It was high noon, and the rays of the sun, that hung poised directly overhead in an intolerable white glory, fell straight as plummets upon the roofs and streets of Guadalajara. The adobe walls and sparse brick sidewalks of the drowsing town radiated the heat in an oily, quivering shimmer. The leaves of the eucalyptus trees around the Plaza drooped motionless, limp and relaxed under the scorching, searching blaze. The shadows of these trees had shrunk to their smallest circumference, contracting close about the trunks. The shade had dwindled to the breadth of a mere line. The sun was everywhere. The heat exhaling from brick and plaster and metal met the heat that steadily descended blanketwise and smothering, from the pale, scorched sky. Only the lizards—they lived in chinks of the crumbling adobe and in interstices of the sidewalk—remained without, motionless, as if stuffed, their eyes closed to mere slits, basking, stupefied with heat. At long intervals the prolonged drone of an insect developed out of the silence, vibrated a moment in a soothing, somnolent, long note, then trailed slowly into the quiet again. Somewhere in the interior of one of the ‘dobe houses a guitar snored and hummed sleepily. On the roof of the hotel a group of pigeons cooed incessantly with subdued, liquid murmurs, very plaintive; a cat, perfectly white, with a pink nose and thin, pink lips, dozed complacently on a fence rail, full in the sun. In a corner of the Plaza three hens wallowed in the baking hot dust their wings fluttering, clucking comfortably.
And this was all. A Sunday repose prevailed the whole moribund town, peaceful, profound. A certain pleasing numbness, a sense of grateful enervation exhaled from the scorching plaster. There was no movement, no sound of human business. The faint hum of the insect, the intermittent murmur of the guitar, the mellow complainings of the pigeons, the prolonged purr of the white cat, the contented clucking of the hens—all these noises mingled together to form a faint, drowsy bourdon, prolonged, stupefying, suggestive of an infinite quiet, of a calm, complacent life, centuries old, lapsing gradually to its end under the gorgeous loneliness of a cloudless, pale blue sky and the steady fire of an interminable sun.
In Solotari’s Spanish-Mexican restaurant, Vanamee and Presley sat opposite each other at one of the tables near the door, a bottle of white wine, tortillas, and an earthen pot of frijoles between them. They were the sole occupants of the place. It was the day that Annixter had chosen for his barn-dance and, in consequence, Quien Sabe was in fete and work suspended. Presley and Vanamee had arranged to spend the day in each other’s company, lunching at Solotari’s and taking a long tramp in the afternoon. For the moment they sat back in their chairs, their meal all but finished. Solotari brought black coffee and a small carafe of mescal, and retiring to a corner of the room, went to sleep.
All through the meal Presley had been wondering over a certain change he observed in his friend. He looked at him again.
Vanamee’s lean, spare face was of an olive pallor. His long, black hair, such as one sees in the saints and evangelists of the pre-Raphaelite artists, hung over his ears. Presley again remarked his pointed beard, black and fine, growing from the hollow cheeks. He looked at his face, a face like that of a young seer, like a half-inspired shepherd of the Hebraic legends, a dweller in the wilderness, gifted with strange powers. He was dressed as when Presley had first met him, herding his sheep, in brown canvas overalls, thrust into top boots; grey flannel shirt, open at the throat, showing the breast ruddy with tan; the waist encircled with a cartridge belt, empty of cartridges.
But now, as Presley took more careful note of him, he was surprised to observe a certain new look in Vanamee’s deep-set eyes. He remembered now that all through the morning Vanamee had been singularly reserved. He was continually drifting into reveries, abstracted, distrait. Indubitably, something of moment had happened.
At length Vanamee spoke. Leaning back in his chair, his thumbs in his belt, his bearded chin upon his breast, his voice was the even monotone of one speaking in his sleep.
He told Presley in a few words what had happened during the first night he had spent in the garden of the old Mission, of the Answer, half-fancied, half-real, that had come to him.
“To no other person but you would I speak of this,” he said, “but you, I think, will understand—will be sympathetic, at least, and I feel the need of unburdening myself of it to some one. At first I would not trust my own senses. I was sure I had deceived myself, but on a second night it happened again. Then I was afraid—or no, not afraid, but disturbed—oh, shaken to my very heart’s core. I resolved to go no further in the matter, never again to put it to test. For a long time I stayed away from the Mission, occupying myself with my work, keeping it out of my mind. But the temptation was too strong. One night I found myself there again, under the black shadow of the pear trees calling for Angele, summoning her from out the dark, from out the night. This time the Answer was prompt, unmistakable. I cannot explain to you what it was, nor how it came to me, for there was no sound. I saw absolutely nothing but the empty night. There was no moon. But somewhere off there over the little valley, far off, the darkness was troubled; that ME that went out upon my thought—out from the Mission garden, out over the valley, calling for her, searching for her, found, I don’t know what, but found a resting place—a companion. Three times since then I have gone to the Mission garden at night. Last night was the third time.”
He paused, his eyes shining with excitement. Presley leaned forward toward him, motionless with intense absorption.
“Well—and last night,” he prompted.
Vanamee stirred in his seat, his glance fell, he drummed an instant upon the table.
“Last night,” he answered, “there was—there was a change. The Answer was—” he drew a deep breath—“nearer.”
“You are sure?”
The other smiled with absolute certainty.
“It was not that I found the Answer sooner, easier. I could not be mistaken. No, that which has troubled the darkness, that which has entered into the empty night—is coming nearer to me—physically nearer, actually nearer.”
His voice sank again. His face like the face of younger prophets, the seers, took on a half-inspired expression. He looked vaguely before him with unseeing eyes.
“Suppose,” he murmured, “suppose I stand there under the pear trees at night and call her again and again, and each time the Answer comes nearer and nearer and I wait until at last one night, the supreme night of all, she—she——”
Suddenly the tension broke. With a sharp cry and a violent uncertain gesture of the hand Vanamee came to himself.
“Oh,” he exclaimed, “what is it? Do I dare? What does it mean? There are times when it appals me and there are times when it thrills me with a sweetness and a happiness that I have not known since she died. The vagueness of it! How can I explain it to you, this that happens when I call to her across the night—that faint, far-off, unseen tremble in the darkness, that intangible, scarcely perceptible stir. Something neither heard nor seen, appealing to a sixth sense only. Listen, it is something like this: On Quien Sabe, all last week, we have been seeding the earth. The grain is there now under the earth buried in the dark, in the black stillness, under the clods. Can you imagine the first—the very first little quiver of life that the grain of wheat must feel after it is sown, when it answers to the call of the sun, down there in the dark of the earth, blind, deaf; the very first stir from the inert, long, long before any physical change has occurred,—long before the microscope could discover the slightest change,—when the shell first tightens with the first faint premonition of life? Well, it is something as illusive as that.” He paused again, dreaming, lost in a reverie, then, just above a whisper, murmured:
“‘That which thou sowest is not quickened except it die,’... and she, Angele... died.”
“You could not have been mistaken?” said Presley. “You were sure that there was something? Imagination can do so much and the influence of the surroundings was strong. How impossible it would be that anything SHOULD happen. And you say you heard nothing, saw nothing.”
“I believe,” answered Vanamee, “in a sixth sense, or, rather, a whole system of other unnamed senses beyond the reach of our understanding. People who live much alone and close to nature experience the sensation of it. Perhaps it is something fundamental that we share with plants and animals. The same thing that sends the birds south long before the first colds, the same thing that makes the grain of wheat struggle up to meet the sun. And this sense never deceives. You may see wrong, hear wrong, but once touch this sixth sense and it acts with absolute fidelity, you are certain. No, I hear nothing in the Mission garden. I see nothing, nothing touches me, but I am CERTAIN for all that.”
Presley hesitated for a moment, then he asked:
“Shall you go back to the garden again? Make the test again?” “I don’t know.”
“Strange enough,” commented Presley, wondering.
Vanamee sank back in his chair, his eyes growing vacant again:
“Strange enough,” he murmured.
There was a long silence. Neither spoke nor moved. There, in that moribund, ancient town, wrapped in its siesta, flagellated with heat, deserted, ignored, baking in a noon-day silence, these two strange men, the one a poet by nature, the other by training, both out of tune with their world, dreamers, introspective, morbid, lost and unfamiliar at that end-of-the-century time, searching for a sign, groping and baffled amidst the perplexing obscurity of the Delusion, sat over empty wine glasses, silent with the pervading silence that surrounded them, hearing only the cooing of doves and the drone of bees, the quiet so profound, that at length they could plainly distinguish at intervals the puffing and coughing of a locomotive switching cars in the station yard of Bonneville.
It was, no doubt, this jarring sound that at length roused Presley from his lethargy. The two friends rose; Solotari very sleepily came forward; they paid for the luncheon, and stepping out into the heat and glare of the streets of the town, passed on through it and took the road that led northward across a corner of Dyke’s hop fields. They were bound for the hills in the northeastern corner of Quien Sabe. It was the same walk which Presley had taken on the previous occasion when he had first met Vanamee herding the sheep. This encompassing detour around the whole country-side was a favorite pastime of his and he was anxious that Vanamee should share his pleasure in it.
But soon after leaving Guadalajara, they found themselves upon the land that Dyke had bought and upon which he was to raise his famous crop of hops. Dyke’s house was close at hand, a very pleasant little cottage, painted white, with green blinds and deep porches, while near it and yet in process of construction, were two great storehouses and a drying and curing house, where the hops were to be stored and treated. All about were evidences that the former engineer had already been hard at work. The ground had been put in readiness to receive the crop and a bewildering, innumerable multitude of poles, connected with a maze of wire and twine, had been set out. Farther on at a turn of the road, they came upon Dyke himself, driving a farm wagon loaded with more poles. He was in his shirt sleeves, his massive, hairy arms bare to the elbow, glistening with sweat, red with heat. In his bell-like, rumbling voice, he was calling to his foreman and a boy at work in stringing the poles together. At sight of Presley and Vanamee he hailed them jovially, addressing them as “boys,” and insisting that they should get into the wagon with him and drive to the house for a glass of beer. His mother had only the day before returned from Marysville, where she had been looking up a seminary for the little tad. She would be delighted to see the two boys; besides, Vanamee must see how the little tad had grown since he last set eyes on her; wouldn’t know her for the same little girl; and the beer had been on ice since morning. Presley and Vanamee could not well refuse.
They climbed into the wagon and jolted over the uneven ground through the bare forest of hop-poles to the house. Inside they found Mrs. Dyke, an old lady with a very gentle face, who wore a cap and a very old-fashioned gown with hoop skirts, dusting the what-not in a corner of the parlor. The two men were presented and the beer was had from off the ice.
“Mother,” said Dyke, as he wiped the froth from his great blond beard, “ain’t Sid anywheres about? I want Mr. Vanamee to see how she has grown. Smartest little tad in Tulare County, boys. Can recite the whole of ‘Snow Bound,’ end to end, without skipping or looking at the book. Maybe you don’t believe that. Mother, ain’t I right—without skipping a line, hey?”
Mrs. Dyke nodded to say that it was so, but explained that Sidney was in Guadalajara. In putting on her new slippers for the first time the morning before, she had found a dime in the toe of one of them and had had the whole house by the ears ever since till she could spend it.
“Was it for licorice to make her licorice water?” inquired Dyke gravely.
“Yes,” said Mrs. Dyke. “I made her tell me what she was going to get before she went, and it was licorice.”
Dyke, though his mother protested that he was foolish and that Presley and Vanamee had no great interest in “young ones,” insisted upon showing the visitors Sidney’s copy-books. They were monuments of laborious, elaborate neatness, the trite moralities and ready-made aphorisms of the philanthropists and publicists, repeated from page to page with wearying insistence. “I, too, am an American Citizen. S. D.,” “As the Twig is Bent the Tree is Inclined,” “Truth Crushed to Earth Will Rise Again,” “As for Me, Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death,” and last of all, a strange intrusion amongst the mild, well-worn phrases, two legends. “My motto—Public Control of Public Franchises,” and “The P. and S. W. is an Enemy of the State.”
“I see,” commented Presley, “you mean the little tad to understand ‘the situation’ early.”
“I told him he was foolish to give that to Sid to copy,” said Mrs. Dyke, with indulgent remonstrance. “What can she understand of public franchises?”
“Never mind,” observed Dyke, “she’ll remember it when she grows up and when the seminary people have rubbed her up a bit, and then she’ll begin to ask questions and understand. And don’t you make any mistake, mother,” he went on, “about the little tad not knowing who her dad’s enemies are. What do you think, boys? Listen, here. Precious little I’ve ever told her of the railroad or how I was turned off, but the other day I was working down by the fence next the railroad tracks and Sid was there. She’d brought her doll rags down and she was playing house behind a pile of hop poles. Well, along comes a through freight—mixed train from Missouri points and a string of empties from New Orleans,—and when it had passed, what do you suppose the tad did? SHE didn’t know I was watching her. She goes to the fence and spits a little spit after the caboose and puts out her little head and, if you’ll believe me, HISSES at the train; and mother says she does that same every time she sees a train go by, and never crosses the tracks that she don’t spit her little spit on ‘em. What do you THINK of THAT?”
