When Annixter arrived at the Los Muertos ranch house that same evening, he found a little group already assembled in the dining-room. Magnus Derrick, wearing the frock coat of broadcloth that he had put on for the occasion, stood with his back to the fireplace. Harran sat close at hand, one leg thrown over the arm of his chair. Presley lounged on the sofa, in corduroys and high laced boots, smoking cigarettes. Broderson leaned on his folded arms at one corner of the dining table, and Genslinger, editor and proprietor of the principal newspaper of the county, the “Bonneville Mercury,” stood with his hat and driving gloves under his arm, opposite Derrick, a half-emptied glass of whiskey and water in his hand.
As Annixter entered he heard Genslinger observe: “I’ll have a leader in the ‘Mercury’ to-morrow that will interest you people. There’s some talk of your ranch lands being graded in value this winter. I suppose you will all buy?”
In an instant the editor’s words had riveted upon him the attention of every man in the room. Annixter broke the moment’s silence that followed with the remark:
“Well, it’s about time they graded these lands of theirs.”
The question in issue in Genslinger’s remark was of the most vital interest to the ranchers around Bonneville and Guadalajara. Neither Magnus Derrick, Broderson, Annixter, nor Osterman actually owned all the ranches which they worked. As yet, the vast majority of these wheat lands were the property of the P. and S. W. The explanation of this condition of affairs went back to the early history of the Pacific and Southwestern, when, as a bonus for the construction of the road, the national government had granted to the company the odd numbered sections of land on either side of the proposed line of route for a distance of twenty miles. Indisputably, these sections belonged to the P. and S. W. The even-numbered sections being government property could be and had been taken up by the ranchers, but the railroad sections, or, as they were called, the “alternate sections,” would have to be purchased direct from the railroad itself.
But this had not prevented the farmers from “coming in” upon that part of the San Joaquin. Long before this the railroad had thrown open these lands, and, by means of circulars, distributed broadcast throughout the State, had expressly invited settlement thereon. At that time patents had not been issued to the railroad for their odd-numbered sections, but as soon as the land was patented the railroad would grade it in value and offer it for sale, the first occupants having the first chance of purchase. The price of these lands was to be fixed by the price the government put upon its own adjoining lands—about two dollars and a half per acre.
With cultivation and improvement the ranches must inevitably appreciate in value. There was every chance to make fortunes. When the railroad lands about Bonneville had been thrown open, there had been almost a rush in the matter of settlement, and Broderson, Annixter, Derrick, and Osterman, being foremost with their claims, had secured the pick of the country. But the land once settled upon, the P. and S. W. seemed to be in no hurry as to fixing exactly the value of its sections included in the various ranches and offering them for sale. The matter dragged along from year to year, was forgotten for months together, being only brought to mind on such occasions as this, when the rumour spread that the General Office was about to take definite action in the affair.
“As soon as the railroad wants to talk business with me,” observed Annixter, “about selling me their interest in Quien Sabe, I’m ready. The land has more than quadrupled in value. I’ll bet I could sell it to-morrow for fifteen dollars an acre, and if I buy of the railroad for two and a half an acre, there’s boodle in the game.”
“For two and a half!” exclaimed Genslinger. “You don’t suppose the railroad will let their land go for any such figure as that, do you? Wherever did you get that idea?”
“From the circulars and pamphlets,” answered Harran, “that the railroad issued to us when they opened these lands. They are pledged to that. Even the P. and S. W. couldn’t break such a pledge as that. You are new in the country, Mr. Genslinger. You don’t remember the conditions upon which we took up this land.”
“And our improvements,” exclaimed Annixter. “Why, Magnus and I have put about five thousand dollars between us into that irrigating ditch already. I guess we are not improving the land just to make it valuable for the railroad people. No matter how much we improve the land, or how much it increases in value, they have got to stick by their agreement on the basis of two-fifty per acre. Here’s one case where the P. and S. W. DON’T get everything in sight.”
Genslinger frowned, perplexed.
“I AM new in the country, as Harran says,” he answered, “but it seems to me that there’s no fairness in that proposition. The presence of the railroad has helped increase the value of your ranches quite as much as your improvements. Why should you get all the benefit of the rise in value and the railroad nothing? The fair way would be to share it between you.”
“I don’t care anything about that,” declared Annixter. “They agreed to charge but two-fifty, and they’ve got to stick to it.”
“Well,” murmured Genslinger, “from what I know of the affair, I don’t believe the P. and S. W. intends to sell for two-fifty an acre, at all. The managers of the road want the best price they can get for everything in these hard times.”
“Times aren’t ever very hard for the railroad,” hazards old Broderson.
Broderson was the oldest man in the room. He was about sixty-five years of age, venerable, with a white beard, his figure bent earthwards with hard work.
He was a narrow-minded man, painfully conscientious in his statements lest he should be unjust to somebody; a slow thinker, unable to let a subject drop when once he had started upon it. He had no sooner uttered his remark about hard times than he was moved to qualify it.
