Colonel Starbottle’s Client

A Night at “Hays.”

Chapter I

Bret Harte

IT WAS difficult to say if Hays’ farmhouse, or “Hays,” as it was familiarly called, looked any more bleak and cheerless that winter afternoon than it usually did in the strong summer sunshine. Painted a cold merciless white, with scant projections for shadows, a roof of white-pine shingles, bleached lighter through sun and wind, and covered with low, white-capped chimneys, it looked even more stark and chilly than the drifts which had climbed its low roadside fence, and yet seemed hopeless of gaining a foothold on the glancing walls, or slippery, wind-swept roof. The storm, which had already heaped the hollows of the road with snow, hurled its finely-granulated flakes against the building, but they were whirled along the gutters and ridges, and disappeared in smokelike puffs across the icy roof. The granite outcrop in the hilly field beyond had long ago whitened and vanished; the dwarf firs and larches which had at first taken uncouth shapes in the drift blended vaguely together, and then merged into an unbroken formless wave. But the gaunt angles and rigid outlines of the building remained sharp and unchanged. It would seem as if the rigors of winter had only accented their hardness, as the fierceness of summer had previously made them intolerable.

It was believed that some of this unyielding grimness attached to Hays himself. Certain it is that neither hardship nor prosperity had touched his character. Years ago his emigrant team had broken down in this wild but wooded defile of the Sierras, and he had been forced to a winter encampment, with only a rude log-cabin for shelter, on the very verge of the promised land. Unable to enter it himself, he was nevertheless able to assist the better-equipped teams that followed him with wood and water and a coarse forage gathered from a sheltered slope of wild oats. This was the beginning of a rude “supply station” which afterwards became so profitable that when spring came and Hays’ team were sufficiently recruited to follow the flood of immigrating gold-seekers to the placers and valleys, there seemed no occasion for it. His fortune had been already found in the belt of arable slope behind the wooded defile, and in the miraculously located coign of vantage on what was now the great highway of travel and the only oasis and first relief of the weary journey; the breaking down of his own team at that spot had not only been the salvation of those who found at “Hays” the means of prosecuting the last part of their pilgrimage, but later provided the equipment of returning teams.

The first two years of this experience had not been without hardship and danger. He had been raided by Indians and besieged for three days in his stockaded cabin; he had been invested by wintry drifts of twenty feet of snow, cut off equally from incoming teams from the pass and the valley below. During the second year his wife had joined him with four children, but whether the enforced separation had dulled her conjugal affection, or whether she was tempted by a natural feminine longing for the land of promise beyond, she sought it one morning with a fascinating teamster, leaving her two sons and two daughters behind her; two years later the elder of the daughters followed the mother’s example, with such maidenly discretion, however, as to forbear compromising herself by any previous matrimonial formality whatever. From that day Hays had no further personal intercourse with the valley below. He put up a hotel a mile away from the farmhouse that he might not have to dispense hospitality to his customers, nor accept their near companionship. Always a severe Presbyterian, and an uncompromising deacon of a far-scattered and scanty community who occasionally held their service in one of his barns, he grew more rigid, sectarian, and narrow day by day. He was feared, and although neither respected nor loved, his domination and endurance were accepted. A grim landlord, hard creditor, close-fisted patron, and a smileless neighbor who neither gambled nor drank, “Old Hays,” as he was called, while yet scarce fifty, had few acquaintances and fewer friends. There were those who believed that his domestic infelicities were the result of his unsympathetic nature; it never occurred to any one (but himself probably) that they might have been the cause. In those Sierran altitudes, as elsewhere, the belief in original sin—popularly known as “pure cussedness”—dominated and overbore any consideration of passive, impelling circumstances or temptation, unless they had been actively demonstrated with a revolver. The passive expression of harshness, suspicion, distrust, and moroseness was looked upon as inherent wickedness.

The storm raged violently as Hays emerged from the last of a long range of outbuildings and sheds, and crossed the open space between him and the farmhouse. Before he had reached the porch, with its scant shelter, he had floundered through a snowdrift, and faced the full fury of the storm. But the snow seemed to have glanced from his hard angular figure as it had from his roof-ridge, for when he entered the narrow hall-way his pilot jacket was unmarked, except where a narrow line of powdered flakes outlined the seams as if worn. To the right was an apartment, half office, half sitting-room, furnished with a dark and chilly iron safe, a sofa and chairs covered with black and coldly shining horsehair. Here Hays not only removed his upper coat but his under one also, and drawing a chair before the fire sat down in his shirt-sleeves. It was his usual rustic pioneer habit, and might have been some lingering reminiscence of certain remote ancestors to whom clothes were an impediment. He was warming his hands and placidly ignoring his gaunt arms in their thinly-clad “hickory” sleeves, when a young girl of eighteen sauntered, half perfunctorily, half inquisitively into the room. It was his only remaining daughter. Already elected by circumstances to a dry household virginity, her somewhat large features, sallow complexion, and tasteless, unattractive dress, did not obviously suggest a sacrifice. Since her sister’s departure she had taken sole charge of her father’s domestic affairs and the few rude servants he employed, with a certain inherited following of his own moods and methods. To the neighbors she was known as “Miss Hays,”—a dubious respect that, in a community of familiar “Sallies,” “Mamies,” “Pussies,” was grimly prophetic. Yet she rejoiced in the Oriental appellation of “Zuleika.” To this it is needless to add that it was impossible to conceive any one who looked more decidedly Western.

