Chapter VI. Ponies
 

Next morning the Captain decided that he had various affairs to attend to, so we put on our riding clothes and went down to the stables.

The Captain had always forty or fifty polo ponies in the course of education, and he was delighted to have them ridden, once he was convinced of your seat and hands. They were beautiful ponies, generally iron gray in colour, very friendly, very eager, and very lively. Riding them was like flying through the air, for they sailed over rough ground, irrigation checks, and the like without a break in their stride, and without a jar. By the same token it was necessary to ride them. At odd moments they were quite likely to give a wide sidewise bound or a stiff-legged buck from sheer joy of life. One got genuine "horse exercise" out of them.

The Captain, as perhaps I have said, invented these ponies himself. From Chihuahua he brought in some of the best mustang mares he could find; and, in case you have Frederick Remington's pictures of starved winter-range animals in mind, let me tell you a good mustang is a very handsome animal indeed. These he bred to a thoroughbred. The resulting half-breeds grew to the proper age. Then he started to have them broken to the saddle. A start was as far as he ever got, for nobody could ride them. They combined the intelligence and vice of the mustang with the endurance and nervous instability of the thoroughbred. The Captain tried all sorts of men, even sending at last to Arizona for a good bronco buster on the J-I. Only one or two of the many could back the animals at all, though many aspirants made a try at it. After a long series of experiments, the Captain came to the reluctant conclusion that the cross was no good. It seemed a pity, for they were beautiful animals, up to full polo size, deep chested, strong shouldered, close coupled, and speedy.

Then, by way of idleness, he bred some of the half-bred mares. The three-quarter cross proved to be ideal. They were gentle, easily broken, and to the eye differed in no particular from their pure-blooded brothers. So, ever since, the Captain has been raising these most excellent polo ponies to his great honour and profit and the incidental pleasure of his friends who like riding.

One of these ponies was known as the Merry Jest. He had a terrifying but harmless trick. The moment the saddle was cinched, down went his head and he began to buck in the most vicious style. This he would keep up until further orders. In order to put an end to the performance all one had to do was to haul in on the rope, thrust one's foot in the stirrup, and clamber aboard. For, mark you this, Merry Jest in the course of a long and useful life never failed to buck under the empty saddle--and never bucked under a rider!

This, of course, constituted the Merry Jest. Its beauty was that it was so safe.

"Want to ride?" asked the Captain.

"Surely," replied the unsuspecting stranger.

The Merry Jest was saddled, brought forth, and exhibited in action.

"There's your horse," remarked the Captain in a matter-of-course tone.

We rode out the corral gate and directly into the open country. The animals chafed to be away; and when we loosened the reins, leaped forward in long bounds. Over the rough country they skimmed like swallows, their hoofs hardly seeming to touch the ground, the powerful muscles playing smoothly beneath us like engines. After a mile of this we pulled up, and set about the serious business of the day.

One after another we oversaw all the major activities of such a ranch; outside, I mean, of the ranch enclosure proper where were the fowls, the vegetable gardens, and the like. Here an immense hay rick was being driven slowly along while two men pitched off the hay to right and left. After it followed a long line of cattle. This manner of feeding obviated the crowding that would have taken place had the hay not been thus scattered. The more aggressive followed close after the rick, snatching mouthfuls of the hay as it fell. The more peaceful, or subdued, or philosophical strung out in a long, thin line, eating steadily at one spot. They got more hay with less trouble, but the other fellows had to maintain reputations for letting nobody get ahead of them!

At another point an exceedingly rackety engine ran a hay press, where the constituents of one of the enormous house-like haystacks were fed into a hopper and came out neatly baled. A dozen or so men oversaw the activities of this noisy and dusty machine.

Down by the northerly cottonwoods two miles away we found other men with scrapers throwing up the irrigation checks along the predetermined contour lines. By means of these irregular meandering earthworks the water, admitted from the ditch to the upper end of the field, would work its way slowly from level to level instead of running off or making channels for itself. This job, too, was a dusty one. We could see the smoke of it rising from a long distance; and the horses and men were brown with it.

