The car ran as far as Hayward’s, but at Saxon’s suggestion they got off at San Leandro.
“It doesn’t matter where we start walking,” she said, “for start to walk somewhere we must. And as we’re looking for land and finding out about land, the quicker we begin to investigate the better. Besides, we want to know all about all kinds of land, close to the big cities as well as back in the mountains.”
“Gee!—this must be the Porchugeeze headquarters,” was Billy’s reiterated comment, as they walked through San Leandro.
“It looks as though they’d crowd our kind out,” Saxon adjudged.
“Some tall crowdin’, I guess,” Billy grumbled. “It looks like the free-born American ain’t got no room left in his own land.”
“Then it’s his own fault,” Saxon said, with vague asperity, resenting conditions she was just beginning to grasp.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. I reckon the American could do what the Porchugeeze do if he wanted to. Only he don’t want to, thank God. He ain’t much given to livin’ like a pig often leavin’s.”
“Not in the country, maybe,” Saxon controverted. “But I’ve seen an awful lot of Americans living like pigs in the cities.”
Billy grunted unwilling assent. “I guess they quit the farms an’ go to the city for something better, an’ get it in the neck.”
“Look at all the children!” Saxon cried. “School’s letting out. And nearly all are Portuguese, Billy, NOT Porchugeeze. Mercedes taught me the right way.”
“They never wore glad rags like them in the old country,” Billy sneered. “They had to come over here to get decent clothes and decent grub. They’re as fat as butterballs.”
Saxon nodded affirmation, and a great light seemed suddenly to kindle in her understanding.
“That’s the very point, Billy. They’re doing it—doing it farming, too. Strikes don’t bother THEM.”
“You don’t call that dinky gardening farming,” he objected, pointing to a piece of land barely the size of an acre, which they were passing.
“Oh, your ideas are still big,” she laughed. “You’re like Uncle Will, who owned thousands of acres and wanted to own a million, and who wound up as night watchman. That’s what was the trouble with all us Americans. Everything large scale. Anything less than one hundred and sixty acres was small scale.”
“Just the same,” Billy held stubbornly, “large scale’s a whole lot better’n small scale like all these dinky gardens.”
Saxon sighed. “I don’t know which is the dinkier,” she observed finally, “—owning a few little acres and the team you’re driving, or not owning any acres and driving a team somebody else owns for wages.”
“Go on, Robinson Crusoe,” he growled good naturedly. “Rub it in good an’ plenty. An’ the worst of it is it’s correct. A hell of a free-born American I’ve been, adrivin’ other folkses’ teams for a livin’, a-strikin’ and a-sluggin’ scabs, an’ not bein’ able to keep up with the installments for a few sticks of furniture. Just the same I was sorry for one thing. I hated worse in Sam Hill to see that Morris chair go back—you liked it so. We did a lot of honeymoonin’ in that chair.”
They were well out of San Leandro, walking through a region of tiny holdings—"farmlets,” Billy called them; and Saxon got out her ukulele to cheer him with a song.
First, it was “Treat my daughter kind-i-ly,” and then she swung into old-fashioned darky camp-meeting hymns, beginning with:
“Oh! de Judgmen’ Day am rollin’ roan’, Rollin’, yes, a-rollin’, I hear the trumpets’ awful soun’, Rollin’, yes, a-rollin’.”
A big touring car, dashing past, threw a dusty pause in her singing, and Saxon delivered herself of her latest wisdom.
“Now, Billy, remember we’re not going to take up with the first piece of land we see. We’ve got to go into this with our eyes open—”
“An’ they ain’t open yet,” he agreed.
“And we’ve got to get them open. ‘’Tis them that looks that finds.’ There’s lots of time to learn things. We don’t care if it takes months and months. We’re footloose. A good start is better than a dozen bad ones. We’ve got to talk and find out. We’ll talk with everybody we meet. Ask questions. Ask everybody. It’s the only way to find out.”
“I ain’t much of a hand at askin’ questions,” Billy demurred.
“Then I’ll ask,” she cried. “We’ve got to win out at this game, and the way is to know. Look at all these Portuguese. Where are all the Americans? They owned the land first, after the Mexicans. What made the Americans clear out? How do the Portuguese make it go? Don’t you see? We’ve got to ask millions of questions.”
She strummed a few chords, and then her clear sweet voice rang out gaily:
“I’s g’wine back to Dixie, I’s g’wine back to Dixie, I’s g’wine where de orange blossoms grow, For I hear de chillun callin’, I see de sad tears fallin’—My heart’s turned back to Dixie, An’ I mus’go.”
She broke off to exclaim: “Oh! What a lovely place! See that arbor—just covered with grapes!”
Again and again she was attracted by the small places they passed. Now it was: “Look at the flowers!” or: “My! those vegetables!” or: “See! They’ve got a cow!”
Men—Americans—driving along in buggies or runabouts looked at Saxon and Billy curiously. This Saxon could brook far easier than could Billy, who would mutter and grumble deep in his throat.
Beside the road they came upon a lineman eating his lunch.
“Stop and talk,” Saxon whispered.
“Aw, what’s the good? He’s a lineman. What’d he know about farmin’?”
“You never can tell. He’s our kind. Go ahead, Billy. You just speak to him. He isn’t working now anyway, and he’ll be more likely to talk. See that tree in there, just inside the gate, and the way the branches are grown together. It’s a curiosity. Ask him about it. That’s a good way to get started.”
Billy stopped, when they were alongside.
“How do you do,” he said gruffly.
The lineman, a young fellow, paused in the cracking of a hard-boiled egg to stare up at the couple.
“How do you do,” he said.
Billy swung his pack from his shoulders to the ground, and Saxon rested her telescope basket.
“Peddlin’?” the young man asked, too discreet to put his question directly to Saxon, yet dividing it between her and Billy, and cocking his eye at the covered basket.
“No,” she spoke up quickly. “We’re looking for land. Do you know of any around here?”
Again he desisted from the egg, studying them with sharp eyes as if to fathom their financial status.
“Do you know what land sells for around here?” he asked.
“No,” Saxon answered. “Do you?”
“I guess I ought to. I was born here. And land like this all around you runs at from two to three hundred to four an’ five hundred dollars an acre.”
“Whew!” Billy whistled. “I guess we don’t want none of it.”
“But what makes it that high? Town lots?” Saxon wanted to know.
“Nope. The Porchugeeze make it that high, I guess.”
“I thought it was pretty good land that fetched a hundred an acre,” Billy said.
“Oh, them times is past. They used to give away land once, an’ if you was good, throw in all the cattle runnin’ on it.”
“How about government land around here?” was Billy’a next query.
“Ain’t none, an’ never was. This was old Mexican grants. My grandfather bought sixteen hundred of the best acres around here for fifteen hundred dollars—five hundred down an’ the balance in five years without interest. But that was in the early days. He come West in ‘48, tryin’ to find a country without chills an’ fever.”
“He found it all right,” said Billy.
“You bet he did. An’ if him an’ father ‘d held onto the land it’d been better than a gold mine, an’ I wouldn’t be workin’ for a livin’. What’s your business?”
“Ben in the strike in Oakland?”
“Sure thing. I’ve teamed there most of my life.”
Here the two men wandered off into a discussion of union affairs and the strike situation; but Saxon refused to be balked, and brought back the talk to the land.
“How was it the Portuguese ran up the price of lend?” she asked.
The young fellow broke away from union matters with an effort, and for a moment regarded her with lack luster eyes, until the question sank into his consciousness.
“Because they worked the land overtime. Because they worked mornin’, noon, an’ night, all hands, women an’ kids. Because they could get more out of twenty acres than we could out of a hundred an’ sixty. Look at old Silva—Antonio Silva. I’ve known him ever since I was a shaver. He didn’t have the price of a square meal when he hit this section and begun leasin’ land from my folks. Look at him now—worth two hundred an’ fifty thousan’ cold, an’ I bet he’s got credit for a million, an’ there’s no tellin’ what the rest of his family owns.”
“And he made all that out of your folks’ land?” Saxon demanded.
The young man nodded his head with evident reluctance.
“Then why didn’t your folks do it?” she pursued.
The lineman shrugged his shoulders.
“Search me,” he said.
“But the money was in the land,” she persisted.
“Blamed if it was,” came the retort, tinged slightly with color. “We never saw it stickin’ out so as you could notice it. The money was in the hands of the Porchugeeze, I guess. They knew a few more ‘n we did, that’s all.”
Saxon showed such dissatisfaction with his explanation that he was stung to action. He got up wrathfully. “Come on, an’ I’ll show you,” he said. “I’ll show you why I’m workin’ for wages when I might a-ben a millionaire if my folks hadn’t been mutts. That’s what we old Americans are, Mutts, with a capital M.”
He led them inside the gate, to the fruit tree that had first attracted Saxon’s attention. From the main crotch diverged the four main branches of the tree. Two feet above the crotch the branches were connected, each to the ones on both sides, by braces of living wood.
