It was early evening when they got off the car at Seventh and Pine on their way home from Bell’s Theater. Billy and Saxon did their little marketing together, then separated at the corner, Saxon to go on to the house and prepare supper, Billy to go and see the boys—the teamsters who had fought on in the strike during his month of retirement.
“Take care of yourself, Billy,” she called, as he started off.
“Sure,” he answered, turning his face to her over his shoulder.
Her heart leaped at the smile. It was his old, unsullied love-smile which she wanted always to see on his face—for which, armed with her own wisdom and the wisdom of Mercedes, she would wage the utmost woman’s war to possess. A thought of this flashed brightly through her brain, and it was with a proud little smile that she remembered all her pretty equipment stored at home in the bureau and the chest of drawers.
Three-quarters of an hour later, supper ready, all but the putting on of the lamb chops at the sound of his step, Saxon waited. She heard the gate click, but instead of his step she heard a curious and confused scraping of many steps. She flew to open the door. Billy stood there, but a different Billy from the one she had parted from so short a time before. A small boy, beside him, held his hat. His face had been fresh-washed, or, rather, drenched, for his shirt and shoulders were wet. His pale hair lay damp and plastered against his forehead, and was darkened by oozing blood. Both arms hung limply by his side. But his face was composed, and he even grinned.
“It’s all right,” he reassured Saxon. “The joke’s on me. Somewhat damaged but still in the ring.” He stepped gingerly across the threshold. “—Come on in, you fellows. We’re all mutts together.”
He was followed in by the boy with his hat, by Bud Strothers and another teamster she knew, and by two strangers. The latter were big, hard-featured, sheepish-faced men, who stared at Saxon as if afraid of her.
“It’s all right, Saxon,” Billy began, but was interrupted by Bud.
“First thing is to get him on the bed an’ cut his clothes off him. Both arms is broke, and here are the ginks that done it.”
He indicated the two strangers, who shuffled their feet with embarrassment and looked more sheepish than ever.
Billy sat down on the bed, and while Saxon held the lamp, Bud and the strangers proceeded to cut coat, shirt, and undershirt from him.
“He wouldn’t go to the receivin’ hospital,” Bud said to Saxon.
“Not on your life,” Billy concurred. “I had ‘em send for Doc Hentley. He’ll be here any minute. Them two arms is all I got. They’ve done pretty well by me, an’ I gotta do the same by them.—No medical students a-learnin’ their trade on me.”
“But how did it happens” Saxon demanded, looking from Billy to the two strangers, puzzled by the amity that so evidently existed among them all.
“Oh, they’re all right,” Billy dashed in. “They done it through mistake. They’re Frisco teamsters, an’ they come over to help us—a lot of ‘em.”
The two teamsters seemed to cheer up at this, and nodded their heads.
“Yes, missus,” one of them rumbled hoarsely. “It’s all a mistake, an’... well, the joke’s on us.”
“The drinks, anyway,” Billy grinned.
Not only was Saxon not excited, but she was scarcely perturbed. What had happened was only to be expected.
It was in line with all that Oakland had already done to her and hers, and, besides, Billy was not dangerously hurt. Broken arms and a sore head would heal. She brought chairs and seated everybody.
“Now tell me what happened,” she begged. “I’m all at sea, what of you two burleys breaking my husband’s arms, then seeing him home and holding a love-fest with him.”
“An’ you got a right,” Bud Strothers assured her. “You see, it happened this way—”
“You shut up, Bud,” Billy broke it. “You didn’t see anything of it.”
Saxon looked to the San Francisco teamsters.
“We’d come over to lend a hand, seein’ as the Oakland boys was gettin’ some the short end of it,” one spoke up, “an’ we’ve sure learned some scabs there’s better trades than drivin’ team. Well, me an’ Jackson here was nosin’ around to see what we can see, when your husband comes moseyin’ along. When he—”
“Hold on,” Jackson interrupted. “Get it straight as you go along. We reckon we know the boys by sight. But your husband we ain’t never seen around, him bein’...”
“As you might say, put away for a while,” the first teamster took up the tale. “So, when we sees what we thinks is a scab dodgin’ away from us an’ takin’ the shortcut through the alley—”
“The alley back of Campbell’s grocery,” Billy elucidated.
“Yep, back of the grocery,” the first teamster went on; “why, we’re sure he’s one of them squarehead scabs, hired through Murray an’ Ready, makin’ a sneak to get into the stables over the back fences.”
“We caught one there, Billy an’ me,” Bud interpolated.
“So we don’t waste any time,” Jackson said, addressing himself to Saxon. “We’ve done it before, an’ we know how to do ‘em up brown an’ tie ‘em with baby ribbon. So we catch your husband right in the alley.”
“I was lookin’ for Bud,” said Billy. “The boys told me I’d find him somewhere around the other end of the alley. An’ the first thing I know, Jackson, here, asks me for a match.”
“An’ right there’s where I get in my fine work,” resumed the first teamster.
“What?” asked Saxon.
“That.” The man pointed to the wound in Billy’s scalp. “I laid ‘m out. He went down like a steer, an’ got up on his knees dippy, a-gabblin’ about somebody standin’ on their foot. He didn’t know where he was at, you see, clean groggy. An’ then we done it.”
The man paused, the tale told.
“Broke both his arms with the crowbar,” Bud supplemented.
“That’s when I come to myself, when the bones broke,” Billy corroborated. “An’ there was the two of ‘em givin’ me the ha-ha. ’That’ll last you some time,’ Jackson was sayin’. An’ Anson says, ‘I’d like to see you drive horses with them arms.’ An’ then Jackson says, ’let’s give ‘m something for luck.’ An’ with that he fetched me a wallop on the jaw—”
“No,” corrected Anson. “That wallop was mine.”
“Well, it sent me into dreamland over again,” Billy sighed. “An’ when I come to, here was Bud an’ Anson an’ Jackson dousin’ me at a water trough. An’ then we dodged a reporter an’ all come home together.”
Bud Strothers held up his fist and indicated freshly abraded skin.
“The reporter-guy just insisted on samplin’ it,” he said. Then, to Billy: “That’s why I cut around Ninth an’ caught up with you down on Sixth.”
A few minutes later Doctor Hentley arrived, and drove the men from the rooms. They waited till he had finished, to assure themselves of Billy’s well being, and then departed. In the kitchen Doctor Hentley washed his hands and gave Saxon final instructions. As he dried himself he sniffed the air and looked toward the stove where a pot was simmering.
“Clams,” he said. “Where did you buy them?”
“I didn’t buy them,” replied Saxon. “I dug them myself.”
“Not in the marsh?” he asked with quickened interest.
“Throw them away. Throw them out. They’re death and corruption. Typhoid—I’ve got three cases now, all traced to the clams and the marsh.”
When he had gone, Saxon obeyed. Still another mark against Oakland, she reflected—Oakland, the man-trap, that poisoned those it could not starve.
“If it wouldn’t drive a man to drink,” Billy groaned, when Saxon returned to him. “Did you ever dream such luck? Look at all my fights in the ring, an’ never a broken bone, an’ here, snap, snap, just like that, two arms smashed.”
“Oh, it might be worse,” Saxon smiled cheerfully.
“I’d like to know how. It might have been your neck.”
“An’ a good job. I tell you, Saxon, you gotta show me anything worse.”
“I can,” she said confidently.
“Well, wouldn’t it be worse if you intended staying on in Oakland where it might happen again?”
“I can see myself becomin’ a farmer an’ plowin’ with a pair of pipe-stems like these,” he persisted.
“Doctor Hentley says they’ll be stronger at the break than ever before. And you know yourself that’s true of clean-broken bones. Now you close your eyes and go to sleep. You’re all done up, and you need to keep your brain quiet and stop thinking.”
He closed his eyes obediently. She slipped a cool hand under the nape of his neck and let it rest.
“That feels good,” he murmured. “You’re so cool, Saxon. Your hand, and you, all of you. Bein’ with you is like comin’ out into the cool night after dancin’ in a hot room.”
After several minutes of quiet, he began to giggle.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Oh, nothin’. I was just thinkin’—thinking of them mutts doin’ me up—me, that’s done up more scabs than I can remember.”
Next morning Billy awoke with his blues dissipated. From the kitchen Saxon heard him painfully wrestling strange vocal acrobatics.
“I got a new song you never heard,” he told her when she came in with a cup of coffee. “I only remember the chorus though. It’s the old man talkin’ to some hobo of a hired man that wants to marry his daughter. Mamie, that Billy Murphy used to run with before he got married, used to sing it. It’s a kind of a sobby song. It used to always give Mamie the weeps. Here’s the way the chorus goes—an’ remember, it’s the old man spielin’.”
And with great solemnity and excruciating Batting, Billy sang:
“O treat my daughter kind-i-ly; An’ say you’ll do no harm, An’ when I die I’ll will to you My little house an’ farm—My horse, my plow, my sheep, my cow, An’ all them little chickens in the ga-a-rden.
