He had never seen a steamboat in his life. Born and reared in one of the Western Territories, far from a navigable river, he had only known the “dugout” or canoe as a means of conveyance across the scant streams whose fordable waters made even those scarcely a necessity. The long, narrow, hooded wagon, drawn by swaying oxen, known familiarly as a “prairie schooner,” in which he journeyed across the plains to California in ’53, did not help his conception by that nautical figure. And when at last he dropped upon the land of promise through one of the Southern mountain passes he halted all unconsciously upon the low banks of a great yellow river amidst a tangled brake of strange, reed-like grasses that were unknown to him. The river, broadening as it debouched through many channels into a lordly bay, seemed to him the ULTIMA THULE of his journeyings. Unyoking his oxen on the edge of the luxuriant meadows which blended with scarcely any line of demarcation into the great stream itself, he found the prospect “good” according to his lights and prairial experiences, and, converting his halted wagon into a temporary cabin, he resolved to rest here and “settle.”
There was little difficulty in so doing. The cultivated clearings he had passed were few and far between; the land would be his by discovery and occupation; his habits of loneliness and self- reliance made him independent of neighbors. He took his first meal in his new solitude under a spreading willow, but so near his natural boundary that the waters gurgled and oozed in the reeds but a few feet from him. The sun sank, deepening the gold of the river until it might have been the stream of Pactolus itself. But Martin Morse had no imagination; he was not even a gold-seeker; he had simply obeyed the roving instincts of the frontiersman in coming hither. The land was virgin and unoccupied; it was his; he was alone. These questions settled, he smoked his pipe with less concern over his three thousand miles’ transference of habitation than the man of cities who had moved into a next street. When the sun sank, he rolled himself in his blankets in the wagon bed and went quietly to sleep.
But he was presently awakened by something which at first he could not determine to be a noise or an intangible sensation. It was a deep throbbing through the silence of the night–a pulsation that seemed even to be communicated to the rude bed whereon he lay. As it came nearer it separated itself into a labored, monotonous panting, continuous, but distinct from an equally monotonous but fainter beating of the waters, as if the whole track of the river were being coursed and trodden by a multitude of swiftly trampling feet. A strange feeling took possession of him–half of fear, half of curious expectation. It was coming nearer. He rose, leaped hurriedly from the wagon, and ran to the bank. The night was dark; at first he saw nothing before him but the steel-black sky pierced with far-spaced, irregularly scattered stars. Then there seemed to be approaching him, from the left, another and more symmetrical constellation–a few red and blue stars high above the river, with three compact lines of larger planetary lights flashing towards him and apparently on his own level. It was almost upon him; he involuntarily drew back as the strange phenomenon swept abreast of where he stood, and resolved itself into a dark yet airy bulk, whose vagueness, topped by enormous towers, was yet illuminated by those open squares of light that he had taken for stars, but which he saw now were brilliantly lit windows.
Their vivid rays shot through the reeds and sent broad bands across the meadow, the stationary wagon, and the slumbering oxen. But all this was nothing to the inner life they disclosed through lifted curtains and open blinds, which was the crowning revelation of this strange and wonderful spectacle. Elegantly dressed men and women moved through brilliantly lit and elaborately gilt saloons; in one a banquet seemed to be spread, served by white-jacketed servants; in another were men playing cards around marble-topped tables; in another the light flashed back again from the mirrors and glistening glasses and decanters of a gorgeous refreshment saloon; in smaller openings there was the shy disclosure of dainty white curtains and velvet lounges of more intimate apartments.
Martin Morse stood enthralled and mystified. It was as if some invisible Asmodeus had revealed to this simple frontiersman a world of which he had never dreamed. It was THE world–a world of which he knew nothing in his simple, rustic habits and profound Western isolation–sweeping by him with the rush of an unknown planet. In another moment it was gone; a shower of sparks shot up from one of the towers and fell all around him, and then vanished, even as he remembered the set piece of “Fourth of July” fireworks had vanished in his own rural town when he was a boy. The darkness fell with it too. But such was his utter absorption and breathless preoccupation that only a cold chill recalled him to himself, and he found he was standing mid-leg deep in the surge cast over the low banks by this passage of the first steamboat he had ever seen!
