The winter proved much less exciting than the one spent in Carmel, and keenly as Saxon had appreciated the Carmel folk, she now appreciated them more keenly than ever. In Ukiah she formed nothing more than superficial acquaintances. Here people were more like those of the working class she had known in Oakland, or else they were merely wealthy and herded together in automobiles. There was no democratic artist-colony that pursued fellowship disregardful of the caste of wealth.
Yet it was a more enjoyable winter than any she had spent in Oakland. Billy had failed to get regular employment; so she saw much of him, and they lived a prosperous and happy hand-to-mouth existence in the tiny cottage they rented. As extra man at the biggest livery stable, Billy's spare time was so great that he drifted into horse-trading. It was hazardous, and more than once he was broke, but the table never wanted for the best of steak and coffee, nor did they stint themselves for clothes.
"Them blamed farmers--I gotta pass it to 'em," Billy grinned one day, when he had been particularly bested in a horse deal. "They won't tear under the wings, the sons of guns. In the summer they take in boarders, an' in the winter they make a good livin' coin' each other up at tradin' horses. An' I just want to tell YOU, Saxon, they've sure shown me a few. An' I 'm gettin' tough under the wings myself. I'll never tear again so as you can notice it. Which means one more trade learned for yours truly. I can make a livin' anywhere now tradin' horses."
Often Billy had Saxon out on spare saddle horses from the stable, and his horse deals took them on many trips into the surrounding country. Likewise she was with him when he was driving horses to sell on commission; and in both their minds, independently, arose a new idea concerning their pilgrimage. Billy was the first to broach it.
"I run into an outfit the other day, that's stored in town," he said, "an' it's kept me thinkin' ever since. Ain't no use tryin' to get you to guess it, because you can't. I'll tell you--the swellest wagon-campin' outfit; anybody ever heard of. First of all, the wagon's a peacherino. Strong as they make 'em. It was made to order, upon Puget Sound, an' it was tested out all the way down here. No load an' no road can strain it. The guy had consumption that had it built. A doctor an' a cook traveled with 'm till he passed in his checks here in Ukiah two years ago. But say--if you could see it. Every kind of a contrivance--a place for everything--a regular home on wheels. Now, if we could get that, an' a couple of plugs, we could travel like kings, an' laugh at the weather."
"Oh! Billy! it's just what I've been dreamin' all winter. It would be ideal. And . . . well, sometimes on the road I 'm sure you can't help forgetting what a nice little wife you've got . . . and with a wagon I could have all kinds of pretty clothes along."
Billy's blue eyes glowed a caress, cloudy and warm; as he said quietly:
"I've ben thinkin' about that."
"And you can carry a rifle and shotgun and fishing poles and everything," she rushed along. "And a good big axe, man-size, instead of that hatchet you're always complaining about. And Possum can lift up his legs and rest. And--but suppose you can't buy it? How much do they want?"
"One hundred an' fifty big bucks," he answered. "But dirt cheap at that. It's givin' it away. I tell you that rig wasn't built for a cent less than four hundred, an' I know wagon-work in the dark. Now, if I can put through that dicker with Caswell's six horses--say, I just got onto that horse-buyer to-day. If he buys 'em, who d'ye think he'll ship 'em to? To the Boss, right to the West Oakland stables. I 'm goin' to get you to write to him. Travelin', as we're goin' to, I can pick up bargains. An' if the Boss'll talk, I can make the regular horse-buyer's commissions. He'll have to trust me with a lot of money, though, which most likely he won't, knowin' all his scabs I beat up."
"If he could trust you to run his stable, I guess he isn't afraid to let you handle his money," Saxon said.
Billy shrugged his shoulders in modest dubiousness.
"Well, anyway, as I was sayin' if I can sell Caswell's six horses, why, we can stand off this month's bills an' buy the wagon."
"But horses!" Saxon queried anxiously.
"They'll come later--if I have to take a regular job for two or three months. The only trouble with that 'd be that it'd run us pretty well along into summer before we could pull out. But come on down town an' I'll show you the outfit right now."
Saxon saw the wagon and was so infatuated with it that she lost a night's sleep from sheer insomnia of anticipation. Then Caswell's six horses were sold, the month's bills held over, and the wagon became theirs. One rainy morning, two weeks later, Billy had scarcely left the house, to be gone on an all-day trip into the country after horses, when he was back again.