“It’s them little chickens in the garden that gets me,” he explained. “That’s how I remembered it—from the chickens in the movin’ pictures yesterday. An’ some day we’ll have little chickens in the garden, won’t we, old girl?”
“And a daughter, too,” Saxon amplified.
“An’ I’ll be the old geezer sayin’ them same words to the hired man,” Billy carried the fancy along. “It don’t take long to raise a daughter if you ain’t in a hurry.”
Saxon took her long-neglected ukulele from its case and strummed it into tune.
“And I’ve a song you never heard, Billy. Tom’s always singing it. He’s crazy about taking up government land and going farming, only Sarah won’t think of it. He sings it something like this:
“We’ll have a little farm, A pig, a horse, a cow, And you will drive the wagon, And I will drive the plow.”
“Only in this case I guess it’s me that’ll do the plowin’,” Billy approved. “Say, Saxon, sing ‘Harvest Days.’ That’s a farmer’s song, too.”
After that she feared the coffee was growing cold and compelled Billy to take it. In the helplessness of two broken arms, he had to be fed like a baby, and as she fed him they talked.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Billy said, between mouthfuls. “Once we get settled down in the country you’ll have that horse you’ve been wishin’ for all your life. An’ it’ll be all your own, to ride, drive, sell, or do anything you want with.”
And, again, he ruminated: “One thing that’ll come handy in the country is that I know horses; that’s a big start. I can always get a job at that—if it ain’t at union wages. An’ the other things about farmin’ I can learn fast enough.—Say, d’ye remember that day you first told me about wantin’ a horse to ride all your life?”
Saxon remembered, and it was only by a severe struggle that she was able to keep the tears from welling into her eyes. She seemed bursting with happiness, and she was remembering many things—all the warm promise of life with Billy that had been hers in the days before hard times. And now the promise was renewed again. Since its fulfillment had not come to them, they were going away to fulfill it for themselves and make the moving pictures come true.
Impelled by a half-feigned fear, she stole away into the kitchen bedroom where Bert had died, to study her face in the bureau mirror. No, she decided; she was little changed. She was still equipped for the battlefield of love. Beautiful she was not. She knew that. But had not Mercedes said that the great women of history who had won men had not been beautiful? And yet, Saxon insisted, as she gazed at her reflection, she was anything but unlovely. She studied her wide gray eyes that were so very gray, that were always alive with light and vivacities, where, in the surface and depths, always swam thoughts unuttered, thoughts that sank down and dissolved to give place to other thoughts. The brows were excellent—she realized that. Slenderly penciled, a little darker than her light brown hair, they just fitted her irregular nose that was feminine but not weak, that if anything was piquant and that picturesquely might be declared impudent.
She could see that her face was slightly thin, that the red of her lips was not quite so red, and that she had lost some of her quick coloring. But all that would come back again. Her mouth was not of the rosebud type she saw in the magazines. She paid particular attention to it. A pleasant mouth it was, a mouth to be joyous with, a mouth for laughter and to make laughter in others. She deliberately experimented with it, smiled till the corners dented deeper. And she knew that when she smiled her smile was provocative of smiles. She laughed with her eyes alone—a trick of hers. She threw back her head and laughed with eyes and mouth together, between her spread lips showing the even rows of strong white teeth.
And she remembered Billy’s praise of her teeth, the night at Germanic Hall after he had told Charley Long he was standing on his foot. “Not big, and not little dinky baby’s teeth either,” Billy had said, “... just right, and they fit you.” Also, he had said that to look at them made him hungry, and that they were good enough to eat.
She recollected all the compliments he had ever paid her. Beyond all treasures, these were treasures to her—the love phrases, praises, and admirations. He had said her skin was cool—soft as velvet, too, and smooth as silk. She rolled up her sleeve to the shoulder, brushed her cheek with the white skin for a test, with deep scrutiny examined the fineness of its texture. And he had told her that she was sweet; that he hadn’t known what it meant when they said a girl was sweet, not until he had known her. And he had told her that her voice was cool, that it gave him the feeling her hand did when it rested on his forehead. Her voice went all through him, he had said, cool and fine, like a wind of coolness. And he had likened it to the first of the sea breeze setting in the afternoon after a scorching hot morning. And, also, when she talked low, that it was round and sweet, like the ‘cello in the Macdonough Theater orchestra.
He had called her his Tonic Kid. He had called her a thoroughbred, clean-cut and spirited, all fine nerves and delicate and sensitive. He had liked the way she carried her clothes. She carried them like a dream, had been his way of putting it. They were part of her, just as much as the cool of her voice and skin and the scent of her hair.
And her figure! She got upon a chair and tilted the mirror so that she could see herself from hips to feet. She drew her skirt back and up. The slender ankle was just as slender. The calf had lost none of its delicately mature swell. She studied her hips, her waist, her bosom, her neck, the poise of her head, and sighed contentedly. Billy must be right, and he had said that she was built like a French woman, and that in the matter of lines and form she could give Annette Kellerman cards and spades.
He had said so many things, now that she recalled them all at one time. Her lips! The Sunday he proposed he had said: “I like to watch your lips talking. It’s funny, but every move they make looks like a tickly kiss.” And afterward, that same day: “You looked good to me from the first moment I spotted you.” He had praised her housekeeping. He had said he fed better, lived more comfortably, held up his end with the fellows, and saved money. And she remembered that day when he had crushed her in his arms and declared she was the greatest little bit of a woman that had ever come down the pike.
She ran her eyes over all herself in the mirror again, gathered herself together into a whole, compact and good to look upon—delicious, she knew. Yes, she would do. Magnificent as Billy was in his man way, in her own way she was a match for him. Yes, she had done well by Billy. She deserved much—all he could give her, the best he could give her. But she made no blunder of egotism. Frankly valuing herself, she as frankly valued him. When he was himself, his real self, not harassed by trouble, not pinched by the trap, not maddened by drink, her man-boy and lover, he was well worth all she gave him or could give him.
Saxon gave herself a farewell look. No. She was not dead, any more than was Billy’s love dead, than was her love dead. All that was needed was the proper soil, and their love would grow and blossom. And they were turning their backs upon Oakland to go and seek that proper soil.
“Oh, Billy!” she called through the partition, still standing on the chair, one hand tipping the mirror forward and back, so that she was able to run her eyes from the reflection of her ankles and calves to her face, warm with color and roguishly alive.
“Yes?” she heard him answer.
“I’m loving myself,” she called back.
“What’s the game?” came his puzzled query. “What are you so stuck on yourself for!”
“Because you love me,” she answered. “I love every bit of me, Billy, because... because... well, because you love every bit of me.”
Between feeding and caring for Billy, doing the housework, making plans, and selling her store of pretty needlework, the days flew happily for Saxon. Billy’s consent to sell her pretties had been hard to get, but at last she succeeded in coaxing it out of him.
“It’s only the ones I haven’t used,” she urged; “and I can always make more when we get settled somewhere.”
What she did not sell, along with the household linen and hers and Billy’s spare clothing, she arranged to store with Tom.
“Go ahead,” Billy said. “This is your picnic. What you say goes. You’re Robinson Crusoe an’ I’m your man Friday. Make up your mind yet which way you’re goin’ to travel?”
Saxon shook her head.
She held up one foot and then the other, encased in stout walking shoes which she had begun that morning to break in about the house. “Shank’s mare, eh?”
“It’s the way our people came into the West,” she said proudly.
“It’ll be regular trampin’, though,” he argued. “An’ I never heard of a woman tramp.”
“Then here’s one. Why, Billy, there’s no shame in tramping. My mother tramped most of the way across the Plains. And ‘most everybody else’s mother tramped across in those days. I don’t care what people will think. I guess our race has been on the tramp since the beginning of creation, just like we’ll be, looking for a piece of land that looked good to settle down on.”
After a few days, when his scalp was sufficiently healed and the bone-knitting was nicely in process, Billy was able to be up and about. He was still quite helpless, however, with both his arms in splints.
Doctor Hentley not only agreed, but himself suggested, that his bill should wait against better times for settlement. Of government land, in response to Saxon’s eager questioning, he knew nothing, except that he had a hazy idea that the days of government land were over.
Tom, on the contrary, was confident that there was plenty of government hand. He talked of Honey Lake, of Shasta County, and of Humboldt.
“But you can’t tackle it at this time of year, with winter comin’ on,” he advised Saxon. “The thing for you to do is head south for warmer weather—say along the coast. It don’t snow down there. I tell you what you do. Go down by San Jose and Salinas an’ come out on the coast at Monterey. South of that you’ll find government land mixed up with forest reserves and Mexican rancheros. It’s pretty wild, without any roads to speak of. All they do is handle cattle. But there’s some fine redwood canyons, with good patches of farming ground that run right down to the ocean. I was talkin’ last year with a fellow that’s been all through there. An’ I’d a-gone, like you an’ Billy, only Sarah wouldn’t hear of it. There’s gold down there, too. Quite a bunch is in there prospectin’, an’ two or three good mines have opened. But that’s farther along and in a ways from the coast. You might take a look.”
