The Valley of the Moon by Jack London
They had dinner in the open-air, tree-walled dining-room, and Saxon noted that it was Billy who paid the reckoning for the four. They knew many of the young men and women at the other tables, and greetings and fun flew back and forth. Bert was very possessive with Mary, almost roughly so, resting his hand on hers, catching and holding it, and, once, forcibly slipping off her two rings and refusing to return them for a long while. At times, when he put his arm around her waist, Mary promptly disengaged it; and at other times, with elaborate obliviousness that deceived no one, she allowed it to remain.
And Saxon, talking little but studying Billy Roberts very intently, was satisfied that there would be an utter difference in the way he would do such things . . . if ever he would do them. Anyway, he'd never paw a girl as Bert and lots of the other fellows did. She measured the breadth of Billy's heavy shoulders.
"Why do they call you 'Big' Bill?" she asked. "You're not so very tall."
"Nope," he agreed. "I'm only five feet eight an' three-quarters. I guess it must be my weight."
"He fights at a hundred an' eighty," Bert interjected.
"Oh, out it," Billy said quickly, a cloud-rift of displeasure showing in his eyes. "I ain't a fighter. I ain't fought in six months. I've quit it. It don't pay."
"Yon got two hundred the night you put the Frisco Slasher to the bad," Bert urged proudly.
"Cut it. Cut it now.--Say, Saxon, you ain't so big yourself, are you? But you're built just right if anybody should ask you. You're round an' slender at the same time. I bet I can guess your weight."
"Everybody gnesses over it," she warned, while inwardly she was puzzled that she should at the same time be glad and regretful that he did not fight any more.
"Not me," he was saying. "I'm a wooz at weight-guessin'. Just you watch me." He regarded her critically, and it was patent that warm approval played its little rivalry with the judgment of his gaze. "Wait a minute."
He reached over to her and felt her arm at the biceps. The pressure of the encircling fingers was firm and honest, and Saxon thrilled to it. There was magic in this man-boy. She would have known only irritation had Bert or any other man felt her arm. But this man! Is he the man? she was questioning, when he voiced his conclusion.
"Your clothes don't weigh more'n seven pounds. And seven from--hum--say one hundred an' twenty-three--one hundred an' sixteen is your stripped weight."
But at the penultimate word, Mary cried out with sharp reproof:
"Why, Billy Roberts, people don't talk about such things."
He looked at her with slow-growing, uncomprehending surprise.
"What things?" he demanded finally.
"There you go again! You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Look! You've got Saxon blushing!"
"I am not," Saxon denied indignantly.
"An' if you keep on, Mary, you'll have me blushing," Billy growled. "I guess I know what's right an' what ain't. It ain't what a guy says, but what he thinks. An' I'm thinkin' right, an' Saxon knows it. An' she an' I ain't thinkin' what you're thinkin' at all."
"Oh! Oh!" Mary cried. "You're gettin' worse an' worse. I never think such things."
"Whoa, Mary! Backup!" Bert checked her peremptorily. "You're in the wrong stall. Billy never makes mistakes like that."
"But he needn't be so raw," she persisted.
"Come on, Mary, an' be good, an' cut that stuff," was Billy's dismissal of her, as he turned to Saxon. "How near did I come to it?"
"One hundred and twenty-two," she answered, looking deliberately at Mary. "One twenty two with my clothes."
Billy burst into hearty laughter, in which Bert joined.
"I don't care," Mary protested, "You're terrible, both of you--an' you, too, Saxon. I'd never a-thought it of you."
"Listen to me, kid," Bert began soothingly, as his arm slipped around her waist.
But in the false excitement she had worked herself into, Mary rudely repulsed the arm, and then, fearing that she had wounded her lover's feelings, she took advantage of the teasing and banter to recover her good humor. His arm was permitted to return, and with heads bent together, they talked in whispers.
Billy discreetly began to make conversation with Saxon.
"Say, you know, your name is a funny one. I never heard it tagged on anybody before. But it's all right. I like it."
"My mother gave it to me. She was educated, and knew all kinds of words. She was always reading books, almost until she died. And she wrote lots and lots. I've got some of her poetry published in a San Jose newspaper long ago. The Saxons were a race of people--she told me all about them when I was a little girl. They were wild, like Indians, only they were white. And they had blue eyes, and yellow hair, and they were awful fighters."
As she talked, Billy followed her solemnly, his eyes steadily turned on hers.
"Never heard of them," he confessed. "Did they live anywhere around here?"
"No, They lived in England. They were the first English, and you know the Americans came from the English. We're Saxons, you an' me, an' Mary, an' Bert, and all the Americans that are real Americans, you know, and not Dagoes and Japs and such."
"My folks lived in America a long time," Billy said slowly, digesting the information she had given and relating himself to it. "Anyway, my mother's folks did. They crossed to Maine hundreds of years ago."
"My father was 'State of Maine," she broke in, with a little gurgle of joy. "And my mother was horn in Ohio, or where Ohio is now. She used to call it the Great Western Reserve. What was your father?"
"Don't know." Billy shrugged his shoulders. "He didn't know himself. Nobody ever knew, though he was American, all right, all right."
"His name's regular old American," Saxon suggested. "There's a big English general right now whose name is Roberts. I've read it in the papers."
"But Roberts wasn't my father's name. He never knew what his name was. Roberts was the name of a gold-miner who adopted him. You see, it was this way. When they was Indian-fightin' up there with the Modoc Indians, a lot of the miners an' settlers took a hand. Roberts was captain of one outfit, and once, after a fight, they took a lot of prisoners--squaws, an' kids an' babies. An' one of the kids was my father. They figured he was about five years old. He didn't know nothin' but Indian."
