The Young Vigilantes: A Story of California Life in the Fifties - Samuel Adams Drake - ebook
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"As passenger train Number Four was rounding a curve at full speed, ten miles out of this city, on the morning of October 4, and at a point where a deep cut shut out the view ahead, the engineer saw some one, man or boy, he could not well make out which, running down the track toward the train, frantically swinging both arms and waving his cap in the air as if to attract attention. The engine-man instantly shut off steam, whistled for brakes, and quickly brought the train to a standstill.

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The Young Vigilantes

A Story of California Life in the Fifties

By

Samuel Adams Drake

Illustrator: L. J. Bridgman

 

Walter and Bill tramping across the Isthmus.

 

I.A NARROW ESCAPE

From the Morning Post-Horn:

"As passenger train Number Four was rounding a curve at full speed, ten miles out of this city, on the morning of October 4, and at a point where a deep cut shut out the view ahead, the engineer saw some one, man or boy, he could not well make out which, running down the track toward the train, frantically swinging both arms and waving his cap in the air as if to attract attention. The engine-man instantly shut off steam, whistled for brakes, and quickly brought the train to a standstill.

"The engine-man put his head out of the cab window. The conductor jumped off, followed by fifty frightened passengers, all talking and gesticulating at once; while the person who had just given the warning signal slackened his breakneck pace, somewhat, upon seeing that he had succeeded in stopping the train.

"'What's the matter?' shouted the impatient engine-man when this person had come within hearing.

"'What do you stop us for?' called out the little conductor sharply, in his turn, at the same time anxiously consulting the face of the watch he held in his hand.

"To both questions the young man seemed too much out of breath to reply, offhand; but turning and pointing in the direction whence he came, he shook his head warningly, threw himself down on the roadbed, as limp as a rag, and began fanning himself with his cap. After getting his breath a little, he made out to say, 'Bridge afire—quarter mile back. Tried put it out—couldn't. Heard train coming—afraid be too late. Couldn't run another step.'

"'Get aboard,' said the conductor to him. 'Jake,' to the grinning engine-man, 'we'll run down and take a look at it. Get out your flag!' to a brakeman. 'Like as not Thirteen'll be along before we can make Brenton switch. All aboard!' The delayed train then moved on.

"As it neared the burning bridge it was clear to every one that the young man's warning had prevented a disastrous wreck, probably much loss of life, because the bridge could not be seen until the train was close upon it. All hands immediately set to work with pails extinguishing the flames, which was finally done after a hard fight. To risk a heavy train upon the half-burned stringers was, however, out of the question. Leaving a man to see that the fire did not break out again, the train was run back to the next station, there to await further orders. We were unable to learn the name of the young man to whose presence of mind the passengers on Number Four owed their escape from a serious, perhaps fatal disaster. But we are informed that a collection was taken up for him on the train, which he, however, refused to accept, stoutly insisting that he had only done what it was his duty to do under the circumstances."

Thus far, the Morning Post-Horn. We now take up the narrative where the enterprising journal left off.

While the delayed train was being held for orders, the young man whose ready wit had averted a calamity stood on the platform with his hands in his trousers pockets, apparently an unconcerned spectator of what was going on around him. The little pug-nosed conductor stepped up to him.

"I say, young feller, what may I call your name?"

"Seabury."

"Zebra, Zebra," repeated the conductor, in a puzzled tone, "then I s'pose your ancestors came over in the Ark?"

"I didn't say Zebra; I said Seabury plain enough," snapped back the young man, getting red in the face at seeing the broad grins on the faces around him.

"Don't fire up so. Got any first name?"

"Walter."

"Walter Seabury," the conductor repeated slowly, while scratching it down. "Got to report this job, you know. Say, where you goin'?"

"I'm walkin' to Boston."

"Shanks' mare, hey. No, you ain't. Get aboard and save your muscle. You own this train to-day, and everything in it. Lively now." The conductor then waved his hand, and the train started on. At the bridge a transfer was effected to a second train, and this one again was soon reeling off the miles toward Boston, as if to make up for lost time.

Being left to himself, young Seabury, whom we may as well hereafter call by his Christian name of Walter, could think of nothing else than his wonderful luck. Instead of having a long, weary tramp before him, here he was, riding in a railroad train, and without its costing him a cent. This was a saving of both time and money.