"Come on!" he called to Saxon from the street. "Get your things on an' come along. I want to show you something."
He drove down town to a board stable, and took her through to a large, roofed inclosure in the rear. There he led to her a span of sturdy dappled chestnuts, with cream-colored manes and tails.
"Oh, the beauties! the beauties!" Saxon cried, resting her cheek against the velvet muzzle of one, while the other roguishly nuzzled for a share.
"Ain't they, though?" Billy reveled, leading them up and down before her admiring gaze. "Thirteen hundred an' fifty each, an' they don't look the weight, they're that slick put together. I couldn't believe it myself, till I put 'em on the scales. Twenty-seven hundred an' seven pounds, the two of 'em. An' I tried 'em out--that was two days ago. Good dispositions, no faults, an' true-pullers, automobile broke an' all the rest. I'd back 'em to out-pull any team of their weight I ever seen.--Say, how'd they look hooked up to that wagon of ourn?"
Saxon visioned the picture, and shook her head slowly in a reaction of regret.
"Three hundred spot cash buys 'em," Billy went on. "An' that's bed-rock. The owner wants the money so bad he's droolin' for it. Just gotta sell, an' sell quick. An' Saxon, honest to God, that pair'd fetch five hundred at auction down in the city. Both mares, full sisters, five an' six years old, registered Belgian sire, out of a heavy standard-bred mare that I know. Three hundred takes 'em, an' I got the refusal for three days."
Saxon's regret changed to indignation.
"Oh, why did you show them to me? We haven't any three hundred, and you know it. All I've got in the house is six dollars, and you haven't that much."
"Maybe you think that's all I brought you down town for," he replied enigmatically. "Well, it ain't."
He paused, licked his lips, and shifted his weight uneasily from one leg to the other.
"Now you listen till I get all done before you say anything. Ready?"
"Won't open your mouth?"
This time she obediently shook her head.
"Well, it's this way," he began haltingly. "They's a youngster come up from Frisco, Young Sandow they call 'm, an' the Pride of Telegraph Hill. He's the real goods of a heavyweight, an' he was to fight Montana Red Saturday night, only Montana Red, just in a little trainin' bout, snapped his forearm yesterday. The managers has kept it quiet. Now here's the proposition. Lots of tickets sold, an' they'll be a big crowd Saturday night. At the last moment, so as not to disappoint 'em, they'll spring me to take Montana's place. I 'm the dark horse. Nobody knows me--not even Young Sandow. He's come up since my time. I'll be a rube fighter. I can fight as Horse Roberts.
"Now, wait a minute. The winner'll pull down three hundred big round iron dollars. Wait, I 'm tellin' you! It's a lead-pipe cinch. It's like robbin' a corpse. Sandow's got all the heart in the world--regular knock~down-an'-drag-out-an'-hang-on fighter. I've followed 'm in the papers. But he ain't clever. I 'm slow, all right, all right, but I 'm clever, an' I got a hay-maker in each arm. I got Sandow's number an' I know it.
"Now, you got the say-so in this. If you say yes, the nags is ourn. If you say no, then it's all bets off, an' everything all right, an' I'll take to harness-washin' at the stable so as to buy a couple of plugs. Remember, they'll only be plugs, though. But don't look at me while you're makin' up your mind. Keep your lamps on the horses."
It was with painful indecision that she looked at the beautiful animals.
"Their names is Hazel an' Hattie," Billy put in a sly wedge. "If we get 'em we could call it the 'Double H' outfit."
But Saxon forgot the team and could only see Billy's frightfully bruised body the night he fought the Chicago Terror. She was about to speak, when Billy, who had been hanging on her lips, broke in:
"Just hitch 'em up to our wagon in your mind an' look at the outfit. You got to go some to beat it."
"But you're not in training, Billy," she said suddenly and without having intended to say it.
"Huh!" he snorted. "I've been in half trainin' for the last year. My legs is like iron. They'll hold me up as long as I've got a punch left in my arms, and I always have that. Besides, I won't let 'm make a long fight. He's a man-eater, an' man-eaters is my meat. I eat 'm alive. It's the clever boys with the stamina an' endurance that I can't put away. But this young Sandow's my meat. I'll get 'm maybe in the third or fourth round--you know, time 'm in a rush an' hand it to 'm just as easy. It's a lead-pipe cinch, I tell you. Honest to God, Saxon, it's a shame to take the money."
