It was on a bright June morning that Billy told Saxon to put on her riding clothes to try out a saddle-horse.
"Not until after ten o'clock," she said "By that time I'll have the wagon off on a second trip."
Despite the extent of the business she had developed, her executive ability and system gave her much spare time. She could call on the Hales, which was ever a delight, especially now that the Hastings were back and that Clara was often at her aunt's. In this congenial atmosphere Saxon Burgeoned. She had begun to read- -to read with understanding; and she had time for her books, for work on her pretties, and for Billy, whom she accompanied on many expeditions.
Billy was even busier than she, his work being more scattered and diverse. And, as well, he kept his eye on the home barn and horses which Saxon used. In truth he had become a man of affairs, though Mrs. Mortimer had gone over his accounts, with an eagle eye on the expense column, discovering several minor leaks, and finally, aided by Saxon, bullied him into keeping books. Each night, after supper, he and Saxon posted their books. Afterward, in the big morris chair he had insisted on buying early in the days of his brickyard contract, Saxon would creep into his arms and strum on the ukelele; or they would talk long about what they were doing and planning to do. Now it would be:
"I'm mixin' up in politics, Saxon. It pays. You bet it pays. If by next spring I ain't got a half a dozen teams workin' on the roads an' pullin' down the county money, it's me back to Oakland an' askin' the Boss for a job."
Or, Saxon: "They're really starting that new hotel between Caliente and Eldridge. And there's some talk of a big sanitarium back in the hills."
Or, it would be: "Billy, now that you've piped that acre, you've just got to let me have it for my vegetables. I'll rent it from you. I'll take your own estimate for all the alfalfa you can raise on it, and pay you full market price less the cost of growing it."
"It's all right, take it." Billy suppressed a sigh. "Besides, I 'm too busy to fool with it now. "
Which prevarication was bare-faced, by virtue of his having just installed the ram and piped the land.
"It will be the wisest, Billy," she soothed, for she knew his dream of land-spaciousness was stronger than ever. "You don't want to fool with an acre. There's that hundred and forty. We'll buy it yet if old Chavon ever dies. Besides, it really belongs to Madrono Ranch. The two together were the original quarter section."
"I don't wish no man's death," Billy grumbled. "But he ain't gettin' no good out of it, over-pasturin' it with a lot of scrub animals. I've sized it up every inch of it. They's at least forty acres in the three cleared fields, with water in the hills behind to beat the band. The horse feed I could raise on it'd take your breath away. Then they's at least fifty acres I could run my brood mares on, pasture mixed up with trees and steep places and such. The other fifty's just thick woods, an' pretty places, an' wild game. An' that old adobe barn's all right. With a new roof it'd shelter any amount of animals in bad weather. Cook at me now, rentin' that measly pasture back of Ping's just to run my restin' animals. They could run in the hundred an' forty if I only had it. I wonder if Chavon would lease it."
Or, less ambitious, Billy would say: "I gotta skin over to Petaluma to-morrow, Saxon. They's an auction on the Atkinson Ranch an' maybe I can pick up some bargains."
"Ain't I got two teams haulin' lumber for the new winery? An' Barney's got a bad shoulder-sprain. He'll have to lay off a long time if he's to get it in shape. An' Bridget ain't ever goin' to do a tap of work again. I can see that stickin' out. I've doctored her an' doctored her. She's fooled the vet, too. An' some of the other horses has gotta take a rest. That span of grays is showin' the hard work. An' the big roan's goin' loco. Everybody thought it was his teeth, but it ain't. It's straight loco. It's money in pocket to take care of your animals, an' horses is the delicatest things on four legs. Some time, if I can ever see my way to it, I 'm goin' to ship a carload of mules from Colusa County--big, heavy ones, you know. They'd sell like hot cakes in the valley here--them I didn't want for myself."
Or, in lighter vein, Billy: "By the way, Saxon, talkin' of accounts, what d'you think Hazel an' Hattie is worth?-- fair market price,"
"I 'm askin' you."
