Presley’s Socialistic poem, “The Toilers,” had an enormous success. The editor of the Sunday supplement of the San Francisco paper to which it was sent, printed it in Gothic type, with a scare-head title so decorative as to be almost illegible, and furthermore caused the poem to be illustrated by one of the paper’s staff artists in a most impressive fashion. The whole affair occupied an entire page. Thus advertised, the poem attracted attention. It was promptly copied in New York, Boston, and Chicago papers. It was discussed, attacked, defended, eulogised, ridiculed. It was praised with the most fulsome adulation; assailed with the most violent condemnation. Editorials were written upon it. Special articles, in literary pamphlets, dissected its rhetoric and prosody. The phrases were quoted,—were used as texts for revolutionary sermons, reactionary speeches. It was parodied; it was distorted so as to read as an advertisement for patented cereals and infants’ foods. Finally, the editor of an enterprising monthly magazine reprinted the poem, supplementing it by a photograph and biography of Presley himself.
Presley was stunned, bewildered. He began to wonder at himself. Was he actually the “greatest American poet since Bryant”? He had had no thought of fame while composing “The Toilers.” He had only been moved to his heart’s foundations,—thoroughly in earnest, seeing clearly,—and had addressed himself to the poem’s composition in a happy moment when words came easily to him, and the elaboration of fine sentences was not difficult. Was it thus fame was achieved? For a while he was tempted to cross the continent and go to New York and there come unto his own, enjoying the triumph that awaited him. But soon he denied himself this cheap reward. Now he was too much in earnest. He wanted to help his People, the community in which he lived—the little world of the San Joaquin, at grapples with the Railroad. The struggle had found its poet. He told himself that his place was here. Only the words of the manager of a lecture bureau troubled him for a moment. To range the entire nation, telling all his countrymen of the drama that was working itself out on this fringe of the continent, this ignored and distant Pacific Coast, rousing their interest and stirring them up to action—appealed to him. It might do great good. To devote himself to “the Cause,” accepting no penny of remuneration; to give his life to loosing the grip of the iron-hearted monster of steel and steam would be beyond question heroic. Other States than California had their grievances. All over the country the family of cyclops was growing. He would declare himself the champion of the People in their opposition to the Trust. He would be an apostle, a prophet, a martyr of Freedom.
But Presley was essentially a dreamer, not a man of affairs. He hesitated to act at this precise psychological moment, striking while the iron was yet hot, and while he hesitated, other affairs near at hand began to absorb his attention.
One night, about an hour after he had gone to bed, he was awakened by the sound of voices on the porch of the ranch house, and, descending, found Mrs. Dyke there with Sidney. The ex-engineer’s mother was talking to Magnus and Harran, and crying as she talked. It seemed that Dyke was missing. He had gone into town early that afternoon with the wagon and team, and was to have been home for supper. By now it was ten o’clock and there was no news of him. Mrs. Dyke told how she first had gone to Quien Sabe, intending to telephone from there to Bonneville, but Annixter was in San Francisco, and in his absence the house was locked up, and the over-seer, who had a duplicate key, was himself in Bonneville. She had telegraphed three times from Guadalajara to Bonneville for news of her son, but without result. Then, at last, tortured with anxiety, she had gone to Hooven’s, taking Sidney with her, and had prevailed upon “Bismarck” to hitch up and drive her across Los Muertos to the Governor’s, to beg him to telephone into Bonneville, to know what had become of Dyke.
While Harran rang up Central in town, Mrs. Dyke told Presley and Magnus of the lamentable change in Dyke.
“They have broken my son’s spirit, Mr. Derrick,” she said. “If you were only there to see. Hour after hour, he sits on the porch with his hands lying open in his lap, looking at them without a word. He won’t look me in the face any more, and he don’t sleep. Night after night, he has walked the floor until morning. And he will go on that way for days together, very silent, without a word, and sitting still in his chair, and then, all of a sudden, he will break out—oh, Mr. Derrick, it is terrible—into an awful rage, cursing, swearing, grinding his teeth, his hands clenched over his head, stamping so that the house shakes, and saying that if S. Behrman don’t give him back his money, he will kill him with his two hands. But that isn’t the worst, Mr. Derrick. He goes to Mr. Caraher’s saloon now, and stays there for hours, and listens to Mr. Caraher. There is something on my son’s mind; I know there is—something that he and Mr. Caraher have talked over together, and I can’t find out what it is. Mr. Caraher is a bad man, and my son has fallen under his influence.” The tears filled her eyes. Bravely, she turned to hide them, turning away to take Sidney in her arms, putting her head upon the little girl’s shoulder.
“I—I haven’t broken down before, Mr. Derrick,” she said, “but after we have been so happy in our little house, just us three—and the future seemed so bright—oh, God will punish the gentlemen who own the railroad for being so hard and cruel.”
Harran came out on the porch, from the telephone, and she interrupted herself, fixing her eyes eagerly upon him.
“I think it is all right, Mrs. Dyke,” he said, reassuringly. “We know where he is, I believe. You and the little tad stay here, and Hooven and I will go after him.”
About two hours later, Harran brought Dyke back to Los Muertos in Hooven’s wagon. He had found him at Caraher’s saloon, very drunk.
There was nothing maudlin about Dyke’s drunkenness. In him the alcohol merely roused the spirit of evil, vengeful, reckless.
As the wagon passed out from under the eucalyptus trees about the ranch house, taking Mrs. Dyke, Sidney, and the one-time engineer back to the hop ranch, Presley leaning from his window heard the latter remark:
“Caraher is right. There is only one thing they listen to, and that’s dynamite.”
The following day Presley drove Magnus over to Guadalajara to take the train for San Francisco. But after he had said good-bye to the Governor, he was moved to go on to the hop ranch to see the condition of affairs in that quarter. He returned to Los Muertos overwhelmed with sadness and trembling with anger. The hop ranch that he had last seen in the full tide of prosperity was almost a ruin. Work had evidently been abandoned long since. Weeds were already choking the vines. Everywhere the poles sagged and drooped. Many had even fallen, dragging the vines with them, spreading them over the ground in an inextricable tangle of dead leaves, decaying tendrils, and snarled string. The fence was broken; the unfinished storehouse, which never was to see completion, was a lamentable spectacle of gaping doors and windows—a melancholy skeleton. Last of all, Presley had caught a glimpse of Dyke himself, seated in his rocking chair on the porch, his beard and hair unkempt, motionless, looking with vague eyes upon his hands that lay palm upwards and idle in his lap.
Magnus on his way to San Francisco was joined at Bonneville by Osterman. Upon seating himself in front of the master of Los Muertos in the smoking-car of the train, this latter, pushing back his hat and smoothing his bald head, observed:
“Governor, you look all frazeled out. Anything wrong these days?”
The other answered in the negative, but, for all that, Osterman was right. The Governor had aged suddenly. His former erectness was gone, the broad shoulders stooped a little, the strong lines of his thin-lipped mouth were relaxed, and his hand, as it clasped over the yellowed ivory knob of his cane, had an unwonted tremulousness not hitherto noticeable. But the change in Magnus was more than physical. At last, in the full tide of power, President of the League, known and talked of in every county of the State, leader in a great struggle, consulted, deferred to as the “Prominent Man,” at length attaining that position, so long and vainly sought for, he yet found no pleasure in his triumph, and little but bitterness in life. His success had come by devious methods, had been reached by obscure means.
He was a briber. He could never forget that. To further his ends, disinterested, public-spirited, even philanthropic as those were, he had connived with knavery, he, the politician of the old school, of such rigorous integrity, who had abandoned a “career” rather than compromise with honesty. At this eleventh hour, involved and entrapped in the fine-spun web of a new order of things, bewildered by Osterman’s dexterity, by his volubility and glibness, goaded and harassed beyond the point of reason by the aggression of the Trust he fought, he had at last failed. He had fallen he had given a bribe. He had thought that, after all, this would make but little difference with him. The affair was known only to Osterman, Broderson, and Annixter; they would not judge him, being themselves involved. He could still preserve a bold front; could still hold his head high. As time went on the affair would lose its point.
But this was not so. Some subtle element of his character had forsaken him. He felt it. He knew it. Some certain stiffness that had given him all his rigidity, that had lent force to his authority, weight to his dominance, temper to his fine, inflexible hardness, was diminishing day by day. In the decisions which he, as President of the League, was called upon to make so often, he now hesitated. He could no longer be arrogant, masterful, acting upon his own judgment, independent of opinion. He began to consult his lieutenants, asking their advice, distrusting his own opinions. He made mistakes, blunders, and when those were brought to his notice, took refuge in bluster. He knew it to be bluster—knew that sooner or later his subordinates would recognise it as such. How long could he maintain his position? So only he could keep his grip upon the lever of control till the battle was over, all would be well. If not, he would fall, and, once fallen, he knew that now, briber that he was, he would never rise again.
He was on his way at this moment to the city to consult with Lyman as to a certain issue of the contest between the Railroad and the ranchers, which, of late, had been brought to his notice.
When appeal had been taken to the Supreme Court by the League’s Executive Committee, certain test cases had been chosen, which should represent all the lands in question. Neither Magnus nor Annixter had so appealed, believing, of course, that their cases were covered by the test cases on trial at Washington. Magnus had here blundered again, and the League’s agents in San Francisco had written to warn him that the Railroad might be able to take advantage of a technicality, and by pretending that neither Quien Sabe nor Los Muertos were included in the appeal, attempt to put its dummy buyers in possession of the two ranches before the Supreme Court handed down its decision. The ninety days allowed for taking this appeal were nearly at an end and after then the Railroad could act. Osterman and Magnus at once decided to go up to the city, there joining Annixter (who had been absent from Quien Sabe for the last ten days), and talk the matter over with Lyman. Lyman, because of his position as Commissioner, might be cognisant of the Railroad’s plans, and, at the same time, could give sound legal advice as to what was to be done should the new rumour prove true.
