BROWN OF CALAVERAS
by Bret Harte
A subdued tone of conversation, and the absence of cigar-smoke
and boot-heels at the windows of the Wingdam stagecoach, made
it evident that one of the inside passengers was a woman. A
disposition on the part of loungers at the stations to congregate
before the window, and some concern in regard to the appearance
of coats, hats, and collars, further indicated that she was
lovely. All of which Mr. Jack Hamlin, on the box-seat, noted
with the smile of cynical philosophy. Not that he depreciated
the sex, but that he recognized therein a deceitful element,
the pursuit of which sometimes drew mankind away from the
equally uncertain blandishments of poker--of which it may be
remarked that Mr. Hamlin was a professional exponent.
So that, when he placed his narrow boot on the wheel and leaped
down, he did not even glance at the window from which a green
veil was fluttering, but lounged up and down with that listless
and grave indifference of his class, which was, perhaps, the
next thing to good-breeding. His closely buttoned figure,
and self-contained air, were in marked contrast to the other
passengers, and their feverish restlessness, and boisterous
emotion; and even Bill Masters, a graduate of Harvard, with
his slovenly dress, his overflowing vitality, his intense
appreciation of lawlessness and barbarism, and his mouth filled
with crackers and cheese, I fear, cut but an unromantic figure
beside this lonely calculator of chances, with his pale Greek
face, and Homeric gravity.
The driver called "All aboard!" and Mr. Hamlin returned to the
coach. His foot was upon the wheel, and his face raised to the
level of the open window, when, at the same moment, what appeared
to him to be the finest eyes in the world, suddenly met his. He
quietly dropped down again, addressed a few words to one of the
inside passengers, effected an exchange of seats, and as quietly
took his place inside. Mr. Hamlin never allowed his philosophy to
interfere with decisive and prompt action.
I fear that this irruption of Jack cast some restraint upon the
other passengers--particularly those who were making themselves
most agreeable to the lady. One of them leaned forward, and
apparently conveyed to her information regarding Mr. Hamlin's
profession, in a single epithet. Whether Mr. Hamlin heard it,
or whether he recognized in the informant a distinguished jurist,
from whom, but a few evenings before, he had won several thousand
dollars, I cannot say. His colorless face betrayed no sign; his
black eyes, quietly observant, glanced indifferently past the
legal gentleman, and rested on the much more pleasing features
of his neighbor. An Indian stoicism--said to be an inheritance
from his maternal ancestor--stood him in good service, until the
rolling wheels rattled upon the river gravel at Scott's Ferry,
and the stage drew up at the International Hotel, for dinner. The
legal gentleman and a member of Congress leaped out, and stood
ready to assist the descending goddess, while Colonel Starbottle,
of Siskiyou, took charge of her parasol and shawl. In this
multiplicity of attention, there was a momentary confusion and
delay. Jack Hamlin quietly opened the opposite door of the
coach, took the lady's hand--with that decision and positiveness
which a hesitating and undecided sex know how to admire--and in
an instant had dexterously and gracefully swung her to the ground,
and again lifted her to the platform. An audible chuckle on the
box, I fear, came from that other cynic, "Yuba Bill," the driver.
"Look keerfully arter that baggage, Kernel," said the expressman,
with affected concern, as he looked after Colonel Starbottle,
gloomily bringing up the rear of the triumphant procession to
Mr. Hamlin did not stay for dinner. His horse was already saddled,
and awaiting him. He dashed over the ford, up the gravelly hill, and
out into the dusty perspective of the Wingdam Road, like one leaving
an unpleasant fancy behind him. The inmates of dusty cabins by the
roadside shaded their eyes with their hands, and looked after him,
recognizing the man by his horse, and speculating what "was up with
Comanche Jack." Yet much of this interest centred in the horse, in
a community where the time made by "French Pete's" mare, in his run
from the Sheriff of Calaveras, eclipsed all concern in the ultimate
fate of that worthy.
The sweating flanks of his gray at length recalled him to himself.
