Excerpt: 'The Octopus: A Story of California' by Frank Norris
“The Curse of California”, G. Frederick Keller, 1882. From The Wasp, August 19, 1882, vol. 9. No. 316
From Chapter 2:
On the following morning, Harran Derrick was up and about by a little after six o’clock, and a quarter of an hour later had breakfast in the kitchen of the ranch house, preferring not to wait until the Chinese cook laid the table in the regular dining-room. He scented a hard day’s work ahead of him, and was anxious to be at it betimes. He was practically the manager of Los Muertos, and, with the aid of his foreman and three division superintendents, carried forward nearly the entire direction of the ranch, occupying himself with the details of his father’s plans, executing his orders, signing contracts, paying bills, and keeping the books.
For the last three weeks little had been done. The crop—such as it was—had been harvested and sold, and there had been a general relaxation of activity for upwards of a month. Now, however, the fall was coming on, the dry season was about at its end; any time after the twentieth of the month the first rains might be expected, softening the ground, putting it into condition for the plough. Two days before this, Harran had notified his superintendents on Three and Four to send in such grain as they had reserved for seed. On Two the wheat had not even shown itself above the ground, while on One, the Home ranch, which was under his own immediate supervision, the seed had already been graded and selected.
It was Harran’s intention to commence blue-stoning his seed that day, a delicate and important process which prevented rust and smut appearing in the crop when the wheat should come up. But, furthermore, he wanted to find time to go to Guadalajara to meet the Governor on the morning train. His day promised to be busy.
But as Harran was finishing his last cup of coffee, Phelps, the foreman on the Home ranch, who also looked after the storage barns where the seed was kept, presented himself, cap in hand, on the back porch by the kitchen door.
“I thought I’d speak to you about the seed from Four, sir,” he said. “That hasn’t been brought in yet.”
“I’ll see about it. You’ve got all the blue-stone you want, have you, Phelps?” and without waiting for an answer he added, “Tell the stableman I shall want the team about nine o’clock to go to Guadalajara. Put them in the buggy. The bays, you understand.” When the other had gone, Harran drank off the rest of his coffee, and, rising, passed through the dining-room and across a stone-paved hallway with a glass roof into the office just beyond.
The office was the nerve-centre of the entire ten thousand acres of Los Muertos, but its appearance and furnishings were not in the least suggestive of a farm. It was divided at about its middle by a wire railing, painted green and gold, and behind this railing were the high desks where the books were kept, the safe, the letter-press and letter-files, and Harran’s typewriting machine. A great map of Los Muertos with every water-course, depression, and elevation, together with indications of the varying depths of the clays and loams in the soil, accurately plotted, hung against the wall between the windows, while near at hand by the safe was the telephone.
But, no doubt, the most significant object in the office was the ticker. This was an innovation in the San Joaquin, an idea of shrewd, quick-witted young Annixter, which Harran and Magnus Derrick had been quick to adopt, and after them Broderson and Osterman, and many others of the wheat growers of the county. The offices of the ranches were thus connected by wire with San Francisco, and through that city with Minneapolis, Duluth, Chicago, New York, and at last, and most important of all, with Liverpool. Fluctuations in the price of the world’s crop during and after the harvest thrilled straight to the office of Los Muertos, to that of the Quien Sabe, to Osterman’s, and to Broderson’s. During a flurry in the Chicago wheat pits in the August of that year, which had affected even the San Francisco market, Harran and Magnus had sat up nearly half of one night watching the strip of white tape jerking unsteadily from the reel. At such moments they no longer felt their individuality. The ranch became merely the part of an enormous whole, a unit in the vast agglomeration of wheat land the whole world round, feeling the effects of causes thousands of miles distant—a drought on the prairies of Dakota, a rain on the plains of India, a frost on the Russian steppes, a hot wind on the llanos of the Argentine.
Harran crossed over to the telephone and rang six bells, the call for the division house on Four. It was the most distant, the most isolated point on all the ranch, situated at its far southeastern extremity, where few people ever went, close to the line fence, a dot, a speck, lost in the immensity of the open country. By the road it was eleven miles distant from the office, and by the trail to Hooven’s and the Lower Road all of nine.
“How about that seed?” demanded Harran when he had got Cutter on the line.
The other made excuses for an unavoidable delay, and was adding that he was on the point of starting out, when Harran cut in with:
“You had better go the trail. It will save a little time and I am in a hurry. Put your sacks on the horses’ backs. And, Cutter, if you see Hooven when you go by his place, tell him I want him, and, by the way, take a look at the end of the irrigating ditch when you get to it. See how they are getting along there and if Billy wants anything. Tell him we are expecting those new scoops down to-morrow or next day and to get along with what he has until then…. How’s everything on Four? … All right, then. Give your seed to Phelps when you get here if I am not about. I am going to Guadalajara to meet the Governor. He’s coming down to-day. And that makes me think; we lost the case, you know. I had a letter from the Governor yesterday…. Yes, hard luck. S. Behrman did us up. Well, good-bye, and don’t lose any time with that seed. I want to blue-stone to-day.”
After telephoning Cutter, Harran put on his hat, went over to the barns, and found Phelps. Phelps had already cleaned out the vat which was to contain the solution of blue-stone, and was now at work regrading the seed. Against the wall behind him ranged the row of sacks. Harran cut the fastenings of these and examined the contents carefully, taking handfuls of wheat from each and allowing it to run through his fingers, or nipping the grains between his nails, testing their hardness.
The seed was all of the white varieties of wheat and of a very high grade, the berries hard and heavy, rigid and swollen with starch.
“If it was all like that, sir, hey?” observed Phelps.
Harran put his chin in the air.
“Bread would be as good as cake, then,” he answered, going from sack to sack, inspecting the contents and consulting the tags affixed to the mouths.
“Hello,” he remarked, “here’s a red wheat. Where did this come from?”
“That’s that red Clawson we sowed to the piece on Four, north the Mission Creek, just to see how it would do here. We didn’t get a very good catch.”
“We can’t do better than to stay by White Sonora and Propo,” remarked Harran. “We’ve got our best results with that, and European millers like it to mix with the Eastern wheats that have more gluten than ours. That is, if we have any wheat at all next year.”
A feeling of discouragement for the moment bore down heavily upon him. At intervals this came to him and for the moment it was overpowering. The idea of “what’s-the-use” was upon occasion a veritable oppression. Everything seemed to combine to lower the price of wheat. The extension of wheat areas always exceeded increase of population; competition was growing fiercer every year. The farmer’s profits were the object of attack from a score of different quarters. It was a flock of vultures descending upon a common prey—the commission merchant, the elevator combine, the mixing-house ring, the banks, the warehouse men, the labouring man, and, above all, the railroad. Steadily the Liverpool buyers cut and cut and cut. Everything, every element of the world’s markets, tended to force down the price to the lowest possible figure at which it could be profitably farmed. Now it was down to eighty-seven. It was at that figure the crop had sold that year; and to think that the Governor had seen wheat at two dollars and five cents in the year of the Turko-Russian War!
He turned back to the house after giving Phelps final directions, gloomy, disheartened, his hands deep in his pockets, wondering what was to be the outcome. So narrow had the margin of profit shrunk that a dry season meant bankruptcy to the smaller farmers throughout all the valley. He knew very well how widespread had been the distress the last two years. With their own tenants on Los Muertos, affairs had reached the stage of desperation. Derrick had practically been obliged to “carry” Hooven and some of the others. The Governor himself had made almost nothing during the last season; a third year like the last, with the price steadily sagging, meant nothing else but ruin.
But here he checked himself. Two consecutive dry seasons in California were almost unprecedented; a third would be beyond belief, and the complete rest for nearly all the land was a compensation. They had made no money, that was true; but they had lost none. Thank God, the homestead was free of mortgage; one good season would more than make up the difference.
