Notes by Flood and Field
by Bret Harte
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
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
"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 the
"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 voice:
"Theer's George comin'! why don't ye ask him? He'll go and introduce you
to Don Fernandy's darter, too, ef you ain't pertickler."
The laugh which followed this joke, which evidently had some domestic
allusion (the general tendency of rural pleasantry), was followed by a
light step on the platform, and the young man entered. Seeing a stranger
present, he stopped and colored, made a shy salute and colored again, and
then, drawing a box from the corner, sat down, his hands clasped lightly
together and his very handsome bright blue eyes turned frankly on mine.
Perhaps I was in a condition to receive the romantic impression he made
upon me, and I took it upon myself to ask his company as guide, and he
cheerfully assented. But some domestic duty called him presently away.
The fire gleamed brightly on the hearth, and, no longer resisting the
prevailing influence, I silently watched the spurting flame, listening to
the wind which continually shook the tenement. Besides the one chair which
had acquired a new importance in my eyes, I presently discovered a crazy
table in one corner, with an ink bottle and pen; the latter in that greasy
state of decomposition peculiar to country taverns and farmhouses. A
goodly array of rifles and double-barreled guns stocked the corner; half a
dozen saddles and blankets lay near, with a mild flavor of the horse about
them. Some deer and bear skins completed the inventory. As I sat there,
with the silent group around me, the shadowy gloom within and the dominant
wind without, I found it difficult to believe I had ever known a different
existence. My profession had often led me to wilder scenes, but rarely
among those whose unrestrained habits and easy unconsciousness made me
feel so lonely and uncomfortable I shrank closer to myself, not without
grave doubts—which I think occur naturally to people in like
situations—that this was the general rule of humanity and I was a
solitary and somewhat gratuitous exception. It was a relief when a laconic
announcement of supper by a weak-eyed girl caused a general movement in
the family. We walked across the dark platform, which led to another
low-ceiled room. Its entire length was occupied by a table, at the farther
end of which a weak-eyed woman was already taking her repast as she at the
same time gave nourishment to a weak-eyed baby. As the formalities of
introduction had been dispensed with, and as she took no notice of me, I
was enabled to slip into a seat without discomposing or interrupting her.
Tryan extemporized a grace, and the attention of the family became
absorbed in bacon, potatoes, and dried apples.
The meal was a sincere one. Gentle gurglings at the upper end of the table
often betrayed the presence of the "wellspring of pleasure." The
conversation generally referred to the labors of the day, and comparing
notes as to the whereabouts of missing stock. Yet the supper was such a
vast improvement upon the previous intellectual feast that when a chance
allusion of mine to the business of my visit brought out the elder Tryan,
the interest grew quite exciting. I remember he inveighed bitterly against
the system of ranch-holding by the "greasers," as he was pleased to term
the native Californians. As the same ideas have been sometimes advanced
under more pretentious circumstances they may be worthy of record.
"Look at 'em holdin' the finest grazin' land that ever lay outer doors.
Whar's the papers for it? Was it grants? Mighty fine grants—most of
'em made arter the 'Merrikans got possession. More fools the 'Merrikans
for lettin' 'em hold 'em. Wat paid for 'em? 'Merrikan and blood money.
"Didn't they oughter have suthin' out of their native country? Wot for?
Did they ever improve? Got a lot of yaller-skinned diggers, not so
sensible as niggers to look arter stock, and they a sittin' home and
smokin'. With their gold and silver candlesticks, and missions, and
crucifixens, priests and graven idols, and sich? Them sort things wurent
allowed in Mizzoori."
At the mention of improvements, I involuntarily lifted my eyes, and met
the half laughing, half embarrassed look of George. The act did not escape
detection, and I had at once the satisfaction of seeing that the rest of
the family had formed an offensive alliance against us.
"It was agin Nater, and agin God," added Tryan. "God never intended gold
in the rocks to be made into heathen candlesticks and crucifixens. That's
why he sent 'Merrikans here. Nater never intended such a climate for lazy
lopers. She never gin six months' sunshine to be slept and smoked away."
How long he continued and with what further illustration I could not say,
for I took an early opportunity to escape to the sitting-room. I was soon
followed by George, who called me to an open door leading to a smaller
room, and pointed to a bed.
