Ocean Echoes - The Old Man And The Violet Rock
( Originally Published 1922 )
I WAS mining where the Snake River makes a boundary line between Idaho and Oregon. From seventy miles away came the report of a big gold strike. I lost no time in getting there. It turned out to be a fluke, based on the finding, by a prospector, of a few outcroppings of gold.
I went away as fast as I had come. This time I took a trail that led me about a hundred miles away from the railroad, into a country where there was no mining, and little of anything else. What subconscious impulse took me there I cannot say.
My new trail led me to the Owyhee, a long and crooked river. It plows through deep gorges, and again spreads out where the canyons are wide. On its banks are small patches of fertile land. It was on one of these patches that I met The Old Man of Violet Rock.
I had been traveling all day long without seeing anything human. I was hungry, and my horse was tired. There was a high mountain on the western side of the river that lay hooded in mourning. A lava cap fitted snugly over it; the evening sun seemed perched on its top.
To the east of me, and the side on which I was traveling, a steep table-land broke off, leaving a perpendicular sandstone precipice of a thousand feet or more. Here were caves, many of them large, and semicircular in shape.
There issued from them a peculiar kind of odor. It may have been that wild animals carried their plunder there to appease their hunger in peace, or perhaps it may have been the decaying of an ancient race.
The sun had rolled over behind the lava-cap now, and as I rode on a squeaky groaning startled my horse. I dismounted, and leading him, walked ahead. It wasn't over three hundred yards to the river. I dreaded even this short walk, for being in the month of July, snakes with many rattles challenged me as I wended my way through the sage-brush, in the direction of the groaning.
It was an old water-wheel, run by the current, laboring furiously lifting the water to a flume. My horse nickered, and I felt happy. We both knew that not far from that water-wheel there must be some sort of a home, where we could rest and feed.
Following the water ditch a quarter of a mile I came to The Lava Rock. Anyone would have stopped to admire it, it looked so unusual, large, isolated, lying there on the bank of the river. A net-wire fence stood around three sides of it, and the fourth side faced the river. It would have been hard for anyone to reach it from this side, where the drop to the water was a sheer twenty feet.
While my horse nibbled on a bunch of withered bunch-grass, I leaned against the fence and looked in. There must have been half an acre in the enclosure the rock took up one third of that. It stood high, peaked and irregular, with a broad base. From its summit one could command a far view up and down the river. What attracted me most to it was the quantity of beautiful flowers that grew around and over it, startlingly colorful in the dusk, a lovely deep blue. Violets in bunches, in sods, in great masses, over the rock and down its sides, in fissures somehow filled with soil, and glorying in release from desert barrenness.
Grass, too, grew on the rock, neatly trimmed grass, forming a little path clean over the top of it. It is hard to describe the impression of peace and sentiment that this eight created in me.
While I still lingered, trying to trace some reason for this blooming memorial to geological ages, an old man mounted the rock from the other side, and came over the violet and grassy path toward me.
"Good evening, sir," said I, instinctively taking off my hat to the bent and venerable figure, as he stood gazing intently at me with eyes whose piercing quality was as yet untouched by time. His white hair was blowing with the wind, his shoulders were stooped like the slant of a tree that has grown always away from some hard prevailing wind.
"Good evening," he replied, in a voice whose tonelessness betokened one who talked but little with his fellow-men. He looked at me without either surprise or interest, as one whose duty to humanity will soon be done.
"If you want food and rest overnight," he continued, pointing to a little-used trail along the river bank, "follow the irrigation ditch down a hundred yards. Then take the path to the left till you come to the barn, feed your horse, and come back here for your supper."
I thanked him, and followed his directions. The barn was small and shut in by leafy mulberry trees. I fed the horse, and, being hungry, hurried back. The old man was standing inside the fence by the rock. He held a pan in his hand, and at my approach handed it out to me over the fence saying:
"Help yourself to what you want, then wash the pan and leave it here. Here is coffee, too," and he handed me a cup of real china, strangely out of keeping with the desert feast of beans and pork and biscuit in the rough pan. Seeing my thought in my face, he said quite simply, "Yes, I prefer a cup for coffee," and left me to my own conclusions.
