Tun work in the ironing-room slipped off, but the three days until Wednesday night were very long. She hummed over the fancy starch that flew under the iron at an astounding rate.
“I can’t see how you do it,” Mary admired. “You’ll make thirteen or fourteen this week at that rate.”
Saxon laughed, and in the steam from the iron she saw dancing golden letters that spelled WEDNESDAY.
“What do you think of Billy?” Mary asked.
“I like him,” was the frank answer.
“Well, don’t let it go farther than that.”
“I will if I want to,” Saxon retorted gaily.
“Better not,” came the warning. “You’ll only make trouble for yourself. He ain’t marryin’. Many a girl’s found that out. They just throw themselves at his head, too.”
“I’m not going to throw myself at him, or any other man.”
“Just thought I’d tell you,” Mary concluded. “A word to the wise.”
Saxon had become grave.
“He’s not... not...” she began, than looked the significance of the question she could not complete.
“Oh, nothin’ like that—though there’s nothin’ to stop him. He’s straight, all right, all right. But he just won’t fall for anything in skirts. He dances, an’ runs around, an’ has a good time, an’ beyond that—nitsky. A lot of ‘em’s got fooled on him. I bet you there’s a dozen girls in love with him right now. An’ he just goes on turnin’ ’em down. There was Lily Sanderson—you know her. You seen her at that Slavonic picnic last summer at Shellmound—that tall, nice-lookin’ blonde that was with Butch Willows?”
“Yes, I remember her,” Saxon sald. “What about her?”
“Well, she’d been runnin’ with Butch Willows pretty steady, an’ just because she could dance, Billy dances a lot with her. Butch ain’t afraid of nothin’. He wades right in for a showdown, an’ nails Billy outside, before everybody, an’ reads the riot act. An’ Billy listens in that slow, sleepy way of his, an’ Butch gets hotter an’ hotter, an’ everybody expects a scrap.
“An’ then Billy says to Butch, ‘Are you done?’ ‘Yes,’ Butch says; ‘I’ve said my say, an’ what are you goin’ to do about it?’ An’ Billy says—an’ what d’ye think he said, with everybody lookin’ on an’ Butch with blood in his eye? Well, he said, ‘I guess nothin’, Butch.’ Just like that. Butch was that surprised you could knocked him over with a feather. ‘An’ never dance with her no more?’ he says. ‘Not if you say I can’t, Butch,’ Billy says. Just like that.
“Well, you know, any other man to take water the way he did from Butch—why, everybody’d despise him. But not Billy. You see, he can afford to. He’s got a rep as a fighter, an’ when he just stood back ’an’ let Butch have his way, everybody knew he wasn’t scared, or backin’ down, or anything. He didn’t care a rap for Lily Sanderson, that was all, an’ anybody could see she was just crazy after him.”
The telling of this episode caused Saxon no little worry. Hers was the average woman’s pride, but in the matter of man-conquering prowess she was not unduly conceited. Billy had enjoyed her dancing, and she wondered if that were all. If Charley Long bullied up to him would he let her go as he had let Lily Sanderson go? He was not a marrying man; nor could Saxon blind her eyes to the fact that he was eminently marriageable. No wonder the girls ran after him. And he was a man-subduer as well as a woman-subduer. Men liked him. Bert Wanhope seemed actually to love him. She remembered the Butchertown tough in the dining-room at Weasel Park who had come over to the table to apologize, and the Irishman at the tug-of-war who had abandoned all thought of fighting with him the moment he learned his identity.
A very much spoiled young man was a thought that flitted frequently through Saxon’s mind; and each time she condemned it as ungenerous. He was gentle in that tantalizing slow way of his. Despite his strength, he did not walk rough-shod over others. There was the affair with Lily Sanderson. Saxon analysed it again and again. He had not cared for the girl, and he had immediately stepped from between her and Butch. It was just the thing that Bert, out of sheer wickedness and love of trouble, would not have done. There would have been a fight, hard feelings, Butch turned into an enemy, and nothing profited to Lily. But Billy had done the right thing—done it slowly and imperturbably and with the least hurt to everybody. All of which made him more desirable to Saxon and less possible.
She bought another pair of silk stockings that she had hesitated at for weeks, and on Tuesday night sewed and drowsed wearily over a new shirtwaist and earned complaint from Sarah concerning her extravagant use of gas.
Wednesday night, at the Orindore dance, was not all undiluted pleasure. It was shameless the way the girls made up to Billy, and, at times, Saxon found his easy consideration for them almost irritating. Yet she was compelled to acknowledge to herself that he hurt none of the other fellows’ feelings in the way the girls hurt hers. They all but asked him outright to dance with them, and little of their open pursuit of him escaped her eyes. She resolved that she would not be guilty of throwing herself at him, and withheld dance after dance, and yet was secretly and thrillingly aware that she was pursuing the right tactics. She deliberately demonstrated that she was desirable to other men, as he involuntarily demonstrated his own desirableness to the women.
Her happiness came when he coolly overrode her objections and insisted on two dances more than she had allotted him. And she was pleased, as well as angered, when she chanced to overhear two of the strapping young cannery girls. “The way that little sawed-off is monopolizin’ him,” said one. And the other: “You’d think she might have the good taste to run after somebody of her own age.” “Cradle-snatcher,” was the final sting that sent the angry blood into Saxon’s cheeks as the two girls moved away, unaware that they had been overheard.
Billy saw her home, kissed her at the gate, and got her consent to go with him to the dance at Germania Hall on Friday night.
“I wasn’t thinkin’ of goin’,” he sald. “But if you’ll say the word... Bert’s goin’ to be there.”
Next day, at the ironing boards, Mary told her that she and Bert were dated for Germania Hall.
“Are you goin’?” Mary asked.
The nod was repeated, and Mary, with suspended iron, gave her a long and curions look.
“Say, an’ what if Charley Long butts in?”
Saxon shrugged her shoulders.
They ironed swiftly and silently for a quarter of an hour.
“Well,” Mary decided, “if he does butt in maybe he’ll get his. I’d like to see him get it—the big stiff! It all depends how Billy feels—about you, I mean.”
“I’m no Lily Sanderson,” Saxon answered indignantly. “I’ll never give Billy Roberts a chance to turn me down.”
“You will, if Charley Long butts in. Take it from me, Saxon, he ain’t no gentleman. Look what he done to Mr. Moody. That was a awful beatin’. An’ Mr. Moody only a quiet little man that wouldn’t harm a fly. Well, he won’t find Billy Roberts a sissy by a long shot.”
That night, outside the laundry entrance, Saxon found Charley Long waiting. As he stepped forward to greet her and walk alongside, she felt the sickening palpitation that he had so thoroughly taught her to know. The blood ebbed from her face with the apprehension and fear his appearance caused. She was afraid of the rough bulk of the man; of the heavy brown eyes, dominant and confident; of the big blacksmith-hands and the thick strong fingers with the hair-pads on the back to every first joint. He was unlovely to the eye, and he was unlovely to all her finer sensibilities. It was not his strength itself, but the quality of it and the misuse of it, that affronted her. The beating he had given the gentle Mr. Moody had meant half-hours of horror to her afterward. Always did the memory of it come to her accompanied by a shudder. And yet, without shock, she had seen Billy fight at Weasel Park in the same primitive man-animal way. But it had been different. She recognized, but could not analyze, the difference. She was aware only of the brutishness of this man’s hands and mind.
“You’re lookin’ white an’ all beat to a frazzle,” he was saying. “Why don’t you cut the work? You got to some time, anyway. You can’t lose me, kid.”
“I wish I could,” she replied.
He laughed with harsh joviality. “Nothin’ to it, Saxon. You’re just cut out to be Mrs. Long, an’ you’re sure goin’ to be.”
“I wish I was as certain about all things as you are,” she said with mild sarcasm that missed.
“Take it from me,” he went on, “there’s just one thing you can be certain of—an’ that is that I am certain.” He was pleased with the cleverness of his idea and laughed approvingly. “When I go after anything I get it, an’ if anything gets in between it gets hurt. D’ye get that? It’s me for you, an’ that’s all there is to it, so you might as well make up your mind and go to workin’ in my home instead of the laundry. Why, it’s a snap. There wouldn’t be much to do. I make good money, an’ you wouldn’t want for anything. You know, I just washed up from work an’ skinned over here to tell it to you once more, so you wouldn’t forget. I ain’t ate yet, an’ that shows how much I think of you.”
“You’d better go and eat then,” she advised, though she knew the futility of attempting to get rid of him.
She scarcely heard what he said. It had come upon her suddenly that she was very tired and very small and very weak alongside this colossus of a man. Would he dog her always? she asked despairingly, and seemed to glimpse a vision of all her future life stretched out before her, with always the form and face of the burly blacksmith pursuing her.
“Come on, kid, an’ kick in,” he continued. “It’s the good old summer time, an’ that’s the time to get married.”
“But I’m not going to marry you,” she protested. “I’ve told you a thousand times already.”
“Aw, forget it. You want to get them ideas out of your think-box. Of course, you’re goin’ to marry me. It’s a pipe. An’ I’ll tell you another pipe. You an’ me’s goin’ acrost to Frisco Friday night. There’s goin’ to be big doin’s with the Horseshoers.”
“Only I’m not,” she contradicted.
“Oh, yes you are,” he asserted with absolute assurance. “We’ll catch the last boat back, an’ you’ll have one fine time. An’ I’ll put you next to some of the good dancers. Oh, I ain’t a pincher, an’ I know you like dancin’.”
“But I tell you I can’t,” she reiterated.
He shot a glance of suspicion at her from under the black thatch of brows that met above his nose and were as one brow.
“Why can’t you?”
“A date,” she said.
“Who’s the bloke?”
“None of your business, Charley Long. I’ve got a date, that’s all.”
“I’ll make it my business. Remember that lah-de-dah bookkeeper rummy? Well, just keep on rememberin’ him an’ what he got.”
“I wish you’d leave me alone,” she pleaded resentfully. “Can’t you be kind just for once?”
The blacksmith laughed unpleasantly.
“If any rummy thinks he can butt in on you an’ me, he’ll learn different, an’ I’m the little boy that’ll learn ‘m.—Friday night, eh? Where?”
“I won’t tell you.”
“Where?” he repeated.
Her lips were drawn in tight silence, and in her cheeks were little angry spots of blood.
“Huh!—As if I couldn’t guess! Germania Hall. Well, I’ll be there, an’ I’ll take you home afterward. D’ye get that? An’ you’d better tell the rummy to beat it unless you want to see’m get his face hurt.”
Saxon, hurt as a prideful woman can be hurt by cavalier treatment, was tempted to cry out the name and prowess of her new-found protector. And then came fear. This was a big man, and Billy was only a boy. That was the way he affected her. She remembered her first impression of his hands and glanced quickly at the hands of the man beside her. They seemed twice as large as Billy’s, and the mats of hair seemed to advertise a terrible strength. No, Billy could not fight this big brute. He must not. And then to Saxon came a wicked little hope that by the mysterious and unthinkable ability that prizefighters possessed, Billy might be able to whip this bully and rid her of him. With the next glance doubt came again, for her eye dwelt on the blacksmith’s broad shoulders, the cloth of the coat muscle-wrinkled and the sleeves bulging above the biceps.
“If you lay a hand on anybody I’m going with again—-” she began.
“Why, they’ll get hurt, of course,” Long grinned. “And they’ll deserve it, too. Any rummy that comes between a fellow an’ his girl ought to get hurt.”
“But I’m not your girl, and all your saying so doesn’t make it so.”