“Say,” remarked Osterman, as the train pulled out of the Bonneville station, and the two men settled themselves for the long journey, “say Governor, what’s all up with Buck Annixter these days? He’s got a bean about something, sure.”
“I had not noticed,” answered Magnus. “Mr. Annixter has been away some time lately. I cannot imagine what should keep him so long in San Francisco.”
“That’s it,” said Osterman, winking. “Have three guesses. Guess right and you get a cigar. I guess g-i-r-l spells Hilma Tree. And a little while ago she quit Quien Sabe and hiked out to ‘Frisco. So did Buck. Do I draw the cigar? It’s up to you.” “I have noticed her,” observed Magnus. “A fine figure of a woman. She would make some man a good wife.”
“Hoh! Wife! Buck Annixter marry! Not much. He’s gone a-girling at last, old Buck! It’s as funny as twins. Have to josh him about it when I see him, sure.”
But when Osterman and Magnus at last fell in with Annixter in the vestibule of the Lick House, on Montgomery Street, nothing could be got out of him. He was in an execrable humour. When Magnus had broached the subject of business, he had declared that all business could go to pot, and when Osterman, his tongue in his cheek, had permitted himself a most distant allusion to a feemale girl, Annixter had cursed him for a “busy-face” so vociferously and tersely, that even Osterman was cowed.
“Well,” insinuated Osterman, “what are you dallying ‘round ‘Frisco so much for?”
“Cat fur, to make kitten-breeches,” retorted Annixter with oracular vagueness.
Two weeks before this time, Annixter had come up to the city and had gone at once to a certain hotel on Bush Street, behind the First National Bank, that he knew was kept by a family connection of the Trees. In his conjecture that Hilma and her parents would stop here, he was right. Their names were on the register. Ignoring custom, Annixter marched straight up to their rooms, and before he was well aware of it, was “eating crow” before old man Tree.
Hilma and her mother were out at the time. Later on, Mrs. Tree returned alone, leaving Hilma to spend the day with one of her cousins who lived far out on Stanyan Street in a little house facing the park.
Between Annixter and Hilma’s parents, a reconciliation had been effected, Annixter convincing them both of his sincerity in wishing to make Hilma his wife. Hilma, however, refused to see him. As soon as she knew he had followed her to San Francisco she had been unwilling to return to the hotel and had arranged with her cousin to spend an indefinite time at her house.
She was wretchedly unhappy during all this time; would not set foot out of doors, and cried herself to sleep night after night. She detested the city. Already she was miserably homesick for the ranch. She remembered the days she had spent in the little dairy-house, happy in her work, making butter and cheese; skimming the great pans of milk, scouring the copper vessels and vats, plunging her arms, elbow deep, into the white curds; coming and going in that atmosphere of freshness, cleanliness, and sunlight, gay, singing, supremely happy just because the sun shone. She remembered her long walks toward the Mission late in the afternoons, her excursions for cresses underneath the Long Trestle, the crowing of the cocks, the distant whistle of the passing trains, the faint sounding of the Angelus. She recalled with infinite longing the solitary expanse of the ranches, the level reaches between the horizons, full of light and silence; the heat at noon, the cloudless iridescence of the sunrise and sunset. She had been so happy in that life! Now, all those days were passed. This crude, raw city, with its crowding houses all of wood and tin, its blotting fogs, its uproarious trade winds, disturbed and saddened her. There was no outlook for the future.
At length, one day, about a week after Annixter’s arrival in the city, she was prevailed upon to go for a walk in the park. She went alone, putting on for the first time the little hat of black straw with its puff of white silk her mother had bought for her, a pink shirtwaist, her belt of imitation alligator skin, her new skirt of brown cloth, and her low shoes, set off with their little steel buckles.
She found a tiny summer house, built in Japanese fashion, around a diminutive pond, and sat there for a while, her hands folded in her lap, amused with watching the goldfish, wishing—she knew not what.
Without any warning, Annixter sat down beside her. She was too frightened to move. She looked at him with wide eyes that began to fill with tears.
“Oh,” she said, at last, “oh—I didn’t know.”
“Well,” exclaimed Annixter, “here you are at last. I’ve been watching that blamed house till I was afraid the policeman would move me on. By the Lord,” he suddenly cried, “you’re pale. You—you, Hilma, do you feel well?”
“Yes—I am well,” she faltered.
“No, you’re not,” he declared. “I know better. You are coming back to Quien Sabe with me. This place don’t agree with you. Hilma, what’s all the matter? Why haven’t you let me see you all this time? Do you know—how things are with me? Your mother told you, didn’t she? Do you know how sorry I am? Do you know that I see now that I made the mistake of my life there, that time, under the Long Trestle? I found it out the night after you went away. I sat all night on a stone out on the ranch somewhere and I don’t know exactly what happened, but I’ve been a different man since then. I see things all different now. Why, I’ve only begun to live since then. I know what love means now, and instead of being ashamed of it, I’m proud of it. If I never was to see you again I would be glad I’d lived through that night, just the same. I just woke up that night. I’d been absolutely and completely selfish up to the moment I realised I really loved you, and now, whether you’ll let me marry you or not, I mean to live—I don’t know, in a different way. I’ve GOT to live different. I—well—oh, I can’t make you understand, but just loving you has changed my life all around. It’s made it easier to do the straight, clean thing. I want to do it, it’s fun doing it. Remember, once I said I was proud of being a hard man, a driver, of being glad that people hated me and were afraid of me? Well, since I’ve loved you I’m ashamed of it all. I don’t want to be hard any more, and nobody is going to hate me if I can help it. I’m happy and I want other people so. I love you,” he suddenly exclaimed; “I love you, and if you will forgive me, and if you will come down to such a beast as I am, I want to be to you the best a man can be to a woman, Hilma. Do you understand, little girl? I want to be your husband.”
Hilma looked at the goldfishes through her tears.
“Have you got anything to say to me, Hilma?” he asked, after a while.
“I don’t know what you want me to say,” she murmured.
“Yes, you do,” he insisted. “I’ve followed you ‘way up here to hear it. I’ve waited around in these beastly, draughty picnic grounds for over a week to hear it. You know what I want to hear, Hilma.”
“Well—I forgive you,” she hazarded.
“That will do for a starter,” he answered. “But that’s not IT.”
“Then, I don’t know what.”
“Shall I say it for you?”
She hesitated a long minute, then:
“You mightn’t say it right,” she replied.
“Trust me for that. Shall I say it for you, Hilma?”
“I don’t know what you’ll say.”
“I’ll say what you are thinking of. Shall I say it?”
There was a very long pause. A goldfish rose to the surface of the little pond, with a sharp, rippling sound. The fog drifted overhead. There was nobody about.
“No,” said Hilma, at length. “I—I—I can say it for myself. I—” All at once she turned to him and put her arms around his neck. “Oh, DO you love me?” she cried. “Is it really true? Do you mean every word of it? And you are sorry and you WILL be good to me if I will be your wife? You will be my dear, dear husband?”
The tears sprang to Annixter’s eyes. He took her in his arms and held her there for a moment. Never in his life had he felt so unworthy, so undeserving of this clean, pure girl who forgave him and trusted his spoken word and believed him to be the good man he could only wish to be. She was so far above him, so exalted, so noble that he should have bowed his forehead to her feet, and instead, she took him in her arms, believing him to be good, to be her equal. He could think of no words to say. The tears overflowed his eyes and ran down upon his cheeks. She drew away from him and held him a second at arm’s length, looking at him, and he saw that she, too, had been crying.
“I think,” he said, “we are a couple of softies.”
“No, no,” she insisted. “I want to cry and want you to cry, too. Oh, dear, I haven’t a handkerchief.”
“Here, take mine.”
They wiped each other’s eyes like two children and for a long time sat in the deserted little Japanese pleasure house, their arms about each other, talking, talking, talking.
On the following Saturday they were married in an uptown Presbyterian church, and spent the week of their honeymoon at a small, family hotel on Sutter Street. As a matter of course, they saw the sights of the city together. They made the inevitable bridal trip to the Cliff House and spent an afternoon in the grewsome and made-to-order beauties of Sutro’s Gardens; they went through Chinatown, the Palace Hotel, the park museum—where Hilma resolutely refused to believe in the Egyptian mummy—and they drove out in a hired hack to the Presidio and the Golden Gate.
On the sixth day of their excursions, Hilma abruptly declared they had had enough of “playing out,” and must be serious and get to work.
This work was nothing less than the buying of the furniture and appointments for the rejuvenated ranch house at Quien Sabe, where they were to live. Annixter had telegraphed to his overseer to have the building repainted, replastered, and reshingled and to empty the rooms of everything but the telephone and safe. He also sent instructions to have the dimensions of each room noted down and the result forwarded to him. It was the arrival of these memoranda that had roused Hilma to action.
Then ensued a most delicious week. Armed with formidable lists, written by Annixter on hotel envelopes, they two descended upon the department stores of the city, the carpet stores, the furniture stores. Right and left they bought and bargained, sending each consignment as soon as purchased to Quien Sabe. Nearly an entire car load of carpets, curtains, kitchen furniture, pictures, fixtures, lamps, straw matting, chairs, and the like were sent down to the ranch, Annixter making a point that their new home should be entirely equipped by San Francisco dealers.
The furnishings of the bedroom and sitting-room were left to the very last. For the former, Hilma bought a “set” of pure white enamel, three chairs, a washstand and bureau, a marvellous bargain of thirty dollars, discovered by wonderful accident at a “Friday Sale.” The bed was a piece by itself, bought elsewhere, but none the less a wonder. It was of brass, very brave and gay, and actually boasted a canopy! They bought it complete, just as it stood in the window of the department store and Hilma was in an ecstasy over its crisp, clean, muslin curtains, spread, and shams. Never was there such a bed, the luxury of a princess, such a bed as she had dreamed about her whole life.