“You think it growed that way, eh? Well, it did. But it was old Silva that made it just the same—caught two sprouts, when the tree was young, an’ twisted ‘em together. Pretty slick, eh? You bet. That tree’ll never blow down. It’s a natural, springy brace, an’ beats iron braces stiff. Look along all the rows. Every tree’s that way. See? An’ that’s just one trick of the Porchugeeze. They got a million like it.
“Figure it out for yourself. They don’t need props when the crop’s heavy. Why, when we had a heavy crop, we used to use five props to a tree. Now take ten acres of trees. That’d be some several thousan’ props. Which cost money, an’ labor to put in an’ take out every year. These here natural braces don’t have to have a thing done. They’re Johnny-on-the-spot all the time. Why, the Porchugeeze has got us skinned a mile. Come on, I’ll show you.”
Billy, with city notions of trespass, betrayed perturbation at the freedom they were making of the little farm.
“Oh, it’s all right, as long as you don’t step on nothin’,” the lineman reassured him. “Besides, my grandfather used to own this. They know me. Forty years ago old Silva come from the Azores. Went sheep-herdin’ in the mountains for a couple of years, then blew in to San Leandro. These five acres was the first land he leased. That was the beginnin’. Then he began leasin’ by the hundreds of acres, an’ by the hundred-an’-sixties. An’ his sisters an’ his uncles an’ his aunts begun pourin’ in from the Azores—they’re all related there, you know; an’ pretty soon San Leandro was a regular Porchugeeze settlement.
“An’ old Silva wound up by buyin’ these five acres from grandfather. Pretty soon—an’ father by that time was in the hole to the neck—he was buyin’ father’s land by the hundred-an’-sixties. An’ all the rest of his relations was coin’ the same thing. Father was always gettin’ rich quick, an’ he wound up by dyin’ in debt. But old Silva never overlooked a bet, no matter how dinky. An’ all the rest are just like him. You see outside the fence there, clear to the wheel-tracks in the road—horse-beans. We’d a-scorned to do a picayune thing like that. Not Silva. Why he’s got a town house in San Leandro now. An’ he rides around in a four-thousan’-dollar tourin’ car. An’ just the same his front door yard grows onions clear to the sidewalk. He clears three hundred a year on that patch alone. I know ten acres of land he bought last year,—a thousan’ an acre they asked’m, an’ he never batted an eye. He knew it was worth it, that’s all. He knew he could make it pay. Back in the hills, there, he’s got a ranch of five hundred an’ eighty acres, bought it dirt cheap, too; an’ I want to tell you I could travel around in a different tourin’ car every day in the week just outa the profits he makes on that ranch from the horses all the way from heavy draughts to fancy steppers.
“But how?—how?—how did he get it all?” Saxon clamored.
“By bein’ wise to farmin’. Why, the whole blame family works. They ain’t ashamed to roll up their sleeves an’ dig—sons an’ daughters an’ daughter-in-laws, old man, old woman, an’ the babies. They have a sayin’ that a kid four years old that can’t pasture one cow on the county road an’ keep it fat ain’t worth his salt. Why, the Silvas, the whole tribe of ‘em, works a hundred acres in peas, eighty in tomatoes, thirty in asparagus, ten in pie-plant, forty in cucumbers, an’—oh, stacks of other things.”
“But how do they do it?” Saxon continued to demand. “We’ve never been ashamed to work. We’ve worked hard all our lives. I can out-work any Portuguese woman ever born. And I’ve done it, too, in the jute mills. There were lots of Portuguese girls working at the looms all around me, and I could out-weave them, every day, and I did, too. It isn’t a case of work. What is it?”
The lineman looked at her in a troubled way.
“Many’s the time I’ve asked myself that same question. ‘We’re better’n these cheap emigrants,’ I’d say to myself. ‘We was here first, an’ owned the land. I can lick any Dago that ever hatched in the Azores. I got a better education. Then how in thunder do they put it all over us, get our land, an’ start accounts in the banks?’ An’ the only answer I know is that we ain’t got the sabe. We don’t use our head-pieces right. Something’s wrong with us. Anyway, we wasn’t wised up to farming. We played at it. Show you? That’s what I brung you in for—the way old Silva an’ all his tribe farms. Book at this place. Some cousin of his, just out from the Azores, is makin’ a start on it, an’ payin’ good rent to Silva. Pretty soon he’ll be up to snuff an’ buyin’ land for himself from some perishin’ American farmer.
“Look at that—though you ought to see it in summer. Not an inch wasted. Where we got one thin crop, they get four fat crops. An’ look at the way they crowd it—currants between the tree rows, beans between the currant rows, a row of beans close on each side of the trees, an’ rows of beans along the ends of the tree rows. Why, Silva wouldn’t sell these five acres for five hundred an acre cash down. He gave grandfather fifty an acre for it on long time, an’ here am I, workin’ for the telephone company an’ putting’ in a telephone for old Silva’s cousin from the Azores that can’t speak American yet. Horse-beans along the road—say, when Silva swung that trick he made more outa fattenin’ hogs with ‘em than grandfather made with all his farmin’. Grandfather stuck up his nose at horse-beans. He died with it stuck up, an’ with more mortgages on the land he had left than you could shake a stick at. Plantin’ tomatoes wrapped up in wrappin’ paper—ever heard of that? Father snorted when he first seen the Porchugeeze doin’ it. An’ he went on snortin’. Just the same they got bumper crops, an’ father’s house-patch of tomatoes was eaten by the black beetles. We ain’t got the sabe, or the knack, or something or other. Just look at this piece of ground—four crops a year, an’ every inch of soil workin’ over time. Why, back in town there, there’s single acres that earns more than fifty of ours in the old days. The Porchugeeze is natural-born farmers, that’s all, an’ we don’t know nothin’ about farmin’ an’ never did.”
Saxon talked with the lineman, following him about, till one o’clock, when he looked at his watch, said good bye, and returned to his task of putting in a telephone for the latest immigrant from the Azores.
When in town, Saxon carried her oilcloth-wrapped telescope in her hand; but it was so arranged with loops, that, once on the road, she could thrust her arms through the loops and carry it on her back. When she did this, the tiny ukulele case was shifted so that it hung under her left arm.
A mile on from the lineman, they stopped where a small creek, fringed with brush, crossed the county road. Billy was for the cold lunch, which was the last meal Saxon had prepared in the Pine street cottage; but she was determined upon building a fire and boiling coffee. Not that she desired it for herself, but that she was impressed with the idea that everything at the starting of their strange wandering must be as comfortable as possible for Billy’s sake. Bent on inspiring him with enthusiasm equal to her own, she declined to dampen what sparks he had caught by anything so uncheerful as a cold meal.
“Now one thing we want to get out of our heads right at the start, Billy, is that we’re in a hurry. We’re not in a hurry, and we don’t care whether school keeps or not. We’re out to have a good time, a regular adventure like you read about in books.—My! I wish that boy that took me fishing to Goat Island could see me now. Oakland was just a place to start from, he said. And, well, we’ve started, haven’t we? And right here’s where we stop and boil coffee. You get the fire going, Billy, and I’ll get the water and the things ready to spread out.”
“Say,” Billy remarked, while they waited for the water to boil, “d’ye know what this reminds me of?”
Saxon was certain she did know, but she shook her head. She wanted to hear him say it.
“Why, the second Sunday I knew you, when we drove out to Moraga Valley behind Prince and King. You spread the lunch that day.”
“Only it was a more scrumptious lunch,” she added, with a happy smile.
“But I wonder why we didn’t have coffee that day,” he went on.
“Perhaps it would have been too much like housekeeping,” she laughed; “kind of what Mary would call indelicate—”
“Or raw,” Billy interpolated. “She was always springin’ that word.”
“And yet look what became of her.”
“That’s the way with all of them,” Billy growled somberly. “I’ve always noticed it’s the fastidious, la-de-da ones that turn out the rottenest. They’re like some horses I know, a-shyin’ at the things they’re the least afraid of.”
Saxon was silent, oppressed by a sadness, vague and remote, which the mention of Bert’s widow had served to bring on.
“I know something else that happened that day which you’d never guess,” Billy reminisced. “I bet you couldn’t.
“I wonder,” Saxon murmured, and guessed it with her eyes.
Billy’s eyes answered, and quite spontaneously he reached over, caught her hand, and pressed it caressingly to his cheek.
“It’s little, but oh my,” he said, addressing the imprisoned hand. Then he gazed at Saxon, and she warmed with his words. “We’re beginnin’ courtin’ all over again, ain’t we?”
Both ate heartily, and Billy was guilty of three cups of coffee.
“Say, this country air gives some appetite,” he mumbled, as he sank his teeth into his fifth bread-and-meat sandwich. “I could eat a horse, an’ drown his head off in coffee afterward.”
Saxon’s mind had reverted to all the young lineman had told her, and she completed a sort of general resume of the information. “My!” she exclaimed, “but we’ve learned a lot!”
