Who Was My Quiet Friend by Bret Harte
The voice was not loud, but clear and penetrating. I looked vainly up
and down the narrow, darkening trail. No one in the fringe of alder
ahead; no one on the gullied slope behind.
This time a little impatiently. The California classical vocative,
"O," always meant business.
I looked up, and perceived for the first time on the ledge, thirty
feet above me, another trail parallel with my own, and looking down upon
me through the buckeye bushes a small man on a black horse.
Five things to be here noted by the circumspect mountaineer. FIRST,
the locality,—lonely and inaccessible, and away from the regular
faring of teamsters and miners. SECONDLY, the stranger's superior
knowledge of the road, from the fact that the other trail was unknown to
the ordinary traveler. THIRDLY, that he was well armed and equipped.
FOURTHLY, that he was better mounted. FIFTHLY, that any distrust or
timidity arising from the contemplation of these facts had better be kept
to one's self.
All this passed rapidly through my mind as I returned his
"Got any tobacco?" he asked.
I had, and signified the fact, holding up the pouch inquiringly.
"All right, I'll come down. Ride on, and I'll jine ye on the
"The slide!" Here was a new geographical discovery as odd as the
second trail. I had ridden over the trail a dozen times, and seen no
communication between the ledge and trail. Nevertheless, I went on a
hundred yards or so, when there was a sharp crackling in the underbrush,
a shower of stones on the trail, and my friend plunged through the bushes
to my side, down a grade that I should scarcely have dared to lead my
horse. There was no doubt he was an accomplished rider,—another
fact to be noted.
As he ranged beside me, I found I was not mistaken as to his size; he
was quite under the medium height, and but for a pair of cold, gray eyes,
was rather commonplace in feature.
"You've got a good horse there," I suggested.
He was filling his pipe from my pouch, but looked up a little
surprised, and said, "Of course." He then puffed away with the nervous
eagerness of a man long deprived of that sedative. Finally, between the
puffs, he asked me whence I came.
I replied, "From Lagrange."
He looked at me a few moments curiously, but on my adding that I had
only halted there for a few hours, he said: "I thought I knew every man
between Lagrange and Indian Spring, but somehow I sorter disremember your
face and your name."
Not particularly caring that he should remember either, I replied half
laughingly, that, as I lived the other side of Indian Spring, it was
quite natural. He took the rebuff, if such it was, so quietly that as an
act of mere perfunctory politeness I asked him where he came from.
"And you are going to—"
"Well! that depends pretty much on how things pan out, and whether I
can make the riffle." He let his hand rest quite unconsciously on the
leathern holster of his dragoon revolver, yet with a strong suggestion to
me of his ability "to make the riffle" if he wanted to, and added: "But
just now I was reck'nin' on taking a little pasear with you."
There was nothing offensive in his speech save its familiarity, and
the reflection, perhaps, that whether I objected or not, he was quite
able to do as he said. I only replied that if our pasear was prolonged
beyond Heavytree Hill, I should have to borrow his beast. To my surprise
he replied quietly, "That's so," adding that the horse was at my disposal
when he wasn't using it, and HALF of it when he was. "Dick has carried
double many a time before this," he continued, "and kin do it again; when
your mustang gives out I'll give you a lift and room to spare."
I could not help smiling at the idea of appearing before the boys at
Red Gulch en croupe with the stranger; but neither could I help being
oddly affected by the suggestion that his horse had done double duty
before. "On what occasion, and why?" was a question I kept to myself. We
were ascending the long, rocky flank of the divide; the narrowness of the
trail obliged us to proceed slowly, and in file, so that there was little
chance for conversation, had he been disposed to satisfy my
We toiled on in silence, the buckeye giving way to chimisal, the
westering sun, reflected again from the blank walls beside us, blinding
our eyes with its glare. The pines in the canyon below were olive gulfs
of heat, over which a hawk here and there drifted lazily, or, rising to
our level, cast a weird and gigantic shadow of slowly moving wings on the
mountain side. The superiority of the stranger's horse led him often far
in advance, and made me hope that he might forget me entirely, or push
on, growing weary of waiting. But regularly he would halt by a bowlder,
or reappear from some chimisal, where he had patiently halted. I was
beginning to hate him mildly, when at one of those reappearances he drew
up to my side, and asked me how I liked Dickens!
Had he asked my opinion of Huxley or Darwin, I could not have been
more astonished. Thinking it were possible that he referred to some local
celebrity of Lagrange, I said, hesitatingly:—
"Charles Dickens. Of course you've read him? Which of his books do you
I replied with considerable embarrassment that I liked them
all,— as I certainly did.
He grasped my hand for a moment with a fervor quite unlike his usual
phlegm, and said, "That's me, old man. Dickens ain't no slouch. You can
count on him pretty much all the time."