“That’s right, get mad,” he approved. “I like you for that, too. You’ve got spunk an’ fight. I like to see it. It’s what a man needs in his wife—and not these fat cows of women. They’re the dead ones. Now you’re a live one, all wool, a yard long and a yard wide.”
She stopped before the house and put her hand on the gate.
“Good-bye,” she said. “I’m going in.”
“Come on out afterward for a run to Idora Park,” he suggested.
“No, I’m not feeling good, and I’m going straight to bed as soon as I eat supper.”
“Huh!” he sneered. “Gettin’ in shape for the fling to-morrow night, eh?”
With an impatient movement she opened the gate and stepped inside.
“I’ve given it to you straight,” he went on. “If you don’t go with me to-morrow night somebody’ll get hurt.”
“I hope it will be you,” she cried vindictively.
He laughed as he threw his head back, stretched his big chest, and half-lifted his heavy arms. The action reminded her disgustingly of a great ape she had once seen in a circus.
“Well, good-bye,” he said. “See you to-morrow night at Germania Hall.”
“I haven’t told you it was Germania Hall.”
“And you haven’t told me it wasn’t. All the same, I’ll be there. And I’ll take you home, too. Be sure an’ keep plenty of round dances open fer me. That’s right. Get mad. It makes you look fine.”
The music stopped at the end of the waltz, leaving Billy and Saxon at the big entrance doorway of the ballroom. Her hand rested lightly on his arm, and they were promenading on to find seats, when Charley Long, evidently just arrived, thrust his way in front of them.
“So you’re the buttinsky, eh?” he demanded, his face malignant with passion and menace.
“Who?—me?” Billy queried gently. “Some mistake, sport. I never butt in.”
“You’re goin’ to get your head beaten off if you don’t make yourself scarce pretty lively.”
“I wouldn’t want that to happen for the world,” Billy drawled. “Come on, Saxon. This neighborhood’s unhealthy for us.”
He started to go on with her, but Long thrust in front again.
“You’re too fresh to keep, young fellow,” he snarled. “You need saltin’ down. D’ye get me?”
Billy scratched his head, on his face exaggerated puzzlement.
“No, I don’t get you,” he said. “Now just what was it you said?”
But the big blacksmith turned contemptuously away from him to Saxon.
“Come here, you. Let’s see your program.”
“Do you want to dance with him?” Billy asked.
She shook her head.
“Sorry, sport, nothin’ doin’,” Billy said, again making to start on.
For the third time the blacksmith blocked the way.
“Get off your foot,” said Billy. “You’re standin’ on it.”
Long all but sprang upon him, his hands clenched, one arm just starting back for the punch while at the same instant shoulders and chest were coming forward. But he restrained himself at sight of Billy’s unstartled body and cold and cloudy ayes. He had made no move of mind or muscle. It was as if he were unaware of the threatened attack. All of which constituted a new thing in Long’s experience.
“Maybe you don’t know who I am,” he bullied.
“Yep, I do,” Billy answered airily. “You’re a record-breaker at rough-housin’.” (Here Long’s face showed pleasure.) “You ought to have the Police Gazette diamond belt for rough-bousin’ baby buggies’. I guess there ain’t a one you’re afraid to tackle.”
“Leave ‘m alone, Charley,” advised one of the young men who had crowded about them. “He’s Bill Roberts, the fighter. You know’m. Big Bill.”
“I don’t care if he’s Jim Jeffries. He can’t butt in on me this way.”
Nevertheless it was noticeable, even to Saxon, that the fire had gone out of his fierceness. Billy’s name seemed to have a quieting effect on obstreperous males.
“Do you know him?” Billy asked her.
She signified yes with her eyes, though it seemed she must cry out a thousand things against this man who so steadfastly persecuted her. Billy turned to the blacksmith.
“Look here, sport, you don’t want trouble with me. I’ve got your number. Besides, what do we want to fight for? Hasn’t she got a say so in the matter?”
“No, she hasn’t. This is my affair an’ yourn.”
Billy shook his head slowly. “No; you’re in wrong. I think she has a say in the matter.”
“Well, say it then,” Long snarled at Saxon, “who’re you goin’ to go with?—me or him? Let’s get it settled.”
For reply, Saxon reached her free hand over to the hand that rested on Billy’s arm.
“Nuff said,” was Billy’s remark.
Long glared at Saxon, then transferred the glare to her protector.
“I’ve a good mind to mix it with you anyway,” Long gritted through his teeth.
Saxon was elated as they started to move away. Lily Sanderson’s fate had not been hers, and her wonderful man-boy, without the threat of a blow, slow of speech and imperturbable, had conquered the big blacksmith.
“He’s forced himself upon me all the time,” she whispered to Billy. “He’s tried to run me, and beaten up every man that came near me. I never want to see him again.”
Billy halted immediately. Long, who was reluctantly moving to get out of the way, also halted.
“She says she don’t want anything more to do with you,” Billy said to him. “An’ what she says goes. If I get a whisper any time that you’ve been botherin’ her, I’ll attend to your case. D’ye get that?”
Long glowered and remained silent.
“D’ye get that?” Billy repeated, more imperatively.
A growl of assent came from the blacksmith
“All right, then. See you remember it. An’ now get outa the way or I’ll walk over you.”
Long slunk back, muttering inarticulate threats, and Saxon moved on as in a dream. Charley Long had taken water. He had been afraid of this smooth-skinned, blue-eyed boy. She was quit of him—something no other man had dared attempt for her. And Billy had liked her better than Lily Sanderson.
Twice Saxon tried to tell Billy the details of her acquaintance with Long, but each time was put off.
“I don’t care a rap about it,” Billy said the second time. “You’re here, ain’t you?”
But she insisted, and when, worked up and angry by the recital, she had finished, he patted her hand soothingly.
“It’s all right, Saxon,” he said. “He’s just a big stiff. I took his measure as soon as I looked at him. He won’t bother you again. I know his kind. He’s a dog. Roughhouse? He couldn’t rough-house a milk wagon.”
“But how do you do it?” she asked breathlessly. “Why are men so afraid of you? You’re just wonderful.”
He smiled in an embarrassed way and changed the subject.
“Say,” he said, “I like your teeth. They’re so white an’ regular, an’ not big, an’ not dinky little baby’s teeth either. They’re ... they’re just right, an’ they fit you. I never seen such fine teeth on a girl yet. D’ye know, honest, they kind of make me hungry when I look at ‘em. They’re good enough to eat.”
At midnight, leaving the insatiable Bert and Mary still dancing, Billy and Saxon started for home. It was on his suggestion that they left early, and he felt called upon to explain.
“It’s one thing the fightin’ game’s taught me,” he said. “To take care of myself. A fellow can’t work all day and dance all night and keep in condition. It’s the same way with drinkin’—an’ not that I’m a little tin angel. I know what it is. I’ve been soused to the guards an’ all the rest of it. I like my beer—big schooners of it; but I don’t drink all I want of it. I’ve tried, but it don’t pay. Take that big stiff to-night that butted in on us. He ought to had my number. He’s a dog anyway, but besides he had beer bloat. I sized that up the first rattle, an’ that’s the difference about who takes the other fellow’s number. Condition, that’s what it is.”
“But he is so big,” Saxon protested. “Why, his fists are twice as big as yours.”
“That don’t mean anything. What counts is what’s behind the fists. He’d turn loose like a buckin’ bronco. If I couldn’t drop him at the start, all I’d do is to keep away, smother up, an’ wait. An’ all of a sudden he’d blow up—go all to pieces, you know, wind, heart, everything, and then I’d have him where I wanted him. And the point is he knows it, too.”
“You’re the first prizefighter I ever knew,” Saxon said, after a pause.
“I’m not any more,” he disclaimed hastily. “That’s one thing the fightin’ game taught me—to leave it alone. It don’t pay. A fellow trains as fine as silk—till he’s all silk, his skin, everything, and he’s fit to live for a hundred years; an’ then he climbs through the ropes for a hard twenty rounds with some tough customer that’s just as good as he is, and in those twenty rounds he frazzles out all his silk an’ blows in a year of his life. Yes, sometimes he blows in five years of it, or cuts it in half, or uses up all of it. I’ve watched ‘em. I’ve seen fellows strong as bulls fight a hard battle and die inside the year of consumption, or kidney disease, or anything else. Now what’s the good of it? Money can’t buy what they throw away. That’s why I quit the game and went back to drivin’ team. I got my silk, an’ I’m goin’ to keep it, that’s all.”
“It must make you feel proud to know you are the master of other men,” she said softly, aware herself of pride in the strength and skill of him.
“It does,” he admitted frankly. “I’m glad I went into the game—just as glad as I am that I pulled out of it.... Yep, it’s taught me a lot—to keep my eyes open an’ my head cool. Oh, I’ve got a temper, a peach of a temper. I get scared of myself sometimes. I used to be always breakin’ loose. But the fightin’ taught me to keep down the steam an’ not do things I’d be sorry for afterward.”
“Why, you’re the sweetest, easiest tempered man I know,” she interjected.
“Don’t you believe it. Just watch me, and sometime you’ll see me break out that bad that I won’t know what I’m doin’ myself. Oh, I’m a holy terror when I get started!”
This tacit promise of continued acquaintance gave Saxon a little joy-thrill.
“Say,” he said, as they neared her neighborhood, “what are you doin’ next Sunday?”
“Nothing. No plans at all.”
“Well, suppose you an’ me go buggy-riding all day out in the hills?”
She did not answer immediately, and for the moment she was seeing the nightmare vision of her last buggy-ride; of her fear and her leap from the buggy; and of the long miles and the stumbling through the darkness in thin-soled shoes that bruised her feet on every rock. And then it came to her with a great swell of joy that this man beside her was not such a man.
“I love horses,” she said. “I almost love them better than I do dancing, only I don’t know anything about them. My father rode a great roan war-horse. He was a captain of cavalry, you know. I never saw him, but somehow I always can see him on that big horse, with a sash around his waist and his sword at his side. My brother George has the sword now, but Tom—he’s the brother I live with says it is mine because it wasn’t his father’s. You see, they’re only my half-brothers. I was the only child by my mother’s second marriage. That was her real marriage—her love-marriage, I mean.”
Saxon ceased abruptly, embarrassed by her own garrulity; and yet the impulse was strong to tell this young man all about herself, and it seemed to her that these far memories were a large part of her.
“Go on an’ tell me about it,” Billy urged. “I like to hear about the old people of the old days. My people was along in there, too, an’ somehow I think it was a better world to live in than now. Things was more sensible and natural. I don’t exactly say what I mean. But it’s like this: I don’t understand life to-day. There’s the labor unions an’ employers’ associations, an’ strikes’, an’ hard times, an’ huntin’ for jobs, an’ all the rest. Things wasn’t like that in the old days. Everybody farmed, an’ shot their meat, an’ got enough to eat, an’ took care of their old folks. But now it’s all a mix-up that I can’t understand. Mebbe I’m a fool, I don’t know. But, anyway, go ahead an’ tell us about your mother.”
“Well, you see, when she was only a young woman she and Captain Brown fell in love. He was a soldier then, before the war. And he was ordered East for the war when she was away nursing her sister Laura. And then came the news that he was killed at Shiloh. And she married a man who had loved her for years and years. He was a boy in the same wagon-train coming across the plains. She liked him, but she didn’t love him. And afterward came the news that my father wasn’t killed after all. So it made her very sad, but it did not spoil her life. She was a good mother end a good wife and all that, but she was always sad, and sweet, and gentle, and I think her voice was the most beautiful in the world.”
