A Piece of Wreckage by Florence Finch Kelly

Delay not thy coming, my love, my own!
Though patient I wait thee, my love unknown,
Yet long I thy figure to see, and know
What form thou wilt have, and what face be thine,
And when thou wilt clasp me, dear love of mine;
For all that is left me is thy cold breath,
And wond'ring I wait thee, my sweetheart, Death!


It may be that the high tide of material development which in late years has been sweeping over Southern California has penetrated even to that isolated nook in the hills which, when I knew it, was the saddest place I had ever seen. It was a lonely region, miles and miles away from railroads, telegraphs, newspapers—all the mighty, roaring music of civilization. Off toward the east the desert stretched its level expanse of vague coloring, and westward the rounded hills, green in the winter, yellow as ripe wheat fields through the long, rainless summer, reared their mounds higher and higher until they stopped, as if cowed and ashamed, at the flanks of Monte Pinos. And the mountain, majestic and vapor-veiled, seemed always to be watching them in their work of protecting and comforting the wrecks that clung to their feet.

For that was why this region, despite its soft, reposeful beauty, seemed so sad—because of the wrecks, the human wrecks, who dwelt there, who had seized such fast hold of the sphinx-like hills that only death could unloose their grasp. Some of them were relics of California's heyday, men who, when the waves of hope and adventure and endeavor were rolling fast and high over the Golden State, were so dashed about and bruised and beaten that at last they were glad to be cast ashore among these hills. Some had hidden themselves there because they were weary of the world and all its works, and wished to go where they could no longer hear even its heart-beats. Others there were who had fled thither to escape the scorn of men or the vengeance of the law. And there were a few who were staying on and on, and would always stay, because those enchantresses that whisper in the evening breezes of the mountains and the desert, that put forth caressing hands in the balmy air that bathes the hills and canyons in the early morning, whose wooing voices sing in the music of birds and chant in the cries of wild things at night, had taken captive their wills, and they could not go if they would.

Their cabins were scattered through the valleys, or on the sides of the hills, or in the recesses of the canyons, miles apart. Sometimes, though rarely, there was a little family in one. But usually the only occupant was an elderly or middle-aged man, who spoke but little about himself or his past, and was as destitute of curiosity as to what was going on in the outside world as he was about the former lives and affairs of his fellow wreckage.

Nevertheless, I had the good fortune to learn much of the story of one of these men. A member of our camping party chanced to make speaking acquaintance with him at the quaint old adobe house under its huge, spreading grapevine and waving cottonwoods, which served as stage station and supply store—the centre of such civilization as there was in all the region within a radius of thirty or forty miles. Every one in that country called him "Old Dan." I found his name one day in the Great Register—twin relic, with the shabby old stage, of the outer world—which hung in the stage station. But as it was not his real name, nor probably any name by which he was ever known outside of those hills, it will be of no use to mention it here.

Old Dan, learning that we were not pleased with our camping-place, invited us to pitch our tents under some trees near his cabin. And for one delightful month of the southern summer we brought into his life the strange sensation of voices fresh from the world he had discarded. The unwonted influence unlocked his memories and sent his mind back to dwell among the almost forgotten years when he, too, was of the world and delighted in it.

We soon fell into the habit of sociability. Every evening he would come down to our camp, usually bringing his violin, and sit with us for hours at our camp fire. His cats—he had near a dozen of them—came trailing after him, and his two dogs trotted by his side. Two or three of the cats sprang into his lap as soon as he sat down, and the rest snarled at the dogs for appropriating the choice positions nearest him, and then disposed themselves in an outer row. The stable inclosure was only a few rods distant, and the three burros it contained, as soon as they heard his voice, ranged themselves in a solemn row at the nearest point, looking as wise and mysterious as so many sphinxes.

Sometimes he played for us, with unexpected skill and feeling, on his violin. As the days went by and our acquaintance grew more intimate, he gradually fell back into memories of the past and turned over for us, now and then, the pages of his life's history. But all these bits, heard at many different times, and some things which were told me afterwards by men who had known him in other years and places, I have gathered into one continuous narrative. For in my memory they are all fused together, as if he had told us the whole of his story in one evening—one special evening, of which remembrance is most vivid.