He was in a better mood by the time he reached the driveway that led up to the ranch house, and as he raised his eyes toward the house itself, he could not but feel that the sight of his home was cheering. The ranch house was set in a great grove of eucalyptus, oak, and cypress, enormous trees growing from out a lawn that was as green, as fresh, and as well-groomed as any in a garden in the city. This lawn flanked all one side of the house, and it was on this side that the family elected to spend most of its time. The other side, looking out upon the Home ranch toward Bonneville and the railroad, was but little used. A deep porch ran the whole length of the house here, and in the lower branches of a live-oak near the steps Harran had built a little summer house for his mother. To the left of the ranch house itself, toward the County Road, was the bunk-house and kitchen for some of the hands. From the steps of the porch the view to the southward expanded to infinity. There was not so much as a twig to obstruct the view. In one leap the eye reached the fine, delicate line where earth and sky met, miles away. The flat monotony of the land, clean of fencing, was broken by one spot only, the roof of the Division Superintendent’s house on Three—a mere speck, just darker than the ground. Cutter’s house on Four was not even in sight. That was below the horizon.
As Harran came up he saw his mother at breakfast. The table had been set on the porch and Mrs. Derrick, stirring her coffee with one hand, held open with the other the pages of Walter Pater’s “Marius.” At her feet, Princess Nathalie, the white Angora cat, sleek, over-fed, self-centred, sat on her haunches, industriously licking at the white fur of her breast, while near at hand, by the railing of the porch, Presley pottered with a new bicycle lamp, filling it with oil, adjusting the wicks.
Harran kissed his mother and sat down in a wicker chair on the porch, removing his hat, running his fingers through his yellow hair.
Magnus Derrick’s wife looked hardly old enough to be the mother of two such big fellows as Harran and Lyman Derrick. She was not far into the fifties, and her brown hair still retained much of its brightness. She could yet be called pretty. Her eyes were large and easily assumed a look of inquiry and innocence, such as one might expect to see in a young girl. By disposition she was retiring; she easily obliterated herself. She was not made for the harshness of the world, and yet she had known these harshnesses in her younger days. Magnus had married her when she was twenty-one years old, at a time when she was a graduate of some years’ standing from the State Normal School and was teaching literature, music, and penmanship in a seminary in the town of Marysville. She overworked herself here continually, loathing the strain of teaching, yet clinging to it with a tenacity born of the knowledge that it was her only means of support. Both her parents were dead; she was dependent upon herself. Her one ambition was to see Italy and the Bay of Naples. The “Marble Faun,” Raphael’s “Madonnas” and “Il Trovatore” were her beau ideals of literature and art. She dreamed of Italy, Rome, Naples, and the world’s great “art-centres.” There was no doubt that her affair with Magnus had been a love-match, but Annie Payne would have loved any man who would have taken her out of the droning, heart-breaking routine of the class and music room. She had followed his fortunes unquestioningly. First at Sacramento, during the turmoil of his political career, later on at Placerville in El Dorado County, after Derrick had interested himself in the Corpus Christi group of mines, and finally at Los Muertos, where, after selling out his fourth interest in Corpus Christi, he had turned rancher and had “come in” on the new tracts of wheat land just thrown open by the railroad. She had lived here now for nearly ten years. But never for one moment since the time her glance first lost itself in the unbroken immensity of the ranches had she known a moment’s content. Continually there came into her pretty, wide-open eyes—the eyes of a young doe—a look of uneasiness, of distrust, and aversion. Los Muertos frightened her. She remembered the days of her young girlhood passed on a farm in eastern Ohio—five hundred acres, neatly partitioned into the water lot, the cow pasture, the corn lot, the barley field, and wheat farm; cosey, comfortable, home-like; where the farmers loved their land, caressing it, coaxing it, nourishing it as though it were a thing almost conscious; where the seed was sown by hand, and a single two-horse plough was sufficient for the entire farm; where the scythe sufficed to cut the harvest and the grain was thrashed with flails.
But this new order of things—a ranch bounded only by the horizons, where, as far as one could see, to the north, to the east, to the south and to the west, was all one holding, a principality ruled with iron and steam, bullied into a yield of three hundred and fifty thousand bushels, where even when the land was resting, unploughed, unharrowed, and unsown, the wheat came up—troubled her, and even at times filled her with an undefinable terror. To her mind there was something inordinate about it all; something almost unnatural. The direct brutality of ten thousand acres of wheat, nothing but wheat as far as the eye could see, stunned her a little. The one-time writing-teacher of a young ladies’ seminary, with her pretty deer-like eyes and delicate fingers, shrank from it. She did not want to look at so much wheat. There was something vaguely indecent in the sight, this food of the people, this elemental force, this basic energy, weltering here under the sun in all the unconscious nakedness of a sprawling, primordial Titan.
The monotony of the ranch ate into her heart hour by hour, year by year. And with it all, when was she to see Rome, Italy, and the Bay of Naples? It was a different prospect truly. Magnus had given her his promise that once the ranch was well established, they two should travel. But continually he had been obliged to put her off, now for one reason, now for another; the machine would not as yet run of itself, he must still feel his hand upon the lever; next year, perhaps, when wheat should go to ninety, or the rains were good. She did not insist. She obliterated herself, only allowing, from time to time, her pretty, questioning eyes to meet his. In the meantime she retired within herself. She surrounded herself with books. Her taste was of the delicacy of point lace. She knew her Austin Dobson by heart. She read poems, essays, the ideas of the seminary at Marysville persisting in her mind. “Marius the Epicurean,” “The Essays of Elia,” “Sesame and Lilies,” “The Stones of Venice,” and the little toy magazines, full of the flaccid banalities of the “Minor Poets,” were continually in her hands.
When Presley had appeared on Los Muertos, she had welcomed his arrival with delight. Here at last was a congenial spirit. She looked forward to long conversations with the young man on literature, art, and ethics. But Presley had disappointed her. That he—outside of his few chosen deities—should care little for literature, shocked her beyond words. His indifference to “style,” to elegant English, was a positive affront. His savage abuse and open ridicule of the neatly phrased rondeaux and sestinas and chansonettes of the little magazines was to her mind a wanton and uncalled-for cruelty. She found his Homer, with its slaughters and hecatombs and barbaric feastings and headstrong passions, violent and coarse. She could not see with him any romance, any poetry in the life around her; she looked to Italy for that. His “Song of the West,” which only once, incoherent and fierce, he had tried to explain to her, its swift, tumultous life, its truth, its nobility and savagery, its heroism and obscenity had revolted her.
“But, Presley,” she had murmured, “that is not literature.”
“No,” he had cried between his teeth, “no, thank God, it is not.”
A little later, one of the stablemen brought the buggy with the team of bays up to the steps of the porch, and Harran, putting on a different coat and a black hat, took himself off to Guadalajara. The morning was fine; there was no cloud in the sky, but as Harran’s buggy drew away from the grove of trees about the ranch house, emerging into the open country on either side of the Lower Road, he caught himself looking sharply at the sky and the faint line of hills beyond the Quien Sabe ranch. There was a certain indefinite cast to the landscape that to Harran’s eye was not to be mistaken. Rain, the first of the season, was not far off.
“That’s good,” he muttered, touching the bays with the whip, “we can’t get our ploughs to hand any too soon.”
These ploughs Magnus Derrick had ordered from an Eastern manufacturer some months before, since he was dissatisfied with the results obtained from the ones he had used hitherto, which were of local make. However, there had been exasperating and unexpected delays in their shipment. Magnus and Harran both had counted upon having the ploughs in their implement barns that very week, but a tracer sent after them had only resulted in locating them, still en route, somewhere between The Needles and Bakersfield. Now there was likelihood of rain within the week. Ploughing could be undertaken immediately afterward, so soon as the ground was softened, but there was a fair chance that the ranch would lie idle for want of proper machinery.
