The Home Coming of Jim Wilkes by Bret Harte

I.

For many minutes there had been no sound but the monotonous drumming of the rain on the roof of the coach, the swishing of wheels through the gravelly mud, and the momentary clatter of hoofs upon some rocky outcrop in the road. Conversation had ceased; the light-hearted young editor in the front seat, more than suspected of dangerous levity, had relapsed into silence since the heavy man in the middle seat had taken to regarding the ceiling with ostentatious resignation, and the thin female beside him had averted her respectable bonnet. An occasional lurch of the coach brought down a fringe of raindrops from its eaves that filmed the windows and shut out the sodden prospect already darkening into night. There had been a momentary relief in their hurried dash through Summit Springs, and the spectacle of certain newly arrived County Delegates crowding the veranda of its one hotel; but that was now three miles behind. The young editor's sole resource was to occasionally steal a glance at the face of the one passenger who seemed to be in sympathy with him, but who was too far away for easy conversation. It was the half-amused, half-perplexed face of a young man who had been for some time regarding him from a remote corner of the coach with an odd mingling of admiring yet cogitating interest, which, however, had never extended to any further encouragement than a faint sad smile. Even this at last faded out in the growing darkness; the powerful coach lamps on either side that flashed on the wayside objects gave no light to the interior. Everybody was slowly falling asleep. Suddenly everybody woke up to find that the coach was apparently standing still! When it had stopped no one knew! The young editor lowered his window. The coach lamp on that side was missing, but nothing was to be seen. In the distance there appeared to be a faint splashing.

"Well," called out an impatient voice from the box above; "what do you make it?" It was the authoritative accents of Yuba Bill, the driver, and everybody listened eagerly for the reply.

It came faintly from the distance and the splashing. "Almost four feet here, and deepening as you go."

"Dead water?"

"No—back water from the Fork."

There was a general movement towards the doors and windows. The splashing came nearer. Then a light flashed on the trees, the windows, and—two feet of yellow water peacefully flowing beneath them! The thin female gave a slight scream.

"There's no danger," said the Expressman, now wading towards them with the coach lamp in his hand. "But we'll have to pull round out of it and go back to the Springs. There's no getting past this break to-night."

"Why didn't you let us know this before," said the heavy man indignantly from the window.

"Jim," said the driver with that slow deliberation which instantly enforced complete attention.

"Yes, Bill."

"Have you got a spare copy of that reg'lar bulletin that the Stage Kempany issoos every ten minutes to each passenger to tell 'em where we are, how far it is to the next place, and wots the state o' the weather gin'rally?"

"No!" said the Expressman grimly, as he climbed to the box, "there's not one left. Why?"

"Cos the Emperor of Chiny's inside wantin' one! Hoop! Keep your seats down there! G'lang!" the whip cracked, there was a desperate splashing, a backward and forward jolting of the coach, the glistening wet flanks and tossing heads of the leaders seen for a moment opposite the windows, a sickening swirl of the whole body of the vehicle as if parting from its axles, a long straight dragging pull, and—presently the welcome sound of hoofs once more beating the firmer ground.

"Hi! Hold up—driver!"

It was the editor's quiet friend who was leaning from the window.

"Isn't Wilkes's ranch just off here?"

"Yes, half a mile along the ridge, I reckon," returned the driver shortly.

"Well, if you're not going on to-night, I'd get off and stop there."

"I reckon your head's level, stranger," said Bill approvingly; "for they're about chock full at the Springs' House."

To descend, the passenger was obliged to pass out by the middle seat and before the young editor. As he did so he cast a shy look on him and, leaning over, said hesitatingly, in a lower voice: "I don't think you will be able to get in at the Springs Hotel. If—if—you care to come with me to—to—the ranch, I can take care of you."

The young editor—a man of action—paused for an instant only. Then seizing his bag, he said promptly: "Thank you," and followed his newly-found friend to the ground. The whip cracked, the coach rolled away.

"You know Wilkes?" he said.

"Ye-ee-s. He's my father."

"Ah," said the editor cheerfully, "then you're going home?"

"Yes."

It was quite light in the open, and the stranger, after a moment's survey of the prospect,—a survey that, however, seemed to be characterized by his previous hesitation,—said: "This way," crossed the road, and began to follow a quite plain but long disused wagon track along the slope. His manner was still so embarrassed that the young editor, after gayly repeating his thanks for his companion's thoughtful courtesy, followed him in silence. At the end of ten minutes they had reached some cultivated fields and orchards; the stranger brightened, although still with a preoccupied air, quickened his pace, and then suddenly stopped. When the editor reached his side he was gazing with apparently still greater perplexity upon the level, half obliterated, and blackened foundations of what had been a large farmhouse.

