Drift from Two Shores


Bret Harte

I THINK that the few who were permitted to know and love the object of this sketch spent the rest of their days not only in an attitude of apology for having at first failed to recognize her higher nature, but of remorse that they should have ever lent a credulous ear to a priori tradition concerning her family characteristics. She had not escaped that calumny which she shared with the rest of her sex for those youthful follies, levities, and indiscretions which belong to immaturity. It is very probable that the firmness that distinguished her maturer will in youth might have been taken for obstinacy, that her nice discrimination might at the same period have been taken for adolescent caprice, and that the positive expression of her quick intellect might have been thought youthful impertinence before her years had won respect for her judgment.

She was foaled at Indian Creek, and one month later, when she was brought over to Sawyer’s Bar, was considered the smallest donkey ever seen in the foot-hills. The legend that she was brought over in one of “Dan the Quartz Crusher’s” boots required corroboration from that gentleman; but his denial being evidently based upon a masculine vanity regarding the size of his foot rather than a desire to be historically accurate, it went for nothing. It is certain that for the next two months she occupied the cabin of Dan, until, perhaps incensed at this and other scandals, she one night made her way out. “I hadn’t the least idee wot woz comin’,” said Dan, “but about midnight I seemed to hear hail onto the roof, and a shower of rocks and stones like to a blast started in the canyon. When I got up and struck a light, thar was suthin’ like onto a cord o’ kindlin’ wood and splinters whar she’d stood asleep, and a hole in the side o’ the shanty, and—no Jinny! Lookin’ at them hoofs o’ hern—and mighty porty they is to look at, too—you would allow she could do it!” I fear that this performance laid the foundation of her later infelicitous reputation, and perhaps awakened in her youthful breast a misplaced ambition, and an emulation which might at that time have been diverted into a nobler channel. For the fame of this juvenile performance—and its possible promise in the future—brought at once upon her the dangerous flattery and attention of the whole camp. Under intelligently directed provocation she would repeat her misguided exercise, until most of the scanty furniture of the cabin was reduced to a hopeless wreck, and sprains and callosities were developed upon the limbs of her admirers. Yet even at this early stage of her history, that penetrating intellect which was in after years her dominant quality was evident to all. She could not be made to kick at quartz tailings, at a barrel of Boston crackers, or at the head or shin of “Nigger Pete.” An artistic discrimination economized her surplus energy. “Ef you’ll notiss,” said Dan, with a large parental softness, “she never lets herself out to onst like them mules or any jackass ez I’ve heerd of, but kinder holds herself in, and, so to speak, takes her bearings—sorter feels round gently with that off foot, takes her distance and her rest, and then with that ar’ foot hoverin’ round in the air softly, like an angel’s wing, and a gentle, dreamy kind o’ look in them eyes, she lites out! Don’t ye, Jinny? Thar! jist ez I told ye,” continued Dan, with an artist’s noble forgetfulness of self, as he slowly crawled from the splintered ruin of the barrel on which he had been sitting. “Thur! did ye ever see the like! Did ye dream that all the while I was talkin’ she was a meditatin’ that?”

The same artistic perception and noble reticence distinguished her bray. It was one of which a less sagacious animal would have been foolishly vain or ostentatiously prodigal. It was a contralto of great compass and profundity—reaching from low G to high C—perhaps a trifle stronger in the lower register, and not altogether free from a nasal falsetto in the upper. Daring and brilliant as it was in the middle notes, it was perhaps more musically remarkable for its great sustaining power. The element of surprise always entered into the hearer’s enjoyment; long after any ordinary strain of human origin would have ceased, faint echoes of Jinny’s last note were perpetually recurring. But it was as an intellectual and moral expression that her bray was perfect. As far beyond her size as were her aspirations, it was a free and running commentary of scorn at all created things extant, with ironical and sardonic additions that were terrible. It reviled all human endeavor, it quenched all sentiment, it suspended frivolity, it scattered reverie, it paralyzed action. It was omnipotent. More wonderful and characteristic than all, the very existence of this tremendous organ was unknown to the camp for six months after the arrival of its modest owner, and only revealed to them under circumstances that seemed to point more conclusively than ever to her rare discretion.