“But I correct her every time,” protested Mrs. Dyke seriously. “Where she picked up the trick of hissing I don’t know. No, it’s not funny. It seems dreadful to see a little girl who’s as sweet and gentle as can be in every other way, so venomous. She says the other little girls at school and the boys, too, are all the same way. Oh, dear,” she sighed, “why will the General Office be so unkind and unjust? Why, I couldn’t be happy, with all the money in the world, if I thought that even one little child hated me—hated me so that it would spit and hiss at me. And it’s not one child, it’s all of them, so Sidney says; and think of all the grown people who hate the road, women and men, the whole county, the whole State, thousands and thousands of people. Don’t the managers and the directors of the road ever think of that? Don’t they ever think of all the hate that surrounds them, everywhere, everywhere, and the good people that just grit their teeth when the name of the road is mentioned? Why do they want to make the people hate them? No,” she murmured, the tears starting to her eyes, “No, I tell you, Mr. Presley, the men who own the railroad are wicked, bad-hearted men who don’t care how much the poor people suffer, so long as the road makes its eighteen million a year. They don’t care whether the people hate them or love them, just so long as they are afraid of them. It’s not right and God will punish them sooner or later.”
A little after this the two young men took themselves away, Dyke obligingly carrying them in the wagon as far as the gate that opened into the Quien Sabe ranch. On the way, Presley referred to what Mrs. Dyke had said and led Dyke, himself, to speak of the P. and S. W.
“Well,” Dyke said, “it’s like this, Mr. Presley. I, personally, haven’t got the right to kick. With you wheat-growing people I guess it’s different, but hops, you see, don’t count for much in the State. It’s such a little business that the road don’t want to bother themselves to tax it. It’s the wheat growers that the road cinches. The rates on hops ARE FAIR. I’ve got to admit that; I was in to Bonneville a while ago to find out. It’s two cents a pound, and Lord love you, that’s reasonable enough to suit any man. No,” he concluded, “I’m on the way to make money now. The road sacking me as they did was, maybe, a good thing for me, after all. It came just at the right time. I had a bit of money put by and here was the chance to go into hops with the certainty that hops would quadruple and quintuple in price inside the year. No, it was my chance, and though they didn’t mean it by a long chalk, the railroad people did me a good turn when they gave me my time—and the tad’ll enter the seminary next fall.”
About a quarter of an hour after they had said goodbye to the one-time engineer, Presley and Vanamee, tramping briskly along the road that led northward through Quien Sabe, arrived at Annixter’s ranch house. At once they were aware of a vast and unwonted bustle that revolved about the place. They stopped a few moments looking on, amused and interested in what was going forward.
The colossal barn was finished. Its freshly white-washed sides glared intolerably in the sun, but its interior was as yet innocent of paint and through the yawning vent of the sliding doors came a delicious odour of new, fresh wood and shavings. A crowd of men—Annixter’s farm hands—were swarming all about it. Some were balanced on the topmost rounds of ladders, hanging festoons of Japanese lanterns from tree to tree, and all across the front of the barn itself. Mrs. Tree, her daughter Hilma and another woman were inside the barn cutting into long strips bolt after bolt of red, white and blue cambric and directing how these strips should be draped from the ceiling and on the walls; everywhere resounded the tapping of tack hammers. A farm wagon drove up loaded to overflowing with evergreens and with great bundles of palm leaves, and these were immediately seized upon and affixed as supplementary decorations to the tri-coloured cambric upon the inside walls of the barn. Two of the larger evergreen trees were placed on either side the barn door and their tops bent over to form an arch. In the middle of this arch it was proposed to hang a mammoth pasteboard escutcheon with gold letters, spelling the word WELCOME. Piles of chairs, rented from I.O.O.F. hall in Bonneville, heaped themselves in an apparently hopeless entanglement on the ground; while at the far extremity of the barn a couple of carpenters clattered about the impromptu staging which was to accommodate the band.
There was a strenuous gayety in the air; everybody was in the best of spirits. Notes of laughter continually interrupted the conversation on every hand. At every moment a group of men involved themselves in uproarious horse-play. They passed oblique jokes behind their hands to each other—grossly veiled double-meanings meant for the women—and bellowed with laughter thereat, stamping on the ground. The relations between the sexes grew more intimate, the women and girls pushing the young fellows away from their sides with vigorous thrusts of their elbows. It was passed from group to group that Adela Vacca, a division superintendent’s wife, had lost her garter; the daughter of the foreman of the Home ranch was kissed behind the door of the dairy-house.
Annixter, in execrable temper, appeared from time to time, hatless, his stiff yellow hair in wild disorder. He hurried between the barn and the ranch house, carrying now a wickered demijohn, now a case of wine, now a basket of lemons and pineapples. Besides general supervision, he had elected to assume the responsibility of composing the punch—something stiff, by jingo, a punch that would raise you right out of your boots; a regular hairlifter.
The harness room of the barn he had set apart for: himself and intimates. He had brought a long table down from the house and upon it had set out boxes of cigars, bottles of whiskey and of beer and the great china bowls for the punch. It would be no fault of his, he declared, if half the number of his men friends were not uproarious before they left. His barn dance would be the talk of all Tulare County for years to come. For this one day he had resolved to put all thoughts of business out of his head. For the matter of that, things were going well enough. Osterman was back from Los Angeles with a favourable report as to his affair with Disbrow and Darrell. There had been another meeting of the committee. Harran Derrick had attended. Though he had taken no part in the discussion, Annixter was satisfied. The Governor had consented to allow Harran to “come in,” if he so desired, and Harran had pledged himself to share one-sixth of the campaign expenses, providing these did not exceed a certain figure.
As Annixter came to the door of the barn to shout abuse at the distraught Chinese cook who was cutting up lemons in the kitchen, he caught sight of Presley and Vanamee and hailed them.
“Hello, Pres,” he called. “Come over here and see how she looks;” he indicated the barn with a movement of his head. “Well, we’re getting ready for you tonight,” he went on as the two friends came up. “But how we are going to get straightened out by eight o’clock I don’t know. Would you believe that pip Caraher is short of lemons—at this last minute and I told him I’d want three cases of ‘em as much as a month ago, and here, just when I want a good lively saddle horse to get around on, somebody hikes the buckskin out the corral. STOLE her, by jingo. I’ll have the law on that thief if it breaks me—and a sixty-dollar saddle ‘n’ head-stall gone with her; and only about half the number of Jap lanterns that I ordered have shown up and not candles enough for those. It’s enough to make a dog sick. There’s nothing done that you don’t do yourself, unless you stand over these loafers with a club. I’m sick of the whole business—and I’ve lost my hat; wish to God I’d never dreamed of givin’ this rotten fool dance. Clutter the whole place up with a lot of feemales. I sure did lose my presence of mind when I got THAT idea.”
Then, ignoring the fact that it was he, himself, who had called the young men to him, he added:
“Well, this is my busy day. Sorry I can’t stop and talk to you longer.”
He shouted a last imprecation at the Chinaman and turned back into the barn. Presley and Vanamee went on, but Annixter, as he crossed the floor of the barn, all but collided with Hilma Tree, who came out from one of the stalls, a box of candles in her arms.
Gasping out an apology, Annixter reentered the harness room, closing the door behind him, and forgetting all the responsibility of the moment, lit a cigar and sat down in one of the hired chairs, his hands in his pockets, his feet on the table, frowning thoughtfully through the blue smoke.
Annixter was at last driven to confess to himself that he could not get the thought of Hilma Tree out of his mind. Finally she had “got a hold on him.” The thing that of all others he most dreaded had happened. A feemale girl had got a hold on him, and now there was no longer for him any such thing as peace of mind. The idea of the young woman was with him continually. He went to bed with it; he got up with it. At every moment of the day he was pestered with it. It interfered with his work, got mixed up in his business. What a miserable confession for a man to make; a fine way to waste his time. Was it possible that only the other day he had stood in front of the music store in Bonneville and seriously considered making Hilma a present of a music-box? Even now, the very thought of it made him flush with shame, and this after she had told him plainly that she did not like him. He was running after her—he, Annixter! He ripped out a furious oath, striking the table with his boot heel. Again and again he had resolved to put the whole affair from out his mind. Once he had been able to do so, but of late it was becoming harder and harder with every successive day. He had only to close his eyes to see her as plain as if she stood before him; he saw her in a glory of sunlight that set a fine tinted lustre of pale carnation and gold on the silken sheen of her white skin, her hair sparkled with it, her thick, strong neck, sloping to her shoulders with beautiful, full curves, seemed to radiate the light; her eyes, brown, wide, innocent in expression, disclosing the full disc of the pupil upon the slightest provocation, flashed in this sunlight like diamonds.
Annixter was all bewildered. With the exception of the timid little creature in the glove-cleaning establishment in Sacramento, he had had no acquaintance with any woman. His world was harsh, crude, a world of men only—men who were to be combatted, opposed—his hand was against nearly every one of them. Women he distrusted with the instinctive distrust of the overgrown schoolboy. Now, at length, a young woman had come into his life. Promptly he was struck with discomfiture, annoyed almost beyond endurance, harassed, bedevilled, excited, made angry and exasperated. He was suspicious of the woman, yet desired her, totally ignorant of how to approach her, hating the sex, yet drawn to the individual, confusing the two emotions, sometimes even hating Hilma as a result of this confusion, but at all times disturbed, vexed, irritated beyond power of expression.
At length, Annixter cast his cigar from him and plunged again into the work of the day. The afternoon wore to evening, to the accompaniment of wearying and clamorous endeavour. In some unexplained fashion, the labour of putting the great barn in readiness for the dance was accomplished; the last bolt of cambric was hung in place from the rafters. The last evergreen tree was nailed to the joists of the walls; the last lantern hung, the last nail driven into the musicians’ platform. The sun set. There was a great scurry to have supper and dress. Annixter, last of all the other workers, left the barn in the dusk of twilight. He was alone; he had a saw under one arm, a bag of tools was in his hand. He was in his shirt sleeves and carried his coat over his shoulder; a hammer was thrust into one of his hip pockets. He was in execrable temper. The day’s work had fagged him out. He had not been able to find his hat.
“And the buckskin with sixty dollars’ worth of saddle gone, too,” he groaned. “Oh, ain’t it sweet?”
At his house, Mrs. Tree had set out a cold supper for him, the inevitable dish of prunes serving as dessert. After supper Annixter bathed and dressed. He decided at the last moment to wear his usual town-going suit, a sack suit of black, made by a Bonneville tailor. But his hat was gone. There were other hats he might have worn, but because this particular one was lost he fretted about it all through his dressing and then decided to have one more look around the barn for it.
For over a quarter of an hour he pottered about the barn, going from stall to stall, rummaging the harness room and feed room, all to no purpose. At last he came out again upon the main floor, definitely giving up the search, looking about him to see if everything was in order.
The festoons of Japanese lanterns in and around the barn were not yet lighted, but some half-dozen lamps, with great, tin reflectors, that hung against the walls, were burning low. A dull half light pervaded the vast interior, hollow, echoing, leaving the corners and roof thick with impenetrable black shadows. The barn faced the west and through the open sliding doors was streaming a single bright bar from the after-glow, incongruous and out of all harmony with the dull flare of the kerosene lamps.
As Annixter glanced about him, he saw a figure step briskly out of the shadows of one corner of the building, pause for the fraction of one instant in the bar of light, then, at sight of him, dart back again. There was a sound of hurried footsteps.
Annixter, with recollections of the stolen buckskin in his mind, cried out sharply:
There was no answer. In a second his pistol was in his hand.
“Who’s there? Quick, speak up or I’ll shoot.”
“No, no, no, don’t shoot,” cried an answering voice. “Oh, be careful. It’s I—Hilma Tree.”
Annixter slid the pistol into his pocket with a great qualm of apprehension. He came forward and met Hilma in the doorway.
“Good Lord,” he murmured, “that sure did give me a start. If I HAD shot——”
Hilma stood abashed and confused before him. She was dressed in a white organdie frock of the most rigorous simplicity and wore neither flower nor ornament. The severity of her dress made her look even larger than usual, and even as it was her eyes were on a level with Annixter’s. There was a certain fascination in the contradiction of stature and character of Hilma—a great girl, half-child as yet, but tall as a man for all that.
There was a moment’s awkward silence, then Hilma explained:
“I—I came back to look for my hat. I thought I left it here this afternoon.”
“And I was looking for my hat,” cried Annixter. “Funny enough, hey?”
They laughed at this as heartily as children might have done. The constraint of the situation was a little relaxed and Annixter, with sudden directness, glanced sharply at the young woman and demanded:
“Well, Miss Hilma, hate me as much as ever?”
“Oh, no, sir,” she answered, “I never said I hated you.”
“Well,—dislike me, then; I know you said that.”
“I—I disliked what you did—TRIED to do. It made me angry and it hurt me. I shouldn’t have said what I did that time, but it was your fault.”
“You mean you shouldn’t have said you didn’t like me?” asked Annixter. “Why?”
“Well, well,—I don’t—I don’t DISlike anybody,” admitted Hilma.
“Then I can take it that you don’t dislike ME? Is that it?”
“I don’t dislike anybody,” persisted Hilma.