"Why, it's been burnt down!" he said thoughtfully.

The editor stared at him! Burnt down it certainly had been, but by no means recently. Grasses were already springing up from the charred beams in the cellar, vines were trailing over the fallen chimneys, excavations, already old, had been made among the ruins. "When were you here last?" the editor asked abruptly.

"Five years ago," said the stranger abstractedly.

"Five years!—and you knew nothing of THIS?"

"No. I was in Tahiti, Australia, Japan, and China all the time."

"And you never heard from home?"

"No. You see I quo'led with the old man, and ran away."

"And you didn't write to tell them you were coming?"

"No." He hesitated, and then added: "Never thought o' coming till I saw YOU."

"Me!"

"Yes; you and—the high water."

"Do you mean to say," said the young editor sharply, "that you brought ME—an utter stranger to you—out of that coach to claim the hospitality of a father you had quarreled with—hadn't seen for five years and didn't know if he would receive you?"

"Yes,—you see that's just WHY I did it. You see, I reckoned my chances would be better to see him along with a cheerful, chipper fellow like you. I didn't, of course, kalkilate on this," he added, pointing dejectedly to the ruins.

The editor gasped; then a sudden conception of the unrivaled absurdity of the situation flashed upon him,—of his passively following the amiable idiot at his side in order to contemplate, by the falling rain and lonely night, a heap of sodden ruins, while the coach was speeding to Summit Springs and shelter, and, above all, the reason WHY he was invited,—until, putting down his bag, he leaned upon his stick, and laughed until the tears came to his eyes.

At which his companion visibly brightened. "I told you so," he said cheerfully; "I knew you'd be able to take it—and the old man—in THAT WAY, and that would have fetched him round."

"For Heaven's sake! don't talk any more," said the editor, wiping his eyes, "but try to remember if you ever had any neighbors about here where we can stay tonight. We can't walk to Summit Springs, and we can't camp out on these ruins."

"There didn't use to be anybody nearer than the Springs."

"But that was five years ago, you say," said the editor impatiently; "and although your father probably moved away after the house burned down, the country's been thickly settled since then. That field has been lately planted. There must be another house beyond. Let's follow the trail a little farther."

They tramped along in silence, this time the editor leading. Presently he stopped. "There's a house—in there—among the trees," he said, pointing. "Whose is it?"

The stranger shook his head dubiously. Although apparently unaffected by any sentimental consideration of his father's misfortune, the spectacle of the blackened ruins of the homestead had evidently shaken his preconceived plans. "It wasn't there in MY time," he said musingly.

"But it IS there in OUR time," responded the editor briskly, "and I propose to go there. From what you have told me of your father—even if his house were still standing—our chances of getting supper and a bed from him would be doubtful! I suppose," he continued as they moved on together, "you left him in anger—five years ago?"

"Ye-es."

"Did he say anything as you left?"

"I don't remember anything particular that he SAID."

"Well, what did he DO?"

"Shot at me from the window!"

"Ah!" said the young editor softly. Nevertheless they walked on for some time in silence. Gradually a white picket fence came into view at right angles with the trail, and a man appeared walking leisurely along what seemed to be the regularly traveled road, beside it. The editor, who had taken matters in his own hands, without speaking to his companion, ran quickly forward and accosted the stranger, briefly stating that he had left the stage-coach with a companion, because it was stopped by high water, and asked, without entering into further details, to be directed to some place where they could pass the night. The man quite as briefly directed him to the house among the trees, which he said was his own, and then leisurely pursued his way along the road. The young editor ran back to his companion, who had halted in the dripping shadow of a sycamore, and recounted his good fortune.

"I didn't," he added, "say anything about your father. You can make inquiries yourself later."

"I reckon there won't be much need of that," returned his companion. "You didn't take much note o' that man, did you?"

"Not much," said the editor.

"Well, THAT'S MY FATHER, and I reckon that new house must be his."

II.

The young editor was a little startled. The man he had just quitted certainly was not dangerous looking, and yet, remembering what his son had said, there WERE homicidal possibilities. "Look here," he said quickly, "he's not there NOW. Why don't you seize the opportunity to slip into the house, make peace with your mother and sisters, and get them to intercede with your father when he returns?"

"Thar ain't any mother; she died afore I left. My sister Almiry's a little girl—though that's four years ago and mebbee she's growed. My brothers and me didn't pull together much. But I was thinkin' that mebbee YOU might go in thar for me first, and see how the land lays; then sorter tell 'em 'bout me in your takin', chipper, easy way; make 'em laugh, and when you've squared 'em—I'll be hangin' round outside—you kin call ME in. Don't you see?"

