“We hiked into Monterey last winter, but we’re ridin’ out now, b ‘gosh!” Billy said as the train pulled out and they leaned back in their seats.
They had decided against retracing their steps over the ground already traveled, and took the train to San Francisco. They had been warned by Mark Hall of the enervation of the south, and were bound north for their blanket climate. Their intention was to cross the Bay to Sausalito and wander up through the coast counties Here, Hall had told them, they would find the true home of the redwood. But Billy, in the smoking car for a cigarette, seated himself beside a man who was destined to deflect them from their course. He was a keen-faced, dark-eyed man, undoubtedly a Jew; and Billy, remembering Saxon’s admonition always to ask questions, watched his opportunity and started a conversation. It took but a little while to learn that Gunston was a commission merchant, and to realize that the content of his talk was too valuable for Saxon to lose. Promptly, when he saw that the other’s cigar was finished, Billy invited him into the next car to meet Saxon. Billy would have been incapable of such an act prior to his sojourn in Carmel. That much at least he had acquired of social facility.
“He’s just teen tellin’ me about the potato kings, and I wanted him to tell you,” Billy explained to Saxon after the introduction. “Go on and tell her, Mr. Gunston, about that fan tan sucker that made nineteen thousan’ last year in celery an’ asparagus.”
“I was just telling your husband about the way the Chinese make things go up the San Joaquin river. It would be worth your while to go up there and look around. It’s the good season now—too early for mosquitoes. You can get off the train at Black Diamond or Antioch and travel around among the big farming islands on the steamers and launches. The fares are cheap, and you’ll find some of those big gasoline boats, like the Duchess and Princess, more like big steamboats.”
“Tell her about Chow Lam,” Billy urged.
The commission merchant leaned back and laughed.
“Chow Lam, several years ago, was a broken-down fan tan player. He hadn’t a cent, and his health was going back on him. He had worn out his back with twenty years’ work in the gold mines, washing over the tailings of the early miners. And whatever he’d made he’d lost at gambling. Also, he was in debt three hundred dollars to the Six Companies—you know, they’re Chinese affairs. And, remember, this was only seven years ago—health breaking down, three hundred in debt, and no trade. Chow Lam blew into Stockton and got a job on the peat lands at day’s wages. It was a Chinese company, down on Middle River, that farmed celery and asparagus. This was when he got onto himself and took stock of himself. A quarter of a century in the United States, back not so strong as it used to was, and not a penny laid by for his return to China. He saw how the Chinese in the company had done it—saved their wages and bought a share.
“He saved his wages for two years, and bought one share in a thirty-share company. That was only five years ago. They leased three hundred acres of peat land from a white man who preferred traveling in Europe. Out of the profits of that one share in the first year, he bought two shares in another company. And in a year more, out of the three shares, he organized a company of his own. One year of this, with bad luck, and he just broke even. That brings it up to three years ago. The following year, bumper crops, he netted four thousand. The next year it wan five thousand. And last year he cleaned up nineteen thousand dollars. Pretty good, eh, for old broken-down Chow Lam?”
“My!” was all Saxon could say.
Her eager interest, however, incited the commission merchant to go on.
“Look at Sing Kee—the Potato King of Stockton. I know him well. I’ve had more large deals with him and made less money than with any man I know. He was only a coolie, and he smuggled himself into the United States twenty years ago. Started at day’s wages, then peddled vegetables in a couple of baskets slung on a stick, and after that opened up a store in Chinatown in San Francisco. But he had a head on him, and he was soon onto the curves of the Chinese farmers that dealt at his store. The store couldn’t make money fast enough to suit him. He headed up the San Joaquin. Didn’t do much for a couple of years except keep his eyes peeled. Then he jumped in and leased twelve hundred acres at seven dollars an acre.”
“My God!” Billy said in an awe-struck voice. “Eight thousan’, four hundred dollars just for rent the first year. I know five hundred acres I can buy for three dollars an acre.”
“Will it grow potatoes?” Gunston asked.
Billy shook his head. “Nor nothin’ else, I guess.”
All three laughed heartily and the commission merchant resumed:
“That seven dollars was only for the land. Possibly you know what it costs to plow twelve hundred acres?”
Billy nodded solemnly.
“And he got a hundred and sixty sacks to the acre that year,” Gunston continued. “Potatoes were selling at fifty cents. My father was at the head of our concern at the time, so I know for a fact. And Sing Kee could have sold at fifty cents and made money. But did he? Trust a Chinaman to know the market. They can skin the commission merchants at it. Sing Kee held on. When ‘most everybody else had sold, potatoes began to climb. He laughed at our buyers when we offered him sixty cents, seventy cents, a dollar. Do you want to know what he finally did sell for? One dollar and sixty-five a sack. Suppose they actually cost him forty cents. A hundred and sixty times twelve hundred... let me see... twelve times nought is nought and twelve times sixteen is a hundred and ninety-two... a hundred and ninety-two thousand sacks at a dollar and a quarter net... four into a hundred and ninety-two is forty-eight, plus, is two hundred and forty—there you are, two hundred and forty thousand dollars clear profit on that year’s deal.”
“An’ him a Chink,” Billy mourned disconsolately. He turned to Saxon. “They ought to be some new country for us white folks to go to. Gosh!—we’re settin’ on the stoop all right, all right.”
“But, of course, that was unusual,” Glunston hastened to qualify. “There was a failure of potatoes in other districts, and a corner, and in some strange way Sing Kee was dead on. He never made profits like that again. But he goes ahead steadily. Last year he had four thousand acres in potatoes, a thousand in asparagus, five hundred in celery and five hundred in beans. And he’s running six hundred acres in seeds. No matter what happens to one or two crops, he can’t lose on all of them.”
“I’ve seen twelve thousand acres of apple trees,” Saxon said. “And I’d like to see four thousand acres in potatoes.”
“And we will,” Billy rejoined with great positiveness. “It’s us for the San Joaquin. We don’t know what’s in our country. No wonder we’re out on the stoop.”
“You’ll find lots of kings up there,” Gunston related. “Yep Hong Lee—they call him ‘Big Jim,’ and Ah Pock, and Ah Whang, and—then there’s Shima, the Japanese potato king. He’s worth several millions. Lives like a prince.”
“Why don’t Americans succeed like that?” asked Saxon.
“Because they won’t, I guess. There’s nothing to stop them except themselves. I’ll tell you one thing, though—give me the Chinese to deal with. He’s honest. His word is as good as his bond. If he says he’ll do a thing, he’ll do it. And, anyway, the white man doesn’t know how to farm. Even the up-to-date white farmer is content with one crop at a time and rotation of crops. Mr. John Chinaman goes him one better, and grows two crops at one time on the same soil. I’ve seen it—radishes and carrots, two crops, sown at one time.”
“Which don’t stand to reason,” Billy objected. “They’d be only a half crop of each.”
“Another guess coming,” Gunston jeered. “Carrots have to be thinned when they’re so far along. So do radishes. But carrots grow slow. Radishes grow fast. The slow-going carrots serve the purpose of thinning the radishes. And when the radishes are pulled, ready for market, that thins the carrots, which come along later. You can’t beat the Chink.”
“Don’t see why a white man can’t do what a Chink can,” protested Billy.
“That sounds all right,” Gunston replied. “The only objection is that the white man doesn’t. The Chink is busy all the time, and he keeps the ground just as busy. He has organization, system. Who ever heard of white farmers keeping books? The Chink does. No guess work with him. He knows just where he stands, to a cent, on any crop at any moment. And he knows the market. He plays both ends. How he does it is beyond me, but he knows the market better than we commission merchants.
“Then, again, he’s patient but not stubborn. Suppose he does make a mistake, and gets in a crop, and then finds the market is wrong. In such a situation the white man gets stubborn and hangs on like a bulldog. But not the Chink. He’s going to minimize the losses of that mistake. That land has got to work, and make money. Without a quiver or a regret, the moment he’s learned his error, he puts his plows into that crop, turns it under, and plants something else. He has the savve. He can look at a sprout, just poked up out of the ground, and tell how it’s going to turn out—whether it will head up or won’t head up; or if it’s going to head up good, medium, or bad. That’s one end. Take the other end. He controls his crop. He forces it or holds it back with an eye on the market. And when the market is just right, there’s his crop, ready to deliver, timed to the minute.”
The conversation with Gunston lasted hours, and the more he talked of the Chinese and their farming ways the more Saxon became aware of a growing dissatisfaction. She did not question the facts. The trouble was that they were not alluring. Somehow, she could not find place for them in her valley of the moon. It was not until the genial Jew left the train that Billy gave definite statement to what was vaguely bothering her.
“Huh! We ain’t Chinks. We’re white folks. Does a Chink ever want to ride a horse, hell-bent for election an’ havin’ a good time of it? Did you ever see a Chink go swimmin’ out through the breakers at Carmel?—or boxin’, wrestlin’, runnin’ an’ jumpin’ for the sport of it? Did you ever see a Chink take a shotgun on his arm, tramp six miles, an’ come back happy with one measly rabbit? What does a Chink do? Work his damned head off. That’s all he’s good for. To hell with work, if that’s the whole of the game—an’ I’ve done my share of work, an’ I can work alongside of any of ‘em. But what’s the good? If they’s one thing I’ve learned solid since you an’ me hit the road, Saxon, it is that work’s the least part of life. God!—if it was all of life I couldn’t cut my throat quick enough to get away from it. I want shotguns an’ rifles, an’ a horse between my legs. I don’t want to be so tired all the time I can’t love my wife. Who wants to be rich an’ clear two hundred an’ forty thousand on a potato deal! Look at Rockefeller. Has to live on milk. I want porterhouse and a stomach that can bite sole-leather. An’ I want you, an’ plenty of time along with you, an’ fun for both of us. What’s the good of life if they ain’t no fun?”
