In The Tules
From: Selected Stories
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"No," said Morse.
"Well, then, they're YOURS."
"But who sent them?" insisted Morse. "What was his name, and where does
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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.
Next: A Convert Of The Mission
Previous: Bulger's Reputation