THE ROMANCE OF MADRONO HOLLOW
by Bret Harte
The latch on the garden gate of the Folinsbee Ranch
clicked twice. The gate itself was so much in shadow
that lovely night, that "old man Folinsbee," sitting
on his porch, could distinguish nothing but a tall
white hat and beside it a few fluttering ribbons, under
the pines that marked the entrance. Whether because
of this fact, or that he considered a sufficient time
had elapsed since the clicking of the latch for more
positive disclosure, I do not know; but after a few
moments' hesitation he quietly laid aside his pipe
and walked slowly down the winding path toward the
gate. At the Ceanothus hedge he stopped and listened.
There was not much to hear. The hat was saying to
the ribbons that it was a fine night, and remarking
generally upon the clear outline of the Sierras
against the blue-black sky. The ribbons, it so
appeared, had admired this all the way home, and
asked the hat if it had ever seen anything half so
lovely as the moonlight on the summit. The hat never
had; it recalled some lovely nights in the South in
Alabama ("in the South in Ahlabahm" was the way the
old man heard it), but then there were other things
that made this night seem so pleasant. The ribbons
could not possibly conceive what the hat could be
thinking about. At this point there was a pause, of
which Mr. Folinsbee availed himself to walk very
grimly and craunchingly down the gravel-walk toward
the gate. Then the hat was lifted, and disappeared
in the shadow, and Mr. Folinsbee confronted only the
half-foolish, half-mischievous, but wholly pretty
face of his daughter.
It was afterwards known to Madrono Hollow that sharp
words passed between "Miss Jo" and the old man, and
that the latter coupled the names of one Culpepper
Starbottle and his uncle, Colonel Starbottle, with
certain uncomplimentary epithets, and that Miss Jo
retaliated sharply. "Her father's blood before her
father's face boiled up and proved her truly of his
race," quoted the blacksmith, who leaned toward the
noble verse of Byron. "She saw the old man's bluff
and raised him," was the directer comment of the
Meanwhile the subject of these animadversions proceeded
slowly along the road to a point where the Folinsbee
mansion came in view,--a long, narrow, white building,
unpretentious, yet superior to its neighbors, and
bearing some evidences of taste and refinement in the
vines that clambered over its porch, in its French
windows, and the white muslin curtains that kept out
the fierce California sun by day, and were now touched
with silver in the gracious moonlight. Culpepper leaned
against the low fence, and gazed long and earnestly at
the building. Then the moonlight vanished ghost-like
from one of the windows, a material glow took its place,
and a girlish figure, holding a candle, drew the white
curtains together. To Culpepper it was a vestal virgin
standing before a hallowed shrine; to the prosaic
observer, I fear it was only a fair-haired young woman,
whose wicked black eyes still shone with unfilial warmth.
Howbeit, when the figure had disappeared he stepped
out briskly into the moonlight of the high road. Here
he took off his distinguishing hat to wipe his forehead,
and the moon shone full upon his face.
It was not an unprepossessing one, albeit a trifle too
thin and lank and bilious to be altogether pleasant. The
cheek-bones were prominent, and the black eyes sunken in
their orbits. Straight black hair fell slantwise off a
high but narrow forehead, and swept part of a hollow
cheek. A long black mustache followed the perpendicular
curves of his mouth. It was on the whole a serious, even
Quixotic face, but at times it was relieved by a rare
smile of such tender and even pathetic sweetness, that
Miss Jo is reported to have said that, if it would only
last through the ceremony, she would have married its
possessor on the spot. "I once told him so," added that
shameless young woman; "but the man instantly fell into
a settled melancholy, and hasn't smiled since."
A half-mile below the Folinsbee Ranch the white road
dipped and was crossed by a trail that ran through
Madrono hollow. Perhaps because it was a near cut-off
to the settlement, perhaps from some less practical
reason, Culpepper took this trail, and in a few moments
stood among the rarely beautiful trees that gave their
name to the valley. Even in that uncertain light the
weird beauty of these harlequin masqueraders was
apparent; their red trunks--a blush in the moonlight,
a deep blood-stain in the shadow--stood out against
the silvery green foliage. It was as if Nature in some
gracious moment had here caught and crystallized the
gypsy memories of the transplanted Spaniard, to cheer
him in his lonely exile.
As Culpepper entered the grove he heard loud voices.