"You'd better sleep there tonight," he said; "you'll be more comfortable,
and I'll call you early."
I thanked him, and would have asked him several questions which were then
troubling me, but he shyly slipped to the door and vanished.
A shadow seemed to fall on the room when he had gone. The "boys" returned,
one by one, and shuffled to their old places. A larger log was thrown on
the fire, and the huge chimney glowed like a furnace, but it did not seem
to melt or subdue a single line of the hard faces that it lit. In half an
hour later, the furs which had served as chairs by day undertook the
nightly office of mattresses, and each received its owner's full-length
figure. Mr. Tryan had not returned, and I missed George. I sat there
until, wakeful and nervous, I saw the fire fall and shadows mount the
wall. There was no sound but the rushing of the wind and the snoring of
the sleepers. At last, feeling the place insupportable, I seized my hat
and opening the door, ran out briskly into the night.
The acceleration of my torpid pulse in the keen fight with the wind, whose
violence was almost equal to that of a tornado, and the familiar faces of
the bright stars above me, I felt as a blessed relief. I ran not knowing
whither, and when I halted, the square outline of the house was lost in
the alder bushes. An uninterrupted plain stretched before me, like a vast
sea beaten flat by the force of the gale. As I kept on I noticed a slight
elevation toward the horizon, and presently my progress was impeded by the
ascent of an Indian mound. It struck me forcibly as resembling an island
in the sea. Its height gave me a better view of the expanding plain. But
even here I found no rest. The ridiculous interpretation Tryan had given
the climate was somehow sung in my ears, and echoed in my throbbing pulse
as, guided by the star, I sought the house again.
But I felt fresher and more natural as I stepped upon the platform. The
door of the lower building was open, and the old man was sitting beside
the table, thumbing the leaves of a Bible with a look in his face as
though he were hunting up prophecies against the "Greaser." I turned to
enter, but my attention was attracted by a blanketed figure lying beside
the house, on the platform. The broad chest heaving with healthy slumber,
and the open, honest face were familiar. It was George, who had given up
his bed to the stranger among his people. I was about to wake him, but he
lay so peaceful and quiet, I felt awed and hushed. And I went to bed with
a pleasant impression of his handsome face and tranquil figure soothing me
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 anyone.
"Never horsemen—sometimes footmen. Not through rage, you know, but
curiosity. They think a man and his horse are one, and if they meet a chap
afoot, they run him down and trample him under hoof, in the pursuit of
knowledge. But," adds George, "here's the lower bench of the foothills,
and here's Altascar's corral, and that White building you see yonder is
A whitewashed wall enclosed a court containing another adobe building,
baked with the solar beams of many summers. Leaving our horses in the
charge of a few peons in the courtyard, who were basking lazily in the
sun, we entered a low doorway, where a deep shadow and an agreeable
coolness fell upon us, as sudden and grateful as a plunge in cool water,
from its contrast with the external glare and heat. In the center of a
low-ceiled apartment sat an old man with a black-silk handkerchief tied
about his head, the few gray hairs that escaped from its folds relieving
his gamboge-colored face. The odor of CIGARRITOS was as incense added to
the cathedral gloom of the building.
As Senor Altascar rose with well-bred gravity to receive us, George
advanced with such a heightened color, and such a blending of tenderness
and respect in his manner, that I was touched to the heart by so much
devotion in the careless youth. In fact, my eyes were still dazzled by the
effect of the outer sunshine, and at first I did not see the white teeth
and black eyes of Pepita, who slipped into the corridor as we entered.
It was no pleasant matter to disclose particulars of business which would
deprive the old senor of the greater part of that land we had just ridden
over, and I did it with great embarrassment. But he listened calmly—not
a muscle of his dark face stirring—and the smoke curling placidly
from his lips showed his regular respiration. When I had finished, he
offered quietly to accompany us to the line of demarcation. George had
meanwhile disappeared, but a suspicious conversation in broken Spanish and
English, in the corridor, betrayed his vicinity. When he returned again, a
little absent-minded, the old man, by far the coolest and most
self-possessed of the party, extinguished his black-silk cap beneath that
stiff, uncomely sombrero which all native Californians affect. A serape
thrown over his shoulders hinted that he was waiting. Horses are always
ready saddled in Spanish ranchos, and in half an hour from the time of our
arrival we were again "loping" in the staring sunlight.
