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|Chapter IV • Index • Chapter VI|
Our return from Mount Tyndall to such civilization as flourishes around the Kaweah outposts was signalized by us chiefly as to our cuisine, which offered now such bounties as the potato, and once a salad, in which some middle-aged lettuce became the vehicle for a hollow mockery of dressing. Two or three days during which we dined at brief intervals, served to completely rest us, and put in excellent trim for further campaigning all except Professor Brewer, upon whom a constant toothache wore painfully,—my bullet-mould failing even upon the third trial to extract the unruly member.
It was determined we should ride together to Visalia, seventy miles away, and the farther we went the more impatient became my friend, till we agreed to push ahead through day and night, and reached the village at about sunrise in a state of reeling sleepiness quite indescribably funny.
At evening, when it became time to start back for our mountain-camp, my friend at last yielded consent to my project of climbing the Kern Sierras to attempt Mount Whitney; so I parted from him, and, remaining at Visalia, outfitted myself with a pack-horse, two mounted men, and provisions enough for a two weeks’ trip.
I purposely avoid telling by what route I entered the Sierras, because there lingers in my breast a desire to see once more that lovely region, and failing, as I do, to confide in the people, I fear lest, if the camp I am going to describe should be recognized, I might, upon revisiting the scene, suffer harm, or even come to an untimely end. I refrain, then, from telling by what road I found myself entering the region of the pines one lovely twilight evening, two days after leaving Visalia. Pines, growing closer and closer, from sentinels gathered to groups, then stately groves, and at last, as the evening wore on, assembled in regular forest, through whose open tops the stars shone cheerfully.
I came upon an open meadow, hearing in front the rush of a large brook, and directly reached two campfires, where were a number of persons. My two hirelings caught and unloaded the pack-horse, and set about their duties, looking to supper and the animals, while I prospected the two camps. That just below me, on the same side of the brook, I found to be the bivouac of a company of hunters, who, in the ten minutes of my call, made free with me, hospitably offering a jug of whiskey, and then went on in their old, eternal way of making bear-stories out of whole cloth.
I left them with a belief that my protoplasm and theirs must be different, in spite of Mr. Huxley, and passed across the brook to the other camp. Under noble groups of pines smouldered a generous heap of coals, the ruins of a mighty log. A little way from this lay a confused pile of bedclothes, partly old and half-bald buffalo-robes, but in the main, thick strata of what is known to irony as comforters, upon which, outstretched in wretched awkwardness of position, was a family, all with their feet to the fire, looking as if they had been blown over in one direction, or knocked down by a single bombshell. On the extremities of this common bed, with the air of having gotten as far from each other as possible, the mother and father of the Pike family reclined; between them were two small children—a girl and a boy—and a huge girl, who, next the old man, lay flat upon her back, her mind absorbed in the simple amusement of waving one foot (a cow-hide eleven) slowly across the fire, squinting, with half-shut eye, first at the vast shoe and thence at the fire, alternately hiding bright places and darting the foot quickly in the direction of any new display of heightening flame. The mother was a bony sister, in the yellow, shrunken, of sharp visage, in which were prominent two cold eyes and a positively poisonous mouth; her hair, the color of faded hay, tangled in a jungle around her head. She rocked jerkily to and fro, removing at intervals a clay pipe from her mouth in order to pucker her thin lips up to one side, and spit with precision upon a certain spot in the fire, which she seemed resolved to prevent from attaining beyond a certain faint glow.
I have rarely felt more in difficulty for an overture to conversation, and was long before venturing to propose, “You seem to have a pleasant camp-spot here.”
The old woman sharply, and in almost a tone of affront, answered, “They’s wus, and then again they’s better.”
“Doos well for our hogs,” inserted the old man. “We’ve a band of pork that make out to find feed.”
“Oh! how many have you?” I asked.
“Nigh three thousand.”
“Won’t you set?” asked Madame; then, turning, “You, Susan, can’t you try for to set up, and not spread so? Hain’t you no manners, say?”
At this the massive girl got herself somewhat together, and made room for me, which I declined, however.
“Prospectin’?” inquired Madame.
“I say huntin’,” suggested the man.
“Maybe he’s a cattle-feller,” interrupted the little girl.