“Hard times,” he repeated, a troubled, perplexed note in his voice; “well, yes—yes. I suppose the road DOES have hard times, maybe. Everybody does—of course. I didn’t mean that exactly. I believe in being just and fair to everybody. I mean that we’ve got to use their lines and pay their charges good years AND bad years, the P. and S. W. being the only road in the State. That is—well, when I say the only road—no, I won’t say the ONLY road. Of course there are other roads. There’s the D. P. and M. and the San Francisco and North Pacific, that runs up to Ukiah. I got a brother-in-law in Ukiah. That’s not much of a wheat country round Ukiah though they DO grow SOME wheat there, come to think. But I guess it’s too far north. Well, of course there isn’t MUCH. Perhaps sixty thousand acres in the whole county—if you include barley and oats. I don’t know; maybe it’s nearer forty thousand. I don’t remember very well. That’s a good many years ago. I——”
But Annixter, at the end of all patience, turned to Genslinger, cutting short the old man:
“Oh, rot! Of course the railroad will sell at two-fifty,” he cried. “We’ve got the contracts.”
“Look to them, then, Mr. Annixter,” retorted Genslinger significantly, “look to them. Be sure that you are protected.”
Soon after this Genslinger took himself away, and Derrick’s Chinaman came in to set the table.
“What do you suppose he meant?” asked Broderson, when Genslinger was gone.
“About this land business?” said Annixter. “Oh, I don’t know. Some tom fool idea. Haven’t we got their terms printed in black and white in their circulars? There’s their pledge.”
“Oh, as to pledges,” murmured Broderson, “the railroad is not always TOO much hindered by those.”
“Where’s Osterman?” demanded Annixter, abruptly changing the subject as if it were not worth discussion. “Isn’t that goat Osterman coming down here to-night?”
“You telephoned him, didn’t you, Presley?” inquired Magnus.
Presley had taken Princess Nathalie upon his knee stroking her long, sleek hair, and the cat, stupefied with beatitude, had closed her eyes to two fine lines, clawing softly at the corduroy of Presley’s trousers with alternate paws.
“Yes, sir,” returned Presley. “He said he would be here.”
And as he spoke, young Osterman arrived.
He was a young fellow, but singularly inclined to baldness. His ears, very red and large, stuck out at right angles from either side of his head, and his mouth, too, was large—a great horizontal slit beneath his nose. His cheeks were of a brownish red, the cheek bones a little salient. His face was that of a comic actor, a singer of songs, a man never at a loss for an answer, continually striving to make a laugh. But he took no great interest in ranching and left the management of his land to his superintendents and foremen, he, himself, living in Bonneville. He was a poser, a wearer of clothes, forever acting a part, striving to create an impression, to draw attention to himself. He was not without a certain energy, but he devoted it to small ends, to perfecting himself in little accomplishments, continually running after some new thing, incapable of persisting long in any one course. At one moment his mania would be fencing; the next, sleight-of-hand tricks; the next, archery. For upwards of one month he had devoted himself to learning how to play two banjos simultaneously, then abandoning this had developed a sudden passion for stamped leather work and had made a quantity of purses, tennis belts, and hat bands, which he presented to young ladies of his acquaintance. It was his policy never to make an enemy. He was liked far better than he was respected. People spoke of him as “that goat Osterman,” or “that fool Osterman kid,” and invited him to dinner. He was of the sort who somehow cannot be ignored. If only because of his clamour he made himself important. If he had one abiding trait, it was his desire of astonishing people, and in some way, best known to himself, managed to cause the circulation of the most extraordinary stories wherein he, himself, was the chief actor. He was glib, voluble, dexterous, ubiquitous, a teller of funny stories, a cracker of jokes.
Naturally enough, he was heavily in debt, but carried the burden of it with perfect nonchalance. The year before S. Behrman had held mortgages for fully a third of his crop and had squeezed him viciously for interest. But for all that, Osterman and S. Behrman were continually seen arm-in-arm on the main street of Bonneville. Osterman was accustomed to slap S. Behrman on his fat back, declaring:
“You’re a good fellow, old jelly-belly, after all, hey?”
As Osterman entered from the porch, after hanging his cavalry poncho and dripping hat on the rack outside, Mrs. Derrick appeared in the door that opened from the dining-room into the glass-roofed hallway just beyond. Osterman saluted her with effusive cordiality and with ingratiating blandness.
“I am not going to stay,” she explained, smiling pleasantly at the group of men, her pretty, wide-open brown eyes, with their look of inquiry and innocence, glancing from face to face, “I only came to see if you wanted anything and to say how do you do.”
She began talking to old Broderson, making inquiries as to his wife, who had been sick the last week, and Osterman turned to the company, shaking hands all around, keeping up an incessant stream of conversation.
“Hello, boys and girls. Hello, Governor. Sort of a gathering of the clans to-night. Well, if here isn’t that man Annixter. Hello, Buck. What do you know? Kind of dusty out to-night.”
At once Annixter began to get red in the face, retiring towards a corner of the room, standing in an awkward position by the case of stuffed birds, shambling and confused, while Mrs. Derrick was present, standing rigidly on both feet, his elbows close to his sides. But he was angry with Osterman, muttering imprecations to himself, horribly vexed that the young fellow should call him “Buck” before Magnus’s wife. This goat Osterman! Hadn’t he any sense, that fool? Couldn’t he ever learn how to behave before a feemale? Calling him “Buck” like that while Mrs. Derrick was there. Why a stable-boy would know better; a hired man would have better manners. All through the dinner that followed Annixter was out of sorts, sulking in his place, refusing to eat by way of vindicating his self-respect, resolving to bring Osterman up with a sharp turn if he called him “Buck” again.
The Chinaman had made a certain kind of plum pudding for dessert, and Annixter, who remembered other dinners at the Derrick’s, had been saving himself for this, and had meditated upon it all through the meal. No doubt, it would restore all his good humour, and he believed his stomach was so far recovered as to be able to stand it.
