Brown of Calaveras
by Bret Harte
A subdued tone of conversation, and the absence of cigar smoke and boot
heels at the windows of the Wingdam stagecoach, made it evident that one
of the inside passengers was a woman. A disposition on the part of
loungers at the stations to congregate before the window, and some concern
in regard to the appearance of coats, hats, and collars, further indicated
that she was lovely. All of which Mr. Jack Hamlin, on the box seat, noted
with the smile of cynical philosophy. Not that he depreciated the sex, but
that he recognized therein a deceitful element, the pursuit of which
sometimes drew mankind away from the equally uncertain blandishments of
poker—of which it may be remarked that Mr. Hamlin was a professional
So that when he placed his narrow boot on the wheel and leaped down, he
did not even glance at the window from which a green veil was fluttering,
but lounged up and down with that listless and grave indifference of his
class, which was, perhaps, the next thing to good breeding. With his
closely buttoned figure and self-contained air he was a marked contrast to
the other passengers, with their feverish restlessness and boisterous
emotion; and even Bill Masters, a graduate of Harvard, with his slovenly
dress, his overflowing vitality, his intense appreciation of lawlessness
and barbarism, and his mouth filled with crackers and cheese, I fear cut
but an unromantic figure beside this lonely calculator of chances, with
his pale Greek face and Homeric gravity.
The driver called "All aboard!" and Mr. Hamlin returned to the coach. His
foot was upon the wheel, and his face raised to the level of the open
window, when, at the same moment, what appeared to him to be the finest
eyes in the world suddenly met his. He quietly dropped down again,
addressed a few words to one of the inside passengers, effected an
exchange of seats, and as quietly took his place inside. Mr. Hamlin never
allowed his philosophy to interfere with decisive and prompt action.
I fear that this irruption of Jack cast some restraint upon the other
passengers—particularly those who were making themselves most
agreeable to the lady. One of them leaned forward, and apparently conveyed
to her information regarding Mr. Hamlin's profession in a single epithet.
Whether Mr. Hamlin heard it, or whether he recognized in the informant a
distinguished jurist from whom, but a few evenings before, he had won
several thousand dollars, I cannot say. His colorless face betrayed no
sign; his black eyes, quietly observant, glanced indifferently past the
legal gentleman, and rested on the much more pleasing features of his
neighbor. An Indian stoicism—said to be an inheritance from his
maternal ancestor—stood him in good service, until the rolling
wheels rattled upon the river gravel at Scott's Ferry, and the stage drew
up at the International Hotel for dinner. The legal gentleman and a member
of Congress leaped out, and stood ready to assist the descending goddess,
while Colonel Starbottle, of Siskiyou, took charge of her parasol and
shawl. In this multiplicity of attention there was a momentary confusion
and delay. Jack Hamlin quietly opened the OPPOSITE door of the coach, took
the lady's hand—with that decision and positiveness which a
hesitating and undecided sex know how to admire—and in an instant
had dexterously and gracefully swung her to the ground, and again lifted
her to the platform. An audible chuckle on the box, I fear, came from that
other cynic, "Yuba Bill," the driver. "Look keerfully arter that baggage,
Kernel," said the expressman, with affected concern, as he looked after
Colonel Starbottle, gloomily bringing up the rear of the triumphant
procession to the waiting-room.
Mr. Hamlin did not stay for dinner. His horse was already saddled, and
awaiting him. He dashed over the ford, up the gravelly hill, and out into
the dusty perspective of the Wingdam road, like one leaving pleasant fancy
behind him. The inmates of dusty cabins by the roadside shaded their eyes
with their hands and looked after him, recognizing the man by his horse,
and speculating what "was up with Comanche Jack." Yet much of this
interest centered in the horse, in a community where the time made by
"French Pete's" mare in his run from the Sheriff of Calaveras eclipsed all
concern in the ultimate fate of that worthy.
