THE POET OF SIERRA FLAT
by Bret Harte
As the enterprising editor of the "Sierra Flat Record"
stood at his case setting type for his next week's paper,
he could not help hearing the woodpeckers who were busy
on the roof above his head. It occurred to him that
possibly the birds had not yet learned to recognize in
the rude structure any improvement on nature, and this
idea pleased him so much that he incorporated it in the
editorial article which he was then doubly composing.
For the editor was also printer of the "Record;" and
although that remarkable journal was reputed to exert
a power felt through all Calaveras and a greater part
of Tuolumne County, strict economy was one of the
conditions of its beneficent existence.
Thus preoccupied, he was startled by the sudden irruption
of a small roll of manuscript, which was thrown through
the open door and fell at his feet. He walked quickly to
the threshold and looked down the tangled trail which led
to the high road. But there was nothing to suggest the
presence of his mysterious contributor. A hare limped
slowly away, a green-and-gold lizard paused upon a pine
stump, the woodpeckers ceased their work. So complete
had been his sylvan seclusion, that he found it difficult
to connect any human agency with the act; rather the
hare seemed to have an inexpressibly guilty look, the
woodpeckers to maintain a significant silence, and the
lizard to be conscience-stricken into stone.
An examination of the manuscript, however, corrected this
injustice to defenceless nature. It was evidently of human
origin,--being verse, and of exceeding bad quality. The
editor laid it aside. As he did so he thought he saw a
face at the window. Sallying out in some indignation, he
penetrated the surrounding thicket in every direction,
but his search was as fruitless as before. The poet, if
it were he, was gone.
A few days after this the editorial seclusion was invaded
by voices of alternate expostulation and entreaty. Stepping
to the door, the editor was amazed at beholding Mr. Morgan
McCorkle, a well-known citizen of Angelo, and a subscriber
to the "Record," in the act of urging, partly by force and
partly by argument, an awkward young man toward the building.
When he had finally effected his object, and, as it were,
safely landed his prize in a chair, Mr. McCorkle took off
his hat, carefully wiped the narrow isthmus of forehead
which divided his black brows from his stubby hair, and,
with an explanatory wave of his hand toward his reluctant
companion, said, "A borned poet, and the cussedest fool
you ever seed!"
Accepting the editor's smile as a recognition of the
introduction, Mr. McCorkle panted and went on: "Didn't
want to come! 'Mister Editor don't went to see me, Morg,'
sez he. 'Milt,' sez I, 'he do; a borned poet like you
and a gifted genius like he oughter come together sociable!'
And I fetched him. Ah, will yer?" The born poet had,
after exhibiting signs of great distress, started to run.
But Mr. McCorkle was down upon him instantly, seizing him
by his long linen coat, and settled him back in his chair.
"Tain't no use stampeding. Yer ye are and yer ye stays.
For yer a borned poet,--ef ye are as shy as a jackass
rabbit. Look at 'im now!"
He certainly was not an attractive picture. There was
hardly a notable feature in his weak face, except his
eyes, which were moist and shy, and not unlike the animal
to which Mr. McCorkle had compared him. It was the face
that the editor had seen at the window.
"Knowed him for fower year, since he war a boy," continued
Mr. McCorkle in a loud whisper. "Allers the same, bless
you! Can jerk a rhyme as easy as turnin' jack. Never had
any eddication; lived out in Missooray all his life. But
he's chock full o' poetry. On'y this mornin' sez I to
him,--he camps along o' me,--'Milt!' sez I, 'are breakfast
ready?' and he up and answers back quite peart and chipper,
'The breakfast it is ready, and the birds is singing free,
and it's risin' in the dawnin' light is happiness to me!'
When a man," said Mr. McCorkle, dropping his voice with
deep solemnity, "gets off things like them, without any
call to do it, and handlin' flapjacks over a cook-stove
at the same time,--that man's a borned poet."
There was an awkward pause. Mr. McCorkle beamed patronizingly
on his protege. The born poet looked as if he were meditating
another flight,--not a metaphorical one. The editor asked
if he could do anything for them.
