The Rules of the Game by Stewart Edward White
There remained in Bob's initial Southern California experience one more episode that brought him an acquaintance, apparently casual, but which later was to influence him.
Of an afternoon he walked up Main Street idly and alone. The exhibit of a real estate office attracted him. Over the door, in place of a sign, hung a huge stretched canvas depicting not too rudely a wide country-side dotted with model farms of astounding prosperity. The window was filled with pumpkins, apples, oranges, sheaves of wheat, bottles full of soft fruits preserved in alcohol, and the like. As background was an oil painting in which the Lucky Lands occupied a spacious pervading foreground, while in clever perspectives the Coast Range, the foothills, and the other cities of the San Fernando Valley supplied a modest setting. This was usual enough.
At the door stood a very alert man with glasses. He scrutinized closely every passerby. Occasionally he hailed one or the other, conversed earnestly a brief instant, and passed them inside. Gradually it dawned on Bob that this man was acting in the capacity of "barker"--that with quite admirable perspicacity and accuracy, he was engaged in selecting from the countless throngs the few possible purchasers for Lucky Lands. Curious to see what attraction was offered to induce this unanimity of acquiescence to the barker's invitation, the young man approached.
"What's going on?" he asked.
The barker appraised him with one sweeping glance.
"Stereopticon lecture inside," he snapped, and turned his back.
Bob made his way into a dimly lighted hall. At one end was a slightly elevated platform above which the white screen was suspended. More agricultural products supplied the decorations. The body of the hall was filled with folding chairs, about half of which were occupied. Perhaps a dozen attendants tiptoed here and there. A successful attempt was everywhere made to endow with high importance all the proceedings and appurtenances of the Lucky Land Co.
Bob slipped into a chair. Immediately a small pasteboard ticket and a fountain pen were thrust into his hand.
"Sign your name and address on this," the man whispered.
Bob held it up, the better to see what it was.
"All these tickets are placed in a hat," explained the man, "and one is drawn. The lucky ticket gets a free ride to Lucky on one of our weekly homeseekers' excursions. Others pay one fare for round trip."
"I see," said Bob, signing, "and in return you get the names and addresses of every one here."
He glanced up at his interlocutor with a quizzical expression that changed at once to one of puzzlement. Where had he seen the man before? He was, perhaps, fifty-five years old, tall and slender, slightly stooped, slightly awry. His lean gray face was deeply lined, his close-clipped moustache and hair were gray, and his eyes twinkled behind his glasses with a cold gray light. Something about these glasses struck faintly a chord of memory in Bob's experience, but he could not catch its modulations. The man, on his side, stared at Bob a trifle uncertainly. Then he held the card up to the dim light.
"You are interested in Lucky Lands--Mr. John Smith, of Reno?" he asked, stooping low to be heard.
"Sure!" grinned Bob.
The man said nothing more, but glided away, and in a moment the flare of light on the screen announced that the lecture was to begin.
The lecturer, was a glib, self-possessed youth, filled to the brim with statistics, with which he literally overwhelmed his auditors. His remarks were accompanied by a rapid-fire snapping of fingers to the time of which the operator changed his slides. A bewildering succession of coloured views flashed on the screen. They showed Lucky in all its glories--the blacksmith shop, the main street, the new hotel, the grocery, Brown's walnut ranch, the ditch, the Southern Pacific Depot, the Methodist Church and a hundred others. So quickly did they succeed each other that no one had time to reduce to the terms of experience the scenes depicted on these slides--for with the glamour of exaggerated colour, of unaccustomed presentation, and of skillful posing the most commonplace village street seems wonderful and attractive for the moment. The lecturer concluded by an alarming statement as to the rapidity with which this desirable ranching property was being snapped up. He urged early decisions as the only safe course; and, as usual with all real estate men, called attention to the contrast between the Riverside of twenty years ago and the Riverside of to-day.
The daylight was then admitted.
"Now, gentlemen," concluded the lecturer, still in his brisk, time-saving style, "the weekly excursion to Lucky will take place to-morrow. One fare both ways to homeseekers. Free carriages to the Lands. Grand free open-air lunch under the spreading sycamores and by the babbling brook. Train leaves at seven-thirty."
In full sight of all he threw the packet of tickets into a hat and drew one.
"Mr. John Smith, of Reno," he read. "Who is Mr. Smith?"
"Here," said Bob.
"Would you like to go to Lucky to-morrow?"
"Sure," said Bob.
One of the attendants immediately handed Bob a railroad ticket. The lecturer had already disappeared.
To his surprise Bob found the street door locked.