Next the appointments of the sitting-room occupied her—since Annixter, himself, bewildered by this astonishing display, unable to offer a single suggestion himself, merely approved of all she bought. In the sitting-room was to be a beautiful blue and white paper, cool straw matting, set off with white wool rugs, a stand of flowers in the window, a globe of goldfish, rocking chairs, a sewing machine, and a great, round centre table of yellow oak whereon should stand a lamp covered with a deep shade of crinkly red tissue paper. On the walls were to hang several pictures—lovely affairs, photographs from life, all properly tinted—of choir boys in robes, with beautiful eyes; pensive young girls in pink gowns, with flowing yellow hair, drooping over golden harps; a coloured reproduction of “Rouget de Lisle, Singing the Marseillaise,” and two “pieces” of wood carving, representing a quail and a wild duck, hung by one leg in the midst of game bags and powder horns,—quite masterpieces, both.
At last everything had been bought, all arrangements made, Hilma’s trunks packed with her new dresses, and the tickets to Bonneville bought.
“We’ll go by the Overland, by Jingo,” declared Annixter across the table to his wife, at their last meal in the hotel where they had been stopping; “no way trains or locals for us, hey?”
“But we reach Bonneville at SUCH an hour,” protested Hilma. “Five in the morning!”
“Never mind,” he declared, “we’ll go home in PULLMAN’S, Hilma. I’m not going to have any of those slobs in Bonneville say I didn’t know how to do the thing in style, and we’ll have Vacca meet us with the team. No, sir, it is Pullman’s or nothing. When it comes to buying furniture, I don’t shine, perhaps, but I know what’s due my wife.”
He was obdurate, and late one afternoon the couple boarded the Transcontinental (the crack Overland Flyer of the Pacific and Southwestern) at the Oakland mole. Only Hilma’s parents were there to say good-bye. Annixter knew that Magnus and Osterman were in the city, but he had laid his plans to elude them. Magnus, he could trust to be dignified, but that goat Osterman, one could never tell what he would do next. He did not propose to start his journey home in a shower of rice. Annixter marched down the line of cars, his hands encumbered with wicker telescope baskets, satchels, and valises, his tickets in his mouth, his hat on wrong side foremost, Hilma and her parents hurrying on behind him, trying to keep up. Annixter was in a turmoil of nerves lest something should go wrong; catching a train was always for him a little crisis. He rushed ahead so furiously that when he had found his Pullman he had lost his party. He set down his valises to mark the place and charged back along the platform, waving his arms.
“Come on,” he cried, when, at length, he espied the others. “We’ve no more time.”
He shouldered and urged them forward to where he had set his valises, only to find one of them gone. Instantly he raised an outcry. Aha, a fine way to treat passengers! There was P. and S. W. management for you. He would, by the Lord, he would—but the porter appeared in the vestibule of the car to placate him. He had already taken his valises inside.
Annixter would not permit Hilma’s parents to board the car, declaring that the train might pull out any moment. So he and his wife, following the porter down the narrow passage by the stateroom, took their places and, raising the window, leaned out to say good-bye to Mr. and Mrs. Tree. These latter would not return to Quien Sabe. Old man Tree had found a business chance awaiting him in the matter of supplying his relative’s hotel with dairy products. But Bonneville was not too far from San Francisco; the separation was by no means final.
The porters began taking up the steps that stood by the vestibule of each sleeping-car.
“Well, have a good time, daughter,” observed her father; “and come up to see us whenever you can.”
From beyond the enclosure of the depot’s reverberating roof came the measured clang of a bell.
“I guess we’re off,” cried Annixter. “Good-bye, Mrs. Tree.”
“Remember your promise, Hilma,” her mother hastened to exclaim, “to write every Sunday afternoon.”
There came a prolonged creaking and groan of straining wood and iron work, all along the length of the train. They all began to cry their good-byes at once. The train stirred, moved forward, and gathering slow headway, rolled slowly out into the sunlight. Hilma leaned out of the window and as long as she could keep her mother in sight waved her handkerchief. Then at length she sat back in her seat and looked at her husband.
“Well,” she said.
“Well,” echoed Annixter, “happy?” for the tears rose in her eyes.
She nodded energetically, smiling at him bravely.
“You look a little pale,” he declared, frowning uneasily; “feel well?”
Promptly he was seized with uneasiness. “But not ALL well, hey? Is that it?”
It was true that Hilma had felt a faint tremour of seasickness on the ferry-boat coming from the city to the Oakland mole. No doubt a little nausea yet remained with her. But Annixter refused to accept this explanation. He was distressed beyond expression.
“Now you’re going to be sick,” he cried anxiously.
“No, no,” she protested, “not a bit.”
“But you said you didn’t feel very well. Where is it you feel sick?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sick. Oh, dear me, why will you bother?”
“Not the least.”
“You feel tired, then. That’s it. No wonder, the way rushed you ‘round to-day.”
“Dear, I’m NOT tired, and I’m NOT sick, and I’m all RIGHT.”
“No, no; I can tell. I think we’d best have the berth made up and you lie down.”
“That would be perfectly ridiculous.”
“Well, where is it you feel sick? Show me; put your hand on the place. Want to eat something?”
With elaborate minuteness, he cross-questioned her, refusing to let the subject drop, protesting that she had dark circles under her eyes; that she had grown thinner.
“Wonder if there’s a doctor on board,” he murmured, looking uncertainly about the car. “Let me see your tongue. I know—a little whiskey is what you want, that and some pru——”
“No, no, NO,” she exclaimed. “I’m as well as I ever was in all my life. Look at me. Now, tell me, do l look likee a sick lady?”
He scrutinised her face distressfully.
“Now, don’t I look the picture of health?” she challenged.
“In a way you do,” he began, “and then again——”
Hilma beat a tattoo with her heels upon the floor, shutting her fists, the thumbs tucked inside. She closed her eyes, shaking her head energetically.
“I won’t listen, I won’t listen, I won’t listen,” she cried.
“But, just the same——”
“Gibble—gibble—gibble,” she mocked. “I won’t Listen, I won’t listen.” She put a hand over his mouth. “Look, here’s the dining-car waiter, and the first call for supper, and your wife is hungry.”
They went forward and had supper in the diner, while the long train, now out upon the main line, settled itself to its pace, the prolonged, even gallop that it would hold for the better part of the week, spinning out the miles as a cotton spinner spins thread.
It was already dark when Antioch was left behind. Abruptly the sunset appeared to wheel in the sky and readjusted itself to the right of the track behind Mount Diablo, here visible almost to its base. The train had turned southward. Neroly was passed, then Brentwood, then Byron. In the gathering dusk, mountains began to build themselves up on either hand, far off, blocking the horizon. The train shot forward, roaring. Between the mountains the land lay level, cut up into farms, ranches. These continually grew larger; growing wheat began to appear, billowing in the wind of the train’s passage. The mountains grew higher, the land richer, and by the time the moon rose, the train was well into the northernmost limits of the valley of the San Joaquin.
Annixter had engaged an entire section, and after he and his wife went to bed had the porter close the upper berth. Hilma sat up in bed to say her prayers, both hands over her face, and then kissing Annixter good-night, went to sleep with the directness of a little child, holding his hand in both her own.
Annixter, who never could sleep on the train, dozed and tossed and fretted for hours, consulting his watch and time-table whenever there was a stop; twice he rose to get a drink of ice water, and between whiles was forever sitting up in the narrow berth, stretching himself and yawning, murmuring with uncertain relevance:
“Oh, Lord! Oh-h-h LORD!”
There were some dozen other passengers in the car—a lady with three children, a group of school-teachers, a couple of drummers, a stout gentleman with whiskers, and a well-dressed young man in a plaid travelling cap, whom Annixter had observed before supper time reading Daudet’s “Tartarin” in the French.
But by nine o’clock, all these people were in their berths. Occasionally, above the rhythmic rumble of the wheels, Annixter could hear one of the lady’s children fidgeting and complaining. The stout gentleman snored monotonously in two notes, one a rasping bass, the other a prolonged treble. At intervals, a brakeman or the passenger conductor pushed down the aisle, between the curtains, his red and white lamp over his arm. Looking out into the car Annixter saw in an end section where the berths had not been made up, the porter, in his white duck coat, dozing, his mouth wide open, his head on his shoulder.
The hours passed. Midnight came and went. Annixter, checking off the stations, noted their passage of Modesto, Merced, and Madeira. Then, after another broken nap, he lost count. He wondered where they were. Had they reached Fresno yet? Raising the window curtain, he made a shade with both hands on either side of his face and looked out. The night was thick, dark, clouded over. A fine rain was falling, leaving horizontal streaks on the glass of the outside window. Only the faintest grey blur indicated the sky. Everything else was impenetrable blackness.
“I think sure we must have passed Fresno,” he muttered. He looked at his watch. It was about half-past three. “If we have passed Fresno,” he said to himself, “I’d better wake the little girl pretty soon. She’ll need about an hour to dress. Better find out for sure.”
He drew on his trousers and shoes, got into his coat, and stepped out into the aisle. In the seat that had been occupied by the porter, the Pullman conductor, his cash box and car-schedules before him, was checking up his berths, a blue pencil behind his ear.
“What’s the next stop, Captain?” inquired Annixter, coming up. “Have we reached Fresno yet?”
“Just passed it,” the other responded, looking at Annixter over his spectacles.
“What’s the next stop?”
“Goshen. We will be there in about forty-five minutes.”
“Fair black night, isn’t it?”
“Black as a pocket. Let’s see, you’re the party in upper and lower 9.”
Annixter caught at the back of the nearest seat, just in time to prevent a fall, and the conductor’s cash box was shunted off the surface of the plush seat and came clanking to the floor. The Pintsch lights overhead vibrated with blinding rapidity in the long, sliding jar that ran through the train from end to end, and the momentum of its speed suddenly decreasing, all but pitched the conductor from his seat. A hideous ear-splitting rasp made itself heard from the clamped-down Westinghouse gear underneath, and Annixter knew that the wheels had ceased to revolve and that the train was sliding forward upon the motionless flanges.
“Hello, hello,” he exclaimed, “what’s all up now?”
“Emergency brakes,” declared the conductor, catching up his cash box and thrusting his papers and tickets into it. “Nothing much; probably a cow on the track.”
