Letters on an Elk Hunt: Ii. The Adventure of Crazy Olaf

IN CAMP, Aug. 31, 1914.

We are across the desert, and camped for a few days’ fishing on a shady, bowery little stream, We have had two frosty nights and there are trembling golden groves on every hand. Four men joined us at Newfork, and the bachelors have gone on; but Mr. Stewart wanted to rest the ‘ beasties ’ and we all wanted to fish, so we camped for a day or two.

The twenty-eighth was the warmest day we have had, the most disagreeable in every way. Not a breath of air stirred except an occasional whirlwind, which was hot and threw sand and dust over us. We could see the heat glimmering, and not a tree nor a green spot. The mountains looked no nearer. I am afraid we all rather washed we were at home. Water was getting very scarce, so the men wanted to reach by noon a long, low valley they knew of; for sometimes water could be found in a buried river-bed there, and they hoped to find enough for the horses. But a little after noon we came to the spot, and only dry, glistening sand met our eyes. The men emptied the water-bags for the horses; they all had a little water. We had to be saving, so none of us washed our dust-grimed faces.

We were sitting in the scant shadow of the wagons eating our dinner when we were startled to see a tall, bare-headed man come racing down the draw. His clothes and shoes were in tatters; there were great blisters on his arms and shoulders where the sun had burned him; his eyes were swollen and red, and his lips were cracked and bloody. His hair was so white and so dusty that altogether he was a pitiful-looking object. He greeted us pleasantly, and said that his name was Olaf Swanson and that he was a sheep-herder; that he had seen us and had come to ask for a little smoking. By that he meant tobacco.

Mrs. O’Shaughnessy was eyeing him very closely. She asked him when he had eaten. That morning, he said. She asked him what he had eaten; he told her cactus balls and a little rabbit. I saw her exchange glances with Professor Glenholdt, and she left her dinner to get out her war-bag.

She called Olaf aside and gently dressed his blisters with listerine; after she had helped him to clean his mouth she said to him, ‘Now, Olaf, sit by me and eat; show me how much you can eat. Then tell me what you mean by saying you are a sheep-herder; don’t you think we know there will be no sheep on the desert before there is snow to make water for them?’

‘I am what I say I am,’ he said. ‘I am not herding now because sorrow has drove me to dig wells. It is sorrow for horses. Have you not seen their bones every mile or so along this road ? Them ’s markers. Every pile of bones marks where man’s most faithful friend has laid down at last: most of ’em died in the harness and for want of water.

‘ I killed a horse once. I was trying to have a good time. I had been out with sheep for months and had n’t seen any one but my pardner. We planned to have a rippin’ good time when we took the sheep in off the summer range and drew our pay. You don’t know how people-hungry a man gets livin’ out. So my pardner and me layed out to have one spree. We had a neat little bunch of money, but when we got to town we felt lost as sheep. We did n’t know nobody but the bartender. We kept taking a drink now and then just so as to have him to talk to. Finally, he told us there was going to be a dance that night, so we asked around and found we could get tickets for two dollars each. Sam said he’d like to go. We bought tickets.

‘ Somehow or another they knew us for sheep-herders, and every once in a while somebody would baa-baa at us. We had a couple of dances, but after that we could n’t get a pardner. After midnight things begun to get pretty noisy. Sam and me was settin’ wonderin’ if we were havin’ a good time, when a fellow stepped on Sam’s foot and said baa. I rose up and was goin’ to smash him, but Sam collared me and said, “Let’s get away from here, Olaf, before trouble breaks out.” It sounded as if every man in the house and some of the women were baa-ing.

‘ We were pretty near the door when a man put his hand to his nose and baa-ed. I knocked him down, and before you could bat your eye everybody was fightin’. We could n’t get out, so we backed into a corner; and every man my fist hit rested on the floor till somebody helped him away. A fellow hit me on the head with a chair and I did n’t know how I finished or got out.

‘ The first thing I remember after that was feeling the greasewood thorns tearing my flesh and my clothes next day. We were away out on the desert not far from North Pilot butte. Poor Sam could n’t speak. I got him off poor old Pinto, and took off the saddle for a pillow for him. I hung the saddle-blanket on a greasewood so as to shade his face; then I got on my own poor horse, poor old Billy, and started to hunt help. I rode and rode. I was tryin’ to find some outfit. When Billy lagged I beat him on. You see, I was thinking of Sam. After a while the horse staggered, — stepped into a badger hole, I thought. But he kept staggerin’. I fell off on one side just as he pitched forward. He tried and tried to get up. I stayed till he died; then I kept walking. I don’t know what became of Sam; I don’t know what became of me; but I do know I am going to dig wells all over this desert until every thirsty horse can have water.’

