Drift from Two Shores

A Ghost of the Sierras

Bret Harte

IT WAS a vast silence of pines, redolent with balsamic breath, and muffled with the dry dust of dead bark and matted mosses. Lying on our backs, we looked upward through a hundred feet of clear, unbroken interval to the first lateral branches that formed the flat canopy above us. Here and there the fierce sun, from whose active persecution we had just escaped, searched for us through the woods, but its keen blade was dulled and turned aside by intercostal boughs, and its brightness dissipated in nebulous mists throughout the roofing of the dim, brown aisles around us. We were in another atmosphere, under another sky; indeed, in another world than the dazzling one we had just quitted. The grave silence seemed so much a part of the grateful coolness, that we hesitated to speak, and for some moments lay quietly outstretched on the pine tassels where we had first thrown ourselves. Finally, a voice broke the silence:—

“Ask the old Major; he knows all about it!”

The person here alluded to under that military title was myself. I hardly need explain to any Californian that it by no means followed that I was a “Major,” or that I was “old,” or that I knew anything about “it,” or indeed what “it” referred to. The whole remark was merely one of the usual conventional feelers to conversation,—a kind of social preamble, quite common to our slangy camp intercourse. Nevertheless, as I was always known as the Major, perhaps for no better reason than that the speaker, an old journalist, was always called Doctor, I recognized the fact so far as to kick aside an intervening saddle, so that I could see the speaker’s face on a level with my own, and said nothing.

“About ghosts!” said the Doctor, after a pause, which nobody broke or was expected to break. “Ghosts, sir! That’s what we want to know. What are we doing here in this blanked old mausoleum of Calaveras County, if it isn’t to find out something about ’em, eh?”

Nobody replied.

“Thar’s that haunted house at Cave City. Can’t be more than a mile or two away, anyhow. Used to be just off the trail.”

A dead silence.

The Doctor (addressing space generally) “Yes, sir; it was a mighty queer story.”

Still the same reposeful indifference. We all knew the Doctor’s skill as a raconteur; we all knew that a story was coming, and we all knew that any interruption would be fatal. Time and time again, in our prospecting experience, had a word of polite encouragement, a rash expression of interest, even a too eager attitude of silent expectancy, brought the Doctor to a sudden change of subject. Time and time again have we seen the unwary stranger stand amazed and bewildered between our own indifference and the sudden termination of a promising anecdote, through his own unlucky interference. So we said nothing. “The Judge”—another instance of arbitrary nomenclature—pretended to sleep. Jack began to twist a cigarrito. Thornton bit off the ends of pine needles reflectively.

“Yes, sir,” continued the Doctor, coolly resting the back of his head on the palms of his hands, “it was rather curious. All except the murder. That’s what gets me, for the murder had no new points, no fancy touches, no sentiment, no mystery. Was just one of the old style, ‘sub-head’ paragraphs. Old-fashioned miner scrubs along on hardtack and beans, and saves up a little money to go home and see relations. Old-fashioned assassin sharpens up knife, old style; loads old flint-lock, brass-mounted pistol; walks in on old-fashioned miner one dark night, sends him home to his relations away back to several generations, and walks off with the swag. No mystery there; nothing to clear up; subsequent revelations only impertinence. Nothing for any ghost to do—who meant business. More than that, over forty murders, same old kind, committed every year in Calaveras, and no spiritual post obits coming due every anniversary; no assessments made on the peace and quiet of the surviving community. I tell you what, boys, I’ve always been inclined to throw off on the Cave City ghost for that alone. It’s a bad precedent, sir. If that kind o’ thing is going to obtain in the foot-hills, we’ll have the trails full of chaps formerly knocked over by Mexicans and road agents; every little camp and grocery will have stock enough on hand to go into business, and where’s there any security for surviving life and property, eh? What’s your opinion, Judge, as a fair-minded legislator?”

Of course there was no response. Yet it was part of the Doctor’s system of aggravation to become discursive at these moments, in the hope of interruption, and he continued for some moments to dwell on the terrible possibility of a state of affairs in which a gentleman could no longer settle a dispute with an enemy without being subjected to succeeding spiritual embarrassment. But all this digression fell upon apparently inattentive ears.

“Well, sir, after the murder, the cabin stood for a long time deserted and tenantless. Popular opinion was against it. One day a ragged prospector, savage with hard labor and harder luck, came to the camp, looking for a place to live and a chance to prospect. After the boys had taken his measure, they concluded that he’d already tackled so much in the way of difficulties that a ghost more or less wouldn’t be of much account. So they sent him to the haunted cabin. He had a big yellow dog with him, about as ugly and as savage as himself; and the boys sort o’ congratulated themselves, from a practical view-point, that while they were giving the old ruffian a shelter, they were helping in the cause of Christianity against ghosts and goblins. They had little faith in the old man, but went their whole pile on that dog. That’s where they were mistaken.

