The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
XVII. The Hidden Trail
Because they had set forth on a grim and sorrowful quest, it need not be supposed that Paul and Moya were a pair of sorrowful pilgrims. It was their wedding journey. At the outset Moya had said: "We are doing the best we know. For what we don't know, let us leave it and not brood."
They did not enter at once upon the more eccentric stages of the search. They went by way of the Great Northern to Portland, descending from snow to roses and drenching rains. At Pendleton, which is at the junction of three great roads, Paul sent tracers out through express agents and train officials along the remotest slender feeders of these lines. Through the same agents it was made known that for any service rendered or expense incurred on behalf of the person described, his friends would hold themselves gratefully responsible.
At Portland, Paul searched the steamer lists and left confidential orders in the different transportation offices; and Moya wrote to his mother--a woman's letter, every page shining with happiness and as free from apparent forethought as a running brook.
They returned by the Great Northern and Lake Coeur d'Alene, stopping over at Fort Sherman to visit Mrs. Creve, who was giddy with joy over the wholesome change in Paul. She, too, wrote a woman's letter concerning that visit, to the colonel, which cleared a crowd of shadows from his lonely hearth.
Thence again to Pendleton came the seekers, and Paul gathered in his lines, but found nothing; so cast them forth again. But through all these distant elaborations of the search, in his own mind he saw the old man creeping away by some near, familiar trail and lying hid in some warm valley in the hills, his prison and his home.
It was now the last week in March. The travelers' bags were in the office, the carriage at the door, when a letter--pigeon-holed and forgotten since received some three weeks before--was put into Paul's hand.
I run up against your ad. in the Silver City Times [the communication began]. If you haven't found your man yet, maybe I can put you onto the right lead. I'm driving a jerky on the road from Mountain Home to Oriana, but me and the old man we don't jibe any too well. I've got a sort of disgust on me. Think I'll quit soon and go to mining. Jimmy Breen he runs the Ferry, he can tell you all I know. Fifty miles from Mountain Home good road can make it in one day. Yours Respecfully,
It was in following up this belated clue that the pilgrims had come to the Ferry inn, crossing by team from valley to valley, cutting off a great bend of the Oregon Short Line as it traverses the Snake River desert; those bare high plains escarped with basalt bluffs that open every fifty miles or so to let a road crawl down to some little rope-ferry supported by sheep-herders, ditch contractors, miners, emigrants, ranchmen, all the wild industries of a country in the dawn of enterprise.
Business at the Ferry had shrunk since the railroad went through. The house-staff consisted of Jimmy Breen, a Chinese cook of the bony, tartar breed, sundry dogs, and a large bachelor cat that mooned about the empty piazzas. In a young farming country, hungry for capital, Jimmy could not do a cash business, but everything was grist that came to his mill; and he was quick to distinguish the perennial dead beat from a genuine case of hard luck.
"That's a good axe ye have there," pointing suggestively to a new one sticking out of the rear baggage of an emigrant outfit. "Ye better l'ave that with me for the dollar that's owing me. If ye have money to buy new axes ye can't be broke entirely." Or: "Slip the halter on that calf behind there. The mother hasn't enough to keep it alive. There's har'ly a dollar's wort' of hide on its bones, but I'll take it to save it droppin' on the road." Or, he would try sarcasm: "Well, we'll be shuttin' her down in the spring. Then ye can go round be Walter's Ferry and see if they'll trust ye there." Or: "Why wasn't ye workin' on the Ditch last winter? Settin' smokin' your poipe in the tules, the wife and young ones packin' sagebrush to kape ye warm!"
On the morning after their distinguished arrival, Jimmy's guests came down late to a devastated breakfast-table. Little heaps of crumbs here and there showed where earlier appetites had had their destined hour and gone their way. At an impartial distance from the top and the foot of the table stood the familiar group of sauce and pickle bottles, every brand dear to the cowboy, including the "surrup-jug" adhering to its saucer. There was a fresh-gathered bunch of wild phlox by Moya's plate in a tumbler printed round the edge with impressions of a large moist male thumb.
"Catchee plenty," the Chinaman grinned, pointing to the plain outside where the pale sage-brush quivered stiffly in the wind. "Bymbye plenty come. Pretty col' now."
"You'll be getting a large hump on yourself, Han, me boy. 'T is a cash crowd we have here--and a lady, by me sowl!" Thus Jimmy exhorted his household. Times were looking up. They would be a summer resort before the Ditch went through; it should be mentioned in the Ditch company's prospectus. Jimmy had put his savings into land-office fees and had a hopeful interest in the Ditch.
