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John Brent/Chapter II

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Gerrian’s Ranch[edit]

It happened that, on a journey, early in the same summer, some twenty miles from my mine, I had come upon a band of horses feeding on the prairie. They cantered off as I went riding down the yellow slope, and then, halting just out of lasso reach, stopped to reconnoitre me. Animals are always eager to observe man. Perhaps they want ideas against the time of their promotion to humanity, so that they need not be awkward, and introduce quadruped habits into biped circles.

The mass of the herd inspected me stupidly enough. Man to them was power, and nothing else, — a lasso-throwing machine, — something that put cruel bits into equine mouths, got on equine backs, and forced equine legs to gallop until they were stiff. Man was therefore something to admire, but to avoid, — so these horses seemed to think; and if they had known man as brother man alone knows him, perhaps their opinion would have been confirmed.

One horse, however, among them, had more courage, or more curiosity, or more faith. He withdrew from the gregarious commonalty, — the haughty aristocrat! — and approached me, circling about, as if he felt a certain centripetal influence, — as if he knew himself a higher being than his mustang comrades, — nearer to man, and willing to offer him his friendship. He and I divided the attention of the herd. He seemed to be, not their leader, but rather one who disdained leadership. Facile princeps! He was too far above the noblest of the herd to care for their unexciting society.

I slipped quietly down from my little Mexican caballo, and, tethering him to a bush with the lariat, stood watching the splendid motions of this free steed of the prairie.

He was an American horse, — so they distinguish in California one brought from the old States, — a superb young stallion, perfectly black, without mark. It was magnificent to see him, as he circled about me, fire in his eye, pride in his nostril, tail flying like a banner, power and grace from tip to tip. No one would ever mount him, or ride him, unless it was his royal pleasure. He was conscious of his representative position, and showed his paces handsomely. It is the business of all beautiful things to exhibit.

Imagine the scene. A little hollow in the prairie, forming a perfect amphitheatre; the yellow grass and wild oats grazed short; a herd of horses staring from the slope, myself standing in the middle, like the ring-master in a circus, and this wonderful horse performing at his own free will. He trotted powerfully, he galloped gracefully, he thundered at full speed, he lifted his fore-legs to welcome, he flung out his hind-legs to repel, he leaped as if he were springing over bayonets, he pranced and curvetted as if he were the pretty plaything of a girl; finally, when he had amused himself and delighted me sufficiently, he trotted up and snuffed about me, just out of reach.

A horse knows a friend by instinct. So does a man. But a man, vain creature! is willing to repel instinct and trust intellect, and so suffers from the attempt to revise his first impressions, which, if he is healthy, are infallible.

The black, instinctively knowing me for a friend, came forward and made the best speech he could of welcome, — a neigh and no more. Then, feeling a disappointment that his compliment could not be more melodiously or gracefully turned, he approached nearer, and, not without shying and starts, of which I took no notice, at last licked my hand, put his head upon my shoulder, suffered me to put my arm round his neck, and in fact lavished upon me every mark of confidence. “We were growing fast friends, when I heard a sound of coming hoofs. The black tore away with a snort, and galloped off with the herd after him. A Mexican vaquero dashed down the slope in pursuit. I hailed him.

“A quien es ese caballo — el negrito?”

“Aquel diablo! es del Señor Gerrian.” And he sped on.

I knew Gerrian. He was a Pike of the better class. He had found his way early to California, bought a mission farm, and established himself as a ranchero. His herds, droves, and flocks darkened the hills. The name reminded me of the giant Geryon of old. Were I an unscrupulous Hercules, free to pillage and name it protection, I would certainly drive off Gerrian’s herds for the sake of that black horse. So I thought, as I watched them gallop away.

It chanced that, when I was making my arrangements to start for home, business took me within a mile of Gerrian’s ranch. I remembered my interview with the black. It occurred to me that I would ride down and ask the ranchero to sell me his horse for my journey.

I found Gerrian, a lank, wire-drawn man, burnt almost Mexican color, lounging in the shade of his adobe house. I told him my business in a word.

“No bueno, stranger!” said he.

“Why not? Do you want to keep the horse.”

“No, not partickler. Thar ain’t a better stallion nor him this side the South Pass; but I can’t do nothing with him no more ’n yer can with a steamboat when the cap’n says, ‘ Beat or bust!’ He’s a black devil, ef thar ever was a devil into a horse’s hide. Somebody’s tried to break him down when he was a colt, an now he wont stan’ nobody goan near him.”

“Sell him to me, and I’ll try him with kindness.”

“No, stranger. I’ve tuk a middlin’ shine to you from the way you got off that Chinaman them Pikes was goan to hang fur stealing the mule what he hadn’t stoled. I’ve tuk a middlin’ kind er shine to you, and I don’t want to see yer neck broke, long er me. That thar black’ll shut up the hinge in yer neck so tight that yer’ll never look up to ther top of a red-wood again. Allowin’ you haint got an old ox-yoke into yer fur backbone, yer’ll keep off that thar black kettrypid, till the Injins tie yer on, and motion yer to let him slide or be shot.”

“My backbone is pretty stiff,” said I; “I will risk my neck.”