“Well, I asked you more than that, didn’t I?” queried Annixter uneasily. “I asked you to like me, remember, the other day. I’m asking you that again, now. I want you to like me.”
Hilma lifted her eyes inquiringly to his. In her words was an unmistakable ring of absolute sincerity. Innocently she inquired:
Annixter was struck speechless. In the face of such candour, such perfect ingenuousness, he was at a loss for any words.
“Well—well,” he stammered, “well—I don’t know,” he suddenly burst out. “That is,” he went on, groping for his wits, “I can’t quite say why.” The idea of a colossal lie occurred to him, a thing actually royal.
“I like to have the people who are around me like me,” he declared. “I—I like to be popular, understand? Yes, that’s it,” he continued, more reassured. “I don’t like the idea of any one disliking me. That’s the way I am. It’s my nature.”
“Oh, then,” returned Hilma, “you needn’t bother. No, I don’t dislike you.”
“Well, that’s good,” declared Annixter judicially. “That’s good. But hold on,” he interrupted, “I’m forgetting. It’s not enough to not dislike me. I want you to like me. How about THAT?”
Hilma paused for a moment, glancing vaguely out of the doorway toward the lighted window of the dairy-house, her head tilted.
“I don’t know that I ever thought about that,” she said.
“Well, think about it now,” insisted Annixter.
“But I never thought about liking anybody particularly,” she observed. “It’s because I like everybody, don’t you see?”
“Well, you’ve got to like some people more than other people,” hazarded Annixter, “and I want to be one of those ‘some people,’ savvy? Good Lord, I don’t know how to say these fool things. I talk like a galoot when I get talking to feemale girls and I can’t lay my tongue to anything that sounds right. It isn’t my nature. And look here, I lied when I said I liked to have people like me—to be popular. Rot! I don’t care a curse about people’s opinions of me. But there’s a few people that are more to me than most others—that chap Presley, for instance—and those people I DO want to have like me. What they think counts. Pshaw! I know I’ve got enemies; piles of them. I could name you half a dozen men right now that are naturally itching to take a shot at me. How about this ranch? Don’t I know, can’t I hear the men growling oaths under their breath after I’ve gone by? And in business ways, too,” he went on, speaking half to himself, “in Bonneville and all over the county there’s not a man of them wouldn’t howl for joy if they got a chance to down Buck Annixter. Think I care? Why, I LIKE it. I run my ranch to suit myself and I play my game my own way. I’m a ‘driver,’ I know it, and a ‘bully,’ too. Oh, I know what they call me—‘a brute beast, with a twist in my temper that would rile up a new-born lamb,’ and I’m ‘crusty’ and ‘pig-headed’ and ‘obstinate.’ They say all that, but they’ve got to say, too, that I’m cleverer than any man-jack in the running. There’s nobody can get ahead of me.” His eyes snapped. “Let ‘em grind their teeth. They can’t ‘down’ me. When I shut my fist there’s not one of them can open it. No, not with a CHISEL.” He turned to Hilma again. “Well, when a man’s hated as much as that, it stands to reason, don’t it, Miss Hilma, that the few friends he has got he wants to keep? I’m not such an entire swine to the people that know me best—that jackass, Presley, for instance. I’d put my hand in the fire to do him a real service. Sometimes I get kind of lonesome; wonder if you would understand? It’s my fault, but there’s not a horse about the place that don’t lay his ears back when I get on him; there’s not a dog don’t put his tail between his legs as soon as I come near him. The cayuse isn’t foaled yet here on Quien Sabe that can throw me, nor the dog whelped that would dare show his teeth at me. I kick that Irish setter every time I see him—but wonder what I’d do, though, if he didn’t slink so much, if he wagged his tail and was glad to see me? So it all comes to this: I’d like to have you—well, sort of feel that I was a good friend of yours and like me because of it.”
The flame in the lamp on the wall in front of Hilma stretched upward tall and thin and began to smoke. She went over to where the lamp hung and, standing on tip-toe, lowered the wick. As she reached her hand up, Annixter noted how the sombre, lurid red of the lamp made a warm reflection on her smooth, round arm.
“Do you understand?” he queried.
“Yes, why, yes,” she answered, turning around. “It’s very good of you to want to be a friend of mine. I didn’t think so, though, when you tried to kiss me. But maybe it’s all right since you’ve explained things. You see I’m different from you. I like everybody to like me and I like to like everybody. It makes one so much happier. You wouldn’t believe it, but you ought to try it, sir, just to see. It’s so good to be good to people and to have people good to you. And everybody has always been so good to me. Mamma and papa, of course, and Billy, the stableman, and Montalegre, the Portugee foreman, and the Chinese cook, even, and Mr. Delaney—only he went away—and Mrs. Vacca and her little——”
“Delaney, hey?” demanded Annixter abruptly. “You and he were pretty good friends, were you?”
“Oh, yes,” she answered. “He was just as GOOD to me. Every day in the summer time he used to ride over to the Seed ranch back of the Mission and bring me a great armful of flowers, the prettiest things, and I used to pretend to pay him for them with dollars made of cheese that I cut out of the cheese with a biscuit cutter. It was such fun. We were the best of friends.”
“There’s another lamp smoking,” growled Annixter. “Turn it down, will you?—and see that somebody sweeps this floor here. It’s all littered up with pine needles. I’ve got a lot to do. Good-bye.”
Annixter returned to the ranch house, his teeth clenched, enraged, his face flushed.
“Ah,” he muttered, “Delaney, hey? Throwing it up to me that I fired him.” His teeth gripped together more fiercely than ever. “The best of friends, hey? By God, I’ll have that girl yet. I’ll show that cow-puncher. Ain’t I her employer, her boss? I’ll show her—and Delaney, too. It would be easy enough—and then Delaney can have her—if he wants her—after me.”
An evil light flashing from under his scowl, spread over his face. The male instincts of possession, unreasoned, treacherous, oblique, came twisting to the surface. All the lower nature of the man, ignorant of women, racked at one and the same time with enmity and desire, roused itself like a hideous and abominable beast. And at the same moment, Hilma returned to her house, humming to herself as she walked, her white dress glowing with a shimmer of faint saffron light in the last ray of the after-glow.
A little after half-past seven, the first carry-all, bearing the druggist of Bonneville and his women-folk, arrived in front of the new barn. Immediately afterward an express wagon loaded down with a swarming family of Spanish-Mexicans, gorgeous in red and yellow colours, followed. Billy, the stableman, and his assistant took charge of the teams, unchecking the horses and hitching them to a fence back of the barn. Then Caraher, the saloon-keeper, in “derby” hat, “Prince Albert” coat, pointed yellow shoes and inevitable red necktie, drove into the yard on his buckboard, the delayed box of lemons under the seat. It looked as if the whole array of invited guests was to arrive in one unbroken procession, but for a long half-hour nobody else appeared. Annixter and Caraher withdrew to the harness room and promptly involved themselves in a wrangle as to the make-up of the famous punch. From time to time their voices could be heard uplifted in clamorous argument.
“Two quarts and a half and a cupful of chartreuse.”
“Rot, rot, I know better. Champagne straight and a dash of brandy.”
The druggist’s wife and sister retired to the feed room, where a bureau with a swinging mirror had been placed for the convenience of the women. The druggist stood awkwardly outside the door of the feed room, his coat collar turned up against the draughts that drifted through the barn, his face troubled, debating anxiously as to the propriety of putting on his gloves. The Spanish-Mexican family, a father, mother and five children and sister-in-law, sat rigid on the edges of the hired chairs, silent, constrained, their eyes lowered, their elbows in at their sides, glancing furtively from under their eyebrows at the decorations or watching with intense absorption young Vacca, son of one of the division superintendents, who wore a checked coat and white thread gloves and who paced up and down the length of the barn, frowning, very important, whittling a wax candle over the floor to make it slippery for dancing.
The musicians arrived, the City Band of Bonneville—Annixter having managed to offend the leader of the “Dirigo” Club orchestra, at the very last moment, to such a point that he had refused his services. These members of the City Band repaired at once to their platform in the corner. At every instant they laughed uproariously among themselves, joshing one of their number, a Frenchman, whom they called “Skeezicks.” Their hilarity reverberated in a hollow, metallic roll among the rafters overhead. The druggist observed to young Vacca as he passed by that he thought them pretty fresh, just the same.
“I’m busy, I’m very busy,” returned the young man, continuing on his way, still frowning and paring the stump of candle.
“Two quarts ‘n’ a half. Two quarts ‘n’ a half.”
“Ah, yes, in a way, that’s so; and then, again, in a way, it ISN’T. I know better.”
All along one side of the barn were a row of stalls, fourteen of them, clean as yet, redolent of new cut wood, the sawdust still in the cracks of the flooring. Deliberately the druggist went from one to the other, pausing contemplatively before each. He returned down the line and again took up his position by the door of the feed room, nodding his head judicially, as if satisfied. He decided to put on his gloves.
By now it was quite dark. Outside, between the barn and the ranch houses one could see a group of men on step-ladders lighting the festoons of Japanese lanterns. In the darkness, only their faces appeared here and there, high above the ground, seen in a haze of red, strange, grotesque. Gradually as the multitude of lanterns were lit, the light spread. The grass underfoot looked like green excelsior. Another group of men invaded the barn itself, lighting the lamps and lanterns there. Soon the whole place was gleaming with points of light. Young Vacca, who had disappeared, returned with his pockets full of wax candles. He resumed his whittling, refusing to answer any questions, vociferating that he was busy.
Outside there was a sound of hoofs and voices. More guests had arrived. The druggist, seized with confusion, terrified lest he had put on his gloves too soon, thrust his hands into his pockets. It was Cutter, Magnus Derrick’s division superintendent, who came, bringing his wife and her two girl cousins. They had come fifteen miles by the trail from the far distant division house on “Four” of Los Muertos and had ridden on horseback instead of driving. Mrs. Cutter could be heard declaring that she was nearly dead and felt more like going to bed than dancing. The two girl cousins, in dresses of dotted Swiss over blue sateen, were doing their utmost to pacify her. She could be heard protesting from moment to moment. One distinguished the phrases “straight to my bed,” “back nearly broken in two,” “never wanted to come in the first place.” The druggist, observing Cutter take a pair of gloves from Mrs. Cutter’s reticule, drew his hands from his pockets.
But abruptly there was an interruption. In the musicians’ corner a scuffle broke out. A chair was overturned. There was a noise of imprecations mingled with shouts of derision. Skeezicks, the Frenchman, had turned upon the joshers.
“Ah, no,” he was heard to exclaim, “at the end of the end it is too much. Kind of a bad canary—we will go to see about that. Aha, let him close up his face before I demolish it with a good stroke of the fist.”
The men who were lighting the lanterns were obliged to intervene before he could be placated.
Hooven and his wife and daughters arrived. Minna was carrying little Hilda, already asleep, in her arms. Minna looked very pretty, striking even, with her black hair, pale face, very red lips and greenish-blue eyes. She was dressed in what had been Mrs. Hooven’s wedding gown, a cheap affair of “farmer’s satin.” Mrs. Hooven had pendent earrings of imitation jet in her ears. Hooven was wearing an old frock coat of Magnus Derrick’s, the sleeves too long, the shoulders absurdly too wide. He and Cutter at once entered into an excited conversation as to the ownership of a certain steer.
“Why, the brand——”
“Ach, Gott, der brendt,” Hooven clasped his head, “ach, der brendt, dot maks me laugh some laughs. Dot’s goot—der brendt—doand I see um—shoor der boole mit der bleck star bei der vore-head in der middle oaf. Any someones you esk tell you dot is mein boole. You esk any someones. Der brendt? To hell mit der brendt. You aindt got some memorie aboudt does ting I guess nodt.”
“Please step aside, gentlemen,” said young Vacca, who was still making the rounds of the floor.
Hooven whirled about. “Eh? What den,” he exclaimed, still excited, willing to be angry at any one for the moment. “Doand you push soh, you. I tink berhapz you doand OWN dose barn, hey?”
“I’m busy, I’m very busy.” The young man pushed by with grave preoccupation.
“Two quarts ‘n’ a half. Two quarts ‘n’ a half.”
“I know better. That’s all rot.”
But the barn was filling up rapidly. At every moment there was a rattle of a newly arrived vehicle from outside. Guest after guest appeared in the doorway, singly or in couples, or in families, or in garrulous parties of five and six. Now it was Phelps and his mother from Los Muertos, now a foreman from Broderson’s with his family, now a gayly apparelled clerk from a Bonneville store, solitary and bewildered, looking for a place to put his hat, now a couple of Spanish-Mexican girls from Guadalajara with coquettish effects of black and yellow about their dress, now a group of Osterman’s tenants, Portuguese, swarthy, with plastered hair and curled mustaches, redolent of cheap perfumes. Sarria arrived, his smooth, shiny face glistening with perspiration. He wore a new cassock and carried his broad-brimmed hat under his arm. His appearance made quite a stir. He passed from group to group, urbane, affable, shaking hands right and left; he assumed a set smile of amiability which never left his face the whole evening.
