Yosemite > Library > Mountaineering > Kaweah’s Run >
|Chapter V • Index • Chapter VII|
After trying hard to climb Mount Whitney without success, and and having returned to the plains, I enjoyed my days’ rest in hot Visalia, where were fruits and people, and where I at length thawed out the last traces of alpine cold, and recovered from hard work and the sinful bread of my fortnight’s campaign. I considered it happiness to spend my whole day on the quiet hotel veranda, accustoming myself again to such articles as chairs and newspapers, and watching with unexpected pleasure the few village girls who flitted about during the day, and actually found time after sunset to chat with favored fellows beneath the wide oaks of the street-side. Especially interesting seemed the rustic sister of whom I bought figs at a garden gate, thinking her, as I did, comme il faut, though recollecting later that her gown was of forgotten mode, and that she carried a suggestion of ancient history in the obsolete style of her back hair.
Everybody was of interest to me, not excepting the two Mexican mountaineers who monopolized the agent at Wells, Fargo & Co.’s office, causing me delay. They were transacting some little item of business, and stood loafing by the counter, mechanically jingling huge spurs and shrugging their shoulders as they chatted in a dull, sleepy way. At the door they paused, keeping up quite a lively dispute, without apparently noticing me as I drew a small bag of gold and put it in my pocket. There was no especial reason why I should remark the stolid, brutal cast of their countenances, as I thought them not worse than the average Californian greaser; but it occurred to me that one might as well guess at a geological formation as to attempt to judge the age of mountaineers, because they get very early in life a fixed expression, which is deepened by continual rough weathering and undisturbed accumulations of dirt. I observed them enough to see that the elder was a man of middle height, of wiry, light figure and thin, hawk visage; a certain angular sharpness making itself noticeable about the shoulders and arms, which tapered to small, almost refined hands. A mere fringe of perfectly straight, black beard followed the curve of his chin, tangling itself at the ear with shaggy, unkempt locks of hair. He wore an ordinary, stiff-brimmed Spanish sombrero, and the inevitable greasy red sash performed its rather difficult task of holding together flannel shirt and buckskin breeches, beside half covering with folds a long, narrow knife.
His companion struck me as a half-breed Indian, somewhere about eighteen years of age, his beardless face showing deep, brutal lines, and a mouth which was a mere crease between hideously heavy lips. Blood stained the rowels of his spurs; an old felt hat, crumpled and ragged, slouched forward over his eyes, doing its best to hide the man.
I thought them a hard couple, and summed up their traits as stolidity and utter cruelty.
I was pleased that the stable-man who saddled Kaweah was unable to answer their inquiry where I was going, and annoyed when I heard the hotelkeeper inform them that I started that day for Millerton.
Leaving behind us people and village, Kaweah bore me out under the grateful shade of oaks, among rambling settlements and fields of harvested grain, whose pale Naples-yellow stubble and stacks contrasted finely with the deep foliage, and served as a pretty groundwork for stripes of vivid green which marked the course of numberless irrigating streams. Low cottages, overarched with boughs and hemmed in with weed jungles, margined my road. I saw at the gate many children who looked me out of countenance with their serious, stupid stare; they were the least self-conscious of any human beings I have seen.
Trees and settlements and children were soon behind us, an open plain stretching on in front without visible limit,—a plain slightly browned with the traces of dried herbaceous plants, and unrelieved by other object than distant processions of trees traced from some cañon gate of the Sierras westward across to the middle valley, or occasional bands of restless cattle marching solemnly about in search of food. It was not pleasant to realize that I had one hundred and twenty miles of this lonely sort of landscape ahead of me, nor that my only companion was Kaweah; for with all his splendid powers and rare qualities of instinct there was not the slightest evidence of response or affection in his behavior. Friendly toleration was the highest gift he bestowed on me, though I think he had great personal enjoyment in my habits as a rider. The only moments when we ever seemed thoroughly en rapport were when I crowded him down to a wild run, using the spur and shouting at him loudly, or when in our friendly races homeward toward camp, through the forest, I put him at a leap where he even doubted his own power. At such times I could communicate ideas to him with absolute certainty. He would stop, or turn, or gather himself for a leap, at my will, as it seemed to me, by some sort of magnetic communication; but I always paid dearly for this in long, tiresome efforts to calm him.
