Underneath the Long Trestle where Broderson Creek cut the line of the railroad and the Upper Road, the ground was low and covered with a second growth of grey green willows. Along the borders of the creek were occasional marshy spots, and now and then Hilma Tree came here to gather water-cresses, which she made into salads.
The place was picturesque, secluded, an oasis of green shade in all the limitless, flat monotony of the surrounding wheat lands. The creek had eroded deep into the little gully, and no matter how hot it was on the baking, shimmering levels of the ranches above, down here one always found one’s self enveloped in an odorous, moist coolness. From time to time, the incessant murmur of the creek, pouring over and around the larger stones, was interrupted by the thunder of trains roaring out upon the trestle overhead, passing on with the furious gallop of their hundreds of iron wheels, leaving in the air a taint of hot oil, acrid smoke, and reek of escaping steam.
On a certain afternoon, in the spring of the year, Hilma was returning to Quien Sabe from Hooven’s by the trail that led from Los Muertos to Annixter’s ranch houses, under the trestle. She had spent the afternoon with Minna Hooven, who, for the time being, was kept indoors because of a wrenched ankle. As Hilma descended into the gravel flats and thickets of willows underneath the trestle, she decided that she would gather some cresses for her supper that night. She found a spot around the base of one of the supports of the trestle where the cresses grew thickest, and plucked a couple of handfuls, washing them in the creek and pinning them up in her handkerchief. It made a little, round, cold bundle, and Hilma, warm from her walk, found a delicious enjoyment in pressing the damp ball of it to her cheeks and neck.
For all the change that Annixter had noted in her upon the occasion of the barn dance, Hilma remained in many things a young child. She was never at loss for enjoyment, and could always amuse herself when left alone. Just now, she chose to drink from the creek, lying prone on the ground, her face half-buried in the water, and this, not because she was thirsty, but because it was a new way to drink. She imagined herself a belated traveller, a poor girl, an outcast, quenching her thirst at the wayside brook, her little packet of cresses doing duty for a bundle of clothes. Night was coming on. Perhaps it would storm. She had nowhere to go. She would apply at a hut for shelter.
Abruptly, the temptation to dabble her feet in the creek presented itself to her. Always she had liked to play in the water. What a delight now to take off her shoes and stockings and wade out into the shallows near the bank! She had worn low shoes that afternoon, and the dust of the trail had filtered in above the edges. At times, she felt the grit and grey sand on the soles of her feet, and the sensation had set her teeth on edge. What a delicious alternative the cold, clean water suggested, and how easy it would be to do as she pleased just then, if only she were a little girl. In the end, it was stupid to be grown up.
Sitting upon the bank, one finger tucked into the heel of her shoe, Hilma hesitated. Suppose a train should come! She fancied she could see the engineer leaning from the cab with a great grin on his face, or the brakeman shouting gibes at her from the platform. Abruptly she blushed scarlet. The blood throbbed in her temples. Her heart beat. Since the famous evening of the barn dance, Annixter had spoken to her but twice. Hilma no longer looked after the ranch house these days. The thought of setting foot within Annixter’s dining-room and bed-room terrified her, and in the end her mother had taken over that part of her work. Of the two meetings with the master of Quien Sabe, one had been a mere exchange of good mornings as the two happened to meet over by the artesian well; the other, more complicated, had occurred in the dairy-house again, Annixter, pretending to look over the new cheese press, asking about details of her work. When this had happened on that previous occasion, ending with Annixter’s attempt to kiss her, Hilma had been talkative enough, chattering on from one subject to another, never at a loss for a theme. But this last time was a veritable ordeal. No sooner had Annixter appeared than her heart leaped and quivered like that of the hound-harried doe. Her speech failed her. Throughout the whole brief interview she had been miserably tongue-tied, stammering monosyllables, confused, horribly awkward, and when Annixter had gone away, she had fled to her little room, and bolting the door, had flung herself face downward on the bed and wept as though her heart were breaking, she did not know why.
That Annixter had been overwhelmed with business all through the winter was an inexpressible relief to Hilma. His affairs took him away from the ranch continually. He was absent sometimes for weeks, making trips to San Francisco, or to Sacramento, or to Bonneville. Perhaps he was forgetting her, overlooking her; and while, at first, she told herself that she asked nothing better, the idea of it began to occupy her mind. She began to wonder if it was really so.
She knew his trouble. Everybody did. The news of the sudden forward movement of the Railroad’s forces, inaugurating the campaign, had flared white-hot and blazing all over the country side. To Hilma’s notion, Annixter’s attitude was heroic beyond all expression. His courage in facing the Railroad, as he had faced Delaney in the barn, seemed to her the pitch of sublimity. She refused to see any auxiliaries aiding him in his fight. To her imagination, the great League, which all the ranchers were joining, was a mere form. Single-handed, Annixter fronted the monster. But for him the corporation would gobble Quien Sabe, as a whale would a minnow. He was a hero who stood between them all and destruction. He was a protector of her family. He was her champion. She began to mention him in her prayers every night, adding a further petition to the effect that he would become a good man, and that he should not swear so much, and that he should never meet Delaney again.
However, as Hilma still debated the idea of bathing her feet in the creek, a train did actually thunder past overhead—the regular evening Overland,—the through express, that never stopped between Bakersfield and Fresno. It stormed by with a deafening clamour, and a swirl of smoke, in a long succession of way-coaches, and chocolate coloured Pullmans, grimy with the dust of the great deserts of the Southwest. The quivering of the trestle’s supports set a tremble in the ground underfoot. The thunder of wheels drowned all sound of the flowing of the creek, and also the noise of the buckskin mare’s hoofs descending from the trail upon the gravel about the creek, so that Hilma, turning about after the passage of the train, saw Annixter close at hand, with the abruptness of a vision.
He was looking at her, smiling as he rarely did, the firm line of his out-thrust lower lip relaxed good-humouredly. He had taken off his campaign hat to her, and though his stiff, yellow hair was twisted into a bristling mop, the little persistent tuft on the crown, usually defiantly erect as an Apache’s scalp-lock, was nowhere in sight.
“Hello, it’s you, is it, Miss Hilma?” he exclaimed, getting down from the buckskin, and allowing her to drink.
Hilma nodded, scrambling to her feet, dusting her skirt with nervous pats of both hands.
Annixter sat down on a great rock close by and, the loop of the bridle over his arm, lit a cigar, and began to talk. He complained of the heat of the day, the bad condition of the Lower Road, over which he had come on his way from a committee meeting of the League at Los Muertos; of the slowness of the work on the irrigating ditch, and, as a matter of course, of the general hard times.
“Miss Hilma,” he said abruptly, “never you marry a ranchman. He’s never out of trouble.”
Hilma gasped, her eyes widening till the full round of the pupil was disclosed. Instantly, a certain, inexplicable guiltiness overpowered her with incredible confusion. Her hands trembled as she pressed the bundle of cresses into a hard ball between her palms.
Annixter continued to talk. He was disturbed and excited himself at this unexpected meeting. Never through all the past winter months of strenuous activity, the fever of political campaigns, the harrowing delays and ultimate defeat in one law court after another, had he forgotten the look in Hilma’s face as he stood with one arm around her on the floor of his barn, in peril of his life from the buster’s revolver. That dumb confession of Hilma’s wide-open eyes had been enough for him. Yet, somehow, he never had had a chance to act upon it. During the short period when he could be on his ranch Hilma had always managed to avoid him. Once, even, she had spent a month, about Christmas time, with her mother’s father, who kept a hotel in San Francisco.
Now, to-day, however, he had her all to himself. He would put an end to the situation that troubled him, and vexed him, day after day, month after month. Beyond question, the moment had come for something definite, he could not say precisely what. Readjusting his cigar between his teeth, he resumed his speech. It suited his humour to take the girl into his confidence, following an instinct which warned him that this would bring about a certain closeness of their relations, a certain intimacy.
“What do you think of this row, anyways, Miss Hilma,—this railroad fuss in general? Think Shelgrim and his rushers are going to jump Quien Sabe—are going to run us off the ranch?”
“Oh, no, sir,” protested Hilma, still breathless. “Oh, no, indeed not.”
“Well, what then?”
Hilma made a little uncertain movement of ignorance.
“I don’t know what.”
“Well, the League agreed to-day that if the test cases were lost in the Supreme Court—you know we’ve appealed to the Supreme Court, at Washington—we’d fight.”