All the time he had been eating just pickles; when he finished his story he ate faster. By now we all knew he was demented. The men tried to coax him to go on with us so that they could turn him over to the authorities, but he said he must be digging. At last it was decided to send some one back for him. Mr. Struble was unwilling to leave him, but the man would not be persuaded. Suddenly he gathered up his ‘smoking’ and some food and ran back up the draw. We had to go on, of course.

All that afternoon our road lay along the buried river. I don’t mean dry river. Sand had blown into the river until the water was buried. Water was only a few feet down, and the banks were clearly defined. Sometimes we came to a small, dirty puddle, but it was so alkaline that nothing could drink it. The story we had heard had saddened us all, and we were sorry for our horses. Poor little Elizabeth Hull wept. She said the West was so big and bare, and she was so alone and so sad, she just had to cry.

About sundown we came to a ranch and were made welcome by one Timothy Hobbs, owner of the place. The dwelling and the stables were a collection of low brown houses, made of logs and daubed with mud. Fields of shocked grain made a very prosperous-looking background. A belled cow led a bunch of sleek cattle home over the sand dunes. A well in the yard afforded plenty of clear, cold water, which was raised by a windmill. The cattle came and drank at the trough, the bell making a pleasant sound in the twilight.

The men told Mr. Hobbs about the man we saw. ‘ Oh, yes,’ he said, ‘ that is crazy Olaf. He has been that way for twenty years. Spends his time digging wells, but he never gets any water, and the sand caves in almost as fast as he can get it out.’ Then he launched upon a recital of how he got sweet water by piping past the alkali strata. I kept hoping he would tell how Olaf was kept and who was responsible for him, but he never told.

He invited us to prepare our supper in his kitchen, and as it was late and wood was scarce, we were glad to accept. He bustled about helping us, adding such dainties as fresh milk, butter, and eggs to our menu. He is a rather stout little man, with merry gray eyes and brown hair beginning to gray. He wore a red shirt and blue overalls, and he wiped his butcher’s knife impartially on the legs of his overalls or his towel,— just whichever was handiest as he hurried about cutting our bacon and opening cans for us.

Mrs. O’Shaughnessy and he got on famously. After supper, while she and Elizabeth washed the dishes, she asked him why he did n’t get married and have some one to look after him and his cabin.

‘I don’t have time,’ he answered. ‘I came West eighteeen years ago to make a start and a home for Jennie and me, but I can’t find time to go back and get her. In the summer I have to hustle to make the hay and grain, and I have to stay and feed the stock all the rest of the time.’

‘ You write her once in a while, don’t you?’ asked Mrs. O’Shaughnessy.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I wrote her two years ago come April; then I was so busy I did n’t go to town till I went for my year’s supplies. I went to the post office, and sure enough there was a letter for me, — been waitin’ for me for six months. You see the postmaster knows me and never would send a letter back. I set down there right in the office and answered it. I told her how it was, told her I was coming after her soon as I could find time. You see, she refuses to come to me ’cause I am so far from the railroad, and she is afraid of Indians and wild animals.’

‘Have your got your answer?’ asked Elizabeth.

‘No,’ he said, ‘I ain’t had time yet to go, but I kind of wish somebody would think to bring the mail. Not many people pass here, only when the open season takes hunters to the mountains. When you people come back will you stop and ask for the mail for me?’

We promised.

In the purple and amber light of a new day we were about, and soon were on the road. By nightfall we had bidden the desert a glad farewell, and had camped on a large stream among trees. How glad we were to see so much water and such big cottonwoods! Mr. and Mrs. Burney were within a day’s drive of home, so they left us. This camp is at Newfork, and our party has four new members; a doctor, a moving-picture man, and two geological fellows. They have gone on, but we will join them soon.

Just across the creek from us is the cabin of a new settler. Mrs. O’Shaughnessy and I slept together last night, — only we could n’t sleep for the continual, whining cry of a sick baby at the cabin. So after a while we rose and dressed and crossed over to see if we could be of any help. We found a woefully distressed young couple. Their first child, about a year old, was very sick. They did n’t know what to do for it; and she was afraid to stay alone while he went for help.