He checked his speed, and, turning into a by-road--sometimes used
as a cut-off--trotted leisurely along, the reins hanging listlessly
from his fingers. As he rode on, the character of the landscape
changed, and became more pastoral. Openings in groves of pine and
sycamore disclosed some rude attempts at cultivation--a flowering
vine trailed over the porch of one cabin, and a woman rocked her
cradled babe under the roses of another. A little farther on,
Mr. Hamlin came upon some bare-legged children wading in the willowy
creek, and so wrought upon them with a badinage peculiar to himself,
that they were emboldened to climb up his horse's legs and over his
saddle, until he was fain to develop an exaggerated ferocity of
demeanor, and to escape, leaving behind some kisses and coin. And
then, advancing deeper into the woods, where all signs of habitation
failed, he began to sing--uplifting a tenor so singularly sweet, and
shaded by a pathos so subdued and tender, that I wot the robins and
linnets stopped to listen. Mr. Hamlin's voice was not cultivated;
the subject of his song was some sentimental lunacy, borrowed from
the negro minstrels, but there thrilled through all some occult
quality of tone and expression that thrilled through all a spirit
inexpressibly touching. Indeed, it was a wonderful sight to see
this sentimental blackleg, with a pack of cards in his pocket and
a revolver at his back, sending his voice before him through the
dim woods with a plaint about his "Nelly's grave," in a way that
overflowed the eyes of the listener. A sparrow-hawk, fresh from
his sixth victim, possibly recognizing in Mr. Hamlin a kindred
spirit, stared at him in surprise, and was fain to confess the
superiority of man. With a superior predatory capacity, he couldn't
But Mr. Hamlin presently found himself again on the high-road, and
at his former pace. Ditches and banks of gravel, denuded hillsides,
stumps, and decayed trunks of trees, took the place of woodland
and ravine, and indicated his approach to civilization. Then a
church-steeple came in sight, and he knew that he had reached home.
In a few moments he was clattering down the single narrow street
that lost itself in a chaotic ruin of races, ditches, and tailings
at the foot of the hill, and dismounted before the gilded windows
of the Magnolia saloon. Passing through the long bar-room, he pushed
open a green-baize door, entered a dark passage, opened another door
with a pass-key, and found himself in a dimly lighted room, whose
furniture, though elegant and costly for the locality, showed signs
of abuse. The inlaid centre-table was overlaid with stained disks
that were not contemplated in the original design. The embroidered
armchairs were discolored, and the green velvet lounge, on which
Mr. Hamlin threw himself, was soiled at the foot with the red soil
Mr. Hamlin did not sing in his cage. He lay still, looking at a
highly-colored painting above him, representing a young creature
of opulent charms. It occurred to him then, for the first time,
that he had never seen exactly that kind of a woman, and that,
if he should, he would not, probably, fall in love with her.
Perhaps he was thinking of another style of beauty. But just
then some one knocked at the door. Without rising, he pulled
a cord that apparently shot back a bolt, for the door swung
open, and a man entered.
The new-comer was broad-shouldered and robust--a vigor not borne
out in the face, which, though handsome, was singularly weak, and
disfigured by dissipation. He appeared to be, also, under the
influence of liquor, for he started on seeing Mr. Hamlin, and
said, "I thought Kate was here;" stammered, and seemed confused
Mr. Hamlin smiled the smile which he had before worn on the Wingdam
coach, and sat up, quite refreshed, and ready for business.
"You didn't come up on the stage," continued the newcomer, "did you?"
"No," replied Hamlin; "I left it at Scott's Ferry. It isn't due for
half an hour yet. But how's luck, Brown?"
"D----- bad," said Brown, his face suddenly assuming an expression
of weak despair: "I'm cleaned out again, Jack," he continued, in a
whining tone, that formed a pitiable contrast to his bulky figure;
"can't you help me with a hundred till to-morrow's clean-up? You
see I've got to send money home to the old woman, and--you've won
twenty times that amount from me."
The conclusion was, perhaps, not entirely logical, but Jack overlooked
it, and handed the sum to his visitor. "The old-woman business is
about played out, Brown," he added, by way of commentary; "why don't
you say you want to buck ag'in' faro? You know you ain't married!"
