It was a good afternoon's tramp to Niles, passing through the town of Haywards; yet Saxon and Billy found time to diverge from the main county road and take the parallel roads through acres of intense cultivation where the land was farmed to the wheel-tracks. Saxon looked with amazement at these small, brown-skinned immigrants who came to the soil with nothing and yet made the soil pay for itself to the tune of two hundred, of five hundred, and of a thousand dollars an acre.
On every hand was activity. Women and children were in the fields as well as men. The land was turned endlessly over and over. They seemed never to let it rest. And it rewarded them. It must reward them, or their children would not be able to go to school, nor would so many of them be able to drive by in rattletrap, second-hand buggies or in stout light wagons.
"Look at their faces," Saxon said. "They are happy and contented. They haven't faces like the people in our neighborhood after the strikes began."
"Oh, sure, they got a good thing," Billy agreed. "You can see it stickin' out all over them. But they needn't get chesty with ME, I can tell you that much--just because they've jiggerrooed us out of our land an' everything."
"But they're not showing any signs of chestiness," Saxon demurred.
"No, they're not, come to think of it. All the same, they ain't so wise. I bet I could tell 'em a few about horses."
It was sunset when they entered the little town of Niles. Billy, who had been silent for the last half mile, hesitantly ventured a suggestion.
"Say. . . I could put up for a room in the hotel just as well as not. What d 'ye think?"
But Saxon shook her head emphatically.
"How long do you think our twenty dollars will last at that rate? Besides, the only way to begin is to begin at the beginning. We didn't plan sleeping in hotels."
"All right," he gave in. "I'm game. I was just thinkin' about you."
"Then you'd better think I'm game, too," she flashed forgivingly. "And now we'll have to see about getting things for supper."
They bought a round steak, potatoes, onions, and a dozen eating apples, then went out from the town to the fringe of trees and brush that advertised a creek. Beside the trees, on a sand bank, they pitched camp. Plenty of dry wood lay about, and Billy whistled genially while he gathered and chopped. Saxon, keen to follow his every mood, was cheered by the atrocious discord on his lips. She smiled to herself as she spread the blankets, with the tarpaulin underneath, for a table, having first removed all twigs from the sand. She had much to learn in the matter of cooking over a camp-fire, and made fair progress, discovering, first of all, that control of the fire meant far more than the size of it. When the coffee was boiled, she settled the grounds with a part-cup of cold water and placed the pot on the edge of the coals where it would keep hot and yet not boil. She fried potato dollars and onions in the same pan, but separately, and set them on top of the coffee pot in the tin plate she was to eat from, covering it with Billy's inverted plate. On the dry hot pan, in the way that delighted Billy, she fried the steak. This completed, and while Billy poured the coffee, she served the steak, putting the dollars and onions back into the frying pan for a moment to make them piping hot again.
"What more d'ye want than this?" Billy challenged with deep-toned satisfaction, in the pause after his final cup of coffee, while he rolled a cigarette. He lay on his side, full length, resting on his elbow. The fire was burning brightly, and Saxon's color was heightened by the flickering flames. "Now our folks, when they was on the move, had to be afraid for Indians, and wild animals and all sorts of things; an' here we are, as safe as bugs in a rug. Take this sand. What better bed could you ask? Soft as feathers. Say--you look good to me, heap little squaw. I bet you don't look an inch over sixteen right now, Mrs. Babe-in-the-Woods."
"Don't I?" she glowed, with a flirt of the head sideward and a white flash of teeth. "If you weren't smoking a cigarette I'd ask you if your mother knew you're out, Mr. Babe-in-the-Sandbank."
"Say," he began, with transparently feigned seriousness. "I want to ask you something, if you don't mind. Now, of course, I don't want to hurt your feelin's or nothin', but just the same there's something important I'd like to know."
"Well, what is it?" she inquired, after a fruitless wait.
"Well, it's just this, Saxon. I like you like anything an' all that, but here's night come on, an' we're a thousand miles from anywhere, and--well, what I wanta know is: are we really an' truly married, you an' me?"
"Really and truly," she assured him. "Why?"
"Oh, nothing; but I'd kind a-forgotten, an' I was gettin' embarrassed, you know, because if we wasn't, seein' the way I was brought up, this'd be no place--"
"That will do you," she said severely. "And this is just the time and place for you to get in the firewood for morning while I wash up the dishes and put the kitchen in order."
He started to obey, but paused to throw his arm about her and draw her close. Neither spoke, but when he went his way Saxon's breast was fluttering and a song of thanksgiving breathed on her lips.
The night had come on, dim with the light of faint stars. But these had disappeared behind clouds that seemed to have arisen from nowhere. It was the beginning of California Indian summer. The air was warm, with just the first hint of evening chill, and there was no wind.
