Chapter I
 

The time was 1850, the place that long, soft, hot dry stretch of blasted desolation known as the Humboldt Sink. The sun stared, the heat rose in waves, the mirage shimmered, the dust devils of choking alkali whirled aloft or sank in suffocation on the hot earth. Thus it had been since in remote ages the last drop of the inland sea had risen into a brazen sky. But this year had brought something new. A track now led across the desert. It had sunk deep into the alkali, and the soft edges had closed over it like snow, so that the wheel marks and the hoof marks and the prints of men's feet looked old. Almost in a straight line it led to the west. Its perspective, dwindling to nothingness, corrected the deceit of the clear air. Without it the cool, tall mountains looked very near. But when the eye followed the trail to its vanishing, then, as though by magic, the Ranges drew back, and before them denied dreadful forces of toil, thirst, exhaustion, and despair. For the trail was marked. If the wheel ruts had been obliterated, it could still have been easily followed. Abandoned goods, furniture, stores, broken-down wagons, bloated carcasses of oxen or horses, bones bleached white, rattling mummies of dried skin, and an almost unbroken line of marked and unmarked graves--like the rout of an army, like the spent wash of a wave that had rolled westward--these in double rank defined the road.

The buzzards sailing aloft looked down on the Humboldt Sink as we would look upon a relief map. Near the centre of the map a tiny cloud of white dust crawled slowly forward. The buzzards stooped to poise above it.

Two ox wagons plodded along. A squirrel--were such a creature possible--would have stirred disproportionately the light alkali dust; the two heavy wagons and the shuffling feet of the beasts raised a cloud. The fitful furnace draught carried this along at the slow pace of the caravan, which could be seen only dimly, as through a dense fog.

The oxen were in distress. Evidently weakened by starvation, they were proceeding only with the greatest difficulty. Their tongues were out, their legs spread, spasmodically their eyes rolled back to show the whites, from time to time one or another of them uttered a strangled, moaning bellow. They were white with the powdery dust, as were their yokes, the wagons, and the men who plodded doggedly alongside. Finally, they stopped. The dust eddied by; and the blasting sun fell upon them.

The driver of the leading team motioned to the other. They huddled in the scanty shade alongside the first wagon. Both men were so powdered and caked with alkali that their features were indistinguishable. Their red-rimmed, inflamed eyes looked out as though from masks.

The one who had been bringing up the rear looked despairingly toward the mountains.

"We'll never get there!" he cried.

"Not the way we are now," replied the other. "But I intend to get there."

"How?"

"Leave your wagon, Jim; it's the heaviest. Put your team on here."

"But my wagon is all I've got in the world!" cried the other, "and we've got near a keg of water yet! We can make it! The oxen are pulling all right!"

His companion turned away with a shrug, then thought better of it and turned back.

"We've thrown out all we owned except bare necessities," he explained, patiently. "Your wagon is too heavy. The time to change is while the beasts can still pull."

"But I refuse!" cried the other. "I won't do it. Go ahead with your wagon. I'll get mine in, John Gates, you can't bulldoze me."

Gates stared him in the eye.

"Get the pail," he requested, mildly.

He drew water from one of the kegs slung underneath the wagon's body. The oxen, smelling it, strained weakly, bellowing. Gates slowly and carefully swabbed out their mouths, permitted them each a few swallows, rubbed them pityingly between the horns. Then he proceeded to unyoke the four beasts from the other man's wagon and yoked them to his own. Jim started to say something. Gates faced him. Nothing was said.

"Get your kit," Gates commanded, briefly, after a few moments. He parted the hanging canvas and looked into the wagon. Built to transport much freight it was nearly empty. A young woman lay on a bed spread along the wagon bottom. She seemed very weak.

"All right, honey?" asked Gates, gently.

She stirred, and achieved a faint smile.

"It's terribly hot. The sun strikes through," she replied. "Can't we let some air in?"

"The dust would smother you."

"Are we nearly there?"

"Getting on farther every minute," he replied, cheerfully.

Again the smothering alkali rose and the dust cloud crawled.

