Notes by Flood and Field (1862) is Harte’s story told by a U.S. surveyor in the Sacramento Valley.
PART I–IN THE FIELD
It was near the close of an October day that I began to be disagreeably conscious of the Sacramento Valley. I had been riding since sunrise, and my course through the depressing monotony of the long level landscape affected me more like a dull dyspeptic dream than a business journey, performed under that sincerest of natural phenomena–a California sky. The recurring stretches of brown and baked fields, the gaping fissures in the dusty trail, the hard outline of the distant hills, and the herds of slowly moving cattle, seemed like features of some glittering stereoscopic picture that never changed. Active exercise might have removed this feeling, but my horse by some subtle instinct had long since given up all ambitious effort, and had lapsed into a dogged trot.
It was autumn, but not the season suggested to the Atlantic reader under that title. The sharply defined boundaries of the wet and dry seasons were prefigured in the clear outlines of the distant hills. In the dry atmosphere the decay of vegetation was too rapid for the slow hectic which overtakes an Eastern landscape, or else Nature was too practical for such thin disguises. She merely turned the Hippocratic face to the spectator, with the old diagnosis of Death in her sharp, contracted features.
In the contemplation of such a prospect there was little to excite any but a morbid fancy. There were no clouds in the flinty blue heavens, and the setting of the sun was accompanied with as little ostentation as was consistent with the dryly practical atmosphere. Darkness soon followed, with a rising wind, which increased as the shadows deepened on the plain. The fringe of alder by the watercourse began to loom up as I urged my horse forward. A half- hour’s active spurring brought me to a corral, and a little beyond a house, so low and broad it seemed at first sight to be half- buried in the earth.
My second impression was that it had grown out of the soil, like some monstrous vegetable, its dreary proportions were so in keeping with the vast prospect. There were no recesses along its roughly boarded walls for vagrant and unprofitable shadows to lurk in the daily sunshine. No projection for the wind by night to grow musical over, to wail, whistle, or whisper to; only a long wooden shelf containing a chilly-looking tin basin and a bar of soap. Its uncurtained windows were red with the sinking sun, as though bloodshot and inflamed from a too-long unlidded existence. The tracks of cattle led to its front door, firmly closed against the rattling wind.
To avoid being confounded with this familiar element, I walked to the rear of the house, which was connected with a smaller building by a slight platform. A grizzled, hard-faced old man was standing there, and met my salutation with a look of inquiry, and, without speaking, led the way to the principal room. As I entered, four young men who were reclining by the fire slightly altered their attitudes of perfect repose, but beyond that betrayed neither curiosity nor interest. A hound started from a dark corner with a growl, but was immediately kicked by the old man into obscurity, and silenced again. I can’t tell why, but I instantly received the impression that for a long time the group by the fire had not uttered a word or moved a muscle. Taking a seat, I briefly stated my business.
Was a United States surveyor. Had come on account of the Espiritu Santo Rancho. Wanted to correct the exterior boundaries of township lines, so as to connect with the near exteriors of private grants. There had been some intervention to the old survey by a Mr. Tryan who had preempted adjacent–“settled land warrants,” interrupted the old man. “Ah, yes! Land warrants–and then this was Mr. Tryan?”
I had spoken mechanically, for I was preoccupied in connecting other public lines with private surveys as I looked in his face. It was certainly a hard face, and reminded me of the singular effect of that mining operation known as “ground sluicing”; the harder lines of underlying character were exposed, and what were once plastic curves and soft outlines were obliterated by some powerful agency.
There was a dryness in his voice not unlike the prevailing atmosphere of the valley, as he launched into an EX PARTE statement of the contest, with a fluency, which, like the wind without, showed frequent and unrestrained expression. He told me–what I had already learned–that the boundary line of the old Spanish grant was a creek, described in the loose phraseology of the DESENO as beginning in the VALDA or skirt of the hill, its precise location long the subject of litigation. I listened and answered with little interest, for my mind was still distracted by the wind which swept violently by the house, as well as by his odd face, which was again reflected in the resemblance that the silent group by the fire bore toward him. He was still talking, and the wind was yet blowing, when my confused attention was aroused by a remark addressed to the recumbent figures.
“Now, then, which on ye’ll see the stranger up the creek to Altascar’s, tomorrow?”
There was a general movement of opposition in the group, but no decided answer.
“Kin you go, Kerg?”
“Who’s to look up stock in Strarberry perar-ie?”
This seemed to imply a negative, and the old man turned to another hopeful, who was pulling the fur from a mangy bearskin on which he was lying, with an expression as though it were somebody’s hair.
“Well, Tom, wot’s to hinder you from goin’?”
“Mam’s goin’ to Brown’s store at sunup, and I s’pose I’ve got to pack her and the baby agin.”
I think the expression of scorn this unfortunate youth exhibited for the filial duty into which he had been evidently beguiled was one of the finest things I had ever seen.