"In course you can," responded Mr. McCorkle, "that's jest
it. Milt, where's that poetry!"
The editor's countenance fell as the poet produced from
his pocket a roll of manuscript. He, however, took it
mechanically and glanced over it. It was evidently a
duplicate of the former mysterious contribution.
The editor then spoke briefly but earnestly. I regret
that I cannot recall his exact words, but it appeared
that never before, in the history of the "Record," had
the pressure been so great upon its columns. Matters of
paramount importance, deeply affecting the material
progress of Sierra, questions touching the absolute
integrity of Calaveras and Tuolumne as social communities,
were even now waiting expression. Weeks, nay, months,
must elapse before that pressure would be removed, and
the "Record" could grapple with any but the sternest
of topics. Again, the editor had noticed with pain the
absolute decline of poetry in the foot-hills of the
Sierras. Even the works of Byron and Moore attracted
no attention in Dutch Flat, and a prejudice seemed to
exist against Tennyson in Grass Valley. But the editor
was not without hope for the future. In the course of
four or five years, when the country was settled,--
"What would be the cost to print this yer?" interrupted
Mr. McCorkle, quietly.
"About fifty dollars, as an advertisement," responded
the editor with cheerful alacrity.
Mr. McCorkle placed the sum in the editor's hand. "Yer
see thet's what I sez to Milt, 'Milt,' sez I, 'pay as
you go, for you are a borned poet. Hevin no call to
write, but doin' it free and spontaneous like, in
course you pays. Thet's why Mister Editor never printed
"What name shall I put to it?" asked the editor.
It was the first word that the born poet had spoken
during the interview, and his voice was so very sweet
and musical that the editor looked at him curiously,
and wondered if he had a sister.
"Milton; is that all?"
"Thet's his furst name," exclaimed Mr. McCorkle.
The editor here suggested that as there had been
another poet of that name--
"Milt might be took for him! Thet's bad," reflected
Mr. McCorkle with simple gravity. "Well, put down
his hull name,--Milton Chubbuck."
The editor made a note of the fact. "I'll set it up
now," he said. This was also a hint that the interview
was ended. The poet and the patron, arm in arm, drew
towards the door. "In next week's paper," said the
editor, smilingly, in answer to the childlike look
of inquiry in the eyes of the poet, and in another
moment they were gone.
The editor was as good as his word. He straightway
betook himself to his case, and, unrolling the manuscript,
began his task. The woodpeckers on the roof recommenced
theirs, and in a few moments the former sylvan seclusion
was restored. There was no sound in the barren, barn-like
room but the birds above, and below the click of the
composing-rule as the editor marshalled the types into
lines in his stick, and arrayed them in solid column on
the galley. Whatever might have been his opinion of the
copy before him, there was no indication of it in his
face, which wore the stolid indifference of his craft.
Perhaps this was unfortunate, for as the day wore on
and the level rays of the sun began to pierce the
adjacent thicket, they sought out and discovered an
anxious ambushed figure drawn up beside the editor's
window,--a figure that had sat there motionless for
hours. Within, the editor worked on as steadily and
impassively as Fate. And without, the born poet of
Sierra Flat sat and watched him, as waiting its decree.
The effect of the poem on Sierra Flat was remarkable and
unprecedented. The absolute vileness of its doggerel, the
gratuitous imbecility of its thought, and above all the
crowning audacity of the fact that it was the work of a
citizen and published in the county paper, brought it
instantly into popularity. For many months Calaveras
had languished for a sensation; since the last vigilance
committee nothing had transpired to dispel the listless
ennui begotten of stagnant business and growing civilization.
In more prosperous moments the office of the "Record"
would have been simply gutted and the editor deported;
at present the paper was in such demand that the edition
was speedily exhausted. In brief, the poem of Mr. Milton
Chubbuck came like a special providence to Sierra Flat.
