A Ghost of the Sierras by Bret Harte
It was a vast silence of pines, redolent with balsamic breath, and
muffled with the dry dust of dead bark and matted mosses. Lying on our
backs, we looked upward through a hundred feet of clear, unbroken
interval to the first lateral branches that formed the flat canopy above
us. Here and there the fierce sun, from whose active persecution we had
just escaped, searched for us through the woods, but its keen blade was
dulled and turned aside by intercostal boughs, and its brightness
dissipated in nebulous mists throughout the roofing of the dim, brown
aisles around us. We were in another atmosphere, under another sky;
indeed, in another world than the dazzling one we had just quitted. The
grave silence seemed so much a part of the grateful coolness, that we
hesitated to speak, and for some moments lay quietly outstretched on the
pine tassels where we had first thrown ourselves. Finally, a voice broke
"Ask the old Major; he knows all about it!"
The person here alluded to under that military title was myself. I
hardly need explain to any Californian that it by no means followed that
I was a "Major," or that I was "old," or that I knew anything about "it,"
or indeed what "it" referred to. The whole remark was merely one of the
usual conventional feelers to conversation,—a kind of social
preamble, quite common to our slangy camp intercourse. Nevertheless, as I
was always known as the Major, perhaps for no better reason than that the
speaker, an old journalist, was always called Doctor, I recognized the
fact so far as to kick aside an intervening saddle, so that I could see
the speaker's face on a level with my own, and said nothing.
"About ghosts!" said the Doctor, after a pause, which nobody broke or
was expected to break. "Ghosts, sir! That's what we want to know. What
are we doing here in this blanked old mausoleum of Calaveras County, if
it isn't to find out something about 'em, eh?"
"Thar's that haunted house at Cave City. Can't be more than a mile or
two away, anyhow. Used to be just off the trail."
A dead silence.
The Doctor (addressing space generally) "Yes, sir; it WAS a mighty
Still the same reposeful indifference. We all knew the Doctor's skill
as a raconteur; we all knew that a story was coming, and we all knew that
any interruption would be fatal. Time and time again, in our prospecting
experience, had a word of polite encouragement, a rash expression of
interest, even a too eager attitude of silent expectancy, brought the
Doctor to a sudden change of subject. Time and time again have we seen
the unwary stranger stand amazed and bewildered between our own
indifference and the sudden termination of a promising anecdote, through
his own unlucky interference. So we said nothing. "The
Judge"—another instance of arbitrary nomenclature—pretended
to sleep. Jack began to twist a cigarrito. Thornton bit off the ends of
pine needles reflectively.
"Yes, sir," continued the Doctor, coolly resting the back of his head
on the palms of his hands, "it WAS rather curious. All except the murder.
THAT'S what gets me, for the murder had no new points, no fancy touches,
no sentiment, no mystery. Was just one of the old style, 'sub-head'
paragraphs. Old-fashioned miner scrubs along on hardtack and beans, and
saves up a little money to go home and see relations. Old-fashioned
assassin sharpens up knife, old style; loads old flint-lock,
brass-mounted pistol; walks in on old- fashioned miner one dark night,
sends him home to his relations away back to several generations, and
walks off with the swag. No mystery THERE; nothing to clear up;
subsequent revelations only impertinence. Nothing for any ghost to
do—who meant business. More than that, over forty murders, same old
kind, committed every year in Calaveras, and no spiritual post obits
coming due every anniversary; no assessments made on the peace and quiet
of the surviving community. I tell you what, boys, I've always been
inclined to throw off on the Cave City ghost for that alone. It's a bad
precedent, sir. If that kind o' thing is going to obtain in the
foot-hills, we'll have the trails full of chaps formerly knocked over by
Mexicans and road agents; every little camp and grocery will have stock
enough on hand to go into business, and where's there any security for
surviving life and property, eh? What's your opinion, Judge, as a
Of course there was no response. Yet it was part of the Doctor's
system of aggravation to become discursive at these moments, in the hope
of interruption, and he continued for some moments to dwell on the
terrible possibility of a state of affairs in which a gentleman could no
longer settle a dispute with an enemy without being subjected to
succeeding spiritual embarrassment. But all this digression fell upon
apparently inattentive ears.
