The Tide by Stewart Edward White
It was indeed a good place for children. Charley and Alice Gates grew tall and strong, big boned, magnificent, typical California products. They went to the district school, rode in the mountains, helped handle the wild cattle. At the age of twelve Charley began to accompany the summer incursions into the High Sierras in search of feed. At the age of sixteen he was entrusted with a bunch of cattle. In these summers he learned the wonder of the high, glittering peaks, the blueness of the skies in high altitudes, the multitude of the stars, the flower-gemmed secret meadows, the dark, murmuring forests. He fished in the streams, and hunted on the ridges. His camp was pitched within a corral of heavy logs. It was very simple. Utensils depending from trees, beds beneath canvas tarpaulins on pine needles, saddlery, riatas, branding irons scattered about. No shelter but the sky. A wonderful roving life.
It developed taciturnity and individualism. Charley Gates felt no necessity for expression as yet; and as his work required little cooeperation from his fellow creatures he acknowledged as little responsibility toward them. Thus far he was the typical mountaineer.
But other influences came to him; as, indeed, they come to all. But young Charley was more susceptible than most, and this--on the impulse of the next tide resurgent--saved him from his type. He liked to read; he did not scorn utterly and boisterously the unfortunate young man who taught the school; and, better than all, he possessed just the questioning mind that refuses to accept on their own asseveration only the conventions of life or the opinions of neighbours. If he were to drink, it would be because he wanted to; not because his companions considered it manly. If he were to enter the sheep war, it would be because he really considered sheep harmful to the range; not because of the overwhelming--and contagious--prejudice.
In one thing only did he follow blindly his sense of loyalty: He hated the Hydraulic Company.
Years after the placers failed someone discovered that the wholesale use of hydraulic "giants" produced gold in paying quantities. Huge streams of water under high pressure were directed against the hills, which melted like snow under the spring sun. The earth in suspension was run over artificial riffles against which the heavier gold collected. One such stream could accomplish in a few hours what would have cost hand miners the better part of a season.
But the debris must go somewhere. A rushing mud and boulder-filled torrent tore down stream beds adapted to a tenth of their volume. It wrecked much of the country below, ripping out the good soil, covering the bottomlands many feet deep with coarse rubble, clay, mud, and even big rocks and boulders. The farmers situated below such operations suffered cruelly. Even to this day the devastating results may be seen above Colfax or Sacramento.
John Gates suffered with the rest. His was not the nature to submit tamely, nor to compromise. He had made his farm with his own hands, and he did not propose to see it destroyed. Much money he expended through the courts; indeed the profits of his business were eaten by a never-ending, inconclusive suit. The Hydraulic Company, securely entrenched behind the barriers of especial privilege, could laugh at his frontal attacks. It was useless to think of force. The feud degenerated into a bitter legal battle and much petty guerrilla warfare on both sides.
To this quarrel Charley had been bred up in a consuming hate of the Hydraulic Company, all its works, officers, bosses, and employees. Every human being in any way connected with it wore horns, hoofs, and a tail. In company with the wild youths of the neighbourhood he perpetrated many a raid on the Company's property. Beginning with boyish openings of corrals to permit stock to stray, these raids progressed with the years until they had nearly arrived at the dignity of armed deputies and bench warrants.
The next day of significance to our story was October 15, 1872. On that date fire started near Flour Gold and swept upward. October is always a bad time of year for fires in foothill California--between the rains, the heat of the year, everything crisp and brown and brittle. This threatened the whole valley and water shed. The Gateses turned out, and all their neighbours, with hoe, mattock, axe, and sacking, trying to beat, cut, or scrape a "break" wide enough to check the flames. It was cruel work. The sun blazed overhead and the earth underfoot. The air quivered as from a furnace. Men gasped at it with straining lungs. The sweat pouring from their bodies combined with the parching of the superheated air induced a raging thirst. No water was to be had save what was brought to them. Young boys and women rode along the line carrying canteens, water bottles, and food. The fire fighters snatched hastily at these, for the attack of the fire permitted no respite. Twice they cut the wide swath across country; but twice before it was completed the fire crept through and roared into triumph behind them. The third time the line held, and this was well into the second day.