“Oh, Billy!” Saxon cried. “It’s just what I’ve been trying to get straightened out in my head. It’s been worrying me for ever so long. I was afraid there was something wrong with me—that I wasn’t made for the country after all. All the time I didn’t envy the San Leandro Portuguese. I didn’t want to be one, nor a Pajaro Valley Dalmatian, nor even a Mrs. Mortimer. And you didn’t either. What we want is a valley of the moon, with not too much work, and all the fun we want. And we’ll just keep on looking until we find it. And if we don’t find it, we’ll go on having the fun just as we have ever since we left Oakland. And, Billy... we’re never, never going to work our damned heads off, are we?”
“Not on your life,” Billy growled in fierce affirmation.
They walked into Black Diamond with their packs on their backs. It was a scattered village of shabby little cottages, with a main street that was a wallow of black mud from the last late spring rain. The sidewalks bumped up and down in uneven steps and landings. Everything seemed un-American. The names on the strange dingy shops were unspeakably foreign. The one dingy hotel was run by a Greek. Greeks were everywhere—swarthy men in sea-boots and tam-o’-shanters, hatless women in bright colors, hordes of sturdy children, and all speaking in outlandish voices, crying shrilly and vivaciously with the volubility of the Mediterranean.
“Huh!—this ain’t the United States,” Billy muttered. Down on the water front they found a fish cannery and an asparagus cannery in the height of the busy season, where they looked in vain among the toilers for familiar American faces. Billy picked out the bookkeepers and foremen for Americans. All the rest were Greeks, Italians, and Chinese.
At the steamboat wharf, they watched the bright-painted Greek boats arriving, discharging their loads of glorious salmon, and departing. New York Cut-Off, as the slough was called, curved to the west and north and flowed into a vast body of water which was the united Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.
Beyond the steamboat wharf, the fishing wharves dwindled to stages for the drying of nets; and here, away from the noise and clatter of the alien town, Saxon and Billy took off their packs and rested. The tall, rustling tules grew out of the deep water close to the dilapidated boat-landing where they sat. Opposite the town lay a long flat island, on which a row of ragged poplars leaned against the sky.
“Just like in that Dutch windmill picture Mark Hall has,” Saxon said.
Billy pointed out the mouth of the slough and across the broad reach of water to a cluster of tiny white buildings, behind which, like a glimmering mirage, rolled the low Montezuma Hills.
“Those houses is Collinsville,” he informed her. “The Sacramento river comes in there, and you go up it to Rio Vista an’ Isleton, and Walnut Grove, and all those places Mr. Gunston was tellin’ us about. It’s all islands and sloughs, connectin’ clear across an’ back to the San Joaquin.”
“Isn’t the sun good,” Saxon yawned. “And how quiet it is here, so short a distance away from those strange foreigners. And to think! in the cities, right now, men are beating and killing each other for jobs.”
Now and again an overland passenger train rushed by in the distance, echoing along the background of foothills of Mt. Diablo, which bulked, twin-peaked, greencrinkled, against the sky. Then the slumbrous quiet would fall, to be broken by the far call of a foreign tongue or by a gasoline fishing boat chugging in through the mouth of the slough.
Not a hundred feet away, anchored close in the tules, lay a beautiful white yacht. Despite its tininess, it looked broad and comfortable. Smoke was rising for’ard from its stovepipe. On its stern, in gold letters, they read Roamer. On top of the cabin, basking in the sunshine, lay a man and woman, the latter with a pink scarf around her head. The man was reading aloud from a book, while she sewed. Beside them sprawled a fox terrier.
“Gosh! they don’t have to stick around cities to be happy,” Billy commented.
A Japanese came on deck from the cabin, sat down for’ard, and began picking a chicken. The feathers floated away in a long line toward the mouth of the slough.
“Oh! Look!” Saxon pointed in her excitement. “He’s fishing! And the line is fast to his toe!”
The man had dropped the book face-downward on the cabin and reached for the line, while the woman looked up from her sewing, and the terrier began to bark. In came the line, hand under hand, and at the end a big catfish. When this was removed, and the line rebaited and dropped overboard, the man took a turn around his toe and went on reading.
A Japanese came down on the landing-stage beside Saxon and Billy, and hailed the yacht. He carried parcels of meat and vegetables; one coat pocket bulged with letters, the other with morning papers. In response to his hail, the Japanese on the yacht stood up with the part-plucked chicken. The man said something to him, put aside the book, got into the white skiff lying astern, and rowed to the landing. As he came alongside the stage, he pulled in his oars, caught hold, and said good morning genially.
“Why, I know you,” Saxon said impulsively, to Billy’s amazement. “You are.. ..”
Here she broke off in confusion.
“Go on,” the man said, smiling reassurance.
“You are Jack Hastings, I ‘m sure of it. I used to see your photograph in the papers all the time you were war correspondent in the Japanese-Russian War. You’ve written lots of books, though I’ve never read them.”
“Right you are,” he ratified. “And what’s your name?”
Saxon introduced herself and Billy, and, when she noted the writer’s observant eye on their packs, she sketched the pilgrimage they were on. The farm in the valley of the moon evidently caught his fancy, and, though the Japanese and his parcels were safely in the skiff, Hastings still lingered. When Saxon spoke of Carmel, he seemed to know everybody in Hall’s crowd, and when he heard they were intending to go to Rio Vista, his invitation was immediate.
“Why, we’re going that way ourselves, inside an hour, as soon as slack water comes,” he exclaimed. “It’s just the thing. Come on on board. We’ll be there by four this afternoon if there’s any wind at all. Come on. My wife’s on board, and Mrs. Hall is one of her best chums. We’ve been away to South America—just got back; or you’d have seen us in Carmel. Hal wrote to us about the pair of you.”
It was the second time in her life that Saxon had been in a small boat, and the Roamer was the first yacht she had ever been on board. The writer’s wife, whom he called Clara, welcomed them heartily, and Saxon lost no time in falling in love with her and in being fallen in love with in return. So strikingly did they resemble each other, that Hastings was not many minutes in calling attention to it. He made them stand side by side, studied their eyes and mouths and ears, compared their hands, their hair, their ankles, and swore that his fondest dream was shattered—namely, that when Clara had been made the mold was broken.
On Clara’s suggestion that it might have been pretty much the same mold, they compared histories. Both were of the pioneer stock. Clara’s mother, like Saxon’s, had crossed the Plains with ox-teams, and, like Saxon’s, had wintered in Salt Intake City—in fact, had, with her sisters, opened the first Gentile school in that Mormon stronghold. And, if Saxon’s father had helped raise the Bear Flag rebellion at Sonoma, it was at Sonoma that Clara’s father had mustered in for the War of the Rebellion and ridden as far east with his troop as Salt Lake City, of which place he had been provost marshal when the Mormon trouble flared up. To complete it all, Clara fetched from the cabin an ukulele of boa wood that was the twin to Saxon’s, and together they sang “Honolulu Tomboy.”
Hastings decided to eat dinner—he called the midday meal by its old-fashioned name—before sailing; and down below Saxon was surprised and delighted by the measure of comfort in so tiny a cabin. There was just room for Billy to stand upright. A centerboard-case divided the room in half longitudinally, and to this was attached the hinged table from which they ate. Low bunks that ran the full cabin length, upholstered in cheerful green, served as seats. A curtain, easily attached by hooks between the centerboard-case and the roof, at night screened Mrs. Hastings’ sleeping quarters. On the opposite side the two Japanese bunked, while for’ard, under the deck, was the galley. So small was it that there was just room beside it for the cook, who was compelled by the low deck to squat on his hands. The other Japanese, who had brought the parcels on board, waited on the table.
“They are looking for a ranch in the valley of the moon,” Hastings concluded his explanation of the pilgrimage to Clara.
“Oh!—don’t you know—” she cried; but was silenced by her husband.
“Hush,” he said peremptorily, then turned to their guests. “Listen. There’s something in that valley of the moon idea, but I won’t tell you what. It is a secret. Now we’ve a ranch in Sonoma Valley about eight miles from the very town of Sonoma where you two girls’ fathers took up soldiering; and if you ever come to our ranch you’ll learn the secret. Oh, believe me, it’s connected with your valley of the moon.—Isn’t it, Mate?”
This last was the mutual name he and Clara had for each other.
She smiled and laughed and nodded her head.
“You might find our valley the very one you are looking for,” she said.
But Hastings shook his head at her to check further speech. She turned to the fox terrier and made it speak for a piece of meat.
“Her name’s Peggy,” she told Saxon. “We had two Irish terriers down in the South Seas, brother and sister, but they died. We called them Peggy and Possum. So she’s named after the original Peggy.”
Billy was impressed by the ease with which the Roamer was operated. While they lingered at table, at a word from Hastings the two Japanese had gone on deck. Billy could hear them throwing down the halyards, casting off gaskets, and heaving the anchor short on the tiny winch. In several minutes one called down that everything was ready, and all went on deck. Hoisting mainsail and jigger was a matter of minutes. Then the cook and cabin-boy broke out anchor, and, while one hove it up, the other hoisted the jib. Hastings, at the wheel, trimmed the sheet. The Roamer paid off, filled her sails, slightly heeling, and slid across the smooth water and out the mouth of New York Slough. The Japanese coiled the halyards and went below for their own dinner.
“The flood is just beginning to make,” said Hastings, pointing to a striped spar-buoy that was slightly tipping up-stream on the edge of the channel.
The tiny white houses of Collinsville, which they were nearing, disappeared behind a low island, though the Montezuma Hills, with their long, low, restful lines, slumbered on the horizon apparently as far away as ever.
As the Roamer passed the mouth of Montezuma Slough and entered the Sacramento, they came upon Collinsville close at hand. Saxon clapped her hands.
“It’s like a lot of toy houses,” she said, “cut out of cardboard. And those hilly fields are just painted up behind.”
