Tennessee’s Partner

by Bret Harte

I do not think that we ever knew his real name.  Our ignorance of
it certainly never gave us any social inconvenience, for at Sandy
Bar in 1854 most men were christened anew.  Sometimes these
appellatives were derived from some distinctiveness of dress, as in
the case of “Dungaree Jack”; or from some peculiarity of habit, as
shown in “Saleratus Bill,” so called from an undue proportion of
that chemical in his daily bread; or for some unlucky slip, as
exhibited in “The Iron Pirate,” a mild, inoffensive man, who earned
that baleful title by his unfortunate mispronunciation of the term
“iron pyrites.”  Perhaps this may have been the beginning of a rude
heraldry; but I am constrained to think that it was because a man’s
real name in that day rested solely upon his own unsupported
statement.  “Call yourself Clifford, do you?” said Boston,
addressing a timid newcomer with infinite scorn; “hell is full of
such Cliffords!”  He then introduced the unfortunate man, whose
name happened to be really Clifford, as “Jay-bird Charley”–an
unhallowed inspiration of the moment that clung to him ever after.

But to return to Tennessee’s Partner, whom we never knew by any
other than this relative title; that he had ever existed as a
separate and distinct individuality we only learned later.  It
seems that in 1853 he left Poker Flat to go to San Francisco,
ostensibly to procure a wife.  He never got any farther than
Stockton.  At that place he was attracted by a young person who
waited upon the table at the hotel where he took his meals.  One
morning he said something to her which caused her to smile not
unkindly, to somewhat coquettishly break a plate of toast over his
upturned, serious, simple face, and to retreat to the kitchen.  He
followed her, and emerged a few moments later, covered with more
toast and victory.  That day week they were married by a justice of
the peace, and returned to Poker Flat.  I am aware that something
more might be made of this episode, but I prefer to tell it as it
was current at Sandy Bar–in the gulches and barrooms–where all
sentiment was modified by a strong sense of humor.

Of their married felicity but little is known, perhaps for the
reason that Tennessee, then living with his Partner, one day took
occasion to say something to the bride on his own account, at
which, it is said, she smiled not unkindly and chastely retreated–
this time as far as Marysville, where Tennessee followed her, and
where they went to housekeeping without the aid of a justice of the
peace.  Tennessee’s Partner took the loss of his wife simply and
seriously, as was his fashion.  But to everybody’s surprise, when
Tennessee one day returned from Marysville, without his Partner’s
wife–she having smiled and retreated with somebody else–
Tennessee’s Partner was the first man to shake his hand and greet
him with affection.  The boys who had gathered in the canyon to see
the shooting were naturally indignant.  Their indignation might
have found vent in sarcasm but for a certain look in Tennessee’s
Partner’s eye that indicated a lack of humorous appreciation.  In
fact, he was a grave man, with a steady application to practical
detail which was unpleasant in a difficulty.

Meanwhile a popular feeling against Tennessee had grown up on the
Bar.  He was known to be a gambler; he was suspected to be a thief.
In these suspicions Tennessee’s Partner was equally compromised;
his continued intimacy with Tennessee after the affair above quoted
could only be accounted for on the hypothesis of a copartnership of
crime.  At last Tennessee’s guilt became flagrant.  One day he
overtook a stranger on his way to Red Dog.  The stranger afterward
related that Tennessee beguiled the time with interesting anecdote
and reminiscence, but illogically concluded the interview in the
following words: “And now, young man, I’ll trouble you for your
knife, your pistols, and your money.  You see your weppings might
get you into trouble at Red Dog, and your money’s a temptation to
the evilly disposed.  I think you said your address was San
Francisco.  I shall endeavor to call.”  It may be stated here that
Tennessee had a fine flow of humor, which no business preoccupation
could wholly subdue.

This exploit was his last.  Red Dog and Sandy Bar made common cause
against the highwayman.  Tennessee was hunted in very much the same
fashion as his prototype, the grizzly.  As the toils closed around
him, he made a desperate dash through the Bar, emptying his
revolver at the crowd before the Arcade Saloon, and so on up
Grizzly Canyon; but at its farther extremity he was stopped by a
small man on a gray horse.  The men looked at each other a moment
in silence.  Both were fearless, both self-possessed and
independent; and both types of a civilization that in the
seventeenth century would have been called heroic, but, in the
nineteenth, simply “reckless.”  “What have you got there?–I call,”
said Tennessee, quietly.  “Two bowers and an ace,” said the
stranger, as quietly, showing two revolvers and a bowie knife.
“That takes me,” returned Tennessee; and with this gamblers’
epigram, he threw away his useless pistol, and rode back with his
captor.

