The Sheriff of Siskyou by Bret Harte
On the fifteenth of August, 1854, what seemed to be the entire population
of Wynyard's Bar was collected upon a little bluff which overlooked the
rude wagon road that was the only approach to the settlement. In general
appearance the men differed but little from ordinary miners, although the
foreign element, shown in certain Spanish peculiarities of dress and
color, predominated, and some of the men were further distinguished by the
delicacy of education and sedentary pursuits. Yet Wynyard's Bar was a city
of refuge, comprised among its inhabitants a number who were "wanted" by
the State authorities, and its actual attitude at that moment was one of
open rebellion against the legal power, and of particular resistance to
the apprehension by warrant of one of its prominent members. This
gentleman, Major Overstone, then astride of a gray mustang, and directing
the movements of the crowd, had, a few days before, killed the sheriff of
Siskyou county, who had attempted to arrest him for the double offense of
misappropriating certain corporate funds of the State and the shooting of
the editor who had imprudently exposed him. The lesser crime of homicide
might have been overlooked by the authorities, but its repetition upon the
body of their own over-zealous and misguided official could not pass
unchallenged if they expected to arrest Overstone for the more serious
offense against property. So it was known that a new sheriff had been
appointed and was coming to Wynyard's Bar with an armed posse. But it was
also understood that this invasion would be resisted by the Bar to its
All eyes were turned upon a fringe of laurel and butternut that encroached
upon the road half a mile away, where it seemed that such of the
inhabitants who were missing from the bluff were hidden to give warning or
retard the approach of the posse. A gray haze, slowly rising between the
fringe and the distant hillside, was recognized as the dust of a cavalcade
passing along the invisible highway. In the hush of expectancy that
followed, the irregular clatter of hoofs, the sharp crack of a rifle, and
a sudden halt were faintly audible. The men, scattered in groups on the
bluff, exchanged a smile of grim satisfaction.
Not so their leader! A quick start and an oath attracted attention to him.
To their surprise he was looking in another direction, but as they looked
too they saw and understood the cause. A file of horsemen, hitherto
undetected, were slowly passing along the little ridge on their right.
Their compact accoutrements and the yellow braid on their blue jackets,
distinctly seen at that distance, showed them to be a detachment of United
Before the assemblage could realize this new invasion, a nearer clatter of
hoofs was heard along the high road, and one of the ambuscading party
dashed up from the fringe of woods below. His face was flushed, but
"A reg'lar skunk—by the living hokey!" he panted, pointing to the
faint haze that was again slowly rising above the invisible road. "They
backed down as soon as they saw our hand, and got a hole through their new
sheriff's hat. But what are you lookin' at? What's up?"
The leader impatiently pointed with a darkening face to the distant file.
"Reg'lars, by gum!" ejaculated the other. "But Uncle Sam ain't in this
game. Wot right have THEY"—
"Dry up!" said the leader.
The detachment was now moving at right angles with the camp, but suddenly
halted, almost doubling upon itself in some evident commotion. A
dismounted figure was seen momentarily flying down the hillside dodging
from bush to bush until lost in the underbrush. A dozen shots were fired
over its head, and then the whole detachment wheeled and came clattering
down the trail in the direction of the camp. A single riderless horse,
evidently that of the fugitive, followed.
"Spread yourselves along the ridge, every man of you, and cover them as
they enter the gulch!" shouted the leader. "But not a shot until I give
the word. Scatter!"
The assemblage dispersed like a startled village of prairie dogs,
squatting behind every available bush and rock along the line of bluff.
The leader alone trotted quietly to the head of the gulch.
The nine cavalrymen came smartly up in twos, a young officer leading. The
single figure of Major Overstone opposed them with a command to halt.
Looking up, the young officer drew rein, said a word to his file leader,
and the four files closed in a compact square motionless on the road. The
young officer's unsworded hand hung quietly at his thigh, the men's
unslung carbines rested easily on their saddles. Yet at that moment every
man of them knew that they were covered by a hundred rifles and shot guns
leveled from every bush, and that they were caught helplessly in a trap.
"Since when," said Major Overstone with an affectation of tone and manner
different from that in which he had addressed his previous companions,
"have the Ninth United States Cavalry helped to serve a State court's
"We are hunting a deserter—a half-breed agent—who has just
escaped us," returned the officer. His voice was boyish—so, too, was
his figure in its slim, cadet-like smartness of belted tunic—but
very quiet and level, although his face was still flushed with the shock
and shame of his surprise.