“Fight like—like you and Mr. Delaney that time with—oh, dear—with guns?”
“I don’t know,” grumbled Annixter vaguely. “What do YOU think?”
Hilma’s low-pitched, almost husky voice trembled a little as she replied, “Fighting—with guns—that’s so terrible. Oh, those revolvers in the barn! I can hear them yet. Every shot seemed like the explosion of tons of powder.”
“Shall we clear out, then? Shall we let Delaney have possession, and S. Behrman, and all that lot? Shall we give in to them?”
“Never, never,” she exclaimed, her great eyes flashing.
“YOU wouldn’t like to be turned out of your home, would you, Miss Hilma, because Quien Sabe is your home isn’t it? You’ve lived here ever since you were as big as a minute. You wouldn’t like to have S. Behrman and the rest of ‘em turn you out?”
“N-no,” she murmured. “No, I shouldn’t like that. There’s mamma and——”
“Well, do you think for one second I’m going to let ‘em?” cried Annixter, his teeth tightening on his cigar. “You stay right where you are. I’ll take care of you, right enough. Look here,” he demanded abruptly, “you’ve no use for that roaring lush, Delaney, have you?” “I think he is a wicked man,” she declared. “I know the Railroad has pretended to sell him part of the ranch, and he lets Mr. S. Behrman and Mr. Ruggles just use him.”
“Right. I thought you wouldn’t be keen on him.”
There was a long pause. The buckskin began blowing among the pebbles, nosing for grass, and Annixter shifted his cigar to the other corner of his mouth.
“Pretty place,” he muttered, looking around him. Then he added: “Miss Hilma, see here, I want to have a kind of talk with you, if you don’t mind. I don’t know just how to say these sort of things, and if I get all balled up as I go along, you just set it down to the fact that I’ve never had any experience in dealing with feemale girls; understand? You see, ever since the barn dance—yes, and long before then—I’ve been thinking a lot about you. Straight, I have, and I guess you know it. You’re about the only girl that I ever knew well, and I guess,” he declared deliberately, “you’re about the only one I want to know. It’s my nature. You didn’t say anything that time when we stood there together and Delaney was playing the fool, but, somehow, I got the idea that you didn’t want Delaney to do for me one little bit; that if he’d got me then you would have been sorrier than if he’d got any one else. Well, I felt just that way about you. I would rather have had him shoot any other girl in the room than you; yes, or in the whole State. Why, if anything should happen to you, Miss Hilma—well, I wouldn’t care to go on with anything. S. Behrman could jump Quien Sabe, and welcome. And Delaney could shoot me full of holes whenever he got good and ready. I’d quit. I’d lay right down. I wouldn’t care a whoop about anything any more. You are the only girl for me in the whole world. I didn’t think so at first. I didn’t want to. But seeing you around every day, and seeing how pretty you were, and how clever, and hearing your voice and all, why, it just got all inside of me somehow, and now I can’t think of anything else. I hate to go to San Francisco, or Sacramento, or Visalia, or even Bonneville, for only a day, just because you aren’t there, in any of those places, and I just rush what I’ve got to do so as I can get back here. While you were away that Christmas time, why, I was as lonesome as—oh, you don’t know anything about it. I just scratched off the days on the calendar every night, one by one, till you got back. And it just comes to this, I want you with me all the time. I want you should have a home that’s my home, too. I want to take care of you, and have you all for myself, you understand. What do you say?”
Hilma, standing up before him, retied a knot in her handkerchief bundle with elaborate precaution, blinking at it through her tears.
“What do you say, Miss Hilma?” Annixter repeated. “How about that? What do you say?”
Just above a whisper, Hilma murmured:
“I—I don’t know.”
“Don’t know what? Don’t you think we could hit it off together?”
“I don’t know.”
“I know we could, Hilma. I don’t mean to scare you. What are you crying for?” “I don’t know.”
Annixter got up, cast away his cigar, and dropping the buckskin’s bridle, came and stood beside her, putting a hand on her shoulder. Hilma did not move, and he felt her trembling. She still plucked at the knot of the handkerchief. “I can’t do without you, little girl,” Annixter continued, “and I want you. I want you bad. I don’t get much fun out of life ever. It, sure, isn’t my nature, I guess. I’m a hard man. Everybody is trying to down me, and now I’m up against the Railroad. I’m fighting ‘em all, Hilma, night and day, lock, stock, and barrel, and I’m fighting now for my home, my land, everything I have in the world. If I win out, I want somebody to be glad with me. If I don’t—I want somebody to be sorry for me, sorry with me,—and that somebody is you. I am dog-tired of going it alone. I want some one to back me up. I want to feel you alongside of me, to give me a touch of the shoulder now and then. I’m tired of fighting for THINGS—land, property, money. I want to fight for some PERSON—somebody beside myself. Understand? want to feel that it isn’t all selfishness—that there are other interests than mine in the game—that there’s some one dependent on me, and that’s thinking of me as I’m thinking of them—some one I can come home to at night and put my arm around—like this, and have her put her two arms around me—like—” He paused a second, and once again, as it had been in that moment of imminent peril, when he stood with his arm around her, their eyes met,—“put her two arms around me,” prompted Annixter, half smiling, “like—like what, Hilma?”
“I don’t know.”
“Like what, Hilma?” he insisted.
“Like—like this?” she questioned. With a movement of infinite tenderness and affection she slid her arms around his neck, still crying a little.
The sensation of her warm body in his embrace, the feeling of her smooth, round arm, through the thinness of her sleeve, pressing against his cheek, thrilled Annixter with a delight such as he had never known. He bent his head and kissed her upon the nape of her neck, where the delicate amber tint melted into the thick, sweet smelling mass of her dark brown hair. She shivered a little, holding him closer, ashamed as yet to look up. Without speech, they stood there for a long minute, holding each other close. Then Hilma pulled away from him, mopping her tear-stained cheeks with the little moist ball of her handkerchief.
“What do you say? Is it a go?” demanded Annixter jovially.
“I thought I hated you all the time,” she said, and the velvety huskiness of her voice never sounded so sweet to him.
“And I thought it was that crockery smashing goat of a lout of a cow-puncher.”
“Delaney? The idea! Oh, dear! I think it must always have been you.”
“Since when, Hilma?” he asked, putting his arm around her. “Ah, but it is good to have you, my girl,” he exclaimed, delighted beyond words that she permitted this freedom. “Since when? Tell us all about it.”
“Oh, since always. It was ever so long before I came to think of you—to, well, to think about—I mean to remember—oh, you know what I mean. But when I did, oh, THEN!”
“I don’t know—I haven’t thought—that way long enough to know.”
“But you said you thought it must have been me always.”
“I know; but that was different—oh, I’m all mixed up. I’m so nervous and trembly now. Oh,” she cried suddenly, her face overcast with a look of earnestness and great seriousness, both her hands catching at his wrist, “Oh, you WILL be good to me, now, won’t you? I’m only a little, little child in so many ways, and I’ve given myself to you, all in a minute, and I can’t go back of it now, and it’s for always. I don’t know how it happened or why. Sometimes I think I didn’t wish it, but now it’s done, and I am glad and happy. But NOW if you weren’t good to me—oh, think of how it would be with me. You are strong, and big, and rich, and I am only a servant of yours, a little nobody, but I’ve given all I had to you—myself—and you must be so good to me now. Always remember that. Be good to me and be gentle and kind to me in LITTLE things,—in everything, or you will break my heart.”
Annixter took her in his arms. He was speechless. No words that he had at his command seemed adequate. All he could say was:
“That’s all right, little girl. Don’t you be frightened. I’ll take care of you. That’s all right, that’s all right.”
For a long time they sat there under the shade of the great trestle, their arms about each other, speaking only at intervals. An hour passed. The buckskin, finding no feed to her taste, took the trail stablewards, the bridle dragging. Annixter let her go. Rather than to take his arm from around Hilma’s waist he would have lost his whole stable. At last, however, he bestirred himself and began to talk. He thought it time to formulate some plan of action.
“Well, now, Hilma, what are we going to do?”
“Do?” she repeated. “Why, must we do anything? Oh, isn’t this enough?”
“There’s better ahead,” he went on. “I want to fix you up somewhere where you can have a bit of a home all to yourself. Let’s see; Bonneville wouldn’t do. There’s always a lot of yaps about there that know us, and they would begin to cackle first off. How about San Francisco. We might go up next week and have a look around. I would find rooms you could take somewheres, and we would fix ‘em up as lovely as how-do-you-do.”
