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Colonel Starbottle's Client








From: Colonel Starbottle's Client And Other Stories

CHAPTER I.


It may be remembered that it was the habit of that gallant "war-horse"
of the Calaveras democracy, Colonel Starbottle, at the close of a
political campaign, to return to his original profession of the
Law. Perhaps it could not be called a peaceful retirement. The same
fiery-tongued eloquence and full-breasted chivalry which had in turns
thrilled and overawed freemen at the polls were no less fervid and
embattled before a jury. Yet the Colonel was counsel for two or three
pastoral Ditch companies and certain bucolic corporations, and although
he managed to import into the simplest question of contract more or less
abuse of opposing counsel, and occasionally mingled precedents of law
with antecedents of his adversary, his legal victories were seldom
complicated by bloodshed. He was only once shot at by a free-handed
judge, and twice assaulted by an over-sensitive litigant. Nevertheless,
it was thought merely prudent, while preparing the papers in the well
known case of "The Arcadian Shepherds' Association of Tuolumne versus
the Kedron Vine and Fig Tree Growers of Calaveras," that the Colonel
should seek with a shotgun the seclusion of his partner's law office
in the sylvan outskirts of Rough and Ready for that complete rest and
serious preoccupation which Marysville could not afford.

It was an exceptionally hot day. The painted shingles of the plain
wooden one-storied building in which the Colonel sat were warped and
blistering in the direct rays of the fierce, untempered sun. The tin
sign bearing the dazzling legend, "Starbottle and Bungstarter, Attorneys
and Counselors," glowed with an insufferable light; the two pine-trees
still left in the clearing around the house, ineffective as shade,
seemed only to have absorbed the day-long heat through every scorched
and crisp twig and fibre, to radiate it again with the pungent smell of
a slowly smouldering fire; the air was motionless yet vibrating in the
sunlight; on distant shallows the half-dried river was flashing and
intolerable.

Seated in a wooden armchair before a table covered with books and
papers, yet with that apparently haughty attitude towards it affected
by gentlemen of abdominal fullness, Colonel Starbottle supported himself
with one hand grasping the arm of his chair and the other vigorously
plying a huge palm-leaf fan. He was perspiring freely. He had taken off
his characteristic blue frock-coat, waistcoat, cravat, and collar, and,
stripped only to his ruffled shirt and white drill trousers, presented
the appearance from the opposite side of the table of having hastily
risen to work in his nightgown. A glass with a thin sediment of sugar
and lemon-peel remaining in it stood near his elbow. Suddenly a black
shadow fell on the staring, uncarpeted hall. It was that of a stranger
who had just entered from the noiseless dust of the deserted road. The
Colonel cast a rapid glance at his sword-cane, which lay on the table.

But the stranger, although sallow and morose-looking, was evidently
of pacific intent. He paused on the threshold in a kind of surly
embarrassment.

"I reckon this is Colonel Starbottle," he said at last, glancing
gloomily round him, as if the interview was not entirely of his own
seeking. "Well, I've seen you often enough, though you don't know me. My
name's Jo Corbin. I guess," he added, still discontentedly, "I have to
consult you about something."

"Corbin?" repeated the Colonel in his jauntiest manner. "Ah! Any
relation to old Maje Corbin of Nashville, sir?"

"No," said the stranger briefly. "I'm from Shelbyville."

"The Major," continued the Colonel, half closing his eyes as if to
follow the Major into the dreamy past, "the old Major, sir, a matter
of five or six years ago, was one of my most intimate political
friends,--in fact, sir, my most intimate friend. Take a chyar!"

But the stranger had already taken one, and during the Colonel's
reminiscence had leaned forward, with his eyes on the ground,
discontentedly swinging his soft hat between his legs. "Did you know Tom
Frisbee, of Yolo?" he asked abruptly.

"Er--no."

"Nor even heard anything about Frisbee, nor what happened to him?"
continued the man, with aggrieved melancholy.

In point of fact the Colonel did not think that he had.

"Nor anything about his being killed over at Fresno?" said the stranger,
with a desponding implication that the interview after all was a
failure.

"If--er--if you could--er--give me a hint or two," suggested the Colonel
blandly.

