The Valley of the Moon by Jack London
The car ran as far as Hayward's, but at Saxon's suggestion they got off at San Leandro.
"It doesn't matter where we start walking," she said, "for start to walk somewhere we must. And as we're looking for land and finding out about land, the quicker we begin to investigate the better. Besides, we want to know all about all kinds of land, close to the big cities as well as back in the mountains."
"Gee!--this must be the Porchugeeze headquarters," was Billy's reiterated comment, as they walked through San Leandro.
"It looks as though they'd crowd our kind out," Saxon adjudged.
"Some tall crowdin', I guess," Billy grumbled. "It looks like the free-born American ain't got no room left in his own land."
"Then it's his own fault," Saxon said, with vague asperity, resenting conditions she was just beginning to grasp.
"Oh, I don't know about that. I reckon the American could do what the Porchugeeze do if he wanted to. Only he don't want to, thank God. He ain't much given to livin' like a pig often leavin's."
"Not in the country, maybe," Saxon controverted. "But I've seen an awful lot of Americans living like pigs in the cities."
Billy grunted unwilling assent. "I guess they quit the farms an' go to the city for something better, an' get it in the neck."
"Look at all the children!" Saxon cried. "School's letting out. And nearly all are Portuguese, Billy, not Porchugeeze. Mercedes taught me the right way."
"They never wore glad rags like them in the old country," Billy sneered. "They had to come over here to get decent clothes and decent grub. They're as fat as butterballs."
Saxon nodded affirmation, and a great light seemed suddenly to kindle in her understanding.
"That's the very point, Billy. They're doing it--doing it farming, too. Strikes don't bother them."
"You don't call that dinky gardening farming," he objected, pointing to a piece of land barely the size of an acre, which they were passing.
"Oh, your ideas are still big," she laughed. "You're like Uncle Will, who owned thousands of acres and wanted to own a million, and who wound up as night watchman. That's what was the trouble with all us Americans. Everything large scale. Anything less than one hundred and sixty acres was small scale."
"Just the same," Billy held stubbornly, "large scale's a whole lot better'n small scale like all these dinky gardens."
Saxon sighed. "I don't know which is the dinkier," she observed finally, "--owning a few little acres and the team you're driving, or not owning any acres and driving a team somebody else owns for wages."
"Go on, Robinson Crusoe," he growled good naturedly. "Rub it in good an' plenty. An' the worst of it is it's correct. A hell of a free-born American I've been, adrivin' other folkses' teams for a livin', a-strikin' and a-sluggin' scabs, an' not bein' able to keep up with the installments for a few sticks of furniture. Just the same I was sorry for one thing. I hated worse in Sam Hill to see that Morris chair go back--you liked it so. We did a lot of honeymoonin' in that chair."
They were well out of San Leandro, walking through a region of tiny holdings--"farmlets," Billy called them; and Saxon got out her ukulele to cheer him with a song.
First, it was "Treat my daughter kind-i-ly," and then she swung into old-fashioned darky camp-meeting hymns, beginning with:
"Oh! de Judgmen' Day am rollin' roan',
A big touring car, dashing past, threw a dusty pause in her singing, and Saxon delivered herself of her latest wisdom.
"Now, Billy, remember we're not going to take up with the first piece of land we see. We've got to go into this with our eyes open--"
"An' they ain't open yet," he agreed.
"And we've got to get them open. ''Tis them that looks that finds.' There's lots of time to learn things. We don't care if it takes months and months. We're footloose. A good start is better than a dozen bad ones. We've got to talk and find out. We'll talk with everybody we meet. Ask questions. Ask everybody. It's the only way to find out."
"I ain't much of a hand at askin' questions," Billy demurred.
"Then I'll ask," she cried. "We've got to win out at this game, and the way is to know. Look at all these Portuguese. Where are all the Americans? They owned the land first, after the Mexicans. What made the Americans clear out? How do the Portuguese make it go? Don't you see, We've got to ask millions of questions."
She strummed a few chords, and then her clear sweet voice rang out gaily:
"I's g'wine back to Dixie,
She broke off to exclaim: "Oh! What a lovely place! See that arbor--just covered with grapes!"
Again and again she was attracted by the small places they passed. Now it was: "Look at the flowers!" or: "My! those vegetables!" or: "See! They've got a cow!"
Men--Americans--driving along in buggies or runabouts looked at Saxon and Billy curiously. This Saxon could brook far easier than could Billy, who would mutter and grumble deep in his throat.
Beside the road they came upon a lineman eating his lunch.
"Stop and talk," Saxon whispered.
