The Spelling Bee
The Old Campfire
A Question of
Bret Harte's Christmas story, "Dick Spindler's Family Christmas," was published in 1894 as a part of Mr. Jack Hamlin's Mediation. The entire story is posted here, with our 2001 holiday collection of poems and stories.
The Spelling Bee at Angels
(Reported by Truthful James)
Waltz in, waltz in, ye little kids, and gather round my
And drop them books and first pot-hooks, and hear a yarn
I kin not sling a fair tale of Jinnys fierce and wild,
For I hold it is unchristian to deceive a simple child;
But as from school yer driftin' by, I thowt ye'd like to
Of a "Spelling Bee" at Angels that we organized last year.
It warn't made up of gentle kids, or pretty kids, like you,
But gents ez hed their reg'lar growth, and some enough for
There woz Lanky Jim of Sutter's Fork and Bilson of La-
And "Pistol Bob," who wore that day a knife by way of
You start, you little kids, you think these are not pretty
But each had a man behind it, and my name is Truthful
There was Poker Dick from Whisky Flat, and Smith of
And Brown of Calaveras which I want no better friend;
Three-fingered Jack yes, pretty dears, three fingers
you have five,
Clapp cut off two it's sing'lar, too, that Clapp ain't now
'T was very wrong indeed, my dears, and Clapp was much
Likewise was Jack, in after-years, for shootin' of the same.
The nights was kinder lengthenin' out, the rains had jest
When all the camp came up to Pete's to have their usual
But we all sot kinder sad-like around the bar-room stove
Till Smith got up, permiskiss-like, and this remark he hove:
"That's a new game down in Frisco, that ez far ez I can
Beats euchre, poker, and van-toon, they calls the 'Spellin'
Then Brown of Calaveras simply hitched his chair and
"Poker is good enough for me," and Lanky Jim sez,
And Bob allowed he warn't proud, but he "must say right
That the man who tackled euchre had his education squar."
This brought up Lenny Fairchild, the schoolmaster, who
He knew the game, and he would give instructions on that
"For instance, take some simple word," sez he, "like
Now who can spll it?" Dog my skin, ef thar was one in
This set the boys all wild at once. The chairs was put in
And at the head was Lanky Jim, and at the foot was Joe,
And high upon the bar itself the schoolmaster was raised,
And the bar-keep put his glasses down, and sat and silent
The first word out was "parallel," and seven let it be,
Till Joe waltzed in his "double l" betwixt the "a" and
For since he drilled them Mexicans in San Jacinto's fight
There warn't no prouder man got up than Pistol Joe that
Till "rhythm" came! He tried to smile, then said "they
had him there."
And Lanky Jim, with one long stride, got up and took his
O little kids, my pretty kids, 't was touchin' to survey
These bearded men, with weppings on, like schoolboys at
They'd laugh with glee, and shout to see each other lead
And Bob sat up as monitor with cue for a rattan,
Till the Chair gave out "incinerate," and Brown said he'd
If any such blamed word as that in school was ever learned.
When "phthisis" came they all sprang up, and vowed the
man who rung
Another blamed Greek work on them be taken out and hung.
As they sat down again I saw in Bilson's eye a flash,
And Brown of Calaveras was a-twistin' his moustache,
And when at last Brown slipped on "gneiss," and Bilson
took his chair,
He dropped some casual words about some folks who dyed
And then the Chair grew very white, and the Chair said
But Poker Dick remarked that he would wait and get his
Then with a tremblin' voice and hand, and with a wanderin'
The Chair next offered "eider-duck," and Dick began with
And Bilson smiled then Bilson shrieked! Just how the
I never knowed, for Bilson dropped, and Dick, he moved
Then certain gents arose and said "they'd business down
And "ez the road was rather dark, and ez the night was
They'd " here got up Three-fingered Jack and locked
the door and yelled:
"No, not one mother's son goes out till that thar word is
But while the words were on his lips, he groaned and sank
And sank with Webster on his chest and Worcester on his
Below the bar dodged Poker Dick, and tried to look ez he
Was huntin' up authorities that no one else could see;
And Brown got down behind the stove, allowin' he "was
Till it upsot and down his legs the cinders freely rolled,
And several gents called "Order!" till in his simple way,
Poor Smith began with "O-r" "Or" and he was
O little kids, my pretty kids, down on your knees and
You've got your eddication in a peaceful sort of way;
And bear in mind thar may be sharps ez slings their spellin'
But likewise slings their bowie-knives without a thought or
You wants to know the rest, my dears? That's all! In
me you see
The only gent that lived to tell about the Spellin' Bee!