“An’ we’ve sure learned one thing,” Billy said. “An’ that is that this is no place for us, with land a thousan’ an acre an’ only twenty dollars in our pockets.”
“Oh, we’re not going to stop here,” she hastened to say.
“But just the same it’s the Portuguese that gave it its price, and they make things go on it—send their children to school... and have them; and, as you said yourself, they’re as fat as butterballs.”
“An’ I take my hat off to them,” Billy responded.
“But all the same, I’d sooner have forty acres at a hundred an acre than four at a thousan’ an acre. Somehow, you know, I’d be scared stiff on four acres—scared of fallin’ off, you know.”
She was in full sympathy with him. In her heart of hearts the forty acres tugged much the harder. In her way, allowing for the difference of a generation, her desire for spaciousness was as strong as her Uncle Will’s.
“Well, we’re not going to stop here,” she assured Billy. “We’re going in, not for forty acres, but for a hundred and sixty acres free from the government.”
“An’ I guess the government owes it to us for what our fathers an’ mothers done. I tell you, Saxon, when a woman walks across the plains like your mother done, an’ a man an’ wife gets massacred by the Indians like my grandfather an’ mother done, the government does owe them something.”
“Well, it’s up to us to collect.”
“An’ we’ll collect all right, all right, somewhere down in them redwood mountains south of Monterey.”
It was a good afternoon’s tramp to Niles, passing through the town of Haywards; yet Saxon and Billy found time to diverge from the main county road and take the parallel roads through acres of intense cultivation where the land was farmed to the wheel-tracks. Saxon looked with amazement at these small, brown-skinned immigrants who came to the soil with nothing and yet made the soil pay for itself to the tune of two hundred, of five hundred, and of a thousand dollars an acre.
On every hand was activity. Women and children were in the fields as well as men. The land was turned endlessly over and over. They seemed never to let it rest. And it rewarded them. It must reward them, or their children would not be able to go to school, nor would so many of them be able to drive by in rattletrap, second-hand buggies or in stout light wagons.
“Look at their faces,” Saxon said. “They are happy and contented. They haven’t faces like the people in our neighborhood after the strikes began.”
“Oh, sure, they got a good thing,” Billy agreed. “You can see it stickin’ out all over them. But they needn’t get chesty with ME, I can tell you that much—just because they’ve jiggerooed us out of our land an’ everything.”
“But they’re not showing any signs of chestiness,” Saxon demurred.
“No, they’re not, come to think of it. All the same, they ain’t so wise. I bet I could tell ‘em a few about horses.”
It was sunset when they entered the little town of Niles. Billy, who had been silent for the last half mile, hesitantly ventured a suggestion.
“Say... I could put up for a room in the hotel just as well as not. What d ‘ye think?”
But Saxon shook her head emphatically.
“How long do you think our twenty dollars will last at that rate? Besides, the only way to begin is to begin at the beginning. We didn’t plan sleeping in hotels.”
“All right,” he gave in. “I’m game. I was just thinkin’ about you.”
“Then you’d better think I’m game, too,” she flashed forgivingly. “And now we’ll have to see about getting things for supper.”
They bought a round steak, potatoes, onions, and a dozen eating apples, then went out from the town to the fringe of trees and brush that advertised a creek. Beside the trees, on a sand bank, they pitched camp. Plenty of dry wood lay about, and Billy whistled genially while he gathered and chopped. Saxon, keen to follow his every mood, was cheered by the atrocious discord on his lips. She smiled to herself as she spread the blankets, with the tarpaulin underneath, for a table, having first removed all twigs from the sand. She had much to learn in the matter of cooking over a camp-fire, and made fair progress, discovering, first of all, that control of the fire meant far more than the size of it. When the coffee was boiled, she settled the grounds with a part-cup of cold water and placed the pot on the edge of the coals where it would keep hot and yet not boil. She fried potato dollars and onions in the same pan, but separately, and set them on top of the coffee pot in the tin plate she was to eat from, covering it with Billy’s inverted plate. On the dry hot pan, in the way that delighted Billy, she fried the steak. This completed, and while Billy poured the coffee, she served the steak, putting the dollars and onions back into the frying pan for a moment to make them piping hot again.
“What more d’ye want than this?” Billy challenged with deep-toned satisfaction, in the pause after his final cup of coffee, while he rolled a cigarette. He lay on his side, full length, resting on his elbow. The fire was burning brightly, and Saxon’s color was heightened by the flickering flames. “Now our folks, when they was on the move, had to be afraid for Indians, and wild animals and all sorts of things; an’ here we are, as safe as bugs in a rug. Take this sand. What better bed could you ask? Soft as feathers. Say—you look good to me, heap little squaw. I bet you don’t look an inch over sixteen right now, Mrs. Babe-in-the-Woods.”
“Don’t I?” she glowed, with a flirt of the head sideward and a white flash of teeth. “If you weren’t smoking a cigarette I’d ask you if your mother knew you’re out, Mr. Babe-in-the-Sandbank.”
“Say,” he began, with transparently feigned seriousness. “I want to ask you something, if you don’t mind. Now, of course, I don’t want to hurt your feelin’s or nothin’, but just the same there’s something important I’d like to know.”
“Well, what is it?” she inquired, after a fruitless wait.
“Well, it’s just this, Saxon. I like you like anything an’ all that, but here’s night come on, an’ we’re a thousand miles from anywhere, and—well, what I wanta know is: are we really an’ truly married, you an’ me?”
“Really and truly,” she assured him. “Why?”
“Oh, nothing; but I’d kind a-forgotten, an’ I was gettin’ embarrassed, you know, because if we wasn’t, seein’ the way I was brought up, this’d be no place—”
“That will do you,” she said severely. “And this is just the time and place for you to get in the firewood for morning while I wash up the dishes and put the kitchen in order.”
He started to obey, but paused to throw his arm about her and draw her close. Neither spoke, but when he went his way Saxon’s breast was fluttering and a song of thanksgiving breathed on her lips.
The night had come on, dim with the light of faint stars. But these had disappeared behind clouds that seemed to have arisen from nowhere. It was the beginning of California Indian summer. The air was warm, with just the first hint of evening chill, and there was no wind.
“I’ve a feeling as if we’ve just started to live,” Saxon said, when Billy, his firewood collected, joined her on the blankets before the fire. “I’ve learned more to-day than ten years in Oakland.” She drew a long breath and braced her shoulders. “Farming’s a bigger subject than I thought.”
Billy said nothing. With steady eyes he was staring into the fire, and she knew he was turning something over in his mind.
“What is it,” she asked, when she saw he had reached a conclusion, at the same time resting her hand on the back of his.
“Just been framin’ up that ranch of ourn,” he answered. “It’s all well enough, these dinky farmlets. They’ll do for foreigners. But we Americans just gotta have room. I want to be able to look at a hilltop an’ know it’s my land, and know it’s my land down the other side an’ up the next hilltop, an’ know that over beyond that, down alongside some creek, my mares are most likely grazin’, an’ their little colts grazin’ with ‘em or kickin’ up their heels. You know, there’s money in raisin’ horses—especially the big workhorses that run to eighteen hundred an’ two thousand pounds. They’re payin’ for ‘em, in the cities, every day in the year, seven an’ eight hundred a pair, matched geldings, four years old. Good pasture an’ plenty of it, in this kind of a climate, is all they need, along with some sort of shelter an’ a little hay in long spells of bad weather. I never thought of it before, but let me tell you that this ranch proposition is beginnin’ to look good to ME.”
Saxon was all excitement. Here was new information on the cherished subject, and, best of all, Billy was the authority. Still better, he was taking an interest himself.
“There’ll be room for that and for everything on a quarter section,” she encouraged.
“Sure thing. Around the house we’ll have vegetables an’ fruit and chickens an’ everything, just like the Porchugeeze, an’ plenty of room beside to walk around an’ range the horses.”
“But won’t the colts cost money, Billy?”
“Not much. The cobblestones eat horses up fast. That’s where I’ll get my brood mares, from the ones knocked out by the city. I know THAT end of it. They sell ‘em at auction, an’ they’re good for years an’ years, only no good on the cobbles any more.”
There ensued a long pause. In the dying fire both were busy visioning the farm to be.
“It’s pretty still, ain’t it?” Billy said, rousing himself at last. He gazed about him. “An’ black as a stack of black cats.” He shivered, buttoned his coat, and tossed several sticks on the fire. “Just the same, it’s the best kind of a climate in the world. Many’s the time, when I was a little kid, I’ve heard my father brag about California’s bein’ a blanket climate. He went East, once, an’ staid a summer an’ a winter, an’ got all he wanted. Never again for him.”
“My mother said there never was such a land for climate. How wonderful it must have seemed to them after crossing the deserts and mountains. They called it the land of milk and honey. The ground was so rich that all they needed to do was scratch it, Cady used to say.”
