Colonel Starbottle’s Client

Colonel Starbottle’s Client

Chapter I

Bret Harte

IT MAY BE remembered that it was the habit of that gallant “war-horse” of the Calaveras democracy, Colonel Starbottle, at the close of a political campaign, to return to his original profession of the Law. Perhaps it could not be called a peaceful retirement. The same fiery-tongued eloquence and full-breasted chivalry which had in turns thrilled and overawed freemen at the polls were no less fervid and embattled before a jury. Yet the Colonel was counsel for two or three pastoral Ditch companies and certain bucolic corporations, and although he managed to import into the simplest question of contract more or less abuse of opposing counsel, and occasionally mingled precedents of law with antecedents of his adversary, his legal victories were seldom complicated by bloodshed. He was only once shot at by a free-handed judge, and twice assaulted by an over-sensitive litigant. Nevertheless, it was thought merely prudent, while preparing the papers in the well known case of “The Arcadian Shepherds’ Association of Tuolumne versus the Kedron Vine and Fig Tree Growers of Calaveras,” that the Colonel should seek with a shotgun the seclusion of his partner’s law office in the sylvan outskirts of Rough and Ready for that complete rest and serious preoccupation which Marysville could not afford.

It was an exceptionally hot day. The painted shingles of the plain wooden one-storied building in which the Colonel sat were warped and blistering in the direct rays of the fierce, untempered sun. The tin sign bearing the dazzling legend, “Starbottle and Bungstarter, Attorneys and Counselors,” glowed with an insufferable light; the two pine-trees still left in the clearing around the house, ineffective as shade, seemed only to have absorbed the day-long heat through every scorched and crisp twig and fibre, to radiate it again with the pungent smell of a slowly smouldering fire; the air was motionless yet vibrating in the sunlight; on distant shallows the half-dried river was flashing and intolerable.

Seated in a wooden armchair before a table covered with books and papers, yet with that apparently haughty attitude towards it affected by gentlemen of abdominal fullness, Colonel Starbottle supported himself with one hand grasping the arm of his chair and the other vigorously plying a huge palm-leaf fan. He was perspiring freely. He had taken off his characteristic blue frock-coat, waistcoat, cravat, and collar, and, stripped only to his ruffled shirt and white drill trousers, presented the appearance from the opposite side of the table of having hastily risen to work in his nightgown. A glass with a thin sediment of sugar and lemon-peel remaining in it stood near his elbow. Suddenly a black shadow fell on the staring, uncarpeted hall. It was that of a stranger who had just entered from the noiseless dust of the deserted road. The Colonel cast a rapid glance at his sword-cane, which lay on the table.

But the stranger, although sallow and morose-looking, was evidently of pacific intent. He paused on the threshold in a kind of surly embarrassment.

“I reckon this is Colonel Starbottle,” he said at last, glancing gloomily round him, as if the interview was not entirely of his own seeking. “Well, I’ve seen you often enough, though you don’t know me. My name’s Jo Corbin. I guess,” he added, still discontentedly, “I have to consult you about something.”

“Corbin?” repeated the Colonel in his jauntiest manner. “Ah! Any relation to old Maje Corbin of Nashville, sir?”

“No,” said the stranger briefly. “I’m from Shelbyville.”

“The Major,” continued the Colonel, half closing his eyes as if to follow the Major into the dreamy past, “the old Major, sir, a matter of five or six years ago, was one of my most intimate political friends,—in fact, sir, my most intimate friend. Take a chyar!”

But the stranger had already taken one, and during the Colonel’s reminiscence had leaned forward, with his eyes on the ground, discontentedly swinging his soft hat between his legs. “Did you know Tom Frisbee, of Yolo?” he asked abruptly.


“Nor even heard anything about Frisbee, nor what happened to him?” continued the man, with aggrieved melancholy.

In point of fact the Colonel did not think that he had.

“Nor anything about his being killed over at Fresno?” said the stranger, with a desponding implication that the interview after all was a failure.

“If—er—if you could—er—give me a hint or two,” suggested the Colonel blandly.