"Fact, sir," said Brown, with a sudden gravity, as if the mere contact
of the gold with the palm of the hand had imparted some dignity to
his frame. "I've got a wife--a d----- good one, too, if I do say it--in
the States. It's three years since I've seen her, and a year since
I've writ to her. When things is about straight, and we get down to
the lead, I'm going to send for her."
"And Kate?" queried Mr. Hamlin, with his previous smile.
Mr. Brown, of Calaveras, essayed an archness of glance to cover his
confusion, which his weak face and whiskey-muddled intellect but
poorly carried out, and said:
"D--- it, Jack, a man must have a little liberty, you know. But
come, what do you say to a little game? Give us a show to double
Jack Hamlin looked curiously at his fatuous friend. Perhaps he knew
that the man was predestined to lose the money, and preferred that
it should flow back into his own coffers, rather than any other. He
nodded his head, and drew his chair toward the table. At the same
moment, there came a rap upon the door.
"It's Kate," said Mr. Brown.
Mr. Hamlin shot back the bolt, and the door opened. But, for the
first time in his life, he staggered to his feet, utterly unnerved and
abashed, and for the first time in his life, the hot blood crimsoned
his colorless cheeks to his forehead. For before him stood the lady
he had lifted from the Wingdam coach, whom Brown--dropping his cards
with a hysterical laugh--greeted as,--
"My old woman, by thunder!"
They say that Mrs. Brown burst into tears and reproaches of her
husband. I saw her, in 1857, at Marysville, and disbelieved the
story. And the Wingdam Chronicle, of the next week, under the head
of "Touching Reunion," said: "One of those beautiful and touching
incidents, peculiar to California life, occurred last week in our
city. The wife of one of Wingdam's eminent pioneers, tired of the
effete civilization of the East and its inhospitable climate, resolved
to join her noble husband upon these golden shores. Without informing
him of her intention, she undertook the long journey, and arrived last
week. The joy of the husband may be easier imagined than described.
The meeting is said to have been indescribably affecting. We trust
her example may be followed."
Whether owing to Mrs. Brown's influence, or to some more successful
speculations, Mr. Brown's financial fortune, from that day, steadily
improved. He bought out his partners in the "Nip and Tuck" lead, with
money which was said to have been won at poker, a week or two after
his wife's arrival, but which rumor, adopting Mrs. Brown's theory that
Brown had foresworn the gaming-table, alleged to have been furnished
by Mr. Jack Hamlin. He built and furnished the "Wingdam House," which
pretty Mrs. Brown's great popularity kept overflowing with guests. He
was elected to the Assembly, and gave largess to churches. A street
in Wingdam was named in his honor.
Yet, it was noted that in proportion as he waxed wealthy and fortunate,
he grew pale, thin, and anxious. As his wife's popularity increased,
he became fretful and impatient. The most uxorious of husbands--he
was absurdly jealous. If he did not interfere with his wife's social
liberty, it was because--it was maliciously whispered--that his first
and only attempt was met by an outburst from Mrs. Brown that terrified
him into silence. Much of this kind of gossip came from those of
her own sex whom she had supplanted in the chivalrous attentions
of Wingdam, which, like most popular chivalry, was devoted to an
admiration of power, whether of masculine force or feminine beauty.
It should be remembered, too, in her extenuation, that, since her
arrival, she had been the unconscious priestess of a mythological
worship, perhaps not more ennobling to her womanhood than that which
distinguished an older Greek democracy. I think that Brown was dimly
conscious of this. But his only confidant was Jack Hamlin, whose
infelix reputation naturally precluded any open intimacy with the
family, and whose visits were infrequent.
It was midsummer, and a moonlit night; and Mrs. Brown, very rosy,
large-eyed, and pretty, sat upon the piazza, enjoying the fresh
incense of the mountain breeze, and, it is to be feared, another
incense, which was not so fresh, nor quite as innocent. Beside her
sat Colonel Starbottle and Judge Boompointer, and a later addition
to her court, in the shape of a foreign tourist. She was in good
"What do you see down the road?" inquired the gallant Colonel, who
had been conscious for the last few minutes, that Mrs. Brown's
attention was diverted.
