Read THE ILIAD OF SANDY BAR. of Mrs. Skaggs's Husbands and Other Stories , free online book, by Bret Harte, on

Before nine o’clock it was pretty well known all along the river that the two partners of the “Amity Claim” had quarrelled and separated at daybreak.  At that time the attention of their nearest neighbor had been attracted by the sounds of altercations and two consecutive pistol-shots.  Running out, he had seen, dimly, in the gray mist that rose from the river, the tall form of Scott, one of the partners, descending the hill toward the canyon; a moment later, York, the other partner, had appeared from the cabin, and walked in an opposite direction toward the river, passing within a few feet of the curious watcher.  Later it was discovered that a serious Chinaman, cutting wood before the cabin, had witnessed part of the quarrel.  But John was stolid, indifferent, and reticent.  “Me choppee wood, me no fightee,” was his serene response to all anxious queries.  “But what did they say, John?” John did not sabe.  Colonel Starbottle deftly ran over the various popular epithets which a generous public sentiment might accept as reasonable provocation for an assault.  But John did not recognize them.  “And this yer’s the cattle,” said the Colonel, with some severity, “that some thinks oughter be allowed to testify ag’in’ a White Man!  Git ­you heathen!”

Still the quarrel remained inexplicable.  That two men, whose amiability and grave tact had earned for them the title of “The Peacemakers,” in a community not greatly given to the passive virtues, ­that these men, singularly devoted to each other, should suddenly and violently quarrel, might well excite the curiosity of the camp.  A few of the more inquisitive visited the late scene of conflict, now deserted by its former occupants.  There was no trace of disorder or confusion in the neat cabin.  The rude table was arranged as if for breakfast; the pan of yellow biscuit still sat upon that hearth whose dead embers might have typified the evil passions that had raged there but an hour before.  But Colonel Starbottle’s eye ­albeit somewhat bloodshot and rheumy ­was more intent on practical details.  On examination, a bullet-hole was found in the doorpost, and another, nearly opposite, in the casing of the window.  The Colonel called attention to the fact that the one “agreed with” the bore of Scott’s revolver, and the other with that of York’s derringer.  “They must hev stood about yer,” said the Colonel, taking position; “not mor’n three feet apart, and ­missed!” There was a fine touch of pathos in the falling inflection of the Colonel’s voice, which was not without effect.  A delicate perception of wasted opportunity thrilled his auditors.

But the Bar was destined to experience a greater disappointment.  The two antagonists had not met since the quarrel, and it was vaguely rumored that, on the occasion of a second meeting, each had determined to kill the other “on sight.”  There was, consequently, some excitement ­and, it is to be feared, no little gratification ­when, at ten o’clock, York stepped from the Magnolia Saloon into the one long straggling street of the camp, at the same moment that Scott left the blacksmith’s shop at the forks of the road.  It was evident, at a glance, that a meeting could only be avoided by the actual retreat of one or the other.

In an instant the doors and windows of the adjacent saloons were filled with faces.  Heads unaccountably appeared above the river-banks and from behind bowlders.  An empty wagon at the cross-road was suddenly crowded with people, who seemed to have sprung from the earth.  There was much running and confusion on the hillside.  On the mountain-road, Mr. Jack Hamlin had reined up his horse, and was standing upright on the seat of his buggy.  And the two objects of this absorbing attention approached each other.

“York’s got the sun,” “Scott’ll line him on that tree,” “He’s waitin’ to draw his fire,” came from the cart; and then it was silent.  But above this human breathlessness the river rushed and sang, and the wind rustled the tree-tops with an indifference that seemed obtrusive.  Colonel Starbottle felt it, and in a moment of sublime preoccupation, without looking around, waved his cane behind him, warningly to all nature, and said, “Shu!”

The men were now within a few feet of each other.  A hen ran across the road before one of them.  A feathery seed-vessel, wafted from a wayside tree, fell at the feet of the other.  And, unheeding this irony of nature, the two opponents came nearer, erect and rigid, looked in each other’s eyes, and ­passed!