It was ten minutes before train time when Harran reached the depot at Guadalajara. The San Francisco papers of the preceding day had arrived on an earlier train. He bought a couple from the station agent and looked them over till a distant and prolonged whistle announced the approach of the down train.
In one of the four passengers that alighted from the train, he recognised his father. He half rose in his seat, whistling shrilly between his teeth, waving his hand, and Magnus Derrick, catching sight of him, came forward quickly.
Magnus—the Governor—was all of six feet tall, and though now well toward his sixtieth year, was as erect as an officer of cavalry. He was broad in proportion, a fine commanding figure, imposing an immediate respect, impressing one with a sense of gravity, of dignity and a certain pride of race. He was smooth-shaven, thin-lipped, with a broad chin, and a prominent hawk-like nose—the characteristic of the family—thin, with a high bridge, such as one sees in the later portraits of the Duke of Wellington. His hair was thick and iron-grey, and had a tendency to curl in a forward direction just in front of his ears. He wore a top-hat of grey, with a wide brim, and a frock coat, and carried a cane with a yellowed ivory head.
As a young man it had been his ambition to represent his native State—North Carolina—in the United States Senate. Calhoun was his “great man,” but in two successive campaigns he had been defeated. His career checked in this direction, he had come to California in the fifties. He had known and had been the intimate friend of such men as Terry, Broderick, General Baker, Lick, Alvarado, Emerich, Larkin, and, above all, of the unfortunate and misunderstood Ralston. Once he had been put forward as the Democratic candidate for governor, but failed of election. After this Magnus had definitely abandoned politics and had invested all his money in the Corpus Christi mines. Then he had sold out his interest at a small profit—just in time to miss his chance of becoming a multi-millionaire in the Comstock boom—and was looking for reinvestments in other lines when the news that “wheat had been discovered in California” was passed from mouth to mouth. Practically it amounted to a discovery. Dr. Glenn’s first harvest of wheat in Colusa County, quietly undertaken but suddenly realised with dramatic abruptness, gave a new matter for reflection to the thinking men of the New West. California suddenly leaped unheralded into the world’s market as a competitor in wheat production. In a few years her output of wheat exceeded the value of her out-put of gold, and when, later on, the Pacific and Southwestern Railroad threw open to settlers the rich lands of Tulare County—conceded to the corporation by the government as a bonus for the construction of the road—Magnus had been quick to seize the opportunity and had taken up the ten thousand acres of Los Muertos. Wherever he had gone, Magnus had taken his family with him. Lyman had been born at Sacramento during the turmoil and excitement of Derrick’s campaign for governor, and Harran at Shingle Springs, in El Dorado County, six years later.
But Magnus was in every sense the “prominent man.” In whatever circle he moved he was the chief figure. Instinctively other men looked to him as the leader. He himself was proud of this distinction; he assumed the grand manner very easily and carried it well. As a public speaker he was one of the last of the followers of the old school of orators. He even carried the diction and manner of the rostrum into private life. It was said of him that his most colloquial conversation could be taken down in shorthand and read off as an admirable specimen of pure, well-chosen English. He loved to do things upon a grand scale, to preside, to dominate. In his good humour there was something Jovian. When angry, everybody around him trembled. But he had not the genius for detail, was not patient. The certain grandiose lavishness of his disposition occupied itself more with results than with means. He was always ready to take chances, to hazard everything on the hopes of colossal returns. In the mining days at Placerville there was no more redoubtable poker player in the county. He had been as lucky in his mines as in his gambling, sinking shafts and tunnelling in violation of expert theory and finding “pay” in every case. Without knowing it, he allowed himself to work his ranch much as if he was still working his mine. The old-time spirit of ’49, hap-hazard, unscientific, persisted in his mind. Everything was a gamble—who took the greatest chances was most apt to be the greatest winner. The idea of manuring Los Muertos, of husbanding his great resources, he would have scouted as niggardly, Hebraic, ungenerous.
Magnus climbed into the buggy, helping himself with Harran’s outstretched hand which he still held. The two were immensely fond of each other, proud of each other. They were constantly together and Magnus kept no secrets from his favourite son.
“I am very pleased you came yourself, Harran. I feared that you might be too busy and send Phelps. It was thoughtful.”
Harran was about to reply, but at that moment Magnus caught sight of the three flat cars loaded with bright-painted farming machines which still remained on the siding above the station. He laid his hands on the reins and Harran checked the team.
“Harran,” observed Magnus, fixing the machinery with a judicial frown, “Harran, those look singularly like our ploughs. Drive over, boy.”
The train had by this time gone on its way and Harran brought the team up to the siding.
“Ah, I was right,” said the Governor. “‘Magnus Derrick, Los Muertos, Bonneville, from Ditson & Co., Rochester.’ These are ours, boy.”
Harran breathed a sigh of relief.
“At last,” he answered, “and just in time, too. We’ll have rain before the week is out. I think, now that I am here, I will telephone Phelps to send the wagon right down for these. I started blue-stoning to-day.”
Magnus nodded a grave approval.
“That was shrewd, boy. As to the rain, I think you are well informed; we will have an early season. The ploughs have arrived at a happy moment.”
“It means money to us, Governor,” remarked Harran.
But as he turned the horses to allow his father to get into the buggy again, the two were surprised to hear a thick, throaty voice wishing them good-morning, and turning about were aware of S. Behrman, who had come up while they were examining the ploughs. Harran’s eyes flashed on the instant and through his nostrils he drew a sharp, quick breath, while a certain rigour of carriage stiffened the set of Magnus Derrick’s shoulders and back. Magnus had not yet got into the buggy, but stood with the team between him and S. Behrman, eyeing him calmly across the horses’ backs. S. Behrman came around to the other side of the buggy and faced Magnus.
He was a large, fat man, with a great stomach; his cheek and the upper part of his thick neck ran together to form a great tremulous jowl, shaven and blue-grey in colour; a roll of fat, sprinkled with sparse hair, moist with perspiration, protruded over the back of his collar. He wore a heavy black moustache. On his head was a round-topped hat of stiff brown straw, highly varnished. A light-brown linen vest, stamped with innumerable interlocked horseshoes, covered his protuberant stomach, upon which a heavy watch chain of hollow links rose and fell with his difficult breathing, clinking against the vest buttons of imitation mother-of-pearl.
S. Behrman was the banker of Bonneville. But besides this he was many other things. He was a real estate agent. He bought grain; he dealt in mortgages. He was one of the local political bosses, but more important than all this, he was the representative of the Pacific and Southwestern Railroad in that section of Tulare County. The railroad did little business in that part of the country that S. Behrman did not supervise, from the consignment of a shipment of wheat to the management of a damage suit, or even to the repair and maintenance of the right of way. During the time when the ranchers of the county were fighting the grain-rate case, S. Behrman had been much in evidence in and about the San Francisco court rooms and the lobby of the legislature in Sacramento. He had returned to Bonneville only recently, a decision adverse to the ranchers being foreseen. The position he occupied on the salary list of the Pacific and Southwestern could not readily be defined, for he was neither freight agent, passenger agent, attorney, real-estate broker, nor political servant, though his influence in all these offices was undoubted and enormous. But for all that, the ranchers about Bonneville knew whom to look to as a source of trouble. There was no denying the fact that for Osterman, Broderson, Annixter and Derrick, S. Behrman was the railroad.
“Mr. Derrick, good-morning,” he cried as he came up. “Good-morning, Harran. Glad to see you back, Mr. Derrick.” He held out a thick hand.
Magnus, head and shoulders above the other, tall, thin, erect, looked down upon S. Behrman, inclining his head, failing to see his extended hand.
“Good-morning, sir,” he observed, and waited for S. Behrman’s further speech.