With the long, level road ahead of me, I dared not attack its monotony by any unusual riding, and having settled him at our regular travelling trot,—a gait of about six miles an hour,—I forgot all about the dreary expanse of plain, and gave myself up to quiet reverie. About dusk we had reached the King’s River Ferry.
An ugly, unpainted house, perched upon the bluff, and flanked by barns and outbuildings of disorderly aspect, overlooked the ferry. Not a sign of green vegetation could be seen, except certain half-dried willows standing knee-deep along the river’s margin, and that dark pine zone lifted upon the Sierras in eastern distance.
It is desperate punishment to stay through a summer at one of these plain ranches, there to be beat upon by an unrelenting sun in the midst of a scorched landscape and forced to breathe sirocco and sand; yet there are found plenty of people who are glad to become master of one of these ferries or stage stations, their life for the most part silent, and as unvaried as its outlook, given over wholly to permanent and vacant loafing.
Supper was announced by a business-like youth, who came out upon the veranda and vigorously rang a tavern bell, although I was the only auditor, and likely enough the only person within twenty miles.
I envy my horse at such times; the graminivorous have us at a disadvantage, for one revolts at the cuisine, although disliking to insult the house by quietly shying the food out of the window. I arose hungry from the table, remembering that some eminent hygeist has avowed that by so doing one has achieved sanitary success.
As I walked over to see Kaweah at the corral, I glanced down the river, and saw, perhaps a quarter of a mile below, two horsemen ride down our bank, spur their horses into the stream, swim to the other side, and struggle up a steep bank, disappearing among bunches of cottonwood trees near the river.
So dangerous and unusual a proceeding could not have been to save the half-dollar ferriage. There was something about their seat, and the cruel way they drove home their spurs, that, in default of better reasons, made me think them Mexicans.
The whole Tulare plain is the home of nomadic ranchers, who, as pasturage changes, drive about their herds of horses and cattle from range to range; and as the wolves prowl around for prey, so a class of Mexican highwaymen rob and murder them from one year’s end to the other.
I judged the swimmers were bent on some such errand, and lay down on the ground by Kaweah, to guard him, rolling myself in my soldier’s great-coat, and slept with my saddle for a pillow.
Once or twice the animal waked me up by stamping restively, but I could perceive no cause for alarm, and slept on comfortably until a little before sunrise, when I rose, took a plunge in the river, and hurriedly dressed myself for the day’s ride; the ferryman, who had promised to put me across at dawn, was already at his post, and, after permitting Kaweah to drink a deep draught, I rode him out on the ferryboat, and was quickly at the other side.
The road for two or three miles ascends the right bank of the river, approaching in places quite closely to the edge of its bluffs. I greatly enjoyed my ride, watching the Sierra sky line high and black against a golden circle of dawn, and seeing it mirrored faithfully in still reaches of river, and pleasing myself with the continually changing foreground, as group after group of tall, motionless cottonwoods was passed. The willows, too, are pleasing in their entire harmony with the scene, and the air they have of protecting bank and shore from torrent and sun. The plain stretched off to my left into dusky distance, and ahead in a bare, smooth expanse, dreary by its monotony, yet not altogether repulsive in the pearly obscurity of the morning. In midsummer these plains are as hot as the Sahara through the long, blinding day; but after midnight there comes a delicious blandness upon the air, a suggestion of freshness and upspringing life, which renews vitality within you.
Kaweah showed the influence of this condition in the sensitive play of ears and toss of head, and in his free, spirited stride. I was experimenting on his sensitiveness to sounds, and had found that his ears turned back at the faintest whisper, when suddenly his head rose, he looked sharply forward toward a clump of trees on the river-bank, one hundred and fifty yards in front of us, where a quick glance revealed to me a camp-fire and two men hurrying saddles upon their horses,—a gray and a sorrel.
They were Spaniards,—the same who had swum King’s River the afternoon before, and, as it flashed on me finally, the two whom I had studied so attentively at Visalia. Then I at once saw their purpose was to waylay me, and made up my mind to give them a lively run. The road followed the bank up to their camp in an easterly direction, and then, turning a sharp right angle to the north, led out upon the open plain, leaving the river finally.
I decided to strike across, and threw Kaweah into a sharp trot.
I glanced at my girth and then at the bright copper upon my pistol, and settled myself firmly in the saddle.