Colonel Starbottle had to be lifted from the cart.  “This yer camp is played out,” he said, gloomily, as he affected to be supported into the Magnolia.  With what further expression he might have indicated his feelings it was impossible to say, for at that moment Scott joined the group.  “Did you speak to me?” he asked of the Colonel, dropping his hand, as if with accidental familiarity, on that gentleman’s shoulder.  The Colonel, recognizing some occult quality in the touch, and some unknown quantity in the glance of his questioner, contented himself by replying, “No, sir,” with dignity.  A few rods away, York’s conduct was as characteristic and peculiar.  “You had a mighty fine chance; why didn’t you plump him?” said Jack Hamlin, as York drew near the buggy.  “Because I hate him,” was the reply, heard only by Jack.  Contrary to popular belief, this reply was not hissed between the lips of the speaker, but was said in an ordinary tone.  But Jack Hamlin, who was an observer of mankind, noticed that the speaker’s hands were cold, and his lips dry, as he helped him into the buggy, and accepted the seeming paradox with a smile.

When Sandy Bar became convinced that the quarrel between York and Scott could not be settled after the usual local methods, it gave no further concern thereto.  But presently it was rumored that the “Amity Claim” was in litigation, and that its possession would be expensively disputed by each of the partners.  As it was well known that the claim in question was “worked out” and worthless, and that the partners, whom it had already enriched, had talked of abandoning it but a day or two before the quarrel, this proceeding could only be accounted for as gratuitous spite.  Later, two San Francisco lawyers made their appearance in this guileless Arcadia, and were eventually taken into the saloons, and ­what was pretty much the same thing ­the confidences of the inhabitants.  The results of this unhallowed intimacy were many subpoenas; and, indeed, when the “Amity Claim” came to trial, all of Sandy Bar that was not in compulsory attendance at the county seat came there from curiosity.  The gulches and ditches for miles around were deserted.  I do not propose to describe that already famous trial.  Enough that, in the language of the plaintiff’s counsel, “it was one of no ordinary significance, involving the inherent rights of that untiring industry which had developed the Pactolian resources of this golden land”; and, in the homelier phrase of Colonel Starbottle, “A fuss that gentlemen might hev settled in ten minutes over a social glass, ef they meant business; or in ten seconds with a revolver, ef they meant fun.”  Scott got a verdict, from which York instantly appealed.  It was said that he had sworn to spend his last dollar in the struggle.

In this way Sandy Bar began to accept the enmity of the former partners as a lifelong feud, and the fact that they had ever been friends was forgotten.  The few who expected to learn from the trial the origin of the quarrel were disappointed.  Among the various conjectures, that which ascribed some occult feminine influence as the cause was naturally popular, in a camp given to dubious compliment of the sex.  “My word for it, gentlemen,” said Colonel Starbottle, who had been known in Sacramento as a Gentleman of the Old School, “there’s some lovely creature at the bottom of this.”  The gallant Colonel then proceeded to illustrate his theory, by divers sprightly stories, such as Gentlemen of the Old School are in the habit of repeating, but which, from deference to the prejudices of gentlemen of a more recent school, I refrain from transcribing here.  But it would appear that even the Colonel’s theory was fallacious.  The only woman who personally might have exercised any influence over the partners was the pretty daughter of “old man Folinsbee,” of Poverty Flat, at whose hospitable house ­which exhibited some comforts and refinements rare in that crude civilization ­both York and Scott were frequent visitors.  Yet into this charming retreat York strode one evening, a month after the quarrel, and, beholding Scott sitting there, turned to the fair hostess with the abrupt query, “Do you love this man?” The young woman thus addressed returned that answer ­at once spirited and evasive ­which would occur to most of my fair readers in such an exigency.  Without another word, York left the house.  “Miss Jo” heaved the least possible sigh as the door closed on York’s curls and square shoulders, and then, like a good girl, turned to her insulted guest “But would you believe it, dear?” she afterward related to an intimate friend, “the other creature, after glowering at me for a moment, got upon its hind legs, took its hat, and left, too; and that’s the last I’ve seen of either.”

