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
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,
There was a general movement of opposition in the group, but no decided
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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,
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"Hush! Don't speak so loud. Moving off. Ah! wot's that? Don't you
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
"I don't think you'll save much. What's the percentage--workin' on
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
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
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
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
"It was made by me, senor."
"I kept it as a clue to him, Don Altascar," I said. "If I could find
"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
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
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."
Next: An Episode Of Fiddletown
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