Saxon shook her head. “We’re not looking for gold but for chickens and a place to grow vegetables. Our folks had all the chance for gold in the early days, and what have they got to show for it?”
“I guess you’re right,” Tom conceded. “They always played too big a game, an’ missed the thousand little chances right under their nose. Look at your pa. I’ve heard him tell of selling three Market street lots in San Francisco for fifty dollars each. They’re worth five hundred thousand right now. An’ look at Uncle Will. He had ranches till the cows come home. Satisfied? No. He wanted to be a cattle king, a regular Miller and Lux. An’ when he died he was a night watchman in Los Angeles at forty dollars a month. There’s a spirit of the times, an’ the spirit of the times has changed. It’s all big business now, an’ we’re the small potatoes. Why, I’ve heard our folks talk of livin’ in the Western Reserve. That was all around what’s Ohio now. Anybody could get a farm them days. All they had to do was yoke their oxen an’ go after it, an’ the Pacific Ocean thousands of miles to the west, an’ all them thousands of miles an’ millions of farms just waitin’ to be took up. A hundred an’ sixty acres? Shucks. In the early days in Oregon they talked six hundred an’ forty acres. That was the spirit of them times—free land, an’ plenty of it. But when we reached the Pacific Ocean them times was ended. Big business begun; an’ big business means big business men; an’ every big business man means thousands of little men without any business at all except to work for the big ones. They’re the losers, don’t you see? An’ if they don’t like it they can lump it, but it won’t do them no good. They can’t yoke up their oxen an’ pull on. There’s no place to pull on. China’s over there, an’ in between’s a mighty lot of salt water that’s no good for farmin’ purposes.”
“That’s all clear enough,” Saxon commented.
“Yes,” her brother went on. “We can all see it after it’s happened, when it’s too late.”
“But the big men were smarter,” Saxon remarked.
“They were luckier,” Tom contended. “Some won, but most lost, an’ just as good men lost. It was almost like a lot of boys scramblin’ on the sidewalk for a handful of small change. Not that some didn’t have far-seein’. But just take your pa, for example. He come of good Down East stock that’s got business instinct an’ can add to what it’s got. Now suppose your pa had developed a weak heart, or got kidney disease, or caught rheumatism, so he couldn’t go gallivantin’ an’ rainbow chasin’, an’ fightin’ an’ explorin’ all over the West. Why, most likely he’d a settled down in San Francisco—he’d a-had to—an’ held onto them three Market street lots, an’ bought more lots, of course, an’ gone into steamboat companies, an’ stock gamblin’, an’ railroad buildin’, an’ Comstock-tunnelin’.
“Why, he’d a-become big business himself. I know ‘m. He was the most energetic man I ever saw, think quick as a wink, as cool as an icicle an’ as wild as a Comanche. Why, he’d a-cut a swath through the free an’ easy big business gamblers an’ pirates of them days; just as he cut a swath through the hearts of the ladies when he went gallopin’ past on that big horse of his, sword clatterin’, spurs jinglin’, his long hair flyin’, straight as an Indian, clean-built an’ graceful as a blue-eyed prince out of a fairy book an’ a Mexican caballero all rolled into one; just as he cut a swath through the Johnny Rebs in Civil War days, chargin’ with his men all the way through an’ back again, an’ yellin’ like a wild Indian for more. Cady, that helped raise you, told me about that. Cady rode with your pa.
“Why, if your pa’d only got laid up in San Francisco, he would a-ben one of the big men of the West. An’ in that case, right now, you’d be a rich young woman, travelin’ in Europe, with a mansion on Nob Hill along with the Floods and Crockers, an’ holdin’ majority stock most likely in the Fairmount Hotel an’ a few little concerns like it. An’ why ain’t you? Because your pa wasn’t smart? No. His mind was like a steel trap. It’s because he was filled to burstin’ an’ spillin’ over with the spirit of the times; because he was full of fire an’ vinegar an’ couldn’t set down in one place. That’s all the difference between you an’ the young women right now in the Flood and Crocker families. Your father didn’t catch rheumatism at the right time, that’s all.”
Saxon sighed, then smiled.
“Just the same, I’ve got them beaten,” she said. “The Miss Floods and Miss Crockers can’t marry prize-fighters, and I did.”
Tom looked at her, taken aback for the moment, with admiration, slowly at first, growing in his face.
“Well, all I got to say,” he enunciated solemnly, “is that Billy’s so lucky he don’t know how lucky he is.”
Not until Doctor Hentley gave the word did the splints come off Billy’s arms, and Saxon insisted upon an additional two weeks’ delay so that no risk would be run. These two weeks would complete another month’s rent, and the landlord had agreed to wait payment for the last two months until Billy was on his feet again.
Salinger’s awaited the day set by Saxon for taking back their furniture. Also, they had returned to Billy seventy-five dollars.
“The rest you’ve paid will be rent,” the collector told Saxon. “And the furniture’s second hand now, too. The deal will be a loss to Salinger’s’ and they didn’t have to do it, either; you know that. So just remember they’ve been pretty square with you, and if you start over again don’t forget them.”
Out of this sum, and out of what was realized from Saxon’s pretties, they were able to pay all their small bills and yet have a few dollars remaining in pocket.
“I hate owin’ things worse ‘n poison,” Billy said to Saxon. “An’ now we don’t owe a soul in this world except the landlord an’ Doc Hentley.”
“And neither of them can afford to wait longer than they have to,” she said.
“And they won’t,” Billy answered quietly.
She smiled her approval, for she shared with Billy his horror of debt, just as both shared it with that early tide of pioneers with a Puritan ethic, which had settled the West.
Saxon timed her opportunity when Billy was out of the house to pack the chest of drawers which had crossed the Atlantic by sailing ship and the Plains by ox team. She kissed the bullet hole in it, made in the fight at Little Meadow, as she kissed her father’s sword, the while she visioned him, as she always did, astride his roan warhorse. With the old religious awe, she pored over her mother’s poems in the scrap-book, and clasped her mother’s red satin Spanish girdle about her in a farewell embrace. She unpacked the scrap-book in order to gaze a last time at the wood engraving of the Vikings, sword in hand, leaping upon the English sands. Again she identified Billy as one of the Vikings, and pondered for a space on the strange wanderings of the seed from which she sprang. Always had her race been land-hungry, and she took delight in believing she had bred true; for had not she, despite her life passed in a city, found this same land-hunger in her? And was she not going forth to satisfy that hunger, just as her people of old time had done, as her father and mother before her? She remembered her mother’s tale of how the promised land looked to them as their battered wagons and weary oxen dropped down through the early winter snows of the Sierras to the vast and flowering sun-land of California: In fancy, herself a child of nine, she looked down from the snowy heights as her mother must have looked down. She recalled and repeated aloud one of her mother’s stanzas:
“’Sweet as a wind-lute’s airy strains Your gentle muse has learned to sing And California’s boundless plains Prolong the soft notes echoing.’”
She sighed happily and dried her eyes. Perhaps the hard times were past. Perhaps they had constituted HER Plains, and she and Billy had won safely across and were even then climbing the Sierras ere they dropped down into the pleasant valley land.
Salinger’s wagon was at the house, taking out the furniture, the morning they left. The landlord, standing at the gate, received the keys, shook hands with them, and wished them luck. “You’re goin’ at it right,” he congratulated them. “Sure an’ wasn’t it under me roll of blankets I tramped into Oakland meself forty year ago! Buy land, like me, when it’s cheap. It’ll keep you from the poorhouse in your old age. There’s plenty of new towns springin’ up. Get in on the ground floor. The work of your hands’ll keep you in food an’ under a roof, an’ the lend ‘ll make you well to do. An’ you know me address. When you can spare send me along that small bit of rent. An’ good luck. An’ don’t mind what people think. ’Tis them that looks that finds.”
Curious neighbors peeped from behind the blinds as Billy and Saxon strode up the street, while the children gazed at them in gaping astonishment. On Billy’s back, inside a painted canvas tarpaulin, was slung the roll of bedding. Inside the roll were changes of underclothing and odds and ends of necessaries. Outside, from the lashings, depended a frying pan and cooking pail. In his hand he carried the coffee pot. Saxon carried a small telescope basket protected by black oilcloth, and across her back was the tiny ukulele case.
“We must look like holy frights,” Billy grumbled, shrinking from every gaze that was bent upon him.
“It’d be all right, if we were going camping,” Saxon consoled. “Only we’re not.”
“But they don’t know that,” she continued. “It’s only you know that, and what you think they’re thinking isn’t what they’re thinking at all. Most probably they think we’re going camping. And the best of it is we are going camping. We are! We are!”
At this Billy cheered up, though he muttered his firm intention to knock the block off of any guy that got fresh. He stole a glance at Saxon. Her cheeks were red, her eyes glowing.
