Colonel Starbottle’s Client

Johnson’s “Old Woman.”

Bret Harte

IT WAS growing dark, and the Sonora trail was becoming more indistinct before me at every step. The difficulty had increased over the grassy slope, where the overflow from some smaller watercourse above had worn a number of diverging gullies so like the trail as to be undistinguishable from it. Unable to determine which was the right one, I threw the reins over the mule’s neck and resolved to trust to that superior animal’s sagacity, of which I had heard so much. But I had not taken into account the equally well-known weaknesses of sex and species, and Chu Chu had already shown uncontrollable signs of wanting her own way. Without a moment’s hesitation, feeling the relaxed bridle, she lay down and rolled over.

In this perplexity the sound of horse’s hoofs ringing out of the rocky canyon beyond was a relief, even if momentarily embarrassing. An instant afterwards a horse and rider appeared cantering round the hill on what was evidently the lost trail, and pulled up as I succeeded in forcing Chu Chu to her legs again.

“Is that the trail from Sonora?” I asked.

“Yes;” but with a critical glance at the mule, “I reckon you ain’t going thar tonight.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a matter of eighteen miles, and most of it a blind trail through the woods after you take the valley.”

“Is it worse than this?”

“What’s the matter with this trail? Ye ain’t expecting a racecourse or a shell road over the foothills—are ye?”

“No. Is there any hotel where I can stop?”


“Nor any house?”


“Thank you. Good-night.”

He had already passed on, when he halted again and turned in his saddle. “Look yer. Just a spell over yon canyon ye’ll find a patch o’ buckeyes; turn to the right and ye’ll see a trail. That’ll take ye to a shanty. You ask if it’s Johnson’s.”

“Who’s Johnson?”

“I am. You ain’t lookin’ for Vanderbilt or God Almighty up here, are you? Well, then, you hark to me, will you? You say to my old woman to give you supper and a shakedown somewhar to-night. Say I sent you. So long.”

He was gone before I could accept or decline. An extraordinary noise proceeded from Chu Chu, not unlike a suppressed chuckle. I looked sharply at her; she coughed affectedly, and, with her head and neck stretched to their greatest length, appeared to contemplate her neat little off fore shoe with admiring abstraction. But as soon as I had mounted she set off abruptly, crossed the rocky canyon, apparently sighted the patch of buckeyes of her own volition, and without the slightest hesitation found the trail to the right, and in half an hour stood before the shanty.

It was a log cabin with an additional “lean-to” of the same material, roofed with bark, and on the other side a larger and more ambitious “extension” built of rough, unplaned, and unpainted redwood boards, lightly shingled. The “lean-to” was evidently used as a kitchen, and the central cabin as a living-room. The barking of a dog as I approached called four children of different sizes to the open door, where already an enterprising baby was feebly essaying to crawl over a bar of wood laid across the threshold to restrain it.

“Is this Johnson’s house?”

My remark was really addressed to the eldest, a boy of apparently nine or ten, but I felt that my attention was unduly fascinated by the baby, who at that moment had toppled over the bar, and was calmly eyeing me upside down, while silently and heroically suffocating in its petticoats. The boy disappeared without replying, but presently returned with a taller girl of fourteen or fifteen. I was struck with the way that, as she reached the door, she passed her hands rapidly over the heads of the others as if counting them, picked up the baby, reversed it, shook out its clothes, and returned it to the inside, without even looking at it. The act was evidently automatic and habitual.

I repeated my question timidly.

Yes, it was Johnson’s, but he had just gone to King’s Mills. I replied, hurriedly, that I knew it,—that I had met him beyond the canyon. As I had lost my way and couldn’t get to Sonora to-night, he had been good enough to say that I might stay there until morning. My voice was slightly raised for the benefit of Mr. Johnson’s “old woman,” who, I had no doubt, was inspecting me furtively from some corner.