“And wild game everywhere,” Billy contributed. “Mr. Roberts, the one that adopted my father, he drove cattle from the San Josquin to the Columbia river. He had forty men helpin’ him, an’ all they took along was powder an’ salt. They lived off the game they shot.”
“The hills were full of deer, and my mother saw whole herds of elk around Santa Rosa. Some time we’ll go there, Billy. I’ve always wanted to.”
“And when my father was a young man, somewhere up north of Sacramento, in a creek called Cache Slough, the tules was full of grizzliest He used to go in an’ shoot ‘em. An’ when they caught ‘em in the open, he an’ the Mexicans used to ride up an’ rope them—catch them with lariats, you know. He said a horse that wasn’t afraid of grizzlies fetched ten times as much as any other horse An’ panthers!—all the old folks called ‘em painters an’ catamounts an’ varmints. Yes, we’ll go to Santa Rosa some time. Maybe we won’t like that land down the coast, an’ have to keep on hikin’.”
By this time the fire had died down, and Saxon had finished brushing and braiding her hair. Their bed-going preliminaries were simple, and in a few minutes they were side by side under the blankets. Saxon closed her eyes, but could not sleep. On the contrary, she had never been more wide awake. She had never slept out of doors in her life, and by no exertion of will could she overcome the strangeness of it. In addition, she was stiffened from the long trudge, and the sand, to her surprise, was anything but soft. An hour passed. She tried to believe that Billy was asleep, but felt certain he was not. The sharp crackle of a dying ember startled her. She was confident that Billy had moved slightly.
“Billy,” she whispered, “are you awake?”
“Yep,” came his low answer, “—an’ thinkin’ this sand is harder’n a cement floor. It’s one on me, all right. But who’d a-thought it?”
Both shifted their postures slightly, but vain was the attempt to escape from the dull, aching contact of the sand.
An abrupt, metallic, whirring noise of some nearby cricket gave Saxon another startle. She endured the sound for some minutes, until Billy broke forth.
“Say, that gets my goat whatever it is.”
“Do you think it’s a rattlesnake?” she asked, maintaining a calmness she did not feel.
“Just what I’ve been thinkin’.”
“I saw two, in the window of Bowman’s Drug Store An’ you know, Billy, they’ve got a hollow fang, and when they stick it into you the poison runs down the hollow.”
“Br-r-r-r,” Billy shivered, in fear that was not altogether mockery. “Certain death, everybody says, unless you’re a Bosco. Remember him?”
“He eats ‘em alive! He eats ‘em alive! Bosco! Bosco!” Saxon responded, mimicking the cry of a side-show barker. “Just the same, all Bosco’s rattlers had the poison-sacs cut outa them. They must a-had. Gee! It’s funny I can’t get asleep. I wish that damned thing’d close its trap. I wonder if it is a rattlesnake.”
“No; it can’t be,” Saxon decided. “All the rattlesnakes are killed off long ago.”
“Then where did Bosco get his?” Billy demanded with unimpeachable logic. “An’ why don’t you get to sleep?”
“Because it’s all new, I guess,” was her reply. “You see, I never camped out in my life.”
“Neither did I. An’ until now I always thought it was a lark.” He changed his position on the maddening sand and sighed heavily. “But we’ll get used to it in time, I guess. What other folks can do, we can, an’ a mighty lot of ‘em has camped out. It’s all right. Here we are, free an’ independent, no rent to pay, our own bosses—”
He stopped abruptly. From somewhere in the brush came an intermittent rustling. When they tried to locate it, it mysteriously ceased, and when the first hint of drowsiness stole upon them the rustling as mysteriously recommenced.
“It sounds like something creeping up on us,” Saxon suggested, snuggling closer to Billy.
“Well, it ain’t a wild Indian, at all events,” was the best he could offer in the way of comfort. He yawned deliberately. “Aw, shucks! What’s there to be scared of? Think of what all the pioneers went through.”
Several minutes later his shoulders began to shake, and Saxon knew he was giggling.
“I was just thinkin’ of a yarn my father used to tell about,” he explained. “It was about old Susan Kleghorn, one of the Oregon pioneer women. Wall-Eyed Susan, they used to call her; but she could shoot to beat the band. Once, on the Plains, the wagon train she was in, was attacked by Indians. They got all the wagons in a circle, an’ all hands an’ the oxen inside, an’ drove the Indians off, killin’ a lot of ‘em. They was too strong that way, so what’d the Indians do, to draw ‘em out into the open, but take two white girls, captured from some other train, an’ begin to torture ‘em. They done it just out of gunshot, but so everybody could see. The idea was that the white men couldn’t stand it, an’ would rush out, an’ then the Indians’d have ‘em where they wanted ’em.
“The white men couldn’t do a thing. If they rushed out to save the girls, they’d be finished, an’ then the Indians’d rush the train. It meant death to everybody. But what does old Susan do, but get out an old, long-barreled Kentucky rifle. She rams down about three times the regular load of powder, takes aim at a big buck that’s pretty busy at the torturin’, an’ bangs away. It knocked her clean over backward, an’ her shoulder was lame all the rest of the way to Oregon, but she dropped the big Indian deado. He never knew what struck ‘m.
“But that wasn’t the yarn I wanted to tell. It seems old Susan liked John Barleycorn. She’d souse herself to the ears every chance she got. An’ her sons an’ daughters an’ the old man had to be mighty careful not to leave any around where she could get hands on it.”
“On what?” asked Saxon.
“On John Barleycorn.—Oh, you ain’t on to that. It’s the old fashioned name for whisky. Well, one day all the folks was goin’ away—that was over somewhere at a place called Bodega, where they’d settled after comin’ down from Oregon. An’ old Susan claimed her rheumatics was hurtin’ her an’ so she couldn’t go. But the family was on. There was a two-gallon demijohn of whisky in the house. They said all right, but before they left they sent one of the grandsons to climb a big tree in the barnyard, where he tied the demijohn sixty feet from the ground. Just the same, when they come home that night they found Susan on the kitchen floor dead to the world.”
“And she’d climbed the tree after all,” Saxon hazarded, when Billy had shown no inclination of going on.
“Not on your life,” he laughed jubilantly. “All she’d done was to put a washtub on the ground square under the demijohn. Then she got out her old rifle an’ shot the demijohn to smithereens, an’ all she had to do was lap the whisky outa the tub.”
Again Saxon was drowsing, when the rustling sound was heard, this time closer. To her excited apprehension there was something stealthy about it, and she imagined a beast of prey creeping upon them. “Billy,” she whispered.
“Yes, I’m a-listenin’ to it,” came his wide awake answer.
“Mightn’t that be a panther, or maybe... a wildcat?”
“It can’t be. All the varmints was killed off long ago. This is peaceable farmin’ country.”
A vagrant breeze sighed through the trees and made Saxon shiver. The mysterious cricket-noise ceased with suspicious abruptness. Then, from the rustling noise, ensued a dull but heavy thump that caused both Saxon and Billy to sit up in the blankets. There were no further sounds, and they lay down again, though the very silence now seemed ominous.
“Huh,” Billy muttered with relief. “As though I don’t know what it was. It was a rabbit. I’ve heard tame ones bang their hind feet down on the floor that way.”
In vain Saxon tried to win sleep. The sand grew harder with the passage of time. Her flesh and her bones ached from contact with it. And, though her reason flouted any possibility of wild dangers, her fancy went on picturing them with unflagging zeal.
A new sound commenced. It was neither a rustling nor a rattling, and it tokened some large body passing through the brush. Sometimes twigs crackled and broke, and, once, they heard bush-branches press aside and spring back into place.
“If that other thing was a panther, this is an elephant,” was Billy’s uncheering opinion. “It’s got weight. Listen to that. An’ it’s comin’ nearer.”
There were frequent stoppages, then the sounds would begin again, always louder, always closer. Billy sat up in the blankets once more, passing one arm around Saxon, who had also sat up.
“I ain’t slept a wink,” he complained. “—There it goes again. I wish I could see.”
“It makes a noise big enough for a grizzly,” Saxon chattered, partly from nervousness, partly from the chill of the night.
“It ain’t no grasshopper, that’s sure.”
Billy started to leave the blankets, but Saxon caught his arm.
“What are you going to do?”
“Oh, I ain’t scairt none,” he answered. “But, honest to God, this is gettin’ on my nerves. If I don’t find what that thing is, it’ll give me the willies. I’m just goin’ to reconnoiter. I won’t go close.”
So intensely dark was the night, that the moment Billy crawled beyond the reach of her hand he was lost to sight. She sat and waited. The sound had ceased, though she could follow Billy’s progress by the cracking of dry twigs and limbs. After a few moments he returned and crawled under the blankets.
“I scared it away, I guess. It’s got better ears, an’ when it heard me comin’ it skinned out most likely. I did my dangdest, too, not to make a sound.—O Lord, there it goes again.”
They sat up. Saxon nudged Billy.
“There,” she warned, in the faintest of whispers. “I can hear it breathing. It almost made a snort.”