“There wasn’t much,” said the stranger, “if you don’t remember.” He paused, then rising, he gloomily dragged his chair slowly beside the table, and taking up a paperweight examined it with heavy dissatisfaction. “You see,” he went on slowly, “I killed him—it was a quo’ll. He was my pardner, but I reckon he must have drove me hard. Yes, sir,” he added with aggrieved reflection, “I reckon he drove me hard.”

The Colonel smiled courteously, slightly expanding his chest under the homicidal relation, as if, having taken it in and made it a part of himself, he was ready, if necessary, to become personally responsible for it. Then lifting his empty glass to the light, he looked at it with half closed eyes, in polite imitation of his companion’s examination of the paper-weight, and set it down again. A casual spectator from the window might have imagined that the two were engaged in an amicable inventory of the furniture.

“And the—er—actual circumstances?” asked the Colonel.

“Oh, it was fair enough fight. They’ll tell you that. And so would he, I reckon—if he could. He was ugly and bedev’lin’, but I didn’t care to quo’ll, and give him the go-by all the time. He kept on, followed me out of the shanty, drew, and fired twice. I”—he stopped and regarded his hat a moment as if it was a corroborating witness—“I—I closed with him—I had to—it was my only chance, and that ended it—and with his own revolver. I never drew mine.”

“I see,” said the Colonel, nodding, “clearly justifiable and honorable as regards the code. And you wish me to defend you?”

The stranger’s gloomy expression of astonishment now turned to blank hopelessness.

“I knew you didn’t understand,” he said, despairingly. “Why, all that was two years ago. It’s all settled and done and gone. The jury found for me at the inquest. It ain’t that I want to see you about. It’s something arising out of it.”

“Ah,” said the Colonel, affably, “a vendetta, perhaps. Some friend or relation of his taken up the quarrel?”

The stranger looked abstractedly at Starbottle. “You think a relation might; or would feel in that sort of way?”

“Why, blank it all, sir,” said the Colonel, “nothing is more common. Why, in ’52 one of my oldest friends, Doctor Byrne, of St. Jo, the seventh in a line from old General Byrne, of St. Louis, was killed, sir, by Pinkey Riggs, seventh in a line from Senator Riggs, of Kentucky. Original cause, sir, something about a d——d roasting ear, or a blank persimmon in 1832; forty-seven men wiped out in twenty years. Fact, sir.”

“It ain’t that,” said the stranger, moving hesitatingly in his chair. “If it was anything of that sort I wouldn’t mind,—it might bring matters to a wind-up, and I shouldn’t have to come here and have this cursed talk with you.”

It was so evident that this frank and unaffected expression of some obscure disgust with his own present position had no other implication, that the Colonel did not except to it. Yet the man did not go on. He stopped and seemed lost in sombre contemplation of his hat.

The Colonel leaned back in his chair, fanned himself elegantly, wiped his forehead with a large pongee handkerchief, and looking at his companion, whose shadowed abstraction seemed to render him impervious to the heat, said:—

“My dear Mr. Corbin, I perfectly understand you. Blank it all, sir, the temperature in this infernal hole is quite enough to render any confidential conversation between gentlemen upon delicate matters utterly impossible. It’s almost as near Hades, sir, as they make it,—as I trust you and I, Mr. Corbin, will ever experience. I propose,” continued the Colonel, with airy geniality, “some light change and refreshment. The bar-keeper of the Magnolia is—er—I may say, sir, facile princeps in the concoction of mint juleps, and there is a back room where I have occasionally conferred with political leaders at election time. It is but a step, sir—in fact, on Main Street—round the corner.”

The stranger looked up and then rose mechanically as the Colonel resumed his coat and waistcoat, but not his collar and cravat, which lay limp and dejected among his papers. Then, sheltering himself beneath a large-brimmed Panama hat, and hooking his cane on his arm, he led the way, fan in hand, into the road, tiptoeing in his tight, polished boots through the red, impalpable dust with his usual jaunty manner, yet not without a profane suggestion of burning ploughshares. The stranger strode in silence by his side in the burning sun, impenetrable in his own morose shadow.

