The Ranch by Stewart Edward White
Chapter III. The People and the Place
They warmed me through, and then another old soldier named Redmond took me up to show me where I lived. We clambered up narrow boxed stairs that turned three ways; we walked down a narrow passage; turned to the right; walked down another narrow passage, climbed three steps to open a door; promptly climbed three steps down again; crossed a screened-in bridge to another wing; ducked through a passageway, and so arrived. The ranch house was like that. Parts of it were built out on stilts. Five or six big cottonwood trees grew right up through the verandahs, and spread out over the roof of the house. There are all sorts of places where you hang coats, or stack guns, or store shells, or find unexpected books; passageways leading to outdoor upstairs screened porches, cubby holes and the like. And whenever you imagine the house must be quite full of guests, they can always discover to you yet another bedroom. It may, at the last, be a very tiny bedroom, with space enough only for a single bed and not much else; and you may get to it only by way of out of doors; and it may be already fairly well occupied by wooden decoys and shotgun shells, but there it is, guests and guests after you thought the house must be full.
Belonging and appertaining unto the house were several fixtures. One of these was old Charley, the Chinese cook. He had been there twenty-five years. In that time he had learned perfect English, acquired our kind of a sense of humour, come to a complete theoretical understanding of how to run a ranch and all the people on it, and taught Pollymckittrick what she knew.
Pollymckittrick was the bereaved widow of the noble pair of yellow and green parrots Noah selected for his ark. At least I think she was that old. She was certainly very wise in both Oriental and Occidental wisdom. Her chief accomplishments, other than those customary to parrots, were the ability to spell, and to sing English songs. "After the Ball" and "Daisy Bell" were her favourites, rendered with occasional jungle variations. She considered Charley her only real friend, though she tolerated some others. Pollymckittrick was a product of artificial civilization. No call of the wild in hers! She preferred her cage, gilded or otherwise. Each afternoon the cage was placed out on the lawn so Pollymckittrick could have her sun bath. One day a big redtail hawk sailed by. Pollymckittrick fell backward off her perch, flat on her back. The sorrowing family gathered to observe this extraordinary case of heart failure. After an interval Pollymckittrick unfilmed one yellow eye.
"Po--o--or Pollymckittrick!" she remarked.
At the sight of that hawk Pollymckittrick had fainted!
The third institution having to do with the house was undoubtedly Redmond. Redmond was another of the old soldiers who had in their age sought out their beloved General. Redmond was a sort of all-round man. He built the fires very early in the morning; and he did your boots and hunting clothes, got out the decoys, plucked the ducks, saw to the shells, fed the dogs, and was always on hand at arrival and departure to lend a helping hand. He dwelt in a square room in the windmill tower together with a black cat and all the newspapers in the world. The cat he alternately allowed the most extraordinary liberties or disciplined rigorously. On the latter occasions he invariably seized the animal and hurled it bodily through the open window. The cat took the long fall quite calmly, and immediately clambered back up the outside stairway that led to the room. The newspapers he read, and clipped therefrom items of the most diverse nature to which he deprecatingly invited attention. Once in so often a strange martial fervour would obsess him. Then the family, awakened in the early dawn, would groan and turn over, realizing that its rest was for that morning permanently shattered. The old man had hoisted his colours over the windmill tower, and now in a frenzy of fervour was marching around and around the tower beating the long roll on his drum. After one such outbreak he would be his ordinary, humble, quiet, obliging, almost deprecating self for another month or so. The ranch people took it philosophically.
The fourth institution was Nobo. Nobo was a Japanese woman who bossed the General. She was a square-built person of forty or so who had also been with the family unknown years. Her capabilities were undoubted; as also her faith in them. The hostess depended on her a good deal; and at the same time chafed mildly under her calm assumption that she knew perfectly what the situation demanded. The General took her domination amusedly. To be sure nobody was likely to fool much with the General. His vast good nature had way down beneath it something that on occasion could be stern. Nobo could and would tell the General what clothes to wear, and when to change them, and such matters; but she never ventured to inhibit the General's ideas as to going forth in rains, or driving where he everlastingly dod-blistered pleased, or words to that effect, across country in his magnificently rattletrap surrey, although she often looked very anxious. For she adored the General. But we all did that.
As though the heavy curtain of fog had been laid upon the land expressly that I might get my first impressions of the ranch in due order, about noon the weather cleared. Even while we ate lunch, the sun came out. After the meal we went forth to see what we could see.