It was read by camp-fires, in lonely cabins, in flaring
bar-rooms and noisy saloons, and declaimed from the boxes
of stagecoaches. It was sung in Poker Flat, with the
addition of a local chorus, and danced as an unhallowed
rhythmic dance by the Pyrrhic phalanx of One Horse Gulch,
known as "The Festive Stags of Calaveras." Some unhappy
ambiguities of expression gave rise to many new readings,
notes, and commentaries, which, I regret to state, were
more often marked by ingenuity than delicacy of thought
Never before did poet acquire such sudden local
reputation. From the seclusion of McCorkle's cabin
and the obscurity of culinary labors, he was haled
forth into the glowing sunshine of Fame. The name
of Chubbuck was written in letters of chalk on
unpainted walls, and carved with a pick on the
sides of tunnels. A drink known variously as "The
Chubbuck Tranquillizer," or "The Chubbuck Exalter,"
was dispensed at the bars. For some weeks, a rude
design for a Chubbuck statue, made up of illustrations
from circus and melodeon posters, representing the
genius of Calaveras in brief skirts on a flying
steed in the act of crowning the poet Chubbuck, was
visible at Keeler's Ferry. The poet himself was
overborne with invitations to drink and extravagant
congratulations. The meeting between Colonel Starbottle
of Siskyion and Chubbuck, as previously arranged by
our "Boston," late of Roaring Camp, is said to have
been indescribably affecting. The Colonel embraced
him unsteadily. "I could not return to my constituents
at Siskyion, sir, if this hand, which has grasped
that of the gifted Prentice and the lamented Poe,
should not have been honored by the touch of the
god-like Chubbuck. Gentlemen, American literature is
looking up. Thank you, I will take sugar in mine." It
was "Boston" who indited letters of congratulations
from H. W. Longfellow, Tennyson, and Browning, to
Mr. Chubbuck, deposited them in the Sierra Flat
post-office, and obligingly consented to dictate the
The simple faith and unaffected delight with which
these manifestations were received by the poet and
his patron might have touched the hearts of these
grim masters of irony, but for the sudden and equal
development in both of the variety of weak natures.
Mr. McCorkle basked in the popularity of his protege,
and became alternately supercilious or patronizing
toward the dwellers of Sierra Flat; while the poet,
with hair carefully oiled and curled, and bedecked
with cheap jewelry and flaunting neck-handkerchief,
paraded himself before the single hotel. As may be
imagined, this new disclosure of weakness afforded
intense satisfaction to Sierra Flat, gave another
lease of popularity to the poet, and suggested another
idea to the facetious "Boston."
At that time a young lady, popularly and professionally
known as the "California Pet" was performing to
enthusiastic audiences in the interior. Her specialty
lay in the personation of youthful masculine character;
as a gamin of the street she was irresistible, as a
negro-dancer she carried the honest miner's heart by
storm. A saucy, pretty brunette, she had preserved a
wonderful moral reputation even under the Jove-like
advances of showers of gold that greeted her appearance
on the stage at Sierra Flat. A prominent and delighted
member of that audience was Milton Chubbuck. He
attended every night. Every day he lingered at the
door of the Union Hotel for a glimpse of the "California
Pet." It was not long before he received a note from
her,--in "Boston's" most popular and approved female
hand,--acknowledging his admiration. It was not long
before "Boston" was called upon to indite a suitable
reply. At last, in furtherance of his facetious design,
it became necessary for "Boston" to call upon the young
actress herself and secure her personal participation.
To her he unfolded a plan, the successful carrying out
of which he felt would secure his fame to posterity
as a practical humorist. The "California Pet's" black
eyes sparkled approvingly and mischievously. She only
stipulated that she should see the man first,--a
concession to her feminine weakness which years of
dancing Juba and wearing trousers and boots had not
wholly eradicated from her wilful breast. By all means,
it should be done. And the interview was arranged for
the next week.