As he turned toward a clump of trees, a figure so
bizarre and characteristic that it might have been
a resident Daphne,--a figure over-dressed in crimson
silk and lace, with bare brown arms and shoulders,
and a wreath of honeysuckle,--stepped out of the
shadow. It was followed by a man. Culpepper started.
To come to the point briefly, he recognized in the
man the features of his respected uncle, Colonel
Starbottle; in the female, a lady who may be briefly
described as one possessing absolutely no claim to
an introduction to the polite reader. To hurry over
equally unpleasant details, both were evidently under
the influence of liquor.
From the excited conversation that ensued, Culpepper
gathered that some insult had been put upon the lady
at a public ball which she had attended that evening;
that the Colonel, her escort, had failed to resent it
with the sanguinary completeness that she desired. I
regret that, even in a liberal age, I may not record
the exact and even picturesque language in which this
was conveyed to her hearers. Enough that at the close
of a fiery peroration, with feminine inconsistency she
flew at the gallant Colonel, and would have visited
her delayed vengeance upon his luckless head, but for
the prompt interference of Culpepper. Thwarted in this,
she threw herself upon the ground, and then into
unpicturesque hysterics. There was a fine moral lesson,
not only in this grotesque performance of her sex which
cannot afford to be grotesque, but in the ludicrous
concern with which it inspired the two men. Culpepper,
to whom woman was more or less angelic, was pained and
sympathetic; the Colonel, to whom she was more or less
improper, was exceedingly terrified and embarrassed.
Howbeit the storm was soon over, and after Mistress
Dolores had returned a little dagger to its sheath (her
garter), she quietly took herself out of Madrono Hollow,
and happily out of these pages forever. The two men,
left to themselves, conversed in low tones. Dawn stole
upon them before they separated: the Colonel quite
sobered and in full possession of his usual jaunty
self-assertion; Culpepper with a baleful glow in his
hollow cheek, and in his dark eyes a rising fire.
The next morning the general ear of Madrono Hollow
was filled with rumors of the Colonel's mishap. It
was asserted that he had been invited to withdraw
his female companion from the floor of the Assembly
Ball at the Independence Hotel, and that, failing to
do this, both were expelled. It is to be regretted
that in 1854 public opinion was divided in regard to
the propriety of this step, and that there was some
discussion as to the comparative virtue of the ladies
who were not expelled; but it was generally conceded
that the real casus belli was political. "Is this a
dashed Puritan meeting?" had asked the Colonel,
savagely. "It's no Pike County shindig," had responded
the floor manager, cheerfully. "You're a Yank!" had
screamed the Colonel, profanely qualifying the noun.
"Get! you border ruffian," was the reply. Such at
least was the substance of the report. As, at that
sincere epoch, expressions like the above were usually
followed by prompt action, a fracas was confidently
Nothing, however, occurred. Colonel Starbottle made
his appearance next day upon the streets with somewhat
of his usual pomposity, a little restrained by the
presence of his nephew, who accompanied him, and who,
as a universal favorite, also exercised some restraint
upon the curious and impertinent. But Culpepper's face
wore a look of anxiety quite at variance with his usual
grave repose. "The Don don't seem to take the old man's
set-back kindly," observed the sympathizing blacksmith.
"P'r'aps he was sweet on Dolores himself," suggested
the sceptical expressman.
It was a bright morning, a week after this occurrence,
that Miss Jo Folinsbee stepped from her garden into the
road. This time the latch did not click as she cautiously
closed the gate behind her. After a moment's irresolution,
which would have been awkward but that it was charmingly
employed, after the manner of her sex, in adjusting a bow
under a dimpled but rather prominent chin, and in pulling
down the fingers of a neatly fitting glove, she tripped
towards the settlement. Small wonder that a passing teamster
drove his six mules into the wayside ditch and imperilled
his load, to keep the dust from her spotless garments;
small wonder that the "Lightning Express" withheld its
speed and flash to let her pass, and that the expressman,
who had never been known to exchange more than rapid
monosyllables with his fellow-man, gazed after her with
breathless admiration. For she was certainly attractive.
