Frontier Stories

Flip: A California Romance

Chapter V

Bret Harte

THE LONG, parched summer had drawn to its dusty close. Much of it was already blown abroad and dissipated on trail and turnpike, or crackled in harsh, unelastic fibres on hillside and meadow. Some of it had disappeared in the palpable smoke by day and fiery crests by night of burning forests. The besieging fogs on the Coast Range daily thinned their hosts, and at last vanished. The wind changed from northwest to southwest. The salt breath of the sea was on the summit. And then one day the staring, unchanged sky was faintly touched with remote mysterious clouds, and grew tremulous in expression. The next morning dawned upon a newer face in the heavens, on changed woods, on altered outlines, on vanished crests, on forgotten distances. It was raining!

Four weeks of this change, with broken spaces of sunlight and intense blue aerial islands, and then a storm set in. All day the summit pines and redwoods rocked in the blast. At times the onset of the rain seemed to be held back by the fury of the gale, or was visibly seen in sharp waves on the hillside. Unknown and concealed watercourses suddenly overflowed the trails, pools became lakes and brooks rivers. Hidden from the storm, the sylvan silence of sheltered valleys was broken by the impetuous rush of waters; even the tiny streamlet that traversed Flip’s retreat in the Gin and Ginger Woods became a cascade.

The storm drove Fairley from his couch early. The falling of a large tree across the trail, and the sudden overflow of a small stream beside it, hastened his steps.

But he was doomed to encounter what was to him a more disagreeable object—a human figure. By the bedraggled drapery that flapped and fluttered in the wind, by the long, unkempt hair that hid the face and eyes, and by the grotesquely misplaced bonnet, the old man recognized one of his old trespassers—an Indian squaw.

“Clear out ’er that! Come, make tracks, will ye?” the old man screamed; but here the wind stopped his voice, and drove him against a hazel-bush.

“Me heap sick,” answered the squaw, shivering through her muddy shawl.

“I’ll make ye a heap sicker if ye don’t vamose the ranch,” continued Fairley, advancing.

“Me wantee Wangee girl. Wangee girl give me heap grub,” said the squaw, without moving.

“You bet your life,” groaned the old man to himself. Nevertheless an idea struck him. “Ye ain’t brought no presents, hev ye?” he asked cautiously. “Ye ain’t got no pooty things for poor Wangee girl?” he continued insinuatingly.

“Me got heap cache nuts and berries,” said the squaw.

“Oh, in course! in course! That’s just it,” screamed Fairley; “you’ve got ’em cached only two mile from yer, and you’ll go and get ’em for a half dollar, cash down.”

“Me bring Wangee girl to cache,” replied the Indian, pointing to the wood. “Honest Injin.”

Another bright idea struck Mr. Fairley; but it required some elaboration. Hurrying the squaw with him through the pelting rain, he reached the shelter of the corral. Vainly the shivering aborigine drew her tightly bandaged papoose closer to her square, flat breast, and looked longingly toward the cabin; the old man backed her against the palisade. Here he cautiously imparted his dark intentions to employ her to keep watch and ward over the ranch, and especially over its young mistress—“clear out all the tramps ’ceptin’ yourself, and I’ll keep ye in grub and rum.” Many and deliberate repetitions of this offer in various forms at last seemed to affect the squaw; she nodded violently, and echoed the last word “rum.” “Now,” she added. The old man hesitated; she was in possession of his secret; he groaned, and, promising an immediate installment of liquor, led her to the cabin.

The door was so securely fastened against the impact of the storm that some moments elapsed before the bar was drawn, and the old man had become impatient and profane. When it was partly opened by Flip he hastily slipped in, dragging the squaw after him, and cast one single suspicious glance around the rude apartment which served as a sitting-room. Flip had apparently been writing. A small inkstand was still on the board table, but her paper had evidently been concealed before she allowed them to enter. The squaw instantly squatted before the adobe hearth, warmed her bundled baby, and left the ceremony of introduction to her companion. Flip regarded the two with calm preoccupation and indifference. The only thing that touched her interest was the old squaw’s draggled skirt and limp neckerchief. They were Flip’s own, long since abandoned and cast off in the Gin and Ginger Woods. “Secrets again,” whined Fairley, still eying Flip furtively. “Secrets again, in course—in course—jiss so. Secrets that must be kep from the ole man. Dark doin’s by one’s own flesh and blood. Go on! go on! Don’t mind me.” Flip did not reply. She had even lost the interest in her old dress. Perhaps it had only touched some note in unison with her revery.