The ranch was situated in the middle of a vast plain around three sides of which rose a grand amphitheatre of mountains. The nearest of them was some thirty miles away, yet ordinarily, in this clear, dry, Western atmosphere they were always imminent. Over their eastern ramparts the sun rose to look upon a chill and frosty world; behind their western barriers the sun withdrew, leaving soft air, purple shadows, and the flight of dim, far wildfowl across a saffron sky. To the north was only distance and the fading of the blue of the heavens to the pearl gray of the horizon.
So much if one stepped immediately beyond the ranch itself. The plains were broad. Here and there the flatness broke in a long, low line of cottonwoods marking the winding course of a slough or trace of subsoil water. Mesquite lay in dark patches; sagebrush; the green of pasture-land periodically overflowed by the irrigation water. Nearer at home were occasional great white oaks, or haystacks bigger than a house, and shaped like one.
To the distant eye the ranch was a grove of trees. Cottonwoods and eucalyptus had been planted and had thriven mightily on the abundant artesian water. We have already noticed the six or eight great trees growing fairly up through the house. On the outskirts lay also a fruit orchard of several hundred acres. Opposite the house, and separated from it by a cedar hedge, was a commodious and attractive bungalow for the foreman. Beyond him were the bunk house, cook houses, blacksmith shops, and the like.
We started our tour of inspection by examining and commenting gravely upon the dormant rose garden and equally dormant grape arbour. Through this we came to the big wire corrals in which were kept the dogs. Here I met old Ben.
Old Ben was not very old; but he was different from young Ben. He was a pointer of the old-fashioned, stocky-built, enduring type common--and serviceable--before our bench-show experts began to breed for speed, fineness, small size--and lack of stamina. Ben proved in the event to be a good all-round dog. He combined the attributes of pointer, cocker spaniel, and retriever. In other words, he would hunt quail in the orthodox fashion; or he would rustle into the mesquite thorns for the purpose of flushing them out to us; or he would swim anywhere any number of times to bring out ducks. To be sure he occasionally got a little mixed. At times he might try to flush quail in the open, instead of standing them; or would attempt to retrieve some perfectly lively specimens. Then Ben needed a licking; and generally got it. He lacked in his work some of the finish and style of the dogs we used after grouse in Michigan, but he was a good all-round dog for the work. Furthermore, he was most pleasant personally.
Next door to him lived the dachshunds.
The dachshunds were a marvel, a nuisance, a bone of contention, an anomaly, an accident, and a farce. They happened because somebody had once given the hostess a pair of them. I do not believe she cared particularly for them; but she is good natured, and the ranch is large, and they are rather amusing. At the time of my first visit the original pair had multiplied. Gazing on that yardful of imbecile-looking canines, my admiration for Noah's wisdom increased; he certainly needed no more than a pair to restock the earth. Redmond claimed there were twenty-two of them, though nobody else pretended to have been able to disentangle them enough for a census. They were all light brown in colour; and the aggregation reminded me of a rather disentangled bunch of angle-worms. They lived in a large enclosure; and emerged therefrom only under supervision, for they considered chickens and young pigs their especial prey. The Captain looked upon them with exasperated tolerance; Redmond with affection; the hostess, I think, with a good deal of the partisanship inspired not so much by liking as by the necessity of defending them against ridicule; and the rest of the world with amused expectation as to what they would do next. The Captain was continually uttering half-serious threats as to the different kinds of sudden death he was going to inflict on the whole useless, bandylegged, snipe-nosed, waggle-eared----
The best comment was offered last year by the chauffeur of the automobile. After gazing on the phenomenon of their extraordinary build for some moments he remarked thoughtfully:
"Those dogs have a mighty long wheel base!"
For some reason unknown two of the dachshunds have been elevated from the ranks, and have house privileges. Their names are respectively Pete and Pup. They hate each other, and have sensitive dispositions. It took me just four years to learn to tell them apart. I believe Pete has a slightly projecting short rib on his left side--or is it Pup? It was fatal to mistake.
"Hullo, Pup!" I would cry to one jovially.
"G--r--r--r--!" would remark the dog, retiring under the sofa. Thus I would know it was Pete. The worst of it was that said Pete's feelings were thereby lacerated so deeply that I was not forgiven all the rest of that day.
Beyond the dogs lay a noble enclosure so large that it would have been subdivided into building lots had it been anywhere else. It was inhabited by all sorts of fowl, hundreds of them, of all varieties. There were chickens, turkeys, geese, and a flock of ducks. The Captain pointed out the Rouen ducks, almost exactly like the wild mallards.
"Those are my live decoys," said he.
