|Home -> Other California History Books -> California Sketches - Second Series -> "Corralled"|
"So you were corralled last night?"
This was the remark of a friend whom I met in the streets of Stockton the morning after my adventure. I knew what the expression meant as applied to cattle, but I had never heard it before in reference to a human being. Yes, I had been corralled; and this is how it happened:
It was in the old days, before there were any railroads in California. With a wiry, clean-limbed pinto horse, I undertook to drive from Sacramento City to Stockton one day. It was in the winter season, and the clouds were sweeping up from the south-west, the snow-crested Sierras hidden from sight by dense masses of vapor boiling at their bases and massed against their sides. The roads were heavy from the effects of previous rains, and the plucky little pinto sweated as he pulled through the long stretches of black adobe mud. A cold wind struck me in the face, and the ride was a dreary one from the start. But I pushed on confidently, having faith in the spotted mustang, despite the evident fact that he had lost no little of the spirit with which he dashed out of town at starting. When a genuine mustang flags, it is a serious business. The hardiness and endurance of this breed of horses almost exceed belief.
Toward night a cold rain began to fall, driving in my face with the headwind. Still many a long mile lay between me and Stockton. Dark came on, and it was dark indeed. The outline of the horse I was driving could not be seen, and the flat country through which I was driving was a great black sea of night. I trusted to the instinct of the horse, and moved on. The bells of a wagon-team meeting me fell upon my ear. I called out,
"What's the matter?" answered a heavy voice through the darkness.
"Am I in the road to Stockton, and can I get there tonight?"
"You are in the road, but you will never find your way such a night as this. It is ten good miles from here; you have several bridges to cross - you had better stop at the first house you come to, about half a mile ahead. I am going to strike camp myself."
I thanked my adviser, and went on, hearing the sound of the tinkling bells, but unable to see any thing. In a little while I saw a light ahead, and was glad to see it. Driving up in front and halting, I repeated the traveler's "halloo" several times, and at last got a response in a hoarse, gruff voice.
"I am belated on my way to Stockton, and am cold, and tired, and hungry. Can I get shelter with you for the night?"
"You may try it, if you want to," answered the unmusical voice abruptly.
In a few moments a man appeared to take the horse, and taking my satchel in hand, I went into the house. The first thing that struck my attention on entering the room was a big log-fire, which I was glad to see, for I was wet and very cold. Taking a chair in the corner, I looked around. The scene that presented itself was not reassuring. The main feature of the room was a bar, with an ample supply of barrels, demijohns, bottles, tumblers, and all the et ceteras. Behind the counter stood the proprietor, a burly fellow with a buffalo-neck, fair skin and blue eyes, with a frightful scar across his left under-jaw and neck; his shirt-collar was open, exposing, a huge chest, and his sleeves were rolled up above the elbows. I noticed also that one of his hands was minus all the fingers but the half of one - the result probably of some desperate reencounter. I did not like the appearance of my landlord, and he eyed me in a way that led me to fear that he liked my looks as little as I did his; but the claims of other guests soon diverted his attention from me, and I was left to get warm and make further observations. At a table in the middle of the room several hard-looking fellows were betting at cards, amid terrible profanity and frequent drinks of whisky. They cast inquiring and not very friendly glances at me from time to time, once or twice exchanging whispers and giggling. As their play went on, and tumbler after tumbler of whisky was drunk by them, they became more boisterous. Threats were made of using pistols and knives, with which they all seemed to be heavily armed; and one sottish-looking brute actually drew forth a pistol, but was disarmed in no gentle way by the big-limbed landlord. The profanity and other foul language were horrible. Many of my readers have no conception of the brutishness of men when whisky and Satan have full possession of them. In the midst of a volley of oaths and terrible imprecations by one of the most violent of the set, there was a faint gleam of lingering decency exhibited by one of his companions:
"Blast it, Dick, don't cuss so loud - that fellow in the corner there is a preacher!"
There was some potency in "the cloth" even there. How he knew my calling I do not know. The remark directed particular attention to me and I became unpleasantly conspicuous. Scowling glances were bent upon me by two or three of the ruffians, and one fellow made a profane remark not at all complimentary to my vocation - where at there was some coarse laughter. In the meantime I was conscious of being very hungry. My hunger, like that of a boy, is a very positive, thing at, least it was very much so in those days. Glancing toward the maimed and scarred giant who stood behind the bar, I found he was gazing at me with a fixed expression.
"Can I get something to eat? I am very hungry, sir," I said in my blandest tones.
"Yes, we've, plenty of 'cold' goose, and maybe Pete can pick up something else for you if he, is sober and in a good humor. Come this way."
I followed him through a narrow passage-way, which led to a long, low-ceiled room, along nearly the whole length of which was stretched a table!, around which were placed rough stools for the rough men about the place.
Pete, the cook; came in and the head of the house turned me over to him, and returned to his duties behind the bar. From the noise of the uproar going on, his presence was doubtless needed. Pete set before me a large roasted wild-goose, not badly cooked, with bread, milk, and the inevitable cucumber pickles. The knives and forks were not very bright - in fact, they had been subjected to influences promotive of oxidation; and the dishes were not free from signs of former use. Nothing could be said against the tablecloth - there was no tablecloth there. But the goose was fat, brown, and tender; and a hungry man defers his criticisms until he is done eating. That is what I did. Pete evidently regarded me with curiosity. He was about fifty years of age, and had the look of a man who had come down in the world. His face bore the marks of the effects of strong drink, but it was not a bad face; it was more weak than wicked.