He disappeared, carrying his lantern with him.
But the other passengers, all but the stout gentleman, were awake; heads were thrust from out the curtains, and Annixter, hurrying back to Hilma, was assailed by all manner of questions.
“What was that?”
“What’s up, anyways?”
Hilma was just waking as Annixter pushed the curtain aside.
“Oh, I was so frightened. What’s the matter, dear?” she exclaimed.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “Only the emergency brakes. Just a cow on the track, I guess. Don’t get scared. It isn’t anything.”
But with a final shriek of the Westinghouse appliance, the train came to a definite halt.
At once the silence was absolute. The ears, still numb with the long-continued roar of wheels and clashing iron, at first refused to register correctly the smaller noises of the surroundings. Voices came from the other end of the car, strange and unfamiliar, as though heard at a great distance across the water. The stillness of the night outside was so profound that the rain, dripping from the car roof upon the road-bed underneath, was as distinct as the ticking of a clock.
“Well, we’ve sure stopped,” observed one of the drummers.
“What is it?” asked Hilma again. “Are you sure there’s nothing wrong?”
“Sure,” said Annixter. Outside, underneath their window, they heard the sound of hurried footsteps crushing into the clinkers by the side of the ties. They passed on, and Annixter heard some one in the distance shout:
“Yes, on the other side.”
Then the door at the end of their car opened and a brakeman with a red beard ran down the aisle and out upon the platform in front. The forward door closed. Everything was quiet again. In the stillness the fat gentleman’s snores made themselves heard once more.
The minutes passed; nothing stirred. There was no sound but the dripping rain. The line of cars lay immobilised and inert under the night. One of the drummers, having stepped outside on the platform for a look around, returned, saying:
“There sure isn’t any station anywheres about and no siding. Bet you they have had an accident of some kind.”
“Ask the porter.”
“I did. He don’t know.”
“Maybe they stopped to take on wood or water, or something.”
“Well, they wouldn’t use the emergency brakes for that, would they? Why, this train stopped almost in her own length. Pretty near slung me out the berth. Those were the emergency brakes. I heard some one say so.”
From far out towards the front of the train, near the locomotive, came the sharp, incisive report of a revolver; then two more almost simultaneously; then, after a long interval, a fourth.
“Say, that’s SHOOTING. By God, boys, they’re shooting. Say, this is a hold-up.”
Instantly a white-hot excitement flared from end to end of the car. Incredibly sinister, heard thus in the night, and in the rain, mysterious, fearful, those four pistol shots started confusion from out the sense of security like a frightened rabbit hunted from her burrow. Wide-eyed, the passengers of the car looked into each other’s faces. It had come to them at last, this, they had so often read about. Now they were to see the real thing, now they were to face actuality, face this danger of the night, leaping in from out the blackness of the roadside, masked, armed, ready to kill. They were facing it now. They were held up.
Hilma said nothing, only catching Annixter’s hand, looking squarely into his eyes.
“Steady, little girl,” he said. “They can’t hurt you. I won’t leave you. By the Lord,” he suddenly exclaimed, his excitement getting the better of him for a moment. “By the Lord, it’s a hold-up.”
The school-teachers were in the aisle of the car, in night gown, wrapper, and dressing sack, huddled together like sheep, holding on to each other, looking to the men, silently appealing for protection. Two of them were weeping, white to the lips.
“Oh, oh, oh, it’s terrible. Oh, if they only won’t hurt me.”
But the lady with the children looked out from her berth, smiled reassuringly, and said:
“I’m not a bit frightened. They won’t do anything to us if we keep quiet. I’ve my watch and jewelry all ready for them in my little black bag, see?”
She exhibited it to the passengers. Her children were all awake. They were quiet, looking about them with eager faces, interested and amused at this surprise. In his berth, the fat gentleman with whiskers snored profoundly.
“Say, I’m going out there,” suddenly declared one of the drummers, flourishing a pocket revolver.
His friend caught his arm.
“Don’t make a fool of yourself, Max,” he said.
“They won’t come near us,” observed the well-dressed young man; “they are after the Wells-Fargo box and the registered mail. You won’t do any good out there.”
But the other loudly protested. No; he was going out. He didn’t propose to be buncoed without a fight. He wasn’t any coward.
“Well, you don’t go, that’s all,” said his friend, angrily. “There’s women and children in this car. You ain’t going to draw the fire here.”
“Well, that’s to be thought of,” said the other, allowing himself to be pacified, but still holding his pistol.
“Don’t let him open that window,” cried Annixter sharply from his place by Hilma’s side, for the drummer had made as if to open the sash in one of the sections that had not been made up.
“Sure, that’s right,” said the others. “Don’t open any windows. Keep your head in. You’ll get us all shot if you aren’t careful.”
However, the drummer had got the window up and had leaned out before the others could interfere and draw him away.
“Say, by jove,” he shouted, as he turned back to the car, “our engine’s gone. We’re standing on a curve and you can see the end of the train. She’s gone, I tell you. Well, look for yourself.”
In spite of their precautions, one after another, his friends looked out. Sure enough, the train was without a locomotive.
“They’ve done it so we can’t get away,” vociferated the drummer with the pistol. “Now, by jiminy-Christmas, they’ll come through the cars and stand us up. They’ll be in here in a minute. LORD! WHAT WAS THAT?”
From far away up the track, apparently some half-mile ahead of the train, came the sound of a heavy explosion. The windows of the car vibrated with it.
“That isn’t shooting,” exclaimed Annixter. “They’ve pulled the express and mail car on ahead with the engine and now they are dynamiting her open.”
“That must be it. Yes, sure, that’s just what they are doing.”
The forward door of the car opened and closed and the school-teachers shrieked and cowered. The drummer with the revolver faced about, his eyes bulging. However, it was only the train conductor, hatless, his lantern in his hand. He was soaked with rain. He appeared in the aisle.
“Is there a doctor in this car?” he asked.
Promptly the passengers surrounded him, voluble with questions. But he was in a bad temper.
“I don’t know anything more than you,” he shouted angrily. “It was a hold-up. I guess you know that, don’t you? Well, what more do you want to know? I ain’t got time to fool around. They cut off our express car and have cracked it open, and they shot one of our train crew, that’s all, and I want a doctor.”
“Did they shoot him—kill him, do you mean?”
“Is he hurt bad?”
“Did the men get away?”
“Oh, shut up, will you all?” exclaimed the conductor.
“What do I know? Is there a DOCTOR in this car, that’s what I want to know?”
The well-dressed young man stepped forward.
“I’m a doctor,” he said. “Well, come along then,” returned the conductor, in a surly voice, “and the passengers in this car,” he added, turning back at the door and nodding his head menacingly, “will go back to bed and STAY there. It’s all over and there’s nothing to see.”
He went out, followed by the young doctor.
Then ensued an interminable period of silence. The entire train seemed deserted. Helpless, bereft of its engine, a huge, decapitated monster it lay, half-way around a curve, rained upon, abandoned.
There was more fear in this last condition of affairs, more terror in the idea of this prolonged line of sleepers, with their nickelled fittings, their plate glass, their upholstery, vestibules, and the like, loaded down with people, lost and forgotten in the night and the rain, than there had been when the actual danger threatened.
What was to become of them now? Who was there to help them? Their engine was gone; they were helpless. What next was to happen?
Nobody came near the car. Even the porter had disappeared. The wait seemed endless, and the persistent snoring of the whiskered gentleman rasped the nerves like the scrape of a file.
“Well, how long are we going to stick here now?” began one of the drummers. “Wonder if they hurt the engine with their dynamite?”
“Oh, I know they will come through the car and rob us,” wailed the school-teachers.
The lady with the little children went back to bed, and Annixter, assured that the trouble was over, did likewise. But nobody slept. From berth to berth came the sound of suppressed voices talking it all over, formulating conjectures. Certain points seemed to be settled upon, no one knew how, as indisputable. The highwaymen had been four in number and had stopped the train by pulling the bell cord. A brakeman had attempted to interfere and had been shot. The robbers had been on the train all the way from San Francisco. The drummer named Max remembered to have seen four “suspicious-looking characters” in the smoking-car at Lathrop, and had intended to speak to the conductor about them. This drummer had been in a hold-up before, and told the story of it over and over again.
At last, after what seemed to have been an hour’s delay, and when the dawn had already begun to show in the east, the locomotive backed on to the train again with a reverberating jar that ran from car to car. At the jolting, the school-teachers screamed in chorus, and the whiskered gentleman stopped snoring and thrust his head from his curtains, blinking at the Pintsch lights. It appeared that he was an Englishman.
“I say,” he asked of the drummer named Max, “I say, my friend, what place is this?”
The others roared with derision.
“We were HELD UP, sir, that’s what we were. We were held up and you slept through it all. You missed the show of your life.”
The gentleman fixed the group with a prolonged gaze. He said never a word, but little by little he was convinced that the drummers told the truth. All at once he grew wrathful, his face purpling. He withdrew his head angrily, buttoning his curtains together in a fury. The cause of his rage was inexplicable, but they could hear him resettling himself upon his pillows with exasperated movements of his head and shoulders. In a few moments the deep bass and shrill treble of his snoring once more sounded through the car.
At last the train got under way again, with useless warning blasts of the engine’s whistle. In a few moments it was tearing away through the dawn at a wonderful speed, rocking around curves, roaring across culverts, making up time.
And all the rest of that strange night the passengers, sitting up in their unmade beds, in the swaying car, lighted by a strange mingling of pallid dawn and trembling Pintsch lights, rushing at break-neck speed through the misty rain, were oppressed by a vision of figures of terror, far behind them in the night they had left, masked, armed, galloping toward the mountains pistol in hand, the booty bound to the saddle bow, galloping, galloping on, sending a thrill of fear through all the country side.
The young doctor returned. He sat down in the smoking-room, lighting a cigarette, and Annixter and the drummers pressed around him to know the story of the whole affair.
“The man is dead,” he declared, “the brakeman. He was shot through the lungs twice. They think the fellow got away with about five thousand in gold coin.”