The same hard disregard of all other interests or feelings in the gratification of their blind rancor characterized all their actions.  When York purchased the land below Scott’s new claim, and obliged the latter, at a great expense, to make a long detour to carry a “tail-race” around it, Scott retaliated by building a dam that overflowed York’s claim on the river.  It was Scott, who, in conjunction with Colonel Starbottle, first organized that active opposition to the Chinamen, which resulted in the driving off of York’s Mongolian laborers; it was York who built the wagon-road and established the express which rendered Scott’s mules and pack-trains obsolete; it was Scott who called into life the Vigilance Committee which expatriated York’s friend, Jack Hamlin; it was York who created the “Sandy Bar Herald,” which characterized the act as “a lawless outrage,” and Scott as a “Border Ruffian”; it was Scott, at the head of twenty masked men, who, one moonlight night, threw the offending “forms” into the yellow river, and scattered the types in the dusty road.  These proceedings were received in the distant and more civilized outlying towns as vague indications of progress and vitality.  I have before me a copy of the “Poverty Flat Pioneer,” for the week ending August 12, 1856, in which the editor, under the head of “County Improvements,” says:  “The new Presbyterian Church on C Street, at Sandy Bar, is completed.  It stands upon the lot formerly occupied by the Magnolia Saloon, which was so mysteriously burnt last month.  The temple, which now rises like a Phoenix from the ashes of the Magnolia, is virtually the free gift of H. J. York, Esq., of Sandy Bar, who purchased the lot and donated the lumber.  Other buildings are going up in the vicinity, but the most noticeable is the ‘Sunny South Saloon,’ erected by Captain Mat.  Scott, nearly opposite the church.  Captain Scott has spared no expense in the furnishing of this saloon, which promises to be one of the most agreeable places of resort in old Tuolumne.  He has recently imported two new, first-class billiard-tables, with cork cushions.  Our old friend, ’Mountain Jimmy,’ will dispense liquors at the bar.  We refer our readers to the advertisement in another column.  Visitors to Sandy Bar cannot do better than give ‘Jimmy’ a call.”  Among the local items occurred the following:  “H.  J. York, Esq., of Sandy Bar, has offered a reward of $100 for the detection of the parties who hauled away the steps of the new Presbyterian Church, C Street, Sandy Bar, during divine service on Sabbath evening last.  Captain Scott adds another hundred for the capture of the miscreants who broke the magnificent plate-glass windows of the new saloon on the following evening.  There is some talk of reorganizing the old Vigilance Committee at Sandy Bar.”

When, for many months of cloudless weather, the hard, unwinking sun of Sandy Bar had regularly gone down on the unpacified wrath of these men, there was some talk of mediation.  In particular, the pastor of the church to which I have just referred ­a sincere, fearless, but perhaps not fully enlightened man ­seized gladly upon the occasion of York’s liberality to attempt to reunite the former partners.  He preached an earnest sermon on the abstract sinfulness of discord and rancor.  But the excellent sermons of the Rev. Mr. Daws were directed to an ideal congregation that did not exist at Sandy Bar, ­a congregation of beings of unmixed vices and virtues, of single impulses, and perfectly logical motives, of preternatural simplicity, of childlike faith, and grown-up responsibilities.  As, unfortunately, the people who actually attended Mr. Daws’s church were mainly very human, somewhat artful, more self-excusing than self-accusing, rather good-natured, and decidedly weak, they quietly shed that portion of the sermon which referred to themselves, and, accepting York and Scott ­who were both in defiant attendance ­as curious examples of those ideal beings above referred to, felt a certain satisfaction ­which, I fear, was not altogether Christian-like ­in their “raking-down.”  If Mr. Daws expected York and Scott to shake hands after the sermon, he was disappointed.  But he did not relax his purpose.  With that quiet fearlessness and determination which had won for him the respect of men who were too apt to regard piety as synonymous with effeminacy, he attacked Scott in his own house.  What he said has not been recorded, but it is to be feared that it was part of his sermon.  When he had concluded, Scott looked at him, not unkindly, over the glasses of his bar, and said, less irreverently than the words might convey, “Young man, I rather like your style; but when you know York and me as well as you do God Almighty, it’ll be time to talk.”