“Goin’ somewhere, ain’t yer?” was Susan’s guess.
I gave a brief account of myself, evidently satisfying the social requirements of all but the old woman, who at once classified me as not up to her standard. Susan saw this, so did her father, and it became evident to me in ten minutes’ conversation that they two were always at one, and made it their business to be in antagonism to the mother. They were then allies of mine from nature, and I felt at once at home. I saw, too, that Susan, having slid back to her horizontal position when I declined to share her rightful ground, was watching with subtle solicitude that fated spot in the fire, opposing sympathy and squints accurately aligned by her shoe to the dull spot in the embers, which slowly went out into blackness before the well-directed fire of her mother’s saliva.
The shouts which I heard proceeding from the direction of my camp were easily translatable into summons for supper. Mr. Newty invited me to return later and be sociable, which I promised to do, and, going to my camp, supped quickly and left the men with orders about picketing the animals for the night, then, strolling slowly down to the camp of my friends, seated myself upon a log by the side of the old gentleman. Feeling that this somewhat formal attitude unfitted me for partaking to the fullest degree of the social ease around me, and knowing that my buckskin trousers were impervious to dirt, I slid down in a reclined posture with my feet to the fire, in absolute parallelism with the family.
The old woman was in the exciting dénouement of a coon-story, directed to her little boy, who sat clinging to her skirt and looking in her face with absorbed curiosity. “And when Johnnie fired,” she said, “the coon fell and busted open.” The little boy had misplaced his sympathies with the raccoon, and having inquired plaintively, “Did it hurt him?” was promptly snubbed with the reply, “Of course it hurt him. What do you suppose coons is made for?” Then turning to me she put what was plainly enough with her a test-question, “I allow you have killed your coon in your day?” I saw at once that I must forever sink beneath the horizon of her standards, but, failing in real experience or accurate knowledge concerning the coon, knew no subterfuges would work with her. Instinct had taught her that I had never killed a coon, and she had asked me thus ostentatiously to place me at once and forever before the family in my true light. “No, ma’am,” I said; “now you speak of it, I realize that I never have killed a coon.” This was something of a staggerer to Susan and her father, yet as the mother’s pleasurable dissatisfaction with me displayed itself by more and more accurate salivary shots at the fire, they rose to the occasion, and began to palliate my past. “Maybe,” ventured Mr. Newty, “that they don’t have coon round the city of York;” and I felt that I needed no self-defence when Susan firmly and defiantly suggested to her mother that perhaps I was in better business.
Driven in upon herself for some time, the old woman smoked in silence, until Susan, seeing that her mother gradually quenched a larger and larger circle upon the fire, got up and stretched herself, and, giving the coals a vigorous poke, swept out of sight the quenched spot, thus readily obliterating the result of her mother’s precise and prolonged expectoration; then, flinging a few dry boughs upon the fire, illumined the family with the ruddy blaze, and sat down again, leaning upon her father’s knee with a faint light of triumph in her eye.
I ventured a few platitudes concerning pigs, not penetrating the depths of that branch of rural science enough to betray my ignorance. Such sentiments as “A little piece of bacon well broiled for breakfast is very good,” and “Nothing better than cold ham for lunch,” were received by Susan and her father in the spirit I meant,—of entire good-will toward pork generically. I now look back in amusement at having fallen into this weakness, for the Mosaic view of pork has been mine from infancy, and campaigning upon government rations has, in truth, no tendency to dim this ancient faith.
By half-past nine the gates of conversation were fairly open, and our part of the circle enjoyed itself socially,—taciturnity and clouds of Virginia plug reigning supreme upon the other. The two little children crept under comforters somewhere near the middle of the bed, and subsided pleasantly to sleep. The old man at last stretched sleepily, finally yawning out, “Susan, I do believe I am too tired out to go and see if them corral bars are down. I guess you’ll have to go. I reckon there ain’t no bears round tonight.”
