The Valley of the Moon by Jack London
Bill sat motionless on the edge of the bed in their little room in San Jose that night, a musing expression in his eyes.
"Well," he remarked at last, with a long-drawn breath, "all I've got to say is there's some pretty nice people in this world after all. Take Mrs. Mortimer. Now she's the real goods--regular old American."
"A fine, educated lady," Saxon agreed, "and not a bit ashamed to work at farming herself. And she made it go, too."
"On twenty acres--no, ten; and paid for 'em, an' all improvements, an' supported herself, four hired men, a Swede woman an' daughter, an' her own nephew. It gets me. Ten acres! Why, my father never talked less'n one hundred an' sixty acres. Even your brother Tom still talks in quarter sections.--An' she was only a woman, too. We was lucky in meetin' her."
"Wasn't it an adventure!" Saxon cried. "That's what comes of traveling. You never know what's going to happen next. It jumped right out at us, just when we were tired and wondering how much farther to San Jose. We weren't expecting it at all. And she didn't treat us as if we were tramping. And that house--so clean and beautiful. You could eat off the floor. I never dreamed of anything so sweet and lovely as the inside of that house."
"It smelt good," Billy supplied.
"That's the very thing. It's what the women's pages call atmosphere. I didn't know what they meant before. That house has beautiful, sweet atmosphere--"
"Like all your nice underthings," said Billy.
"And that's the next step after keeping your body sweet and clean and beautiful. It's to have your house sweet and clean and beautiful."
"But it can't be a rented one, Saxon. You've got to own it. Landlords don't build houses like that. Just the same, one thing stuck out plain: that house was not expensive. It wasn't the cost. It was the way. The wood was ordinary wood you can buy in any lumber yard. Why, our house on Pine street was made out of the same kind of wood. But the way it was made was different. I can't explain, but you can see what I'm drivin' at."
Saxon, revisioning the little bungalow they had just left, repeated absently: "That's it--the way."
The next morning they were early afoot, seeking through the suburbs of San Jose the road to San Juan and Monterey. Saxon's limp had increased. Beginning with a burst blister, her heel was skinning rapidly. Billy remembered his father's talks about care of the feet, and stopped at a butcher shop to buy five cents' worth of mutton tallow.
"That's the stuff," he told Saxon. "Clean foot-gear and the feet well greased. We'll put some on as soon as we're clear of town. An' we might as well go easy for a couple of days. Now, if I could get a little work so as you could rest up several days it'd be just the thing. I '11 keep my eye peeled."
Almost on the outskirts of town he left Saxon on the county road and went up a long driveway to what appeared a large farm. He came back beaming.
"It's all hunkydory," he called as he approached. "We'll just go down to that clump of trees by the creek an' pitch camp. I start work in the mornin', two dollars a day an' board myself. It'd been a dollar an' a half if he furnished the board. I told 'm I liked the other way best, an' that I had my camp with me. The weather's fine, an' we can make out a few days till your foot's in shape. Come on. We'll pitch a regular, decent camp."
"How did you get the job," Saxon asked, as they cast about, determining their camp-site.
"Wait till we get fixed an' I'll tell you all about it. It was a dream, a cinch."
Not until the bed was spread, the fire built, and a pot of beans boiling did Billy throw down the last armful of wood and begin.
"In the first place, Benson's no old-fashioned geezer. You wouldn't think he was a farmer to look at 'm. He's up to date, sharp as tacks, talks an' acts like a business man. I could see that, just by lookin' at his place, before I seen him. He took about fifteen seconds to size me up.
"'Can you plow?' says he.
"'Sure thing,' I told 'm.
"'I was hatched in a box-stall,' says I.
"An' just then--you remember that four-horse load of machinery that come in after me?--just then it drove up.
"'How about four horses?' he asks, casual-like.
"'Right to home. I can drive 'm to a plow, a sewin' machine, or a merry-go-round.'
"'Jump up an' take them lines, then,' he says, quick an' sharp, not wastin' seconds. 'See that shed. Go 'round the barn to the right an' back in for unloadin'.'