“Oh, but why go away from Quien Sabe?” she protested. “And, then, so soon, too. Why must we have a wedding trip, now that you are so busy? Wouldn’t it be better—oh, I tell you, we could go to Monterey after we were married, for a little week, where mamma’s people live, and then come back here to the ranch house and settle right down where we are and let me keep house for you. I wouldn’t even want a single servant.”
Annixter heard and his face grew troubled.
“Hum,” he said, “I see.”
He gathered up a handful of pebbles and began snapping them carefully into the creek. He fell thoughtful. Here was a phase of the affair he had not planned in the least. He had supposed all the time that Hilma took his meaning. His old suspicion that she was trying to get a hold on him stirred again for a moment. There was no good of such talk as that. Always these feemale girls seemed crazy to get married, bent on complicating the situation.
“Isn’t that best?” said Hilma, glancing at him.
“I don’t know,” he muttered gloomily.
“Well, then, let’s not. Let’s come right back to Quien Sabe without going to Monterey. Anything that you want I want.”
“I hadn’t thought of it in just that way,” he observed.
“In what way, then?”
“Can’t we—can’t we wait about this marrying business?”
“That’s just it,” she said gayly. “I said it was too soon. There would be so much to do between whiles. Why not say at the end of the summer?”
“Our marriage, I mean.”
“Why get married, then? What’s the good of all that fuss about it? I don’t go anything upon a minister puddling round in my affairs. What’s the difference, anyhow? We understand each other. Isn’t that enough? Pshaw, Hilma, I’M no marrying man.”
She looked at him a moment, bewildered, then slowly she took his meaning. She rose to her feet, her eyes wide, her face paling with terror. He did not look at her, but he could hear the catch in her throat.
“Oh!” she exclaimed, with a long, deep breath, and again “Oh!” the back of her hand against her lips.
It was a quick gasp of a veritable physical anguish. Her eyes brimmed over. Annixter rose, looking at her.
“Well?” he said, awkwardly, “Well?”
Hilma leaped back from him with an instinctive recoil of her whole being, throwing out her hands in a gesture of defence, fearing she knew not what. There was as yet no sense of insult in her mind, no outraged modesty. She was only terrified. It was as though searching for wild flowers she had come suddenly upon a snake.
She stood for an instant, spellbound, her eyes wide, her bosom swelling; then, all at once, turned and fled, darting across the plank that served for a foot bridge over the creek, gaining the opposite bank and disappearing with a brisk rustle of underbrush, such as might have been made by the flight of a frightened fawn.
Abruptly Annixter found himself alone. For a moment he did not move, then he picked up his campaign hat, carefully creased its limp crown and put it on his head and stood for a moment, looking vaguely at the ground on both sides of him. He went away without uttering a word, without change of countenance, his hands in his pockets, his feet taking great strides along the trail in the direction of the ranch house.
He had no sight of Hilma again that evening, and the next morning he was up early and did not breakfast at the ranch house. Business of the League called him to Bonneville to confer with Magnus and the firm of lawyers retained by the League to fight the land-grabbing cases. An appeal was to be taken to the Supreme Court at Washington, and it was to be settled that day which of the cases involved should be considered as test cases.
Instead of driving or riding into Bonneville, as he usually did, Annixter took an early morning train, the Bakersfield-Fresno local at Guadalajara, and went to Bonneville by rail, arriving there at twenty minutes after seven and breakfasting by appointment with Magnus Derrick and Osterman at the Yosemite House, on Main Street.
The conference of the committee with the lawyers took place in a front room of the Yosemite, one of the latter bringing with him his clerk, who made a stenographic report of the proceedings and took carbon copies of all letters written. The conference was long and complicated, the business transacted of the utmost moment, and it was not until two o’clock that Annixter found himself at liberty.
However, as he and Magnus descended into the lobby of the hotel, they were aware of an excited and interested group collected about the swing doors that opened from the lobby of the Yosemite into the bar of the same name. Dyke was there—even at a distance they could hear the reverberation of his deep-toned voice, uplifted in wrath and furious expostulation. Magnus and Annixter joined the group wondering, and all at once fell full upon the first scene of a drama.
That same morning Dyke’s mother had awakened him according to his instructions at daybreak. A consignment of his hop poles from the north had arrived at the freight office of the P. and S. W. in Bonneville, and he was to drive in on his farm wagon and bring them out. He would have a busy day.
“Hello, hello,” he said, as his mother pulled his ear to arouse him; “morning, mamma.”
“It’s time,” she said, “after five already. Your breakfast is on the stove.”
He took her hand and kissed it with great affection. He loved his mother devotedly, quite as much as he did the little tad. In their little cottage, in the forest of green hops that surrounded them on every hand, the three led a joyous and secluded life, contented, industrious, happy, asking nothing better. Dyke, himself, was a big-hearted, jovial man who spread an atmosphere of good-humour wherever he went. In the evenings he played with Sidney like a big boy, an older brother, lying on the bed, or the sofa, taking her in his arms. Between them they had invented a great game. The ex-engineer, his boots removed, his huge legs in the air, hoisted the little tad on the soles of his stockinged feet like a circus acrobat, dandling her there, pretending he was about to let her fall. Sidney, choking with delight, held on nervously, with little screams and chirps of excitement, while he shifted her gingerly from one foot to another, and thence, the final act, the great gallery play, to the palm of one great hand. At this point Mrs. Dyke was called in, both father and daughter, children both, crying out that she was to come in and look, look. She arrived out of breath from the kitchen, the potato masher in her hand. “Such children,” she murmured, shaking her head at them, amused for all that, tucking the potato masher under her arm and clapping her hands. In the end, it was part of the game that Sidney should tumble down upon Dyke, whereat he invariably vented a great bellow as if in pain, declaring that his ribs were broken. Gasping, his eyes shut, he pretended to be in the extreme of dissolution—perhaps he was dying. Sidney, always a little uncertain, amused but distressed, shook him nervously, tugging at his beard, pushing open his eyelid with one finger, imploring him not to frighten her, to wake up and be good.
On this occasion, while yet he was half-dressed, Dyke tiptoed into his mother’s room to look at Sidney fast asleep in her little iron cot, her arm under her head, her lips parted. With infinite precaution he kissed her twice, and then finding one little stocking, hung with its mate very neatly over the back of a chair, dropped into it a dime, rolled up in a wad of paper. He winked all to himself and went out again, closing the door with exaggerated carefulness.
He breakfasted alone, Mrs. Dyke pouring his coffee and handing him his plate of ham and eggs, and half an hour later took himself off in his springless, skeleton wagon, humming a tune behind his beard and cracking the whip over the backs of his staid and solid farm horses.
The morning was fine, the sun just coming up. He left Guadalajara, sleeping and lifeless, on his left, and going across lots, over an angle of Quien Sabe, came out upon the Upper Road, a mile below the Long Trestle. He was in great spirits, looking about him over the brown fields, ruddy with the dawn. Almost directly in front of him, but far off, the gilded dome of the court-house at Bonneville was glinting radiant in the first rays of the sun, while a few miles distant, toward the north, the venerable campanile of the Mission San Juan stood silhouetted in purplish black against the flaming east. As he proceeded, the great farm horses jogging forward, placid, deliberate, the country side waked to another day. Crossing the irrigating ditch further on, he met a gang of Portuguese, with picks and shovels over their shoulders, just going to work. Hooven, already abroad, shouted him a “Goot mornun” from behind the fence of Los Muertos. Far off, toward the southwest, in the bare expanse of the open fields, where a clump of eucalyptus and cypress trees set a dark green note, a thin stream of smoke rose straight into the air from the kitchen of Derrick’s ranch houses.
But a mile or so beyond the Long Trestle he was surprised to see Magnus Derrick’s protege, the one-time shepherd, Vanamee, coming across Quien Sabe, by a trail from one of Annixter’s division houses. Without knowing exactly why, Dyke received the impression that the young man had not been in bed all of that night.
As the two approached each other, Dyke eyed the young fellow. He was distrustful of Vanamee, having the country-bred suspicion of any person he could not understand. Vanamee was, beyond doubt, no part of the life of ranch and country town. He was an alien, a vagabond, a strange fellow who came and went in mysterious fashion, making no friends, keeping to himself. Why did he never wear a hat, why indulge in a fine, black, pointed beard, when either a round beard or a mustache was the invariable custom? Why did he not cut his hair? Above all, why did he prowl about so much at night? As the two passed each other, Dyke, for all his good-nature, was a little blunt in his greeting and looked back at the ex-shepherd over his shoulder.
