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[Note: Given the penchant of some of the Overland Monthly's writers for using catchy or punning pseudonyms, it's likely that "Brooke Stoner" was not the real name of the author of this article. Nor is it clear whether this piece is a fictional story, or a factual report. But it evokes the vast, lonely nature of the north county's early days.]
years ago, I was living in San Luis Obispo County near the coast. I knew
the people well—the rapidly disappearing Spanish element, the Italian
fishermen, the Swiss dairymen, the Missourian cattle-raisers of the hill
region, the quicksilver prospectors, and the mountain hunters who ranged
the wild region northwards toward the Monterey coast. I had climbed
Morro Rock—the great mass of granite, 683 feet high, that guards the
entrance to Morro Bay. I thought, in fact, that I knew the whole county
from end to end, and had exhausted its varied experiences. But I was
morning, I saddled up a wild brown horse, which I had bought from a
large band, and rode northward from the old Summit region near the San
Josephine mine. I meant to go through the hills to the old stage road at
the crossings of the Nacimiento. But I was careless at best, and the
trail was terribly confused by crossing cattle and sheep tracks, and by
noon I had lost my way entirely, had wandered in a northwesterly
direction, and had become involved in the thick forest and stifling
undergrowth of the precipitous mountain region along the headwaters of
the Nacimiento River, the boundary line between Monterey and San Luis
do not know of a more wild and lonely region in all California than that
in which I found myself. At least it was so at that time, some fifteen
years ago. Nominally it was a cattle range, but practically speaking,
one might spend a week there without meeting anything except birds,
squirrels, lynxes, and an occasional deer.
fog from the Pacific drifted in in great waves, and obscured hill and
ravine. For a week, indeed, this fog hung over the Coast Range, and as
settlers afterwards told me, old ranchers were lost within a mile of
their own homes, and wandered about for hours, until the sight of some
familiar landmark enabled them to discover their location. Under such
circumstances, a young man of the cities, unused to mountaineering, was
even further bewildered. I managed to lose my bearings so completely,
[so] that instead of going north, I was facing west, and towards the
wildest ravines of the upper Nacimiento.
day darkened down into dusk; the land was a wild and foodless waste, in
which there was no sight or sound that was cheerful or encouraging in
any degree; no cattle lowing, no tinkle of a sheep bell or bark of a
dog, or even the whistle of a quail. The fog dripped heavily from the
trees, and my clothes were damp and cold. I uncoiled the long stake
rope, and let my horse feed on the dry grass of a hill-slope, and drink
at a spring in the bottom of the gulch. Then, with the end of the stake
rope tied fast to a bush at my feet, I lay down on the lee side of a
boulder, and went supperless to bed.
the night, I heard the coyotes about me, and once the slow, lumbering
tread of a grizzly passing up the dry bed of the stream, where no cattle
ever walked; but morning came, and I found everything as before—gray
fog, brown hills, and loneliness.
saddled my horse, and rode slowly on, as a man shipwrecked would
sail—he cares not
whither, so only he be ever moving. I think that for half a day, I
understood, as never before, the feelings of a shipwrecked wanderer. For
I was lost in the mountains.
noon I rode into a narrow black ravine and found signs of occupancy
there. A small footpath was trodden in the tall, dry, wild oats. It led
from a spring set low in the bank, and, turning past a rock, ascended to
the head of the gulch. I rode into the bottom of the ravine, and saw
that the spring was boarded up, and a cup hung on a branch near.
Fortunately, I felt no desire to drink; indeed, my anxiety to find some
settler and regain my bearings overwhelmed all lesser thoughts.
ascent of the path was easy, though narrow and rocky. I spurred my
mustang, and he set his shoulders against the bank. This carried me past
the trees by the spring, and I was able to see that there was a small
flat space of ground at the head of the gulch, with a rude log cabin
built against a moss-covered rock. Smoke came from the chimney; there
was someone there. I gave my horse his head, and set him again to the
bank. As we climbed, I directed his course straight toward the cabin.
yards farther, an enormous white oak half blocked the road. On its bole
was a board nailed, and on that board, painted in rude, wavering letters
half a foot long, was the sentence: “For God’s sake, come no
paused, drew rein, threw my horse back, facing the writing. I did not
understand it then. But I do now.
breeze swept down across the hills, and brought a strange sickening odor
from the cabin that startled me into wondering whether anyone lay dying
of a fever there. An almost overmastering feeling of terror smote me for
an instant, as that sickly, ghastly breath came from the cabin. I know
now what that odor was, but then I did not know. I read the sentence
once more, and rode on past it toward the ruined cabin.
would have been a beautiful spot for a poet or mystic, if only that
overhanging dread were gone. Looking back, I saw with a delighted eye
that the few rods of ascent had opened up a wide vista of
distance—blue hills, from which the dense fog was now lifting, rocks,
pines, and a vast mountain panorama. The level acre of ground was very
fertile; wild fruits, vines, and flowers bordered it with glorious
entanglements; two deep ravines held it between them; behind, the
barrier of a mountain peak sheltered it—it was a site among a
on with gentle pace, I passed a rod of garden fenced in with closely
wattled brush, and watered through hollow logs by water from a spring
behind the cabin. Then I passed a pile of rude quail-traps. The
hermit-dweller here, whoever he was, had food in abundance evidently,
and by now I was at the half-open door of the dingy den.
something projected from within the cabin and caught the edge of the
door, pulling it inwards. It was not a hand; there was nothing human
about it except a vague suggestion that it might have once been a hand.