It was the beginning of a warm night and the middle of a heated political discussion. Sawyer’s Bar had gathered in force at the Crossing, and by the light of flaring pine torches, cheered and applauded the rival speakers who from a rude platform addressed the excited multitude. Partisan spirit at that time ran high in the foot-hills; crimination and recrimination, challenge, reply, accusation, and retort had already inflamed the meeting, and Colonel Bungstarter, after a withering review of his opponent’s policy, culminated with a personal attack upon the career and private character of the eloquent and chivalrous Colonel Culpepper Starbottle of Siskiyou. That eloquent and chivalrous gentleman was known to be present; it was rumored that the attack was expected to provoke a challenge from Colonel Starbottle which would give Bungstarter the choice of weapons, and deprive Starbottle of his advantage as a dead shot. It was whispered also that the sagacious Starbottle, aware of this fact, would retaliate in kind so outrageously as to leave Bungstarter no recourse but to demand satisfaction on the spot. As Colonel Starbottle rose, the eager crowd drew together, elbowing each other in rapt and ecstatic expectancy. “He can’t get even on Bungstarter, onless he allows his sister ran off with a nigger, or that he put up his grandmother at draw poker and lost her,” whispered the Quartz Crusher; “kin he?” All ears were alert, particularly the very long and hairy ones just rising above the railing of the speaker’s platform; for Jinny, having a feminine distrust of solitude and a fondness for show, had followed her master to the meeting and had insinuated herself upon the platform, where way was made for her with that frontier courtesy always extended to her age and sex.

Colonel Starbottle, stertorous and purple, advanced to the railing. There he unbuttoned his collar and laid his neckcloth aside, then with his eye fixed on his antagonist he drew off his blue frock coat, and thrusting one hand into his ruffled shirt front, and raising the other to the dark canopy above him, he opened his vindictive lips. The action, the attitude, were Starbottle’s. But the voice was not. For at that supreme moment, a bray—so profound, so appalling, so utterly soul-subduing, so paralyzing that everything else sank to mere insignificance beside it—filled woods, and sky, and air. For a moment only the multitude gasped in speechless astonishment—it was a moment only—and then the welkin roared with their shouts. In vain silence was commanded, in vain Colonel Starbottle, with a ghastly smile, remarked that he recognized in the interruption the voice and the intellect of the opposition; the laugh continued, the more as it was discovered that Jinny had not yet finished, and was still recurring to her original theme. “Gentlemen,” gasped Starbottle, “any attempt by [Hee-haw! from Jinny] brutal buffoonery to restrict the right of free speech to all [a prolonged assent from Jinny] is worthy only the dastardly”—but here a diminuendo so long drawn as to appear a striking imitation of the Colonel’s own apoplectic sentences drowned his voice with shrieks of laughter.

It must not be supposed that during this performance a vigorous attempt was not made to oust Jinny from the platform. But all in vain. Equally demoralizing in either extremity, Jinny speedily cleared a circle with her flying hoofs, smashed the speaker’s table and water pitcher, sent the railing flying in fragments over the cheering crowd, and only succumbed to two blankets, in which, with her head concealed, she was finally dragged, half captive, half victor, from the field. Even then a muffled and supplemental bray that came from the woods at intervals drew half the crowd away and reduced the other half to mere perfunctory hearers. The demoralized meeting was adjourned; Colonel Starbottle’s withering reply remained unuttered, and the Bungstarter party were triumphant.

