The Valley of the Moon by Jack London
The music stopped at the end of the waltz, leaving Billy and Saxon at the big entrance doorway of the ballroom. Her hand rested lightly on his arm, and they were promenading on to find seats, when Charley Long, evidently just arrived, thrust his way in front of them.
"So you're the buttinsky, eh?" he demanded, his face malignant with passion and menace.
"Who?--me?" Billy queried gently. "Some mistake, sport. I never butt in."
"You're goin' to get your head beaten off if you don't make yourself scarce pretty lively."
"I wouldn't want that to happen for the world," Billy drawled. "Come on, Saxon. This neighborhood's unhealthy for us."
He started to go on with her, but Long thrust in front again.
"You're too fresh to keep, young fellow," he snarled. "You need saltin' down. D'ye get me?"
Billy scratched his head, on his face exaggerated puzzlement.
"No, I don't get you," he said. "Now just what was it you said?"
But the big blacksmith turned contemptuously away from him to Saxon.
"Come here, you. Let's see your program."
"Do you want to dance with him?" Billy asked.
She shook her head.
"Sorry, sport, nothin' doin'," Billy said, again making to start on.
For the third time the blacksmith blocked the way.
"Get off your foot," said Billy. "You're standin' on it."
Long all but sprang upon him, his hands clenched, one arm just starting back for the punch while at the same instant shoulders and chest were coming forward. But he restrained himself at sight of Billy's unstartled body and cold and cloudy ayes. He had made no move of mind or muscle. It was as if he were unaware of the threatened attack. All of which constituted a new thing in Long's experience.
"Maybe you don't know who I am," he bullied.
"Yep, I do," Billy answered airily. "You're a recordbreaker at rough-housin'." (Here Long's face showed pleasure.) "You ought to have the Police Gazette diamond belt for rough-bousin' baby buggies'. I guess there ain't a one you're afraid to tackle."
"Leave 'm alone, Charley," advised one of the young men who had crowded about them. "He's Bill Roberts, the fighter. You know'm. Big Bill."
"I don't care if he's Jim Jeffries. He can't butt in on me this way."
Nevertheless it was noticeable, even to Saxon, that the fire had gone out of his fiercenes. Billy's name seemed to have a quieting effect on obstreperous males.
"Do you know him?" Billy asked her.
She signified yes with her eyes, though it seemed she must cry out a thousand things against this man who so steadfastly persecuted her. Billy turned to the blacksmith.
"Look here, sport, you don't want trouble with me. I've got your number. Besides, what do we want to fight for? Hasn't she got a say so in the matter?"
"No, she hasn't. This is my affair an' yourn."
Billy shook his head slowly. "No; you're in wrong. I think she has a say in the matter."
"Well, say it then," Long snarled at Saxon. "who're you goin' to go with?--me or him? Let's get it settled."
For reply, Saxon reached her free hand over to the hand that rested on Billy's arm.
"Nuff said," was Billy's remark.
Long glared at Saxon, then transferred the glare to her protector.
"I've a good mind to mix it with you anyway," Long gritted through his teeth.
Saxon was elated as they started to move away. Lily Sanderson's fate had not been hers, and her wonderful man-boy, without the threat of a blow, slow of speech and imperturbable, had conquered the big blacksmith.
"He's forced himself upon me all the time," she whispered to Billy. "He's tried to run me, and beaten up every man that came near me. I never want to see him again."
Billy halted immediately. Long, who was reluctantly moving to get out of the way, also halted.
"She says she don't want anything more to do with you," Billy said to him. "An' what she says goes. If I get a whisper any time that you've been botherin' her, I'll attend to your case. D'ye get that?"
Long glowered and remained silent.
"D'ye get that?" Billy repeated, more imperatively.
A growl of assent came from the blacksmith
"All right, then. See you remember it. An' now get outa the way or I'll walk over you."
Long slunk back, muttering inarticulate threats, and Saxon moved on as in a dream. Charley Long had taken water. He had been afraid of this smooth-skinned, blue-eyed boy. She was quit of him--something no other man had dared attempt for her. And Billy had liked her better than Lily Sanderson.
Twice Saxon tried to tell Billy the detalls of her acquaintance with Long, but each time was put off.
"I don't care a rap about it," Billy said the second time. "You're here, ain't you?"
But she insisted, and when, worked up and angry by the recital, she had finished, he patted her hand soothingly.
"It's all right, Saxon," he said. "He's just a big stiff. I took his measure as soon as I looked at him. He won't bother you again. I know his kind. He's a dog. Roughhouse? He couldn't rough-house a milk wagon."
"But how do you do it?" she asked breathlessly. "Why are men so afraid of you? You're just wonderful."
He smiled in an embarrassed way and changed the subject.
"Say," he said, "I like your teeth. They're so white an' regular, an' not big, an' not dinky little baby's teeth either. They're ... they're just right, an' they fit you. I never seen such fine teeth on a girl yet. D'ye know, honest, they kind of make me hungry when I look at 'em. They're good enough to eat."
At midnight, leaving the insatiable Bert and Mary still dancing, Bllly and Saxon started for home. It was on his suggestion that they left early, and he felt called upon to explain.