But not as cheerfully as before. George and myself were weighed down by
restraint, and Altascar was gravely quiet. To break the silence, and by
way of a consolatory essay, I hinted to him that there might be further
intervention or appeal, but the proffered oil and wine were returned with
a careless shrug of the shoulders and a sententious "QUE BUENO?—Your
courts are always just."
The Indian mound of the previous night's discovery was a bearing monument
of the new line, and there we halted. We were surprised to find the old
man Tryan waiting us. For the first time during our interview the old
Spaniard seemed moved, and the blood rose in his yellow cheek. I was
anxious to close the scene, and pointed out the corner boundaries as
clearly as my recollection served.
"The deputies will be here tomorrow to run the lines from this initial
point, and there will be no further trouble, I believe, gentlemen."
Senor Altascar had dismounted and was gathering a few tufts of dried grass
in his hands. George and I exchanged glances. He presently arose from his
stooping posture, and advancing to within a few paces of Joseph Tryan,
said, in a voice broken with passion:
"And I, Fernando Jesus Maria Altascar, put you in possession of my land in
the fashion of my country."
He threw a sod to each of the cardinal points.
"I don't know your courts, your judges, or your CORREGIDORES. Take the
LLANO!—and take this with it. May the drought seize your cattle till
their tongues hang down as long as those of your lying lawyers! May it be
the curse and torment of your old age, as you and yours have made it of
We stepped between the principal actors in this scene, which only the
passion of Altascar made tragical, but Tryan, with a humility but ill
concealing his triumph, interrupted:
"Let him curse on. He'll find 'em coming home to him sooner than the
cattle he has lost through his sloth and pride. The Lord is on the side of
the just, as well as agin all slanderers and revilers."
Altascar but half guessed the meaning of the Missourian, yet sufficiently
to drive from his mind all but the extravagant power of his native
"Stealer of the Sacrament! Open not!—open not, I say, your lying,
Judas lips to me! Ah! half-breed, with the soul of a coyote!—car-r-r-ramba!"
With his passion reverberating among the consonants like distant thunder,
he laid his hand upon the mane of his horse as though it had been the gray
locks of his adversary, swung himself into the saddle and galloped away.
George turned to me:
"Will you go back with us tonight?"
I thought of the cheerless walls, the silent figures by the fire, and the
roaring wind, and hesitated.
"Well then, goodby."
Another wring of the hands, and we parted. I had not ridden far when I
turned and looked back. The wind had risen early that afternoon, and was
already sweeping across the plain. A cloud of dust traveled before it, and
a picturesque figure occasionally emerging therefrom was my last
indistinct impression of George Tryan.
PART II—IN THE FLOOD
Three months after the survey of the Espiritu Santo Rancho, I was again in
the valley of the Sacramento. But a general and terrible visitation had
erased the memory of that event as completely as I supposed it had
obliterated the boundary monuments I had planted. The great flood of
1861-62 was at its height when, obeying some indefinite yearning, I took
my carpetbag and embarked for the inundated valley.
There was nothing to be seen from the bright cabin windows of the GOLDEN
CITY but night deepening over the water. The only sound was the pattering
rain, and that had grown monotonous for the past two weeks, and did not
disturb the national gravity of my countrymen as they silently sat around
the cabin stove. Some on errands of relief to friends and relatives wore
anxious faces, and conversed soberly on the one absorbing topic. Others,
like myself, attracted by curiosity listened eagerly to newer details. But
with that human disposition to seize upon any circumstance that might give
chance event the exaggerated importance of instinct, I was half-conscious
of something more than curiosity as an impelling motive.
The dripping of rain, the low gurgle of water, and a leaden sky greeted us
the next morning as we lay beside the half-submerged levee of Sacramento.
Here, however, the novelty of boats to convey us to the hotels was an
appeal that was irresistible. I resigned myself to a dripping rubber-cased
mariner called "Joe," and, wrapping myself in a shining cloak of the like
material, about as suggestive of warmth as court plaster might have been,
took my seat in the stern sheets of his boat. It was no slight inward
struggle to part from the steamer that to most of the passengers was the
only visible connecting link between us and the dry and habitable earth,
but we pulled away and entered the city, stemming a rapid current as we
shot the levee.