“The house stood almost three hundred feet from the nearest cave, and on dark nights, being in a hollow, was as lonely as if it had been on the top of Shasta. If you ever saw the spot when there was just moon enough to bring out the little surrounding clumps of chapparal until they looked like crouching figures, and make the bits of broken quartz glisten like skulls, you’d begin to understand how big a contract that man and that yellow dog undertook.

“They went into possession that afternoon, and old Hard Times set out to cook his supper. When it was over he sat down by the embers and lit his pipe, the yellow dog lying at his feet. Suddenly ‘Rap! rap!’ comes from the door. ‘Come in,’ says the man, gruffly. ‘Rap!’ again. ‘Come in and be d—d to you,’ says the man, who has no idea of getting up to open the door. But no one responded, and the next moment smash goes the only sound pane in the only window. Seeing this, old Hard Times gets up, with the devil in his eye, and a revolver in his hand, followed by the yellow dog, with every tooth showing, and swings open the door. No one there! But as the man opened the door, that yellow dog, that had been so chipper before, suddenly begins to crouch and step backward, step by step, trembling and shivering, and at last crouches down in the chimney, without even so much as looking at his master. The man slams the door shut again, but there comes another smash.

This time it seems to come from inside the cabin, and it isn’t until the man looks around and sees everything quiet that he gets up, without speaking, and makes a dash for the door, and tears round outside the cabin like mad, but finds nothing but silence and darkness. Then he comes back swearing and calls the dog. But that great yellow dog that the boys would have staked all their money on is crouching under the bunk, and has to be dragged out like a coon from a hollow tree, and lies there, his eyes starting from their sockets; every limb and muscle quivering with fear, and his very hair drawn up in bristling ridges. The man calls him to the door. He drags himself a few steps, stops, sniffs, and refuses to go further. The man calls him again, with an oath and a threat. Then, what does that yellow dog do? He crawls edgewise towards the door, crouching himself against the bunk till he’s flatter than a knife blade; then, half way, he stops. Then that d—d yellow dog begins to walk gingerly—lifting each foot up in the air, one after the other, still trembling in every limb. Then he stops again. Then he crouches. Then he gives one little shuddering leap—not straight forward, but up,—clearing the floor about six inches, as if—”

“Over something,” interrupted the Judge, hastily, lifting himself on his elbow.

The Doctor stopped instantly. “Juan,” he said coolly, to one of the Mexican packers, “quit foolin’ with that riata. You’ll have that stake out and that mule loose in another minute. Come over this way!”

The Mexican turned a scared, white face to the Doctor, muttering something, and let go the deer-skin hide. We all up-raised our voices with one accord, the Judge most penitently and apologetically, and implored the Doctor to go on. “I’ll shoot the first man who interrupts you again,” added Thornton; persuasively.

But the Doctor, with his hands languidly under his head, had lost his interest. “Well, the dog ran off to the hills, and neither the threats nor cajoleries of his master could ever make him enter the cabin again. The next day the man left the camp. What time is it? Getting on to sundown, ain’t it? Keep off my leg, will you, you d—d Greaser, and stop stumbling round there! Lie down.”

But we knew that the Doctor had not completely finished his story, and we waited patiently for the conclusion. Meanwhile the old, gray silence of the woods again asserted itself, but shadows were now beginning to gather in the heavy beams of the roof above, and the dim aisles seemed to be narrowing and closing in around us. Presently the Doctor recommenced lazily, as if no interruption had occurred.

“As I said before, I never put much faith in that story, and shouldn’t have told it, but for a rather curious experience of my own. It was in the spring of ’62, and I was one of a party of four, coming up from O’Neill’s, when we had been snowed up. It was awful weather; the snow had changed to sleet and rain after we crossed the divide, and the water was out everywhere; every ditch was a creek, every creek a river. We had lost two horses on the North Fork, we were dead beat, off the trail, and sloshing round, with night coming on, and the level hail like shot in our faces. Things were looking bleak and scary when, riding a little ahead of the party, I saw a light twinkling in a hollow beyond. My horse was still fresh, and calling out to the boys to follow me and bear for the light, I struck out for it. In another moment I was before a little cabin that half burrowed in the black chapparal; I dismounted and rapped at the door. There was no response. I then tried to force the door, but it was fastened securely from within. I was all the more surprised when one of the boys, who had overtaken me, told me that he had just seen through a window a man reading by the fire. Indignant at this inhospitality, we both made a resolute onset against the door, at the same time raising our angry voices to a yell. Suddenly there was a quick response, the hurried withdrawing of a bolt, and the door opened.