They were powerfully glad to see us, and the young father left at once to get Grandma Mortimer, a neighborhood godsend such as most Western communities have one of. We busied ourselves relieving the young mother as much as we could. She would n’t leave the baby and lie down. The child is teething and had convulsions. We put it into a hot bath and held the convulsions in check until Mrs. Mortimer came. She bustled in and took hold in a way to insure confidence. She had not been there long before she had both parents in bed, ‘saving themselves for to-morrow,’ and was gently rubbing the hot little body of the baby. She kept giving it warm tea she had made of herbs, until soon the threatening jerks were over, the peevish whining ceased, and the child slept peacefully on Grandma’s lap. I watched her, fascinated. There was never a bit of faltering, no indecision; everything she did seemed exactly what she ought to do.

‘How did you learn it all?’ I asked her. ‘How can you know just what to do, and then have the courage to do it? I should be afraid of doing the wrong thing.’

‘ Why, ’ she said, ‘ that is easy. Just do the very best you can and trust God for the rest. After all, it is God who saves the baby, not us and not our efforts; but we can help. He lets us do that. Lots of times the good we do goes beyond any medicine. Never be afraid to help your best. I have been doing that for forty years and I am going to keep it up till I die.’

Then she told us story after story — told us how her different ambitions had ‘ boosted ’ her along, had made her swim when she just wanted to float. ‘ I was married when I was sixteen, and of course, my first ambition was to own a home for Dave. My man was poor. He had a horse, and his folks gave him another. My father gave me a heifer, and mother fitted me out with a bed. That was counted a pretty good start then, but we would have married even if we had n’t had one thing. Being young we were over-hopeful. We both took to work like a duck to water. Some years it looked as if we were going to see every dream come true. Another time and we would be poorer than at first. One year the hail destroyed everything; another time the flood carried away all we had.

‘ When little Dave was eleven years old, he had learned to plough. Every one of us was working to our limit that year. I ploughed and hoed, both, and big Dave really hardly took time to sleep. You see, his idea was that we must do better by our children than we had been done by, and Fanny, our eldest, was thirteen. Big Dave thought all girls married at sixteen because his mother did, and so did I; so that spring he said, “In just three years Fanny will be leaving us and we must do right by her. I wanted powerfully bad that you should have a blue silk wedding dress, mother, but of course it could n’t be had, and you looked as pretty as a rose in your pink lawn. But I’ve always wanted you to have a blue silk. As you can’t have it, let us get it for Fanny; and of course we must have everything else according.” And so we worked mighty hard.

‘Little Dave begged to be allowed to plough. Every other boy in the neighborhood did, — some of them younger than he, — but somehow I did n’t want him to. One of our neighbors had been sick a lot that year and his crops were about ruined. It was laying-by time and we had finished laying by our crops — all but about half a day’s ploughing in the corn. That morning at breakfast, big Dave said he would take the horses and go over to Henry Boles’sand plough that day to help out, — said he could finish ours any time, and it did n’t matter much if it did n’t get ploughed. He told the children to lay off that day and go fishing and berrying. So he went to harness his team, and little Dave went to help him. Fanny and I went to milk, and all the time I could hear little Dave begging his father to let him finish the ploughing. His father said he could if I said so.

‘I will never forget his eager little face as he began on me. He had a heap of freckles; I remember noticing them that morning; he was barefooted, and I remember that one toe was skinned. Big Dave was lighting his pipe, and till to-day I remember how he looked as he held the match to his pipe, drew a puff of smoke, and said, “ Say yes, mother. ” So I said yes, and little Dave ran to open the gate for his father.

‘As big Dave rode through the gate, our boy caught him by the leg and said, “I just love you, daddy.” Big Dave bent down and kissed him, and said, “You ’re a man, son.” How proud that made the little fellow! Parents should praise their children more; the little things work hard for a few words of praise, and many of them never get their pay.

‘Well, the little fellow would have no help to harness his mule; so Fanny and I went to the house, and Fanny said, “We ought to cook an extra good dinner to celebrate Davie’s first ploughing. I ’ll go down in the pasture and gather some blackberries if you will make a cobbler. ”

‘She was gone all morning. About ten o’clock, I took a pail of fresh water down to the field. I knew Davie would be thirsty, and I was uneasy about him, but he was all right. He pushed his ragged old hat back and wiped the sweat from his brow just as his father would have done. I petted him a little, but he was so mannish he did n’t want me to pet him any more. After he drank, he took up his lines again, and said, “Just watch me, mother; see how I can plough.” I told him that we were going to have chicken and dumplings for dinner, and that he must sit in his father’s place and help us to berry-cobbler. As he had only a few more rows to plough, I went back, telling myself how foolish I had been to be afraid.