He went to the corner of the fence, and looked down the river. So great was his dignity that I should not have thought of questioning him, but I could not but wonder at his choosing this apparently solid rock as a place to which to bring warm food. He had not carried the pan far. He must have a fire and a house somewhere. But where? Evidently not inside the rock, and nowhere else visible.
As if to put a stop to my thoughts, he turned back and began to question me. "Why did you come this way?" he asked.
I told him that I had not had the slightest idea where I was going, that I simply wanted to ramble.
"How would you like to work for me a week or two?"
"What doing?" I asked, munching the beans.
"I have some hay to be cut and stacked, and there's work to be done on the water-wheel."
"All right," said I. "I'll do it. How about the pay?"
"I'll pay you whatever is right," said he, glancing around suspiciously at the rock. There was no more said about pay, nor did I doubt his good faith. I finished eating, and washed the pan, handing it back to him across the fence.
"What a wonderful place for a house there in the rock," I said, tentatively.
He turned savagely upon me, his whitish bushy beard seeming to stick out in protest at my profanation.
"You sleep in the barn," he cried. "You do work for me; you can't come inside this fence. Good night!"
He went around the rock, and whether away by the other side, or into the rock itself, I had no means of telling. Nor did I find out for many days, so secret was he about it all.
What did he have in the rock, to guard so carefully that he would not even let me in? I asked myself, as I found my way to the barn. Could it be that in his rambles through the hills he had found gold? He seemed sane enough, and yet his eyes had that odd and fiery glow which I had noticed.
Commonplace thoughts would not set me at ease. I seemed to grasp the wildest imaginations about him and the rock. I wasn't afraid, and yet there was a strangeness about the whole thing, rock, violets, and man, that made me sleepless where I lay in my blanket in the hay. The slightest sound startled me; the stamp of a horse brought me to my feet, the rustling of the mulberry leaves wrought a shiver through me, and for that night, and for the nights that followed, I was haunted by the strange things about me.
I must have been in the barn about four hours that first night when the noise of a falling tree scared the very wits out of me. Surely there wasn't enough wind to blow it down. As I listened, trying to quiet my heart, there came to my ears the sound of the groaning water-wheel, laboring away in the current of the river.
Frightened as I was, I opened the barn door and walked out and around the building. Then, as if to give myself courage, I shouted:
"What the devil's going on around here?" Instantly there came an answering sound. "Ka-plunk! Ka-plunk ! Ka-plunk !"
I laughed aloud, went into the barn, slammed the door, and crawled into the saddle-blanket, but not before I had cursed the beavers of the Owyhee River.
When I went out the next morning the sun was up, but the rays had not yet reached the canyon. The old man was out on the rock, watering his violets. He might have been some strange animal up there, sucking nectar from the hues of the purple glow. Indeed, he did look like an animal, hatless and shoeless as he was. His short, gnarly legs, his withered arms suggested the limbs of a vine.
That picture of him there, perched upon the rock amidst the tender profusion of blooms, lingers with me as vividly as the memory of my old music master. As I watched him, he picked a bunch of violets and disappeared around the rock. Who could the flowers be for? Did he have a wife? Again my thoughts ran rampant, worse than the night before. Curiosity, making the adventure worth while, would eventually find the secret of the Violet Rock.
I had breakfast from over the fence that morn ing, and for ten mornings after. Biscuits, bacon, or salt pork and beans, and black coffee were mostly the fare. I cut the hay, nine acres in all. The old Buckeye mowing machine was as ragged and worn as its owner. The sickle had to be filed many times a day. The horses were as mysterious, too, as they could be. They'd work steadily for awhile, then refuse to work entirely, fall to eating, and lie down all harnessed, in the tall alfalfa. I'd just sit there atop of the old mower and whistle till they got ready to work again; then, without warning, with a simultaneous lunge they would be up and off, with me hard put to it to hold them. The old man would not allow me to carry a whip. The horses were old, he said; he had had them many years, and no one must be unkind to them.
So it took me three days to mow the hay, and I had ample time for amusement between times, There was real enjoyment in killing rattlesnakes. I carried a pitchfork for those of them that the sickle missed. It seemed that to me wherever I turned I saw or heard a rattler. To say that they didn't have me afraid would not be telling the truth. I was as nervous and shifty as a squirrel.
