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Notes By Flood And Field








From: Selected Stories

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?"

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 peculi