Part 1 out of 12
A Story of California
by Frank Norris
Just after passing Caraher's saloon, on the County Road that ran
south from Bonneville, and that divided the Broderson ranch from
that of Los Muertos, Presley was suddenly aware of the faint and
prolonged blowing of a steam whistle that he knew must come from
the railroad shops near the depot at Bonneville. In starting out
from the ranch house that morning, he had forgotten his watch,
and was now perplexed to know whether the whistle was blowing for
twelve or for one o'clock. He hoped the former. Early that
morning he had decided to make a long excursion through the
neighbouring country, partly on foot and partly on his bicycle,
and now noon was come already, and as yet he had hardly started.
As he was leaving the house after breakfast, Mrs. Derrick had
asked him to go for the mail at Bonneville, and he had not been
able to refuse.
He took a firmer hold of the cork grips of his handlebars--the
road being in a wretched condition after the recent hauling of
the crop--and quickened his pace. He told himself that, no
matter what the time was, he would not stop for luncheon at the
ranch house, but would push on to Guadalajara and have a Spanish
dinner at Solotari's, as he had originally planned.
There had not been much of a crop to haul that year. Half of the
wheat on the Broderson ranch had failed entirely, and Derrick
himself had hardly raised more than enough to supply seed for the
winter's sowing. But such little hauling as there had been had
reduced the roads thereabouts to a lamentable condition, and,
during the dry season of the past few months, the layer of dust
had deepened and thickened to such an extent that more than once
Presley was obliged to dismount and trudge along on foot, pushing
his bicycle in front of him.
It was the last half of September, the very end of the dry
season, and all Tulare County, all the vast reaches of the San
Joaquin Valley--in fact all South Central California, was bone
dry, parched, and baked and crisped after four months of
cloudless weather, when the day seemed always at noon, and the
sun blazed white hot over the valley from the Coast Range in the
west to the foothills of the Sierras in the east.
As Presley drew near to the point where what was known as the
Lower Road struck off through the Rancho de Los Muertos, leading
on to Guadalajara, he came upon one of the county watering-tanks,
a great, iron-hooped tower of wood, straddling clumsily on its
four uprights by the roadside. Since the day of its completion,
the storekeepers and retailers of Bonneville had painted their
advertisements upon it. It was a landmark. In that reach of
level fields, the white letters upon it could be read for miles.
A watering-trough stood near by, and, as he was very thirsty,
Presley resolved to stop for a moment to get a drink.
He drew abreast of the tank and halted there, leaning his bicycle
against the fence. A couple of men in white overalls were
repainting the surface of the tank, seated on swinging platforms
that hung by hooks from the roof. They were painting a sign--an
advertisement. It was all but finished and read, "S. Behrman,
Real Estate, Mortgages, Main Street, Bonneville, Opposite the
Post Office." On the horse-trough that stood in the shadow of
the tank was another freshly painted inscription: "S. Behrman Has
Something To Say To You."
As Presley straightened up after drinking from the faucet at one
end of the horse-trough, the watering-cart itself laboured into
view around the turn of the Lower Road. Two mules and two
horses, white with dust, strained leisurely in the traces, moving
at a snail's pace, their limp ears marking the time; while
perched high upon the seat, under a yellow cotton wagon umbrella,
Presley recognised Hooven, one of Derrick's tenants, a German,
whom every one called "Bismarck," an excitable little man with a
perpetual grievance and an endless flow of broken English.
"Hello, Bismarck," said Presley, as Hooven brought his team to a
standstill by the tank, preparatory to refilling.
"Yoost der men I look for, Mist'r Praicely," cried the other,
twisting the reins around the brake. "Yoost one minute, you
wait, hey? I wanta talk mit you."
Presley was impatient to be on his way again. A little more time
wasted, and the day would be lost. He had nothing to do with the
management of the ranch, and if Hooven wanted any advice from
him, it was so much breath wasted. These uncouth brutes of
farmhands and petty ranchers, grimed with the soil they worked
upon, were odious to him beyond words. Never could he feel in
sympathy with them, nor with their lives, their ways, their
marriages, deaths, bickerings, and all the monotonous round of
their sordid existence.
"Well, you must be quick about it, Bismarck," he answered
sharply. "I'm late for dinner, as it is."
"Soh, now. Two minuten, und I be mit you." He drew down the
overhanging spout of the tank to the vent in the circumference of
the cart and pulled the chain that let out the water. Then he
climbed down from the seat, jumping from the tire of the wheel,
and taking Presley by the arm led him a few steps down the road.