A dead branch cracked loudly, and so near at hand, that both of them jumped shamelessly.
“I ain’t goin’ to stand any more of its foolin’,” Billy declared wrathfully. “It’ll be on top of us if I don’t.”
“What are you going to do?” she queried anxiously.
“Yell the top of my head off. I’ll get a fall outa whatever it is.”
He drew a deep breath and emitted a wild yell.
The result far exceeded any expectation he could have entertained, and Saxon’s heart leaped up in sheer panic. On the instant the darkness erupted into terrible sound and movement. There were trashings of underbrush and lunges and plunges of heavy bodies in different directions. Fortunately for their ease of mind, all these sounds receded and died away.
“An’ what d’ye think of that?” Billy broke the silence.
“Gee! all the fight fans used to say I was scairt of nothin’. Just the same I’m glad they ain’t seein’ me to-night.”
He groaned. “I’ve got all I want of that blamed sand. I’m goin’ to get up and start the fire.”
This was easy. Under the ashes were live embers which quickly ignited the wood he threw on. A few stars were peeping out in the misty zenith. He looked up at them, deliberated, and started to move away.
“Where are you going now?” Saxon called.
“Oh, I’ve got an idea,” he replied noncommittally, and walked boldly away beyond the circle of the firelight.
Saxon sat with the blankets drawn closely under her chin, and admired his courage. He had not even taken the hatchet, and he was going in the direction in which the disturbance had died away.
Ten minutes later he came back chuckling.
“The sons-of-guns, they got my goat all right. I’ll be scairt of my own shadow next.—What was they? Huh! You couldn’t guess in a thousand years. A bunch of half-grown calves, an’ they was worse scairt than us.”
He smoked a cigarette by the fire, then rejoined Saxon under the blankets.
“A hell of a farmer I’ll make,” he chafed, “when a lot of little calves can scare the stuffin’ outa me. I bet your father or mine wouldn’t a-batted an eye. The stock has gone to seed, that’s what it has.”
“No, it hasn’t,” Saxon defended. “The stock is all right. We’re just as able as our folks ever were, and we’re healthier on top of it. We’ve been brought up different, that’s all. We’ve lived in cities all our lives. We know the city sounds and thugs, but we don’t know the country ones. Our training has been unnatural, that’s the whole thing in a nutshell. Now we’re going in for natural training. Give us a little time, and we’ll sleep as sound out of doors as ever your father or mine did.”
“But not on sand,” Billy groaned.
“We won’t try. That’s one thing, for good and all, we’ve learned the very first time. And now hush up and go to sleep.”
Their fears had vanished, but the sand, receiving now their undivided attention, multiplied its unyieldingness. Billy dozed off first, and roosters were crowing somewhere in the distance when Saxon’s eyes closed. But they could not escape the sand, and their sleep was fitful.
At the first gray of dawn, Billy crawled out and built a roaring fire. Saxon drew up to it shiveringly. They were hollow-eyed and weary. Saxon began to laugh. Billy joined sulkily, then brightened up as his eyes chanced upon the coffee pot, which he immediately put on to boil.
It is forty miles from Oakland to San Jose, and Saxon and Billy accomplished it in three easy days. No more obliging and angrily garrulous linemen were encountered, and few were the opportunities for conversation with chance wayfarers. Numbers of tramps, carrying rolls of blankets, were met, traveling both north and south on the county road; and from talks with them Saxon quickly learned that they knew little or nothing about farming. They were mostly old men, feeble or besotted, and all they knew was work—where jobs might be good, where jobs had been good; but the places they mentioned were always a long way off. One thing she did glean from them, and that was that the district she and Billy were passing through was “small-farmer” country in which labor was rarely hired, and that when it was it generally was Portuguese.
The farmers themselves were unfriendly. They drove by Billy and Saxon, often with empty wagons, but never invited them to ride. When chance offered and Saxon did ask questions, they looked her over curiously, or suspiciously, and gave ambiguous and facetious answers.
“They ain’t Americans, damn them,” Billy fretted. “Why, in the old days everybody was friendly to everybody.”
But Saxon remembered her last talk with her brother.
“It’s the spirit of the times, Billy. The spirit has changed. Besides, these people are too near. Wait till we get farther away from the cities, then we’ll find them more friendly.”
“A measly lot these ones are,” he sneered.
“Maybe they’ve a right to be,” she laughed. “For all you know, more than one of the scabs you’ve slugged were sons of theirs.”
“If I could only hope so,” Billy said fervently. “But I don’t care if I owned ten thousand acres, any man hikin’ with his blankets might be just as good a man as me, an’ maybe better, for all I’d know. I’d give ‘m the benefit of the doubt, anyway.”
Billy asked for work, at first, indiscriminately, later, only at the larger farms. The unvarying reply was that there was no work. A few said there would be plowing after the first rains. Here and there, in a small way, dry plowing was going on. But in the main the farmers were waiting.
“But do you know how to plow?” Saxon asked Billy.
“No; but I guess it ain’t much of a trick to turn. Besides, next man I see plowing I’m goin’ to get a lesson from.”
In the mid-afternoon of the second day his opportunity came. He climbed on top of the fence of a small field and watched an old man plow round and round it.
“Aw, shucks, just as easy as easy,” Billy commented scornfully. “If an old codger like that can handle one plow, I can handle two.”
“Go on and try it,” Saxon urged.
“What’s the good?”
“Cold feet,” she jeered, but with a smiling face. “All you have to do is ask him. All he can do is say no. And what if he does? You faced the Chicago Terror twenty rounds without flinching.”
“Aw, but it’s different,” he demurred, then dropped to the ground inside the fence. “Two to one the old geezer turns me down.”
“No, he won’t. Just tell him you want to learn, and ask him if he’ll let you drive around a few times. Tell him it won’t cost him anything.”
“Huh! If he gets chesty I’ll take his blamed plow away from him.”
From the top of the fence, but too far away to hear, Saxon watched the colloquy. After several minutes, the lines were transferred to Billy’s neck, the handles to his hands. Then the team started, and the old man, delivering a rapid fire of instructions, walked alongside of Billy. When a few turns had been made, the farmer crossed the plowed strip to Saxon, and joined her on the rail.
“He’s plowed before, a little mite, ain’t he?”
Saxon shook her head.
“Never in his life. But he knows how to drive horses.”
“He showed he wasn’t all greenhorn, an’ he learns pretty quick.” Here the farmer chuckled and cut himself a chew from a plug of tobacco. “I reckon he won’t tire me out a-settin’ here.”
The unplowed area grew smaller and smaller, but Billy evinced no intention of quitting, and his audience on the fence was deep in conversation. Saxon’s questions flew fast and furious, and she was not long in concluding that the old man bore a striking resemblance to the description the lineman had given of his father.
Billy persisted till the field was finished, and the old man invited him and Saxon to stop for the night. There was a disused outbuilding where they would find a small cook stove, he said, and also he would give them fresh milk. Further, if Saxon wanted to test HER desire for farming, she could try her hand on the cow.
The milking lesson did not prove as successful as Billy’s plowing; but when he had mocked sufficiently, Saxon challenged him to try, and he failed as grievously as she. Saxon had eyes and questions for everything, and it did not take her long to realize that she was looking upon the other side of the farming shield. Farm and farmer were old-fashioned. There was no intensive cultivation. There was too much land too little farmed. Everything was slipshod. House and barn and outbuildings were fast falling into ruin. The front yard was weed-grown. There was no vegetable garden. The small orchard was old, sickly, and neglected. The trees were twisted, spindling, and overgrown with a gray moss. The sons and daughters were away in the cities, Saxon found out. One daughter had married a doctor, the other was a teacher in the state normal school; one son was a locomotive engineer, the second was an architect, and the third was a police court reporter in San Francisco. On occasion, the father said, they helped out the old folks.
“What do you think?” Saxon asked Billy as he smoked his after-supper cigarette.
His shoulders went up in a comprehensive shrug.
“Huh! That’s easy. The old geezer’s like his orchard—covered with moss. It’s plain as the nose on your face, after San Leandro, that he don’t know the first thing. An’ them horses. It’d be a charity to him, an’ a savin’ of money for him, to take ‘em out an’ shoot ‘em both. You bet you don’t see the Porchugeeze with horses like them. An’ it ain’t a case of bein’ proud, or puttin’ on side, to have good horses. It’s brass tacks an’ business. It pays. That’s the game. Old horses eat more in young ones to keep in condition an’ they can’t do the same amount of work. But you bet it costs just as much to shoe them. An’ his is scrub on top of it. Every minute he has them horses he’s losin’ money. You oughta see the way they work an’ figure horses in the city.”
They slept soundly, and, after an early breakfast, prepared to start.
“I’d like to give you a couple of days’ work,” the old man regretted, at parting, “but I can’t see it. The ranch just about keeps me and the old woman, now that the children are gone. An’ then it don’t always. Seems times have been bad for a long spell now. Ain’t never been the same since Grover Cleveland.”
