Valley Of The Moon

Book 3

Jack London

Chapter 8


Every half tide Billy raced out the south wall over the dangerous course he and Hall had traveled, and each trial found him doing it in faster time.

"Wait till Sunday," he said to Saxon. "I'll give that poet a run for his money. Why, they ain't a place that bothers me now. I've got the head confidence. I run where I went on hands an' knees. I figured it out this way: Suppose you had a foot to fall on each side, an' it was soft hay. They'd be nothing to stop you. You wouldn't fall. You'd go like a streak. Then it's just the same if it's a mile down on each side. That ain't your concern. Your concern is to stay on top and go like a streak. An', d'ye know, Saxon, when I went at it that way it never bothered me at all. Wait till he comes with his crowd Sunday. I'm ready for him."

"I wonder what the crowd will be like," Saxon speculated.

"Like him, of course. Birds of a feather flock together. They won't be stuck up, any of them, you'll see."

Hall had sent out fish-lines and a swimming suit by a Mexican cowboy bound south to his ranch, and from the latter they learned much of the government land and how to get it. The week flew by; each day Saxon sighed a farewell of happiness to the sun; each morning they greeted its return with laughter of joy in that another happy day had begun. They made no plans, but fished, gathered mussels and abalones, and climbed among the rocks as the moment moved them. The abalone meat they pounded religiously to a verse of doggerel improvised by Saxon. Billy prospered. Saxon had never seen him at so keen a pitch of health. As for herself, she scarcely needed the little hand-mirror to know that never, since she was a young girl, had there been such color in her cheeks, such spontaneity of vivacity.

"It's the first time in my life I ever had real play," Billy said. "An' you an' me never played at all all the time we was married. This beats bein' any kind of a millionaire."

"No seven o'clock whistle," Saxon exulted. "I'd lie abed in the mornings on purpose, only everything is too good not to be up. And now you just play at chopping some firewood and catching a nice big perch, Man Friday, if you expect to get any dinner."

Billy got up, hatchet in hand, from where he had been lying prone, digging holes in the sand with his bare toes.

"But it ain't goin' to last," he said, with a deep sigh of regret. "The rains'll come any time now. The good weather's hangin' on something wonderful."

On Saturday morning, returning from his run out the south wall, he missed Saxon. After helloing for her without result, he climbed to the road. Half a mile away, he saw her astride an unsaddled, unbridled horse that moved unwillingly, at a slow walk, across the pasture.

"Lucky for you it was an old mare that had been used to ridin'--see them saddle marks," he grumbled, when she at last drew to a halt beside him and allowed him to help her down.

"Oh, Billy," she sparkled, "I was never on a horse before. It was glorious! I felt so helpless, too, and so brave."

"I'm proud of you, just the same," he said, in more grumbling tones than before. " 'Tain't every married women'd tackle a strange horse that way, especially if she'd never ben on one. An' I ain't forgot that you're goin' to have a saddle animal all to yourself some day--a regular Joe dandy."

The Abalone Eaters, in two rigs and on a number of horses, descended in force on Bierce's Cove. There were half a score of men and almost as many women. All were young, between the ages of twenty-five and forty, and all seemed good friends. Most of them were married. They arrived in a roar of good spirits, tripping one another down the slippery trail and engulfing Saxon and Billy in a comradeship as artless and warm as the sunshine itself. Saxon was appropriated by the girls--she could not realize them women; and they made much of her, praising her camping and traveling equipment and insisting on hearing some of her tale. They were experienced campers themselves, as she quickly discovered when she saw the pots and pans and clothes-boilers for the mussels which they had brought.

In the meantime Billy and the men had undressed and scattered out after mussels and abalones. The girls lighted on Saxon's ukulele and nothing would do but she must play and sing. Several of them had been to Honolulu, and knew the instrument, confirming Mercedes' definition of ukulele as "jumping flea." Also, they knew Hawaiian songs she had learned from Mercedes, and soon, to her accompaniment, all were singing: "Aloha Oe," "Honolulu Tomboy," and "Sweet Lei Lehua." Saxon was genuinely shocked when some of them, even the more matronly, danced hulas on the sand.

When the men returned, burdened with sacks of shellfish, Mark Hall, as high priest, commanded the due and solemn rite of the tribe. At a wave of his hand, the many poised stones came down in unison on the white meat, and all voices were uplifted in the Hymn to the Abalone. Old verses all sang, ocasionally some one sang a fresh verse alone, whereupon it was repeated in chorus. Billy betrayed Saxon by begging her in an undertone to sing the verse she had made, and her pretty voice was timidly raised in:

"We sit around and gaily pound, And bear no acrimony Because our ob--ject is a gob Of sizzling abalone."