The relaxation of relief went through the wrought and waiting camp. The
soldiers were not seeking THEM. Ready as these desperate men had been to
do their leader's bidding, they were well aware that a momentary victory
over the troopers would not pass unpunished, and meant the ultimate
dispersion of the camp. And quiet as these innocent invaders seemed to be
they would no doubt sell their lives dearly. The embattled desperadoes
glanced anxiously at their leader; the soldiers, on the contrary, looked
straight before them.
"Process or no process," said Major Overstone with a sneer, "you've come
to the last place to recover your deserter. We don't give up men in
Wynyard's Bar. And they didn't teach you at the Academy, sir, to stop to
take prisoners when you were outflanked and outnumbered."
"Bedad! They didn't teach YOU, Captain Overstone, to engage a battery at
Cerro Gordo with a half company, but you did it; more shame to you now,
sorr, commandin' the thayves and ruffians you do."
"Silence!" said the young officer.
The sleeve of the sergeant who had spoken—with the chevrons of long
service upon it—went up to a salute, and dropped again over his
carbine as he stared stolidly before him. But his shot had told. A flush
of mingled pride and shame passed over Overstone's face.
"Oh! it's YOU, Murphy," he said with an affected laugh, "and you haven't
improved with your stripes."
The young officer turned his head slightly.
"One moment more," said Overstone coming forward. "I have told you that we
don't give up any man who seeks our protection. But," he added with a
half-careless, half-contemptuous wave of his hand, and a significant
glance at his followers, "we don't prevent you from seeking him. The road
is clear; the camp is before you."
The young officer continued without looking at him. "Forward—in two
files—open order. Ma-arch!"
The little troop moved forward, passed Major Overstone at the head of the
gully, and spread out on the hillside. The assembled camp, still armed,
lounging out of ambush here and there, ironically made way for them to
pass. A few moments of this farcical quest, and a glance at the
impenetrably wooded heights around, apparently satisfied the young
officer, and he turned his files again into the gully. Major Overstone was
still lingering there.
"I hope you are satisfied," he said grimly. He then paused, and in a
changed and more hesitating voice added: "I am an older soldier than you,
sir, but I am always glad to make the acquaintance of West Point." He
paused and held out his hand.
West Point, still red and rigid, glanced at him with bright clear eyes
under light lashes and the peak of a smartly cocked cap, looked coolly at
the proffered hand, raised his own to a stiff salute, said, "Good
afternoon, sir," and rode away.
Major Overstone wheeled angrily, but in doing so came sharply upon his
coadjutor—the leader of the ambushed party.
"Well, Dawson," he said impatiently. "Who was it?"
"Only one of them d——d half-breed Injin agents. He's just over
there in the brush with Simpson, lying low till the soldiers clear out."
"Did you talk to him?"
"Not much!" returned Dawson scornfully. "He ain't my style."
"Fetch him up to my cabin; he may be of some use to us."
Dawson looked skeptical. "I reckon he ain't no more gain here than he was
over there," he said, and turned away.
The cabin of Major Overstone differed outwardly but little from those of
his companions. It was the usual structure of logs, laid lengthwise, and
rudely plastered at each point of contact with adobe, the material from
which the chimney, which entirely occupied one gable, was built. It was
pierced with two windows and a door, roofed with smaller logs, and
thatched with long half cylinders of spruce bark. But the interior gave
certain indications of the distinction as well as the peculiar experiences
of its occupant. In place of the usual bunk or berth built against the
wall stood a small folding camp bedstead, and upon a rude deal table that
held a tin wash-basin and pail lay two ivory-handled brushes, combs, and
other elegant toilet articles, evidently the contents of the major's
dressing-bag. A handsome leather trunk occupied one corner, with a richly
caparisoned silver-mounted Mexican saddle, a mahogany case of dueling
pistols, a leather hat-box, locked and strapped, and a gorgeous gold and
quartz handled ebony "presentation" walking stick. There was a certain
dramatic suggestion in this revelation of the sudden and hurried
transition from a life of ostentatious luxury to one of hidden toil and
privation, and a further significance in the slow and gradual distribution
and degradation of these elegant souvenirs. A pair of silver boot-hooks
had been used for raking the hearth and lifting the coffee kettle; the
ivory of the brushes was stained with coffee; the cut-glass bottles had
lost their stoppers, and had been utilized for vinegar and salt; a
silver-framed hand mirror hung against the blackened wall. For the major's
occupancy was the sequel of a hurried flight from his luxurious hotel at
Sacramento—a transfer that he believed was only temporary until the
affair blew over, and he could return in safety to brow-beat his accusers,
as was his wont. But this had not been so easy as he had imagined; his
prosecutors were bitter, and his enforced seclusion had been prolonged
week by week until the fracas which ended in the shooting of the sheriff
had apparently closed the door upon his return to civilization forever.