It must not be supposed that during this interval
of popularity Mr. Chubbuck had been unmindful of
his poetic qualities. A certain portion of each day
he was absent from town,--"a communin' with natur',"
as Mr. McCorkle expressed it,--and actually wandering
in the mountain trails, or lying on his back under the
trees, or gathering fragrant herbs and the bright-colored
berries of the Marzanita. These and his company he
generally brought to the editor's office, late in
the afternoon, often to that enterprising journalist's
infinite weariness. Quiet and uncommunicative, he
would sit there patiently watching him at his work
until the hour for closing the office arrived, when
he would as quietly depart. There was something so
humble and unobtrusive in these visits, that the
editor could not find it in his heart to deny them,
and accepting them, like the woodpeckers, as a part
of his sylvan surroundings, often forgot even his
presence. Once or twice, moved by some beauty of
expression in the moist, shy eyes, he felt like
seriously admonishing his visitor of his idle
folly; but his glance falling upon the oiled hair
and the gorgeous necktie, he invariably thought
better of it. The case was evidently hopeless.
The interview between Mr. Chubbuck and the "California
Pet" took place in a private room of the Union Hotel;
propriety being respected by the presence of that
arch-humorist, "Boston." To this gentleman we are
indebted for the only true account of the meeting.
However reticent Mr. Chubbuck might have been in the
presence of his own sex, toward the fairer portion of
humanity he was, like most poets, exceedingly voluble.
Accustomed as the "California Pet" had been to excessive
compliment, she was fairly embarrassed by the extravagant
praises of her visitor. Her personation of boy characters,
her dancing of the "Champion Jig," were particularly
dwelt upon with fervid but unmistakable admiration. At
last, recovering her audacity and emboldened by the
presence of "Boston," the "California Pet" electrified
her hearers by demanding, half-jestingly, half-viciously,
if it were as a boy or a girl that she was the subject
of his flattering admiration.
"That knocked him out o' time," said the delighted
"Boston," in his subsequent account of the interview.
"But do you believe the d----d fool actually asked
her to take him with her?--wanted to engage in the
The plan, as briefly unfolded by "Boston," was
to prevail upon Mr. Chubbuck to make his appearance
in costume (already designed and prepared by the
inventor) before a Sierra Flat audience, and recite
an original poem at the Hall immediately on the
conclusion of the "California Pet's" performance.
At a given signal the audience were to rise and
deliver a volley of unsavory articles (previously
provided by the originator of the scheme); then a
select few were to rush on the stage, seize the
poet, and, after marching him in triumphal procession
through town, were to deposit him beyond its
uttermost limits, with strict injunctions never
to enter it again. To the first part of the plan
the poet was committed, for the latter portion it
was easy enough to find participants.
The eventful night came, and with it an audience
that packed the long narrow room with one dense
mass of human beings. The "California Pet" never
had been so joyous, so reckless, so fascinating
and audacious before. But the applause was tame
and weak compared to the ironical outburst that
greeted the second rising of the curtain and the
entrance of the born poet of Sierra Flat. Then,
there was a hush of expectancy, and the poet
stepped to the foot-lights and stood with his
manuscript in his hand.
His face was deadly pale. Either there was some
suggestion of his fate in the faces of his audience,
or some mysterious instinct told him of his danger.
He attempted to speak, but faltered, tottered, and
staggered to the wings.
Fearful of losing his prey, "Boston" gave the
signal and leaped upon the stage. But at the
same moment a light figure darted from behind the
scenes, and delivering a kick that sent the
discomfited humorist back among the musicians, cut
a pigeon-wing, executed a double-shuffle, and then
advancing to the foot-lights with that inimitable
look, that audacious swagger and utter abandon
which had so thrilled and fascinated them a moment
before, uttered the characteristic speech: "Wot
are you goin' to hit a man fur, when he's down,
The look, the drawl, the action, the readiness,
and above all the downright courage of the little
woman, had its effect. A roar of sympathetic
applause followed the act. "Cut and run while you
can," she whispered hurriedly over her one shoulder,
without altering the other's attitude of pert and
saucy defiance toward the audience. But even as
she spoke the poet tottered and sank fainting upon
the stage. Then she threw a despairing whisper
behind the scenes, "Ring down the curtain."