“Well, Mr. Derrick,” continued S. Behrman, wiping the back of his neck with his handkerchief, “I saw in the city papers yesterday that our case had gone against you.”
“I guess it wasn’t any great news to YOU,” commented Harran, his face scarlet. “I guess you knew which way Ulsteen was going to jump after your very first interview with him. You don’t like to be surprised in this sort of thing, S. Behrman.”
“Now, you know better than that, Harran,” remonstrated S. Behrman blandly. “I know what you mean to imply, but I ain’t going to let it make me get mad. I wanted to say to your Governor—I wanted to say to you, Mr. Derrick—as one man to another—letting alone for the minute that we were on opposite sides of the case—that I’m sorry you didn’t win. Your side made a good fight, but it was in a mistaken cause. That’s the whole trouble. Why, you could have figured out before you ever went into the case that such rates are confiscation of property. You must allow us—must allow the railroad—a fair interest on the investment. You don’t want us to go into the receiver’s hands, do you now, Mr. Derrick?”
“The Board of Railroad Commissioners was bought,” remarked Magnus sharply, a keen, brisk flash glinting in his eye.
“It was part of the game,” put in Harran, “for the Railroad Commission to cut rates to a ridiculous figure, far below a REASONABLE figure, just so that it WOULD be confiscation. Whether Ulsteen is a tool of yours or not, he had to put the rates back to what they were originally.”
“If you enforced those rates, Mr. Harran,” returned S. Behrman calmly, “we wouldn’t be able to earn sufficient money to meet operating expenses or fixed charges, to say nothing of a surplus left over to pay dividends——”
“Tell me when the P. and S. W. ever paid dividends.”
“The lowest rates,” continued S. Behrman, “that the legislature can establish must be such as will secure us a fair interest on our investment.”
“Well, what’s your standard? Come, let’s hear it. Who is to say what’s a fair rate? The railroad has its own notions of fairness sometimes.”
“The laws of the State,” returned S. Behrman, “fix the rate of interest at seven per cent. That’s a good enough standard for us. There is no reason, Mr. Harran, why a dollar invested in a railroad should not earn as much as a dollar represented by a promissory note—seven per cent. By applying your schedule of rates we would not earn a cent; we would be bankrupt.”
“Interest on your investment!” cried Harran, furious. “It’s fine to talk about fair interest. I know and you know that the total earnings of the P. and S. W.—their main, branch and leased lines for last year—was between nineteen and twenty millions of dollars. Do you mean to say that twenty million dollars is seven per cent. of the original cost of the road?”
S. Behrman spread out his hands, smiling.
“That was the gross, not the net figure—and how can you tell what was the original cost of the road?” “Ah, that’s just it,” shouted Harran, emphasising each word with a blow of his fist upon his knee, his eyes sparkling, “you take cursed good care that we don’t know anything about the original cost of the road. But we know you are bonded for treble your value; and we know this: that the road COULD have been built for fifty-four thousand dollars per mile and that you SAY it cost you eighty-seven thousand. It makes a difference, S. Behrman, on which of these two figures you are basing your seven per cent.”
“That all may show obstinacy, Harran,” observed S. Behrman vaguely, “but it don’t show common sense.”
“We are threshing out old straw, I believe, gentlemen,” remarked Magnus. “The question was thoroughly sifted in the courts.”
“Quite right,” assented S. Behrman. “The best way is that the railroad and the farmer understand each other and get along peaceably. We are both dependent on each other. Your ploughs, I believe, Mr. Derrick.” S. Behrman nodded toward the flat cars.
“They are consigned to me,” admitted Magnus.
“It looks a trifle like rain,” observed S. Behrman, easing his neck and jowl in his limp collar. “I suppose you will want to begin ploughing next week.”
“Possibly,” said Magnus.
“I’ll see that your ploughs are hurried through for you then, Mr. Derrick. We will route them by fast freight for you and it won’t cost you anything extra.”
“What do you mean?” demanded Harran. “The ploughs are here. We have nothing more to do with the railroad. I am going to have my wagons down here this afternoon.”
“I am sorry,” answered S. Behrman, “but the cars are going north, not, as you thought, coming FROM the north. They have not been to San Francisco yet.”
Magnus made a slight movement of the head as one who remembers a fact hitherto forgotten. But Harran was as yet unenlightened.
“To San Francisco!” he answered, “we want them here—what are you talking about?”
“Well, you know, of course, the regulations,” answered S. Behrman. “Freight of this kind coming from the Eastern points into the State must go first to one of our common points and be reshipped from there.”
Harran did remember now, but never before had the matter so struck home. He leaned back in his seat in dumb amazement for the instant. Even Magnus had turned a little pale. Then, abruptly, Harran broke out violent and raging.
“What next? My God, why don’t you break into our houses at night? Why don’t you steal the watch out of my pocket, steal the horses out of the harness, hold us up with a shot-gun; yes, ‘stand and deliver; your money or your life.’ Here we bring our ploughs from the East over your lines, but you’re not content with your long-haul rate between Eastern points and Bonneville. You want to get us under your ruinous short-haul rate between Bonneville and San Francisco, AND RETURN. Think of it! Here’s a load of stuff for Bonneville that can’t stop at Bonneville, where it is consigned, but has got to go up to San Francisco first BY WAY OF Bonneville, at forty cents per ton and then be reshipped from San Francisco back to Bonneville again at FIFTY-ONE cents per ton, the short-haul rate. And we have to pay it all or go without. Here are the ploughs right here, in sight of the land they have got to be used on, the season just ready for them, and we can’t touch them. Oh,” he exclaimed in deep disgust, “isn’t it a pretty mess! Isn’t it a farce! the whole dirty business!”
S. Behrman listened to him unmoved, his little eyes blinking under his fat forehead, the gold chain of hollow links clicking against the pearl buttons of his waistcoat as he breathed.
“It don’t do any good to let loose like that, Harran,” he said at length. “I am willing to do what I can for you. I’ll hurry the ploughs through, but I can’t change the freight regulation of the road.”
“What’s your blackmail for this?” vociferated Harran. “How much do you want to let us go? How much have we got to pay you to be ALLOWED to use our own ploughs—what’s your figure? Come, spit it out.”
“I see you are trying to make me angry, Harran,” returned S. Behrman, “but you won’t succeed. Better give up trying, my boy. As I said, the best way is to have the railroad and the farmer get along amicably. It is the only way we can do business. Well, s’long, Governor, I must trot along. S’long, Harran.” He took himself off.
But before leaving Guadalajara Magnus dropped into the town’s small grocery store to purchase a box of cigars of a certain Mexican brand, unprocurable elsewhere. Harran remained in the buggy.
While he waited, Dyke appeared at the end of the street, and, seeing Derrick’s younger son, came over to shake hands with him. He explained his affair with the P. and S. W., and asked the young man what he thought of the expected rise in the price of hops.
“Hops ought to be a good thing,” Harran told him. “The crop in Germany and in New York has been a dead failure for the last three years, and so many people have gone out of the business that there’s likely to be a shortage and a stiff advance in the price. They ought to go to a dollar next year. Sure, hops ought to be a good thing. How’s the old lady and Sidney, Dyke?”
“Why, fairly well, thank you, Harran. They’re up to Sacramento just now to see my brother. I was thinking of going in with my brother into this hop business. But I had a letter from him this morning. He may not be able to meet me on this proposition. He’s got other business on hand. If he pulls out—and he probably will—I’ll have to go it alone, but I’ll have to borrow. I had thought with his money and mine we would have enough to pull off the affair without mortgaging anything. As it is, I guess I’ll have to see S. Behrman.”
“I’ll be cursed if I would!” exclaimed Harran.