In the evenings I tried to draw out the old man to talk about himself. He always evaded conversation of any kind; seldom he moved away from the rock, and never when I was around.
And at the end of the tenth day I was as far from knowing anything about him as I had been at the end of the first.
One afternoon when I had about finished stacking the hay a thunderstorm came up the river, bringing rain and lightning. I hurried for shelter to the barn. As I ran the noise of the thunder in the canyon was deafening. I was soaked. Before I reached the barn lightning struck the lava-capped mountain, and released great boulders which came plunging down into the river. No snake would have had time to strike me before I gained the barn, and my snorting horse and I found reassurance with each other, and agreed that Violet Rock was no happy place for us.
The storm increased. It wasn't past three o'clock, yet it felt as if night was setting in. I felt danger around me, and the sailor in me drove me again to the open. I ran for the rock, feeling that the old man might be glad of my company as I of his.
Within a hundred yards of the rock I stopped, and stood, forgetting myself at the sight of him. Through the gaps of spilling cloud-water I saw him standing on the rock, bareheaded, his long white hair lying like loose rope-ends about his head. He was talking. His voice reached me in mumbles. He was addressing someone or something that was hidden by the ridge of drooping violets.
A thought flashed through my mind with the quickness of the forked lightning that sizzled overhead. It was gold he had there, gold to glitter in the soft rainwater, aged gold to an aged Idolater!
As I stood there watching him, with the water making pools around my feet, I was seized with hot resentment and disgust at his daring, there in the open, under the eye of the angry gods of the elements, to obtrude the little matter of his greed!
"Shame," I cried aloud; "shame, shame !" And I ran again to the barn to get away from him, thankful in my heart that gold had never meant that much to me.
When the sun came out I wrung out my clothes, and hung them out to dry; then in clean things I went out into the clean world and found ripe mulberries to feast upon cleansingly. Then I strolled off to the sandstone bluffs and wandered in and out of caves where once the aborigines had made their homes.
The sun had set, and the shadowed noise of creeping things stirred me barnwards. I didn't go after my supper that night, nor did he come after me to get his. I rolled into my saddle blanket and went to sleep, hoping that my impressions of him were wrong, and resolved to leave there in two or three days more, in any case.
The old man awoke me in the morning. He stood over me crying excitedly, "Get up, get up ! The dam has broken ; the wheel has stopped. We must get to work at it right away."
The breakwater that forced the current from the center of the river to the side of the bank where the wheel turned, was broken by a freshet from the storm. While I was filling and carrying sacks of sand to mend the break, the old man was busy working at the wheel, nailing loose boards and tightening nuts here and there on it.
I paid little attention to him, nor did I know that my work on the breakwater was slowly driving the current under the wheel, where it might start to turn at any time.
That was just what did happen. The water-wheel was started going by the force of the current under it. The old man, who was hanging on top of it wrenching at a bolt, fell ten or twelve feet down into shallow water.
The noise of the splash hurried me to him. As I pulled him out blood was oozing from the side of his head. I thought that he was killed, and I was alarmed and sorry, for, though I have never stayed away from a fight, I would not be the cause of hurting anyone. With him in my arms —and he was heavy enough--I struggled to the top of the bank.
Gently I laid him down and felt his pulse. It was pitiably weak. His blood wet the grass. I tore off my shirt and bound his head. The sun was over the mountain-top sending down waves of heat. There was no shade this side the Violet Rock-or barn, and big flies were buzzing around.
It was a long way to the rock, but then, I thought, suppose it was. The chance was that he was dying, and after all, why shouldn't he be near the thing that he prized most in life, what-ever it might be? I placed my arms around his hips, and slung his trunk to my shoulder. This way I carried him to the fence, found the gate, and squeezed him through; then eased him from my shoulder, and laid him down alongside the rock.
He groaned aloud, and made an effort as if to rise. Surely, I thought, he must have some kind of medicine around here that would help him to regain consciousness. Timidly, I don't know why, I started to explore the rock. I hunted around till I came to the river end of it. There I found a door.
Right in front of it was one of the largest rattlesnakes I have ever seen. Coiled he was, and ready for a fight. In an instant I forgot everything but that snake. I killed him, and made no mistake about it.