A spur in the head is worth two in the heel. Without a word from "the boss" Han had found time to shave and powder and polish his brown forehead and put on his whitest raiment over his baggiest trousers. There was loud panic among the fowls in the corral. The cat had disappeared; the jealous dogs hung about the doors and were pushed out of the way by friends of other days.
Seated by the office fire, Paul was conferring with Jimmy, who was happy with a fresh pipe and a long story to tell to a patient and paying listener. He rubbed the red curls back from his shining forehead, took the pipe from his teeth, and guided a puff of smoke away from his auditor.
"I seen him settin' over there on his blankets,"--he pointed with his pipe to the opposite shore plainly visible through the office windows,--"but he niver hailed me, so I knowed he was broke. Some, whin they're broke, they holler all the louder. Ye would think they had an appointment wit' the Governor and he sint his car'iage to meet them. But he was as humble, he was, as a yaller dog.--Out! Git out from here--the pack of yez! Han, shut the dure an' drive thim bloody curs off the piazzy. They're trackin' up the whole place.--As I was sayin', sor, there he stayed hunched up in the wind, waitin' on the chanst of a team comin', and I seen he was an ould daddy. I stud the sight of him as long as I cud, me comin' and goin'. He fair wore me out. So I tuk the boat over for 'im. One of his arrums he couldn't lift from the shoulder, and I give him a h'ist wit' his bundle. Faith, it was light! 'Twinty years a-getherin',' he cackles, slappin' it. 'Ye've had harrud luck,' I says. ''T is not much of a sheaf ye are packin' home.' 'That's as ye look at it,' he says.
"I axed him what way was he goin'. He was thinking to get a lift as far as Oriana, if the stages was runnin' on that road. 'Then ye 'll have to bide here till morning,' I says, 'for ye must have met the stage goin' the other way.' 'I met nothing,' says he; 'I come be way of the bluffs,'--which is a strange way for one man travelin' afoot.
"The grub was on the table, and I says, 'Sit by and fill yourself up.' His cheeks was fallin' in wit' the hunger. With that his poor ould eye begun to water. 'Twas one weak eye he had that was weepin' all the time. 'I've got out of the habit of reg'lar aitin',' he says. 'It don't take much to kape me goin'.' 'Niver desave yourself, sor! 'T is betther feed three hungry men than wan "no occasion."' His appetite it grew on him wit' every mouthful. There was a boundless emptiness to him. He lay there on the bench and slep' the rest of the evening, and I left him there wit' a big fire at night. And the next day at noon we h'isted him up beside of Joe Stratton. A rip-snorter of a wind was blowin' off the Silver City peaks. His face was drawed like a winter apple, but he wint off happy. I think he was warm inside of himself."
"Did you ask him his name?"
"Sure. Why not? John Treagar he called himself."
"Treagar? Hagar, you mean!"
"It was Treagar he said."
"John Hagar is the man I am looking for."
"Treagar--Hagar? 'T is comin' pretty close to it."
"About what height and build was he?"
"He was not to say a tall man; and he wasn't so turrible short neither. His back was as round as a Bible. A kind of pepper and saltish beard he had, and his hair was blacker than his beard but white in streaks."
"A dark man, was he?"
"He would be a dark man if he was younger."
"The man I want is blue-eyed."
"His eyes was blue--a kind of washed-out gray that maybe was blue wanst; and one of them always weepin' wit' the cold."
"And light brown hair mixed with gray, like sand and ashes--mostly ashes; and a thin straggling beard, thinner on the cheeks? A high head and a tall stooping figure--six feet at least; hands with large joints and a habit of picking at them when"--
"Ye are goin' too fast for me now, sor. He was not that description of a man, nayther the height nor the hair of him. Sure't is a pity for ye comin' this far, and him not the man at all. Faith, I wish I was the man meself! I wonder at Joe Stratton anyhow! He's a very hasty man, is Joe. He jumps in wit' both feet, so he does. I could have told ye that."
* * * * *
Moya, always helplessly natural, and now very tired as well, when Paul described with his usual gravity this anti-climax, fell below all the dignities at once in a burst of childish giggling. Paul looked on with an embarrassed smile, like a puzzled affectionate dog at the incomprehensible mirth of humans. Paul was certainly deficient in humor and therefore in breadth. But what woman ever loved her lover the less for having discovered his limitations? Humor runs in families of the intenser cultivation. The son of the soil remains serious in the face of life's and nature's ironies.