He ceased and passed, that truthful man; the children went
With downcast heads and downcast hearts but not to
sport or play.
For when at eve the lamps was lit, and supperless to bed
Each child was sent, with tasks undone and lessons all un-
No man might know the awful woe that thrilled their
As they dreamed of Angels Spelling Bee and thought of
The Old Camp-Fire
Now shift the blanket pad before your saddle back you
And draw your cinch up tighter till the sweat drops from
We've a dozen miles to cover ere we reach the next divide.
Our limbs are stiffer now than when we first set out to ride,
And worse, the horses know it, and feel the leg-grip tire,
Since in the days when, long ago, we sought the old camp-fire.
Yes, twenty years! Lord! how we'd scent its incense
down the trail,
Through balm of bay and spice and spruce, when eye and ear
And word and faint from useless quest we crept, like this,
Or, flushed with luck and youthful hope, we rode, like this,
Ay, straighen up, old friend, and let the mustang think
Through looser rein and stirrup strain, the welcome old
You know the shout that would ring our before us down
And start the blue jays like a flight of arrows through the
And sift the thin pine needles down like slanting, shining
And send the squirrels scampering back to their holes again,
Until we saw, blue-veiled and dim, or leaping like desire,
That flame of twenty years ago, which lit the old camp-
And that that rest on Nature's breast, when talk had
dropped, and slow
The night wind went from tree to tree with challenge soft
We lay on lazy elbows propped, or stood to stir the flame,
Till up the soaring redwood's shaft our shadows danced and
As if to draw us with the sparks, high o'er its unseen spire,
To the five stars that kept their ward above the old camp-
Those picket stars whose tranquil watch half soothed, half
shamed our sleep.
What recked we then what beasts or men around might
lurk or creep?
We lay and heard with listless ears the far-off panther's cry,
The near coyote's snarling snap, the grizzly's deep-drawn sigh,
The brown bear's blundering human tread, the gray wolves'
Beyond the magic circle drawn around the old camp-fire.
And then that morn! Was ever morn so filled with all
The light that fell through long brown aisles from out the
The creak and yawn of stretching boughs, the jay-bird's
The rat-tat-tat of woodpecker that waked the woodland hall,
The fainter stir of lower life in fern and brake and brier,
Till flashing leaped the torch of Day from last night's old
Well, well! we'll see it once again; we should be near it
It's scarce a mile to where the trail strikes off to skirt
And then dip to the Indian Spring, the wooded rise, and
Yet here should stand the blasted pine that marked our
And here what's this? A ragged swale of ruts and
stumps and mire!
Sure this is not the sacred grove that hid the old camp-fire?
Yet here's the "blaze" I cut myself, and there's the
With quartz "outcrop" that lay atop, now leveled to its
And mounds of moss-grown stumps beside the woodman's
And gashes in the hillside, that gape with dumb red lips.
And yet above the shattered wreck and ruin, curling higher
Ah yes! still lifts the smoke that marked the welcome
Perhaps some friend of twenty years still lingers there to
To weary hearts and tired eyes that beacon of old days,
Perhaps but stay; 't is gone! and yet once more it lifts
To meet our tardy blundering steps, and seems to move, and
Whirls by us in a rush of sound, the vanished funeral
Of hopes and fears that twenty years burned in the old
For see, beyond the prospect spreads, with chimney, spire,
Two iron bands across the trail clank to our mustang's hoof;
Above them leap two blackened threads from limb-lopped
tree to tree,
To where the whitewashed station speeds it message to the
Rein in! Rein in! the quest is o'er. The goal of our
Is but the train whose track has lain across the old camp-
Cicely says you're a poet; maybe, I ain't much on
I'd reckon you'd give a hundred, and beat me every
Poetry! that's the way some chaps put up an idee,
But I takes mine "straight without sugar," and that's
what's the matter with me.