And again we rode softly for miles over greensward through the cattle, at a gentle fox trot, so as not to disturb them. At several points stood great blue herons, like sentinels, decorative as a Japanese screen, absolutely motionless. The Captain explained that they were "fishing" for gophers; and blessed them deeply. Sometimes our mounts splashed for a long distance through water five or six inches shallow. Underneath the surface we could see the short green grass of the turf that thus received its refreshment. Then somewhere near, silhouetted against the sky or distant mountains, on the slight elevation of the irrigation ditch bank, we were sure to see some of the irrigation Chinamen. They were strange, exotic figures, their skins sunburned and dark, their queues wound around their heads; wearing always the same uniform of blue jeans cut China-fashion, rubber boots, and the wide, inverted bowl Chinese sun hat of straw. By means of shovels wherewith to dig, and iron bars wherewith to raise and lower flood gates, they controlled the artificial rainfall of the region. So accustomed did the ducks become to these amphibious people that they hardly troubled themselves to get out of the way, and were utterly careless of how near they flew. Uncle Jim once disguised himself as an irrigation Chinaman and got all kinds of shooting--until the ducks found him out. Now they seem able to distinguish accurately between a Chinaman with a long shovel and a white man with a shotgun, no matter how the latter is dressed. Ducks, tame and wild, have a lot of sense. It must bore the former to be forced to associate with chickens.

Over in the orchard, of a thousand acres or so, were many more Orientals, and hundreds of wild doves. These Chinese were all of the lower coolie orders, and primitive, not to say drastic in their medical ideas. One evening the Captain heard a fine caterwauling and drum beating over in the quarters, and sallied forth to investigate. In one of the huts he found four men sitting on the outspread legs and arms of a fifth. The latter had been stripped stark naked. A sixth was engaged in placing live coals on the patient's belly, while assorted assistants furnished appropriate music and lamentation. The Captain put a stop to the proceedings and bundled the victim to a hospital where he promptly died. It was considered among Chinese circles that the Captain had killed him by ill-timed interference!

Everywhere we went, and wherever a small clump of trees or even large brush offered space, hung the carcasses of coyotes, wildcats, and lynx. Some were quite new, while others had completely mummified in the dry air of these interior plains. These were the trophies of the professional "varmint killer," a man hired by the month. Of course it would be only too easy for such an official to loaf on his job, so this one had adopted the unique method of proving his activity. Everywhere the Captain rode he could see that his man had been busy.

All this time we had been working steadily away from the ranch. Long zigzags and side trips carried us little forward, and a constant leftward tendency swung us always around, until we had completed a half circle of which the ranch itself was the centre. The irrigated fields had given place to open country of a semi-desert character grown high with patches of greasewood, sagebrush, thorn-bush; with wide patches of scattered bunch grass; and stretches of alkali waste. Here, unexpectedly to me, we stumbled on a strange but necessary industry incidental to so large an estate. Our nostrils were assailed by a mighty stink. We came around the corner of some high brush directly on a small two-story affair with a factory smokestack. It was fenced in, and the fence was covered with drying hides. I will spare you details, but the function of the place was to make glue, soap, and the like of those cattle whose term of life was marked by misfortune rather than by the butcher's knife. The sole workman at this economical and useful occupation did not seem to mind it. The Captain claimed he was as good as a buzzard at locating the newly demised.

Our ponies did not like the place either. They snorted violently, and pricked their ears back and forth, and were especially relieved and eager to obey when we turned their heads away.

We rode on out into the desert, our ponies skipping expertly through the low brush and gingerly over the alkali crust of the open spaces beneath which might be holes. Jackrabbits by the thousand, literally, hopped away in front of us, spreading in all directions as along the sticks of a fan. They were not particularly afraid, so they loped easily in high-bounding leaps, their ears erect. Many of them sat bolt upright, looking at least two feet high. Occasionally we managed really to scare one, and then it was a grand sight to see him open the throttle and scud away, his ears flat back, in the classical and correct attitude of the constantly recurring phrase of the ancients: "belly to earth he flew!"