“She was game, all right,” Billy approved.
“And my father never married. He loved her all the time. I’ve got a lovely poem home that she wrote to him. It’s just wonderful, and it sings like music. Well, long, long afterward her husband died, and then she and my father made their love marriage. They didn’t get married until 1882, and she was pretty well along.”
More she told him, as they stood by the gate, and Saxon tried to think that the good-bye kiss was a trifle longer than just ordinary.
“How about nine o’clock?” he queried across the gate. “Don’t bother about lunch or anything. I’ll fix all that up. You just be ready at nine.”
Sunday morning Saxon was beforehand in getting ready, and on her return to the kitchen from her second journey to peep through the front windows, Sarah began her customary attack.
“It’s a shame an’ a disgrace the way some people can afford silk stockings,” she began. “Look at me, a-toilin’ and a-stewin’ day an’ night, and I never get silk stockings—nor shoes, three pairs of them all at one time. But there’s a just God in heaven, and there’ll be some mighty big surprises for some when the end comes and folks get passed out what’s comin’ to them.”
Tom, smoking his pipe and cuddling his youngest-born on his knees, dropped an eyelid surreptitiously on his cheek in token that Sarah was in a tantrum. Saxon devoted herself to tying a ribbon in the hair of one of the little girls. Sarah lumbered heavily about the kitchen, washing and putting away the breakfast dishes. She straightened her back from the sink with a groan and glared at Saxon with fresh hostility.
“You ain’t sayin’ anything, eh? An’ why don’t you? Because I guess you still got some natural shame in you a-runnin’ with a prizefighter. Oh, I’ve heard about your goings-on with Bill Roberts. A nice specimen he is. But just you wait till Charley Long gets his hands on him, that’s all.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Tom intervened. “Bill Roberts is a pretty good boy from what I hear.”
Saxon smiled with superior knowledge, and Sarah, catching her, was infuriated.
“Why don’t you marry Charley Long? He’s crazy for you, and he ain’t a drinkin’ man.”
“I guess he gets outside his share of beer,” Saxon retorted.
“That’s right,” her brother supplemented. “An’ I know for a fact that he keeps a keg in the house all the time as well.”
“Maybe you’ve been guzzling from it,” Sarah snapped.
“Maybe I have,” Tom said, wiping his mouth reminiscently with the back of his hand.
“Well, he can afford to keep a keg in the house if he wants to,” she returned to the attack, which now was directed at her husband as well. “He pays his bills, and he certainly makes good money—better than most men, anyway.”
“An’ he hasn’t a wife an’ children to watch out for,” Tom said.
“Nor everlastin’ dues to unions that don’t do him no good.”
“Oh, yes, he has,” Tom urged genially. “Blamed little he’d work in that shop, or any other shop in Oakland, if he didn’t keep in good standing with the Blacksmiths. You don’t understand labor conditions, Sarah. The unions have got to stick, if the men aren’t to starve to death.”
“Oh, of course not,” Sarah sniffed. “I don’t understand anything. I ain’t got a mind. I’m a fool, an’ you tell me so right before the children.” She turned savagely on her eldest, who startled and shrank away. “Willie, your mother is a fool. Do you get that? Your father says she’s a fool—says it right before her face and yourn. She’s just a plain fool. Next he’ll be sayin’ she’s crazy an’ puttin’ her away in the asylum. An’ how will you like that, Willie? How will you like to see your mother in a straitjacket an’ a padded cell, shut out from the light of the sun an’ beaten like a nigger before the war, Willie, beaten an’ clubbed like a regular black nigger? That’s the kind of a father you’ve got, Willie. Think of it, Willie, in a padded cell, the mother that bore you, with the lunatics screechin’ an’ screamin’ all around, an’ the quick-lime eatin’ into the dead bodies of them that’s beaten to death by the cruel wardens—”
She continued tirelessly, painting with pessimistic strokes the growing black future her husband was meditating for her, while the boy, fearful of some vague, incomprehensible catastrophe, began to weep silently, with a pendulous, trembling underlip. Saxon, for the moment, lost control of herself.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, can’t we be together five minutes without quarreling?” she blazed.
Sarah broke off from asylum conjurations and turned upon her sister-in-law.
“Who’s quarreling? Can’t I open my head without bein’ jumped on by the two of you?”
Saxon shrugged her shoulders despairingly, and Sarah swung about on her husband.
“Seein’ you love your sister so much better than your wife, why did you want to marry me, that’s borne your children for you, an’ slaved for you, an’ toiled for you, an’ worked her fingernails off for you, with no thanks, an ‘insultin’ me before the children, an’ sayin’ I’m crazy to their faces. An’ what have you ever did for me? That’s what I want to know—me, that’s cooked for you, an’ washed your stinkin’ clothes, and fixed your socks, an’ sat up nights with your brats when they was ailin’. Look at that!”
She thrust out a shapeless, swollen foot, encased in a monstrous, untended shoe, the dry, raw leather of which showed white on the edges of bulging cracks.
“Look at that! That’s what I say. Look at that!” Her voice was persistently rising and at the same time growing throaty. “The only shoes I got. Me. Your wife. Ain’t you ashamed? Where are my three pairs? Look at that stockin’.”
Speech failed her, and she sat down suddenly on a chair at the table, glaring unutterable malevolence and misery. She arose with the abrupt stiffness of an automaton, poured herself a cup of cold coffee, and in the same jerky way sat down again. As if too hot for her lips, she filled her saucer with the greasy-looking, nondescript fluid, and continued her set glare, her breast rising and falling with staccato, mechanical movement.
“Now, Sarah, be c’am, be c’am,” Tom pleaded anxiously.
In response, slowly, with utmost deliberation, as if the destiny of empires rested on the certitude of her act, she turned the saucer of coffee upside down on the table. She lifted her right hand, slowly, hugely, and in the same slow, huge way landed the open palm with a sounding slap on Tom’s astounded cheek. Immediately thereafter she raised her voice in the shrill, hoarse, monotonous madness of hysteria, sat down on the floor, and rocked back and forth in the throes of an abysmal grief.
Willie’s silent weeping turned to noise, and the two little girls, with the fresh ribbons in their hair, joined him. Tom’s face was drawn and white, though the smitten cheek still blazed, and Saxon wanted to put her arms comfortingly around him, yet dared not. He bent over his wife.
“Sarah, you ain’t feelin’ well. Let me put you to bed, and I’ll finish tidying up.”
“Don’t touch me!—don’t touch me!” she screamed, jerking violently away from him.
“Take the children out in the yard, Tom, for a walk, anything—get them away,” Saxon said. She was sick, and white, and trembling. “Go, Tom, please, please. There’s your hat. I’ll take care of her. I know just how.”
Left to herself, Saxon worked with frantic haste, assuming the calm she did not possess, but which she must impart to the screaming bedlamite upon the floor. The light frame house leaked the noise hideously, and Saxon knew that the houses on either side were hearing, and the street itself and the houses across the street. Her fear was that Billy should arrive in the midst of it. Further, she was incensed, violated. Every fiber rebelled, almost in a nausea; yet she maintained cool control and stroked Sarah’s forehead and hair with slow, soothing movements. Soon, with one arm around her, she managed to win the first diminution in the strident, atrocious, unceasing scream. A few minutes later, sobbing heavily, the elder woman lay in bed, across her forehead and eyes a wet-pack of towel for easement of the headache she and Saxon tacitly accepted as substitute for the brain-storm.
When a clatter of hoofs came down the street and stopped, Saxon was able to slip to the front door and wave her hand to Billy. In the kitchen she found Tom waiting in sad anxiousness.
“It’s all right,” she said. “Billy Roberts has come, and I’ve got to go. You go in and sit beside her for a while, and maybe she’ll go to sleep. But don’t rush her. Let her have her own way. If she’ll let you take her hand, why do it. Try it, anyway. But first of all, as an opener and just as a matter of course, start wetting the towel over her eyes.”
He was a kindly, easy-going man; but, after the way of a large percentage of the Western stock, he was undemonstrative. He nodded, turned toward the door to obey, and paused irresolutely. The look he gave back to Saxon was almost dog-like in gratitude and all-brotherly in love. She felt it, and in spirit leapt toward it.
“It’s all right—everything’s all right,” she cried hastily.
Tom shook his head.
“No, it ain’t. It’s a shame, a blamed shame, that’s what it is.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Oh, I don’t care for myself. But it’s for you. You got your life before you yet, little kid sister. You’ll get old, and all that means, fast enough. But it’s a bad start for a day off. The thing for you to do is to forget all this, and skin out with your fellow, an’ have a good time.” In the open door, his hand on the knob to close it after him, he halted a second time. A spasm contracted his brow. “Hell! Think of it! Sarah and I used to go buggy-riding once on a time. And I guess she had her three pairs of shoes, too. Can you beat it?”
In her bedroom Saxon completed her dressing, for an instant stepping upon a chair so as to glimpse critically in the small wall-mirror the hang of her ready-made linen skirt. This, and the jacket, she had altered to fit, and she had double-stitched the seams to achieve the coveted tailored effect. Still on the chair, all in the moment of quick clear-seeing, she drew the skirt tightly back and raised it. The sight was good to her, nor did she under-appraise the lines of the slender ankle above the low tan tie nor did she under-appraise the delicate yet mature swell of calf outlined in the fresh brown of a new cotton stocking. Down from the chair, she pinned on a firm sailor hat of white straw with a brown ribbon around the crown that matched her ribbon belt. She rubbed her cheeks quickly and fiercely to bring back the color Sarah had driven out of them, and delayed a moment longer to put on her tan lisle-thread gloves. Once, in the fashion-page of a Sunday supplement, she had read that no lady ever put on her gloves after she left the door.
With a resolute self-grip, as she crossed the parlor and passed the door to Sarah’s bedroom, through the thin wood of which came elephantine moanings and low slubberings, she steeled herself to keep the color in her cheeks and the brightness in her eyes. And so well did she succeed that Billy never dreamed that the radiant, live young thing, tripping lightly down the steps to him, had just come from a bout with soul-sickening hysteria and madness.
To her, in the bright sun, Billy’s blondness was startling. His cheeks, smooth as a girl’s, were touched with color. The blue eyes seemed more cloudily blue than usual, and the crisp, sandy hair hinted more than ever of the pale straw-gold that was not there. Never had she seen him quite so royally young. As he smiled to greet her, with a slow white flash of teeth from between red lips, she caught again the promise of easement and rest. Fresh from the shattering chaos of her sister-in-law’s mind, Billy’s tremendous calm was especially satisfying, and Saxon mentally laughed to scorn the terrible temper he had charged to himself.
She had been buggy-riding before, but always behind one horse, jaded, and livery, in a top-buggy, heavy and dingy, such as livery stables rent because of sturdy unbreakableness. But here stood two horses, head-tossing and restless, shouting in every high-light glint of their satin, golden-sorrel coats that they had never been rented out in all their glorious young lives. Between them was a pole inconceivably slender, on them were harnesses preposterously string-like and fragile. And Billy belonged here, by elemental right, a part of them and of it, a master-part and a component, along with the spidery-delicate, narrow-boxed, wide- and yellow-wheeled, rubber-tired rig, efficient and capable, as different as he was different from the other man who had taken her out behind stolid, lumbering horses. He held the reins in one hand, yet, with low, steady voice, confident and assuring, held the nervous young animals more by the will and the spirit of him.