"Well, sir, after the murder, the cabin stood for a long time deserted
and tenantless. Popular opinion was against it. One day a ragged
prospector, savage with hard labor and harder luck, came to the camp,
looking for a place to live and a chance to prospect. After the boys had
taken his measure, they concluded that he'd already tackled so much in
the way of difficulties that a ghost more or less wouldn't be of much
account. So they sent him to the haunted cabin. He had a big yellow dog
with him, about as ugly and as savage as himself; and the boys sort o'
congratulated themselves, from a practical view-point, that while they
were giving the old ruffian a shelter, they were helping in the cause of
Christianity against ghosts and goblins. They had little faith in the old
man, but went their whole pile on that dog. That's where they were
"The house stood almost three hundred feet from the nearest cave, and
on dark nights, being in a hollow, was as lonely as if it had been on the
top of Shasta. If you ever saw the spot when there was just moon enough
to bring out the little surrounding clumps of chapparal until they looked
like crouching figures, and make the bits of broken quartz glisten like
skulls, you'd begin to understand how big a contract that man and that
yellow dog undertook.
"They went into possession that afternoon, and old Hard Times set out
to cook his supper. When it was over he sat down by the embers and lit
his pipe, the yellow dog lying at his feet. Suddenly 'Rap! rap!' comes
from the door. 'Come in,' says the man, gruffly. 'Rap!' again. 'Come in
and be d—d to you,' says the man, who has no idea of getting up to
open the door. But no one responded, and the next moment smash goes the
only sound pane in the only window. Seeing this, old Hard Times gets up,
with the devil in his eye, and a revolver in his hand, followed by the
yellow dog, with every tooth showing, and swings open the door. No one
there! But as the man opened the door, that yellow dog, that had been so
chipper before, suddenly begins to crouch and step backward, step by
step, trembling and shivering, and at last crouches down in the chimney,
without even so much as looking at his master. The man slams the door
shut again, but there comes another smash.
This time it seems to come from inside the cabin, and it isn't until
the man looks around and sees everything quiet that he gets up, without
speaking, and makes a dash for the door, and tears round outside the
cabin like mad, but finds nothing but silence and darkness. Then he comes
back swearing and calls the dog. But that great yellow dog that the boys
would have staked all their money on is crouching under the bunk, and has
to be dragged out like a coon from a hollow tree, and lies there, his
eyes starting from their sockets; every limb and muscle quivering with
fear, and his very hair drawn up in bristling ridges. The man calls him
to the door. He drags himself a few steps, stops, sniffs, and refuses to
go further. The man calls him again, with an oath and a threat. Then,
what does that yellow dog do? He crawls edgewise towards the door,
crouching himself against the bunk till he's flatter than a knife blade;
then, half way, he stops. Then that d—d yellow dog begins to walk
gingerly—lifting each foot up in the air, one after the other,
still trembling in every limb. Then he stops again. Then he crouches.
Then he gives one little shuddering leap—not straight forward, but
up,—clearing the floor about six inches, as if—"
"Over something," interrupted the Judge, hastily, lifting himself on
The Doctor stopped instantly. "Juan," he said coolly, to one of the
Mexican packers, "quit foolin' with that riata. You'll have that stake
out and that mule loose in another minute. Come over this way!"
The Mexican turned a scared, white face to the Doctor, muttering
something, and let go the deer-skin hide. We all up-raised our voices
with one accord, the Judge most penitently and apologetically, and
implored the Doctor to go on. "I'll shoot the first man who interrupts
you again," added Thornton; persuasively.
But the Doctor, with his hands languidly under his head, had lost his
interest. "Well, the dog ran off to the hills, and neither the threats
nor cajoleries of his master could ever make him enter the cabin again.
The next day the man left the camp. What time is it? Getting on to
sundown, ain't it? Keep off my leg, will you, you d—d Greaser, and
stop stumbling round there! Lie down."
But we knew that the Doctor had not completely finished his story, and
we waited patiently for the conclusion. Meanwhile the old, gray silence
of the woods again asserted itself, but shadows were now beginning to
gather in the heavy beams of the roof above, and the dim aisles seemed to
be narrowing and closing in around us. Presently the Doctor recommenced
lazily, as if no interruption had occurred.
"As I said before, I never put much faith in that story, and shouldn't
have told it, but for a rather curious experience of my own. It was in
the spring of '62, and I was one of a party of four, coming up from
O'Neill's, when we had been snowed up. It was awful weather; the snow had
changed to sleet and rain after we crossed the divide, and the water was
out everywhere; every ditch was a creek, every creek a river. We had lost
two horses on the North Fork, we were dead beat, off the trail, and
sloshing round, with night coming on, and the level hail like shot in our
faces. Things were looking bleak and scary when, riding a little ahead of
the party, I saw a light twinkling in a hollow beyond. My horse was still
fresh, and calling out to the boys to follow me and bear for the light, I
struck out for it. In another moment I was before a little cabin that
half burrowed in the black chapparal; I dismounted and rapped at the
door. There was no response. I then tried to force the door, but it was
fastened securely from within. I was all the more surprised when one of
the boys, who had overtaken me, told me that he had just seen through a
window a man reading by the fire. Indignant at this inhospitality, we
both made a resolute onset against the door, at the same time raising our
angry voices to a yell. Suddenly there was a quick response, the hurried
withdrawing of a bolt, and the door opened.