It was a warm night.  The cool breeze which usually sprang up with
the going down of the sun behind the chaparral-crested mountain was
that evening withheld from Sandy Bar.  The little canyon was
stifling with heated resinous odors, and the decaying driftwood on
the Bar sent forth faint, sickening exhalations.  The feverishness
of day, and its fierce passions, still filled the camp.  Lights
moved restlessly along the bank of the river, striking no answering
reflection from its tawny current.  Against the blackness of the
pines the windows of the old loft above the express office stood
out staringly bright; and through their curtainless panes the
loungers below could see the forms of those who were even then
deciding the fate of Tennessee.  And above all this, etched on the
dark firmament, rose the Sierra, remote and passionless, crowned
with remoter passionless stars.

The trial of Tennessee was conducted as fairly as was consistent
with a judge and jury who felt themselves to some extent obliged to
justify, in their verdict, the previous irregularities of arrest
and indictment.  The law of Sandy Bar was implacable, but not
vengeful.  The excitement and personal feeling of the chase were
over; with Tennessee safe in their hands they were ready to listen
patiently to any defense, which they were already satisfied was
insufficient.  There being no doubt in their own minds, they were
willing to give the prisoner the benefit of any that might exist.
Secure in the hypothesis that he ought to be hanged, on general
principles, they indulged him with more latitude of defense than
his reckless hardihood seemed to ask.  The Judge appeared to be
more anxious than the prisoner, who, otherwise unconcerned,
evidently took a grim pleasure in the responsibility he had
created.  “I don’t take any hand in this yer game,” had been his
invariable but good-humored reply to all questions.  The Judge–who
was also his captor–for a moment vaguely regretted that he had not
shot him “on sight” that morning, but presently dismissed this
human weakness as unworthy of the judicial mind.  Nevertheless,
when there was a tap at the door, and it was said that Tennessee’s
Partner was there on behalf of the prisoner, he was admitted at
once without question.  Perhaps the younger members of the jury, to
whom the proceedings were becoming irksomely thoughtful, hailed him
as a relief.

For he was not, certainly, an imposing figure.  Short and stout,
with a square face sunburned into a preternatural redness, clad in
a loose duck “jumper” and trousers streaked and splashed with red
soil, his aspect under any circumstances would have been quaint,
and was now even ridiculous.  As he stooped to deposit at his feet
a heavy carpetbag he was carrying, it became obvious, from
partially developed legends and inscriptions, that the material
with which his trousers had been patched had been originally
intended for a less ambitious covering.  Yet he advanced with great
gravity, and after having shaken the hand of each person in the
room with labored cordiality, he wiped his serious, perplexed face
on a red bandanna handkerchief, a shade lighter than his
complexion, laid his powerful hand upon the table to steady
himself, and thus addressed the Judge:

“I was passin’ by,” he began, by way of apology, “and I thought I’d
just step in and see how things was gittin’ on with Tennessee thar–
my pardner.  It’s a hot night.  I disremember any sich weather
before on the Bar.”

He paused a moment, but nobody volunteering any other
meteorological recollection, he again had recourse to his pocket
handkerchief, and for some moments mopped his face diligently.

“Have you anything to say in behalf of the prisoner?” said the
Judge, finally.

“Thet’s it,” said Tennessee’s Partner, in a tone of relief.  “I
come yar as Tennessee’s pardner–knowing him nigh on four year, off
and on, wet and dry, in luck and out o’ luck.  His ways ain’t
allers my ways, but thar ain’t any p’ints in that young man, thar
ain’t any liveliness as he’s been up to, as I don’t know.  And you
sez to me, sez you–confidential-like, and between man and man–sez
you, ‘Do you know anything in his behalf?’ and I sez to you, sez I–
confidential-like, as between man and man–‘What should a man
know of his pardner?'”

“Is this all you have to say?” asked the Judge impatiently,
feeling, perhaps, that a dangerous sympathy of humor was beginning
to humanize the Court.

“Thet’s so,” continued Tennessee’s Partner.  “It ain’t for me to
say anything agin’ him.  And now, what’s the case?  Here’s
Tennessee wants money, wants it bad, and doesn’t like to ask it of
his old pardner.  Well, what does Tennessee do?  He lays for a
stranger, and he fetches that stranger.  And you lays for HIM, and
you fetches HIM; and the honors is easy.  And I put it to you,
bein’ a far-minded man, and to you, gentlemen, all, as far-minded
men, ef this isn’t so.”

“Prisoner,” said the Judge, interrupting, “have you any questions
to ask this man?”

“No! no!” continued Tennessee’s Partner, hastily.  “I play this yer
hand alone.  To come down to the bedrock, it’s just this:
Tennessee, thar, has played it pretty rough and expensive-like on a
stranger, and on this yer camp.  And now, what’s the fair thing?
Some would say more; some would say less.  Here’s seventeen hundred
dollars in coarse gold and a watch–it’s about all my pile–and
call it square!”  And before a hand could be raised to prevent him,
he had emptied the contents of the carpetbag upon the table.