It was no time for lingering. With the quick glance and fore-knowledge of a woman, Saxon saw, not merely the curious children clustering about, but the peering of adult faces from open doors and windows, and past window-shades lifted up or held aside. With his free hand, Billy drew back the linen robe and helped her to a place beside him. The high-backed, luxuriously upholstered seat of brown leather gave her a sense of great comfort; yet even greater, it seemed to her, was the nearness and comfort of the man himself and of his body.
“How d’ye like ‘em?” he asked, changing the reins to both hands and chirruping the horses, which went out with a jerk in an immediacy of action that was new to her. “They’re the boss’s, you know. Couldn’t rent animals like them. He lets me take them out for exercise sometimes. If they ain’t exercised regular they’re a handful.—Look at King, there, prancin’. Some style, eh? Some style! The other one’s the real goods, though. Prince is his name. Got to have some bit on him to hold’m.—Ah! Would you?—Did you see’m, Saxon? Some horse! Some horse!”
From behind came the admiring cheer of the neighborhood children, and Saxon, with a sigh of content, knew that the happy day had at last begun.
“I don’t know horses,” Saxon said. “I’ve never been on one’s back, and the only ones I’ve tried to drive were single, and lame, or almost falling down, or something. But I’m not afraid of horses. I just love them. I was born loving them, I guess.”
Billy threw an admiring, appreciative glance at her.
“That’s the stuff. That’s what I like in a woman—grit. Some of the girls I’ve had out—well, take it from me, they made me sick. Oh, I’m hep to ‘em. Nervous, an’ trembly, an’ screechy, an’ wabbly. I reckon they come out on my account an’ not for the ponies. But me for the brave kid that likes the ponies. You’re the real goods, Saxon, honest to God you are. Why, I can talk like a streak with you. The rest of ‘em make me sick. I’m like a clam. They don’t know nothin’, an’ they’re that scared all the time—well, I guess you get me”
“You have to be born to love horses, maybe,” she answered. “Maybe it’s because I always think of my father on his roan war-horse that makes me love horses. But, anyway, I do. When I was a little girl I was drawing horses all the time. My mother always encouraged me. I’ve a scrapbook mostly filled with horses I drew when I was little. Do you know, Billy, sometimes I dream I actually own a horse, all my own. And lots of times I dream I’m on a horse’s back, or driving him.”
“I’ll let you drive ‘em, after a while, when they’ve worked their edge off. They’re pullin’ now.—There, put your hands in front of mine—take hold tight. Feel that? Sure you feel it. An’ you ain’t feelin’ it all by a long shot. I don’t dast slack, you bein’ such a lightweight.”
Her eyes sparkled as she felt the apportioned pull of the mouths of the beautiful, live things; and he, looking at her, sparkled with her in her delight.
“What’s the good of a woman if she can’t keep up with a man?” he broke out enthusiastically.
“People that like the same things always get along best together,” she answered, with a triteness that concealed the joy that was hers at being so spontaneously in touch with him.
“Why, Saxon, I’ve fought battles, good ones, frazzlin’ my silk away to beat the band before whisky-soaked, smokin’ audiences of rotten fight-fans, that just made me sick clean through. An’ them, that couldn’t take just one stiff jolt or hook to jaw or stomach, a-cheerin’ me an’ yellin’ for blood. Blood, mind you! An’ them without the blood of a shrimp in their bodies. Why, honest, now, I’d sooner fight before an audience of one—you for instance, or anybody I liked. It’d do me proud. But them sickenin’, sap-headed stiffs, with the grit of rabbits and the silk of mangy ky-yi’s, a-cheerin’ me—ME! Can you blame me for quittin’ the dirty game?—Why, I’d sooner fight before broke-down old plugs of work-horses that’s candidates for chicken-meat, than before them rotten bunches of stiffs with nothin’ thicker’n water in their veins, an’ Contra Costa water at that when the rains is heavy on the hills.”
“I... I didn’t know prizefighting was like that,” she faltered, as she released her hold on the lines and sank back again beside him.
“It ain’t the fightin’, it’s the fight-crowds,” he defended with instant jealousy. “Of course, fightin’ hurts a young fellow because it frazzles the silk outa him an’ all that. But it’s the low-lifers in the audience that gets me. Why the good things they say to me, the praise an’ that, is insulting. Do you get me? It makes me cheap. Think of it—booze-guzzlin’ stiffs that ‘d be afraid to mix it with a sick cat, not fit to hold the coat of any decent man, think of them a-standin’ up on their hind legs an’ yellin’ an’ cheerin’ me—ME!”
“Ha! ha! What d’ye think of that? Ain’t he a rogue?”
A big bulldog, sliding obliquely and silently across the street, unconcerned with the team he was avoiding, had passed so close that Prince, baring his teeth like a stallion, plunged his head down against reins and check in an effort to seize the dog.
“Now he’s some fighter, that Prince. An’ he’s natural. He didn’t make that reach just for some low-lifer to yell’m on. He just done it outa pure cussedness and himself. That’s clean. That’s right. Because it’s natural. But them fight-fans! Honest to God, Saxon....”
And Saxon, glimpsing him sidewise, as he watched the horses and their way on the Sunday morning streets, checking them back suddenly and swerving to avoid two boys coasting across street on a toy wagon, saw in him deeps and intensities, all the magic connotations of temperament, the glimmer and hint of rages profound, bleaknesses as cold and far as the stars, savagery as keen as a wolf’s and clean as a stallion’s, wrath as implacable as a destroying angel’s, and youth that was fire and life beyond time and place. She was awed and fascinated, with the hunger of woman bridging the vastness to him, daring to love him with arms and breast that ached to him, murmuring to herself and through all the halls of her soul, “You dear, you dear.”
“Honest to God, Saxon,” he took up the broken thread, “they’s times when I’ve hated them, when I wanted to jump over the ropes and wade into them, knock-down and drag-out, an’ show’m what fightin’ was. Take that night with Billy Murphy. Billy Murphy!—if you only knew him. My friend. As clean an’ game a boy as ever jumped inside the ropes to take the decision. Him! We went to the Durant School together. We grew up chums. His fight was my fight. My trouble was his trouble. We both took to the fightin’ game. They matched us. Not the first time. Twice we’d fought draws. Once the decision was his; once it was mine. The fifth fight of two lovin’ men that just loved each other. He’s three years older’n me. He’s a wife and two or three kids, an’ I know them, too. And he’s my friend. Get it?
“I’m ten pounds heavier—but with heavyweights that ‘a all right. He can’t time an’ distance as good as me, an’ I can keep set better, too. But he’s cleverer an’ quicker. I never was quick like him. We both can take punishment, an’ we’re both two-handed, a wallop in all our fists. I know the kick of his, an’ he knows my kick, an’ we’re both real respectful. And we’re even-matched. Two draws, and a decision to each. Honest, I ain’t any kind of a hunch who’s gain’ to win, we’re that even.
“Now, the fight.—You ain’t squeamish, are you?”
“No, no,” she cried. “I’d just love to hear—you are so wonderful.”
He took the praise with a clear, unwavering look, and without hint of acknowledgment.
“We go along—six rounds—seven rounds—eight rounds; an’ honors even. I’ve been timin’ his rushes an’ straight-leftin’ him, an’ meetin’ his duck with a wicked little right upper-cut, an’ he’s shaken me on the jaw an’ walloped my ears till my head’s all singin’ an’ buzzin’. An’ everything lovely with both of us, with a noise like a draw decision in sight. Twenty rounds is the distance, you know.
“An’ then his bad luck comes. We’re just mixin’ into a clinch that ain’t arrived yet, when he shoots a short hook to my head—his left, an’ a real hay-maker if it reaches my jaw. I make a forward duck, not quick enough, an’ he lands bingo on the side of my head. Honest to God, Saxon, it’s that heavy I see some stars. But it don’t hurt an’ ain’t serious, that high up where the bone’s thick. An’ right there he finishes himself, for his bad thumb, which I’ve known since he first got it as a kid fightin’ in the sandlot at Watts Tract—he smashes that thumb right there, on my hard head, back into the socket with an out-twist, an’ all the old cords that’d never got strong gets theirs again. I didn’t mean it. A dirty trick, fair in the game, though, to make a guy smash his hand on your head. But not between friends. I couldn’t a-done that to Bill Murphy for a million dollars. It was a accident, just because I was slow, because I was born slow.
“The hurt of it! Honest, Saxon, you don’t know what hurt is till you’ve got a old hurt like that hurt again. What can Billy Murphy do but slow down? He’s got to. He ain’t fightin’ two-handed any more. He knows it; I know it; The referee knows it; but nobody else. He goes on a-moving that left of his like it’s all right. But it ain’t. It’s hurtin’ him like a knife dug into him. He don’t dast strike a real blow with that left of his. But it hurts, anyway. Just to move it or not move it hurts, an’ every little dab-feint that I’m too wise to guard, knowin’ there’s no weight behind, why them little dab-touches on that poor thumb goes right to the heart of him, an’ hurts worse than a thousand boils or a thousand knockouts—just hurts all over again, an’ worse, each time an’ touch.
“Now suppose he an’ me was boxin’ for fun, out in the back yard, an’ he hurts his thumb that way, why we’d have the gloves off in a jiffy an’ I’d be putting cold compresses on that poor thumb of his an’ bandagin’ it that tight to keep the inflammation down. But no. This is a fight for fight-fans that’s paid their admission for blood, an’ blood they’re goin’ to get. They ain’t men. They’re wolves.
“He has to go easy, now, an’ I ain’t a-forcin’ him none. I’m all shot to pieces. I don’t know what to do. So I slow down, an’ the fans get hep to it. ‘Why don’t you fight?’ they begin to yell; ‘Fake! Fake!’ ‘Why don’t you kiss’m?’ ‘Lovin’ cup for yours, Bill Roberts!’ an’ that sort of bunk.
“’Fight!’ says The referee to me, low an’ savage. ‘Fight, or I’ll disqualify you—you, Bill, I mean you.’ An’ this to me, with a touch on the shoulder ‘so they’s no mistakin’.
“It ain’t pretty. It ain’t right. D’ye know what we was fightin’ for? A hundred bucks. Think of it! An’ the game is we got to do our best to put our man down for the count because of the fans has bet on us. Sweet, ain’t it? Well, that’s my last fight. It finishes me deado. Never again for yours truly.
“’Quit,’ I says to Billy Murphy in a clinch; ‘for the love of God, Bill, quit.’ An’ he says back, in a whisper, ‘I can’t, Bill—you know that.’
“An’ then the referee drags us apart, an’ a lot of the fans begins to hoot an’ boo.
“’Now kick in, damn you, Bill Roberts, an’ finish’m’ the referee says to me, an’ I tell’m to go to hell as Bill an’ me flop into the next clinch, not hittin’, an’ Bill touches his thumb again, an’ I see the pain shoot across his face. Game? That good boy’s the limit. An’ to look into the eyes of a brave man that’s sick with pain, an’ love ‘m, an’ see love in them eyes of his, an’ then have to go on givin’ ‘m pain—call that sport? I can’t see it. But the crowd’s got its money on us. We don’t count. We’ve sold ourselves for a hundred bucks, an’ we gotta deliver the goods.
“Let me tell you, Saxon, honest to God, that was one of the times I wanted to go through the ropes an’ drop them fans a-yellin’ for blood an’ show ‘em what blood is.
“’For God’s sake finish me, Bill,’ Bill says to me in that clinch; ‘put her over an’ I’ll fall for it, but I can’t lay down.’