Only here was his life and person secure. For Wynyard's Bar had quickly
succumbed to the domination of his reckless courage, and the eminence of
his double crime had made him respected among spendthrifts, gamblers, and
gentlemen whose performances had never risen above a stage-coach robbery
or a single assassination. Even criticism of his faded luxuries had been
He was leaning over his open trunk—which the camp popularly supposed
to contain State bonds and securities of fabulous amount—and had
taken some letters from it, when a figure darkened the doorway. He looked
up, laying his papers carelessly aside. WITHIN Wynyard's Bar property was
It was the late fugitive. Although some hours had already elapsed since
his arrival in camp, and he had presumably refreshed himself inwardly, his
outward appearance was still disheveled and dusty. Brier and milkweed
clung to his frayed blouse and trousers. What could be seen of the skin of
his face and hands under its stains and begriming was of a dull yellow.
His light eyes had all the brightness without the restlessness of the
mongrel race. They leisurely took in the whole cabin, the still open trunk
before the major, and then rested deliberately on the major himself.
"Well," said Major Overstone abruptly, "what brought you here?"
"Same as brought you, I reckon," responded the man almost as abruptly.
The major knew something of the half-breed temper, and neither the retort
nor its tone affected him.
"You didn't come here just because you deserted," said the major coolly.
"You've been up to something else."
"I have," said the man with equal coolness.
"I thought so. Now, you understand you can't try anything of that kind
HERE. If you do, up you go on the first tree. That's Rule 1."
"I see you ain't pertickler about waiting for the sheriff here, you
The major glanced at him quickly. He seemed to be quite unconscious of any
irony in his remark, and continued grimly, "And what's Rule 2?"
"I reckon you needn't trouble yourself beyond No. 1," returned the major
with dry significance. Nevertheless, he opened a rude cupboard in the
corner and brought out a rich silver-mounted cut-glass drinking-flask,
which he handed to the stranger.
"I say," said the half-breed, admiringly, "yours?"
"Certainly NOW, but BEFORE, eh?"
Rule No. 2 may have indicated that references to the past held no
dishonor. The major, although accustomed to these pleasantries, laughed a
"Mine always," he said. "But you don't drink?"
The half-breed's face darkened under its grime.
"Wot you're givin' us? I've been filled chock up by Simpson over thar. I
reckon I know when I've got a load on."
"Were you ever in Sacramento?"
"Did you hear anything about me?"
The half-breed glanced through his tangled hair at the major in some
wonder, not only at the question, but at the almost childish eagerness
with which it was asked.
"I didn't hear much of anything else," he answered grimly.
"And—what did they SAY?"
"Said you'd got to be TOOK anyhow! They allowed the new sheriff would do
The major laughed. "Well, you heard HOW the new sheriff did it—skunked
away with his whole posse before one-eighth of my men! You saw how the
rest of this camp held up your nine troopers, and that sap-headed cub of a
lieutenant—didn't you? You wouldn't have been standing here if you
hadn't. No; there isn't the civil process nor the civil power in all
California that can take me out of this camp."
But neither his previous curiosity nor present bravado seemed to impress
the ragged stranger with much favor. He glanced sulkily around the cabin
and began to shuffle towards the door.
"Stop! Where are you going to? Sit down. I want to talk to you."
The fugitive hesitated for a moment, and then dropped ungraciously on the
edge of a camp-stool near the door. The major looked at him.
"I may have to remind you that I run this camp, and the boys hereabouts do
pretty much as I say. What's your name?"
"Tom? Well, look here, Tom! D—n it all! Can't you see that when a
man is stuck here alone, as I am, he wants to know what's going on
outside, and hear a little fresh talk?"
The singular weakness of this blended command and appeal apparently struck
the fugitive curiously. He fixed his lowering eyes on the major as if in
gloomy doubt if he were really the reckless desperado he had been
represented. That this man—twice an assassin and the ruler of
outlaws as reckless as himself—should approach him in this
half-confidential way evidently puzzled him.
"Wot you wanter know?" he asked gruffly.
"Well, what's my party saying or doing about me?" said the major
impatiently. "What's the 'Express' saying about me?"
"I reckon they're throwing off on you all round; they allow you never
represented the party, but worked for yourself," said the man shortly.