But abruptly there was a veritable sensation. From out the little crowd that persistently huddled about the doorway came Osterman. He wore a dress-suit with a white waistcoat and patent leather pumps—what a wonder! A little qualm of excitement spread around the barn. One exchanged nudges of the elbow with one’s neighbour, whispering earnestly behind the hand. What astonishing clothes! Catch on to the coat-tails! It was a masquerade costume, maybe; that goat Osterman was such a josher, one never could tell what he would do next.
The musicians began to tune up. From their corner came a medley of mellow sounds, the subdued chirps of the violins, the dull bourdon of the bass viol, the liquid gurgling of the flageolet and the deep-toned snarl of the big horn, with now and then a rasping stridulating of the snare drum. A sense of gayety began to spread throughout the assembly. At every moment the crowd increased. The aroma of new-sawn timber and sawdust began to be mingled with the feminine odour of sachet and flowers. There was a babel of talk in the air—male baritone and soprano chatter—varied by an occasional note of laughter and the swish of stiffly starched petticoats. On the row of chairs that went around three sides of the wall groups began to settle themselves. For a long time the guests huddled close to the doorway; the lower end of the floor was crowded! the upper end deserted; but by degrees the lines of white muslin and pink and blue sateen extended, dotted with the darker figures of men in black suits. The conversation grew louder as the timidity of the early moments wore off. Groups at a distance called back and forth; conversations were carried on at top voice. Once, even a whole party hurried across the floor from one side of the barn to the other.
Annixter emerged from the harness room, his face red with wrangling. He took a position to the right of the door, shaking hands with newcomers, inviting them over and over again to cut loose and whoop it along. Into the ears of his more intimate male acquaintances he dropped a word as to punch and cigars in the harness room later on, winking with vast intelligence. Ranchers from remoter parts of the country appeared: Garnett, from the Ruby rancho, Keast, from the ranch of the same name, Gethings, of the San Pablo, Chattern, of the Bonanza, and others and still others, a score of them—elderly men, for the most part, bearded, slow of speech, deliberate, dressed in broadcloth. Old Broderson, who entered with his wife on his arm, fell in with this type, and with them came a certain Dabney, of whom nothing but his name was known, a silent old man, who made no friends, whom nobody knew or spoke to, who was seen only upon such occasions as this, coming from no one knew where, going, no one cared to inquire whither.
Between eight and half-past, Magnus Derrick and his family were seen. Magnus’s entry caused no little impression. Some said: “There’s the Governor,” and called their companions’ attention to the thin, erect figure, commanding, imposing, dominating all in his immediate neighbourhood. Harran came with him, wearing a cut-away suit of black. He was undeniably handsome, young and fresh looking, his cheeks highly coloured, quite the finest looking of all the younger men; blond, strong, with that certain courtliness of manner that had always made him liked. He took his mother upon his arm and conducted her to a seat by the side of Mrs. Broderson.
Annie Derrick was very pretty that evening. She was dressed in a grey silk gown with a collar of pink velvet. Her light brown hair that yet retained so much of its brightness was transfixed by a high, shell comb, very Spanish. But the look of uneasiness in her large eyes—the eyes of a young girl—was deepening every day. The expression of innocence and inquiry which they so easily assumed, was disturbed by a faint suggestion of aversion, almost of terror. She settled herself in her place, in the corner of the hall, in the rear rank of chairs, a little frightened by the glare of lights, the hum of talk and the shifting crowd, glad to be out of the way, to attract no attention, willing to obliterate herself.
All at once Annixter, who had just shaken hands with Dyke, his mother and the little tad, moved abruptly in his place, drawing in his breath sharply. The crowd around the great, wide-open main door of the barn had somewhat thinned out and in the few groups that still remained there he had suddenly recognised Mr. and Mrs. Tree and Hilma, making their way towards some empty seats near the entrance of the feed room.
In the dusky light of the barn earlier in the evening, Annixter had not been able to see Hilma plainly. Now, however, as she passed before his eyes in the glittering radiance of the lamps and lanterns, he caught his breath in astonishment. Never had she appeared more beautiful in his eyes. It did not seem possible that this was the same girl whom he saw every day in and around the ranch house and dairy, the girl of simple calico frocks and plain shirt waists, who brought him his dinner, who made up his bed. Now he could not take his eyes from her. Hilma, for the first time, was wearing her hair done high upon her head. The thick, sweet-smelling masses, bitumen brown in the shadows, corruscated like golden filaments in the light. Her organdie frock was long, longer than any she had yet worn. It left a little of her neck and breast bare and all of her arm.
Annixter muttered an exclamation. Such arms! How did she manage to keep them hid on ordinary occasions. Big at the shoulder, tapering with delicious modulations to the elbow and wrist, overlaid with a delicate, gleaming lustre. As often as she turned her head the movement sent a slow undulation over her neck and shoulders, the pale amber-tinted shadows under her chin, coming and going over the creamy whiteness of the skin like the changing moire of silk. The pretty rose colour of her cheek had deepened to a pale carnation. Annixter, his hands clasped behind him, stood watching.
In a few moments Hilma was surrounded by a group of young men, clamouring for dances. They came from all corners of the barn, leaving the other girls precipitately, almost rudely. There could be little doubt as to who was to be the belle of the occasion. Hilma’s little triumph was immediate, complete. Annixter could hear her voice from time to time, its usual velvety huskiness vibrating to a note of exuberant gayety.
All at once the orchestra swung off into a march—the Grand March. There was a great rush to secure “partners.” Young Vacca, still going the rounds, was pushed to one side. The gayly apparelled clerk from the Bonneville store lost his head in the confusion. He could not find his “partner.” He roamed wildly about the barn, bewildered, his eyes rolling. He resolved to prepare an elaborate programme card on the back of an old envelope. Rapidly the line was formed, Hilma and Harran Derrick in the lead, Annixter having obstinately refused to engage in either march, set or dance the whole evening. Soon the confused shuffling of feet settled to a measured cadence; the orchestra blared and wailed, the snare drum, rolling at exact intervals, the cornet marking the time. It was half-past eight o’clock.
Annixter drew a long breath:
“Good,” he muttered, “the thing is under way at last.”
Singularly enough, Osterman also refused to dance. The week before he had returned from Los Angeles, bursting with the importance of his mission. He had been successful. He had Disbrow “in his pocket.” He was impatient to pose before the others of the committee as a skilful political agent, a manipulator. He forgot his attitude of the early part of the evening when he had drawn attention to himself with his wonderful clothes. Now his comic actor’s face, with its brownish-red cheeks, protuberant ears and horizontal slit of a mouth, was overcast with gravity. His bald forehead was seamed with the wrinkles of responsibility. He drew Annixter into one of the empty stalls and began an elaborate explanation, glib, voluble, interminable, going over again in detail what he had reported to the committee in outline.
“I managed—I schemed—I kept dark—I lay low——”
But Annixter refused to listen.
“Oh, rot your schemes. There’s a punch in the harness room that will make the hair grow on the top of your head in the place where the hair ought to grow. Come on, we’ll round up some of the boys and walk into it.”
They edged their way around the hall outside “The Grand March,” toward the harness room, picking up on their way Caraher, Dyke, Hooven and old Broderson. Once in the harness room, Annixter shot the bolt.
“That affair outside,” he observed, “will take care of itself, but here’s a little orphan child that gets lonesome without company.”
Annixter began ladling the punch, filling the glasses.
Osterman proposed a toast to Quien Sabe and the Biggest Barn. Their elbows crooked in silence. Old Broderson set down his glass, wiping his long beard and remarking:
“That—that certainly is very—very agreeable. I remember a punch I drank on Christmas day in ‘83, or no, it was ‘84—anyhow, that punch—it was in Ukiah—‘TWAS ‘83—” He wandered on aimlessly, unable to stop his flow of speech, losing himself in details, involving his talk in a hopeless maze of trivialities to which nobody paid any attention.
“I don’t drink myself,” observed Dyke, “but just a taste of that with a lot of water wouldn’t be bad for the little tad. She’d think it was lemonade.” He was about to mix a glass for Sidney, but thought better of it at the last moment.
“It’s the chartreuse that’s lacking,” commented Caraher, lowering at Annixter. The other flared up on the instant.
“Rot, rot. I know better. In some punches it goes; and then, again, in others it don’t.”
But it was left to Hooven to launch the successful phrase:
“Gesundheit,” he exclaimed, holding out his second glass. After drinking, he replaced it on the table with a long breath. “Ach Gott!” he cried, “dat poonsch, say I tink dot poonsch mek some demn goot vertilizer, hey?”
Fertiliser! The others roared with laughter.
“Good eye, Bismarck,” commented Annixter. The name had a great success. Thereafter throughout the evening the punch was invariably spoken of as the “Fertiliser.” Osterman, having spilt the bottom of a glassful on the floor, pretended that he saw shoots of grain coming up on the spot. Suddenly he turned upon old Broderson. “I’m bald, ain’t I? Want to know how I lost my hair? Promise you won’t ask a single other question and I’ll tell you. Promise your word of honour.”
“Eh? What—wh—I—I don’t understand. Your hair? Yes, I’ll promise. How did you lose it?”
“It was bit off.”
The other gazed at him stupefied; his jaw dropped. The company shouted, and old Broderson, believing he had somehow accomplished a witticism, chuckled in his beard, wagging his head. But suddenly he fell grave, struck with an idea. He demanded:
“Yes—I know—but—but what bit it off?”
“Ah,” vociferated Osterman, “that’s JUST what you promised not to ask.”
The company doubled up with hilarity. Caraher leaned against the door, holding his sides, but Hooven, all abroad, unable to follow, gazed from face to face with a vacant grin, thinking it was still a question of his famous phrase.
“Vertilizer, hey? Dots some fine joke, hey? You bedt.”
What with the noise of their talk and laughter, it was some time before Dyke, first of all, heard a persistent knocking on the bolted door. He called Annixter’s attention to the sound. Cursing the intruder, Annixter unbolted and opened the door. But at once his manner changed.
“Hello. It’s Presley. Come in, come in, Pres.”
There was a shout of welcome from the others. A spirit of effusive cordiality had begun to dominate the gathering. Annixter caught sight of Vanamee back of Presley, and waiving for the moment the distinction of employer and employee, insisted that both the friends should come in.
“Any friend of Pres is my friend,” he declared.
But when the two had entered and had exchanged greetings, Presley drew Annixter aside.
“Vanamee and I have just come from Bonneville,” he explained. “We saw Delaney there. He’s got the buckskin, and he’s full of bad whiskey and dago-red. You should see him; he’s wearing all his cow-punching outfit, hair trousers, sombrero, spurs and all the rest of it, and he has strapped himself to a big revolver. He says he wasn’t invited to your barn dance but that he’s coming over to shoot up the place. He says you promised to show him off Quien Sabe at the toe of your boot and that he’s going to give you the chance to-night!” “Ah,” commented Annixter, nodding his head, “he is, is he?”
Presley was disappointed. Knowing Annixter’s irascibility, he had expected to produce a more dramatic effect. He began to explain the danger of the business. Delaney had once knifed a greaser in the Panamint country. He was known as a “bad” man. But Annixter refused to be drawn.
“All right,” he said, “that’s all right. Don’t tell anybody else. You might scare the girls off. Get in and drink.”
Outside the dancing was by this time in full swing. The orchestra was playing a polka. Young Vacca, now at his fiftieth wax candle, had brought the floor to the slippery surface of glass. The druggist was dancing with one of the Spanish-Mexican girls with the solemnity of an automaton, turning about and about, always in the same direction, his eyes glassy, his teeth set. Hilma Tree was dancing for the second time with Harran Derrick. She danced with infinite grace. Her cheeks were bright red, her eyes half-closed, and through her parted lips she drew from time to time a long, tremulous breath of pure delight. The music, the weaving colours, the heat of the air, by now a little oppressive, the monotony of repeated sensation, even the pain of physical fatigue had exalted all her senses. She was in a dreamy lethargy of happiness. It was her “first ball.” She could have danced without stopping until morning. Minna Hooven and Cutter were “promenading.” Mrs. Hooven, with little Hilda already asleep on her knees, never took her eyes from her daughter’s gown. As often as Minna passed near her she vented an energetic “pst! pst!” The metal tip of a white draw string was showing from underneath the waist of Minna’s dress. Mrs. Hooven was on the point of tears.
The solitary gayly apparelled clerk from Bonneville was in a fever of agitation. He had lost his elaborate programme card. Bewildered, beside himself with trepidation, he hurried about the room, jostled by the dancing couples, tripping over the feet of those who were seated; he peered distressfully under the chairs and about the floor, asking anxious questions.
Magnus Derrick, the centre of a listening circle of ranchers—Garnett from the Ruby rancho, Keast from the ranch of the same name, Gethings and Chattern of the San Pablo and Bonanza—stood near the great open doorway of the barn, discussing the possibility of a shortage in the world’s wheat crop for the next year.