"Say," he began. "Say, I want to hef some converzations mit you.
Yoost der men I want to see. Say, Caraher, he tole me dis
morgen--say, he tole me Mist'r Derrick gowun to farm der whole
demn rench hisseluf der next yahr. No more tenants. Say,
Caraher, he tole me all der tenants get der sach; Mist'r Derrick
gowun to work der whole demn rench hisseluf, hey? ME, I get der
sach alzoh, hey? You hef hear about dose ting? Say, me, I hef
on der ranch been sieben yahr--seven yahr. Do I alzoh----"
"You'll have to see Derrick himself or Harran about that,
Bismarck," interrupted Presley, trying to draw away. "That's
something outside of me entirely."
But Hooven was not to be put off. No doubt he had been
meditating his speech all the morning, formulating his words,
preparing his phrases.
"Say, no, no," he continued. "Me, I wanta stay bei der place;
seven yahr I hef stay. Mist'r Derrick, he doand want dot I
should be ge-sacked. Who, den, will der ditch ge-tend? Say, you
tell 'um Bismarck hef gotta sure stay bei der place. Say, you
hef der pull mit der Governor. You speak der gut word for me."
"Harran is the man that has the pull with his father, Bismarck,"
answered Presley. "You get Harran to speak for you, and you're
"Sieben yahr I hef stay," protested Hooven, "and who will der
ditch ge-tend, und alle dem cettles drive?"
"Well, Harran's your man," answered Presley, preparing to mount
"Say, you hef hear about dose ting?"
"I don't hear about anything, Bismarck. I don't know the first
thing about how the ranch is run."
"UND DER PIPE-LINE GE-MEND," Hooven burst out, suddenly
remembering a forgotten argument. He waved an arm. "Ach, der
pipe-line bei der Mission Greek, und der waater-hole for dose
cettles. Say, he doand doo ut HIMSELLUF, berhaps, I doand tink."
"Well, talk to Harran about it."
"Say, he doand farm der whole demn rench bei hisseluf. Me, I
But on a sudden the water in the cart gushed over the sides from
the vent in the top with a smart sound of splashing. Hooven was
forced to turn his attention to it. Presley got his wheel under
"I hef some converzations mit Herran," Hooven called after him.
"He doand doo ut bei hisseluf, den, Mist'r Derrick; ach, no. I
stay bei der rench to drive dose cettles."
He climbed back to his seat under the wagon umbrella, and, as he
started his team again with great cracks of his long whip, turned
to the painters still at work upon the sign and declared with
"Sieben yahr; yais, sir, seiben yahr I hef been on dis rench.
Git oop, you mule you, hoop!"
Meanwhile Presley had turned into the Lower Road. He was now on
Derrick's land, division No. I, or, as it was called, the Home
ranch, of the great Los Muertos Rancho. The road was better
here, the dust laid after the passage of Hooven's watering-cart,
and, in a few minutes, he had come to the ranch house itself,
with its white picket fence, its few flower beds, and grove of
eucalyptus trees. On the lawn at the side of the house. he saw
Harran in the act of setting out the automatic sprinkler. In the
shade of the house, by the porch, were two or three of the
greyhounds, part of the pack that were used to hunt down jack-
rabbits, and Godfrey, Harran's prize deerhound.
Presley wheeled up the driveway and met Harran by the horse-
block. Harran was Magnus Derrick's youngest son, a very well-
looking young fellow of twenty-three or twenty-five. He had the
fine carriage that marked his father, and still further resembled
him in that he had the Derrick nose--hawk-like and prominent,
such as one sees in the later portraits of the Duke of
Wellington. He was blond, and incessant exposure to the sun had,
instead of tanning him brown, merely heightened the colour of his
cheeks. His yellow hair had a tendency to curl in a forward
direction, just in front of the ears.
Beside him, Presley made the sharpest of contrasts. Presley
seemed to have come of a mixed origin; appeared to have a nature
more composite, a temperament more complex. Unlike Harran
Derrick, he seemed more of a character than a type. The sun had
browned his face till it was almost swarthy. His eyes were a
dark brown, and his forehead was the forehead of the
intellectual, wide and high, with a certain unmistakable lift
about it that argued education, not only of himself, but of his
people before him. The impression conveyed by his mouth and chin
was that of a delicate and highly sensitive nature, the lips thin
and loosely shut together, the chin small and rather receding.