The moon was at its half, and showered down just enough of its silver light to bring out sharply the darkling woods on the hill beyond the little stream and to make his cabin under the trees, off in the opposite direction, take on strange shapes, while it cut out, sharp and distinct against the background of light, the silhouettes of the solemn and unmoving burros, standing in a row behind the fence. Our camp fire blazed and crackled and the crimson and orange flames mounted high in the air and showed our little party, sitting or half lying about it on blankets. Old Dan, sitting on a great chunk of wood, his lap full of cats, his violin beside him, and his usual bodyguard of cats and dogs around him, went far back into his youth and let us know—what probably he had told no other being since he broke those ties—why he left the home, the heritage, and the name of his ancestors.

He had been playing on his violin, and then, putting it down, had begun to tell us about some hunting adventure. The red light danced over his wrinkled, weather-beaten face and scraggly, grizzled beard; and as I considered his large, well-shaped head and strongly marked features, it seemed to me there was something familiar in his countenance. In his voice a peculiar intonation—I had noticed it many times before—teased me with suggestions of a voice heard somewhere else.

And presently I remembered.

He turned his face toward me, the firelight fell bright and strong upon it, that peculiar tone in his voice sounded at just the same instant, and there flashed upon me the memory of a scene in Boston two years before. It was in Faneuil Hall, and a great mass of eager, enthusiastic faces was turned toward the platform, where stood a member of one of Massachusetts' old and distinguished families. His speech, full of persuasive fire, had welded his whole audience into one personality that, for the time being, at least, felt as he felt and thought as he thought. And the voice of the orator, which had impressed me by reason of a certain peculiar intonation, was like this man's voice, and his face had in it much that was like the face of Old Dan.

I spoke of the resemblance, and Old Dan at first drew back within himself. Then he began to question me eagerly about the man. And presently he had let us know who he was.

"Yes," he said, "you are right. There is a strong resemblance between us, or there was when we were young. I have not seen him for more than forty years. He is my brother—younger than I. You know what the family has been in New England. There has not been a generation of it for a hundred, yes, a hundred and fifty years, that has not made its influence felt either in Massachusetts or the nation. I cut loose from it before I was twenty, and they have known nothing about me since. In fact, they think me dead—they thought I died then, and I do not intend they shall ever know that I did not. This is the first time since I left that anybody has known my real name, and you 'll do me a favor if you never speak of it to any one else, here or elsewhere. I have not always been known by the same name since then, but what difference does that make? When a man leads as many different lives as I have done, he has a right to more names than one or two.

"I was in Harvard College and it was the summer vacation after my junior year. Every male member of our family"—Old Dan spoke that "our" with timid and shame-faced, but very evident, pride—"for I don't know how many generations, has gone to Harvard, and I suppose I am the only one of the whole lot of them that didn't graduate. I went to New York that summer to transact some business for my father. I succeeded with it very well, but in the meantime I did n't neglect the opportunities of enjoying myself with a good deal more freedom than I would have dared to take at home. I probably was n't born quite up to the high standard of morality, dignity, and self-respect which my ancestors had set; and if I had stayed there all my life I would probably have found living up to it either very galling or quite impossible. I dare say it is just as well that I did break loose and burn the bridge behind me, for if I had stayed in New England it's likely I should have turned out a black sheep and brought shame and disgrace upon my people.

"While I was in New York I fell in with a pleasant, companionable man, some years older than myself. He went around with me a good deal, took me to his home, where I met his wife and sister, gave me sensible advice about a number of things, and was altogether so entertaining and so kind and such a good fellow that I thought myself fortunate in having met him.

"One evening, when I was almost ready to return to Boston, I dined with him at his home. He had had me there to dinner several times, and the evening had always passed off pleasantly. But on this evening I drank more wine than was good for me. Probably it was doctored, but I don't know. All my life, whenever I have taken a glass too much, one sure result has followed. All the restraints of conduct which I ordinarily feel drop away, and I become reckless.

"So this evening, when he brought out cards and we began to bet on the game, both my moral sense and my prudence deserted me. I drank more and more, and bet higher and higher, and after a while I realized that he had won from me quite a sum of money which I had neglected to send to my father during the day.

