They cantered out the gate, thundered across the bridge, and passed Trillium Covert before they pulled in on the grade of Wild Water Canyon. Saxon had chosen her field on the big spur of Sonoma Mountains as the objective of their ride.
"Say, I bumped into something big this mornin' when I was goin' to fetch Ramona," Billy said, the clay pit trouble banished for the time. "You know the hundred an' forty. I passed young Chavon along the road, an'--I don't know why--just for ducks, I guess--I up an' asked 'm if he thought the old man would lease the hundred an' forty to me. An' what d 'you think! He said the old man didn't own it. Was just leasin' it himself. That's how we was always seein' his cattle on it. It's a gouge into his land, for he owns everything on three sides of it.
"Next I met Ping. He said Hilyard owned it an' was willin' to sell, only Chavon didn't have the price. Then, comin' back, I looked in on Payne. He's quit blacksmithin'--his back's hurtin' 'm from a kick--an' just startin' in for real estate. Sure, he said, Hilyard would sell, an' had already listed the land with 'm. Chavon's over-pastured it, an' Hilyard won't give 'm another lease."
When they had climbed out of Wild Water Canyon they turned their horses about and halted on the rim where they could look across at the three densely wooded knolls in the midst of the desired hundred and forty.
"We'll get it yet," Saxon said.
"Sure we will," Billy agreed with careless certitude. "I've ben lookin' over the big adobe barn again. Just the thing for a raft of horses, an' a new roof'll be cheaper 'n I thought. Though neither Chavon or me'll be in the market to buy it right away, with the clay pinchin' out."
When they reached Saxon's field, which they had learned was the property of Redwood Thompson, they tied the horses and entered it on foot. The hay, just cut, was being raked by Thompson, who hallo'd a greeting to them. It was a cloudless, windless day, and they sought refuge from the sun in the woods beyond. They encountered a dim trail.
"It's a cow trail," Billy declared. "I bet they's a teeny pasture tucked away somewhere in them trees. Let's follow it."
A quarter of an hour later, several hundred feet up the side of the spur, they emerged on an open, grassy space of bare hillside. Most of the hundred and forty, two miles away, lay beneath them, while they were level with the tops of the three knolls. Billy paused to gaze upon the much-desired land, and Saxon joined him.
"What is that?" she asked, pointing toward the knolls. "Up the little canyon, to the left of it, there on the farthest knoll, right under that spruce that's leaning over."
What Billy saw was a white scar on the canyon wall.
"It's one on me," he said, studying the scar. "I thought I knew every inch of that land, but I never seen that before. Why, I was right in there at the head of the canyon the first part of the winter. It's awful wild. Walls of the canyon like the sides of a steeple an' covered with thick woods."
"What is it?" she asked. "A slide?"
"Must be--brought down by the heavy rains. If I don't miss my guess--" Billy broke off, forgetting in the intensity with which he continued to look.
"Hilyard'll sell for thirty an acre," he began again, disconnectedly. "Good land, bad land, an' all, just as it runs, thirty an acre. That's forty-two hundred. Payne's new at real estate, an' I'll make 'm split his commission an' get the easiest terms ever. We can re-borrow that four hundred from Gow Yum, an' I can borrow money on my horses an' wagons--"
"Are you going to buy it to-day?" Saxon teased.
She scarcely touched the edge of his thought. He looked at her, as if he had heard, then forgot her the next moment.
"Head work," he mumbled. "Head work. If I don't put over a hot one--"
He started back down the cow trail, recollected Saxon, and called over his shoulder:
"Come on. Let's hustle. I wanta ride over an' look at that."
So rapidly did he go down the trail and across the field, that Saxon had no time for questions. She was almost breathless from her effort to keep up with him.
"What is it?" she begged, as he lifted her to the saddle.
"Maybe it's all a joke--I'll tell you about it afterward," he put her off.
They galloped on the levels, trotted down the gentler slopes of road, and not until on the steep descent of Wild Water canyon did they rein to a walk. Billy's preoccupation was gone, and Saxon took advantage to broach a subject which had been on her mind for some time.
"Clara Hastings told me the other day that they're going to have a house party. The Hazards are to be there, and the Halls, and Roy Blanchard...."
She looked at Billy anxiously. At the mention of Blanchard his head had tossed up as to a bugle call. Slowly a whimsical twinkle began to glint up through the cloudy blue of his eyes.