"Well, say, what you paid for them--three hundred dollars."
"Hum." Billy considered deeply. "They're worth a whole lot more, but let it go at that. An' now, gettin' back to accounts, suppose you write me a check for three hundred dollars."
"You can't show me. Why, Saxon, when I let you have grain an' hay from my carloads, don't you give me a check for it? An' you know how you're stuck on keepin' your accounts down to the penny," he teased. "If you're any kind of a business woman you just gotta charge your business with them two horses. I ain't had the use of 'em since I don't know when."
"But the colts will be yours," she argued. "Besides, I can't afford brood mares in my business. In almost no time, now, Hazel and Hattie will have to be taken off from the wagon--they're too good for it anyway. And you keep your eyes open for a pair to take their place. I'll give you a check for THAT pair, but no commission."
"All right," Billy conceded. "Hazel an' Hattie come back to me; but you can pay me rent for the time you did use 'em."
"If you make me, I'll charge you board," she threatened.
"An' if you charge me board, I'll charge you interest for the money I've stuck into this shebang."
"You can't," Saxon laughed. "It's community property."
He grunted spasmodically, as if the breath had been knocked out of him.
"Straight on the solar plexus," he said, "an' me down for the count. But say, them's sweet words, ain't they.-- community property." He rolled them over and off his tongue with keen relish. "An' when we got married the top of our ambition was a steady job an' some rags an' sticks of furniture all paid up an' half-worn out. We wouldn't have had any community property only for you."
"What nonsense! What could I have done by myself? You know very well that you earned all the money that started us here. You paid the wages of Gow Yum and Chan Chi, and old Hughie, and Mrs. Paul, and--why, you've done it all."
She drew her two hands caressingly across his shoulders and down along his great biceps muscles.
"That's what did it, Billy."
"Aw hell! It's your head that done it. What was my muscles good for with no head to run 'em,--sluggin' scabs, beatin' up lodgers, an' crookin' the elbow over a bar. The only sensible thing my head ever done was when it run me into you. Honest to God, Saxon, you've been the makin' of me."
"Aw hell, Billy," she mimicked in the way that delighted him, "where would I have been if you hadn't taken me out of the laundry? I couldn't take myself out. I was just a helpless girl. I'd have been there yet if it hadn't been for you. Mrs. Mortimer had five thousand dollars; but I had you."
"A woman ain't got the chance to help herself that a man has," he generalized. "I'll tell you what: It took the two of us. It's been team-work. We've run in span. If we'd a-run single, you might still be in the laundry; an', if I was lucky, I'd be still drivin' team by the day an' sportin' around to cheap dances."
Saxon stood under the father of all madronos, watching Hazel and Hattie go out the gate, the full vegetable wagon behind them, when she saw Billy ride in, leading a sorrel mare from whose silken coat the sun flashed golden lights.
"Four-year-old, high-life, a handful, but no vicious tricks," Billy chanted, as he stopped beside Saxon. "Skin like tissue paper, mouth like silk, but kill the toughest broncho ever foaled--look at them lungs an' nostrils. They call her Ramona--some Spanish name: sired by Morellita outa genuine Morgan stock."
"And they will sell her?" Saxon gasped, standing with hands clasped in inarticulate delight.
"That's what I brought her to show you for."
"But how much must they want for her?" was Saxon's next question, so impossible did it seem that such an amazement of horse-flesh could ever be hers.
"That ain't your business," Billy answered brusquely. "The brickyard's payin' for her, not the vegetable ranch. She's yourn at the word. What d'ye say?"
"I'll tell you in a minute."
Saxon was trying to mount, but the animal danced nervously away.
"Hold on till I tie," Billy said. "She ain't skirt-broke, that's the trouble."
Saxon tightly gripped reins and mane, stepped with spurred foot on Billy's hand, and was lifted lightly into the saddle.
"She's used to spurs," Billy called after. "Spanish broke, so don't check her quick. Come in gentle. An' talk to her. She's high-life, you know."