"There wasn't much," said the stranger, "if you don't remember." He
paused, then rising, he gloomily dragged his chair slowly beside
the table, and taking up a paperweight examined it with heavy
dissatisfaction. "You see," he went on slowly, "I killed him--it was a
quo'll. He was my pardner, but I reckon he must have drove me hard. Yes,
sir," he added with aggrieved reflection, "I reckon he drove me hard."

The Colonel smiled courteously, slightly expanding his chest under the
homicidal relation, as if, having taken it in and made it a part of
himself, he was ready, if necessary, to become personally responsible
for it. Then lifting his empty glass to the light, he looked at it with
half closed eyes, in polite imitation of his companion's examination
of the paper-weight, and set it down again. A casual spectator from
the window might have imagined that the two were engaged in an amicable
inventory of the furniture.

"And the--er--actual circumstances?" asked the Colonel.

"Oh, it was fair enough fight. THEY'LL tell you that. And so would HE,
I reckon--if he could. He was ugly and bedev'lin', but I didn't care to
quo'll, and give him the go-by all the time. He kept on, followed me out
of the shanty, drew, and fired twice. I"--he stopped and regarded his
hat a moment as if it was a corroborating witness--"I--I closed with
him--I had to--it was my only chance, and that ended it--and with his
own revolver. I never drew mine."

"I see," said the Colonel, nodding, "clearly justifiable and honorable
as regards the code. And you wish me to defend you?"

The stranger's gloomy expression of astonishment now turned to blank
hopelessness.

"I knew you didn't understand," he said, despairingly. "Why, all THAT
was TWO YEARS AGO. It's all settled and done and gone. The jury found
for me at the inquest. It ain't THAT I want to see you about. It's
something arising out of it."

"Ah," said the Colonel, affably, "a vendetta, perhaps. Some friend or
relation of his taken up the quarrel?"

The stranger looked abstractedly at Starbottle. "You think a relation
might; or would feel in that sort of way?"

"Why, blank it all, sir," said the Colonel, "nothing is more common.
Why, in '52 one of my oldest friends, Doctor Byrne, of St. Jo, the
seventh in a line from old General Byrne, of St. Louis, was killed,
sir, by Pinkey Riggs, seventh in a line from Senator Riggs, of Kentucky.
Original cause, sir, something about a d----d roasting ear, or a blank
persimmon in 1832; forty-seven men wiped out in twenty years. Fact,
sir."

"It ain't that," said the stranger, moving hesitatingly in his chair.
"If it was anything of that sort I wouldn't mind,--it might bring
matters to a wind-up, and I shouldn't have to come here and have this
cursed talk with you."

It was so evident that this frank and unaffected expression of some
obscure disgust with his own present position had no other implication,
that the Colonel did not except to it. Yet the man did not go on. He
stopped and seemed lost in sombre contemplation of his hat.

The Colonel leaned back in his chair, fanned himself elegantly, wiped
his forehead with a large pongee handkerchief, and looking at his
companion, whose shadowed abstraction seemed to render him impervious to
the heat, said:--

"My dear Mr. Corbin, I perfectly understand you. Blank it all, sir,
the temperature in this infernal hole is quite enough to render any
confidential conversation between gentlemen upon delicate matters
utterly impossible. It's almost as near Hades, sir, as they make
it,--as I trust you and I, Mr. Corbin, will ever experience. I propose,"
continued the Colonel, with airy geniality, "some light change and
refreshment. The bar-keeper of the Magnolia is--er--I may say, sir,
facile princeps in the concoction of mint juleps, and there is a back
room where I have occasionally conferred with political leaders at
election time. It is but a step, sir--in fact, on Main Street--round the
corner."

The stranger looked up and then rose mechanically as the Colonel resumed
his coat and waistcoat, but not his collar and cravat, which lay limp
and dejected among his papers. Then, sheltering himself beneath a
large-brimmed Panama hat, and hooking his cane on his arm, he led the
way, fan in hand, into the road, tiptoeing in his tight, polished boots
through the red, impalpable dust with his usual jaunty manner, yet
not without a profane suggestion of burning ploughshares. The stranger
strode in silence by his side in the burning sun,