Jackrabbits are a great nuisance. The Captain had to enclose his precious alfalfa fields with rabbit-proof wire to prevent utter destruction. There was a good deal of fence, naturally, and occasionally the inquiring rabbit would find a hole and crawl through. Then he was in alfalfa, which is, as every Californian knows, much better than being in clover. He ate at first greedily, then more daintily, wandering always farther afield in search of dessert. Never, however, did he forget the precise location of the opening by which he had entered, as was wise of him. For now, behold, enter the dogs. Ordinarily these dogs, who were also wise beasts, passed by the jackrabbit in his abundance with only inhibited longing. Their experience had taught them that to chase jackrabbits in the open with any motive ulterior to that of healthful exercise and the joy of seeing the blame things run was as vain and as puppish as chasing one's tail. But in the alfalfa fields was a chance, for it must be remembered that such fields were surrounded by the rabbit-proof wire in which but a single opening was known to the jack in question. Therefore, with huge delight, the dogs gave chase. Mr. Rabbit bolted back for his opening, his enemies fairly at his heels. Now comes the curious part of the episode. The dogs knew perfectly well that if the rabbit hit the hole in the fence he was safe for all of them; and they had learned, further, that if the rabbit missed his plunge for safety he would collide strongly with that tight-strung wire. When within twenty feet or so of the fence they stopped short in expectation. Probably three times out of five the game made his plunge in safety and scudded away over the open plain outside. Then the dogs turned and trotted philosophically back to the ranch. But the other two times the rabbit would miss. At full speed he would hit the tight-strung mesh, only to be hurled back by its resiliency fairly into the jaws of his waiting pursuers. Though thousands may consider this another nature-fake, I shall always have the comfort of thinking that the Captain and the dogs know it for the truth.

At times jackrabbits get some sort of a plague and die in great numbers. Indeed some years at the ranch they seemed almost to have disappeared. Their carcasses are destroyed almost immediately by the carrion creatures, and their delicate bones, scattered by the ravens, buzzards, and coyotes, soon disintegrate and pass into the soil. One does not find many evidences of the destruction that has been at work; yet he will see tens instead of myriads. I have been at the ranch when one was never out of sight of jackrabbits, in droves, and again I have been there when one would not see a half dozen in a morning's ride. They recover their numbers fast enough, and the chances are that this "narrow-gauge mule" will be always with us. The ranchman would like nothing better than to bid him a last fond but genuine farewell; but I should certainly miss him.

The greasewood and thorn-bush grew in long, narrow patches. The ragweed grew everywhere it pleased, affording grand cover for the quail. The sagebrush occurred singly at spaced intervals, with tiny bare spaces between across which the plumed little rascals scurried hurriedly. The tumbleweed banked high wherever, in the mysterious dispensations of Providence, a call for tumbleweed had made itself heard.

The tumbleweed is a curious vegetable. It grows and flourishes amain, and becomes great even as a sagebrush, and puts forth its blossoms and seeds, and finally turns brown and brittle. Just about as you would conclude it has reached a respectable old age and should settle down by its chimney corner, it decides to go travelling. The first breath of wind that comes along snaps it off close to the ground. The next turns it over. And then, inasmuch as the tumbleweed is roughly globular in shape, some three or four feet in diameter, and exceedingly light in structure, over and over it rolls across the plain! If the wind happens to increase, the whole flock migrates, bounding merrily along at a good rate of speed. Nothing more terrifying to the unaccustomed equine can be imagined than thirty or forty of these formidable-looking monsters charging down upon him, bouncing several feet from the surface of the earth. The experienced horse treats them with the contempt such light-minded senility deserves, and wades through their phantom attack indifferent. After the breeze has died the debauched old tumbleweeds are everywhere to be seen, piled up against brush, choking the ditches, filling the roads. Their beautiful spherical shapes have been frayed out so that they look sodden and weary and done up. But their seeds have been scattered abroad over the land.

Wherever we found water, there we found ducks. The irrigating ditches contained many bands of a dozen or fifteen; the overflow ponds had each its little flock. The sky, too, was rarely empty of them; and the cries of the snow geese and the calls of sandhill cranes were rarely still. I remarked on this abundance.

"Ducks!" replied the Captain, wonderingly. "Why, you haven't begun to see ducks! Come with me."

Thereupon we turned sharp to the left. After ten minutes I made out from a slight rise above the plain a black patch lying across the distance. It seemed to cover a hundred acres or so, and to represent a sort of growth we had not before encountered.