"I've a feeling as if we've just started to live," Saxon said, when Billy, his firewood collected, joined her on the blankets before the fire. "I've learned more to-day than ten years in Oakland." She drew a long breath and braced her shoulders. "Farming's a bigger subject than I thought."
Billy said nothing. With steady eyes he was staring into the fire, and she knew he was turning something over in his mind.
"What is it," she asked, when she saw he had reached a conclusion, at the same time resting her hand on the back of his.
"Just been framin' up that ranch of ourn," he answered. "It's all well enough, these dinky farmlets. They'll do for foreigners. But we Americans just gotta have room. I want to be able to look at a hilltop an' know it's my land, and know it's my land down the other side an' up the next hilltop, an' know that over beyond that, down alongside some creek, my mares are most likely grazin', an' their little colts grazin' with 'em or kickin' up their heels. You know, there's money in raisin' horses--especially the big workhorses that run to eighteen hundred an' two thousand pounds. They're payin' for 'em, in the cities, every day in the year, seven an' eight hundred a pair, matched geldings, four years old. Good pasture an' plenty of it, in this kind of a climate, is all they need, along with some sort of shelter an' a little hay in long spells of bad weather. I never thought of it before, but let me tell you that this ranch proposition is beginnin' to look good to ME."
Saxon was all excitement. Here was new information on the cherished subject, and, best of all, Billy was the authority. Still better, he was taking an interest himself.
"There'll be room for that and for everything on a quarter section," she encouraged.
"Sure thing. Around the house we'll have vegetables an' fruit and chickens an' everything, just like the Porchugeeze, an' plenty of room beside to walk around an' range the horses."
"But won't the colts cost money, Billy?"
"Not much. The cobblestones eat horses up fast. That's where I'll get my brood mares, from the ones knocked out by the city. I know THAT end of it. They sell 'em at auction, an' they're good for years an' years, only no good on the cobbles any more."
There ensued a long pause. In the dying fire both were busy visioning the farm to be.
"It's pretty still, ain't it?" Billy said, rousing himself at last. He gazed about him. "An' black as a stack of black cats." He shivered, buttoned his coat, and tossed several sticks on the fire. "Just the same, it's the best kind of a climate in the world. Many's the time, when I was a little kid, I've heard my father brag about California's bein' a blanket climate. He went East, once, an' staid a summer an' a winter, an' got all he wanted. Never again for him."
"My mother said there never was such a land for climate. How wonderful it must have seemed to them after crossing the deserts and mountains. They called it the land of milk and honey. The ground was so rich that all they needed to do was scratch it, Cady used to say."
"And wild game everywhere," Billy contributed. "Mr. Roberts, the one that adopted my father, he drove cattle from the San Josquin to the Columbia river. He had forty men helpin' him, an' all they took along was powder an' salt. They lived off the game they shot."
"The hills were full of deer, and my mother saw whole herds of elk around Santa Rosa. Some time we'll go there, Billy. I've always wanted to."
"And when my father was a young man, somewhere up north of Sacramento, in a creek called Cache Slough, the tules was full of grizzliest He used to go in an' shoot 'em. An' when they caught 'em in the open, he an' the Mexicans used to ride up an' rope them--catch them with lariats, you know. He said a horse that wasn't afraid of grizzlies fetched ten times as much as any other horse An' panthers!--all the old folks called 'em painters an' catamounts an' varmints. Yes, we'll go to Santa Rosa some time. Maybe we won't like that land down the coast, an' have to keep on hikin'."
By this time the fire had died down, and Saxon had finished brushing and braiding her hair. Their bed-going preliminaries were simple, and in a few minutes they were side by side under the blankets. Saxon closed her eyes, but could not sleep. On the contrary, she had never been more wide awake. She had never slept out of doors in her life, and by no exertion of will could she overcome the strangeness of it. In addition, she was stiffened from the long trudge, and the sand, to her surprise, was anything but soft. An hour passed. She tried to believe that Billy was asleep, but felt certain he was not. The sharp crackle of a dying ember startled her. She was confident that Billy had moved slightly.
"Billy," she whispered, "are you awake?"
"Yep," came his low answer, "--an' thinkin' this sand is harder'n a cement floor. It's one on me, all right. But who'd a-thought it?"
Both shifted their postures slightly, but vain was the attempt to escape from the dull, aching contact of the sand.
An abrupt, metallic, whirring noise of some nearby cricket gave Saxon another startle. She endured the sound for some minutes, until Billy broke forth.
"Say, that gets my goat whatever it is."
"Do you think it's a rattlesnake?" she asked, maintaining a calmness she did not feel.
"Just what I've been thinkin'."
"I saw two, in the window of Bowman's Drug Store An' you know, Billy, they've got a hollow fang, and when they stick it into you the poison runs down the hollow."