The sweating flanks of his gray at length recalled him to himself. He
checked his speed, and, turning into a by-road, sometimes used as a
cutoff, trotted leisurely along, the reins hanging listlessly from his
fingers. As he rode on, the character of the landscape changed and became
more pastoral. Openings in groves of pine and sycamore disclosed some rude
attempts at cultivation—a flowering vine trailed over the porch of
one cabin, and a woman rocked her cradled babe under the roses of another.
A little farther on Mr. Hamlin came upon some barelegged children wading
in the willowy creek, and so wrought upon them with a badinage peculiar to
himself that they were emboldened to climb up his horse's legs and over
his saddle, until he was fain to develop an exaggerated ferocity of
demeanor, and to escape, leaving behind some kisses and coin. And then,
advancing deeper into the woods, where all signs of habitation failed, he
began to sing—uplifting a tenor so singularly sweet, and shaded by a
pathos so subduing and tender, that I wot the robins and linnets stopped
to listen. Mr. Hamlin's voice was not cultivated; the subject of his song
was some sentimental lunacy borrowed from the Negro minstrels; but there
thrilled through all some occult quality of tone and expression that was
unspeakably touching. Indeed, it was a wonderful sight to see this
sentimental blackleg, with a pack of cards in his pocket and a revolver at
his back, sending his voice before him through the dim woods with a plaint
about his "Nelly's grave" in a way that overflowed the eyes of the
listener. A sparrow hawk, fresh from his sixth victim, possibly
recognizing in Mr. Hamlin a kindred spirit, stared at him in surprise, and
was fain to confess the superiority of man. With a superior predatory
capacity, HE couldn't sing.
But Mr. Hamlin presently found himself again on the highroad, and at his
former pace. Ditches and banks of gravel, denuded hillsides, stumps, and
decayed trunks of trees, took the place of woodland and ravine, and
indicated his approach to civilization. Then a church steeple came in
sight, and he knew that he had reached home. In a few moments he was
clattering down the single narrow street that lost itself in a chaotic
ruin of races, ditches, and tailings at the foot of the hill, and
dismounted before the gilded windows of the "Magnolia" saloon. Passing
through the long barroom, he pushed open a green-baize door, entered a
dark passage, opened another door with a passkey, and found himself in a
dimly lighted room whose furniture, though elegant and costly for the
locality, showed signs of abuse. The inlaid center table was overlaid with
stained disks that were not contemplated in the original design. The
embroidered armchairs were discolored, and the green velvet lounge, on
which Mr. Hamlin threw himself, was soiled at the foot with the red soil
Mr. Hamlin did not sing in his cage. He lay still, looking at a highly
colored painting above him representing a young creature of opulent
charms. It occurred to him then, for the first time, that he had never
seen exactly that kind of a woman, and that if he should, he would not,
probably, fall in love with her. Perhaps he was thinking of another style
of beauty. But just then someone knocked at the door. Without rising, he
pulled a cord that apparently shot back a bolt, for the door swung open,
and a man entered.
The newcomer was broad-shouldered and robust—a vigor not borne out
in the face, which, though handsome, was singularly weak, and disfigured
by dissipation. He appeared to be also under the influence of liquor, for
he started on seeing Mr. Hamlin, and said, "I thought Kate was here,"
stammered, and seemed confused and embarrassed.
Mr. Hamlin smiled the smile which he had before worn on the Wingdam coach,
and sat up, quite refreshed and ready for business.
"You didn't come up on the stage," continued the newcomer, "did you?"
"No," replied Hamlin; "I left it at Scott's Ferry. It isn't due for half
an hour yet. But how's luck, Brown?"
"Damn bad," said Brown, his face suddenly assuming an expression of weak
despair; "I'm cleaned out again, Jack," he continued, in a whining tone
that formed a pitiable contrast to his bulky figure, "can't you help me
with a hundred till tomorrow's cleanup? You see I've got to send money
home to the old woman, and—you've won twenty times that amount from
The conclusion was, perhaps, not entirely logical, but Jack overlooked it,
and handed the sum to his visitor. "The old-woman business is about played
out, Brown," he added, by way of commentary; "why don't you say you want
to buck agin' faro? You know you ain't married!"