The girl drew the children away, except the boy. To him she said simply, “Show the stranger whar to stake out his mule, ‘Dolphus,” and disappeared in the “extension” without another word. I followed my little guide, who was perhaps more actively curious, but equally unresponsive. To my various questions he simply returned a smile of exasperating vacuity. But he never took his eager eyes from me, and I was satisfied that not a detail of my appearance escaped him. Leading the way behind the house to a little wood, whose only “clearing” had been effected by decay or storm, he stood silently apart while I picketed Chu Chu, neither offering to assist me nor opposing any interruption to my survey of the locality. There was no trace of human cultivation in the surroundings of the cabin; the wilderness still trod sharply on the heels of the pioneer’s fresh footprints, and even seemed to obliterate them. For a few yards around the actual dwelling there was an unsavory fringe of civilization in the shape of cast-off clothes, empty bottles, and tin cans, and the adjacent thorn and elder bushes blossomed unwholesomely with bits of torn white paper and bleaching dish-cloths. This hideous circle never widened; Nature always appeared to roll back the intruding debris; no bird nor beast carried it away; no animal ever forced the uncleanly barrier; civilization remained grimly trenched in its own exuvia. The old terrifying girdle of fire around the hunter’s camp was not more deterring to curious night prowlers than this coarse and accidental outwork.

When I regained the cabin I found it empty, the doors of the lean-to and extension closed, but there was a stool set before a rude table, upon which smoked a tin cup of coffee, a tin dish of hot saleratus biscuit, and a plate of fried beef. There was something odd and depressing in this silent exclusion of my presence. Had Johnson’s “old woman” from some dark post of observation taken a dislike to my appearance, or was this churlish withdrawal a peculiarity of Sierran hospitality? Or was Mrs. Johnson young and pretty, and hidden under the restricting ban of Johnson’s jealousy, or was she a deformed cripple, or even a bedridden crone? From the extension at times came a murmur of voices, but never the accents of adult womanhood. The gathering darkness, relieved only by a dull glow from the smouldering logs in the adobe chimney, added to my loneliness. In the circumstances I knew I ought to have put aside the repast and given myself up to gloomy and pessimistic reflection; but Nature is often inconsistent, and in that keen mountain air, I grieve to say, my physical and moral condition was not in that perfect accord always indicated by romancers. I had an appetite and I gratified it; dyspepsia and ethical reflections might come later. I ate the saleratus biscuit cheerfully, and was meditatively finishing my coffee when a gurgling sound from the rafters above attracted my attention. I looked up; under the overhang of the bark roof three pairs of round eyes were fixed upon me. They belonged to the children I had previously seen, who, in the attitude of Raphael’s cherubs, had evidently been deeply interested spectators of my repast. As our eyes met an inarticulate giggle escaped the lips of the youngest.

I never could understand why the shy amusement of children over their elders is not accepted as philosophically by its object as when it proceeds from an equal. We fondly believe that when Jones or Brown laughs at us it is from malice, ignorance, or a desire to show his superiority, but there is always a haunting suspicion in our minds that these little critics really see something in us to laugh at. I, however, smiled affably in return, ignoring any possible grotesqueness in my manner of eating in private.

“Come here, Johnny,” I said blandly.

The two elder ones, a girl and a boy, disappeared instantly, as if the crowning joke of this remark was too much for them. From a scraping and kicking against the log wall I judged that they had quickly dropped to the ground outside. The younger one, the giggler, remained fascinated, but ready to fly at a moment’s warning.

“Come here, Johnny, boy,” I repeated gently. “I want you to go to your mother, please, and tell her”—

But here the child, who had been working its face convulsively, suddenly uttered a lugubrious howl and disappeared also. I ran to the front door and looked out in time to see the tallest girl, who had received me, walking away with it under her arm, pushing the boy ahead of her and looking back over her shoulder, not unlike a youthful she-bear conducting her cubs from danger. She disappeared at the end of the extension, where there was evidently another door.