Dyke was right in his suspicion. Vanamee’s bed had not been disturbed for three nights. On the Monday of that week he had passed the entire night in the garden of the Mission, overlooking the Seed ranch, in the little valley. Tuesday evening had found him miles away from that spot, in a deep arroyo in the Sierra foothills to the eastward, while Wednesday he had slept in an abandoned ‘dobe on Osterman’s stock range, twenty miles from his resting place of the night before.
The fact of the matter was that the old restlessness had once more seized upon Vanamee. Something began tugging at him; the spur of some unseen rider touched his flank. The instinct of the wanderer woke and moved. For some time now he had been a part of the Los Muertos staff. On Quien Sabe, as on the other ranches, the slack season was at hand. While waiting for the wheat to come up no one was doing much of anything. Vanamee had come over to Los Muertos and spent most of his days on horseback, riding the range, rounding up and watching the cattle in the fourth division of the ranch. But if the vagabond instinct now roused itself in the strange fellow’s nature, a counter influence had also set in. More and more Vanamee frequented the Mission garden after nightfall, sometimes remaining there till the dawn began to whiten, lying prone on the ground, his chin on his folded arms, his eyes searching the darkness over the little valley of the Seed ranch, watching, watching. As the days went by, he became more reticent than ever. Presley often came to find him on the stock range, a lonely figure in the great wilderness of bare, green hillsides, but Vanamee no longer took him into his confidence. Father Sarria alone heard his strange stories.
Dyke drove on toward Bonneville, thinking over the whole matter. He knew, as every one did in that part of the country, the legend of Vanamee and Angele, the romance of the Mission garden, the mystery of the Other, Vanamee’s flight to the deserts of the southwest, his periodic returns, his strange, reticent, solitary character, but, like many another of the country people, he accounted for Vanamee by a short and easy method. No doubt, the fellow’s wits were turned. That was the long and short of it.
The ex-engineer reached the Post Office in Bonneville towards eleven o’clock, but he did not at once present his notice of the arrival of his consignment at Ruggles’s office. It entertained him to indulge in an hour’s lounging about the streets. It was seldom he got into town, and when he did he permitted himself the luxury of enjoying his evident popularity. He met friends everywhere, in the Post Office, in the drug store, in the barber shop and around the court-house. With each one he held a moment’s conversation; almost invariably this ended in the same way:
“Come on ‘n have a drink.”
“Well, I don’t care if I do.”
And the friends proceeded to the Yosemite bar, pledging each other with punctilious ceremony. Dyke, however, was a strictly temperate man. His life on the engine had trained him well. Alcohol he never touched, drinking instead ginger ale, sarsaparilla-and-iron—soft drinks.
At the drug store, which also kept a stock of miscellaneous stationery, his eye was caught by a “transparent slate,” a child’s toy, where upon a little pane of frosted glass one could trace with considerable elaboration outline figures of cows, ploughs, bunches of fruit and even rural water mills that were printed on slips of paper underneath.
“Now, there’s an idea, Jim,” he observed to the boy behind the soda-water fountain; “I know a little tad that would just about jump out of her skin for that. Think I’ll have to take it with me.”
“How’s Sidney getting along?” the other asked, while wrapping up the package.
Dyke’s enthusiasm had made of his little girl a celebrity throughout Bonneville.
The ex-engineer promptly became voluble, assertive, doggedly emphatic.
“Smartest little tad in all Tulare County, and more fun! A regular whole show in herself.”
“And the hops?” inquired the other.
“Bully,” declared Dyke, with the good-natured man’s readiness to talk of his private affairs to any one who would listen. “Bully. I’m dead sure of a bonanza crop by now. The rain came JUST right. I actually don’t know as I can store the crop in those barns I built, it’s going to be so big. That foreman of mine was a daisy. Jim, I’m going to make money in that deal. After I’ve paid off the mortgage—you know I had to mortgage, yes, crop and homestead both, but I can pay it off and all the interest to boot, lovely,—well, and as I was saying, after all expenses are paid off I’ll clear big money, m’ son. Yes, sir. I KNEW there was boodle in hops. You know the crop is contracted for already. Sure, the foreman managed that. He’s a daisy. Chap in San Francisco will take it all and at the advanced price. I wanted to hang on, to see if it wouldn’t go to six cents, but the foreman said, ‘No, that’s good enough.’ So I signed. Ain’t it bully, hey?”
“Then what’ll you do?”
“Well, I don’t know. I’ll have a lay-off for a month or so and take the little tad and mother up and show ‘em the city—‘Frisco—until it’s time for the schools to open, and then we’ll put Sid in the seminary at Marysville. Catch on?”
“I suppose you’ll stay right by hops now?”
“Right you are, m’son. I know a good thing when I see it. There’s plenty others going into hops next season. I set ‘em the example. Wouldn’t be surprised if it came to be a regular industry hereabouts. I’m planning ahead for next year already. I can let the foreman go, now that I’ve learned the game myself, and I think I’ll buy a piece of land off Quien Sabe and get a bigger crop, and build a couple more barns, and, by George, in about five years time I’ll have things humming. I’m going to make MONEY, Jim.”
He emerged once more into the street and went up the block leisurely, planting his feet squarely. He fancied that he could feel he was considered of more importance nowadays. He was no longer a subordinate, an employee. He was his own man, a proprietor, an owner of land, furthering a successful enterprise. No one had helped him; he had followed no one’s lead. He had struck out unaided for himself, and his success was due solely to his own intelligence, industry, and foresight. He squared his great shoulders till the blue gingham of his jumper all but cracked. Of late, his great blond beard had grown and the work in the sun had made his face very red. Under the visor of his cap—relic of his engineering days—his blue eyes twinkled with vast good-nature. He felt that he made a fine figure as he went by a group of young girls in lawns and muslins and garden hats on their way to the Post Office. He wondered if they looked after him, wondered if they had heard that he was in a fair way to become a rich man.
But the chronometer in the window of the jewelry store warned him that time was passing. He turned about, and, crossing the street, took his way to Ruggles’s office, which was the freight as well as the land office of the P. and S. W. Railroad.
As he stood for a moment at the counter in front of the wire partition, waiting for the clerk to make out the order for the freight agent at the depot, Dyke was surprised to see a familiar figure in conference with Ruggles himself, by a desk inside the railing.
The figure was that of a middle-aged man, fat, with a great stomach, which he stroked from time to time. As he turned about, addressing a remark to the clerk, Dyke recognised S. Behrman. The banker, railroad agent, and political manipulator seemed to the ex-engineer’s eyes to be more gross than ever. His smooth-shaven jowl stood out big and tremulous on either side of his face; the roll of fat on the nape of his neck, sprinkled with sparse, stiff hairs, bulged out with greater prominence. His great stomach, covered with a light brown linen vest, stamped with innumerable interlocked horseshoes, protruded far in advance, enormous, aggressive. He wore his inevitable round-topped hat of stiff brown straw, varnished so bright that it reflected the light of the office windows like a helmet, and even from where he stood Dyke could hear his loud breathing and the clink of the hollow links of his watch chain upon the vest buttons of imitation pearl, as his stomach rose and fell.
Dyke looked at him with attention. There was the enemy, the representative of the Trust with which Derrick’s League was locking horns. The great struggle had begun to invest the combatants with interest. Daily, almost hourly, Dyke was in touch with the ranchers, the wheat-growers. He heard their denunciations, their growls of exasperation and defiance. Here was the other side—this placid, fat man, with a stiff straw hat and linen vest, who never lost his temper, who smiled affably upon his enemies, giving them good advice, commiserating with them in one defeat after another, never ruffled, never excited, sure of his power, conscious that back of him was the Machine, the colossal force, the inexhaustible coffers of a mighty organisation, vomiting millions to the League’s thousands.
The League was clamorous, ubiquitous, its objects known to every urchin on the streets, but the Trust was silent, its ways inscrutable, the public saw only results. It worked on in the dark, calm, disciplined, irresistible. Abruptly Dyke received the impression of the multitudinous ramifications of the colossus. Under his feet the ground seemed mined; down there below him in the dark the huge tentacles went silently twisting and advancing, spreading out in every direction, sapping the strength of all opposition, quiet, gradual, biding the time to reach up and out and grip with a sudden unleashing of gigantic strength.
