these suspicions Tennessee’s Partner was equally compromised; his continued intimacy with Tennessee after the affair above quoted could only be accounted for on the hypothesis of a copartnership of crime. At last Tennessee’s guilt became flagrant. One day he overtook a stranger on his way to Red Dog. The stranger afterward related that Tennessee beguiled the time with interesting anecdote and reminiscence, but illogically concluded the interview in the following words: “And now, young man, I’ll trouble you for your knife, your pistols, and your money. You see your weppings might get you into trouble at Red Dog, and your money’s a temptation to the evilly disposed. I think you said your address was San Francisco. I shall endeavor to call.” It may be stated here that Tennessee had a fine flow of humor, which no business preoccupation could wholly subdue.
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