It was very extraordinary. It was not strange that I turned back to the cabin with a chagrin and mortification which for a moment made me entertain the wild idea of saddling Chu Chu, and shaking the dust of that taciturn house from my feet. But the ridiculousness of such an act, to say nothing of its ingratitude, as quickly presented itself to me. Johnson had offered me only food and shelter; I could have claimed no more from the inn I had asked him to direct me to. I did not re-enter the house, but, lighting my last cigar, began to walk gloomily up and down the trail. With the outcoming of the stars it had grown lighter; through a wind opening in the trees I could see the heavy bulk of the opposite mountain, and beyond it a superior crest defined by a red line of forest fire, which, however, cast no reflection on the surrounding earth or sky. Faint woodland currents of air, still warm from the afternoon sun, stirred the leaves around me with long-drawn aromatic breaths. But these in time gave way to the steady Sierran night wind sweeping down from the higher summits, and rocking the tops of the tallest pines, yet leaving the tranquillity of the dark lower aisles unshaken. It was very quiet; there was no cry nor call of beast or bird in the darkness; the long rustle of the tree-tops sounded as faint as the far-off wash of distant seas. Nor did the resemblance cease there; the close-set files of the pines and cedars, stretching in illimitable ranks to the horizon, were filled with the immeasurable loneliness of an ocean shore. In this vast silence I began to think I understood the taciturnity of the dwellers in the solitary cabin.

When I returned, however, I was surprised to find the tallest girl standing by the door. As I approached she retreated before me, and pointing to the corner where a common cot bed had been evidently just put up, said, “Ye can turn in thar, only ye’ll have to rouse out early when ‘Dolphus does the chores,” and was turning towards the extension again, when I stopped her almost appealingly.

“One moment, please. Can I see your mother?”

She stopped and looked at me with a singular expression. Then she said sharply:—

“You know, fust rate, she’s dead.”

She was turning away again, but I think she must have seen my concern in my face, for she hesitated. “But,” I said quickly, “I certainly understood your father, that is, Mr. Johnson,” I added, interrogatively, “to say that—that I was to speak to”—I didn’t like to repeat the exact phrase—“his wife.”

“I don’t know what he was playin’ ye for,” she said shortly. “Mar has been dead mor’n a year.”

“But,” I persisted, “is there no grown-up woman here?”


“Then who takes care of you and the children?”

“I do.”

“Yourself and your father—eh?”

“Dad ain’t here two days running, and then on’y to sleep.”

“And you take the entire charge of the house?”

“Yes, and the log tallies.”

“The log tallies?”

“Yes; keep count and measure the logs that go by the slide.”

It flashed upon me that I had passed the slide or declivity on the hillside, where logs were slipped down into the valley, and I inferred that Johnson’s business was cutting timber for the mill.

“But you’re rather young for all this work,” I suggested.

“I’m goin’ on sixteen,” she said gravely.

Indeed, for the matter of that, she might have been any age. Her face, on which sunburn took the place of complexion, was already hard and set. But on a nearer view I was struck with the fact that her eyes, which were not large, were almost indistinguishable from the presence of the most singular eyelashes I had ever seen. Intensely black, intensely thick, and even tangled in their profusion, they bristled rather than fringed her eyelids, obliterating everything but the shining black pupils beneath, which were like certain lustrous hairy mountain berries. It was this woodland suggestion that seemed to uncannily connect her with the locality. I went on playfully:—

“That’s not very old—but tell me—does your father, or did your father, ever speak of you as his ‘old woman?’”

She nodded. “Then you thought I was mar?” she said, smiling.

It was such a relief to see her worn face relax its expression of pathetic gravity—although this operation quite buried her eyes in their black thickest hedge again—that I continued cheerfully: “It wasn’t much of a mistake, considering all you do for the house and family.”

“Then you didn’t tell Billy ‘to go and be dead in the ground with mar,’ as he ’lows you did?” she said half suspiciously, yet trembling on the edge of a smile.

No, I had not, but I admitted that my asking him to go to his mother might have been open to this dismal construction by a sensitive infant mind. She seemed mollified, and again turned to go.

“Good-night, Miss—you know your father didn’t tell me your real name,” I said.


“Good-night, Miss Karline.”

I held out my hand.

She looked at it and then at me through her intricate eyelashes. Then she struck it aside briskly, but not unkindly, said “Quit foolin’, now,” as she might have said to one of the children, and disappeared through the inner door. Not knowing whether to be amused or indignant, I remained silent a moment. Then I took a turn outside in the increasing darkness, listened to the now hurrying wind over the tree-tops, re-entered the cabin, closed the door, and went to bed.