"Aw, what's the good? He's a lineman. What'd he know about farmin'?"
"You never can tell. He's our kind. Go ahead, Billy. You just speak to him. He isn't working now anyway, and he'll be more likely to talk. See that tree in there, just inside the gate, and the way the branches are grown together. It's a curiosity. Ask him about it. That's a good way to get started."
Billy stopped, when they were alongside.
"How do you do," he said gruffly.
The lineman, a young fellow, paused in the cracking of a hard-boiled egg to stare up at the couple.
"How do you do," he said.
Billy swung his pack from his shoulders to the ground, and Saxon rested her telescope basket.
"Peddlin'?" the young man asked, too discreet to put his question directly to Saxon, yet dividing it between her and Billy, and cocking his eye at the covered basket.
"No," she spoke up quickly. "We're looking for land. Do you know of any around here?"
Again he desisted from the egg, studying them with sharp eyes as if to fathom their financial status.
"Do you know what land sells for around here?" he asked.
"No," Saxon answered. "Do you?"
"I guess I ought to. I was born here. And land like this all around you runs at from two to three hundred to four an' five hundred dollars an acre."
"Whew!" Billy whistled. "I guess we don't want none of it."
"But what makes it that high? Town lots?" Saxon wanted to know.
"Nope. The Porchugeeze make it that high, I guess."
"I thought it was pretty good land that fetched a hundred an acre," Billy said.
"Oh, them times is past. They used to give away land once, an' if you was good, throw in all the cattle runnin' on it."
"How about government land around here?" was Billy'a next query.
"Ain't none, an' never was. This was old Mexican grants. My grandfather bought sixteen hundred of the best acres around here for fifteen hundred dollars--five hundred down an' the balance in five years without interest. But that was in the early days. He come West in '48, tryin' to find a country without chills an' fever."
"He found it all right," said Billy.
"You bet he did. An' if him an' father 'd held onto the land it'd been better than a gold mine, an' I wouldn't be workin' for a livin'. What's your business?"
"Ben in the strike in Oakland?"
"Sure thing. I've teamed there most of my life."
Here the two men wandered off into a discussion of union affairs and the strike situation; but Saxon refused to be balked, and brought back the talk to the land.
"How was it the Portuguese ran up the price of lend?" she asked.
The young fellow broke away from union matters with an effort, and for a moment regarded her with lack luster eyes, until the question sank into his consciousness.
"Because they worked the land overtime. Because they worked mornin', noon, an' night, all hands, women an' kids. Because they could get more out of twenty acres than we could out of a hundred an' sixty. Look at old Silva--Antonio Silva. I've known him ever since I was a shaver. He didn't have the price of a square meal when he hit this section and begun leasin' land from my folks. Look at him now--worth two hundred an' fifty thousan' cold, an' I bet he's got credit for a million, an' there's no tellin' what the rest of his family owns."
"And he made all that out of your folks' land?" Saxon demanded.
The young man nodded his head with evident reluctance.
"Then why didn't your folks do it?" she pursued.
The lineman shrugged his shoulders.
"Search me," he said.
"But the money was in the land," she persisted.
"Blamed if it was," came the retort, tinged slightly with color. "We never saw it stickin' out so as you could notice it. The money was in the hands of the Porchugeeze, I guess. They knew a few more 'n we did, that's all."
Saxon showed such dissatisfaction with his explanation that he was stung to action. He got up wrathfully. "Come on, an' I'll show you," he said. "I'll show you why I'm workin' for wages when I might a-ben a millionaire if my folks hadn't been mutts. That's what we old Americans are, Mutts, with a capital M."
He led them inside the gate, to the fruit tree that had first attracted Saxon's attention. From the main crotch diverged the four main branches of the tree. Two feet above the crotch the branches were connected, each to the ones on both sides, by braces of living wood.
"You think it growed that way, eh? Well, it did. But it was old Silva that made it just the same--caught two sprouts, when the tree was young, an' twisted 'em together. Pretty slick, eh? You bet. That tree'll never blow down. It's a natural, springy brace, an' beats iron braces stiff. Look along all the rows. Every tree's that way. See? An' that's just one trick of the Porchugeeze. They got a million like it.
"Figure it out for yourself. They don't need props when the crop's heavy. Why, when we had a heavy crop, we used to use five props to a tree. Now take ten acres of trees. That'd be some several thousan' props. Which cost money, an' labor to put in an' take out every year. These here natural braces don't have to have a thing done. They're Johnny-on-the-spot all the time. Why, the Porchugeeze has got us skinned a mile. Come on, I'll show you."
