John Brent/Chapter III
Hector of Troy, Homer’s Hector, was my first hero in literature. Not because he loved his wife and she him, as I fancy that noble wives and husbands love in the times of trial now; but simply because he was Hippodamos, one that could master the horse.
As soon as I knew Hector, I began to emulate him. My boyish experiments were on donkeys, and failed. “I couldn’t wallop ’em. O no, no!” That was my difficulty. Had I but met an innocent and docile donkey in his downy years! Alas! only the perverted donkey, bristly and incorrigible, came under my tutorship. I was too humane to give him stick enough, and so he mastered me.
Horses I learned to govern by the law of love. The relation of friendship once established between man and horse, there is no trouble. A centaur is created. The man wills whither; the horse, at the will of his better half, does his best to go thither. I became, very early, Hippodamos, not by force, but by kindness. All lower beings, — fiendish beings apart, — unless spoilt by treachery, seek the society of the higher; as man, by nature, loves God. Horses will do all they know for men, if man will only let them. All they need is a slight hint to help their silly willing brains, and they dash with ardor at their business of galloping a mile a minute, or twenty miles an hour, or of leaping a gully, or pulling tonnage. They put so much reckless, break-neck frenzy in their attempt to please and obey the royal personage on their back, that he needs to be brave indeed to go thoroughly with them.
The finer the horse, the more delicate the magnetism between him and man. Knight and his steed have an affinity for each other. I fancied that Gerrian’s black, after our mutual friendly recognition on the prairie, would like me better as our intimacy grew.
After hobnobbing with cracked tumblers of the Mission Dolores wine, Gerrian and I mounted our mustangs and rode toward the corral.
All about on the broad slopes, the ranchero’s countless cattle were feeding. It was a patriarchal scene. The local patriarch, in a red flannel shirt purpled by sun and shower, in old buckskin breeches with the fringe worn away and decimated along its files whenever a thong was wanted, in red-topped boots with the maker’s name, Abel Cushing, Lynn, Mass., stamped in gilt letters on the red, — in such costume the local patriarch hardly recalled those turbaned and white-robed sheiks of yore, Abraham and his Isaac. But he represented the same period of history modernized, and the same type of man Americanized; and I have no doubt his posterity will turn out better than Abraham’s, and scorn peddling, be it Austrian loans or “ole clo’.”
The cattle scampered away from us, as we rode, hardly less wild than the buffaloes on the Platte. Whenever we rose on the crest of a hillock, we could see several thousands of the little fierce bullocks, — some rolling away in flight, in a black breadth, like a shaken carpet; some standing in little groups, like field officers at a review, watching the movements as squadron after squadron came and went over the scene; some, as arbitrators and spectators, surrounding a pair of champion bulls butting and bellowing in some amphitheatre among the swells of land.
“I tell you what it is, stranger,” said Gerrian, halting and looking proudly over the landscape, “I wouldn’t swop my place with General Price at the White House.”
“I should think not,” said I; “bullocks are better company than office-seekers.”
It was a grand, simple scene. All open country, north and south, as far as the eye could see. Eastward rose the noble blue barrier of the Sierra, with here and there a field, a slope, a spot, or a pinnacle of the snow that names it Nevada. A landscape of larger feeling than any we can show in the old States, on the tame side of the continent. Those rigorous mountain outlines on the near horizon utterly dwarf all our wooded hills, Alleghanies, Greens, Whites. A race trained within sight of such loftiness of nature must needs be a loftier race than any this land has yet known. Put cheap types of mankind within the influence of the sublimities, and they are cowed; but the great-hearted expand with vaster visions. A great snow-peak, like one of the Tacomas of Oregon, is a terrible monitor over a land; but it is also a benignant sovereign, a presence, calm, solemn, yet not without a cheering and jubilant splendor. A range of sharp, peremptory mountains, like the Sierra Nevada, insists upon taking thought away from the grovelling flats where men do their grubbing for the bread of daily life, and up to the master heights, whither in all ages seers have gone to be nearer mystery and God.
It was late August. All the tall grass and wild oats and barley, over lift, level, and hollow, were ripe yellow or warm brown, — a golden mantle over the golden soil. There were but two colors in the simple, broad picture, — clear, deep, scintillating blue in the sky, melting blue in the mountains, and all the earth a golden surging sea.