“Say,” he said suddenly. “I seen an opera once, where fellows wandered over the country with guitars slung on their backs just like you with that strummy-strum. You made me think of them. They was always singin’ songs.”
“That’s what I brought it along for,” Saxon answered.
“And when we go down country roads we’ll sing as we go along, and we’ll sing by the campfires, too. We’re going camping, that’s all. Taking a vacation and seeing the country. So why shouldn’t we have a good time? Why, we don’t even know where we’re going to sleep to-night, or any night. Think of the fun!”
“It’s a sporting proposition all right, all right,” Billy considered. “But, just the same, let’s turn off an’ go around the block. There’s some fellows I know, standin’ up there on the next corner, an’ I don’t want to knock THEIR blocks off.”
Bill sat motionless on the edge of the bed in their little room in San Jose that night, a musing expression in his eyes.
“Well,” he remarked at last, with a long-drawn breath, “all I’ve got to say is there’s some pretty nice people in this world after all. Take Mrs. Mortimer. Now she’s the real goods—regular old American.”
“A fine, educated lady,” Saxon agreed, “and not a bit ashamed to work at farming herself. And she made it go, too.”
“On twenty acres—no, ten; and paid for ‘em, an’ all improvements, an’ supported herself, four hired men, a Swede woman an’ daughter, an’ her own nephew. It gets me. Ten acres! Why, my father never talked less’n one hundred an’ sixty acres. Even your brother Tom still talks in quarter sections.—An’ she was only a woman, too. We was lucky in meetin’ her.”
“Wasn’t it an adventure!” Saxon cried. “That’s what comes of traveling. You never know what’s going to happen next. It jumped right out at us, just when we were tired and wondering how much farther to San Jose. We weren’t expecting it at all. And she didn’t treat us as if we were tramping. And that house—so clean and beautiful. You could eat off the floor. I never dreamed of anything so sweet and lovely as the inside of that house.”
“It smelt good,” Billy supplied.
“That’s the very thing. It’s what the women’s pages call atmosphere. I didn’t know what they meant before. That house has beautiful, sweet atmosphere—”
“Like all your nice underthings,” said Billy.
“And that’s the next step after keeping your body sweet and clean and beautiful. It’s to have your house sweet and clean and beautiful.”
“But it can’t be a rented one, Saxon. You’ve got to own it. Landlords don’t build houses like that. Just the same, one thing stuck out plain: that house was not expensive. It wasn’t the cost. It was the way. The wood was ordinary wood you can buy in any lumber yard. Why, our house on Pine street was made out of the same kind of wood. But the way it was made was different. I can’t explain, but you can see what I’m drivin’ at.”
Saxon, revisioning the little bungalow they had just left, repeated absently: “That’s it—the way.”
The next morning they were early afoot, seeking through the suburbs of San Jose the road to San Juan and Monterey. Saxon’s limp had increased. Beginning with a burst blister, her heel was skinning rapidly. Billy remembered his father’s talks about care of the feet, and stopped at a butcher shop to buy five cents’ worth of mutton tallow.
“That’s the stuff,” he told Saxon. “Clean foot-gear and the feet well greased. We’ll put some on as soon as we’re clear of town. An’ we might as well go easy for a couple of days. Now, if I could get a little work so as you could rest up several days it’d be just the thing. I ‘11 keep my eye peeled.”
Almost on the outskirts of town he left Saxon on the county road and went up a long driveway to what appeared a large farm. He came back beaming.
“It’s all hunkydory,” he called as he approached. “We’ll just go down to that clump of trees by the creek an’ pitch camp. I start work in the mornin’, two dollars a day an’ board myself. It’d been a dollar an’ a half if he furnished the board. I told ‘m I liked the other way best, an’ that I had my camp with me. The weather’s fine, an’ we can make out a few days till your foot’s in shape. Come on. We’ll pitch a regular, decent camp.”
“How did you get the job,” Saxon asked, as they cast about, determining their camp-site.
“Wait till we get fixed an’ I’ll tell you all about it. It was a dream, a cinch.”
Not until the bed was spread, the fire built, and a pot of beans boiling did Billy throw down the last armful of wood and begin.
“In the first place, Benson’s no old-fashioned geezer. You wouldn’t think he was a farmer to look at ‘m. He’s up to date, sharp as tacks, talks an’ acts like a business man. I could see that, just by lookin’ at his place, before I seen HIM. He took about fifteen seconds to size me up.
“’Can you plow?’ says he.
“’Sure thing,’ I told ‘m.
“’I was hatched in a box-stall,’ says I.
“An’ just then—you remember that four-horse load of machinery that come in after me?—just then it drove up.
“’How about four horses?’ he asks, casual-like.
“’Right to home. I can drive ‘m to a plow, a sewin’ machine, or a merry-go-round.’
“’Jump up an’ take them lines, then,’ he says, quick an’ sharp, not wastin’ seconds. ‘See that shed. Go ‘round the barn to the right an’ back in for unloadin’.’
“An’ right here I wanta tell you it was some nifty drivin’ he was askin’. I could see by the tracks the wagons’d all ben goin’ around the barn to the left. What he was askin’ was too close work for comfort—a double turn, like an S, between a corner of a paddock an’ around the corner of the barn to the last swing. An’, to eat into the little room there was, there was piles of manure just thrown outa the barn an’ not hauled away yet. But I wasn’t lettin’ on nothin’. The driver gave me the lines, an’ I could see he was grinnin’, sure I’d make a mess of it. I bet he couldn’t a-done it himself. I never let on, an away we went, me not even knowin’ the horses—but, say, if you’d seen me throw them leaders clean to the top of the manure till the nigh horse was scrapin’ the side of the barn to make it, an’ the off hind hub was cuttin’ the corner post of the paddock to miss by six inches. It was the only way. An’ them horses was sure beauts. The leaders slacked back an’ darn near sat down on their singletrees when I threw the back into the wheelers an’ slammed on the brake an’ stopped on the very precise spot.
“’You’ll do,’ Benson says. ‘That was good work.’
“’Aw, shucks,’ I says, indifferent as hell. ‘Gimme something real hard.’
“He smiles an’ understands.
“’You done that well,’ he says. ‘An’ I’m particular about who handles my horses. The road ain’t no place for you. You must be a good man gone wrong. Just the same you can plow with my horses, startin’ in to-morrow mornin’.’
“Which shows how wise he wasn’t. I hadn’t showed I could plow.”
When Saxon had served the beans, and Billy the coffee, she stood still a moment and surveyed the spread meal on the blankets—the canister of sugar, the condensed milk tin, the sliced corned beef, the lettuce salad and sliced tomatoes, the slices of fresh French bread, and the steaming plates of beans and mugs of coffee.
“What a difference from last night!” Saxon exclaimed, clapping her hands. “It’s like an adventure out of a book. Oh, that boy I went fishing with! Think of that beautiful table and that beautiful house last night, and then look at this. Why, we could have lived a thousand years on end in Oakland and never met a woman like Mrs. Mortimer nor dreamed a house like hers existed. And, Billy, just to think, we’ve only just started.”
Billy worked for three days, and while insisting that he was doing very well, he freely admitted that there was more in plowing than he had thought. Saxon experienced quiet satisfaction when she learned he was enjoying it.
“I never thought I’d like plowin’—much,” he observed. “But it’s fine. It’s good for the leg-muscles, too. They don’t get exercise enough in teamin’. If ever I trained for another fight, you bet I’d take a whack at plowin’. An’, you know, the ground has a regular good smell to it, a-turnin’ over an’ turnin’ over. Gosh, it’s good enough to eat, that smell. An’ it just goes on, turnin’ up an’ over, fresh an’ thick an’ good, all day long. An’ the horses are Joe-dandies. They know their business as well as a man. That’s one thing, Benson ain’t got a scrub horse on the place.”
The last day Billy worked, the sky clouded over, the air grew damp, a strong wind began to blow from the southeast, and all the signs were present of the first winter rain. Billy came back in the evening with a small roll of old canvas he had borrowed, which he proceeded to arrange over their bed on a framework so as to shed rain. Several times he complained about the little finger of his left hand. It had been bothering him all day he told Saxon, for several days slightly, in fact, and it was as tender as a boil—most likely a splinter, but he had been unable to locate it.
He went ahead with storm preparations, elevating the bed on old boards which he lugged from a disused barn falling to decay on the opposite bank of the creek. Upon the boards he heaped dry leaves for a mattress. He concluded by reinforcing the canvas with additional guys of odd pieces of rope and bailing-wire.
When the first splashes of rain arrived Saxon was delighted. Billy betrayed little interest. His finger was hurting too much, he said. Neither he nor Saxon could make anything of it, and both scoffed at the idea of a felon.
“It might be a run-around,” Saxon hazarded.
“I don’t know. I remember Mrs. Cady had one once, but I was too small. It was the little finger, too. She poulticed it, I think. And I remember she dressed it with some kind of salve. It got awful bad, and finished by her losing the nail. After that it got well quick, and a new nail grew out. Suppose I make a hot bread poultice for yours.”