Billy, with city notions of trespass, betrayed perturbation at the freedom they were making of the little farm.
"Oh, it's all right, as long as you don't step on nothin'," the lineman reassured him. "Besides, my grandfather used to own this. They know me. Forty years ago old Silva come from the Azores. Went sheep-herdin' in the mountains for a couple of years, then blew in to San Leandro. These five acres was the first land he leased. That was the beginnin'. Then he began leasin' by the, hundreds of acres, an' by the hundred-an'-sixties. An' his sisters an' his uncles an' his aunts begun pourin' in from the Azores--they're all related there, you know; an' pretty soon San Leandro was a regular Porchugeeze settlement.
"An' old Silva wound up by buyin' these five acres from grandfather. Pretty soon--an' father by that time was in the hole to the neck--he was buyin' father's land by the hundred-an'-sixties. An' all the rest of his relations was coin' the same thing. Eather was always gettin' rich quick, an' he wound up by dyin' in debt. But old Silva never overlooked a bet, no matter how dinky. An' all the rest are just like him. You see outside the fence there, clear to the wheel-tracks in the road--horse-beans. We'd a-scorned to do a picayune thing like that. Not Silva. Why he's got a town house in San Leandro now. An' he rides around in a four-thousan'-dollar tourin' car. An' just the same his front door yard grows onions clear to the sidewalk. He clears three hundred a year on that patch alone. I know ten acres of land he bought last year,--a thousan' an acre they asked'm, an' he never batted an eye. He knew it was worth it, that's all. He knew he could make it pay. Back in the hills, there, he's got a ranch of five hundred an' eighty acres, bought it dirt cheap, too; an' I want to tell you I could travel around in a different tourin' car every day in the week just outa the profits he makes on that ranch from the horses all the way from heavy draughts to fancy steppers.
"But how?--how?--how did he get it all?" Saxon clamored.
"By bein' wise to farmin'. Why, the whole blame family works. They ain't ashamed to roll up their sleeves an' dig--sons an' daughters an' daughter-in-laws, old man, old woman, an' the babies. They have a sayin' that a kid four years old that can't pasture one cow on the county road an' keep it fat ain't worth his salt. Why, the Silvas, the whole tribe of 'em, works a hundred acres in peas, eighty in tomatoes, thirty in asparagus, ten in pie-plant, forty in cucumbers, an'--oh, stacks of other things."
"But how do they do it?" Saxon continued to demand. "We've never been ashamed to work. We've worked hard all our lives. I can out-work any Portuguese woman ever born. And I've done it, too, in the jute mills. There were lots of Portuguese girls working at the looms all around me, and I could out-weave them, every day, and I did, too. It isn't a case of work. What is it?"
The lineman looked at her in a troubled way.
"Many's the time I've asked myself that same question. 'We're better'n these cheap emigrants,' I'd say to myself. 'We was here first, an' owned the land. I can lick any Dago that ever hatched in the Azores. I got a better education. Then how in thunder do they put it all over us, get our land, an' start accounts in the banks?' An' the only answer I know is that we ain't got the sabe. We don't use our head-pieces right. Something's wrong with us. Anyway, we wasn't wised up to farming. We played at it. Show you? That's what I brung you in for--the way old Silva an' all his tribe farms. Book at this place. Some cousin of his, just out from the Azores, is makin' a start on it, an' payin' good rent to Silva. Pretty soon he'll be up to snuff an' buyin' land for himself from some perishin' American farmer.
"Look at that--though you ought to see it in summer. Not an inch wasted. Where we got one thin crop, they get four fat crops. An' look at the way they crowd it--currants between the tree rows, beans between the currant rows, a row of beans close on each side of the trees, an' rows of beans along the ends of the tree rows. Why, Silva wouldn't sell these five acres for five hundred an acre cash down. He gave grandfather fifty an acre for it on long time, an' here am I, workin' for the telephone company an' putting' in a telephone for old Silva's cousin from the Azores that can't speak American yet. Horse-beans along the road--say, when Silva swung that trick he made more outa fattenin' hogs with 'em than grandfather made with all his farmin'. Grandfather stuck up his nose at horse-beans. He died with it stuck up, an' with more mortgages on the land he had left than you could shake a stick at. Plantin' tomatoes wrapped up in wrappin' paper--ever heard of that? Father snorted when he first seen the Porchugeeze doin' it. An' he went on snortin'. Just the same they got bumper crops, an' father's house-patch of tomatoes was eaten by the black beetles. We ain't got the sabe, or the knack, or something or other. Just look at this piece of ground--four crops a year, an' every inch of soil workin' over time. Why, back in town there, there's single acres that earns more than fifty of ours in the old days. The Porchugeeze is natural-born farmers, that's all, an' we don't know nothin' about farmin' an' never did."