Charley Gates had fought doggedly. He had summoned the splendid resources of youth and heritage, and they had responded. Next in line to his right had been a stranger. This latter was a slender, clean-cut youth, at first glance seemingly of delicate physique. Charley had looked upon him with the pitying contempt of strong youth for weak youth. He considered that the stranger's hands were soft and effeminate, he disliked his little trimmed moustache, and especially the cool, mocking, appraising glance of his eyes. But as the day, and the night, and the day following wore away, Charley raised his opinion. The slender body possessed unexpected reserve, the long, lean hands plied the tools unweariedly, the sensitive face had become drawn and tired, but the spirit behind the mocking eyes had not lost the flash of its defiance. In the heat of the struggle was opportunity for only the briefest exchanges. Once, when Charley despairingly shook his empty canteen, the stranger offered him a swallow from his own. Next time exigency crowded them together, Charley croaked:
"Reckon we'll hold her."
Toward evening of the second day the westerly breeze died, and shortly there breathed a gentle air from the mountains. The danger was past.
Charley and the stranger took long pulls from their recently replenished canteens. Then they sank down where they were, and fell instantly asleep. The projecting root of a buckthorn stuck squarely into Charley's ribs, but he did not know it; a column of marching ants, led by a non-adaptable commander, climbed up and over the recumbent form of the stranger, but he did not care.
They came to life in the shiver of gray dawn, wearied, stiffened, their eyes swelled, their mouths dry.
"You're a sweet sight, stranger," observed Charley.
"Same to you and more of 'em," rejoined the other.
Charley arose painfully.
"There's a little water in my canteen yet," he proffered. "What might you call yourself? I don't seem to know you in these parts."
"Thanks," replied the other. "My name's Cathcart; I'm from just above."
He drank, and lowered the canteen to look into the flaming, bloodshot eyes of his companion.
"Are you the low-lived skunk that's running the Hydraulic Company?" demanded Charley Gates.
The stranger laid down the canteen and scrambled painfully to his feet.
"I am employed by the Company," he replied, curtly, "but please to understand I don't permit you to call me names."
"Permit!" sneered Charley.
"Permit," repeated Cathcart.
So, not having had enough exercise in the past two days, these young game cocks went at each other. Charley was much the stronger rough-and-tumble fighter; but Cathcart possessed some boxing skill. Result was that, in their weakened condition, they speedily fought themselves to a standstill without serious damage to either side.
"Now perhaps you'll tell me who the hell you think you are!" panted Cathcart, fiercely.
At just beyond arm's length they discussed the situation, at first belligerently with much recrimination, then more calmly, at last with a modicum of mutual understanding. Neither seceded from his basic opinion. Charley Gates maintained that the Company had no earthly business ruining his property, but admitted that with all that good gold lying there it was a pity not to get it out. Cathcart stoutly defended a man's perfect right to do as he pleased with his own belongings, but conceded that something really ought to be done about overflow waters.
"What are you doing down here fighting fire, anyway?" demanded Charley, suddenly. "It couldn't hurt your property. You could turn the 'giants' on it, if it ever came up your way."
"I don't know. I just thought I ought to help out a little," said Cathcart, simply.
For three years more Charley ran his father's cattle in the hills. Then he announced his intention of going away. John Gates was thunderstruck. By now he was stranded high and dry above the tide, fitting perfectly his surroundings. Vaguely he had felt that his son would stay with him always. But the wave was again surging upward. Charley had talked with Cathcart.
"This is no country to draw a salary in," the latter had told him, "nor to play with farming or cows. It's too big, too new, there are too many opportunities. I'll resign, and you leave; and we'll make our fortunes."
"How?" asked Charley.
"Timber," said Cathcart.
They conferred on this point. Cathcart had the experience of business ways; Charley Gates the intimate knowledge of the country; there only needed a third member to furnish some money. Charley broke the news to his family, packed his few belongings, and the two of them went to San Francisco.
Charley had never seen a big city. He was very funny about it, but not overwhelmed. While willing, even avid, to go the rounds and meet the sporting element, he declined to drink. When pressed and badgered by his new acquaintances, he grinned amiably.
"I never play the other fellows' game," he said. "When it gets to be my game, I'll join you."
The new partners had difficulty in getting even a hearing.