Susan rose to her feet, stretched herself with her back to the fire, and I realized for the first time her amusing proportions. In the region of six feet, tall, square-shouldered, of firm, iron back and heavy mould of limb, she yet possessed that suppleness which enabled her as she rose to throw herself into nearly all the attitudes of the Niobe children. As her yawn deepened, she waved nearly down to the ground, and then, rising upon tiptoe, stretched up her clinched fists to heaven with a groan of pleasure. Turning to me, she asked, “How would you like to see the hogs?” The old man added, as an extra encouragement, “Pootiest band of hogs in Tulare County! There’s littler of the real scissor-bill nor Mexican racer stock than any band I have ever seen in the State. I driv the original outfit from Pike County to Oregon in ‘51 and ‘52.” By this time I was actually interested in them, and joining Susan we passed out into the forest.
The full moon, now high in the heavens, looked down over the whole landscape of clustered forest and open meadow with tranquil, silvery light. It whitened measurably the fine, spiry tips of the trees, fell luminous upon broad bosses of granite which here and there rose through the soil, and glanced in trembling reflections from the rushing surface of the brook. Far in the distance moonlit peaks towered in solemn rank against the sky.
We walked silently on four or five minutes through the woods, coming at last upon a fence which margined a wide, circular opening in the wood. The bars, as her father had feared, were down. We stepped over them, quietly entered the enclosure, put them up behind us, and proceeded to the middle, threading our way among sleeping swine to where a lonely tree rose to the height of about two hundred feet. Against this we placed our backs, and Susan waved her hand in pride over the two acres of tranquil pork. The eye, after accustoming itself to the darkness, took cognizance of a certain ridgyness of surface which came to be recognized as the objects of Susan’s pride.
Quite a pretty effect was caused by the shadow of the forest, which, cast obliquely downward by the moon, divided the corral into halves of light and shade.
The air was filled with heavy breathing, interrupted by here and there a snore, and at times by crescendos of tumult, caused by forty or fifty pigs doing battle for some favorite bed-place.
I was informed that Susan did not wish me to judge of them by dark, but to see them again in the full light of day. She knew each individual pig by its physiognomy, having, as she said, “growed with ‘em.”
As we strolled back toward the bars a dusky form disputed our way,—two small, sharp eyes and a wild crest of bristles were visible in the obscure light. “That’s Old Arkansas,” said Susan; “he’s eight year old come next June, and I never could get him to like me.” I felt for my pistol, but Susan struck a vigorous attitude, ejaculating, “S-S-oway, Arkansas!” She made a dash in his direction; a wild scuffle ensued, in which I heard the dull thud of Susan’s shoe, accompanied by, “Take that, dog-on-you!” a cloud of dust, one shrill squeal, and Arkansas retreated into the darkness at a business-like trot.
When quite near the bars the mighty girl launched herself into the air, alighting with her stomach across the topmost rail, where she hung a brief moment, made a violent muscular contraction, and alighted upon the ground outside, communicating to it a tremor quite perceptible from where I stood. I climbed over after her, and we sauntered under the trees back to camp.
The family had disappeared. A few dry boughs, however, thrown upon the coals, blazed up, and revealed their forms in the corrugated topography of the bed.
I bade Susan good-night, and before I could turn my back she kicked her number eleven shoes into the air, and with masterly rapidity turned in, as Minerva is said to have done, in full panoply.
I fled precipitately to my camp, and sought my blankets, lying awake in a kind of half-reverie, in which Susan and Arkansas, the old woman and her coons, were the prominent figures. Later I fell asleep, and lay motionless until the distant roar of swine awoke me before sunrise next morning.
Seated upon my blankets, I beheld Susan’s mother drag forth the two children, one after another, by the napes of their necks, and, shaking the sleep out of them, propel them spitefully toward the brook; then taking her pipe from her mouth she bent low over the sleeping form of her huge daughter, and in a high, shrill, nasal key, screeched in her ear, “Yew Suse!”
No sign of life on the part of the daughter.
“Susan, are you a-going to get up?”
Slight muscular contraction of the lower limbs.
“Will you hear me, Susan?”
“Marm,” whispered the girl, in low, sleepy tones.
“Get up and let the hogs out!”
The idea had at length thrilled into Susan’s brain, and with a violent suddenness she sat bolt upright, brushing her green-colored hair out of her eyes, and rubbing those valuable but bleared organs with the ponderous knuckles of her forefingers.