But the Magnolia was fragrant, like its namesake, with mint and herbal odors, cool with sprinkled floors, and sparkling with broken ice on its counters, like dewdrops on white, unfolded petals—and slightly soporific with the subdued murmur of droning loungers, who were heavy with its sweets. The gallant Colonel nodded with confidential affability to the spotless-shirted bar-keeper, and then taking Corbin by the arm fraternally conducted him into a small apartment in the rear of the bar-room. It was evidently used as the office of the proprietor, and contained a plain desk, table, and chairs. At the rear window, Nature, not entirely evicted, looked in with a few straggling buckeyes and a dusty myrtle, over the body of a lately-felled pine-tree, that flaunted from an upflung branch a still green spray as if it were a drooping banner lifted by a dead but rigid arm. From the adjoining room the faint, monotonous click of billiard balls, languidly played, came at intervals like the dry notes of cicale in the bushes.

The bar-keeper brought two glasses crowned with mint and diademed with broken ice. The Colonel took a long pull at his portion, and leaned back in his chair with a bland gulp of satisfaction and dreamily patient eyes. The stranger mechanically sipped the contents of his glass, and then, without having altered his reluctant expression, drew from his breast-pocket a number of old letters. Holding them displayed in his fingers like a difficult hand of cards, and with something of the air of a dispirited player, he began:—

“You see, about six months after this yer trouble I got this letter.” He picked out a well worn, badly written missive, and put it into Colonel Starbottle’s hands, rising at the same time and leaning over him as he read. “You see, she that writ it says as how she hadn’t heard from her son for a long time, but owing to his having spoken once about me, she was emboldened to write and ask me if I knew what had gone of him.” He was pointing his finger at each line of the letter as he read it, or rather seemed to translate it from memory with a sad familiarity. “Now,” he continued in parenthesis, “you see this kind o’ got me. I knew he had got relatives in Kentucky. I knew that all this trouble had been put in the paper with his name and mine, but this here name of Martha Jeffcourt at the bottom didn’t seem to jibe with it. Then I remembered that he had left a lot of letters in his trunk in the shanty, and I looked ’em over. And I found that his name was Tom Jeffcourt, and that he’d been passin’ under the name of Frisbee all this time.”

“Perfectly natural and a frequent occurrence,” interposed the Colonel cheerfully. “Only last year I met an old friend whom we’ll call Stidger, of New Orleans, at the Union Club, ’Frisco. ‘How are you, Stidger?’ I said; ‘I haven’t seen you since we used to meet—driving over the Shell Road in ’53.’ ‘Excuse me, sir,’ said he, ‘my name is not Stidger, it’s Brown.’ I looked him in the eye, sir, and saw him quiver. ‘Then I must apologize to Stidger,’ I said, ‘for supposing him capable of changing his name.’ He came to me an hour after, all in a tremble. ‘For God’s sake, Star,’ he said,—always called me Star,—‘don’t go back on me, but you know family affairs—another woman, beautiful creature,’ etc., etc.,—yes, sir, perfectly common, but a blank mistake. When a man once funks his own name he’ll turn tail on anything. Sorry for this man, Friezecoat, or Turncoat, or whatever’s his d——d name; but it’s so.”

The suggestion did not, however, seem to raise the stranger’s spirits or alter his manner. “His name was Jeffcourt, and this here was his mother,” he went on drearily; “and you see here she says”—pointing to the letter again—“she’s been expecting money from him and it don’t come, and she’s mighty hard up. And that gave me an idea. I don’t know,” he went on, regarding the Colonel with gloomy doubt, “as you’ll think it was much; I don’t know as you wouldn’t call it a d——d fool idea, but I got it all the same.” He stopped, hesitated, and went on. “You see this man, Frisbee or Jeffcourt, was my pardner. We were good friends up to the killing, and then he drove me hard. I think I told you he drove me hard,—didn’t I? Well, he did. But the idea I got was this. Considerin’ I killed him after all, and so to speak disappointed them, I reckoned I’d take upon myself the care of that family and send ’em money every month.”