He waited for it the next night, when it appeared a little later from the opposite direction on its return trip. He watched it the next night and the next. Hereafter he never missed it, coming or going–whatever the hard and weary preoccupations of his new and lonely life. He felt he could not have slept without seeing it go by. Oddly enough, his interest and desire did not go further. Even had he the time and money to spend in a passage on the boat, and thus actively realize the great world of which he had only these rare glimpses, a certain proud, rustic shyness kept him from it. It was not HIS world; he could not affront the snubs that his ignorance and inexperience would have provoked, and he was dimly conscious, as so many of us are in our ignorance, that in mingling with it he would simply lose the easy privileges of alien criticism. For there was much that he did not understand, and some things that grated upon his lonely independence.
One night, a lighter one than those previous, he lingered a little longer in the moonlight to watch the phosphorescent wake of the retreating boat. Suddenly it struck him that there was a certain irregular splashing in the water, quite different from the regular, diagonally crossing surges that the boat swept upon the bank. Looking at it more intently, he saw a black object turning in the water like a porpoise, and then the unmistakable uplifting of a black arm in an unskillful swimmer’s overhand stroke. It was a struggling man. But it was quickly evident that the current was too strong and the turbulence of the shallow water too great for his efforts. Without a moment’s hesitation, clad as he was in only his shirt and trousers, Morse strode into the reeds, and the next moment, with a call of warning, was swimming toward the now wildly struggling figure. But, from some unknown reason, as Morse approached him nearer the man uttered some incoherent protest and desperately turned away, throwing off Morse’s extended arm.
Attributing this only to the vague convulsions of a drowning man, Morse, a skilled swimmer, managed to clutch his shoulder, and propelled him at arm’s length, still struggling, apparently with as much reluctance as incapacity, toward the bank. As their feet touched the reeds and slimy bottom the man’s resistance ceased, and he lapsed quite listlessly in Morse’s arms. Half lifting, half dragging his burden, he succeeded at last in gaining the strip of meadow, and deposited the unconscious man beneath the willow tree. Then he ran to his wagon for whisky.
But, to his surprise, on his return the man was already sitting up and wringing the water from his clothes. He then saw for the first time, by the clear moonlight, that the stranger was elegantly dressed and of striking appearance, and was clearly a part of that bright and fascinating world which Morse had been contemplating in his solitude. He eagerly took the proffered tin cup and drank the whisky. Then he rose to his feet, staggered a few steps forward, and glanced curiously around him at the still motionless wagon, the few felled trees and evidence of “clearing,” and even at the rude cabin of logs and canvas just beginning to rise from the ground a few paces distant, and said, impatiently:
“Where the devil am I?”
Morse hesitated. He was unable to name the locality of his dwelling-place. He answered briefly:
“On the right bank of the Sacramento.”
The stranger turned upon him a look of suspicion not unmingled with resentment. “Oh! ” he said, with ironical gravity, “and I suppose that this water you picked me out of was the Sacramento River. Thank you!”
Morse, with slow Western patience, explained that he had only settled there three weeks ago, and the place had no name.
“What’s your nearest town, then?”
“Thar ain’t any. Thar’s a blacksmith’s shop and grocery at the crossroads, twenty miles further on, but it’s got no name as I’ve heard on.”
The stranger’s look of suspicion passed. “Well he said, in an imperative fashion, which, however, seemed as much the result of habit as the occasion, “I want a horse, and mighty quick, too.”
“H’ain’t got any.”
“No horse? How did you get to this place?”
Morse pointed to the slumbering oxen.
The stranger again stared curiously at him. After a pause he said, with a half-pitying, half-humorous smile: “Pike–aren’t you?”
Whether Morse did or did not know that this current California slang for a denizen of the bucolic West implied a certain contempt, he replied simply:
“I’m from Pike County, Mizzouri.”
“Well,” said the stranger, resuming his impatient manner, “you must beg or steal a horse from your neighbors.”
“Thar ain’t any neighbor nearer than fifteen miles.”
“Then send fifteen miles! Stop.” He opened his still clinging shirt and drew out a belt pouch, which he threw to Morse. “There! there’s two hundred and fifty dollars in that. Now, I want a horse. Sabe?”