Wise deigned no verbal reply, but figuratively thrust a worn and patched boot into the discourse. The old man flushed quickly.
“I told ye to get Brown to give you a pair the last time you war down the river.”
“Said he wouldn’t without’en order. Said it was like pulling gum teeth to get the money from you even then.”
There was a grim smile at this local hit at the old man’s parsimony, and Wise, who was clearly the privileged wit of the family, sank back in honorable retirement.
“Well, Joe, ef your boots are new, and you aren’t pestered with wimmin and children, p’r’aps you’ll go,” said Tryan, with a nervous twitching, intended for a smile, about a mouth not remarkably mirthful.
Tom lifted a pair of bushy eyebrows, and said shortly:
“Got no saddle.”
“Wot’s gone of your saddle?”
“Kerg, there”–indicating his brother with a look such as Cain might have worn at the sacrifice.
“You lie!” returned Kerg, cheerfully.
Tryan sprang to his feet, seizing the chair, flourishing it around his head and gazing furiously in the hard young faces which fearlessly met his own. But it was only for a moment; his arm soon dropped by his side, and a look of hopeless fatality crossed his face. He allowed me to take the chair from his hand, and I was trying to pacify him by the assurance that I required no guide when the irrepressible Wise again lifted his voice:
“Theer’s George comin’! why don’t ye ask him? He’ll go and introduce you to Don Fernandy’s darter, too, ef you ain’t pertickler.”
The laugh which followed this joke, which evidently had some domestic allusion (the general tendency of rural pleasantry), was followed by a light step on the platform, and the young man entered. Seeing a stranger present, he stopped and colored, made a shy salute and colored again, and then, drawing a box from the corner, sat down, his hands clasped lightly together and his very handsome bright blue eyes turned frankly on mine.
Perhaps I was in a condition to receive the romantic impression he made upon me, and I took it upon myself to ask his company as guide, and he cheerfully assented. But some domestic duty called him presently away.
The fire gleamed brightly on the hearth, and, no longer resisting the prevailing influence, I silently watched the spurting flame, listening to the wind which continually shook the tenement. Besides the one chair which had acquired a new importance in my eyes, I presently discovered a crazy table in one corner, with an ink bottle and pen; the latter in that greasy state of decomposition peculiar to country taverns and farmhouses. A goodly array of rifles and double-barreled guns stocked the corner; half a dozen saddles and blankets lay near, with a mild flavor of the horse about them. Some deer and bear skins completed the inventory. As I sat there, with the silent group around me, the shadowy gloom within and the dominant wind without, I found it difficult to believe I had ever known a different existence. My profession had often led me to wilder scenes, but rarely among those whose unrestrained habits and easy unconsciousness made me feel so lonely and uncomfortable I shrank closer to myself, not without grave doubts–which I think occur naturally to people in like situations–that this was the general rule of humanity and I was a solitary and somewhat gratuitous exception. It was a relief when a laconic announcement of supper by a weak-eyed girl caused a general movement in the family. We walked across the dark platform, which led to another low-ceiled room. Its entire length was occupied by a table, at the farther end of which a weak-eyed woman was already taking her repast as she at the same time gave nourishment to a weak-eyed baby. As the formalities of introduction had been dispensed with, and as she took no notice of me, I was enabled to slip into a seat without discomposing or interrupting her. Tryan extemporized a grace, and the attention of the family became absorbed in bacon, potatoes, and dried apples.
The meal was a sincere one. Gentle gurglings at the upper end of the table often betrayed the presence of the “wellspring of pleasure.” The conversation generally referred to the labors of the day, and comparing notes as to the whereabouts of missing stock. Yet the supper was such a vast improvement upon the previous intellectual feast that when a chance allusion of mine to the business of my visit brought out the elder Tryan, the interest grew quite exciting. I remember he inveighed bitterly against the system of ranch-holding by the “greasers,” as he was pleased to term the native Californians. As the same ideas have been sometimes advanced under more pretentious circumstances they may be worthy of record.
“Look at ’em holdin’ the finest grazin’ land that ever lay outer doors. Whar’s the papers for it? Was it grants? Mighty fine grants–most of ’em made arter the ‘Merrikans got possession. More fools the ‘Merrikans for lettin’ ’em hold ’em. Wat paid for ’em? ‘Merrikan and blood money.
“Didn’t they oughter have suthin’ out of their native country? Wot for? Did they ever improve? Got a lot of yaller-skinned diggers, not so sensible as niggers to look arter stock, and they a sittin’ home and smokin’. With their gold and silver candlesticks, and missions, and crucifixens, priests and graven idols, and sich? Them sort things wurent allowed in Mizzoori.”
At the mention of improvements, I involuntarily lifted my eyes, and met the half laughing, half embarrassed look of George. The act did not escape detection, and I had at once the satisfaction of seeing that the rest of the family had formed an offensive alliance against us.