"Great!" cried the poet, who had winced at ob--ject. "She speaks the language of the tribe! Come on, children--now!"

And all chanted Saxon's lines. Then Jim Hazard had a new verse, and one of the girls, and the Iron Man with the basilisk eyes of greenish-gray, whom Saxon recognized from Hall's description. To her it seemed he had the face of a priest.

"Oh! some like ham and some like lamb And some like macaroni; But bring me in a pail of gin And a tub of abalone.

"Oh! some drink rain and some champagne Or brandy by the pony; But I will try a little rye With a dash of abalone.

"Some live on hope and some on dope And some on alimony. But our tom-cat, he lives on fat And tender abalone."

A black-haired, black-eyed man with the roguish face of a satyr, who, Saxon learned, was an artist who sold his paintings at five hundred apiece, brought on himself universa1 execration and acclamation by singing:

"The more we take, the more they make In deep sea matrimony; Race suicide cannot betide The fertile abalone."

And so it went, verses new and old, verses without end, all in glorification of the succulent shellfish of Carmel. Saxon's enjoyment was keen, almost ecstatic, and she had diffculty in convincing herself of the reality of it all. It seemed like some fairy tale or book story come true. Again, it seemed more like a stage, and these the actors, she and Billy having blundered into the scene in some incomprehensible way. Much of wit she sensed which she did not understand. Much she did understand. And she was aware that brains were playing as she had never seen brains play before. The puritan streak in her training was astonished and shocked by some of the broadness; but she refused to sit in judgment. They SEEMED good, these light-hearted young people; they certainly were not rough or gross as were many of the crowds she had been with on Sunday picnics. None of the men got drunk, although there were cocktails in vacuum bottles and red wine in a huge demijohn.

What impressed Saxon most was their excessive jollity, their childlike joy, and the childlike things they did. This effect was heightened by the fact that they were novelists and painters, poets and critics, sculptors and musicians. One man, with a refined and delicate face--a dramatic critic on a great San Francisco daily, she was told--introduced a feat which all the men tried and failed at most ludicrously. On the beach, at regular intervals, planks were placed as obstacles. Then the dramatic critic, on all fours, galloped along the sand for all the world like a horse, and for all the world like a horse taking hurdles he jumped the planks to the end of the course.

Quoits had been brought along, and for a while these were pitched with zest. Then jumping was started, and game slid into game. Billy took part in everything, but did not win first place as often as he had expected. An English writer beat him a dozen feet at tossing the caber. Jim Hazard beat him in putting the heavy "rock." Mark Hall out-jumped him standing and running. But at the standing high back-jump Billy did come first. Despite the handicap of his weight, this victory was due to his splendid back and abdominal lifting muscles. Immediately after this, however, he was brought to grief by Mark Hall's sister, a strapping young amazon in cross-saddle riding costume, who three times tumbled him ignominiously heels over head in a bout of Indian wrestling.

"You're easy," jeered the Iron Man, whose name they had learned was Pete Bideaux. "I can put you down myself, catch-as-catch-can."

Billy accepted the challenge, and found in all truth that the other was rightly nicknamed. In the training camps Billy had sparred and clinched with giant champions like Jim Jeffries and Jack Johnson, and met the weight of their strength, but never had he encountered strength like this of the Iron Man. Do what he could, Billy was powerless, and twice his shoulders were ground into the sand in defeat.

"You'll get a chance back at him," Hazard whispered to Billy, off at one side. "I've brought the gloves along. Of course, you had no chance with him at his own game. He's wrestled in the music halls in London with Hackenschmidt. Now you keep quiet, and we'll lead up to it in a casual sort of way. He doesn't know about you."

Soon, the Englishman who had tossed the caber was sparring with the dramatic critic, Hazard and Hall boxed in fantastic burlesque, then, gloves in hand, looked for the next appropriately matched couple. The choice of Bideaux and Billy was obvious.

"He's liable to get nasty if he's hurt," Hazard warned Billy, as he tied on the gloves for him. "He's old American French, and he's got a devil of a temper. But just keep your head and tap him--whatever you do, keep tapping him."