"It's a long time since you told any man he was standing on his foot," she ventured slyly
Billy began to grin sheepishly.
"Aw, that's all right," he said in mock-lordly fashion. "Roy Blanchard can come. I'll let 'm. All that was a long time ago. Besides, I 'm too busy to fool with such things."
He urged his horse on at a faster walk, and as soon as the slope lessened broke into a trot. At Trillium Covert they were galloping.
"You'll have to stop for dinner first," Saxon said, as they neared the gate of Madrono Ranch.
"You stop," he answered. "I don't want no dinner."
"But I want to go with you," she pleaded. "What is it? "
"I don't dast tell you. You go on in an' get your dinner."
"Not after that," she said. "Nothing can keep me from coming along now."
Half a mile farther on, they left the highway, passed through a patent gate which Billy had installed, and crossed the fields on a road which was coated thick with chalky dust. This was the road that led to Chavon's clay pit. The hundred and forty lay to the west. Two wagons, in a cloud of dust, came into sight.
"Your teams, Billy," cried Saxon. "Think of it! Just by the use of the head, earning your money while you're riding around with me."
"Makes me ashamed to think how much cash money each one of them teams is bringin' me in every day," he acknowledged.
They were turning off from the road toward the bars which gave entrance to the one hundred and forty, when the driver of the foremost wagon hallo'd and waved his hand. They drew in their horses and waited.
"The big roan's broke loose," the dryer said, as he stopped beside them. "Clean crazy loco--bitin', squealin', strikin', kickin'. Kicked clean out of the harness like it was paper. Bit a chunk out of Baldy the size of a saucer, an' wound up by breakin' his own hind leg. Liveliest fifteen minutes I ever seen."
"Sure it's broke?" Billy demanded sharply.
"Well, after you unload, drive around by the other barn and get Ben. He's in the corral. Tell Matthews to be easy with 'm. An' get a gun. Sammy's got one. You'll have to see to the briig roan. I ain't got time now.--Why couldn't Matthews a-come along with you for Ben? You'd save time."
"Oh, he's just stickin'around waitin'," the driver answered. "He reckoned I could get Ben."
"An' lose time, eh? Well, get a move on."
"That's the way of it," Billy growled to Saxon as they rode on. "No savve. No head. One man settin' down an' holdin his hands while another team drives outa its way doin what he oughta done. That's the trouble with two-dollar-a-day men."
"With two-dollar-a-day heads," Saxon said quickly."What kind of heads do you expect for two dollars?"
"That's right, too," Billy acknowledged the hit. "If they had better heads they'd be in the cities like all the rest of the better men. An' the better men are a lot of dummies, too. They don't know the big chances in the country, or you couldn't hold 'm from it."
Billy dismounted, took the three bars down, led his horse through, then put up the bars.
"When I get this place, there'll be a gate here," he announced. "Pay for itself in no time. It's the thousan' an' one little things like this that count up big when you put 'm together." He sighed contentedly. "I never used to think about such things, but when we shook Oakland I began to wise up. It was them San Leandro Porchugeeze that gave me my first eye-opener. I'd been asleep, before that."
They skirted the lower of the three fields where the ripe hay stood uncut. Billy pointed with eloquent disgust to a break in the fence, slovenly repaired, and on to the standing grain much-trampled by cattle.
"Them's the things," he criticized. "Old style. An' look how thin that crop is, an' the shallow plowin'. Scrub cattle, scrub seed, scrub farmin'. Chavon's worked it for eight years now, an' never rested it once, never put anything in for what he took out, except the cattle into the stubble the minute the hay was on."
In a pasture glade, farther on, they came upon a bunch of cattle.
"Look at that bull, Saxon. Scrub's no name for it. They oughta be a state law against lettin' such animals exist. No wonder Chavon's that land poor he's had to sink all his clay-pit earnin's into taxes an' interest. He can't make his land pay. Take this hundred an forty. Anybody with the savve can just rake silver dollars offen it. I'll show 'm."
They passed the big adobe barn in the distance.
"A few dollars at the right time would a-saved hundreds on that roof," Billy commented. "Well, anyway, I won't be payin' for any improvements when I buy. An I'll tell you another thing. This ranch is full of water, and if Glen Ellen ever grows they'll have to come to see me for their water supply."