“Thar ain’t anyone to send,” said Morse, quietly.
“Do you mean to say you are all alone here?”
“And you fished me out–all by yourself?”
The stranger again examined him curiously. Then he suddenly stretched out his hand and grasped his companion’s.
“All right; if you can’t send, I reckon I can manage to walk over there tomorrow.”
“I was goin’ on to say,” said Morse, simply, “that if you’ll lie by tonight, I’ll start over sunup, after puttin’ out the cattle, and fetch you back a horse afore noon.”
“That’s enough.” He, however, remained looking curiously at Morse. “Did you never hear,” he said, with a singular smile, “that it was about the meanest kind of luck that could happen to you to save a drowning man?”
“No,” said Morse, simply. “I reckon it orter be the meanest if you DIDN’T.”
“That depends upon the man you save,” said the stranger, with the same ambiguous smile, “and whether the SAVING him is only putting things off. Look here,” he added, with an abrupt return to his imperative style, “can’t you give me some dry clothes?”
Morse brought him a pair of overalls and a “hickory shirt,” well worn, but smelling strongly of a recent wash with coarse soap. The stranger put them on while his companion busied himself in collecting a pile of sticks and dry leaves.
“What’s that for?” said the stranger, suddenly.
“A fire to dry your clothes.”
The stranger calmly kicked the pile aside.
“Not any fire tonight if I know it,” he said, brusquely. Before Morse could resent his quickly changing moods he continued, in another tone, dropping to an easy reclining position beneath the tree, “Now, tell me all about yourself, and what you are doing here.”
Thus commanded, Morse patiently repeated his story from the time he had left his backwoods cabin to his selection of the river bank for a “location.” He pointed out the rich quality of this alluvial bottom and its adaptability for the raising of stock, which he hoped soon to acquire. The stranger smiled grimly, raised himself to a sitting position, and, taking a penknife from his damp clothes, began to clean his nails in the bright moonlight–an occupation which made the simple Morse wander vaguely in his narration.
“And you don’t know that this hole will give you chills and fever till you’ll shake yourself out of your boots?”
Morse had lived before in aguish districts, and had no fear.
“And you never heard that some night the whole river will rise up and walk over you and your cabin and your stock?”
“No. For I reckon to move my shanty farther back.”
The man shut up his penknife with a click and rose.
“If you’ve got to get up at sunrise, we’d better be turning in. I suppose you can give me a pair of blankets?”
Morse pointed to the wagon. “Thar’s a shakedown in the wagon bed; you kin lie there.” Nevertheless he hesitated, and, with the inconsequence and abruptness of a shy man, continued the previous conversation.
“I shouldn’t like to move far away, for them steamboats is pow’ful kempany o’ nights. I never seed one afore I kem here,” and then, with the inconsistency of a reserved man, and without a word of further preliminary, he launched into a confidential disclosure of his late experiences. The stranger listened with a singular interest and a quietly searching eye.
“Then you were watching the boat very closely just now when you saw me. What else did you see? Anything before that–before you saw me in the water?”
“No–the boat had got well off before I saw you at all.”
“Ah,” said the stranger. “Well, I’m going to turn in.” He walked to the wagon, mounted it, and by the time that Morse had reached it with his wet clothes he was already wrapped in the blankets. A moment later he seemed to be in a profound slumber.
It was only then, when his guest was lying helplessly at his mercy, that he began to realize his strange experiences. The domination of this man had been so complete that Morse, although by nature independent and self-reliant, had not permitted himself to question his right or to resent his rudeness. He had accepted his guest’s careless or premeditated silence regarding the particulars of his accident as a matter of course, and had never dreamed of questioning him. That it was a natural accident of that great world so apart from his own experiences he did not doubt, and thought no more about it. The advent of the man himself was greater to him than the causes which brought him there. He was as yet quite unconscious of the complete fascination this mysterious stranger held over him, but he found himself shyly pleased with even the slight interest he had displayed in his affairs, and his hand felt yet warm and tingling from his sudden soft but expressive grasp, as if it had been a woman’s. There is a simple intuition of friendship in some lonely, self-abstracted natures that is nearly akin to love at first sight. Even the audacities and insolence of this stranger affected Morse as he might have been touched and captivated by the coquetries or imperiousness of some bucolic virgin. And this reserved and shy frontiersman found himself that night sleepless, and hovering with an abashed timidity and consciousness around the wagon that sheltered his guest, as if he had been a very Corydon watching the moonlit couch of some slumbering Amaryllis.