“I’ll be wanting some cars of you people before the summer is out,” observed Dyke to the clerk as he folded up and put away the order that the other had handed him. He remembered perfectly well that he had arranged the matter of transporting his crop some months before, but his role of proprietor amused him and he liked to busy himself again and again with the details of his undertaking.
“I suppose,” he added, “you’ll be able to give ‘em to me. There’ll be a big wheat crop to move this year and I don’t want to be caught in any car famine.”
“Oh, you’ll get your cars,” murmured the other.
“I’ll be the means of bringing business your way,” Dyke went on; “I’ve done so well with my hops that there are a lot of others going into the business next season. Suppose,” he continued, struck with an idea, “suppose we went into some sort of pool, a sort of shippers’ organisation, could you give us special rates, cheaper rates—say a cent and a half?”
The other looked up.
“A cent and a half! Say FOUR cents and a half and maybe I’ll talk business with you.”
“Four cents and a half,” returned Dyke, “I don’t see it. Why, the regular rate is only two cents.”
“No, it isn’t,” answered the clerk, looking him gravely in the eye, “it’s five cents.”
“Well, there’s where you are wrong, m’son,” Dyke retorted, genially. “You look it up. You’ll find the freight on hops from Bonneville to ‘Frisco is two cents a pound for car load lots. You told me that yourself last fall.”
“That was last fall,” observed the clerk. There was a silence. Dyke shot a glance of suspicion at the other. Then, reassured, he remarked:
“You look it up. You’ll see I’m right.”
S. Behrman came forward and shook hands politely with the ex-engineer.
“Anything I can do for you, Mr. Dyke?”
Dyke explained. When he had done speaking, the clerk turned to S. Behrman and observed, respectfully:
“Our regular rate on hops is five cents.”
“Yes,” answered S. Behrman, pausing to reflect; “yes, Mr. Dyke, that’s right—five cents.”
The clerk brought forward a folder of yellow paper and handed it to Dyke. It was inscribed at the top “Tariff Schedule No. 8,” and underneath these words, in brackets, was a smaller inscription, “SUPERSEDES NO. 7 OF AUG. 1”
“See for yourself,” said S. Behrman. He indicated an item under the head of “Miscellany.”
“The following rates for carriage of hops in car load lots,” read Dyke, “take effect June 1, and will remain in force until superseded by a later tariff. Those quoted beyond Stockton are subject to changes in traffic arrangements with carriers by water from that point.”
In the list that was printed below, Dyke saw that the rate for hops between Bonneville or Guadalajara and San Francisco was five cents.
For a moment Dyke was confused. Then swiftly the matter became clear in his mind. The Railroad had raised the freight on hops from two cents to five.
All his calculations as to a profit on his little investment he had based on a freight rate of two cents a pound. He was under contract to deliver his crop. He could not draw back. The new rate ate up every cent of his gains. He stood there ruined.
“Why, what do you mean?” he burst out. “You promised me a rate of two cents and I went ahead with my business with that understanding. What do you mean?”
S. Behrman and the clerk watched him from the other side of the counter.
“The rate is five cents,” declared the clerk doggedly.
“Well, that ruins me,” shouted Dyke. “Do you understand? I won’t make fifty cents. MAKE! Why, I will OWE,—I’ll be—be—That ruins me, do you understand?”
The other, raised a shoulder.
“We don’t force you to ship. You can do as you like. The rate is five cents.”
“Well—but—damn you, I’m under contract to deliver. What am I going to do? Why, you told me—you promised me a two-cent rate.”
“I don’t remember it,” said the clerk. “I don’t know anything about that. But I know this; I know that hops have gone up. I know the German crop was a failure and that the crop in New York wasn’t worth the hauling. Hops have gone up to nearly a dollar. You don’t suppose we don’t know that, do you, Mr. Dyke?”
“What’s the price of hops got to do with you?”
“It’s got THIS to do with us,” returned the other with a sudden aggressiveness, “that the freight rate has gone up to meet the price. We’re not doing business for our health. My orders are to raise your rate to five cents, and I think you are getting off easy.”
Dyke stared in blank astonishment. For the moment, the audacity of the affair was what most appealed to him. He forgot its personal application.
“Good Lord,” he murmured, “good Lord! What will you people do next? Look here. What’s your basis of applying freight rates, anyhow?” he suddenly vociferated with furious sarcasm. “What’s your rule? What are you guided by?”
But at the words, S. Behrman, who had kept silent during the heat of the discussion, leaned abruptly forward. For the only time in his knowledge, Dyke saw his face inflamed with anger and with the enmity and contempt of all this farming element with whom he was contending.
“Yes, what’s your rule? What’s your basis?” demanded Dyke, turning swiftly to him.
S. Behrman emphasised each word of his reply with a tap of one forefinger on the counter before him:
The ex-engineer stepped back a pace, his fingers on the ledge of the counter, to steady himself. He felt himself grow pale, his heart became a mere leaden weight in his chest, inert, refusing to beat.
In a second the whole affair, in all its bearings, went speeding before the eye of his imagination like the rapid unrolling of a panorama. Every cent of his earnings was sunk in this hop business of his. More than that, he had borrowed money to carry it on, certain of success—borrowed of S. Behrman, offering his crop and his little home as security. Once he failed to meet his obligations, S. Behrman would foreclose. Not only would the Railroad devour every morsel of his profits, but also it would take from him his home; at a blow he would be left penniless and without a home. What would then become of his mother—and what would become of the little tad? She, whom he had been planning to educate like a veritable lady. For all that year he had talked of his ambition for his little daughter to every one he met. All Bonneville knew of it. What a mark for gibes he had made of himself. The workingman turned farmer! What a target for jeers—he who had fancied he could elude the Railroad! He remembered he had once said the great Trust had overlooked his little enterprise, disdaining to plunder such small fry. He should have known better than that. How had he ever imagined the Road would permit him to make any money?
Anger was not in him yet; no rousing of the blind, white-hot wrath that leaps to the attack with prehensile fingers, moved him. The blow merely crushed, staggered, confused.
He stepped aside to give place to a coatless man in a pink shirt, who entered, carrying in his hands an automatic door-closing apparatus.
“Where does this go?” inquired the man.
Dyke sat down for a moment on a seat that had been removed from a worn-out railway car to do duty in Ruggles’s office. On the back of a yellow envelope he made some vague figures with a stump of blue pencil, multiplying, subtracting, perplexing himself with many errors.
S. Behrman, the clerk, and the man with the door-closing apparatus involved themselves in a long argument, gazing intently at the top panel of the door. The man who had come to fix the apparatus was unwilling to guarantee it, unless a sign was put on the outside of the door, warning incomers that the door was self-closing. This sign would cost fifteen cents extra.
“But you didn’t say anything about this when the thing was ordered,” declared S. Behrman. “No, I won’t pay it, my friend. It’s an overcharge.”
“You needn’t think,” observed the clerk, “that just because you are dealing with the Railroad you are going to work us.”
Genslinger came in, accompanied by Delaney. S. Behrman and the clerk, abruptly dismissing the man with the door-closing machine, put themselves behind the counter and engaged in conversation with these two. Genslinger introduced Delaney. The buster had a string of horses he was shipping southward. No doubt he had come to make arrangements with the Railroad in the matter of stock cars. The conference of the four men was amicable in the extreme.
Dyke, studying the figures on the back of the envelope, came forward again. Absorbed only in his own distress, he ignored the editor and the cow-puncher.
“Say,” he hazarded, “how about this? I make out——
“We’ve told you what our rates are, Mr. Dyke,” exclaimed the clerk angrily. “That’s all the arrangement we will make. Take it or leave it.” He turned again to Genslinger, giving the ex-engineer his back.
Dyke moved away and stood for a moment in the centre of the room, staring at the figures on the envelope.
“I don’t see,” he muttered, “just what I’m going to do. No, I don’t see what I’m going to do at all.”
Ruggles came in, bringing with him two other men in whom Dyke recognised dummy buyers of the Los Muertos and Osterman ranchos. They brushed by him, jostling his elbow, and as he went out of the door he heard them exchange jovial greetings with Delaney, Genslinger, and S. Behrman.
Dyke went down the stairs to the street and proceeded onward aimlessly in the direction of the Yosemite House, fingering the yellow envelope and looking vacantly at the sidewalk.