"But I hate to think of you all battered up," she temporized. "If I didn't love you so, it might be different. And then, too, you might get hurt."
Billy laughed in contemptuous pride of youth and brawn.
"You won't know I've been in a fight, except that we'll own Hazel an' Hattie there. An' besides, Saxon, I just gotta stick my fist in somebody's face once in a while. You know I can go for months peaceable an' gentle as a lamb, an' then my knuckles actually begin to itch to land on something. Now, it's a whole lot sensibler to land on Young Sandow an' get three hundred for it, than to land on some hayseed an' get hauled up an' fined before some justice of the peace. Now take another squint at Hazel an' Hattie. They're regular farm furniture, good to breed from when we get to that valley of the moon. An' they're heavy enough to turn right into the plowin', too."
The evening of the fight at quarter past eight, Saxon parted from Billy. At quarter past nine, with hot water, ice, and everything ready in anticipation, she heard the gate click and Billy's step come up the porch. She had agreed to the fight much against her better judgment, and had regretted her consent every minute of the hour she had just waited; so that, as she opened the front door, she was expectant of any sort of a terrible husband-wreck. But the Billy she saw was precisely the Billy she had parted from.
"There was no fights" she cried, in so evident disappointment that he laughed.
"They was all yellin' 'Fake! Fake!' when I left, an' wantin' their money back."
"Well, I've got YOU," she laughed, leading him in, though secretly she sighed farewell to Hazel and Hattie.
"I stopped by the way to get something for you that you've been wantin' some time," Billy said casually. "Shut your eyes an' open your hand; an' when you open your eyes you'll find it grand," he chanted.
Into her hand something was laid that was very heavy and very cold, and when her eyes opened she saw it was a stack of fifteen twenty-dollar gold pieces.
"I told you it was like takin' money from a corpse," he exulted, as he emerged grinning from the whirlwind of punches, whacks, and hugs in which she had enveloped him. "They wasn't no fight at all. D 'ye want to know how long it lasted? Just twenty-seven seconds--less 'n half a minute. An' how many blows struck? One. An' it was me that done it. Here, I'll show you. It was just like this--a regular scream."
Billy had taken his place in the middle of the room, slightly crouching, chin tucked against the sheltering left shoulder, fists closed, elbows in so as to guard left side and abdomen, and forearms close to the body.
"It's the first round," he pictured. "Gong's sounded, an' we've shook hands. Of course, seein' as it's a long fight an' we've never seen each other in action, we ain't in no rush. We're just feelin' each other out an' fiddlin' around. Seventeen seconds like that. Not a blow struck. Nothin'. An' then it's all off with the big Swede. It takes some time to tell it, but it happened in a jiffy, in fess In a tenth of a second. I wasn't expectin' it myself. We're awful close together. His left glove ain't a foot from my jaw, an' my left glove ain't a foot from hisn. He feints with his right, an' I know it's a feint, an' just hunch up my left shoulder a bit an' feint with my right. That draws his guard over just about an inch, an' I see my openin'. My left ain't got a foot to travel. I don't draw it back none. I start it from where it is, corkscrewin' around his right guard an' pivotin' at the waist to put the weight of my shoulder into the punch. An' it connects!-- Square on the point of the chin, sideways. He drops deado. I walk back to my corner, an', honest to God, Saxon, I can't help gigglin' a little, it was that easy. The referee stands over 'm an' counts 'm out. He never quivers. The audience don't know what to make of it an' sits paralyzed. His seconds carry 'm to his corner an' set 'm on the stool. But they gotta hold 'm up. Five minutes afterward he opens his eyes--but he ain't seein' nothing. They're glassy. Five minutes more, an' he stands up. They got to help hold 'm, his legs givin' under 'm like they was sausages. An' the seconds has to help 'm through the ropes, an' they go down the aisle to his dressin' room a-helpin' 'm. An' the crowd beginning to yell fake an' want its money back. Twenty-seven seconds--one punch --n' a spankin' pair of horses for the best wife Billy Roberts ever had in his long experience."