For the rest of the evening Jinny was the heroine of the hour, but no cajolery nor flattery could induce her to again exhibit her powers. In vain did Dean of Angel’s extemporize a short harangue in the hope that Jinny would be tempted to reply; in vain was every provocation offered that might sting her sensitive nature to eloquent revolt. She replied only with her heels. Whether or not this was simple caprice, or whether she was satisfied with her maiden effort, or indignant at her subsequent treatment, she remained silent. “She made her little game,” said Dan, who was a political adherent of Starbottle’s, and who yet from that day enjoyed the great speaker’s undying hatred, “and even if me and her don’t agree on politics—you let her alone.” Alas, it would have been well for Dan if he could have been true to his instincts, but the offer of one hundred dollars from the Bungstarter party proved too tempting. She passed irrevocably from his hands into those of the enemy. But any reader of these lines will, I trust, rejoice to hear that this attempt to restrain free political expression in the foot-hills failed signally. For, although she was again covertly introduced on the platform by the Bungstarters, and placed face to face with Colonel Starbottle at Murphy’s Camp, she was dumb. Even a brass band failed to excite her emulation. Either she had become disgusted with politics or the higher prices paid by the party to other and less effective speakers aroused her jealousy and shocked her self-esteem, but she remained a passive spectator. When the Hon. Sylvester Rourback, who received, for the use of his political faculties for a single night, double the sum for which she was purchased outright, appeared on the same platform with herself, she forsook it hurriedly and took to the woods. Here she might have starved but for the intervention of one McCarty, a poor market gardener, who found her, and gave her food and shelter under the implied contract that she should forsake politics and go to work. The latter she for a long time resisted, but as she was considered large enough by this time to draw a cart, McCarty broke her to single harness, with a severe fracture of his leg and the loss of four teeth and a small spring wagon. At length, when she could be trusted to carry his wares to Murphy’s Camp, and could be checked from entering a shop with the cart attached to her,—a fact of which she always affected perfect disbelief,—her education was considered as complete as that of the average California donkey. It was still unsafe to leave her alone, as she disliked solitude, and always made it a point to join any group of loungers with her unnecessary cart, and even to follow some good-looking miner to his cabin. The first time this peculiarity was discovered by her owner was on his return to the street after driving a bargain within the walls of the Temperance Hotel. Jinny was nowhere to be seen. Her devious course, however, was pleasingly indicated by vegetables that strewed the road until she was at last tracked to the veranda of the Arcade saloon, where she was found looking through the window at a game of euchre, and only deterred by the impeding cart from entering the building. A visit one Sunday to the little Catholic chapel at French Camp, where she attempted to introduce an antiphonal service and the cart, brought shame and disgrace upon her unlucky master. For the cart contained freshly-gathered vegetables, and the fact that McCarty had been Sabbath-breaking was painfully evident. Father Sullivan was quick to turn an incident that provoked only the risibilities of his audience into a moral lesson. “It’s the poor dumb beast that has a more Christian sowl than Michael,” he commented; but here Jinny assented so positively that they were fain to drag her away by main force.

