Ocean Echoes - More Trouble
( Originally Published 1922 )
IT was dark now, and the air cold. I crawled into an empty box car that stood on a side track. I must have slept, for I awoke with a start as another car struck the one in which I was. Then the whole thing started to move. I was off on a train, I didn't know where. Through the night I looked out of the side door, but couldn't tell whether we were headed north or south. No one bothered about me. I doubt if the brakeman knew I was there. It was noon the next day when I crawled out of the car. I discovered that I was headed north, and guessed that I was near Sacramento, and about seven hundred miles north of San Diego, which proved to be true.
"Well," thought I, "I'11 have to make the best of it. I am ninety miles from San Francisco, and that is some satisfaction." Poor Jack's horror of whaling ships and his language about them and all that belonged to them arose within me, and the thought of the fighting crimps made me wish I were anywhere else.
But hunger often rules our destinies, and I was hungry. The train had stopped at a siding, and there was no town in sight. I walked off, and followed a country road, where I saw a man ahead of me driving a sorrel horse hitched to a wagon with milk-cans in the back. I overtook him and spoke to him, asking if he knew of any chance to work in the neighborhood.
He pulled up the reins, and shouted in clear Irish brogue :
"Whoa, there, Jerry!"
"Can ye milk cows?" he asked, looking down on me, and there was something about him that took me back to Ireland, almost breathlessly.
"Yes, I can," I said.
"Jump up on the wagon thin," he commanded. "The job I'll be givin' yez won't be much," he went on, "but if you're broke you ought to be glad of anything."
He jerked on the reins, gave Jerry a cut with the whip, and we were off to O'Donnell's farm, this being the land of my new master. He was past sixty, white-haired, wrinkled-faced, his hands showing the toil of years, his upper lip long, broad, and sadly humorous, frequently lifting to show a mouth almost destitute of teeth.
We pulled up at his farm, if a farm you would call it. A small barn and the house where he lived comprised the buildings on the place. Ten acres of Iand were the farm, and a few hungry cows the visible stock. We unhitched Jerry, putting him away in a dirty stall, with a forkful of hay for his dinner, for which he thanked me gratefully with a nicker.
Then I went into the shack where O'Donnell was cooking. It was a large bare dirty room, without partitions. On the table he was carving a large boiled beef-heart that had not been recently cooked. "A foine meal for a healthy man," he said. Boiled heart, bread, and skimmed milk. He informed me that he always said grace before meals, and proceeded to do so. Although there was not much on the table to be grateful for, I echoed his "amen" loudly and thankfully. I was hungry, and the bread and heart disappeared like snow before a summer sun.
"Now," said O'Donnell, wiping his mouth on the oil-cloth cover, "I'll tell ye what I'll be wantin' ye to do. There's fifteen cows to milk, and I'll help you some. You get up in the morning about three o'clock and start to milk. By four o'clock, we'll have it in the cans, then I drive to town and deliver to my customers. I'm back here by nine o'clock. The reason that I'm late today is that I've been dickering with a man about buying hogs."
"Oh, you're going into the hog business?" said I, pushing back from the table.
"Yes I'm thinking about it. There's money in hogs these days, and I have a fine place for them. But to get back to your work. As I said, I get home about nine o'clock. While I'm gone you'll do the chores, clean out the cow barn, and turn the cows out to pasture. It isn't much grass that's in the field, but shure they get the exercise."
"Now, me bye," he concluded, getting up from the table, "after you have finished, water the little roan horse, he's in the stall in the north end of the barn. I'll be home be the time you have the work done."
I was just congratulating myself upon not be ing asked to do what I didn't know how to do, when he turned around, saying :
"Howld on, me boy, do you know how to drive a team?"
This was no time for unmanly weakness. I gulped hard, as I assured him that I did, for it was not the fact. However I found afterwards that I could do it very well. He went on to tell me that he had bought a lot of hop-poles from a man who had a yard down by the Sacramento River, and that he was hauling them to sell to a Chinese laundry. This would be part of my work, and I should be paid twenty dollars a month for it.
How easily some human beings are satisfied, and how little it takes of the sunshine of life to make them happy ! I felt that now I had found a friend in this strange old man. He told me a great deal about his business, and rather hinted that I go into partnership with him in the hog business. It seemed that there was money in these dirty creatures. Anyway, it would be a start in this new country, and I wrote home and told my mother how well I was getting along, and how prosperous I should be some day, thinking how delighted she would be over my fine prospects, quite regardless of the present truth of it.
We did become partners in the hog business, and in the three months that I worked for O'Donnell my wages went with his money to increase the stock over the sixty hogs we already had; and as things looked brighter I even neglected my clothes to save money. I wasn't presentable, but that didn't matter, for was I not going to make a lot of money right away? Then I planned, I should branch out for myself on a large scale.
My work these days seemed never to be done, what with milking, feeding the stock, hauling wood to the China Laundry, and taking O'Donnell evenings to the small neighboring towns, where he made impassioned stump speeches for the Populist Party.
He was very particular about his speeches, and Sundays were devoted to rehearsing them in the barn, the acoustics in the shack being considered inadequate. At least in the barn we had an appreciative audience, for every strophe was punctuated by a chorus of moos, brays, whinnies and cackles.
"I shtand here tonight before yez, Min," he would commence, "a praycher in the cause av the People's Parrty. From the tops av th' mountains to th' broad expanse av th' Pacific, let me words ring home th' missage!"