"This way," urged one of the salesmen. "You go out this way."
He and the rest of the audience were passed out another door in the rear, where they were forced to go through the main offices of the Company. Here were stationed the gray man and all his younger assistants. Bob paused by the door. He could not but admire the acumen of the barker in selecting his men. The audience was made up of just the type of those who come to California with agricultural desires and a few hundred dollars--slow plodders from Eastern farms, Italians with savings and ambitions, half invalids--all the element that crowds the tourist sleepers day in and day out, the people who are filling the odd corners of the greater valleys. As these debouched into the glare of the outer offices, they hesitated, making up their slow minds which way to turn. In that instant or so the gray man, like a captain, assigned his salesmen. The latter were of all sorts--fat and joking, thin and very serious-minded, intense, enthusiastic, cold and haughty. The gray man sized up his prospective customers and to each assigned a salesman to suit. Bob had no means of guessing how accurate these estimates might be, but they were evidently made intelligently, with some system compounded of theory or experience. After a moment Bob became conscious that he himself was being sharply scrutinized by the gray man, and in return watched covertly. He saw the gray man shake his head slightly. Bob passed out the door unaccosted by any of the salesmen.
At half-past seven the following morning he boarded the local train. In one car he found a score of "prospects" already seated, accompanied by half their number of the young men of the real estate office. The utmost jocularity and humour prevailed, except in one corner where a very earnest young man drove home the points of his argument with an impressive forefinger. Bob dropped unobtrusively into a seat, and prepared to enjoy his never-failing interest in the California landscape with its changing wonderful mountains; its alternations of sage brush and wide cultivation; its vineyards as far as the eye could distinguish the vines; its grainfields seeming to fill the whole cup of the valleys; its orchards wide as forests; and its desert stretches, bigger than them all, awaiting but the vivifying touch of water to burst into productiveness. He heard one of the salesmen expressing this.
"'Water is King,'" he was saying, quoting thus the catchword of this particular concern. He was talking in a half-joking way, asking one or the other how many inches of rainfall could be expected per annum back where they came from.
"Don't know, do you?" he answered himself. "Nobody pays any great and particular amount of attention to that--you get water enough, except in exceptional years. Out here it's different. Every one knows to the hundredth of an inch just how much rain has fallen, and how much ought to have fallen. It's vital. Water is King."
He gathered close the attention of his auditors.
"We have the water in California," he went on; "but it isn't always in the right place nor does it come at the right time. You can't grow crops in the high mountains where most of the precipitation occurs. But you can bring that water down to the plains. That's your answer: irrigation."
He looked from one to the other. Several nodded.
"But a man can't irrigate by himself. He can't build reservoirs, ditches all alone. That's where a concern like the Lucky Company makes good. We've brought the water to where you can use it. Under the influence of cultivation that apparently worthless land can produce--" he went on at great length detailing statistics of production. Even to Bob, who had no vital nor practical interest, it was all most novel and convincing.
So absorbed did he become that he was somewhat startled when a man sat down beside him. He looked, up to meet the steel gray eyes and glittering glasses of the chief. Again there swept over him a sense of familiarity, the feeling that somewhere, at some time, he had met this man before. It passed almost as quickly as it came, but left him puzzled.
"Of course your name is not Smith, nor do you come from Reno," said the man in gray abruptly. "I've seen you somewhere before, but I can't place you. Are you a newspaperman?"
"I've been thinking the same of you," returned Bob. "No, I'm just plain tourist."
"I don't imagine you're particularly interested in Lucky," said the gray man. "Why did you come?"
"Just idleness and curiosity," replied Bob frankly.
"Of course we try to get the most value in return for our expenditures on these excursions by taking men who are at least interested in the country," suggested the gray man.
"By Jove, I never thought of that!" cried Bob. "Of course, I'd no business to take that free ticket. I'll pay you my fare."
The gray man had been scrutinizing him intensely and keenly. At Bob's comically contrite expression, his own face cleared.
"No, you misunderstand me," he replied in his crisp fashion. "We give these excursions as an advertisement of what we have. The more people to know about Lucky, the better our chances. We made an offer of which you have taken advantage. You're perfectly welcome, and I hope you'll enjoy yourself. Here, Selwyn," he called to one of the salesman, "this is Mr.--what did you say your name is?"
"Orde," replied Bob.
The gray man seemed for an almost imperceptible instant to stiffen in his seat. The gray eyes glazed over; the gray lined face froze.
"Orde," he repeated harshly; "where from?"
"Michigan," Bob replied.