Pretty soon the friendly conductor came down the aisle to where Walter sat, looking out of the car window. After giving him a sharp look, the conductor made up his mind that here was no vagabond tramp. "It's none of my business, but all the same I'd like to know what you're walkin' to Boston for, young feller?" he asked.

"Going to look for work."

"What's your job?"

"I'm a rigger." And his hands, tarry and cracked, bore out his story perfectly.

"Ever in Boston?"

"Never."

"Know anybody there?"

"Nobody."

"Got any of this—you know?" slapping his pocket.

At this question Walter flushed up. He drew himself up stiffly, smiled a pitying smile, and said nothing. His manner conveyed the idea that he really didn't know exactly how much he was worth.

"That's first-rate," the conductor went on. "Now, look here. You'll get lost in Boston. I'll tell you what. When we get in, I'll show you how to go to get down among the riggers' lofts. You're a rigger, you say?" Walter nodded. "They're all in a bunch, down at the North End, riggers, sailmakers, pump- and block-makers, and all the rest. Full of work, too, I guess, all on account of this Californy business. Everybody's goin' crazy over it. You will be, too, in a week."

By this time, the train was rumbling over the long waste of salt-marsh stretching out between the mainland and the dome-capped city, and in five minutes more it drew up with a jerk in the station, with the locomotive puffing out steam like a tired racehorse after a hard push at the finish.

The conductor was as good as his word. He told Walter to go straight up Tremont Street until he came to Hanover, then straight down Hanover to the water, and then to follow his nose. "Oh, you can't miss it," was the cheerful, parting assurance. "Smell it a mile." But going straight up this street, and straight down that, was a direction not so easy to follow, as Walter soon found. The crowds bewildered him, and in trying to get out of everybody's way, he got in everybody's way, and was jostled, shoved about, and stared at, as he slowly made his way through the throng, until his roving eyes caught sight of the tall masts and fluttering pennants, where the long street suddenly came to an end. Walter put down his bundle, took off his cap, and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. Whichever way he looked, the wharves were crowded with ships, the ships with workmen, and the street with loaded trucks and wagons. Casting an eye upward he could see riggers at work among the maze of ropes and spars, like so many spiders weaving their webs. Here, at least, he could feel at home.

II.WALTER TELLS HIS STORY

Walter's first want was to find a boarding house suited to his means. Turning into a side street, walled in by a row of two-story brick houses, all as like as peas in a pod, he found that the difficulty would be to pick and choose, as all showed the same little tin sign announcing "Board and Lodging, by the Day or Week," tacked upon the door. After walking irresolutely up and down the street two or three times, he finally mustered up courage to give a timid pull at the bell of one of them. The door opened so suddenly that Walter fell back a step. He began stammering out something, but before he could finish, the untidy-looking girl sang out at the top of her voice: "Miss Hashall, Miss Hashall, there's somebody wants to see you!" She then bolted off through the back door singing "I want to be an angel," in a voice that set Walter's teeth on an edge. To make a long story short, Walter soon struck a bargain with the landlady,—a fat, pudgy person in a greasy black poplin, wearing a false front, false teeth, and false stones in her breastpin. True, Walter silently resented her demanding a week's board in advance, it seemed so like a reflection upon his honesty, but was easily mollified by the motherly interest she seemed to take in him—or his cash.

Bright and early the next morning Walter sallied out in search of work. His landlady had told him to apply at the first loft he came to. "Why, you can't make no mistake," the woman declared. "They're all drove to death, and hands is scurse as hens' teeth, all on account of this Kalerforny fever what carries so many of 'em off. Don't I wish I was a man! I'd jest like to dig gold enough to buy me a house on Beacon Street and ride in my kerridge. You just go and spunk right up to 'em, like I do. That's the way to get along in this world, my son."

Walter's landlady had told him truly. The demand for vessels for the California trade was so urgent that even worm-eaten old whaleships were being overhauled and refitted with all haste, and as Walter walked along he noticed that about every craft he saw showed the same sign in her rigging, "For San Francisco with dispatch." "Well, I'll be hanged if there ain't the old Argonaut that father was mate of!" Walter exclaimed quite aloud, clearly taken by surprise at seeing an old acquaintance quite unexpectedly in a strange place, and quickly recognizing her, in spite of a new coat of paint alow and aloft.