But, unfortunately, the pudding was served with a sauce that he abhorred—a thick, gruel-like, colourless mixture, made from plain water and sugar. Before he could interfere, the Chinaman had poured a quantity of it upon his plate.
“Faugh!” exclaimed Annixter. “It makes me sick. Such—such SLOOP. Take it away. I’ll have mine straight, if you don’t mind.”
“That’s good for your stomach, Buck,” observed young Osterman; “makes it go down kind of sort of slick; don’t you see? Sloop, hey? That’s a good name.”
“Look here, don’t you call me Buck. You don’t seem to have any sense, and, besides, it ISN’T good for my stomach. I know better. What do YOU know about my stomach, anyhow? Just looking at sloop like that makes me sick.”
A little while after this the Chinaman cleared away the dessert and brought in coffee and cigars. The whiskey bottle and the syphon of soda-water reappeared. The men eased themselves in their places, pushing back from the table, lighting their cigars, talking of the beginning of the rains and the prospects of a rise in wheat. Broderson began an elaborate mental calculation, trying to settle in his mind the exact date of his visit to Ukiah, and Osterman did sleight-of-hand tricks with bread pills. But Princess Nathalie, the cat, was uneasy. Annixter was occupying her own particular chair in which she slept every night. She could not go to sleep, but spied upon him continually, watching his every movement with her lambent, yellow eyes, clear as amber.
Then, at length, Magnus, who was at the head of the table, moved in his place, assuming a certain magisterial attitude. “Well, gentlemen,” he observed, “I have lost my case against the railroad, the grain-rate case. Ulsteen decided against me, and now I hear rumours to the effect that rates for the hauling of grain are to be advanced.”
When Magnus had finished, there was a moment’s silence, each member of the group maintaining his attitude of attention and interest. It was Harran who first spoke.
“S. Behrman manipulated the whole affair. There’s a big deal of some kind in the air, and if there is, we all know who is back of it; S. Behrman, of course, but who’s back of him? It’s Shelgrim.”
Shelgrim! The name fell squarely in the midst of the conversation, abrupt, grave, sombre, big with suggestion, pregnant with huge associations. No one in the group who was not familiar with it; no one, for that matter, in the county, the State, the whole reach of the West, the entire Union, that did not entertain convictions as to the man who carried it; a giant figure in the end-of-the-century finance, a product of circumstance, an inevitable result of conditions, characteristic, typical, symbolic of ungovernable forces. In the New Movement, the New Finance, the reorganisation of capital, the amalgamation of powers, the consolidation of enormous enterprises—no one individual was more constantly in the eye of the world; no one was more hated, more dreaded, no one more compelling of unwilling tribute to his commanding genius, to the colossal intellect operating the width of an entire continent than the president and owner of the Pacific and Southwestern.
“I don’t think, however, he has moved yet,” said Magnus.
“The thing for us, then,” exclaimed Osterman, “is to stand from under before he does.”
“Moved yet!” snorted Annixter. “He’s probably moved so long ago that we’ve never noticed it.”
“In any case,” hazarded Magnus, “it is scarcely probable that the deal—whatever it is to be—has been consummated. If we act quickly, there may be a chance.”
“Act quickly! How?” demanded Annixter. “Good Lord! what can you do? We’re cinched already. It all amounts to just this: YOU CAN’T BUCK AGAINST THE RAILROAD. We’ve tried it and tried it, and we are stuck every time. You, yourself, Derrick, have just lost your grain-rate case. S. Behrman did you up. Shelgrim owns the courts. He’s got men like Ulsteen in his pocket. He’s got the Railroad Commission in his pocket. He’s got the Governor of the State in his pocket. He keeps a million-dollar lobby at Sacramento every minute of the time the legislature is in session; he’s got his own men on the floor of the United States Senate. He has the whole thing organised like an army corps. What ARE you going to do? He sits in his office in San Francisco and pulls the strings and we’ve got to dance.”
“But—well—but,” hazarded Broderson, “but there’s the Interstate Commerce Commission. At least on long-haul rates they——”
“Hoh, yes, the Interstate Commerce Commission,” shouted Annixter, scornfully, “that’s great, ain’t it? The greatest Punch and Judy; show on earth. It’s almost as good as the Railroad Commission. There never was and there never will be a California Railroad Commission not in the pay of the P. and S. W.”
“It is to the Railroad Commission, nevertheless,” remarked Magnus, “that the people of the State must look for relief. That is our only hope. Once elect Commissioners who would be loyal to the people, and the whole system of excessive rates falls to the ground.”
“Well, why not HAVE a Railroad Commission of our own, then?” suddenly declared young Osterman.
“Because it can’t be done,” retorted Annixter. “YOU CAN’T BUCK AGAINST THE RAILROAD and if you could you can’t organise the farmers in the San Joaquin. We tried it once, and it was enough to turn your stomach. The railroad quietly bought delegates through S. Behrman and did us up.”
“Well, that’s the game to play,” said Osterman decisively, “buy delegates.”
“It’s the only game that seems to win,” admitted Harran gloomily. “Or ever will win,” exclaimed Osterman, a sudden excitement seeming to take possession of him. His face—the face of a comic actor, with its great slit of mouth and stiff, red ears—went abruptly pink.