“Can’t ye get the poor critter some whiskey?” he queried, fretfully. “Ye used to be peart enuff before.” As Flip turned to the corner to lift the demijohn, Fairley took occasion to kick the squaw with his foot, and indicate by extravagant pantomime that the bargain was not to be alluded to before the girl. Flip poured out some whiskey in a tin cup, and, approaching the squaw, handed it to her. “It’s like ez not,” continued Fairley to his daughter, but looking at the squaw, “that she’ll be huntin’ the woods off and on, and kinder looking after the last pit near the Madroños; ye’ll give her grub and licker ez she likes. Well, d’ye hear, Flip? Are ye moonin’ agin with yer secrets? What’s gone with ye?”

If the child were dreaming, it was a delicious dream. Her magnetic eyes were suffused by a strange light, as though the eye itself had blushed; her full pulse showed itself more in the rounding outline of her cheek than in any deepening of color; indeed, if there was any heightening of tint, it was in her freckles, which fairly glistened like tiny spangles. Her eyes were downcast, her shoulders slightly bent, but her voice was low and clear and thoughtful as ever.

“One o’ the big pines above the Madroño pit has blown over into the run,” she said. “It’s choked up the water, and it’s risin’ fast. Like ez not it’s pourin’ over into the pit by this time.”

The old man rose with a fretful cry. “And why in blazes didn’t you say so first?” he screamed, catching up his axe and rushing to the door.

“Ye didn’t give me a chance,” said Flip, raising her eyes for the first time. With an impatient imprecation, Fairley darted by her and rushed into the wood. In an instant she had shut the door and bolted it. In the same instant the squaw arose, dashed the long hair not only from her eyes but from her head, tore away her shawl and blanket, and revealed the square shoulders of Lance Harriott! Flip remained leaning against the door; but the young man in rising dropped the bandaged papoose, which rolled from his lap into the fire. Flip, with a cry, sprang toward it; but Lance caught her by the waist with one arm, as with the other he dragged the bundle from the flames.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said, gayly, “it’s only”—

“What?” said Flip, trying to disengage herself.

“My coat and trousers.”

Flip laughed, which encouraged Lance to another attempt to kiss her. She evaded it by diving her head into his waistcoat, and saying, “There’s father.”

“But he’s gone to clear away that tree,” suggested Lance.

One of Flip’s significant silences followed.

“Oh, I see,” he laughed. “That was a plan to get him away! Ah!” She had released herself.

“Why did you come like that?” she said, pointing to his wig and blanket.

“To see if you’d know me,” he responded.

“No,” said Flip, dropping her eyes. “It’s to keep other people from knowing you. You’re hidin’ agin.”

“I am,” returned Lance; “but,” he interrupted, “it’s only the same old thing.”

“But you wrote from Monterey that it was all over,” she persisted.

“So it would have been,” he said gloomily, “but for some dog down here who is hunting up an old scent. I’ll spot him yet, and”—He stopped suddenly, with such utter abstraction of hatred in his fixed and glittering eyes that she almost feared him. She laid her hand quite unconsciously on his arm. He grasped it; his face changed.

“I couldn’t wait any longer to see you, Flip, so I came here anyway,” he went on. “I thought to hang round and get a chance to speak to you first, when I fell afoul of the old man. He didn’t know me, and tumbled right in my little game. Why, do you believe he wants to hire me for my grub and liquor, to act as a sort of sentry over you and the ranch?” And here he related with great gusto the substance of his interview. “I reckon as he’s that suspicious,” he concluded, “I’d better play it out now as I’ve begun, only it’s mighty hard I can’t see you here before the fire in your fancy toggery, Flip, but must dodge in and out of the wet underbrush in these yer duds of yours that I picked up in the old place in the Gin and Ginger Woods.”

“Then you came here just to see me?” asked Flip.

“I did.”

“For only that?”