“D’ye want to know? I cry there, right in the ring, in that clinch. The weeps for me. ‘I can’t do it, Bill,’ I whisper back, hangin’ onto’m like a brother an’ the referee ragin’ an’ draggin’ at us to get us apart, an’ all the wolves in the house snarlin’.
“’You got ‘m!’ the audience is yellin’. ‘Go in an’ finish ‘m!’ ‘The hay for him, Bill; put her across to the jaw an’ see ‘m fall!’
“’You got to, Bill, or you’re a dog,’ Bill says, lookin’ love at me in his eyes as the referee’s grip untangles us clear.
“An’ them wolves of fans yellin’: ‘Fake! Fake! Fake!’ like that, an’ keepin’ it up.
“Well, I done it. They’s only that way out. I done it. By God, I done it. I had to. I feint for ‘m, draw his left, duck to the right past it, takin’ it across my shoulder, an come up with my right to his jaw. An’ he knows the trick. He’s hep. He’s beaten me to it an’ blocked it with his shoulder a thousan’ times. But this time he don’t. He keeps himself wide open on purpose. Blim! It lands. He’s dead in the air, an’ he goes down sideways, strikin’ his face first on the rosin-canvas an’ then layin’ dead, his head twisted under ‘m till you’d a-thought his neck was broke. ME—I did that for a hundred bucks an’ a bunch of stiffs I’d be ashamed to wipe my feet on. An’ then I pick Bill up in my arms an’ carry’m to his corner, an’ help bring’m around. Well, they ain’t no kick comin’. They pay their money an’ they get their blood, an’ a knockout. An’ a better man than them, that I love, layin’ there dead to the world with a skinned face on the mat.”
For a moment he was still, gazing straight before him at the horses, his face hard and angry. He sighed, looked at Saxon, and smiled.
“An’ I quit the game right there. An’ Billy Murphy’s laughed at me for it. He still follows it. A side-line, you know, because he works at a good trade. But once in a while, when the house needs paintin’, or the doctor bills are up, or his oldest kid wants a bicycle, he jumps out an’ makes fifty or a hundred bucks before some of the clubs. I want you to meet him when it comes handy. He’s some boy I’m tellin’ you. But it did make me sick that night.”
Again the harshness and anger were in his face, and Saxon amazed herself by doing unconsciously what women higher in the social scale have done with deliberate sincerity. Her hand went out impulsively to his holding the lines, resting on top of it for a moment with quick, firm pressure. Her reward was a smile from lips and eyes, as his face turned toward her.
“Gee!” he exclaimed. “I never talk a streak like this to anybody. I just hold my hush an’ keep my thinks to myself. But, somehow, I guess it’s funny, I kind of have a feelin’ I want to make good with you. An’ that’s why I’m tellin’ you my thinks. Anybody can dance.”
The way led uptown, past the City Hall and the Fourteenth Street skyscrapers, and out Broadway to Mountain View. Turning to the right at the cemetery, they climbed the Piedmont Heights to Blair Park and plunged into the green coolness of Jack Hayes Canyon. Saxon could not suppress her surprise and joy at the quickness with which they covered the ground.
“They are beautiful,” she said. “I never dreamed I’d ever ride behind horses like them. I’m afraid I’ll wake up now and find it’s a dream. You know, I dream horses all the time. I’d give anything to own one some time.”
“It’s funny, ain’t it?” Billy answered. “I like horses that way. The boss says I’m a wooz at horses. An’ I know he’s a dub. He don’t know the first thing. An’ yet he owns two hundred big heavy draughts besides this light drivin’ pair, an’ I don’t own one.”
“Yet God makes the horses,” Saxon said.
“It’s a sure thing the boss don’t. Then how does he have so many?—two hundred of ‘em, I’m tellin’ you. He thinks he likes horses. Honest to God, Saxon, he don’t like all his horses as much as I like the last hair on the last tail of the scrubbiest of the bunch. Yet they’re his. Wouldn’t it jar you?”
“Wouldn’t it?” Saxon laughed appreciatively. “I just love fancy shirtwaists, an’ I spent my life ironing some of the beautifullest I’ve ever seen. It’s funny, an’ it isn’t fair.”
Billy gritted his teeth in another of his rages.
“An’ the way some of them women gets their shirtwaists. It makes me sick, thinkin’ of you ironin’ ‘em. You know what I mean, Saxon. They ain’t no use wastin’ words over it. You know. I know. Everybody knows. An’ it’s a hell of a world if men an’ women sometimes can’t talk to each other about such things.” His manner was almost apologetic yet it was defiantly and assertively right. “I never talk this way to other girls. They’d think I’m workin up to designs on ‘em. They make me sick the way they’re always lookin’ for them designs. But you’re different I can talk to you that way. I know I’ve got to. It’s the square thing. You’re like Billy Murphy, or any other man a man can talk to.”
She sighed with a great happiness, and looked at him with unconscious, love-shining eyes.
“It’s the same way with me,” she said. “The fellows I’ve run with I’ve never dared let talk about such things, because I knew they’d take advantage of it. Why, all the time, with them, I’ve a feeling that we’re cheating and lying to each other, playing a game like at a masquerade ball.” She paused for a moment, hesitant and debating, then went on in a queer low voice. “I haven’t been asleep. I’ve seen... and heard. I’ve had my chances, when I was that tired of the laundry I’d have done almost anything. I could have got those fancy shirtwaists... an’ all the rest... and maybe a horse to ride. There was a bank cashier... married, too, if you please. He talked to me straight out. I didn’t count, you know. I wasn’t a girl, with a girl’s feelings, or anything. I was nobody. It was just like a business talk. I learned about men from him. He told me what he’d do. He...”
Her voice died away in sadness, and in the silence she could hear Billy grit his teeth.
“You can’t tell me,” he cried. “I know. It’s a dirty world—an unfair, lousy world. I can’t make it out. They’s no squareness in it.—Women, with the best that’s in ‘em, bought an’ sold like horses. I don’t understand women that way. I don’t understand men that way. I can’t see how a man gets anything but cheated when he buys such things. It’s funny, ain’t it? Take my boss an’ his horses. He owns women, too. He might a-owned you, just because he’s got the price. An’, Saxon, you was made for fancy shirtwaists an’ all that, but, honest to God, I can’t see you payin’ for them that way. It’d be a crime—”
He broke off abruptly and reined in the horses. Around a sharp turn, speeding down the grade upon them, had appeared an automobile. With slamming of brakes it was brought to a stop, while the faces of the occupants took new lease of interest of life and stared at the young man and woman in the light rig that barred the way. Billy held up his hand.
“Take the outside, sport,” he said to the chauffeur.
“Nothin’ doin’, kiddo,” came the answer, as the chauffeur measured with hard, wise eyes the crumbling edge of the road and the downfall of the outside bank.
“Then we camp,” Billy announced cheerfully. “I know the rules of the road. These animals ain’t automobile broke altogether, an’ if you think I’m goin’ to have ‘em shy off the grade you got another guess comin’.”
A confusion of injured protestation arose from those that sat in the car.
“You needn’t be a road-hog because you’re a Rube,” said the chauffeur. “We ain’t a-goin’ to hurt your horses. Pull out so we can pass. If you don’t...”
“That’ll do you, sport,” was Billy’s retort. “You can’t talk that way to yours truly. I got your number an’ your tag, my son. You’re standin’ on your foot. Back up the grade an’ get off of it. Stop on the outside at the first psssin’-place an’ we’ll pass you. You’ve got the juice. Throw on the reverse.”
After a nervous consultation, the chauffeur obeyed, and the car backed up the hill and out of sight around the turn.
“Them cheap skates,” Billy sneered to Saxon, “with a couple of gallons of gasoline an’ the price of a machine a-thinkin’ they own the roads your folks an’ my folks made.”
“Talkin’ all night about it?” came the chauffeur’s voice from around the bend. “Get a move on. You can pass.”
“Get off your foot,” Billy retorted contemptuously. “I’m a-comin’ when I’m ready to come, an’ if you ain’t given room enough I’ll go clean over you an’ your load of chicken meat.”
He slightly slacked the reins on the restless, head-tossing animals, and without need of chirrup they took the weight of the light vehicle and passed up the hill and apprehensively on the inside of the purring machine.
“Where was we?” Billy queried, as the clear road showed in front. “Yep, take my boss. Why should he own two hundred horses, an’ women, an’ the rest, an’ you an’ me own nothin’?”
“You own your silk, Billy,” she said softly.
“An’ you yours. Yet we sell it to ‘em like it was cloth across the counter at so much a yard. I guess you’re hep to what a few more years in the laundry’ll do to you. Take me. I’m sellin’ my silk slow every day I work. See that little finger?” He shifted the reins to one hand for a moment and held up the free hand for inspection. “I can’t straighten it like the others, an’ it’s growin’. I never put it out fightin’. The teamin’s done it. That’s silk gone across the counter, that’s all. Ever see a old four-horse teamster’s hands? They look like claws they’re that crippled an’ twisted.”
“Things weren’t like that in the old days when our folks crossed the plains,” she answered. “They might a-got their fingers twisted, but they owned the best goin’ in the way of horses and such.”
“Sure. They worked for themselves. They twisted their fingers for themselves. But I’m twistin’ my fingers for my boss. Why, d’ye know, Saxon, his hands is soft as a woman’s that’s never done any work. Yet he owns the horses an’ the stables, an’ never does a tap of work, an’ I manage to scratch my meal-ticket an’ my clothes. It’s got my goat the way things is run. An’ who runs ‘em that way? That’s what I want to know. Times has changed. Who changed ‘em?”
“You bet your life he didn’t. An’ that’s another thing that gets me. Who’s God anyway? If he’s runnin’ things—an’ what good is he if he ain’t?—then why does he let my boss, an’ men like that cashier you mentioned, why does he let them own the horses, an’ buy the women, the nice little girls that oughta be lovin’ their own husbands, an’ havin’ children they’re not ashamed of, an’ just bein’ happy accordin’ to their nature?”
The horses, resting frequently and lathered by the work, had climbed the steep grade of the old road to Moraga Valley, and on the divide of the Contra Costa hills the way descended sharply through the green and sunny stillness of Redwood Canyon.
“Say, ain’t it swell?” Billy queried, with a wave of his hand indicating the circled tree-groups, the trickle of unseen water, and the summer hum of bees.
“I love it"’ Saxon affirmed. “It makes me want to live in the country, and I never have.”
“Me, too, Saxon. I’ve never lived in the country in my life—an’ all my folks was country folks.”
“No cities then. Everybody lived in the country.”
“I guess you’re right,” he nodded. “They just had to live in the country.”
There was no brake on the light carriage, and Billy became absorbed in managing his team down the steep, winding road. Saxon leaned back, eyes closed, with a feeling of ineffable rest. Time and again he shot glances at her closed eyes.
“What’s the matter?” he asked finally, in mild alarm. “You ain’t sick?”
“It’s so beautiful I’m afraid to look,” she answered. “It’s so brave it hurts.”
“BRAVE?—now that’s funny.”
“Isn’t it? But it just makes me feel that way. It’s brave. Now the houses and streets and things in the city aren’t brave. But this is. I don’t know why. It just is.”
“By golly, I think you’re right,” he exclaimed. “It strikes me that way, now you speak of it. They ain’t no games or tricks here, no cheatin’ an’ no lyin’. Them trees just stand up natural an’ strong an’ clean like young boys their first time in the ring before they’ve learned its rottenness an’ how to double-cross an’ lay down to the bettin’ odds an’ the fight-fans. Yep; it is brave. Say, Saxon, you see things, don’t you?” His pause was almost wistful, and he looked at her and studied her with a caressing softness that ran through her in resurgent thrills. “D’ye know, I’d just like you to see me fight some time—a real fight, with something doin’ every moment. I’d be proud to death to do it for you. An’ I’d sure fight some with you lookin’ on an’ understandin’. That’d be a fight what is, take it from me. An’ that’s funny, too. I never wanted to fight before a woman in my life. They squeal and screech an’ don’t understand. But you’d understand. It’s dead open an’ shut you would.”