Finding that they could not saddle quickly enough to attack me mounted, the older villain grabbed a shot-gun, and sprung out to head me off, his comrade meantime tightening the cinches.
I turned Kaweah farther off to the left, and tossed him a little more rein, which he understood and sprang out into a gallop.
The robber brought his gun to his shoulder, covered me, and yelled, in good English, “Hold on, you ——!” At that instant his companion dashed up, leading the other horse. In another moment they were mounted and after me, yelling, “Hu-hla” to the mustangs, plunging in the spurs, and shouting occasional volleys of oaths.
By this time I had regained the road, which lay before me traced over the blank, objectless plain in vanishing perspective. Fifteen miles lay between me and a station; Kaweah and pistol were my only defence, yet at that moment I felt a thrill of pleasure, a wild moment of inspiration, almost worth the danger to experience.
I glanced over my shoulder and found that the Spaniards were crowding their horses to their fullest speed; their hoofs, rattling on the dry plain, were accompanied by inarticulate noises, like the cries of bloodhounds. Kaweah comprehended the situation. I could feel his grand legs gather under me, and the iron muscles contract with excitement; he tugged at the bit, shook his bridle-chains, and flung himself impatiently into the air.
It flashed upon me that perhaps they had confederates concealed in some ditch far in advance of me, and that the plan was to crowd me through at fullest speed, giving up the chase to new men and fresh horses; and I resolved to save Kaweah to the utmost, and only allow him a speed which should keep me out of gunshot. So I held him firmly, and reserved my spur for the last emergency. Still we fairly flew over the plain, and I said to myself, as the clatter of hoofs and din of my pursuers rang in my ears now and then, as the freshening breeze hurried it forward, that, if those brutes got me, there was nothing in blood and brains; for Kaweah was a prince beside their mustangs, and I ought to be worth two villains.
For the first twenty minutes the road was hard and smooth and level; after that gentle, shallow undulations began, and at last, at brief intervals, were sharp, narrow arroyos (ditches eight or nine feet wide). I reined Kaweah in, and brought him up sharply on their bottoms, giving him the bit to spring up on the other side; but he quickly taught me better, and, gathering, took them easily, without my feeling it in his stride.
The hot sun had arisen. I saw with anxiety that the tremendous speed began to tell painfully on Kaweah. Foam tinged with blood fell from his mouth, and sweat rolled in streams from his whole body, and now and then he drew a deep-heaving breath. I leaned down and felt of the cinch to see if it had slipped forward, but, as I had saddled him with great care, it kept its true place, so I had only to fear the greasers behind, or a new relay ahead. I was conscious of plenty of reserved speed in Kaweah, whose powerful run was already distancing their fatigued mustangs.
As we bounded down a roll of the plain, a cloud of dust sprang from a ravine directly in front of me, and two black objects lifted themselves in the sand. I drew my pistol, cocked it, whirled Kaweah to the left, plunging by and clearing them by about six feet; a thrill of relief came as I saw the long, white horns of Spanish cattle gleam above the dust.
Unconsciously I restrained Kaweah too much, and in a moment the Spaniards were crowding down upon me at a fearful rate. On they came, the crash of their spurs and the clatter of their horses distinctly heard; and as I had so often compared the beats of chronometers, I unconsciously noted that while Kaweah’s, although painful, yet came with regular power, the mustangs’ respiration was quick, spasmodic, and irregular. I compared the intervals of the two mustangs, and found that one breathed better than the other, and then, upon counting the best mustang with Kaweah, found that he breathed nine breaths to Kaweah’s seven. In two or three minutes I tried it again, finding the relation ten to seven; then I felt the victory, and I yelled to Kaweah. The thin ears shot flat back upon his neck; lower and lower he lay down to his run; I flung him a loose rein, and gave him a friendly pat on the withers. It was a glorious burst of speed; the wind rushed by and the plain swept under us with dizzying swiftness. I shouted again, and the thing of nervous life under me bounded on wilder and faster, till I could feel his spine thrill as with shocks from a battery. I managed to look round,—a delicate matter at speed,—and saw, far behind, the distanced villains, both dismounted, and one horse fallen.
In an instant I drew Kaweah in to a gentle trot, looking around every moment, lest they should come on me unawares. In a half-mile I reached the station, and I was cautiously greeted by a man who sat by the barn door, with a rifle across his knees. He had seen me come over the plain, and had also seen the Spanish horse fall. Not knowing but he might be in league with the robbers, I gave him a careful glance before dismounting, and was completely reassured by an expression of terror which had possession of his countenance.