To her eccentric and thoughtless youth succeeded a calm maturity in which her conservative sagacity was steadily developed. She now worked for her living, subject, however, to a nice discrimination by which she limited herself to a certain amount of work, beyond which neither threats, beatings, nor cajoleries would force her. At certain hours she would start for the stable with or without the incumbrances of the cart or Michael, turning two long and deaf ears on all expostulation or entreaty. “Now, God be good to me,” said Michael, one day picking himself out from a ditch as he gazed sorrowfully after the flying heels of Jinny, “but it’s only the second load of cabbages I’m bringin’ the day, and if she’s shtruck now, it’s ruined I am entoirely.” But he was mistaken; after two hours of rumination Jinny returned of her own free will, having evidently mistaken the time, and it is said even consented to draw an extra load to make up the deficiency. It may be imagined from this and other circumstances that Michael stood a little in awe of Jinny’s superior intellect, and that Jinny occasionally, with the instinct of her sex, presumed upon it. After the Sunday episode, already referred to, she was given her liberty on that day, a privilege she gracefully recognized by somewhat unbending her usual austerity in the indulgence of a saturnine humor. She would visit the mining camps, and, grazing lazily and thoughtfully before the cabins, would, by various artifices and coquetries known to the female heart, induce some credulous stranger to approach her with the intention of taking a ride. She would submit hesitatingly to a halter, allow him to mount her back, and, with every expression of timid and fearful reluctance, at last permit him to guide her in a laborious trot out of sight of human habitation. What happened then was never clearly known. In a few moments the camp would be aroused by shouts and execrations, and the spectacle of Jinny tearing by at a frightful pace, with the stranger clinging with his arms around her neck, afraid to slip off, from terror of her circumvolving heels, and vainly imploring assistance. Again and again she would dash by the applauding groups, adding the aggravation of her voice to the danger of her heels, until suddenly wheeling, she would gallop to Carter’s Pond, and deposit her luckless freight in the muddy ditch. This practical joke was repeated until one Sunday she was approached by Juan Ramirez, a Mexican vaquero, booted and spurred, and carrying a riata. A crowd was assembled to see her discomfiture. But, to the intense disappointment of the camp, Jinny, after quietly surveying the stranger, uttered a sardonic bray, and ambled away to the little cemetery on the hill, whose tangled chapparal effectually prevented all pursuit by her skilled antagonist. From that day she forsook the camp, and spent her Sabbaths in mortuary reflections among the pine head-boards and cold “hic jacets” of the dead.

Happy would it have been if this circumstance, which resulted in the one poetic episode of her life, had occurred earlier; for the cemetery was the favorite resort of Miss Jessie Lawton, a gentle invalid from San Francisco, who had sought the foot-hills for the balsam of pine and fir, and in the faint hope that the freshness of the wild roses might call back her own. The extended views from the cemetery satisfied Miss Lawton’s artistic taste, and here frequently, with her sketch-book in hand, she indulged that taste and a certain shy reserve which kept her from contact with strangers. On one of the leaves of that sketch-book appears a study of a donkey’s head, being none other than the grave features of Jinny, as once projected timidly over the artist’s shoulder. The preliminaries of this intimacy have never transpired, nor is it a settled fact if Jinny made the first advances. The result was only known to the men of Sawyer’s Bar by a vision which remained fresh in their memories long after the gentle lady and her four-footed friend had passed beyond their voices. As two of the tunnel-men were returning from work one evening, they chanced to look up the little trail, kept sacred from secular intrusion, that led from the cemetery to the settlement. In the dim twilight, against a sunset sky, they beheld a pale-faced girl riding slowly toward them. With a delicate instinct, new to those rough men, they drew closer in the shadow of the bushes until she passed. There was no mistaking the familiar grotesqueness of Jinny; there was no mistaking the languid grace of Miss Lawton. But a wreath of wild roses was around Jinny’s neck, from her long ears floated Miss Jessie’s hat ribbons, and a mischievous, girlish smile was upon Miss Jessie’s face, as fresh as the azaleas in her hair. By the next day the story of this gentle apparition was known to a dozen miners in camp, and all were sworn to secrecy. But the next evening, and the next, from the safe shadows of the woods they watched and drank in the beauty of that fanciful and all unconscious procession. They kept their secret, and never a whisper or footfall from these rough men broke its charm or betrayed their presence. The man who could have shocked the sensitive reserve of the young girl would have paid for it with his life.

And then one day the character of the procession changed, and this little incident having been told, it was permitted that Jinny should follow her friend, caparisoned even as before, but this time by the rougher but no less loving hands of men. When the cortege reached the ferry where the gentle girl was to begin her silent journey to the sea, Jinny broke from those who held her, and after a frantic effort to mount the barge fell into the swiftly rushing Stanislaus. A dozen stout arms were stretched to save her, and a rope skilfully thrown was caught around her feet. For an instant she was passive, and, as it seemed, saved. But the next moment her dominant instinct returned, and with one stroke of her powerful heel she snapped the rope in twain and so drifted with her mistress to the sea.

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