"The occupant was a short, thick-set man, with a pale, careworn face,
whose prevailing expression was one of gentle good humor and patient
suffering. When we entered, he asked us hastily why we had not 'sung out'
"'But we KNOCKED!' I said, impatiently, 'and almost drove your door
"'That's nothing,' he said, patiently. 'I'm used to THAT.'
"I looked again at the man's patient, fateful face, and then around
the cabin. In an instant the whole situation flashed before me. 'Are we
not near Cave City?' I asked.
"'Yes,' he replied, 'it's just below. You must have passed it in the
"'I see.' I again looked around the cabin. 'Isn't this what they call
the haunted house?'
"He looked at me curiously. 'It is,' he said, simply.
"You can imagine my delight! Here was an opportunity to test the whole
story, to work down to the bed rock, and see how it would pan out! We
were too many and too well armed to fear tricks or dangers from
outsiders. If—as one theory had been held—the disturbance was
kept up by a band of concealed marauders or road agents, whose purpose
was to preserve their haunts from intrusion, we were quite able to pay
them back in kind for any assault. I need not say that the boys were
delighted with this prospect when the fact was revealed to them. The only
one doubtful or apathetic spirit there was our host, who quietly resumed
his seat and his book, with his old expression of patient martyrdom. It
would have been easy for me to have drawn him out, but I felt that I did
not want to corroborate anybody else's experience; only to record my own.
And I thought it better to keep the boys from any predisposing
"We ate our supper, and then sat, patiently and expectant, around the
fire. An hour slipped away, but no disturbance; another hour passed as
monotonously. Our host read his book; only the dash of hail against the
roof broke the silence. But—"
The Doctor stopped. Since the last interruption, I noticed he had
changed the easy slangy style of his story to a more perfect, artistic,
and even studied manner. He dropped now suddenly into his old colloquial
speech, and quietly said: "If you don't quit stumbling over those riatas,
Juan, I'll hobble YOU. Come here, there; lie down, will you?"
We all turned fiercely on the cause of this second dangerous
interruption, but a sight of the poor fellow's pale and frightened face
withheld our vindictive tongues. And the Doctor, happily, of his own
accord, went on:—
"But I had forgotten that it was no easy matter to keep these high-
spirited boys, bent on a row, in decent subjection; and after the third
hour passed without a supernatural exhibition, I observed, from certain
winks and whispers, that they were determined to get up indications of
their own. In a few moments violent rappings were heard from all parts of
the cabin; large stones (adroitly thrown up the chimney) fell with a
heavy thud on the roof. Strange groans and ominous yells seemed to come
from the outside (where the interstices between the logs were wide
enough). Yet, through all this uproar, our host sat still and patient,
with no sign of indignation or reproach upon his good-humored but haggard
features. Before long it became evident that this exhibition was
exclusively for HIS benefit. Under the thin disguise of asking him to
assist them in discovering the disturbers OUTSIDE the cabin, those inside
took advantage of his absence to turn the cabin topsy-turvy.
"'You see what the spirits have done, old man,' said the arch leader
of this mischief. 'They've upset that there flour barrel while we wasn't
looking, and then kicked over the water jug and spilled all the
"The patient man lifted his head and looked at the flour-strewn walls.
Then he glanced down at the floor, but drew back with a slight
"'It ain't water!' he said, quietly.
"'What is it, then?'
"'It's BLOOD! Look!'
"The nearest man gave a sudden start and sank back white as a
"For there, gentlemen, on the floor, just before the door, where the
old man had seen the dog hesitate and lift his feet, there!
there!—gentlemen—upon my honor, slowly widened and broadened
a dark red pool of human blood! Stop him! Quick! Stop him, I say!"
There was a blinding flash that lit up the dark woods, and a sharp
report! When we reached the Doctor's side he was holding the smoking
pistol, just discharged, in one hand, while with the other he was
pointing to the rapidly disappearing figure of Juan, our Mexican
"Missed him! by G-d!" said the Doctor. "But did you hear him? Did you
see his livid face as he rose up at the name of blood? Did you see his
guilty conscience in his face. Eh? Why don't you speak? What are you
"Was it the murdered man's ghost, Doctor?" we all panted in one quick
"Ghost be d—d! No! But in that Mexican vaquero—that cursed
Juan Ramirez!—I saw and shot at his murderer!"