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A Ghost Of The Sierras
by [?]

It was a vast silence of pines, redolent with balsamic breath, and muffled with the dry dust of dead bark and matted mosses. Lying on our backs, we looked upward through a hundred feet of clear, unbroken interval to the first lateral branches that formed the flat canopy above us. Here and there the fierce sun, from whose active persecution we had just escaped, searched for us through the woods, but its keen blade was dulled and turned aside by intercostal boughs, and its brightness dissipated in nebulous mists throughout the roofing of the dim, brown aisles around us. We were in another atmosphere, under another sky; indeed, in another world than the dazzling one we had just quitted. The grave silence seemed so much a part of the grateful coolness, that we hesitated to speak, and for some moments lay quietly outstretched on the pine tassels where we had first thrown ourselves. Finally, a voice broke the silence:–

“Ask the old Major; he knows all about it!”

The person here alluded to under that military title was myself. I hardly need explain to any Californian that it by no means followed that I was a “Major,” or that I was “old,” or that I knew anything about “it,” or indeed what “it” referred to. The whole remark was merely one of the usual conventional feelers to conversation,–a kind of social preamble, quite common to our slangy camp intercourse. Nevertheless, as I was always known as the Major, perhaps for no better reason than that the speaker, an old journalist, was always called Doctor, I recognized the fact so far as to kick aside an intervening saddle, so that I could see the speaker’s face on a level with my own, and said nothing.

“About ghosts!” said the Doctor, after a pause, which nobody broke or was expected to break. “Ghosts, sir! That’s what we want to know. What are we doing here in this blanked old mausoleum of Calaveras County, if it isn’t to find out something about ’em, eh?”

Nobody replied.

“Thar’s that haunted house at Cave City. Can’t be more than a mile or two away, anyhow. Used to be just off the trail.”

A dead silence.

The Doctor (addressing space generally) “Yes, sir; it WAS a mighty queer story.”

Still the same reposeful indifference. We all knew the Doctor’s skill as a raconteur; we all knew that a story was coming, and we all knew that any interruption would be fatal. Time and time again, in our prospecting experience, had a word of polite encouragement, a rash expression of interest, even a too eager attitude of silent expectancy, brought the Doctor to a sudden change of subject. Time and time again have we seen the unwary stranger stand amazed and bewildered between our own indifference and the sudden termination of a promising anecdote, through his own unlucky interference. So we said nothing. “The Judge”–another instance of arbitrary nomenclature–pretended to sleep. Jack began to twist a cigarrito. Thornton bit off the ends of pine needles reflectively.

“Yes, sir,” continued the Doctor, coolly resting the back of his head on the palms of his hands, “it WAS rather curious. All except the murder. THAT’S what gets me, for the murder had no new points, no fancy touches, no sentiment, no mystery. Was just one of the old style, ‘sub-head’ paragraphs. Old-fashioned miner scrubs along on hardtack and beans, and saves up a little money to go home and see relations. Old-fashioned assassin sharpens up knife, old style; loads old flint-lock, brass-mounted pistol; walks in on old-fashioned miner one dark night, sends him home to his relations away back to several generations, and walks off with the swag. No mystery THERE; nothing to clear up; subsequent revelations only impertinence. Nothing for any ghost to do–who meant business. More than that, over forty murders, same old kind, committed every year in Calaveras, and no spiritual post obits coming due every anniversary; no assessments made on the peace and quiet of the surviving community. I tell you what, boys, I’ve always been inclined to throw off on the Cave City ghost for that alone. It’s a bad precedent, sir. If that kind o’ thing is going to obtain in the foot-hills, we’ll have the trails full of chaps formerly knocked over by Mexicans and road agents; every little camp and grocery will have stock enough on hand to go into business, and where’s there any security for surviving life and property, eh? What’s your opinion, Judge, as a fair-minded legislator?”