"Fact, sir," said Brown, with a sudden gravity, as if the mere contact of
the gold with the palm of the hand had imparted some dignity to his frame.
"I've got a wife—a damned good one, too, if I do say it—in the
States. It's three year since I've seen her, and a year since I've writ to
her. When things is about straight, and we get down to the lead, I'm going
to send for her."
"And Kate?" queried Mr. Hamlin, with his previous smile.
Mr. Brown of Calaveras essayed an archness of glance, to cover his
confusion, which his weak face and whisky-muddled intellect but poorly
carried out, and said:
"Damn it, Jack, a man must have a little liberty, you know. But come, what
do you say to a little game? Give us a show to double this hundred."
Jack Hamlin looked curiously at his fatuous friend. Perhaps he knew that
the man was predestined to lose the money, and preferred that it should
flow back into his own coffers rather than any other. He nodded his head,
and drew his chair toward the table. At the same moment there came a rap
upon the door.
"It's Kate," said Mr. Brown.
Mr. Hamlin shot back the bolt, and the door opened. But, for the first
time in his life, he staggered to his feet, utterly unnerved and abashed,
and for the first time in his life the hot blood crimsoned his colorless
cheeks to his forehead. For before him stood the lady he had lifted from
the Wingdam coach, whom Brown—dropping his cards with a hysterical
"My old woman, by thunder!"
They say that Mrs. Brown burst into tears, and reproaches of her husband.
I saw her, in 1857, at Marysville, and disbelieve the story. And the
WINGDAM CHRONICLE, of the next week, under the head of "Touching Reunion,"
said: "One of those beautiful and touching incidents, peculiar to
California life, occurred last week in our city. The wife of one of
Wingdam's eminent pioneers, tired of the effete civilization of the East
and its inhospitable climate, resolved to join her noble husband upon
these golden shores. Without informing him of her intention, she undertook
the long journey, and arrived last week. The joy of the husband may be
easier imagined than described. The meeting is said to have been
indescribably affecting. We trust her example may be followed."
Whether owing to Mrs. Brown's influence, or to some more successful
speculations, Mr. Brown's financial fortune from that day steadily
improved. He bought out his partners in the "Nip and Tuck" lead, with
money which was said to have been won at poker, a week or two after his
wife's arrival, but which rumor, adopting Mrs. Brown's theory that Brown
had forsworn the gaming-table, declared to have been furnished by Mr. Jack
Hamlin. He built and furnished the "Wingdam House," which pretty Mrs.
Brown's great popularity kept overflowing with guests. He was elected to
the Assembly, and gave largess to churches. A street in Wingdam was named
in his honor.
Yet it was noted that in proportion as he waxed wealthy and fortunate, he
grew pale, thin, and anxious. As his wife's popularity increased, he
became fretful and impatient. The most uxorious of husbands, he was
absurdly jealous. If he did not interfere with his wife's social liberty,
it was because it was maliciously whispered that his first and only
attempt was met by an outburst from Mrs. Brown that terrified him into
silence. Much of this kind of gossip came from those of her own sex whom
she had supplanted in the chivalrous attentions of Wingdam, which, like
most popular chivalry, was devoted to an admiration of power, whether of
masculine force or feminine beauty. It should be remembered, too, in her
extenuation that since her arrival, she had been the unconscious priestess
of a mythological worship, perhaps not more ennobling to her womanhood
than that which distinguished an older Greek democracy. I think that Brown
was dimly conscious of this. But his only confidant was Jack Hamlin, whose
INFELIX reputation naturally precluded any open intimacy with the family,
and whose visits were infrequent.
It was midsummer, and a moonlit night; and Mrs. Brown, very rosy,
large-eyed, and pretty, sat upon the piazza, enjoying the fresh incense of
the mountain breeze, and, it is to be feared, another incense which was
not so fresh, nor quite as innocent. Beside her sat Colonel Starbottle and
Judge Boompointer, and a later addition to her court in the shape of a
foreign tourist. She was in good spirits.