The gray man rose stiffly. "Well, Selwyn," said he, "this is Mr. Orde--of Michigan--and I want you to show him around."
He moved down the aisle to take a seat, distant, but facing the two young men. Bob felt himself the object of a furtive but minute scrutiny which lasted until the train slowed down at the outskirts of Lucky.
Selwyn proved to be an agreeable young man, keen-faced, clean-cut, full of energy and enthusiasm. He soon discovered that Bob did not contemplate going into ranching, and at once admitted that young man to his confidence.
"You just nail a seat in that surrey over there, while I chase out my two 'prospects.' We sell on commission and I've got to rustle."
They drove out of the sleepy little village on which had been grafted showy samples of the Company's progress. The day was beautiful with sunshine, with the mellow calls of meadow larks, with warmth and sweet odours. As the surrey took its zigzag way through the brush, as the quail paced away to right and left, as the delicate aroma of the sage rose to his nostrils, Bob began to be very glad he had come. Here and there the brush had been cleared, small shacks built, fences of wire strung, and the land ploughed over. At such places the surrey paused while Selwyn held forth to his two stolid "prospects" on how long these newcomers had been there and how well they were getting on. The country rose in a gradual slope to the slate-blue mountains. Ditches ran here and there. Everywhere were small square stakes painted white, indicating the boundaries of tracts yet unsold.
They visited the reservoir, which looked to Bob uncommonly like a muddy duck pond, but whose value Selwyn soon made very clear. They wandered through the Chiquito ranch, whence came the exhibition fruit and other products, and which formed the basis of most Lucky arguments. The owner had taken many medals for his fruit, and had spent twenty-five years in making the Chiquito a model.
"Any man can do likewise in this land of promise," said Selwyn.
They ended finally in a beautiful little canon among the foothills. It was grown thick with twisted, mottled sycamores just budding into leaf, with vines and greenery of the luxurious California varieties. Birds sang everywhere and a brook babbled and bubbled down a stony bed.
Under the largest of the sycamores a tent had been pitched and a table spread. Affairs seemed to be in charge of a very competent countrywoman whose fuzzy horse and ramshackle buggy stood securely tethered below. The surries drove up and deposited their burdens. Bob took his place at table to be served with an abundant, hot and well-cooked meal.
The ice had been broken. Everybody laughed and joked. Some of the men removed their coats in order to be more comfortable. The young salesmen had laboured successfully to bring these strangers to a feeling of partnership in at least the aims of the Company, of partisanship against the claims of other less-favoured valleys than Lucky. During a pause in the fun, one of the "prospects," an elderly, white-whiskered farmer of the more prosperous type, nodded toward the brook.
"That sounds good," said he.
"It's the supply for the Lucky Lands," replied Selwyn. "It ought to sound good."
"There's mighty few flowing creeks in California this far out from the mountains," interposed another salesman. "You know out here, except in the rainy season, the rivers all flow bottom-up."
They all guffawed at this ancient and mild joke. The old farmer wagged his head.
"Water is King," said he solemnly, as though voicing an original and profound thought.
A look of satisfaction overspread the countenance of the particular salesman who had the old farmer in charge. When you can get your "prospect" to adopt your catchword and enunciate it with conviction, he is yours!
After the meal Bob, unnoticed, wandered off up the canon. He had ascertained that the excursionists would not leave the spot for two hours yet, and he welcomed the chance for exercise. Accordingly he set himself to follow the creek, the one stream of pure and limpid water that did not flow bottom-up. At first this was easy enough, but after a while the canon narrowed, and Bob found himself compelled to clamber over rocks and boulders, to push his way through thickets of brush and clinging vines, finally even to scale a precipitous and tangled side hill over which the stream fell in a series of waterfalls. Once past this obstruction, however, the country widened again. Bob stood in the bed of a broad, flat wash flanked by low hills. Before him, and still some miles distant, rose the mountains in which the stream found its source.
Bob stood still for a moment, his hat in his hand, enjoying the tepid odours, the warm sun and the calls of innumerable birds. Then he became aware of a faint and intermittent throb--put-put (pause) put (pause), put-put-put!
"Gasoline engine," said he to himself.
He tramped a few hundred yards up the dry wash, rounded a bend, and came to a small wooden shack from which emanated the sound of the gas explosions. A steady stream of water gushed from a pump operated by the gasoline engine. Above, the stream bed was dry. Here was the origin of the "beautiful mountain stream."
Chair-tilted in front of the shack sat a man smoking a pipe. He looked up as Bob approached.
"Hullo," said he; "show over?"