"It's a small business," said capitalists, "and will be. The demand for lumber here is limited, and it is well taken care of by small concerns near at hand."
"The state will grow and I am counting on the outside market," argued Cathcart.
But this was too absurd! The forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota were inexhaustible! As for the state growing to that extent; of course we all believe it, but when it comes to investing good money in the belief----
At length they came upon one of the new millionaires created by the bonanzas of Virginia City.
"I don't know a damn thing about your timber, byes," said he, "but I like your looks. I'll go in wid ye. Have a seegar; they cost me a dollar apiece."
The sum invested was absurdly, inadequately small.
"It'll have to spread as thin as it can," said Cathcart.
They spent the entire season camping in the mountains. By the end of the summer they knew what they wanted; and immediately took steps to acquire it. Under the homestead laws each was entitled to but a small tract of Government land. However, they hired men to exercise their privileges in this respect, to take up each his allotted portion, and then to convey his rights to Cathcart and Gates. It was slow business, for the show of compliance with Government regulations had to be made. But in this manner the sum of money at their disposal was indeed spread out very thin.
For many years the small, nibbling lumbering operations their limited capital permitted supplied only a little more than a bare living and the taxes. But every available cent went back into the business. It grew. Band saws replaced the old circulars; the new mills delivered their product into flumes that carried it forty miles to the railroad. The construction of this flume was a tremendous undertaking, but by now the firm could borrow on its timber. To get the water necessary to keep the flume in operation the partners--again by means of "dummies"--filed on the water rights of certain streams. To take up the water directly was without the law; but a show of mineral stain was held to justify a "mineral claim," so patents were obtained under that ruling. Then Charley had a bright idea.
"Look here, Cliff," he said to Cathcart. "I know something about farming; I was brought up on a farm. This country will grow anything anywhere if it has water. That lower country they call a desert, but that's only because it hasn't any rainfall. We're going to have a lot of water at the end of that flume----"
They bought the desert land at fifty cents an acre; scraped ditches and checks; planted a model orchard, and went into the real estate business. In time a community grew up. When hydro-electric power came into its own Cathcart & Gates from their various water rights furnished light for themselves, and gradually for the towns and villages round-about. Thus their affairs spread and became complicated. Before they knew it they were wealthy, very wealthy. Their wives--for in due course each had his romance--began to talk of San Francisco.
All this had not come about easily. At first they had to fight tooth and nail. The conditions of the times were crude, the code merciless. As soon as the firm showed its head above the financial horizon, it was swooped upon. Business was predatory. They had to fight for what they got; had to fight harder to hold it. Cathcart was involved continually in a maze of intricate banking transactions; Gates resisted aggression within and without, often with his own two fists. They learned to trust no man, but they learned also to hate no man. It was all part of the game. More sensitive temperaments would have failed; these succeeded. Cathcart became shrewd, incisive, direct, cold, a little hard; Charley Gates was burly, hearty, a trifle bullying. Both were in all circumstances quite unruffled; and in some circumstances ruthless.
About 1900 the entire holdings of the Company were capitalized, and a stock company was formed. The actual management of the lumbering, the conduct of the farms and ranches, the running of the hydro-electric systems of light and transportation, were placed in the hands of active young men. Charley Gates and his partner exercised over these activities only the slightest supervision; auditing accounts, making an occasional trip of inspection. Affairs would quite well have gone on without them; though they would have disbelieved and resented that statement.
The great central offices in San Francisco were very busy--all but the inner rooms where stood the partners' desks. One day Cathcart lit a fresh cigar, and slowly wheeled his chair.
"Look here, Charley," he proposed, "we've got a big surplus. There's no reason why we shouldn't make a killing on the side."
"As how?" asked Gates.
Cathcart outlined his plan. It was simply stock manipulation on a big scale; although the naked import was somewhat obscured by the complications of the scheme. After he had finished Gates smoked for some time in silence.
"All right, Cliff," said he, "let's do it."
And so by a sentence, as his father before him, he marked the farthest throw of the wave that had borne him blindly toward the shore. In the next ten years Cathcart and Gates made forty million dollars. Charley seemed to himself to be doing a tremendous business, but his real work, his contribution to the episode in the life of the commonwealth, ceased there. Again the wave receded.