"What do you see down the road?" inquired the gallant Colonel, who had
been conscious, for the last few minutes, that Mrs. Brown's attention was
"Dust," said Mrs. Brown, with a sigh. "Only Sister Anne's 'flock of
The Colonel, whose literary recollections did not extend farther back than
last week's paper, took a more practical view. "It ain't sheep," he
continued; "it's a horseman. Judge, ain't that Jack Hamlin's gray?"
But the Judge didn't know; and as Mrs. Brown suggested the air was growing
too cold for further investigations, they retired to the parlor.
Mr. Brown was in the stable, where he generally retired after dinner.
Perhaps it was to show his contempt for his wife's companions; perhaps,
like other weak natures, he found pleasure in the exercise of absolute
power over inferior animals. He had a certain gratification in the
training of a chestnut mare, whom he could beat or caress as pleased him,
which he couldn't do with Mrs. Brown. It was here that he recognized a
certain gray horse which had just come in, and, looking a little farther
on, found his rider. Brown's greeting was cordial and hearty, Mr. Hamlin's
somewhat restrained. But at Brown's urgent request, he followed him up the
back stairs to a narrow corridor, and thence to a small room looking out
upon the stable yard. It was plainly furnished with a bed, a table, a few
chairs, and a rack for guns and whips.
"This yer's my home, Jack," said Brown, with a sigh, as he threw himself
upon the bed, and motioned his companion to a chair. "Her room's t'other
end of the hall. It's more'n six months since we've lived together, or
met, except at meals. It's mighty rough papers on the head of the house,
ain't it?" he said, with a forced laugh. "But I'm glad to see you, Jack,
damn glad," and he reached from the bed, and again shook the unresponsive
hand of Jack Hamlin.
"I brought ye up here, for I didn't want to talk in the stable; though,
for the matter of that, it's all round town. Don't strike a light. We can
talk here in the moonshine. Put up your feet on that winder, and sit here
beside me. Thar's whisky in that jug."
Mr. Hamlin did not avail himself of the information. Brown of Calaveras
turned his face to the wall and continued:
"If I didn't love the woman, Jack, I wouldn't mind. But it's loving her,
and seeing her, day arter day, goin' on at this rate, and no one to put
down the brake; that's what gits me! But I'm glad to see ye, Jack, damn
In the darkness he groped about until he had found and wrung his
companion's hand again. He would have detained it, but Jack slipped it
into the buttoned breast of his coat, and asked, listlessly, "How long has
this been going on?"
"Ever since she came here; ever since the day she walked into the
Magnolia. I was a fool then; Jack, I'm a fool now; but I didn't know how
much I loved her till then. And she hasn't been the same woman since.
"But that ain't all, Jack; and it's what I wanted to see you about, and
I'm glad you've come. It ain't that she doesn't love me any more; it ain't
that she fools with every chap that comes along, for, perhaps, I staked
her love and lost it, as I did everything else at the Magnolia; and,
perhaps, foolin' is nateral to some women, and thar ain't no great harm
done, 'cept to the fools. But, Jack, I think—I think she loves
somebody else. Don't move, Jack; don't move; if your pistol hurts ye, take
"It's been more'n six months now that she's seemed unhappy and lonesome,
and kinder nervous and scared-like. And sometimes I've ketched her lookin'
at me sort of timid and pitying. And she writes to somebody. And for the
last week she's been gathering her own things—trinkets, and
furbelows, and jew'lry—and, Jack, I think she's goin' off. I could
stand all but that. To have her steal away like a thief—" He put his
face downward to the pillow, and for a few moments there was no sound but
the ticking of a clock on the mantel. Mr. Hamlin lit a cigar, and moved to
the open window. The moon no longer shone into the room, and the bed and
its occupant were in shadow. "What shall I do, Jack?" said the voice from
The answer came promptly and clearly from the window-side: "Spot the man,
and kill him on sight."
"He's took the risk!"
"But will that bring HER back?"
Jack did not reply, but moved from the window toward the door.
"Don't go yet, Jack; light the candle, and sit by the table. It's a
comfort to see ye, if nothin' else."