Here the major lashed out. A set of traitors and hirelings! He had bought
and paid for them all! He had sunk two thousand dollars in the "Express"
and saved the editor from being horsewhipped and jailed for libel! Half
the cursed bonds that they were making such a blanked fuss about were
handled by these hypocrites—blank them! They were a low-lived crew
of thieves and deserters! It is presumed that the major had forgotten
himself in this infelicitous selection of epithets, but the stranger's
face only relaxed into a grim smile. More than that, the major had
apparently forgotten his desire to hear his guest talk, for he himself at
once launched into an elaborate exposition of his own affairs and a
specious and equally elaborate defense and justification of himself and
denunciation of his accusers. For nearly half an hour he reviewed step by
step and detail by detail the charges against him—with plausible
explanation and sophistical argument, but always with a singular prolixity
and reiteration that spoke of incessant self-consciousness and
self-abstraction. Of that dashing self-sufficiency which had dazzled his
friends and awed his enemies there was no trace! At last, even the set
smile of the degraded recipient of these confidences darkened with a dull,
bewildered disgust. Then, to his relief, a step was heard without. The
major's manner instantly changed.
"Well?" he demanded impatiently, as Dawson entered.
"I came to know what you want done with HIM," said Dawson, indicating the
fugitive with a contemptuous finger.
"Take him to your cabin!"
"My cabin! HIM?" ejaculated Dawson, turning sharply on his chief.
The major's light eyes contracted and his thin lips became a straight
line. "I don't think you understand me, Dawson, and another time you'd
better wait until I'm done. I want you to take him to your cabin—and
then CLEAR OUT OF IT YOURSELF. You understand? I want him NEAR ME AND
Dawson was not astonished the next morning to see Major Overstone and the
half-breed walking together down the gully road, for he had already come
to the conclusion that the major was planning some extraordinary reprisals
against the invaders, that would ensure the perpetual security of the
camp. That he should use so insignificant and unimportant a tool now
appeared to him to be quite natural, particularly as the service was
probably one in which the man would be sacrificed. "The major," he
suggested to his companions, "ain't going to risk a white man's skin, when
he can get an Injun's hide handy."
The reluctant hesitating step of the half-breed as they walked along
seemed to give some color to this hypothesis. He listened sullenly to the
major as he pointed out the strategic position of the Bar. "That wagon
road is the only approach to Wynyard's, and a dozen men along the rocks
could hold it against a hundred. The trail that you came by, over the
ridge, drops straight into this gully, and you saw what that would mean to
any blanked fools who might try it. Of course we could be shelled from
that ridge if the sheriff had a howitzer, or the men who knew how to work
one, but even then we could occupy the ridge before them." He paused a
moment and then added: "I used to be in the army, Tom; I saw service in
Mexico before that cub you got away from had his first trousers. I was
brought up as a gentleman—blank it all—and HERE I am!"
The man slouched on by his side, casting his surly, furtive glances from
left to right, as if seeking to escape from these confidences.
Nevertheless, the major kept on through the gully, until reaching the
wagon road they crossed it, and began to ascend the opposite slope, half
hidden by the underbrush and larches. Here the major paused again and
faced about. The cabins of the settlement were already behind the bluff;
the little stream which indicated the "bar"—on which some
perfunctory mining was still continued—now and then rang out quite
clearly at their feet, although the bar itself had disappeared. The sounds
of occupation and labor had at last died away in the distance. They were
quite alone. The major sat down on a boulder, and pointed to another. The
man, however, remained sullenly standing where he was, as if to accent as
strongly as possible the enforced companionship. Either the major was too
self-absorbed to notice it, or accepted it as a satisfactory
characteristic of the half-breed's race. He continued confidently:—
"Now look here, Tom. I want to leave this cursed hole, and get clear out
of the State! Anywhere; over the Oregon line into British Columbia, or to
the coast, where I can get a coasting vessel down to Mexico. It will cost
money, but I've got it. It will cost a lot of risks, but I'll take them. I
want somebody to help me, some one to share risks with me, and some one to
share my luck if I succeed. Help to put me on the other side of the border
line, by sea or land, and I'll give you a thousand dollars down BEFORE WE
START and a thousand dollars when I'm safe."
The half-breed had changed his slouching attitude. It seemed more indolent
on account of the loosely hanging strap that had once held his haversack,
which was still worn in a slovenly fashion over his shoulder as a kind of
lazy sling for his shiftless hand.
"Well, Tom, is it a go? You can trust ME, for you'll have the thousand in
your pocket before you start. I can trust YOU, for I'll kill you quicker
than lightning if you say a word of this to any one before I go, or play a
single trick on me afterwards."
Suddenly the two men were rolling over and over in the underbrush. The
half-breed had thrown himself upon the major, bearing him down to the
ground. The haversack strap for an instant whirled like the loop of a
lasso in the air, and descended over the major's shoulders, pinioning his
arms to his side. Then the half-breed, tearing open his ragged blouse,
stripped off his waist-belt, and as dexterously slipped it over the ankles
of the struggling man.