The riggers were busy setting up the standing rigging, reeving new halliards, and giving the old barky a general overhauling. Walter climbed on board and began a critical survey of the ship's rigging, high and low.

"What yer lookin' at, greeny?" one of the riggers asked him, at seeing Walter's eyes fixed on some object aloft.

"I'm looking at that Irish pennant[1] on that stay up there," was the quick reply. This caused a broad smile to spread over the faces of the workmen.

[1]A strand of marline carelessly left flying by a rigger.

"You a rigger?"

"I've helped rig this ship."

"Want a job?"

"Yes."

"Well, here," tossing Walter a marline-spike, "let's see you make this splice." It was neatly and quickly done. "I'll give you ten dollars a week." Walter held out for twelve, and after some demurring on the part of the boss, a bargain was struck. Walter's overalls were rolled up in a paper, under his arm, so that he was immediately ready to begin work.

Being, as it were, in the midst of the stream of visitors to the ship, hearing no end of talk about the wonderful fortunes to be made in the Land of Gold, Walter did not wholly escape the prevailing frenzy, for such it was. But knowing that he had not the means of paying for his passage, Walter resolutely kept at work, and let the troubled stream pass by. There was still another obstacle. He would have to leave behind him a widowed aunt, whose means of support were strictly limited to her actual wants. He had at once written to her of his good fortune in obtaining work, though the receipt of that same letter had proved a great shock to the "poor lone creetur," as she described herself, because she had freely given out among her neighbors that a boy who would run away from such a good home as Walter had, would surely come to no good end.

Walter had struck up a rather sudden friendship with a young fellow workman of about his own age, named Charley Wormwood. On account of his name he was nicknamed "Bitters." Charley was a happy-go-lucky sort of chap, valuing the world chiefly for the amusement it afforded, and finding that amusement in about everything and everybody. Though mercilessly chaffed by the older hands, Charley took it all so good-naturedly that he made himself a general favorite. The two young men soon arranged to room together, and had come to be sworn friends.

One pleasant evening, as the two sat in their room, with chairs tilted back against the wall, the following conversation was begun by Charley: "I say, Walt, we've been together here two months now, to a dot, and never a word have you said about your folks. Mind now, I don't want to pry into your secrets, but I'd like to know who you are, if it's all the same to you. Have you killed a man, or broke a bank, or set a fire, or what? Folks think it funny, when I have to tell them I don't know anything about you, except by guess, and you know that's a mighty poor course to steer by. Pooh! You're as close as an oyster!"

Walter colored to his temples. For a short space he sat eyeing Charley without speaking. Then he spoke up with an evident effort at self-control, as if the question, so suddenly put, had awakened painful memories. "There's no mystery about it," he said. "You want to hear the story? So be it, then. I'll tell mine if you'll tell yours.

"I b'long to an old whaling port down on the Cape. I was left an orphan when I was a little shaver, knee-high to a toadstool. Uncle Dick, he took me home. Aunt Marthy didn't like it, I guess. All she said was, 'Massy me! Another mouth to feed?' 'Pooh, pooh, Marthy,' uncle laughed, 'where there's enough for two, there's enough for three.' She shut up, but she never liked me one mite."

"An orphan?" interjected Charley. "No father nor mother?"

"I'll tell you about it. You see, my father went out mate on a whaling voyage in the Pacific, in this very same old Argonaut we've been patchin' and pluggin' up. It may have been a year we got a letter telling he was dead. Boat he was in swamped, while fast to a whale—a big one. They picked up his hat. Sharks took him, I guess. Mother was poorly. She fell into a decline, they called it, and didn't live long. We had nothin' but father's wages. They was only a drop in the bucket. Then there was only me left."

"That was the time your uncle took you home?"

"Yes; Uncle Dick was a rigger by trade. He used to show me how to make all sorts of knots and splices evenings; and bimeby he got me a chance, when I was big enough, doin' odd jobs like, for a dollar a week, in the loft or on the ships. Aunt Marthy said a dollar a week didn't begin to pay for what I et. Guess she knew. Pretty soon, I got a raise to a dollar-half."