By this time I started for the brook for my morning toilet, and the girl and I met upon opposite banks, stooping to wash our faces in the same pool. As I opened my dressing-case her lower jaw fell, revealing a row of ivory teeth rounded out by two well-developed “wisdoms,” which had all that dazzling grin one sees in the show-windows of certain dental practitioners. It required but a moment to gather up a quart or so of water in her broad palms, and rub it vigorously into a small circle upon the middle of her face, the moisture working outward to a certain high-water mark, which, along her chin and cheeks, defined the limits of former ablution; then, baring her large, red arms to the elbow, she washed her hands, and stood resting them upon her hips, dripping freely, and watching me with intense curiosity.
When I reached the towel process, she herself twisted her body after the manner of the Belvidere torso, bent low her head, gathered up the back breadths of her petticoat, and wiped her face vigorously upon it, which had the effect of tracing concentric streaks irregularly over her countenance.
I parted my hair by the aid of a small dressing-glass, which so fired Susan that she crossed the stream with a mighty jump, and stood in ecstasy by my side. She borrowed the glass, and then my comb, rewashed her face, and fell to work diligently upon her hair.
All this did not so limit my perception as to prevent my watching the general demeanor of the family. The old man lay back at his ease, puffing a cloud of smoke; his wife, also emitting volumes of the vapor of “navy plug,” squatted by the camp-fire, frying certain lumps of pork, and communicating an occasional spiral jerk to the coffee-pot, with the purpose, apparently, of stirring the grounds. The two children had gotten upon the back of a contemplative ass, who stood by the upper side of the bed quietly munching the corner of a comforter.
My friend was in no haste. She squandered much time upon the arrangement of her towy hair, and there was something like a blush of conscious satisfaction when she handed me back my looking-glass and remarked ironically, “Oh, no, I guess not,—no, sir.”
I begged her to accept the comb and glass, which she did with maidenly joy.
This unusual toilet had stimulated with self-respect Susan’s every fibre, and as she sprang back across the brook and approached her mother’s campfire I could not fail to admire the magnificent turn of her shoulders and the powerful, queenly poise of her head. Her full, grand form and heavy strength reminded me of the statues of Ceres, yet there was withal a very unpleasant suggestion of fighting trim, a sort of prize-ring manner of swinging the arms, and hitching the shoulders. She suddenly spied the children upon the jackass, and with one wide sweep of her right arm projected them over the creature’s head, and planted her left eleven firmly in the ribs of the donkey, who beat a precipitate retreat in the direction of the hog-pens, leaving her executing a pas seul,—a kind of slow, stately jig, something between the minuet and the juba, accompanying herself by a low-hummed air and a vigorous beating of time upon her slightly lifted knee.
It required my Pike County friends but ten minutes to swallow their pork and begin the labors of the day.
The mountaineers’ camp was not yet astir. These children of the forest were well chained in slumber; for, unless there is some special programme for the day, it requires the leverage of a high sun to arouse their, faculties, dormant enough by nature, and soothed into deepest quiet by whiskey. About eight o’clock they breakfasted, and by nine had engaged my innocent camp-men in a game of social poker.
I visited my horses, and had them picketed in the best possible feed, and congratulated myself that they were recruiting finely for the difficult ride before me.
Susan, after a second appeal from her mother, ran over to the corral and let out the family capital, which streamed with exultant grunt through the forest, darkening the fair green meadow gardens, and happily passing out of sight.
When I had breakfasted I joined Mr. Newty in his trip to the corral, where we stood together for hours, during which I had mastered the story of his years since, in 1850, he left his old home in Pike of Missouri. It was one of those histories common enough through this wide West, yet never failing to startle me with its horrible lesson of social disintegration, of human retrograde.
That brave spirit of Westward Ho! which has been the pillar of fire and cloud leading on the weary march of progress over stretches of desert, lining the way with graves of strong men; of new-born lives; of sad, patient mothers, whose pathetic longing for the new home died with them; of the thousand old and young whose last agony came to them as they marched with eyes strained on after the sunken sun, and whose shallow barrows scarcely lift over the drifting dust of the desert; that restless spirit which has dared to uproot the old and plant the new, kindling the grand energy of California, laying foundations for a State to be, that is admirable, is poetic, is to fill an immortal page in the story of America; but when, instead of urging on to wresting from new lands something better than old can give, it degenerates into mere weak-minded restlessness, killing the power of growth, the ideal of home, the faculty of repose, it results in that race of perpetual emigrants who roam as dreary waifs over the West, losing possessions, love of life, love of God, slowly dragging from valley to valley, till they fall by the wayside, happy if some chance stranger performs for them the last rites,—often less fortunate, as blanched bones and fluttering rags upon too many hillsides plainly tell.