With this rough preface, he launched into a criticism of the novelist,
which for intelligent sympathy and hearty appreciation I had rarely heard
equaled. Not only did he dwell upon the exuberance of his humor, but upon
the power of his pathos and the all-pervading element of his poetry. I
looked at the man in astonishment. I had considered myself a rather
diligent student of the great master of fiction, but the stranger's
felicity of quotation and illustration staggered me. It is true, that his
thought was not always clothed in the best language, and often appeared
in the slouching, slangy undress of the place and period, yet it never
was rustic nor homespun, and sometimes struck me with its precision and
fitness. Considerably softened toward him, I tried him with other
literature. But vainly. Beyond a few of the lyrical and emotional poets,
he knew nothing. Under the influence and enthusiasm of his own speech, he
himself had softened considerably; offered to change horses with me,
readjusted my saddle with professional skill, transferred my pack to his
own horse, insisted upon my sharing the contents of his whisky flask,
and, noticing that I was unarmed, pressed upon me a silver-mounted
Derringer, which he assured me he could "warrant." These various offices
of good will and the diversion of his talk beguiled me from noticing the
fact that the trail was beginning to become obscure and unrecognizable.
We were evidently pursuing a route unknown before to me. I pointed out
the fact to my companion, a little impatiently. He instantly resumed his
old manner and dialect.
"Well, I reckon one trail's as good as another, and what hev ye got to
say about it?"
I pointed out, with some dignity, that I preferred the old trail.
"Mebbe you did. But you're jiss now takin' a pasear with ME. This yer
trail will bring you right into Indian Spring, and ONNOTICED, and no
questions asked. Don't you mind now, I'll see you through."
It was necessary here to make some stand against my strange companion.
I said firmly, yet as politely as I could, that I had proposed stopping
over night with a friend.
I hesitated. The friend was an eccentric Eastern man, well known in
the locality for his fastidiousness and his habits as a recluse. A
misanthrope, of ample family and ample means, he had chosen a secluded
but picturesque valley in the Sierras where he could rail against the
world without opposition. "Lone Valley," or "Boston Ranch," as it was
familiarly called, was the one spot that the average miner both respected
and feared. Mr. Sylvester, its proprietor, had never affiliated with "the
boys," nor had he ever lost their respect by any active opposition to
their ideas. If seclusion had been his object, he certainly was
gratified. Nevertheless, in the darkening shadows of the night, and on a
lonely and unknown trail, I hesitated a little at repeating his name to a
stranger of whom I knew so little. But my mysterious companion took the
matter out of my hands.
"Look yar," he said, suddenly, "thar ain't but one place twixt yer and
Indian Spring whar ye can stop, and that is Sylvester's."
I assented, a little sullenly.
"Well," said the stranger, quietly, and with a slight suggestion of
conferring a favor on me, "ef yer pointed for
Sylvester's—why—I DON'T MIND STOPPING THAR WITH YE. It's a
little off the road—I'll lose some time—but taking it by and
large, I don't much mind."
I stated, as rapidly and as strongly as I could, that my acquaintance
with Mr. Sylvester did not justify the introduction of a stranger to his
hospitality; that he was unlike most of the people here,—in short,
that he was a queer man, etc., etc.
To my surprise my companion answered quietly: "Oh, that's all right.
I've heerd of him. Ef you don't feel like checking me through, or if
you'd rather put 'C. O. D.' on my back, why it's all the same to me. I'll
play it alone. Only you just count me in. Say 'Sylvester' all the time.
What could I oppose to this man's quiet assurance? I felt myself
growing red with anger and nervous with embarrassment. What would the
correct Sylvester say to me? What would the girls,—I was a young
man then, and had won an entree to their domestic circle by my
reserve,—known by a less complimentary adjective among "the
boys,"—what would they say to my new acquaintance? Yet I certainly
could not object to his assuming all risks on his own personal
recognizances, nor could I resist a certain feeling of shame at my
We were beginning to descend. In the distance below us already
twinkled the lights in the solitary rancho of Lone Valley. I turned to my
companion. "But you have forgotten that I don't even know your name. What
am I to call you?"
"That's so," he said, musingly. "Now, let's see. 'Kearney' would be a
good name. It's short and easy like. Thar's a street in 'Frisco the same
title; Kearney it is."
"But—" I began impatiently.
"Now you leave all that to me," he interrupted, with a superb self-
confidence that I could not but admire. "The name ain't no account. It's
the man that's responsible. Ef I was to lay for a man that I reckoned was
named Jones, and after I fetched him I found out on the inquest that his
real name was Smith, that wouldn't make no matter, as long as I got the
The illustration, forcible as it was, did not strike me as offering a
prepossessing introduction, but we were already at the rancho. The
barking of dogs brought Sylvester to the door of the pretty little
cottage which his taste had adorned.