“Well, S. Behrman is a screw,” admitted the engineer, “and he is ‘railroad’ to his boots; but business is business, and he would have to stand by a contract in black and white, and this chance in hops is too good to let slide. I guess we’ll try it on, Harran. I can get a good foreman that knows all about hops just now, and if the deal pays—well, I want to send Sid to a seminary up in San Francisco.”
“Well, mortgage the crops, but don’t mortgage the homestead, Dyke,” said Harran. “And, by the way, have you looked up the freight rates on hops?”
“No, I haven’t yet,” answered Dyke, “and I had better be sure of that, hadn’t I? I hear that the rate is reasonable, though.”
“You be sure to have a clear understanding with the railroad first about the rate,” Harran warned him.
When Magnus came out of the grocery store and once more seated himself in the buggy, he said to Harran, “Boy, drive over here to Annixter’s before we start home. I want to ask him to dine with us to-night. Osterman and Broderson are to drop in, I believe, and I should like to have Annixter as well.”
Magnus was lavishly hospitable. Los Muertos’s doors invariably stood open to all the Derricks’ neighbours, and once in so often Magnus had a few of his intimates to dinner.
As Harran and his father drove along the road toward Annixter’s ranch house, Magnus asked about what had happened during his absence.
He inquired after his wife and the ranch, commenting upon the work on the irrigating ditch. Harran gave him the news of the past week, Dyke’s discharge, his resolve to raise a crop of hops; Vanamee’s return, the killing of the sheep, and Hooven’s petition to remain upon the ranch as Magnus’s tenant. It needed only Harran’s recommendation that the German should remain to have Magnus consent upon the instant. “You know more about it than I, boy,” he said, “and whatever you think is wise shall be done.”
Harran touched the bays with the whip, urging them to their briskest pace. They were not yet at Annixter’s and he was anxious to get back to the ranch house to supervise the blue-stoning of his seed.
“By the way, Governor,” he demanded suddenly, “how is Lyman getting on?”
Lyman, Magnus’s eldest son, had never taken kindly toward ranch life. He resembled his mother more than he did Magnus, and had inherited from her a distaste for agriculture and a tendency toward a profession. At a time when Harran was learning the rudiments of farming, Lyman was entering the State University, and, graduating thence, had spent three years in the study of law. But later on, traits that were particularly his father’s developed. Politics interested him. He told himself he was a born politician, was diplomatic, approachable, had a talent for intrigue, a gift of making friends easily and, most indispensable of all, a veritable genius for putting influential men under obligations to himself. Already he had succeeded in gaining for himself two important offices in the municipal administration of San Francisco—where he had his home—sheriff’s attorney, and, later on, assistant district attorney. But with these small achievements he was by no means satisfied. The largeness of his father’s character, modified in Lyman by a counter-influence of selfishness, had produced in him an inordinate ambition. Where his father during his political career had considered himself only as an exponent of principles he strove to apply, Lyman saw but the office, his own personal aggrandisement. He belonged to the new school, wherein objects were attained not by orations before senates and assemblies, but by sessions of committees, caucuses, compromises and expedients. His goal was to be in fact what Magnus was only in name—governor. Lyman, with shut teeth, had resolved that some day he would sit in the gubernatorial chair in Sacramento.
“Lyman is doing well,” answered Magnus. “I could wish he was more pronounced in his convictions, less willing to compromise, but I believe him to be earnest and to have a talent for government and civics. His ambition does him credit, and if he occupied himself a little more with means and a little less with ends, he would, I am sure, be the ideal servant of the people. But I am not afraid. The time will come when the State will be proud of him.”
As Harran turned the team into the driveway that led up to Annixter’s house, Magnus remarked:
“Harran, isn’t that young Annixter himself on the porch?”
Harran nodded and remarked:
“By the way, Governor, I wouldn’t seem too cordial in your invitation to Annixter. He will be glad to come, I know, but if you seem to want him too much, it is just like his confounded obstinacy to make objections.”
“There is something in that,” observed Magnus, as Harran drew up at the porch of the house. “He is a queer, cross-grained fellow, but in many ways sterling.”
Annixter was lying in the hammock on the porch, precisely as Presley had found him the day before, reading “David Copperfield” and stuffing himself with dried prunes. When he recognised Magnus, however, he got up, though careful to give evidence of the most poignant discomfort. He explained his difficulty at great length, protesting that his stomach was no better than a spongebag. Would Magnus and Harran get down and have a drink? There was whiskey somewhere about.
Magnus, however, declined. He stated his errand, asking Annixter to come over to Los Muertos that evening for seven o’clock dinner. Osterman and Broderson would be there.
At once Annixter, even to Harran’s surprise, put his chin in the air, making excuses, fearing to compromise himself if he accepted too readily. No, he did not think he could get around—was sure of it, in fact. There were certain businesses he had on hand that evening. He had practically made an appointment with a man at Bonneville; then, too, he was thinking of going up to San Francisco to-morrow and needed his sleep; would go to bed early; and besides all that, he was a very sick man; his stomach was out of whack; if he moved about it brought the gripes back. No, they must get along without him.
Magnus, knowing with whom he had to deal, did not urge the point, being convinced that Annixter would argue over the affair the rest of the morning. He re-settled himself in the buggy and Harran gathered up the reins.
“Well,” he observed, “you know your business best. Come if you can. We dine at seven.”
“I hear you are going to farm the whole of Los Muertos this season,” remarked Annixter, with a certain note of challenge in his voice.
“We are thinking of it,” replied Magnus.
Annixter grunted scornfully.
“Did you get the message I sent you by Presley?” he began.
Tactless, blunt, and direct, Annixter was quite capable of calling even Magnus a fool to his face. But before he could proceed, S. Behrman in his single buggy turned into the gate, and driving leisurely up to the porch halted on the other side of Magnus’s team.
“Good-morning, gentlemen,” he remarked, nodding to the two Derricks as though he had not seen them earlier in the day. “Mr. Annixter, how do you do?”
“What in hell do YOU want?” demanded Annixter with a stare.
S. Behrman hiccoughed slightly and passed a fat hand over his waistcoat.
“Why, not very much, Mr. Annixter,” he replied, ignoring the belligerency in the young ranchman’s voice, “but I will have to lodge a protest against you, Mr. Annixter, in the matter of keeping your line fence in repair. The sheep were all over the track last night, this side the Long Trestle, and I am afraid they have seriously disturbed our ballast along there. We—the railroad—can’t fence along our right of way. The farmers have the prescriptive right of that, so we have to look to you to keep your fence in repair. I am sorry, but I shall have to protest——” Annixter returned to the hammock and stretched himself out in it to his full length, remarking tranquilly:
“Go to the devil!”
“It is as much to your interest as to ours that the safety of the public——”
“You heard what I said. Go to the devil!”
“That all may show obstinacy, Mr. Annixter, but——”
Suddenly Annixter jumped up again and came to the edge of the porch; his face flamed scarlet to the roots of his stiff yellow hair. He thrust out his jaw aggressively, clenching his teeth.
“You,” he vociferated, “I’ll tell you what you are. You’re a—a—a PIP!”
To his mind it was the last insult, the most outrageous calumny. He had no worse epithet at his command.
“——may show obstinacy,” pursued S. Behrman, bent upon finishing the phrase, “but it don’t show common sense.”
“I’ll mend my fence, and then, again, maybe I won’t mend my fence,” shouted Annixter. “I know what you mean—that wild engine last night. Well, you’ve no right to run at that speed in the town limits.”
“How the town limits? The sheep were this side the Long Trestle.”
“Well, that’s in the town limits of Guadalajara.” “Why, Mr. Annixter, the Long Trestle is a good two miles out of Guadalajara.”
Annixter squared himself, leaping to the chance of an argument.
“Two miles! It’s not a mile and a quarter. No, it’s not a mile. I’ll leave it to Magnus here.”
“Oh, I know nothing about it,” declared Magnus, refusing to be involved.