The Newtys were of this dreary brotherhood. In 1850, with a small family of that authentic strain of high-bred swine for which Pike County is widely known, as Mr. Newty avers, they bade Missouri and their snug farm good-by, and, having packed their household goods into a wagon, drawn by two spotted oxen, set out with the baby Susan for Oregon, where they came after a year’s march, tired, and cursed with a permanent discontent. There they had taken up a rancho, a quarter-section of public domain, which at the end of two years was “improved” to the extent of the “neatest little worm fence this side of Pike,” a barn, and a smoke-house. “In another year,” said my friend, “I’d have dug for a house, but we tuck ager, and the second baby died.” One day there came a man who “let on that he knowed” land in California much fairer and more worthy tillage than Oregon’s best, so the poor Newtys harnessed up the wagon and turned their backs upon a home nearly ready for comfortable life, and swept south with pigs and plunder. Through all the years this story had repeated itself, new homes gotten to the edge of completion, more babies born, more graves made, more pigs, who replenished as only the Pike County variety may, till it seemed to me the mere multiplication of them must reach a sufficient dead weight to anchor the family; but this was dispelled when Newty remarked, “These yer hogs is awkward about moving, and I’ve pretty much made up my mind to put’ em all into bacon this fall, and sell out and start for Montana.”
Poor fellow! at Montana he will probably find a man from Texas who in half an hour will persuade him that happiness lies there.
As we walked back to their camp, and when Dame Newty hove in sight, my friend ventured to say, “Don’t you mind the old woman and her coons. She’s from Arkansas. She used to say no man could have Susan who couldn’t show coonskins enough of his own killing to make a bed-quilt, but she’s over that mostly.” In spite of this assurance my heart fell a trifle when, the first moment of our return, she turned to her husband and asked, “Do you mind what a dead-open-and-shut on coons our little Johnnie was when he was ten years old?” I secretly wondered if the dead-open-and-shut had anything to do with his untimely demise at eleven, but kept silence.
Regarding her as a sad product of the disease of chronic emigration, her hard, thin nature, all angles and stings, became to me one of the most depressing and pathetic spectacles, and the more when her fever-and-ague boy, a mass of bilious lymph, came and sat by her, looking up with great, haggard eyes, as if pleading for something, he knew not what, but which I plainly saw only death could bestow.
Noon brought the hour of my departure. Susan and her father talked apart a moment, then the old man said the two would ride along with me for a few miles, as he had to go in that direction to look for new hog-feed.
I despatched my two men with the pack-horse, directing them to follow the trail, then saddled my Kaweah and waited for the Newtys. The old man saddled a shaggy little mountain pony for himself, and for Susan strapped a sheepskin upon the back of a young and fiery mustang colt.
While they were getting ready, I made my horse fast to a stake and stepped over to bid good-by to Mrs. Newty. I said to her, in tones of deference, “I have come to bid you good-by, madam, and when I get back this way I hope you will be kind enough to tell me one or two really first-rate coon-stories. I am quite ignorant of that animal, having been raised in countries where they are extremely rare, and I would like to know more of what seems to be to you a creature of such interest.” The wet, gray eyes relaxed, as I fancied, a trifle of their asperity; a faint kindle seemed to light them for an instant as she asked, “You never see coons catch frogs in a spring branch?”
“No, madam,” I answered.
“Well, I wonder! Well, take care of yourself, and when you come back this way stop along with us, and we’ll kill a yearlin’, and I’ll tell you about a coon that used to live under grandfather’s barn.” She actually offered me her hand, which I grasped and shook in a friendly manner, chilled to the very bone with its damp coldness.
