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A short story, say the writers of text books and the teachers of sophomores, should deal with but a single episode. That dictum is probably true; but it admits of wider interpretation than is generally given it. The teller of tales, anxious to escape from restriction but not avid of being cast into the outer darkness of the taboo, can in self-justification become as technical as any lawyer. The phrase "a single episode" is loosely worded. The rule does not specify an episode in one man's life; it might be in the life of a family, or a state, or even of a whole people. In that case the action might cover many lives. It is a way out for those who have a story to tell, a limit to tell it within, but who do not wish to embroil themselves too seriously with the august Makers of the Rules.
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."
"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 cañon 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.
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 coöperation 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 débris 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.
The third generation of the Gates family consisted of two girls and a boy. They were brought up as to their early childhood in what may be called moderate circumstances. A small home near the little mill town, a single Chinese servant, a setter dog, and plenty of horses formed their entourage. When Charles, Jr., was eleven, and his sisters six and eight, however, the family moved to a pretentious "mansion" on Nob Hill in San Francisco. The environment of childhood became a memory: the reality of life was comprised in the super-luxurious existence on Nob Hill.
It was not a particularly wise existence. Whims were too easily realized, consequences too lightly avoided, discipline too capricious. The children were sent to private schools where they met only their own kind; they were specifically forbidden to mingle with the "hoodlums" in the next street; they became accustomed to being sent here and there in carriages with two servants, or later, in motor cars; they had always spending money for the asking.
"I know what it is like to scrimp and save, and my children are going to be spared that!" was Mrs. Gates's creed in the matter.
The little girls were always dressed alike in elaborately simple clothes, with frilly, starched underpinnies, silk stockings, high boots buttoned up slim legs; and across their shoulders, from beneath wonderful lingerie hats, hung shining curls. The latter were not natural, but had each day to be elaborately constructed. They made a dainty and charming picture.
"Did you ever see anything so sweet in all your life!" was the invariable feminine exclamation.
Clara and Ethel-May always heard these remarks. They conducted themselves with the poise and savoir faire of grown women. Before they were twelve they could "handle" servants, conduct polite conversations in a correctly artificial accent, and adapt their manners to another's station in life.
Charley Junior's development was sharply divided into two periods, with the second of which alone we have to do. The first, briefly, was repressive. He was not allowed to play with certain boys, he was not permitted to stray beyond certain bounds, he was kept clean and dressed-up, he was taught his manners. In short, Mrs. Gates tried--without knowing what she was doing--to use the same formula on him as she had on Ethel-May and Clara.
In the second period, he was a grief to his family. Roughly speaking, this period commenced about the time he began to be known as "Chuck" instead of Charley.
There was no real harm in the boy. He was high spirited, full of life, strong as a horse, and curious. Possessed of the patrician haughty good looks we breed so easily from shirtsleeves, free with his money, known as the son of his powerful father, a good boxer, knowing no fear, he speedily became a familiar popular figure around town. It delighted him to play the prince, either incognito or in person; to "blow off the crowd," to battle joyously with longshoremen; to "rough house" the semi-respectable restaurants. The Barbary Coast knew him, Taits, Zinkands, the Poodle Dog, the Cliff House, Franks, and many other resorts not to be spoken of so openly. He even got into the police courts once or twice; and nonchalantly paid a fine, with a joke at the judge and a tip to the policeman who had arrested him. There was too much drinking, too much gambling, too loose a companionship, altogether too much spending; but in this case the life was redeemed from its usual significance by a fantastic spirit of play, a generosity of soul, a regard for the unfortunate, a courtliness toward all the world, a refusal to believe in meanness or sordidness or cruelty. Chuck Gates was inbred with the spirit of noblesse oblige.
As soon as motor cars came in Chuck had the raciest possible. With it he managed to frighten a good many people half out of their wits. He had no accidents, partly because he was a very good heady driver, and partly because those whom he encountered were quick witted. One day while touring in the south he came down grade around a bend squarely upon a car ascending. Chuck's car was going too fast to be stopped. He tried desperately to wrench it from the road, but perceived at once that this was impossible without a fatal skid. Fortunately the only turnout for a half mile happened to be just at that spot. The other man managed to jump his car out on this little side ledge and to jam on his brakes at the very brink, just as Chuck flashed by. His mud guards slipped under those at the rear of the other car.