"Dust," said Mrs. Brown, with a sigh. "Only Sister Anne's 'flock of
The Colonel, whose literary recollections did not extend farther back
than last week's paper, took a more practical view. "It ain't sheep,"
he continued; "it's a horseman. Judge, ain't that Jack Hamlin's gray?"
But the Judge didn't know; and, as Mrs. Brown suggested, the air was
growing too cold for further investigations, they retired to the
Mr. Brown was in the stable, where he generally retired after dinner.
Perhaps it was to show his contempt for his wife's companions;
perhaps, like other weak natures, he found pleasure in the exercise of
absolute power over inferior animals. He had a certain gratification
in the training of a chestnut mare, whom he could beat or caress as
pleased him, which he couldn't do with Mrs. Brown. It was here that he
recognized a certain gray horse which had just come in, and, looking
a little farther on, found his rider. Brown's greeting was cordial
and hearty; Mr. Hamlin's somewhat restrained. But, at Brown's urgent
request, he followed him up the back stairs to a narrow corridor,
and thence to a small room looking out upon the stable-yard. It was
plainly furnished with a bed, a table, a few chairs, and a rack for
guns and whips.
"This yer's my home, Jack," said Brown with a sigh, as he threw
himself upon the bed, and motioned his companion to a chair. "Her
room's t'other end of the hall. It's mor'n six months since we've
lived together, or met, except at meals. It's mighty rough papers on
the head of the house--ain't it?" he said with a forced laugh. "But
I'm glad to see ye, Jack, d--- glad," and he reached from the bed,
and again shook the unresponsive hand of Jack Hamlin.
"I brought ye up here, for I didn't want to talk in the stable;
though, for the matter of that, it's all round town. Don't strike
a light. We can talk here in the moonshine. Put up your feet on
that winder, and sit here beside me. Thar's whiskey in that jug."
Mr. Hamlin did not avail himself of the information. Brown of
Calaveras turned his face to the wall, and continued:
"If I didn't love the woman, Jack, I wouldn't mind. But it's loving
her, and seeing her, day after day, goin' on at this rate, and no one
to put down the brake; that's what gets me! But I'm glad to see ye,
Jack, d--- glad."
In the darkness, he groped about until he had found and wrung his
companion's hand again. He would have detained it, but Jack slipped
it into the buttoned breast of his coat, and asked, listlessly, "How
long has this been going on?"
"Ever since she came here; ever since the day she walked into the
Magnolia. I was a fool then; Jack, I'm a fool now; but I didn't
know how much I loved her till then. And she hasn't been the same
"But that ain't all, Jack; and it's what I wanted to see you
about, and I'm glad you've come. It ain't that she doesn't love
me any more; it ain't that she fools with every chap that comes
along; for, perhaps, I staked her love and lost it, as I did
everything else at the Magnolia; and, perhaps, foolin' is natural
to some women, and there ain't no great harm done, 'cept to the
fools. But, Jack, I think--I think she loves somebody else.
Don't move, Jack; don't move; if your pistol hurts ye, take it
"It's been more'n six months now that she's seemed unhappy and
lonesome, and kinder nervous and scared-like. And, sometimes, I've
ketched her lookin' at me sort of timid and pitying. And she writes
to somebody. And, for the last week she's been gathering her own
things--trinkets, and furbelows, and jew'lry--and, Jack, I think,
she's goin' off. I could stand all but that. To have her steal away
like a thief--" He put his face downwards to the pillow, and, for
a few moments, there was no sound but the ticking of a clock on the
mantel. Mr. Hamlin lit a cigar, and moved to the open window. The
moon no longer shone into the room, and the bed and its occupant
were in shadow. "What shall I do, Jack?" said the voice from the
The answer came promptly and clearly from the window-side, "Spot
the man, and kill him on sight."
"He's took the risk!"
"But will that bring her back?"
Jack did not reply, but moved from the window towards the door.
"Don't go yet, Jack; light the candle, and sit by the table. It's a
comfort to see ye, if nothin' else."