Early in the afternoon, on the outskirts of San Jose, Saxon called a halt.
“I’m going right in there and talk,” she declared, “unless they set the dogs on me. That’s the prettiest place yet, isn’t it?”
Billy, who was always visioning hills and spacious ranges for his horses, mumbled unenthusiastic assent.
“And the vegetables! Look at them! And the flowers growing along the borders! That beats tomato plants in wrapping paper.”
“Don’t see the sense of it,” Billy objected. “Where’s the money come in from flowers that take up the ground that good vegetables might be growin’ on?”
“And that’s what I’m going to find out.” She pointed to a woman, stooped to the ground and working with a trowel; in front of the tiny bungalow. “I don’t know what she’s like, but at the worst she can only be mean. See! She’s looking at us now. Drop your load alongside of mine, and come on in.”
Billy slung the blankets from his shoulder to the ground, but elected to wait. As Saxon went up the narrow, flower-bordered walk, she noted two men at work among the vegetables—one an old Chinese, the other old and of some dark-eyed foreign breed. Here were neatness, efficiency, and intensive cultivation with a vengeance—even her untrained eye could see that. The woman stood up and turned from her flowers, and Saxon saw that she was middle-aged, slender, and simply but nicely dressed. She wore glasses, and Saxon’s reading of her face was that it was kind but nervous looking.
“I don’t want anything to-day,” she said, before Saxon could speak, administering the rebuff with a pleasant smile.
Saxon groaned inwardly over the black-covered telescope basket. Evidently the woman had seen her put it down.
“We’re not peddling,” she explained quickly.
“Oh, I am sorry for the mistake.”
This time the woman’s smile was even pleasanter, and she waited for Saxon to state her errand.
Nothing loath, Saxon took it at a plunge.
“We’re looking for land. We want to be farmers, you know, and before we get the land we want to find out what kind of land we want. And seeing your pretty place has just filled me up with questions. You see, we don’t know anything about farming. We’ve lived in the city all our life, and now we’ve given it up and are going to live in the country and be happy.”
She paused. The woman’s face seemed to grow quizzical, though the pleasantness did not abate.
“But how do you know you will be happy in the country?” she asked.
“I don’t know. All I do know is that poor people can’t be happy in the city where they have labor troubles all the time. If they can’t be happy in the country, then there’s no happiness anywhere, and that doesn’t seem fair, does it?”
“It is sound reasoning, my dear, as far as it goes. But you must remember that there are many poor people in the country and many unhappy people.”
“You look neither poor nor unhappy,” Saxon challenged.
“You ARE a dear.”
Saxon saw the pleased flush in the other’s face, which lingered as she went on.
“But still, I may be peculiarly qualified to live and succeed in the country. As you say yourself, you’ve spent your life in the city. You don’t know the first thing about the country. It might even break your heart.”
Saxon’s mind went back to the terrible months in the Pine street cottage.
“I know already that the city will break my heart. Maybe the country will, too, but just the same it’s my only chance, don’t you see. It’s that or nothing. Besides, our folks before us were all of the country. It seems the more natural way. And better, here I am, which proves that ‘way down inside I must want the country, must, as you call it, be peculiarly qualified for the country, or else I wouldn’t be here.”
The other nodded approval, and looked at her with growing interest.
“That young man—” she began.
“Is my husband. He was a teamster until the big strike came. My name is Roberts, Saxon Roberts, and my husband is William Roberts.”
“And I am Mrs. Mortimer,” the other said, with a bow of acknowledgment. “I am a widow. And now, if you will ask your husband in, I shall try to answer some of your many questions. Tell him to put the bundles inside the gate.. .. And now what are all the questions you are filled with?”
“Oh, all kinds. How does it pay? How did you manage it all? How much did the land cost? Did you build that beautiful house? How much do you pay the men? How did you learn all the different kinds of things, and which grew best and which paid best? What is the best way to sell them? How do you sell them?” Saxon paused and laughed. “Oh, I haven’t begun yet. Why do you have flowers on the borders everywhere? I looked over the Portuguese farms around San Leandro, but they never mixed flowers and vegetables.”
Mrs. Mortimer held up her hand. “Let me answer the last first. It is the key to almost everything.”
But Billy arrived, and the explanation was deferred until after his introduction.
“The flowers caught your eyes, didn’t they, my dear?” Mrs. Mortimer resumed. “And brought you in through my gate and right up to me. And that’s the very reason they were planted with the vegetables—to catch eyes. You can’t imagine how many eyes they have caught, nor how many owners of eyes they have lured inside my gate. This is a good road, and is a very popular short country drive for townsfolk. Oh, no; I’ve never had any luck with automobiles. They can’t see anything for dust. But I began when nearly everybody still used carriages. The townswomen would drive by. My flowers, and then my place, would catch their eyes. They would tell their drivers to stop. And—well, somehow, I managed to be in the front within speaking distance. Usually I succeeded in inviting them in to see my flowers... and vegetables, of course. Everything was sweet, clean, pretty. It all appealed. And—” Mrs. Mortimer shrugged her shoulders. “It is well known that the stomach sees through the eyes. The thought of vegetables growing among flowers pleased their fancy. They wanted my vegetables. They must have them. And they did, at double the market price, which they were only too glad to pay. You see, I became the fashion, or a fad, in a small way. Nobody lost. The vegetables were certainly good, as good as any on the market and often fresher. And, besides, my customers killed two birds with one stone; for they were pleased with themselves for philanthropic reasons. Not only did they obtain the finest and freshest possible vegetables, but at the same time they were happy with the knowledge that they were helping a deserving widow-woman. Yes, and it gave a certain tone to their establishments to be able to say they bought Mrs. Mortimer’s vegetables. But that’s too big a side to go into. In short, my little place became a show place—anywhere to go, for a drive or anything, you know, when time has to be killed. And it became noised about who I was, and who my husband had been, what I had been. Some of the townsladies I had known personally in the old days. They actually worked for my success. And then, too, I used to serve tea. My patrons became my guests for the time being. I still serve it, when they drive out to show me off to their friends. So you see, the flowers are one of the ways I succeeded.”
Saxon was glowing with appreciation, but Mrs. Mortimer, glancing at Billy, noted not entire approval. His blue eyes were clouded.
“Well, out with it,” she encouraged. “What are you thinking?”
To Saxon’s surprise, he answered directly, and to her double surprise, his criticism was of a nature which had never entered her head.
“It’s just a trick,” Billy expounded. “That’s what I was gettin’ at—”
“But a paying trick,” Mrs. Mortimer interrupted, her eyes dancing and vivacious behind the glasses.
“Yes, and no,” Billy said stubbornly, speaking in his slow, deliberate fashion. “If every farmer was to mix flowers an’ vegetables, then every farmer would get double the market price, an’ then there wouldn’t be any double market price. Everything’d be as it was before.”
“You are opposing a theory to a fact,” Mrs. Mortimer stated. “The fact is that all the farmers do not do it. The fact is that I do receive double the price. You can’t get away from that.”
Billy was unconvinced, though unable to reply.
“Just the same,” he muttered, with a slow shake of the head, “I don’t get the hang of it. There’s something wrong so far as we’re concerned—my wife an’ me, I mean. Maybe I’ll get hold of it after a while.”
“And in the meantime, we’ll look around,” Mrs. Mortimer invited. “I want to show you everything, and tell you how I make it go. Afterward, we’ll sit down, and I’ll tell you about the beginning. You see—” she bent her gaze on Saxon—"I want you thoroughly to understand that you can succeed in the country if you go about it right. I didn’t know a thing about it when I began, and I didn’t have a fine big man like yours. I was all alone. But I’ll tell you about that.”
For the next hour, among vegetables, berry-bushes and fruit trees, Saxon stored her brain with a huge mass of information to be digested at her leisure. Billy, too, was interested, but he left the talking to Saxon, himself rarely asking a question. At the rear of the bungalow, where everything was as clean and orderly as the front, they were shown through the chicken yard. Here, in different runs, were kept several hundred small and snow-white hens.
“White Leghorns,” said Mrs. Mortimer. “You have no idea what they netted me this year. I never keep a hen a moment past the prime of her laying period—”
“Just what I was tellin’ you, Saxon, about horses,” Billy broke in.
“And by the simplest method of hatching them at the right time, which not one farmer in ten thousand ever dreams of doing, I have them laying in the winter when most hens stop laying and when eggs are highest. Another thing: I have my special customers. They pay me ten cents a dozen more than the market price, because my specialty is one-day eggs.”
Here she chanced to glance at Billy, and guessed that he was still wrestling with his problem.
“Same old thing?” she queried.
He nodded. “Same old thing. If every farmer delivered day-old eggs, there wouldn’t be no ten cents higher ‘n the top price. They’d be no better off than they was before.”
“But the eggs would be one-day eggs, all the eggs would be one-day eggs, you mustn’t forget that,” Mrs. Mortimer pointed out.