They passed many arks and houseboats of fishermen moored among the tules, and the women and children, like the men in the boats, were dark-skinned, black-eyed, foreign. As they proceeded up the river, they began to encounter dredges at work, biting out mouthfuls of the sandy river bottom and heaping it on top of the huge levees. Great mats of willow brush, hundreds of yards in length, were laid on top of the river-slope of the levees and held in place by steel cables and thousands of cubes of cement. The willows soon sprouted, Hastings told them, and by the time the mats were rotted away the sand was held in place by the roots of the trees.
“It must cost like Sam Hill,” Billy observed.
“But the land is worth it,” Hastings explained. “This island land is the most productive in the world. This section of California is like Holland. You wouldn’t think it, but this water we’re sailing on is higher than the surface of the islands. They’re like leaky boats—calking, patching, pumping, night and day and all the time. But it pays. It pays.”
Except for the dredgers, the fresh-piled sand, the dense willow thickets, and always Mt. Diablo to the south, nothing was to be seen. Occasionally a river steamboat passed, and blue herons flew into the trees.
“It must be very lonely,” Saxon remarked.
Hastings laughed and told her she would change her mind later. Much he related to them of the river lands, and after a while he got on the subject of tenant farming. Saxon had started him by speaking of the land-hungry Anglo-Saxons.
“Land-hogs,” he snapped. “That’s our record in this country. As one old Reuben told a professor of an agricultural experiment station: ‘They ain’t no sense in tryin’ to teach me farmin’. I know all about it. Ain’t I worked out three farms?’ It was his kind that destroyed New England. Back there great sections are relapsing to wilderness. In one state, at least, the deer have increased until they are a nuisance. There are abandoned farms by the tens of thousands. I’ve gone over the lists of them—farms in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut. Offered for sale on easy payment. The prices asked wouldn’t pay for the improvements, while the land, of course, is thrown in for nothing.
“And the same thing is going on, in one way or another, the same land-robbing and hogging, over the rest of the country—down in Texas, in Missouri, and Kansas, out here in California. Take tenant farming. I know a ranch in my county where the land was worth a hundred and twenty-five an acre. And it gave its return at that valuation. When the old man died, the son leased it to a Portuguese and went to live in the city. In five years the Portuguese skimmed the cream and dried up the udder. The second lease, with another Portuguese for three years, gave one-quarter the former return. No third Portuguese appeared to offer to lease it. There wasn’t anything left. That ranch was worth fifty thousand when the old man died. In the end the son got eleven thousand for it. Why, I’ve seen land that paid twelve per cent., that, after the skimming of a five-years’ lease, paid only one and a quarter per cent.”
“It’s the same in our valley,” Mrs. Hastings supplemented. “All the old farms are dropping into ruin. Take the Ebell Place, Mate.” Her husband nodded emphatic indorsement. “When we used to know it, it was a perfect paradise of a farm. There were dams and lakes, beautiful meadows, lush hayfields, red hills of grape-lands, hundreds of acres of good pasture, heavenly groves of pines and oaks, a stone winery, stone barns, grounds—oh, I couldn’t describe it in hours. When Mrs. Bell died, the family scattered, and the leasing began. It’s a ruin to-day. The trees have been cut and sold for firewood. There’s only a little bit of the vineyard that isn’t abandoned—just enough to make wine for the present Italian lessees, who are running a poverty-stricken milk ranch on the leavings of the soil. I rode over it last year, and cried. The beautiful orchard is a horror. The grounds have gone back to the wild. Just because they didn’t keep the gutters cleaned out, the rain trickled down and dry-rotted the timbers, and the big stone barn is caved in. The same with part of the winery—the other part is used for stabling the cows. And the house!—words can’t describe!”
“It’s become a profession,” Hastings went on. “The ‘movers.’ They lease, clean out and gut a place in several years, and then move on. They’re not like the foreigners, the Chinese, and Japanese, and the rest. In the main they’re a lazy, vagabond, poor-white sort, who do nothing else but skin the soil and move, skin the soil and move. Now take the Portuguese and Italians in our country. They are different. They arrive in the country without a penny and work for others of their countrymen until they’ve learned the language and their way about. Now they’re not movers. What they are after is land of their own, which they will love and care for and conserve. But, in the meantime, how to get it? Saving wages is slow. There is a quicker way. They lease. In three years they can gut enough out of somebody else’s land to set themselves up for life. It is sacrilege, a veritable rape of the land; but what of it? It’s the way of the United States.”
He turned suddenly on Billy.
“Look here, Roberts. You and your wife are looking for your bit of land. You want it bad. Now take my advice. It’s cold, hard advice. Become a tenant farmer. Lease some place, where the old folks have died and the country isn’t good enough for the sons and daughters. Then gut it. Wring the last dollar out of the soil, repair nothing, and in three years you’ll have your own place paid for. Then turn over a new leaf, and love your soil. Nourish it. Every dollar you feed it will return you two. Lend have nothing scrub about the place. If it’s a horse, a cow, a pig, a chicken, or a blackberry vine, see that it’s thoroughbred.”
“But it’s wicked!” Saxon wrung out. “It’s wicked advice.”
“We live in a wicked age,” Hastings countered, smiling grimly. “This wholesale land-skinning is the national crime of the United States to-day. Nor would I give your husband such advice if I weren’t absolutely certain that the land he skins would be skinned by some Portuguese or Italian if he refused. As fast as they arrive and settle down, they send for their sisters and their cousins and their aunts. If you were thirsty, if a warehouse were burning and beautiful Rhine wine were running to waste, would you stay your hand from scooping a drink? Well, the national warehouse is afire in many places, and no end of the good things are running to waste. Help yourself. If you don’t, the immigrants will.”
“Oh, you don’t know him,” Mrs. Hastings hurried to explain. “He spends all his time on the ranch in conserving the soil. There are over a thousand acres of woods alone, and, though he thins and forests like a surgeon, he won’t let a tree be chopped without his permission. He’s even planted a hundred thousand trees. He’s always draining and ditching to stop erosion, and experimenting with pasture grasses. And every little while he buys some exhausted adjoining ranch and starts building up the soil.”
“Wherefore I know what I ‘m talking about,” Hastings broke in. “And my advice holds. I love the soil, yet to-morrow, things being as they are and if I were poor, I’d gut five hundred acres in order to buy twenty-five for myself. When you get into Sonoma Valley, look me up, and I’ll put you onto the whole game, and both ends of it. I’ll show you construction as well as destruction. When you find a farm doomed to be gutted anyway, why jump in and do it yourself.”
“Yes, and he mortgaged himself to the eyes,” laughed Mrs. Hastings, “to keep five hundred acres of woods out of the hands of the charcoal burners.”
Ahead, on the left bank of the Sacramento, just at the fading end of the Montezuma Hills, Rio Vista appeared. The Roamer slipped through the smooth water, past steamboat wharves, landing stages, and warehouses. The two Japanese went for’ard on deck. At command of Hastings, the jib ran down, and he shot the Roomer into the wind, losing way, until he called, “Let go the hook!” The anchor went down, and the yacht swung to it, so close to shore that the skiff lay under overhanging willows.
“Farther up the river we tie to the bank,” Mrs. Hastings said, “so that when you wake in the morning you find the branches of trees sticking down into the cabin.”
“Ooh!” Saxon murmured, pointing to a lump on her wrist. “Look at that. A mosquito.”
“Pretty early for them,” Hastings said. “But later on they’re terrible. I’ve seen them so thick I couldn’t back the jib against them.”
Saxon was not nautical enough to appreciate his hyperbole, though Billy grinned.
“There are no mosquitoes in the valley of the moon,” she said.
“No, never,” said Mrs. Hastings, whose husband began immediately to regret the smallness of the cabin which prevented him from offering sleeping accommodations.
An automobile bumped along on top of the levee, and the young boys and girls in it cried, “Oh, you kid!” to Saxon and Billy, and Hastings, who was rowing them ashore in the skiff. Hastings called, “Oh, you kid!” back to them; and Saxon, pleasuring in the boyishness of his sunburned face, was reminded of the boyishness of Mark Hall and his Carmel crowd.
Crossing the Sacramento on an old-fashioned ferry a short distance above Rio Vista, Saxon and Billy entered the river country. From the top of the levee she got her revelation. Beneath, lower than the river, stretched broad, flat land, far as the eye could see. Roads ran in every direction, and she saw countless farmhouses of which she had never dreamed when sailing on the lonely river a few feet the other side of the willowy fringe.
Three weeks they spent among the rich farm islands, which heaped up levees and pumped day and night to keep afloat. It was a monotonous land, with an unvarying richness of soil and with only one landmark—Mt. Diablo, ever to be seen, sleeping in the midday azure, limping its crinkled mass against the sunset sky, or forming like a dream out of the silver dawn. Sometimes on foot, often by launch, they cries-crossed and threaded the river region as far as the peat lands of the Middle River, down the San Joaquin to Antioch, and up Georgiana Slough to Walnut Grove on the Sacramento. And it proved a foreign land. The workers of the soil teemed by thousands, yet Saxon and Billy knew what it was to go a whole day without finding any one who spoke English. They encountered—sometimes in whole villages—Chinese, Japanese, Italians, Portuguese, Swiss, Hindus, Koreans, Norwegians, Danes, French, Armenians, Slavs, almost every nationality save American. One American they found on the lower reaches of Georgiana who eked an illicit existence by fishing with traps. Another American, who spouted blood and destruction on all political subjects, was an itinerant bee-farmer. At Walnut Grove, bustling with life, the few Americans consisted of the storekeeper, the saloonkeeper, the butcher, the keeper of the drawbridge, and the ferryman. Yet two thriving towns were in Walnut Grove, one Chinese, one Japanese. Most of the land was owned by Americans, who lived away from it and were continually selling it to the foreigners.
A riot, or a merry-making—they could not tell which—was taking place in the Japanese town, as Saxon and Billy steamed out on the Apache, bound for Sacramento.