For a moment his life was in jeopardy.  One or two men sprang to
their feet, several hands groped for hidden weapons, and a
suggestion to “throw him from the window” was only overridden by a
gesture from the Judge.  Tennessee laughed.  And apparently
oblivious of the excitement, Tennessee’s Partner improved the
opportunity to mop his face again with his handkerchief.

When order was restored, and the man was made to understand, by the
use of forcible figures and rhetoric, that Tennessee’s offense
could not be condoned by money, his face took a more serious and
sanguinary hue, and those who were nearest to him noticed that his
rough hand trembled slightly on the table.  He hesitated a moment
as he slowly returned the gold to the carpetbag, as if he had not
yet entirely caught the elevated sense of justice which swayed the
tribunal, and was perplexed with the belief that he had not offered
enough.  Then he turned to the Judge, and saying, “This yer is a
lone hand, played alone, and without my pardner,” he bowed to the
jury and was about to withdraw when the Judge called him back.  “If
you have anything to say to Tennessee, you had better say it now.”
For the first time that evening the eyes of the prisoner and his
strange advocate met.  Tennessee smiled, showed his white teeth,
and, saying, “Euchred, old man!” held out his hand.  Tennessee’s
Partner took it in his own, and saying, “I just dropped in as I was
passin’ to see how things was gettin’ on,” let the hand passively
fall, and adding that it was a warm night, again mopped his face
with his handkerchief, and without another word withdrew.

The two men never again met each other alive.  For the unparalleled
insult of a bribe offered to Judge Lynch–who, whether bigoted,
weak, or narrow, was at least incorruptible–firmly fixed in the
mind of that mythical personage any wavering determination of
Tennessee’s fate; and at the break of day he was marched, closely
guarded, to meet it at the top of Marley’s Hill.

How he met it, how cool he was, how he refused to say anything, how
perfect were the arrangements of the committee, were all duly
reported, with the addition of a warning moral and example to all
future evildoers, in the RED DOG CLARION, by its editor, who was
present, and to whose vigorous English I cheerfully refer the
reader.  But the beauty of that midsummer morning, the blessed
amity of earth and air and sky, the awakened life of the free woods
and hills, the joyous renewal and promise of Nature, and above all,
the infinite Serenity that thrilled through each, was not reported,
as not being a part of the social lesson.  And yet, when the weak
and foolish deed was done, and a life, with its possibilities and
responsibilities, had passed out of the misshapen thing that
dangled between earth and sky, the birds sang, the flowers bloomed,
the sun shone, as cheerily as before; and possibly the RED DOG
CLARION was right.

Tennessee’s Partner was not in the group that surrounded the
ominous tree.  But as they turned to disperse attention was drawn
to the singular appearance of a motionless donkey cart halted at
the side of the road.  As they approached, they at once recognized
the venerable “Jenny” and the two-wheeled cart as the property of
Tennessee’s Partner–used by him in carrying dirt from his claim;
and a few paces distant the owner of the equipage himself, sitting
under a buckeye tree, wiping the perspiration from his glowing
face.  In answer to an inquiry, he said he had come for the body of
the “diseased,” “if it was all the same to the committee.”  He
didn’t wish to “hurry anything”; he could “wait.”  He was not
working that day; and when the gentlemen were done with the
“diseased,” he would take him.  “Ef thar is any present,” he added,
in his simple, serious way, “as would care to jine in the fun’l,
they kin come.”  Perhaps it was from a sense of humor, which I have
already intimated was a feature of Sandy Bar–perhaps it was from
something even better than that; but two-thirds of the loungers
accepted the invitation at once.

It was noon when the body of Tennessee was delivered into the hands
of his Partner.  As the cart drew up to the fatal tree, we noticed
that it contained a rough, oblong box–apparently made from a
section of sluicing and half-filled with bark and the tassels of
pine.  The cart was further decorated with slips of willow, and
made fragrant with buckeye blossoms.  When the body was deposited
in the box, Tennessee’s Partner drew over it a piece of tarred
canvas, and gravely mounting the narrow seat in front, with his
feet upon the shafts, urged the little donkey forward.  The
equipage moved slowly on, at that decorous pace which was habitual
with “Jenny” even under less solemn circumstances.  The men–half
curiously, half jestingly, but all good-humoredly–strolled along
beside the cart; some in advance, some a little in the rear of the
homely catafalque.  But, whether from the narrowing of the road or
some present sense of decorum, as the cart passed on, the company
fell to the rear in couples, keeping step, and otherwise assuming
the external show of a formal procession.  Jack Folinsbee, who had
at the outset played a funeral march in dumb show upon an imaginary
trombone, desisted, from a lack of sympathy and appreciation–not
having, perhaps, your true humorist’s capacity to be content with
the enjoyment of his own fun.