It was all over in a moment. Neither had spoken a word. Only their rapid
panting broke the profound silence. Each probably knew that no outcry
would be overheard.
For the first time the half-breed sat down. But there was no trace of
triumph or satisfaction in his face, which wore the same lowering look of
disgust, as he gazed upon the prostrate man.
"I want to tell you first," he said, slowly wiping his face, "that I
didn't kalkilate upon doin' this in this yer kind o' way. I expected more
of a stan' up fight from you—more risk in gettin' you out o' that
hole—and a different kind of a man to tackle. I never expected you
to play into my hand like this—and it goes against me to hev to take
advantage of it."
"Who are you?" said the major, pantingly.
"I'm the new sheriff of Siskyou!"
He drew from beneath his begrimed shirt a paper wrapping, from which he
gingerly extracted with the ends of his dirty fingers a clean,
legal-looking folded paper.
"That's my warrant! I've kept it fresh for you. I reckon you don't care to
read it—you've seen it afore. It's just the same as t'other sheriff
had—what you shot."
"Then this was a plant of yours, and that whelp's troopers?" said the
"Neither him nor the sojers knows any more about it than you," returned
the sheriff slowly. "I enlisted as Injin guide or scout ten days ago. I
deserted just as reg'lar and nat'ral like when we passed that ridge
yesterday. I could be took to-morrow by the sojers if they caught sight o'
me and court-martialed—it's as reg'lar as THAT! But I timed to have
my posse, under a deputy, draw you off by an attack just as the escort
reached the ridge. And here I am."
"And you're no half-breed?"
"There's nothin' Injin about me that water won't wash off. I kalkilated
you wouldn't suspect anything so insignificant as an INJIN, when I fixed
myself up. You saw Dawson didn't hanker after me much. But I didn't reckon
on YOUR tumbling to me so quick. That's what gets me! You must hev been
pretty low down for kempany when you took a man like me inter your
confidence. I don't see it yet."
He looked inquiringly at his captive—with the same wondering
surliness. Nor could he understand another thing which was evident. After
the first shock of resistance the major had exhibited none of the
indignation of a betrayed man, but actually seemed to accept the situation
with a calmness that his captor lacked. His voice was quite unemotional as
"And how are you going to get me away from here?"
"That's MY look out, and needn't trouble you, major; but, seein' as how
confidential you've been to me, I don't mind tellin' you. Last night that
posse of mine that you 'skunked,' you know, halted at the cross roads till
them sojers went by. They has only to SEE THEM to know that I had got
away. They'll hang round the cross roads till they see my signal on top of
the ridge, and then they'll make another show against that pass. Your men
will have their hands full, I reckon, without huntin' for YOU, or noticin'
the three men o' mine that will come along this ridge where the sojers
come yesterday—to help me get you down in the same way. You see,
major, your little trap in that gully ain't in this fight—WE'RE THE
OTHER SIDE OF IT. I ain't much of a sojer, but I reckon I've got you
there! And it's all owing to YOU. I ain't," he added gloomily, "takin'
much pride in it MYSELF."
"I shouldn't think you would," said the major, "and look here! I'll double
that offer I made you just now. Set me down just as I am on the deck of
some coasting vessel, and I'll pay you four thousand dollars. You may have
all the glory of having captured me, HERE, and of making your word good
before your posse. But you can arrange afterwards on the way to let me
give you the slip somewhere near Sacramento."
The sheriff's face actually brightened. "Thanks for that, major. I was
gettin' a little sick of my share in this job, but, by God, you've put
some sand in me. Well, then! there ain't gold enough in all Californy to
make me let you go. You hear me; so drop that. I've TOOK you, and TOOK
ye'll remain until I land you in Sacramento jail. I don't want to kill
you, though your life's forfeit a dozen times over, and I reckon you don't
care for it either way, but if you try any tricks on me I may have to MAIM
ye to make you come along comf'able and easy. I ain't hankerin' arter THAT
either, but come you shall!"
"Give your signal and have an end of this," said the major curtly.
The sheriff looked at him again curiously. "I never had my hands in
another man's pockets before, major, but I reckon I'll have to take your
derringers from yours." He slipped his hand into the major's waistcoat and
secured the weapons. "I'll have to trouble you for your sash, too," he
said, unwinding the knitted silken girdle from the captive's waist. "You
won't want it, for you ain't walking, and it'll come in handy to me just
He bent over, and, passing it across the major's breast with more
gentleness and solicitude than he had yet shown, secured him in an easy
sitting posture against the tree. Then, after carefully trying the knots
and straps that held his prisoner, he turned and lightly bounded up the
He was absent scarcely ten minutes, yet when he returned the major's eyes
were half closed. But not his lips. "If you expect to hold me until your
posse comes you had better take me to some less exposed position," he said
dryly. "There's a man just crossed the gully, coming into the brush below
in the wood."