But not to sleep. Perhaps the responsibility towards these solitary children, which Johnson had so lightly shaken off, devolved upon me as I lay there, for I found myself imagining a dozen emergencies of their unprotected state, with which the elder girl could scarcely grapple. There was little to fear from depredatory man or beast—desperadoes of the mountain trail never stooped to ignoble burglary, bear or panther seldom approached a cabin—but there was the chance of sudden illness, fire, the accidents that beset childhood, to say nothing of the narrowing moral and mental effect of their isolation at that tender age. It was scandalous in Johnson to leave them alone.

In the silence I found I could hear quite distinctly the sound of their voices in the extension, and it was evident that Caroline was putting them to bed. Suddenly a voice was uplifted—her own! She began to sing and the others to join her. It was the repetition of a single verse of a well-known lugubrious negro melody. “All the world am sad and dreary,” wailed Caroline, in a high head-note, “everywhere I roam.” “Oh, darkieth,” lisped the younger girl in response, “how my heart growth weary, far from the old folkth at h-o-o-me.” This was repeated two or three times before the others seemed to get the full swing of it, and then the lines rose and fell sadly and monotonously in the darkness. I don’t know why, but I at once got the impression that those motherless little creatures were under a vague belief that their performance was devotional, and was really filling the place of an evening hymn. A brief and indistinct kind of recitation, followed by a dead silence, broken only by the slow creaking of new timber, as if the house were stretching itself to sleep too, confirmed my impression. Then all became quiet again.

But I was more wide awake than before. Finally I rose, dressed myself, and dragging my stool to the fire, took a book from my knapsack, and by the light of a guttering candle, which I discovered in a bottle in the corner of the hearth, began to read. Presently I fell into a doze. How long I slept I could not tell, for it seemed to me that a dreamy consciousness of a dog barking at last forced itself upon me so strongly that I awoke. The barking appeared to come from behind the cabin in the direction of the clearing where I had tethered Chu Chu. I opened the door hurriedly, ran round the cabin towards the hollow, and was almost at once met by the bulk of the frightened Chu Chu, plunging out of the darkness towards me, kept only in check by her reata in the hand of a blanketed shape slowly advancing with a gun over its shoulder out of the hollow. Before I had time to recover from my astonishment I was thrown into greater confusion by recognizing the shape as none other than Caroline!

Without the least embarrassment or even self-consciousness of her appearance, she tossed the end of the reata to me with the curtest explanation as she passed by. Some prowling bear or catamount had frightened the mule. I had better tether it before the cabin away from the wind.

“But I thought wild beasts never came so near,” I said quickly.

“Mule meat’s mighty temptin’,” said the girl sententiously and passed on. I wanted to thank her; I wanted to say how sorry I was that she had been disturbed; I wanted to compliment her on her quiet midnight courage, and yet warn her against recklessness; I wanted to know whether she had been accustomed to such alarms; and if the gun she carried was really a necessity. But I could only respect her reticence, and I was turning away when I was struck by a more inexplicable spectacle. As she neared the end of the extension I distinctly saw the tall figure of a man, moving with a certain diffidence and hesitation that did not, however, suggest any intention of concealment, among the trees; the girl apparently saw him at the same moment and slightly slackened her pace. Not more than a dozen feet separated them. He said something that was inaudible to my ears,—but whether from his hesitation or the distance I could not determine. There was no such uncertainty in her reply, however, which was given in her usual curt fashion: “All right. You can trapse along home now and turn in.”

She turned the corner of the extension and disappeared. The tall figure of the man wavered hesitatingly for a moment, and then vanished also. But I was too much excited by curiosity to accept this unsatisfactory conclusion, and, hastily picketing Chu Chu a few rods from the front door, I ran after him, with an instinctive feeling that he had not gone far. I was right. A few paces distant he had halted in the same dubious, lingering way. “Hallo!” I said.

He turned towards me in the like awkward fashion, but with neither astonishment nor concern.

“Come up and take a drink with me before you go,” I said, “if you’re not in a hurry. I’m alone here, and since I have turned out I don’t see why we mightn’t have a smoke and a talk together.”

“I dursn’t.”

I looked up at the six feet of strength before me and repeated wonderingly, “Dare not?”