“Ye kin put some things in my carpet bag agin the time the sled comes round,” said her father meditatively, without looking up.

“Then you’re not coming back tonight?” asked the girl curiously. “What’s goin’ on at the summit, father?”

“I am,” he said grimly. “You don’t reckon I kalkilate to stop thar! I’m going on as far as Horseley’s to close up that contract afore the weather changes.”

“I kinder allowed it was funny you’d go to the hotel to-night. There’s a dance there; those two Wetherbee girls and Mamie Harris passed up the road an hour ago on a wood-sled, nigh blown to pieces and sittin’ up in the snow like skeert white rabbits.”

Hays’ brow darkened heavily.

“Let ’em go,” he said, in a hard voice that the fire did not seem to have softened. “Let ’em go for all the good their fool-parents will ever get outer them, or the herd of wayside cattle they’ve let them loose among.”

“I reckon they haven’t much to do at home, or are hard put for company, to travel six miles in the snow to show off their prinkin’ to a lot of idle louts shiny with bear’s grease and scented up with doctor’s stuff,” added the girl, shrugging her shoulders, with a touch of her father’s mood and manner.

Perhaps it struck Hays at that moment that her attitude was somewhat monstrous and unnatural for one still young and presumably like other girls, for, after glancing at her under his heavy brows, he said, in a gentler tone:—

“Never you mind, Zuly. When your brother Jack comes home he’ll know what’s what, and have all the proper New York ways and style. It’s nigh on three years now that he’s had the best training Dr. Dawson’s Academy could give,—sayin’ nothing of the pow’ful Christian example of one of the best preachers in the States. They mayn’t have worldly, ungodly fandangoes where he is, and riotous livin’, and scarlet abominations, but I’ve been told that they’ve ‘tea circles,’ and ‘assemblies,’ and ‘harmony concerts’ of young folks—and dancin’—yes, fine square dancin’ under control. No, I ain’t stinted him in anythin’. You kin remember that, Zuleika, when you hear any more gossip and backbitin’ about your father’s meanness. I ain’t spared no money for him.”

“I reckon not,” said the girl, a little sharply. “Why, there’s that draft fur two hundred and fifty dollars that kem only last week from the Doctor’s fur extras.”

“Yes,” replied Hays, with a slight knitting of the brows, “the Doctor mout hev writ more particklers, but parsons ain’t allus business men. I reckon these here extrys were to push Jack along in the term, as the Doctor knew I wanted him back here in the spring, now that his brother has got to be too stiff-necked and self-opinionated to do his father’s work.” It seemed from this that there had been a quarrel between Hays and his eldest son, who conducted his branch business at Sacramento, and who had in a passion threatened to set up a rival establishment to his father’s. And it was also evident from the manner of the girl that she was by no means a strong partisan of her father in the quarrel.

“You’d better find out first how all the schoolin’ and trainin’ of Jack’s is goin’ to jibe with the Ranch, and if he ain’t been eddicated out of all knowledge of station business or keer for it. New York ain’t Hays’ Ranch, and these yer ‘assemblies’ and ‘harmony’ doin’s and their airs and graces may put him out of conceit with our plain ways. I reckon ye didn’t take that to mind when you’ve been hustlin’ round payin’ two hundred and fifty dollar drafts for Jack and quo’llin’ with Bijah! I ain’t sayin’ nothin’, father, only mebbe if Bijah had had drafts and extrys flourished around him a little more, mebbe he’d have been more polite and not so rough spoken. Mebbe,” she continued with a little laugh, “even I’d be a little more in the style to suit Master Jack when he comes ef I had three hundred dollars’ worth of convent schoolin’ like Mamie Harris.”

“Yes, and you’d have only made yourself fair game for ev’ry schemin’, lazy sport or counter-jumper along the road from this to Sacramento!” responded Hays savagely.

Zuleika laughed again constrainedly, but in a way that might have suggested that this dreadful contingency was still one that it was possible to contemplate without entire consternation. As she moved slowly towards the door she stopped, with her hand on the lock, and said tentatively: “I reckon you won’t be wantin’ any supper before you go? You’re almost sure to be offered suthin’ up at Horseley’s, while if I have to cook you up suthin’ now and still have the men’s regular supper to get at seven, it makes all the expense of an extra meal.”

Hays hesitated. He would have preferred his supper now, and had his daughter pressed him would have accepted it. But economy, which was one of Zuleika’s inherited instincts, vaguely appearing to him to be a virtue, interchangeable with chastity and abstemiousness, was certainly to be encouraged in a young girl. It hardly seems possible that with an eye single to the integrity of the larder she could ever look kindly on the blandishments of his sex, or, indeed, be exposed to them. He said simply: “Don’t cook for me,” and resumed his attitude before the fire as the girl left the room.