“Look here,” he cried, “this thing is getting desperate. We’ve fought and fought in the courts and out and we’ve tried agitation and—and all the rest of it and S. Behrman sacks us every time. Now comes the time when there’s a prospect of a big crop; we’ve had no rain for two years and the land has had a long rest. If there is any rain at all this winter, we’ll have a bonanza year, and just at this very moment when we’ve got our chance—a chance to pay off our mortgages and get clear of debt and make a strike—here is Shelgrim making a deal to cinch us and put up rates. And now here’s the primaries coming off and a new Railroad Commission going in. That’s why Shelgrim chose this time to make his deal. If we wait till Shelgrim pulls it off, we’re done for, that’s flat. I tell you we’re in a fix if we don’t keep an eye open. Things are getting desperate. Magnus has just said that the key to the whole thing is the Railroad Commission. Well, why not have a Commission of our own? Never mind how we get it, let’s get it. If it’s got to be bought, let’s buy it and put our own men on it and dictate what the rates will be. Suppose it costs a hundred thousand dollars. Well, we’ll get back more than that in cheap rates.”
“Mr. Osterman,” said Magnus, fixing the young man with a swift glance, “Mr. Osterman, you are proposing a scheme of bribery, sir.”
“I am proposing,” repeated Osterman, “a scheme of bribery. Exactly so.”
“And a crazy, wild-eyed scheme at that,” said Annixter gruffly. “Even supposing you bought a Railroad Commission and got your schedule of low rates, what happens? The P. and S. W. crowd get out an injunction and tie you up.”
“They would tie themselves up, too. Hauling at low rates is better than no hauling at all. The wheat has got to be moved.” “Oh, rot!” cried Annixter. “Aren’t you ever going to learn any sense? Don’t you know that cheap transportation would benefit the Liverpool buyers and not us? Can’t it be FED into you that you can’t buck against the railroad? When you try to buy a Board of Commissioners don’t you see that you’ll have to bid against the railroad, bid against a corporation that can chuck out millions to our thousands? Do you think you can bid against the P. and S. W.?”
“The railroad don’t need to know we are in the game against them till we’ve got our men seated.”
“And when you’ve got them seated, what’s to prevent the corporation buying them right over your head?”
“If we’ve got the right kind of men in they could not be bought that way,” interposed Harran. “I don’t know but what there’s something in what Osterman says. We’d have the naming of the Commission and we’d name honest men.”
Annixter struck the table with his fist in exasperation.
“Honest men!” he shouted; “the kind of men you could get to go into such a scheme would have to be DIS-honest to begin with.”
Broderson, shifting uneasily in his place, fingering his beard with a vague, uncertain gesture, spoke again:
“It would be the CHANCE of them—our Commissioners—selling out against the certainty of Shelgrim doing us up. That is,” he hastened to add, “ALMOST a certainty; pretty near a certainty.”
“Of course, it would be a chance,” exclaimed Osterman. “But it’s come to the point where we’ve got to take chances, risk a big stake to make a big strike, and risk is better than sure failure.”
“I can be no party to a scheme of avowed bribery and corruption, Mr. Osterman,” declared Magnus, a ring of severity in his voice. “I am surprised, sir, that you should even broach the subject in my hearing.”
“And,” cried Annixter, “it can’t be done.”
“I don’t know,” muttered Harran, “maybe it just wants a little spark like this to fire the whole train.”
Magnus glanced at his son in considerable surprise. He had not expected this of Harran. But so great was his affection for his son, so accustomed had he become to listening to his advice, to respecting his opinions, that, for the moment, after the first shock of surprise and disappointment, he was influenced to give a certain degree of attention to this new proposition. He in no way countenanced it. At any moment he was prepared to rise in his place and denounce it and Osterman both. It was trickery of the most contemptible order, a thing he believed to be unknown to the old school of politics and statesmanship to which he was proud to belong; but since Harran, even for one moment, considered it, he, Magnus, who trusted Harran implicitly, would do likewise—if it was only to oppose and defeat it in its very beginnings.
And abruptly the discussion began. Gradually Osterman, by dint of his clamour, his strident reiteration, the plausibility of his glib, ready assertions, the ease with which he extricated himself when apparently driven to a corner, completely won over old Broderson to his way of thinking. Osterman bewildered him with his volubility, the lightning rapidity with which he leaped from one subject to another, garrulous, witty, flamboyant, terrifying the old man with pictures of the swift approach of ruin, the imminence of danger.
Annixter, who led the argument against him—loving argument though he did—appeared to poor advantage, unable to present his side effectively. He called Osterman a fool, a goat, a senseless, crazy-headed jackass, but was unable to refute his assertions. His debate was the clumsy heaving of brickbats, brutal, direct. He contradicted everything Osterman said as a matter of principle, made conflicting assertions, declarations that were absolutely inconsistent, and when Osterman or Harran used these against him, could only exclaim:
“Well, in a way it’s so, and then again in a way it isn’t.”
But suddenly Osterman discovered a new argument. “If we swing this deal,” he cried, “we’ve got old jelly-belly Behrman right where we want him.”
“He’s the man that does us every time,” cried Harran. “If there is dirty work to be done in which the railroad doesn’t wish to appear, it is S. Behrman who does it. If the freight rates are to be ‘adjusted’ to squeeze us a little harder, it is S. Behrman who regulates what we can stand. If there’s a judge to be bought, it is S. Behrman who does the bargaining. If there is a jury to be bribed, it is S. Behrman who handles the money. If there is an election to be jobbed, it is S. Behrman who manipulates it. It’s Behrman here and Behrman there. It is Behrman we come against every time we make a move. It is Behrman who has the grip of us and will never let go till he has squeezed us bone dry. Why, when I think of it all sometimes I wonder I keep my hands off the man.”