I briefly introduced Mr. Kearney. "Kearney will do—Kearney's
good enough for me," commented the soi-disant Kearney half-aloud, to my
own horror and Sylvester's evident mystification, and then he blandly
excused himself for a moment that he might personally supervise the care
of his own beast. When he was out of ear-shot I drew the puzzled
"I have picked up—I mean I have been picked up on the road by a
gentle maniac, whose name is not Kearney. He is well armed and quotes
Dickens. With care, acquiescence in his views on all subjects, and
general submission to his commands, he may be placated. Doubtless the
spectacle of your helpless family, the contemplation of your daughter's
beauty and innocence, may touch his fine sense of humor and pathos.
Meanwhile, Heaven help you, and forgive me."
I ran upstairs to the little den that my hospitable host had kept
always reserved for me in my wanderings. I lingered some time over my
ablutions, hearing the languid, gentlemanly drawl of Sylvester below,
mingled with the equally cool, easy slang of my mysterious acquaintance.
When I came down to the sitting-room I was surprised, however, to find
the self-styled Kearney quietly seated on the sofa, the gentle May
Sylvester, the "Lily of Lone Valley," sitting with maidenly awe and
unaffected interest on one side of him, while on the other that arrant
flirt, her cousin Kate, was practicing the pitiless archery of her eyes,
with an excitement that seemed almost real.
"Who is your deliciously cool friend?" she managed to whisper to me at
supper, as I sat utterly dazed and bewildered between the enrapt May
Sylvester, who seemed to hang upon his words, and this giddy girl of the
period, who was emptying the battery of her charms in active rivalry upon
him. "Of course we know his name isn't Kearney. But how romantic! And
isn't he perfectly lovely? And who is he?"
I replied with severe irony that I was not aware what foreign
potentate was then traveling incognito in the Sierras of California, but
that when his royal highness was pleased to inform me, I should be glad
to introduce him properly. "Until then," I added, "I fear the
acquaintance must be Morganatic."
"You're only jealous of him," she said pertly. "Look at May—she
is completely fascinated. And her father, too." And actually, the
languid, world-sick, cynical Sylvester was regarding him with a boyish
interest and enthusiasm almost incompatible with his nature. Yet I submit
honestly to the clear-headed reason of my own sex, that I could see
nothing more in the man than I have already delivered to the reader.
In the middle of an exciting story of adventure, of which he, to the
already prejudiced mind of his fair auditors, was evidently the hero, he
"It's only some pack train passing the bridge on the lower trail,"
explained Sylvester; "go on."
"It may be my horse is a trifle oneasy in the stable," said the
alleged Kearney; "he ain't used to boards and covering." Heaven only
knows what wild and delicious revelation lay in the statement of this
fact, but the girls looked at each other with cheeks pink with excitement
as Kearney arose, and, with quiet absence of ceremony, quitted the
"Ain't he just lovely?" said Kate, gasping for breath, "and so
"Witty!" said the gentle May, with just the slightest trace of
defiance in her sweet voice; "witty, my dear? why, don't you see that his
heart is just breaking with pathos? Witty, indeed; why, when he was
speaking of that poor Mexican woman that was hung, I saw the tears gather
in his eyes. Witty, indeed!"
"Tears," laughed the cynical Sylvester, "tears, idle tears. Why, you
silly children, the man is a man of the world, a philosopher, quiet,
"Unassuming!" Was Sylvester intoxicated, or had the mysterious
stranger mixed the "insane verb" with the family pottage? He returned
before I could answer this self-asked inquiry, and resumed coolly his
broken narrative. Finding myself forgotten in the man I had so long
hesitated to introduce to my friends, I retired to rest early, only to
hear, through the thin partitions, two hours later, enthusiastic praises
of the new guest from the voluble lips of the girls, as they chatted in
the next room before retiring.
At midnight I was startled by the sound of horses' hoofs and the
jingling of spurs below. A conversation between my host and some
mysterious personage in the darkness was carried on in such a low tone
that I could not learn its import. As the cavalcade rode away I raised
"What's the matter?"
"Nothing," said Sylvester, coolly, "only another one of those playful
homicidal freaks peculiar to the country. A man was shot by Cherokee Jack
over at Lagrange this morning, and that was the sheriff of Calaveras and
his posse hunting him. I told him I'd seen nobody but you and your
friend. By the way, I hope the cursed noise hasn't disturbed him. The
poor fellow looked as if he wanted rest."
I thought so, too. Nevertheless, I went softly to his room. It was
empty. My impression was that he had distanced the sheriff of Calaveras
about two hours.