I sprang to the ground and threw off the saddle, and after a word or two with the man, who proved to be the sole occupant of this station, we fell to work together upon Kaweah, my cocked pistol and his rifle lying close at hand. We sponged the creature’s mouth, and, throwing a sheet over him, walked him regularly up and down for about three quarters of an hour, and then taking him upon the open plain, where we could scan the horizon in all directions, gave him a thorough grooming. I never saw him look so magnificently as when we led him down to the creek to drink: his skin was like satin, and the veins of his head and neck stood out firm and round like whip-cords.
In the excitement of taking care of Kaweah I had scarcely paid any attention to my host, but after two hours, when the horse was quietly munching his hay, I listened attentively to his story.
The two Spaniards had lurked round his station during the night, guns in hand, and had made an attempt to steal a pair of stage horses the stable, but, as he had watched with his rifle, they finally rode away.
By his account I knew them to be my pursuers; they had here, however, ridden two black mustangs, and had doubtless changed their mount for the sole purpose of waylaying me.
About eleven o’clock, it being my turn to watch the horizon, I saw two horsemen making a long détour round the station, disappearing finally in the direction of Millerton. By my glass I could only make out that they were men riding in single file on a sorrel and a gray horse; but this, with the fact of the long détour, which finally brought them back into the road again, convinced me that they were my enemies. The uncomfortable probability of their raising a band, and returning to make sure of my capture, filled me with disagreeable foreboding, and all day long, whether my turn at sentinel duty or not, I did little else than range my eye over the valley in all directions.
Twice during the day I led Kaweah out and paced him to and fro, for fear his tremendous exertion would cause a stiffening of the legs; but each time he followed close to my shoulder with the same firm, proud step, and I gloried in him.
Shortly after dark I determined to mount and push forward to Millerton, my friend, the station man, having given me careful directions as to its position; and I knew from the topography of the country that, by abandoning the road and travelling by the stars, I could not widely miss my mark; so at about nine o’clock I saddled Kaweah, and, mounting, bade good-by to my friend.
The air was bland, the heavens cloudless and starlit; in the west a low arch of light, out of which had faded the last traces of sunset color; in the east a silver dawn shone mild and pure above the Sierras, brightening as the light in the west faded, till at last one jetty crag was cut upon the disk of rising moon.
Upon the light gray tone of the plain every object might be seen, and as I rode on the memory of danger passed away, leaving me in full enjoyment of companionship with the hour and with my friend Kaweah, whose sturdy, easy stride was in itself a delight. There is a charm peculiar to these soft, dewless nights. It seems the perfection of darkness in which you get all the rest of sleep while riding, or lying wide awake on your blankets. Now and then an object, vague and unrecognized, loomed out of dusky distance, arresting our attention, for Kaweah’s quick eye usually found them first: dead carcases of starved cattle, a blanched skull, or stump of aged oak, were the only things seen, and we gradually got accustomed to these, passing with no more than a glance.
At last we approached a region of low, rolling sand-hills, where Kaweah’s tread became muffled, and the silence so oppressive as to call out from me a whistle. That instrument proved excellent in Traviata solos; but, when I attempted some of Chopin, failed so painfully that I was glad to be diverted by arriving at the summit of the zone of hills, and looking out upon the wide, shallow valley of the San Joaquin, a plain dotted with groves, and lighted here and there by open reaches of moonlit river.
I looked up and down, searching for lights which should mark Millerton. I had intended to strike the river above the settlement, and should now, if my reckoning was correct, be within half a mile of it.
Riding down to the river-bank, I dismounted, and allowed Kaweah to quench his thirst. The cool mountain water, fresh from the snow, was delicious to him. He drank, stopped to breathe, and drank again and again. I allowed him also to feed a half-moment on the grass by the river-bank, and then, remounting, headed down the river, and rode slowly along under the shadow of trees, following a broad, well-beaten trail, which led, as I believed, to the village.