“Yes, you do. Yes, you do, too. Any fool knows how far it is from Guadalajara to the Long Trestle. It’s about five-eighths of a mile.”
“From the depot of the town,” remarked S. Behrman placidly, “to the head of the Long Trestle is about two miles.”
“That’s a lie and you know it’s a lie,” shouted the other, furious at S. Behrman’s calmness, “and I can prove it’s a lie. I’ve walked that distance on the Upper Road, and I know just how fast I walk, and if I can walk four miles in one hour.”
Magnus and Harran drove on, leaving Annixter trying to draw S. Behrman into a wrangle.
When at length S. Behrman as well took himself away, Annixter returned to his hammock, finished the rest of his prunes and read another chapter of “Copperfield.” Then he put the book, open, over his face and went to sleep.
An hour later, toward noon, his own terrific snoring woke him up suddenly, and he sat up, rubbing his face and blinking at the sunlight. There was a bad taste in his mouth from sleeping with it wide open, and going into the dining-room of the house, he mixed himself a drink of whiskey and soda and swallowed it in three great gulps. He told himself that he felt not only better but hungry, and pressed an electric button in the wall near the sideboard three times to let the kitchen—situated in a separate building near the ranch house—know that he was ready for his dinner. As he did so, an idea occurred to him. He wondered if Hilma Tree would bring up his dinner and wait on the table while he ate it.
In connection with his ranch, Annixter ran a dairy farm on a very small scale, making just enough butter and cheese for the consumption of the ranch’s PERSONNEL. Old man Tree, his wife, and his daughter Hilma looked after the dairy. But there was not always work enough to keep the three of them occupied and Hilma at times made herself useful in other ways. As often as not she lent a hand in the kitchen, and two or three times a week she took her mother’s place in looking after Annixter’s house, making the beds, putting his room to rights, bringing his meals up from the kitchen. For the last summer she had been away visiting with relatives in one of the towns on the coast. But the week previous to this she had returned and Annixter had come upon her suddenly one day in the dairy, making cheese, the sleeves of her crisp blue shirt waist rolled back to her very shoulders. Annixter had carried away with him a clear-cut recollection of these smooth white arms of hers, bare to the shoulder, very round and cool and fresh. He would not have believed that a girl so young should have had arms so big and perfect. To his surprise he found himself thinking of her after he had gone to bed that night, and in the morning when he woke he was bothered to know whether he had dreamed about Hilma’s fine white arms over night. Then abruptly he had lost patience with himself for being so occupied with the subject, raging and furious with all the breed of feemales—a fine way for a man to waste his time. He had had his experience with the timid little creature in the glove-cleaning establishment in Sacramento. That was enough. Feemales! Rot! None of them in HIS, thank you. HE had seen Hilma Tree give him a look in the dairy. Aha, he saw through her! She was trying to get a hold on him, was she? He would show her. Wait till he saw her again. He would send her about her business in a hurry. He resolved upon a terrible demeanour in the presence of the dairy girl—a great show of indifference, a fierce masculine nonchalance; and when, the next morning, she brought him his breakfast, he had been smitten dumb as soon as she entered the room, glueing his eyes upon his plate, his elbows close to his side, awkward, clumsy, overwhelmed with constraint.
While true to his convictions as a woman-hater and genuinely despising Hilma both as a girl and as an inferior, the idea of her worried him. Most of all, he was angry with himself because of his inane sheepishness when she was about. He at first had told himself that he was a fool not to be able to ignore her existence as hitherto, and then that he was a greater fool not to take advantage of his position. Certainly he had not the remotest idea of any affection, but Hilma was a fine looking girl. He imagined an affair with her.
As he reflected upon the matter now, scowling abstractedly at the button of the electric bell, turning the whole business over in his mind, he remembered that to-day was butter-making day and that Mrs. Tree would be occupied in the dairy. That meant that Hilma would take her place. He turned to the mirror of the sideboard, scrutinising his reflection with grim disfavour. After a moment, rubbing the roughened surface of his chin the wrong way, he muttered to his image in the glass:
“That a mug! Good Lord! what a looking mug!” Then, after a moment’s silence, “Wonder if that fool feemale will be up here to-day.”
He crossed over into his bedroom and peeped around the edge of the lowered curtain. The window looked out upon the skeleton-like tower of the artesian well and the cook-house and dairy-house close beside it. As he watched, he saw Hilma come out from the cook-house and hurry across toward the kitchen. Evidently, she was going to see about his dinner. But as she passed by the artesian well, she met young Delaney, one of Annixter’s hands, coming up the trail by the irrigating ditch, leading his horse toward the stables, a great coil of barbed wire in his gloved hands and a pair of nippers thrust into his belt. No doubt, he had been mending the break in the line fence by the Long Trestle. Annixter saw him take off his wide-brimmed hat as he met Hilma, and the two stood there for some moments talking together. Annixter even heard Hilma laughing very gayly at something Delaney was saying. She patted his horse’s neck affectionately, and Delaney, drawing the nippers from his belt, made as if to pinch her arm with them. She caught at his wrist and pushed him away, laughing again. To Annixter’s mind the pair seemed astonishingly intimate. Brusquely his anger flamed up.
Ah, that was it, was it? Delaney and Hilma had an understanding between themselves. They carried on their affair right out there in the open, under his very eyes. It was absolutely disgusting. Had they no sense of decency, those two? Well, this ended it. He would stop that sort of thing short off; none of that on HIS ranch if he knew it. No, sir. He would pack that girl off before he was a day older. He wouldn’t have that kind about the place. Not much! She’d have to get out. He would talk to old man Tree about it this afternoon. Whatever happened, HE insisted upon morality.
“And my dinner!” he suddenly exclaimed. “I’ve got to wait and go hungry—and maybe get sick again—while they carry on their disgusting love-making.”
He turned about on the instant, and striding over to the electric bell, rang it again with all his might.
“When that feemale gets up here,” he declared, “I’ll just find out why I’ve got to wait like this. I’ll take her down, to the Queen’s taste. I’m lenient enough, Lord knows, but I don’t propose to be imposed upon ALL the time.”
A few moments later, while Annixter was pretending to read the county newspaper by the window in the dining-room, Hilma came in to set the table. At the time Annixter had his feet cocked on the window ledge and was smoking a cigar, but as soon as she entered the room he—without premeditation—brought his feet down to the floor and crushed out the lighted tip of his cigar under the window ledge. Over the top of the paper he glanced at her covertly from time to time.
Though Hilma was only nineteen years old, she was a large girl with all the development of a much older woman. There was a certain generous amplitude to the full, round curves of her hips and shoulders that suggested the precocious maturity of a healthy, vigorous animal life passed under the hot southern sun of a half-tropical country. She was, one knew at a glance, warm-blooded, full-blooded, with an even, comfortable balance of temperament. Her neck was thick, and sloped to her shoulders, with full, beautiful curves, and under her chin and under her ears the flesh was as white and smooth as floss satin, shading exquisitely to a faint delicate brown on her nape at the roots of her hair. Her throat rounded to meet her chin and cheek, with a soft swell of the skin, tinted pale amber in the shadows, but blending by barely perceptible gradations to the sweet, warm flush of her cheek. This colour on her temples was just touched with a certain blueness where the flesh was thin over the fine veining underneath. Her eyes were light brown, and so wide open that on the slightest provocation the full disc of the pupil was disclosed; the lids—just a fraction of a shade darker than the hue of her face—were edged with lashes that were almost black. While these lashes were not long, they were thick and rimmed her eyes with a fine, thin line. Her mouth was rather large, the lips shut tight, and nothing could have been more graceful, more charming than the outline of these full lips of hers, and her round white chin, modulating downward with a certain delicious roundness to her neck, her throat and the sweet feminine amplitude of her breast. The slightest movement of her head and shoulders sent a gentle undulation through all this beauty of soft outlines and smooth surfaces, the delicate amber shadows deepening or fading or losing themselves imperceptibly in the pretty rose-colour of her cheeks, or the dark, warm-tinted shadow of her thick brown hair.