"It's one thing the fightin' game's taught me," he said. "To take care of myself. A fellow can't work all day and dance all night and keep in condition. It's the same way with drinkin'--an' not that I'm a little tin angel. I know what it is. I've been soused to the guards an' all the rest of it. I like my beer--big schooners of it; but I don't drink all I want of it. I've tried, but it don't pay. Take that big stiff to-night that butted in on us. He ought to had my number. He's a dog anyway, but besides he had beer bloat. I sized that up the first rattle, an' that's the difference about who takes the other fellow's number. Condition, that's what it is."
"But he is so big," Saxon protested. "Why, his fists are twice as big as yours."
"That don't mean anything. What counts is what's behind the fists. He'd turn loose like a buckin' bronco. If I couldn't drop him at the start, all I'd do is to keep away, smother up, an' wait. An' all of a sudden he'd blow up--go all to pieces, you know, wind, heart, everything, and then I'd have him where I wanted him. And the point is he knows it, too."
"You're the first prizefighter I ever knew," Saxon said, after a pause.
"I'm not any more," he disclaimed hastily. "That's one thing the fightin' game taught me--to leave it alone. It don't pay. A fellow trains as fine as silk--till he's all silk, his skin, everything, and he's fit to live for a hundred years; an' then he climbs through the ropes for a hard twenty rounds with some tough customer that's just as good as he is, and in those twenty rounds he frazzles out all his silk an' blows in a year of his life. Yes, sometimes he blows in five years of it, or cuts it in half, or uses up all of it. I've watched 'em. I've seen fellows strong as bulls fight a hard battle and die inside the year of consumption, or kidney disease, or anything else. Now what's the good of it? Money can't buy what they throw away. That's why I quit the game and went back to drivin' team. I got my silk, an' I'm goin' to keep it, that's all."
"It must make you feel proud to know you are the master of other men," she said softly, aware herself of pride in the strength and skill of him.
"It does," he admitted frankly. "I'm glad I went into the game--just as glad as I am that I pulled out of it. ... Yep, it's taught me a lot--to keep my eyes open an' my head cool. Oh, I've got a temper, a peach of a temper. I get scared of myself sometimes. I used to be always breakin' loose. But the fightin' taught me to keep down the steam an' not do things I'd be sorry for afterward."
"Why, you're the sweetest, easiest tempered man I know," she interjected.
"Don't you believe it. Just watch me, and sometime you'll see me break out that bad that I won't know what I'm doin' myself. Oh, I'm a holy terror when I get started!"
This tacit promise of continued acquaintance gave Saxon a little joy-thrill.
"Say," he said, as they neared her neighborhood, "what are you doin' next Sunday?"
"Nothing. No plans at all."
"Well, suppose you an' me go buggy-riding all day out in the hills?"
She did not answer immediately, and for the moment she was seeing the nightmare vision of her last buggy-ride; of her fear and her leap from the buggy; and of the long miles and the stumbling through the darkness in thin-soled shoes that bruised her feet on every rock. And then it came to her with a great swell of joy that this man beside her was not such a man.
"I love horses," she said. "I almost love them better than I do dancing, only I don't know anything about them. My father rode a great roan war-horse. He was a captain of cavalry, you know. I never saw him, but somehow I always can see him on that big horse, with a sash around his waist and his sword at his side. My brother George has the sword now, but Tom--he's the brother I live with says it is mine because it wasn't his father's. You see, they're only my half-brothers. I was the only child by my mother's second marriage. That was her real marriage--her love-marriage, I mean."
Saxon ceased abruptly, embarrassed by her own garrulity; and yet the impulse was strong to tell this young man all about herself, and it seemed to her that these far memories were a large part of her.
"Go on an' tell me about it," Billy urged. "I like to hear about the old people of the old days. My people was along in there, too, an' somehow I think it was a better world to live in than now. Things was more sensible and natural. I don't exactly say what I mean. But it's like this: I don't understand life to-day. There's the labor unions an' employers' associations, an' strikes', an' hard times, an' huntin' for jobs, an' all the rest. Things wasn't like that in the old days. Everybody farmed, an' shot their meat, an' got enough to eat, an' took care of their old foiks. But now it's all a mix-up that I can't understand. Mebbe I'm a fool, I don't know. But, anyway, go ahead an' tell us about your mother."
"Well, you see, when she was only a young woman she and Captain Brown fell in love. He was a soldier then, before the war. And he was ordered East for the war when she was away nursing her sister Laura. And then came the news that he was killed at Shiloh. And she married a man who had loved her for years and years. He was a boy in the same wagon-train coming across the plains. She liked him, but she didn't love him. And afterwerd came the news that my father wasn't killed after all. So it made her very sad, but it did not spoil her life. She was a good mother end a good wife and all that, but she was always sad, and sweet, and gentle, and I think her voice was the most beautiful in the world."
"She was game, all right," Billy approved.
"And my father never married. He loved her all the time. I've got a lovely poem home that she wrote to him, It's just wonderful, and it sings like music. Well, long, long afterward her husband died, and then she and my father made their love marriage. They didn't get married until 1882, and she was pretty well along."
More she told him, as they stood hy the gate, and Saxon tried to think that the good-bye kiss was a trifle longer than just ordinary,
"How about nine o'clock?" he queried across the gate. "Don't bother about lunch or anything. I'll fix all that up. You just be ready at nine."