"Br-r-r-r," Billy shivered, in fear that was not altogether mockery. "Certain death, everybody says, unless you're a Bosco. Remember him7"
"He eats 'em alive! He eats 'em alive! Bosco! Bosco!" Saxon responded, mimicking the cry of a side-show barker. Just the same, all Bosco's rattlers had the poison-sacs cut outa them. They must a-had. Gee! It's funny I can't get asleep. I wish that damned thing'd close its trap. I wonder if it is a rattlesnake."
"No; it can't be," Saxon decided. "All the rattlesnakes are killed off long ago."
"Then where did Bosco get his?" Billy demanded with unimpeachable logic. "An' why don't you get to sleep?"
"Because it's all new, I guess," was her reply. "You see, I never camped out in my life."
"Neither did I. An' until now I always thought it was a lark." He changed his position on the maddening sand and sighed heavily. "But we'll get used to it in time, I guess. What other folks can do, we can, an' a mighty lot of 'em has camped out. It's all right. Here we are, free an' independent, no rent to pay, our own bosses"
He stopped abruptly. From somewhere in the brush came an intermittent rustling. When they tried to locate it, it mysteriously ceased, and when the first hint of drowsiness stole upon them the rustling as mysteriously recommenced.
"It sounds like something creeping up on us," Saxon suggested, snuggling closer to Billy.
"Well, it ain't a wild Indian, at all events," was the best he could offer in the way of comfort. He yawned deliberately. "Aw, shucks! What's there to be scared of? Think of what all the pioneers went through."
Several minutes later his shoulders began to shake, and Saxon knew he was giggling.
"I was just thinkin' of a yarn my father used to tell about," he explained. "It was about old Susan Kleghorn, one of the Oregon pioneer women. Wall-Eyed Susan, they used to call her; but she could shoot to beat the band. Once, on the Plains, the wagon train she was in, was attacked by Indians. They got all the wagons in a circle, an' all hands an' the oxen inside, an' drove the Indians off, killin' a lot of 'em. They was too strong that way, so what'd the Indians do, to draw 'em out into the open, but take two white girls, captured from some other train, an' begin to torture 'em. They done it just out of gunshot, but so everybody could see. The idea was that the white men couldn't stand it, an' would rush out, an' then the Indians'd have 'em where they wanted 'em.
"The white men couldn't do a thing. If they rushed out to save the girls, they'd be finished, an' then the Indians'd rush the train. It meant death to everybody. But what does old Susan do, but get out an old, long-barreled Kentucky rifle. She rams down about three times the regular load of powder, takes aim at a big buck that's pretty busy at the torturin', an' bangs away. It knocked her clean over backward, an' her shoulder was lame all the rest of the way to Oregon, but she dropped the big Indian deado. He never knew what struck 'm.
"But that wasn't the yarn I wanted to tell. It seems old Susan liked John Barleycorn. She'd souse herself to the ears every chance she got. An' her sons an' daughters an' the old man had to be mighty careful not to leave any around where she could get hands on it."
"On what?" asked Saxon.
"On John Barleycorn.--Oh, you ain't on to that. It's the old fashioned name for whisky. Well, one day all the folks was goin' away--that was over somewhere at a place called Bodega, where they'd settled after comin' down from Oregon. An' old Susan claimed her rheumatics was hurtin' her an' so she couldn't go. But the family was on. There was a two-gallon demijohn of whisky in the house. They said all right, but before they left they sent one of the grandsons to climb a big tree in the barnyard, where he tied the demijohn sixty feet from the ground. Just the same, when they come home that night they found Susan on the kitchen floor dead to the world."
"And she'd climbed the tree after all," Saxon hazarded, when Billy had shown no inclination of going on.
"Not on your life," he laughed jubilantly. "All she'd done was to put a washtub on the ground square under the demijohn. Then she got out her old rifle an' shot the demijohn to smithereens, an' all she had to do was lap the whisky outa the tub."
Again Saxon was drowsing, when the rustling sound was heard, this time closer. To her excited apprehension there was something stealthy about it, and she imagined a beast of prey creeping upon them. "Billy," she whispered.
"Yes, I'm a-listenin' to it," came his wide awake answer.
"Mightn't that be a panther, or maybe ... a wildcat?"
"It can't be. All the varmints was killed off long ago. This is peaceable farmin' country."
A vagrant breeze sighed through the trees and made Saxon shiver. The mysterious cricket-noise ceased with suspicious abruptness. Then, from the rustling noise, enslled a dull but heavy thump that caused both Saxon and Billy to sit up in the blankets. There were no further sounds, and they lay down again, though the very silence now seemed ominous.
"Huh," Billy muttered with relief. "As though I don't know what it was. It was a rabbit. I've heard tame ones bang their hind feet down on the floor that way."