There was a slight movement of opposition in the
audience, but among them rose the burly shoulders
of Yuba Bill, the tall, erect figure of Henry York,
of Sandy Bar, and the colorless, determined face
of John Oakhurst. The curtain came down.
Behind it knelt the "California Pet" beside the
prostrate poet. "Bring me some water. Run for a
doctor. Stop!! CLEAR OUT, ALL OF YOU!"
She had unloosed the gaudy cravat and opened the
shirt-collar of the insensible figure before her.
Then she burst into an hysterical laugh.
Her tiring-woman, a Mexican half-breed, came toward
"Help me with him to my dressing-room, quick; then
stand outside and wait. If anyone questions you,
tell them he's gone. Do you hear? HE's gone."
The old woman did as she was bade. In a few moments
the audience had departed. Before morning so also
had the "California Pet," Manuela, and--the poet of
But, alas! with them also had departed the fair fame
of the "California Pet." Only a few, and these it
is to be feared of not the best moral character
themselves, still had faith in the stainless honor
of their favorite actress. "It was a mighty foolish
thing to do, but it'll all come out right yet." On
the other hand, a majority gave her full credit and
approbation for her undoubted pluck and gallantry,
but deplored that she should have thrown it away
upon a worthless object. To elect for a lover the
despised and ridiculed vagrant of Sierra Flat,
who had not even the manliness to stand up in his
own defence, was not only evidence of inherent
moral depravity, but was an insult to the community.
Colonel Starbottle saw in it only another instance
of the extreme frailty of the sex; he had known
similar cases; and remembered distinctly, sir, how
a well-known Philadelphia heiress, one of the finest
women that ever rode in her kerridge, that, gad,
sir! had thrown over a Southern member of Congress
to consort with a d----d nigger. The Colonel had
also noticed a singular look in the dog's eye which
he did not entirely fancy. He would not say anything
against the lady, sir, but he had noticed--And here
haply the Colonel became so mysterious and darkly
confidential as to be unintelligible and inaudible
to the bystanders.
A few days after the disappearance of Mr. Chubbuck,
a singular report reached Sierra Flat, and it was
noticed that "Boston," who since the failure of his
elaborate joke had been even more depressed in spirits
than is habitual with great humorists, suddenly found
that his presence was required in San Francisco. But
as yet nothing but the vaguest surmises were afloat,
and nothing definite was known.
It was a pleasant afternoon when the editor of the
"Sierra Flat Record" looked up from his case and
beheld the figure of Mr. Morgan McCorkle standing
in the doorway. There was a distressed look on the
face of that worthy gentleman that at once enlisted
the editor's sympathizing attention. He held an open
letter in his hand, as he advanced toward the middle
of the room.
"As a man as has allers borne a fair reputation,"
began Mr. McCorkle slowly, "I should like, if so
be as I could, Mister Editor, to make a correction
in the columns of your valooable paper."
Mr. Editor begged him to proceed.
"Ye may not disremember that about a month ago I
fetched here what so be as we'll call a young man
whose name might be as it were Milton--Milton
Mr. Editor remembered perfectly.
"Thet same party I'd knowed better nor fower year,
two on 'em campin' out together. Not that I'd known
him all the time, fur he whar shy and strange at
spells, and had odd ways that I took war nat'ral to
a borned poet. Ye may remember that I said he was
a borned poet?"
The editor distinctly did.
"I picked this same party up in St. Jo., takin' a
fancy to his face, and kinder calklating he'd runn'd
away from home,--for I'm a married man, Mr. Editor,
and hev children of my own,--and thinkin' belike he
was a borned poet."
"Well?" said the editor.
"And as I said before, I should like now to make a
correction in the columns of your valooable paper."
"What correction?" asked the editor.
"I said, ef you remember my words, as how he was a
"From statements in this yer letter it seems as how
I war wrong."
"He war a woman."
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~