"None of your tricks, major!"
"Look for yourself."
The sheriff glanced quickly below him. A man with an axe on his shoulder
could be seen plainly making his way through the underbrush not a hundred
yards away. The sheriff instantly clapped his hand upon his captive's
mouth, but at a look from his eyes took it away again.
"I see," he said grimly, "you don't want to lure that man within reach of
my revolver by calling to him."
"I could have called him while you were away," returned the major quietly.
The sheriff with a darkened face loosened the sash that bound his prisoner
to the tree, and then, lifting him in his arms, began to ascend the hill
cautiously, dipping into the heavier shadows. But the ascent was
difficult, the load a heavy one, and the sheriff was agile rather than
muscular. After a few minutes' climbing he was forced to pause and rest
his burden at the foot of a tree. But the valley and the man in the
underbrush were no longer in view.
"Come," said the major quietly, "unstrap my ankles and I'll WALK up. We'll
never get there at this rate."
The sheriff paused, wiped his grimy face with his grimier blouse, and
stood looking at his prisoner. Then he said slowly:—
"Look yer! Wot's your little game? Blessed if I kin follow suit."
For the first time the major burst into a rage. "Blast it all! Don't you
see that if I'm discovered HERE, in this way, there's not a man on the Bar
who would believe that I walked into your trap, not a man, by God, who
wouldn't think it was a trick of yours and mine together?"
"Or," interrupted the sheriff slowly, fixing his eyes on his prisoner,
"not a man who would ever trust Major Overstone for a leader again?"
"Perhaps," said the major, unmovedly again, "I don't think EITHER OF US
would ever get a chance of being trusted again by any one."
The sheriff still kept his eyes fixed on his prisoner, his gloomy face
growing darker under its grime. "THAT ain't the reason, major. Life and
death don't mean much more to you than they do to me in this yer game. I
know that you'd kill me quicker nor lightning if you got the chance; YOU
know that I'm takin' you to the gallows."
"The reason is that I want to leave Wynyard's Bar," said the major coolly;
"and even this way out of it will suit me."
The sheriff took his revolver from his pocket and deliberately cocked it.
Then, leaning down, he unbuckled the strap from the major's ankles. A wild
hope that his incomprehensible captive might seize that moment to develop
his real intent—that he might fly, fight, or in some way act up to
his reckless reputation—sustained him for a moment, but in the next
proved futile. The major only said, "Thank you, Tom," and stretched his
"Get up and go on," said the sheriff roughly.
The major began to slowly ascend the hill, the sheriff close on his heels,
alert, tingling, and watchful of every movement. For a few moments this
strain upon his faculties seemed to invigorate him, and his gloom relaxed,
but presently it became too evident that the prisoner's pinioned arms made
it impossible for him to balance or help himself on that steep trail, and
once or twice he stumbled and reeled dangerously to one side. With an oath
the sheriff caught him, and tore from his arms the only remaining bonds
that fettered him. "There!" he said savagely; "go on; we're equal!"
Without replying, the major continued his ascent; it became steeper as
they neared the crest, and at last they were both obliged to drag
themselves up by clutching the vines and underbrush. Suddenly the major
stopped with a listening gesture. A strange roaring—as of wind or
water—was distinctly audible.
"How did you signal?" asked the major abruptly.
"Made a smoke," said the sheriff as abruptly.
"I thought so—well! you've set the woods on fire."
They both plunged upwards again, now quite abreast, vying with each other
to reach the summit as if with the one thought only. Already the sting and
smart of acrid fumes were in their eyes and nostrils; when they at last
stood on level ground again, it was hidden by a thin film of grayish blue
haze that seemed to be creeping along it. But above was the clear sky,
seen through the interlacing boughs, and to their surprise—they who
had just come from the breathless, stagnant hillside—a fierce wind
was blowing! But the roaring was louder than before.
"Unless your three men are already here, your game is up," said the major
calmly. "The wind blows dead along the ridge where they should come, and
they can't get through the smoke and fire."