“It’s a bigger country ’n old Pike or Missourer anywhar,” says Gerrian, giving his ‘curwolyow’ the spur. “I’d ruther hev this, even ef the shakes wuz here instidd of thar, and havin’ their grab reglar twicet a day all the year round.”
As we rode on, our ponies half hidden in the dry, rustling grass of a hollow, a tramp of hoofs came to us with the wind, — a thrilling sound! with something free and vigorous in it that the charge of trained squadrons never has.
“Thar they come!” cried Gerrian; “thar’s a rigiment wuth seeing. They can’t show you a sight like that to the old States.”
“No indeed. The best thing to be hoped there in the way of stampede is when a horse kicks through a dash-board, kills a coachman, shatters a carriage, dissipates a load of women and children, and goes tearing down a turnpike, with ‘sold to an omnibus’ awaiting him at the end of his run-away!”
We halted to pass the coming army of riderless steeds in review.
There they came! Gerrian’s whole band of horses in full career! First, their heads suddenly lifted above a crest of the prairie; then they burst over, like the foam and spray of a black, stormy wave when a blast strikes it, and wildly swept by us with manes and tails flaring in the wind. It was magnificent. My heart of a horseman leaped in my breast. “Hurrah!” I cried.
“Hurrah ’t is!” said Gerrian.
The herd dashed by in a huddle, making for the corral.
Just behind, aloof from the rush and scamper of his less noble brethren, came the black, my purchase, my old friend.
“Ef you ever ride or back that curwolyow,” says Gerrian, “I’ll eat a six-shooter, loaded and capped.”
“You’d better begin, then, at once,” rejoined I, “whetting your teeth on Derringers. I mean to ride him, and you shall be by when I do it.”
It was grand to see a horse that understood and respected himself so perfectly. One, too, that meant the world should know that he was the very chiefest chief of his race, proud with the blood of a thousand kings. How masterly he looked! How untamably he stepped! The herd was galloping furiously. He disdained to break into a gallop. He trotted after, a hundred feet behind the hindmost, with large and liberal action. And even at this half speed easily overtaking his slower comrades, he from time to time paused, bounded in the air, tossed his head, flung out his legs, and then strode on again, writhing all over with suppressed power.
There was not a white spot upon him, except where a flake of foam from his indignant nostril had caught upon his flank. A thorough-bred horse, with the perfect tail and silky mane of a noble race. His coat glistened, as if the best groom in England had just given him the final touches of his toilette for a canter in Rotten Row. But it seems a sin to compare such a free rover of the prairie with any less favored brother, who needs a groom, and has felt a currycomb.
Hard after the riderless horses came José, the vaquero, on a fast mustang. As he rode, he whirled his lasso with easy turn of the wrist.
The black, trotting still, and halting still to curvet and caracole, turned back his head contemptuously at his pursuer. “Mexicans may chase their own ponies and break their spirit by brutality; but an American horse is no more to be touched by a Mexican than an American man. Bah! make your cast! Don’t trifle with your lasso! I challenge you. Jerk away, Señor Greaser! I give you as fair a chance as you could wish.”
So the black seemed to say, with his provoking backward glance and his whinny of disdain.
José took the hint. He dug cruel spurs into his horse. The mustang leaped forward. The black gave a tearing bound and quickened his pace, but still waited the will of his pursuer.
They were just upon us, chased and chaser, thundering down the slope, when the vaquero, checking his wrist at the turn, flung his lasso straight as an arrow for the black’s head.
I could hear the hide rope sing through the summer air, for a moment breezeless.
Will he be taken! Will horse or man be victor!
The loop of the lasso opened like a hoop. It hung poised for one instant a few feet before the horse’s head, vibrating m the air, keeping its circle perfect, waiting for the vaquero’s pull to tighten about that proud neck and those swelling shoulders.
Through it went the black.
With one brave bound he dashed through the open loop. He touched only to spurn its vain assault with his hindmost hoof.
“Hurrah!” I cried.
“Hurrah! ’t is,” shouted Gerrian.
José dragged in his spurned lasso.
The black, with elated head, and tail waving like a banner, sprang forward, closed in with the caballada; they parted for his passage, he took his leadership, and presently was lost with his suite over the swells of the prairie.
“Mucho malicho!” cried Gerrian to José, not knowing that his Californian Spanish was interpreting Hamlet. “He ought to hev druv ’em straight to corral. But I don’t feel so sharp set on lettin’ you hev that black after that shine. Reg’lar circus, only thar never was no sich seen in no circus! You’ll never ride him, allowin’ he’s cotched, no more ’n you’ll ride a alligator.”