“It was agin Nater, and agin God,” added Tryan. “God never intended gold in the rocks to be made into heathen candlesticks and crucifixens. That’s why he sent ‘Merrikans here. Nater never intended such a climate for lazy lopers. She never gin six months’ sunshine to be slept and smoked away.”
How long he continued and with what further illustration I could not say, for I took an early opportunity to escape to the sitting- room. I was soon followed by George, who called me to an open door leading to a smaller room, and pointed to a bed.
“You’d better sleep there tonight,” he said; “you’ll be more comfortable, and I’ll call you early.”
I thanked him, and would have asked him several questions which were then troubling me, but he shyly slipped to the door and vanished.
A shadow seemed to fall on the room when he had gone. The “boys” returned, one by one, and shuffled to their old places. A larger log was thrown on the fire, and the huge chimney glowed like a furnace, but it did not seem to melt or subdue a single line of the hard faces that it lit. In half an hour later, the furs which had served as chairs by day undertook the nightly office of mattresses, and each received its owner’s full-length figure. Mr. Tryan had not returned, and I missed George. I sat there until, wakeful and nervous, I saw the fire fall and shadows mount the wall. There was no sound but the rushing of the wind and the snoring of the sleepers. At last, feeling the place insupportable, I seized my hat and opening the door, ran out briskly into the night.
The acceleration of my torpid pulse in the keen fight with the wind, whose violence was almost equal to that of a tornado, and the familiar faces of the bright stars above me, I felt as a blessed relief. I ran not knowing whither, and when I halted, the square outline of the house was lost in the alder bushes. An uninterrupted plain stretched before me, like a vast sea beaten flat by the force of the gale. As I kept on I noticed a slight elevation toward the horizon, and presently my progress was impeded by the ascent of an Indian mound. It struck me forcibly as resembling an island in the sea. Its height gave me a better view of the expanding plain. But even here I found no rest. The ridiculous interpretation Tryan had given the climate was somehow sung in my ears, and echoed in my throbbing pulse as, guided by the star, I sought the house again.
But I felt fresher and more natural as I stepped upon the platform. The door of the lower building was open, and the old man was sitting beside the table, thumbing the leaves of a Bible with a look in his face as though he were hunting up prophecies against the “Greaser.” I turned to enter, but my attention was attracted by a blanketed figure lying beside the house, on the platform. The broad chest heaving with healthy slumber, and the open, honest face were familiar. It was George, who had given up his bed to the stranger among his people. I was about to wake him, but he lay so peaceful and quiet, I felt awed and hushed. And I went to bed with a pleasant impression of his handsome face and tranquil figure soothing me to sleep.
I was awakened the next morning from a sense of lulled repose and grateful silence by the cheery voice of George, who stood beside my bed, ostentatiously twirling a riata, as if to recall the duties of the day to my sleep-bewildered eyes. I looked around me. The wind had been magically laid, and the sun shone warmly through the windows. A dash of cold water, with an extra chill on from the tin basin, helped to brighten me. It was still early, but the family had already breakfasted and dispersed, and a wagon winding far in the distance showed that the unfortunate Tom had already “packed” his relatives away. I felt more cheerful–there are few troubles Youth cannot distance with the start of a good night’s rest. After a substantial breakfast, prepared by George, in a few moments we were mounted and dashing down the plain.
We followed the line of alder that defined the creek, now dry and baked with summer’s heat, but which in winter, George told me, overflowed its banks. I still retain a vivid impression of that morning’s ride, the far-off mountains, like silhouettes, against the steel-blue sky, the crisp dry air, and the expanding track before me, animated often by the well-knit figure of George Tryan, musical with jingling spurs and picturesque with flying riata. He rode powerful native roan, wild-eyed, untiring in stride and unbroken in nature. Alas! the curves of beauty were concealed by the cumbrous MACHILLAS of the Spanish saddle, which levels all equine distinctions. The single rein lay loosely on the cruel bit that can gripe, and if need be, crush the jaw it controls.
Again the illimitable freedom of the valley rises before me, as we again bear down into sunlit space. Can this be “Chu Chu,” staid and respectable filly of American pedigree–Chu Chu, forgetful of plank roads and cobblestones, wild with excitement, twinkling her small white feet beneath me? George laughs out of a cloud of dust. “Give her her head; don’t you see she likes it?” and Chu Chu seems to like it, and whether bitten by native tarantula into native barbarism or emulous of the roan, “blood” asserts itself, and in a moment the peaceful servitude of years is beaten out in the music of her clattering hoofs. The creek widens to a deep gully. We dive into it and up on the opposite side, carrying a moving cloud of impalpable powder with us. Cattle are scattered over the plain, grazing quietly or banded together in vast restless herds. George makes a wide, indefinite sweep with the riata, as if to include them all in his vaquero’s loop, and says, “Ours!”
“About how many, George?”
“‘Well, p’r’aps three thousand head,” says George, reflecting. “We don’t know, takes five men to look ’em up and keep run.”