Mr. Newty mounted, and asked me if I was ready. Susan stood holding her prancing mustang. To put that girl on her horse after the ordinary plan would have required the strength of Samson or the use of a step-ladder, neither of which I possessed; so I waited for events to develop themselves. The girl stepped to the left side of her horse, twisted one hand in the mane, laying the other upon his haunches, and, crouching for a jump, sailed through the air, alighting upon the sheepskin. The horse reared, and Susan, twisting herself round, came right side up with her knee upon the sheepskin, shouting, as she did so, “I guess you don’t get me off, sir!” I jumped upon Kaweah, and our two horses sprang forward together, Susan waving her hand to her father, and crying, “Come along after, old man!” and to her mother, “Take care of yourself!” which is the Pike County for Au revoir! Her mustang tugged at the bit, and bounded wildly into the air. We reached a stream-bank at full gallop, the horses clearing it at a bound, sweeping on over the green floor and under the magnificent shadow of the forest. Newty, following us at an humble trot, slopped through the creek, and when I last looked he had nearly reached the edge of the wood.
I could but admire the unconscious excellence of Susan’s riding, her firm, immovable seat, and the perfect coolness with which she held the fiery horse. This quite absorbed me for five minutes, when she at last broke the silence by the laconic inquiry, “Does yourn buck?” To which I added the reply that he had only occasionally been guilty of that indiscretion. She then informed me that the first time she had mounted the colt he had “nearly bucked her to pieces; he had jumped and jounced till she was plum tuckered out” before he had given up.
Gradually reining the horses down and inducing them to walk, we rode side by side through the most magnificent forest of the Sierras, and I determined to probe Susan to see whether there were not, even in the most latent condition, some germs of the appreciation of nature. I looked from base to summit of the magnificent shafts, at the green plumes which traced themselves against the sky, the exquisite fall of purple shadows and golden light upon trunks, at the labyrinth of glowing flowers, at the sparkling whiteness of the mountain brook, and up to the clear, matchless blue that vaulted over us, then turned to Susan’s plain, honest face, and gradually introduced the subject of trees. Ideas of lumber and utilitarian notions of fence-rails were uppermost in her mind; but I briefly penetrated what proved to be only a superficial stratum of the materialistic, and asked her point blank if she did not admire their stately symmetry. A strange, new light gleamed in her eye as I described to her the growth and distribution of forests, and the marvellous change in their character and aspects as they approached the tropics. The palm and the pine, as I worked them up to her, really filled her with delight, and prompted numerous interested and intelligent queries, showing that she thoroughly comprehended my drift. In the pleasant hour of our chat I learned a new lesson of the presence of undeveloped seed in the human mind.
Mr. Newty at last came alongside, and remarked that he must stop about here; “but,” he added, “Susan will go on with you about half a mile, and come back and join me here after I have taken a look at the feed.”
As he rode out into the forest a little way, he called me to him, and I was a little puzzled at what seemed to be the first traces of embarrassment I had seen in his manner.
“You’ll take care of yourself, now, won’t you?” he asked. I tried to convince him that I would.
A slight pause.
“You’ll take care of yourself, won’t you?”
He might rely on it, I was going to say.
He added, “Thet—thet—thet man what gits Susan has half the hogs!”
Then turning promptly away, he spurred the pony, and his words as he rode into the forest were, “Take good care of yourself!”
Susan and I rode on for half a mile, until we reached the brow of a long descent, which she gave me to understand was her limit.
We shook hands and I bade her good-by, and as I trotted off these words fell sweetly upon my ear, “Say, you’ll take good care of yourself, won’t you, say?”
I took pains not to overtake my camp-men, wishing to be alone; and as I rode for hour after hour the picture of this family stood before me in all its deformity of outline, all its poverty of detail, all its darkness of future, and I believe I thought of it too gravely to enjoy as I might the subtle light of comedy which plays about these hard, repulsive figures.
In conversation I had cought the clew of a better past. Newty’s father was a New-Englander, and he spoke of him as a man of intelligence and, as I should judge, of some education. Mrs. Newty’s father had been an Arkansas judge, not perhaps the most enlightened of men, but still very far in advance of herself. The conspicuous retrograde seemed to me an example of the most hopeless phase of human life. If, as I suppose, we may all sooner or later give in our adhesion to the Darwinian view of development, does not the same law which permits such splendid scope for the better open up to us also possible gulfs of degradation, and are not these chronic emigrants whose broken-down wagons and weary faces greet you along the dusty highways of the far West melancholy examples of beings who have forever lost the conservatism of home and the power of improvement?
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