She wouldn’t like it.” He made a movement with his right shoulder towards the extension.


“Miss Karline.”

“Nonsense!” I said. “She isn’t in the cabin,—you won’t see her. Come along.” He hesitated, although from what I could discern of his bearded face it was weakly smiling.


He obeyed, following me not unlike Chu Chu, I fancied, with the same sense of superior size and strength and a slight whitening of the eye, as if ready to shy at any moment. At the door he “backed.” Then he entered sideways. I noticed that he cleared the doorway at the top and the sides only by a hair’s breadth.

By the light of the fire I could see that, in spite of his full first growth of beard, he was young,—even younger than myself,—and that he was by no means bad-looking. As he still showed signs of retreating at any moment, I took my flask and tobacco from my saddle-bags, handed them to him, pointed to the stool, and sat down myself upon the bed.

“You live near here?”

“Yes,” he said a little abstractedly, as if listening for some interruption, “at Ten Mile Crossing.”

“Why, that’s two miles away.”

“I reckon.”

“Then you don’t live here—on the clearing?”

“No. I b’long to the mill at ‘Ten Mile.’”

“You were on your way home?”

“No,” he hesitated, looking at his pipe; “I kinder meander round here at this time, when Johnson’s away, to see if everything’s goin’ straight.”

“I see—you’re a friend of the family.”

“’Deed no!” He stopped, laughed, looked confused, and added, apparently to his pipe, “That is, a sorter friend. Not much. She”—he lowered his voice as if that potential personality filled the whole cabin—“wouldn’t like it.”

“Then at night, when Johnson’s away, you do sentry duty round the house?”

“Yes, ‘sentry dooty,’ that’s it,”—he seemed impressed with the suggestion—“that’s it! Sentry dooty. You’ve struck it, pardner.”

“And how often is Johnson away?”

“’Bout two or three times a week on an average.”

“But Miss Caroline appears to be able to take care of herself. She has no fear.”

“Fear! Fear wasn’t hangin’ round when she was born!” He paused. “No, sir. Did ye ever look into them eyes?”

I hadn’t, on account of the lashes. But I didn’t care to say this, and only nodded.

“There ain’t the created thing livin’ or dead, that she can’t stand straight up to and look at.”

I wondered if he had fancied she experienced any difficulty in standing up before that innocently good-humored face, but I could not resist saying:—

“Then I don’t see the use of your walking four miles to look after her.”

I was sorry for it the next minute, for he seemed to have awkwardly broken his pipe, and had to bend down for a long time afterwards to laboriously pick up the smallest fragments of it. At last he said, cautiously:

“Ye noticed them bits o’ flannin’ round the chillern’s throats?”

I remembered that I had, but was uncertain whether it was intended as a preventive of cold or a child’s idea of decoration. I nodded.

“That’s their trouble. One night, when old Johnson had been off for three days to Coulterville, I was prowling round here and I didn’t git to see no one, though there was a light burnin’ in the shanty all night. The next night I was here again,—the same light twinklin’, but no one about. I reckoned that was mighty queer, and I jess crep’ up to the house an’ listened. I heard suthin’ like a little cough oncet in a while, and at times suthin’ like a little moan. I didn’t durst to sing out for I knew she wouldn’t like it, but whistled keerless like, to let the chillern know I was there. But it didn’t seem to take. I was jess goin’ off, when—darn my skin!—if I didn’t come across the bucket of water I’d fetched up from the spring that mornin’, standin’ there full, and never taken in! When I saw that I reckoned I’d jess wade in, anyhow, and I knocked. Pooty soon the door was half opened, and I saw her eyes blazin’ at me like them coals. Then she ’lowed I’d better ‘git up and git,’ and shet the door to! Then I ’lowed she might tell me what was up—through the door. Then she said, through the door, as how the chillern lay all sick with that hoss-distemper, diphthery. Then she ’lowed she’d use a doctor ef I’d fetch him. Then she ’lowed again I’d better take the baby that hadn’t ketched it yet along with me, and leave it where it was safe. Then she passed out the baby through the door all wrapped up in a blankit like a papoose, and you bet I made tracks with it. I knowed thar wasn’t no good going to the mill, so I let out for White’s, four miles beyond, whar there was White’s old mother. I told her how things were pointin’, and she lent me a hoss, and I jess rounded on Doctor Green at Mountain Jim’s, and had him back here afore sun-up! And then I heard she wilted,—regularly played out, you see,—for she had it all along wuss than the lot, and never let on or whimpered!”