One guessed that Presley's refinement had been gained only by a
certain loss of strength. One expected to find him nervous,
introspective, to discover that his mental life was not at all
the result of impressions and sensations that came to him from
without, but rather of thoughts and reflections germinating from
within. Though morbidly sensitive to changes in his physical
surroundings, he would be slow to act upon such sensations, would
not prove impulsive, not because he was sluggish, but because he
was merely irresolute. It could be foreseen that morally he was
of that sort who avoid evil through good taste, lack of decision,
and want of opportunity. His temperament was that of the poet;
when he told himself he had been thinking, he deceived himself.
He had, on such occasions, been only brooding.
Some eighteen months before this time, he had been threatened
with consumption, and, taking advantage of a standing invitation
on the part of Magnus Derrick, had come to stay in the dry, even
climate of the San Joaquin for an indefinite length of time. He
was thirty years old, and had graduated and post-graduated with
high honours from an Eastern college, where he had devoted
himself to a passionate study of literature, and, more
especially, of poetry.
It was his insatiable ambition to write verse. But up to this
time, his work had been fugitive, ephemeral, a note here and
there, heard, appreciated, and forgotten. He was in search of a
subject; something magnificent, he did not know exactly what;
some vast, tremendous theme, heroic, terrible, to be unrolled in
all the thundering progression of hexameters.
But whatever he wrote, and in whatever fashion, Presley was
determined that his poem should be of the West, that world's
frontier of Romance, where a new race, a new people--hardy,
brave, and passionate--were building an empire; where the
tumultuous life ran like fire from dawn to dark, and from dark to
dawn again, primitive, brutal, honest, and without fear.
Something (to his idea not much) had been done to catch at that
life in passing, but its poet had not yet arisen. The few
sporadic attempts, thus he told himself, had only touched the
keynote. He strove for the diapason, the great song that should
embrace in itself a whole epoch, a complete era, the voice of an
entire people, wherein all people should be included--they and
their legends, their folk lore, their fightings, their loves and
their lusts, their blunt, grim humour, their stoicism under
stress, their adventures, their treasures found in a day and
gambled in a night, their direct, crude speech, their generosity
and cruelty, their heroism and bestiality, their religion and
profanity, their self-sacrifice and obscenity--a true and
fearless setting forth of a passing phase of history, un-
compromising, sincere; each group in its proper environment; the
valley, the plain, and the mountain; the ranch, the range, and
the mine--all this, all the traits and types of every community
from the Dakotas to the Mexicos, from Winnipeg to Guadalupe,
gathered together, swept together, welded and riven together in
one single, mighty song, the Song of the West. That was what he
dreamed, while things without names--thoughts for which no man
had yet invented words, terrible formless shapes, vague figures,
colossal, monstrous, distorted-- whirled at a gallop through his
As Harran came up, Presley reached down into the pouches of the
sun-bleached shooting coat he wore and drew out and handed him
the packet of letters and papers.
"Here's the mail. I think I shall go on."
"But dinner is ready," said Harran; "we are just sitting down."
Presley shook his head. "No, I'm in a hurry. Perhaps I shall
have something to eat at Guadalajara. I shall be gone all day."
He delayed a few moments longer, tightening a loose nut on his
forward wheel, while Harran, recognising his father's handwriting
on one of the envelopes, slit it open and cast his eye rapidly
over its pages.
"The Governor is coming home," he exclaimed, "to-morrow morning
on the early train; wants me to meet him with the team at
Guadalajara; AND," he cried between his clenched teeth, as he
continued to read, "we've lost the case."
"What case? Oh, in the matter of rates?"
Harran nodded, his eyes flashing, his face growing suddenly
"Ulsteen gave his decision yesterday," he continued, reading from
his father's letter. "He holds, Ulsteen does, that 'grain rates
as low as the new figure would amount to confiscation of
property, and that, on such a basis, the railroad could not be
operated at a legitimate profit. As he is powerless to legislate
in the matter, he can only put the rates back at what they
originally were before the commissioners made the cut, and it is
so ordered.' That's our friend S. Behrman again," added Harran,
grinding his teeth. "He was up in the city the whole of the time
the new schedule was being drawn, and he and Ulsteen and the
Railroad Commission were as thick as thieves. He has been up
there all this last week, too, doing the railroad's dirty work,
and backing Ulsteen up. 'Legitimate profit, legitimate profit,'"
he broke out. "Can we raise wheat at a legitimate profit with a
tariff of four dollars a ton for moving it two hundred miles to
tide-water, with wheat at eighty-seven cents? Why not hold us up
with a gun in our faces, and say, 'hands up,' and be done with
He dug his boot-heel into the ground and turned away to the house
abruptly, cursing beneath his breath.