Osterman got on his feet; leaning across the table, gesturing wildly with his right hand, his serio-comic face, with its bald forehead and stiff, red ears, was inflamed with excitement. He took the floor, creating an impression, attracting all attention to himself, playing to the gallery, gesticulating, clamourous, full of noise.
“Well, now is your chance to get even,” he vociferated. “It is now or never. You can take it and save the situation for yourselves and all California or you can leave it and rot on your own ranches. Buck, I know you. I know you’re not afraid of anything that wears skin. I know you’ve got sand all through you, and I know if I showed you how we could put our deal through and seat a Commission of our own, you wouldn’t hang back. Governor, you’re a brave man. You know the advantage of prompt and fearless action. You are not the sort to shrink from taking chances. To play for big stakes is just your game—to stake a fortune on the turn of a card. You didn’t get the reputation of being the strongest poker player in El Dorado County for nothing. Now, here’s the biggest gamble that ever came your way. If we stand up to it like men with guts in us, we’ll win out. If we hesitate, we’re lost.”
“I don’t suppose you can help playing the goat, Osterman,” remarked Annixter, “but what’s your idea? What do you think we can do? I’m not saying,” he hastened to interpose, “that you’ve anyways convinced me by all this cackling. I know as well as you that we are in a hole. But I knew that before I came here to-night. YOU’VE not done anything to make me change my mind. But just what do you propose? Let’s hear it.”
“Well, I say the first thing to do is to see Disbrow. He’s the political boss of the Denver, Pueblo, and Mojave road. We will have to get in with the machine some way and that’s particularly why I want Magnus with us. He knows politics better than any of us and if we don’t want to get sold again we will have to have some one that’s in the know to steer us.”
“The only politics I understand, Mr. Osterman,” answered Magnus sternly, “are honest politics. You must look elsewhere for your political manager. I refuse to have any part in this matter. If the Railroad Commission can be nominated legitimately, if your arrangements can be made without bribery, I am with you to the last iota of my ability.”
“Well, you can’t get what you want without paying for it,” contradicted Annixter.
Broderson was about to speak when Osterman kicked his foot under the table. He, himself, held his peace. He was quick to see that if he could involve Magnus and Annixter in an argument, Annixter, for the mere love of contention, would oppose the Governor and, without knowing it, would commit himself to his—Osterman’s—scheme.
This was precisely what happened. In a few moments Annixter was declaring at top voice his readiness to mortgage the crop of Quien Sabe, if necessary, for the sake of “busting S. Behrman.” He could see no great obstacle in the way of controlling the nominating convention so far as securing the naming of two Railroad Commissioners was concerned. Two was all they needed. Probably it WOULD cost money. You didn’t get something for nothing. It would cost them all a good deal more if they sat like lumps on a log and played tiddledy-winks while Shelgrim sold out from under them. Then there was this, too: the P. and S. W. were hard up just then. The shortage on the State’s wheat crop for the last two years had affected them, too. They were retrenching in expenditures all along the line. Hadn’t they just cut wages in all departments? There was this affair of Dyke’s to prove it. The railroad didn’t always act as a unit, either. There was always a party in it that opposed spending too much money. He would bet that party was strong just now. He was kind of sick himself of being kicked by S. Behrman. Hadn’t that pip turned up on his ranch that very day to bully him about his own line fence? Next he would be telling him what kind of clothes he ought to wear. Harran had the right idea. Somebody had got to be busted mighty soon now and he didn’t propose that it should be he.
“Now you are talking something like sense,” observed Osterman. “I thought you would see it like that when you got my idea.”
“Your idea, YOUR idea!” cried Annixter. “Why, I’ve had this idea myself for over three years.”
“What about Disbrow?” asked Harran, hastening to interrupt. “Why do we want to see Disbrow?”
“Disbrow is the political man for the Denver, Pueblo, and Mojave,” answered Osterman, “and you see it’s like this: the Mojave road don’t run up into the valley at all. Their terminus is way to the south of us, and they don’t care anything about grain rates through the San Joaquin. They don’t care how anti-railroad the Commission is, because the Commission’s rulings can’t affect them. But they divide traffic with the P. and S. W. in the southern part of the State and they have a good deal of influence with that road. I want to get the Mojave road, through Disbrow, to recommend a Commissioner of our choosing to the P. and S. W. and have the P. and S. W. adopt him as their own.”
“Who, for instance?”
“Darrell, that Los Angeles man—remember?”
“Well, Darrell is no particular friend of Disbrow,” said Annixter. “Why should Disbrow take him up?”
“PREE-cisely,” cried Osterman. “We make it worth Disbrow’s while to do it. We go to him and say, ‘Mr. Disbrow, you manage the politics for the Mojave railroad, and what you say goes with your Board of Directors. We want you to adopt our candidate for Railroad Commissioner for the third district. How much do you want for doing it?’ I KNOW we can buy Disbrow. That gives us one Commissioner. We need not bother about that any more. In the first district we don’t make any move at all. We let the political managers of the P. and S. W. nominate whoever they like. Then we concentrate all our efforts to putting in our man in the second district. There is where the big fight will come.”
“I see perfectly well what you mean, Mr. Osterman,” observed Magnus, “but make no mistake, sir, as to my attitude in this business. You may count me as out of it entirely.”