The young editor DID see. Ridiculous as the proposal would have seemed to him an hour ago, it now appeared practical, and even commended itself to his taste. His name was well known in the county and his mediation might be effective. Perhaps his vanity was slightly flattered by his companion's faith in him; perhaps he was not free from a certain human curiosity to know the rest; perhaps he was more interested than he cared to confess in the helpless home-seeker beside him.

"But you must tell me something more of yourself, and your fortune and prospects. They'll be sure to ask questions."

"Mebbee they won't. But you can say I've done well—made my pile over in Australia, and ain't comin' on THEM. Remember—say I 'ain't comin' on them'!"

The editor nodded, and then, as if fearful of letting his present impulse cool, ran off towards the house.

It was large and respectable looking, and augured well for the present fortunes of the Wilkes's. The editor had determined to attack the citadel on its weaker, feminine side, and when the front door was opened to his knock, asked to see Miss Almira Wilkes. The Irish servant showed him into a comfortable looking sitting-room, and in another moment with a quick rustle of skirts in the passage a very pretty girl impulsively entered. From the first flash of her keen blue eyes the editor—a fair student of the sex—conceived the idea that she had expected somebody else; from the second that she was an arrant flirt, and did not intend to be disappointed. This much was in his favor.

Spurred by her provoking eyes and the novel situation, he stated his business with an airy lightness and humor that seemed to justify his late companion's estimate of his powers. But even in his cynical attitude he was unprepared for the girl's reception of his news. He had expected some indignation or even harshness towards this man whom he was beginning to consider as a kind of detrimental outcast or prodigal, but he was astounded at the complete and utter indifference—the frank and heartless unconcern—with which she heard of his return. When she had followed the narrator rather than his story to the end, she languidly called her brothers from the adjoining room. "This gentleman, Mr. Grey, of the 'Argus,' has come across Jim—and Jim is calculating to come here and see father."

The two brothers stared at Grey, slightly shrugged their shoulders with the same utter absence of fraternal sympathy or concern which the girl had shown, and said nothing.

"One moment," said Grey a little warmly; "I have no desire to penetrate family secrets, but would you mind telling me if there is any grave reason why he should not come. Was there any scandalous conduct, unpardonable offense—let us even say—any criminal act on his part which makes his return to this roof impossible?"

The three looked at each other with a dull surprise that ended in a vacant wondering smile. "No, no," they said in one voice. "No, only"—

"Only what?" asked Grey impatiently.

"Dad just hates him!"

"Like pizon," smiled Almira.

The young editor rose with a slight increase of color. "Look here," said the girl, whose dimples had deepened as she keenly surveyed him, as if detecting some amorous artifice under his show of interest for her brother. "Dad's gone down to the sheepfold and won't be back for an hour. Yo' might bring—YO' FRIEND—in."

"He ain't wantin' anything? Ain't dead broke? nor nothin', eh?" suggested one of the brothers dubiously.

Grey hastened to assure them of Jim's absolute solvency, and even enlarged considerably on his Australian fortune. They looked relieved but not interested.

"Go and fetch him," said the witch, archly hovering near Grey with dancing eyes; "and mind YO' come back, too!"

Grey hesitated a moment and then passed out in the dark porch. A dripping figure emerged from the trees opposite. It was Jim.

"Your sister and brothers will see you," said Grey hastily, to avoid embarrassing details. "HE won't be here for an hour. But I'd advise you to make the most of your time, and get the good-will of your sister." He would have drawn back to let the prodigal pass in alone, but the man appealingly seized his arm, and Grey was obliged to re-enter with him. He noticed, however, that he breathed hard.

They turned slightly towards their relative, but did not offer to shake hands with him, nor did he with them. He sat down sideways on an unoffered chair. "The old house got burnt!" he said, wiping his lips, and then drying his wet hair with his handkerchief.

As the remark was addressed to no one in particular it was some seconds before the elder brother replied: "Yes."

"Almira's growed."

Again no one felt called upon to answer, and Almira glanced archly at the young editor as if he might have added: "and improved."

"You've done well?" returned one of the brothers tentatively.

"Yes, I'm all right," said Jim.

There was another speechless interval. Even the conversational Grey felt under some unhallowed spell of silence that he could not break.

"I see the old well is there yet," said Jim, wiping his lips again.

"Where dad was once goin' to chuck you down for givin' him back talk," said the younger brother casually.