“What are they worth?”
“About thirty dollars a head.”
I make a rapid calculation, and look my astonishment at the laughing George. Perhaps a recollection of the domestic economy of the Tryan household is expressed in that look, for George averts his eye and says, apologetically:
“I’ve tried to get the old man to sell and build, but you know he says it ain’t no use to settle down, just yet. We must keep movin’. In fact, he built the shanty for that purpose, lest titles should fall through, and we’d have to get up and move stakes further down.”
Suddenly his quick eye detects some unusual sight in a herd we are passing, and with an exclamation he puts his roan into the center of the mass. I follow, or rather Chu Chu darts after the roan, and in a few moments we are in the midst of apparently inextricable horns and hoofs. “TORO!” shouts George, with vaquero enthusiasm, and the band opens a way for the swinging riata. I can feel their steaming breaths, and their spume is cast on Chu Chu’s quivering flank.
Wild, devilish-looking beasts are they; not such shapes as Jove might have chosen to woo a goddess, nor such as peacefully range the downs of Devon, but lean and hungry Cassius-like bovines, economically got up to meet the exigencies of a six months’ rainless climate, and accustomed to wrestle with the distracting wind and the blinding dust.
“That’s not our brand,” says George; “they’re strange stock,” and he points to what my scientific eye recognizes as the astrological sign of Venus deeply seared in the brown flanks of the bull he is chasing. But the herd are closing round us with low mutterings, and George has again recourse to the authoritative “TORO,” and with swinging riata divides the “bossy bucklers” on either side. When we are free, and breathing somewhat more easily, I venture to ask George if they ever attack anyone.
“Never horsemen–sometimes footmen. Not through rage, you know, but curiosity. They think a man and his horse are one, and if they meet a chap afoot, they run him down and trample him under hoof, in the pursuit of knowledge. But,” adds George, “here’s the lower bench of the foothills, and here’s Altascar’s corral, and that White building you see yonder is the casa.”
A whitewashed wall enclosed a court containing another adobe building, baked with the solar beams of many summers. Leaving our horses in the charge of a few peons in the courtyard, who were basking lazily in the sun, we entered a low doorway, where a deep shadow and an agreeable coolness fell upon us, as sudden and grateful as a plunge in cool water, from its contrast with the external glare and heat. In the center of a low-ceiled apartment sat an old man with a black-silk handkerchief tied about his head, the few gray hairs that escaped from its folds relieving his gamboge-colored face. The odor of CIGARRITOS was as incense added to the cathedral gloom of the building.
As Senor Altascar rose with well-bred gravity to receive us, George advanced with such a heightened color, and such a blending of tenderness and respect in his manner, that I was touched to the heart by so much devotion in the careless youth. In fact, my eyes were still dazzled by the effect of the outer sunshine, and at first I did not see the white teeth and black eyes of Pepita, who slipped into the corridor as we entered.
It was no pleasant matter to disclose particulars of business which would deprive the old senor of the greater part of that land we had just ridden over, and I did it with great embarrassment. But he listened calmly–not a muscle of his dark face stirring–and the smoke curling placidly from his lips showed his regular respiration. When I had finished, he offered quietly to accompany us to the line of demarcation. George had meanwhile disappeared, but a suspicious conversation in broken Spanish and English, in the corridor, betrayed his vicinity. When he returned again, a little absent-minded, the old man, by far the coolest and most self- possessed of the party, extinguished his black-silk cap beneath that stiff, uncomely sombrero which all native Californians affect. A serape thrown over his shoulders hinted that he was waiting. Horses are always ready saddled in Spanish ranchos, and in half an hour from the time of our arrival we were again “loping” in the staring sunlight.
But not as cheerfully as before. George and myself were weighed down by restraint, and Altascar was gravely quiet. To break the silence, and by way of a consolatory essay, I hinted to him that there might be further intervention or appeal, but the proffered oil and wine were returned with a careless shrug of the shoulders and a sententious “QUE BUENO?–Your courts are always just.”
The Indian mound of the previous night’s discovery was a bearing monument of the new line, and there we halted. We were surprised to find the old man Tryan waiting us. For the first time during our interview the old Spaniard seemed moved, and the blood rose in his yellow cheek. I was anxious to close the scene, and pointed out the corner boundaries as clearly as my recollection served.
“The deputies will be here tomorrow to run the lines from this initial point, and there will be no further trouble, I believe, gentlemen.”
Senor Altascar had dismounted and was gathering a few tufts of dried grass in his hands. George and I exchanged glances. He presently arose from his stooping posture, and advancing to within a few paces of Joseph Tryan, said, in a voice broken with passion:
“And I, Fernando Jesus Maria Altascar, put you in possession of my land in the fashion of my country.”
He threw a sod to each of the cardinal points.