“Only that.”

Flip dropped her eyes. Lance had got his other arm around her waist, but her resisting little hand was still potent.

“Listen,” she said at last without looking up, but apparently talking to the intruding arm, “when Dad comes I’ll get him to send you to watch the diamond pit. It isn’t far; it’s warm, and”—


“I’ll come, after a bit, and see you. Quit foolin’ now. If you’d only have come here like yourself—like—like—a white man.”

“The old man,” interrupted Lance, “would have just passed me on to the summit. I couldn’t have played the lost fisherman on him at this time of year.”

“Ye could have been stopped at the Crossing by high water, you silly,” said the girl. “It was.” This grammatical obscurity referred to the stage-coach.

“Yes, but I might have been tracked to this cabin. And look here, Flip,” he said, suddenly straightening himself, and lifting the girl’s face to a level with his own, “I don’t want you to lie any more for me. It ain’t right.”

“All right. Ye needn’t go to the pit, then, and I won’t come.”


“And here’s Dad coming. Quick!”

Lance chose to put his own interpretation on this last adjuration. The resisting little hand was now lying quite limp on his shoulder. He drew her brown, bright face near his own, felt her spiced breath on his lips, his cheeks, his hot eyelids, his swimming eyes, kissed her, hurriedly replaced his wig and blanket, and dropped beside the fire with the tremulous laugh of youth and innocent first passion. Flip had withdrawn to the window, and was looking out upon the rocking pines.

“He don’t seem to be coming,” said Lance, with a half-shy laugh.

“No,” responded Flip demurely, pressing her hot oval cheek against the wet panes; “I reckon I was mistaken. You’re sure,” she added, looking resolutely another way, but still trembling like a magnetic needle toward Lance, as he moved slightly before the fire, “you’re sure you’d like me to come to you?”

“Sure, Flip?”

“Hush!” said Flip, as this reassuring query of reproachful astonishment appeared about to be emphasized by a forward amatory dash of Lance’s; “hush! he’s coming this time, sure.”

It was, indeed, Fairley, exceedingly wet, exceedingly bedraggled, exceedingly sponged out as to color, and exceedingly profane. It appeared that there was, indeed, a tree that had fallen in the “run,” but that, far from diverting the overflow into the pit, it had established “back water,” which had forced another outlet. All this might have been detected at once by any human intellect not distracted by correspondence with strangers, and enfeebled by habitually scorning the intellect of its own progenitor. This reckless selfishness had further only resulted in giving “rheumatics” to that progenitor, who now required the external administration of opodeldoc to his limbs, and the internal administration of whiskey. Having thus spoken, Mr. Fairley, with great promptitude and infantine simplicity, at once bared two legs of entirely different colors and mutely waited for his daughter to rub them. If Flip did this all unconsciously, and with the mechanical dexterity of previous habit, it was because she did not quite understand the savage eyes and impatient gestures of Lance in his encompassing wig and blanket, and because it helped her to voice her thought.

“Ye’ll never be able to take yer watch at the diamond pit to-night, Dad,” she said; “and I’ve been reck’nin’ you might set the squaw there instead. I can show her what to do.”