“But that don’t butter no toast for my wife an’ me,” he objected. “An’ that’s what I’ve been tryin’ to get the hang of, an’ now I got it. You talk about theory an’ fact. Ten cents higher than top price is a theory to Saxon an’ me. The fact is, we ain’t got no eggs, no chickens, an’ no land for the chickens to run an’ lay eggs on.”
Their hostess nodded sympathetically.
“An’ there’s something else about this outfit of yourn that I don’t get the hang of,” he pursued. “I can’t just put my finger on it, but it’s there all right.”
They were shown over the cattery, the piggery, the milkers, and the kennelry, as Mrs. Mortimer called her live stock departments. None was large. All were moneymakers, she assured them, and rattled off her profits glibly. She took their breaths away by the prices given and received for pedigreed Persians, pedigreed Ohio Improved Chesters, pedigreed Scotch collies, and pedigreed Jerseys. For the milk of the last she also had a special private market, receiving five cents more a quart than was fetched by the best dairy milk. Billy was quick to point out the difference between the look of her orchard and the look of the orchard they had inspected the previous afternoon, and Mrs. Mortimer showed him scores of other differences, many of which he was compelled to accept on faith.
Then she told them of another industry, her home-made jams and jellies, always contracted for in advance, and at prices dizzyingly beyond the regular market. They sat in comfortable rattan chairs on the veranda, while she told the story of how she had drummed up the jam and jelly trade, dealing only with the one best restaurant and one best club in San Jose. To the proprietor and the steward she had gone with her samples, in long discussions beaten down their opposition, overcome their reluctance, and persuaded the proprietor, in particular, to make a “special” of her wares, to boom them quietly with his patrons, and, above all, to charge stiffly for dishes and courses in which they appeared.
Throughout the recital Billy’s eyes were moody with dissatisfaction. Mrs. Mortimer saw, and waited.
“And now, begin at the beginning,” Saxon begged.
But Mrs. Mortimer refused unless they agreed to stop for supper. Saxon frowned Billy’s reluctance away, and accepted for both of them.
“Well, then,” Mrs. Mortimer took up her tale, “in the beginning I was a greenhorn, city born and bred. All I knew of the country was that it was a place to go to for vacations, and I always went to springs and mountain and seaside resorts. I had lived among books almost all my life. I was head librarian of the Doncaster Library for years. Then I married Mr. Mortimer. He was a book man, a professor in San Miguel University. He had a long sickness, and when he died there was nothing left. Even his life insurance was eaten into before I could be free of creditors. As for myself, I was worn out, on the verge of nervous prostration, fit for nothing. I had five thousand dollars left, however, and, without going into the details, I decided to go farming. I found this place, in a delightful climate, close to San Jose—the end of the electric line is only a quarter of a mile on—and I bought it. I paid two thousand cash, and gave a mortgage for two thousand. It cost two hundred an acre, you see.”
“Twenty acres!” Saxon cried.
“Wasn’t that pretty small?” Billy ventured.
“Too large, oceans too large. I leased ten acres of it the first thing. And it’s still leased after all this time. Even the ten I’d retained was much too large for a long, long time. It’s only now that I’m beginning to feel a tiny mite crowded.”
“And ten acres has supported you an’ two hired men?” Billy demanded, amazed.
Mrs. Mortimer clapped her hands delightedly.
“Listen. I had been a librarian. I knew my way among books. First of all I’d read everything written on the subject, and subscribed to some of the best farm magazines and papers. And you ask if my ten acres have supported me and two hired men. Let me tell you. I have four hired men. The ten acres certainly must support them, as it supports Hannah—she’s a Swedish widow who runs the house and who is a perfect Trojan during the jam and jelly season—and Hannah’s daughter, who goes to school and lends a hand, and my nephew whom I have taken to raise and educate. Also, the ten acres have come pretty close to paying for the whole twenty, as well as for this house, and all the outbuildings, and all the pedigreed stock.”
Saxon remembered what the young lineman had said about the Portuguese.
“The ten acres didn’t do a bit of it,” she cried. “It was your head that did it all, and you know it.”
“And that’s the point, my dear. It shows the right kind of person can succeed in the country. Remember, the soil is generous. But it must be treated generously, and that is something the old style American farmer can’t get into his head. So it IS head that counts. Even when his starving acres have convinced him of the need for fertilizing, he can’t see the difference between cheap fertilizer and good fertilizer.”
“And that’s something I want to know about,” Saxon exclaimed. “And I’ll tell you all I know, but, first, you must be very tired. I noticed you were limping. Let me take you in—never mind your bundles; I’ll send Chang for them.”
To Saxon, with her innate love of beauty and charm in all personal things, the interior of the bungalow was a revelation. Never before had she been inside a middle class home, and what she saw not only far exceeded anything she had imagined, but was vastly different from her imaginings. Mrs. Mortimer noted her sparkling glances which took in everything, and went out of her way to show Saxon around, doing it under the guise of gleeful boastings, stating the costs of the different materials, explaining how she had done things with her own hands, such as staining the doors, weathering the bookcases, and putting together the big Mission Morris chair. Billy stepped gingerly behind, and though it never entered his mind to ape to the manner born, he succeeded in escaping conspicuous awkwardness, even at the table where he and Saxon had the unique experience of being waited on in a private house by a servant.
“If you’d only come along next year,” Mrs. Mortimer mourned; “then I should have had the spare room I had planned—”
“That’s all right,” Billy spoke up; “thank you just the same. But we’ll catch the electric cars into San Jose an’ get a room.”
Mrs. Mortimer was still disturbed at her inability to put them up for the night, and Saxon changed the conversation by pleading to be told more.
“You remember, I told you I’d paid only two thousand down on the land,” Mrs. Mortimer complied. “That left me three thousand to experiment with. Of course, all my friends and relatives prophesied failure. And, of course, I made my mistakes, plenty of them, but I was saved from still more by the thorough study I had made and continued to make.” She indicated shelves of farm books and files of farm magazines that lined the walls. “And I continued to study. I was resolved to be up to date, and I sent for all the experiment station reports. I went almost entirely on the basis that whatever the old type farmer did was wrong, and, do you know, in doing that I was not so far wrong myself. It’s almost unthinkable, the stupidity of the old-fashioned farmers. Oh, I consulted with them, talked things over with them, challenged their stereotyped ways, demanded demonstration of their dogmatic and prejudiced beliefs, and quite succeeded in convincing the last of them that I was a fool and doomed to come to grief.”
“But you didn’t! You didn’t!”
Mrs. Mortimer smiled gratefully.
“Sometimes, even now, I’m amazed that I didn’t. But I came of a hard-headed stock which had been away from the soil long enough to gain a new perspective. When a thing satisfied my judgment, I did it forthwith and downright, no matter how extravagant it seemed. Take the old orchard. Worthless! Worse than worthless! Old Calkins nearly died of heart disease when he saw the devastation I had wreaked upon it. And look at it now. There was an old rattletrap ruin where the bungalow now stands. I put up with it, but I immediately pulled down the cow barn, the pigsties, the chicken houses, everything—made a clean sweep. They shook their heads and groaned when they saw such wanton waste by a widow struggling to make a living. But worse was to come. They were paralyzed when I told them the price of the three beautiful O.I.C.’s—pigs, you know, Chesters—which I bought, sixty dollars for the three, and only just weaned. Then I hustled the nondescript chickens to market, replacing them with the White Leghorns. The two scrub cows that came with the place I sold to the butcher for thirty dollars each, paying two hundred and fifty for two blue-blooded Jersey heifers... and coined money on the exchange, while Calkins and the rest went right on with their scrubs that couldn’t give enough milk to pay for their board.”
Billy nodded approval.
“Remember what I told you about horses,” he reiterated to Saxon; and, assisted by his hostess, he gave a very creditable disquisition on horseflesh and its management from a business point of view.
When he went out to smoke Mrs. Mortimer led Saxon into talking about herself and Billy, and betrayed not the slightest shock when she learned of his prizefighting and scab-slugging proclivities.
“He’s a splendid young man, and good,” she assured Saxon. “His face shows that. And, best of all, he loves you and is proud of you. You can’t imagine how I have enjoyed watching the way he looks at you, especially when you are talking. He respects your judgment. Why, he must, for here he is with you on this pilgrimage which is wholly your idea.” Mrs. Mortimer sighed. “You are very fortunate, dear child, very fortunate. And you don’t yet know what a man’s brain is. Wait till he is quite fired with enthusiasm for your project. You will be astounded by the way he takes hold. You will have to exert yourself to keep up with him. In the meantime, you must lead. Remember, he is city bred. It will be a struggle to wean him from the only life he’s known.”
“Oh, but he’s disgusted with the city, too—” Saxon began.
“But not as you are. Love is not the whole of man, as it is of woman. The city hurt you more than it hurt him. It was you who lost the dear little babe. His interest, his connection, was no more than casual and incidental compared with the depth and vividness of yours.”
Mrs. Mortimer turned her head to Billy, who was just entering.