“We’re settin’ on the stoop,” Billy railed. “Pretty soon they’ll crowd us off of that.”
“There won’t be any stoop in the valley of the moon,” Saxon cheered him.
But he was inconsolable, remarking bitterly:
“An’ they ain’t one of them damn foreigners that can handle four horses like me.
“But they can everlastingly farm,” he added.
And Saxon, looking at his moody face, was suddenly reminded of a lithograph she had seen in her childhood It was of a Plains Indian, in paint and feathers, astride his horse and gazing with wondering eye at a railroad train rushing along a fresh-made track. The Indian had passed, she remembered, before the tide of new life that brought the railroad. And were Billy and his kind doomed to pass, she pondered, before this new tide of life, amazingly industrious, that was flooding in from Asia and Europe?
At Sacramento they stopped two weeks, where Billy drove team and earned the money to put them along on their travels. Also, life in Oakland and Carmel, close to the salt edge of the coast, had spoiled them for the interior. Too warm, was their verdict of Sacramento and they followed the railroad west, through a region of swamp-land, to Davisville. Here they were lured aside and to the north to pretty Woodland, where Billy drove team for a fruit farm, and where Saxon wrung from him a reluctant consent for her to work a few days in the fruit harvest. She made an important and mystifying secret of what she intended doing with her earnings, and Billy teased her about it until the matter passed from his mind. Nor did she tell him of a money order inclosed with a certain blue slip of paper in a letter to Bud Strothers.
They began to suffer from the heat. Billy declared they had strayed out of the blanket climate.
“There are no redwoods here,” Saxon said. “We must go west toward the coast. It is there we’ll find the valley of the moon.”
From Woodland they swung west and south along the county roads to the fruit paradise of Vacaville. Here Billy picked fruit, then drove team; and here Saxon received a letter and a tiny express package from Bud Strothers. When Billy came into camp from the day’s work, she bade him stand still and shut his eyes. For a few seconds she fumbled and did something to the breast of his cotton work-shirt. Once, he felt a slight prick, as of a pin point, and grunted, while she laughed and bullied him to continue keeping his eyes shut.
“Close your eyes and give me a kiss,” she sang, “and then I’ll show you what iss.”
She kissed him and when he looked down he saw, pinned to his shirt, the gold medals he had pawned the day they had gone to the moving picture show and received their inspiration to return to the land.
“You darned kid!” he exclaimed, as he caught her to him. “So that’s what you blew your fruit money in on? An’ I never guessed!—Come here to you.”
And thereupon she suffered the pleasant mastery of his brawn, and was hugged and wrestled with until the coffee pot boiled over and she darted from him to the rescue.
“I kinda always been a mite proud of ‘em,” he confessed, as he rolled his after-supper cigarette. “They take me back to my kid days when I amateured it to beat the band. I was some kid in them days, believe muh.—But say, d’ye know, they’d clean slipped my recollection. Oakland’s a thousan’ years away from you an’ me, an’ ten thousan’ miles.”
“Then this will bring you back to it,” Saxon said, opening Bud’s letter and reading it aloud.
Bud had taken it for granted that Billy knew the wind-up of the strike; so he devoted himself to the details as to which men had got back their jobs, and which had been blacklisted. To his own amazement he had been taken back, and was now driving Billy’s horses. Still more amazing was the further information he had to impart. The old foreman of the West Oakland stables had died, and since then two other foremen had done nothing but make messes of everything. The point of all which was that the Boss had spoken that day to Bud, regretting the disappearance of Billy.
“Don’t make no mistake,” Bud wrote. “The Boss is onto all your curves. I bet he knows every scab you slugged. Just the same he says to me—Strothers, if you ain’t at liberty to give me his address, just write yourself and tell him for me to come a running. I’ll give him a hundred and twenty-five a month to take hold the stables.”
Saxon waited with well-concealed anxiety when the letter was finished. Billy, stretched out, leaning on one elbow, blew a meditative ring of smoke. His cheap workshirt, incongruously brilliant with the gold of the medals that flashed in the firelight, was open in front, showing the smooth skin and splendid swell of chest. He glanced around—at the blankets bowered in a green screen and waiting, at the campfire and the blackened, battered coffee pot, at the well-worn hatchet, half buried in a tree trunk, and lastly at Saxon. His eyes embraced her; then into them came a slow expression of inquiry. But she offered no help.
“Well,” he uttered finally, “all you gotta do is write Bud Strothers, an’ tell ‘m not on the Boss’s ugly tintype.—An’ while you’re about it, I’ll send ‘m the money to get my watch out. You work out the interest. The overcoat can stay there an’ rot.”
But they did not prosper in the interior heat. They lost weight. The resilience went out of their minds and bodies. As Billy expressed it, their silk was frazzled. So they shouldered their packs and headed west across the wild mountains. In the Berryessa Valley, the shimmering heat waves made their eyes ache, and their heads; so that they traveled on in the early morning and late afternoon. Still west they headed, over more mountains, to beautiful Napa Valley. The next valley beyond was Sonoma, where Hastings had invited them to his ranch. And here they would have gone, had not Billy chanced upon a newspaper item which told of the writer’s departure to cover some revolution that was breaking out somewhere in Mexico.
“We’ll see ‘m later on,” Billy said, as they turned northwest, through the vineyards and orchards of Napa Valley. “We’re like that millionaire Bert used to sing about, except it’s time that we’ve got to burn. Any direction is as good as any other, only west is best.”
Three times in the Napa Valley Billy refused work. Past St. Helena, Saxon hailed with joy the unmistakable redwoods they could see growing up the small canyons that penetrated the western wall of the valley. At Calistoga, at the end of the railroad, they saw the six-horse stages leaving for Middletown and Lower Lake. They debated their route. That way led to Lake County and not toward the coast, so Saxon and Billy swung west through the mountains to the valley of the Russian River, coming out at Healdsburg. They lingered in the hop-fields on the rich bottoms, where Billy scorned to pick hops alongside of Indians, Japanese, and Chinese.
“I couldn’t work alongside of ‘em an hour before I’d be knockin’ their blocks off,” he explained. “Besides, this Russian River’s some nifty. Let’s pitch camp and go swimmin’.”
So they idled their way north up the broad, fertile valley, so happy that they forgot that work was ever necessary, while the valley of the moon was a golden dream, remote, but sure, some day of realization. At Cloverdale, Billy fell into luck. A combination of sickness and mischance found the stage stables short a driver. Each day the train disgorged passengers for the Geysers, and Billy, as if accustomed to it all his life, took the reins of six horses and drove a full load over the mountains in stage time. The second trip he had Saxon beside him on the high boxseat. By the end of two weeks the regular driver was back. Billy declined a stable-job, took his wages, and continued north.
Saxon had adopted a fox terrier puppy and named him Possum, after the dog Mrs. Hastings had told them about. So young was he that he quickly became footsore, and she carried him until Billy perched him on top of his pack and grumbled that Possum was chewing his back hair to a frazzle.
They passed through the painted vineyards of Asti at the end of the grape-picking, and entered Ukiah drenched to the skin by the first winter rain.
“Say,” Billy said, “you remember the way the Roamer just skated along. Well, this summer’s done the same thing—gone by on wheels. An’ now it’s up to us to find some place to winter. This Ukiah looks like a pretty good burg. We’ll get a room to-night an’ dry out. An’ to-morrow I’ll hustle around to the stables, an’ if I locate anything we can rent a shack an’ have all winter to think about where we’ll go next year.”
The winter proved much less exciting than the one spent in Carmel, and keenly as Saxon had appreciated the Carmel folk, she now appreciated them more keenly than ever. In Ukiah she formed nothing more than superficial acquaintances. Here people were more like those of the working class she had known in Oakland, or else they were merely wealthy and herded together in automobiles. There was no democratic artist-colony that pursued fellowship disregardful of the caste of wealth.
Yet it was a more enjoyable winter than any she had spent in Oakland. Billy had failed to get regular employment; so she saw much of him, and they lived a prosperous and happy hand-to-mouth existence in the tiny cottage they rented. As extra man at the biggest livery stable, Billy’s spare time was so great that he drifted into horse-trading. It was hazardous, and more than once he was broke, but the table never wanted for the best of steak and coffee, nor did they stint themselves for clothes.
“Them blamed farmers—I gotta pass it to ‘em,” Billy grinned one day, when he had been particularly bested in a horse deal. “They won’t tear under the wings, the sons of guns. In the summer they take in boarders, an’ in the winter they make a good livin’ coin’ each other up at tradin’ horses. An’ I just want to tell YOU, Saxon, they’ve sure shown me a few. An’ I ‘m gettin’ tough under the wings myself. I’ll never tear again so as you can notice it. Which means one more trade learned for yours truly. I can make a livin’ anywhere now tradin’ horses.”
Often Billy had Saxon out on spare saddle horses from the stable, and his horse deals took them on many trips into the surrounding country. Likewise she was with him when he was driving horses to sell on commission; and in both their minds, independently, arose a new idea concerning their pilgrimage. Billy was the first to broach it.
“I run into an outfit the other day, that’s stored in town,” he said, “an’ it’s kept me thinkin’ ever since. Ain’t no use tryin’ to get you to guess it, because you can’t. I’ll tell you—the swellest wagon-campin’ outfit; anybody ever heard of. First of all, the wagon’s a peacherino. Strong as they make ‘em. It was made to order, upon Puget Sound, an’ it was tested out all the way down here. No load an’ no road can strain it. The guy had consumption that had it built. A doctor an’ a cook traveled with ‘m till he passed in his checks here in Ukiah two years ago. But say—if you could see it. Every kind of a contrivance—a place for everything—a regular home on wheels. Now, if we could get that, an’ a couple of plugs, we could travel like kings, an’ laugh at the weather.”
“Oh! Billy! it’s just what I’ve been dreamin’ all winter. It would be ideal. And... well, sometimes on the road I ‘m sure you can’t help forgetting what a nice little wife you’ve got... and with a wagon I could have all kinds of pretty clothes along.”