"Then I drank more; and after that I do not know what happened until I awoke with a dazed sense of having heard a woman scream and of being in the midst of some confusion. I felt a blow on my head and a grip on my arm and heard a voice shouting in my ear, 'You scoundrel, I 'll kill you!' I was in another room, my friend's wife was sobbing hysterically on a lounge, and he was gripping and shaking me and pointing a pistol at my head.

"He said I had shamefully insulted his wife and that he was going to kill me. And I was drunk enough to believe him, and maudlin enough to beg for my life and to accept with tears what terms he was willing to offer. It was finally settled that he should keep me under his personal charge until I could get five thousand dollars from my father to pay over to him. Then he made me write a letter to my father which he dictated.

"He locked me in a room with himself, put the key in his pocket, waited until he thought I had gone to sleep, and then threw himself down on the bed with the pistol in his hand and was soon fast asleep.

"But instead of going to sleep I was rapidly getting sober enough to understand what a rat in a hole I had made of myself, and I was so overcome with horror and shame that I felt I would rather die than face my father again. I put the letter, which he had left lying on a table, in my pocket. With my knife I took out the screws of the door lock and was soon creeping stealthily downstairs. As I turned the first street corner I saw that my keeper was rushing after me in hot pursuit. Day was just breaking, and through the dim, deserted streets I ran at the top of my speed, turning corners, dodging down side streets, trying my best to get out of sight of my pursuer. He kept close behind me, but at last I reached the docks,—where I meant to drown myself,—just enough ahead of him to dodge behind a pile of lumber.

"My sudden appearance startled some poor wretch, who was crouched there, making his preparations for eternity, just as I myself was about to do. He gave me one scared look, as if he feared I was some one come to stop him, and jumped into the water. In his sudden leap one foot dragged after him the little pile of clothing and the letter he had been writing.

"I crouched down into a hiding-place, so startled by this sudden apparition, in the very act of doing what I had made up my mind to do, that I drew back from the deed with sudden awe and shrinking. I had no time to think before my pursuer dashed up, calling my name loudly. He had seen the suicide and thought it was I. He waited about and watched for the body a while and then went away, and that was the last I ever saw of him.

"When I crawled out of my hiding-place I had no idea what I was going to do. The suicidal impulse had spent itself, and although I had escaped from my pursuer for the moment I was so afraid of meeting him again that I slunk along like a criminal. But strong as that fear was, I would rather have met him than faced my father. Soon I came to a wharf where a steamer was taking aboard passengers for California. At once my determination was made. I hurried to a pawnbroker's shop, and from my watch and what little jewelry I had I realized enough money to buy a steerage ticket, and in a few hours was on my way, under a new name.

"The Boston papers which the next San Francisco steamer brought told me the story of my suicide, of the recovery of my body, and of its burial in our family lot in Mt. Auburn Cemetery. I hope the poor wretch whose bones are crumbling under the monument was more worthy of its praises than I.

"After I read that, all thought of the possibility of returning, or of letting them know that I was not dead, dropped from my mind. I plunged into the furious life of those days with such eagerness and enjoyment that I lost all desire to go back,—would have had none, even if I had not disgraced my name before I left.

"Of course, I soon understood that I had been caught in the simplest sort of a blackmailer's trap. But I had betrayed my father's trust in me and had gambled away his money, and—what was as crushing to my vanity as this other was to my sense of honor—I had been duped in a way that any greenhorn ought to have seen through. So I put it all behind me and was glad to be alone among strangers.

"I rushed off to the mines, of course, as soon as I could get there, and I made piles of money, especially at first. And I was probably the most hot-headed, reckless, devil-may-care young rascal on the whole Coast. I made many enemies and had many a narrow escape, as most everybody did in those days.

"Perhaps the closest call I had was at Foley's Gulch. A fellow had lately come there who thought he could sing. Op'ry Bill, we called him. We got him started to singing in a saloon one night, and I led the boys on in making fun of him. We got him wild, but he did n't offer to shoot, not even when I sent a bullet spinning through his hat. He knew I was the leader in it all, but he just waited for a good chance before he hinted at revenge. It was a week or two before the chance came, and in the meantime he pretended to be friendly with me.