“Have you got the hang of what was bothering you?” she asked.
“Pretty close to it,” he answered, taking the indicated big Morris chair. “It’s this—”
“One moment,” Mrs. Mortimer checked him. “That is a beautiful, big, strong chair, and so are you, at any rate big and strong, and your little wife is very weary—no, no; sit down, it’s your strength she needs. Yes, I insist. Open your arms.”
And to him she led Saxon, and into his arms placed her. “Now, sir—and you look delicious, the pair of you—register your objections to my way of earning a living.”
“It ain’t your way,” Billy repudiated quickly. “Your way’s all right. It’s great. What I’m trying to get at is that your way don’t fit us. We couldn’t make a go of it your way. Why you had pull—well-to-do acquaintances, people that knew you’d been a librarian an’ your husband a professor. An’ you had....” Here he floundered a moment, seeking definiteness for the idea he still vaguely grasped. “Well, you had a way we couldn’t have. You were educated, an’... an’—I don’t know, I guess you knew society ways an’ business ways we couldn’t know.”
“But, my dear boy, you could learn what was necessary,” she contended.
Billy shook his head.
“No. You don’t quite get me. Let’s take it this way. Just suppose it’s me, with jam an’ jelly, a-wadin’ into that swell restaurant like you did to talk with the top guy. Why, I’d be outa place the moment I stepped into his office. Worse’n that, I’d feel outa place. That’d make me have a chip on my shoulder an’ lookin’ for trouble, which is a poor way to do business. Then, too, I’d be thinkin’ he was thinkin’ I was a whole lot of a husky to be peddlin’ jam. What’d happen, I’d be chesty at the drop of the hat. I’d be thinkin’ he was thinkin’ I was standin’ on my foot, an’ I’d beat him to it in tellin’ him he was standin’ on HIS foot. Don’t you see? It’s because I was raised that way. It’d be take it or leave it with me, an’ no jam sold.”
“What you say is true,” Mrs. Mortimer took up brightly. “But there is your wife. Just look at her. She’d make an impression on any business man. He’d be only too willing to listen to her.”
Billy stiffened, a forbidding expression springing into his eyes.
“What have I done now?” their hostess laughed.
“I ain’t got around yet to tradin’ on my wife’s looks,” he rumbled gruffly.
“Right you are. The only trouble is that you, both of you, are fifty years behind the times. You’re old American. How you ever got here in the thick of modern conditions is a miracle. You’re Rip Van Winkles. Who ever heard, in these degenerate times, of a young man and woman of the city putting their blankets on their backs and starting out in search of land? Why, it’s the old Argonaut spirit. You’re as like as peas in a pod to those who yoked their oxen and held west to the lands beyond the sunset. I’ll wager your fathers and mothers, or grandfathers and grandmothers, were that very stock.”
Saxon’s eyes were glistening, and Billy’s were friendly once more. Both nodded their heads.
“I’m of the old stock myself,” Mrs. Mortimer went on proudly. “My grandmother was one of the survivors of the Donner Party. My grandfather, Jason Whitney, came around the Horn and took part in the raising of the Bear Flag at Sonoma. He was at Monterey when John Marshall discovered gold in Sutter’s mill-race. One of the streets in San Francisco is named after him.”
“I know it,” Billy put in. “Whitney Street. It’s near Russian Hill. Saxon’s mother walked across the Plains.”
“And Billy’s grandfather and grandmother were massacred by the Indians,” Saxon contributed. “His father was a little baby boy, and lived with the Indians, until captured by the whites. He didn’t even know his name and was adopted by a Mr. Roberts.”
“Why, you two dear children, we’re almost like relatives,” Mrs. Mortimer beamed. “It’s a breath of old times, alas! all forgotten in these fly-away days. I am especially interested, because I’ve catalogued and read everything covering those times. You—” she indicated Billy, “you are historical, or at least your father is. I remember about him. The whole thing is in Bancroft’s History. It was the Modoc Indians. There were eighteen wagons. Your father was the only survivor, a mere baby at the time, with no knowledge of what happened. He was adopted by the leader of the whites.”
“That’s right,” said Billy. “It was the Modocs. His train must have ben bound for Oregon. It was all wiped out. I wonder if you know anything about Saxon’s mother. She used to write poetry in the early days.”
“Was any of it printed?”
“Yes,” Saxon answered. “In the old San Jose papers.”
“And do you know any of it?”
“Yes, there’s one beginning:
“’Sweet as the wind-lute’s airy strains Your gentle muse has learned to sing, And California’s boundless plains Prolong the soft notes echoing.’”
“It sounds familiar,” Mrs. Mortimer said, pondering.
“And there was another I remember that began:
“’I’ve stolen away from the crowd in the groves, Where the nude statues stand, and the leaves point and shiver,’—
“And it run on like that. I don’t understand it all. It was written to my father—”
“A love poem!” Mrs. Mortimer broke in. “I remember it. Wait a minute.... Da-da-dah, da-da-dah, da-da-dah, da-da—STANDS—
“’In the spray of a fountain, whose seed-amethysts Tremble lightly a moment on bosom and hands, Then drip in their basin from bosom and wrists.’
“I’ve never forgotten the drip of the seed-amethysts, though I don’t remember your mother’s name.”
“It was Daisy—” Saxon began.
“No; Dayelle,” Mrs. Mortimer corrected with quickening recollection.
“Oh, but nobody called her that.”
“But she signed it that way. What is the rest?”
“Daisy Wiley Brown.”
Mrs. Mortimer went to the bookshelves and quickly returned with a large, soberly-bound volume.
“It’s ‘The Story of the Files,’” she explained. “Among other things, all the good fugitive verse was gathered here from the old newspaper files.” Her eyes running down the index suddenly stopped. “I was right. Dayelle Wiley Brown. There it is. Ten of her poems, too: ‘The Viking’s Quest’; ’Days of Gold’; ‘Constancy’; ‘The Caballero’; ‘Graves at Little Meadow’—”
“We fought off the Indians there,” Saxon interrupted in her excitement. “And mother, who was only a little girl, went out and got water for the wounded. And the Indians wouldn’t shoot at her. Everybody said it was a miracle.” She sprang out of Billy’s arms, reaching for the book and crying: “Oh, let me see it! Let me see it! It’s all new to me. I don’t know these poems. Can I copy them? I’ll learn them by heart. Just to think, my mother’s!”
Mrs. Mortimer’s glasses required repolishing; and for half an hour she and Billy remained silent while Saxon devoured her mother’s lines. At the end, staring at the book which she had closed on her finger, she could only repeat in wondering awe:
“And I never knew, I never knew.”
But during that half hour Mrs. Mortimer’s mind had not been idle. A little later, she broached her plan. She believed in intensive dairying as well as intensive farming, and intended, as soon as the lease expired, to establish a Jersey dairy on the other ten acres. This, like everything she had done, would be model, and it meant that she would require more help. Billy and Saxon were just the two. By next summer she could have them installed in the cottage she intended building. In the meantime she could arrange, one way and another, to get work for Billy through the winter. She would guarantee this work, and she knew a small house they could rent just at the end of the car-line. Under her supervision Billy could take charge from the very beginning of the building. In this way they would be earning money, preparing themselves for independent farming life, and have opportunity to look about them.
But her persuasions were in vain. In the end Saxon succinctly epitomized their point of view.
“We can’t stop at the first place, even if it is as beautiful and kind as yours and as nice as this valley is. We don’t even know what we want. We’ve got to go farther, and see all kinds of places and all kinds of ways, in order to find out. We’re not in a hurry to make up our minds. We want to make, oh, so very sure! And besides....” She hesitated. “Besides, we don’t like altogether flat land. Billy wants some hills in his. And so do I.”
When they were ready to leave Mrs. Mortimer offered to present Saxon with “The Story of the Files"; but Saxon shook her head and got some money from Billy.
“It says it costs two dollars,” she said. “Will you buy me one, and keep it till we get settled? Then I’ll write, and you can send it to me.”
“Oh, you Americans,” Mrs. Mortimer chided, accepting the money. “But you must promise to write from time to time before you’re settled.”
She saw them to the county road.
“You are brave young things,” she said at parting. “I only wish I were going with you, my pack upon my back. You’re perfectly glorious, the pair of you. If ever I can do anything for you, just let me know. You’re bound to succeed, and I want a hand in it myself. Let me know how that government land turns out, though I warn you I haven’t much faith in its feasibility. It’s sure to be too far away from markets.”
She shook hands with Billy. Saxon she caught into her arms and kissed.
“Be brave,” she said, with low earnestness, in Saxon’s ear. “You’ll win. You are starting with the right ideas. And you were right not to accept my proposition. But remember, it, or better, will always be open to you. You’re young yet, both of you. Don’t be in a hurry. Any time you stop anywhere for a while, let me know, and I’ll mail you heaps of agricultural reports and farm publications. Good-bye. Heaps and heaps and heaps of luck.”