"Close," observed Chuck to Joe Merrill his companion, "I was going a little too fast," and thought no more of it.
But the other man, being angry, turned around and followed him into town. At the garage he sought Chuck out.
"Didn't you pass me on the grade five miles back?" he inquired.
"I may have done so," replied Chuck, courteously.
"Don't you realize that you were going altogether too fast for a mountain grade? that you were completely out of control?"
"I'm afraid I'll have to admit that that is so."
"Well," said the other man, with difficulty suppressing his anger. "What do you suppose would have happened if I hadn't just been able to pull out?"
"Why," replied Chuck, blandly, "I suppose I'd have had to pay heavily; that's all."
"Pay!" cried the man, then checked himself with an effort, "so you imagine you are privileged to the road, do whatever damage you please--and pay! I'll just take your number."
"That is unnecessary. My name is Charles Gates," replied Chuck, "of San Francisco."
The man appeared never to have heard of this potent cognomen. A month later the trial came off. It was most inconvenient. Chuck was in Oregon, hunting. He had to travel many hundreds of miles, to pay an expensive lawyer. In the end he was fined. The whole affair disgusted him, but he went through with it well, testified without attempt at evasion. It was a pity; but evidently the other man was no gentleman.
"I acknowledged I was wrong," he told Joe Merrill. He honestly felt that this would have been sufficient had the cases been reversed. In answer to a question as to whether he considered it fair to place the burden of safety on the other man, he replied:
"Among motorists it is customary to exchange the courtesies of the road--and sometimes the discourtesies," he added with a faint scorn.
The earthquake and fire of 1906 caught him in town. During three days and nights he ran his car for the benefit of the sufferers; going practically without food or sleep, exercising the utmost audacity and ingenuity in getting supplies, running fearlessly many dangers.
For the rest he played polo well, shot excellently at the traps, was good at tennis, golf, bridge. Naturally he belonged to the best clubs both city and country. He sailed a yacht expertly, was a keen fisherman, hunted. Also he played poker a good deal and was noted for his accurate taste in dress.
His mother firmly believed that he caused her much sorrow; his sisters looked up to him with a little awe; his father down on him with a fiercely tolerant contempt.
For Chuck had had his turn in the offices. His mind was a good one; his education both formal and informal, had trained it fairly well; yet he could not quite make good. Energetic, ambitious, keen young men, clambering upward from the ruck, gave him points at the game and then beat him. It was humiliating to the old man. He could not see the perfectly normal reason. These young men were striving keenly for what they had never had. Chuck was asked merely to add to what he already had more than enough of by means of a game that itself did not interest him.
Late one evening Chuck and some friends were dining at the Cliff House. They had been cruising up toward Tomales Bay, and had had themselves put ashore here. No one knew of their whereabouts. Thus it was that Chuck first learned of his father's death from apoplexy in the scareheads of an evening paper handed him by the majordomo. He read the article through carefully, then went alone to the beach below. It had been the usual sensational article; and but two sentences clung to Chuck's memory: "This fortunate young man's income will actually amount to about ten dollars a minute. What a significance have now his days--and nights!"
He looked out to sea whence the waves, in ordered rank, cast themselves on the shore, seethed upward along the sands, poised, and receded. His thoughts were many, but they always returned to the same point. Ten dollars a minute--roughly speaking, seven thousand a day! What would he do with it? "What a significance have now his days--and nights!"
His best friend, Joe Merrill, came down the path to him, and stood silently by his side.
"I'm sorry about your governor, old man," he ventured; and then, after a long time:
"You're the richest man in the West."
Chuck Gates arose. A wave larger than the rest thundered and ran hissing up to their feet.
"I wonder if the tide is coming in or going out," said Chuck, vaguely.
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