We glided up the long level of K Street—once a cheerful, busy
thoroughfare, now distressing in its silent desolation. The turbid water
which seemed to meet the horizon edge before us flowed at right angles in
sluggish rivers through the streets. Nature had revenged herself on the
local taste by disarraying the regular rectangles by huddling houses on
street corners, where they presented abrupt gables to the current, or by
capsizing them in compact ruin. Crafts of all kinds were gliding in and
out of low-arched doorways. The water was over the top of the fences
surrounding well-kept gardens, in the first stories of hotels and private
dwellings, trailing its slime on velvet carpets as well as roughly boarded
floors. And a silence quite as suggestive as the visible desolation was in
the voiceless streets that no longer echoed to carriage wheel or footfall.
The low ripple of water, the occasional splash of oars, or the warning cry
of boatmen were the few signs of life and habitation.
With such scenes before my eyes and such sounds in my ears, as I lie
lazily in the boat, is mingled the song of my gondolier who sings to the
music of his oars. It is not quite as romantic as his brother of the Lido
might improvise, but my Yankee "Giuseppe" has the advantage of earnestness
and energy, and gives a graphic description of the terrors of the past
week and of noble deeds of self-sacrifice and devotion, occasionally
pointing out a balcony from which some California Bianca or Laura had been
snatched, half-clothed and famished. Giuseppe is otherwise peculiar, and
refuses the proffered fare, for—am I not a citizen of San Francisco,
which was first to respond to the suffering cry of Sacramento? and is not
he, Giuseppe, a member of the Howard Society? No! Giuseppe is poor, but
cannot take my money. Still, if I must spend it, there is the Howard
Society, and the women and children without food and clothes at the
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
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
All eyes are turned in that direction. In a few seconds a twinkling light
appears, shines steadily, and again disappears as if by the shifting
position of some black object apparently drifting close upon us.
"Stern, all; a steamer!"
"Hold hard there! Steamer be damned!" is the reply of the coxswain. "It's
a house, and a big one too."
It is a big one, looming in the starlight like a huge fragment of the
darkness. The light comes from a single candle, which shines through a
window as the great shape swings by. Some recollection is drifting back to
me with it as I listen with beating heart.
"There's someone in it, by heavens! Give way, boys—lay her
alongside. Handsomely, now! The door's fastened; try the window; no!
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 hear?—there!
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
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 the building.
One of the peons recognized me as I entered the court, and Altascar met me
on the corridor.
I was too weak to do more than beg his hospitality for the men who had
dragged wearily with me. He looked at my hand, which still unconsciously
held the broken riata. I began, wearily, to tell him about George and my
fears, but with a gentler courtesy than was even his wont, he gravely laid
his hand on my shoulder.
"POCO A POCO, senor—not now. You are tired, you have hunger, you
have cold. Necessary it is you should have peace."
He took us into a small room and poured out some French cognac, which he
gave to the men that had accompanied me. They drank and threw themselves
before the fire in the larger room. The repose of the building was
intensified that night, and I even fancied that the footsteps on the
corridor were lighter and softer. The old Spaniard's habitual gravity was
deeper; we might have been shut out from the world as well as the
whistling storm, behind those ancient walls with their time-worn
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 him—"
"He is here."
"Here! and"—but I could not say "well!" I understood the gravity of
the old man's face, the hushed footfalls, the tomblike repose of the
building, in an electric flash of consciousness; I held the clue to the
broken riata at last. Altascar took my hand, and we crossed the corridor
to a somber apartment. A few tall candles were burning in sconces before
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
When we were again beside the crackling fire, in the shifting shadows of
the great chamber, Altascar told me how he had that morning met the horse
of George Tryan swimming on the prairie; how that, farther on, he found
him lying, quite cold and dead, with no marks or bruises on his person;
that he had probably become exhausted in fording the creek, and that he
had as probably reached the mound only to die for want of that help he had
so freely given to others; that, as a last act, he had freed his horse.
These incidents were corroborated by many who collected in the great
chamber that evening—women and children—most of them succored
through the devoted energies of him who lay cold and lifeless above.
He was buried in the Indian mound—the single spot of strange
perennial greenness which the poor aborigines had raised above the dusty
plain. A little slab of sandstone with the initials "G. T." is his
monument, and one of the bearings of the initial corner of the new survey
of the "Espiritu Santo Rancho."