"Easy sparring now"; "No roughhouse, Bideaux"; "Just light tapping, you know," were admonitions variously addressed to the Iron Man.

"Hold on a second," he said to Billy, dropping his hands. "When I get rapped I do get a bit hot. But don't mind me. I can't help it, you know. It's only for the moment, and I don't mean it."

Saxon felt very nervous, visions of Billy's bloody fights and all the scabs he had slugged rising in her brain; but she had never seen her husband box, and but few seconds were required to put her at ease. The Iron Man had no chance. Billy was too completely the master, guarding every blow, himself continually and almost at will tapping the other's face and body. There was no weight in Billy's blows, only a light and snappy tingle; but their incessant iteration told on the Iron Man's temper. In vain the onlookers warned him to go easy. His face purpled with anger, and his blows became savage. But Billy went on, tap, tap, tap, calmly, gently, imperturbably. The Iron Man lost control, and rushed and plunged, delivering great swings and upper-cuts of man-killing quality. Billy ducked, side-stepped, blocked, stalled, and escaped all damage. In the clinches, which were unavoidable, he locked the Iron Man's arms, and in the clinches the Iron Man invariably laughed and apologized, only to lose his head with the first tap the instant they separated and be more infuriated than ever.

And when it was over and Billy's identity had been divulged, the Iron Man accepted the joke on himself with the best of humor. It had been a splendid exhibition on Billy's part. His mastery of the sport, coupled with his self-control, had most favorably impressed the crowd, and Saxon, very proud of her man boy, could not but see the admiration all had for him.

Nor did she prove in any way a social failure. When the tired and sweating players lay down in the dry sand to cool off, she was persuaded into accompanying their nonsense songs with the ukulele. Nor was it long, catching their spirit, ere she was singing to them and teaching them quaint songs of early days which she had herself learned as a little girl from Cady--Cady, the saloonkeeper, pioneer, and ax-cavalryman, who had been a bull-whacker on the Salt Intake Trail in the days before the railroad.

One song which became an immediate favorite was:

"Oh! times on Bitter Creek, they never can be beat, Root hog or die is on every wagon sheet; The sand within your throat, the dust within your eye, Bend your back and stand it--root hog or die."

After the dozen verses of "Root Hog or Die," Mark Hall claimed to be especially infatuated with:

"Obadier, he dreampt a dream, Dreampt he was drivin' a ten-mule team, But when he woke he heaved a sigh, The lead-mule kicked e-o-wt the swing-mule's eye."

It was Mark Hall who brought up the matter of Billy's challenge to race out the south wall of the cove, though he referred to the test as lying somewhere in the future. Billy surprised him by saying he was ready at any time. Forthwith the crowd clamored for the race. Hall offered to bet on himself, but there were no takers. He offered two to one to Jim Hazard, who shook his head and said he would accept three to one as a sporting proposition. Billy heard and gritted his teeth.

"I'll take you for five dollars," he said to Hall, "but not at those odds. I'll back myself even."

"It isn't your money I want; it's Hazard's," Hall demurred. "Though I'll give either of you three to one."

"Even or nothing," Billy held out obstinately.

Hall finally closed both bets--even with Billy, and three to one with Hazard.

The path along the knife-edge was so narorw that it was impossible for runners to pass each other, so it was arranged to time the men, Hall to go first and Billy to follow after an interval of half a minute.

Hall toed the mark and at the word was off with the form of a sprinter. Saxon's heart sank. She knew Billy had never crossed the stretch of sand at that speed. Billy darted forward thirty seconds later, and reached the foot of the rock when Hall was half way up. When both were on top and racing from notch to notch, the Iron Man announced that they had scaled the wall in the same time to a second.

"My money still looks good," Hazard remarked, "though I hope neither of them breaks a neck. I wouldn't take that run that way for all the gold that would fill the cove."

"But you'll take bigger chances swimming in a storm on Carmel Beach," his wife chided.

"Oh, I don't know," he retorted. "You haven't so far to fall when swimming."

Billy and Hall had disappeared and were making the circle around the end. Those on the beach were certain that the poet had gained in the dizzy spurts of flight along the knife-edge. Even Hazard admitted it.

"What price for my money now?" he cried excitedly, dancing up and down.

Hall had reappeared, the great jump accomplished, and was running shoreward. But there was no gap. Billy was on his heels, and on his heels he stayed, in to shore, down the wall, and to the mark on the beach. Billy had won by half a minute.