Billy’s blue eyes glowed a caress, cloudy and warm; as he said quietly:
“I’ve ben thinkin’ about that.”
“And you can carry a rifle and shotgun and fishing poles and everything,” she rushed along. “And a good big axe, man-size, instead of that hatchet you’re always complaining about. And Possum can lift up his legs and rest. And—but suppose you can’t buy it? How much do they want?”
“One hundred an’ fifty big bucks,” he answered. “But dirt cheap at that. It’s givin’ it away. I tell you that rig wasn’t built for a cent less than four hundred, an’ I know wagon-work in the dark. Now, if I can put through that dicker with Caswell’s six horses—say, I just got onto that horse-buyer to-day. If he buys ‘em, who d’ye think he’ll ship ‘em to? To the Boss, right to the West Oakland stables. I ‘m goin’ to get you to write to him. Travelin’, as we’re goin’ to, I can pick up bargains. An’ if the Boss’ll talk, I can make the regular horse-buyer’s commissions. He’ll have to trust me with a lot of money, though, which most likely he won’t, knowin’ all his scabs I beat up.”
“If he could trust you to run his stable, I guess he isn’t afraid to let you handle his money,” Saxon said.
Billy shrugged his shoulders in modest dubiousness.
“Well, anyway, as I was sayin’ if I can sell Caswell’s six horses, why, we can stand off this month’s bills an’ buy the wagon.”
“But horses!” Saxon queried anxiously.
“They’ll come later—if I have to take a regular job for two or three months. The only trouble with that ‘d be that it’d run us pretty well along into summer before we could pull out. But come on down town an’ I’ll show you the outfit right now.”
Saxon saw the wagon and was so infatuated with it that she lost a night’s sleep from sheer insomnia of anticipation. Then Caswell’s six horses were sold, the month’s bills held over, and the wagon became theirs. One rainy morning, two weeks later, Billy had scarcely left the house, to be gone on an all-day trip into the country after horses, when he was back again.
“Come on!” he called to Saxon from the street. “Get your things on an’ come along. I want to show you something.”
He drove down town to a board stable, and took her through to a large, roofed inclosure in the rear. There he led to her a span of sturdy dappled chestnuts, with cream-colored manes and tails.
“Oh, the beauties! the beauties!” Saxon cried, resting her cheek against the velvet muzzle of one, while the other roguishly nuzzled for a share.
“Ain’t they, though?” Billy reveled, leading them up and down before her admiring gaze. “Thirteen hundred an’ fifty each, an’ they don’t look the weight, they’re that slick put together. I couldn’t believe it myself, till I put ‘em on the scales. Twenty-seven hundred an’ seven pounds, the two of ‘em. An’ I tried ‘em out—that was two days ago. Good dispositions, no faults, an’ true-pullers, automobile broke an’ all the rest. I’d back ‘em to out-pull any team of their weight I ever seen.—Say, how’d they look hooked up to that wagon of ourn?”
Saxon visioned the picture, and shook her head slowly in a reaction of regret.
“Three hundred spot cash buys ‘em,” Billy went on. “An’ that’s bed-rock. The owner wants the money so bad he’s droolin’ for it. Just gotta sell, an’ sell quick. An’ Saxon, honest to God, that pair’d fetch five hundred at auction down in the city. Both mares, full sisters, five an’ six years old, registered Belgian sire, out of a heavy standard-bred mare that I know. Three hundred takes ‘em, an’ I got the refusal for three days.”
Saxon’s regret changed to indignation.
“Oh, why did you show them to me? We haven’t any three hundred, and you know it. All I’ve got in the house is six dollars, and you haven’t that much.”
“Maybe you think that’s all I brought you down town for,” he replied enigmatically. “Well, it ain’t.”
He paused, licked his lips, and shifted his weight uneasily from one leg to the other.
“Now you listen till I get all done before you say anything. Ready?”
“Won’t open your mouth?”
This time she obediently shook her head.
“Well, it’s this way,” he began haltingly. “They’s a youngster come up from Frisco, Young Sandow they call ‘m, an’ the Pride of Telegraph Hill. He’s the real goods of a heavyweight, an’ he was to fight Montana Red Saturday night, only Montana Red, just in a little trainin’ bout, snapped his forearm yesterday. The managers has kept it quiet. Now here’s the proposition. Lots of tickets sold, an’ they’ll be a big crowd Saturday night. At the last moment, so as not to disappoint ‘em, they’ll spring me to take Montana’s place. I ‘m the dark horse. Nobody knows me—not even Young Sandow. He’s come up since my time. I’ll be a rube fighter. I can fight as Horse Roberts.
“Now, wait a minute. The winner’ll pull down three hundred big round iron dollars. Wait, I ‘m tellin’ you! It’s a lead-pipe cinch. It’s like robbin’ a corpse. Sandow’s got all the heart in the world—regular knock-down-an’-drag-out-an’-hang-on fighter. I’ve followed ‘m in the papers. But he ain’t clever. I ‘m slow, all right, all right, but I ‘m clever, an’ I got a hay-maker in each arm. I got Sandow’s number an’ I know it.
“Now, you got the say-so in this. If you say yes, the nags is ourn. If you say no, then it’s all bets off, an’ everything all right, an’ I’ll take to harness-washin’ at the stable so as to buy a couple of plugs. Remember, they’ll only be plugs, though. But don’t look at me while you’re makin’ up your mind. Keep your lamps on the horses.”
It was with painful indecision that she looked at the beautiful animals.
“Their names is Hazel an’ Hattie,” Billy put in a sly wedge. “If we get ’em we could call it the ‘Double H’ outfit.”
But Saxon forgot the team and could only see Billy’s frightfully bruised body the night he fought the Chicago Terror. She was about to speak, when Billy, who had been hanging on her lips, broke in:
“Just hitch ‘em up to our wagon in your mind an’ look at the outfit. You got to go some to beat it.”
“But you’re not in training, Billy,” she said suddenly and without having intended to say it.
“Huh!” he snorted. “I’ve been in half trainin’ for the last year. My legs is like iron. They’ll hold me up as long as I’ve got a punch left in my arms, and I always have that. Besides, I won’t let ‘m make a long fight. He’s a man-eater, an’ man-eaters is my meat. I eat ‘m alive. It’s the clever boys with the stamina an’ endurance that I can’t put away. But this young Sandow’s my meat. I’ll get ‘m maybe in the third or fourth round—you know, time ‘m in a rush an’ hand it to ‘m just as easy. It’s a lead-pipe cinch, I tell you. Honest to God, Saxon, it’s a shame to take the money.”
“But I hate to think of you all battered up,” she temporized. “If I didn’t love you so, it might be different. And then, too, you might get hurt.”
Billy laughed in contemptuous pride of youth and brawn.
“You won’t know I’ve been in a fight, except that we’ll own Hazel an’ Hattie there. An’ besides, Saxon, I just gotta stick my fist in somebody’s face once in a while. You know I can go for months peaceable an’ gentle as a lamb, an’ then my knuckles actually begin to itch to land on something. Now, it’s a whole lot sensibler to land on Young Sandow an’ get three hundred for it, than to land on some hayseed an’ get hauled up an’ fined before some justice of the peace. Now take another squint at Hazel an’ Hattie. They’re regular farm furniture, good to breed from when we get to that valley of the moon. An’ they’re heavy enough to turn right into the plowin’, too.”
The evening of the fight at quarter past eight, Saxon parted from Billy. At quarter past nine, with hot water, ice, and everything ready in anticipation, she heard the gate click and Billy’s step come up the porch. She had agreed to the fight much against her better judgment, and had regretted her consent every minute of the hour she had just waited; so that, as she opened the front door, she was expectant of any sort of a terrible husband-wreck. But the Billy she saw was precisely the Billy she had parted from.
“There was no fights” she cried, in so evident disappointment that he laughed.
“They was all yellin’ ‘Fake! Fake!’ when I left, an’ wantin’ their money back.”
“Well, I’ve got YOU,” she laughed, leading him in, though secretly she sighed farewell to Hazel and Hattie.
“I stopped by the way to get something for you that you’ve been wantin’ some time,” Billy said casually. “Shut your eyes an’ open your hand; an’ when you open your eyes you’ll find it grand,” he chanted.
Into her hand something was laid that was very heavy and very cold, and when her eyes opened she saw it was a stack of fifteen twenty-dollar gold pieces.
“I told you it was like takin’ money from a corpse,” he exulted, as he emerged grinning from the whirlwind of punches, whacks, and hugs in which she had enveloped him. “They wasn’t no fight at all. D ‘ye want to know how long it lasted? Just twenty-seven seconds—less ‘n half a minute. An’ how many blows struck? One. An’ it was me that done it. Here, I’ll show you. It was just like this—a regular scream.”
Billy had taken his place in the middle of the room, slightly crouching, chin tucked against the sheltering left shoulder, fists closed, elbows in so as to guard left side and abdomen, and forearms close to the body.