All of Saxon's old physical worship of her husband revived and doubled on itself many times. He was in all truth a hero, worthy to be of that wing-helmeted company leaping from the beaked boats upon the bloody English sands. The next morning he was awakened by her lips pressed on his left hand.
"Hey!--what are you doin'?'" he demanded.
"Kissing Hazel and Hattie good morning," she answered demurely. "And now I 'm going to kiss you good morning. ... And just where did your punch land? Show me."
Billy complied, touching the point of her chin with his knuckles. With both her hands on his arm, she shored it back and tried to draw it forward sharply in similitude of a punch. But Billy withstrained her.
"Wait," he said. "You don't want to knock your jaw off. I'll show you. A quarter of an inch will do."
And at a distance of a quarter of an inch from her chin he administered the slightest flick of a tap.
On the instant Saxon's brain snapped with a white flash of light, while her whole body relaxed, numb and weak, volitionless, sad her vision reeled and blurred. The next instant she was herself again, in her eyes terror and understanding.
"And it was at a foot that you struck him," she murmured in a voice of awe.
"Yes, and with the weight of my shoulders behind it," Billy laughed. "Oh, that's nothing.--Here, let me show you something else."
He searched out her solar plexus, and did no more than snap his middle finger against it. This time she experienced a simple paralysis, accompanied by a stoppage of breath, but with a brain and vision that remained perfectly clear. In a moment, however, all the unwonted sensations were gone.
"Solar Plexus," Billy elucidated. "Imagine what it's like when the other fellow lifts a wallop to it all the way from his knees. That's the punch that won the championship of the world for Bob Fitzsimmons."
Saxon shuddered, then resigned herself to Billy's playful demonstration of the weak points in the human anatomy. He pressed the tip of a finger into the middle of her forearm, and she knew excruciating agony. On either side of her neck, at the base, he dented gently with his thumbs, and she felt herself quickly growing unconscious.
"That's one of the death touches of the Japs," he told her, and went on, accompanying grips and holds with a running exposition. "Here's the toe-hold that Notch defeated Hackenschmidt with. I learned it from Farmer Burns.--An' here's a half-Nelson.--An' here's you makin' roughhouse at a dance, an' I 'm the floor manager, an' I gotta put you out."
One hand grasped her wrist, the other hand passed around and under her forearm and grasped his own wrist. And at the first hint of pressure she felt that her arm was a pipe-stem about to break.
"That's called the 'come along.'--An' here's the strong arm. A boy can down a man with it. An' if you ever get into a scrap an' the other fellow gets your nose between his teeth--you don't want to lose your nose, do you? Well, this is what you do, quick as a flash."
Involuntarily she closed her eyes as Billy's thumb-ends pressed into them. She could feel the fore-running ache of a dull and terrible hurt.
"If he don't let go, you just press real hard, an' out pop his eyes, an' he's blind as a bat for the rest of his life. Oh, he'll let go all right all right."
He released her and lay back laughing.
"How d'ye feel?" he asked. "Those ain't boxin' tricks, but they're all in the game of a roughhouse."
"I feel like revenge," she said, trying to apply the "come along" to his arm.
When she exerted the pressure she cried out with pain, for she had succeeded only in hurting herself. Billy grinned at her futility. She dug her thumbs into his neck in imitation of the Japanese death touch, then gazed ruefully at the bent ends of her nails. She punched him smartly on the point of the chin, and again cried out, this time to the bruise of her knuckles.
"Well, this can't hurt me," she gritted through her teeth, as she assailed his solar plexus with her doubled fists.
By this time he was in a roar of laughter. Under the sheaths of muscles that were as armor, the fatal nerve center remained impervious.
"Go on, do it some more," he urged, when she had given up, breathing heavily. "It feels fine, like you was ticklin' me with a feather."
"All right, Mister Man," she threatened balefully. "You can talk about your grips and death touches and all the rest, but that's all man's game. I know something that will beat them all, that will make a strong man as helpless as a baby. Wait a minute till I get it. There. Shut your eyes. Ready? I won't be a second."
He waited with closed eyes, and then, softly as rose petals fluttering down, he felt her lips on his mouth.
"You win," he said in solemn ecstasy, and passed his arms around her.