"That," said the Captain, indicating, "is a pond covered with ducks."

I did not believe it. We dropped below the line of sight and rode steadily forward.

All at once a mighty roar burst on our ears, like the rush of a heavy train over a high trestle; and immediately the air ahead of us was filled with ducks towering. They mounted, and wheeled, and circled back or darted away. The sky became fairly obscured with them in the sense that it seemed inconceivable that hither space could contain another bird. Before the retina of the eye they swarmed exactly as a nearer cloud of mosquitoes would appear.

Hardly had the shock of this first stupendous rise of wildfowl spent itself before another and larger flight roared up. It seemed that all the ducks in the world must be a-wing; and yet, even after that, a third body arose, its rush sounding like the abrupt, overwhelming noise of a cataract in a sudden shift of wind. I should be afraid to guess how many ducks had been on that lake. Its surface was literally covered, so that nowhere did a glint of water show. I suppose it would be a simple matter to compute within a few thousand how many ducks would occupy so much space; but of what avail? Mere numbers would convey no impression of the effect. Rather fill the cup of heaven with myriads thick as a swarm of gnats against the sun. They swung and circled back and forth before making up their minds to be off, crossing and recrossing the various lines of flight. The first thrice-repeated roar of rising had given place to the clear, sustained whistling of wings, low, penetrating, inspiring. In the last flight had been a band of several hundred snow geese; and against the whiteness of their plumage the sun shone.

"That," observed the Captain with conviction, "is what you might call ducks."

By now it was the middle of the afternoon. We had not thought of lunch. At the ranch lunch was either a major or a minor consideration; there was no middle ground. If possible, we ate largely of many most delicious things. If, on the other hand, we happened to be out somewhere at noon, we cheerfully omitted lunch. So, when we returned to the ranch, the Captain, after glancing at his watch and remarking that it was rather late to eat, proposed that we try out two other ponies with the polo mallets.

This we proceeded to do. After an hour's pleasant exercise on the flat in the "Enclosure," we jogged contentedly back into the corral.

Around the corner of the barn sailed a distracted and utterly stampeded hen. After her, yapping eagerly, came five dachshunds.

Pause and consider the various elements of outrage the situation presented. (A) Dachshunds are, as before quoted, a bunch of useless, bandylegged, snip-nosed, waggle-eared----, anyway, and represent an amiable good-natured weakness on the part of Mrs. Kitty. (B) Dachshunds in general are not supposed to run wild all over the place, but to remain in their perfectly good, sufficiently large, entirely comfortable corral, Pete and Pup excepted. (C) Chickens are valuable. (D) Confound 'em! This sort of a performance will be a bad example for Young Ben. First thing we'll know, he'll be chasing chickens, too!

The Captain dropped from his pony and joined the procession. The hen could run just a trifle faster than the dachshunds; and the dachshunds just a trifle faster than the Captain. I always claimed they circled the barn three times, in the order named. The Captain insists with dignity that I exaggerate three hundred per cent. At any rate, the hen finally blundered, the dachshunds fell upon her--and the Captain swung his polo mallet.

Five typical "sickening thuds" were heard; five dachshunds literally sailed through the air to fall in quivering heaps. The Captain, his anger cooled, came back, shaking his head.

"I wouldn't have killed those dogs for anything in the world!" he muttered half to me, half to himself as we took the path to the house. "I don't know what Mrs. Kitty will say to this! I certainly am sorry about it!" and so on, at length.

We turned the corner of the hedge. There in a row on the top step of the verandah sat five dachshunds, their mouths open in a happy smile, six inches of pink tongue hanging, their eyes half closed in good-humoured appreciation.

The Captain approached softly and looked them over with great care. He felt of their ribs. He stared up at me incredulously.

"Is this the same outfit?" he whispered.

"It is," said I, "I know the blaze-face brute."

"But--but----"

"They played 'possum on you, Captain."

The Captain arose and his wrath exploded.

"You miserable hounds!" he roared.

With a wise premonition they decamped.

"I'm going to clean out the whole bandylegged tribe!" threatened the Captain for the fiftieth time in the month. "I won't have them on the ranch!"

That was seven years ago. They are still there--they and numerous descendants.