In a country where the ornamental sex followed the example
of youthful Nature, and were prone to overdress and glaring
efflorescence, Miss Jo's simple and tasteful raiment added
much to the physical charm of, if it did not actually
suggest a sentiment to, her presence. It is said that
Euchredeck Billy, working in the gulch at the crossing,
never saw Miss Folinsbee pass but that he always remarked
apologetically to his partner, that "he believed he must
write a letter home." Even Bill Masters, who saw her in
Paris presented to the favorable criticism of that most
fastidious man, the late Emperor, said that she was
stunning, but a big discount on what she was at Madrono
It was still early morning, but the sun, with California
extravagance, had already begun to beat hotly on the little
chip hat and blue ribbons, and Miss Jo was obliged to seek
the shade of a bypath. Here she received the timid advances
of a vagabond yellow dog graciously, until, emboldened by
his success, he insisted upon accompanying her, and, becoming
slobberingly demonstrative, threatened her spotless skirt
with his dusty paws, when she drove him from her with some
slight acerbity, and a stone which haply fell within fifty
feet of its destined mark. Having thus proved her ability
to defend herself, with characteristic inconsistency she
took a small panic, and, gathering her white skirts in
one hand, and holding the brim of her hat over her eyes
with the other, she ran swiftly at least a hundred yards
before she stopped. Then she began picking some ferns and
a few wild-flowers still spared to the withered fields,
and then a sudden distrust of her small ankles seized her,
and she inspected them narrowly for those burrs and bugs
and snakes which are supposed to lie in wait for helpless
womanhood. Then she plucked some golden heads of wild oats,
and with a sudden inspiration placed them in her black hair,
and then came quite unconsciously upon the trail leading
to Madrono Hollow.
Here she hesitated. Before her ran the little trail,
vanishing at last into the bosky depths below. The sun
was very hot. She must be very far from home. Why should
she not rest awhile under the shade of a madrono?
She answered these questions by going there at once.
After thoroughly exploring the grove, and satisfying
herself that it contained no other living human creature,
she sat down under one of the largest trees, with a
satisfactory little sigh. Miss Jo loved the madrono.
It was a cleanly tree; no dust ever lay upon its
varnished leaves; its immaculate shade never was
known to harbor grub or insect.
She looked up at the rosy arms interlocked and arched
above her head. She looked down at the delicate ferns
and cryptogams at her feet. Something glittered at the
root of the tree. She picked it up; it was a bracelet.
She examined it carefully for cipher or inscription;
there was none. She could not resist a natural desire
to clasp it on her arm, and to survey it from that
advantageous view-point. This absorbed her attention
for some moments; and when she looked up again she
beheld at a little distance Culpepper Starbottle.
He was standing where he had halted, with instinctive
delicacy, on first discovering her. Indeed, he had
even deliberated whether he ought not to go away
without disturbing her. But some fascination held
him to the spot. Wonderful power of humanity! Far
beyond jutted an outlying spur of the Sierra, vast,
compact, and silent. Scarcely a hundred yards away,
a league-long chasm dropped its sheer walls of
granite a thousand feet. On every side rose up the
serried ranks of pine trees, in whose close-set
files centuries of storm and change had wrought
no breach. Yet all this seemed to Culpepper to
have been planned by an all-wise Providence as
the natural background to the figure of a pretty
girl in a yellow dress.
Although Miss Jo had confidently expected to meet
Culpepper somewhere in her ramble, now that he
came upon her suddenly, she felt disappointed and
embarrassed. His manner, too, was more than usually
grave and serious, and more than ever seemed to
jar upon that audacious levity which was this giddy
girl's power and security in a society where all
feeling was dangerous. As he approached her she
rose to her feet, but almost before she knew it
he had taken her hand and drawn her to a seat
beside him. This was not what Miss Jo had expected,
but nothing is so difficult to predicate as the
exact preliminaries of a declaration of love.
What did Culpepper say? Nothing, I fear, that will
add anything to the wisdom of the reader; nothing,
I fear, that Miss Jo had not heard substantially
from other lips before. But there was a certain
conviction, fire-speed, and fury in the manner that
was deliciously novel to the young lady. It was
certainly something to be courted in the nineteenth
century with all the passion and extravagance of the
sixteenth; it was something to hear, amid the slang
of a frontier society, the language of knight-errantry
poured into her ear by this lantern-jawed, dark-browed
descendant of the Cavaliers.