“The fellow? Wasn’t there four of them?”
“No; only one. And say, let me tell you, he had his nerve with him. It seems he was on the roof of the express car all the time, and going as fast as we were, he jumped from the roof of the car down on to the coal on the engine’s tender, and crawled over that and held up the men in the cab with his gun, took their guns from ‘em and made ‘em stop the train. Even ordered ‘em to use the emergency gear, seems he knew all about it. Then he went back and uncoupled the express car himself.
“While he was doing this, a brakeman—you remember that brakeman that came through here once or twice—had a red mustache.”
“THAT chap?” “Sure. Well, as soon as the train stopped, this brakeman guessed something was wrong and ran up, saw the fellow cutting off the express car and took a couple of shots at him, and the fireman says the fellow didn’t even take his hand off the coupling-pin; just turned around as cool as how-do-you-do and NAILED the brakeman right there. They weren’t five feet apart when they began shooting. The brakeman had come on him unexpected, had no idea he was so close.”
“And the express messenger, all this time?”
“Well, he did his best. Jumped out with his repeating shot-gun, but the fellow had him covered before he could turn round. Held him up and took his gun away from him. Say, you know I call that nerve, just the same. One man standing up a whole train-load, like that. Then, as soon as he’d cut the express car off, he made the engineer run her up the track about half a mile to a road crossing, WHERE HE HAD A HORSE TIED. What do you think of that? Didn’t he have it all figured out close? And when he got there, he dynamited the safe and got the Wells-Fargo box. He took five thousand in gold coin; the messenger says it was railroad money that the company were sending down to Bakersfield to pay off with. It was in a bag. He never touched the registered mail, nor a whole wad of greenbacks that were in the safe, but just took the coin, got on his horse, and lit out. The engineer says he went to the east’ard.”
“He got away, did he?”
“Yes, but they think they’ll get him. He wore a kind of mask, but the brakeman recognised him positively. We got his ante-mortem statement. The brakeman said the fellow had a grudge against the road. He was a discharged employee, and lives near Bonneville.”
“Dyke, by the Lord!” exclaimed Annixter.
“That’s the name,” said the young doctor.
When the train arrived at Bonneville, forty minutes behind time, it landed Annixter and Hilma in the midst of the very thing they most wished to avoid—an enormous crowd. The news that the Overland had been held up thirty miles south of Fresno, a brakeman killed and the safe looted, and that Dyke alone was responsible for the night’s work, had been wired on ahead from Fowler, the train conductor throwing the despatch to the station agent from the flying train.
Before the train had come to a standstill under the arched roof of the Bonneville depot, it was all but taken by assault. Annixter, with Hilma on his arm, had almost to fight his way out of the car. The depot was black with people. S. Behrman was there, Delaney, Cyrus Ruggles, the town marshal, the mayor. Genslinger, his hat on the back of his head, ranged the train from cab to rear-lights, note-book in hand, interviewing, questioning, collecting facts for his extra. As Annixter descended finally to the platform, the editor, alert as a black-and-tan terrier, his thin, osseous hands quivering with eagerness, his brown, dry face working with excitement, caught his elbow.
“Can I have your version of the affair, Mr. Annixter?”
Annixter turned on him abruptly.
“Yes!” he exclaimed fiercely. “You and your gang drove Dyke from his job because he wouldn’t work for starvation wages. Then you raised freight rates on him and robbed him of all he had. You ruined him and drove him to fill himself up with Caraher’s whiskey. He’s only taken back what you plundered him of, and now you’re going to hound him over the State, hunt him down like a wild animal, and bring him to the gallows at San Quentin. That’s my version of the affair, Mister Genslinger, but it’s worth your subsidy from the P. and S. W. to print it.”
There was a murmur of approval from the crowd that stood around, and Genslinger, with an angry shrug of one shoulder, took himself away.
At length, Annixter brought Hilma through the crowd to where young Vacca was waiting with the team. However, they could not at once start for the ranch, Annixter wishing to ask some questions at the freight office about a final consignment of chairs. It was nearly eleven o’clock before they could start home. But to gain the Upper Road to Quien Sabe, it was necessary to traverse all of Main Street, running through the heart of Bonneville.
The entire town seemed to be upon the sidewalks. By now the rain was over and the sun shining. The story of the hold-up—the work of a man whom every one knew and liked—was in every mouth. How had Dyke come to do it? Who would have believed it of him? Think of his poor mother and the little tad. Well, after all, he was not so much to blame; the railroad people had brought it on themselves. But he had shot a man to death. Ah, that was a serious business. Good-natured, big, broad-shouldered, jovial Dyke, the man they knew, with whom they had shaken hands only yesterday, yes, and drank with him. He had shot a man, killed him, had stood there in the dark and in the rain while they were asleep in their beds, and had killed a man. Now where was he? Instinctively eyes were turned eastward, over the tops of the houses, or down vistas of side streets to where the foot-hills of the mountains rose dim and vast over the edge of the valley. He was in amongst them; somewhere, in all that pile of blue crests and purple canyons he was hidden away. Now for weeks of searching, false alarms, clews, trailings, watchings, all the thrill and heart-bursting excitement of a man-hunt. Would he get away? Hardly a man on the sidewalks of the town that day who did not hope for it.
As Annixter’s team trotted through the central portion of the town, young Vacca pointed to a denser and larger crowd around the rear entrance of the City Hall. Fully twenty saddle horses were tied to the iron rail underneath the scant, half-grown trees near by, and as Annixter and Hilma drove by, the crowd parted and a dozen men with revolvers on their hips pushed their way to the curbstone, and, mounting their horses, rode away at a gallop.
“It’s the posse,” said young Vacca.
Outside the town limits the ground was level. There was nothing to obstruct the view, and to the north, in the direction of Osterman’s ranch, Vacca made out another party of horsemen, galloping eastward, and beyond these still another.
“There’re the other posses,” he announced. “That further one is Archie Moore’s. He’s the sheriff. He came down from Visalia on a special engine this morning.”
When the team turned into the driveway to the ranch house, Hilma uttered a little cry, clasping her hands joyfully. The house was one glitter of new white paint, the driveway had been freshly gravelled, the flower-beds replenished. Mrs. Vacca and her daughter, who had been busy putting on the finishing touches, came to the door to welcome them.
“What’s this case here?” asked Annixter, when, after helping his wife from the carry-all, his eye fell upon a wooden box of some three by five feet that stood on the porch and bore the red Wells-Fargo label.
“It came here last night, addressed to you, sir,” exclaimed Mrs. Vacca. “We were sure it wasn’t any of your furniture, so we didn’t open it.”
“Oh, maybe it’s a wedding present,” exclaimed Hilma, her eyes sparkling.
“Well, maybe it is,” returned her husband. “Here, m’ son, help me in with this.”
Annixter and young Vacca bore the case into the sitting-room of the house, and Annixter, hammer in hand, attacked it vigorously. Vacca discreetly withdrew on signal from his mother, closing the door after him. Annixter and his wife were left alone.
“Oh, hurry, hurry,” cried Hilma, dancing around him.
“I want to see what it is. Who do you suppose could have sent it to us? And so heavy, too. What do you think it can be?”
Annixter put the claw of the hammer underneath the edge of the board top and wrenched with all his might. The boards had been clamped together by a transverse bar and the whole top of the box came away in one piece. A layer of excelsior was disclosed, and on it a letter addressed by typewriter to Annixter. It bore the trade-mark of a business firm of Los Angeles. Annixter glanced at this and promptly caught it up before Hilma could see, with an exclamation of intelligence.
“Oh, I know what this is,” he observed, carelessly trying to restrain her busy hands. “It isn’t anything. Just some machinery. Let it go.” But already she had pulled away the excelsior. Underneath, in temporary racks, were two dozen Winchester repeating rifles.
“Why—what—what—” murmured Hilma blankly.
“Well, I told you not to mind,” said Annixter. “It isn’t anything. Let’s look through the rooms.”
“But you said you knew what it was,” she protested, bewildered. “You wanted to make believe it was machinery. Are you keeping anything from me? Tell me what it all means. Oh, why are you getting—these?”
She caught his arm, looking with intense eagerness into his face. She half understood already. Annixter saw that.
“Well,” he said, lamely, “YOU know—it may not come to anything at all, but you know—well, this League of ours—suppose the Railroad tries to jump Quien Sabe or Los Muertos or any of the other ranches—we made up our minds—the Leaguers have—that we wouldn’t let it. That’s all.”
“And I thought,” cried Hilma, drawing back fearfully from the case of rifles, “and I thought it was a wedding present.”
And that was their home-coming, the end of their bridal trip. Through the terror of the night, echoing with pistol shots, through that scene of robbery and murder, into this atmosphere of alarms, a man-hunt organising, armed horsemen silhouetted against the horizons, cases of rifles where wedding presents should have been, Annixter brought his young wife to be mistress of a home he might at any moment be called upon to defend with his life.
The days passed. Soon a week had gone by. Magnus Derrick and Osterman returned from the city without any definite idea as to the Corporation’s plans. Lyman had been reticent. He knew nothing as to the progress of the land cases in Washington. There was no news. The Executive Committee of the League held a perfunctory meeting at Los Muertos at which nothing but routine business was transacted. A scheme put forward by Osterman for a conference with the railroad managers fell through because of the refusal of the company to treat with the ranchers upon any other basis than that of the new grading. It was impossible to learn whether or not the company considered Los Muertos, Quien Sabe, and the ranches around Bonneville covered by the test cases then on appeal.