Saxon talked with the lineman, following him about, till one o'clock, when he looked at his watch, said good bye, and returned to his task of putting in a telephone for the latest immigrant from the Azores.
When in town, Saxon carried her oilcloth-wrapped telescope in her hand; but it was so arranged with loops, that, once on the road, she could thrust her arms through the loops and carry it on her back. When she did this, the tiny ukulele case was shifted so that it hung under her left arm.
A mile on from the lineman, they stopped where a small creek, fringed with brush, crossed the county road. Billy was for the cold lunch, which was the last meal Saxon had prepared in the Pine street cottage; but she was determined upon building a fire and boiling coffee. Not that she desired it for herself, but that she was impressed with the idea that everything at the starting of their strange wandering must be as comfortable as possible for Billy's sake. Bent on inspiring him with enthusiasm equal to her own, she declined to dampen what sparks he had caught by anything so uncheerful as a cold meal.
"Now one thing we want to get out of our heads right at the start, Billy, is that we're in a hurry. We're not in a hurry, and we don't care whether school keeps or not. We're out to have a good time, a regular adventure like you read about in books.--My! I wish that boy that took me fishing to Goat Island could see me now. Oakland was just a place to start from, he said. And, well, we've started, haven't we? And right here's where we stop and boil coffee. You get the fire going, Billy, and I'll get the water and the things ready to spread out."
"Say," Billy remarked, while they waited for the water to boil, "d'ye know what this reminds me of?"
Saxon was certain she did know, but she shook her head. She wanted to hear him say it.
"Why, the second Sunday I knew you, when we drove out to Moraga Valley behind Prince and King. You spread the lunch that day."
"Only it was a more scrumptious lunch," she added, with a happy smile.
"But I wonder why we didn't have coffee that day," he went on.
"Perhaps it would have been too much like housekeeping," she laughed; "kind of what Mary would call indelicate--"
"Or raw," Billy interpolated. "She was always springin' that word."
"And yet look what became of her."
"That's the way with all of them," Billy growled somberly. "I've always noticed it's the fastidious, la-de-da ones that turn out the rottenest. They're like some horses I know, a-shyin' at the things they're the least afraid of."
Saxon was silent, oppressed by a sadness, vague and remote, which the mention of Bert's widow had served to bring on.
"I know something else that happened that day which you'd never guess," Billy reminisced. "I bet you couldn't.
"I wonder," Saxon murmured, and guessed it with her eyes.
Billy's eyes answered, and quite spontaneously he reached over, caught her hand, and pressed it caressingly to his cheek.
"It's little, but oh my," he said, addressing the imprisoned hand. Then he gazed at Saxon, and she warmed with his words. "We're beginnin' courtin' all over again, ain't we?"
Both ate heartily, and Billy was guilty of three cups of coffee.
"Say, this country air gives some appetite," he mumbled, as he sank his teeth into his fifth bread-and-meat sandwich. "I could eat a horse, an' drown his head off in coffee afterward."
Saxon's mind had reverted to all the young lineman had told her, and she completed a sort of general resume of the information. "My!" she exclaimed, "but we've learned a lot!"
"An' we've sure learned one thing," Billy said. "An' that is that this is no place for us, with land a thousan' an acre an' only twenty dollars in our pockets."
"Oh, we're not going to stop here," she hastened to say.
"But just the same it's the Portuguese that gave it its price, and they make things go on it--send their children to school... and have them; and, as you said yourself, they're as fat as butterballs."
"An' I take my hat off to them," Billy responded.
"But all the same, I'd sooner have forty acres at a hundred an acre than four at a thousan' an acre. Somehow, you know, I'd be scared stiff on four acres--scared of fallin' off, you know."
She was in full sympathy with him. In her heart of hearts the forty acres tugged much the harder. In her way, allowing for the difference of a generation, her desire for spaciousness was as strong as her Uncle Will's.
"Well, we're not going to stop here," she assured Billy. "We're going in, not for forty acres, but for a hundred and sixty acres free from the government."
"An' I guess the government owes it to us for what our fathers an' mothers done. I tell you, Saxon, when a woman walks across the plains like your mother done, an' a man an' wife gets massacred by the Indians like my grandfather an' mother done, the government does owe them something."
"Well, it's up to us to collect."
"An' we'll collect all right, all right, somewhere down in them redwood mountains south of Monterey."