Billy declined, being of the opinion that it would be better in the morning. Saxon was troubled, and as she dozed off she knew that he was lying restlessly wide awake. A few minutes afterward, roused by a heavy blast of wind and rain on the canvas, she heard Billy softly groaning. She raised herself on her elbow and with her free hand, in the way she knew, manipulating his forehead and the surfaces around his eyes, soothed him off to sleep.
Again she slept. And again she was aroused, this time not by the storm, but by Billy. She could not see, but by feeling she ascertained his strange position. He was outside the blankets and on his knees, his forehead resting on the boards, his shoulders writhing with suppressed anguish.
“She’s pulsin’ to beat the band,” he said, when she spoke. “It’s worsen a thousand toothaches. But it ain’t nothin’... if only the canvas don’t blow down. Think what our folks had to stand,” he gritted out between groans. “Why, my father was out in the mountains, an’ the man with ‘m got mauled by a grizzly—clean clawed to the bones all over. An’ they was outa grub an’ had to travel. Two times outa three, when my father put ‘m on the horse, he’d faint away. Had to be tied on. An’ that lasted five weeks, an’ HE pulled through. Then there was Jack Quigley. He blowed off his whole right hand with the burstin’ of his shotgun, an’ the huntin’ dog pup he had with ‘m ate up three of the fingers. An’ he was all alone in the marsh, an’—”
But Saxon heard no more of the adventures of Jack Quigley. A terrific blast of wind parted several of the guys, collapsed the framework, and for a moment buried them under the canvas. The next moment canvas, framework, and trailing guys were whisked away into the darkness, and Saxon and Billy were deluged with rain.
“Only one thing to do,” he yelled in her ear. “—Gather up the things an’ get into that old barn.”
They accomplished this in the drenching darkness, making two trips across the stepping stones of the shallow creek and soaking themselves to the knees. The old barn leaked like a sieve, but they managed to find a dry space on which to spread their anything but dry bedding. Billy’s pain was heart-rending to Saxon. An hour was required to subdue him to a doze, and only by continuously stroking his forehead could she keep him asleep. Shivering and miserable, she accepted a night of wakefulness gladly with the knowledge that she kept him from knowing the worst of his pain.
At the time when she had decided it must be past midnight, there was an interruption. From the open doorway came a flash of electric light, like a tiny searchlight, which quested about the barn and came to rest on her and Billy. From the source of light a harsh voice said:
“Ah! ha! I’ve got you! Come out of that!”
Billy sat up, his eyes dazzled by the light. The voice behind the light was approaching and reiterating its demand that they come out of that.
“What’s up?” Billy asked.
“Me,” was the answer; “an’ wide awake, you bet.”
The voice was now beside them, scarcely a yard away, yet they could see nothing on account of the light, which was intermittent, frequently going out for an instant as the operator’s thumb tired on the switch.
“Come on, get a move on,” the voice went on. “Roll up your blankets an’ trot along. I want you.”
“Who in hell are you?” Billy demanded.
“I’m the constable. Come on.”
“Well, what do you want?”
“You, of course, the pair of you.”
“Vagrancy. Now hustle. I ain’t goin’ to loaf here all night.”
“Aw, chase yourself,” Billy advised. “I ain’t a vag. I’m a workingman.”
“Maybe you are an’ maybe you ain’t,” said the constable; “but you can tell all that to Judge Neusbaumer in the mornin’.”
“Why you... you stinkin’, dirty cur, you think you’re goin’ to pull me,” Billy began. “Turn the light on yourself. I want to see what kind of an ugly mug you got. Pull me, eh? Pull me? For two cents I’d get up there an’ beat you to a jelly, you—”
“No, no, Billy,” Saxon pleaded. “Don’t make trouble. It would mean jail.”
“That’s right,” the constable approved, “listen to your woman.”
“She’s my wife, an’ see you speak of her as such,” Billy warned. “Now get out, if you know what’s good for yourself.”
“I’ve seen your kind before,” the constable retorted. “An’ I’ve got my little persuader with me. Take a squint.”
The shaft of light shifted, and out of the darkness, illuminated with ghastly brilliance, they saw thrust a hand holding a revolver. This hand seemed a thing apart, self-existent, with no corporeal attachment, and it appeared and disappeared like an apparition as the thumb-pressure wavered on the switch. One moment they were staring at the hand and revolver, the next moment at impenetrable darkness, and the next moment again at the hand and revolver.
“Now, I guess you’ll come,” the constable gloated.
“You got another guess comin’,” Billy began.
But at that moment the light went out. They heard a quick movement on the officer’s part and the thud of the light-stick on the ground. Both Billy and the constable fumbled for it, but Billy found it and flashed it on the other. They saw a gray-bearded man clad in streaming oilskins. He was an old man, and reminded Saxon of the sort she had been used to see in Grand Army processions on Decoration Day.
“Give me that stick,” he bullied.
Billy sneered a refusal.
“Then I’ll put a hole through you, by criminy.”
He leveled the revolver directly at Billy, whose thumb on the switch did not waver, and they could see the gleaming bullet-tips in the chambers of the cylinder.
“Why, you whiskery old skunk, you ain’t got the grit to shoot sour apples,” was Billy’s answer. “I know your kind—brave as lions when it comes to pullin’ miserable, broken-spirited bindle stiffs, but as leery as a yellow dog when you face a man. Pull that trigger! Why, you pusillanimous piece of dirt, you’d run with your tail between your legs if I said boo!”
Suiting action to the word, Billy let out an explosive “BOO!” and Saxon giggled involuntarily at the startle it caused in the constable.
“I’ll give you a last chance,” the latter grated through his teeth. “Turn over that light-stick an’ come along peaceable, or I’ll lay you out.”
Saxon was frightened for Billy’s sake, and yet only half frightened. She had a faith that the man dared not fire, and she felt the old familiar thrills of admiration for Billy’s courage. She could not see his face, but she knew in all certitude that it was bleak and passionless in the terrifying way she had seen it when he fought the three Irishmen.
“You ain’t the first man I killed,” the constable threatened. “I’m an old soldier, an’ I ain’t squeamish over blood—”
“And you ought to be ashamed of yourself,” Saxon broke in, “trying to shame and disgrace peaceable people who’ve done no wrong.”
“You’ve done wrong sleepin’ here,” was his vindication. “This ain’t your property. It’s agin the law. An’ folks that go agin the law go to jail, as the two of you’ll go. I’ve sent many a tramp up for thirty days for sleepin’ in this very shack. Why, it’s a regular trap for ‘em. I got a good glimpse of your faces an’ could see you was tough characters.” He turned on Billy. “I’ve fooled enough with you. Are you goin’ to give in an’ come peaceable?”
“I’m goin’ to tell you a couple of things, old boss,” Billy answered. “Number one: you ain’t goin’ to pull us. Number two: we’re goin’ to sleep the night out here.”
“Gimme that light-stick,” the constable demanded peremptorily.
“G’wan, Whiskers. You’re standin’ on your foot. Beat it. Pull your freight. As for your torch you’ll find it outside in the mud.”
Billy shifted the light until it illuminated the doorway, and then threw the stick as he would pitch a baseball. They were now in total darkness, and they could hear the intruder gritting his teeth in rage.
“Now start your shootin’ an’ see what’ll happen to you,” Billy advised menacingly.
Saxon felt for Billy’s hand and squeezed it proudly. The constable grumbled some threat.
“What’s that?” Billy demanded sharply. “Ain’t you gone yet? Now listen to me, Whiskers. I’ve put up with all your shenanigan I’m goin’ to. Now get out or I’ll throw you out. An’ if you come monkeyin, around here again you’ll get yours. Now get!”
So great was the roar of the storm that they could hear nothing. Billy rolled a cigarette. When he lighted it, they saw the barn was empty. Billy chuckled.
“Say, I was so mad I clean forgot my run-around. It’s only just beginnin’ to tune up again.”
Saxon made him lie down and receive her soothing ministrations.
“There is no use moving till morning,” she said. “Then, just as soon as it’s light, we’ll catch a car into San Jose, rent a room, get a hot breakfast, and go to a drug store for the proper stuff for poulticing or whatever treatment’s needed.”
“But Benson,” Billy demurred.
“I’ll telephone him from town. It will only cost five cents. I saw he had, a wire. And you couldn’t plow on account of the rain, even if your finger was well. Besides, we’ll both be mending together. My heel will be all right by the time it clears up and we can start traveling.”
Early on Monday morning, three days later, Saxon and Billy took an electric car to the end of the line, and started a second time for San Juan. Puddles were standing in the road, but the sun shone from a blue sky, and everywhere, on the ground, was a faint hint of budding green. At Benson’s Saxon waited while Billy went in to get his six dollars for the three days’ plowing.
“Kicked like a steer because I was quittin’,” he told her when he came back. “He wouldn’t listen at first. Said he’d put me to drivin’ in a few days, an’ that there wasn’t enough good four-horse men to let one go easily.”