I do not know that there was anything more in it. The
facts, however, go to show that at a certain point
Miss Jo dropped her glove, and that in recovering it
Culpepper possessed himself, first of her hand and then
her lips. When they stood up to go Culpepper had his
arm around her waist, and her black hair, with its
sheaf of golden oats, rested against the breast-pocket
of his coat. But even then I do not think her fancy
was entirely captive. She took a certain satisfaction
in this demonstration of Culpepper's splendid height,
and mentally compared it with a former flame, one
lieutenant McMirk, an active, but under-sized Hector,
who subsequently fell a victim to the incautiously
composed and monotonous beverages of a frontier
garrison. Nor was she so much preoccupied, but that
her quick eyes, even while absorbing Culpepper's
glances, were yet able to detect, at a distance,
the figure of a man approaching. In an instant she
slipped out of Culpepper's arm, and, whipping her
hands behind her, said, "There's that horrid man!"
Culpepper looked up and beheld his respected uncle
panting and blowing over the hill. His brow contracted
as he turned to Miss Jo: "You don't like my uncle!"
"I hate him!" Miss Jo was recovering her ready tongue.
Culpepper blushed. He would have liked to enter upon
some details of the Colonel's pedigree and exploits,
but there was not time. He only smiled sadly. The
smile melted Miss Jo. She held out her hand quickly,
and said, with even more than her usual effrontery,
"Don't let that man get you into any trouble. Take
care of yourself, dear, and don't let anything happen
Miss Jo intended this speech to be pathetic; the
tenure of life among her lovers had hitherto been
very uncertain. Culpepper turned toward her, but
she had already vanished in the thicket.
The Colonel came up panting. "I've looked all over
town for you, and be dashed to you, sir. Who was
that with you?"
"A lady." (Culpepper never lied, but he was discreet.)
"D--m 'em all! Look yar, Culp, I've spotted the man
who gave the order to put me off the floor" ("flo"
was what the Colonel said) "the other night!"
"Who was it?" asked Culpepper, listlessly.
"Why, the son of that dashed nigger-worshipping
psalm-singing Puritan Yankee. What's the matter,
now? Look yar, Culp, you ain't goin' back on your
blood, ar' ye? You ain't goin' back on your word?
Ye ain't going down at the feet of this trash,
like a whipped hound!"
Culpepper was silent. He was very white. Presently
he looked up and said quietly. "No."
Culpepper Starbottle had challenged Jack Folinsbee,
and the challenge was accepted. The cause alleged
was the expelling of Culpepper's uncle from the
floor of the Assembly Ball by the order of Folinsbee.
This much Madrono Hollow knew and could swear to;
but there were other strange rumors afloat, of which
the blacksmith was an able expounder. "You see,
gentlemen," he said to the crowd gathering round
his anvil, "I ain't got no theory of this affair,
I only give a few facts as have come to my knowledge.
Culpepper and Jack meets quite accidentally like in
Bob's saloon. Jack goes up to Culpepper and says,
'A word with you.' Culpepper bows and steps aside
in this way, Jack standing about here." (The blacksmith
demonstrates the position of the parties with two
old horseshoes on the anvil.) "Jack pulls a bracelet
from his pocket and says, 'Do you know that bracelet?'
Culpepper says, 'I do not,' quite cool-like and easy.
Jack says, 'You gave it to my sister.' Culpepper
says, still cool as you please, 'I did not.' Jack
says, 'You lie, G-d d-mn you,' and draws his derringer.
Culpepper jumps forward about here" (reference is
made to the diagram) "and Jack fires. Nobody hit.
It's a mighty cur'o's thing, gentlemen," continued
the blacksmith, dropping suddenly into the abstract,
and leaning meditatively on his anvil,--"it's a
mighty cur'o's thing that nobody gets hit so often.
You and me empties our revolvers sociably at each
other over a little game, and the room full, and
nobody gets hit! That's what gets me."
"Never mind, Thompson," chimed in Bill Masters,
"there's another and better world where we shall
know all that and--become better shots. Go on with
"Well, some grabs Culpepper and some grabs Jack, and
so separates them. Then Jack tells 'em as how he had
seen his sister wear a bracelet which he knew was one
that had been given to Dolores by Colonel Starbottle.
That Miss Jo wouldn't say where she got it, but owned
up to having seen Culpepper that day. Then the most
cur'o's thing of it yet, what does Culpepper do but
rise up and takes all back that he said, and allows
that he did give her the bracelet. Now, my opinion,
gentlemen, is that he lied; it ain't like that man
to give a gal that he respects anything off of that
piece, Dolores. But it's all the same now, and there's
but one thing to be done."