“It’s the first round,” he pictured. “Gong’s sounded, an’ we’ve shook hands. Of course, seein’ as it’s a long fight an’ we’ve never seen each other in action, we ain’t in no rush. We’re just feelin’ each other out an’ fiddlin’ around. Seventeen seconds like that. Not a blow struck. Nothin’. An’ then it’s all off with the big Swede. It takes some time to tell it, but it happened in a jiffy, in fess In a tenth of a second. I wasn’t expectin’ it myself. We’re awful close together. His left glove ain’t a foot from my jaw, an’ my left glove ain’t a foot from his. He feints with his right, an’ I know it’s a feint, an’ just hunch up my left shoulder a bit an’ feint with my right. That draws his guard over just about an inch, an’ I see my openin’. My left ain’t got a foot to travel. I don’t draw it back none. I start it from where it is, corkscrewin’ around his right guard an’ pivotin’ at the waist to put the weight of my shoulder into the punch. An’ it connects!—Square on the point of the chin, sideways. He drops deado. I walk back to my corner, an’, honest to God, Saxon, I can’t help gigglin’ a little, it was that easy. The referee stands over ‘m an’ counts ‘m out. He never quivers. The audience don’t know what to make of it an’ sits paralyzed. His seconds carry ‘m to his corner an’ set ‘m on the stool. But they gotta hold ‘m up. Five minutes afterward he opens his eyes—but he ain’t seein’ nothing. They’re glassy. Five minutes more, an’ he stands up. They got to help hold ‘m, his legs givin’ under ‘m like they was sausages. An’ the seconds has to help ‘m through the ropes, an’ they go down the aisle to his dressin’ room a-helpin’ ‘m. An’ the crowd beginning to yell fake an’ want its money back. Twenty-seven seconds—one punch—n’ a spankin’ pair of horses for the best wife Billy Roberts ever had in his long experience.”
All of Saxon’s old physical worship of her husband revived and doubled on itself many times. He was in all truth a hero, worthy to be of that wing-helmeted company leaping from the beaked boats upon the bloody English sands. The next morning he was awakened by her lips pressed on his left hand.
“Hey!—what are you doin’?’” he demanded.
“Kissing Hazel and Hattie good morning,” she answered demurely. “And now I ‘m going to kiss you good morning.. .. And just where did your punch land? Show me.”
Billy complied, touching the point of her chin with his knuckles. With both her hands on his arm, she shored it back and tried to draw it forward sharply in similitude of a punch. But Billy withstrained her.
“Wait,” he said. “You don’t want to knock your jaw off. I’ll show you. A quarter of an inch will do.”
And at a distance of a quarter of an inch from her chin he administered the slightest flick of a tap.
On the instant Saxon’s brain snapped with a white flash of light, while her whole body relaxed, numb and weak, volitionless, sad her vision reeled and blurred. The next instant she was herself again, in her eyes terror and understanding.
“And it was at a foot that you struck him,” she murmured in a voice of awe.
“Yes, and with the weight of my shoulders behind it,” Billy laughed. “Oh, that’s nothing.—Here, let me show you something else.”
He searched out her solar plexus, and did no more than snap his middle finger against it. This time she experienced a simple paralysis, accompanied by a stoppage of breath, but with a brain and vision that remained perfectly clear. In a moment, however, all the unwonted sensations were gone.
“Solar Plexus,” Billy elucidated. “Imagine what it’s like when the other fellow lifts a wallop to it all the way from his knees. That’s the punch that won the championship of the world for Bob Fitzsimmons.”
Saxon shuddered, then resigned herself to Billy’s playful demonstration of the weak points in the human anatomy. He pressed the tip of a finger into the middle of her forearm, and she knew excruciating agony. On either side of her neck, at the base, he dented gently with his thumbs, and she felt herself quickly growing unconscious.
“That’s one of the death touches of the Japs,” he told her, and went on, accompanying grips and holds with a running exposition. “Here’s the toe-hold that Notch defeated Hackenschmidt with. I learned it from Farmer Burns.—An’ here’s a half-Nelson.—An’ here’s you makin’ roughhouse at a dance, an’ I ‘m the floor manager, an’ I gotta put you out.”
One hand grasped her wrist, the other hand passed around and under her forearm and grasped his own wrist. And at the first hint of pressure she felt that her arm was a pipe-stem about to break.
“That’s called the ‘come along.’—An’ here’s the strong arm. A boy can down a man with it. An’ if you ever get into a scrap an’ the other fellow gets your nose between his teeth—you don’t want to lose your nose, do you? Well, this is what you do, quick as a flash.”
Involuntarily she closed her eyes as Billy’s thumb-ends pressed into them. She could feel the fore-running ache of a dull and terrible hurt.
“If he don’t let go, you just press real hard, an’ out pop his eyes, an’ he’s blind as a bat for the rest of his life. Oh, he’ll let go all right all right.”
He released her and lay back laughing.
“How d’ye feel?” he asked. “Those ain’t boxin’ tricks, but they’re all in the game of a roughhouse.”
“I feel like revenge,” she said, trying to apply the “come along” to his arm.
When she exerted the pressure she cried out with pain, for she had succeeded only in hurting herself. Billy grinned at her futility. She dug her thumbs into his neck in imitation of the Japanese death touch, then gazed ruefully at the bent ends of her nails. She punched him smartly on the point of the chin, and again cried out, this time to the bruise of her knuckles.
“Well, this can’t hurt me,” she gritted through her teeth, as she assailed his solar plexus with her doubled fists.
By this time he was in a roar of laughter. Under the sheaths of muscles that were as armor, the fatal nerve center remained impervious.
“Go on, do it some more,” he urged, when she had given up, breathing heavily. “It feels fine, like you was ticklin’ me with a feather.”
“All right, Mister Man,” she threatened balefully. “You can talk about your grips and death touches and all the rest, but that’s all man’s game. I know something that will beat them all, that will make a strong man as helpless as a baby. Wait a minute till I get it. There. Shut your eyes. Ready? I won’t be a second.”
He waited with closed eyes, and then, softly as rose petals fluttering down, he felt her lips on his mouth.
“You win,” he said in solemn ecstasy, and passed his arms around her.
In the morning Billy went down town to pay for Hazel and Hattie. It was due to Saxon’s impatient desire to see them, that he seemed to take a remarkably long time about so simple a transaction. But she forgave him when he arrived with the two horses hitched to the camping wagon.
“Had to borrow the harness,” he said. “Pass Possum up and climb in, an’ I’ll show you the Double H Outfit, which is some outfit, I’m tellin’ you.”
Saxon’s delight was unbounded and almost speechless as they drove out into the country behind the dappled chestnuts with the cream-colored tails and manes. The seat was upholstered, high-backed, and comfortable; and Billy raved about the wonders of the efficient brake. He trotted the team along the hard county road to show the standard-going in them, and put them up a steep earthroad, almost hub-deep with mud, to prove that the light Belgian sire was not wanting in their make-up.
When Saxon at last lapsed into complete silence, he studied her anxiously, with quick sidelong glances. She sighed and asked:
“When do you think we’ll be able to start?”
“Maybe in two weeks... or, maybe in two or three months.” He sighed with solemn deliberation. “We’re like the Irishman with the trunk an’ nothin’ to put in it. Here’s the wagon, here’s the horses, an’ nothin’ to pull. I know a peach of a shotgun I can get, second-hand, eighteen dollars; but look at the bills we owe. Then there’s a new ‘22 Automatic rifle I want for you. An’ a 30-30 I’ve had my eye on for deer. An’ you want a good jointed pole as well as me. An’ tackle costs like Sam Hill. An’ harness like I want will cost fifty bucks cold. An’ the wagon ought to be painted. Then there’s pasture ropes, an’ nose-bags, an’ a harness punch, an’ all such things. An’ Hazel an’ Hattie eatin’ their heads off all the time we’re waitin’. An’ I ‘m just itchin’ to be started myself.”
He stopped abruptly and confusedly.
“Now, Billy, what have you got up your sleeve?—I can see it in your eyes,” Saxon demanded and indicted in mixed metaphors.
“Well, Saxon, you see, it’s like this. Sandow ain’t satisfied. He’s madder ‘n a hatter. Never got one punch at me. Never had a chance to make a showin’, an’ he wants a return match. He’s blattin’ around town that he can lick me with one hand tied behind ‘m, an’ all that kind of hot air. Which ain’t the point. The point is, the fight-fans is wild to see a return-match. They didn’t get a run for their money last time. They’ll fill the house. The managers has seen me already. That was why I was so long. They’s three hundred more waitin’ on the tree for me to pick two weeks from last night if you’ll say the word. It’s just the same as I told you before. He’s my meat. He still thinks I ‘m a rube, an’ that it was a fluke punch.”
“But, Billy, you told me long ago that fighting took the silk out of you. That was why you’d quit it and stayed by teaming.”
“Not this kind of fightin’,” he answered. “I got this one all doped out. I’ll let ‘m last till about the seventh. Not that it’ll be necessary, but just to give the audience a run for its money. Of course, I’ll get a lump or two, an’ lose some skin. Then I’ll time ‘m to that glass jaw of his an’ drop ‘m for the count. An’ we’ll be all packed up, an’ next mornin’ we’ll pull out. What d’ye say? Aw, come on.”
Saturday night, two weeks later, Saxon ran to the door when the gate clicked. Billy looked tired. His hair was wet, his nose swollen, one cheek was puffed, there was skin missing from his ears, and both eyes were slightly bloodshot.
“I ‘m darned if that boy didn’t fool me,” he said, as he placed the roll of gold pieces in her hand and sat down with her on his knees. “He’s some boy when he gets extended. Instead of stoppin’ ‘m at the seventh, he kept me hustlin’ till the fourteenth. Then I got ‘m the way I said. It’s too bad he’s got a glass jaw. He’s quicker’n I thought, an’ he’s got a wallop that made me mighty respectful from the second round—an’ the prettiest little chop an’ come-again I ever saw. But that glass jaw! He kept it in cotton wool till the fourteenth an’ then I connected.
“—An’, say. I ‘m mighty glad it did last fourteen rounds. I still got all my silk. I could see that easy. I wasn’t breathin’ much, an’ every round was fast. An’ my legs was like iron. I could a-fought forty rounds. You see, I never said nothin’, but I’ve been suspicious all the time after that beatin’ the Chicago Terror gave me.”
“Nonsense!—you would have known it long before now,” Saxon cried. “Look at all your boxing, and wrestling, and running at Carmel.”