“And what did you say?”
“Oh, I just told ‘m I had to be movin’ along. An’ when he tried to argue I told ‘m my wife was with me, an’ she was blamed anxious to get along.”
“But so are you, Billy.”
“Sure, Pete; but just the same I wasn’t as keen as you. Doggone it, I was gettin’ to like that plowin’. I’ll never be scairt to ask for a job at it again. I’ve got to where I savvy the burro, an’ you bet I can plow against most of ‘m right now.”
An hour afterward, with a good three miles to their credit, they edged to the side of the road at the sound of an automobile behind them. But the machine did not pass. Benson was alone in it, and he came to a stop alongside.
“Where are you bound?” he inquired of Billy, with a quick, measuring glance at Saxon.
“Monterey—if you’re goin’ that far,” Billy answered with a chuckle.
“I can give you a lift as far as Watsonville. It would take you several days on shank’s mare with those loads. Climb in.” He addressed Saxon directly. “Do you want to ride in front?”
Saxon glanced to Billy.
“Go on,” he approved. “It’s fine in front.—This is my wife, Mr. Benson—Mrs. Roberts.”
“Oh, ho, so you’re the one that took your husband away from me,” Benson accused good humoredly, as he tucked the robe around her.
Saxon shouldered the responsibility and became absorbed in watching him start the car.
“I’d be a mighty poor farmer if I owned no more land than you’d plowed before you came to me,” Benson, with a twinkling eye, jerked over his shoulder to Billy.
“I’d never had my hands on a plow but once before,” Billy confessed. “But a fellow has to learn some time.”
“At two dollars a day?”
“If he can get some alfalfa artist to put up for it,” Billy met him complacently.
Benson laughed heartily.
“You’re a quick learner,” he complimented. “I could see that you and plows weren’t on speaking acquaintance. But you took hold right. There isn’t one man in ten I could hire off the county road that could do as well as you were doing on the third day. But your big asset is that you know horses. It was half a joke when I told you to take the lines that morning. You’re a trained horseman and a born horseman as well.”
“He’s very gentle with horses,” Saxon said.
“But there’s more than that to it,” Benson took her up. “Your husband’s got the WAY with him. It’s hard to explain. But that’s what it is—the WAY. It’s an instinct almost. Kindness is necessary. But GRIP is more so. Your husband grips his horses. Take the test I gave him with the four-horse load. It was too complicated and severe. Kindness couldn’t have done it. It took grip. I could see it the moment he started. There wasn’t any doubt in his mind. There wasn’t any doubt in the horses. They got the feel of him. They just knew the thing was going to be done and that it was up to them to do it. They didn’t have any fear, but just the same they knew the boss was in the seat. When he took hold of those lines, he took hold of the horses. He gripped them, don’t you see. He picked them up and put them where he wanted them, swung them up and down and right and left, made them pull, and slack, and back—and they knew everything was going to come out right. Oh, horses may be stupid, but they’re not altogether fools. They know when the proper horseman has hold of them, though how they know it so quickly is beyond me.”
Benson paused, half vexed at his volubility, and gazed keenly at Saxon to see if she had followed him. What he saw in her face and eyes satisfied him, and he added, with a short laugh:
“Horseflesh is a hobby of mine. Don’t think otherwise because I am running a stink engine. I’d rather be streaking along here behind a pair of fast-steppers. But I’d lose time on them, and, worse than that, I’d be too anxious about them all the time. As for this thing, why, it has no nerves, no delicate joints nor tendons; it’s a case of let her rip.”
The miles flew past and Saxon was soon deep in talk with her host. Here again, she discerned immediately, was a type of the new farmer. The knowledge she had picked up enabled her to talk to advantage, and when Benson talked she was amazed that she could understand so much. In response to his direct querying, she told him her and Billy’s plans, sketching the Oakland life vaguely, and dwelling on their future intentions.
Almost as in a dream, when they passed the nurseries at Morgan Hill, she learned they had come twenty miles, and realized that it was a longer stretch than they had planned to walk that day. And still the machine hummed on, eating up the distance as ever it flashed into view.
“I wondered what so good a man as your husband was doing on the road,” Benson told her.
“Yes,” she smiled. “He said you said he must be a good man gone wrong.”
“But you see, I didn’t know about YOU. Now I understand. Though I must say it’s extraordinary in these days for a young couple like you to pack your blankets in search of land. And, before I forget it, I want to tell you one thing.” He turned to Billy. “I am just telling your wife that there’s an all-the-year job waiting for you on my ranch. And there’s a tight little cottage of three rooms the two of you can housekeep in. Don’t forget.”
Among other things Saxon discovered that Benson had gone through the College of Agriculture at the University of California—a branch of learning she had not known existed. He gave her small hope in her search for government land.
“The only government land left,” he informed her, “is what is not good enough to take up for one reason or another. If it’s good land down there where you’re going, then the market is inaccessible. I know no railroads tap in there.”
“Wait till we strike Pajaro Valley,” he said, when they had passed Gilroy and were booming on toward Sargent’s. “I’ll show you what can be done with the soil—and not by cow-college graduates but by uneducated foreigners that the high and mighty American has always sneered at. I’ll show you. It’s one of the most wonderful demonstrations in the state.”
At Sargent’s he left them in the machine a few minutes while he transacted business.
“Whew! It beats hikin’,” Billy said. “The day’s young yet and when he drops us we’ll be fresh for a few miles on our own. Just the same, when we get settled an’ well off, I guess I’ll stick by horses. They’ll always be good enough for me.”
“A machine’s only good to get somewhere in a hurry,” Saxon agreed. “Of course, if we got very, very rich—”
“Say, Saxon,” Billy broke in, suddenly struck with an idea. “I’ve learned one thing. I ain’t afraid any more of not gettin’ work in the country. I was at first, but I didn’t tell you. Just the same I was dead leery when we pulled out on the San Leandro pike. An’ here, already, is two places open—Mrs. Mortimer’s an’ Benson’s; an’ steady jobs, too. Yep, a man can get work in the country.”
“Ah,” Saxon amended, with a proud little smile, “you haven’t said it right. Any GOOD man can get work in the country. The big farmers don’t hire men out of charity.”
“Sure; they ain’t in it for their health,” he grinned.
“And they jump at you. That’s because you are a good man. They can see it with half an eye. Why, Billy, take all the working tramps we’ve met on the road already. There wasn’t one to compare with you. I looked them over. They’re all weak—weak in their bodies, weak in their heads, weak both ways.”
“Yep, they are a pretty measly bunch,” Billy admitted modestly.
“It’s the wrong time of the year to see Pajaro Valley,” Benson said, when he again sat beside Saxon and Sargent’s was a thing of the past. “Just the same, it’s worth seeing any time. Think of it—twelve thousand acres of apples! Do you know what they call Pajaro Valley now? New Dalmatia. We’re being squeezed out. We Yankees thought we were smart. Well, the Dalmatians came along and showed they were smarter. They were miserable immigrants—poorer than Job’s turkey. First, they worked at day’s labor in the fruit harvest. Next they began, in a small way, buying the apples on the trees. The more money they made the bigger became their deals. Pretty soon they were renting the orchards on long leases. And now, they are beginning to buy the land. It won’t be long before they own the whole valley, and the last American will be gone.
“Oh, our smart Yankees! Why, those first ragged Slavs in their first little deals with us only made something like two and three thousand per cent. profits. And now they’re satisfied to make a hundred per cent. It’s a calamity if their profits sink to twenty-five or fifty per cent.”
“It’s like San Leandro,” Saxon said. “The original owners of the land are about all gone already. It’s intensive cultivation.” She liked that phrase. “It isn’t a case of having a lot of acres, but of how much they can get out of one acre.”
“Yes, and more than that,” Benson answered, nodding his head emphatically. “Lots of them, like Luke Scurich, are in it on a large scale. Several of them are worth a quarter of a million already. I know ten of them who will average one hundred and fifty thousand each. They have a WAY with apples. It’s almost a gift. They KNOW trees in much the same way your husband knows horses. Each tree is just as much an individual to them as a horse is to me. They know each tree, its whole history, everything that ever happened to it, its every idiosyncrasy. They have their fingers on its pulse. They can tell if it’s feeling as well to-day as it felt yesterday. And if it isn’t, they know why and proceed to remedy matters for it. They can look at a tree in bloom and tell how many boxes of apples it will pack, and not only that—they’ll know what the quality and grades of those apples are going to be. Why, they know each individual apple, and they pick it tenderly, with love, never hurting it, and pack it and ship it tenderly and with love, and when it arrives at market, it isn’t bruised nor rotten, and it fetches top price.
“Yes, it’s more than intensive. These Adriatic Slavs are long-headed in business. Not only can they grow apples, but they can sell apples. No market? What does it matter? Make a market. That’s their way, while our kind let the crops rot knee-deep under the trees. Look at Peter Mengol. Every year he goes to England, and he takes a hundred carloads of yellow Newton pippins with him. Why, those Dalmatians are showing Pajaro apples on the South African market right now, and coining money out of it hand over fist.”