“It was well you persisted in seeing her that night,” I said, watching the rapt expression of his face. He looked up quickly, became conscious of my scrutiny, and dropped his eyes again, smiled feebly, and drawing a circle in the ashes with the broken pipe-stem, said:—

“But she didn’t like it, though.”

I suggested, a little warmly, that if she allowed her father to leave her alone at night with delicate children, she had no right to choose who should assist her in an emergency. It struck me afterwards that this was not very complimentary to him, and I added hastily that I wondered if she expected some young lady to be passing along the trail at midnight! But this reminded me of Johnson’s style of argument, and I stopped.

“Yes,” he said meekly, “and ef she didn’t keer enough for herself and her brothers and sisters, she orter remember them Beazeley chillern.”

“Beazeley children?” I repeated wonderingly.

“Yes; them two little ones, the size of Mirandy; they’re Beazeley’s.”

“Who is Beazeley, and what are his children doing here?”

“Beazeley up and died at the mill, and she bedevilled her father to let her take his two young ’uns here.”

“You don’t mean to say that with her other work she’s taking care of other people’s children too?”

“Yes, and eddicatin’ them.”

“Educating them?”

“Yes; teachin’ them to read and write and do sums. One of our loggers ketched her at it when she was keepin’ tally.”

We were both silent for some moments.

“I suppose you know Johnson?” I said finally.

“Not much.”

“But you call here at other times than when you’re helping her?”

“Never been in the house before.”

He looked slowly around him as he spoke, raising his eyes to the bare rafters above, and drawing a few long breaths, as if he were inhaling the aura of some unseen presence. He appeared so perfectly gratified and contented, and I was so impressed with this humble and silent absorption of the sacred interior, that I felt vaguely conscious that any interruption of it was a profanation, and I sat still, gazing at the dying fire. Presently he arose, stretched out his hand, shook mine warmly, said, “I reckon I’ll meander along,” took another long breath, this time secretly, as if conscious of my eyes, and then slouched sideways out of the house into the darkness again, where he seemed suddenly to attain his full height, and so looming, disappeared. I shut the door, went to bed, and slept soundly.

So soundly that when I awoke the sun was streaming on my bed from the open door. On the table before me my breakfast was already laid. When I had dressed and eaten it, struck by the silence, I went to the door and looked out. ‘Dolphus was holding Chu Chu by the reata a few paces from the cabin.

“Where’s Caroline?” I asked.

He pointed to the woods and said: “Over yon: keeping tally.”

“Did she leave any message?”

“Said I was to git your mule for you.”

“Anything else?”

“Yes; said you was to go.”

I went, but not until I had scrawled a few words of thanks on a leaf of my notebook, which I wrapped about my last Spanish dollar, addressed it to “Miss Johnson,” and laid it upon the table.

.     .     .     .     .

It was more than a year later that in the bar-room of the Mariposa Hotel a hand was laid upon my sleeve. I looked up. It was Johnson.

He drew from his pocket a Spanish dollar. “I reckoned,” he said, cheerfully, “I’d run again ye somewhar some time. My old woman told me to give ye that when I did, and say that she ‘didn’t keep no hotel.’ But she allowed she’d keep the letter, and has spelled it out to the chillern.”

Here was the opportunity I had longed for to touch Johnson’s pride and affection in the brave but unprotected girl. “I want to talk to you about Miss Johnson,” I said, eagerly.

“I reckon so,” he said, with an exasperating smile. “Most fellers do. But she ain’t Miss Johnson no more. She’s married.”

“Not to that big chap over from Ten Mile Mills?” I said breathlessly.

“What’s the matter with him,” said Johnson. “Ye didn’t expect her to marry a nobleman, did ye?”

I said I didn’t see why she shouldn’t—and believed that she had.

Colonel Starbottle’s Client - Contents

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