Frontier Stories

Flip: A California Romance

Chapter VI

Bret Harte

THE WIND charged down upon them, slamming the door at their backs, extinguishing the broad shaft of light that had momentarily shot out into the darkness, and swept them a dozen yards away. Gaining the lee of a madroño tree, Lance opened his blanketed arms, enfolded the girl, and felt her for one brief moment tremble and nestle in his bosom like some frightened animal. “Well,” he said, gayly, “what next?” Flip recovered herself. “You’re safe now anywhere outside the house. But did you expect them to-night?” Lance shrugged his shoulders. “Why not?” “Hush!” returned the girl; “they’re coming this way.”

The four flickering, scattered lights presently dropped into line. The trail had been found; they were coming nearer. Flip breathed quickly; the spiced aroma of her presence filled the blanket as he drew her tightly beside him. He had forgotten the storm that raged around them, the mysterious foe that was approaching, until Flip caught his sleeve with a slight laugh. “Why, it’s Kennedy and Bijah!”

“Who’s Kennedy and Bijah?” asked Lance, curtly.

“Kennedy’s the Postmaster and Bijah’s the Butcher.”

“What do they want?” continued Lance.

“Me,” said Flip, coyly.


“Yes; let’s run away.”

Half leading, half dragging her friend, Flip made her way with unerring woodcraft down the ravine. The sound of voices and even the tumult of the storm became fainter, an acrid smell of burning green wood smarted Lance’s lips and eyes; in the midst of the darkness beneath him gradually a faint, gigantic nimbus like a lurid eye glowed and sank, quivered and faded with the spent breath of the gale as it penetrated their retreat. “The pit,” whispered Flip; “it’s safe on the other side,” she added, cautiously skirting the orbit of the great eye, and leading him to a sheltered nest of bark and sawdust. It was warm and odorous. Nevertheless, they both deemed it necessary to enwrap themselves in the single blanket. The eye beamed fitfully upon them, occasionally a wave of lambent tremulousness passed across it; its weirdness was an excuse for their drawing nearer each other in playful terror.



“What did the other two want? To see you, too?”

“Likely,” said Flip, without the least trace of coquetry. “There’s been a lot of strangers yer, off and on.”

“Perhaps you’d like to go back and see them?”

“Do you want me to?”

Lance’s reply was a kiss. Nevertheless he was vaguely uneasy. “Looks a little as if I were running away, don’t it?” he suggested.

“No,” said Flip; “they think you’re only a squaw; it’s me they’re after.” Lance smarted a little at this infelicitous speech. A strange and irritating sensation had been creeping over him—it was his first experience of shame and remorse. “I reckon I’ll go back and see,” he said, rising abruptly.

Flip was silent. She was thinking. Believing that the men were seeking her only, she knew that their intention would be directed from her companion when it was found out he was no longer with her, and she dreaded to meet them in his irritable presence.

“Go,” she said; “tell Dad something’s wrong in the diamond pit, and say I’m watching it for him here.”

“And you?”

“I’ll go there and wait for him. If he can’t get rid of them, and they follow him there, I’ll come back here and meet you. Anyhow, I’ll manage to have Dad wait there a spell.”

She took his hand and led him back by a different path to the trail. He was surprised to find that the cabin, its window glowing from the fire, was only a hundred yards away. “Go in the back way, by the shed. Don’t go in the room, nor near the light, if you can. Don’t talk inside, but call or beckon to Dad. Remember,” she said, with a laugh, “you’re keeping watch of me for him. Pull your hair down on your eyes, so.” This operation, like most feminine embellishments of the masculine toilet, was attended by a kiss, and Flip, stepping back into the shadow, vanished in the storm.

Lance’s first movements were inconsistent with his assumed sex. He picked up his draggled skirt and drew a bowie-knife from his boot. From his bosom he took a revolver, turning the chambers noiselessly as he felt the caps. He then crept toward the cabin softly and gained the shed. It was quite dark but for a pencil of light piercing a crack of the rude, ill-fitting door that opened on the sitting-room. A single voice not unfamiliar to him, raised in half-brutal triumph, greeted his ears. A name was mentioned—his own! His angry hand was on the latch. One moment more and he would have burst the door, but in that instant another name was uttered—a name that dropped his hand from the latch and the blood from his cheeks. He staggered backward, passed his hand swiftly across his forehead, recovered himself with a gesture of mingled rage and despair, and, sinking on his knees beside the door, pressed his hot temples against the crack.

“Do I know Lance Harriott?” said the voice. “Do I know the d—d ruffian? Didn’t I hunt him a year ago into the brush three miles from the Crossing? Didn’t we lose sight of him the very day he turned up yer at this ranch, and got smuggled over into Monterey? Ain’t it the same man as killed Arkansaw Bob—Bob Ridley—the name he went by in Sonora? And who was Bob Ridley, eh? Who? Why, you d—d old fool, it was Bob Fairley—YOUR SON!”

The old man’s voice rose querulous and indistinct.

“What are ye talkin’ about?” interrupted the first speaker. “I tell you I know. Look at these pictures. I found ’em on his body. Look at ’em. Pictures of you and your girl. Pr’aps you’ll deny them. Pr’aps you’ll tell me I lie when I tell you he told me he was your son; told me how he ran away from you; how you were livin’ somewhere in the mountains makin’ gold, or suthin’ else, outer charcoal. He told me who he was as a secret. He never let on he told it to any one else. And when I found that the man who killed him, Lance Harriott, had been hidin’ here, had been sendin’ spies all around to find out all about your son, had been foolin’ you, and tryin’ to ruin your gal as he had killed your boy, I knew that he knew it too.”


The door fell in with a crash. There was the sudden apparition of the demoniac face, still half hidden by the long trailing black locks of hair that curled like Medusa’s around it. A cry of terror filled the room. Three of the men dashed from the door and fled precipitately. The man who had spoken sprang toward his rifle in the chimney corner. But the movement was his last; a blinding flash and shattering report interposed between him and his weapon. The impulse carried him forward headlong into the fire, that hissed and spluttered with his blood, and Lance Harriott, with his smoking pistol, strode past him to the door. Already far down the trail there were hurried voices, the crack and crackling of impending branches growing fainter and fainter in the distance. Lance turned back to the solitary living figure—the old man.

Yet he might have been dead too, he sat so rigid and motionless, his fixed eyes staring vacantly at the body on the hearth. Before him on the table lay the cheap photographs, one evidently of himself, taken in some remote epoch of complexion, one of a child which Lance recognized as Flip.

“Tell me,” said Lance hoarsely, laying his quivering hand on the table, “was Bob Ridley your son?”

“My son,” echoed the old man in a strange, far-off voice, without turning his eyes from the corpse,—“my son—is—is—is there!” pointing to the dead man. “Hush! Didn’t he tell you so? Didn’t you hear him say it? Dead—dead—shot—shot!”

“Silence! are you crazy, man?” interposed Lance, tremblingly; “that is not Bob Ridley, but a dog, a coward, a liar, gone to his reckoning. Hear me! If your son was Bob Ridley, I swear to God I never knew it, now or—or—then. Do you hear me? Tell me! Do you believe me? Speak! You shall speak!”

He laid his hand almost menacingly on the old man’s shoulder. Fairley slowly raised his head. Lance fell back with a groan of horror. The weak lips were wreathed with a feeble imploring smile, but the eyes wherein the fretful, peevish, suspicious spirit had dwelt were blank and tenantless; the flickering intellect that had lit them was blown out and vanished.

Lance walked toward the door and remained motionless for a moment, gazing into the night. When he turned back again toward the fire his face was as colorless as the dead man’s on the hearth; the fire of passion was gone from his beaten eyes; his step was hesitating and slow. He went up to the table.

“I say, old man,” he said, with a strange smile and an odd, premature suggestion of the infinite weariness of death in his voice, “you wouldn’t mind giving me this, would you?” and he took up the picture of Flip. The old man nodded repeatedly. “Thank you,” said Lance. He went to the door, paused a moment, and returned. “Good-by, old man,” he said, holding out his hand. Fairley took it with a childish smile. “He’s dead,” said the old man softly, holding Lance’s hand, but pointing to the hearth. “Yes,” said Lance, with the faintest of smiles on the palest of faces. “You feel sorry for any one that’s dead, don’t you?” Fairley nodded again. Lance looked at him with eyes as remote as his own, shook his head, and turned away. When he reached the door he laid his revolver carefully, and, indeed, somewhat ostentatiously, upon a chair. But when he stepped from the threshold he stopped a moment in the light of the open door to examine the lock of a small derringer which he drew from his pocket. He then shut the door carefully, and with the same slow, hesitating step, felt his way into the night.