A little later, swinging along the flat of the valley, through the little clearings of the farmers and the ripe grain-stretches golden in the sunshine, Billy turned to Saxon again.
“Say, you’ve ben in love with fellows, lots of times. Tell me about it. What’s it like?”
She shook her head slowly.
“I only thought I was in love—and not many times, either—”
“Many times!” he cried.
“Not really ever,” she assured him, secretly exultant at his unconscious jealousy. “I never was really in love. If I had been I’d be married now. You see, I couldn’t see anything else to it but to marry a man if I loved him.”
“But suppose he didn’t love you?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she smiled, half with facetiousness and half with certainty and pride. “I think I could make him love me.”
“I guess you sure could,” Billy proclaimed enthusiastically.
“The trouble is,” she went on, “the men that loved me I never cared for that way.—Oh, look!”
A cottontail rabbit had scuttled across the road, and a tiny dust cloud lingered like smoke, marking the way of his flight. At the next turn a dozen quail exploded into the air from under the noses of the horses. Billy and Saxon exclaimed in mutual delight.
“Gee,” he muttered, “I almost wisht I’d ben born a farmer. Folks wasn’t made to live in cities.”
“Not our kind, at least,” she agreed. Followed a pause and a long sigh. “It’s all so beautiful. It would be a dream just to live all your life in it. I’d like to be an Indian squaw sometimes.”
Several times Billy checked himself on the verge of speech.
“About those fellows you thought you was in love with,” he said finally. “You ain’t told me, yet.”
“You want to know?” she asked. “They didn’t amount to anything.”
“Of course I want to know. Go ahead. Fire away.”
“Well, first there was Al Stanley—”
“What did he do for a livin’?” Billy demanded, almost as with authority.
“He was a gambler.”
Billy’s face abruptly stiffened, and she could see his eyes cloudy with doubt in the quick glance he flung at her.
“Oh, it was all right,” she laughed. “I was only eight years old. You see, I’m beginning at the beginning. It was after my mother died and when I was adopted by Cady. He kept a hotel and saloon. It was down in Los Angeles. Just a small hotel. Workingmen, just common laborers, mostly, and some railroad men, stopped at it, and I guess Al Stanley got his share of their wages. He was so handsome and so quiet and soft-spoken. And he had the nicest eyes and the softest, cleanest hands. I can see them now. He played with me sometimes, in the afternoon, and gave me candy and little presents. He used to sleep most of the day. I didn’t know why, then. I thought he was a fairy prince in disguise. And then he got killed, right in the bar-room, but first he killed the man that killed him. So that was the end of that love affair.
“Next was after the asylum, when I was thirteen and living with my brother—I’ve lived with him ever since. He was a boy that drove a bakery wagon. Almost every morning, on the way to school, I used to pass him. He would come driving down Wood Street and turn in on Twelfth. Maybe it was because he drove a horse that attracted me. Anyway, I must have loved him for a couple of months. Then he lost his job, or something, for another boy drove the wagon. And we’d never even spoken to each other.
“Then there was a bookkeeper when I was sixteen. I seem to run to bookkeepers. It was a bookkeeper at the laundry that Charley Long beat up. This other one was when I was working in Hickmeyer’s Cannery. He had soft hands, too. But I quickly got all I wanted of him. He was... well, anyway, he had ideas like your boss. And I never really did love him, truly and honest, Billy. I felt from the first that he wasn’t just right. And when I was working in the paper-box factory I thought I loved a clerk in Kahn’s Emporium—you know, on Eleventh and Washington. He was all right. That was the trouble with him. He was too much all right. He didn’t have any life in him, any go. He wanted to marry me, though. But somehow I couldn’t see it. That shows I didn’t love him. He was narrow-chested and skinny, and his hands were always cold and fishy. But my! he could dress—just like he came out of a bandbox. He said he was going to drown himself, and all kinds of things, but I broke with him just the same.
“And after that... well, there isn’t any after that. I must have got particular, I guess, but I didn’t see anybody I could love. It seemed more like a game with the men I met, or a fight. And we never fought fair on either side. Seemed as if we always had cards up our sleeves. We weren’t honest or outspoken, but instead it seemed as if we were trying to take advantage of each other. Charley Long was honest, though. And so was that bank cashier. And even they made me have the fight feeling harder than ever. All of them always made me feel I had to take care of myself. They wouldn’t. That was sure.”
She stopped and looked with interest at the clean profile of his face as he watched and guided the homes. He looked at her inquiringly, and her eyes laughed lazily into his as she stretched her arms.
“That’s all,” she concluded. “I’ve told you everything, which I’ve never done before to any one. And it’s your turn now.”
“Not much of a turn, Saxon. I’ve never cared for girls—that is, not enough to want to marry ‘em. I always liked men better—fellows like Billy Murphy. Besides, I guess I was too interested in trainin’ an’ fightin’ to bother with women much. Why, Saxon, honest, while I ain’t ben altogether good—you understand what I mean—just the same I ain’t never talked love to a girl in my life. They was no call to.”
“The girls have loved you just the same,” she teased, while in her heart was a curious elation at his virginal confession.
He devoted himself to the horses.
“Lots of them,” she urged.
Still he did not reply.
“Now, haven’t they?”
“Well, it wasn’t my fault,” he said slowly. “If they wanted to look sideways at me it was up to them. And it was up to me to sidestep if I wanted to, wasn’t it? You’ve no idea, Saxon, how a prizefighter is run after. Why, sometimes it’s seemed to me that girls an’ women ain’t got an ounce of natural shame in their make-up. Oh, I was never afraid of them, believe muh, but I didn’t hanker after ‘em. A man’s a fool that’d let them kind get his goat.
“Maybe you haven’t got love in you,” she challenged.
“Maybe I haven’t,” was his discouraging reply. “Anyway, I don’t see myself lovin’ a girl that runs after me. It’s all right for Charley-boys, but a man that is a man don’t like bein’ chased by women.”
“My mother always said that love was the greatest thing in the world,” Saxon argued. “She wrote poems about it, too. Some of them were published in the San Jose Mercury.”
“What do you think about it?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she baffled, meeting his eyes with another lazy smile. “All I know is it’s pretty good to be alive a day like this.”
“On a trip like this—you bet it is,” he added promptly.
At one o’clock Billy turned off the road and drove into an open space among the trees.
“Here’s where we eat,” he announced. “I thought it’d be better to have a lunch by ourselves than atop at one of these roadside dinner counters. An’ now, just to make everything safe an’ comfortable, I’m goin’ to unharness the horses. We got lots of time. You can get the lunch basket out an’ spread it on the lap-robe.”
As Saxon unpacked she basket she was appalled at his extravagance. She spread an amazing array of ham and chicken sandwiches, crab salad, hard-boiled eggs, pickled pigs’ feet, ripe olives and dill pickles, Swiss cheese, salted almonds, oranges and bananas, and several pint bottles of beer. It was the quantity as well as the variety that bothered her. It had the appearance of a reckless attempt to buy out a whole delicatessen shop.
“You oughtn’t to blow yourself that way,” she reproved him as he sat down beside her. “Why it’s enough for half a dozen bricklayers.”
“It’s all right, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she acknowledged. “But that’s the trouble. It’s too much so.”
“Then it’s all right,” he concluded. “I always believe in havin’ plenty. Have some beer to wash the dust away before we begin? Watch out for the glasses. I gotta return them.”
Later, the meal finished, he lay on his back, smoking a cigarette, and questioned her about her earlier history. She had been telling him of her life in her brother’s house, where she paid four dollars and a half a week board. At fifteen she had graduated from grammar school and gone to work in the jute mills for four dollars a week, three of which she had paid to Sarah.
“How about that saloonkeeper?” Billy asked. “How come it he adopted you?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know, except that all my relatives were hard up. It seemed they just couldn’t get on. They managed to scratch a lean living for themselves, and that was all. Cady—he was the saloonkeeper—had been a soldier in my father’s company, and he always swore by Captain Kit, which was their nickname for him. My father had kept the surgeons from amputating his leg in the war, and he never forgot it. He was making money in the hotel and saloon, and I found out afterward he helped out a lot to pay the doctors and to bury my mother alongside of father. I was to go to Uncle Will—that was my mother’s wish; but there had been fighting up in the Ventura Mountains where his ranch was, and men had been killed. It was about fences and cattlemen or something, and anyway he was in jail a long time, and when he got his freedom the lawyers had got his ranch. He was an old man, then, and broken, and his wife took sick, and he got a job as night watchman for forty dollars a month. So he couldn’t do anything for me, and Cady adopted me.
“Cady was a good man, if he did run a saloon. His wife was a big, handsome-looking woman. I don’t think she was all right... and I’ve heard so since. But she was good to me. I don’t care what they say about her, or what she was. She was awful good to me. After he died, she went altogether bad, and so I went into the orphan asylum. It wasn’t any too good there, and I had three years of it. And then Tom had married and settled down to steady work, and he took me out to live with him. And—well, I’ve been working pretty steady ever since.”
She gazed sadly away across the fields until her eyes came to rest on a fence bright-splashed with poppies at its base. Billy, who from his supine position had been looking up at her, studying and pleasuring in the pointed oval of her woman’s face, reached his hand out slowly as he murmured:
“You poor little kid.”
His hand closed sympathetically on her bare forearm, and as she looked down to greet his eyes she saw in them surprise and delight.
“Say, ain’t your skin cool though,” he said. “Now me, I’m always warm. Feel my hand.”
It was warmly moist, and she noted microscopic beads of sweat on his forehead and clean-shaven upper lip.
“My, but you are sweaty.”
She bent to him and with her handkerchief dabbed his lip and forehead dry, then dried his palms.
“I breathe through my skin, I guess,” he explained. “The wise guys in the trainin’ camps and gyms say it’s a good sign for health. But somehow I’m sweatin’ more than usual now. Funny, ain’t it?”
She had been forced to unclasp his hand from her arm in order to dry it, and when she finished, it returned to its old position.
“But, say, ain’t your skin cool,” he repeated with renewed wonder. “Soft as velvet, too, an’ smooth as silk. It feels great.”
Gently explorative, he slid his hand from wrist to elbow and came to rest half way back. Tired and languid from the morning in the sun, she found herself thrilling to his touch and half-dreamily deciding that here was a man she could love, hands and all.
“Now I’ve taken the cool all out of that spot.” He did not look up to her, and she could see the roguish smile that curled on his lips. “So I guess I’ll try another.”
He shifted his hand along her arm with soft sensuousness, and she, looking down at his lips, remembered the long tingling they had given hers the first time they had met.
“Go on and talk,” he urged, after a delicious five minutes of silence. “I like to watch your lips talking. It’s funny, but every move they make looks like a tickly kiss.”
Greatly she wanted to stay where she was. Instead, she said:
“If I talk, you won’t like what I say.”
“Go on,” he insisted. “You can’t say anything I won’t like.”
“Well, there’s some poppies over there by the fence I want to pick. And then it’s time for us to be going.”
“I lose,” he laughed. “But you made twenty-five tickle kisses just the same. I counted ‘em. I’ll tell you what: you sing ‘When the Harvest Days Are Over,’ and let me have your other cool arm while you’re doin’ it, and then we’ll go.”