There was a stoop to his massive shoulders. His great arms dangled loosely at his sides, the palms of his hands open.
As he went along, a certain feeling of shame touched him. Surely his predicament must be apparent to every passer-by. No doubt, every one recognised the unsuccessful man in the very way he slouched along. The young girls in lawns, muslins, and garden hats, returning from the Post Office, their hands full of letters, must surely see in him the type of the failure, the bankrupt.
Then brusquely his tardy rage flamed up. By God, NO, it was not his fault; he had made no mistake. His energy, industry, and foresight had been sound. He had been merely the object of a colossal trick, a sordid injustice, a victim of the insatiate greed of the monster, caught and choked by one of those millions of tentacles suddenly reaching up from below, from out the dark beneath his feet, coiling around his throat, throttling him, strangling him, sucking his blood. For a moment he thought of the courts, but instantly laughed at the idea. What court was immune from the power of the monster? Ah, the rage of helplessness, the fury of impotence! No help, no hope,—ruined in a brief instant—he a veritable giant, built of great sinews, powerful, in the full tide of his manhood, having all his health, all his wits. How could he now face his home? How could he tell his mother of this catastrophe? And Sidney—the little tad; how could he explain to her this wretchedness—how soften her disappointment? How keep the tears from out her eyes—how keep alive her confidence in him—her faith in his resources?
Bitter, fierce, ominous, his wrath loomed up in his heart. His fists gripped tight together, his teeth clenched. Oh, for a moment to have his hand upon the throat of S. Behrman, wringing the breath from him, wrenching out the red life of him—staining the street with the blood sucked from the veins of the People!
To the first friend that he met, Dyke told the tale of the tragedy, and to the next, and to the next. The affair went from mouth to mouth, spreading with electrical swiftness, overpassing and running ahead of Dyke himself, so that by the time he reached the lobby of the Yosemite House, he found his story awaiting him. A group formed about him. In his immediate vicinity business for the instant was suspended. The group swelled. One after another of his friends added themselves to it. Magnus Derrick joined it, and Annixter. Again and again, Dyke recounted the matter, beginning with the time when he was discharged from the same corporation’s service for refusing to accept an unfair wage. His voice quivered with exasperation; his heavy frame shook with rage; his eyes were injected, bloodshot; his face flamed vermilion, while his deep bass rumbled throughout the running comments of his auditors like the thunderous reverberation of diapason.
From all points of view, the story was discussed by those who listened to him, now in the heat of excitement, now calmly, judicially. One verdict, however, prevailed. It was voiced by Annixter: “You’re stuck. You can roar till you’re black in the face, but you can’t buck against the Railroad. There’s nothing to be done.” “You can shoot the ruffian, you can shoot S. Behrman,” clamoured one of the group. “Yes, sir; by the Lord, you can shoot him.”
“Poor fool,” commented Annixter, turning away.
Nothing to be done. No, there was nothing to be done—not one thing. Dyke, at last alone and driving his team out of the town, turned the business confusedly over in his mind from end to end. Advice, suggestion, even offers of financial aid had been showered upon him from all directions. Friends were not wanting who heatedly presented to his consideration all manner of ingenious plans, wonderful devices. They were worthless. The tentacle held fast. He was stuck.
By degrees, as his wagon carried him farther out into the country, and open empty fields, his anger lapsed, and the numbness of bewilderment returned. He could not look one hour ahead into the future; could formulate no plans even for the next day. He did not know what to do. He was stuck.
With the limpness and inertia of a sack of sand, the reins slipping loosely in his dangling fingers, his eyes fixed, staring between the horses’ heads, he allowed himself to be carried aimlessly along. He resigned himself. What did he care? What was the use of going on? He was stuck.
The team he was driving had once belonged to the Los Muertos stables and unguided as the horses were, they took the county road towards Derrick’s ranch house. Dyke, all abroad, was unaware of the fact till, drawn by the smell of water, the horses halted by the trough in front of Caraher’s saloon.
The ex-engineer dismounted, looking about him, realising where he was. So much the worse; it did not matter. Now that he had come so far it was as short to go home by this route as to return on his tracks. Slowly he unchecked the horses and stood at their heads, watching them drink.
“I don’t see,” he muttered, “just what I am going to do.”
Caraher appeared at the door of his place, his red face, red beard, and flaming cravat standing sharply out from the shadow of the doorway. He called a welcome to Dyke.
Dyke looked up, nodding his head listlessly.
“Hello, Caraher,” he answered.
“Well,” continued the saloonkeeper, coming forward a step, “what’s the news in town?”
Dyke told him. Caraher’s red face suddenly took on a darker colour. The red glint in his eyes shot from under his eyebrows. Furious, he vented a rolling explosion of oaths.
“And now it’s your turn,” he vociferated. “They ain’t after only the big wheat-growers, the rich men. By God, they’ll even pick the poor man’s pocket. Oh, they’ll get their bellies full some day. It can’t last forever. They’ll wake up the wrong kind of man some morning, the man that’s got guts in him, that will hit back when he’s kicked and that will talk to ‘em with a torch in one hand and a stick of dynamite in the other.” He raised his clenched fists in the air. “So help me, God,” he cried, “when I think it all over I go crazy, I see red. Oh, if the people only knew their strength. Oh, if I could wake ‘em up. There’s not only Shelgrim, but there’s others. All the magnates, all the butchers, all the blood-suckers, by the thousands. Their day will come, by God, it will.”
By now, the ex-engineer and the bar-keeper had retired to the saloon back of the grocery to talk over the details of this new outrage. Dyke, still a little dazed, sat down by one of the tables, preoccupied, saying but little, and Caraher as a matter of course set the whiskey bottle at his elbow.
It happened that at this same moment, Presley, returning to Los Muertos from Bonneville, his pockets full of mail, stopped in at the grocery to buy some black lead for his bicycle. In the saloon, on the other side of the narrow partition, he overheard the conversation between Dyke and Caraher. The door was open. He caught every word distinctly.
“Tell us all about it, Dyke,” urged Caraher.
For the fiftieth time Dyke told the story. Already it had crystallised into a certain form. He used the same phrases with each repetition, the same sentences, the same words. In his mind it became set. Thus he would tell it to any one who would listen from now on, week after week, year after year, all the rest of his life—“And I based my calculations on a two-cent rate. So soon as they saw I was to make money they doubled the tariff—all the traffic would bear—and I mortgaged to S. Behrman—ruined me with a turn of the hand—stuck, cinched, and not one thing to be done.”
As he talked, he drank glass after glass of whiskey, and the honest rage, the open, above-board fury of his mind coagulated, thickened, and sunk to a dull, evil hatred, a wicked, oblique malevolence. Caraher, sure now of winning a disciple, replenished his glass.
“Do you blame us now,” he cried, “us others, the Reds? Ah, yes, it’s all very well for your middle class to preach moderation. I could do it, too. You could do it, too, if your belly was fed, if your property was safe, if your wife had not been murdered if your children were not starving. Easy enough then to preach law-abiding methods, legal redress, and all such rot. But how about US?” he vociferated. “Ah, yes, I’m a loud-mouthed rum-seller, ain’t I? I’m a wild-eyed striker, ain’t I? I’m a blood-thirsty anarchist, ain’t I? Wait till you’ve seen your wife brought home to you with the face you used to kiss smashed in by a horse’s hoof—killed by the Trust, as it happened to me. Then talk about moderation! And you, Dyke, black-listed engineer, discharged employee, ruined agriculturist, wait till you see your little tad and your mother turned out of doors when S. Behrman forecloses. Wait till you see ‘em getting thin and white, and till you hear your little girl ask you why you all don’t eat a little more and that she wants her dinner and you can’t give it to her. Wait till you see—at the same time that your family is dying for lack of bread—a hundred thousand acres of wheat—millions of bushels of food—grabbed and gobbled by the Railroad Trust, and then talk of moderation. That talk is just what the Trust wants to hear. It ain’t frightened of that. There’s one thing only it does listen to, one thing it is frightened of—the people with dynamite in their hands,—six inches of plugged gaspipe. THAT talks.”
Dyke did not reply. He filled another pony of whiskey and drank it in two gulps. His frown had lowered to a scowl, his face was a dark red, his head had sunk, bull-like, between his massive shoulders; without winking he gazed long and with troubled eyes at his knotted, muscular hands, lying open on the table before him, idle, their occupation gone.