And so the feud progressed; and so, as in more illustrious examples, the private and personal enmity of two representative men led gradually to the evolution of some crude, half-expressed principle or belief.  It was not long before it was made evident that those beliefs were identical with certain broad principles laid down by the founders of the American Constitution, as expounded by the statesmanlike A; or were the fatal quicksands, on which the ship of state might be wrecked, warningly pointed out by the eloquent B. The practical result of all which was the nomination of York and Scott to represent the opposite factions of Sandy Bar in legislative councils.

For some weeks past, the voters of Sandy Bar and the adjacent camps had been called upon, in large type, to “Rally!” In vain the great pines at the cross-roads ­whose trunks were compelled to bear this and other legends ­moaned and protested from their windy watch-towers.  But one day, with fife and drum, and flaming transparency, a procession filed into the triangular grove at the head of the gulch.  The meeting was called to order by Colonel Starbottle, who, having once enjoyed legislative functions, and being vaguely known as a “war-horse,” was considered to be a valuable partisan of York.  He concluded an appeal for his friend, with an enunciation of principles, interspersed with one or two anecdotes so gratuitously coarse that the very pines might have been moved to pelt him with their cast-off cones, as he stood there.  But he created a laugh, on which his candidate rode into popular notice; and when York rose to speak, he was greeted with cheers.  But, to the general astonishment, the new speaker at once launched into bitter denunciation of his rival.  He not only dwelt upon Scott’s deeds and example, as known to Sandy Bar, but spoke of facts connected with his previous career, hitherto unknown to his auditors.  To great precision of epithet and directness of statement, the speaker added the fascination of revelation and exposure.  The crowd cheered, yelled, and were delighted, but when this astounding philippic was concluded, there was a unanimous call for “Scott!” Colonel Starbottle would have resisted this manifest impropriety, but in vain.  Partly from a crude sense of justice, partly from a meaner craving for excitement, the assemblage was inflexible; and Scott was dragged, pushed, and pulled upon the platform.

As his frowsy head and unkempt beard appeared above the railing, it was evident that he was drunk.  But it was also evident, before he opened his lips, that the orator of Sandy Bar ­the one man who could touch their vagabond sympathies (perhaps because he was not above appealing to them) ­stood before them.  A consciousness of this power lent a certain dignity to his figure, and I am not sure but that his very physical condition impressed them as a kind of regal unbending and large condescension.  Howbeit, when this unexpected Hector arose from the ditch, York’s myrmidons trembled.

“There’s naught, gentlemen,” said Scott, leaning forward on the railing, ­“there’s naught as that man hez said as isn’t true.  I was run outer Cairo; I did belong to the Regulators; I did desert from the army; I did leave a wife in Kansas.  But thar’s one thing he didn’t charge me with, and, maybe, he’s forgotten.  For three years, gentlemen, I was that man’s pardner! ­” Whether he intended to say more, I cannot tell; a burst of applause artistically rounded and enforced the climax, and virtually elected the speaker.  That fall he went to Sacramento, York went abroad; and for the first time in many years, distance and a new atmosphere isolated the old antagonists.

With little of change in the green wood, gray rock, and yellow river, but with much shifting of human landmarks, and new faces in its habitations, three years passed over Sandy Bar.  The two men, once so identified with its character, seemed to have been quite forgotten.  “You will never return to Sandy Bar,” said Miss Folinsbee, the “Lily of Poverty Flat,” on meeting York in Paris, “for Sandy Bar is no more.  They call it Riverside now; and the new town is built higher up on the river-bank.  By the by, ‘Jo’ says that Scott has won his suit about the ‘Amity Claim,’ and that he lives in the old cabin, and is drunk half his time.  O, I beg your pardon,” added the lively lady, as a flush crossed York’s sallow cheek; “but, bless me, I really thought that old grudge was made up.  I’m sure it ought to be.”

It was three months after this conversation, and a pleasant summer evening, that the Poverty Flat coach drew up before the veranda of the Union Hotel at Sandy Bar.  Among its passengers was one, apparently a stranger, in the local distinction of well-fitting clothes and closely shaven face, who demanded a private room and retired early to rest.  But before sunrise next morning he arose, and, drawing some clothes from his carpet-bag, proceeded to array himself in a pair of white duck trousers, a white duck overshirt, and straw hat.  When his toilet was completed, he tied a red bandanna handkerchief in a loop and threw it loosely over his shoulders.  The transformation was complete.  As he crept softly down the stairs and stepped into the road, no one would have detected in him the elegant stranger of the previous night, and but few have recognized the face and figure of Henry York of Sandy Bar.