He was off by daylight–after having placed a rude breakfast by the side of the still sleeping guest–and before midday he had returned with a horse. When he handed the stranger his pouch, less the amount he had paid for the horse, the man said curtly:
“What’s that for?”
“Your change. I paid only fifty dollars for the horse.”
The stranger regarded him with his peculiar smile. Then, replacing the pouch in his belt, he shook Morse’s hand again and mounted the horse.
“So your name’s Martin Morse! Well–goodby, Morsey!”
Morse hesitated. A blush rose to his dark check. “You didn’t tell me your name,” he said. “In case–“
“In case I’m WANTED? Well, you can call me Captain Jack.” He smiled, and, nodding his head, put spurs to his mustang and cantered away.
Morse did not do much work that day, falling into abstracted moods and living over his experiences of the previous night, until he fancied he could almost see his strange guest again. The narrow strip of meadow was haunted by him. There was the tree under which he had first placed him, and that was where he had seen him sitting up in his dripping but well-fitting clothes. In the rough garments he had worn and returned lingered a new scent of some delicate soap, overpowering the strong alkali flavor of his own. He was early by the river side, having a vague hope, he knew not why, that he should again see him and recognize him among the passengers. He was wading out among the reeds, in the faint light of the rising moon, recalling the exact spot where he had first seen the stranger, when he was suddenly startled by the rolling over in the water of some black object that had caught against the bank, but had been dislodged by his movements. To his horror it bore a faint resemblance to his first vision of the preceding night. But a second glance at the helplessly floating hair and bloated outline showed him that it was a DEAD man, and of a type and build far different from his former companion. There was a bruise upon his matted forehead and an enormous wound in his throat already washed bloodless, white, and waxen. An inexplicable fear came upon him, not at the sight of the corpse, for he had been in Indian massacres and had rescued bodies mutilated beyond recognition; but from some moral dread that, strangely enough, quickened and deepened with the far-off pant of the advancing steamboat. Scarcely knowing why, he dragged the body hurriedly ashore, concealing it in the reeds, as if he were disposing of the evidence of his own crime. Then, to his preposterous terror, he noticed that the panting of the steamboat and the beat of its paddles were “slowing” as the vague bulk came in sight, until a huge wave from the suddenly arrested wheels sent a surge like an enormous heartbeat pulsating through the sedge that half submerged him. The flashing of three or four lanterns on deck and the motionless line of lights abreast of him dazzled his eyes, but he knew that the low fringe of willows hid his house and wagon completely from view. A vague murmur of voices from the deck was suddenly overridden by a sharp order, and to his relief the slowly revolving wheels again sent a pulsation through the water, and the great fabric moved solemnly away. A sense of relief came over him, he knew not why, and he was conscious that for the first time he had not cared to look at the boat.
When the moon arose he again examined the body, and took from its clothing a few articles of identification and some papers of formality and precision, which he vaguely conjectured to be some law papers from their resemblance to the phrasing of sheriffs’ and electors’ notices which he had seen in the papers. He then buried the corpse in a shallow trench, which he dug by the light of the moon. He had no question of responsibility; his pioneer training had not included coroners’ inquests in its experience; in giving the body a speedy and secure burial from predatory animals he did what one frontiersman would do for another–what he hoped might be done for him. If his previous unaccountable feelings returned occasionally, it was not from that; but rather from some uneasiness in regard to his late guest’s possible feelings, and a regret that he had not been here at the finding of the body. That it would in some way have explained his own accident he did not doubt.
The boat did not “slow up” the next night, but passed as usual; yet three or four days elapsed before he could look forward to its coming with his old extravagant and half-exalted curiosity–which was his nearest approach to imagination. He was then able to examine it more closely, for the appearance of the stranger whom he now began to call “his friend” in his verbal communings with himself–but whom he did not seem destined to again discover; until one day, to his astonishment, a couple of fine horses were brought to his clearing by a stock-drover. They had been “ordered” to be left there. in vain Morse expostulated and questioned.