"An' right here I wanta tell you it was some nifty drivin' he was askin'. I could see by the tracks the wagons'd all ben goin' around the barn to the left. What he was askin' was too close work for comfort--a double turn, like an S, between a corner of a paddock an' around the corner of the barn to the last swing. An', to eat into the little room there was, there was piles of manure just thrown outa the barn an' not hauled away yet. But I wasn't lettin' on nothin'. The driver gave me the lines, an' I could see he was grinnin', sure I'd make a mess of it. I bet he couldn't a-done it himself. I never let on, an away we went, me not even knowin' the horses--but, say, if you'd seen me throw them leaders clean to the top of the manure till the nigh horse was scrapin' the side of the barn to make it, an' the off hind hub was cuttin' the corner post of the paddock to miss by six inches. It was the only way. An' them horses was sure beauts. The leaders slacked back an' darn near sat down on their singletrees when I threw the back into the wheelers an' slammed on the brake an' stopped on the very precise spot.
"'You'll do,' Benson says. 'That was good work.'
"'Aw, shucks,' I says, indifferent as hell. 'Gimme something real hard.'
"He smiles an' understands.
"'You done that well,' he says. 'An' I'm particular about who handles my horses. The road ain't no place for you. You must be a good man gone wrong. Just the same you can plow with my horses, startin' in to-morrow mornin'.'
"Which shows how wise he wasn't. I hadn't showed I could plow."
When Saxon had served the beans, and Billy the coffee, she stood still a moment and surveyed the spread meal on the blankets--the canister of sugar, the condensed milk tin, the sliced corned beef, the lettuce salad and sliced tomatoes, the slices of fresh French bread, and the steaming plates of beans and mugs of coffee.
"What a difference from last night!" Saxon exclaimed, clapping her hands. "It's like an adventure out of a book. Oh, that boy I went fishing with! Think of that beautiful table and that beautiful house last night, and then look at this. Why, we could have lived a thousand years on end in Oakland and never met a woman like Mrs. Mortimer nor dreamed a house like hers existed. And, Billy, just to think, we've only just started."
Billy worked for three days, and while insisting that he was doing very well, he freely admitted that there was more in plowing than he had thought. Saxon experienced quiet satisfaction when she learned he was enjoying it.
"I never thought I'd like plowin'--much," he observed. "But it's fine. It's good for the leg-muscles, too. They don't get exercise enough in teamin'. If ever I trained for another fight, you bet I'd take a whack at plowin'. An', you know, the ground has a regular good smell to it, a-turnin' over an' turnin' over. Gosh, it's good enough to eat, that smell. An' it just goes on, turnin' up an' over, fresh an' thick an' good, all day long. An' the horses are Joe-dandies. They know their business as well as a man. That's one thing, Benson ain't got a scrub horse on the place."
The last day Billy worked, the sky clouded over, the air grew damp, a strong wind began to blow from the southeast, and all the signs were present of the first winter rain. Billy came back in the evening with a small roll of old canvas he had borrowed, which he proceeded to arrange over their bed on a framework so as to shed rain. Several times he complained about the little finger of his left hand. It had been bothering him all day he told Saxon, for several days slightly, in fact, and it was as tender as a boil--most likely a splinter, but he had been unable to locate it.
He went ahead with storm preparations, elevating the bed on old boards which he lugged from a disused barn falling to decay on the opposite bank of the creek. Upon the boards he heaped dry leaves for a mattress. He concluded by reinforcing the canvas with additional guys of odd pieces of rope and bailing-wire.
When the first splashes of rain arrived Saxon was delighted. Billy betrayed little interest. His finger was hurting too much, he said. Neither he nor Saxon could make anything of it, and both scoffed at the idea of a felon.
"It might be a run-around," Saxon hazarded.
"I don't know. I remember Mrs. Cady had one once, but I was too small. It was the little finger, too. She poulticed it, I think. And I remember she dressed it with some kind of salve. It got awful bad, and finished by her losing the nail. After that it got well quick, and a new nail grew out. Suppose I make a hot bread poultice for yours."