It was indeed true! In the scarce twenty minutes that had elapsed since
the sheriff's return the dry and brittle underbrush for half a mile on
either side had been converted into a sheet of flame, which at times rose
to a furnace blast through the tall chimney-like conductors of tree
shafts, from whose shriveled sides bark was crackling, and lighted dead
limbs falling in all directions. The whole valley, the gully, the Bar, the
very hillside they had just left, were blotted out by a creeping, stifling
smoke-fog that scarcely rose breast high, but was beaten down or cut off
cleanly by the violent wind that swept the higher level of the forest. At
times this gale became a sirocco in temperature, concentrating its heat in
withering blasts which they could not face, or focusing its intensity upon
some mass of foliage that seemed to shrink at its touch and open a scathed
and quivering aisle to its approach. The enormous skeleton of a dead and
rotten redwood, not a hundred yards to their right, broke suddenly like a
gigantic firework into sparks and flame.
The sheriff had grasped the full meaning of their situation. In spite of
his first error—the very carelessness of familiarity—his
knowledge of woodcraft was greater than his companion's, and he saw their
danger. "Come," he said quickly, "we must make for an opening or we shall
The major smiled in misapprehension.
"Who could catch us here?"
The sheriff pointed to the blazing tree.
"THAT," he said. "In five minutes IT will have a posse that will wipe us
He caught the major by the arm and rushed him into the smoke, apparently
in the direction of the greatest mass of flame. The heat was suffocating,
but it struck the major that the more they approached the actual scene of
conflagration the heat and smoke became less, until he saw that the fire
was retreating before them and the following wind. In a few moments their
haven of safety—the expanse already burnt over—came in sight.
Here and there, seen dimly through the drifting smoke, the scattered
embers that still strewed the forest floor glowed in weird nebulous spots
like will-o'-the-wisps. For an instant the major hesitated; the sheriff
cast a significant glance behind them.
"Go on; it's our only chance," he said imperatively.
They darted on, skimming the blackened or smouldering surface, which at
times struck out sparks and flame from their heavier footprints as they
passed. Their boots crackled and scorched beneath them; their shreds of
clothing were on fire; their breathing became more difficult, until,
providentially, they fell upon an abrupt, fissure-like depression of the
soil, which the fire had leaped, and into which they blindly plunged and
rolled together. A moment of relief and coolness followed, as they crept
along the fissure, filled with damp and rotting leaves.
"Why not stay here?" said the exhausted prisoner.
"And be roasted like sweet potatoes when these trees catch," returned the
sheriff grimly. "No." Even as he spoke, a dropping rain of fire spattered
through the leaves from a splintered redwood, before overlooked, that was
now blazing fiercely in the upper wind. A vague and indefinable terror was
in the air. The conflagration no longer seemed to obey any rule of
direction. The incendiary torch had passed invisibly everywhere. They
scrambled out of the hollow, and again dashed desperately forward.
Beaten, bruised, blackened, and smoke-grimed—looking less human than
the animals who had long since deserted the crest—they at last
limped into a "wind opening" in the woods that the fire had skirted. The
major sank exhaustedly to the ground; the sheriff threw himself beside
him. Their strange relations to each other seemed to have been forgotten;
they looked and acted as if they no longer thought of anything beyond the
present. And when the sheriff finally arose and, disappearing for several
minutes, brought his hat full of water for his prisoner from a distant
spring that they had passed in their flight, he found him where he had
left him—unchanged and unmoved.
He took the water gratefully, and after a pause fixed his eyes earnestly
upon his captor. "I want you to do a favor to me," he said slowly. "I'm
not going to offer you a bribe to do it either, nor ask you anything that
isn't in a line with your duty. I think I understand you now, if I didn't
before. Do you know Briggs's restaurant in Sacramento?"
The sheriff nodded.
"Well! over the restaurant are my private rooms, the finest in Sacramento.
Nobody knows it but Briggs, and he has never told. They've been locked
ever since I left; I've got the key still in my pocket. Now when we get to
Sacramento, instead of taking me straight to jail, I want you to hold me
THERE as your prisoner for a day and a night. I don't want to get away;
you can take what precautions you like—surround the house with
policemen, and sleep yourself in the ante-room. I don't want to destroy
any papers or evidence; you can go through the rooms and examine
everything before and after; I only want to stay there a day and a night;
I want to be in my old rooms, have my meals from the restaurant as I used
to, and sleep in my own bed once more. I want to live for one day like a
gentleman, as I used to live before I came here. That's all! It isn't
much, Tom. You can do it and say you require to do it to get evidence
against me, or that you want to search the rooms."
The expression of wonder which had come into the sheriff's face at the
beginning of this speech deepened into his old look of surly
dissatisfaction. "And that's all ye want?" he said gloomily. "Ye don't
want no friends—no lawyer? For I tell you, straight out, major,
there ain't no hope for ye, when the law once gets hold of ye in
"That's all. Will you do it?"