Poetry! just look round you, alkali, rock, and sage;
Sage-brush, rock, and alkali; ain't it a pretty page!
Sun in the east at mornin', sun in the west at night,
And the shadow of this 'yer station the only thing moves
Poetry! Well now Polly! Polly, run to your mam;
Run right away, my pooty! By-by! Ain't she a lamb?
Poetry! that reminds me o; suthin' right in that suit:
Jest shet that door thar, will yer? for Cicely's ears is
Ye noticed Polly, the baby? A month afore she was
Cicely my old woman was moodly-like and forlorn;
Out of her head and crazy, and talked of flowers and
Family man yourself, sir? Well you know what a woman
Nervous she was, and restless said that she "could n't
Stay! and the nearest woman seventeen miles away.
But I fixed it up with the doctor, and he said he would be
And I kinder stuck by the shanty, and fenced in that bit o'
One night, the tenth of October, I woke with a chill
and a fright,
For the door it was standing open, and Cicely warn't in
But a note was pinned on the blanket, which it said that
she "could n't stay,"
But had gone to visit her neighbor, seventeen miles
When and how she stampeded, I did n't wait for to see,
For out in the road, next minit, I started as wild as she;
Running first this way and that way, like a hound that is
off the scent,
For there warn't no track in the darkness to tell me the
way she went.
I've had some mighty mean moments afore I ken to this
Lost on the Plains in '50, drowned almost and shot;
But out on this alkali desert, a-hunting a crazy wife,
Was ra'ly as on-satis-factory as anything in my life.
"Cicely ! Cicely! Cicely!" I called, and I held my breath,
And "Cicely!" came from the canyon, and all was as
still as death.
And "Cicely! Cicely! Cicely!" came from the rocks below,
And just but a whisper of "Cicely!" down from them
peaks of snow.
I ain't what you call religious but I just looked up to
And this 'yer's to what I'm coming, and maybe ye think
But up away to east'ard, yaller and big and far,
I saw of a suddent rising the singlerist kind of star.
Big and yaller and dancing, it seemed to beckon to me:
Yaller and big and dancing, such as you never see:
Big and yaller and dancing, I never saw such a star,
And I thought of them sharps in the Bible, and I went
for it then and thar.
Over the brush and bowlders I stumbled and pushed ahead,
Keeping the star afore me, I went wherever it led.
It might hev been for an hour, when suddent and peart and
Our of the yearth afore me thar riz up a baby's cry.
Listen! thar's the same music; but her lungs they are
Thank the day I packed her and her mother, I'm derned
if I jest know how.
But the doctor kem the next minit, and the joke o' the
whole thing is
That Cis never knew what happened from that very night
But Cicely says you're a poet, and maybe you might, some
Jest sling her a rhyme 'bout a baby that was born in a
And see what she says; and, old fellow, when you speak of
the star, don't tell
As how 't was the doctor's lantern, for maybe 't won't
sound so well.
Say there! Praps
Some o you chaps
Might know Jim Wild?
Well, no offense:
Thar aint no sense
In gittin riled!
Jim was my chum
Up on the Bar:
Thats why I come
Down from up yar,
Lookin for Jim.
Thank ye, sir! You
Aint o that crew,
Blest if you are!
Money? Not much:
That aint my kind;
I aint no such.
Rum? I dont mind,
Seein its you.
Well, this yer Jim
Did you know him?
Jes bout your size;
Same kind of eyes;
Well, that is strange:
Why, its two year
Since he came here,
Sick, for a change.
Well, heres to us:
The h you say!
That little cuss?
What makes you star,
You over thar?
Cant a man drop
s glass in yer shop
But you must rar?
It would nt take
Dd much to break
You and yer bar.