"Only by the watch," he panted. "Hall was over half a minute ahead of me out to the end. I'm not slower than I thought, but he's faster. He's a wooz of a sprinter. He could beat me ten times outa ten, except for accident. He was hung up at the jump by a big sea. That's where I caught 'm. I jumped right after 'm on the same sea, then he set the pace home, and all I had to do was take it."

"That's all right," said Hall. "You did better than beat me. That's the first time in the history of Bierce's Cove that two men made that jump on the same sea. And all the risk was yours, coming last."

"It was a fluke," Billy insisted.

And at that point Saxon settled the dispute of modesty and raised a general laugh by rippling chords on the ukulele and parodying an old hymn in negro minstrel fashion:

"De Lawd move in er mischievous way His blunders to perform."

In the afternoon Jim Hazard and Hall dived into the breakers and swam to the outlying rocks, routing the protesting sea-lions and taking possession of their surf-battered stronghold. Billy followed the swimmers with his eyes, yearning after them so undisguisedly that Mrs. Hazard said to him:

"Why don't you stop in Carmel this winter? Jim will teach you all he knows about the surf. And he's wild to box with you. He works long hours at his desk, and he really needs exercise."

Not until sunset did the merry crowd carry their pots and pans and trove of mussels up to the road and depart. Saxon and Billy watched them disappear, on horses and behind horses, over the top of the first hill, and then descended hand in hand through the thicket to the camp. Billy threw himself on the sand and stretched out.

"I don't know when I've been so tired," he yawned. "An' there's one thing sure: I never had such a day. It's worth livin'twenty years for an' then some."

He reached out his hand to Saxon, who lay beside him.

"And, oh, I was so proud of you, Billy," she said. "I never saw you box before. I didn't know it was like that. The Iron Man was at your mercy all the time, and you kept it from being violent or terrible. Everybody could look on and enjoy--and they did, too."

"Huh, I want to say you was goin' some yourself. They just took to you. Why, honest to God, Saxon, in the singin' you was the whole show, along with the ukulele. All the women liked you, too, an' that's what counts."

It was their first social triumph, and the taste of it was sweet:

"Mr. Hall said he'd looked up the 'Story of the Files,'" Saxon recounted. "And he said mother was a true poet. He said it was astonishing the fine stock that had crossed the Plains. He told me a lot about those times and the people I didn't know. And he's read all about the fight at Little Meadow. He says he's got it in a book at home, and if we come back to Carmel he'll show it to me."

"He wants us to come back all right. D'ye know what he said to me, Saxon t He gave me a letter to some guy that's down on the government land--some poet that's holdin' down a quarter of a section--so we'll be able to stop there, which'll come in handy if the big rains catch us. An'--Oh! that's what I was drivin' at. He said he had a little shack he lived in while the house was buildin'. The Iron Man's livin' in it now, but he's goin' away to some Catholic college to study to be a priest, an' Hall said the shack'd be ours as long as we wanted to use it. An' he said I could do what the Iron Man was doin' to make a livin'. Hall was kind of bashful when he was offerin' me work. Said it'd be only odd jobs, but that we'd make out. I could help'm plant potatoes, he said; an' he got half savage when he said I couldn't chop wood. That was his job, he said; an' you could see he was actually jealous over it."

"And Mrs. Hall said just about the same to me, Billy. Carmel wouldn't be so bad to pass the rainy season in. And then, too, you could go swimming with Mr. Hazard."

"Seems as if we could settle down wherever we've a mind to," Billy assented. "Carmel's the third place now that's offered. Well, after this, no man need be afraid of makin' a go in the country."

"No good man," Saxon corrected.

"I guess you're right." Billy thought for a moment. "Just the same a dub, too, has a better chance in the country than in the city."

"Who'd have ever thought that such fine people existed?" Saxon pondered. "It's just wonderful, when you come to think of it."

"It's only what you'd expect from a rich poet that'd trip up a foot-racer at an Irish picnic," Billy exposited.

"The only crowd such a guy'd run with would be like himself, or he'd make a crowd that was. I wouldn't wonder that he'd make this crowd. Say, he's got some sister, if anybody'd ride up on a sea-lion an' ask you. She's got that Indian wrestlin' down pat, an' she's built for it. An' say, ain't his wife a beaut?"

A little longer they lay in the warm sand. It was Billy who broke the silence, and what he said seemed to proceed out of profound meditation.

"Say, Saxon, d'ye know I don't care if I never see movie pictures again."