The Colonel slightly straitened his clean-shaven mouth. “A kind of expiation or amercement by fine, known to the Mosaic, Roman, and old English law. Gad, sir, the Jews might have made you marry his widow or sister. An old custom, and I think superseded—sir, properly superseded—by the alternative of ordeal by battle in the mediaeval times. I don’t myself fancy these pecuniary fashions of settling wrongs,—but go on.”

“I wrote her,” continued Corbin, “that her son was dead, but that he and me had some interests together in a claim, and that I was very glad to know where to send her what would be his share every month. I thought it no use to tell her I killed him,—may be she might refuse to take it. I sent her a hundred dollars every month since. Sometimes it’s been pretty hard sleddin’ to do it, for I ain’t rich; sometimes I’ve had to borrow the money, but I reckoned that I was only paying for my share in this here business of his bein’ dead, and I did it.”

“And I understand you that this Jeffcourt really had no interest in your claim?”

Corbin looked at him in dull astonishment. “Not a cent, of course; I thought I told you that. But that weren’t his fault, for he never had anything, and owed me money. In fact,” he added gloomily, “it was because I hadn’t any more to give him—havin’ sold my watch for grub—that he quo’lled with me that day, and up and called me a ‘sneakin’ Yankee hound.’ I told you he drove me hard.”

The Colonel coughed slightly and resumed his jaunty manner. “And the—er—mother was, of course, grateful and satisfied?”

“Well, no,—not exactly.” He stopped again and took up his letters once more, sorted and arranged them as if to play out his unfinished but hopeless hand, and drawing out another, laid it before the Colonel. “You see, this Mrs. Jeffcourt, after a time, reckoned she ought to have more money than I sent her, and wrote saying that she had always understood from her son (he that never wrote but once a year, remember) that this claim of ours (that she never knew of, you know) was paying much more than I sent her—and she wanted a return of accounts and papers, or she’d write to some lawyer, mighty quick. Well, I reckoned that all this was naturally in the line of my trouble, and I did manage to scrape together fifty dollars more for two months and sent it. But that didn’t seem to satisfy her—as you see.” He dealt Colonel Starbottle another letter from his baleful hand with an unchanged face. “When I got that,—well, I just up and told her the whole thing. I sent her the account of the fight from the newspapers, and told her as how her son was the Frisbee that was my pardner, and how he never had a cent in the world—but how I’d got that idea to help her, and was willing to carry it out as long as I could.”

“Did you keep a copy of that letter?” asked the Colonel, straitening his mask-like mouth.

“No,” said Corbin moodily. “What was the good? I know’d she’d got the letter,—and she did,—for that is what she wrote back.” He laid another letter before the Colonel, who hastily read a few lines and then brought his fat white hand violently on the desk.

“Why, d—n it all, sir, this is blackmail! As infamous a case of threatening and chantage as I ever heard of.”

“Well,” said Corbin, dejectedly, “I don’t know. You see she allows that I murdered Frisbee to get hold of his claim, and that I’m trying to buy her off, and that if I don’t come down with twenty thousand dollars on the nail, and notes for the rest, she’ll prosecute me. Well, mebbe the thing looks to her like that—mebbe you know I’ve got to shoulder that too. Perhaps it’s all in the same line.”

Colonel Starbottle for a moment regarded Corbin critically. In spite of his chivalrous attitude towards the homicidal faculty, the Colonel was not optimistic in regard to the baser pecuniary interests of his fellow-man. It was quite on the cards that his companion might have murdered his partner to get possession of the claim. It was true that Corbin had voluntarily assumed an unrecorded and hitherto unknown responsibility that had never been even suspected, and was virtually self-imposed. But that might have been the usual one unerring blunder of criminal sagacity and forethought. It was equally true that he did not look or act like a mean murderer; but that was nothing. However, there was no evidence of these reflections in the Colonel’s face. Rather he suddenly beamed with an excess of politeness. “Would you—er—mind, Mr. Corbin, whilst I am going over those letters again, to—er—step across to my office—and—er—bring me the copy of ‘Wood’s Digest’ that lies on my table? It will save some time.”

The stranger rose, as if the service was part of his self-imposed trouble, and as equally hopeless with the rest, and taking his hat departed to execute the commission. As soon as he had left the building Colonel Starbottle opened the door and mysteriously beckoned the bar-keeper within.