Billy declined, being of the opinion that it would be better in the morning. Saxon was troubled, and as she dozed off she knew that he was lying restlessly wide awake. A few minutes afterward, roused by a heavy blast of wind and rain on the canvas, she heard Billy softly groaning. She raised herself on her elbow and with her free hand, in the way she knew, manipulating his forehead and the surfaces around his eyes, soothed him off to sleep.
Again she slept. And again she was aroused, this time not by the storm, but by Billy. She could not see, but by feeling she ascertained his strange position. He was outside the blankets and on his knees, his forehead resting on the boards, his shoulders writhing with suppressed anguish.
"She's pulsin' to beat the band," he said, when she spoke. "It's worsen a thousand toothaches. But it ain't nothin'... if only the canvas don't blow down. Think what our folks had to stand," he gritted out between groans. "Why, my father was out in the mountains, an' the man with 'm got mauled by a grizzly--clean clawed to the bones all over. An' they was outa grub an' had to travel. Two times outa three, when my father put 'm on the horse, he'd faint away. Had to be tied on. An' that lasted five weeks, an' he pulled through. Then there was Jack Quigley. He blowed off his whole right hand with the burstin' of his shotgun, an' the huntin' dog pup he had with 'm ate up three of the fingers. An' he was all alone in the marsh, an'--"
But Saxon heard no more of the adventures of Jack Quigley. A terrific blast of wind parted several of the guys, collapsed the framework, and for a moment buried them under the canvas. The next moment canvas, framework, and trailing guys were whisked away into the darkness, and Saxon and Billy were deluged with rain.
"Only one thing to do," he yelled in her ear. "--Gather up the things an' get into that old barn."
They accomplished this in the drenching darkness, making two trips across the stepping stones of the shallow creek and soaking themselves to the knees. The old barn leaked like a sieve, but they managed to find a dry space on which to spread their anything but dry bedding. Billy's pain was heart-rending to Saxon. An hour was required to subdue him to a doze, and only by continuously stroking his forehead could she keep him asleep. Shivering and miserable, she accepted a night of wakefulness gladly with the knowledge that she kept him from knowing the worst of his pain.
At the time when she had decided it must be past midnight, there was an interruption. From the open doorway came a flash of electric light, like a tiny searchlight, which quested about the barn and came to rest on her and Billy. From the source of light a harsh voice said:
"Ah! ha! I've got you! Come out of that!"
Billy sat up, his eyes dazzled by the light. The voice behind the light was approaching and reiterating its demand that they come out of that.
"What's up?" Billy asked.
"Me," was the answer; "an' wide awake, you bet."
The voice was now beside them, scarcely a yard away, yet they eoald see nothing on account of the light, which was intermittent, frequently going out for an instant as the operator's thumb tired on the switch.
"Come on, get a move on," the voice went on. "Roll up your blankets an' trot along. I want you."
"Who in hell are you?" Billy demanded.
"I'm the constable. Come on."
"Well, what do you want?"
"You, of course, the pair of you."
"Vagrancy. Now hustle. I ain't goin' to loaf here all night."
"Aw, chase yourself," Billy advised. "I ain't a vag. I'm a workingman."
"Maybe you are an' maybe you ain't," said the constable; "but you can tell all that to Judge Neusbaumer in the mornin'."
"Why you. .. you stinkin', dirty cur, you think you're goin' to pull me," Billy began. "Turn the light on yourself. I want to see what kind of an ugly mug you got. Pull me, eh? Pull me? For two cents I'd get up there an' beat you to a jelly, you--"
"No, no, Billy," Saxon pleaded. "Don't make trouble. It would mean jail."
"That's right," the constable approved, "listen to your woman."
"She's my wife, an' see you speak of her as such," Billy warned. "Now get out, if you know what's good for yourself."
"I've seen your kind before," the constable retorted. "An' I've got my little persuader with me. Take a squint."
The shaft of light shifted, and out of the darkness, illuminated with ghastly brilliance, they saw thrust a hand holding a revolver. This hand seemed a thing apart, self-existent, with no corporeal attachment, and it appeared and disappeared like an apparition as the thumb-pressure wavered on the switch. One moment they were staring at the hand and revolver, the next moment at impenetrable darkness, and the next moment again at the hand and revolver.
