Western Short Story
The Sheriff of Siskyou
Bret Harte
Part 1 of 3


Western Short Story

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 last man.

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 an escort of United States cavalry.

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 triumphant.

"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 escort 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 escort 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 pettifogging process?"

"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, sir, 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 in discipline with your stripes."

The young officer turned his head slightly.

"Attention!"

"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."

data-custom-mark="true"Dawson looked skeptical. "I reckon he ain't no more gain here than he was over there," he said, and turned away.

Read part two of The Sheriff of Syskyou>>


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