Meanwhile there was no decrease in the excitement that Dyke’s hold-up had set loose over all the county. Day after day it was the one topic of conversation, at street corners, at cross-roads, over dinner tables, in office, bank, and store. S. Behrman placarded the town with a notice of $500.00 reward for the ex-engineer’s capture, dead or alive, and the express company supplemented this by another offer of an equal amount. The country was thick with parties of horsemen, armed with rifles and revolvers, recruited from Visalia, Goshen, and the few railroad sympathisers around Bonneville and Guadlajara. One after another of these returned, empty-handed, covered with dust and mud, their horses exhausted, to be met and passed by fresh posses starting out to continue the pursuit. The sheriff of Santa Clara County sent down his bloodhounds from San Jose—small, harmless-looking dogs, with a terrific bay—to help in the chase. Reporters from the San Francisco papers appeared, interviewing every one, sometimes even accompanying the searching bands. Horse hoofs clattered over the roads at night; bells were rung, the “Mercury” issued extra after extra; the bloodhounds bayed, gun butts clashed on the asphalt pavements of Bonneville; accidental discharges of revolvers brought the whole town into the street; farm hands called to each other across the fences of ranch-divisions—in a word, the country-side was in an uproar.
And all to no effect. The hoof-marks of Dyke’s horse had been traced in the mud of the road to within a quarter of a mile of the foot-hills and there irretrievably lost. Three days after the hold-up, a sheep-herder was found who had seen the highwayman on a ridge in the higher mountains, to the northeast of Taurusa. And that was absolutely all. Rumours were thick, promising clews were discovered, new trails taken up, but nothing transpired to bring the pursuers and pursued any closer together. Then, after ten days of strain, public interest began to flag. It was believed that Dyke had succeeded in getting away. If this was true, he had gone to the southward, after gaining the mountains, and it would be his intention to work out of the range somewhere near the southern part of the San Joaquin, near Bakersfield. Thus, the sheriffs, marshals, and deputies decided. They had hunted too many criminals in these mountains before not to know the usual courses taken. In time, Dyke MUST come out of the mountains to get water and provisions. But this time passed, and from not one of the watched points came any word of his appearance. At last the posses began to disband. Little by little the pursuit was given up.
Only S. Behrman persisted. He had made up his mind to bring Dyke in. He succeeded in arousing the same degree of determination in Delaney—by now, a trusted aide of the Railroad—and of his own cousin, a real estate broker, named Christian, who knew the mountains and had once been marshal of Visalia in the old stock-raising days. These two went into the Sierras, accompanied by two hired deputies, and carrying with them a month’s provisions and two of the bloodhounds loaned by the Santa Clara sheriff.
On a certain Sunday, a few days after the departure of Christian and Delaney, Annixter, who had been reading “David Copperfield” in his hammock on the porch of the ranch house, put down the book and went to find Hilma, who was helping Louisa Vacca set the table for dinner. He found her in the dining-room, her hands full of the gold-bordered china plates, only used on special occasions and which Louisa was forbidden to touch.
His wife was more than ordinarily pretty that day. She wore a dress of flowered organdie over pink sateen with pink ribbons about her waist and neck, and on her slim feet the low shoes she always affected, with their smart, bright buckles. Her thick, brown, sweet-smelling hair was heaped high upon her head and set off with a bow of black velvet, and underneath the shadow of its coils, her wide-open eyes, rimmed with the thin, black line of her lashes, shone continually, reflecting the sunlight. Marriage had only accentuated the beautiful maturity of Hilma’s figure—now no longer precocious—defining the single, deep swell from her throat to her waist, the strong, fine amplitude of her hips, the sweet feminine undulation of her neck and shoulders. Her cheeks were pink with health, and her large round arms carried the piled-up dishes with never a tremour. Annixter, observant enough where his wife was concerned noted how the reflection of the white china set a glow of pale light underneath her chin.
“Hilma,” he said, “I’ve been wondering lately about things. We’re so blamed happy ourselves it won’t do for us to forget about other people who are down, will it? Might change our luck. And I’m just likely to forget that way, too. It’s my nature.”
His wife looked up at him joyfully. Here was the new Annixter, certainly.
“In all this hullabaloo about Dyke,” he went on “there’s some one nobody ain’t thought about at all. That’s MRS. Dyke—and the little tad. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were in a hole over there. What do you say we drive over to the hop ranch after dinner and see if she wants anything?”
Hilma put down the plates and came around the table and kissed him without a word.
As soon as their dinner was over, Annixter had the carry-all hitched up, and, dispensing with young Vacca, drove over to the hop ranch with Hilma.
Hilma could not keep back the tears as they passed through the lamentable desolation of the withered, brown vines, symbols of perished hopes and abandoned effort, and Annixter swore between his teeth.
Though the wheels of the carry-all grated loudly on the roadway in front of the house, nobody came to the door nor looked from the windows. The place seemed tenantless, infinitely lonely, infinitely sad. Annixter tied the team, and with Hilma approached the wide-open door, scuffling and tramping on the porch to attract attention. Nobody stirred. A Sunday stillness pervaded the place. Outside, the withered hop-leaves rustled like dry paper in the breeze. The quiet was ominous. They peered into the front room from the doorway, Hilma holding her husband’s hand. Mrs. Dyke was there. She sat at the table in the middle of the room, her head, with its white hair, down upon her arm. A clutter of unwashed dishes were strewed over the red and white tablecloth. The unkempt room, once a marvel of neatness, had not been cleaned for days. Newspapers, Genslinger’s extras and copies of San Francisco and Los Angeles dailies were scattered all over the room. On the table itself were crumpled yellow telegrams, a dozen of them, a score of them, blowing about in the draught from the door. And in the midst of all this disarray, surrounded by the published accounts of her son’s crime, the telegraphed answers to her pitiful appeals for tidings fluttering about her head, the highwayman’s mother, worn out, abandoned and forgotten, slept through the stillness of the Sunday afternoon.
Neither Hilma nor Annixter ever forgot their interview with Mrs. Dyke that day. Suddenly waking, she had caught sight of Annixter, and at once exclaimed eagerly:
“Is there any news?”
For a long time afterwards nothing could be got from her. She was numb to all other issues than the one question of Dyke’s capture. She did not answer their questions nor reply to their offers of assistance. Hilma and Annixter conferred together without lowering their voices, at her very elbow, while she looked vacantly at the floor, drawing one hand over the other in a persistent, maniacal gesture. From time to time she would start suddenly from her chair, her eyes wide, and as if all at once realising Annixter’s presence, would cry out:
“Is there any news?”
“Where is Sidney, Mrs. Dyke?” asked Hilma for the fourth time. “Is she well? Is she taken care of?”
“Here’s the last telegram,” said Mrs. Dyke, in a loud, monotonous voice. “See, it says there is no news. He didn’t do it,” she moaned, rocking herself back and forth, drawing one hand over the other, “he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it, he didn’t do it. I don’t know where he is.”
When at last she came to herself, it was with a flood of tears. Hilma put her arms around the poor, old woman, as she bowed herself again upon the table, sobbing and weeping.
“Oh, my son, my son,” she cried, “my own boy, my only son! If I could have died for you to have prevented this. I remember him when he was little. Such a splendid little fellow, so brave, so loving, with never an unkind thought, never a mean action. So it was all his life. We were never apart. It was always ‘dear little son,’ and ‘dear mammy’ between us—never once was he unkind, and he loved me and was the gentlest son to me. And he was a GOOD man. He is now, he is now. They don’t understand him. They are not even sure that he did this. He never meant it. They don’t know my son. Why, he wouldn’t have hurt a kitten. Everybody loved him. He was driven to it. They hounded him down, they wouldn’t let him alone. He was not right in his mind. They hounded him to it,” she cried fiercely, “they hounded him to it. They drove him and goaded him till he couldn’t stand it any longer, and now they mean to kill him for turning on them. They are hunting him with dogs; night after night I have stood on the porch and heard the dogs baying far off. They are tracking my boy with dogs like a wild animal. May God never forgive them.” She rose to her feet, terrible, her white hair unbound. “May God punish them as they deserve, may they never prosper—on my knees I shall pray for it every night—may their money be a curse to them, may their sons, their first-born, only sons, be taken from them in their youth.”
But Hilma interrupted, begging her to be silent, to be quiet. The tears came again then and the choking sobs. Hilma took her in her arms.
“Oh, my little boy, my little boy,” she cried. “My only son, all that I had, to have come to this! He was not right in his mind or he would have known it would break my heart. Oh, my son, my son, if I could have died for you.”
Sidney came in, clinging to her dress, weeping, imploring her not to cry, protesting that they never could catch her papa, that he would come back soon. Hilma took them both, the little child and the broken-down old woman, in the great embrace of her strong arms, and they all three sobbed together.
Annixter stood on the porch outside, his back turned, looking straight before him into the wilderness of dead vines, his teeth shut hard, his lower lip thrust out.
“I hope S. Behrman is satisfied with all this,” he muttered. “I hope he is satisfied now, damn his soul!”
All at once an idea occurred to him. He turned about and reentered the room.
“Mrs Dyke,” he began, “I want you and Sidney to come over and live at Quien Sabe. I know—you can’t make me believe that the reporters and officers and officious busy-faces that pretend to offer help just so as they can satisfy their curiosity aren’t nagging you to death. I want you to let me take care of you and the little tad till all this trouble of yours is over with. There’s plenty of place for you. You can have the house my wife’s people used to live in. You’ve got to look these things in the face. What are you going to do to get along? You must be very short of money. S. Behrman will foreclose on you and take the whole place in a little while, now. I want you to let me help you, let Hilma and me be good friends to you. It would be a privilege.”
Mrs. Dyke tried bravely to assume her pride, insisting that she could manage, but her spirit was broken. The whole affair ended unexpectedly, with Annixter and Hilma bringing Dyke’s mother and little girl back to Quien Sabe in the carry-all.
Mrs. Dyke would not take with her a stick of furniture nor a single ornament. It would only serve to remind her of a vanished happiness. She packed a few clothes of her own and Sidney’s in a little trunk, Hilma helping her, and Annixter stowed the trunk under the carry-all’s back seat. Mrs. Dyke turned the key in the door of the house and Annixter helped her to her seat beside his wife. They drove through the sear, brown hop vines. At the angle of the road Mrs. Dyke turned around and looked back at the ruin of the hop ranch, the roof of the house just showing above the trees. She never saw it again.