“Do you remember anything of the killing of a man named Frisbee over in Fresno three years ago?”

The bar-keeper whistled meditatively. “Three years ago—Frisbee?—Fresno?—no? Yes—but that was only one of his names. He was Jack Walker over here. Yes—and by Jove! that feller that was here with you killed him. Darn my skin, but I thought I recognized him.”

“Yes, yes, I know all that,” said the Colonel, impatiently. “But did Frisbee have any property? Did he have any means of his own?”

“Property?” echoed the bar-keeper with scornful incredulity. “Property? Means? The only property and means he ever had was the free lunches or drinks he took in at somebody else’s expense. Why, the only chance he ever had of earning a square meal was when that fellow that was with you just now took him up and made him his partner. And the only way he could get rid of him was to kill him! And I didn’t think he had it in him. Rather a queer kind o’ chap,—good deal of hayseed about him. Showed up at the inquest so glum and orkerd that if the boys hadn’t made up their minds this yer Frisbee orter been killed—it might have gone hard with him.”

“Mr. Corbin,” said Colonel Starbottle, with a pained but unmistakable hauteur and a singular elevation of his shirt frill, as if it had become of its own accord erectile, “Mr. Corbin—er—er—is the distant relative of old Major Corbin, of Nashville—er—one of my oldest political friends. When Mr. Corbin—er—returns, you can conduct him to me. And, if you please, replenish the glasses.”

When the bar-keeper respectfully showed Mr. Corbin and ‘Wood’s Digest’ into the room again, the Colonel was still beaming and apologetic.

“A thousand thanks, sir, but except to show you the law if you require it—hardly necessary. I have—er—glanced over the woman’s letters again; it would be better, perhaps, if you had kept copies of your own—but still these tell the whole story and your own. The claim is preposterous! You have simply to drop the whole thing. Stop your remittances, stop your correspondence,—pay no heed to any further letters and wait results. You need fear nothing further, sir; I stake my professional reputation on it.”

The gloom of the stranger seemed only to increase as the Colonel reached his triumphant conclusion.

“I reckoned you’d say that,” he said slowly, “but it won’t do. I shall go on paying as far as I can. It’s my trouble and I’ll see it through.”

“But, my dear sir, consider,” gasped the Colonel. “You are in the hands of an infamous harpy, who is using her son’s blood to extract money from you. You have already paid a dozen times more than the life of that d——d sneak was worth; and more than that—the longer you keep on paying you are helping to give color to their claim and estopping your own defense. And Gad, sir, you’re making a precedent for this sort of thing! you are offering a premium to widows and orphans. A gentleman won’t be able to exchange shots with another without making himself liable for damages. I am willing to admit that your feelings—though, in my opinion—er—exaggerated—do you credit; but I am satisfied that they are utterly misunderstood—sir.”

“Not by all of them,” said Corbin darkly.

“Eh?” returned the Colonel quickly.

“There was another letter here which I didn’t particularly point out to you,” said Corbin, taking up the letters again, “for I reckoned it wasn’t evidence, so to speak, being from his cousin, a girl,—and calculated you’d read it when I was out.”

The Colonel coughed hastily. “I was in fact—er—just about to glance over it when you came in.”

“It was written,” continued Corbin, selecting a letter more bethumbed than the others, “after the old woman had threatened me. This here young woman allows that she is sorry that her aunt has to take money of me on account of her cousin being killed, and she is still sorrier that she is so bitter against me. She says she hadn’t seen her cousin since he was a boy, and used to play with her, and that she finds it hard to believe that he should ever grow up to change his name and act so as to provoke anybody to lift a hand against him. She says she supposed it must be something in that dreadful California that alters people and makes everybody so reckless. I reckon her head’s level there, ain’t it?”

There was such a sudden and unexpected lightening of the man’s face as he said it, such a momentary relief to his persistent gloom, that the Colonel, albeit inwardly dissenting from both letter and comment, smiled condescendingly.

“She’s no slouch of a scribe neither,” continued Corbin animatedly. “Read that.”