Abruptly the orchestra ceased playing with a roll of the snare drum, a flourish of the cornet and a prolonged growl of the bass viol. The dance broke up, the couples hurrying to their seats, leaving the gayly apparelled clerk suddenly isolated in the middle of the floor, rolling his eyes. The druggist released the Spanish-Mexican girl with mechanical precision out amidst the crowd of dancers. He bowed, dropping his chin upon his cravat; throughout the dance neither had hazarded a word. The girl found her way alone to a chair, but the druggist, sick from continually revolving in the same direction, walked unsteadily toward the wall. All at once the barn reeled around him; he fell down. There was a great laugh, but he scrambled to his feet and disappeared abruptly out into the night through the doorway of the barn, deathly pale, his hand upon his stomach.
Dabney, the old man whom nobody knew, approached the group of ranchers around Magnus Derrick and stood, a little removed, listening gravely to what the governor was saying, his chin sunk in his collar, silent, offering no opinions.
But the leader of the orchestra, with a great gesture of his violin bow, cried out:
“All take partners for the lancers and promenade around the hall!”
However, there was a delay. A little crowd formed around the musicians’ platform; voices were raised; there was a commotion. Skeezicks, who played the big horn, accused the cornet and the snare-drum of stealing his cold lunch. At intervals he could be heard expostulating:
“Ah, no! at the end of the end! Render me the sausages, you, or less I break your throat! Aha! I know you. You are going to play me there a bad farce. My sausages and the pork sandwich, else I go away from this place!”
He made an exaggerated show of replacing his big horn in its case, but the by-standers raised a great protest. The sandwiches and one sausage were produced; the other had disappeared. In the end Skeezichs allowed himself to be appeased. The dance was resumed.
Half an hour later the gathering in the harness room was considerably reinforced. It was the corner of the barn toward which the male guests naturally gravitated. Harran Derrick, who only cared to dance with Hilma Tree, was admitted. Garnett from the Ruby rancho and Gethings from the San Pablo, came in a little afterwards. A fourth bowl of punch was mixed, Annixter and Caraher clamouring into each other’s face as to its ingredients. Cigars were lighted. Soon the air of the room became blue with an acrid haze of smoke. It was very warm. Ranged in their chairs around the side of the room, the guests emptied glass after glass.
Vanamee alone refused to drink. He sat a little to one side, disassociating himself from what was going forward, watching the others calmly, a little contemptuously, a cigarette in his fingers.
Hooven, after drinking his third glass, however, was afflicted with a great sadness; his breast heaved with immense sighs. He asserted that he was “obbressed;” Cutter had taken his steer. He retired to a corner and seated himself in a heap on his chair, his heels on the rungs, wiping the tears from his eyes, refusing to be comforted. Old Broderson startled Annixter, who sat next to him, out of all measure by suddenly winking at him with infinite craftiness.
“When I was a lad in Ukiah,” he whispered hoarsely, “I was a devil of a fellow with the girls; but Lordy!” he nudged him slyly, “I wouldn’t have it known!”
Of those who were drinking, Annixter alone retained all his wits. Though keeping pace with the others, glass for glass, the punch left him solid upon his feet, clear-headed. The tough, cross-grained fibre of him seemed proof against alcohol. Never in his life had he been drunk. He prided himself upon his power of resistance. It was his nature.
“Say!” exclaimed old Broderson, gravely addressing the company, pulling at his beard uneasily—“say! I—I—listen! I’m a devil of a fellow with the girls.” He wagged his head doggedly, shutting his eyes in a knowing fashion. “Yes, sir, I am. There was a young lady in Ukiah—that was when I was a lad of seventeen. We used to meet in the cemetery in the afternoons. I was to go away to school at Sacramento, and the afternoon I left we met in the cemetery and we stayed so long I almost missed the train. Her name was Celestine.”
There was a pause. The others waited for the rest of the story.
“And afterwards?” prompted Annixter.
“Afterwards? Nothing afterwards. I never saw her again. Her name was Celestine.”
The company raised a chorus of derision, and Osterman cried ironically:
“Say! THAT’S a pretty good one! Tell us another.”
The old man laughed with the rest, believing he had made another hit. He called Osterman to him, whispering in his ear:
“Sh! Look here! Some night you and I will go up to San Francisco—hey? We’ll go skylarking. We’ll be gay. Oh, I’m a—a—a rare old BUCK, I am! I ain’t too old. You’ll see.”
Annixter gave over the making of the fifth bowl of punch to Osterman, who affirmed that he had a recipe for a “fertiliser” from Solotari that would take the plating off the ladle. He left him wrangling with Caraher, who still persisted in adding chartreuse, and stepped out into the dance to see how things were getting on.
It was the interval between two dances. In and around a stall at the farther end of the floor, where lemonade was being served, was a great throng of young men. Others hurried across the floor singly or by twos and threes, gingerly carrying overflowing glasses to their “partners,” sitting in long rows of white and blue and pink against the opposite wall, their mothers and older sisters in a second dark-clothed rank behind them. A babel of talk was in the air, mingled with gusts of laughter. Everybody seemed having a good time. In the increasing heat the decorations of evergreen trees and festoons threw off a pungent aroma that suggested a Sunday-school Christmas festival. In the other stalls, lower down the barn, the young men had brought chairs, and in these deep recesses the most desperate love-making was in progress, the young man, his hair neatly parted, leaning with great solicitation over the girl, his “partner” for the moment, fanning her conscientiously, his arm carefully laid along the back of her chair.
By the doorway, Annixter met Sarria, who had stepped out to smoke a fat, black cigar. The set smile of amiability was still fixed on the priest’s smooth, shiny face; the cigar ashes had left grey streaks on the front of his cassock. He avoided Annixter, fearing, no doubt, an allusion to his game cocks, and took up his position back of the second rank of chairs by the musicians’ stand, beaming encouragingly upon every one who caught his eye.
Annixter was saluted right and left as he slowly went the round of the floor. At every moment he had to pause to shake hands and to listen to congratulations upon the size of his barn and the success of his dance. But he was distrait, his thoughts elsewhere; he did not attempt to hide his impatience when some of the young men tried to engage him in conversation, asking him to be introduced to their sisters, or their friends’ sisters. He sent them about their business harshly, abominably rude, leaving a wake of angry disturbance behind him, sowing the seeds of future quarrels and renewed unpopularity. He was looking for Hilma Tree.
When at last he came unexpectedly upon her, standing near where Mrs. Tree was seated, some half-dozen young men hovering uneasily in her neighbourhood, all his audacity was suddenly stricken from him; his gruffness, his overbearing insolence vanished with an abruptness that left him cold. His old-time confusion and embarrassment returned to him. Instead of speaking to her as he intended, he affected not to see her, but passed by, his head in the air, pretending a sudden interest in a Japanese lantern that was about to catch fire.
But he had had a single distinct glimpse of her, definite, precise, and this glimpse was enough. Hilma had changed. The change was subtle, evanescent, hard to define, but not the less unmistakable. The excitement, the enchanting delight, the delicious disturbance of “the first ball,” had produced its result. Perhaps there had only been this lacking. It was hard to say, but for that brief instant of time Annixter was looking at Hilma, the woman. She was no longer the young girl upon whom he might look down, to whom he might condescend, whose little, infantile graces were to be considered with amused toleration.
When Annixter returned to the harness room, he let himself into a clamour of masculine hilarity. Osterman had, indeed, made a marvellous “fertiliser,” whiskey for the most part, diluted with champagne and lemon juice. The first round of this drink had been welcomed with a salvo of cheers. Hooven, recovering his spirits under its violent stimulation, spoke of “heving ut oudt mit Cudder, bei Gott,” while Osterman, standing on a chair at the end of the room, shouted for a “few moments quiet, gentlemen,” so that he might tell a certain story he knew. But, abruptly, Annixter discovered that the liquors—the champagne, whiskey, brandy, and the like—were running low. This would never do. He felt that he would stand disgraced if it could be said afterward that he had not provided sufficient drink at his entertainment. He slipped out, unobserved, and, finding two of his ranch hands near the doorway, sent them down to the ranch house to bring up all the cases of “stuff” they found there.
However, when this matter had been attended to, Annixter did not immediately return to the harness room. On the floor of the barn a square dance was under way, the leader of the City Band calling the figures. Young Vacca indefatigably continued the rounds of the barn, paring candle after candle, possessed with this single idea of duty, pushing the dancers out of his way, refusing to admit that the floor was yet sufficiently slippery. The druggist had returned indoors, and leaned dejected and melancholy against the wall near the doorway, unable to dance, his evening’s enjoyment spoiled. The gayly apparelled clerk from Bonneville had just involved himself in a deplorable incident. In a search for his handkerchief, which he had lost while trying to find his programme card, he had inadvertently wandered into the feed room, set apart as the ladies’ dressing room, at the moment when Mrs. Hooven, having removed the waist of Minna’s dress, was relacing her corsets. There was a tremendous scene. The clerk was ejected forcibly, Mrs. Hooven filling all the neighbourhood with shrill expostulation. A young man, Minna’s “partner,” who stood near the feed room door, waiting for her to come out, had invited the clerk, with elaborate sarcasm, to step outside for a moment; and the clerk, breathless, stupefied, hustled from hand to hand, remained petrified, with staring eyes, turning about and about, looking wildly from face to face, speechless, witless, wondering what had happened.
But the square dance was over. The City Band was just beginning to play a waltz. Annixter assuring himself that everything was going all right, was picking his way across the floor, when he came upon Hilma Tree quite alone, and looking anxiously among the crowd of dancers.
“Having a good time, Miss Hilma?” he demanded, pausing for a moment.
“Oh, am I, JUST!” she exclaimed. “The best time—but I don’t know what has become of my partner. See! I’m left all alone—the only time this whole evening,” she added proudly. “Have you seen him—my partner, sir? I forget his name. I only met him this evening, and I’ve met SO many I can’t begin to remember half of them. He was a young man from Bonneville—a clerk, I think, because I remember seeing him in a store there, and he wore the prettiest clothes!”
“I guess he got lost in the shuffle,” observed Annixter. Suddenly an idea occurred to him. He took his resolution in both hands. He clenched his teeth.
“Say! look here, Miss Hilma. What’s the matter with you and I stealing this one for ourselves? I don’t mean to dance. I don’t propose to make a jumping-jack of myself for some galoot to give me the laugh, but we’ll walk around. Will you? What do you say?”
“I’m not so VERY sorry I missed my dance with that—that—little clerk,” she said guiltily. “I suppose that’s very bad of me, isn’t it?”
Annixter fulminated a vigorous protest.
“I AM so warm!” murmured Hilma, fanning herself with her handkerchief; “and, oh! SUCH a good time as I have had! I was so afraid that I would be a wall-flower and sit up by mamma and papa the whole evening; and as it is, I have had every single dance, and even some dances I had to split. Oh-h!” she breathed, glancing lovingly around the barn, noting again the festoons of tri-coloured cambric, the Japanese lanterns, flaring lamps, and “decorations” of evergreen; “oh-h! it’s all so lovely, just like a fairy story; and to think that it can’t last but for one little evening, and that to-morrow morning one must wake up to the every-day things again!”
“Well,” observed Annixter doggedly, unwilling that she should forget whom she ought to thank, “I did my best, and my best is as good as another man’s, I guess.”
Hilma overwhelmed him with a burst of gratitude which he gruffly pretended to deprecate. Oh, that was all right. It hadn’t cost him much. He liked to see people having a good time himself, and the crowd did seem to be enjoying themselves. What did SHE think? Did things look lively enough? And how about herself—was she enjoying it?
Stupidly Annixter drove the question home again, at his wits’ end as to how to make conversation. Hilma protested volubly she would never forget this night, adding:
“Dance! Oh, you don’t know how I love it! I didn’t know myself. I could dance all night and never stop once!”
Annixter was smitten with uneasiness. No doubt this “promenading” was not at all to her taste. Wondering what kind of a spectacle he was about to make of himself, he exclaimed:
“Want to dance now?”
“Oh, yes!” she returned.
They paused in their walk, and Hilma, facing him, gave herself into his arms. Annixter shut his teeth, the perspiration starting from his forehead. For five years he had abandoned dancing. Never in his best days had it been one of his accomplishments.
They hesitated a moment, waiting to catch the time from the musicians. Another couple bore down upon them at precisely the wrong moment, jostling them out of step. Annixter swore under his breath. His arm still about the young woman, he pulled her over to one corner.
“Now,” he muttered, “we’ll try again.”
A second time, listening to the one-two-three, one-two-three cadence of the musicians, they endeavoured to get under way. Annixter waited the fraction of a second too long and stepped on Hilma’s foot. On the third attempt, having worked out of the corner, a pair of dancers bumped into them once more, and as they were recovering themselves another couple caromed violently against Annixter so that he all but lost his footing. He was in a rage. Hilma, very embarrassed, was trying not to laugh, and thus they found themselves, out in the middle of the floor, continually jostled from their position, holding clumsily to each other, stammering excuses into one another’s faces, when Delaney arrived.
He came with the suddenness of an explosion. There was a commotion by the doorway, a rolling burst of oaths, a furious stamping of hoofs, a wild scramble of the dancers to either side of the room, and there he was. He had ridden the buckskin at a gallop straight through the doorway and out into the middle of the floor of the barn.