Saxon nodded, dashed out the gate and down the road, waved a hand to Clara Hastings as she passed the gate of Trillium Covert, and continued up Wild Water canyon.
When she came back, Ramona in a pleasant lather, Saxon rode to the rear of the house, past the chicken houses and the flourishing berry-rows, to join Billy on the rim of the bench, where he sat on his horse in the shade, smoking a cigarette. Together they looked down through an opening among the trees to the meadow which was a meadow no longer. With mathematical accuracy it was divided into squares, oblongs, and narrow strips, which displayed sharply the thousand hues of green of a truck garden. Gow Yum and Chan Chi, under enormous Chinese grass hats, were planting green onions. Old Hughie, hoe in hand, plodded along the main artery of running water, opening certain laterals, closing others. From the work-shed beyond the barn the strokes of a hammer told Saxon that Carlsen was wire-binding vegetable boxes. Mrs. Paul's cheery soprano, lifted in a hymn, doated through the trees, accompanied by the whirr of an egg-beater. A sharp barking told where Possum still waged hysterical and baffled war on the Douglass squirrels. Billy took a long draw from his cigarette, exhaled the smoke, and continued to look down at the meadow. Saxon divined trouble in his manner. His rein-hand was on the pommel, and her free hand went out and softly rested on his. Billy turned his slow gaze upon her mare's lather, seeming not to note it, and continued on to Saxon's face.
"Huh!" he equivocated, as if waking up. "Them San Leandro Porchugeeze ain't got nothin' on us when it comes to intensive farmin'. Look at that water runnin'. You know, it seems so good to me that sometimes I just wanta get down on hands an' knees an' lap it all up myself."
"Oh, to have all the water you want in a climate like this!" Saxon exclaimed.
"An' don't be scared of it ever goin' back on you. If the rains fooled you, there's Sonoma Creek alongside. All we gotta do is install a gasolene pump."
"But we'll never have to, Billy. I was talking with 'Redwood' Thompson. He's lived in the valley since Fifty-three, and he says there's never been a failure of crops on account of drought. We always get our rain."
"Come on, let's go for a ride," he said abruptly. "You've got the time."
"All right, if you'll tell me what's bothering you."
He looked at her quickly.
"Nothin'," he grunted. "Yes, there is, too. What's the difference? You'd know it sooner or later. You ought to see old Chavon. His face is that long he can't walk without bumpin' his knee on his chin. His gold-mine's peterin' out."
"His clay pit. It's the same thing. He's gettin' twenty cents a yard for it from the brickyard."
"And that means the end of your teaming contract." Saxon saw the disaster in all its hugeness. "What about the brickyard people?"
"Worried to death, though they've kept secret about it. They've had men out punchin' holes all over the hills for a week, an' that Jap chemist settin' up nights analyzin' the rubbish they've brought in. It's peculiar stuff, that clay, for what they want it for, an' you don't find it everywhere. Them experts that reported on Chavon's pit made one hell of a mistake. Maybe they was lazy with their borin's. Anyway, they slipped up on the amount of clay they was in it. Now don't get to botherin'. It'd come out somehow. You can't do nothin'."
"But I can, " Saxon insisted. "We won't buy Ramona."
"You ain't got a thing to do with that," he answered. "I 'm buyin' her, an' her price don't cut any figure alongside the big game I 'm playin'. Of course, I can always sell my horses. But that puts a stop to their makin' money, an' that brickyard contract was fat."
"But if you get some of them in on the road work for the county?" she suggested.
"Oh, I got that in mind. An' I 'm keepin' my eyes open. They's a chance the quarry will start again, an' the fellow that did that teamin' has gone to Puget Sound. An' what if I have to sell out most of the horses? Here's you and the vegetable business. That's solid. We just don't go ahead so fast for a time, that's all. I ain't scared of the country any more. I sized things up as we went along. They ain't a jerk burg we hit all the time on the road that I couldn't jump into an' make a go. An' now where d'you want to ride?"