25. Cords Of Love Are Strong
Hattie Judson sat by the window overlooking the green wheat fields of the Los Ossis valley. The bells in the old mission were calling the humble worshippers of the valley, just as they had done for more than one hundred and forty years. She watched the blue haze of the valley growing denser in the shadows of the evening. She heard the low boom of a signal gun roll up from the sea. It was from the coast steamer in the open roadstead, the signal she was listening for in the hope that it would bring her a letter--the letter for which she had been waiting for six weeks.
The shadows from the coast hills crept up the valley, and the stars shone, when the whistle of the little narrow-gauge engine announced its arrival from the port. She put on her wraps and went to the postoffice and waited a good long hour before the mail was distributed. There was nothing in her box except the San Francisco paper. And yet she felt intuitively there must be some news. She returned to her home with a vague feeling of dread and lit the parlor lamp. Mechanically she scanned the headlines of the paper when her eye caught the line:
"Imprisoned Miners in Snow-slide;
Relief Party Working Night and Day."
"Saguache, Colo.--Word reached here last night that John Buchan and James Winslow, miners working a claim on the Sangre de Christo range, were buried in their cabin beneath a snow slide. It is believed the men are alive although there seems to be small hope of rescuing them on account of an overhanging cliff which may topple at any moment, with the melting snows and crush them out of existence. Rescue parties are at work night and day."
The room seemed to whirl and grow dark as she finished reading. Tears came to her eyes and she cried aloud. The members of the family came to find the cause of her outcry and found her in a flood of tears. They read the dispatch and knew the cause. The paper was two days old from San Francisco. What could she do? She must know at once. She went to the telegraph office and sent a message of inquiry to the mayor of Saguache. It was twelve o'clock when the message came: "Lines all down in San Luis valley." There was a telegraph line to San Louis Obispo, but no coast line railroad nearer than Paso Robles Hot Springs, sixty miles inland. It would be three days before there was another steamer for San Francisco. She felt that if she waited the suspense would kill her. She must go to Saguache.
In the grey of the morning she was seated beside a driver in a light running rig behind the swiftest pair of horses in the town. The northern express was due at noon and the distance of sixty miles must be made. The fleet animals climbed the mountain slopes and crossed the divide of the Santa Lucia range, and went speeding through the beautiful Santa Marguerite valley with its carpet of green, enlivened with splashes of yellow from the wild mustard blossoms. Across the swift flowing ford of the Salinis river, through deep ravines and mountain gorges, and over miles and miles of sun-baked sand and dreary waste of stunted cactus and sagebrush, the horses sped.
The scorched winds of the desert caught up the sands and hurled them hot into their faces and stung them like tiny sparks.
Dripping with foam the horses were reined up at the depot platform in just five hours and fifty minutes from the time of starting--a record that stands in San Louis Obispo today as the best ever made, and that too by a big-hearted western man who did it only to aid a woman in distress.
The train sped over miles of brown and parched desert, studded with a growth of palms that rattled in the sultry wind like dried sunflower stalks. The scenes were scarcely noticed by Hattie as she sat in the coach busied with her own thoughts. The train was an express but it seemed to her to creep along. The rumble of the wheels clanking on the iron rails seemed to say: "You'll be too late, you'll be too late."
At Sacramento there was a wait of four hours for the east bound express, and Hattie sat in the depot where she could watch the clock, tick, tock, tick, tock--swinging the pendulum in these moments of suspense and waiting. Those monotonous sounds persistently repeated the single theme, seconds were born and ushered into eternity with the slow swing of the pendulum; every tick brought the time of starting nearer, but the pendulum swung so slow.
Those four hours watching the clock were the most tedious of her life. When the time was drawing nigh and the waiting passengers were stirring about, the man in the ticket office came out and wrote upon the blackboard, "East bound Express two hours late."
Again the slow swinging pendulum sent a torrent of woe to the unhappy girl, and when the train rolled into the yards she felt as though she had lived within sound of that clock for a year.
The green valley changed to the red earth of the foothills, still showing signs of the gold hunters of 1849. The puffing and wheezing of the engine told they were climbing steep grades, and soon they were in the snows of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The train entered the forty-two mile snow shed and when half way through struck a hand car, derailing the engine.
It was day without, but dark within the sheds. A kindly woman with her daughter occupied the berth opposite Hattie. She noticed the troubled look on the girl's face and from that time on until they separated at Cheyenne, did everything she could to make the journey pleasant. But there was the ever present suspense and doubt.
It was ten hours before the train was again under way, but they had lost the right of way on the road and were compelled to make frequent stops on the sidings to allow other trains to pass.
As the train skirted the Great Salt Lake with its bleak and desolate islands of rock rising in silhouette against the cold grey skies, Hattie compared the scene to the feeling of utter desolation within her soul.
A storm was raging on the Laramie plains and when the snow plow, driven by the tremendous force of an extra engine in front, stuck fast in the snow, she began to have some conception of the mighty force of an avalanche, and the difficulty of reaching imprisoned men beneath its weight.
The railroad ended at a little station in the San Luis valley and then followed many miles of staging in a crowded coach. Everywhere the girl met with the most profound respect and attention from fellow passengers. She was always given the best seat in the coach, and otherwise made as comfortable as circumstances would permit. Such was the gallantry of these men of the frontier to the girl who was traveling alone.
At the last stage station before reaching Saguache, she heard men talking of the imprisoned miners in the Sangre de Christo mountains, but she was unable to learn any of the particulars other than that the relief party was still working. When, at last, she alighted at the hotel in Saguache her first question was concerning the imprisoned men. They will have them out in a few days if nothing happens was the assurance given by the landlady. "They are alive, we know, for we can see the smoke coming out from under the rock."
The two men under the snow slide had been the talk of the town for days. Every day a new party went to the scene to relieve those who had worked the day and night before, tunneling up the steep mountain side through snow of an unknown depth.
When Hattie reached the tunnel she begged to be allowed to go to the end of it where the men were working. She was assisted up the mountain side by willing hands and when she reached the workers one of them said: "The boys are all right for we can hear their voices."
It was then she gave an exclamation of joy, and when Buchan said to me in the cabin, "It seems that I hear her voice," he was right.