“I don’t know your courts, your judges, or your CORREGIDORES. Take the LLANO!–and take this with it. May the drought seize your cattle till their tongues hang down as long as those of your lying lawyers! May it be the curse and torment of your old age, as you and yours have made it of mine!”
We stepped between the principal actors in this scene, which only the passion of Altascar made tragical, but Tryan, with a humility but ill concealing his triumph, interrupted:
“Let him curse on. He’ll find ’em coming home to him sooner than the cattle he has lost through his sloth and pride. The Lord is on the side of the just, as well as agin all slanderers and revilers.”
Altascar but half guessed the meaning of the Missourian, yet sufficiently to drive from his mind all but the extravagant power of his native invective.
“Stealer of the Sacrament! Open not!–open not, I say, your lying, Judas lips to me! Ah! half-breed, with the soul of a coyote!–car- r-r-ramba!”
With his passion reverberating among the consonants like distant thunder, he laid his hand upon the mane of his horse as though it had been the gray locks of his adversary, swung himself into the saddle and galloped away.
George turned to me:
“Will you go back with us tonight?”
I thought of the cheerless walls, the silent figures by the fire, and the roaring wind, and hesitated.
“Well then, goodby.”
Another wring of the hands, and we parted. I had not ridden far when I turned and looked back. The wind had risen early that afternoon, and was already sweeping across the plain. A cloud of dust traveled before it, and a picturesque figure occasionally emerging therefrom was my last indistinct impression of George Tryan.
PART II–IN THE FLOOD
Three months after the survey of the Espiritu Santo Rancho, I was again in the valley of the Sacramento. But a general and terrible visitation had erased the memory of that event as completely as I supposed it had obliterated the boundary monuments I had planted. The great flood of 1861-62 was at its height when, obeying some indefinite yearning, I took my carpetbag and embarked for the inundated valley.
There was nothing to be seen from the bright cabin windows of the GOLDEN CITY but night deepening over the water. The only sound was the pattering rain, and that had grown monotonous for the past two weeks, and did not disturb the national gravity of my countrymen as they silently sat around the cabin stove. Some on errands of relief to friends and relatives wore anxious faces, and conversed soberly on the one absorbing topic. Others, like myself, attracted by curiosity listened eagerly to newer details. But with that human disposition to seize upon any circumstance that might give chance event the exaggerated importance of instinct, I was half- conscious of something more than curiosity as an impelling motive.
The dripping of rain, the low gurgle of water, and a leaden sky greeted us the next morning as we lay beside the half-submerged levee of Sacramento. Here, however, the novelty of boats to convey us to the hotels was an appeal that was irresistible. I resigned myself to a dripping rubber-cased mariner called “Joe,” and, wrapping myself in a shining cloak of the like material, about as suggestive of warmth as court plaster might have been, took my seat in the stern sheets of his boat. It was no slight inward struggle to part from the steamer that to most of the passengers was the only visible connecting link between us and the dry and habitable earth, but we pulled away and entered the city, stemming a rapid current as we shot the levee.
We glided up the long level of K Street–once a cheerful, busy thoroughfare, now distressing in its silent desolation. The turbid water which seemed to meet the horizon edge before us flowed at right angles in sluggish rivers through the streets. Nature had revenged herself on the local taste by disarraying the regular rectangles by huddling houses on street corners, where they presented abrupt gables to the current, or by capsizing them in compact ruin. Crafts of all kinds were gliding in and out of low- arched doorways. The water was over the top of the fences surrounding well-kept gardens, in the first stories of hotels and private dwellings, trailing its slime on velvet carpets as well as roughly boarded floors. And a silence quite as suggestive as the visible desolation was in the voiceless streets that no longer echoed to carriage wheel or footfall. The low ripple of water, the occasional splash of oars, or the warning cry of boatmen were the few signs of life and habitation.
With such scenes before my eyes and such sounds in my ears, as I lie lazily in the boat, is mingled the song of my gondolier who sings to the music of his oars. It is not quite as romantic as his brother of the Lido might improvise, but my Yankee “Giuseppe” has the advantage of earnestness and energy, and gives a graphic description of the terrors of the past week and of noble deeds of self-sacrifice and devotion, occasionally pointing out a balcony from which some California Bianca or Laura had been snatched, half- clothed and famished. Giuseppe is otherwise peculiar, and refuses the proffered fare, for–am I not a citizen of San Francisco, which was first to respond to the suffering cry of Sacramento? and is not he, Giuseppe, a member of the Howard Society? No! Giuseppe is poor, but cannot take my money. Still, if I must spend it, there is the Howard Society, and the women and children without food and clothes at the Agricultural Hall.
I thank the generous gondolier, and we go to the Hall–a dismal, bleak place, ghastly with the memories of last year’s opulence and plenty, and here Giuseppe’s fare is swelled by the stranger’s mite. But here Giuseppe tells me of the “Relief Boat” which leaves for the flooded district in the interior, and here, profiting by the lesson he has taught me, I make the resolve to turn my curiosity to the account of others, and am accepted of those who go forth to succor and help the afflicted. Giuseppe takes charge of my carpetbag, and does not part from me until I stand on the slippery deck of “Relief Boat No. 3.”
