Best American Humorous Short Stories HTML version

Colonel Starbottle For The Plaintiff
By Bret Harte (1839-1902)
[From Harper's Magazine, March, 1901. Republished in the volume, Openings in the Old
Trail (1902), by Bret Harte; copyright, 1902, by Houghton Mifflin Company, the
authorized publishers of Bret Harte's complete works; reprinted by their permission.]
It had been a day of triumph for Colonel Starbottle. First, for his personality, as it would
have been difficult to separate the Colonel's achievements from his individuality; second,
for his oratorical abilities as a sympathetic pleader; and third, for his functions as the
leading counsel for the Eureka Ditch Company versus the State of California. On his
strictly legal performances in this issue I prefer not to speak; there were those who denied
them, although the jury had accepted them in the face of the ruling of the half-amused,
half-cynical Judge himself. For an hour they had laughed with the Colonel, wept with
him, been stirred to personal indignation or patriotic exaltation by his passionate and lofty
periods--what else could they do than give him their verdict? If it was alleged by some
that the American eagle, Thomas Jefferson, and the Resolutions of '98 had nothing
whatever to do with the contest of a ditch company over a doubtfully worded legislative
document; that wholesale abuse of the State Attorney and his political motives had not
the slightest connection with the legal question raised--it was, nevertheless, generally
accepted that the losing party would have been only too glad to have the Colonel on their
side. And Colonel Starbottle knew this, as, perspiring, florid, and panting, he rebuttoned
the lower buttons of his blue frock-coat, which had become loosed in an oratorical spasm,
and readjusted his old-fashioned, spotless shirt frill above it as he strutted from the court-
room amidst the hand-shakings and acclamations of his friends.
And here an unprecedented thing occurred. The Colonel absolutely declined spirituous
refreshment at the neighboring Palmetto Saloon, and declared his intention of proceeding
directly to his office in the adjoining square. Nevertheless the Colonel quitted the
building alone, and apparently unarmed except for his faithful gold-headed stick, which
hung as usual from his forearm. The crowd gazed after him with undisguised admiration
of this new evidence of his pluck. It was remembered also that a mysterious note had
been handed to him at the conclusion of his speech--evidently a challenge from the State
Attorney. It was quite plain that the Colonel--a practised duellist--was hastening home to
answer it.
But herein they were wrong. The note was in a female hand, and simply requested the
Colonel to accord an interview with the writer at the Colonel's office as soon as he left
the court. But it was an engagement that the Colonel--as devoted to the fair sex as he was
to the "code"--was no less prompt in accepting. He flicked away the dust from his
spotless white trousers and varnished boots with his handkerchief, and settled his black
cravat under his Byron collar as he neared his office. He was surprised, however, on
opening the door of his private office to find his visitor already there; he was still more
startled to find her somewhat past middle age and plainly attired. But the Colonel was