Billy knew the ranch thoroughly, and took short-cuts through the woods by way of cattle paths. Once, he reined in abruptly, and both stopped. Confronting them, a dozen paces away, was a half-grown red fox. For half a minute, with beady eyes, the wild thing studied them, with twitching sensitive nose reading the messages of the air. Then, velvet-footed, it leapt aside and was gone among the trees.
"The son-of-a-gun!" Billy ejaculated.
As they approached Wild Water; they rode out into a long narrow meadow. In the middle was a pond.
"Natural reservoir, when Glen Ellen begins to buy water," Billy said. "See, down at the lower end there?--wouldn't cost anything hardly to throw a dam across. An' I can pipe in all kinds of hill-drip. An' water's goin' to be money in this valley not a thousan' years from now.--An' all the ginks, an' boobs, an' dubs, an' gazabos poundin' their ear deado an' not seein' it comin.--An' surveyors workin' up the valley for an electric road from Sausalito with a branch up Napa Valley."
They came to the rim of Wild Water canyon. Leaning far back in their saddles, they slid the horses down a steep declivity, through big spruce woods, to an ancient and all but obliterated trail.
"They cut this trail 'way back in the Fifties," Billy explained. "I only found it by accident. Then I asked Poppe yesterday. He was born in the valley. He said it was a fake minin' rush across from Petaluma. The gamblers got it up, an' they must a-drawn a thousan' suckers. You see that flat there, an' the old stumps. That's where the camp was. They set the tables up under the trees. The flat used to be bigger, but the creek's eaten into it. Poppe said they was a couple of killin's an' one lynchin'."
Lying low against their horses' necks, they scrambled up a steep cattle trail out of the canyon, and began to work across rough country toward the knolls.
"Say, Saxon, you're always lookin' for something pretty. I'll show you what'll make your hair stand up . . . soon as we get through this manzanita."
Never, in all their travels, had Saxon seen so lovely a vista as the one that greeted them when they emerged. The dim trail lay like a rambling red shadow cast on the soft forest floor by the great redwoods and over-arching oaks. It seemed as if all local varieties of trees and vines had conspired to weave the leafy roof--maples, big madronos and laurels, and lofty tan-bark oaks, scaled and wrapped and interwound with wild grape and flaming poison oak. Saxon drew Billy's eyes to a mossy bank of five-finger ferns. All slopes seemed to meet to form this basin and colossal forest bower. Underfoot the floor was spongy with water. An invisible streamlet whispered under broad-fronded brakes. On every hand opened tiny vistas of enchantment, where young redwoods grouped still and stately about fallen giants, shoulder-high to the horses, moss-covered and dissolving into mold.
At last, after another quarter of an hour, they tied their horses on the rim of the narrow canyon that penetrated the wilderness of the knolls. Through a rift in the trees Billy pointed to the top of the leaning spruce.
"It's right under that," he said. "We'll have to follow up the bed of the creek. They ain't no trail, though you'll see plenty of deer paths crossin' the creek. You'll get your feet wet."
Saxon laughed her joy and held on close to his heels, splashing through pools, crawling hand and foot up the slippery faces of water-worn rocks, and worming under trunks of old fallen trees.
"They ain't no real bed-rock in the whole mountain," Billy elucidated, "so the stream cuts deeper'n deeper, an' that keeps the sides cavin' in. They're as steep as they can be without fallin' down. A little farther up, the canyon ain't much more'n a crack in the ground--but a mighty deep one if anybody should ask you. You can spit across it an' break your neck in it."
The climbing grew more difficult, and they were finally halted, in a narrow cleft, by a drift-jam.
"You wait here," Billy directed, and, lying flat, squirmed on through crashing brush.
Saxon waited till all sound had died away. She waited ten minutes longer, then followed by the way Billy had broken. Where the bed of the canyon became impossible, she came upon what she was sure was a deer path that skirted the steep side and was a tunnel through the close greenery. She caught a glimpse of the overhanging spruce, almost above her head on the opposite side, and emerged on a pool of clear water in a clay-like basin. This basin was of recent origin, having been formed by a slide of earth and trees. Across the pool arose an almost sheer wall of white. She recognized it for what it was, and looked about for Billy. She heard him whistle, and looked up. Two hundred feet above, at the perilous top of the white wall, he was holding on to a tree trunk. The overhanging spruce was nearby.
"I can see the little pasture back of your field," he called down. "No wonder nobody ever piped this off. The only place they could see it from is that speck of pasture. An' you saw it first. Wait till I come down and tell you all about it. I didn't dast before."
