A Story that is Untrue
IT was a singularly sharp night,
and clear as the heart of a diamond. Clear nights have a trick of being
keen. In darkness you may be cold and not know it;
when you see, you suffer. This
night was bright enough to bite like a serpent. The moon was moving mysteriously
along behind the giant pines crowning the
South Mountain, striking a cold
sparkle from the crusted snow, and bringing out against the black west
and ghostly outlines of the Coast Range, beyond which
lay the invisible Pacific. The
snow had piled itself, in the open spaces along the bottom of the gulch,
into long ridges that seemed to heave, and into hills that
appeared to toss and scatter spray.
The spray was sunlight, twice reflected: dashed once from the moon, once
from the snow.
In this snow many of the shanties of the abandoned mining camp were obliterated
(a sailor might have said they had gone down), and at irregular intervals
it had overtopped the tall trestles
which had once supported a river called a flume; for, of course, “flume”
is flumen. Among the advantages of which the
mountains cannot deprive the gold-hunter
is the privilege of speaking Latin. He says of his dead neighbour, “He
has gone up the flume.” This is not a bad way to
say, “His life has returned to
the Fountain of Life.”
While putting on its armour against the assaults of the wind, this snow
had neglected no coign of vantage. Snow pursued by the wind is not wholly
retreating army. In the open field
it ranges itself in ranks and battalions; where it can get a foothold it
makes a stand; where it can take cover it does so. You may
see whole platoons of snow cowering
behind a bit of broken wall. The devious old road, hewn out of the mountainside,
was full of it. Squadron upon squadron
had struggled to escape by this
line, when suddenly pursuit had ceased. A more desolate and dreary spot
than Deadman's Gulch in a winter midnight it is
impossible to imagine. Yet Mr.
Hiram Beeson elected to live there, the sole inhabitant.
Away up the side of the North Mountain his little pine-log shanty projected
from its single pane of glass a long, thin beam of light, and looked not
altogether unlike a black beetle
fastened to the hillside with a bright new pin. Within it sat Mr. Beeson
himself, before a roaring fire, staring into its hot heart as if
he had never before seen such a
thing in all his life. He was not a comely man. He was grey; he was ragged
and slovenly in his attire; his face was wan and
haggard; his eyes were too bright.
As to his age, if one had attempted to guess it, one might have said forty-seven,
then corrected himself and said seventy-four.
He was really twenty-eight. Emaciated
he was; as much, perhaps, as he dared be, with a needy undertaker at Bentley's
Flat and a new and enterprising coroner at
Sonora. Poverty and zeal are an
upper and a nether millstone. It is dangerous to make a third in that kind
As Mr. Beeson sat there, with his ragged elbows on his ragged knees, his
lean jaws buried in his lean hands, and with no apparent intention of going
bed, he looked as if the slightest
movement would tumble him to pieces. Yet during the last hour he had winked
no fewer than three times.
There was a sharp rapping at the door. A rap at that time of night and
in that weather might have surprised an ordinary mortal who had dwelt two
the gulch without seeing a human
face, and could not fail to know that the country was impassable; but Mr.
Beeson did not so much as pull his eyes out of the
coals. And even when the door was
pushed open he only shrugged a little more closely into himself, as one
does who is expecting something that he would rather
not see. You may observe this movement
in women when, in a mortuary chapel, the coffin is borne up the aisle behind
But when a long old man in a blanket overcoat, his head tied up in a handkerchief
and nearly his entire face in a muffler, wearing green goggles and with
complexion of glittering whiteness
where it could be seen, strode silently into the room, laying a hard, gloved
hand on Mr. Beeson's shoulder, the latter so far
forgot himself as to look up with
an appearance of no small astonishment; whomever he may have been expecting,
he had evidently not counted on meeting
anyone like this. Nevertheless,
the sight of this unexpected guest produced in Mr. Beeson the following
sequence: a feeling of astonishment; a sense of
gratification; a sentiment of profound
good will. Rising from his seat, he took the knotty hand from his shoulder,
and shook it up and down with a fervour quite
unaccountable; for in the old man's
aspect was nothing to attract, much to repel. However, attraction is too
general a property for repulsion to be without it. The
most attractive object in the world
is the face we instinctively cover with a cloth. When it becomes still
more attractive -fascinating-we put seven feet of earth
“Sir,” said Mr. Beeson, releasing the old man's hand, which fell passively
against his thigh with a quiet clack, “it is an extremely disagreeable
night. Pray be
seated; I am very glad to see you.”
Mr. Beeson spoke with an easy good breeding that one would hardly have
expected, considering all things. Indeed, the contrast between his appearance
and his manner was sufficiently
surprising to be one of the commonest of social phenomena in the mines.
The old man advanced a step toward the fire, glowing
cavernously in the green goggles.
Mr. Beeson resumed.
“You bet your life I am!”
Mr. Beeson's elegance was not too refined; it had made reasonable concessions
to local taste. He paused a moment, letting his eyes drop from the muffled
head of his guest, down along the
row of mouldy buttons confining the blanket overcoat, to the greenish cowhide
boots powdered with snow, which had begun
to melt and run along the floor
in little rills. He took an inventory of his guest, and appeared satisfied.