“What do they do with all the money?” Saxon queried.
“Buy the Americans of Pajaro Valley out, of course, as they are already doing.”
“And then?” she questioned.
Benson looked at her quickly.
“Then they’ll start buying the Americans out of some other valley. And the Americans will spend the money and by the second generation start rotting in the cities, as you and your husband would have rotted if you hadn’t got out.”
Saxon could not repress a shudder.—As Mary had rotted, she thought; as Bert and all the rest had rotted; as Tom and all the rest were rotting.
“Oh, it’s a great country,” Benson was continuing. “But we’re not a great people. Kipling is right. We’re crowded out and sitting on the stoop. And the worst of it is there’s no reason we shouldn’t know better. We’re teaching it in all our agricultural colleges, experiment stations, and demonstration trains. But the people won’t take hold, and the immigrant, who has learned in a hard school, beats them out. Why, after I graduated, and before my father died—he was of the old school and laughed at what he called my theories—I traveled for a couple of years. I wanted to see how the old countries farmed. Oh, I saw.
“We’ll soon enter the valley. You bet I saw. First thing, in Japan, the terraced hillsides. Take a hill so steep you couldn’t drive a horse up it. No bother to them. They terraced it—a stone wall, and good masonry, six feet high, a level terrace six feet wide; up and up, walls and terraces, the same thing all the way, straight into the air, walls upon walls, terraces upon terraces, until I’ve seen ten-foot walls built to make three-foot terraces, and twenty-foot walls for four or five feet of soil they could grow things on. And that soil, packed up the mountainsides in baskets on their backs!
“Same thing everywhere I went, in Greece, in Ireland, in Dalmatia—I went there, too. They went around and gathered every bit of soil they could find, gleaned it and even stole it by the shovelful or handful, and carried it up the mountains on their backs and built farms—BUILT them, MADE them, on the naked rock. Why, in France, I’ve seen hill peasants mining their stream-beds for soil as our fathers mined the streams of California for gold. Only our gold’s gone, and the peasants’ soil remains, turning over and over, doing something, growing something, all the time. Now, I guess I’ll hush.”
“My God!” Billy muttered in awe-stricken tones. “Our folks never done that. No wonder they lost out.”
“There’s the valley now,” Benson said. “Look at those trees! Look at those hillsides! That’s New Dalmatia. Look at it! An apple paradise! Look at that soil! Look at the way it’s worked!”
It was not a large valley that Saxon saw. But everywhere, across the flat-lands and up the low rolling hills, the industry of the Dalmatians was evident. As she looked she listened to Benson.
“Do you know what the old settlers did with this beautiful soil? Planted the flats in grain and pastured cattle on the hills. And now twelve thousand acres of it are in apples. It’s a regular show place for the Eastern guests at Del Monte, who run out here in their machines to see the trees in bloom or fruit. Take Matteo Lettunich—he’s one of the originals. Entered through Castle Garden and became a dish-washer. When he laid eyes on this valley he knew it was his Klondike. To-day he leases seven hundred acres and owns a hundred and thirty of his own—the finest orchard in the valley, and he packs from forty to fifty thousand boxes of export apples from it every year. And he won’t let a soul but a Dalmatian pick a single apple of all those apples. One day, in a banter, I asked him what he’d sell his hundred and thirty acres for. He answered seriously. He told me what it had netted him, year by year, and struck an average. He told me to calculate the principal from that at six per cent. I did. It came to over three thousand dollars an acre.”
“What are all the Chinks doin’ in the Valley?” Billy asked. “Growin’ apples, too?”
Benson shook his head.
“But that’s another point where we Americans lose out. There isn’t anything wasted in this valley, not a core nor a paring; and it isn’t the Americans who do the saving. There are fifty-seven apple-evaporating furnaces, to say nothing of the apple canneries and cider and vinegar factories. And Mr. John Chinaman owns them. They ship fifteen thousand barrels of cider and vinegar each year.”
“It was our folks that made this country,” Billy reflected. “Fought for it, opened it up, did everything—”
“But develop it,” Benson caught him up. “We did our best to destroy it, as we destroyed the soil of New England.” He waved his hand, indicating some place beyond the hills. “Salinas lies over that way. If you went through there you’d think you were in Japan. And more than one fat little fruit valley in California has been taken over by the Japanese. Their method is somewhat different from the Dalmatians’. First they drift in fruit picking at day’s wages. They give better satisfaction than the American fruit-pickers, too, and the Yankee grower is glad to get them. Next, as they get stronger, they form in Japanese unions and proceed to run the American labor out. Still the fruit-growers are satisfied. The next step is when the Japs won’t pick. The American labor is gone. The fruit-grower is helpless. The crop perishes. Then in step the Jap labor bosses. They’re the masters already. They contract for the crop. The fruit-growers are at their mercy, you see. Pretty soon the Japs are running the valley. The fruit-growers have become absentee landlords and are busy learning higher standards of living in the cities or making trips to Europe. Remains only one more step. The Japs buy them out. They’ve got to sell, for the Japs control the labor market and could bankrupt them at will.”
“But if this goes on, what is left for us?” asked Saxon.
“What is happening. Those of us who haven’t anything rot in the cities. Those of us who have land, sell it and go to the cities. Some become larger capitalists; some go into the professions; the rest spend the money and start rotting when it’s gone, and if it lasts their life-time their children do the rotting for them.”
Their long ride was soon over, and at parting Benson reminded Billy of the steady job that awaited him any time he gave the word.
“I guess we’ll take a peep at that government land first,” Billy answered. “Don’t know what we’ll settle down to, but there’s one thing sure we won’t tackle.”
“Start in apple-growin’ at three thousan’ dollars an acre.”
Billy and Saxon, their packs upon the backs, trudged along a hundred yards. He was the first to break silence.
“An’ I tell you another thing, Saxon. We’ll never be goin’ around smellin’ out an’ swipin’ bits of soil an’ carryin’ it up a hill in a basket. The United States is big yet. I don’t care what Benson or any of ’em says, the United States ain’t played out. There’s millions of acres untouched an’ waitin’, an’ it’s up to us to find ‘em.”
“And I’ll tell you one thing,” Saxon said. “We’re getting an education. Tom was raised on a ranch, yet he doesn’t know right now as much about farming conditions as we do. And I’ll tell you another thing. The more I think of it, the more it seems we are going to be disappointed about that government land.”
“Ain’t no use believin’ what everybody tells you,” he protested.
“Oh, it isn’t that. It’s what I think. I leave it to you. If this land around here is worth three thousand an acre, why is it that government land, if it’s any good, is waiting there, only a short way off, to be taken for the asking.”
Billy pondered this for a quarter of a mile, but could come to no conclusion. At last he cleared his throat and remarked:
“Well, we can wait till we see it first, can’t we?”
“All right,” Saxon agreed. “We’ll wait till we see it.”
They had taken the direct county road across the hills from Monterey, instead of the Seventeen Mile Drive around by the coast, so that Carmel Bay came upon them without any fore-glimmerings of its beauty. Dropping down through the pungent pines, they passed woods-embowered cottages, quaint and rustic, of artists and writers, and went on across wind-blown rolling sandhills held to place by sturdy lupine and nodding with pale California poppies. Saxon screamed in sudden wonder of delight, then caught her breath and gazed at the amazing peacock-blue of a breaker, shot through with golden sunlight, overfalling in a mile-long sweep and thundering into white ruin of foam on a crescent beach of sand scarcely less white.
How long they stood and watched the stately procession of breakers, rising from out the deep and wind-capped sea to froth and thunder at their feet, Saxon did not know. She was recalled to herself when Billy, laughing, tried to remove the telescope basket from her shoulders.
“You kind of look as though you was goin’ to stop a while,” he said. “So we might as well get comfortable.”
“I never dreamed it, I never dreamed it,” she repeated, with passionately clasped hands. “I... I thought the surf at the Cliff House was wonderful, but it gave no idea of this.—Oh! Look! LOOK! Did you ever see such an unspeakable color? And the sunlight flashing right through it! Oh! Oh! Oh!”
At last she was able to take her eyes from the surf and gaze at the sea-horizon of deepest peacock-blue and piled with cloud-masses, at the curve of the beach south to the jagged point of rocks, and at the rugged blue mountains seen across soft low hills, landward, up Carmel Valley.
“Might as well sit down an’ take it easy,” Billy indulged her. “This is too good to want to run away from all at once.”
Saxon assented, but began immediately to unlace her shoes.
“You ain’t a-goin’ to?” Billy asked in surprised delight, then began unlacing his own.
But before they were ready to run barefooted on the perilous fringe of cream-wet sand where land and ocean met, a new and wonderful thing attracted their attention. Down from the dark pines and across the sandhills ran a man, naked save for narrow trunks. He was smooth and rosy-skinned, cherubic-faced, with a thatch of curly yellow hair, but his body was hugely thewed as a Hercules’.