In vain Saxon tried to win sleep. The sand grew harder with the passage of time. Her flesh and her bones ached from contact with it. And, though her reason flouted any possibility of wild dangers, her fancy went on picturing them with unflagging zeal.
A new sound commenced. It was neither a rustling nor a rattling, and it tokened some large body passing through the brush. Sometimes twigs crackled and broke, and, once, they heard bush-branches press aside and spring back into place.
"If that other thing was a panther, this is an elephant," was Billy's uncheering opinion. "It's got weight. Listen to that. An' it's comin' nearer."
There were frequent stoppages, then the sounds would begin again, always louder, always closer. Billy sat up in the blankets once more, passing one arm around Saxon, who had also sat up.
"I ain't slept a wink," he complained. "--There it goes again. I wish I could see."
"It makes a noise big enough for a grizzly," Saxon chattered, partly from nervousness, partly from the chill of the night.
"It ain't no grasshopper, that's sure."
Billy started to leave the blankets, but Saxon caught his arm.
"What are you going to do?"
"Oh, I ain't scairt none," he answered. "But, honest to God, this is gettin' on my nerves. If I don't find what that thing is, it'll give me the willies. I'm just goin' to reconnoiter. I won't go close."
So intensely dark was the night, that the moment Billy crawled beyond the reach of her hand he was lost to sight. She sat and waited. The sound had ceased, though she could follow Billy's progress by the cracking of dry twigs and limbs. After a few moments he returned and crawled under the blankets.
"I scared it away, I guess. It's got better ears, an' when it heard me comin' it skinned out most likely. I did my dangdest, too, not to make a sound.--O Lord, there it goes again."
They sat up. Saxon nudged Billy.
"There," she warned, in the faintest of whispers. "I can hear it breathing. It almost made a snort."
A dead branch cracked loudly, and so near at hand, that both of them jumped shamelessly.
"I ain't goin' to stand any more of its foolin'," Billy declared wrathfully. "It'll be on top of us if I don't."
"What are you going to do?" she queried anxiously.
"Yell the top of my head off. I'll get a fall outa whatever it is."
He drew a deep breath and emitted a wild yell.
The result far exceeded any expectation he could have entertained, and Saxon's heart leaped up in sheer panic. On the instant the darkness erupted into terrible sound and movement. There were trashings of underbrush and lunges and plunges of heavy bodies in different directions. Fortunately for their ease of mind, all these sounds receded and died away.
"An' what d'ye think of that?" Billy broke the silence.
"Gee! all the fight fans used to say I was scairt of nothin'. Just the same I'm glad they ain't seein' me to-night."
He groaned. "I've got all I want of that blamed sand. I'm goin' to get up and start the fire."
This was easy. Under the ashes were live embers which quickly ignited the wood he threw on. A few stars were peeping out in the misty zenith. He looked up at them, deliberated, and started to move away.
"Where are you going now?" Saxon called.
"Oh, I've got an idea," he replied noncommittally, and walked boldly away beyond the circle of the firelight.
Saxon sat with the blankets drawn closely under her chin, and admired his courage. He had not even taken the hatchet, and he was going in the direction in which the disturbance had died away.
Ten minutes later he came back chuckling.
"The sons-of-guns, they got my goat all right. I'll be scairt of my own shadow next.--What was they? Huh! You couldn't guess in a thousand years. A bunch of half-grown calves, an' they was worse scairt than us."
He smoked a cigarette by the fire, then rejoined Saxon under the blankets.
"A hell of a farmer I'll make,', he chafed, "when a lot of little calves can scare the stuffin' outa me. I bet your father or mine wouldn't a-batted an eye. The stock has gone to seed, that's what it has."
"No, it hasn't," Saxon defended. "The stock is all right. We're just as able as our folks ever were, and we're healthier on top of it. We've been brought up different, that's all. We've lived in cities all our lives. We know the city sounds and thugs, but we don't know the country ones. Our training has been unnatural, that's the whole thing in a nutshell. Now we're going in for natural training. Give us a little time, and we'll sleep as sound out of doors as ever your father or mine did."
"But not on sand," Billy groaned.
"We won't try. That's one thing, for good and all, we've learned the very first time. And now hush up and go to sleep."
Their fears had vanished, but the sand, receiving now their undivided attention, multiplied its unyieldingness. Billy dozed off first, and roosters were crowing somewhere in the distance when Saxon's eyes closed. But they could not escape the sand, and their sleep was fitful.
At the first gray of dawn, Billy crawled out and built a roaring fire. Saxon drew up to it shiveringly. They were hollow-eyed and weary. Saxon began to laugh. Billy joined sulkily, then brightened up as his eyes chanced upon the coffee pot, which he immediately put on to boil.