In the uncertain light of that early hour, and in the change that had come over the settlement, he had to pause for a moment to recall where he stood.  The Sandy Bar of his recollection lay below him, nearer the river; the buildings around him were of later date and newer fashion.  As he strode toward the river, he noticed here a schoolhouse and there a church.  A little farther on, “The Sunny South” came in view, transformed into a restaurant, its gilding faded and its paint rubbed off.  He now knew where he was; and, running briskly down a declivity, crossed a ditch, and stood upon the lower boundary of the Amity Claim.

The gray mist was rising slowly from the river, clinging to the tree-tops and drifting up the mountain-side, until it was caught among those rocky altars, and held a sacrifice to the ascending sun.  At his feet the earth, cruelly gashed and scarred by his forgotten engines, had, since the old days, put on a show of greenness here and there, and now smiled forgivingly up at him, as if things were not so bad after all.  A few birds were bathing in the ditch with a pleasant suggestion of its being a new and special provision of nature, and a hare ran into an inverted sluice-box, as he approached, as if it were put there for that purpose.

He had not yet dared to look in a certain direction.  But the sun was now high enough to paint the little eminence on which the cabin stood.  In spite of his self-control, his heart beat faster as he raised his eyes toward it.  Its window and door were closed, no smoke came from its adobe chimney, but it was else unchanged.  When within a few yards of it, he picked up a broken shovel, and, shouldering it with a smile, strode toward the door and knocked.  There was no sound from within.  The smile died upon his lips as he nervously pushed the door open.

A figure started up angrily and came toward him, ­a figure whose bloodshot eyes suddenly fixed into a vacant stare, whose arms were at first outstretched and then thrown up in warning gesticulation, ­a figure that suddenly gasped, choked, and then fell forward in a fit.

But before he touched the ground, York had him out into the open air and sunshine.  In the struggle, both fell and rolled over on the ground.  But the next moment York was sitting up, holding the convulsed frame of his former partner on his knee, and wiping the foam from his inarticulate lips.  Gradually the tremor became less frequent, and then ceased; and the strong man lay unconscious in his arms.

For some moments York held him quietly thus, looking in his face.  Afar, the stroke of a wood-man’s axe ­a mere phantom of sound ­was all that broke the stillness.  High up the mountain, a wheeling hawk hung breathlessly above them.  And then came voices, and two men joined them.

“A fight?” No, a fit; and would they help him bring the sick man to the hotel?

And there, for a week, the stricken partner lay, unconscious of aught but the visions wrought by disease and fear.  On the eighth day, at sunrise, he rallied, and, opening his eyes, looked upon York, and pressed his hand; then he spoke: ­

“And it’s you.  I thought it was only whiskey.”

York replied by taking both of his hands, boyishly working them backward and forward, as his elbow rested on the bed, with a pleasant smile.

“And you’ve been abroad.  How did you like Paris?”

“So, so.  How did you like Sacramento?”


And that was all they could think to say.  Presently Scott opened his eyes again.

“I’m mighty weak.”

“You’ll get better soon.”

“Not much.”

A long silence followed, in which they could hear the sounds of wood-chopping, and that Sandy Bar was already astir for the coming day.  Then Scott slowly and with difficulty turned his face to York, and said, ­

“I might hev killed you once.”

“I wish you had.”

They pressed each other’s hands again, but Scott’s grasp was evidently failing.  He seemed to summon his energies for a special effort.

“Old man!”

“Old chap.”


York bent his head toward the slowly fading face.

“Do ye mind that morning?”


A gleam of fun slid into the corner of Scott’s blue eye, as he whispered, ­

“Old man, thar was too much saleratus in that bread.”

It is said that these were his last words.  For when the sun, which had so often gone down upon the idle wrath of these foolish men, looked again upon them reunited, it saw the hand of Scott fall cold and irresponsive from the yearning clasp of his former partner, and it knew that the feud of Sandy Bar was at an end.