Jack hesitated, and then complied. He drew a pack of cards from his
pocket and shuffled them, glancing at the bed. But Brown's face was
turned to the wall. When Mr. Hamlin had shuffled the cards, he cut
them, and dealt one card on the opposite side of the table towards
the bed, and another on his side of the table, for himself. The first
was a deuce; his own card, a king. He then shuffled and cut again.
This time "dummy" had a queen, and himself a four-spot. Jack brightened
up for the third deal. It brought his adversary a deuce, and himself
a king again. "Two out of three," said Jack, audibly.
"What's that, Jack?" said Brown.
Then Jack tried his hand with dice; but he always threw sixes, and
his imaginary opponent aces. The force of habit is sometimes
Meanwhile, some magnetic influence in Mr. Hamlin's presence, or the
anodyne of liquor, or both, brought surcease of sorrow, and Brown
slept. Mr. Hamlin moved his chair to the window, and looked out on the
town of Wingdam, now sleeping peacefully--its harsh outlines softened
and subdued, its glaring colors mellowed and sobered in the moonlight
that flowed over all. In the hush he could hear the gurgling of water
in the ditches, and the sighing of the pines beyond the hill. Then he
looked up at the firmament, and, as he did so, a star shot across the
twinkling field. Presently another, and then another. The phenomenon
suggested to Mr. Hamlin a fresh augury. If, in another fifteen minutes,
another star should fall--He sat there, watch in hand, for twice that
time, but the phenomenon was not repeated.
The clock struck two, and Brown still slept. Mr. Hamlin approached
the table, and took from his pocket a letter, which he read by the
flickering candlelight. It contained only a single line, written
in pencil, in a woman's hand:
"Be at the corral, with the buggy, at three."
The sleeper moved uneasily, and then awoke. "Are you there, Jack?"
"Don't go yet. I dreamed, just now, Jack--dreamed of old times. I
thought that Sue and me was being married agin, and that the parson,
Jack, was--who do you think?--you!"
The gambler laughed, and seated himself on the bed--the paper still
in his hand.
"It's a good sign, ain't it?" queried Brown.
"I reckon. Say, old man, hadn't you better get up?"
The "old man," thus affectionately appealed to, rose, with the
assistance of Hamlin's outstretched hand.
Brown mechanically took the proffered cigar.
Jack had twisted the letter into a spiral, lit it, and held it for
his companion. He continued to hold it until it was consumed, and
dropped the fragment--a fiery star--from the open window. He watched
it as it fell, and then returned to his friend.
"Old man," he said, placing his hands upon Brown's shoulders, "in
ten minutes I'll be on the road, and gone like that spark. We won't
see each other again; but, before I go, take a fool's advice: sell
out all you've got, take your wife with you, and quit the country.
It ain't no place for you, nor her. Tell her she must go; make her
go, if she won't. Don't whine because you can't be a saint, and she
ain't an angel. Be a man--and treat her like a woman. Don't be a
d----- fool. Good-bye."
He tore himself from Brown's grasp and leaped down the stairs
like a deer. At the stable-door he collared the half-sleeping
hostler and backed him against the wall. "Saddle my horse in
two minutes, or I'll--" The ellipsis was frightfully suggestive.
"The missus said you was to have the buggy," stammered the man.
"D--n the buggy!"
The horse was saddled as fast as the nervous
hands of the astounded hostler could manipulate buckle and strap.
"Is anything up, Mr. Hamlin?" said the man, who, like all his
class, admired the elan of his fiery patron, and was really
concerned in his welfare.
The man fell back. With an oath, a bound, and clatter, Jack
was into the road. In another moment, to the man's half-awakened
eyes, he was but a moving cloud of dust in the distance, toward
which a star just loosed from its brethren was trailing a stream
But, early that morning, the dwellers by the Wingdam turnpike,
miles away, heard a voice, pure as a sky-lark's, singing afield.
They who were asleep, turned over on their rude couches to dream
of youth, and love, and olden days. Hard-faced men and anxious
gold-seekers, already at work, ceased their labors and leaned
upon their picks, to listen to a romantic vagabond ambling away
against the rosy sunrise.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~