As soon as Annixter and Hilma were alone, after their return to Quien Sabe—Mrs. Dyke and Sidney having been installed in the Trees’ old house—Hilma threw her arms around her husband’s neck.
“Fine,” she exclaimed, “oh, it was fine of you, dear to think of them and to be so good to them. My husband is such a GOOD man. So unselfish. You wouldn’t have thought of being kind to Mrs. Dyke and Sidney a little while ago. You wouldn’t have thought of them at all. But you did now, and it’s just because you love me true, isn’t it? Isn’t it? And because it’s made you a better man. I’m so proud and glad to think it’s so. It is so, isn’t it? Just because you love me true.”
“You bet it is, Hilma,” he told her.
As Hilma and Annixter were sitting down to the supper which they found waiting for them, Louisa Vacca came to the door of the dining-room to say that Harran Derrick had telephoned over from Los Muertos for Annixter, and had left word for him to ring up Los Muertos as soon as he came in.
“He said it was important,” added Louisa Vacca.
“Maybe they have news from Washington,” suggested Hilma.
Annixter would not wait to have supper, but telephoned to Los Muertos at once. Magnus answered the call. There was a special meeting of the Executive Committee of the League summoned for the next day, he told Annixter. It was for the purpose of considering the new grain tariff prepared by the Railroad Commissioners. Lyman had written that the schedule of this tariff had just been issued, that he had not been able to construct it precisely according to the wheat-growers’ wishes, and that he, himself, would come down to Los Muertos and explain its apparent discrepancies. Magnus said Lyman would be present at the session.
Annixter, curious for details, forbore, nevertheless, to question. The connection from Los Muertos to Quien Sabe was made through Bonneville, and in those troublesome times no one could be trusted. It could not be known who would overhear conversations carried on over the lines. He assured Magnus that he would be on hand. The time for the Committee meeting had been set for seven o’clock in the evening, in order to accommodate Lyman, who wrote that he would be down on the evening train, but would be compelled, by pressure of business, to return to the city early the next morning.
At the time appointed, the men composing the Committee gathered about the table in the dining-room of the Los Muertos ranch house. It was almost a reproduction of the scene of the famous evening when Osterman had proposed the plan of the Ranchers’ Railroad Commission. Magnus Derrick sat at the head of the table, in his buttoned frock coat. Whiskey bottles and siphons of soda-water were within easy reach. Presley, who by now was considered the confidential friend of every member of the Committee, lounged as before on the sofa, smoking cigarettes, the cat Nathalie on his knee. Besides Magnus and Annixter, Osterman was present, and old Broderson and Harran; Garnet from the Ruby Rancho and Gethings of the San Pablo, who were also members of the Executive Committee, were on hand, preoccupied, bearded men, smoking black cigars, and, last of all, Dabney, the silent old man, of whom little was known but his name, and who had been made a member of the Committee, nobody could tell why.
“My son Lyman should be here, gentlemen, within at least ten minutes. I have sent my team to meet him at Bonneville,” explained Magnus, as he called the meeting to order. “The Secretary will call the roll.”
Osterman called the roll, and, to fill in the time, read over the minutes of the previous meeting. The treasurer was making his report as to the funds at the disposal of the League when Lyman arrived.
Magnus and Harran went forward to meet him, and the Committee rather awkwardly rose and remained standing while the three exchanged greetings, the members, some of whom had never seen their commissioner, eyeing him out of the corners of their eyes.
Lyman was dressed with his usual correctness. His cravat was of the latest fashion, his clothes of careful design and unimpeachable fit. His shoes, of patent leather, reflected the lamplight, and he carried a drab overcoat over his arm. Before being introduced to the Committee, he excused himself a moment and ran to see his mother, who waited for him in the adjoining sitting-room. But in a few moments he returned, asking pardon for the delay.
He was all affability; his protruding eyes, that gave such an unusual, foreign appearance to his very dark face, radiated geniality. He was evidently anxious to please, to produce a good impression upon the grave, clumsy farmers before whom he stood. But at the same time, Presley, watching him from his place on the sofa, could imagine that he was rather nervous. He was too nimble in his cordiality, and the little gestures he made in bringing his cuffs into view and in touching the ends of his tight, black mustache with the ball of his thumb were repeated with unnecessary frequency.
“Mr. Broderson, my son, Lyman, my eldest son. Mr. Annixter, my son, Lyman.”
The Governor introduced him to the ranchers, proud of Lyman’s good looks, his correct dress, his ease of manner. Lyman shook hands all around, keeping up a flow of small talk, finding a new phrase for each member, complimenting Osterman, whom he already knew, upon his talent for organisation, recalling a mutual acquaintance to the mind of old Broderson. At length, however, he sat down at the end of the table, opposite his brother. There was a silence.
Magnus rose to recapitulate the reasons for the extra session of the Committee, stating again that the Board of Railway Commissioners which they—the ranchers—had succeeded in seating had at length issued the new schedule of reduced rates, and that Mr. Derrick had been obliging enough to offer to come down to Los Muertos in person to acquaint the wheat-growers of the San Joaquin with the new rates for the carriage of their grain.
But Lyman very politely protested, addressing his father punctiliously as “Mr. Chairman,” and the other ranchers as “Gentlemen of the Executive Committee of the League.” He had no wish, he said, to disarrange the regular proceedings of the Committee. Would it not be preferable to defer the reading of his report till “new business” was called for? In the meanwhile, let the Committee proceed with its usual work. He understood the necessarily delicate nature of this work, and would be pleased to withdraw till the proper time arrived for him to speak.
“Good deal of backing and filling about the reading of a column of figures,” muttered Annixter to the man at his elbow.
Lyman “awaited the Committee’s decision.” He sat down, touching the ends of his mustache.
“Oh, play ball,” growled Annixter.
Gethings rose to say that as the meeting had been called solely for the purpose of hearing and considering the new grain tariff, he was of the opinion that routine business could be dispensed with and the schedule read at once. It was so ordered.
Lyman rose and made a long speech. Voluble as Osterman himself, he, nevertheless, had at his command a vast number of ready-made phrases, the staples of a political speaker, the stock in trade of the commercial lawyer, which rolled off his tongue with the most persuasive fluency. By degrees, in the course of his speech, he began to insinuate the idea that the wheat-growers had never expected to settle their difficulties with the Railroad by the work of a single commission; that they had counted upon a long, continued campaign of many years, railway commission succeeding railway commission, before the desired low rates should be secured; that the present Board of Commissioners was only the beginning and that too great results were not expected from them. All this he contrived to mention casually, in the talk, as if it were a foregone conclusion, a matter understood by all.
As the speech continued, the eyes of the ranchers around the table were fixed with growing attention upon this well-dressed, city-bred young man, who spoke so fluently and who told them of their own intentions. A feeling of perplexity began to spread, and the first taint of distrust invaded their minds.
“But the good work has been most auspiciously inaugurated,” continued Lyman. “Reforms so sweeping as the one contemplated cannot be accomplished in a single night. Great things grow slowly, benefits to be permanent must accrue gradually. Yet, in spite of all this, your commissioners have done much. Already the phalanx of the enemy is pierced, already his armour is dinted. Pledged as were your commissioners to an average ten per cent. reduction in rates for the carriage of grain by the Pacific and Southwestern Railroad, we have rigidly adhered to the demands of our constituency, we have obeyed the People. The main problem has not yet been completely solved; that is for later, when we shall have gathered sufficient strength to attack the enemy in his very stronghold; BUT AN AVERAGE TEN PER CENT. CUT HAS BEEN MADE ALL OVER THE STATE. We have made a great advance, have taken a great step forward, and if the work is carried ahead, upon the lines laid down by the present commissioners and their constituents, there is every reason to believe that within a very few years equitable and stable rates for the shipment of grain from the San Joaquin Valley to Stockton, Port Costa, and tidewater will be permanently imposed.”
“Well, hold on,” exclaimed Annixter, out of order and ignoring the Governor’s reproof, “hasn’t your commission reduced grain rates in the San Joaquin?”
“We have reduced grain rates by ten per cent. all over the State,” rejoined Lyman. “Here are copies of the new schedule.”
He drew them from his valise and passed them around the table.
“You see,” he observed, “the rate between Mayfield and Oakland, for instance, has been reduced by twenty-five cents a ton.”
“Yes—but—but—” said old Broderson, “it is rather unusual, isn’t it, for wheat in that district to be sent to Oakland?” “Why, look here,” exclaimed Annixter, looking up from the schedule, “where is there any reduction in rates in the San Joaquin—from Bonneville and Guadalajara, for instance? I don’t see as you’ve made any reduction at all. Is this right? Did you give me the right schedule?”
“Of course, ALL the points in the State could not be covered at once,” returned Lyman. “We never expected, you know, that we could cut rates in the San Joaquin the very first move; that is for later. But you will see we made very material reductions on shipments from the upper Sacramento Valley; also the rate from Ione to Marysville has been reduced eighty cents a ton.”
“Why, rot,” cried Annixter, “no one ever ships wheat that way.”
“The Salinas rate,” continued Lyman, “has been lowered seventy-five cents; the St. Helena rate fifty cents, and please notice the very drastic cut from Red Bluff, north, along the Oregon route, to the Oregon State Line.”
“Where not a carload of wheat is shipped in a year,” commented Gethings of the San Pablo.
“Oh, you will find yourself mistaken there, Mr. Gethings,” returned Lyman courteously. “And for the matter of that, a low rate would stimulate wheat-production in that district.”
The order of the meeting was broken up, neglected; Magnus did not even pretend to preside. In the growing excitement over the inexplicable schedule, routine was not thought of. Every one spoke at will.
“Why, Lyman,” demanded Magnus, looking across the table to his son, “is this schedule correct? You have not cut rates in the San Joaquin at all. We—these gentlemen here and myself, we are no better off than we were before we secured your election as commissioner.”
