Tennessee's Partner

by Bret Harte

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

"Tennessee's Partner" is a short story about an enduring friendship. The story begins with, “I do not think that we ever knew his real name,” referring to Tennessee’s Partner. This is how he is referred to throughout the story, and it is fitting, because no matter what Tennessee does, his partner remains a true and loyal friend. Tennessee is famous in Sandy Bar, where the two men lived, and not necessarily for good reasons:

Meanwhile a popular feeling against Tennessee had grown up on the Bar. He was known to be a gambler; he was suspected to be a thief.

Tennessee even takes off with his partner’s wife, only to return alone after the woman has found another man. When Tennessee returns, the townspeople gather, hoping to see a fight:

But to everybody’s surprise, when Tennessee one day returned from Marysville, without his Partner’s wife—she having smiled and retreated with somebody else—Tennessee’s Partner was the first man to shake his hand and greet him with affection.

Tennessee eventually robs a man, and the town is happy to arrest him and put him on trial. His life is in danger; they want him dead:

The trial of Tennessee was conducted as fairly as was consistent with a judge and jury who felt themselves to some extent obliged to justify, in their verdict, the previous irregularities of arrest and indictment.

Tennessee’s Partner shows up and attempts to bribe the judge into releasing Tennessee. His loyalty to Tennessee is such that he cannot put it into words:

“And you sez to me, sez you--confidential-like, and between man and man--sez you, ‘Do you know anything in his behalf?’ and I sez I--confidential-like, as between man and man--’What should a man know of his pardner?'”

He can’t articulate why he has come for Tennessee or why Tennessee should be freed, but he feels he must do something to save his life.

Unfortunately for Tennessee and his partner, the court is not inclined to release him, and he is killed. Tennessee’s Partner waits and then takes his body to bury it. He says,

When a man . . . has been running free all day, what’s the natural thing for him to do? Why, to come home. And if he ain’t in a condition to go home, what can his best friend do? Why, bring him home! And here’s Tennessee has been running free, and we brings him home from his wandering.

Tennessee’s Partner doesn’t live a long life after the death of his best friend, and on his deathbed, he calls out, “It is time to go for Tennessee . . .”

He calls for his horse to take him to Tennessee:

Thar—I told you so!—thar he is—coming this way, too—all by himself, sober, and his face a-shining. Tennessee! Pardner!

The story finishes, “And so they met.”

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