“The Greasers is some on hosses, you’ll give in, I reckon. Well, thar ain’t a Greaser on my ranch that’ll put leg over that thar streak er four-legged lightning; no, not if yer’d chain off for him a claim six squar leagues in the raal old Garden of Paradise, an stock it with ther best gang er bullocks this side er Santer Fee.”

“But I’m not a Mexican; I’m the stiffest kind of Yankee. I don’t give in to horse or man. Besides, if he throws me and breaks my neck I get my claim in Paradise at once.”

“Well, stranger, you’ve drawed yer bead on that thar black, as anybody can see. An ef a man’s drawed his bead, thar ain’t no use tellin’ him to pint off.”

“No. If you’ll sell, I’ll buy.”

“Well, if you wunt go fur to ask me to throw in a coffin to boot, praps we ken scare up a trade. How much do you own in the Foolonner Mine?”

I have forgotten to speak of my mine by its title. A certain Pike named Pegrum, Colonel Pegrum, a pompous Pike from Pike County, Missouri, had once owned the mine. The Spaniards, finding the syllables Pegrum a harsh morsel, spoke of the colonel, as they might of any stranger, as Don Fulano, — as we should say, “John Smith.” It grew to be a nickname, and finally Pegrum, taking his donship as a title of honor, had procured an act of the legislature dubbing him formally Don Fulano Pegrum. As such he is known, laughed at, become a public man and probable Democratic Governor of California. From him our quartz cavern had taken its name.

I told Gerrian that I owned one quarter of the Don Fulano Mine.

“Then you’re jess one quarter richer ’n ef you owned haff, and jess three quarters richer ’n ef you owned the hull kit and boodle of it.”

“You are right,” said I. I knew it by bitter heart.

“Well stranger, less see ef we can’t banter fur a trade. I’ve got a hoss that ken kill ayry man. That’s so; ain’t it?”

“You say so.”

“You’ve got a mine, that’ll break ayry man, short pocket or long pocket. That’s so; ain’t it?”

“No doubt of that.”

“Well now; my curwolyow’s got grit into him, and so’s that thar pile er quartz er yourn got gold into it. But you cant git the slugs out er your mineral; and I can get the kicks a blasted sight thicker ’n anything softer out er my animal. Here’s horse agin mine, — which’d yer rether hev, allowin’ ’t was toss up and win.”

“Horse!” said I. “I don’t know how bad he is, and I do know that the mine is worse than nothing to me.”

“Lookerhere, stranger! You’re goan home across lots. You want a horse. I’m goan to stop here. I’d jess as lives gamble off a hundred or two head o’ bullocks on that Foolonner Mine. You can’t find ayry man round here to buy out your interest in that thar heap er stun an the hole it cum out of. It’ll cost you more ’n the hul’s wuth ef you go down to San Frisco and wait tell some fool comes along what’s got gold he wants to buy quartz with. Take time now, I’m goan to make yer a fair banter.”

“Well, make it.”

“I stump you to a clean swap. My hoss agin your mine.”

“Done,” said I.

“I allowed you’d do it. This here is one er them swaps, when both sides gits stuck. I git the Foolonner Mine, what I can’t make go, and you’ll be a fool on a crittur what’ll go a heap more ’n you’ll want. Haw! haw!”

And Gerrian laughed a Pike’s laugh at his pun. It was a laugh that had been stunted in its childhood by the fever and ague, and so had grown up husk without heart.

“Have the black caught,” said I, “and we’ll clinch the bargain at once.”

There was a Mexican vaquero slouching about. Gerrian called to him.

“O Hozay! kesty Sinyaw cumprader curwolyow nigereeto. Wamos addelanty! Corral curwolyose toethoso!”

Pike Spanish that! If the Mexicans choose to understand it, why should Pikes study Castilian? But we must keep a sharp look-out on the new words that come to us from California, else our new language will be full of foundlings with no traceable parentage. We should beware of heaping up problems for the lexicographers of the twentieth century: they ought to be free for harmonizing the universal language, half-Teutonic, half-Romanic, with little touches of Mandingo and Mandan.

The bukkarer, as Gerrian’s Spanish entitled Hozay, comprehended enough of the order to know that he was to drive up the horses. He gave me a Mexican’s sulky stare, muttered a caramba at my rashness, and lounged off, first taking a lasso from its peg in the court.

“Come in, stranger,” said Gerrian, “before we start, and take a drink of some of this here Mission Dolorous wine.”

“How does that go down?” said he, pouring out golden juices into a cracked tumbler.

It was the very essence of California sunshine, — sherry with a richness that no sherry ever had, — a somewhat fiery beverage, but without any harshness or crudity. Age would better it, as age betters the work of a young genius; but still there is something in the youth we would not willingly resign.

“Very fine,” said I; “it is romantic old Spain, with ardent young America interfused.”

“Some likes it,” says Gerrian; “but taint like good old Argee to me. I can’t git nothin’ as sweet as the taste of yaller corn into sperit. But I reckon thar ken be stuff made out er grapes what’ll make all owdoors stan’ round. This yer wuz made by the priests. What ken you spect of priests? They ain’t more ’n haff men nohow. I’m goan to plant a wineyard er my own, and ’fore you cum out to buy another quartz mine, I’ll hev some of ther strychnine what’ll wax Burbon County’s much’s our inyans here ken wax them low-lived smellers what they grow to old Pike.”