“Well, suppose we win,” put in Annixter truculently, already acknowledging himself as involved in the proposed undertaking; “suppose we win and get low rates for hauling grain. How about you, then? You count yourself IN then, don’t you? You get all the benefit of lower rates without sharing any of the risks we take to secure them. No, nor any of the expense, either. No, you won’t dirty your fingers with helping us put this deal through, but you won’t be so cursed particular when it comes to sharing the profits, will you?”
Magnus rose abruptly to his full height, the nostrils of his thin, hawk-like nose vibrating, his smooth-shaven face paler than ever.
“Stop right where you are, sir,” he exclaimed. “You forget yourself, Mr. Annixter. Please understand that I tolerate such words as you have permitted yourself to make use of from no man, not even from my guest. I shall ask you to apologise.”
In an instant he dominated the entire group, imposing a respect that was as much fear as admiration. No one made response. For the moment he was the Master again, the Leader. Like so many delinquent school-boys, the others cowered before him, ashamed, put to confusion, unable to find their tongues. In that brief instant of silence following upon Magnus’s outburst, and while he held them subdued and over-mastered, the fabric of their scheme of corruption and dishonesty trembled to its base. It was the last protest of the Old School, rising up there in denunciation of the new order of things, the statesman opposed to the politician; honesty, rectitude, uncompromising integrity, prevailing for the last time against the devious manoeuvring, the evil communications, the rotten expediency of a corrupted institution.
For a few seconds no one answered. Then, Annixter, moving abruptly and uneasily in his place, muttered:
“I spoke upon provocation. If you like, we’ll consider it unsaid. I don’t know what’s going to become of us—go out of business, I presume.”
“I understand Magnus all right,” put in Osterman. “He don’t have to go into this thing, if it’s against his conscience. That’s all right. Magnus can stay out if he wants to, but that won’t prevent us going ahead and seeing what we can do. Only there’s this about it.” He turned again to Magnus, speaking with every degree of earnestness, every appearance of conviction. “I did not deny, Governor, from the very start that this would mean bribery. But you don’t suppose that I like the idea either. If there was one legitimate hope that was yet left untried, no matter how forlorn it was, I would try it. But there’s not. It is literally and soberly true that every means of help—every honest means—has been attempted. Shelgrim is going to cinch us. Grain rates are increasing, while, on the other hand, the price of wheat is sagging lower and lower all the time. If we don’t do something we are ruined.”
Osterman paused for a moment, allowing precisely the right number of seconds to elapse, then altering and lowering his voice, added:
“I respect the Governor’s principles. I admire them. They do him every degree of credit.” Then, turning directly to Magnus, he concluded with, “But I only want you to ask yourself, sir, if, at such a crisis, one ought to think of oneself, to consider purely personal motives in such a desperate situation as this? Now, we want you with us, Governor; perhaps not openly, if you don’t wish it, but tacitly, at least. I won’t ask you for an answer to-night, but what I do ask of you is to consider this matter seriously and think over the whole business. Will you do it?”
Osterman ceased definitely to speak, leaning forward across the table, his eyes fixed on Magnus’s face. There was a silence. Outside, the rain fell continually with an even, monotonous murmur. In the group of men around the table no one stirred nor spoke. They looked steadily at Magnus, who, for the moment, kept his glance fixed thoughtfully upon the table before him. In another moment he raised his head and looked from face to face around the group. After all, these were his neighbours, his friends, men with whom he had been upon the closest terms of association. In a way they represented what now had come to be his world. His single swift glance took in the men, one after another. Annixter, rugged, crude, sitting awkwardly and uncomfortably in his chair, his unhandsome face, with its outthrust lower lip and deeply cleft masculine chin, flushed and eager, his yellow hair disordered, the one tuft on the crown standing stiffly forth like the feather in an Indian’s scalp lock; Broderson, vaguely combing at his long beard with a persistent maniacal gesture, distressed, troubled and uneasy; Osterman, with his comedy face, the face of a music-hall singer, his head bald and set off by his great red ears, leaning back in his place, softly cracking the knuckle of a forefinger, and, last of all and close to his elbow, his son, his support, his confidant and companion, Harran, so like himself, with his own erect, fine carriage, his thin, beak-like nose and his blond hair, with its tendency to curl in a forward direction in front of the ears, young, strong, courageous, full of the promise of the future years. His blue eyes looked straight into his father’s with what Magnus could fancy a glance of appeal. Magnus could see that expression in the faces of the others very plainly. They looked to him as their natural leader, their chief who was to bring them out from this abominable trouble which was closing in upon them, and in them all he saw many types. They—these men around his table on that night of the first rain of a coming season—seemed to stand in his imagination for many others—all the farmers, ranchers, and wheat growers of the great San Joaquin. Their words were the words of a whole community; their distress, the distress of an entire State, harried beyond the bounds of endurance, driven to the wall, coerced, exploited, harassed to the limits of exasperation. “I will think of it,” he said, then hastened to add, “but I can tell you beforehand that you may expect only a refusal.”
After Magnus had spoken, there was a prolonged silence. The conference seemed of itself to have come to an end for that evening. Presley lighted another cigarette from the butt of the one he had been smoking, and the cat, Princess Nathalie, disturbed by his movement and by a whiff of drifting smoke, jumped from his knee to the floor and picking her way across the room to Annixter, rubbed gently against his legs, her tail in the air, her back delicately arched. No doubt she thought it time to settle herself for the night, and as Annixter gave no indication of vacating his chair, she chose this way of cajoling him into ceding his place to her. But Annixter was irritated at the Princess’s attentions, misunderstanding their motive.