The way led through Grizzly Canyon–by this time clothed in
funereal drapery and shadows.  The redwoods, burying their
moccasined feet in the red soil, stood in Indian file along the
track, trailing an uncouth benediction from their bending boughs
upon the passing bier.  A hare, surprised into helpless inactivity,
sat upright and pulsating in the ferns by the roadside as the
cortege went by.  Squirrels hastened to gain a secure outlook from
higher boughs; and the bluejays, spreading their wings, fluttered
before them like outriders, until the outskirts of Sandy Bar were
reached, and the solitary cabin of Tennessee’s Partner.

Viewed under more favorable circumstances, it would not have been a
cheerful place.  The unpicturesque site, the rude and unlovely
outlines, the unsavory details, which distinguish the nest-building
of the California miner, were all here, with the dreariness of
decay superadded.  A few paces from the cabin there was a rough
enclosure, which in the brief days of Tennessee’s Partner’s
matrimonial felicity had been used as a garden, but was now
overgrown with fern.  As we approached it we were surprised to find
that what we had taken for a recent attempt at cultivation was the
broken soil about an open grave.

The cart was halted before the enclosure; and rejecting the offers
of assistance with the same air of simple self-reliance he had
displayed throughout, Tennessee’s Partner lifted the rough coffin
on his back and deposited it, unaided, within the shallow grave.
He then nailed down the board which served as a lid; and mounting
the little mound of earth beside it, took off his hat, and slowly
mopped his face with his handkerchief.  This the crowd felt was a
preliminary to speech; and they disposed themselves variously on
stumps and boulders, and sat expectant.

“When a man,” began Tennessee’s Partner, slowly, “has been running
free all day, what’s the natural thing for him to do?  Why, to come
home.  And if he ain’t in a condition to go home, what can his best
friend do?  Why, bring him home!  And here’s Tennessee has been
running free, and we brings him home from his wandering.”  He
paused, and picked up a fragment of quartz, rubbed it thoughtfully
on his sleeve, and went on: “It ain’t the first time that I’ve
packed him on my back, as you see’d me now.  It ain’t the first
time that I brought him to this yer cabin when he couldn’t help
himself; it ain’t the first time that I and ‘Jinny’ have waited for
him on yon hill, and picked him up and so fetched him home, when he
couldn’t speak, and didn’t know me.  And now that it’s the last
time, why”–he paused and rubbed the quartz gently on his sleeve–
“you see it’s sort of rough on his pardner.  And now, gentlemen,”
he added, abruptly, picking up his long-handled shovel, “the
fun’l’s over; and my thanks, and Tennessee’s thanks, to you for
your trouble.”

Resisting any proffers of assistance, he began to fill in the
grave, turning his back upon the crowd that after a few moments’
hesitation gradually withdrew.  As they crossed the little ridge
that hid Sandy Bar from view, some, looking back, thought they
could see Tennessee’s Partner, his work done, sitting upon the
grave, his shovel between his knees, and his face buried in his red
bandanna handkerchief.  But it was argued by others that you
couldn’t tell his face from his handkerchief at that distance; and
this point remained undecided.

In the reaction that followed the feverish excitement of that day,
Tennessee’s Partner was not forgotten.  A secret investigation had
cleared him of any complicity in Tennessee’s guilt, and left only a
suspicion of his general sanity.  Sandy Bar made a point of calling
on him, and proffering various uncouth, but well-meant kindnesses.
But from that day his rude health and great strength seemed visibly
to decline; and when the rainy season fairly set in, and the tiny
grass-blades were beginning to peep from the rocky mound above
Tennessee’s grave, he took to his bed.  One night, when the pines
beside the cabin were swaying in the storm, and trailing their
slender fingers over the roof, and the roar and rush of the swollen
river were heard below, Tennessee’s Partner lifted his head from
the pillow, saying, “It is time to go for Tennessee; I must put
‘Jinny’ in the cart”; and would have risen from his bed but for the
restraint of his attendant.  Struggling, he still pursued his
singular fancy: “There, now, steady, ‘Jinny’–steady, old girl.
How dark it is!  Look out for the ruts–and look out for him, too,
old gal.  Sometimes, you know, when he’s blind-drunk, he drops down
right in the trail.  Keep on straight up to the pine on the top of
the hill.  Thar–I told you so!–thar he is–coming this way, too–
all by himself, sober, and his face a-shining.  Tennessee!
Pardner!”

And so they met.


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