Four hours later the traveller called Jim collapsed face downward. The oxen stopped. Gates lifted the man by the shoulders. So exhausted was he that he had not the strength nor energy to spit forth the alkali with which his fall had caked his open mouth. Gates had recourse to the water keg. After a little he hoisted his companion to the front seat.

At intervals thereafter the lone human figure spoke the single word that brought his team to an instantaneous dead stop. His first care was then the woman, next the man clinging to the front seat, then the oxen. Before starting he clambered to the top of the wagon and cast a long, calculating look across the desolation ahead. Twice he even further reduced the meagre contents of the wagon, appraising each article long and doubtfully before discarding it. About mid-afternoon he said abruptly:

"Jim, you've got to walk."

The man demurred weakly, with a touch of panic.

"Every ounce counts. It's going to be a close shave. You can hang on to the tail of the wagon."

Yet an hour later Jim, for the fourth time, fell face downward, but now did not rise. Gates, going to him, laid his hand on his head, pushed back one of his eyelids, then knelt for a full half minute, staring straight ahead. Once he made a tentative motion toward the nearly empty water keg, once he started to raise the man's shoulders. The movements were inhibited. A brief agony cracked the mask of alkali on his countenance. Then stolidly, wearily, he arose. The wagon lurched forward. After it had gone a hundred yards and was well under way in its painful forward crawl, Gates, his red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes fixed and glazed, drew the revolver from its holster and went back.

At sundown he began to use the gad. The oxen were trying to lie down. If one of them succeeded, it would never again arise. Gates knew this. He plied the long, heavy whip in both hands. Where the lash fell it bit out strips of hide. It was characteristic of the man that though heretofore he had not in all this day inflicted a single blow on the suffering animals, though his nostrils widened and his terrible red eyes looked for pity toward the skies, yet now he swung mercilessly with all his strength.

Dusk fell, but the hot earth still radiated, the powder dust rose and choked. The desert dragged at their feet; and in the twilight John Gates thought to hear mutterings and the soft sound of wings overhead as the dread spirits of the wastes stooped low. He had not stopped for nearly two hours. This was the last push; he must go straight through or fail.

And when the gleam of the river answered the gleam of the starlight he had again to rouse his drained energies. By the brake, by directing the wagon into an obstruction, by voice and whip he fought the frantic beasts back to a moaning standstill. Then pail by pail he fed them the water until the danger of overdrinking was past. He parted the curtains. In spite of the noise outside the woman, soothed by the breath of cooler air, had fallen asleep.

Some time later he again parted the curtains.

"We're here, honey," he said, "good water, good grass, shade. The desert is past. Wake up and take a little coffee."

She smiled at him.

"I'm so tired."

"We're going to rest here a spell."

She drank the coffee, ate some of the food he brought her, thrust back her hair, breathed deep of the cooling night.

"Where's Jim?" she asked at last.

"Jim got very tired," he said, "Jim's asleep."

       *       *       *       *       *

Three months later. The western slant of the Sierras just where the canon clefts begin to spread into foothills. On a flat near--too near--the stream-bed was a typical placer-mining camp of the day. That is, three or four large, rough buildings in a row, twenty or thirty log cabins scattered without order, and as many tents.

The whole population was gathered interestedly in the largest structure, which was primarily a dance hall. Ninety-five per cent. were men, of whom the majority were young men. A year ago the percentage would have been nearer one hundred, but now a certain small coterie of women had drifted in, most of them with a keen eye for prosperity. The red or blue shirt, the nondescript hat, and the high, mud-caked boots of the miner preponderated. Here and there in the crowd, however, stood a man dressed in the height of fashion. There seemed no middle ground. These latter were either the professional gamblers, the lawyers, or the promoters.

A trial was in progress, to which all paid deep attention. Two men disputed the ownership of a certain claim. Their causes were represented by ornate individuals whose evident zest in the legal battle was not measured by prospective fees. Nowhere in the domain and at no time in the history of the law has technicality been so valued, has the game of the courts possessed such intellectual interest, has substantial justice been so uncertain as in the California of the early 'fifties. The lawyer could spread himself unhampered; and these were so doing.