Her hair seemed almost to have a life of its own, almost Medusa-like, thick, glossy and moist, lying in heavy, sweet-smelling masses over her forehead, over her small ears with their pink lobes, and far down upon her nape. Deep in between the coils and braids it was of a bitumen brownness, but in the sunlight it vibrated with a sheen like tarnished gold.
Like most large girls, her movements were not hurried, and this indefinite deliberateness of gesture, this slow grace, this certain ease of attitude, was a charm that was all her own.
But Hilma’s greatest charm of all was her simplicity—a simplicity that was not only in the calm regularity of her face, with its statuesque evenness of contour, its broad surface of cheek and forehead and the masses of her straight smooth hair, but was apparent as well in the long line of her carriage, from her foot to her waist and the single deep swell from her waist to her shoulder. Almost unconsciously she dressed in harmony with this note of simplicity, and on this occasion wore a skirt of plain dark blue calico and a white shirt waist crisp from the laundry.
And yet, for all the dignity of this rigourous simplicity, there were about Hilma small contradictory suggestions of feminine daintiness, charming beyond words. Even Annixter could not help noticing that her feet were narrow and slender, and that the little steel buckles of her low shoes were polished bright, and that her fingertips and nails were of a fine rosy pink.
He found himself wondering how it was that a girl in Hilma’s position should be able to keep herself so pretty, so trim, so clean and feminine, but he reflected that her work was chiefly in the dairy, and even there of the lightest order. She was on the ranch more for the sake of being with her parents than from any necessity of employment. Vaguely he seemed to understand that, in that great new land of the West, in the open-air, healthy life of the ranches, where the conditions of earning a livelihood were of the easiest, refinement among the younger women was easily to be found—not the refinement of education, nor culture, but the natural, intuitive refinement of the woman, not as yet defiled and crushed out by the sordid, strenuous life-struggle of over-populated districts. It was the original, intended and natural delicacy of an elemental existence, close to nature, close to life, close to the great, kindly earth.
As Hilma laid the table-spread, her arms opened to their widest reach, the white cloth setting a little glisten of reflected light underneath the chin, Annixter stirred in his place uneasily.
“Oh, it’s you, is it, Miss Hilma?” he remarked, for the sake of saying something. “Good-morning. How do you do?”
“Good-morning, sir,” she answered, looking up, resting for a moment on her outspread palms. “I hope you are better.”
Her voice was low in pitch and of a velvety huskiness, seeming to come more from her chest than from her throat.
“Well, I’m some better,” growled Annixter. Then suddenly he demanded, “Where’s that dog?”
A decrepit Irish setter sometimes made his appearance in and about the ranch house, sleeping under the bed and eating when anyone about the place thought to give him a plate of bread.
Annixter had no particular interest in the dog. For weeks at a time he ignored its existence. It was not his dog. But to-day it seemed as if he could not let the subject rest. For no reason that he could explain even to himself, he recurred to it continually. He questioned Hilma minutely all about the dog. Who owned him? How old did she think he was? Did she imagine the dog was sick? Where had he got to? Maybe he had crawled off to die somewhere. He recurred to the subject all through the meal; apparently, he could talk of nothing else, and as she finally went away after clearing off the table, he went onto the porch and called after her:
“Say, Miss Hilma.”
“If that dog turns up again you let me know.”
“Very well, sir.”
Annixter returned to the dining-room and sat down in the chair he had just vacated. “To hell with the dog!” he muttered, enraged, he could not tell why.
When at length he allowed his attention to wander from Hilma Tree, he found that he had been staring fixedly at a thermometer upon the wall opposite, and this made him think that it had long been his intention to buy a fine barometer, an instrument that could be accurately depended on. But the barometer suggested the present condition of the weather and the likelihood of rain. In such case, much was to be done in the way of getting the seed ready and overhauling his ploughs and drills. He had not been away from the house in two days. It was time to be up and doing. He determined to put in the afternoon “taking a look around,” and have a late supper. He would not go to Los Muertos; he would ignore Magnus Derrick’s invitation. Possibly, though, it might be well to run over and see what was up.
“If I do,” he said to himself, “I’ll ride the buckskin.” The buckskin was a half-broken broncho that fought like a fiend under the saddle until the quirt and spur brought her to her senses. But Annixter remembered that the Trees’ cottage, next the dairy-house, looked out upon the stables, and perhaps Hilma would see him while he was mounting the horse and be impressed with his courage.
“Huh!” grunted Annixter under his breath, “I should like to see that fool Delaney try to bust that bronch. That’s what I’D like to see.”
However, as Annixter stepped from the porch of the ranch house, he was surprised to notice a grey haze over all the sky; the sunlight was gone; there was a sense of coolness in the air; the weather-vane on the barn—a fine golden trotting horse with flamboyant mane and tail—was veering in a southwest wind. Evidently the expected rain was close at hand.
Annixter crossed over to the stables reflecting that he could ride the buckskin to the Trees’ cottage and tell Hilma that he would not be home to supper. The conference at Los Muertos would be an admirable excuse for this, and upon the spot he resolved to go over to the Derrick ranch house, after all.
As he passed the Trees’ cottage, he observed with satisfaction that Hilma was going to and fro in the front room. If he busted the buckskin in the yard before the stable she could not help but see. Annixter found the stableman in the back of the barn greasing the axles of the buggy, and ordered him to put the saddle on the buckskin.
“Why, I don’t think she’s here, sir,” answered the stableman, glancing into the stalls. “No, I remember now. Delaney took her out just after dinner. His other horse went lame and he wanted to go down by the Long Trestle to mend the fence. He started out, but had to come back.”
“Oh, Delaney got her, did he?”
“Yes, sir. He had a circus with her, but he busted her right enough. When it comes to horse, Delaney can wipe the eye of any cow-puncher in the county, I guess.”
“He can, can he?” observed Annixter. Then after a silence, “Well, all right, Billy; put my saddle on whatever you’ve got here. I’m going over to Los Muertos this afternoon.”
“Want to look out for the rain, Mr. Annixter,” remarked Billy. “Guess we’ll have rain before night.”
“I’ll take a rubber coat,” answered Annixter. “Bring the horse up to the ranch house when you’re ready.”
Annixter returned to the house to look for his rubber coat in deep disgust, not permitting himself to glance toward the dairy-house and the Trees’ cottage. But as he reached the porch he heard the telephone ringing his call. It was Presley, who rang up from Los Muertos. He had heard from Harran that Annixter was, perhaps, coming over that evening. If he came, would he mind bringing over his—Presley’s—bicycle. He had left it at the Quien Sabe ranch the day before and had forgotten to come back that way for it.
“Well,” objected Annixter, a surly note in his voice, “I WAS going to RIDE over.” “Oh, never mind, then,” returned Presley easily. “I was to blame for forgetting it. Don’t bother about it. I’ll come over some of these days and get it myself.”
Annixter hung up the transmitter with a vehement wrench and stamped out of the room, banging the door. He found his rubber coat hanging in the hallway and swung into it with a fierce movement of the shoulders that all but started the seams. Everything seemed to conspire to thwart him. It was just like that absent-minded, crazy poet, Presley, to forget his wheel. Well, he could come after it himself. He, Annixter, would ride SOME horse, anyhow. When he came out upon the porch he saw the wheel leaning against the fence where Presley had left it. If it stayed there much longer the rain would catch it. Annixter ripped out an oath. At every moment his ill-humour was increasing. Yet, for all that, he went back to the stable, pushing the bicycle before him, and countermanded his order, directing the stableman to get the buggy ready. He himself carefully stowed Presley’s bicycle under the seat, covering it with a couple of empty sacks and a tarpaulin carriage cover.