“Your name’s Martin Morse, ain’t it?” said the drover, with business brusqueness; “and I reckon there ain’t no other man o’ that name around here?”
“No,” said Morse.
“Well, then, they’re YOURS.”
“But who sent them?” insisted Morse. “What was his name, and where does he live?”
“I didn’t know ez I was called upon to give the pedigree o’ buyers,” said the drover dryly; “but the horses is ‘Morgan,’ you can bet your life.” He grinned as he rode away.
That Captain Jack sent them, and that it was a natural prelude to his again visiting him, Morse did not doubt, and for a few days he lived in that dream. But Captain Jack did not come. The animals were of great service to him in “rounding up” the stock he now easily took in for pasturage, and saved him the necessity of having a partner or a hired man. The idea that this superior gentleman in fine clothes might ever appear to him in the former capacity had even flitted through his brain, but he had rejected it with a sigh. But the thought that, with luck and industry, he himself might, in course of time, approximate to Captain Jack’s evident station, DID occur to him, and was an incentive to energy. Yet it was quite distinct from the ordinary working man’s ambition of wealth and state. It was only that it might make him more worthy of his friend. The great world was still as it had appeared to him in the passing boat–a thing to wonder at–to be above–and to criticize.
For all that, he prospered in his occupation. But one day he woke with listless limbs and feet that scarcely carried him through his daily labors. At night his listlessness changed to active pain and a feverishness that seemed to impel him toward the fateful river, as if his one aim in life was to drink up its waters and bathe in its yellow stream. But whenever he seemed to attempt it, strange dreams assailed him of dead bodies arising with swollen and distorted lips to touch his own as he strove to drink, or of his mysterious guest battling with him in its current, and driving him ashore. Again, when he essayed to bathe his parched and crackling limbs in its flood, he would be confronted with the dazzling lights of the motionless steamboat and the glare of stony eyes–until he fled in aimless terror. How long this lasted he knew not, until one morning he awoke in his new cabin with a strange man sitting by his bed and a Negress in the doorway.
“You’ve had a sharp attack of ‘tule fever,'” said the stranger, dropping Morse’s listless wrist and answering his questioning eyes, “but you’re all right now, and will pull through.”
“Who are you?” stammered Morse feebly.
“Dr. Duchesne, of Sacramento.”
“How did you come here?”
“I was ordered to come to you and bring a nurse, as you were alone. There she is.” He pointed to the smiling Negress.
“WHO ordered you?”
The doctor smiled with professional tolerance. “One of your friends, of course.”
“But what was his name?”
“Really, I don’t remember. But don’t distress yourself. He has settled for everything right royally. You have only to get strong now. My duty is ended, and I can safely leave you with the nurse. Only when you are strong again, I say–and HE says–keep back farther from the river.”
And that was all he knew. For even the nurse who attended him through the first days of his brief convalescence would tell him nothing more. He quickly got rid of her and resumed his work, for a new and strange phase of his simple, childish affection for his benefactor, partly superinduced by his illness, was affecting him. He was beginning to feel the pain of an unequal friendship; he was dimly conscious that his mysterious guest was only coldly returning his hospitality and benefits, while holding aloof from any association with him–and indicating the immeasurable distance that separated their future intercourse. He had withheld any kind message or sympathetic greeting; he had kept back even his NAME. The shy, proud, ignorant heart of the frontiersman swelled beneath the fancied slight, which left him helpless alike of reproach or resentment. He could not return the horses, although in a fit of childish indignation he had resolved not to use them; he could not reimburse him for the doctor’s bill, although he had sent away the nurse.
He took a foolish satisfaction in not moving back from the river, with a faint hope that his ignoring of Captain Jack’s advice might mysteriously be conveyed to him. He even thought of selling out his location and abandoning it, that he might escape the cold surveillance of his heartless friend. All this was undoubtedly childish–but there is an irrepressible simplicity of youth in all deep feeling, and the worldly inexperience of the frontiersman left him as innocent as a child. In this phase of his unrequited affection he even went so far as to seek some news of Captain Jack at Sacramento, and, following out his foolish quest, even to take the steamboat from thence to Stockton.