Presley forgot his black lead. He listened to Caraher. Through the open door he caught a glimpse of Dyke’s back, broad, muscled, bowed down, the great shoulders stooping.
The whole drama of the doubled freight rate leaped salient and distinct in the eye of his mind. And this was but one instance, an isolated case. Because he was near at hand he happened to see it. How many others were there, the length and breadth of the State? Constantly this sort of thing must occur—little industries choked out in their very beginnings, the air full of the death rattles of little enterprises, expiring unobserved in far-off counties, up in canyons and arroyos of the foothills, forgotten by every one but the monster who was daunted by the magnitude of no business, however great, who overlooked no opportunity of plunder, however petty, who with one tentacle grabbed a hundred thousand acres of wheat, and with another pilfered a pocketful of growing hops.
He went away without a word, his head bent, his hands clutched tightly on the cork grips of the handle bars of his bicycle. His lips were white. In his heart a blind demon of revolt raged tumultuous, shrieking blasphemies.
At Los Muertos, Presley overtook Annixter. As he guided his wheel up the driveway to Derrick’s ranch house, he saw the master of Quien Sabe and Harran in conversation on the steps of the porch. Magnus stood in the doorway, talking to his wife.
Occupied with the press of business and involved in the final conference with the League’s lawyers on the eve of the latter’s departure for Washington, Annixter had missed the train that was to take him back to Guadalajara and Quien Sabe. Accordingly, he had accepted the Governor’s invitation to return with him on his buck-board to Los Muertos, and before leaving Bonneville had telephoned to his ranch to have young Vacca bring the buckskin, by way of the Lower Road, to meet him at Los Muertos. He found her waiting there for him, but before going on, delayed a few moments to tell Harran of Dyke’s affair.
“I wonder what he will do now?” observed Harran when his first outburst of indignation had subsided.
“Nothing,” declared Annixter. “He’s stuck.”
“That eats up every cent of Dyke’s earnings,” Harran went on. “He has been ten years saving them. Oh, I told him to make sure of the Railroad when he first spoke to me about growing hops.”
“I’ve just seen him,” said Presley, as he joined the others. “He was at Caraher’s. I only saw his back. He was drinking at a table and his back was towards me. But the man looked broken—absolutely crushed. It is terrible, terrible.”
“He was at Caraher’s, was he?” demanded Annixter.
“I think so. Yes, I saw a bottle.”
“Drinking at Caraher’s,” exclaimed Annixter, rancorously; “I can see HIS finish.”
There was a silence. It seemed as if nothing more was to be said. They paused, looking thoughtfully on the ground.
In silence, grim, bitter, infinitely sad, the three men as if at that moment actually standing in the bar-room of Caraher’s roadside saloon, contemplated the slow sinking, the inevitable collapse and submerging of one of their companions, the wreck of a career, the ruin of an individual; an honest man, strong, fearless, upright, struck down by a colossal power, perverted by an evil influence, go reeling to his ruin.
“I see his finish,” repeated Annixter. “Exit Dyke, and score another tally for S. Behrman, Shelgrim and Co.”
He moved away impatiently, loosening the tie-rope with which the buckskin was fastened. He swung himself up.
“God for us all,” he declared as he rode away, “and the devil take the hindmost. Good-bye, I’m going home. I still have one a little longer.”
He galloped away along the Lower Road, in the direction of Quien Sabe, emerging from the grove of cypress and eucalyptus about the ranch house, and coming out upon the bare brown plain of the wheat land, stretching away from him in apparent barrenness on either hand.
It was late in the day, already his shadow was long upon the padded dust of the road in front of him. On ahead, a long ways off, and a little to the north, the venerable campanile of the Mission San Juan was glinting radiant in the last rays of the sun, while behind him, towards the north and west, the gilded dome of the courthouse at Bonneville stood silhouetted in purplish black against the flaming west. Annixter spurred the buck-skin forward. He feared he might be late to his supper. He wondered if it would be brought to him by Hilma.
Hilma! The name struck across in his brain with a pleasant, glowing tremour. All through that day of activity, of strenuous business, the minute and cautious planning of the final campaign in the great war of the League and the Trust, the idea of her and the recollection of her had been the undercurrent of his thoughts. At last he was alone. He could put all other things behind him and occupy himself solely with her.
In that glory of the day’s end, in that chaos of sunshine, he saw her again. Unimaginative, crude, direct, his fancy, nevertheless, placed her before him, steeped in sunshine, saturated with glorious light, brilliant, radiant, alluring. He saw the sweet simplicity of her carriage, the statuesque evenness of the contours of her figure, the single, deep swell of her bosom, the solid masses of her hair. He remembered the small contradictory suggestions of feminine daintiness he had so often remarked about her, her slim, narrow feet, the little steel buckles of her low shoes, the knot of black ribbon she had begun to wear of late on the back of her head, and he heard her voice, low-pitched, velvety, a sweet, murmuring huskiness that seemed to come more from her chest than from her throat.
The buckskin’s hoofs clattered upon the gravelly flats of Broderson’s Creek underneath the Long Trestle. Annixter’s mind went back to the scene of the previous evening, when he had come upon her at this place. He set his teeth with anger and disappointment. Why had she not been able to understand? What was the matter with these women, always set upon this marrying notion? Was it not enough that he wanted her more than any other girl he knew and that she wanted him? She had said as much. Did she think she was going to be mistress of Quien Sabe? Ah, that was it. She was after his property, was for marrying him because of his money. His unconquerable suspicion of the woman, his innate distrust of the feminine element would not be done away with. What fathomless duplicity was hers, that she could appear so innocent. It was almost unbelievable; in fact, was it believable?
For the first time doubt assailed him. Suppose Hilma was indeed all that she appeared to be. Suppose it was not with her a question of his property, after all; it was a poor time to think of marrying him for his property when all Quien Sabe hung in the issue of the next few months. Suppose she had been sincere. But he caught himself up. Was he to be fooled by a feemale girl at this late date? He, Buck Annixter, crafty, hard-headed, a man of affairs? Not much. Whatever transpired he would remain the master.
He reached Quien Sabe in this frame of mind. But at this hour, Annixter, for all his resolutions, could no longer control his thoughts. As he stripped the saddle from the buckskin and led her to the watering trough by the stable corral, his heart was beating thick at the very notion of being near Hilma again. It was growing dark, but covertly he glanced here and there out of the corners of his eyes to see if she was anywhere about. Annixter—how, he could not tell—had become possessed of the idea that Hilma would not inform her parents of what had passed between them the previous evening under the Long Trestle. He had no idea that matters were at an end between himself and the young woman. He must apologise, he saw that clearly enough, must eat crow, as he told himself. Well, he would eat crow. He was not afraid of her any longer, now that she had made her confession to him. He would see her as soon as possible and get this business straightened out, and begin again from a new starting point. What he wanted with Hilma, Annixter did not define clearly in his mind. At one time he had known perfectly well what he wanted. Now, the goal of his desires had become vague. He could not say exactly what it was. He preferred that things should go forward without much idea of consequences; if consequences came, they would do so naturally enough, and of themselves; all that he positively knew was that Hilma occupied his thoughts morning, noon, and night; that he was happy when he was with her, and miserable when away from her.
The Chinese cook served his supper in silence. Annixter ate and drank and lighted a cigar, and after his meal sat on the porch of his house, smoking and enjoying the twilight. The evening was beautiful, warm, the sky one powder of stars. From the direction of the stables he heard one of the Portuguese hands picking a guitar.
But he wanted to see Hilma. The idea of going to bed without at least a glimpse of her became distasteful to him. Annixter got up and descending from the porch began to walk aimlessly about between the ranch buildings, with eye and ear alert. Possibly he might meet her somewheres.
The Trees’ little house, toward which inevitably Annixter directed his steps, was dark. Had they all gone to bed so soon? He made a wide circuit about it, listening, but heard no sound. The door of the dairy-house stood ajar. He pushed it open, and stepped into the odorous darkness of its interior. The pans and deep cans of polished metal glowed faintly from the corners and from the walls. The smell of new cheese was pungent in his nostrils. Everything was quiet. There was nobody there. He went out again, closing the door, and stood for a moment in the space between the dairy-house and the new barn, uncertain as to what he should do next.
As he waited there, his foreman came out of the men’s bunk house, on the other side of the kitchens, and crossed over toward the barn. “Hello, Billy,” muttered Annixter as he passed.