Who would not have been? Then he continued:
“The cheer I can offer you is, unfortunately, in keeping with my surroundings;
but I shall esteem myself highly favoured if it is your pleasure to partake
it, rather than seek better at
With a singular refinement of hospitable humility Mr. Beeson spoke as if
a sojourn in his warm cabin on such a night, as compared with walking fourteen
miles up to the throat in snow
with a cutting crust, would be an intolerable hardship. By way of reply,
his guest unbuttoned the blanket overcoat. The host laid
fresh fuel on the fire, swept the
hearth with the tail of a wolf, and added:
“But I think you'd better skedaddle.”
The old man took a seat by the fire, spreading his broad soles to the heat
without removing his hat. In the mines the hat is seldom removed except
the boots are. Without further
remark Mr. Beeson also seated himself in a chair which had been a barrel,
and which, retaining much of its original character,
seemed to have been designed with
a view to preserving his dust if it should please him to crumble. For a
moment there was silence; then, from somewhere
among the pines, came the snarling
yelp of a coyote; and simultaneously the door rattled in its frame. There
was no other connection between the two incidents
than that the coyote has an aversion
to storms, and the wind was rising; yet there seemed somehow a kind of
supernatural conspiracy between the two, and Mr.
Beeson shuddered with a vague sense
of terror. He recovered himself in a moment and again addressed his guest.
“There are strange doings here. I will tell you everything, and then if
you decide to go I shall hope to accompany you over the worst of the way;
as far as
where Baldy Peterson shot Ben Hike-I
dare say you know the place.”
The old man nodded emphatically, as intimating not merely that he did,
but that he did indeed.
“Two years ago,” began Mr. Beeson, “I, with two companions, occupied this
house; but when the rush to the Flat occurred we left, along with the rest.
ten hours the gulch was deserted.
That evening, however, I discovered I had left behind me a valuable pistol
(that is it) and returned for it, passing the night here
alone, as I have passed every night
since. I must explain that a few days before we left, our Chinese domestic
had the misfortune to die while the ground was
frozen so hard that it was impossible
to dig a grave in the usual way. So, on the day of our hasty departure,
we cut through the floor there, and gave him such
burial as we could. But before
putting him down I had the extremely bad taste to cut off his pigtail and
spike it to that beam above his grave, where you may see
it at this moment, or, preferably,
when warmth has given you leisure for observation.
“I stated, did I not, that the Chinaman came to his death from natural
causes? I had, of course, nothing to do with that, and returned through
attraction, or morbid fascination,
but only because I had forgotten a pistol. That is clear to you, is it
The visitor nodded gravely. He appeared to be a man of few words, if any.
Mr. Beeson continued:
“According to the Chinese faith, a man is like a kite: he cannot go to
heaven without a tail. Well, to shorten this tedious story-which, however,
I thought it
my duty to relate-on that night,
while I was here alone and thinking of anything but him, that Chinaman
came back for his pigtail.
“He did not get it.”
At this point Mr. Beeson relapsed into blank silence. Perhaps he was fatigued
by the unwonted exercise of speaking; perhaps he had conjured up a memory
that demanded his undivided attention.
The wind was now fairly abroad, and the pines along the mountainside sang
with singular distinctness. The narrator
“You say you do not see much in that, and I must confess I do not myself.
“But he keeps coming!”
There was another long silence, during which both stared into the fire
without the movement of a limb. Then Mr. Beeson broke out, almost fiercely,
his eyes on what he could see of
the impassive face of his auditor:
“Give it him? Sir, in this matter I have no intention of troubling anyone
for advice. You will pardon me, I am sure”-here he became singularly persuasive-
“but I have ventured to nail that
pigtail fast, and have assumed that somewhat onerous obligation of guarding
it. So it is quite impossible to act on your
“Do you play me for a Modoc?”
Nothing could exceed the sudden ferocity with which he thrust this indignant
remonstrance into the ear of his guest. It was as if he had struck him
side of the head with a steel gauntlet.
It was a protest, but it was a challenge. To be mistaken for a coward-to
be played for a Modoc: these two expressions are
one. Sometimes it is a Chinaman.
Do you play me for a Chinaman? is a question frequently addressed to the
ear of the suddenly dead.
Mr. Beeson's buffet produced no effect, and after a moment's pause, during
which the wind thundered in the chimney like the sound of clods upon a
“But, as you say, it is wearing me out. I feel that the life of the last
two years has been a mistake-a mistake that corrects itself; you see how.
No; there is no one to dig it.
The ground is frozen, too. But you are very welcome. You may say at Bentley's-but
that is not important. It was very tough to cut;
they braid silk i nto their pigtails.
Mr. Beeson was speaking with his eyes shut, and he wandered. His last word
was a snore. A moment later he drew a long breath, opened his eyes with
effort, made a single remark, and
fell into a deep sleep. What he said was this:
“They are swiping my dust!”