In the height of the proceedings a man entered from outside and took his position leaning against the rail of the jury box. That he was a stranger was evident from the glances of curiosity, cast in his direction. He was tall, strong, young, bearded, with a roving, humorous bold eye.

The last word was spoken. A rather bewildered-looking jury filed out. Ensued a wait. The jury came back. It could not agree; it wanted information. Both lawyers supplied it in abundance. The foreman, who happened to be next the rail against which the newcomer was leaning, cast on him a quizzical eye.

"Stranger," said he, "mout you be able to make head er tail of all that air?"

The other shook his head.

"I'm plumb distracted to know what to do; and dear knows we all want to git shet of this job. Thar's a badger fight----"

"Where is this claim, anyway?"

"Right adown the road. Location notice is on the first white oak you come to. Cain't miss her."

"If I were you," said the stranger after a pause, "I'd just declare the claim vacant. Then neither side would win."

At this moment the jury rose to retire again. The stranger unobtrusively gained the attention of the clerk and from him begged a sheet of paper. On this he wrote rapidly, then folded it, and moved to the outer door, against the jamb of which he took his position. After another and shorter wait, the jury returned.

"Have you agreed on your verdict, gentlemen?" inquired the judge.

"We have," replied the lank foreman. "We award that the claim belongs to neither and be declared vacant."

At the words the stranger in the doorway disappeared. Two minutes later the advance guard of the rush that had comprehended the true meaning of the verdict found the white oak tree in possession of a competent individual with a Colt's revolving pistol and a humorous eye.

"My location notice, gentlemen," he said, calling attention to a paper freshly attached by wooden pegs.

"Honey-bug claim'," they read, "'John Gates'," and the usual phraseology.

"But this is a swindle, an outrage!" cried one of the erstwhile owners.

"If so it was perpetrated by your own courts," said Gates, crisply. "I am within my rights, and I propose to defend them."

Thus John Gates and his wife, now strong and hearty, became members of this community. His intention had been to proceed to Sacramento. An incident stopped him here.

The Honey-bug claim might or might not be a good placer mine--time would show--but it was certainly a wonderful location. Below the sloping bench on which it stood the country fell away into the brown heat haze of the lowlands, a curtain that could lift before a north wind to reveal a landscape magnificent as a kingdom. Spreading white oaks gave shade, a spring sang from the side hill on which grew lofty pines, and back to the east rose the dark or glittering Sierras. The meadow at the back was gay with mariposa lilies, melodious with bees and birds, aromatic with the mingled essences of tarweed, lads-love, and the pines. At this happy elevation the sun lay warm and caressing, but the air tasted cool.

"I could love this," said the woman.

"You'll have a chance," said John Gates, "for when we've made our pile, we'll always keep this to come back to."

At first they lived in the wagon, which they drew up under one of the trees, while the oxen recuperated and grew fat on the abundant grasses. Then in spare moments John Gates began the construction of a house. He was a man of tremendous energy, but also of many activities. The days were not long enough for him. In him was the true ferment of constructive civilization. Instinctively he reached out to modify his surroundings. A house, then a picket fence, split from the living trees; an irrigation ditch; a garden spot; fruit trees; vines over the porch; better stables; more fences; the gradual shaping from the wilderness of a home--these absorbed his surplus. As a matter of business he worked with pick and shovel until he had proved the Honey-bug hopeless, then he started a store on credit. Therein he sold everything from hats to 42 calibre whiskey. To it he brought the same overflowing play-spirit that had fashioned his home.

"I'm making a very good living," he answered a question; "that is, if I'm not particular on how well I live," and he laughed his huge laugh.

He was very popular. Shortly they elected him sheriff. He gained this high office fundamentally, of course, by reason of his courage and decision of character; but the immediate and visible causes were the Episode of the Frazzled Mule, and the Episode of the Frying Pan. The one inspired respect; the other amusement.

The freight company used many pack and draught animals. One day one of its mules died. The mozo in charge of the corrals dragged the carcass to the superintendent's office. That individual cursed twice; once at the mule for dying, and once at the mozo for being a fool. At nightfall another mule died. This time the mozo, mindful of his berating, did not deliver the body, but conducted the superintendent to see the sad remains.