“Get out!” he exclaimed, lifting his feet to the rung of the chair. “Lord love me, but I sure do hate a cat.”
“By the way,” observed Osterman, “I passed Genslinger by the gate as I came in to-night. Had he been here?”
“Yes, he was here,” said Harran, “and—” but Annixter took the words out of his mouth.
“He says there’s some talk of the railroad selling us their sections this winter.”
“Oh, he did, did he?” exclaimed Osterman, interested at once. “Where did he hear that?”
“Where does a railroad paper get its news? From the General Office, I suppose.”
“I hope he didn’t get it straight from headquarters that the land was to be graded at twenty dollars an acre,” murmured Broderson.
“What’s that?” demanded Osterman. “Twenty dollars! Here, put me on, somebody. What’s all up? What did Genslinger say?”
“Oh, you needn’t get scared,” said Annixter. “Genslinger don’t know, that’s all. He thinks there was no understanding that the price of the land should not be advanced when the P. and S. W. came to sell to us.”
“Oh,” muttered Osterman relieved. Magnus, who had gone out into the office on the other side of the glass-roofed hallway, returned with a long, yellow envelope in his hand, stuffed with newspaper clippings and thin, closely printed pamphlets.
“Here is the circular,” he remarked, drawing out one of the pamphlets. “The conditions of settlement to which the railroad obligated itself are very explicit.”
He ran over the pages of the circular, then read aloud:
“‘The Company invites settlers to go upon its lands before patents are issued or the road is completed, and intends in such cases to sell to them in preference to any other applicants and at a price based upon the value of the land without improvements,’ and on the other page here,” he remarked, “they refer to this again. ‘In ascertaining the value of the lands, any improvements that a settler or any other person may have on the lands will not be taken into consideration, neither will the price be increased in consequence thereof.... Settlers are thus insured that in addition to being accorded the first privilege of purchase, at the graded price, they will also be protected in their improvements.’ And here,” he commented, “in Section IX. it reads, ‘The lands are not uniform in price, but are offered at various figures from $2.50 upward per acre. Usually land covered with tall timber is held at $5.00 per acre, and that with pine at $10.00. Most is for sale at $2.50 and $5.00.”
“When you come to read that carefully,” hazarded old Broderson, “it—it’s not so VERY REASSURING. ‘MOST is for sale at two-fifty an acre,’ it says. That don’t mean ‘ALL,’ that only means SOME. I wish now that I had secured a more iron-clad agreement from the P. and S. W. when I took up its sections on my ranch, and—and Genslinger is in a position to know the intentions of the railroad. At least, he—he—he is in TOUCH with them. All newspaper men are. Those, I mean, who are subsidised by the General Office. But, perhaps, Genslinger isn’t subsidised, I don’t know. I—I am not sure. Maybe—perhaps”
“Oh, you don’t know and you do know, and maybe and perhaps, and you’re not so sure,” vociferated Annixter. “How about ignoring the value of our improvements? Nothing hazy about THAT statement, I guess. It says in so many words that any improvements we make will not be considered when the land is appraised and that’s the same thing, isn’t it? The unimproved land is worth two-fifty an acre; only timber land is worth more and there’s none too much timber about here.”
“Well, one thing at a time,” said Harran. “The thing for us now is to get into this primary election and the convention and see if we can push our men for Railroad Commissioners.”
“Right,” declared Annixter. He rose, stretching his arms above his head. “I’ve about talked all the wind out of me,” he said. “Think I’ll be moving along. It’s pretty near midnight.”
But when Magnus’s guests turned their attention to the matter of returning to their different ranches, they abruptly realised that the downpour had doubled and trebled in its volume since earlier in the evening. The fields and roads were veritable seas of viscid mud, the night absolutely black-dark; assuredly not a night in which to venture out. Magnus insisted that the three ranchers should put up at Los Muertos. Osterman accepted at once, Annixter, after an interminable discussion, allowed himself to be persuaded, in the end accepting as though granting a favour. Broderson protested that his wife, who was not well, would expect him to return that night and would, no doubt, fret if he did not appear. Furthermore, he lived close by, at the junction of the County and Lower Road. He put a sack over his head and shoulders, persistently declining Magnus’s offered umbrella and rubber coat, and hurried away, remarking that he had no foreman on his ranch and had to be up and about at five the next morning to put his men to work.
“Fool!” muttered Annixter when the old man had gone. “Imagine farming a ranch the size of his without a foreman.”
Harran showed Osterman and Annixter where they were to sleep, in adjoining rooms. Magnus soon afterward retired.
Osterman found an excuse for going to bed, but Annixter and Harran remained in the latter’s room, in a haze of blue tobacco smoke, talking, talking. But at length, at the end of all argument, Annixter got up, remarking:
“Well, I’m going to turn in. It’s nearly two o’clock.”
He went to his room, closing the door, and Harran, opening his window to clear out the tobacco smoke, looked out for a moment across the country toward the south.
The darkness was profound, impenetrable; the rain fell with an uninterrupted roar. Near at hand one could hear the sound of dripping eaves and foliage and the eager, sucking sound of the drinking earth, and abruptly while Harran stood looking out, one hand upon the upraised sash, a great puff of the outside air invaded the room, odourous with the reek of the soaking earth, redolent with fertility, pungent, heavy, tepid. He closed the window again and sat for a few moments on the edge of the bed, one shoe in his hand, thoughtful and absorbed, wondering if his father would involve himself in this new scheme, wondering if, after all, he wanted him to.