“Oh, good evening, Mr. Annixter,” said the other, pausing in front of him. “I didn’t know you were back. By the way,” he added, speaking as though the matter was already known to Annixter, “I see old man Tree and his family have left us. Are they going to be gone long? Have they left for good?”
“What’s that?” Annixter exclaimed. “When did they go? Did all of them go, all three?”
“Why, I thought you knew. Sure, they all left on the afternoon train for San Francisco. Cleared out in a hurry—took all their trunks. Yes, all three went—the young lady, too. They gave me notice early this morning. They ain’t ought to have done that. I don’t know who I’m to get to run the dairy on such short notice. Do you know any one, Mr. Annixter?”
“Well, why in hell did you let them go?” vociferated Annixter. “Why didn’t you keep them here till I got back? Why didn’t you find out if they were going for good? I can’t be everywhere. What do I feed you for if it ain’t to look after things I can’t attend to?”
He turned on his heel and strode away straight before him, not caring where he was going. He tramped out from the group of ranch buildings; holding on over the open reach of his ranch, his teeth set, his heels digging furiously into the ground. The minutes passed. He walked on swiftly, muttering to himself from time to time.
“Gone, by the Lord. Gone, by the Lord. By the Lord Harry, she’s cleared out.”
As yet his head was empty of all thought. He could not steady his wits to consider this new turn of affairs. He did not even try.
“Gone, by the Lord,” he exclaimed. “By the Lord, she’s cleared out.”
He found the irrigating ditch, and the beaten path made by the ditch tenders that bordered it, and followed it some five minutes; then struck off at right angles over the rugged surface of the ranch land, to where a great white stone jutted from the ground. There he sat down, and leaning forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and looked out vaguely into the night, his thoughts swiftly readjusting themselves.
He was alone. The silence of the night, the infinite repose of the flat, bare earth—two immensities—widened around and above him like illimitable seas. A grey half-light, mysterious, grave, flooded downward from the stars.
Annixter was in torment. Now, there could be no longer any doubt—now it was Hilma or nothing. Once out of his reach, once lost to him, and the recollection of her assailed him with unconquerable vehemence. Much as she had occupied his mind, he had never realised till now how vast had been the place she had filled in his life. He had told her as much, but even then he did not believe it.
Suddenly, a bitter rage against himself overwhelmed him as he thought of the hurt he had given her the previous evening. He should have managed differently. How, he did not know, but the sense of the outrage he had put upon her abruptly recoiled against him with cruel force. Now, he was sorry for it, infinitely sorry, passionately sorry. He had hurt her. He had brought the tears to her eyes. He had so flagrantly insulted her that she could no longer bear to breathe the same air with him. She had told her parents all. She had left Quien Sabe—had left him for good, at the very moment when he believed he had won her. Brute, beast that he was, he had driven her away.
An hour went by; then two, then four, then six. Annixter still sat in his place, groping and battling in a confusion of spirit, the like of which he had never felt before. He did not know what was the matter with him. He could not find his way out of the dark and out of the turmoil that wheeled around him. He had had no experience with women. There was no precedent to guide him. How was he to get out of this? What was the clew that would set everything straight again?
That he would give Hilma up, never once entered his head. Have her he would. She had given herself to him. Everything should have been easy after that, and instead, here he was alone in the night, wrestling with himself, in deeper trouble than ever, and Hilma farther than ever away from him.
It was true, he might have Hilma, even now, if he was willing to marry her. But marriage, to his mind, had been always a vague, most remote possibility, almost as vague and as remote as his death,—a thing that happened to some men, but that would surely never occur to him, or, if it did, it would be after long years had passed, when he was older, more settled, more mature—an event that belonged to the period of his middle life, distant as yet.
He had never faced the question of his marriage. He had kept it at an immense distance from him. It had never been a part of his order of things. He was not a marrying man.
But Hilma was an ever-present reality, as near to him as his right hand. Marriage was a formless, far distant abstraction. Hilma a tangible, imminent fact. Before he could think of the two as one; before he could consider the idea of marriage, side by side with the idea of Hilma, measureless distances had to be traversed, things as disassociated in his mind as fire and water, had to be fused together; and between the two he was torn as if upon a rack.
Slowly, by imperceptible degrees, the imagination, unused, unwilling machine, began to work. The brain’s activity lapsed proportionately. He began to think less, and feel more. In that rugged composition, confused, dark, harsh, a furrow had been driven deep, a little seed planted, a little seed at first weak, forgotten, lost in the lower dark places of his character.
But as the intellect moved slower, its functions growing numb, the idea of self dwindled. Annixter no longer considered himself; no longer considered the notion of marriage from the point of view of his own comfort, his own wishes, his own advantage. He realised that in his newfound desire to make her happy, he was sincere. There was something in that idea, after all. To make some one happy—how about that now? It was worth thinking of.
Far away, low down in the east, a dim belt, a grey light began to whiten over the horizon. The tower of the Mission stood black against it. The dawn was coming. The baffling obscurity of the night was passing. Hidden things were coming into view.
Annixter, his eyes half-closed, his chin upon his fist, allowed his imagination full play. How would it be if he should take Hilma into his life, this beautiful young girl, pure as he now knew her to be; innocent, noble with the inborn nobility of dawning womanhood? An overwhelming sense of his own unworthiness suddenly bore down upon him with crushing force, as he thought of this. He had gone about the whole affair wrongly. He had been mistaken from the very first. She was infinitely above him. He did not want—he should not desire to be the master. It was she, his servant, poor, simple, lowly even, who should condescend to him.
Abruptly there was presented to his mind’s eye a picture of the years to come, if he now should follow his best, his highest, his most unselfish impulse. He saw Hilma, his own, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, all barriers down between them, he giving himself to her as freely, as nobly, as she had given herself to him. By a supreme effort, not of the will, but of the emotion, he fought his way across that vast gulf that for a time had gaped between Hilma and the idea of his marriage. Instantly, like the swift blending of beautiful colours, like the harmony of beautiful chords of music, the two ideas melted into one, and in that moment into his harsh, unlovely world a new idea was born. Annixter stood suddenly upright, a mighty tenderness, a gentleness of spirit, such as he had never conceived of, in his heart strained, swelled, and in a moment seemed to burst. Out of the dark furrows of his soul, up from the deep rugged recesses of his being, something rose, expanding. He opened his arms wide. An immense happiness overpowered him. Actual tears came to his eyes. Without knowing why, he was not ashamed of it. This poor, crude fellow, harsh, hard, narrow, with his unlovely nature, his fierce truculency, his selfishness, his obstinacy, abruptly knew that all the sweetness of life, all the great vivifying eternal force of humanity had burst into life within him.
The little seed, long since planted, gathering strength quietly, had at last germinated.
Then as the realisation of this hardened into certainty, in the growing light of the new day that had just dawned for him, Annixter uttered a cry. Now at length, he knew the meaning of it all.
“Why—I—I, I LOVE her,” he cried. Never until then had it occurred to him. Never until then, in all his thoughts of Hilma, had that great word passed his lips.
It was a Memnonian cry, the greeting of the hard, harsh image of man, rough-hewn, flinty, granitic, uttering a note of joy, acclaiming the new risen sun.
By now it was almost day. The east glowed opalescent. All about him Annixter saw the land inundated with light. But there was a change. Overnight something had occurred. In his perturbation the change seemed to him, at first, elusive, almost fanciful, unreal. But now as the light spread, he looked again at the gigantic scroll of ranch lands unrolled before him from edge to edge of the horizon. The change was not fanciful. The change was real. The earth was no longer bare. The land was no longer barren,—no longer empty, no longer dull brown. All at once Annixter shouted aloud.
There it was, the Wheat, the Wheat! The little seed long planted, germinating in the deep, dark furrows of the soil, straining, swelling, suddenly in one night had burst upward to the light. The wheat had come up. It was there before him, around him, everywhere, illimitable, immeasurable. The winter brownness of the ground was overlaid with a little shimmer of green. The promise of the sowing was being fulfilled. The earth, the loyal mother, who never failed, who never disappointed, was keeping her faith again. Once more the strength of nations was renewed. Once more the force of the world was revivified. Once more the Titan, benignant, calm, stirred and woke, and the morning abruptly blazed into glory upon the spectacle of a man whose heart leaped exuberant with the love of a woman, and an exulting earth gleaming transcendent with the radiant magnificence of an inviolable pledge.