“We were pledged to make an average ten per cent. cut, sir——” “It IS an average ten per cent. cut,” cried Osterman. “Oh, yes, that’s plain. It’s an average ten per cent. cut all right, but you’ve made it by cutting grain rates between points where practically no grain is shipped. We, the wheat-growers in the San Joaquin, where all the wheat is grown, are right where we were before. The Railroad won’t lose a nickel. By Jingo, boys,” he glanced around the table, “I’d like to know what this means.”
“The Railroad, if you come to that,” returned Lyman, “has already lodged a protest against the new rate.”
Annixter uttered a derisive shout.
“A protest! That’s good, that is. When the P. and S. W. objects to rates it don’t ‘protest,’ m’ son. The first you hear from Mr. Shelgrim is an injunction from the courts preventing the order for new rates from taking effect. By the Lord,” he cried angrily, leaping to his feet, “I would like to know what all this means, too. Why didn’t you reduce our grain rates? What did we elect you for?”
“Yes, what did we elect you for?” demanded Osterman and Gethings, also getting to their feet.
“Order, order, gentlemen,” cried Magnus, remembering the duties of his office and rapping his knuckles on the table. “This meeting has been allowed to degenerate too far already.”
“You elected us,” declared Lyman doggedly, “to make an average ten per cent. cut on grain rates. We have done it. Only because you don’t benefit at once, you object. It makes a difference whose ox is gored, it seems.”
It was Magnus who spoke. He had drawn himself to his full six feet. His eyes were flashing direct into his son’s. His voice rang with severity.
“Lyman, what does this mean?”
The other spread out his hands.
“As you see, sir. We have done our best. I warned you not to expect too much. I told you that this question of transportation was difficult. You would not wish to put rates so low that the action would amount to confiscation of property.”
“Why did you not lower rates in the valley of the San Joaquin?”
“That was not a PROMINENT issue in the affair,” responded Lyman, carefully emphasising his words. “I understand, of course, it was to be approached IN TIME. The main point was AN AVERAGE TEN PER CENT. REDUCTION. Rates WILL be lowered in the San Joaquin. The ranchers around Bonneville will be able to ship to Port Costa at equitable rates, but so radical a measure as that cannot be put through in a turn of the hand. We must study——”
“You KNEW the San Joaquin rate was an issue,” shouted Annixter, shaking his finger across the table. “What do we men who backed you care about rates up in Del Norte and Siskiyou Counties? Not a whoop in hell. It was the San Joaquin rate we were fighting for, and we elected you to reduce that. You didn’t do it and you don’t intend to, and, by the Lord Harry, I want to know why.”
“You’ll know, sir—” began Lyman.
“Well, I’ll tell you why,” vociferated Osterman. “I’ll tell you why. It’s because we have been sold out. It’s because the P. and S. W. have had their spoon in this boiling. It’s because our commissioners have betrayed us. It’s because we’re a set of damn fool farmers and have been cinched again.”
Lyman paled under his dark skin at the direct attack. He evidently had not expected this so soon. For the fraction of one instant he lost his poise. He strove to speak, but caught his breath, stammering.
“What have you to say, then?” cried Harran, who, until now, had not spoken.
“I have this to say,” answered Lyman, making head as best he might, “that this is no proper spirit in which to discuss business. The Commission has fulfilled its obligations. It has adjusted rates to the best of its ability. We have been at work for two months on the preparation of this schedule——”
“That’s a lie,” shouted Annixter, his face scarlet; “that’s a lie. That schedule was drawn in the offices of the Pacific and Southwestern and you know it. It’s a scheme of rates made for the Railroad and by the Railroad and you were bought over to put your name to it.”
There was a concerted outburst at the words. All the men in the room were on their feet, gesticulating and vociferating.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” cried Magnus, “are we schoolboys, are we ruffians of the street?”
“We’re a set of fool farmers and we’ve been betrayed,” cried Osterman.
“Well, what have you to say? What have you to say?” persisted Harran, leaning across the table toward his brother. “For God’s sake, Lyman, you’ve got SOME explanation.”
“You’ve misunderstood,” protested Lyman, white and trembling. “You’ve misunderstood. You’ve expected too much. Next year,—next year,—soon now, the Commission will take up the—the Commission will consider the San Joaquin rate. We’ve done our best, that is all.”
“Have you, sir?” demanded Magnus.
The Governor’s head was in a whirl; a sensation, almost of faintness, had seized upon him. Was it possible? Was it possible?
“Have you done your best?” For a second he compelled Lyman’s eye. The glances of father and son met, and, in spite of his best efforts, Lyman’s eyes wavered. He began to protest once more, explaining the matter over again from the beginning. But Magnus did not listen. In that brief lapse of time he was convinced that the terrible thing had happened, that the unbelievable had come to pass. It was in the air. Between father and son, in some subtle fashion, the truth that was a lie stood suddenly revealed. But even then Magnus would not receive it. Lyman do this! His son, his eldest son, descend to this! Once more and for the last time he turned to him and in his voice there was that ring that compelled silence.
“Lyman,” he said, “I adjure you—I—I demand of you as you are my son and an honourable man, explain yourself. What is there behind all this? It is no longer as Chairman of the Committee I speak to you, you a member of the Railroad Commission. It is your father who speaks, and I address you as my son. Do you understand the gravity of this crisis; do you realise the responsibility of your position; do you not see the importance of this moment? Explain yourself.”
“There is nothing to explain.”
“You have not reduced rates in the San Joaquin? You have not reduced rates between Bonneville and tidewater?”
“I repeat, sir, what I said before. An average ten per cent. cut——”
“Lyman, answer me, yes or no. Have you reduced the Bonneville rate?”
“It could not be done so soon. Give us time. We——”
“Yes or no! By God, sir, do you dare equivocate with me? Yes or no; have you reduced the Bonneville rate?”
“And answer ME,” shouted Harran, leaning far across the table, “answer ME. Were you paid by the Railroad to leave the San Joaquin rate untouched?”
Lyman, whiter than ever, turned furious upon his brother.
“Don’t you dare put that question to me again.”
“No, I won’t,” cried Harran, “because I’ll TELL you to your villain’s face that you WERE paid to do it.”
On the instant the clamour burst forth afresh. Still on their feet, the ranchers had, little by little, worked around the table, Magnus alone keeping his place. The others were in a group before Lyman, crowding him, as it were, to the wall, shouting into his face with menacing gestures. The truth that was a lie, the certainty of a trust betrayed, a pledge ruthlessly broken, was plain to every one of them.
“By the Lord! men have been shot for less than this,” cried Osterman. “You’ve sold us out, you, and if you ever bring that dago face of yours on a level with mine again, I’ll slap it.”
“Keep your hands off,” exclaimed Lyman quickly, the aggressiveness of the cornered rat flaming up within him. “No violence. Don’t you go too far.”
“How much were you paid? How much were you paid?” vociferated Harran.
“Yes, yes, what was your price?” cried the others. They were beside themselves with anger; their words came harsh from between their set teeth; their gestures were made with their fists clenched.
“You know the Commission acted in good faith,” retorted Lyman. “You know that all was fair and above board.”
“Liar,” shouted Annixter; “liar, bribe-eater. You were bought and paid for,” and with the words his arm seemed almost of itself to leap out from his shoulder. Lyman received the blow squarely in the face and the force of it sent him staggering backwards toward the wall. He tripped over his valise and fell half way, his back supported against the closed door of the room. Magnus sprang forward. His son had been struck, and the instincts of a father rose up in instant protest; rose for a moment, then forever died away in his heart. He checked the words that flashed to his mind. He lowered his upraised arm. No, he had but one son. The poor, staggering creature with the fine clothes, white face, and blood-streaked lips was no longer his. A blow could not dishonour him more than he had dishonoured himself.
But Gethings, the older man, intervened, pulling Annixter back, crying:
“Stop, this won’t do. Not before his father.”
“I am no father to this man, gentlemen,” exclaimed Magnus. “From now on, I have but one son. You, sir,” he turned to Lyman, “you, sir, leave my house.”
Lyman, his handkerchief to his lips, his smart cravat in disarray, caught up his hat and coat. He was shaking with fury, his protruding eyes were blood-shot. He swung open the door.
“Ruffians,” he shouted from the threshold, “ruffians, bullies. Do your own dirty business yourselves after this. I’m done with you. How is it, all of a sudden you talk about honour? How is it that all at once you’re so clean and straight? You weren’t so particular at Sacramento just before the nominations. How was the Board elected? I’m a bribe-eater, am I? Is it any worse than GIVING a bribe? Ask Magnus Derrick what he thinks about that. Ask him how much he paid the Democratic bosses at Sacramento to swing the convention.”
He went out, slamming the door.
Presley followed. The whole affair made him sick at heart, filled him with infinite disgust, infinite weariness. He wished to get away from it all. He left the dining-room and the excited, clamouring men behind him and stepped out on the porch of the ranch house, closing the door behind him. Lyman was nowhere in sight. Presley was alone. It was late, and after the lamp-heated air of the dining-room, the coolness of the night was delicious, and its vast silence, after the noise and fury of the committee meeting, descended from the stars like a benediction. Presley stepped to the edge of the porch, looking off to southward.
And there before him, mile after mile, illimitable, covering the earth from horizon to horizon, lay the Wheat. The growth, now many days old, was already high from the ground. There it lay, a vast, silent ocean, shimmering a pallid green under the moon and under the stars; a mighty force, the strength of nations, the life of the world. There in the night, under the dome of the sky, it was growing steadily. To Presley’s mind, the scene in the room he had just left dwindled to paltry insignificance before this sight. Ah, yes, the Wheat—it was over this that the Railroad, the ranchers, the traitor false to his trust, all the members of an obscure conspiracy, were wrangling. As if human agency could affect this colossal power! What were these heated, tiny squabbles, this feverish, small bustle of mankind, this minute swarming of the human insect, to the great, majestic, silent ocean of the Wheat itself! Indifferent, gigantic, resistless, it moved in its appointed grooves. Men, Liliputians, gnats in the sunshine, buzzed impudently in their tiny battles, were born, lived through their little day, died, and were forgotten; while the Wheat, wrapped in Nirvanic calm, grew steadily under the night, alone with the stars and with God.