While in a grove of oaks, jingling spurs suddenly sounded ahead, and directly I heard voices. I quickly turned Kaweah from the trail, and tied him a few rods off, behind a thicket, then crawled back into a bunch of buckeye bushes, disturbing some small birds, who took flight. In a moment two horsemen, talking Spanish, neared, and as they passed I recognized their horses, and then the men. The impulse to try a shot was so strong that I got out my revolver, but upon second thought put it up. As they rode on into the shadow, the younger, as I judged by his voice, broke out into a delicious melody, one of those passionate Spanish songs with a peculiar, throbbing cadence, which he emphasized by sharply ringing his spurs.
These Californian scoundrels are invariably light-hearted; crime cannot overshadow the exhilaration of outdoor life; remorse and gloom are banished like clouds before this perennially sunny climate. They make amusement out of killing you, and regard a successful plundering time as a sort of pleasantry.
As the soft, full tones of my bandit died in distance, I went for Kaweah, and rode rapidly westward in the opposite direction, bringing up soon in the outskirts of Millerton, just as the last gamblers were closing up their little games, and about the time the drunk were conveying one another home. Kaweah being stabled, I went to the hotel, an excellent and orderly establishment, where a colored man of mild manners gave me supper and made me at home by gentle conversation, promising at last to wake me early, and bidding me good-night at my room door with the tones of an old friend. I think his soothing spirit may partly account for the genuinely profound sleep into which I quickly fell, and which held me fast bound, until his hand on my shoulder and “Half-past four, sir,” called me back, and renewed the currents of consciousness.
After we had had our breakfast, Kaweah and I forded the San Joaquin, and I at once left the road, determined to follow a mountain trail which led toward Mariposa. The trail proved a good one to travel, of smooth, soft surface, and pleasant in its diversity of ups and downs, and with rambling curves, which led through open regions of brown hills, whose fern and grass were ripened to a common yellow-brown; then among park-like slopes, crowned with fine oaks, and occasional pine woods, the ground frequently covering itself with clumps of such shrubs as chaparral, and the never-enough-admired manzanita. Yet I think I never saw such facilities for an ambuscade. I imagined the path went out of its way to thread every thicket, and the very trees grouped themselves with a view to highway robbery.
I soon, though, got tired looking out for my Spaniards, and became assured of having my ride to myself when I studied the trail, and found that Kaweah’s were the first tracks of the day.
Riding thus in the late summer along the Sierra foot-hills, one is constantly impressed with the climatic peculiarities of the region. With us in the East, plant life seems to continue until it is at last put out by cold, the trees appear to grow till the first frosts; but in the Sierra foot-hills growth and active life culminate in June and early July, and then follow long months of warm, stormless autumn, wherein the hills grow slowly browner, and the whole air seems to ripen into a fascinating repose,—a rich, dreamy quiet, with distance lost behind pearly hazes, with warm, tranquil nights, dewless and silent. This period is wealthy in yellows and russets and browns, in great, overhanging masses of oak, whose olive hue is warmed into umber depth, in groves of serious pines, red of bark, and cool in the dark greenness of their spires. Nature wears an aspect of patient waiting for a great change; ripeness, existence beyond the accomplishment of the purpose of life, a long, pleasant, painless waiting for death,— these are the conditions of the vegetation; and it is vegetation more than the peculiar appearance of the air which impresses the strange character of the season. It is as if our August should grow rich and ripe, through cloudless days and glorious, warm nights, on till February, and then wake as from sleep, to break out in the bloom of May.
I was delighted to ride thus alone, and expose myself, as one uncovers a sensitized photographic plate, to be influenced; for this is a respite from scientific work, when through months you hold yourself accountable for seeing everything, for analyzing, for instituting perpetual comparison, and, as it were, sharing in the administering of the physical world. No tongue can tell the relief to simply withdraw scientific observation, and let Nature impress you in the dear old way with all her mystery and glory, with those vague, indescribable emotions which tremble between wonder and sympathy.
Behind me in distance stretched the sere plain where Kaweah’s run saved me. To the west, fading out into warm, blank distance, lay the great valley of San Joaquin, into which, descending by sinking curves, were rounded hills, with sunny, brown slopes softened as to detail by a low, clinging bank of milky air. Now and then out of the haze to the east indistinct rosy peaks, with dull, silvery snow-marblings, stood dimly up against the sky, and higher yet a few sharp summits lifted into the clearer heights seemed hung there floating. Quite in harmony with this was the little group of Dutch settlements I passed, where an antique-looking man and woman sat together on a veranda sunning their white hair, and silently smoking old porcelain pipes.