An hour later I am in the pilothouse, looking down upon what was once the channel of a peaceful river. But its banks are only defined by tossing tufts of willow washed by the long swell that breaks over a vast inland sea. Stretches of “tule” land fertilized by its once regular channel and dotted by flourishing ranchos are now cleanly erased. The cultivated profile of the old landscape had faded. Dotted lines in symmetrical perspective mark orchards that are buried and chilled in the turbid flood. The roofs of a few farmhouses are visible, and here and there the smoke curling from chimneys of half-submerged tenements shows an undaunted life within. Cattle and sheep are gathered on Indian mounds waiting the fate of their companions whose carcasses drift by us, or swing in eddies with the wrecks of barns and outhouses. Wagons are stranded everywhere where the tide could carry them. As I wipe the moistened glass, I see nothing but water, pattering on the deck from the lowering clouds, dashing against the window, dripping from the willows, hissing by the wheels, everywhere washing, coiling, sapping, hurrying in rapids, or swelling at last into deeper and vaster lakes, awful in their suggestive quiet and concealment.
As day fades into night the monotony of this strange prospect grows oppressive. I seek the engine room, and in the company of some of the few half-drowned sufferers we have already picked up from temporary rafts, I forget the general aspect of desolation in their individual misery. Later we meet the San Francisco packet, and transfer a number of our passengers. From them we learn how inward-bound vessels report to have struck the well-defined channel of the Sacramento, fifty miles beyond the bar. There is a voluntary contribution taken among the generous travelers for the use of our afflicted, and we part company with a hearty “Godspeed” on either side. But our signal lights are not far distant before a familiar sound comes back to us–an indomitable Yankee cheer–which scatters the gloom.
Our course is altered, and we are steaming over the obliterated banks far in the interior. Once or twice black objects loom up near us–the wrecks of houses floating by. There is a slight rift in the sky toward the north, and a few bearing stars to guide us over the waste. As we penetrate into shallower water, it is deemed advisable to divide our party into smaller boats, and diverge over the submerged prairie. I borrow a peacoat of one of the crew, and in that practical disguise am doubtfully permitted to pass into one of the boats. We give way northerly. It is quite dark yet, although the rift of cloud has widened.
It must have been about three o’clock, and we were lying upon our oars in an eddy formed by a clump of cottonwood, and the light of the steamer is a solitary, bright star in the distance, when the silence is broken by the “bow oar”:
All eyes are turned in that direction. In a few seconds a twinkling light appears, shines steadily, and again disappears as if by the shifting position of some black object apparently drifting close upon us.
“Stern, all; a steamer!”
“Hold hard there! Steamer be damned!” is the reply of the coxswain. “It’s a house, and a big one too.”
It is a big one, looming in the starlight like a huge fragment of the darkness. The light comes from a single candle, which shines through a window as the great shape swings by. Some recollection is drifting back to me with it as I listen with beating heart.
“There’s someone in it, by heavens! Give way, boys–lay her alongside. Handsomely, now! The door’s fastened; try the window; no! here’s another!”
In another moment we are trampling in the water which washes the floor to the depth of several inches. It is a large room, at the farther end of which an old man is sitting wrapped in a blanket, holding a candle in one hand, and apparently absorbed in the book he holds with the other. I spring toward him with an exclamation:
He does not move. We gather closer to him, and I lay my hand gently on his shoulder, and say:
“Look up, old man, look up! Your wife and children, where are they? The boys–George! Are they here? are they safe?”
He raises his head slowly, and turns his eyes to mine, and we involuntarily recoil before his look. It is a calm and quiet glance, free from fear, anger, or pain; but it somehow sends the blood curdling through our veins. He bowed his head over his book again, taking no further notice of us. The men look at me compassionately, and hold their peace. I make one more effort:
“Joseph Tryan, don’t you know me? the surveyor who surveyed your ranch–the Espiritu Santo? Look up, old man!”
He shuddered and wrapped himself closer in his blanket. Presently he repeated to himself “The surveyor who surveyed your ranch– Espiritu Santo” over and over again, as though it were a lesson he was trying to fix in his memory.
I was turning sadly to the boatmen when he suddenly caught me fearfully by the hand and said:
We were silent.
“Listen!” He puts his arm around my neck and whispers in my ear, “I’m a MOVING OFF!”
“Hush! Don’t speak so loud. Moving off. Ah! wot’s that? Don’t you hear?–there! listen!”
We listen, and hear the water gurgle and click beneath the floor.
“It’s them wot he sent!–Old Altascar sent. They’ve been here all night. I heard ’em first in the creek, when they came to tell the old man to move farther off. They came nearer and nearer. They whispered under the door, and I saw their eyes on the step–their cruel, hard eyes. Ah, why don’t they quit?”