What happened to him then was perhaps the common experience of such natures. Once upon the boat the illusion of the great world it contained for him utterly vanished. He found it noisy, formal, insincere, and–had he ever understood or used the word in his limited vocabulary–VULGAR. Rather, perhaps, it seemed to him that the prevailing sentiment and action of those who frequented it–and for whom it was built–were of a lower grade than his own. And, strangely enough, this gave him none of his former sense of critical superiority, but only of his own utter and complete isolation. He wandered in his rough frontiersman’s clothes from deck to cabin, from airy galleries to long saloons, alone, unchallenged, unrecognized, as if he were again haunting it only in spirit, as he had so often done in his dreams.
His presence on the fringe of some voluble crowd caused no interruption; to him their speech was almost foreign in its allusions to things he did not understand, or, worse, seemed inconsistent with their eagerness and excitement. How different from all this were his old recollections of slowly oncoming teams, uplifted above the level horizon of the plains in his former wanderings; the few sauntering figures that met him as man to man, and exchanged the chronicle of the road; the record of Indian tracks; the finding of a spring; the discovery of pasturage, with the lazy, restful hospitality of the night! And how fierce here this continual struggle for dominance and existence, even in this lull of passage. For above all and through all he was conscious of the feverish haste of speed and exertion.
The boat trembled, vibrated, and shook with every stroke of the ponderous piston. The laughter of the crowd, the exchange of gossip and news, the banquet at the long table, the newspapers and books in the reading-room, even the luxurious couches in the staterooms, were all dominated, thrilled, and pulsating with the perpetual throb of the demon of hurry and unrest. And when at last a horrible fascination dragged him into the engine room, and he saw the cruel relentless machinery at work, he seemed to recognize and understand some intelligent but pitiless Moloch, who was dragging this feverish world at its heels.
Later he was seated in a corner of the hurricane deck, whence he could view the monotonous banks of the river; yet, perhaps by certain signs unobservable to others, he knew he was approaching his own locality. He knew that his cabin and clearing would be undiscernible behind the fringe of willows on the bank, but he already distinguished the points where a few cottonwoods struggled into a promontory of lighter foliage beyond them. Here voices fell upon his ear, and he was suddenly aware that two men had lazily crossed over from the other side of the boat, and were standing before him looking upon the bank.
“It was about here, I reckon,” said one, listlessly, as if continuing a previous lagging conversation, “that it must have happened. For it was after we were making for the bend we’ve just passed that the deputy, goin’ to the stateroom below us, found the door locked and the window open. But both men–Jack Despard and Seth Hall, the sheriff–weren’t to be found. Not a trace of ’em. The boat was searched, but all for nothing. The idea is that the sheriff, arter getting his prisoner comf’ble in the stateroom, took off Jack’s handcuffs and locked the door; that Jack, who was mighty desp’rate, bolted through the window into the river, and the sheriff, who was no slouch, arter him. Others allow–for the chairs and things was all tossed about in the stateroom–that the two men clinched THAR, and Jack choked Hall and chucked him out, and then slipped cl’ar into the water himself, for the stateroom window was just ahead of the paddle box, and the cap’n allows that no man or men could fall afore the paddles and live. Anyhow, that was all they ever knew of it.”
“And there wasn’t no trace of them found?” said the second man, after a long pause.
“No. Cap’n says them paddles would hev’ just snatched ’em and slung ’em round and round and buried ’em way down in the ooze of the river bed, with all the silt of the current atop of ’em, and they mightn’t come up for ages; or else the wheels might have waltzed ’em way up to Sacramento until there wasn’t enough left of ’em to float, and dropped ’em when the boat stopped.”
“It was a mighty fool risk for a man like Despard to take,” resumed the second speaker as he turned away with a slight yawn.
“Bet your life! but he was desp’rate, and the sheriff had got him sure! And they DO say that he was superstitious, like all them gamblers, and allowed that a man who was fixed to die by a rope or a pistol wasn’t to be washed out of life by water.”
The two figures drifted lazily away, but Morse sat rigid and motionless. Yet, strange to say, only one idea came to him clearly out of this awful revelation–the thought that his friend was still true to him–and that his strange absence and mysterious silence were fully accounted for and explained. And with it came the more thrilling fancy that this man was alive now to HIM alone.