While he was doing this, the stableman uttered an exclamation and paused in the act of backing the horse into the shafts, holding up a hand, listening.
From the hollow roof of the barn and from the thick velvet-like padding of dust over the ground outside, and from among the leaves of the few nearby trees and plants there came a vast, monotonous murmur that seemed to issue from all quarters of the horizon at once, a prolonged and subdued rustling sound, steady, even, persistent.
“There’s your rain,” announced the stableman. “The first of the season.”
“And I got to be out in it,” fumed Annixter, “and I suppose those swine will quit work on the big barn now.”
When the buggy was finally ready, he put on his rubber coat, climbed in, and without waiting for the stableman to raise the top, drove out into the rain, a new-lit cigar in his teeth. As he passed the dairy-house, he saw Hilma standing in the doorway, holding out her hand to the rain, her face turned upward toward the grey sky, amused and interested at this first shower of the wet season. She was so absorbed that she did not see Annixter, and his clumsy nod in her direction passed unnoticed.
“She did it on purpose,” Annixter told himself, chewing fiercely on his cigar. “Cuts me now, hey? Well, this DOES settle it. She leaves this ranch before I’m a day older.”
He decided that he would put off his tour of inspection till the next day. Travelling in the buggy as he did, he must keep to the road which led to Derrick’s, in very roundabout fashion, by way of Guadalajara. This rain would reduce the thick dust of the road to two feet of viscid mud. It would take him quite three hours to reach the ranch house on Los Muertos. He thought of Delaney and the buckskin and ground his teeth. And all this trouble, if you please, because of a fool feemale girl. A fine way for him to waste his time. Well, now he was done with it. His decision was taken now. She should pack.
Steadily the rain increased. There was no wind. The thick veil of wet descended straight from sky to earth, blurring distant outlines, spreading a vast sheen of grey over all the landscape. Its volume became greater, the prolonged murmuring note took on a deeper tone. At the gate to the road which led across Dyke’s hop-fields toward Guadalajara, Annixter was obliged to descend and raise the top of the buggy. In doing so he caught the flesh of his hand in the joint of the iron elbow that supported the top and pinched it cruelly. It was the last misery, the culmination of a long train of wretchedness. On the instant he hated Hilma Tree so fiercely that his sharply set teeth all but bit his cigar in two.
While he was grabbing and wrenching at the buggy-top, the water from his hat brim dripping down upon his nose, the horse, restive under the drench of the rain, moved uneasily.
“Yah-h-h you!” he shouted, inarticulate with exasperation. “You—you—Gor-r-r, wait till I get hold of you. WHOA, you!”
But there was an interruption. Delaney, riding the buckskin, came around a bend in the road at a slow trot and Annixter, getting into the buggy again, found himself face to face with him.
“Why, hello, Mr. Annixter,” said he, pulling up. “Kind of sort of wet, isn’t it?”
Annixter, his face suddenly scarlet, sat back in his place abruptly, exclaiming:
“Oh—oh, there you are, are you?”
“I’ve been down there,” explained Delaney, with a motion of his head toward the railroad, “to mend that break in the fence by the Long Trestle and I thought while I was about it I’d follow down along the fence toward Guadalajara to see if there were any more breaks. But I guess it’s all right.”
“Oh, you guess it’s all right, do you?” observed Annixter through his teeth.
“Why—why—yes,” returned the other, bewildered at the truculent ring in Annixter’s voice. “I mended that break by the Long Trestle just now and——
“Well, why didn’t you mend it a week ago?” shouted Annixter wrathfully. “I’ve been looking for you all the morning, I have, and who told you you could take that buckskin? And the sheep were all over the right of way last night because of that break, and here that filthy pip, S. Behrman, comes down here this morning and wants to make trouble for me.” Suddenly he cried out, “What do I FEED you for? What do I keep you around here for? Think it’s just to fatten up your carcass, hey?”
“Why, Mr. Annixter——” began Delaney.
“And don’t TALK to me,” vociferated the other, exciting himself with his own noise. “Don’t you say a word to me even to apologise. If I’ve spoken to you once about that break, I’ve spoken fifty times.”
“Why, sir,” declared Delaney, beginning to get indignant, “the sheep did it themselves last night.”
“I told you not to TALK to me,” clamoured Annixter.
“But, say, look here——”
“Get off the ranch. You get off the ranch. And taking that buckskin against my express orders. I won’t have your kind about the place, not much. I’m easy-going enough, Lord knows, but I don’t propose to be imposed on ALL the time. Pack off, you understand and do it lively. Go to the foreman and tell him I told him to pay you off and then clear out. And, you hear me,” he concluded, with a menacing outthrust of his lower jaw, “you hear me, if I catch you hanging around the ranch house after this, or if I so much as see you on Quien Sabe, I’ll show you the way off of it, my friend, at the toe of my boot. Now, then, get out of the way and let me pass.”
Angry beyond the power of retort, Delaney drove the spurs into the buckskin and passed the buggy in a single bound. Annixter gathered up the reins and drove on muttering to himself, and occasionally looking back to observe the buckskin flying toward the ranch house in a spattering shower of mud, Delaney urging her on, his head bent down against the falling rain.
“Huh,” grunted Annixter with grim satisfaction, a certain sense of good humour at length returning to him, “that just about takes the saleratus out of YOUR dough, my friend.”
A little farther on, Annixter got out of the buggy a second time to open another gate that let him out upon the Upper Road, not far distant from Guadalajara. It was the road that connected that town with Bonneville and that ran parallel with the railroad tracks. On the other side of the track he could see the infinite extension of the brown, bare land of Los Muertos, turning now to a soft, moist welter of fertility under the insistent caressing of the rain. The hard, sun-baked clods were decomposing, the crevices between drinking the wet with an eager, sucking noise. But the prospect was dreary; the distant horizons were blotted under drifting mists of rain; the eternal monotony of the earth lay open to the sombre low sky without a single adornment, without a single variation from its melancholy flatness. Near at hand the wires between the telegraph poles vibrated with a faint humming under the multitudinous fingering of the myriad of falling drops, striking among them and dripping off steadily from one to another. The poles themselves were dark and swollen and glistening with wet, while the little cones of glass on the transverse bars reflected the dull grey light of the end of the afternoon.
As Annixter was about to drive on, a freight train passed, coming from Guadalajara, going northward toward Bonneville, Fresno and San Francisco. It was a long train, moving slowly, methodically, with a measured coughing of its locomotive and a rhythmic cadence of its trucks over the interstices of the rails. On two or three of the flat cars near its end, Annixter plainly saw Magnus Derrick’s ploughs, their bright coating of red and green paint setting a single brilliant note in all this array of grey and brown.
Annixter halted, watching the train file past, carrying Derrick’s ploughs away from his ranch, at this very time of the first rain, when they would be most needed. He watched it, silent, thoughtful, and without articulate comment. Even after it passed he sat in his place a long time, watching it lose itself slowly in the distance, its prolonged rumble diminishing to a faint murmur. Soon he heard the engine sounding its whistle for the Long Trestle.
But the moving train no longer carried with it that impression of terror and destruction that had so thrilled Presley’s imagination the night before. It passed slowly on its way with a mournful roll of wheels, like the passing of a cortege, like a file of artillery-caissons charioting dead bodies; the engine’s smoke enveloping it in a mournful veil, leaving a sense of melancholy in its wake, moving past there, lugubrious, lamentable, infinitely sad under the grey sky and under the grey mist of rain which continued to fall with a subdued, rustling sound, steady, persistent, a vast monotonous murmur that seemed to come from all quarters of the horizon at once.
Chapter excerpted from The Octopus: A Story of California, by Frank Norris, 1901