Saxon clapped her hands, and her eyes sparkled: "He'd been captured on an Indian raid!"
"That's the way they figured it," Billy nodded. "They recollected a wagon-train of Oregon settlers that'd been killed by the Modocs four years before. Roberts adopted him, and that's why I don't know his real name. But you can bank on it, he crossed the plains just the same."
"So did my father," Saxon said proudly.
"An' my mother, too," Billy added, pride touching his own voice. "Anyway, she came pretty close to crossin' the plains, because she was born in a wagon on the River Platte on the way out."
"My mother, too," said Saxon. "She was eight years old, an' she walked most of the way after the oxen began to give out."
Billy thrust out his hand.
"Put her there, kid," he said. "We're just like old friends, what with the same kind of folks behind us."
With shining eyes, Saxon extended her hand to his, and gravely they shook.
"Isn't it wonderful?" she murmured. "We're both old American stock. And if you aren't a Saxon there never was one--your hair, your eyes, your skin, everything. And you're a fighter, too."
"I guess all our old folks was fighters when it comes to that. It come natural to 'em, an' dog-gone it, they just had to fight or they'd never come through."
"What are you two talkin' about?" Mary broke in upon them.
"They're thicker'n mush in no time," Bert girded. "You'd think they'd known each other a week already."
"Oh, we knew each other longer than that," Saxon returned. "Before ever we were born our folks were walkin' across the plains together."
"When your folks was waitin' for the railroad to be built an' all the Indians killed off before they dasted to start for California," was Billy's way of proclaiming the new alliance. "We're the real goods,Saxon an'n me, if anybody should ride up on a buzz-wagon an' ask you."
"Oh, I don't know," Mary boasted with quiet petulance. "My father stayed behind to fight in the Civil War. He was a drummer-boy. That's why he didn't come to California until afterward."
"And my father went back to fight in the Civil War," Saxon said.
"And mine, too," said Billy.
They looked at each other gleefully. Again they had found a new contact
"Well, they're all dead, ain't they?" was Bert's saturnine comment. "There ain't no difference dyin' in battle or in the poorhouse. The thing is they're deado. I wouldn't care a rap if my father'd been hanged. It's all the same in a thousand years. This braggin' about folks makes me tired. Besides, my father couldn't a-fought. He wasn't born till two years after the war. Just the same, two of my uncles were killed at Gettysburg. Guess we done our share."
"Just like that," Mary applauded.
Bert's arm went around her waist again.
"We're here, ain't we?" he said. "An' that's what counts. The dead are dead, an' you can bet your sweet life they just keep on stayin' dead."
Mary put her hand over his mouth and began to chide him for his awfulness, whereupon he kissed the palm of her hand and put his head closer to hers.
The merry clatter of dishes was increasing as the dining-room filled up. Here and there voices were raised in snatches of song. There were shrill squeals and screams and bursts of heavier male laughter as the everlasting skirmishing between the young men and girls played on. Among some of the men the signs of drink were already manifest. At a near table girls were calling out to Billy. And Saxon, the sense of temporary possession already strong on her, noted with jealous eyes that he was a favorite and desired object to them.
"Ain't they awful?" Mary voiced her disapproval. "They got a nerve. I know who they are. No respectable girl 'd have a thing to do with them. Listen to that!"
"Oh, you Bill, you," one of them, a buxom young brunette, was calling. "Hope you ain't forgotten me, Bill."
"Oh, you chicken," he called back gallantly.
Saxon flattered herself that he showed vexation, and she conceived an immense dislike for the brunette.
"Goin' to dance?" the latter called.
"Mebbe," he answered, and turned abruptly to Saxon. "Say, we old Americans oughta stick together, don't you think? They ain't many of us left. The country's fillin' up with all kinds of foreigners."
He talked on steadily, in a low, confidential voice, head close to hers, as advertisement to the other girl that he was occupied.
From the next table on the opposite side, a young man had singled out Saxon. His dress was tough. His companions, male and female, were tough. His face was inflamed, his eyes touched with wildness.
"Hey, you!" he called. "You with the velvet slippers. Me for you."
The girl beside him put her arm around his neck and tried to hush him, and through the mufflement of her embrace they could hear him gurgling:
"I tell you she's some goods. Watch me go across an' win her from them cheap skates."
"Butchertown hoodlums," Mary sniffed.
Saxon's eyes encountered the eyes of the girl, who glared hatred across at her. And in Billy's eyes she saw moody anger smouldering. The eyes were more sullen, more handsome than ever, and clouds and veils and lights and shadowe shifted and deepened in the blue of them until they gave her a sense of unfathomable depth. He had stopped talking, and he made no effort to talk.
"Don't start a rough house, Bill," Bert cautioned. "They're from across the hay an' they don't know you, that's all."
Bert stood up suddenly, stepped over to the other table, whispered briefly, and came back. Every face at the table was turned on Billy. The offendor arose brokenly, shook off the detaining hand of his girl, and came over. He was a large man, with a hard, malignant face and bitter eyes. Also, he was a subdued man.
"You're Big Bill Roberts," he said thickly, clinging to the table as he reeled. "I take my hat off to you. I apologire. I admire your taste in skirts, an' take it from me that's a compliment; but I did'nt know who you was. If I'd knowed you was Bill Roberts there wouldn't been a peep from my fly-trap. D'ye get me? I apologize. Will you shake hands?"
Gruffly, Billy said, "It's all right--forget it, sport;" and sullenly he shook hands and with a slow, massive movement thrust the other back toward his own table.
Saxon was glowing. Here was a man, a protector, something to lean against, of whom even the Butchertown toughs were afraid as soon as his name was mentioned.