I saw it plainly, with the sunlight flashing upon it—a horrible,
distorted, inhuman thing—a claw that the midnight ghoul of a graveyard
might envy. I heard the hoarse rattle and dull breathing of the creature
inside, and the odors of the charnel house came with tenfold violence
from the awful place. Again that hoarse, pitiful rattle; then words in
good English, words such as these:
must go away. It is death to stay here. My disease will kill you. Every
breath is your poison.”
I help you?”
can help me. I am a leper. Leave me, and send no one here.”
asked the way.
that mountain,” he cried. “Go at once.”
His words had the ring of an almost superhuman agony.
hours after, the words, “I am a leper,” rang in my ears. I kept
finding new meanings in that awful cry from the harsh voice of the
outcast. Who was he? Whom
had he loved, and what tragedy lay behind it all?
Was this the end of some old family of princes and conquerors,
proud and luxurious, dying at the roots, poisoned at last with Oriental
vices? Was this the
strange, unaccountable disaster of a single life, the wreck of a hopeful
and genius-guided voyage on life’s sea?
mystery deepened as I rode. I saw the knotty hand projected, heard the
voice crying “Unclean, unclean,” as the outcasts of Palestine were
wont to cry, as they went forth to the desert.
mile from the cabin a bit of white fluttered in the grass. I dismounted
and examined it. It proved to be a fragment of a woman’s letter, the
paper of the costliest, the handwriting elegant and cultured, but the
words mostly illegible. Perhaps it had belonged to that poor, crouching
leper, but that is for the hereafter to reveal.
hour before dark, I had ridden to the top of the pine ridge. The fog had
entirely disappeared. Looking back, I saw far below the break in the
rocks, and the small, cup-like depression where the leper’s cabin
stood. Westward, unmistakably clear and glorious, lay the vast, shining
Pacific, twenty miles distant, and all the space between was purple and
brown, white of quartz, and darkest green of fir trees and pine. Not a
breath anywhere; not a sound afloat. Peace rested on the lonely
wilderness. But while I stood there, looking and wondering, the living
death moved beside that silent place, and crawled to his vegetables, and
set his traps, and waited his release.
set my face northward. Far below me shone the Nacimiento River, broad
and swift. There was no road, or even foot-trail, and the northern sides
of the mountains were one mass of scrub-oak and chaparral. There was
only one way—to force a passage along the bottom of the nearest
ravine, and take the chances.
rolled the heaviest rocks I could stir down the ravine and somewhat
cleared the way. Then I uncoiled my long riata, and going ahead,
fastened it to a tree down the ravine. Returning I coaxed, pushed, and
bullied my horse into sliding down. This operation sufficiently repeated
brought me at last to the river, and following the bank, I was soon in a
years passed away, and I had heard nothing of the leper of the upper
Nacimiento. Then a San Luis Obispo newspaper mentioned the fact that a
cabin had been found in the mountains and in it lay the skeleton of a
man. Some refugee from justice, it was conjectured, had made his home
there, and had died from accident, suicide, or disease. A year later, I
met one of the herders for a large cattle owner in the region, and asked
him about the country.
up fast,” he said. “All sheep and cattle ranges from the Salinas to
the ocean. Not half so wild
as it was ten years ago.”
about that cabin?” I asked.
sir, I was the boy that found it. First we found a boarded-up spring
with a sign board of some sort nearby , but all the writing faded out.
Then came a place where there had been a garden, but deer and bear and
rabbits an’ sich had used that about up. There was some cabbages run
wild, that we cooked for greens that night.”
was little narrow paths running about the flat that looked like as if a
cripple had hitched himself around. In fact, there was a queer feeling
about the whole place, but I can’t exactly describe it.
the cabin was very old and worthless as a shelter, except the fireplace
end. There had been a big fire there and lots of things burned. The
ashes showed marks of letters and books and clothes and truck of every
kind that had been burned there. We raked them all over, and found
buttons and a pocket-knife, and bits of a few photographs. That was all.
rest of the boys wanted to tear up the floor and dig for money, but I
laughed them out of the notion. The fellow was some crazy fool, and
that’s the whole story.”
Some to whom I have told this matter have asked me to write it down, thinking that there may be some person or persons living who are deeply interested. So I have told it.
here to return to
here to return to