The sheriff's face grew still darker. After a pause he said: "I don't say
'no,' and I don't say 'yes.' But," he added grimly, "it strikes me we'd
better wait till we get clear o' these woods afore you think o' your
The major did not reply. The day had worn on, but the fire, now completely
encircling them, opposed any passage in or out of that fateful barrier.
The smoke of the burning underbrush hung low around them in a bank equally
impenetrable to vision. They were as alone as shipwrecked sailors on an
island, girded by a horizon of clouds.
"I'm going to try to sleep," said the major; "if your men come you can
"And if YOUR men come?" said the sheriff dryly.
He lay down, closed his eyes, and to the sheriff's astonishment presently
fell asleep. The sheriff, with his chin in his grimy hands, sat and
watched him as the day slowly darkened around them and the distant fires
came out in more lurid intensity. The face of the captive and outlawed
murderer was singularly peaceful; that of the captor and man of duty was
haggard, wild, and perplexed.
But even this changed soon. The sleeping man stirred restlessly and
uneasily; his face began to work, his lips to move. "Tom," he gasped
The sheriff bent over him eagerly. The sleeping man's eyes were still
closed; beads of sweat stood upon his forehead. He was dreaming.
"Tom," he whispered, "take me out of this place—take me out from
these dogs and pimps and beggars! Listen, Tom!—they're Sydney ducks,
ticket-of-leave men, short card sharps, and sneak thieves! There isn't a
gentleman among 'em! There isn't one I don't loathe and hate—and
would grind under my heel, elsewhere. I'm a gentleman, Tom—yes, by
God—an officer and a gentleman! I've served my country in the 9th
Cavalry. That cub of West Point knows it and despises me, seeing me here
in such company. That sergeant knows it—I recommended him for his
first stripes for all he taunts me,—d—n him!"
"Come, wake up!" said the sheriff harshly.
The prisoner did not heed him; the sheriff shook him roughly, so roughly
that the major's waistcoat and shirt dragged open, disclosing his fine
silk undershirt, delicately worked and embroidered with golden thread. At
the sight of this abased and faded magnificence the sheriff's hand was
stayed; his eye wandered over the sleeping form before him. Yes, the hair
was dyed too; near the roots it was quite white and grizzled; the pomatum
was coming off the pointed moustache and imperial; the face in the light
was very haggard; the lines from the angles of the nostril and mouth were
like deep, half-healed gashes. The major was, without doubt, prematurely
worn and played out.
The sheriff's persistent eyes, however, seemed to effect what his ruder
hand could not. The sleeping man stirred, awoke to full consciousness, and
"Are they here? I'm ready," he said calmly.
"No," said the sheriff deliberately; "I only woke ye to say that I've been
thinkin' over what ye asked me, and if we get to Sacramento all right,
why, I'll do it and give ye that day and night at your old lodgings."
The major reached out his hand; the sheriff hesitated, and then extended
his own. The hands of the two men clasped for the first, and it would
seem, the last time.
For the "cub of West Point" was, like most cubs, irritable when thwarted.
And having been balked of his prey, the deserter, and possibly chaffed by
his comrades for his profitless invasion of Wynyard's Bar, he had
persuaded his commanding officer to give him permission to effect a
recapture. Thus it came about that at dawn, filing along the ridge, on the
outskirts of the fire, his heart was gladdened by the sight of the
half-breed—with his hanging haversack belt and tattered army tunic—evidently
still a fugitive, not a hundred yards away on the other side of the belt
of fire, running down the hill with another ragged figure at his side. The
command to "halt" was enforced by a single rifle shot over the fugitives'
heads—but they still kept on their flight. Then the boy-officer
snatched a carbine from one of his men, a volley rang out from the little
troop—the shots of the privates mercifully high, those of the
officer and sergeant leveled with wounded pride and full of deliberate
purpose. The half-breed fell; so did his companion, and, rolling over
together, both lay still.
But between the hunters and their fallen quarry reared a cheval de frise
of flame and fallen timber impossible to cross. The young officer
hesitated, shrugged his shoulders, wheeled his men about, and left the
fire to correct any irregularity in his action.
It did not, however, change contemporaneous history, for a week later,
when Wynyard's Bar discovered Major Overstone lying beside the man now
recognized by them as the disguised sheriff of Siskyou, they rejoiced at
this unfailing evidence of their lost leader's unequaled prowess. That he
had again killed a sheriff and fought a whole posse, yielding only with
his life, was never once doubted, and kept his memory green in Sierran
chronicles long after Wynyard's Bar had itself become a memory.