As he sat there, grim and immovable as one of the battered fire-dogs before him, the wind in the chimney seemed to carry on a deep-throated, dejected, and confidential conversation with him, but really had very little to reveal. There were no haunting reminiscences of his married life in this room, which he had always occupied in preference to the company or sitting-room beyond. There were no familiar shadows of the past lurking in its corners to pervade his reverie. When he did reflect, which was seldom, there was always in his mind a vague idea of a central injustice to which he had been subjected, that was to be avoided by circuitous movement, to be hidden by work, but never to be surmounted. And to-night he was going out in the storm, which he could understand and fight, as he had often done before, and he was going to drive a bargain with a man like himself and get the better of him if he could, as he had done before, and another day would be gone, and that central injustice which he could not understand would be circumvented, and he would still be holding his own in the world. And the God of Israel whom he believed in, and who was a hard but conscientious Providence, something like himself, would assist him perhaps some day to the understanding of this same vague injustice which He was, for some strange reason, permitting. But never more unrelenting and unsparing of others than when under conviction of Sin himself, and never more harsh and unforgiving than when fresh from the contemplation of the Divine Mercy, he still sat there grimly holding his hand to a warmth that never seemed to get nearer his heart than that, when his daughter re-entered the room with his carpet-bag.

To rise, put on his coat and overcoat, secure a fur cap on his head by a woolen comforter, covering his ears and twined round his throat, and to rigidly offer a square and weather-beaten cheek to his daughter’s dusty kiss, did not, apparently, suggest any lingering or hesitation. The sled was at the door, which, for a tumultuous moment, opened on the storm and the white vision of a horse knee-deep in a drift, and then closed behind him. Zuleika shot the bolt, brushed some flakes of the invading snow from the mat, and, after frugally raking down the fire on the hearth her father had just quitted, retired through the long passage to the kitchen and her domestic supervision.

It was a few hours later, supper had long past; the “hands” had one by one returned to their quarters under the roof or in the adjacent lofts, and Zuleika and the two maids had at last abandoned the kitchen for their bedrooms beyond. Zuleika herself, by the light of a solitary candle, had entered the office and had dropped meditatively into a chair, as she slowly raked the warm ashes over the still smouldering fire. The barking of dogs had momentarily attracted her attention, but it had suddenly ceased. It was followed, however, by a more startling incident,—a slight movement outside, and an attempt to raise the window!

She was not frightened; perhaps there was little for her to fear; it was known that Hays kept no money in the house, the safe was only used for securities and contracts, and there were half a dozen men within call. It was, therefore, only her usual active, burning curiosity for novel incident that made her run to the window and peer out; but it was with a spontaneous cry of astonishment she turned and darted to the front door, and opened it to the muffled figure of a young man.

“Jack! Saints alive! Why, of all things!” she gasped, incoherently.

He stopped her with an impatient gesture and a hand that prevented her from closing the door again.

“Dad ain’t here?” he asked quickly.


“When’ll he be back?”

“Not to-night.”

“Good,” he said, turning to the door again. She could see a motionless horse and sleigh in the road, with a woman holding the reins.

He beckoned to the woman, who drove to the door and jumped out. Tall, handsome, and audacious, she looked at Zuleika with a quick laugh of confidence, as at some recognized absurdity.

“Go in there,” said the young man, opening the door of the office; “I’ll come back in a minute.”

As she entered, still smiling, as if taking part in some humorous but risky situation, he turned quickly to Zuleika and said in a low voice: “Where can we talk?”

The girl held out her hand and glided hurriedly through the passage until she reached a door, which she opened. By the light of a dying fire he could see it was her bedroom. Lighting a candle on the mantel, she looked eagerly in his face as he threw aside his muffler and opened his coat. It disclosed a spare, youthful figure, and a thin, weak face that a budding mustache only seemed to make still more immature. For an instant brother and sister gazed at each other. Astonishment on her part, nervous impatience on his, apparently repressed any demonstration of family affection. Yet when she was about to speak he stopped her roughly.

“There now; don’t talk. I know what you’re goin’ to say—could say it myself if I wanted to—and it’s no use. Well then, here I am. You saw her. Well, she’s my wife—we’ve been married three months. Yes, my wife; married three months ago. I’m here because I ran away from school—that is, I haven’t been there for the last three months. I came out with her last steamer; we went up to the Summit Hotel last night—where they didn’t know me—until we could see how the land lay, before popping down on dad. I happened to learn that he was out to-night, and I brought her down here to have a talk. We can go back again before he comes, you know, unless”—

“But,” interrupted the girl, with sudden practicality, “you say you ain’t been at Doctor Dawson’s for three months! Why, only last week he drew on dad for two hundred and fifty dollars for your extras!”

He glanced around him and then arranged his necktie in the glass above the mantel with a nervous laugh.

Oh, that! I fixed that up, and got the money for it in New York to pay our passage with. It’s all right, you know.”

Colonel Starbottle’s Client - Contents    |     A Night at “Hays.” - Chapter II

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