Nor was there any element of incongruity at the rancheria where I dismounted to rest shortly after noon. A few sleepy Indians lay on their backs dreaming, the good-humored, stout squaws nursing pappooses, or lying outstretched upon red blankets. The agreeable harmony was not alone from the Indian summer in their blood, but in part as well from the features of their dress and facial expression. Their clothes, of Caucasian origin, quickly fade out into utter barbarism, toning down to warm, dirty umbers, never failing to be relieved, here and there, by ropes of blue and white beads, or head-band and girdle of scarlet cloth.
Toward the late afternoon, trotting down a gentle forest slope, I came in sight of a number of ranch buildings grouped about a central open space. A small stream flowed by the outbuildings, and wound among chaparral-covered spurs below. Considerable crops of grain had been gathered into a corral, and a number of horses were quietly straying about. Yet with all the evidences of considerable possessions the whole place had an air of suspicious mock-sleepiness. Riding into the open square, I saw that one of the buildings was a store, and to this I rode, tying Kaweah to the piazza post.
I thought the whole world slumbered when I beheld the sole occupant of this country store, a red-faced man in pantaloons and shirt, who lay on his back upon a counter fast asleep, the handle of a revolver grasped in his right hand. It seemed to me if I were to wake him up a little too suddenly he might misunderstand my presence and do some accidental damage; so I stepped back and poked Kaweah, making him jump and clatter his hoofs, and at once the proprietor sprang to the door, looking flustered and uneasy.
I asked him if he could accommodate me for the afternoon and night, and take care of my horse; to which he replied, in a very leisurely manner, that there was a bed, and something to eat, and hay, and that if I was inclined to take the chances I might stay.
Being in mind to take the chances, I did stay, and my host walked out with me to the corral, and showed me where to get Kaweah’s hay and grain.
I loafed about for an hour or two, finding that a Chinese cook was the only other human being in sight, and then concluded to pump the landlord. A half-hour’s trial thoroughly disgusted me, and I gave it up as a bad job. I did, however, learn that he was a man of Southern birth, of considerable education, which a brutal life and depraved mind had not been able to fully obliterate. He seemed to care very little for his business, which indeed was small enough, for during the time I spent there not a single customer made his appearance. The stock of goods I observed on examination to be chiefly fire-arms, every manner of gambling apparatus, and liquors; the few pieces of stuffs, barrels, and boxes of groceries appeared to be disposed rather as ornaments than for actual sale.
From each of the man’s trousers’ pockets protruded the handle of a derringer, and behind his counter were arranged in convenient position two or three double-barrelled shot-guns.
I remarked to him that he seemed to have a handily arranged arsenal, at which he regarded me with a cool, quiet stare, polished the handle of one of his derringers upon his trousers, examined the percussion-cap with great deliberation, and then, with a nod of the head intended to convey great force, said, “You don’t live in these parts,”—a fact for which I felt not unthankful.
The man drank brandy freely and often, and at intervals of about half an hour called to his side a plethoric old cat named “Gospel,” stroked her with nervous rapidity, swearing at the same time in so distrait and unconscious a manner that he seemed mechanically talking to himself.
Whoever has travelled on the West Coast has not failed to notice the fearful volleys of oaths which the oxen-drivers hurl at their teams, but for ingenious flights of fancy profanity I have never met the equal of my host. With the most perfect good-nature and in unmoved continuance he uttered florid blasphemies, which, I think, must have taken hours to invent. I was glad, when bedtime came, to be relieved of his presence, and especially pleased when he took me to the little separate building in which was a narrow, single bed. Next this building on the left was the cook-house and dining-room, and upon the right lay his own sleeping apartment. Directly across the square, and not more than sixty feet off, was the gate of the corral, which creaked on its rusty hinges, when moved, in the most dismal manner.
As I lay upon my bed I could hear Kaweah occasionally stamp; the snoring of the Chinaman on one side, and the low, mumbled conversation of my host and his squaw on the other. I felt no inclination to sleep, but lay there in half-doze, quite conscious, yet withdrawn from the present.
I think it must have been about eleven o’clock when I heard the clatter of a couple of horsemen, who galloped up to my host’s building and sprang to the ground, their Spanish spurs ringing on the stone. I sat up in bed, grasped my pistol, and listened. The peach-tree next my window rustled. The horses moved about so restlessly that I heard but little of the conversation, but that little I found of personal interest to myself.