‘Twelve o’clock came, but not Davie. I sent Fanny to the spring for the buttermilk and waited a while, thinking little Dave had not finished as soon as he expected. I went to the field. Little Dave lay on his face in the furrow. I gathered him up in my arms; he was yet alive; he put one weak little arm around my neck, and said, “Oh, mammy, I’m hurt. The mule kicked me in the stomach. ”

‘ I don’t know how I got to the house with him; I stumbled over clods and weeds, through the hot sunshine. I sank down on the porch in the shade, with the precious little form clasped tightly to me. He smiled, and tried to speak, but the blood gurgled up into his throat and my little boy was gone.

‘I would have died of grief if I had n’t had to work so hard. Big Dave got too warm at work that day, and when Fanny went for him and told him about little Dave, he ran all the way home; he was crazy with grief and forgot the horses. The trouble and the heat and the overwork brought on a fever. I had no time for tears for three months, and by that time my heart was hardened against my Maker. I got deeper in the rut of work, but I had given up my ambition for a home of my own; all I wanted to do was to work so hard that I could not think of the little grave on which the leaves were falling. I wanted, too, to save enough money to mark the precious spot, and then I wanted to leave. But first one thing and then another took every dollar we made for three years.

‘One morning Big Dave looked so worn out and pale that I said, “I am going to get out of here; I am not going to stay here and bury you, Dave. Sunrise to-morrow will see us on the road West. We have worked for eighteen years as hard as we knew how, and have given up my boy besides; and now we can’t even afford to mark his grave decently. It is time we left. ”

‘Big Dave went back to bed, and I went out and sold what we had. It was so little that it did n’t take long to sell it. That was years ago. We came West. The country was really wild then; there was a great deal of lawlessness. We did n’t get settled down for several years; we hired to a man who had a contract to put up hay for the government, and we worked for him for a long time.

‘Indians were thick as fleas on a dog then; some were camped near us once, and among them was a Mexican woman who could jabber a little English. Once, when I was feeling particularly resentful and sorrowful, I told her about my little Dave; and it was her jabbered words that showed me the way to peace.

I wept for hours, but peace had come and has stayed. Ambition came again, but a different kind: I wanted the same peace to come to all hearts that came so late to mine, and I wanted to help bring it. I took the only course I knew.

I have gone to others’ help every time there has been a chance. After Fanny married and Dave died, I had an ambition to save up four hundred dollars with which to buy an entrance into an old ladies’ home. Just before I got the full amount saved up, I found that young Eddie Carvvell wanted to enter the ministry and needed help to go to college. I had just enough; so I gave it to him. Another time I had almost enough, when Charlie Rucker got into trouble over some mortgage business; so I used what I had that time to help him. Now I’ve given up the old ladies’ home idea and am saving up for the blue silk dress Dave would have liked me to have. I guess I’ll die some day and I want it to be buried in. I like to think I’m going to my two Daves then; and it won’t be hard, — especially if I have the blue silk on.’

Just then a sleepy little bird twittered outside, and the baby stirred a little. The first faint light of dawn was just creeping up the valley. I rose and said I must get back to camp. Mrs. O’Shaughnessy and I had both wept with Mrs. Mortimer over little Dave. We have all given up our first-born little man-child; so we felt near each other. We told Mrs. Mortimer that we had passed under the rod also. I kissed her toilworn old hands, and Mrs. O’Shaughnessy dropped a kiss on her old gray head as we passed out into the rose-and-gold morning. We felt that we were leaving a sanctified presence, and we are both of us better and humbler women because we met a woman who has buried her sorrow beneath faith and endeavor.

This does n’t seem much like a letter, does it? When I started on this trip, I resolved that you should have just as much of the trip as I could give you. I did n’t know we would be so long getting to the hunting-ground, and I felt you would like to know of the people we meet. Perhaps my next letter will not be so tame. The hunting season opens to-morrow, but we are several days’ travel from the elk yet.

Elizabeth behaves queerly. She does n’t want to go on, stay here, or go back. I am perfectly mystified. So far she has not told us a thing, and we don’t know to whom she is going or anything about it. She is a likable little lady, and I sincerely hope she knows what she is do ing. It is bedtime and I must stop writ ing. We go on to-morrow.

With affectionate regards,