“Nope.” Billy shook his head with the conviction of utter knowledge. “That’s different. It don’t take it outa you. You gotta be up against the real thing, fightin’ for life, round after round, with a husky you know ain’t lost a thread of his silk yet—then, if you don’t blow up, if your legs is steady, an’ your heart ain’t burstin’, an’ you ain’t wobbly at all, an’ no signs of queer street in your head—why, then you know you still got all your silk. An’ I got it, I got all mine, d’ye hear me, an’ I ain’t goin’ to risk it on no more fights. That’s straight. Easy money’s hardest in the end. From now on it’s horsebuyin’ on commish, an’ you an’ me on the road till we find that valley of the moon.”
Next morning, early, they drove out of Ukiah. Possum sat on the seat between them, his rosy mouth agape with excitement. They had originally planned to cross over to the coast from Ukiah, but it was too early in the season for the soft earth-roads to be in shape after the winter rains; so they turned east, for Lake County, their route to extend north through the upper Sacramento Valley and across the mountains into Oregon. Then they would circle west to the coast, where the roads by that time would be in condition, and come down its length to the Golden Gate.
All the land was green and flower-sprinkled, and each tiny valley, as they entered the hills, was a garden.
“Huh!” Billy remarked scornfully to the general landscape. “They say a rollin’ stone gathers no moss. Just the same this looks like some outfit we’ve gathered. Never had so much actual property in my life at one time—an’ them was the days when I wasn’t rollin’. Hell—even the furniture wasn’t ourn. Only the clothes we stood up in, an’ some old socks an’ things.”
Saxon reached out and touched his hand, and he knew that it was a hand that loved his hand.
“I’ve only one regret,” she said. “You’ve earned it all yourself. I’ve had nothing to do with it.”
“Huh!—you’ve had everything to do with it. You’re like my second in a fight. You keep me happy an’ in condition. A man can’t fight without a good second to take care of him. Hell, I wouldn’t a-ben here if it wasn’t for you. You made me pull up stakes an’ head out. Why, if it hadn’t been for you I’d a-drunk myself dead an’ rotten by this time, or had my neck stretched at San Quentin over hittin’ some scab too hard or something or other. An’ look at me now. Look at that roll of greenbacks"—he tapped his breast—"to buy the Boss some horses. Why, we’re takin’ an unendin’ vacation, an’ makin’ a good livin’ at the same time. An’ one more trade I got—horse-buyin’ for Oakland. If I show I’ve got the savve, an’ I have, all the Frisco firms’ll be after me to buy for them. An’ it’s all your fault. You’re my Tonic Kid all right, all right, an’ if Possum wasn’t lookin’, I’d—well, who cares if he does look?”
And Billy leaned toward her sidewise and kissed her.
The way grew hard and rocky as they began to climb, but the divide was an easy one, and they soon dropped down the canyon of the Blue Lakes among lush fields of golden poppies. In the bottom of the canyon lay a wandering sheet of water of intensest blue. Ahead, the folds of hills interlaced the distance, with a remote blue mountain rising in the center of the picture.
They asked questions of a handsome, black-eyed man with curly gray hair, who talked to them in a German accent, while a cheery-faced woman smiled down at them out of a trellised high window of the Swiss cottage perched on the bank. Billy watered the horses at a pretty hotel farther on, where the proprietor came out and talked and told him he had built it himself, according to the plans of the black-eyed man with the curly gray hair, who was a San Francisco architect.
“Goin’ up, goin’ up,” Billy chortled, as they drove on through the winding hills past another lake of intensest blue. “D’ye notice the difference in our treatment already between ridin’ an’ walkin’ with packs on our backs? With Hazel an’ Hattie an’ Saxon an’ Possum, an’ yours truly, an’ this high-toned wagon, folks most likely take us for millionaires out on a lark.”
The way widened. Broad, oak-studded pastures with grazing livestock lay on either hand. Then Clear Lake opened before them like an inland sea, flecked with little squalls and flaws of wind from the high mountains on the northern slopes of which still glistened white snow patches.
“I’ve heard Mrs. Hazard rave about Lake Geneva,” Saxon recalled; “but I wonder if it is more beautiful than this.”
“That architect fellow called this the California Alps, you remember,” Billy confirmed. “An’ if I don’t mistake, that’s Lakeport showin’ up ahead. An’ all wild country, an’ no railroads.”
“And no moon valleys here,” Saxon criticized. “But it is beautiful, oh, so beautiful.”
“Hotter’n hell in the dead of summer, I’ll bet,” was Billy’s opinion. “Nope, the country we’re lookin’ for lies nearer the coast. Just the same it is beautiful... like a picture on the wall. What d’ye say we stop off an’ go for a swim this afternoon?”
Ten days later they drove into Williams, in Colusa County, and for the first time again encountered a railroad. Billy was looking for it, for the reason that at the rear of the wagon walked two magnificent work-horses which he had picked up for shipment to Oakland.
“Too hot,” was Saxon’s verdict, as she gazed across the shimmering level of the vast Sacramento Valley. “No redwoods. No hills. No forests. No manzanita. No madronos. Lonely, and sad—”
“An’ like the river islands,” Billy interpolated. “Richer in hell, but looks too much like hard work. It’ll do for those that’s stuck on hard work—God knows, they’s nothin’ here to induce a fellow to knock off ever for a bit of play. No fishin’, no huntin’, nothin’ but work. I’d work myself, if I had to live here.”
North they drove, through days of heat and dust, across the California plains, and everywhere was manifest the “new” farming—great irrigation ditches, dug and being dug, the land threaded by power-lines from the mountains, and many new farmhouses on small holdings newly fenced. The bonanza farms were being broken up. However, many of the great estates remained, five to ten thousand acres in extent, running from the Sacramento bank to the horizon dancing in the heat waves, and studded with great valley oaks.
“It takes rich soil to make trees like those,” a ten-acre farmer told them.
They had driven off the road a hundred feet to his tiny barn in order to water Hazel and Hattie. A sturdy young orchard covered most of his ten acres, though a goodly portion was devoted to whitewashed henhouses and wired runways wherein hundreds of chickens were to be seen. He had just begun work on a small frame dwelling.
“I took a vacation when I bought,” he explained, “and planted the trees. Then I went back to work an’ stayed with it till the place was cleared. Now I ‘m here for keeps, an’ soon as the house is finished I’ll send for the wife. She’s not very well, and it will do her good. We’ve been planning and working for years to get away from the city.” He stopped in order to give a happy sigh. “And now we’re free.”
The water in the trough was warm from the sun.
“Hold on,” the man said. “Don’t let them drink that. I’ll give it to them cool.”
Stepping into a small shed, he turned an electric switch, and a motor the size of a fruit box hummed into action. A five-inch stream of sparkling water splashed into the shallow main ditch of his irrigation system and flowed away across the orchard through many laterals.
“Isn’ tit beautiful, eh?—beautiful! beautiful!” the man chanted in an ecstasy. “It’s bud and fruit. It’s blood and life. Look at it! It makes a gold mine laughable, and a saloon a nightmare. I know. I... I used to be a barkeeper. In fact, I’ve been a barkeeper most of my life. That’s how I paid for this place. And I’ve hated the business all the time. I was a farm boy, and all my life I’ve been wanting to get back to it. And here I am at last.”
He wiped his glasses the better to behold his beloved water, then seized a hoe and strode down the main ditch to open more laterals.
“He’s the funniest barkeeper I ever seen,” Billy commented. “I took him for a business man of some sort. Must a-ben in some kind of a quiet hotel.”
“Don’t drive on right away,” Saxon requested. “I want to talk with him.”
He came back, polishing his glasses, his face beaming, watching the water as if fascinated by it. It required no more exertion on Saxon’s part to start him than had been required on his part to start the motor.
“The pioneers settled all this in the early fifties,” he said. “The Mexicans never got this far, so it was government land. Everybody got a hundred and sixty acres. And such acres! The stories they tell about how much wheat they got to the acre are almost unbelievable. Then several things happened. The sharpest and steadiest of the pioneers held what they had and added to it from the other fellows. It takes a great many quarter sections to make a bonanza farm. It wasn’t long before it was ’most all bonanza farms.”
“They were the successful gamblers,” Saxon put in, remembering Mark Hall’s words.
The man nodded appreciatively and continued.
“The old folks schemed and gathered and added the land into the big holdings, and built the great barns and mansions, and planted the house orchards and flower gardens. The young folks were spoiled by so much wealth and went away to the cities to spend it. And old folks and young united in one thing: in impoverishing the soil. Year after year they scratched it and took out bonanza crops. They put nothing back. All they left was plow-sole and exhausted land. Why, there’s big sections they exhausted and left almost desert.
“The bonanza farmers are all gone now, thank the Lord, and here’s where we small farmers come into our own. It won’t be many years before the whole valley will be farmed in patches like mine. Look at what we’re doing! Worked-out land that had ceased to grow wheat, and we turn the water on, treat the soil decently, and see our orchards!
“We’ve got the water—from the mountains, and from under the ground. I was reading an account the other day. All life depends on food. All food depends on water. It takes a thousand pounds of water to produce one pound of food; ten thousand pounds to produce one pound of meat. How much water do you drink in a year? About a ton. But you eat about two hundred pounds of vegetables and two hundred pounds of meat a year—which means you consume one hundred tons of water in the vegetables and one thousand tons in the meat—which means that it takes eleven hundred and one tons of water each year to keep a small woman like you going.”
“Gee!” was all Billy could say.
“You see how population depends upon water,” the ax-barkeeper went on. “Well, we’ve got the water, immense subterranean supplies, and in not many years this valley will be populated as thick as Belgium.”
Fascinated by the five-inch stream, sluiced out of the earth and back to the earth by the droning motor, he forgot his discourse and stood and gazed, rapt and unheeding, while his visitors drove on.
“An’ him a drink-slinger!” Billy marveled. “He can sure sling the temperance dope if anybody should ask you.”
“It’s lovely to think about—all that water, and all the happy people that will come here to live—”
“But it ain’t the valley of the moon!” Billy laughed.