But suddenly he was aware of a commotion, issuing from the direction of Annixter’s room, and the voice of Annixter himself upraised in expostulation and exasperation. The door of the room to which Annixter had been assigned opened with a violent wrench and an angry voice exclaimed to anybody who would listen:
“Oh, yes, funny, isn’t it? In a way, it’s funny, and then, again, in a way it isn’t.”
The door banged to so that all the windows of the house rattled in their frames.
Harran hurried out into the dining-room and there met Presley and his father, who had been aroused as well by Annixter’s clamour. Osterman was there, too, his bald head gleaming like a bulb of ivory in the light of the lamp that Magnus carried.
“What’s all up?” demanded Osterman. “Whatever in the world is the matter with Buck?”
Confused and terrible sounds came from behind the door of Annixter’s room. A prolonged monologue of grievance, broken by explosions of wrath and the vague noise of some one in a furious hurry. All at once and before Harran had a chance to knock on the door, Annixter flung it open. His face was blazing with anger, his outthrust lip more prominent than ever, his wiry, yellow hair in disarray, the tuft on the crown sticking straight into the air like the upraised hackles of an angry hound. Evidently he had been dressing himself with the most headlong rapidity; he had not yet put on his coat and vest, but carried them over his arm, while with his disengaged hand he kept hitching his suspenders over his shoulders with a persistent and hypnotic gesture. Without a moment’s pause he gave vent to his indignation in a torrent of words.
“Ah, yes, in my bed, sloop, aha! I know the man who put it there,” he went on, glaring at Osterman, “and that man is a PIP. Sloop! Slimy, disgusting stuff; you heard me say I didn’t like it when the Chink passed it to me at dinner—and just for that reason you put it in my bed, and I stick my feet into it when I turn in. Funny, isn’t it? Oh, yes, too funny for any use. I’d laugh a little louder if I was you.”
“Well, Buck,” protested Harran, as he noticed the hat in Annixter’s hand, “you’re not going home just for——”
Annixter turned on him with a shout.
“I’ll get plumb out of here,” he trumpeted. “I won’t stay here another minute.”
He swung into his waistcoat and coat, scrabbling at the buttons in the violence of his emotions. “And I don’t know but what it will make me sick again to go out in a night like this. NO, I won’t stay. Some things are funny, and then, again, there are some things that are not. Ah, yes, sloop! Well, that’s all right. I can be funny, too, when you come to that. You don’t get a cent of money out of me. You can do your dirty bribery in your own dirty way. I won’t come into this scheme at all. I wash my hands of the whole business. It’s rotten and it’s wild-eyed; it’s dirt from start to finish; and you’ll all land in State’s prison. You can count me out.”
“But, Buck, look here, you crazy fool,” cried Harran, “I don’t know who put that stuff in your bed, but I’m not going; to let you go back to Quien Sabe in a rain like this.”
“I know who put it in,” clamoured the other, shaking his fists, “and don’t call me Buck and I’ll do as I please. I WILL go back home. I’ll get plumb out of here. Sorry I came. Sorry I ever lent myself to such a disgusting, dishonest, dirty bribery game as this all to-night. I won’t put a dime into it, no, not a penny.”
He stormed to the door leading out upon the porch, deaf to all reason. Harran and Presley followed him, trying to dissuade him from going home at that time of night and in such a storm, but Annixter was not to be placated. He stamped across to the barn where his horse and buggy had been stabled, splashing through the puddles under foot, going out of his way to drench himself, refusing even to allow Presley and Harran to help him harness the horse.
“What’s the use of making a fool of yourself, Annixter?” remonstrated Presley, as Annixter backed the horse from the stall. “You act just like a ten-year-old boy. If Osterman wants to play the goat, why should you help him out?”
“He’s a PIP,” vociferated Annixter. “You don’t understand, Presley. It runs in my family to hate anything sticky. It’s—it’s—it’s heredity. How would you like to get into bed at two in the morning and jam your feet down into a slimy mess like that? Oh, no. It’s not so funny then. And you mark my words, Mr. Harran Derrick,” he continued, as he climbed into the buggy, shaking the whip toward Harran, “this business we talked over to-night—I’m OUT of it. It’s yellow. It’s too CURSED dishonest.”
He cut the horse across the back with the whip and drove out into the pelting rain. In a few seconds the sound of his buggy wheels was lost in the muffled roar of the downpour.
Harran and Presley closed the barn and returned to the house, sheltering themselves under a tarpaulin carriage cover. Once inside, Harran went to remonstrate with Osterman, who was still up. Magnus had again retired. The house had fallen quiet again.
As Presley crossed the dining-room on the way to his own apartment in the second story of the house, he paused for a moment, looking about him. In the dull light of the lowered lamps, the redwood panelling of the room showed a dark crimson as though stained with blood. On the massive slab of the dining table the half-emptied glasses and bottles stood about in the confusion in which they had been left, reflecting themselves deep into the polished wood; the glass doors of the case of stuffed birds was a subdued shimmer; the many-coloured Navajo blanket over the couch seemed a mere patch of brown.
Around the table the chairs in which the men had sat throughout the evening still ranged themselves in a semi-circle, vaguely suggestive of the conference of the past few hours, with all its possibilities of good and evil, its significance of a future big with portent. The room was still. Only on the cushions of the chair that Annixter had occupied, the cat, Princess Nathalie, at last comfortably settled in her accustomed place, dozed complacently, her paws tucked under her breast, filling the deserted room with the subdued murmur of her contented purr.