"Now, I guess you'll come," the constable gloated.
"You got another guess comin'," Billy began.
But at that moment the light went out. They heard a quick movement on the officer's part and the thud of the light-stick on the ground. Both Billy and the constable fumbled for it, but Billy found it and flashed it on the other. They saw a gray-bearded man clad in streaming oilskins. He was an old man, and reminded Saxon of the sort she had been used to see in Grand Army processions on Decoration Day.
"Give me that stick," he bullied.
Billy sneered a refusal.
"Then I'll put a hole through you, by criminy."
He leveled the revolver directly at Billy, whose thumb on the switch did not waver, and they could see the gleaming bullet-tips in the chambers of the cylinder.
"Why, you whiskery old skunk, you ain't got the grit to shoot sour apples," was Billy's answer. "I know your kind--brave as lions when it comes to pullin' miserable, broken-spirited bindle stiffs, but as leery as a yellow dog when you face a man. Pull that trigger! Why, you pusillanimous piece of dirt, you'd run with your tail between your legs if I said boo!"
Suiting action to the word, Billy let out an explosive "BOO!" and Saxon giggled involuntarily at the startle it caused in the constable.
"I'll give you a last chance," the latter grated through his teeth. "Turn over that light-stick an' come along peaceable, or I'll lay you out."
Saxon was frightened for Billy's sake, and yet only half frightened. She had a faith that the man dared not fire, and she felt the old familiar thrills of admiration for Billy's courage. She could not see his face, but she knew in all certitude that it was bleak and passionless in the terrifying way she had seen it when he fought the three Irishmen.
"You ain't the first man I killed," the constable threatened. "I'm an old soldier, an' I ain't squeamish over blood--"
"And you ought to be ashamed of yourself," Saxon broke in, "trying to shame and disgrace peaceable people who've done no wrong."
"You've done wrong sleepin' here," was his vindication. "This ain't your property. It's agin the law. An' folks that go agin the law go to jail, as the two of you'll go. I've sent many a tramp up for thirty days for sleepin' in this very shack. Why, it's a regular trap for 'em. I got a good glimpse of your faces an' could see you was tough characters." He turned on Billy. "I've fooled enough with you. Are you goin' to give in an' come peaceable?"
"I'm goin' to tell you a couple of things, old boss," Billy answered. "Number one: you ain't goin' to pull us. Number two: we're goin' to sleep the night out here."
"Gimme that light-stick," the constable demanded peremptorily.
"G'wan, Whiskers. You're standin' on your foot. Beat it. Pull your freight. As for your torch you'll find it outside in the mud."
Billy shifted the light until it illuminated the doorway, and then threw the stick as he would pitch a baseball. They were now in total darkness, and they could hear the intruder gritting his teeth in rage.
"Now start your shootin' an' see what'll happen to you," Billy advised menacingly.
Saxon felt for Billy's hand and squeezed it proudly. The constable grumbled some threat.
"What's that?" Billy demanded sharply. "Ain't you gone yet? Now listen to me, Whiskers. I've put up with all your shenanigan I'm goin' to. Now get out or I'll throw you out. An' if you come monkeyin, around here again you'll get yours. Now get!"
So great was the roar of the storm that they could hear nothing. Billy rolled a cigarette. When he lighted it, they saw the barn was empty. Billy chuckled.
"Say, I was so mad I clean forgot my run-around. It's only just beginnin' to tune up again."
Saxon made him lie down and receive her soothing ministrations.
"There is no use moving till morning, " she said. "Then, just as soon as it's light, we'll catch a car into San Jose, rent a room, get a hot breakfast, and go to a drug store for the proper stuff for poulticing or whatever treatment's needed."
"But Benson," Billy demurred.
"I'll telephone him from town. It will only cost five cents. I saw he had, a wire. And you couldn't plow on account of the rain, even if your finger was well. Besides, we'll both be mending together. My heel will be all right by the time it clears up and we can start traveling.