She sang looking down into his eyes, which ware centered, not on hers, but on her lips. When she finished, she slipped his hands from her arms and got up. He was about to start for the horses, when she held her jacket out to him. Despite the independence natural to a girl who earned her own living, she had an innate love of the little services and finenesses; and, also, she remembered from her childhood the talk by the pioneer women of the courtesy and attendance of the caballeros of the Spanish-California days.
Sunset greeted them when, after a wide circle to the east and south, they cleared the divide of the Contra Costa hills and began dropping down the long grade that led past Redwood Peak to Fruitvale. Beneath them stretched the flatlands to the bay, checkerboarded into fields and broken by the towns of Elmhurst, San Leandro, and Haywards. The smoke of Oakland filled the western sky with haze and murk, while beyond, across the bay, they could see the first winking lights of San Francisco.
Darkness was on them, and Billy had become curiously silent. For half an hour he had given no recognition of her existence save once, when the chill evening wind caused him to tuck the robe tightly about her and himself. Half a dozen times Saxon found herself on the verge of the remark, “What’s on your mind?” but each time let it remain unuttered. She sat very close to him. The warmth of their bodies intermingled, and she was aware of a great restfulness and content.
“Say, Saxon,” he began abruptly. “It’s no use my holdin’ it in any longer. It’s ben in my mouth all day, ever since lunch. What’s the matter with you an’ me gettin’ married?”
She knew, very quietly and very gladly, that he meant it. Instinctively she was impelled to hold off, to make him woo her, to make herself more desirably valuable ere she yielded. Further, her woman’s sensitiveness and pride were offended. She had never dreamed of so forthright and bald a proposal from the man to whom she would give herself. The simplicity and directness of Billy’s proposal constituted almost a hurt. On the other hand she wanted him so much—how much she had not realized until now, when he had so unexpectedly made himself accessible.
“Well you gotta say something, Saxon. Hand it to me, good or bad; but anyway hand it to me. An’ just take into consideration that I love you. Why, I love you like the very devil, Saxon. I must, because I’m askin’ you to marry me, an’ I never asked any girl that before.”
Another silence fell, and Saxon found herself dwelling on the warmth, tingling now, under the lap-robe. When she realized whither her thoughts led, she blushed guiltily in the darkness.
“How old are you, Billy?” she questioned, with a suddenness and irrelevance as disconcerting as his first words had been.
“Twenty-two,” he answered.
“I am twenty-four.”
“As if I didn’t know. When you left the orphan asylum and how old you were, how long you worked in the jute mills, the cannery, the paper-box factory, the laundry—maybe you think I can’t do addition. I knew how old you was, even to your birthday.”
“That doesn’t change the fact that I’m two years older.”
“What of it? If it counted for anything, I wouldn’t be lovin’ you, would I? Your mother was dead right. Love’s the big stuff. It’s what counts. Don’t you see? I just love you, an’ I gotta have you. It’s natural, I guess; and I’ve always found with horses, dogs, and other folks, that what’s natural is right. There’s no gettin’ away from it, Saxon; I gotta have you, an’ I’m just hopin’ hard you gotta have me. Maybe my hands ain’t soft like bookkeepers’ an’ clerks, but they can work for you, an’ fight like Sam Hill for you, and, Saxon, they can love you.”
The old sex antagonism which she had always experienced with men seemed to have vanished. She had no sense of being on the defensive. This was no game. It was what she had been looking for and dreaming about. Before Billy she was defenseless, and there was an all-satisfaction in the knowledge. She could deny him nothing. Not even if he proved to be like the others. And out of the greatness of the thought rose a greater thought—he would not so prove himself.
She did not speak. Instead, in a glow of spirit and flesh, she reached out to his left hand and gently tried to remove it from the rein. He did not understand; but when she persisted he shifted the rein to his right and let her have her will with the other hand. Her head bent over it, and she kissed the teamster callouses.
For the moment he was stunned.
“You mean it?” he stammered.
For reply, she kissed the hand again and murmured:
“I love your hands, Billy. To me they are the most beautiful hands in the world, and it would take hours of talking to tell you all they mean to me.”
“Whoa!” he called to the horses.
He pulled them in to a standstill, soothed them with his voice, and made the reins fast around the whip. Then he turned to her with arms around her and lips to lips.
“Oh, Billy, I’ll make you a good wife,” she sobbed, when the kiss was broken.
He kissed her wet eyes and found her lips again.
“Now you know what I was thinkin’ and why I was sweatin’ when we was eatin’ lunch. Just seemed I couldn’t hold in much longer from tellin’ you. Why, you know, you looked good to me from the first moment I spotted you.”
“And I think I loved you from that first day, too, Billy. And I was so proud of you all that day, you were so kind and gentle, and so strong, and the way the men all respected you and the girls all wanted you, and the way you fought those three Irishmen when I was behind the picnic table. I couldn’t love or marry a man I wasn’t proud of, and I’m so proud of you, so proud.”
“Not half as much as I am right now of myself,” he answered, “for having won you. It’s too good to be true. Maybe the alarm clock’ll go off and wake me up in a couple of minutes. Well, anyway, if it does, I’m goin’ to make the best of them two minutes first. Watch out I don’t eat you, I’m that hungry for you.”
He smothered her in an embrace, holding her so tightly to him that it almost hurt. After what was to her an age-long period of bliss, his arms relaxed and he seemed to make an effort to draw himself together. “An’ the clock ain’t gone off yet,” he whispered against her cheek. “And it’s a dark night, an’ there’s Fruitvale right ahead, an’ if there ain’t King and Prince standin’ still in the middle of the road. I never thought the time’d come when I wouldn’t want to take the ribbons on a fine pair of horses. But this is that time. I just can’t let go of you, and I’ve gotta some time to-night. It hurts worse’n poison, but here goes.”
He restored her to herself, tucked the disarranged robe about her, and chirruped to the impatient team.
Half an hour later he called “Whoa!”
“I know I’m awake now, but I don’t know but maybe I dreamed all the rest, and I just want to make sure.”
And again be made the reins fast and took her in his arms.
The days flew by for Saxon. She worked on steadily at the laundry, even doing more overtime than usual, and all her free waking hours were devoted to preparations for the great change and to Billy. He had proved himself God’s own impetuous lover by insisting on getting married the next day after the proposal, and then by resolutely refusing to compromise on more than a week’s delay.
“Why wait?” he demanded. “We’re not gettin’ any younger so far as I can notice, an’ think of all we lose every day we wait.”
In the end, he gave in to a month, which was well, for in two weeks he was transferred, with half a dozen other drivers, to work from the big stables of Corberly and Morrison in West Oakland. House-hunting in the other end of town ceased, and on Pine Street, between Fifth and Fourth, and in immediate proximity to the great Southern Pacific railroad yards, Billy and Saxon rented a neat cottage of four small rooms for ten dollars a month.
“Dog-cheap is what I call it, when I think of the small rooms I’ve ben soaked for,” was Billy’s judgment. “Look at the one I got now, not as big as the smallest here, an’ me payin’ six dollars a month for it.”
“But it’s furnished,” Saxon reminded him. “You see, that makes a difference.”
But Billy didn’t see.
“I ain’t much of a scholar, Saxon, but I know simple arithmetic; I’ve soaked my watch when I was hard up, and I can calculate interest. How much do you figure it will cost to furnish the house, carpets on the floor, linoleum on the kitchen, and all?”
“We can do it nicely for three hundred dollars,” she answered. “I’ve been thinking it over and I’m sure we can do it for that.”
“Three hundred,” he muttered, wrinkling his brows with concentration. “Three hundred, say at six per cent.—that’d be six cents on the dollar, sixty cents on ten dollars, six dollars on the hundred, on three hundred eighteen dollars. Say—I’m a bear at multiplyin’ by ten. Now divide eighteen by twelve, that’d be a dollar an’ a half a month interest.” He stopped, satisfied that he had proved his contention. Then his face quickened with a fresh thought. “Hold on! That ain’t all. That’d be the interest on the furniture for four rooms. Divide by four. What’s a dollar an’ a half divided by four?”
“Four into fifteen, three times and three to carry,” Saxon recited glibly. “Four into thirty is seven, twenty-eight, two to carry; and two-fourths is one-half. There you are.”
“Gee! You’re the real bear at figures.” He hesitated. “I didn’t follow you. How much did you say it was?”
“Thirty-seven and a half cents.”
“Ah, ha! Now we’ll see how much I’ve ben gouged for my one room. Ten dollars a month for four rooms is two an’ a half for one. Add thirty-seven an’ a half cents interest on furniture, an’ that makes two dollars an’ eighty-seven an’ a half cents. Subtract from six dollars....”
“Three dollars and twelve and a half cents,” she supplied quickly.
“There we are! Three dollars an’ twelve an’ a half cents I’m jiggered out of on the room I’m rentin’. Say! Bein’ married is like savin’ money, ain’t it?”
“But furniture wears out, Billy.”
“By golly, I never thought of that. It ought to be figured, too. Anyway, we’ve got a snap here, and next Saturday afternoon you’ve gotta get off from the laundry so as we can go an’ buy our furniture. I saw Salinger’s last night. I give’m fifty down, and the rest installment plan, ten dollars a month. In twenty-five months the furniture’s ourn. An’ remember, Saxon, you wanta buy everything you want, no matter how much it costs. No scrimpin’ on what’s for you an’ me. Get me?”
She nodded, with no betrayal on her face of the myriad secret economies that filled her mind. A hint of moisture glistened in her eyes.
“You’re so good to me, Billy,” she murmured, as she came to him and was met inside his arms.
“So you’ve gone an’ done it,” Mary commented, one morning in the laundry. They had not been at work ten minutes ere her eye had glimpsed the topaz ring on the third finger of Saxon’s left hand. “Who’s the lucky one? Charley Long or Billy Roberts?”
“Billy,” was the answer.
“Huh! Takin’ a young boy to raise, eh?”
Saxon showed that the stab had gone home, and Mary was all contrition.
“Can’t you take a josh? I’m glad to death at the news. Billy’s a awful good man, and I’m glad to see you get him. There ain’t many like him knockin’ ‘round, an’ they ain’t to be had for the askin’. An’ you’re both lucky. You was just made for each other, an’ you’ll make him a better wife than any girl I know. When is it to be?”
Going home from the laundry a few days later, Saxon encountered Charley Long. He blocked the sidewalk, and compelled speech with her.
“So you’re runnin’ with a prizefighter,” he sneered. “A blind man can see your finish.”
For the first time she was unafraid of this big-bodied, black-browed men with the hairy-matted hands and fingers. She held up her left hand.
“See that? It’s something, with all your strength, that you could never put on my finger. Billy Roberts put it on inside a week. He got your number, Charley Long, and at the same time he got me.”
“Skiddoo for you,” Long retorted. “Twenty-three’s your number.”
“He’s not like you,” Saxon went on. “He’s a man, every bit of him, a fine, clean man.”
Long laughed hoarsely.
“He’s got your goat all right.”
“And yours,” she flashed back.
“I could tell you things about him. Saxon, straight, he ain’t no good. If I was to tell you—”
“You’d better get out of my way,” she interrupted, “or I’ll tell him, and you know what you’ll get, you great big bully.”
Long shuffled uneasily, then reluctantly stepped aside.
“You’re a caution,” he said, half admiringly.
“So’s Billy Roberts,” she laughed, and continued on her way. After half a dozen steps she stopped. “Say,” she called.
