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
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 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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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.