"Bury it," ordered the superintendent, disgustedly. Two mules at $350--quite a loss.

But next morning another had died; fairly an epidemic among mules. This carcass also was ordered buried. And at noon a fourth. The superintendent, on his way to view the defunct, ran across John Gates.

"Look here, John," queried he, "do you know anything about mules?"

"Considerable," admitted Gates.

"Well, come see if you can tell me what's killing ours off."

They contemplated the latest victim of the epidemic.

"Seems to be something that swells them up," ventured the superintendent after a while.

John Gates said nothing for some time. Then suddenly he snatched his pistol and levelled it at the shrinking mozo.

"Produce those three mules!" he roared, "mucho pronto, too!" To the bewildered superintendent he explained. "Don't you see? this is the same old original mule. He ain't never been buried at all. They've been stealing your animals pretending they died, and using this one over and over as proof!"

This proved to be the case; but John Gates was clever enough never to tell how he surmised the truth.

"That mule looked to me pretty frazzled," was all he would say.

The frying-pan episode was the sequence of a quarrel. Gates was bringing home a new frying pan. At the proper point in the discussion he used his great strength to smash the implement over his opponent's head so vigorously that it came down around his neck like a jagged collar! Gates clung to the handle, however, and by it led his man all around camp, to the huge delight of the populace.

As sheriff he was effective, but at times peculiar in his administration. No man could have been more zealous in performing his duty; yet he never would mix in the affairs of foreigners. Invariably in such cases he made out the warrants in blank, swore in the complaining parties themselves as deputies, and told them blandly to do their own arresting! Nor at times did he fail to temper his duty with a little substantial justice of his own. Thus he was once called upon to execute a judgment for $30 against a poor family. Gates went down to the premises, looked over the situation, talked to the man--a poverty-stricken, discouraged, ague-shaken creature--and marched back to the offices of the plaintiffs in the case.

"Here," said he, calmly, laying a paper and a small bag of gold dust on their table, "is $30 and a receipt in full."

The complainant reached for the sack. Gates placed his hand over it.

"Sign the receipt," he commanded. "Now," he went on after the ink had been sanded, "there's your $30. It's yours legally; and you can take it if you want to. But I want to warn you that a thousand-dollar licking goes with it!"

The money--from Gates's own pocket--eventually found its way to the poor family!

They had three children, two boys and a girl of which one boy died.

In five years the placers began to play out. One by one the more energetic of the miners dropped away. The nature of the community changed. Small hill ranches or fruit farms took the place of the mines. The camp became a country village. Old time excitement calmed, the pace of life slowed, the horizon narrowed.

John Gates, clear-eyed, energetic, keen brained, saw this tendency before it became a fact.

"This camp is busted," he told himself.

It was the hour to fulfill the purpose of the long, terrible journey across the plains, to carry out the original intention to descend from the Sierras to the golden valleys, to follow the struggle.

"Reckon it's time to be moving," he told his wife.

But now his own great labours asserted their claim. He had put four years of his life into making this farm out of nothing, four years of incredible toil, energy, and young enthusiasm. He had a good dwelling and spacious corrals, an orchard started, a truck garden, a barley field, a pasture, cattle, sheep, chickens, his horses--all his creation from nothing. One evening at sundown he found his wife in the garden weeping softly.

"What is it, honey?" he asked.

"I was just thinking how we'd miss the garden," she replied.

He looked about at the bright, cheerful flowers, the vine-hung picket fence, the cool verandah, the shady fig tree already of some size. Everything was neat and trim, just as he liked it. And the tinkle of pleasant waters, the song of a meadow lark, the distant mellow lowing of cows came to his ears; the smell of tarweed and of pines mingled in his nostrils.

"It's a good place for children," he said, vaguely.

Neither knew it, but that little speech marked the ebb of the wave that had lifted him from his eastern home, had urged him across the plains, had flung him in the almost insolent triumph of his youth high toward the sun. Now the wash receded.