"One afternoon I was in a saloon, and the barkeeper had just told me how Shirty Smith and Op'ry Bill had had a quarrel, and how Shirty was tearing around like a mad bull and swearing he 'd shoot Bill on sight, when in walked Op'ry himself. He came up almost behind me, slapped me on the shoulder with his left hand, asked me to take a drink with him, slipped his hand down on my right arm and began feeling of it and praising my muscle. My eye happened to fall on a broken bit of a mirror behind the bar, and I saw that his right hand was cocking a pistol at the back of my head. I called out loudly and angrily, 'Shirty, don't shoot him in the back!'

"Op'ry Bill was so taken aback by what he supposed to be his own danger that he wheeled around and turned his pistol the other way. Shirty was n't there, but I had him covered when he turned back, red hot at having been deceived.

"Did I kill him? No, I thought I 'd give him a lecture first, as I had him well covered, about being so ornery mean, and while I was talking Shirty rushed in, hot on the trail, and swore he 'd let daylight through me if I did n't give him first chance at the sneak.

"A good many of the young fellows, like me, for instance, and plenty of the older ones, too, were utterly reckless about how much money we made and how much we lost. Everything went at a fast and furious rate, and it was all the same to us whether we were raking in or pouring out the dust. It was many a year after those stirring days before I tried to figure up how much I took out of the ground and might have got for my mine locations if I had had a particle of thrift—such as I ought to have had, considering my New England birth and ancestry. It footed up past the million mark, and, if I had had sense enough to handle it properly, would have made me worth several times that amount by the time I reached middle age.

"But I don't know that I regret it now. I 'm as well off here with my cats and dogs and burros as if they were so many mines and ranches and railroads.

"I had a partner once, a fellow a little older than I, and not so reckless and hare-brained, and together we had been sinking a prospect hole that promised to be one of the best I ever struck. We had been at work two or three months, and I was just as sure there was a big fortune in that hole as I could be of anything. But I got tired of staying in one place so long,—it was lonely and monotonous,—and I wanted some excitement. So one evening I challenged him to play seven-up for the mine, the loser to take his outfit and walk. He refused and tried to argue me out of my crazy whim, but finally I taunted him into it. I lost, and the next morning I packed up my blankets and walked away. A month afterwards he sold the mine for a hundred thousand dollars, and in less than a year its owners had realized a round half million out of it.

"But the most exciting part of all those years was the time when I was called 'Grizzly Dick.' I ought to be ashamed to tell anything about that portion of my history; but it is all so long ago, and things have changed so much since then, that it almost seems as if I were talking about some other man.

"It all began at Grizzly Gulch, where a man named Johnson had taken a strong dislike to me. I had played some joke on him which made him ridiculous, and he hated me more than if I 'd tried to kill him. He started down to the city with his dust, and somebody robbed him, and half killed him into the bargain. He accused me of being the robber and I had no witnesses to prove an alibi. They had a trial and convicted me of the crime, as Johnson swore that he recognized me. I knew that it was simply a scheme of his to get even with me, and I didn't believe that he had been robbed at all. But I was sentenced to prison for two years and I had to go.

"When I got out my teeth were on edge for revenge on Johnson, the lawyers, the judge, the jury, and the whole law-making system that had made me, an innocent man, spend those two years fuming in a cell. I was ready to fight the whole organization of society and the whole system of government, from President to jailer. I swore the biggest, hardest kind of an oath that I would give them a reason for being so anxious to put people in prison. Only, I didn't propose that they should ever send me there again.

"Well, for two years Grizzly Dick was the terror of that county and all the adjoining ones. To take him, alive or dead, was the ambition of half the sheriffs in California. After my first few escapades I had plenty of helpers. Men as desperate and as dare-devil as I gathered around me and we carried things with a high hand. I cared nothing for the profits of being an outlaw. What I wanted was revenge on society, and the excitement and risk of the game. The greater part of whatever we took went to my followers, and I never kept more than was necessary for my immediate needs.

"We had many a desperate fight with sheriffs and their posses, many a wild ride over the hills and through the pine woods on dark nights, and many a day of lying hidden in the brush or in caves.

"I followed that sort of life for two years, and then, one day, I suddenly felt a disgust for it all, and concluded I 'd had enough revenge and was ready to be an honest man again.

"So I deliberately left that part of the State and everybody supposed that Grizzly Dick had been killed and his body carried off and buried by his gang. But nothing of the sort had happened. He reappeared under another name a good many days' travel from that region.

"Five or six years afterwards I went back to that same county and was elected sheriff. Yes, I was recognized. A good many people suspected and two or three openly declared that I was Grizzly Dick. But I made the best sheriff they had ever had, and I did some work in the way of catching a stage robber, cleaning out a nest of gamblers, and getting rid of a couple of desperadoes, which they were so glad to have done that they didn't care who or what I might have been.

"I served two terms and they wanted me to run again. But by that time I had come to realize that I had frittered away a big part of my life, and I began to have some of the ambitions to accomplish something worth while that I ought to have had a dozen years before.

"So I went down to San Francisco and raised a tidy sum of money to begin on by going in with an acquaintance on a trip to Bering Sea to catch otters. We chartered a vessel, spent a whole summer up there, and realized nearly ten thousand dollars apiece out of it.

"I had a pretty good practical knowledge of mining matters, and so my operations in mines and mining stocks were generally successful. It was n't long until I was a rich, a very rich, man, and a prominent one, too. There is a street named for me in San Francisco. That is, it bears the name I was known by while I was sheriff and while I lived in the city. I married and built a fine residence, and altogether I was as prosperous and had as bright a future as any man in California.

"But one day, after I had been living in San Francisco five or six years, I made a deal that wasn't a success, and half my fortune went in less than a week. And at the same time I discovered that my wife was not all I had thought her. She had evil tendencies that I had not suspected, and bad companions of whom I had known nothing; and together they had taken her at a flying pace down the road to destruction. And when the end came, at the same time that I had my first financial blow, the surprise was overwhelming. It was an end so shameful and to me so humiliating that I could not bear at first to go out among men and meet my friends. It was a critical time and my affairs needed my closest attention. But I was too broken down and overcome by the disgrace to attempt to do anything. And when I did go back everything was ruined.

"I did n't care very much, for my greatest desire just then was to get away from everybody I had known. I wanted to put behind me and forget everything that would remind me of my wife, and her ruin, and my disaster.

"So I started out alone with a prospector's outfit, and finally brought up here. I 've been here now, I guess, about ten years, and it's very likely that I 'll stay here all the rest of my life. I 've got a prospect hole over on the other side of that hill that may amount to something some time. But I don't care whether it does or not. I like to work in it and think about whether or not I 'm going to strike anything, but I don't care two bits one way or the other.

"No, I 'm not lonely. My cats and dogs and burros are pretty good company, and then I have my violin. But just these hills, and the sky, and the breezes, and the birds and beasts that come around, are as much company as any man needs to wish for.

"When I came here I was tired of the world, dead tired of it. And I have n't got rested yet. I shall not leave here until I do. And I don't suppose that will ever be. For my time will soon come. It's all I have to look forward to, and I just sit here and wait for it and wonder what shape Death will have when he does finally find me out. That is the only thing in the world I have any curiosity about, now; and I often think about it in much the same way that I used to wonder, when I was a youth, what the woman would be like whom I was to love."

The next summer we camped at the mouth of a canyon near the foot of Monte Pinos, but one day we drove across the hills to pay a visit to Old Dan, and learned at the stage station that he was no more. He had sickened and died alone, in the early spring, and his body had been found, after many days, in his cabin by his nearest "neighbor," another lone man living ten miles away. We drove on to his deserted little ranch and found that they had made a grave for him on the side of the hill above the cabin—a grave marked only by its settling mound of earth and one poor piece of board, cracked, aslant, and weather-beaten, and bearing neither name nor date.

Doubtless it is as well so. For he that lies beneath was only a piece of wreckage, with a past that was dead and a future that was empty. The memory of all those turbulent years was heavy upon his gray head, and he wished only that the hills might cover him and give him rest and concealment.

And away on the other side of the continent there is a grave that has known the tears of love and the hand of remembrance. Its flowers are bright and its shining marble is graven fair with name and date and words of praise.