But to Flip’s momentary discomfiture, her father promptly objected. “Mebbe I’ve got suthin’ else for her to do. Mebbe I may have my secrets, too—eh?” he said, with dark significance, at the same time administering a significant nudge to Lance, which kept up the young man’s exasperation. “No, she’ll rest yer a bit just now. I’ll set her to watchin’ suthin’ else, like as not, when I want her.” Flip fell into one of her suggestive silences. Lance watched her earnestly, mollified by a single furtive glance from her significant eyes; the rain dashed against the windows, and occasionally spattered and hissed in the hearth of the broad chimney, and Mr. David Fairley, somewhat assuaged by the internal administration of whiskey, grew more loquacious. The genius of incongruity and inconsistency which generally ruled his conduct came out with freshened vigor under the gentle stimulation of spirit. “On an evening like this,” he began, comfortably settling himself on the floor beside the chimney, “ye might rig yerself out in them new duds and fancy fixin’s that that Sacramento shrimp sent ye, and let your own flesh and blood see ye. If that’s too much to do for your old dad, ye might do it to please that digger squaw as a Christian act.” Whether in the hidden depths of the old man’s consciousness there was a feeling of paternal vanity in showing this wretched aborigine the value and importance of the treasure she was about to guard, I cannot say. Flip darted an interrogatory look at Lance, who nodded a quiet assent, and she flew into the inner room. She did not linger on the details of her toilet, but reappeared almost the next moment in her new finery, buttoning the neck of her gown as she entered the room, and chastely stopping at the window to characteristically pull up her stocking. The peculiarity of her situation increased her usual shyness; she played with the black and gold beads of a handsome necklace—Lance’s last gift—as the merest child might; her unbuckled shoe gave the squaw a natural opportunity of showing her admiration and devotion by insisting upon buckling it, and gave Lance, under that disguise, an opportunity of covertly kissing the little foot and ankle in the shadow of the chimney; an event which provoked slight hysterical symptoms in Flip and caused her to sit suddenly down in spite of the remonstrances of her parent. “Ef you can’t quit gigglin’ and squirmin’ like an Injin baby yourself, ye’d better get rid o’ them duds,” he ejaculated with peevish scorn.

Yet, under this perfunctory rebuke, his weak vanity could not be hidden, and he enjoyed the evident admiration of a creature, whom he believed to be half-witted and degraded, all the more keenly because it did not make him jealous. She could not take Flip from him. Rendered garrulous by liquor, he went to voice his contempt for those who might attempt it. Taking advantage of his daughter’s absence to resume her homely garments, he whispered confidentially to Lance:

“Ye see these yer fine dresses, ye might think is presents. Pr’aps Flip lets on they are. Pr’aps she don’t know any better. But they ain’t presents. They’re only samples o’ dressmaking and jewelry that a vain, conceited shrimp of a feller up in Sacramento sends down here to get customers for. In course I’m to pay for ’em. In course he reckons I’m to do it. In course I calkilate to do it; but he needn’t try to play ’em off as presents. He talks suthin’ o’ coming down here, sportin’ hisself off on Flip as a fancy buck! Not ez long ez the old man’s here, you bet!” Thoroughly carried away by his fancied wrongs, it was perhaps fortunate that he did not observe the flashing eyes of Lance behind his lank and lustreless wig; but seeing only the figure of Lance as he had conjured him, he went on: “That’s why I want you to hang around her. Hang around her ontil my boy—him that’s comin’ home on a visit—gets here, and I reckon he’ll clear out that yar Sacramento counter-jumper. Only let me get a sight o’ him afore Flip does. Eh? D’ye hear? Dog my skin if I don’t believe the d——d Injin’s drunk.” It was fortunate that at that moment Flip reappeared, and, dropping on the hearth between her father and the infuriated Lance, let her hand slip in his with a warning pressure. The light touch momentarily recalled him to himself and her, but not until the quick-witted girl had revealed to her, in one startled wave of consciousness, the full extent of Lance’s infirmity of temper. With the instinct of awakened tenderness came a sense of responsibility, and a vague premonition of danger. The coy blossom of her heart was scarce unfolded before it was chilled by approaching shadows. Fearful of, she knew not what, she hesitated. Every moment of Lance’s stay was imperiled by a single word that might spring from his suppressed white lips; beyond and above the suspicions his sudden withdrawal might awaken in her father’s breast, she was dimly conscious of some mysterious terror without that awaited him. She listened to the furious onslaught of the wind upon the sycamores beside their cabin, and thought she heard it there; she listened to the sharp fusillade of rain upon roof and pane, and the turbulent roar and rush of leaping mountain torrents at their very feet, and fancied it was there. She suddenly sprang to the window, and, pressing her eyes to the pane, saw through the misty turmoil of tossing boughs and swaying branches the scintillating intermittent flames of torches moving on the trail above, and knew it was there!

In an instant she was collected and calm. “Dad,” she said, in her ordinary indifferent tone, “there’s torches movin; up toward the diamond pit. Likely it’s tramps. I’ll take the squaw and see.” And before the old man could stagger to his feet she had dragged Lance with her into the road.

Frontier Stories - Contents    |     Flip - Chapter VI

Back    |    Words Home    |    Bret Harte Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback