Frontier Stories

A Blue-Grass Penelope


Bret Harte

MR. PATTERSON did not inform his wife of the lawyer’s personal threat to himself. But he managed, after Poindexter had left, to make her conscious that Mrs. Tucker might be a power to be placated and feared. “You’ve shot off your mouth at her,” he said argumentatively, “and whether you’ve hit the mark or not you’ve had your say. Ef you think it’s worth a possible five thousand dollars and interest to keep on, heave ahead. Ef you rather have the chance of getting the rest in cash, you’ll let up on her.” “You don’t suppose,” returned Mrs. Patterson contemptuously, “that she’s got anything but what that man of hers—Poindexter—lets her have?” “The sheriff says,” retorted Patterson surlily, “that she’s notified him that she claims the rancho as a gift from her husband three years ago, and she’s in possession now, and was so when the execution was out. It don’t make no matter,” he added, with gloomy philosophy, “who’s got a full hand as long as we ain’t got the cards to chip in. I wouldn’t ’a’ minded it,” he continued meditatively, “ef Spence Tucker had dropped a hint to me afore he put out.” “And I suppose,” said Mrs. Patterson angrily, “you’d have put out too?” “I reckon,” said Patterson simply.

Twice or thrice during the evening he referred, more or less directly, to this lack of confidence shown by his late debtor and employer, and seemed to feel it more keenly than the loss of property. He confided his sentiments quite openly to the sheriff in possession, over the whiskey and euchre with which these gentlemen avoided the difficulties of their delicate relations. He brooded over it as he handed the keys of the shop to the sheriff when they parted for the night, and was still thinking of it when the house was closed, everybody gone to bed, and he was fetching a fresh jug of water from the well. The moon was at times obscured by flying clouds, the avant-couriers of the regular evening shower. He was stooping over the well, when he sprang suddenly to his feet again. “Who’s there?” he demanded sharply.

“Hush!” said a voice so low and faint it might have been a whisper of the wind in the palisades of the corral. But, indistinct as it was, it was the voice of a man he was thinking of as far away, and it sent a thrill of alternate awe and pleasure through his pulses.

He glanced quickly round. The moon was hidden by a passing cloud, and only the faint outlines of the house he had just quitted were visible. “Is that you, Spence?” he said tremulously.

“Yes,” replied the voice, and a figure dimly emerged from the corner of the corral.

“Lay low, lay low, for God’s sake,” said Patterson, hurriedly throwing himself upon the apparition. “The sheriff and his posse are in there.”

“But I must speak to you a moment,” said the figure.

“Wait,” said Patterson, glancing toward the building. Its blank, shutterless windows revealed no inner light; a profound silence encompassed it. “Come quick,” he whispered. Letting his grasp slip down to the unresisting hand of the stranger, he half dragged, half led him, brushing against the wall, into the open door of the deserted bar-room he had just quitted, locked the inner door, poured a glass of whiskey from a decanter, gave it to him, and then watched him drain it at a single draught.

The moon came out, and falling through the bare windows full upon the stranger’s face, revealed the artistic but slightly disheveled curls and mustache of the fugitive, Spencer Tucker.

Whatever may have been the real influence of this unfortunate man upon his fellows, it seemed to find expression in a singular unanimity of criticism. Patterson looked at him with a half dismal, half welcoming smile. “Well, you are a h—ll of a fellow, ain’t you?”

Spencer Tucker passed his hand through his hair and lifted it from his forehead, with a gesture at once emotional and theatrical. “I am a man with a price on me!” he said bitterly. “Give me up to the sheriff, and you’ll get five thousand dollars. Help me, and you’ll get nothing. That’s my d—d luck, and yours too, I suppose.”

“I reckon you’re right there,” said Patterson gloomily. “But I thought you got clean away,—went off in a ship”—

“Went off in a boat to a ship,” interrupted Tucker savagely; “went off to a ship that had all my things on board—everything. The cursed boat capsized in a squall just off the Heads. The ship, d—n her, sailed away, the men thinking I was drowned, likely, and that they’d make a good thing off my goods, I reckon.”

“But the girl, Inez, who was with you, didn’t she make a row?”

Quien sabe?” returned Tucker, with a reckless laugh. “Well, I hung on like grim death to that boat’s keel until one of those Chinese fishermen, in a ‘dug-out,’ hauled me in opposite Saucelito. I chartered him and his dug-out to bring me down here.”

“Why here?” asked Patterson, with a certain ostentatious caution that ill concealed his pensive satisfaction.

“You may well ask,” returned Tucker, with an equal ostentation of bitterness, as he slightly waved his companion away. “But I reckoned I could trust a white man that I’d been kind to, and who wouldn’t go back on me. No, no, let me go! Hand me over to the sheriff!”

Patterson had suddenly grasped both the hands of the picturesque scamp before him, with an affection that for an instant almost shamed the man who had ruined him. But Tucker’s egotism whispered that this affection was only a recognition of his own superiority, and felt flattered. He was beginning to believe that he was really the injured party.

“What I have and what I have had is yours, Spence,” returned Patterson, with a sad and simple directness that made any further discussion a gratuitous insult. “I only wanted to know what you reckoned to do here.”

“I want to get over across the Coast Range to Monterey,” said Tucker. “Once there, one of those coasting schooners will bring me down to Acapulco, where the ship will put in.”

Patterson remained silent for a moment. “There’s a mustang in the corral you can take—leastways, I shan’t know that it’s gone—until to-morrow afternoon. In an hour from now,” he added, looking from the window, “these clouds will settle down to business. It will rain; there will be light enough for you to find your way by the regular trail over the mountain, but not enough for any one to know you. If you can’t push through to-night, you can lie over at the posada on the summit. Them greasers that keep it won’t know you, And if they did they won’t go back on you. And if they did go back on you, nobody would believe them. It’s mighty curious,” he added, with gloomy philosophy, “but I reckon it’s the reason why Providence allows this kind of cattle to live among white men and others made in his image. Take a piece of pie, won’t you?” he continued, abandoning this abstract reflection and producing half a flat pumpkin pie from the bar. Spencer Tucker grasped the pie with one hand and his friend’s fingers with the other, and for a few moments was silent from the hurried deglutition of viand and sentiment. “You’re a white man, Patterson, any way,” he resumed. “I’ll take your horse, and put it down in our account at your own figure. As soon as this cursed thing is blown over, I’ll be back here and see you through, you bet! I don’t desert my friends, however rough things go with me.”

“I see you don’t,” returned Patterson, with an unconscious and serious simplicity that had the effect of the most exquisite irony. “I was only just saying to the sheriff that if there was anything I could have done for you, you wouldn’t have cut away without letting me know.” Tucker glanced uneasily at Patterson, who continued, “Ye ain’t wanting anything else?” Then observing that his former friend and patron was roughly but newly clothed, and betrayed no trace of his last escapade, he added, “I see you’ve got a fresh harness.”

“That d—d Chinaman bought me these at the landing. They’re not much in style or fit,” he continued, trying to get a moonlight view of himself in the mirror behind the bar, “but that don’t matter here.” He filled another glass of spirits, jauntily settled himself back in his chair, and added, “I don’t suppose there are any girls around, anyway.”

“’Cept your wife; she was down here this afternoon,” said Patterson meditatively.

Mr. Tucker paused with the pie in his hand. “Ah, yes!” He essayed a reckless laugh, but that evident simulation failed before Patterson’s melancholy. With an assumption of falling in with his friend’s manner, rather than from any personal anxiety, he continued, “Well?”

“That man Poindexter was down here with her. Put her in the hacienda to hold possession afore the news came out.”

“Impossible!” said Tucker, rising hastily. “It don’t belong—that is”—he hesitated.

“Yer thinking the creditors’ll get it, mebbe,” returned Patterson, gazing at the floor. “Not as long as she’s in it; no sir! Whether it’s really hers, or she’s only keeping house for Poindexter, she’s a fixture, you bet. They are a team when they pull together, they are!”

The smile slowly faded from Tucker’s face, that now looked quite rigid in the moonlight. He put down his glass and walked to the window as Patterson gloomily continued: “But that’s nothing to you. You’ve got ahead of ’em both, and had your revenge by going off with the gal. That’s what I said all along. When folks—specially women folks—wondered how you could leave a woman like your wife, and go off with a scallawag like that gal, I allers said they’d find out there was a reason. And when your wife came flaunting down here with Poindexter before she’d quite got quit of you, I reckon they began to see the whole little game. No, sir! I knew it wasn’t on account of the gal! Why, when you came here to-night and told me quite nat’ral-like and easy how she went off in the ship, and then calmly ate your pie and drank your whiskey after it, I knew you didn’t care for her. There’s my hand, Spence; you’re a trump, even if you are a little looney, eh? Why, what’s up?”

