A classic example of that talent was revealed when, during the building of the T. & T. he ordered Jim MacDonnell, foreman of the borax refinery in Alameda, to ship a plow to China Ranch, a supply point near the right of way, and instead of a plow received a cow.
"Cataran, go out of the room!" he shouted when his daughter Catherine, who was also his secretary, handed him the telegraph message reporting shipment of the cow after several days of waiting for a plow. But the walls of that room were not thick enough to contain John Ryan's wrath. Catherine heard all about the ancestry and destination of the person or persons who had combined to send a cow to that isolated spot. Everyone in the neighborhood gathered the same information. John Ryan's reputation went up a peg with the skinners and gandy dancers.
To the delight of all who knew him, he could get just as mad and express himself just as forcibly about his own errors when convinced that he had made them. He was definitely convinced on one occasion while doing a little prospecting on the Death Valley side of the Black Mountains. He slipped down a steep slope of some fifteen feet to the level top of an outthrust rock ten or twelve feet square. The rock was covered with the bones of coyotes. Abruptly the explanation presented itself. The rock above was too steep and smooth to climb. Below there was a perpindicular drop of several hundred feet. The coyotes had starved to death. He did not cuss then.
He studied the situation carefully. There was just room to take three quick steps from the outer edge of his perch among the bones in an attempt to run up the steep rock and reach for a hold upon its upper rim. He took off his shoes and threw them over the rim above. If he got up there he would need them. If he did not, he could starve just a comfortably without shoes. He made the short run, managed to take two short steps up the sloping wall, and lept for a hand-hold. He found himself on his back among the bones. He rested, and tried again. Again he failed. A third trememdous effort was no more successful. This was serious. He stretched out on the rock and relaxed. If he did not make it the next time he never would. Tomorrow he would be thirsty and hungry and weak. Now he had the strength and agility. He studied the wall again and fel it over with his hands for any hollows which might serve for an extra boost to the top. He marked three spots with the stub of a coyote's thigh-bone. He measured his distance, and prayed, and ran, and leaped. His fingers found the rim-rock above.
He hung for an instant of realization. Then he pulled, and writhed, and twisted until one leg was over. Another twist and he was on top. Not until he staggered into camp did he have the strength to even cuss. And then the cussing was not such as to bend out any walls. It was low-pitched and flowing, exhaustive and inexhaustible, and directed entirely uppon himsef and his folly. Take his daughter Catherine's word for it. She told me the story. and she admires her father beyond measure.