I tell the men to search the room and see if they can find any further traces of the family, while Tryan resumes his old attitude. It is so much like the figure I remember on the breezy night that a superstitious feeling is fast overcoming me. When they have returned, I tell them briefly what I know of him, and the old man murmurs again:
“Why don’t they quit, then? They have the stock–all gone–gone, gone for the hides and hoofs,” and he groans bitterly.
“There are other boats below us. The shanty cannot have drifted far, and perhaps the family are safe by this time,” says the coxswain, hopefully.
We lift the old man up, for he is quite helpless, and carry him to the boat. He is still grasping the Bible in his right hand, though its strengthening grace is blank to his vacant eye, and he cowers in the stern as we pull slowly to the steamer while a pale gleam in the sky shows the coming day.
I was weary with excitement, and when we reached the steamer, and I had seen Joseph Tryan comfortably bestowed, I wrapped myself in a blanket near the boiler and presently fell asleep. But even then the figure of the old man often started before me, and a sense of uneasiness about George made a strong undercurrent to my drifting dreams. I was awakened at about eight o’clock in the morning by the engineer, who told me one of the old man’s sons had been picked up and was now on board.
“Is it George Tryan?” I ask quickly.
“Don’t know; but he’s a sweet one, whoever he is,” adds the engineer, with a smile at some luscious remembrance. “You’ll find him for’ard.”
I hurry to the bow of the boat, and find, not George, but the irrepressible Wise, sitting on a coil of rope, a little dirtier and rather more dilapidated than I can remember having seen him.
He is examining, with apparent admiration, some rough, dry clothes that have been put out for his disposal. I cannot help thinking that circumstances have somewhat exalted his usual cheerfulness. He puts me at my ease by at once addressing me:
“These are high old times, ain’t they? I say, what do you reckon’s become o’ them thar bound’ry moniments you stuck? Ah!”
The pause which succeeds this outburst is the effect of a spasm of admiration at a pair of high boots, which, by great exertion, he has at last pulled on his feet.
“So you’ve picked up the ole man in the shanty, clean crazy? He must have been soft to have stuck there instead o’ leavin’ with the old woman. Didn’t know me from Adam; took me for George!”
At this affecting instance of paternal forgetfulness, Wise was evidently divided between amusement and chagrin. I took advantage of the contending emotions to ask about George.
“Don’t know whar he is! If he’d tended stock instead of running about the prairie, packin’ off wimmin and children, he might have saved suthin. He lost every hoof and hide, I’ll bet a cooky! Say you,” to a passing boatman, “when are you goin’ to give us some grub? I’m hungry ‘nough to skin and eat a hoss. Reckon I’ll turn butcher when things is dried up, and save hides, horns, and taller.”
I could not but admire this indomitable energy, which under softer climatic influences might have borne such goodly fruit.
“Have you any idea what you’ll do, Wise?” I ask.
“Thar ain’t much to do now,” says the practical young man. “I’ll have to lay over a spell, I reckon, till things comes straight. The land ain’t worth much now, and won’t be, I dessay, for some time. Wonder whar the ole man’ll drive stakes next.”
“I meant as to your father and George, Wise.”
“Oh, the old man and I’ll go on to ‘Miles’s,’ whar Tom packed the old woman and babies last week. George’ll turn up somewhar atween this and Altascar’s ef he ain’t thar now.”
I ask how the Altascars have suffered.
“Well, I reckon he ain’t lost much in stock. I shouldn’t wonder if George helped him drive ’em up the foothills. And his casa’s built too high. Oh, thar ain’t any water thar, you bet. Ah,” says Wise, with reflective admiration, “those greasers ain’t the darned fools people thinks ’em. I’ll bet thar ain’t one swamped out in all ‘er Californy.” But the appearance of “grub” cut this rhapsody short.
“I shall keep on a little farther,” I say, “and try to find George.”
Wise stared a moment at this eccentricity until a new light dawned upon him.
“I don’t think you’ll save much. What’s the percentage–workin’ on shares, eh!”
I answer that I am only curious, which I feel lessens his opinion of me, and with a sadder feeling than his assurance of George’s safety might warrant, I walked away.
From others whom we picked up from time to time we heard of George’s self-sacrificing devotion, with the praises of the many he had helped and rescued. But I did not feel disposed to return until I had seen him, and soon prepared myself to take a boat to the lower VALDA of the foothills, and visit Altascar. I soon perfected my arrangements, bade farewell to Wise, and took a last look at the old man, who was sitting by the furnace fires quite passive and composed. Then our boat head swung round, pulled by sturdy and willing hands.
It was again raining, and a disagreeable wind had risen. Our course lay nearly west, and we soon knew by the strong current that we were in the creek of the Espiritu Santo. From time to time the wrecks of barns were seen, and we passed many half-submerged willows hung with farming implements.