Shallow and selfish as Tucker was, Patterson’s words seemed like a revelation that shocked him as profoundly as it might have shocked a nobler nature. The simple vanity and selfishness that made him unable to conceive any higher reason for his wife’s loyalty than his own personal popularity and success, now that he no longer possessed that éclat, made him equally capable of the lowest suspicions. He was a dishonored fugitive, broken in fortune and reputation—why should she not desert him? He had been unfaithful to her from wildness, from caprice, from the effect of those fascinating qualities; it seemed to him natural that she should be disloyal from more deliberate motives, and he hugged himself with that belief. Yet there was enough doubt, enough of haunting suspicion, that he had lost or alienated a powerful affection, to make him thoroughly miserable. He returned his friend’s grasp convulsively and buried his face upon his shoulder. But he was above feeling a certain exultation in the effect of his misery upon the dog-like, unreasoning affection of Patterson, nor could he entirely refrain from slightly posing his affliction before that sympathetic but melancholy man. Suddenly he raised his head, drew back, and thrust his hand into his bosom with a theatrical gesture.

“What’s to keep me from killing Poindexter in his tracks?” he said wildly.

“Nothin’ but his shooting first,” returned Patterson, with dismal practicality. “He’s mighty quick, like all them army men. It’s about even, I reckon, that he don’t get me first,” he added in an ominous voice.

“No!” returned Tucker, grasping his hand again. “This is not your affair, Patterson; leave him to me when I come back.”

“If he ever gets the drop on me, I reckon he won’t wait,” continued Patterson lugubriously. “He seems to object to my passin’ criticism on your wife, as if she was a queen or an angel.”

The blood came to Spencer’s cheek, and he turned uneasily to the window. “It’s dark enough now for a start,” he said hurriedly, “and if I could get across the mountain without lying over at the summit, it would be a day gained.”

Patterson arose without a word, filled a flask of spirit, handed it to his friend, and silently led the way through the slowly falling rain and the now settled darkness. The mustang was quickly secured and saddled; a heavy poncho afforded Tucker a disguise as well as a protection from the rain. With a few hurried, disconnected words, and an abstracted air, he once more shook his friend’s hand and issued cautiously from the corral. When out of earshot from the house he put spurs to the mustang, and dashed into a gallop.

To intersect the mountain road he was obliged to traverse part of the highway his wife had walked that afternoon, and to pass within a mile of the casa where she was. Long before he reached that point his eyes were straining the darkness in that direction for some indication of the house which was to him familiar. Becoming now accustomed to the even obscurity, less trying to the vision than the alternate light and shadow of cloud or the full glare of the moonlight, he fancied he could distinguish its low walls over the monotonous level. One of those impulses which had so often taken the place of resolution in his character suddenly possessed him to diverge from his course and approach the house. Why, he could not have explained. It was not from any feeling of jealous suspicion or contemplated revenge—that had passed with the presence of Patterson; it was not from any vague lingering sentiment for the woman he had wronged—he would have shrunk from meeting her at that moment. But it was full of these and more possibilities by which he might or might not be guided, and was at least a movement towards some vague end, and a distraction from certain thoughts he dared not entertain and could not entirely dismiss. Inconceivable and inexplicable to human reason, it might have been acceptable to the Divine omniscience for its predestined result.

He left the road at a point where the marsh encroached upon the meadow, familiar to him already as near the spot where he had debarked from the Chinaman’s boat the day before. He remembered that the walls of the hacienda were distinctly visible from the tules where he had hidden all day, and he now knew that the figures he had observed near the building, which had deterred his first attempts at landing, must have been his wife and his friend. He knew that a long tongue of the slough filled by the rising tide followed the marsh, and lay between him and the hacienda. The sinking of his horse’s hoofs in the spongy soil determined its proximity, and he made a detour to the right to avoid it. In doing so, a light suddenly rose above the distant horizon ahead of him, trembled faintly, and then burned with a steady lustre. It was a light at the hacienda. Guiding his horse half abstractedly in this direction, his progress was presently checked by the splashing of the animal’s hoofs in the water. But the turf below was firm, and a salt drop that had spattered to his lips told him that it was only the encroaching of the tide in the meadow. With his eyes on the light, he again urged his horse forward. The rain lulled, the clouds began to break, the landscape alternately lightened and grew dark; the outlines of the crumbling hacienda walls that enshrined the light grew more visible. A strange and dreamy resemblance to the long blue-grass plain before his wife’s paternal house, as seen by him during his evening rides to courtship, pressed itself upon him. He remembered, too, that she used to put a light in the window to indicate her presence. Following this retrospect, the moon came boldly out, sparkled upon the overflow of silver at his feet, seemed to show the dark, opaque meadow beyond for a moment, and then disappeared. It was dark now, but the lesser earthly star still shone before him as a guide, and pushing towards it, he passed in the all-embracing shadow.

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