Our luck on these excursions varied. We were always sure of an audience, but not always sure of a flattering one. One night while O'Donnell was warming up to his subject, someone put a whistle under Jerry's tail. He ran away, and spilled us both out of the wagon. We had to walk eight miles home. O'Donnell seemed to think nothing of this. The cause was just, he said, there had to be martyrs, and that was the end of it.
Well I remember the last load of hop-poles that I hauled to the Chinaman's Laundry. I had gotten to know some of the Portuguese living in the bottomlands of the Sacramento River, along which my road lay. Since it was the last load, Manuel Da Costa insisted that I take a drink with him of home-brewed Portuguese brandy, known in those parts as "jackass brandy."
He had been kind to me, helping mó often to free the wagon wheels when they sank too deep into the soft river mud. To please him I took a drink, and then another, for it tasted good, and did not seem to have a kick to it. Then, bidding him good-by, I jumped into the wagon and drove off.
There was a freshet in the Sacramento River, and it ran foaming. After about a mile the jack-ass brandy took complete possession of me. Quickly and quietly it did its deadly work ! Regardless of danger or icy chill, I decided that the river looked good to me, and without a moment's hesitation I climbed down, tied the horse, jumped fully clothed into the mad roaring river, and swam across it and then back again.
The icy water had no influence whatever on me, nor did I feel ashamed of myself until long after I had untied the horse, and headed, wet as I was, for the town. However, I never told O'Donnell, knowing full well his feelings on the subject of temperance. As time went on, and I realized how narrow had been my escape from drowning, I decided that never again would I be beguiled by jackass brandy.
It was a little over a year that I had been away from home, and my three months was drawing to a close, when it seemed that the time had come for expansion in the hog business. O'Donnell bought garbage and hauled it every morning from the city to feed the stock. They throve on the feed, and in the muddy coolness of the ditch where they buried themselves. We were to kill ten of the heaviest in a few days to sell, and with the money buy shoats five weeks old to raise and fatten for the market.
It was time to commence to build castles, for six months more would give us substantial money. My castle took the form of a cozy little farm, and included a cozy little wife, too; for I was becoming much enamored of a red-haired lassie whose father raised strawberries. She liked me in spite of my clothes, and the way I had of talking to my pigs; and in spite, also, of her father, who informed her that I was nothing but seaweed that the storm blew in.
Nevertheless, I kissed her one day through the fence a barbed wire fence at that and a thrill went through me, the like of which I had never known before. I began to long for the complementary companionship of her, and I thought of her sharing my days, and bringing my lunch to me at the plow.
How full of nothingness are dreams! They are but fading specters on a wasteless sea the closer you sail to them the farther they are away. Two days after my kiss, the hog farm was in mourning. Every last one of the hogs died from hog cholera.
I dug holes for them, and covered them up where they lay, and as I buried them I felt embittered with the laws of human averages. Why should I be sacrificed when the sun was shining on Youth and Obedience. What had I done to merit this curse from Fate? Years afterwards, while sailing mate on a ship to the South Seas, I read in a magazine how to guard against hog cholera. Poor old O'Donnell and I knew nothing about vaccinating hogs, and I doubt if more than a few people in that neighborhood knew about it at that time.
The hogs were buried, and the sun had set on Youth and Old Age huddled together in the shack, each complaining after his fashion. We supped together on beef heart and boiled potatoes, and when the candle burned low I blew it out and each went to his own bed, a shakedown of straw on the shack floor : O'Donnell to dream, perhaps, of the long ago when life was not a question of potatoes with or without beef heart, and held some hope for failing years; I to turn toward the morrow's dawn, when I should make a new start not with hogs this time, but under flapping sails on windy seas, where the squeal from a swivel clock would soothe the squeal that echoed from lost hopes.
O'Donnell said good-by to me with some grief; and from out of his old soppy overalls fished nine dollars.
"Here, take this," he said. "If I had more I would gladly give it to you. You are not the bad sort of a lad."
I thanked him, and, with a heavy heart, left him to bid another good-by at the next farm. Walking across a field that I had recently plowed, the new soil had a longing-to-remain smell for me, an odor that took me back home to the spring-time of the year, when the plowing was being done, and the beveled furrows crumbled under the sun heat of the day. They were crushing memories, and I felt them keenly.
As I squeezed through the barbed-wire fence and onto the farm of my sweetheart's father, O'Donnell called to me:
"I say, if you ever happen around here again I'll be glad to see you, but wherever you go spread the gospel of the People's Party."
I assured him that I would, whether on land or sea.
Mr. Curran, the girl's father, was hoeing strawberries.
"I hear that your hogs died," he snapped, as I approached him.
"Yes, every one of them."
"Well, I expected as much. It takes men to raise hogs."
He continued hoeing his strawberries. "What are you going to do now?" he asked presently.
"Oh," said I, pitifully, "I am going back to sea."
"I'm thinking that's the place for ye."
"I'm going to say good-by to your daughter, Ellen," said I, walking off towards the house.
He grunted assent like one of my dying sows. Ellen was there. She knew that I was leaving. Whatever her father had said about me, I knew that it was nothing good, but still she was fond of me.
"Ellen, I have come to say good-by. I had hopes of being able to stay, but you have heard about the hogs."
"Yes," she said, "I've heard nothing else around this house. Father said you'd sure have to go now."
I kissed her good-by, and there were tears in the eyes of both of us. We were too young to pledge ourselves to each other, and I never saw her again, but I am sure that Ellen made some lonely man happy. In reviewing the girls that I have known since then, I find that my wayward fancies leaned strongly toward red hair. Excepting, of course, wives but let Time tell that tale !