He disappeared inside and shut off the gasoline engine. Immediately the flow ceased; the stream dried up as though scorched. Presently the man emerged, thrusting his hands into the armholes of an old coat. Shrugging the garment into place, he snapped shut the padlock on the door.
"Come on," said he. "My rig's over behind that grease-wood. You're a new one, ain't ye?"
"That horse is branded pretty thick," he said by way of diversion.
The man chuckled.
"Have to turn his skin other side out to get another one on," he agreed.
They drove down an old dim road that avoided the difficulties of the canon. At camp they found the surries just loading up. Bob took his place. Before the rigs started back, the gray man, catching sight of the pump man, drew him aside and said several things very vigorously. The pump man answered with some indignation, pointing finally to Bob. Instantly the gray man whirled to inspect the young fellow. Then he shot a last remark, turned and climbed grumpily into his vehicle.
At the station Bob tried to draw Selwyn aside for a conversation.
"I'll be with you when the train starts, old man," replied Selwyn, "but I've got to stick close to these prospects. There's a gang of knockers hanging around here always, just waiting for a chance to lip in."
When the train started, however, Selwyn came back to drop into Bob's seat with a wearied sigh.
"Gosh! I get sick of handing out dope to these yaps," said he. "I was afraid for a while it was going to blow. Looked like it."
"What of it?" asked Bob.
"When it blows up here, it'd lift the feathers off a chicken and the chicken off the earth," explained Selwyn. "I've seen more than one good prospect ruined by a bad day."
"How'd you come out?" inquired Bob.
"Got one. He handed over his first payment on the spot. Funny how these yahoos almost always bring their cash right with 'em. Other's no good. I get so I can spot that kind the first three words. They're always too blame enthusiastic about the country and the Company. Seems like they try to pay for their entertainment by jollying us along. Don't fool me any. When a man begins to object to things, you know he's thinking of buying."
Bob listened to this wisdom with some amusement. "How'd you explain when the stream stopped?" he asked.
"Why," said Selwyn, looking straight ahead, "didn't you hear Mr. Oldham? They turned the water into the Upper Ditch to irrigate the Foothill Tracts."
Bob laughed. "You're not much of a liar, Selwyn," he said pleasantly. "Failure of gasoline would hit it nearer."
"Oh, that's where you went," said Selwyn. "I ought to have kept my eye on you closer."
He fell silent, and Bob eyed him speculatively. He liked the young fellow's clear, frank cast of countenance.
"Look here, Selwyn," he broke out, "do you like this bunco game?"
"I don't like the methods," replied Selwyn promptly; "but you are mistaken when you think it's a bunco game. The land is good; there's plenty of artesian water to be had; and we don't sell at a fancy price. We've located over eight hundred families up there at Lucky Lands, and three out of four are making good. The fourth simply hadn't the capital to hold out until returns came in. It's as good a small-ranch proposition as they could find. If I didn't think so, I wouldn't be in it for a minute."
"How about that stream?"
"Nobody said the stream was a natural one. And the water exists, no matter where it comes from. You can't impress an Eastern farmer with a pump proposition: that's a matter of education. They come to see its value after they've tried it."
"I told you I didn't like the methods. I won't have anything to do with the dirty work, and Oldham knows it."
"Why all the bluff, then?" asked Bob.
"There are thousands of real estate firms in Los Angeles trying to sell millions of acres," said Selwyn, "and this is about the only concern that succeeds in colonizing on a large scale. Oldham developed this system, and it seems to work."
"The law'll get him some day."
"I think not," replied Selwyn. "You may find him close to the edge of the law, but he never steps over. He's a mighty bright business man, and he's made a heap of money."
When nearing the Arcade depot, Oldham himself stepped forward.
"Stopping in California long?" he asked, with some approach to geniality.
"Permanently, I think," replied Bob.
"You are going to manufacture your timber?"
Bob looked up astonished.
"You're the Orde interested in Granite County timber, aren't you?"
"I'm employed by Welton, that's all," said Bob. "He owns the timber. But how did you know I am with Welton?" he asked.
"With Welton!" echoed Oldham. "Oh, yes--well, I heard from Michigan business acquaintances you were with him. Welton's lands are in Granite County?"
"Yes," said Bob.
"Well," said Oldham vaguely, "I hope you have enjoyed your little outing." He turned away.
"Now, how the deuce should anybody know about me, or that I am with Welton, or take the trouble to write about it?"
He mulled over this for some time. For lack of a better reason, he ascribed to his former football prominence the fact that Oldham's Michigan correspondent had thought him worth mention. Yet that seemed absurdly inadequate.