The door was fastened with a padlock, the frames set loosely in the lava rock. I jumped at it with both feet, being by this time so excited that I hardly knew what I was doing. The door flew off its frail hinges and daylight stopped short, at a curtain of inner gloom.
It was a cave, and dark. A hibernating odor seemed to come out of it. Ugh ! what a place to live ! I thought, for now I had no doubt that this was the old man's house. I took a step or two forward, then hesitated. Suppose there were snakes here, too? My flesh crept, and I retreated, only to be prompted to effort of some kind by a groan from outside.
My eyes being now used to the darkness, I could see a feeble ray of light proceeding from, I thought, a hole in the roof; and I went slowly and carefully ahead. Gradually things began to appear. The old man's bed, a chair, shoes under-foot, a box or two. No table as yet, no stove. But these I thought would reveal themselves when I should reach the shaft of light.
I kept moving on, but somehow I had a sub-conscious warning of evil. The hair on my head straightened out; I was as springy on my feet as a wildcat, and my heart gave me pile-driving blows. Then I reached a sort of inner room where the light fell, and my muscles set like the click of a bear-trap.
There, sitting on a chair by a table, was a skeleton ! Evidently that of a woman, and before it, upon the table, a great bunch of violets, still starry with morning dew. As my muscles gradually relaxed, I tiptoed closer.
It was plain that years had passed since her life went out. Much of the long black hair that had been hers remained. Time had not parched that; and in the sunken dried-up eyes, the parchment cheeks, the slender neck, the puckered, pointed mouth, was evidence that she may have once been beautiful.
One side of her face had been artfully turned to conceal the bones where the light leathery skin had fallen off. But the breast and ribs stood out starkly, and on the hands and arms skin still clung only in little patches. Around the waist was tucked a khaki shirt, and the legs and feet were, from where I stood, invisible.
I was overcome by a sort of spiritual reverence. The violets upon the table oozed the essence of purity, and I knew that I was standing within a shrine. My mind took a jump back past time.
It was easy to picture her, as she used to be. Young and beautiful, and full of life, dwelling with her lover in the sandstone caves above the river, grinding the nuts he brought her for food, and decking out her hair for him in desert flowers.
Then something happened that killed the pleasure of the thought. The present came back upon me fully, and I was sorry for having intruded on the old man's love, and felt that I must hasten more than ever, to help him.
There was a sound behind me, somewhat louder than a baby makes when it breathes the sting of life into its delicate body. It was a cry that would have meant nothing to an unknowing listener, but for the one that uttered it it voiced life, death, passion, and despair.
There, through the darkness came the old man, staggering towards me. He spoke : "You thought I was dead, did you?" And now his voice seemed to fill the cave. "You have killed the snake that guarded me for years. Now you have found Her. You must go away and leave me. I ask of you not to tell. There is money under my pillow. Take what you think you have earned. But, go ! go. Leave me, for I must be alone."
He knelt down by the skeleton as he spoke, and great tears ran down over the crusted blood upon his hand, unhindered. Without a word I turned and walked out of the cave. Money I did not want from that old man. My misty eyes welcomed the sunshine.
I made for the barn, saddled my horse, and in deep inner quiet rode up the river, past the violets and the lone rock, past the old water-wheel that was groaning again with its laden buckets. Somehow this seemed to me a good omen. I felt that the old man would be all right again. But to this day I regret the killing of his snake, for a pet it really was, as I learned that afternoon. Feeling the lack of food, for I had not eaten since the noon before, I drew up at a little farm about twelve miles from the rock.
A Spaniard who lived there and ran a few sheep, told me about the snake how the old man pulled out his fangs and made almost a companion of him, and how, when he rang a bell, the snake would come to him. Then, for the first time, I learned the old man's name : John Dakin, the Spaniard called him, and I realized that this was perhaps the first time that it never had occurred to me to try to find out someone's name.
had been content to think of him not otherwise than as the Old Man. The Spaniard said that he had been educated, rich, and an archaeologist, and of his own accord had settled in these parts, and become a kind of hermit, of whom no one knew much, except that he was hard to speak to. Of the skeleton the Spaniard did not know, nor did I enlighten him.