“No,” she responded. “They don’t have to irrigate in the valley of the moon, unless for alfalfa and such crops. What we want is the water bubbling naturally from the ground, and crossing the farm in little brooks, and on the boundary a fine big creek—”
“With trout in it!” Billy took her up. “An’ willows and trees of all kinds growing along the edges, and here a riffle where you can flip out trout, and there a deep pool where you can swim and high-dive. An’ kingfishers, an’ rabbits comin’ down to drink, an’, maybe, a deer.”
“And meadowlarks in the pasture,” Saxon added. “And mourning doves in the trees. We must have mourning doves—and the big, gray tree-squirrels.”
“Gee!—that valley of the moon’s goin’ to be some valley,” Billy meditated, flicking a fly away with his whip from Hattie’s side. “Think we’ll ever find it?”
Saxon nodded her head with great certitude.
“Just as the Jews found the promised land, and the Mormons Utah, and the Pioneers California. You remember the last advice we got when we left Oakland’ ‘’Tis them that looks that finds.’”
Ever north, through a fat and flourishing rejuvenated land, stopping at the towns of Willows, Red Bluff and Redding, crossing the counties of Colusa, Glenn, Tehama, and Shasta, went the spruce wagon drawn by the dappled chestnuts with cream-colored manes and tails. Billy picked up only three horses for shipment, although he visited many farms; and Saxon talked with the women while he looked over the stock with the men. And Saxon grew the more convinced that the valley she sought lay not there.
At Redding they crossed the Sacramento on a cable ferry, and made a day’s scorching traverse through rolling foot-hills and flat tablelands. The heat grew more insupportable, and the trees and shrubs were blasted and dead. Then they came again to the Sacramento, where the great smelters of Kennett explained the destruction of the vegetation.
They climbed out of the smelting town, where eyrie houses perched insecurely on a precipitous landscape. It was a broad, well-engineered road that took them up a grade miles long and plunged down into the Canyon of the Sacramento. The road, rock-surfaced and easy-graded, hewn out of the canyon wall, grew so narrow that Billy worried for fear of meeting opposite-bound teams. Far below, the river frothed and flowed over pebbly shallows, or broke tumultuously over boulders and cascades, in its race for the great valley they had left behind.
Sometimes, on the wider stretches of road, Saxon drove and Billy walked to lighten the load. She insisted on taking her turns at walking, and when he breathed the panting mares on the steep, and Saxon stood by their heads caressing them and cheering them, Billy’s joy was too deep for any turn of speech as he gazed at his beautiful horses and his glowing girl, trim and colorful in her golden brown corduroy, the brown corduroy calves swelling sweetly under the abbreviated slim skirt. And when her answering look of happiness came to him—a sudden dimness in her straight gray eyes—he was overmastered by the knowledge that he must say something or burst.
“O, you kid!” he cried.
And with radiant face she answered, “O, you kid!”
They camped one night in a deep dent in the canyon, where was snuggled a box-factory village, and where a toothless ancient, gazing with faded eyes at their traveling outfit, asked: “Be you showin’?”
They passed Castle Crags, mighty-bastioned and glowing red against the palpitating blue sky. They caught their first glimpse of Mt. Shasta, a rose-tinted snow-peak rising, a sunset dream, between and beyond green interlacing walls of canyon—a landmark destined to be with them for many days. At unexpected turns, after mounting some steep grade, Shasta would appear again, still distant, now showing two peaks and glacial fields of shimmering white. Miles and miles and days and days they climbed, with Shasta ever developing new forms and phases in her summer snows.
“A moving picture in the sky,” said Billy at last.
“Oh,—it is all so beautiful,” sighed Saxon. “But there are no moon-valleys here.”
They encountered a plague of butterflies, and for days drove through untold millions of the fluttering beauties that covered the road with uniform velvet-brown. And ever the road seemed to rise under the noses of the snorting mares, filling the air with noiseless flight, drifting down the breeze in clouds of brown and yellow soft-flaked as snow, and piling in mounds against the fences, ever driven to float helplessly on the irrigation ditches along the roadside. Hazel and Hattie soon grew used to them though Possum never ceased being made frantic.
“Huh!—who ever heard of butterfly-broke horses?” Billy chaffed. “That’s worth fifty bucks more on their price.”
“Wait till you get across the Oregon line into the Rogue River Valley,” they were told. “There’s God’s Paradise—climate, scenery, and fruit-farming; fruit ranches that yield two hundred per cent. on a valuation of five hundred dollars an acre.”
“Gee!” Billy said, when he had driven on out of hearing; “that’s too rich for our digestion.”
And Saxon said, “I don’t know about apples in the valley of the moon, but I do know that the yield is ten thousand per cent. of happiness on a valuation of one Billy, one Saxon, a Hazel, a Hattie, and a Possum.”
Through Siskiyou County and across high mountains, they came to Ashland and Medford and camped beside the wild Rogue River.
“This is wonderful and glorious,” pronounced Saxon; “but it is not the valley of the moon.”
“Nope, it ain’t the valley of the moon,” agreed Billy, and he said it on the evening of the day he hooked a monster steelhead, standing to his neck in the ice-cold water of the Rogue and fighting for forty minutes, with screaming reel, ere he drew his finny prize to the bank and with the scalp-yell of a Comanche jumped and clutched it by the gills.
“’Them that looks finds,’” predicted Saxon, as they drew north out of Grant’s Pass, and held north across the mountains and fruitful Oregon valleys.
One day, in camp by the Umpqua River, Billy bent over to begin skinning the first deer he had ever shot. He raised his eyes to Saxon and remarked:
“If I didn’t know California, I guess Oregon’d suit me from the ground up.”
In the evening, replete with deer meat, resting on his elbow and smoking his after-supper cigarette, he said:
“Maybe they ain’t no valley of the moon. An’ if they ain’t, what of it? We could keep on this way forever. I don’t ask nothing better.”
“There is a valley of the moon,” Saxon answered soberly. “And we are going to find it. We’ve got to. Why Billy, it would never do, never to settle down. There would be no little Hazels and little Hatties, nor little... Billies—”
“Nor little Saxons,” Billy interjected.
“Nor little Possums,” she hurried on, nodding her head and reaching out a caressing hand to where the fox terrier was ecstatically gnawing a deer-rib. A vicious snarl and a wicked snap that barely missed her fingers were her reward.
“Possum!” she cried in sharp reproof, again extending her hand.
“Don’t,” Billy warned. “He can’t help it, and he’s likely to get you next time.”
Even more compelling was the menacing threat that Possum growled, his jaws close-guarding the bone, eyes blazing insanely, the hair rising stiffly on his neck.
“It’s a good dog that sticks up for its bone,” Billy championed. “I wouldn’t care to own one that didn’t.”
“But it’s my Possum,” Saxon protested. “And he loves me. Besides, he must love me more than an old bone. And he must mind me.—Here, you, Possum, give me that bone! Give me that bone, sir!”
Her hand went out gingerly, and the growl rose in volume and key till it culminated in a snap.
“I tell you it’s instinct,” Billy repeated. “He does love you, but he just can’t help doin’ it.”
“He’s got a right to defend his bones from strangers but not from his mother,” Saxon argued. “I shall make him give up that bone to me.”
“Fox terriers is awful highstrung, Saxon. You’ll likely get him hysterical.”
But she was obstinately set in her purpose. She picked up a short stick of firewood.
“Now, sir, give me that bone.”
She threatened with the stick, and the dog’s growling became ferocious. Again he snapped, then crouched back over his bone. Saxon raised the stick as if to strike him, and he suddenly abandoned the bone, rolled over on his back at her feet, four legs in the air, his ears lying meekly back, his eyes swimming and eloquent with submission and appeal.
“My God!” Billy breathed in solemn awe. “Look at it!—presenting his solar plexus to you, his vitals an’ his life, all defense down, as much as sayin’: ‘Here I am. Stamp on me. Kick the life outa me.’ I love you, I am your slave, but I just can’t help defendin’ my bone. My instinct’s stronger’n me. Kill me, but I can’t help it.”
Saxon was melted. Tears were in her eyes as she stooped and gathered the mite of an animal in her arms. Possum was in a frenzy of agitation, whining, trembling, writhing, twisting, licking her face, all for forgiveness.
“Heart of gold with a rose in his mouth,” Saxon crooned, burying her face in the soft and quivering bundle of sensibilities. “Mother is sorry. She’ll never bother you again that way. There, there, little love. See? There’s your bone. Take it.”
She put him down, but he hesitated between her and the bone, patently looking to her for surety of permission, yet continuing to tremble in the terrible struggle between duty and desire that seemed tearing him asunder. Not until she repeated that it was all right and nodded her head consentingly did he go to the bone. And once, a minute later, he raised his head with a sudden startle and gazed inquiringly at her. She nodded and smiled, and Possum, with a happy sigh of satisfaction, dropped his head down to the precious deer-rib.
“That Mercedes was right when she said men fought over jobs like dogs over bones,” Billy enunciated slowly. “It’s instinct. Why, I couldn’t no more help reaching my fist to the point of a scab’s jaw than could Possum from snappin’ at you. They’s no explainin’ it. What a man has to he has to. The fact that he does a thing shows he had to do it whether he can explain it or not. You remember Hall couldn’t explain why he stuck that stick between Timothy McManus’s legs in the foot race. What a man has to, he has to. That’s all I know about it. I never had no earthly reason to beat up that lodger we had, Jimmy Harmon. He was a good guy, square an’ all right. But I just had to, with the strike goin’ to smash, an’ everything so bitter inside me that I could taste it. I never told you, but I saw ‘m once after I got out—when my arms was mendin’. I went down to the roundhouse an’ waited for ‘m to come in off a run, an’ apologized to ‘m. Now why did I apologize? I don’t know, except for the same reason I punched ‘m—I just had to.”
And so Billy expounded the why of like in terms of realism, in the camp by the Umpqua River, while Possum expounded it, in similar terms of fang and appetite, on the rib of deer.