Once well inside, Delaney hauled up on the cruel spade-bit, at the same time driving home the spurs, and the buckskin, without halting in her gait, rose into the air upon her hind feet, and coming down again with a thunder of iron hoofs upon the hollow floor, lashed out with both heels simultaneously, her back arched, her head between her knees. It was the running buck, and had not Delaney been the hardest buster in the county, would have flung him headlong like a sack of sand. But he eased off the bit, gripping the mare’s flanks with his knees, and the buckskin, having long since known her master, came to hand quivering, the bloody spume dripping from the bit upon the slippery floor.
Delaney had arrayed himself with painful elaboration, determined to look the part, bent upon creating the impression, resolved that his appearance at least should justify his reputation of being “bad.” Nothing was lacking—neither the campaign hat with upturned brim, nor the dotted blue handkerchief knotted behind the neck, nor the heavy gauntlets stitched with red, nor—this above all—the bear-skin “chaparejos,” the hair trousers of the mountain cowboy, the pistol holster low on the thigh. But for the moment this holster was empty, and in his right hand, the hammer at full cock, the chamber loaded, the puncher flourished his teaser, an army Colt’s, the lamplight dully reflected in the dark blue steel.
In a second of time the dance was a bedlam. The musicians stopped with a discord, and the middle of the crowded floor bared itself instantly. It was like sand blown from off a rock; the throng of guests, carried by an impulse that was not to be resisted, bore back against the sides of the barn, overturning chairs, tripping upon each other, falling down, scrambling to their feet again, stepping over one another, getting behind each other, diving under chairs, flattening themselves against the wall—a wild, clamouring pell-mell, blind, deaf, panic-stricken; a confused tangle of waving arms, torn muslin, crushed flowers, pale faces, tangled legs, that swept in all directions back from the centre of the floor, leaving Annixter and Hilma, alone, deserted, their arms about each other, face to face with Delaney, mad with alcohol, bursting with remembered insult, bent on evil, reckless of results.
After the first scramble for safety, the crowd fell quiet for the fraction of an instant, glued to the walls, afraid to stir, struck dumb and motionless with surprise and terror, and in the instant’s silence that followed Annixter, his eyes on Delaney, muttered rapidly to Hilma:
“Get back, get away to one side. The fool MIGHT shoot.”
There was a second’s respite afforded while Delaney occupied himself in quieting the buckskin, and in that second of time, at this moment of crisis, the wonderful thing occurred. Hilma, turning from Delaney, her hands clasped on Annixter’s arm, her eyes meeting his, exclaimed:
And that was all; but to Annixter it was a revelation. Never more alive to his surroundings, never more observant, he suddenly understood. For the briefest lapse of time he and Hilma looked deep into each other’s eyes, and from that moment on, Annixter knew that Hilma cared.
The whole matter was brief as the snapping of a finger. Two words and a glance and all was done. But as though nothing had occurred, Annixter pushed Hilma from him, repeating harshly:
“Get back, I tell you. Don’t you see he’s got a gun? Haven’t I enough on my hands without you?”
He loosed her clasp and his eyes once more on Delaney, moved diagonally backwards toward the side of the barn, pushing Hilma from him. In the end he thrust her away so sharply that she gave back with a long stagger; somebody caught her arm and drew her in, leaving Annixter alone once more in the middle of the floor, his hands in his coat pockets, watchful, alert, facing his enemy.
But the cow-puncher was not ready to come to grapples yet. Fearless, his wits gambolling under the lash of the alcohol, he wished to make the most of the occasion, maintaining the suspense, playing for the gallery. By touches of the hand and knee he kept the buckskin in continual, nervous movement, her hoofs clattering, snorting, tossing her head, while he, himself, addressing himself to Annixter, poured out a torrent of invective.
“Well, strike me blind if it ain’t old Buck Annixter! He was going to show me off Quien Sabe at the toe of his boot, was he? Well, here’s your chance,—with the ladies to see you do it. Gives a dance, does he, high-falutin’ hoe-down in his barn and forgets to invite his old broncho-bustin’ friend. But his friend don’t forget him; no, he don’t. He remembers little things, does his broncho-bustin’ friend. Likes to see a dance hisself on occasion, his friend does. Comes anyhow, trustin’ his welcome will be hearty; just to see old Buck Annixter dance, just to show Buck Annixter’s friends how Buck can dance—dance all by hisself, a little hen-on-a-hot-plate dance when his broncho-bustin’ friend asks him so polite. A little dance for the ladies, Buck. This feature of the entertainment is alone worth the price of admission. Tune up, Buck. Attention now! I’ll give you the key.”
He “fanned” his revolver, spinning it about his index finger by the trigger-guard with incredible swiftness, the twirling weapon a mere blur of blue steel in his hand. Suddenly and without any apparent cessation of the movement, he fired, and a little splinter of wood flipped into the air at Annixter’s feet.
“Time!” he shouted, while the buckskin reared to the report. “Hold on—wait a minute. This place is too light to suit. That big light yonder is in my eyes. Look out, I’m going to throw lead.”
A second shot put out the lamp over the musicians’ stand. The assembled guests shrieked, a frantic, shrinking quiver ran through the crowd like the huddling of frightened rabbits in their pen.
Annixter hardly moved. He stood some thirty paces from the buster, his hands still in his coat pockets, his eyes glistening, watchful. Excitable and turbulent in trifling matters, when actual bodily danger threatened he was of an abnormal quiet.
“I’m watching you,” cried the other. “Don’t make any mistake about that. Keep your hands in your COAT pockets, if you’d like to live a little longer, understand? And don’t let me see you make a move toward your hip or your friends will be asked to identify you at the morgue to-morrow morning. When I’m bad, I’m called the Undertaker’s Friend, so I am, and I’m that bad to-night that I’m scared of myself. They’ll have to revise the census returns before I’m done with this place. Come on, now, I’m getting tired waiting. I come to see a dance.”
“Hand over that horse, Delaney,” said Annixter, without raising his voice, “and clear out.”
The other affected to be overwhelmed with infinite astonishment, his eyes staring. He peered down from the saddle.
“Wh-a-a-t!” he exclaimed; “wh-a-a-t did you say? Why, I guess you must be looking for trouble; that’s what I guess.”
“There’s where you’re wrong, m’son,” muttered Annixter, partly to Delaney, partly to himself. “If I was looking for trouble there wouldn’t be any guess-work about it.”
With the words he began firing. Delaney had hardly entered the barn before Annixter’s plan had been formed. Long since his revolver was in the pocket of his coat, and he fired now through the coat itself, without withdrawing his hands.
Until that moment Annixter had not been sure of himself. There was no doubt that for the first few moments of the affair he would have welcomed with joy any reasonable excuse for getting out of the situation. But the sound of his own revolver gave him confidence. He whipped it from his pocket and fired again.
Abruptly the duel began, report following report, spurts of pale blue smoke jetting like the darts of short spears between the two men, expanding to a haze and drifting overhead in wavering strata. It was quite probable that no thought of killing each other suggested itself to either Annixter or Delaney. Both fired without aiming very deliberately. To empty their revolvers and avoid being hit was the desire common to both. They no longer vituperated each other. The revolvers spoke for them.
Long after, Annixter could recall this moment. For years he could with but little effort reconstruct the scene—the densely packed crowd flattened against the sides of the barn, the festoons of lanterns, the mingled smell of evergreens, new wood, sachets, and powder smoke; the vague clamour of distress and terror that rose from the throng of guests, the squealing of the buckskin, the uneven explosions of the revolvers, the reverberation of trampling hoofs, a brief glimpse of Harran Derrick’s excited face at the door of the harness room, and in the open space in the centre of the floor, himself and Delaney, manoeuvring swiftly in a cloud of smoke.
Annixter’s revolver contained but six cartridges. Already it seemed to him as if he had fired twenty times. Without doubt the next shot was his last. Then what? He peered through the blue haze that with every discharge thickened between him and the buster. For his own safety he must “place” at least one shot. Delaney’s chest and shoulders rose suddenly above the smoke close upon him as the distraught buckskin reared again. Annixter, for the first time during the fight, took definite aim, but before he could draw the trigger there was a great shout and he was aware of the buckskin, the bridle trailing, the saddle empty, plunging headlong across the floor, crashing into the line of chairs. Delaney was scrambling off the floor. There was blood on the buster’s wrist and he no longer carried his revolver. Suddenly he turned and ran. The crowd parted right and left before him as he made toward the doorway. He disappeared.
Twenty men promptly sprang to the buckskin’s head, but she broke away, and wild with terror, bewildered, blind, insensate, charged into the corner of the barn by the musicians’ stand. She brought up against the wall with cruel force and with impact of a sack of stones; her head was cut. She turned and charged again, bull-like, the blood streaming from her forehead. The crowd, shrieking, melted before her rush. An old man was thrown down and trampled. The buckskin trod upon the dragging bridle, somersaulted into a confusion of chairs in one corner, and came down with a terrific clatter in a wild disorder of kicking hoofs and splintered wood. But a crowd of men fell upon her, tugging at the bit, sitting on her head, shouting, gesticulating. For five minutes she struggled and fought; then, by degrees, she recovered herself, drawing great sobbing breaths at long intervals that all but burst the girths, rolling her eyes in bewildered, supplicating fashion, trembling in every muscle, and starting and shrinking now and then like a young girl in hysterics. At last she lay quiet. The men allowed her to struggle to her feet. The saddle was removed and she was led to one of the empty stalls, where she remained the rest of the evening, her head low, her pasterns quivering, turning her head apprehensively from time to time, showing the white of one eye and at long intervals heaving a single prolonged sigh.
And an hour later the dance was progressing as evenly as though nothing in the least extraordinary had occurred. The incident was closed—that abrupt swoop of terror and impending death dropping down there from out the darkness, cutting abruptly athwart the gayety of the moment, come and gone with the swiftness of a thunderclap. Many of the women had gone home, taking their men with them; but the great bulk of the crowd still remained, seeing no reason why the episode should interfere with the evening’s enjoyment, resolved to hold the ground for mere bravado, if for nothing else. Delaney would not come back, of that everybody was persuaded, and in case he should, there was not found wanting fully half a hundred young men who would give him a dressing down, by jingo! They had been too surprised to act when Delaney had first appeared, and before they knew where they were at, the buster had cleared out. In another minute, just another second, they would have shown him—yes, sir, by jingo!—ah, you bet!
On all sides the reminiscences began to circulate. At least one man in every three had been involved in a gun fight at some time of his life. “Ah, you ought to have seen in Yuba County one time—” “Why, in Butte County in the early days—” “Pshaw! this to-night wasn’t anything! Why, once in a saloon in Arizona when I was there—” and so on, over and over again. Osterman solemnly asserted that he had seen a greaser sawn in two in a Nevada sawmill. Old Broderson had witnessed a Vigilante lynching in ‘55 on California Street in San Francisco. Dyke recalled how once in his engineering days he had run over a drunk at a street crossing. Gethings of the San Pablo had taken a shot at a highwayman. Hooven had bayonetted a French Chasseur at Sedan. An old Spanish-Mexican, a centenarian from Guadalajara, remembered Fremont’s stand on a mountain top in San Benito County. The druggist had fired at a burglar trying to break into his store one New Year’s eve. Young Vacca had seen a dog shot in Guadalajara. Father Sarria had more than once administered the sacraments to Portuguese desperadoes dying of gunshot wounds. Even the women recalled terrible scenes. Mrs. Cutter recounted to an interested group how she had seen a claim jumped in Placer County in 1851, when three men were shot, falling in a fusillade of rifle shots, and expiring later upon the floor of her kitchen while she looked on. Mrs. Dyke had been in a stage hold-up, when the shotgun messenger was murdered. Stories by the hundreds went the round of the company. The air was surcharged with blood, dying groans, the reek of powder smoke, the crack of rifles. All the legends of ‘49, the violent, wild life of the early days, were recalled to view, defiling before them there in an endless procession under the glare of paper lanterns and kerosene lamps.
But the affair had aroused a combative spirit amongst the men of the assembly. Instantly a spirit of aggression, of truculence, swelled up underneath waistcoats and starched shirt bosoms. More than one offender was promptly asked to “step outside.” It was like young bucks excited by an encounter of stags, lowering their horns upon the slightest provocation, showing off before the does and fawns. Old quarrels were remembered. One sought laboriously for slights and insults, veiled in ordinary conversation. The sense of personal honour became refined to a delicate, fine point. Upon the slightest pretext there was a haughty drawing up of the figure, a twisting of the lips into a smile of scorn. Caraher spoke of shooting S. Behrman on sight before the end of the week. Twice it became necessary to separate Hooven and Cutter, renewing their quarrel as to the ownership of the steer. All at once Minna Hooven’s “partner” fell upon the gayly apparelled clerk from Bonneville, pummelling him with his fists, hustling him out of the hall, vociferating that Miss Hooven had been grossly insulted. It took three men to extricate the clerk from his clutches, dazed, gasping, his collar unfastened and sticking up into his face, his eyes staring wildly into the faces of the crowd.
But Annixter, bursting with pride, his chest thrown out, his chin in the air, reigned enthroned in a circle of adulation. He was the Hero. To shake him by the hand was an honour to be struggled for. One clapped him on the back with solemn nods of approval. “There’s the BOY for you;” “There was nerve for you;” “What’s the matter with Annixter?” “How about THAT for sand, and how was THAT for a SHOT?” “Why, Apache Kid couldn’t have bettered that.” “Cool enough.” “Took a steady eye and a sure hand to make a shot like that.” “There was a shot that would be told about in Tulare County fifty years to come.”
