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"Look up, old man, look up! Your wife and children, where are they? The boys--George! Are they here? are they safe?"
He raises his head slowly, and turns his eyes to mine, and we involuntarily recoil before his look. It is a calm and quiet glance, free from fear, anger, or pain; but it somehow sends the blood curdling through our veins. He bowed his head over his book again, taking no further notice of us. The men look at me compassionately, and hold their peace. I make one more effort:
"Joseph Tryan, don't you know me? the surveyor who surveyed your ranch--the Espiritu Santo? Look up, old man!"
He shuddered and wrapped himself closer in his blanket. Presently he repeated to himself "The surveyor who surveyed your ranch-- Espiritu Santo" over and over again, as though it were a lesson he was trying to fix in his memory.
I was turning sadly to the boatmen when he suddenly caught me fearfully by the hand and said:
We were silent.
"Listen!" He puts his arm around my neck and whispers in my ear, "I'm a MOVING OFF!"
"Hush! Don't speak so loud. Moving off. Ah! wot's that? Don't you hear?--there! listen!"
We listen, and hear the water gurgle and click beneath the floor.
"It's them wot he sent!--Old Altascar sent. They've been here all night. I heard 'em first in the creek, when they came to tell the old man to move farther off. They came nearer and nearer. They whispered under the door, and I saw their eyes on the step--their cruel, hard eyes. Ah, why don't they quit?"
I tell the men to search the room and see if they can find any further traces of the family, while Tryan resumes his old attitude. It is so much like the figure I remember on the breezy night that a superstitious feeling is fast overcoming me. When they have returned, I tell them briefly what I know of him, and the old man murmurs again:
"Why don't they quit, then? They have the stock--all gone--gone, gone for the hides and hoofs," and he groans bitterly.
"There are other boats below us. The shanty cannot have drifted far, and perhaps the family are safe by this time," says the coxswain, hopefully.
We lift the old man up, for he is quite helpless, and carry him to the boat. He is still grasping the Bible in his right hand, though its strengthening grace is blank to his vacant eye, and he cowers in the stern as we pull slowly to the steamer while a pale gleam in the sky shows the coming day.
I was weary with excitement, and when we reached the steamer, and I had seen Joseph Tryan comfortably bestowed, I wrapped myself in a blanket near the boiler and presently fell asleep. But even then the figure of the old man often started before me, and a sense of uneasiness about George made a strong undercurrent to my drifting dreams. I was awakened at about eight o'clock in the morning by the engineer, who told me one of the old man's sons had been picked up and was now on board.
"Is it George Tryan?" I ask quickly.
"Don't know; but he's a sweet one, whoever he is," adds the engineer, with a smile at some luscious remembrance. "You'll find him for'ard."
I hurry to the bow of the boat, and find, not George, but the irrepressible Wise, sitting on a coil of rope, a little dirtier and rather more dilapidated than I can remember having seen him.
He is examining, with apparent admiration, some rough, dry clothes that have been put out for his disposal. I cannot help thinking that circumstances have somewhat exalted his usual cheerfulness. He puts me at my ease by at once addressing me:
"These are high old times, ain't they? I say, what do you reckon's become o' them thar bound'ry moniments you stuck? Ah!"
The pause which succeeds this outburst is the effect of a spasm of admiration at a pair of high boots, which, by great exertion, he has at last pulled on his feet.
"So you've picked up the ole man in the shanty, clean crazy? He must have been soft to have stuck there instead o' leavin' with the old woman. Didn't know me from Adam; took me for George!"
At this affecting instance of paternal forgetfulness, Wise was evidently divided between amusement and chagrin. I took advantage of the contending emotions to ask about George.
"Don't know whar he is! If he'd tended stock instead of running about the prairie, packin' off wimmin and children, he might have saved suthin. He lost every hoof and hide, I'll bet a cooky! Say you," to a passing boatman, "when are you goin' to give us some grub? I'm hungry 'nough to skin and eat a hoss. Reckon I'll turn butcher when things is dried up, and save hides, horns, and taller."
I could not but admire this indomitable energy, which under softer climatic influences might have borne such goodly fruit.
"Have you any idea what you'll do, Wise?" I ask.
"Thar ain't much to do now," says the practical young man. "I'll have to lay over a spell, I reckon, till things comes straight. The land ain't worth much now, and won't be, I dessay, for some time. Wonder whar the ole man'll drive stakes next."
"I meant as to your father and George, Wise."
"Oh, the old man and I'll go on to 'Miles's,' whar Tom packed the old woman and babies last week. George'll turn up somewhar atween this and Altascar's ef he ain't thar now."
I ask how the Altascars have suffered.
"Well, I reckon he ain't lost much in stock. I shouldn't wonder if George helped him drive 'em up the foothills. And his casa's built too high. Oh, thar ain't any water thar, you bet. Ah," says Wise, with reflective admiration, "those greasers ain't the darned fools people thinks 'em. I'll bet thar ain't one swamped out in all 'er Californy." But the appearance of "grub" cut this rhapsody short.
"I shall keep on a little farther," I say, "and try to find George."
Wise stared a moment at this eccentricity until a new light dawned upon him.
"I don't think you'll save much. What's the percentage--workin' on shares, eh!"
I answer that I am only curious, which I feel lessens his opinion of me, and with a sadder feeling than his assurance of George's safety might warrant, I walked away.
From others whom we picked up from time to time we heard of George's self-sacrificing devotion, with the praises of the many he had helped and rescued. But I did not feel disposed to return until I had seen him, and soon prepared myself to take a boat to the lower VALDA of the foothills, and visit Altascar. I soon perfected my arrangements, bade farewell to Wise, and took a last look at the old man, who was sitting by the furnace fires quite passive and composed. Then our boat head swung round, pulled by sturdy and willing hands.
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Harte's Short Stories -by- Bret HarteBottom Content goes here. Wikipedia content requires these links..... Wikipedia content is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.