We emerge at last into a broad silent sea. It is the “LLANO DE ESPIRITU SANTO.” As the wind whistles by me, piling the shallower fresh water into mimic waves, I go back, in fancy, to the long ride of October over that boundless plain, and recall the sharp outlines of the distant hills, which are now lost in the lowering clouds. The men are rowing silently, and I find my mind, released from its tension, growing benumbed and depressed as then. The water, too, is getting more shallow as we leave the banks of the creek, and with my hand dipped listlessly over the thwarts, I detect the tops of chimisal, which shows the tide to have somewhat fallen. There is a black mound, bearing to the north of the line of alder, making an adverse current, which, as we sweep to the right to avoid, I recognize. We pull close alongside and I call to the men to stop.
There was a stake driven near its summit with the initials, “L. E. S. I.” Tied halfway down was a curiously worked riata. It was George’s. It had been cut with some sharp instrument, and the loose gravelly soil of the mound was deeply dented with horses’ hoofs. The stake was covered with horsehairs. It was a record, but no clue.
The wind had grown more violent as we still fought our way forward, resting and rowing by turns, and oftener “poling” the shallower surface, but the old VALDA, or bench, is still distant. My recollection of the old survey enables me to guess the relative position of the meanderings of the creek, and an occasional simple professional experiment to determine the distance gives my crew the fullest faith in my ability. Night overtakes us in our impeded progress. Our condition looks more dangerous than it really is, but I urge the men, many of whom are still new in this mode of navigation, to greater exertion by assurance of perfect safety and speedy relief ahead. We go on in this way until about eight o’clock, and ground by the willows. We have a muddy walk for a few hundred yards before we strike a dry trail, and simultaneously the white walls of Altascar’s appear like a snowbank before us. Lights are moving in the courtyard; but otherwise the old tomblike repose characterizes the building.
One of the peons recognized me as I entered the court, and Altascar met me on the corridor.
I was too weak to do more than beg his hospitality for the men who had dragged wearily with me. He looked at my hand, which still unconsciously held the broken riata. I began, wearily, to tell him about George and my fears, but with a gentler courtesy than was even his wont, he gravely laid his hand on my shoulder.
“POCO A POCO, senor–not now. You are tired, you have hunger, you have cold. Necessary it is you should have peace.”
He took us into a small room and poured out some French cognac, which he gave to the men that had accompanied me. They drank and threw themselves before the fire in the larger room. The repose of the building was intensified that night, and I even fancied that the footsteps on the corridor were lighter and softer. The old Spaniard’s habitual gravity was deeper; we might have been shut out from the world as well as the whistling storm, behind those ancient walls with their time-worn inheritor.
Before I could repeat my inquiry he retired. In a few minutes two smoking dishes of CHUPA with coffee were placed before us, and my men ate ravenously. I drank the coffee, but my excitement and weariness kept down the instincts of hunger.
I was sitting sadly by the fire when he reentered.
“You have eat?”
I said, “Yes,” to please him.
“BUENO, eat when you can–food and appetite are not always.”
He said this with that Sancho-like simplicity with which most of his countrymen utter a proverb, as though it were an experience rather than a legend, and, taking the riata from the floor, held it almost tenderly before him.
“It was made by me, senor.”
“I kept it as a clue to him, Don Altascar,” I said. “If I could find him–“
“He is here.”
“Here! and”–but I could not say “well!” I understood the gravity of the old man’s face, the hushed footfalls, the tomblike repose of the building, in an electric flash of consciousness; I held the clue to the broken riata at last. Altascar took my hand, and we crossed the corridor to a somber apartment. A few tall candles were burning in sconces before the window.
In an alcove there was a deep bed with its counterpane, pillows, and sheets heavily edged with lace, in all that splendid luxury which the humblest of these strange people lavish upon this single item of their household. I stepped beside it and saw George lying, as I had seen him once before, peacefully at rest. But a greater sacrifice than that he had known was here, and his generous heart was stilled forever.
“He was honest and brave,” said the old man, and turned away. There was another figure in the room; a heavy shawl drawn over her graceful outline, and her long black hair hiding the hands that buried her downcast face. I did not seem to notice her, and, retiring presently, left the loving and loved together.
When we were again beside the crackling fire, in the shifting shadows of the great chamber, Altascar told me how he had that morning met the horse of George Tryan swimming on the prairie; how that, farther on, he found him lying, quite cold and dead, with no marks or bruises on his person; that he had probably become exhausted in fording the creek, and that he had as probably reached the mound only to die for want of that help he had so freely given to others; that, as a last act, he had freed his horse. These incidents were corroborated by many who collected in the great chamber that evening–women and children–most of them succored through the devoted energies of him who lay cold and lifeless above.
He was buried in the Indian mound–the single spot of strange perennial greenness which the poor aborigines had raised above the dusty plain. A little slab of sandstone with the initials “G. T.” is his monument, and one of the bearings of the initial corner of the new survey of the “Espiritu Santo Rancho.”