He had but one idea in his mind, to find some lonely spot; some spot where the footsteps of man would never penetrate, some spot that would yield him rest, sleep, obliteration, forgetfulness, and, above all, where he would be forgotten. He had seen such places; surely there were many,—where bones were picked up of dead men who had faded from the earth and had left no other record. If he could only keep his senses now he might find such a spot, but he must be careful, for her little feet went everywhere, and she must never see him again alive or dead. And in the midst of his thoughts, and the darkness, and the storm, he heard a voice at his side, “Lance, how long you have been!”

.     .     .     .     .

Left to himself, the old man again fell into a vacant contemplation of the dead body before him, until a stronger blast swept down like an avalanche upon the cabin, burst through the ill-fastened door and broken chimney, and, dashing the ashes and living embers over the floor, filled the room with blinding smoke and flame. Fairley rose with a feeble cry, and then, as if acted upon by some dominant memory, groped under the bed until he found his buckskin bag and his precious crystal, and fled precipitately from the room. Lifted by this second shock from his apathy, he returned to the fixed idea of his life,—the discovery and creation of the diamond,—and forgot all else. The feeble grasp that his shaken intellect kept of the events of the night relaxed, the disguised Lance, the story of his son, the murder, slipped into nothingness; there remained only the one idea, his nightly watch by the diamond pit. The instinct of long habit was stronger than the darkness or the onset of the storm, and he kept his tottering way over stream and fallen timber until he reached the spot. A sudden tremor seemed to shake the lambent flame that had lured him on. He thought he heard the sound of voices; there were signs of recent disturbance,—footprints in the sawdust! With a cry of rage and suspicion, Fairley slipped into the pit and sprang toward the nearest opening. To his frenzied fancy it had been tampered with, his secret discovered, the fruit of his long labors stolen from him that very night. With superhuman strength he began to open the pit, scattering the half-charred logs right and left, and giving vent to the suffocating gases that rose from the now incandescent charcoal. At times the fury of the gale would drive it back and hold it against the sides of the pit, leaving the opening free; at times, following the blind instinct of habit, the demented man would fall upon his face and bury his nose and mouth in the wet bark and sawdust. At last, the paroxysm past, he sank back again into his old apathetic attitude of watching, the attitude he had so often kept beside his sylvan crucible. In this attitude and in silence he waited for the dawn.

It came with a hush in the storm; it came with blue openings in the broken up and tumbled heavens; it came with stars that glistened first, and then paled, and at last sank drowning in those deep cerulean lakes; it came with those cerulean lakes broadening into vaster seas, whose shores expanded at last into one illimitable ocean, cerulean no more, but flecked with crimson and opal dyes; it came with the lightly lifted misty curtain of the day, torn and rent on crag and pine-top, but always lifting, lifting. It came with the sparkle of emerald in the grasses, and the flash of diamonds in every spray, with a whisper in the awakening woods, and voices in the traveled roads and trails.

The sound of these voices stopped before the pit, and seemed to interrogate the old man. He came, and, putting his finger on his lips, made a sign of caution. When three or four men had descended he bade them follow him, saying, weakly and disjointedly, but persistently: “My boy—my son Robert—came home—came home at last—here with Flip—both of them—come and see!”

He had reached a little niche or nest in the hillside, and stopped, and suddenly drew aside a blanket. Beneath it, side by side, lay Flip and Lance, dead, with their cold hands clasped in each other’s.

“Suffocated!” said two or three, turning with horror toward the broken up and still smouldering pit.

“Asleep!” said the old man. “Asleep! I’ve seen ’em lying that way when they were babies together. Don’t tell me! Don’t say I don’t know my own flesh and blood! So! so! So, my pretty ones!” He stooped and kissed them. Then, drawing the blanket over them gently, he rose and said softly, “Good night!”

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