HE was the sole custodian of his secret. The morality of the question, while it profoundly disturbed him, was rather in reference to its effect upon the chances of Captain Jack and the power it gave his enemies than his own conscience. He would rather that his friend should have proven the proscribed outlaw who retained an unselfish interest in him than the superior gentleman who was coldly wiping out his gratitude. He thought he understood now the reason of his visitor’s strange and varying moods–even his bitter superstitious warning in regard to the probable curse entailed upon one who should save a drowning man. Of this he recked little; enough that he fancied that Captain Jack’s concern in his illness was heightened by that fear, and this assurance of his protecting friendship thrilled him with pleasure.
There was no reason now why he should not at once go back to his farm, where, at least, Captain Jack would always find him; and he did so, returning on the same boat. He was now fully recovered from his illness, and calmer in mind; he redoubled his labors to put himself in a position to help the mysterious fugitive when the time should come. The remote farm should always be a haven of refuge for him, and in this hope he forbore to take any outside help, remaining solitary and alone, that Captain Jack’s retreat should be inviolate. And so the long, dry season passed, the hay was gathered, the pasturing herds sent home, and the first rains, dimpling like shot the broadening surface of the river, were all that broke his unending solitude. In this enforced attitude of waiting and expectancy he was exalted and strengthened by a new idea. He was not a religious man, but, dimly remembering the exhortations of some camp meeting of his boyhood, he conceived the idea that he might have been selected to work out the regeneration of Captain Jack. What might not come of this meeting and communing together in this lonely spot? That anything was due to the memory of the murdered sheriff, whose bones were rotting in the trench that he daily but unconcernedly passed, did not occur to him. Perhaps his mind was not large enough for the double consideration. Friendship and love–and, for the matter of that, religion–are eminently one-ideaed.
But one night he awakened with a start. His hand, which was hanging out of his bunk, was dabbling idly in water. He had barely time to spring to his middle in what seemed to be a slowly filling tank before the door fell out as from that inward pressure, and his whole shanty collapsed like a pack of cards. But it fell outwards, the roof sliding from over his head like a withdrawn canopy; and he was swept from his feet against it, and thence out into what might have been another world! For the rain had ceased, and the full moon revealed only one vast, illimitable expanse of water! It was not an overflow, but the whole rushing river magnified and repeated a thousand times, which, even as he gasped for breath and clung to the roof, was bearing him away he knew not whither. But it was bearing him away upon its center, for as he cast one swift glance toward his meadows he saw they were covered by the same sweeping torrent, dotted with his sailing hayricks and reaching to the wooded foothills. It was the great flood of ’54. In its awe- inspiring completeness it might have seemed to him the primeval Deluge.
As his frail raft swept under a cottonwood he caught at one of the overhanging limbs, and, working his way desperately along the bough, at last reached a secure position in the fork of the tree. Here he was for the moment safe. But the devastation viewed from this height was only the more appalling. Every sign of his clearing, all evidence of his past year’s industry, had disappeared. He was now conscious for the first time of the lowing of the few cattle he had kept as, huddled together on a slight eminence, they one by one slipped over struggling into the flood. The shining bodies of his dead horses rolled by him as he gazed. The lower-lying limbs of the sycamore near him were bending with the burden of the lighter articles from his overturned wagon and cabin which they had caught and retained, and a rake was securely lodged in a bough. The habitual solitude of his locality was now strangely invaded by drifting sheds, agricultural implements, and fence rails from unknown and remote neighbors, and he could faintly hear the far-off calling of some unhappy farmer adrift upon a spar of his wrecked and shattered house. When day broke he was cold and hungry.
Hours passed in hopeless monotony, with no slackening or diminution of the waters. Even the drifts became less, and a vacant sea at last spread before him on which nothing moved. An awful silence impressed him. In the afternoon rain again began to fall on this gray, nebulous expanse, until the whole world seemed made of aqueous vapor. He had but one idea now–the coming of the evening boat, and he would reserve his strength to swim to it. He did not know until later that it could no longer follow the old channel of the river, and passed far beyond his sight and hearing. With his disappointment and exposure that night came a return of his old fever. His limbs were alternately racked with pain or benumbed and lifeless. He could scarcely retain his position–at times he scarcely cared to–and speculated upon ending his sufferings by a quick plunge downward. In other moments of lucid misery he was conscious of having wandered in his mind; of having seen the dead face of the murdered sheriff, washed out of his shallow grave by the flood, staring at him from the water; to this was added the hallucination of noises. He heard voices, his own name called by a voice he knew–Captain Jack’s!