He handed his companion the letter, pointing to a passage with his finger. The Colonel took it with, I fear, a somewhat lowered opinion of his client, and a new theory of the case. It was evident that this weak submission to the aunt’s conspiracy was only the result of a greater weakness for the niece. Colonel Starbottle had a wholesome distrust of the sex as a business or political factor. He began to look over the letter, but was evidently slurring it with superficial politeness, when Corbin said:—

“Read it out loud.”

The Colonel slightly lifted his shoulders, fortified himself with another sip of the julep, and, leaning back, oratorically began to read,—the stranger leaning over him and following line by line with shining eyes.

“‘When I say I am sorry for you, it is because I think it must be dreadful for you to be going round with the blood of a fellow-creature on your hands. It must be awful for you in the stillness of the night season to hear the voice of the Lord saying, “Cain, where is thy brother?” and you saying, “Lord, I have slayed him dead.” It must be awful for you when the pride of your wrath was surfitted, and his dum senseless corps was before you, not to know that it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” saith the Lord. . . . It was no use for you to say, “I never heard that before,” remembering your teacher and parents. Yet verily I say unto you, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be washed whiter than snow,” saith the Lord—Isaiah i. 18; and “Heart hath no sorrow that Heaven cannot heal.”—My hymn book, 1st Presbyterian Church, page 79. Mr. Corbin, I pity your feelins at the grave of my pore dear cousin, knowing he is before his Maker, and you can’t bring him back.’ Umph!—er—er—very good—very good indeed,” said the Colonel, hastily refolding the letter. “Very well meaning and—er”—

“Go on,” said Corbin over his shoulder, “you haven’t read all.”

“Ah, true. I perceive I overlooked something. Um—um. ‘May God forgive you, Mr. Corbin, as I do, and make aunty think better of you, for it was good what you tried to do for her and the fammely, and I’ve always said it when she was raging round and wanting money of you. I don’t believe you meant to do it anyway, owin’ to your kindness of heart to the ophanless and the widow since you did it. Anser this letter, and don’t mind what aunty says. So no more at present from—Yours very respectfully, SALLY DOWS.

“‘P. S.—There’s been some troubel in our township, and some fitin’. May the Lord change ther hearts and make them as a little child, for if you are still young you may grow up different. I have writ a short prayer for you to say every night. You can coppy it out and put it at the head of your bed. It is this: O Lord make me sorry for having killed Sarah Dows’ cousin. Give me, O Lord, that peace that the world cannot give, and which fadeth not away; for my yoke is heavy, and my burden is harder than I can bear.’”

The Colonel’s deliberate voice stopped. There was a silence in the room, and the air seemed stifling. The click of the billiard balls came distinctly through the partition from the other room. Then there was another click, a stamp on the floor, and a voice crying coarsely: “Curse it all—missed again!”

To the stranger’s astonishment, the Colonel was on his feet in an instant, gasping with inarticulate rage. Flinging the door open, he confronted the startled bar-keeper empurpled and stertorous.

“Blank it all, sir, do you call this a saloon for gentlemen, or a corral for swearing cattle? Or do you mean to say that the conversation of two gentlemen upon delicate professional—and—er—domestic affairs—is to be broken upon by the blank profanity of low-bred hounds over their picayune gambling! Take them my kyard, sir,” choked the Colonel, who was always Southern and dialectic in his excited as in his softest moments, “and tell them that Colonel Starbottle will nevah dyarken these doahs again.”

Before the astonished bar-keeper could reply, the Colonel had dashed back into the room, clapped his hat on his head, and seized his book, letters, and cane. “Mr. Corbin,” he said with gasping dignity, “I will take these papahs, and consult them again in my own office—where, if you will do me the honor, sir, to call at ten o’clock to-morrow, I will give you my opinion.” He strode out of the saloon beside the half awe-stricken, half-amused, yet all discreetly silent loungers, followed by his wondering but gloomy client. At the door they parted,—the Colonel tiptoeing towards his office as if dancing with rage, the stranger darkly plodding through the stifling dust in the opposite direction, with what might have been a faint suggestion to his counselor, that the paths of the homicide did not lie beside the still cool waters.

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