Annixter had refrained from replying, all ears to this conversation, wondering just what had happened. He knew only that Delaney had run, leaving his revolver and a spatter of blood behind him. By degrees, however, he ascertained that his last shot but one had struck Delaney’s pistol hand, shattering it and knocking the revolver from his grip. He was overwhelmed with astonishment. Why, after the shooting began he had not so much as seen Delaney with any degree of plainness. The whole affair was a whirl.
“Well, where did YOU learn to shoot THAT way?” some one in the crowd demanded. Annixter moved his shoulders with a gesture of vast unconcern.
“Oh,” he observed carelessly, “it’s not my SHOOTING that ever worried ME, m’son.”
The crowd gaped with delight. There was a great wagging of heads.
“Well, I guess not.”
“No, sir, not much.”
“Ah, no, you bet not.”
When the women pressed around him, shaking his hands, declaring that he had saved their daughters’ lives, Annixter assumed a pose of superb deprecation, the modest self-obliteration of the chevalier. He delivered himself of a remembered phrase, very elegant, refined. It was Lancelot after the tournament, Bayard receiving felicitations after the battle.
“Oh, don’t say anything about it,” he murmured. “I only did what any man would have done in my place.”
To restore completely the equanimity of the company, he announced supper. This he had calculated as a tremendous surprise. It was to have been served at mid-night, but the irruption of Delaney had dislocated the order of events, and the tables were brought in an hour ahead of time. They were arranged around three sides of the barn and were loaded down with cold roasts of beef, cold chickens and cold ducks, mountains of sandwiches, pitchers of milk and lemonade, entire cheeses, bowls of olives, plates of oranges and nuts. The advent of this supper was received with a volley of applause. The musicians played a quick step. The company threw themselves upon the food with a great scraping of chairs and a vast rustle of muslins, tarletans, and organdies; soon the clatter of dishes was a veritable uproar. The tables were taken by assault. One ate whatever was nearest at hand, some even beginning with oranges and nuts and ending with beef and chicken. At the end the paper caps were brought on, together with the ice cream. All up and down the tables the pulled “crackers” snapped continually like the discharge of innumerable tiny rifles.
The caps of tissue paper were put on—“Phrygian Bonnets,” “Magicians’ Caps,” “Liberty Caps;” the young girls looked across the table at their vis-a-vis with bursts of laughter and vigorous clapping of the hands.
The harness room crowd had a table to themselves, at the head of which sat Annixter and at the foot Harran. The gun fight had sobered Presley thoroughly. He sat by the side of Vanamee, who ate but little, preferring rather to watch the scene with calm observation, a little contemptuous when the uproar around the table was too boisterous, savouring of intoxication. Osterman rolled bullets of bread and shot them with astonishing force up and down the table, but the others—Dyke, old Broderson, Caraher, Harran Derrick, Hooven, Cutter, Garnett of the Ruby rancho, Keast from the ranch of the same name, Gethings of the San Pablo, and Chattern of the Bonanza—occupied themselves with eating as much as they could before the supper gave out. At a corner of the table, speechless, unobserved, ignored, sat Dabney, of whom nothing was known but his name, the silent old man who made no friends. He ate and drank quietly, dipping his sandwich in his lemonade.
Osterman ate all the olives he could lay his hands on, a score of them, fifty of them, a hundred of them. He touched no crumb of anything else. Old Broderson stared at him, his jaw fallen. Osterman declared he had once eaten a thousand on a bet. The men called each others’ attention to him. Delighted to create a sensation, Osterman persevered. The contents of an entire bowl disappeared in his huge, reptilian slit of a mouth. His cheeks of brownish red were extended, his bald forehead glistened. Colics seized upon him. His stomach revolted. It was all one with him. He was satisfied, contented. He was astonishing the people.
“Once I swallowed a tree toad.” he told old Broderson, “by mistake. I was eating grapes, and the beggar lived in me three weeks. In rainy weather he would sing. You don’t believe that,” he vociferated. “Haven’t I got the toad at home now in a bottle of alcohol.”
And the old man, never doubting, his eyes starting, wagged his head in amazement.
“Oh, yes,” cried Caraher, the length of the table, “that’s a pretty good one. Tell us another.”
“That reminds me of a story,” hazarded old Broderson uncertainly; “once when I was a lad in Ukiah, fifty years.”
“Oh, yes,” cried half a dozen voices, “THAT’S a pretty good one. Tell us another.”
“Eh—wh—what?” murmured Broderson, looking about him. “I—I don’t know. It was Ukiah. You—you—you mix me all up.”
As soon as supper was over, the floor was cleared again. The guests clamoured for a Virginia reel. The last quarter of the evening, the time of the most riotous fun, was beginning. The young men caught the girls who sat next to them. The orchestra dashed off into a rollicking movement. The two lines were formed. In a second of time the dance was under way again; the guests still wearing the Phrygian bonnets and liberty caps of pink and blue tissue paper.
But the group of men once more adjourned to the harness room. Fresh boxes of cigars were opened; the seventh bowl of fertiliser was mixed. Osterman poured the dregs of a glass of it upon his bald head, declaring that he could feel the hair beginning to grow.
But suddenly old Broderson rose to his feet.
“Aha,” he cackled, “I’M going to have a dance, I am. Think I’m too old? I’ll show you young fellows. I’m a regular old ROOSTER when I get started.”
He marched out into the barn, the others following, holding their sides. He found an aged Mexican woman by the door and hustled her, all confused and giggling, into the Virginia reel, then at its height. Every one crowded around to see. Old Broderson stepped off with the alacrity of a colt, snapping his fingers, slapping his thigh, his mouth widening in an excited grin. The entire company of the guests shouted. The City Band redoubled their efforts; and the old man, losing his head, breathless, gasping, dislocated his stiff joints in his efforts. He became possessed, bowing, scraping, advancing, retreating, wagging his beard, cutting pigeons’ wings, distraught with the music, the clamour, the applause, the effects of the fertiliser.
“Nice eye, Santa Claus.”
But Annixter’s attention wandered. He searched for Hilma Tree, having still in mind the look in her eyes at that swift moment of danger. He had not seen her since then. At last he caught sight of her. She was not dancing, but, instead, was sitting with her “partner” at the end of the barn near her father and mother, her eyes wide, a serious expression on her face, her thoughts, no doubt, elsewhere. Annixter was about to go to her when he was interrupted by a cry.
Old Broderson, in the midst of a double shuffle, had clapped his hand to his side with a gasp, which he followed by a whoop of anguish. He had got a stitch or had started a twinge somewhere. With a gesture of resignation, he drew himself laboriously out of the dance, limping abominably, one leg dragging. He was heard asking for his wife. Old Mrs. Broderson took him in charge. She jawed him for making an exhibition of himself, scolding as though he were a ten-year-old.
“Well, I want to know!” she exclaimed, as he hobbled off, dejected and melancholy, leaning upon her arm, “thought he had to dance, indeed! What next? A gay old grandpa, this. He’d better be thinking of his coffin.”
It was almost midnight. The dance drew towards its close in a storm of jubilation. The perspiring musicians toiled like galley slaves; the guests singing as they danced.
The group of men reassembled in the harness room. Even Magnus Derrick condescended to enter and drink a toast. Presley and Vanamee, still holding themselves aloof, looked on, Vanamee more and more disgusted. Dabney, standing to one side, overlooked and forgotten, continued to sip steadily at his glass, solemn, reserved. Garnett of the Ruby rancho, Keast from the ranch of the same name, Gethings of the San Pablo, and Chattern of the Bonanza, leaned back in their chairs, their waist-coats unbuttoned, their legs spread wide, laughing—they could not tell why. Other ranchers, men whom Annixter had never seen, appeared in the room, wheat growers from places as far distant as Goshen and Pixley; young men and old, proprietors of veritable principalities, hundreds of thousands of acres of wheat lands, a dozen of them, a score of them; men who were strangers to each other, but who made it a point to shake hands with Magnus Derrick, the “prominent man” of the valley. Old Broderson, whom every one had believed had gone home, returned, though much sobered, and took his place, refusing, however, to drink another spoonful.
Soon the entire number of Annixter’s guests found themselves in two companies, the dancers on the floor of the barn, frolicking through the last figures of the Virginia reel and the boisterous gathering of men in the harness room, downing the last quarts of fertiliser. Both assemblies had been increased. Even the older people had joined in the dance, while nearly every one of the men who did not dance had found their way into the harness room. The two groups rivalled each other in their noise. Out on the floor of the barn was a very whirlwind of gayety, a tempest of laughter, hand-clapping and cries of amusement. In the harness room the confused shouting and singing, the stamping of heavy feet, set a quivering reverberation in the oil of the kerosene lamps, the flame of the candles in the Japanese lanterns flaring and swaying in the gusts of hilarity. At intervals, between the two, one heard the music, the wailing of the violins, the vigorous snarling of the cornet, and the harsh, incessant rasping of the snare drum.
And at times all these various sounds mingled in a single vague note, huge, clamorous, that rose up into the night from the colossal, reverberating compass of the barn and sent its echoes far off across the unbroken levels of the surrounding ranches, stretching out to infinity under the clouded sky, calm, mysterious, still.
Annixter, the punch bowl clasped in his arms, was pouring out the last spoonful of liquor into Caraher’s glass when he was aware that some one was pulling at the sleeve of his coat. He set down the punch bowl.
“Well, where did YOU come from?” he demanded.
It was a messenger from Bonneville, the uniformed boy that the telephone company employed to carry messages. He had just arrived from town on his bicycle, out of breath and panting.
“Message for you, sir. Will you sign?”
He held the book to Annixter, who signed the receipt, wondering.
The boy departed, leaving a thick envelope of yellow paper in Annixter’s hands, the address typewritten, the word “Urgent” written in blue pencil in one corner.
Annixter tore it open. The envelope contained other sealed envelopes, some eight or ten of them, addressed to Magnus Derrick, Osterman, Broderson, Garnett, Keast, Gethings, Chattern, Dabney, and to Annixter himself.
Still puzzled, Annixter distributed the envelopes, muttering to himself:
“What’s up now?”
The incident had attracted attention. A comparative quiet followed, the guests following the letters with their eyes as they were passed around the table. They fancied that Annixter had arranged a surprise.
Magnus Derrick, who sat next to Annixter, was the first to receive his letter. With a word of excuse he opened it.
“Read it, read it, Governor,” shouted a half-dozen voices. “No secrets, you know. Everything above board here to-night.”
Magnus cast a glance at the contents of the letter, then rose to his feet and read:
Magnus Derrick, Bonneville, Tulare Co., Cal.
By regrade of October 1st, the value of the railroad land you occupy, included in your ranch of Los Muertos, has been fixed at $27.00 per acre. The land is now for sale at that price to any one.
Yours, etc., CYRUS BLAKELEE RUGGLES, Land Agent, P. and S. W. R. R.
S. BEHRMAN, Local Agent, P. and S. W. R. R.
In the midst of the profound silence that followed, Osterman was heard to exclaim grimly:
“THAT’S a pretty good one. Tell us another.”
But for a long moment this was the only remark.
The silence widened, broken only by the sound of torn paper as Annixter, Osterman, old Broderson, Garnett, Keast, Gethings, Chattern, and Dabney opened and read their letters. They were all to the same effect, almost word for word like the Governor’s. Only the figures and the proper names varied. In some cases the price per acre was twenty-two dollars. In Annixter’s case it was thirty.
“And—and the company promised to sell to me, to—to all of us,” gasped old Broderson, “at TWO DOLLARS AND A HALF an acre.”
It was not alone the ranchers immediately around Bonneville who would be plundered by this move on the part of the Railroad. The “alternate section” system applied throughout all the San Joaquin. By striking at the Bonneville ranchers a terrible precedent was established. Of the crowd of guests in the harness room alone, nearly every man was affected, every man menaced with ruin. All of a million acres was suddenly involved.
Then suddenly the tempest burst. A dozen men were on their feet in an instant, their teeth set, their fists clenched, their faces purple with rage. Oaths, curses, maledictions exploded like the firing of successive mines. Voices quivered with wrath, hands flung upward, the fingers hooked, prehensile, trembled with anger. The sense of wrongs, the injustices, the oppression, extortion, and pillage of twenty years suddenly culminated and found voice in a raucous howl of execration. For a second there was nothing articulate in that cry of savage exasperation, nothing even intelligent. It was the human animal hounded to its corner, exploited, harried to its last stand, at bay, ferocious, terrible, turning at last with bared teeth and upraised claws to meet the death grapple. It was the hideous squealing of the tormented brute, its back to the wall, defending its lair, its mate and its whelps, ready to bite, to rend, to trample, to batter out the life of The Enemy in a primeval, bestial welter of blood and fury.
The roar subsided to intermittent clamour, in the pauses of which the sounds of music and dancing made themselves audible once more.
“S. Behrman again,” vociferated Harran Derrick.