Why, thar was me,
Jones, and Bob Lee,
Harry and Ben,
No account men:
Then to take him!
Well, thar Good-by
No more, sirI
Whats that you say?
Why, dern it! sho!
No? Yes! By Joe!
Sold! Why, you limb,
Blown out of the prairie in twilight and dew,
Half bold and half timid, yet lazy all through;
Loathe ever to leave, and yet fearful to stay,
He limps in the clearing, an outcast in gray.
A shade on the stubble, a ghost by the wall,
Now leaping, now limping, now risking a fall,
Lop-eared and large jointed, but ever alway
A thoroughly vagabond outcast in gray.
Here, Carlo, old fellow, hes one of your kind,
Go, seek him, and bring him in out of the wind.
What! Snarling, my Carlo! So even dogs may
Deny their own kin in the outcast in gray.
Well, take what you will, though it be on the sly,
Marauding or begging, I shall not ask why,
But will call it a dole, just to help on his way
A four-footed friar in orders of gray!
A Question of Privilege
(Reported by Truthful James)
It was Andrew Jackson Sutter who, despising Mr. Cutter
for remarks he heard him utter in debate upon the
Swung him up into the skylight, in the peaceful, pensive
twilight, and then keerlessly proceeded, makin no
account what we did
To wipe up with his person casual dust upon the floor.
Now a square fight never frets me, nor unpleasantness up-
sets me, but the simple thing that gets me---now
the job is done and gone,
And weve come home free and merry from the peaceful
cemetery, leavin Cutter there with Sutter --- that
mebbee just a stutter
On the part of Mr. Cutter caused the loss we deeply mourn.
Some bashful hesitation, just like spellin punctooation
might have worked an aggravation on to Sutters
For the witnesses all vary ez to wot was said and nary
a galoot will toot his horn except the way he is
But they all allow that Sutter had begun a kind of mutter,
when uprose Mr. Cutter with a sickening kind of
And proceeded then to wade in to the subject then pre-
vadin: "Is Profanity degradin?" in words like
"Onlike the previous speaker, Mr. Sutter of Yreka, he was
but a humble seeker and not like him a
It was here that Mr. Sutter softly reached for Mr. Cutter,
when the latter with a stutter said: "ac-customed
Then Sutter he rose grimly, and sorter smilin dimly bowed
onto the Chairman primly (just like Cutter ez
Drawled "he guessed he must fall back as Mr.
Cutter owned the pack as he just had played
the Jack as " (here Cutters gun went crack!
as Mr. Sutter gasped and ended) "every man can
But William Henry Pryor just in range of Sutters fire
here evinced a wild desire to do somebody harm,
And in the general scrimmage no one thought if Sutters
"image" was a misplaced punctooation like the
hole in Pryors arm.
For we all waltzed in together, never carin to ask whether
it was Sutter or was Cutter we woz tryin to abate.
But we couldnt help perceivin, when we took to inkstand
heavin, that the process was relievin to the sharp-
ness of debate.
So weve come home free and merry from the peaceful
cemetery, and I make no comentary on these simple
Things is various and human and the man aint born of
woman who is free to intermeddle with his pals
intents and aims.
A Few Links and Books
Bret Harte's Gold Rush : Outcasts of Poker Flat, the Luck of Roaring Camp, Tennessee's Partner, & Other Favorites
Selected Letters of Bret Harte (Literature of the American West, Vol 1) Gary Scharnhorst, Editor
Surprisingly few Harte books are in print. Any good library or used bookstore should have many. Our favorite poetry collection is The Complete Poetical Works of Bret Harte.
image. We'll probably see you over there, as we seem to be addicted to books at the Bar-D. Come on back now.
Lit Links has several interesting links with further information.
The ever-excellent, Literary History of the American West (published by Texas Christian University Press) is now available, complete, in a searchable and printable PDF file of about 1500 pages. It has a piece about Bret Harte and Mark Twain and has many other references to Harte.
Great Literature on Line has biographical information and text and excerpts from a number of Harte's stories.
The Central California Poetry Journal has more biographical information and several poems with California themes.
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