It required no shrewdness to guess the truth. Saxon knew this was the precious clay required by the brickyard. Billy circled wide of the slide and came down the canyon-wall, from tree to tree, as descending a ladder.
"Ain't it a peach?" he exulted, as he dropped beside her. "Just look at it--hidden away under four feet of soil where nobody could see it, an' just waitin' for us to hit the Valley of the Moon. Then it up an' slides a piece of the skin off so as we can see it."
"Is it the real clay?" Saxon asked anxiously.
"You bet your sweet life. I've handled too much of it not to know it in the dark. Just rub a piece between your fingers.--Like that. Why, I could tell by the taste of it. I've eaten enough of the dust of the teams. Here's where our fun begins. Why, you know we've been workin' our heads off since we hit this valley. Now we're on Easy street."
"But you don't own it," Saxon objected.
"Well, you won't be a hundred years old before I do. Straight from here I hike to Payne an' bind the bargain --an option, you know, while title's searchin' an' I 'm raisin' money. We'll borrow that four hundred back again from Gow Yum, an' I'll borrow all I can get on my horses an' wagons, an' Hazel and Hattie, an' everything that's worth a cent. An' then I get the deed with a mortgage on it to Hilyard for the balance. An' then--it's takin' candy from a baby--I'll contract with the brickyard for twenty cents a yard--maybe more. They'll be crazy with joy when they see it. Don't need any borin's. They's nearly two hundred feet of it exposed up an' down. The whole knoll's clay, with a skin of soil over it."
"But you'll spoil all the beautiful canyon hauling out the clay," Saxon cried with alarm.
"Nope; only the knoll. The road'll come in from the other side. It'll be only half a mile to Chavon's pit. I'll build the road an' charge steeper teamin', or the brickyard can build it an' I'll team for the same rate as before. An' twenty cents a yard pourin' in, all profit, from the jump. I'll sure have to buy more horses to do the work."
They sat hand in hand beside the pool and talked over the details.
"Say, Saxon," Billy said, after a pause had fallen, "sing 'Harvest Days,' won't you?"
And, when she had complied: "The first time you sung that song for me was comin' home from the picnic on the train--"
"The very first day we met each other," she broke in. "What did you think about me that day?"
"Why, what I've thought ever since--that you was made for me.--I thought that right at the jump, in the first waltz. An' what'd you think of me?
"Oh, I wondered, and before the first waltz, too, when we were introduced and shook hands--I wondered if you were the man. Those were the very words that flashed into my mind.--IS HE THE MAN?"
"An' I kinda looked a little some good to you?" he queried. "_I_thought so, and my eyesight has always been good."
"Say!" Billy went off at a tangent. "By next winter, with everything hummin' an' shipshape, what's the matter with us makin' a visit to Carmel? It'll be slack time for you with the vegetables, an' I'll be able to afford a foreman."
Saxon's lack of enthusiasm surprised him.
"What's wrong?" he demanded quickly.
With downcast demurest eyes and hesitating speech, Saxon said:
"I did something yesterday without asking your advice, Billy."
"I wrote to Tom," she added, with an air of timid confession.
Still he waited--for he knew not what.
"I asked him to ship up the old chest of drawers--my mother's, you remember--that we stored with him."
"Huh! I don't see anything outa the way about that," Billy said with relief. "We need the chest, don't we? An' we can afford to pay the freight on it, can't we?"
"You are a dear stupid man, that's what you are. Don't you know what is in the chest?"
He shook his head, and what she added was so soft that it was almost a whisper:
"The baby clothes."
"No!" he exclaimed.
She nodded her head, her cheeks flooding with quick color.
"It's what I wanted, Saxon, more'n anything else in the world. I've been thinkin' a whole lot about it lately, ever since we hit the valley," he went on, brokenly, and for the first time she saw tears unmistakable in his eyes. "But after all I'd done, an' the hell I'd raised, an' everything, I . . . I never urged you, or said a word about it. But I wanted it . . . oh, I wanted it like . . . like I want you now."
His open arms received her, and the pool in the heart of the canyon knew a tender silence.
Saxon felt Billy's finger laid warningly on her lips. Guided by his hand, she turned her head back, and together they gazed far up the side of the knoll where a doe and a spotted fawn looked down upon them from a tiny open space between the trees.
End of Project Gutenberg Etext of The Valley of the Moon by Jack London