"Are you a preacher?" he asked.
"I thought so," he added, after getting my answer to his question. "Of what persuasion are you?"! he further inquired.
When I told him I was a Methodist, he said quickly and with some warmth:
"I was sure of it. This is a rough place for a man of your calling. Would you like some eggs? we've plenty on hand. And may be you would like a cup of coffee," he added, with, increasing hospitality.
I took the eggs, but declined the coffee, not liking the looks of the cups and saucers, and not caring to wait.
"I used to be a Methodist myself," said Pete, with a sort of choking in his throat, "but bad luck and bad company have brought me down to this. I have a family in Iowa, a wife and four children. I guess they think I'm dead, and sometimes I wish I was."
Pete stood by my chair, actually crying. The sight of a Methodist preacher brought up old times. He told me his story. He had come to California hoping to make a fortune in a hurry, but had only ill luck from the start. His prospectings were always failures, his partners cheated him, his health broke down, his courage gave way, and - he faltered a little, and then spoke it out - he took to whisky, and then the worst came.
"I have come down to this - cooking for a lot of roughs at five dollars a week, and all the whisky I want. It would have been better for me if I had died when I was in the hospital at San Andreas."
Poor Pete! he had indeed touched bottom. But he had a heart and a conscience still, and my own heart warmed toward my poor backslidden brother.
"You are not a lost man yet. You are worth a thousand dead men. You can get out of this, and you must. You must act the part of a brave man, and not be any longer a coward. Bad luck and lack of success are a disgrace to no man. There is where you went wrong. It was cowardly to give up and not write to your family, and then take to whisky."
"I know all that, Elder. There is no better little woman on earth than my wife" - Pete choked up again.
"You write to her this very night, and go back to her and your children just as soon as you can get the money to pay your way. Act the man, and all will come right yet. I have writing materials here in my satchel-pen, ink, paper, envelopes, stamps, every thing; I am an editor, and go fixed up for writing."
The letter was written, I acting as Pete's amanuensis, he pleading that he was a poor scribe at best and that his nerves were too unsteady for such work. Taking my advice, he made a clean breast of the whole matter, throwing himself on the forgiveness of the wife whom he had so shamefully neglected, and promising by the help of God to make all the amends possible in time to come. The letter was duly directed, sealed, and stamped; and Pete looked as if a great weight had been lifted from his soul, He had made me a fire in the little stove, saying it was better than the barroom; in which opinion I was fully agreed.
"There is no place for you to sleep tonight without corralling you with the fellows; there is but one bedroom, and there are fourteen bunks in it."
I shuddered at the prospect-fourteen bunks in one small room, and those whisky-sodden, loud-cursing card-players to be my roommates for the night!
"I prefer sitting here by the stove all night," I said; "I can employ most of the time writing, if I can have a light."
Pete thought a moment, looked grave, and then said:
"That won't do, Elder; those fellows would take offense, and make trouble. Several of them are out now goose-hunting; they will be coming in at all hours from now till daybreak, and it won't do for them to find you sitting up here alone. The best, thing for you to do is to go in and take one of those bunks; you, needn't takeoff any thing but your coat and boots, and" - here he lowered his voice, looking about him as he spoke - "if you have any money about, keep it next to your body."
The last words were spoken with peculiar emphasis.
Taking the advice given me, I took up my baggage and followed Pete to the room where I was to spend the night. Ugh! it was dreadful. The single window in the room was nailed down, and the air was close and foul. The bunks were damp and dirty beyond belief, grimed with foulness, and reeking with ill odors. This was being corralled.
I turned to Pete, saying:
"I can't stand this - I will go back to the kitchen."
"You had better follow my advice, Elder," said he very gravely. "I know things about here better than you do. It's rough, but you had better stand it."
And I did; being corralled, I had to stand it. That fearful night! The drunken fellows staggered in one by one, cursing and hiccoughing, until every bunk was occupied. They muttered oaths in their sleep, and their stertorous breathings made a concert fit for Tartarus. The sickening odors of whisky, onions, and tobacco filled the room. I lay there and longed for daylight, which seemed as if it never would come. I thought of the descriptions I had heard and read of hell, and just then the most vivid conception of its horror was to be shut up forever with the aggregated impurity of the universe. By contrast I tried to think of that city of God into which, it is said, "there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie; but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life." But thoughts of heaven did not suit the situation; it was more suggestive of the other place. The horror of being shut up eternally in hell as the companion of lost spirits was intensified by the experience and reflections of that night when I was corralled.
Day came at last. I rose with the first streaks of the dawn, and not having much toilet to make, I was soon out-of-doors. Never did I breathe the pure, fresh air with such profound pleasure and gratitude. I drew deep inspirations, and, opening my coat and vest, let the breeze that swept up the valley blow upon me unrestricted. How bright, was the face of nature, and how sweet her, breath after the sights, sounds, and smells of the night!
I did not wait for breakfast, but had my pinto and buggy brought out, and, bidding Pete good-by, hurried on to Stockton.
"So you were corralled last night?" was the remark of a friend, quoted at the beginning of this true sketch. "What was the name of the proprietor of the house?"
I gave him the name.
"Dave W - !" he exclaimed with fresh astonishment. "That is the roughest place in the San Joaquin Valley. Several men have been killed and robbed there during the last two or three years."
I hope Pete got back safe to his wife and children in Iowa; and I hope I may never be corralled again.