Beer Bottles Scattered All Along the Path

While Charles Louis and Emily Garrigues were trying to raise wheat or corn or livestock in the parched fields of Kansas, a wealthy man named George Chaffey was buying up large flat pieces of land a thousand miles away in Southern California and dividing them into smaller flat pieces of land to sell to people from Kansas.

He brought in water, too, from the Colorado River, and after tumbling through an aqueduct it gushed forth into the rich, untapped soil of a valley called Imperial. Crops sprang up as if by magic.

Decades later my father wrote a book about that land, a novel called

Many a Glorious Morning

“They farm different here,” Albert said musingly to Ruth in the hotel room in the little Southern California town where he took them the first night after his family got off the day coach. They’d traveled straight from Kansas to join him in what would be their new home. Ruth had had faith that Albert wouldn’t fail them, that he would find a way to double their savings, maybe even triple them, as the land promoters had said.

“I could’ve rented a place, but maybe we’d’ve lost money on it the first year until I learned California farming,” her husband went on. “I thought it’d be better . . .” He stopped. He didn’t want to talk more about the deal he had made to manage a ranch owned by somebody else.

It was the first time since they’d been married, some twenty years, that he’d worked for wages, and he felt that maybe he was taking a step backward instead of forward, even if this was California instead of Kansas.

But Ruth, flushed and excited at finally arriving in San Julian, gave his arm a squeeze and said: “I declare, Albert, if you aren’t a one to look on the dark side of things! I think you did just splendid.”

He was pleased at that, but something made him go on:

“It isn’t the place I’da picked, maybe, in some ways. I’m afraid they’re a godless family, those O’Connells, besides being Roman Catholics. There’s five grown boys who don’t do a lick of work so they have hired hands do everything. And then I’m supposed to manage that place with . . .”

He looked at the children sprawled in sleep across the mattresses on the floor, Bliss, the youngest, just eight years old; Grace, who was ten, and Cal and Tom, young men they almost were, and he lowered his voice.

“There were beer bottles scattered all along the path! I’m almost afraid to bring up the children in such a place. . . .”

“The Lord will watch over them, Albert, if we trust in him,” she said. And then, as though still unbelieving, “And it’s really got an inside . . . bathroom?”

He laughed at that and came over and put his arm around her. And the next day after a good night of rest they rented a livery stable buggy and drove out to the O’Connell ranch.

In some ways it was even worse than Albert Lane had feared. There were quarrels almost from the beginning. Mrs. O’Connell objected when the Lanes used a ranch team to drive to the Methodist Church on Sundays; she objected to their use of fuel from the farm woodpile and to Bliss’s playing near the windows of her house; she found fault with the way the work was done and with the way the crops were handled. Albert Lane was almost cowed by the virulence of her tongue and the depth of her profanity, but nevertheless he swallowed hard and faced her down on every point. He was after all the manager, he kept telling himself.

At the end of the year, to his astonishment, she offered him an increase in wages if he would remain for another year, and, to his even greater astonishment, he accepted, though he’d vowed time after time that no power on earth could compel him to remain a single day after the year was up.

“I need a man who’ll not let himself be put upon,” she declared. “A man that’ll stand up for his own self will stand up for his employer, in my way of thinking. So there’ll be another ten dollars a month in it for you if you’ll take the job for another year.”

But hardly had Albert decided to stay when she entered into an even greater fraud, insisting (in the final settlement for the first year’s work) that they must pay her twelve dollars a month rent for the house which they occupied and steadfastly refusing to hand out the full sum due them for the last quarter’s work.

Albert Lane came back to the house white with anger.

“I wonder she doesn’t fear that the Lord will strike her dead,” he declared. “I’d fear to tempt God in that way.”

He dug into his little box of papers and found the letter fixing the terms of the deal and read it over to see that it did indeed provide that the house should be rent-free and, after dinner, he went over and shook it in the face of Mrs. O’Connell and her eldest son and demanded his money in full.

The old lady picked it up and spat upon it and suddenly seized her throat and cried out in a choked voice for a cup of water and fell forward on the carpet and died while her son screamed: “Mother! Mother!” in a hoarse and horrified voice.

That night, at family prayers, Albert read aloud the story of Ananias and Sapphire and asked God to save them from the lying and the cheating.

Bliss lay awake for a long time on his cot on the side porch and saw the reflection of the candles burning beside the body of the dead woman in the big house across the yard; he was not old enough for death to be very terrifying, but he was impressed and uncomfortable and even frightened by the solemnity of his own family and the grief of the five O’Connell sons who wept and shouted by the bier.

The next day the eldest son came over and counted out 144 dollars in gold pieces and silver dollars; he counted them out on the table and then hurled them on the floor and ordered Albert Lane to clear out before sundown. Albert picked up the money and counted the coins again and wrote out a receipt, which he put behind the O’Connells’ screen door, and then went into Edendale and rented the frame house on Euclid Avenue and moved his family that afternoon.

They loaded their belongings into a borrowed lumber wagon and hauled them into town; Bliss and his brothers and sister — Cal and Tom and Grace — piled the things in the weedy yard and then carried them into the house while Mrs. Lane lit the kerosene stove and cooked supper.

Ruth Lane saw the hand of the Lord in it.

“I always said He would clear the way if we had faith in Him,” she told Grace as they bustled about the new kitchen. “Maybe some people would have lost faith in Him all these years, but I never doubted Him for a minute.”

“But, Mama,” Grace objected. “Do you think God would strike Mrs. O’Connell dead just to make Papa bring us into Edendale to live?”

“The Lord’s ways are his own,” Ruth Lane declared firmly. “Mrs. O’Connell was a wicked woman and deserved whatever she got.”

For that was the way it had happened.