To Mr. Grey's relief and yet astonishment, Jim burst into a loud laugh and rubbed his legs. "That's so—how old times DO come back!"

"And," said the bright-eyed Almira, "there's that old butternut-tree that you shinned up one day when we set the hounds on you. Goodness! how you scooted!"

Again Jim laughed loudly and nodded. "Yes, the same old butternut. How you DO remember, Almira?" This admiringly.

"And don't you remember Delia Short?" continued Almira, pleased at the admiration, and perhaps a little exalted at the singular attention which the young editor was giving to those cheerful reminiscences. "She, you know, you was reg'larly sick after, so that we always allowed she kinder turned yo' brain afore you went away! Well! all the while you were courtin' her it appears she was secretly married to Jo—yo' friend—Jo Stacy. Lord! there was a talk about that! and about yo' all along thinkin' yo' had chances! Yo' friend here," with an arch glance at Grey, "who's allus puttin' folks in the newspapers, orter get a hold on that!"

Jim again laughed louder than the others, and rubbed his lips. Grey, however, offered only the tribute of a peculiar smile and walked to the window. "You say your father will return in an hour?" he said, turning to the elder brother.

"Yes, unless he kept on to Watson's."

"Where?" said Jim suddenly.

It struck Grey that his voice had changed—or rather that he was now speaking for the first time in his natural tone.

"Watson's, just over the bridge," explained his brother. "If he went there he won't be back till ten."

Jim picked up his India rubber cape and hat, said, "I reckon I'll just take a turn outside until he gets back," and walked towards the door. None of his relatives moved nor seemed to offer any opposition. Grey followed him quickly. "I'll go with you," he said.

"No," returned Jim with singular earnestness. "You stay here and keep 'em up cheerful like this. They're doing all this for YOU, you know; Almiry's just this chipper only on your account."

Seeing the young man was inflexible, Grey returned grimly to the room, but not until he had noticed, with some surprise, that Jim, immediately on leaving the house, darted off at a quick run through the rain and darkness. Preoccupied with this, and perhaps still influenced by the tone of the previous conversation, he did not respond readily to the fair Almira's conversational advances, and was speedily left to a seat by the fire alone. At the end of ten minutes he regretted he had ever come; when half an hour had passed he wondered if he had not better try to reach the Summit alone. With the lapse of an hour he began to feel uneasy at Jim's prolonged absence in spite of the cold indifference of the household. Suddenly he heard stamping in the porch, a muttered exclamation, and the voices of the two brothers in the hall. "Why, dad! what's up? Yo' look half drowned!"

The door opened upon the sodden, steaming figure of the old man whom he had met on the road, followed by the two sons. But he was evidently more occupied and possessed by some mental passion than by his physical discomfort. Yet strong and dominant over both, he threw off his wet coat and waistcoat as he entered, and marched directly to the fire. Utterly ignoring the presence of a stranger, he suddenly turned and faced his family.

"Half drowned. Yes! and I might have been hull drowned for that matter. The back water of the Fork is all over Watson's, and the bridge is gone. I stumbled onto this end of it in the dark, and went off, head first, into twenty feet of water! Tried to fight my way out, but the current was agin me. I'd bin down twice, and was going down for the third time, when somebody grabbed me by the scruff o' my neck and under the arm—so!—and swam me to the bank! When I scrambled up I sez: 'I can't see your face,' sez I, 'I don't know who you are,' sez I, 'but I reckon you're a white man and clear grit,' sez I, 'and there's my hand on it!' And he grabs it and sez, 'We're quits,' and scooted out o' my sight. And," continued the old man staring at their faces and raising his voice almost to a scream, "who do you think it was? Why, THAT SNEAKIN' HOUND OF A BROTHER OF YOURS—JIM! Jim! the scallawag that I booted outer the ranch five years ago, crawlin', writhin' back again after all these years to insult his old father's gray hairs! And some of you—by God—once thought that I was hard on him!"


The sun was shining brightly the next morning as the young editor halted the up coach in the now dried hollow. As he was clambering to a seat beside the driver, his elbow was jogged at the window. Looking down he saw the face of Jim.

"We had a gay talk last night, remembering old times, didn't we?" said the prodigal cheerfully.

"Yes, but—where are you going now?"

"Back to Australia, I reckon! But it was mighty good to drop in on the old homestead once more!"

"Rather," said the editor, clinging to the window and lingering in mid-air to the manifest impatience of Yuba Bill; "but I say—look here!—were you QUITE satisfied?"

Jim's hand tightened around the young editor's as he answered cheerfully, "Yes." But his face was turned away from the window.