“Gee!—must be Sandow,” Billy muttered low to Saxon.
But she was thinking of the engraving in her mother’s scrapbook and of the Vikings on the wet sands of England.
The runner passed them a dozen feet away, crossed the wet sand, never parsing, till the froth wash was to his knees while above him, ten feet at least, upreared a was of overtopping water. Huge and powerful as his body had seemed, it was now white and fragile in the face of that imminent, great-handed buffet of the sea. Saxon gasped with anxiety, and she stole a look at Billy to note that he was tense with watching.
But the stranger sprang to meet the blow, and, just when it seemed he must be crushed, he dived into the face of the breaker and disappeared. The mighty mass of water fell in thunder on the beach, but beyond appeared a yellow head, one arm out-reaching, and a portion of a shoulder. Only a few strokes was he able to make are he was come pelted to dye through another breaker. This was the battle—to win seaward against the Creep of the shoreward hastening sea. Each time he dived and was lost to view Saxon caught her breath and clenched her hands. Sometimes, after the passage of a breaker, they enfold not find him, and when they did he would be scores of feet away, flung there like a chip by a smoke-bearded breaker. Often it seemed he must fail and be thrown upon the beach, but at the end of half an hour he was beyond the outer edge of the surf and swimming strong, no longer diving, but topping the waves. Soon he was so far away that only at intervals could they find the speck of him. That, too, vanished, and Saxon and Billy looked at each other, she with amazement at the swimmer’s valor, Billy with blue eyes flashing.
“Some swimmer, that boy, some swimmer,” he praised. “Nothing chicken-hearted about him.—Say, I only know tank-swimmin’, an’ bay-swimmin’, but now I’m goin’ to learn ocean-swimmin’. If I could do that I’d be so proud you couldn’t come within forty feet of me. Why, Saxon, honest to God, I’d sooner do what he done than own a thousan’ farms. Oh, I can swim, too, I’m tellin’ you, like a fish—I swum, one Sunday, from the Narrow Gauge Pier to Sessions’ Basin, an’ that’s miles—but I never seen anything like that guy in the swimmin’ line. An’ I’m not goin’ to leave this beach until he comes back.—All by his lonely out there in a mountain sea, think of it! He’s got his nerve all right, all right.”
Saxon and Billy ran barefooted up and down the beach, pursuing each other with brandished snakes of seaweed and playing like children for an hour. It was not until they were putting on their shoes that they sighted the yellow head bearing shoreward. Billy was at the edge of the surf to meet him, emerging, not white-skinned as he had entered, but red from the pounding he had received at the hands of the sea.
“You’re a wonder, and I just got to hand it to you,” Billy greeted him in outspoken admiration.
“It was a big surf to-day,” the young man replied, with a nod of acknowledgment.
“It don’t happen that you are a fighter I never heard of?” Billy queried, striving to get some inkling of the identity of the physical prodigy.
The other laughed and shook his head, and Billy could not guess that he was an ex-captain of a ‘Varsity Eleven, and incidentally the father of a family and the author of many books. He looked Billy over with an eye trained in measuring freshmen aspirants for the gridiron.
“You’re some body of a man,” he appreciated. “You’d strip with the best of them. Am I right in guessing that you know your way about in the ring?”
Billy nodded. “My name’s Roberts.”
The swimmer scowled with a futile effort at recollection.
“Bill—Bill Roberts,” Billy supplemented.
“Oh, ho!—Not BIG Bill Roberts? Why, I saw you fight, before the earthquake, in the Mechanic’s Pavilion. It was a preliminary to Eddie Hanlon and some other fellow. You’re a two-handed fighter, I remember that, with an awful wallop, but slow. Yes, I remember, you were slow that night, but you got your man.” He put out a wet hand. “My name’s Hazard—Jim Hazard.”
“An’ if you’re the football coach that was, a couple of years ago, I’ve read about you in the papers. Am I right?”
They shook hands heartily, and Saxon was introduced. She felt very small beside the two young giants, and very proud, withal, that she belonged to the race that gave them birth. She could only listen to them talk.
“I’d like to put on the gloves with you every day for half an hour,” Hazard said. “You could teach me a lot. Are you going to stay around here?”
“No. We’re goin’ on down the coast, lookin’ for land. Just the same, I could teach you a few, and there’s one thing you could teach me—surf swimmin’.”
“I’ll swap lessons with you any time,” Hazard offered. He turned to Saxon. “Why don’t you stop in Carmel for a while? It isn’t so bad.”
“It’s beautiful,” she acknowledged, with a grateful smile, “but—” She turned and pointed to their packs on the edge of the lupine. “We’re on the tramp, and lookin’ for government land.”
“If you’re looking down past the Sur for it, it will keep,” he laughed. “Well, I’ve got to run along and get some clothes on. If you come back this way, look me up. Anybody will tell you where I live. So long.”
And, as he had first arrived, he departed, crossing the sandhills on the run.
Billy followed him with admiring eyes.
“Some boy, some boy,” he murmured. “Why, Saxon, he’s famous. If I’ve seen his face in the papers once, I’ve seen it a thousand times. An’ he ain’t a bit stuck on himself. Just man to man. Say!—I’m beginnin’ to have faith in the old stock again.”
They turned their backs on the beach and in the tiny main street bought meat, vegetables, and half a dozen eggs. Billy had to drag Saxon away from the window of a fascinating shop where were iridescent pearls of abalone, set and unset.
“Abalones grow here, all along the coast,” Billy assured her; “an’ I’ll get you all you want. Low tide’s the time.”
“My father had a set of cuff-buttons made of abalone shell,” she said. “They were set in pure, soft gold. I haven’t thought about them for years, and I wonder who has them now.”
They turned south. Everywhere from among the pines peeped the quaint pretty houses of the artist folk, and they were not prepared, where the road dipped to Carmel River, for the building that met their eyes.
“I know what it is,” Saxon almost whispered. “It’s an old Spanish Mission. It’s the Carmel Mission, of course. That’s the way the Spaniards came up from Mexico, building missions as they came and converting the Indians.”
“Until we chased them out, Spaniards an’ Indians, whole kit an’ caboodle,” Billy observed with calm satisfaction.
“Just the same, it’s wonderful,” Saxon mused, gazing at the big, half-ruined adobe structure. “There is the Mission Dolores, in San Francisco, but it’s smaller than this and not as old.”
Hidden from the sea by low hillocks, forsaken by human being and human habitation, the church of sun-baked clay and straw and chalk-rock stood hushed and breathless in the midst of the adobe ruins which once had housed its worshiping thousands. The spirit of the place descended upon Saxon and Billy, and they walked softly, speaking in whispers, almost afraid to go in through the open ports. There was neither priest nor worshiper, yet they found all the evidences of use, by a congregation which Billy judged must be small from the number of the benches. Inter they climbed the earthquake-racked belfry, noting the hand-hewn timbers; and in the gallery, discovering the pure quality of their voices, Saxon, trembling at her own temerity, softly sang the opening bars of “Jesus Lover of My Soul.” Delighted with the result, she leaned over the railing, gradually increasing her voice to its full strength as she sang:
“Jesus, Lover of my soul, Let me to Thy bosom fly, While the nearer waters roll, While the tempest still is nigh. Hide me, O my Saviour, hide, Till the storm of life is past; Safe into the haven guide And receive my soul at last.”
Billy leaned against the ancient wall and loved her with his eyes, and, when she had finished, he murmured, almost in a whisper:
“That was beautiful—just beautiful. An’ you ought to a-seen your face when you sang. It was as beautiful as your voice. Ain’t it funny?—I never think of religion except when I think of you.”
They camped in the willow bottom, cooked dinner, and spent the afternoon on the point of low rocks north of the mouth of the river. They had not intended to spend the afternoon, but found themselves too fascinated to turn away from the breakers bursting upon the rocks and from the many kinds of colorful sea life starfish, crabs, mussels, sea anemones, and, once, in a rock-pool, a small devilfish that chilled their blood when it cast the hooded net of its body around the small crabs they tossed to it. As the tide grew lower, they gathered a mess of mussels—huge fellows, five and six inches long and bearded like patriarchs. Then, while Billy wandered in a vain search for abalones, Saxon lay and dabbled in the crystal-clear water of a roak-pool, dipping up handfuls of glistening jewels—ground bits of shell and pebble of flashing rose and blue and green and violet. Billy came back and lay beside her, lazying in the sea-cool sunshine, and together they watched the sun sink into the horizon where the ocean was deepest peacock-blue.
She reached out her hand to Billy’s and sighed with sheer repletion of content. It seemed she had never lived such a wonderful day. It was as if all old dreams were coming true. Such beauty of the world she had never guessed in her fondest imagining. Billy pressed her hand tenderly.
“What was you thinkin’ of?” he asked, as they arose finally to go.
“Oh, I don’t know, Billy. Perhaps that it was better, one day like this, than ten thousand years in Oakland.”