"But what made you quit? Didn't you like the work?"

"Liked it first-rate. Like it now. But I couldn't stand Aunt Marthy's sour looks and sharp tongue. Nothing suited her. She was either as cold as ice, or as hot as fire coals. When she wasn't scolding, she was groaning. Said she couldn't see what some folks was born into this world just to slave for other folks for." A frown passed over Walter's face at the recollection.

"Nice woman that," observed the sententious Charley. "But how about the uncle?" he added. "Couldn't he make her hold her yawp?"

"Oh, no better man ever stood. He was like a father to me—bless him!" (Walter's voice grew a little shaky here.) "But he showed the white feather to Aunt Marthy. Whenever she went into one of her tantrums, he would take his pipe and clear out, leaving me to bear the brunt of it.

"A good while after mother died, father's sea-chest was brought home in the Argonaut.There was nothing in it but old clothes, this watch [showing it], and some torn and greasy sea-charts, with the courses father had sailed pricked out on 'em. Those charts made me sort o' hanker to see the world, which I then saw men traveled with the aid of a roll of paper, and a little knowledge, as certainly, and as safely, as we do the streets of Boston. You better believe I studied over those charts some! Anyhow, I know my geography." And Walter's blue eyes lighted up with a look of triumph.

"Bully for you! Then that was what started you out on your travels, was it?"

"No: I had often thought of slipping away some dark night, but couldn't make up my mind to it. It did seem so kind o' mean after all Uncle Dick had done for me. But one day (one bad day for me, Charley) a man came running up to the loft, all out of breath, to tell me that Uncle Dick had fallen down the ship's hatchway, and that they were now bringing him home on a stretcher. I tell you I felt sick and faint when I saw him lying there lifeless. He never spoke again.

"Shortly after the funeral, upon going to the loft the foreman told me that work being slack they would have to lay off a lot of hands, me with the rest. Before I went to sleep that night I made up my mind to strike out for myself; for now that Uncle Dick was gone, I couldn't endure my life any longer. I set about packing up my duds without saying anything to my aunt, for I knew what a rumpus she would make over it, and if there's anything I hate it's a scene."

"Me too," Charley vigorously assented. "Rather take a lickin'."

"Well," Walter resumed, "I counted up my money first. There was just forty-nine dollars. Lucky number: it was the year '49 too. I put ten of it in an envelope directed to my aunt, and put it on the chimney-piece where she couldn't help seeing it when she came into my room. Then I took a piece of chalk and wrote on the table top: 'I'm going away to hunt for work. When I get some, I'll let you know. Please take care of mychest. Look on the mantelpiece. Good-bye. From Walter.'

"Then, like a thief, I slipped out of the house by a back way, in my stocking feet, and never stopped running till I was 'way out of town. There I struck the railroad. I knew if I followed it it would take me to Boston. And it did. That's all."

III.AND CHARLEY TELLS HIS

There was silence for a minute or two, each of the lads being busy with his own thoughts. Apparently they were not pleasant thoughts. What a tantalizing thing memory sometimes is!

But it was not in the nature of things for either to remain long speechless. Walter first broke silence by reminding Charley of his promise. "Come now, you've wormed all that out of me about my folks, pay your debts. I should like to know what made you leave home. Did you run away, too?"

At this question, Charley's mouth puckered up queerly, and then quickly broke out into a broad grin, while his eyes almost shut tight at the recollection Walter's question had summoned up. "It was all along of 'Rough on Rats,'" he managed to say at last.

"Rough on Rats?"

"Yes, 'Rough on Rats.' Rat poison. You just wait, and hear me through.

"I've got a father somewhere, I b'leeve. Boys gen'ally have, I s'pose, though whether mine's dead or alive, not knowin', can't say. We were poor as Job's turkey, if you know how poor that was. I don't. Anyway, he put me out to work on a milk and chicken farm back here in the country, twenty miles or so, to a man by the name of Bennett, and then took himself off out West somewhere."

"And you've never seen him since?"