Jack hesitated, and then complied. He drew a pack of cards from his pocket
and shuffled them, glancing at the bed. But Brown's face was turned to the
wall. When Mr. Hamlin had shuffled the cards, he cut them, and dealt one
card on the opposite side of the table and toward the bed, and another on
his side of the table for himself. The first was a deuce, his own card, a
king. He then shuffled and cut again. This time "dummy" had a queen, and
himself a four-spot. Jack brightened up for the third deal. It brought his
adversary a deuce, and himself a king again. "Two out of three," said
"What's that, Jack?" said Brown.
Then Jack tried his hand with dice; but he always threw sixes, and his
imaginary opponent aces. The force of habit is sometimes confusing.
Meanwhile, some magnetic influence in Mr. Hamlin's presence, or the
anodyne of liquor, or both, brought surcease of sorrow, and Brown slept.
Mr. Hamlin moved his chair to the window, and looked out on the town of
Wingdam, now sleeping peacefully—its harsh outlines softened and
subdued, its glaring colors mellowed and sobered in the moonlight that
flowed over all. In the hush he could hear the gurgling of water in the
ditches, and the sighing of the pines beyond the hill. Then he looked up
at the firmament, and as he did so a star shot across the twinkling field.
Presently another, and then another. The phenomenon suggested to Mr.
Hamlin a fresh augury. If in another fifteen minutes another star should
fall—He sat there, watch in hand, for twice that time, but the
phenomenon was not repeated.
The clock struck two, and Brown still slept. Mr. Hamlin approached the
table and took from his pocket a letter, which he read by the flickering
candlelight. It contained only a single line, written in pencil, in a
"Be at the corral, with the buggy, at three."
The sleeper moved uneasily, and then awoke. "Are you there Jack?"
"Don't go yet. I dreamed just now, Jack—dreamed of old times. I
thought that Sue and me was being married agin, and that the parson, Jack,
was—who do you think?—you!"
The gambler laughed, and seated himself on the bed—the paper still
in his hand.
"It's a good sign, ain't it?" queried Brown.
"I reckon. Say, old man, hadn't you better get up?"
The "old man," thus affectionately appealed to, rose, with the assistance
of Hamlin's outstretched hand.
Brown mechanically took the proffered cigar.
Jack had twisted the letter into a spiral, lit it, and held it for his
companion. He continued to hold it until it was consumed, and dropped the
fragment—a fiery star—from the open window. He watched it as
it fell, and then returned to his friend.
"Old man," he said, placing his hands upon Brown's shoulders, "in ten
minutes I'll be on the road, and gone like that spark. We won't see each
other agin; but, before I go, take a fool's advice: sell out all you've
got, take your wife with you, and quit the country. It ain't no place for
you, nor her. Tell her she must go; make her go, if she won't. Don't whine
because you can't be a saint, and she ain't an angel. Be a man—and
treat her like a woman. Don't be a damn fool. Good-by."
He tore himself from Brown's grasp, and leaped down the stairs like a
deer. At the stable door he collared the half-sleeping hostler and backed
him against the wall. "Saddle my horse in two minutes, or I'll—" The
ellipsis was frightfully suggestive.
"The missis said you was to have the buggy," stammered the man.
"Damn the buggy!"
The horse was saddled as fast as the nervous hands of the astounded
hostler could manipulate buckle and strap.
"Is anything up, Mr. Hamlin?" said the man, who, like all his class,
admired the elan of his fiery patron, and was really concerned in his
The man fell back. With an oath, a bound, and clatter, Jack was into the
road. In another moment, to the man's half-awakened eyes, he was but a
moving cloud of dust in the distance, toward which a star just loosed from
its brethren was trailing a stream of fire.
But early that morning the dwellers by the Wingdam turnpike, miles away,
heard a voice, pure as a skylark's, singing afield. They who were asleep
turned over on their rude couches to dream of youth and love and olden
days. Hard-faced men and anxious gold-seekers, already at work, ceased
their labors and leaned upon their picks, to listen to a romantic vagabond
ambling away against the rosy sunrise.