“The occupant was a short, thick-set man, with a pale, careworn face, whose prevailing expression was one of gentle good humor and patient suffering. When we entered, he asked us hastily why we had not ‘sung out’ before.

“‘But we knocked!’ I said, impatiently, ‘and almost drove your door in.’

“‘That’s nothing,’ he said, patiently. ‘I’m used to that.’

“I looked again at the man’s patient, fateful face, and then around the cabin. In an instant the whole situation flashed before me. ‘Are we not near Cave City?’ I asked.

“‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘it’s just below. You must have passed it in the storm.’

“‘I see.’ I again looked around the cabin. ‘Isn’t this what they call the haunted house?’

“He looked at me curiously. ‘It is,’ he said, simply.

“You can imagine my delight! Here was an opportunity to test the whole story, to work down to the bed rock, and see how it would pan out! We were too many and too well armed to fear tricks or dangers from outsiders. If—as one theory had been held—the disturbance was kept up by a band of concealed marauders or road agents, whose purpose was to preserve their haunts from intrusion, we were quite able to pay them back in kind for any assault. I need not say that the boys were delighted with this prospect when the fact was revealed to them. The only one doubtful or apathetic spirit there was our host, who quietly resumed his seat and his book, with his old expression of patient martyrdom. It would have been easy for me to have drawn him out, but I felt that I did not want to corroborate anybody else’s experience; only to record my own. And I thought it better to keep the boys from any predisposing terrors.

“We ate our supper, and then sat, patiently and expectant, around the fire. An hour slipped away, but no disturbance; another hour passed as monotonously. Our host read his book; only the dash of hail against the roof broke the silence. But—”

The Doctor stopped. Since the last interruption, I noticed he had changed the easy slangy style of his story to a more perfect, artistic, and even studied manner. He dropped now suddenly into his old colloquial speech, and quietly said: “If you don’t quit stumbling over those riatas, Juan, I’ll hobble you. Come here, there; lie down, will you?”

We all turned fiercely on the cause of this second dangerous interruption, but a sight of the poor fellow’s pale and frightened face withheld our vindictive tongues. And the Doctor, happily, of his own accord, went on:—

“But I had forgotten that it was no easy matter to keep these high-spirited boys, bent on a row, in decent subjection; and after the third hour passed without a supernatural exhibition, I observed, from certain winks and whispers, that they were determined to get up indications of their own. In a few moments violent rappings were heard from all parts of the cabin; large stones (adroitly thrown up the chimney) fell with a heavy thud on the roof. Strange groans and ominous yells seemed to come from the outside (where the interstices between the logs were wide enough). Yet, through all this uproar, our host sat still and patient, with no sign of indignation or reproach upon his good-humored but haggard features. Before long it became evident that this exhibition was exclusively for his benefit. Under the thin disguise of asking him to assist them in discovering the disturbers outside the cabin, those inside took advantage of his absence to turn the cabin topsy-turvy.

“‘You see what the spirits have done, old man,’ said the arch leader of this mischief. ‘They’ve upset that there flour barrel while we wasn’t looking, and then kicked over the water jug and spilled all the water!’

“The patient man lifted his head and looked at the flour-strewn walls. Then he glanced down at the floor, but drew back with a slight tremor.

“‘It ain’t water!’ he said, quietly.

“‘What is it, then?’

“‘It’s BLOOD! Look!’

“The nearest man gave a sudden start and sank back white as a sheet.

“For there, gentlemen, on the floor, just before the door, where the old man had seen the dog hesitate and lift his feet, there! there!—gentlemen—upon my honor, slowly widened and broadened a dark red pool of human blood! Stop him! Quick! Stop him, I say!”

There was a blinding flash that lit up the dark woods, and a sharp report! When we reached the Doctor’s side he was holding the smoking pistol, just discharged, in one hand, while with the other he was pointing to the rapidly disappearing figure of Juan, our Mexican vaquero!

“Missed him! by G-d!” said the Doctor. “But did you hear him? Did you see his livid face as he rose up at the name of blood? Did you see his guilty conscience in his face. Eh? Why don’t you speak? What are you staring at?”

“Was it the murdered man’s ghost, Doctor?” we all panted in one quick breath.

“Ghost be d—d! No! But in that Mexican vaquero—that cursed Juan Ramirez!—I saw and shot at his murderer!”

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