"No; I ha'n't never missed him, or the lickin's he give me. Well, my boss he raised lots of young chickens for market. We was awfully pestered with rats, big, fat, sassy ones, getting into the coops nights, and killing off the little chicks as soon's ever they was hatched out. You see, they was tender. Besides eating the chicks they et up most of the grain we throw'd into the hens. The boss he tried everything to drive those rats away. He tried cats an' he tried traps. 'Twan't no use. The cats wouldn't tech the rats nor the rats go near the traps. You can't fool an old rat much, anyhow," he added with a knowing shake of his head.

"Well, the boss was a-countin' the chicks one mornin', while ladling out the dough to 'em. 'Confound those rats,' he sputtered out; 'there's eight more chicks gone sence I fed last night. I'd gin something to red the place on 'em, I would.'

"'Uncle,' says I (he let me call him uncle, seein' he'd kind of adopted me like)—'uncle,' says I, 'why don't you try Rough on Rats? They say that'll fetch 'em every time.'

"'What's that? Never heer'd on't. How do you know? Who says so?' he axed all in one breath."

"'Anyhow, I seen a big poster down at the Four Corners that says so,' says I. 'The boys was a-talkin' about what it had done up to Skillings' place. Skillings allowed he'd red his place of rats with it. Hadn't seen hide nor hair of one sence he fust tried it. Everybody says it's a big thing.'

"The old man said nothin' more just then. He didn't let on that my advice was worth a cent; but I noticed that he went off and bought some Rough on Rats that same afternoon, and when the old hens had gone to roost and the mother hens had gathered their broods under 'em for the night, uncle he slyly stirred up a big dose of the p'isen stuff into a pan of meal, which he set down inside the henhouse.

"Uncle's idea was to get up early in the mornin', so's to count up the dead rats, I s'pose.

"But he did not get up early enough. When he went out into the henhouse to investigate, he found fifteen or twenty of his best hens lying dead around the floor after eatin' of the p'isen'd meal.

"When I come outdoors he was stoopin' down, with his back to me pickin' 'em up."

Walter laughed until the tears rolled down his cheeks, sobered down, and then broke out again. Charley found the laugh infectious and joined in it, though more moderately.

"Go ahead. Let's have the rest, do," Walter entreated. "What next?"

"I asked Uncle Bennett what he was goin' to do with all those dead hens. He flung one at my head. Oh! But he was mad. 'Just stop where you be, my little joker,' says he, startin' off for the stable; 'I've got somethin' that's Rough on Brats, an' you shall have a taste on't right off. Don't you stir a step,' shakin' his fist at me, 'or I'll give you the worst dressin' down you ever had in all your life.'

"While he was gone for a horsewhip, I lit out for the Corners. You couldn't have seen me for dust.

"I darsen't go back to the house and I had only a silver ninepence in my pocket and afew coppers, but I managed to beg my way to Boston. Oh! Walt, it was a long time between meals, I can tell you. I slept one night in a barn, on the haymow. Nobody saw me slip in after dark. I took off my neckerchief and laid it down within reach, for it was hot weather on that haymow, and I was 'most choked with the dust I swallowed. I overslept. In the morning I heard a noise down where the hosses were tied up. Some one was rakin' down hay for 'em. I reached for my neckerchief, thinkin' how I should get away without being seen, when a boy's voice gave a shout, 'Towser! Towser!' and then I knew it was all up, for that boy had raked down my neckerchief with the hay, and he knew there was a tramp somewhere about.

"The long and short of it is, that the dog chased me till I was ready to drop or until another and a bigger one came out of a yard and tackled him. Then it was dog eat dog.

"When I got to Boston it was night. I had no money. I didn't know where to go. Tired's no name for it. I was dead-beat. So I threw myself down on a doorstep and was asleep in a minnit. There was an alarm of fire. An ingine came jolting along. I forgot all about being tired and took holt of the rope, and ran, and hollered, with the rest. The fire was all out when we got there, so I went back to the ingine house, and the steward let me sleep in the cellar a couple of hours and wash up in the mornin'. But I'm ahead of my story. They had hot coffee and crackers and cheese when they got back from the fire. No cheese ever tasted like that before. Give me a fireman for a friend at need. I hung round that ingine house till I picked up a job. The company was all calkers, gravers, riggers, and the like. Tough lot! How they could wallop that old tub over the cobblestones, to be sure!"

And here Charley fell into a fit of musing from which Walter did not attempt to rouse him. In their past experiences the two boys had found a common bond.