The way this one thing was done belongs to the record
of Madrono Hollow. The morning was bright and clear;
the air was slightly chill, but that was from the mist
which arose along the banks of the river. As early as
six o'clock the designated ground--a little opening in
the madrono grove--was occupied by Culpepper Starbottle,
Colonel Starbottle, his second, and the surgeon. The
Colonel was exalted and excited, albeit in a rather
imposing, dignified way, and pointed out to the surgeon
the excellence of the ground, which at that hour was
wholly shaded from the sun, whose steady stare is more
or less discomposing to your duellist. The surgeon
threw himself on the grass and smoked his cigar.
Culpepper, quiet and thoughtful, leaned against a
tree and gazed up the river. There was a strange
suggestion of a picnic about the group, which was
heightened when the Colonel drew a bottle from his
coat-tails, and, taking a preliminary draught, offered
it to the others. "Cocktails, sir," he explained with
dignified precision. "A gentleman, sir, should never
go out without 'em. Keeps off the morning chill. I
remember going out in '53 with Hank Boompirater. Good
ged, sir, the man had to put on his overcoat, and was
shot in it. Fact."
But the noise of wheels drowned the Colonel's reminiscences,
and a rapidly driven buggy, containing Jack Folinsbee,
Calhoun Bungstarter, his second, and Bill Masters drew
up on the ground. Jack Folinsbee leaped out gayly. "I
had the jolliest work to get away without the governor's
hearing," he began, addressing the group before him with
the greatest volubility. Calhoun Bungstarter touched his
arm, and the young man blushed. It was his first duel.
"If you are ready, gentlemen," said Mr. Bungstarter,
"we had better proceed to business. I believe it is
understood that no apology will be offered or accepted.
We may as well settle preliminaries at once, or I fear
we shall be interrupted. There is a rumor in town that
the Vigilance Committee are seeking our friends the
Starbottles, and I believe, as their fellow-countryman,
I have the honor to be included in their warrant."
At this probability of interruption, that gravity which
had hitherto been wanting fell upon the group. The
preliminaries were soon arranged and the principals
placed in position. Then there was a silence.
To a spectator from the hill, impressed with the picnic
suggestion, what might have been the popping of two
champagne corks broke the stillness.
Culpepper had fired in the air. Colonel Starbottle
uttered a low curse. Jack Folinsbee sulkily demanded
Again the parties stood opposed to each other. Again
the word was given, and what seemed to be the simultaneous
report of both pistols rose upon the air. But after an
interval of a few seconds all were surprised to see
Culpepper slowly raise his unexploded weapon and fire
it harmlessly above his head. Then, throwing the pistol
upon the ground, he walked to a tree and leaned silently
Jack Folinsbee flew into a paroxysm of fury. Colonel
Starbottle raved and swore. Mr. Bungstarter was
properly shocked at their conduct. "Really, gentlemen,
if Mr. Culpepper Starbottle declines another shot, I
do not see how we can proceed."
But the Colonel's blood was up, and Jack Folinsbee
was equally implacable. A hurried consultation ensued,
which ended by Colonel Starbottle taking his nephew's
place as principal, Bill Masters acting as second, vice
Mr. Bungstarter, who declined all further connection
with the affair.
Two distinct reports rang through the Hollow. Jack
Folinsbee dropped his smoking pistol, took a step
forward, and then dropped heavily upon his face.
In a moment the surgeon was at his side. The confusion
was heightened by the trampling of hoofs, and the voice
of the blacksmith bidding them flee for their lives
before the coming storm. A moment more and the ground
was cleared, and the surgeon, looking up, beheld only
the white face of Culpepper bending over him.
"Can you save him?"
"I cannot say. Hold up his head a moment, while I run
to the buggy."
Culpepper passed his arm tenderly around the neck of
the insensible man. Presently the surgeon returned
with some stimulants.
"There, that will do, Mr. Starbottle, thank you. Now
my advice is to get away from here while you can.
I'll look after Folinsbee. Do you hear?"
Culpepper's arm was still round the neck of his late
foe, but his head had drooped and fallen on the wounded
man's shoulder. The surgeon looked down, and catching
sight of his face, stooped and lifted him gently in
his arms. He opened his coat and waistcoat. There was
blood upon his shirt, and a bullet-hole in his breast.
He had been shot unto death at the first fire.
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~