Meantime, loping on, we had come in sight of the corral. There, to our great surprise, the whole band of horses had voluntarily entered. They were putting their heads together as the manner of social horses is, and going through kissing manœuvres in little knots, which presently were broken up by the heels of some ill-mannered or jealous brother. They were very probably discussing the black’s act of horsemanship, as men after the ballet discuss the first entrechat of the danseuse.
We rode up and fastened our horses. The black was within the corral, pawing the ground, neighing, and whinnying. His companions kept at a respectful distance.
“Don’t send in José!” said I to Gerrian. “Only let him keep off the horses, so that I shall not be kicked, and I will try my hand at the black alone.”
“I’ll hev ’em all turned out except that black devil, and then you ken go in and take your own resk with him. Akkee José!” continued the ranchero, “fwarer toethose! Day her hel diablo!”
José drove the herd out of the staked enclosure. The black showed no special disposition to follow. He trotted about at his ease, snuffing at the stakes and bars.
I entered alone. Presently he began to repeat the scene of our first meeting on the prairie. It was not many minutes before we were good friends. He would bear my caresses and my arm about his neck, and that was all for an hour. At last, after a good hour’s work, I persuaded him to accept a halter. Then by gentle seductions I induced him to start and accompany me homeward.
Gerrian and the Mexican looked on in great wonderment.
“Praps that is the best way,” said the modern patriarch, “ef a man has got patience. Looker here, stranger, ain’t you a terrible fellow among women?”
I confessed my want of experience.
“Well, you will be when your time comes. I allowed from seeing you handle that thar hoss, that you had got your hand in on women, — they is the wust devils to tame I ever seed.”
I had made my arrangements to start about the first of September, with the Sacramento mail-riders, a brace of jolly dogs, brave fellows, who, with their scalps as well secured as might be, ran the gauntlet every alternate month to Salt Lake. That was long before the days of coaches. No pony express was dreamed of. A trip across the plains, without escort or caravan, had still some elements of heroism, if it have not to-day.
Meantime one of my ardent partners from San Francisco arrived to take my place at the mine.
“I don’t think that quartz looks quite so goldy as it did at a distance,” said he.
“Well,” said old Gerrian, who had come over to take possession of his share of our bargain; “it is whiter ’n it’s yaller. It does look about as bad off fur slugs as the cellar of an Indiana bank. But I b’leeve in luck, and luck is olluz comin’ at me with its head down and both eyes shet. I’m goan to shove bullocks down this here hole, or the price of bullocks, until I make it pay.”
And it is a fact, that by the aid of Gerrian’ s capital, and improved modern machinery, after a long struggle, the Fulano mine has begun to yield a sober, quiet profit.
My wooing of the black occupied all my leisure during my last few days. Every day, a circle of Pikes collected to see my management. I hope they took lessons in the law of kindness. The horse was well known throughout the country, and my bargain with Gerrian was noised abroad.
The black would tolerate no one but me. With me he established as close a brotherhood as can be between man and beast. He gave me to understand, by playful protest, that it was only by his good pleasure that I was permitted on his back, and that he endured saddle and bridle; as to spur or whip, they were not thought of by either. He did not obey, but consented. I exercised no control. We were of one mind. We became a Centaur. I loved that horse as I have loved nothing else yet, except the other personages with whom and for whom he acted in this history.
I named him Don Fulano.
I had put my mine into him. He represented to me the whole visible, tangible result of two long, workaday years, dragged out in that dreary spot among the Pikes, with nothing in view except barren hill-sides ravaged by mines, and the unbeautiful shanties of miners as rough as the landscape.
Don Fulano, a horse that would not sell, was my profit for the sternest and roughest work of my life! I looked at him, and looked at the mine, that pile of pretty pebbles, that pile of bogus ore, and I did not regret my bargain. I never have regretted it. “My kingdom for a horse,” — so much of a kingdom as I had, I had given.
But was that all I had gained, — an unsalable horse for two years’ work? All, — unless, perhaps, I conclude to calculate the incalculable; unless I estimate certain moral results I had grasped, and have succeeded in keeping; unless I determine to value patience, purpose, and pluck by dollars and cents. However, I have said enough of myself, and my share in the preparations for the work of my story.
Retire, then, Richard Wade, and enter the real hero of the tale.