Ocean Echoes - Old Austen Sees Daylight
( Originally Published 1922 )
IT was four hundred miles to an eye specialist, eighty to the railroad, and I had nineteen dollars in my pocket. Nevertheless, I made the first move by hiring a horse from a farmer for ten dollars and the promise to send him back from Bishop.
I launched the old man Austen was his name, and seemed to be all the name he had upon him, with a blanket over the horse's bare back, and the banjo and violin tucked each under an arm.
They laughed at us as we passed the hotel where the sheriff's funeral was about to take up, and we laughed back; Austen because he laughed at himself as much as anyone could laugh at him, and I because the air was sweet, and I had something different to do, and someone else than myself to plan for. So we jogged off through the desert, and the dust got into our throats, and the coyotes howled at us, and still the sun shone and the firelight sparkled, and we laughed.
Four days we marched, stopping for coffee, and Van Camp's pork and beans, and the oats which I carried on my back for the horse. It was a bit hard on the old man going down the steep hills going up he didn't mind and he was constantly surging forward onto the horse's neck, damning him for not holding his head up.
On the afternoon of the fourth day we came to Bishop, and I hunted the town to get up a subscription to send the old man to Los Angeles.
Heartless the people there seemed, and heartless they were. They were certainly not interested in blind men, and urged me to send him to the poor farm, if I could manage to get him in.
I arranged with a cattle man to take the horse back to Mono Lake, and after a night in the town and a real feed, we set out on towards Death Valley, where I knew that I could get work to keep us both, and eventually to send Austen to Los Angeles.
We walked about eight miles that morning. The old fellow was getting tired, and we sat down to rest. On the slope of the hill, less than a mile away, stood a modern farm house, different from any other else in the valley. The road up to it was graded and wide; young trees lined in uniform growth stood at the sides; in the fields alfalfa grew, and beautiful Percheron mares were running and playing with their stocky colts. jersey cows with fawn-like limbs nibbled at the grass. And an old Indian, tall and noble-looking, stood, like a statue, with a shovel in his hands, watching the tiny irrigation ditches which, if untended, were so tricky with the unset soil of that country.
A white mongrel dog who was out chasing rabbits saw us, and ran to us, barking and wagging his tail. I patted him, and he licked the old man's hands; then barking again in his friendly way he ran into his home-road and stood, with head over his shoulder, as if urging us to come.
"That dog is our first friend in five days, Austen," said I, "and I'll bet that his master is kind and considerate too. Let us go up."
We did go, and we found a child of four or five years playing on the lawn, and a woman in her early thirties unharnessing a horse.
"Let me do that," said I, quite naturally.
"You don't look as if you knew how," said she, wickedly.
Of course I knew how, and I took matters into my own hands at once. "Where does the harness go?" I asked, paying no attention. "First door to the right as you go into the barn, horse in the last stall, halter hanging on the iron hook," said she, walking off quite unconcernedly, but, I noticed, with a twinkling eye.
"Frances," she called to the child, "come here and show this man how to feed Slim, and water him."
The child came fearlessly, and I, who thought it was a joke, found it was no joke at all. Several work horses were in the barn, finishing their dinner, and the little girl told me all about them, their names, and how they were fed.
We came out from the barn hand in hand and although she is now almost as tall as I, she still gives me my orders when she sees fit.
The mother was standing talking to Austen, and I saw already that she was in full possession of her facts. As I looked at her I thought that she was aged for her years; that her strong frame was accustoming itself to work it had not been used to, and that the serious face which belied the smiling eye, hid a considerable knowledge of loneliness and misery at firsthand.
Later I found that this was true; that she had had a life as changeable, as full of adventure, and disappointment for her, as mine had been for me. That now she was hanging to this ranch, which she had been forced to mortgage heavily, in the forlorn hope of selling it at a time when the war had driven value out of land everywhere. People were keeping their cash, not knowing what would happen, and she felt that if she could not sell she must leave the place she had redeemed from the desert, and start another trail.
Partly dependent as she was for she was a "remittance-man" she could not oblige herself to lose the free feel of the desert in any provided shelter. So, I being lonely too, and without pretense and as we understood each other, we agreed some months later to be married; and were eventually married, to our satisfaction, but not without trouble, which began to brew that night at Mono Lake.
While she fed us and it seemed that we could never stop eating of ranch food that was really fit for workingmen-she talked to us, and we consulted about Austen's eyes. She seemed at once to feel that it was as much her responsibility as it was his, or mine.
"I can give him work about the house for a while," she said, "until we can arrange for the doctor in Los Angeles. That part of it I will answer for, if you will take him down there. When he gets through, I will let him irrigate for a month, to give him some money to go away with. More than that I cannot promise, for I expect to rent the ranch this winter, and move away."
"You are the trouble for me," she continued; "for you are a sailor and an Irishman, and I never hire sailors nor Irishmen. Sailors always want their own way, and Irishmen are here one minute and get angry and leave the nest"
I thought it better to dispute the premise than to argue the conclusion, which seemed to be based on experience, and was certainly the truth; so I denied that I was either a sailor or an Irishman.
"I didn't suppose you'd admit it," she said, speculatively. "They never do. But you are both. I know you are a sailor because you walk like one, and always will; and an Irishman because that is written all over you."
In vain I protested, wretchedly, too; for I saw that she meant what she said. I told her what I could do, and how well I could do it. I promised that the best man she had should never be able to set a pace for me. Finally tears came into my eyes, and a lump into my throat. Just then I saw the little girl, standing by.
"You tell her," I said, huskily, and that settled it.
I do believe that for a month I worked as I had never worked before, and I must say that I was driven without mercy. But I was well fed, and had a little house to myself ; and the child, at least when she was not busy with Austen, who fascinated her completely, was kind to me.
My month was up, and it was pay-day. I was called into the house and the little girl told me that her mother was going to Bishop, and wanted me to go with her.
We went in the mountain-wagon, the child on my knees, ber mother doing the driving; for which, I may say, to this day she is badly lacking in confidence in me. She told me, when she started, that she was going to take me to buy a few things, because she had arranged for Austen to go down to the hospital the next day, and for me to go and stay there with him.
I looked down at my worn boots, for I had been grubbing sage-brush and digging ditches.
"Yes, I know," she said, catching the look. "We are going to get them."
The thought of anyone going to help me buy my shoes, who had had no one to take a single thought for me for so long, moved me so that I could hardly speak. We did go to buy them. We bought other things for Austen, had our pay besides, and started south on the train next day. She told me as we were going that she had sold a cow to make sure that she could send us !
At the hospital I found plenty to do with the old man. I held his hand while Dr. McCoy operated, stitching up the "curtain of film, not a cataract," as he described it, to either eyelid, and cheering him through the dismal days that followed.
Five days later the doctor took the poor old man's bandages off, and he nearly went wild. He could see perfectly with one eye, and almost as well with the other. He shouted and sang, and kissed the nurses. He was the circus man of the sixties again, and the "Brindle Steer" rang out, until he was stifled by an angry attendant.
The doctor would not take a cent for the operation. He was one of God's creatures, too.