The big blacksmith turned toward her with eagerness.
“About a block back,” she said, “I saw a man with hip disease. You might go and beat him up.”
Of one extravagance Saxon was guilty in the course of the brief engagement period. A full day’s wages she spent in the purchase of half a dozen cabinet photographs of herself. Billy had insisted that life was unendurable could he not look upon her semblance the last thing when he went to bed at night and the first thing when he got up in the morning. In return, his photographs, one conventional and one in the stripped fighting costume of the ring, ornamented her looking glass. It was while gazing at the latter that she was reminded of her wonderful mother’s tales of the ancient Saxons and sea-foragers of the English coasts. From the chest of drawers that had crossed the plains she drew forth another of her several precious heirloom—a scrap-book of her mother’s in which was pasted much of the fugitive newspaper verse of pioneer California days. Also, there were copies of paintings and old wood engravings from the magazines of a generation and more before.
Saxon ran the pages with familiar fingers and stopped at the picture she was seeking. Between bold headlands of rock and under a gray cloud-blown sky, a dozen boats, long and lean and dark, beaked like monstrous birds, were landing on a foam-whitened beach of sand. The men in the boats, half naked, huge-muscled and fair-haired, wore winged helmets. In their hands were swords and spears, and they were leaping, waist-deep, into the sea-wash and wading ashore. Opposed to them, contesting the landing, were skin-clad savages, unlike Indians, however, who clustered on the beach or waded into the water to their knees. The first blows were being struck, and here and there the bodies of the dead and wounded rolled in the surf. One fair-haired invader lay across the gunwale of a boat, the manner of his death told by the arrow that transfixed his breast. In the air, leaping past him into the water, sword in hand, was Billy. There was no mistaking it. The striking blondness, the face, the eyes, the mouth were the same. The very expression on the face was what had been on Billy’s the day of the picnic when he faced the three wild Irishmen.
Somewhere out of the ruck of those warring races had emerged Billy’s ancestors, and hers, was her afterthought, as she closed the book and put it back in the drawer. And some of those ancestors had made this ancient and battered chest of drawers which had crossed the salt ocean and the plains and been pierced by a bullet in the fight with the Indians at Little Meadow. Almost, it seemed, she could visualize the women who had kept their pretties and their family homespun in its drawers—the women of those wandering generations who were grandmothers and greater great grandmothers of her own mother. Well, she sighed, it was a good stock to be born of, a hard-working, hard-fighting stock. She fell to wondering what her life would have been like had she been born a Chinese woman, or an Italian woman like those she saw, head-shawled or bareheaded, squat, ungainly and swarthy, who carried great loads of driftwood on their heads up from the beach. Then she laughed at her foolishness, remembered Billy and the four-roomed cottage on Pine Street, and went to bed with her mind filled for the hundredth time with the details of the furniture.
“Our cattle were all played out,” Saxon was saying, “and winter was so near that we couldn’t dare try to cross the Great American Desert, so our train stopped in Salt Lake City that winter. The Mormons hadn’t got bad yet, and they were good to us.”
“You talk as though you were there,” Bert commented.
“My mother was,” Saxon answered proudly. “She was nine years old that winter.”
They were seated around the table in the kitchen of the little Pine Street cottage, making a cold lunch of sandwiches, tamales, and bottled beer. It being Sunday, the four were free from work, and they had come early, to work harder than on any week day, washing walls and windows, scrubbing floors, laying carpets and linoleum, hanging curtains, setting up the stove, putting the kitchen utensils and dishes away, and placing the furniture.
“Go on with the story, Saxon,” Mary begged. “I’m just dyin’ to hear. And Bert, you just shut up and listen.”
“Well, that winter was when Del Hancock showed up. He was Kentucky born, but he’d been in the West for years. He was a scout, like Kit Carson, and he knew him well. Many’s a time Kit Carson and he slept under the same blankets. They were together to California and Oregon with General Fremont. Well, Del Hancock was passing on his way through Salt Lake, going I don’t know where to raise a company of Rocky Mountain trappers to go after beaver some new place he knew about. Ha was a handsome man. He wore his hair long like in pictures, and had a silk sash around his waist he’d learned to wear in California from the Spanish, and two revolvers in his belt. Any woman ‘d fall in love with him first sight. Well, he saw Sadie, who was my mother’s oldest sister, and I guess she looked good to him, for he stopped right there in Salt Lake and didn’t go a step. He was a great Indian fighter, too, and I heard my Aunt Villa say, when I was a little girl, that he had the blackest, brightest eyes, and that the way he looked was like an eagle. He’d fought duels, too, the way they did in those days, and he wasn’t afraid of anything.
“Sadie was a beauty, and she flirted with him and drove him crazy. Maybe she wasn’t sure of her own mind, I don’t know. But I do know that she didn’t give in as easy as I did to Billy. Finally, he couldn’t stand it any more. Ha rode up that night on horseback, wild as could be. ‘Sadie,’ he said, ‘if you don’t promise to marry me to-morrow, I’ll shoot myself to-night right back of the corral.’ And he’d have done it, too, and Sadie knew it, and said she would. Didn’t they make love fast in those days?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Mary sniffed. “A week after you first laid eyes on Billy you was engaged. Did Billy say he was going to shoot himself back of the laundry if you turned him down?”
“I didn’t give him a chance,” Saxon confessed. “Anyway Del Hancock and Aunt Sadie got married next day. And they were very happy afterward, only she died. And after that he was killed, with General Custer and all the rest, by the Indians. He was an old man by then, but I guess he got his share of Indians before they got him. Men like him always died fighting, and they took their dead with them. I used to know Al Stanley when I was a little girl. He was a gambler, but he was game. A railroad man shot him in the back when he was sitting at a table. That shot killed him, too. He died in about two seconds. But before he died he’d pulled his gun and put three bullets into the man that killed him.”
“I don’t like fightin’,” Mary protested. “It makes me nervous. Bert gives me the willies the way he’s always lookin’ for trouble. There ain’t no sense in it.”
“And I wouldn’t give a snap of my fingers for a man without fighting spirit,” Saxon answered. “Why, we wouldn’t be here to-day if it wasn’t for the fighting spirit of our people before us.”
“You’ve got the real goods of a fighter in Billy,” Bert assured her; “a yard long and a yard wide and genuine A Number One, long-fleeced wool. Billy’s a Mohegan with a scalp-lock, that’s what he is. And when he gets his mad up it’s a case of get out from under or something will fall on you—hard.”
“Just like that,” Mary added.
Billy, who had taken no part in the conversation, got up, glanced into the bedroom off the kitchen, went into the parlor and the bedroom off the parlor, then returned and stood gazing with puzzled brows into the kitchen bedroom.
“What’s eatin’ you, old man,” Bert queried. “You look as though you’d lost something or was markin’ a three-way ticket. What you got on your chest? Cough it up.”
“Why, I’m just thinkin’ where in Sam Hill’s the bed an’ stuff for the back bedroom.”
“There isn’t any,” Saxon explained. “We didn’t order any.”
“Then I’ll see about it to-morrow.”
“What d’ye want another bed for?” asked Bert. “Ain’t one bed enough for the two of you?”
“You shut up, Bert!” Mary cried. “Don’t get raw.”
“Whoa, Mary!” Bert grinned. “Back up. You’re in the wrong stall as usual.”
“We don’t need that room,” Saxon was saying to Billy. “And so I didn’t plan any furniture. That money went to buy better carpets and a better stove.”
Billy came over to her, lifted her from the chair, and seated himself with her on his knees.
“That’s right, little girl. I’m glad you did. The best for us every time. And to-morrow night I want you to run up with me to Salinger’s an’ pick out a good bedroom set an’ carpet for that room. And it must be good. Nothin’ snide.”
“It will cost fifty dollars,” she objected.
“That’s right,” he nodded. “Make it cost fifty dollars and not a cent less. We’re goin’ to have the best. And what’s the good of an empty room? It’d make the house look cheap. Why, I go around now, seein’ this little nest just as it grows an’ softens, day by day, from the day we paid the cash money down an’ nailed the keys. Why, almost every moment I’m drivin’ the horses, all day long, I just keep on seein’ this nest. And when we’re married, I’ll go on seein’ it. And I want to see it complete. If that room’d he bare-floored an’ empty, I’d see nothin’ but it and its bare floor all day long. I’d be cheated. The house’d be a lie. Look at them curtains you put up in it, Saxon. That’s to make believe to the neighbors that it’s furnished. Saxon, them curtains are lyin’ about that room, makin’ a noise for every one to hear that that room’s furnished. Nitsky for us. I’m goin’ to see that them curtains tell the truth.”
“You might rent it,” Bert suggested. “You’re close to the railroad yards, and it’s only two blocks to a restaurant.”
“Not on your life. I ain’t marryin’ Saxon to take in lodgers. If I can’t take care of her, d’ye know what I’ll do? Go down to Long Wharf, say ’Here goes nothin’,’ an’ jump into the bay with a stone tied to my neck. Ain’t I right, Saxon?”
It was contrary to her prudent judgment, but it fanned her pride. She threw her arms around her lover’s neck, and said, ere she kissed him:
“You’re the boss, Billy. What you say goes, and always will go.”
“Listen to that!” Bert gibed to Mary. “That’s the stuff. Saxon’s onto her job.”
“I guess we’ll talk things over together first before ever I do anything,” Billy was saying to Saxon.
“Listen to that,” Mary triumphed. “You bet the man that marries me’ll have to talk things over first.”
“Billy’s only givin’ her hot air,” Bert plagued. “They all do it before they’re married.”
Mary sniffed contemptuously.
“I’ll bet Saxon leads him around by the nose. And I’m goin’ to say, loud an’ strong, that I’ll lead the man around by the nose that marries me.”
“Not if you love him,” Saxon interposed.
“All the more reason,” Mary pursued.
Bert assumed an expression and attitude of mournful dejection.
“Now you see why me an’ Mary don’t get married,” he said. “I’m some big Indian myself, an’ I’ll be everlastingly jiggerooed if I put up for a wigwam I can’t be boss of.”
“And I’m no squaw,” Mary retaliated, “an’ I wouldn’t marry a big buck Indian if all the rest of the men in the world was dead.”
“Well this big buck Indian ain’t asked you yet.”
“He knows what he’d get if he did.”
“And after that maybe he’ll think twice before he does ask you.”
Saxon, intent on diverting the conversation into pleasanter channels, clapped her hands as if with sudden recollection.
“Oh! I forgot! I want to show you something.” From her purse she drew a slender ring of plain gold and passed it around. “My mother’s wedding ring. I’ve worn it around my neck always, like a locket. I cried for it so in the orphan asylum that the matron gave it back for me to wear. And now, just to think, after next Tuesday I’ll be wearing it on my finger. Look, Billy, see the engraving on the inside.”
“C to D, 1879,” he read.
“Carlton to Daisy—Carlton was my father’s first name. And now, Billy, you’ve got to get it engraved for you and me.”
Mary was all eagerness and delight.
“Oh, it’s fine,” she cried. “W to S, 1907.”
Billy considered a moment.
“No, that wouldn’t be right, because I’m not giving it to Saxon.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Saxon said. “W and S.”
“Nope.” Billy shook his head. “S and W, because you come first with me.”
“If I come first with you, you come first with us. Billy, dear, I insist on W and S.”
“You see,” Mary said to Bert. “Having her own way and leading him by the nose already.”
Saxon acknowledged the sting.
“Anyway you want, Billy,” she surrendered. His arms tightened about her.
“We’ll talk it over first, I guess.”