I give as nearly as I can remember the fragments of dialogue between my host and the man whom I recognized as the older of my two robbers.
“When did he come?”
“Wall, the sun might have been about four hours.”
“Has his horse give out?”
I failed to hear the answer, but was tempted to shout out “No!”
“Gray coat, buckskin breeches.” (My dress.)
“Going to Mariposa at seven in the morning.”
“I guess I wouldn’t round here.”
A low, muttered soliloquy in Spanish wound up with a growl.
“No, Antone, not within a mile of the place. ‘Sta buen.’”
Out of the compressed jumble of the final sentence I got but the one word, “buckshot.”
The Spaniards mounted and the sound of their spurs and horses’ hoofs soon died away in the north, and I lay for half an hour revolving all sorts of plans. The safest course seemed to be to slip out in the darkness and fly on foot to the mountains, abandoning my good Kaweah; but I thought of his noble run, and it seemed to me so wrong to turn my back on him that I resolved to unite our fate. I rose cautiously, and, holding my watch up to the moon, found that twelve o’clock had just passed, then taking from my pocket a five-dollar gold piece, I laid it upon the stand by my bed, and in my stocking feet, with my clothes in my hand, started noiselessly for the corral. A fierce bull-dog, which had shown no disposition to make friends with me, bounded from the open door of the proprietor to my side. Instead of tearing me, as I had expected, he licked my hands and fawned about my feet.
Reaching the corral gate, I dreaded opening it at once, remembering the rusty hinges, so I hung my clothes upon an upper bar of the fence, and, cautiously lifting the latch, began to push back the gate, inch by inch, an operation which required eight or ten minutes; then I walked up to Kaweah and patted him. His manger was empty; he had picked up the last kernel of barley. The creature’s manner was full of curiosity, as if he had never been approached in the night before. Suppressing his ordinary whinnying, he preserved a motionless, statue-like silence. I was in terror lest by a neigh, or some nervous movement, he should waken the sleeping proprietor and expose my plan.
The corral and the open square were half covered with loose stones, and when I thought of the clatter of Kaweah’s shoes I experienced a feeling of trouble, and again meditated running off on foot, until the idea struck me of muffling the iron feet. Ordinarily Kaweah would not allow me to lift his forefeet at all. The two blacksmiths who shod him had done so at the peril of their lives, and whenever I had attempted to pick up his hind feet he had warned me away by dangerous stamps; so I approached him very timidly, and was surprised to find that he allowed me to lift all four of his feet without the slightest objection. As I stooped down he nosed me over, and nibbled playfully at my hat. In constant dread lest he should make some noise, I hurried to muffle his forefeet with my trousers and shirt, and then, with rather more care, to tie upon his hind feet my coat and drawers.
Knowing nothing of the country ahead of me, and fearing that I might again have to run for it, I determined at all cost to water him. Groping about the corral and barn, and at last finding a bucket, and descending through the darkness to the stream, I brought him a full draught, which he swallowed eagerly, when I tied my shoes on the saddle pommel, and led the horse slowly out of the corral gate, holding him firmly by the bit, and feeling his nervous breath pour out upon my hand.
When we had walked perhaps a quarter of a mile, I stopped and listened. All was quiet, the landscape lying bright and distinct in full moonlight. I unbound the wrappings, shook from them as much dust as possible, dressed myself, and then, mounting, started northward on the Mariposa trail with cocked pistol.
In the soft dust we travelled noiselessly for a mile or so, passing from open country into groves of oak and thickets of chaparral.
Without warning, I suddenly came upon a smouldering fire close by the trail, and in the shadow descried two sleeping forms, one stretched on his back, snoring heavily, the other lying upon his face, pillowing his head upon folded arms.
I held my pistol aimed at one of the wretches, and rode by without wakening them, guiding Kaweah in the thickest dust.
It keyed me up to a high pitch. I turned around in the saddle, leaving Kaweah to follow the trail, and kept my eyes riveted on the sleeping forms, until they were lost in distance, and then I felt safe.
We galloped over many miles of trail, enjoying a sunrise, and came at last to Mariposa, where I deposited my gold, and then went to bed and made up my lost sleep.
|Chapter V • Index • Chapter VII|