Chapter II. The Old West
 

I went to the ranch many years ago, stepping from the train somewhere near midnight into a cold, crisp air full of stars. My knowledge of California was at that time confined to several seasons spent on the coast, where the straw hat retires only in deference to a tradition which none of the flowers seem bound to respect. As my dress accorded with this experience, I was very glad to be conducted across the street to a little hotel. My guide was an elderly, very brown man, with a white moustache, and the bearing of an army regular. This latter surmise later proved correct. Manning was one of the numerous old soldiers who had fought through the General's Apache campaigns, and who now in his age had drifted back to be near his old commander. He left me, after many solicitations as to my comfort, and a promise to be back with the team at seven o'clock sharp.

Promptly at that hour he drew up by the curb. My kit bag was piled aboard, and I clambered in beside the driver. Manning touched his team. We were off.

The rig was of the sort usual to the better California ranches of the day, and so, perhaps, worth description. It might best be defined as a rather wide, stiff buckboard set on springs, and supported by stout running gear. The single seat was set well forward, while the body of the rig extended back to receive the light freight an errand to town was sure to accumulate. An ample hood top of gray canvas could be raised for protection against either sun, wind, or rain. Most powerful brakes could be manipulated by a thrust of the driver's foot. You may be sure they were outside brakes. Inside brakes were then considered the weak expedients of a tourist driving mercenary. Generally the tongue and moving gear were painted cream; and the body of the vehicle dark green.

This substantial, practical, and business-like vehicle was drawn by a pair of mighty good bright bay horses, straight backed, square rumped, deep shouldered, with fine heads, small ears, and alert yet gentle eyes of high-bred stock. When the word was given, they fell into a steady, swinging trot. One felt instinctively the power of it, and knew that they were capable of keeping up this same gait all day. And that would mean many miles. Their harness was of plain russet leather, neat and well oiled.

Concerning them I made some remark, trivial yet enough to start Manning. He told me of them, and of their peculiarities and virtues. He descanted at length on their breeding, and whence came they and their fathers and their fathers' fathers even unto the sixth generation. He left me at last with the impression that this was probably the best team in the valley, bar none. It was a good team, strong, spirited, gentle, and enduring.

We swung out from the little town into a straight road. If it has seemed that I have occupied you too exclusively with objects near at hand, the matter could not be helped. There was nothing more to occupy you. A fog held all the land.

It was a dense fog, and a very cold. Twenty feet ahead of the horses showed only a wall of white. To right and left dim, ghostly bushes or fence posts trooped by us at the ordered pace of our trot. An occasional lone poplar tree developed in the mist as an object on a dry plate develops. We splashed into puddles, crossed culverts, went through all the business of proceeding along a road--and apparently got nowhere. The mists opened grudgingly before us, and closed in behind. As far as knowing what the country was like I might as well have been blindfolded.

From Manning I elicited piecemeal some few and vague ideas. This meagreness was not due to a disinclination on Manning's part, but only to the fact that he never quite grasped my interest in mere surroundings. Yes, said he, it was a pretty flat country, and some brush. Yes, there were mountains, some ways off, though. Not many trees, but some--what you might call a few. And so on, until I gave it up. Mountains, trees, brush, and flat land! One could construct any and all landscapes with such building blocks as those.

Now, as has been hinted, I was dressed for southern California; and the fog was very damp and chill. The light overcoat I wore failed utterly to exclude it. At first I had been comfortable enough, but as mile succeeded mile the cold of that winter land fog penetrated to the bone. In answer to my comment Manning replied cheerfully in the words of an old saw:

    "A winter's fog
    Will freeze a dog,"

said he.

I agreed with him. We continued to jog on. Manning detailed what I then thought were hunting lies as to the abundance of game; but which I afterward discovered were only sober truths. When too far gone in the miseries of abject cold I remembered his former calling, and glancing sideways at his bronzed, soldierly face, wished I had gumption enough left to start him going on some of his Indian campaigns. It was too late; I had not the gumption; I was too cold.

Now I believe I am fairly well qualified to know when I really feel cold. I have slept out with the thermometer out of sight somewhere down near the bulb; I once snowshoed nine miles; and then overheated from that exertion, drove thirty-five without additional clothing. On various other occasions I have had experiences that might be called frigid. But never have I been quite so deadly cold as on that winter morning's drive through the land fog of semi-tropical California. It struck through to the very heart.

I subsequently discovered that it takes two hours and three quarters to drive to the ranch. That is a long time when one has nothing to look at, and when one is cold. In fact, it is so long that one loses track of time at all, and gradually relapses into that queer condition of passive endurance whereto is no end and no beginning. Therefore the end always comes suddenly, and as a surprise.

So it was in this case. Out of the mists sprang suddenly two tall fan palms, and then two others, and still others. I realized dimly that we were in an avenue of palms. The wheels grated strangely on gravel. We swung sharply to the left between hedges. The mass of a building loomed indistinctly. Manning applied the brakes. We stopped, the steam from the horses' shining backs rising straight up to mingle with the fog.

"Well, here we are!" said Manning.

So we were! I hadn't thought of that. We must be here. After an appreciable moment it occurred to me that perhaps I'd better climb down. I did so, very slowly and stiffly, making the sad mistake of jumping down from the height of the step. How that did injure my feelings! The only catastrophe I can remember comparable to it was when a teacher rapped my knuckles with a ruler after I had been making snowballs bare handed. My benumbed faculties next swung around to the proposition of proceeding up an interminable gravel walk--(it is twenty-five feet long!) to a forbidding flight of stairs--(porch steps--five of them!) I put this idea into execution. I reached the steps. And then----

The door was flung open from within, I could see the sparkle and leap of a fine big grate fire. The Captain stood in the doorway, a broad smile on his face; my hostess smiled another welcome behind him; the General roared still another from somewhere behind her.

Now I had never met the Captain. He held out both hands in greeting. One of those hands was for me to shake. The other held a huge glass of hot scotch. The hot scotch was in the right hand!