For the accommodation of this multitude were cities of nest houses, roost houses, and the like. Huge structures elevated on poles swarmed with doves. A duck pond even had been provided for its proper denizens.
Thus we reached the southernmost outpost of our quadrangle, and turned to the west, where an ancient Chinaman and an assistant cultivated minutely and painstakingly a beautiful vegetable garden. Tiny irrigation streams ran here and there, fitted with miniature water locks. Strange and foreign bamboo mattings, withes, and poles performed strange and foreign functions. The gardener, brown and old and wrinkled, his cue wound neatly beneath his tremendous, woven-straw umbrella of a hat, possessing no English, no emotion, no single ray of the sort of intelligence required to penetrate into our Occidental world, bent over his work. When we passed, he did not look up. He dwelt in a shed. At least, such it proved to be, when examined with the cold eye of analysis. In impression it was ancient, exotic, Mongolian, the abode of one of a mysterious and venerable race, a bit of foreign country. By what precise means this was accomplished it would be difficult to say. It is a fact well known to all Californians that a Chinaman can with no more extensive properties than a few pieces of red paper, a partition, a dingy curtain, and a varnished duck transform utterly an American tenement into a Chinese pagoda.
Thence we passed through a wicket and came to the abode of hogs. They dotted the landscape into the far distance, rooting about to find what they could; they lay in wallows; they heaped themselves along fences; they snorted and splashed in sundry shallow pools; a good half mile of maternal hogs occupied a row of kennels from which the various progeny issued forth between the bars. I cannot say I am much interested in hogs, but even I could dimly comprehend the Captain's attitude of swollen pride. They were clean, and black, and more nearly approximated the absurd hog advertisements than I had believed possible. You know the kind I mean; an almost exact rectangle on four short legs.
In the middle distance stood a long, narrow, thatched roof supported on poles. Beneath this, the Captain told me, were the beehives. They proved later to be in charge of a mild-eyed religious fanatic who believed the world to be flat.
We took a cursory glance at a barn filled to the brim with prunes; and the gushing, beautiful artesian well; at the men's quarters; the blacksmith shop, and all the rest. So we rounded the circle and came to the most important single feature of the ranch--the quarters for the horses.
A very long, deep shed, open on all sides, contained a double row of mangers facing each other, and divided into stalls. Here stood and were fed the working horses. By that I mean not only the mule and horse teams, but also the utility driving teams and the saddle horses used by the cowboys. Between each two stalls was a heavy pillar supporting the roof, and well supplied with facilities for hanging up the harness and equipments. As is usual in California, the sides and ends were open to the air; and the floor was simply the earth well bedded.
But over against this shed stood a big barn of the Eastern type. Here were the private equipments.
The Captain is a horseman. He breeds polo ponies after a formula of his own; and so successfully that many of them cross the Atlantic. On the ranch are always several hundred head of beautiful animals; and of these the best are kept up for the use of the Captain and his friends. We looked at them in their clean, commodious stalls; we inspected the harness and saddle room, glistening and satiny with polished metal and well-oiled leather; we examined the half dozen or so of vehicles of all descriptions. The hostess told with relish of her one attempt to be stylish.
"We had such beautiful horses," said she, "that I thought we ought to have something to go with them, so I sent up to the city for my brougham. It made a very neat turnout; and Tom was as proud of it as I was, but when it came to a question of proper garb for Tom I ran up against a deadlock. Tom refused point blank to wear a livery or anything approaching a livery. He was perfectly respectful about it; but he refused. Well, I drove around all that winter, when the weather was bad, in a well-appointed brougham drawn by a good team in a proper harness; and on the box sat a lean-faced cow puncher in sombrero, red handkerchief, and blue jeans!"
Tom led forth the horses one after the other--Kingmaker, the Fiddler, Pittapat, and the others. We spent a delightful two hours. The sun dropped; the shadows lengthened. From the fields the men began to come in. They drove the wagons and hay ricks into the spacious enclosure, and set leisurely about the task of caring for their animals. Chinese and Japanese drifted from the orchards, and began to manipulate the grindstone on their pruning knives. Presently a cowboy jogged in, his spurs and bit jingling. From the cook house a bell began to clang.
We turned back to the house. Before going in I faced the west. The sky had turned a light green full of lucence. The minor sounds of the ranch near by seemed to be surrounded by a sea of silence outside. Single sounds came very clearly across it. And behind everything, after a few moments, I made out a queer, monotonous background of half-croaking calling. For some time this puzzled me. Then at last my groping recollection came to my assistance. I was hearing the calling of myriads of snow geese.