“Chose his moment well,” muttered Annixter. “Hits his hardest when we’re all rounded up having a good time.”
“Gentlemen, this is ruin.”
“What’s to be done now?”
“FIGHT! My God! do you think we are going to stand this? Do you think we CAN?”
The uproar swelled again. The clearer the assembly of ranchers understood the significance of this move on the part of the Railroad, the more terrible it appeared, the more flagrant, the more intolerable. Was it possible, was it within the bounds of imagination that this tyranny should be contemplated? But they knew—past years had driven home the lesson—the implacable, iron monster with whom they had to deal, and again and again the sense of outrage and oppression lashed them to their feet, their mouths wide with curses, their fists clenched tight, their throats hoarse with shouting.
“Fight! How fight? What ARE you going to do?”
“If there’s a law in this land”
“If there is, it is in Shelgrim’s pocket. Who owns the courts in California? Ain’t it Shelgrim?”
“God damn him.”
“Well, how long are you going to stand it? How long before you’ll settle up accounts with six inches of plugged gas-pipe?”
“And our contracts, the solemn pledges of the corporation to sell to us first of all——”
“And now the land is for sale to anybody.”
“Why, it is a question of my home. Am I to be turned out? Why, I have put eight thousand dollars into improving this land.”
“And I six thousand, and now that I have, the Railroad grabs it.”
“And the system of irrigating ditches that Derrick and I have been laying out. There’s thousands of dollars in that!”
“I’ll fight this out till I’ve spent every cent of my money.”
“Where? In the courts that the company owns?”
“Think I am going to give in to this? Think I am to get off my land? By God, gentlemen, law or no law, railroad or no railroad, I—WILL—NOT.”
“This is the last. Legal means first; if those fail—the shotgun.”
“They can kill me. They can shoot me down, but I’ll die—die fighting for my home—before I’ll give in to this.”
At length Annixter made himself heard:
“All out of the room but the ranch owners,” he shouted. “Hooven, Caraher, Dyke, you’ll have to clear out. This is a family affair. Presley, you and your friend can remain.”
Reluctantly the others filed through the door. There remained in the harness room—besides Vanamee and Presley—Magnus Derrick, Annixter, old Broderson Harran, Garnett from the Ruby rancho, Keast from the ranch of the same name, Gethings of the San Pablo, Chattern of the Bonanza, about a score of others, ranchers from various parts of the county, and, last of all, Dabney, ignored, silent, to whom nobody spoke and who, as yet, had not uttered a word. But the men who had been asked to leave the harness room spread the news throughout the barn. It was repeated from lip to lip. One by one the guests dropped out of the dance. Groups were formed. By swift degrees the gayety lapsed away. The Virginia reel broke up. The musicians ceased playing, and in the place of the noisy, effervescent revelry of the previous half hour, a subdued murmur filled all the barn, a mingling of whispers, lowered voices, the coming and going of light footsteps, the uneasy shifting of positions, while from behind the closed doors of the harness room came a prolonged, sullen hum of anger and strenuous debate. The dance came to an abrupt end. The guests, unwilling to go as yet, stunned, distressed, stood clumsily about, their eyes vague, their hands swinging at their sides, looking stupidly into each others’ faces. A sense of impending calamity, oppressive, foreboding, gloomy, passed through the air overhead in the night, a long shiver of anguish and of terror, mysterious, despairing.
In the harness room, however, the excitement continued unchecked. One rancher after another delivered himself of a torrent of furious words. There was no order, merely the frenzied outcry of blind fury. One spirit alone was common to all—resistance at whatever cost and to whatever lengths.
Suddenly Osterman leaped to his feet, his bald head gleaming in the lamp-light, his red ears distended, a flood of words filling his great, horizontal slit of a mouth, his comic actor’s face flaming. Like the hero of a melodrama, he took stage with a great sweeping gesture.
“ORGANISATION,” he shouted, “that must be our watch-word. The curse of the ranchers is that they fritter away their strength. Now, we must stand together, now, NOW. Here’s the crisis, here’s the moment. Shall we meet it? I CALL FOR THE LEAGUE. Not next week, not to-morrow, not in the morning, but now, now, now, this very moment, before we go out of that door. Every one of us here to join it, to form the beginnings of a vast organisation, banded together to death, if needs be, for the protection of our rights and homes. Are you ready? Is it now or never? I call for the League.”
Instantly there was a shout. With an actor’s instinct, Osterman had spoken at the precise psychological moment. He carried the others off their feet, glib, dexterous, voluble. Just what was meant by the League the others did not know, but it was something, a vague engine, a machine with which to fight. Osterman had not done speaking before the room rang with outcries, the crowd of men shouting, for what they did not know.
“The League! The League!”
“Now, to-night, this moment; sign our names before we leave.”
“He’s right. Organisation! The League!”
“We have a committee at work already,” Osterman vociferated. “I am a member, and also Mr. Broderson, Mr. Annixter, and Mr. Harran Derrick. What our aims are we will explain to you later. Let this committee be the nucleus of the League—temporarily, at least. Trust us. We are working for you and with you. Let this committee be merged into the larger committee of the League, and for President of the League”—he paused the fraction of a second—“for President there can be but one name mentioned, one man to whom we all must look as leader—Magnus Derrick.”
The Governor’s name was received with a storm of cheers. The harness room reechoed with shouts of:
“Magnus for President!”
“Derrick, our natural leader.”
“Derrick, Derrick, Derrick for President.”
Magnus rose to his feet. He made no gesture. Erect as a cavalry officer, tall, thin, commanding, he dominated the crowd in an instant. There was a moment’s hush. “Gentlemen,” he said, “if organisation is a good word, moderation is a better one. The matter is too grave for haste. I would suggest that we each and severally return to our respective homes for the night, sleep over what has happened, and convene again to-morrow, when we are calmer and can approach this affair in a more judicious mood. As for the honour with which you would inform me, I must affirm that that, too, is a matter for grave deliberation. This League is but a name as yet. To accept control of an organisation whose principles are not yet fixed is a heavy responsibility. I shrink from it—”
But he was allowed to proceed no farther. A storm of protest developed. There were shouts of:
“No, no. The League to-night and Derrick for President.”
“We have been moderate too long.”
“The League first, principles afterward.”
“We can’t wait,” declared Osterman. “Many of us cannot attend a meeting to-morrow. Our business affairs would prevent it. Now we are all together. I propose a temporary chairman and secretary be named and a ballot be taken. But first the League. Let us draw up a set of resolutions to stand together, for the defence of our homes, to death, if needs be, and each man present affix his signature thereto.”
He subsided amidst vigorous applause. The next quarter of an hour was a vague confusion, every one talking at once, conversations going on in low tones in various corners of the room. Ink, pens, and a sheaf of foolscap were brought from the ranch house. A set of resolutions was draughted, having the force of a pledge, organising the League of Defence. Annixter was the first to sign. Others followed, only a few holding back, refusing to join till they had thought the matter over. The roll grew; the paper circulated about the table; each signature was welcomed by a salvo of cheers. At length, it reached Harran Derrick, who signed amid tremendous uproar. He released the pen only to shake a score of hands.
“Now, Magnus Derrick.”
“Gentlemen,” began the Governor, once more rising, “I beg of you to allow me further consideration. Gentlemen—”
He was interrupted by renewed shouting.
“No, no, now or never. Sign, join the League.”
“Don’t leave us. We look to you to help.”
But presently the excited throng that turned their faces towards the Governor were aware of a new face at his elbow. The door of the harness room had been left unbolted and Mrs. Derrick, unable to endure the heart-breaking suspense of waiting outside, had gathered up all her courage and had come into the room. Trembling, she clung to Magnus’s arm, her pretty light-brown hair in disarray, her large young girl’s eyes wide with terror and distrust. What was about to happen she did not understand, but these men were clamouring for Magnus to pledge himself to something, to some terrible course of action, some ruthless, unscrupulous battle to the death with the iron-hearted monster of steel and steam. Nerved with a coward’s intrepidity, she, who so easily obliterated herself, had found her way into the midst of this frantic crowd, into this hot, close room, reeking of alcohol and tobacco smoke, into this atmosphere surcharged with hatred and curses. She seized her husband’s arm imploring, distraught with terror.
“No, no,” she murmured; “no, don’t sign.”
She was the feather caught in the whirlwind. En masse, the crowd surged toward the erect figure of the Governor, the pen in one hand, his wife’s fingers in the other, the roll of signatures before him. The clamour was deafening; the excitement culminated brusquely. Half a hundred hands stretched toward him; thirty voices, at top pitch, implored, expostulated, urged, almost commanded. The reverberation of the shouting was as the plunge of a cataract.
It was the uprising of The People; the thunder of the outbreak of revolt; the mob demanding to be led, aroused at last, imperious, resistless, overwhelming. It was the blind fury of insurrection, the brute, many-tongued, red-eyed, bellowing for guidance, baring its teeth, unsheathing its claws, imposing its will with the abrupt, resistless pressure of the relaxed piston, inexorable, knowing no pity.
“No, no,” implored Annie Derrick. “No, Magnus, don’t sign.”
“He must,” declared Harran, shouting in her ear to make himself heard, “he must. Don’t you understand?”
Again the crowd surged forward, roaring. Mrs. Derrick was swept back, pushed to one side. Her husband no longer belonged to her. She paid the penalty for being the wife of a great man. The world, like a colossal iron wedge, crushed itself between. She was thrust to the wall. The throng of men, stamping, surrounded Magnus; she could no longer see him, but, terror-struck, she listened. There was a moment’s lull, then a vast thunder of savage jubilation. Magnus had signed.
Harran found his mother leaning against the wall, her hands shut over her ears; her eyes, dilated with fear, brimming with tears. He led her from the harness room to the outer room, where Mrs. Tree and Hilma took charge of her, and then, impatient, refusing to answer the hundreds of anxious questions that assailed him, hurried back to the harness room. Already the balloting was in progress, Osterman acting as temporary chairman on the very first ballot he was made secretary of the League pro tem., and Magnus unanimously chosen for its President. An executive committee was formed, which was to meet the next day at the Los Muertos ranch house.
It was half-past one o’clock. In the barn outside the greater number of the guests had departed. Long since the musicians had disappeared. There only remained the families of the ranch owners involved in the meeting in the harness room. These huddled in isolated groups in corners of the garish, echoing barn, the women in their wraps, the young men with their coat collars turned up against the draughts that once more made themselves felt.
For a long half hour the loud hum of eager conversation continued to issue from behind the door of the harness room. Then, at length, there was a prolonged scraping of chairs. The session was over. The men came out in groups, searching for their families.
At once the homeward movement began. Every one was worn out. Some of the ranchers’ daughters had gone to sleep against their mothers’ shoulders.
Billy, the stableman, and his assistant were awakened, and the teams were hitched up. The stable yard was full of a maze of swinging lanterns and buggy lamps. The horses fretted, champing the bits; the carry-alls creaked with the straining of leather and springs as they received their loads. At every instant one heard the rattle of wheels as vehicle after vehicle disappeared in the night.
A fine, drizzling rain was falling, and the lamps began to show dim in a vague haze of orange light.
Magnus Derrick was the last to go. At the doorway of the barn he found Annixter, the roll of names—which it had been decided he was to keep in his safe for the moment—under his arm. Silently the two shook hands. Magnus departed. The grind of the wheels of his carry-all grated sharply on the gravel of the driveway in front of the ranch house, then, with a hollow roll across a little plank bridge, gained the roadway. For a moment the beat of the horses’ hoofs made itself heard on the roadway. It ceased. Suddenly there was a great silence.
Annixter, in the doorway of the great barn, stood looking about him for a moment, alone, thoughtful. The barn was empty. That astonishing evening had come to an end. The whirl of things and people, the crowd of dancers, Delaney, the gun fight, Hilma Tree, her eyes fixed on him in mute confession, the rabble in the harness room, the news of the regrade, the fierce outburst of wrath, the hasty organising of the League, all went spinning confusedly through his recollection. But he was exhausted. Time enough in the morning to think it all over. By now it was raining sharply. He put the roll of names into his inside pocket, threw a sack over his head and shoulders, and went down to the ranch house.
But in the harness room, lighted by the glittering lanterns and flaring lamps, in the midst of overturned chairs, spilled liquor, cigar stumps, and broken glasses, Vanamee and Presley still remained talking, talking. At length, they rose, and came out upon the floor of the barn and stood for a moment looking about them.
Billy, the stableman, was going the rounds of the walls, putting out light after light. By degrees, the vast interior was growing dim. Upon the roof overhead the rain drummed incessantly, the eaves dripping. The floor was littered with pine needles, bits of orange peel, ends and fragments of torn organdies and muslins and bits of tissue paper from the “Phrygian Bonnets” and “Liberty Caps.” The buckskin mare in the stall, dozing on three legs, changed position with a long sigh. The sweat stiffening the hair upon her back and loins, as it dried, gave off a penetrating, ammoniacal odour that mingled with the stale perfume of sachet and wilted flowers.
Presley and Vanamee stood looking at the deserted barn. There was a long silence. Then Presley said:
“Well... what do you think of it all?”
“I think,” answered Vanamee slowly, “I think that there was a dance in Brussels the night before Waterloo.”