Then the aged stranger, who had not uttered one word since his arrival,
arose from his seat and deliberately laid off his outer clothing, looking
in his flannels as the late Signorina
Festorazzi, an Irish woman, six feet in height, and weighing fifty-six
pounds, who used to exhibit herself in her chemise to the
people of San Francisco. He then
crept into one of the “bunks,” having first placed a revolver in easy reach,
according to the custom of the country. This revolver
he took from a shelf, and it was
the one which Mr. Beeson had mentioned as that for which he had returned
to the gulch two years before.
In a few moments Mr. Beeson awoke, and seeing that his guest had retired
he did likewise. But before doing so he approached the long, plaited wisp
pagan hair and gave it a powerful
tug, to assure himself that it was fast and firm. The two beds- mere shelves
covered with blankets not overclean- faced each
other from opposite sides of the
room, the little square trap-door that had given access to the Chinaman's
grave being midway between. This, by the way, was
crossed by a double row of spikeheads.
In his resistance to the supernatural, Mr. Beeson had not disdained the
use of material precautions.
The fire was now low, the flames burning bluely and petulantly, with occasional
flashes, projecting spectral shadows on the walls-shadows that moved
mysteriously about, now dividing,
now uniting. The shadow of the pendent queue, however, kept moodily apart,
near the roof at the farther end of the room,
looking like a note of admiration.
The song of the pines outside had now risen to the dignity of a triumphal
hymn. In the pauses the silence was dreadful.
It was during one of these intervals that the trap in the floor began to
lift. Slowly and steadily it rose, and slowly and steadily rose the swaddled
head of the
old man in the bunk to observe
it. Then, with a clap that shook the house to its foundation, it was thrown
clean back, where it lay with its unsightly spikes
pointing threateningly upward.
Mr. Beeson awoke, and without rising, pressed his fingers into his eyes.
He shuddered; his teeth chattered. His guest was now
reclining on one elbow, watching
the proceedings with the goggles that glowed like lamps.
Suddenly a howling gust of wind swooped down the chimney, scattering ashes
and smoke in all directions, for a moment obscuring everything. When the
fire-light again illuminated the
room there was seen, sitting gingerly on the edge of a stool by the hearth-side,
a swarthy little man of prepossessing appearance
and dressed with faultless taste,
nodding to the old man with a friendly and engaging smile.
“From San Francisco, evidently,” thought Mr. Beeson, who having somewhat
recovered from his fright was groping his way to a solution of the evening's
But now another actor appeared upon the scene. Out of the square black
hole in the middle of the floor protruded the head of the departed Chinaman,
glassy eyes turned upward in their
angular slits and fastened on the dangling queue above with a look of yearning
unspeakable. Mr. Beeson groaned, and again
spread his hands upon his face.
A mild odour of opium pervaded the place. The phantom, clad only in a short
blue tunic quilted and silken but covered with
grave-mould, rose slowly, as if
pushed by a weak spiral spring. Its knees were at the level of the floor,
when with a quick upward impulse like the silent leaping
of a flame it grasped the queue
with both hands, drew up its body and took the tip in its horrible yellow
teeth. To this it clung in a seeming frenzy, grimacing
ghastly, surging and plunging from
side to side in its efforts to disengage its property from the beam, but
uttering no sound. It was like a corpse artificially
convulsed by means of a galvanic
battery. The contrast between its superhuman activity and its silence was
no less than hideous!
Mr. Beeson cowered in his bed. The swarthy little gentleman uncrossed his
legs, beat an impatient tattoo with the toe of his boot and consulted a
gold watch. The old man sat erect
and quietly laid hold of the revolver.
Like a body cut from the gallows the Chinaman plumped into the black hole
below, carrying his tail in his teeth. The trap-door turned over, shutting
with a snap. The swarthy little
gentleman from San Francisco sprang nimbly from his perch, caught something
in the air with his hat, as a boy catches a butterfly,
and vanished into the chimney as
if drawn up by suction.
From away somewhere in the outer darkness floated in through the open door
a faint, far cry-a long, sobbing wail, as of a child death-strangled in
desert, or a lost soul borne away
by the Adversary. It may have been the coyote.
In the early days of the following spring a party of miners on their way
to new diggings passed along the gulch, and straying through the deserted
found in one of them the body of
Hiram Beeson, stretched upon a bunk, with a bullet hole through the heart.
The ball had evidently been fired from the opposite
side of the room, for in one of
the oaken beams overhead was a shallow blue dint, where it had struck a
knot and been deflected downward to the breast of its
victim. Strongly attached to the
same beam was what appeared to be an end of a rope of braided horsehair,
which had been cut by the bullet in its passage to the
knot. Nothing else of interest
was noted, excepting a suit of mouldy and incongruous clothing, several
articles of which were afterward identified by respectable
witnesses as those in which certain
deceased citizen's of Deadman's had been buried years before. But it is
not easy to understand how that could be, unless,
indeed, the garments had been worn
as a disguise by Death himself -which is hardly credible.