Suddenly he started, but in that fatal movement lost his balance and plunged downward. But before the water closed above his head he had had a cruel glimpse of help near him; of a flashing light– of the black hull of a tug not many yards away–of moving figures– the sensation of a sudden plunge following his own, the grip of a strong hand upon his collar, and–unconsciousness!
When he came to he was being lifted in a boat from the tug and rowed through the deserted streets of a large city, until he was taken in through the second-story window of a half-submerged hotel and cared for. But all his questions yielded only the information that the tug–a privately procured one, not belonging to the Public Relief Association–had been dispatched for him with special directions, by a man who acted as one of the crew, and who was the one who had plunged in for him at the last moment. The man had left the boat at Stockton. There was nothing more? Yes!–he had left a letter. Morse seized it feverishly. It contained only a few lines:
We are quits now. You are all right. I have saved YOU from drowning, and shifted the curse to my own shoulders. Good-by.
The astounded man attempted to rise–to utter an exclamation–but fell back, unconscious.
Weeks passed before he was able to leave his bed–and then only as an impoverished and physically shattered man. He had no means to restock the farm left bare by the subsiding water. A kindly train- packer offered him a situation as muleteer in a pack train going to the mountains–for he knew tracks and passes and could ride. The mountains gave him back a little of the vigor he had lost in the river valley, but none of its dreams and ambitions. One day, while tracking a lost mule, he stopped to slake his thirst in a waterhole–all that the summer had left of a lonely mountain torrent. Enlarging the hole to give drink to his beast also, he was obliged to dislodge and throw out with the red soil some bits of honeycomb rock, which were so queer-looking and so heavy as to attract his attention. Two of the largest he took back to camp with him. They were gold! From the locality he took out a fortune. Nobody wondered. To the Californian’s superstition it was perfectly natural. It was “nigger luck”–the luck of the stupid, the ignorant, the inexperienced, the nonseeker–the irony of the gods!
But the simple, bucolic nature that had sustained itself against temptation with patient industry and lonely self-concentration succumbed to rapidly acquired wealth. So it chanced that one day, with a crowd of excitement-loving spendthrifts and companions, he found himself on the outskirts of a lawless mountain town. An eager, frantic crowd had already assembled there–a desperado was to be lynched! Pushing his way through the crowd for a nearer view of the exciting spectacle, the changed and reckless Morse was stopped by armed men only at the foot of a cart, which upheld a quiet, determined man, who, with a rope around his neck, was scornfully surveying the mob, that held the other end of the rope drawn across the limb of a tree above him. The eyes of the doomed man caught those of Morse–his expression changed–a kindly smile lit his face–he bowed his proud head for the first time, with an easy gesture of farewell.
And then, with a cry, Morse threw himself upon the nearest armed guard, and a fierce struggle began. He had overpowered one adversary and seized another in his hopeless fight toward the cart when the half-astonished crowd felt that something must be done. It was done with a sharp report, the upward curl of smoke and the falling back of the guard as Morse staggered forward FREE–with a bullet in his heart. Yet even then he did not fall until he reached the cart, when he lapsed forward, dead, with his arms outstretched and his head at the doomed man’s feet.
There was something so supreme and all-powerful in this hopeless act of devotion that the heart of the multitude thrilled and then recoiled aghast at its work, and a single word or a gesture from the doomed man himself would have set him free. But they say–and it is credibly recorded–that as Captain Jack Despard looked down upon the hopeless sacrifice at his feet his eyes blazed, and he flung upon the crowd a curse so awful and sweeping that, hardened as they were, their blood ran cold, and then leaped furiously to their cheeks.
“And now,” he said, coolly tightening the rope around his neck with a jerk of his head–“Go on, and be damned to you! I’m ready.”
They did not hesitate this time. And Martin Morse and Captain Jack Despard were buried in the same grave.