"By the way," Presley called after him, "Hooven wants to see you.
He asked me about this idea of the Governor's of getting along
without the tenants this year. Hooven wants to stay to tend the
ditch and look after the stock. I told him to see you."
Harran, his mind full of other things, nodded to say he
understood. Presley only waited till he had disappeared indoors,
so that he might not seem too indifferent to his trouble; then,
remounting, struck at once into a brisk pace, and, turning out
from the carriage gate, held on swiftly down the Lower Road,
going in the direction of Guadalajara. These matters, these
eternal fierce bickerings between the farmers of the San Joaquin
and the Pacific and Southwestern Railroad irritated him and
wearied him. He cared for none of these things. They did not
belong to his world. In the picture of that huge romantic West
that he saw in his imagination, these dissensions made the one
note of harsh colour that refused to enter into the great scheme
of harmony. It was material, sordid, deadly commonplace. But,
however he strove to shut his eyes to it or his ears to it, the
thing persisted and persisted. The romance seemed complete up to
that point. There it broke, there it failed, there it became
realism, grim, unlovely, unyielding. To be true--and it was the
first article of his creed to be unflinchingly true--he could not
ignore it. All the noble poetry of the ranch--the valley--seemed
in his mind to be marred and disfigured by the presence of
certain immovable facts. Just what he wanted, Presley hardly
knew. On one hand, it was his ambition to portray life as he saw
it--directly, frankly, and through no medium of personality or
temperament. But, on the other hand, as well, he wished to see
everything through a rose-coloured mist--a mist that dulled all
harsh outlines, all crude and violent colours. He told himself
that, as a part of the people, he loved the people and
sympathised with their hopes and fears, and joys and griefs; and
yet Hooven, grimy and perspiring, with his perpetual grievance
and his contracted horizon, only revolted him. He had set
himself the task of giving true, absolutely true, poetical
expression to the life of the ranch, and yet, again and again, he
brought up against the railroad, that stubborn iron barrier
against which his romance shattered itself to froth and
disintegrated, flying spume. His heart went out to the people,
and his groping hand met that of a slovenly little Dutchman, whom
it was impossible to consider seriously. He searched for the
True Romance, and, in the end, found grain rates and unjust
"But the stuff is HERE," he muttered, as he sent his wheel
rumbling across the bridge over Broderson Creek. "The romance,
the real romance, is here somewhere. I'll get hold of it yet."
He shot a glance about him as if in search of the inspiration.
By now he was not quite half way across the northern and
narrowest corner of Los Muertos, at this point some eight miles
wide. He was still on the Home ranch. A few miles to the south
he could just make out the line of wire fence that separated it
from the third division; and to the north, seen faint and blue
through the haze and shimmer of the noon sun, a long file of
telegraph poles showed the line of the railroad and marked
Derrick's northeast boundary. The road over which Presley was
travelling ran almost diametrically straight. In front of him,
but at a great distance, he could make out the giant live-oak and
the red roof of Hooven's barn that stood near it.
All about him the country was flat. In all directions he could
see for miles. The harvest was just over. Nothing but stubble
remained on the ground. With the one exception of the live-oak
by Hooven's place, there was nothing green in sight. The wheat
stubble was of a dirty yellow; the ground, parched, cracked, and
dry, of a cheerless brown. By the roadside the dust lay thick
and grey, and, on either hand, stretching on toward the horizon,
losing itself in a mere smudge in the distance, ran the
illimitable parallels of the wire fence. And that was all; that
and the burnt-out blue of the sky and the steady shimmer of the
The silence was infinite. After the harvest, small though that
harvest had been, the ranches seemed asleep. It was as though
the earth, after its period of reproduction, its pains of labour,
had been delivered of the fruit of its loins, and now slept the
sleep of exhaustion.
It was the period between seasons, when nothing was being done,
when the natural forces seemed to hang suspended. There was no
rain, there was no wind, there was no growth, no life; the very
stubble had no force even to rot. The sun alone moved.
Toward two o'clock, Presley reached Hooven's place, two or three
grimy frame buildings, infested with a swarm of dogs. A hog or
two wandered aimlessly about. Under a shed by the barn, a
broken-down seeder lay rusting to its ruin. But overhead, a
mammoth live-oak, the largest tree in all the country-side,
towered superb and magnificent. Grey bunches of mistletoe and
festoons of trailing moss hung from its bark. From its lowest
branch hung Hooven's meat-safe, a square box, faced with wire
What gave a special interest to Hooven's was the fact that here
was the intersection of the Lower Road and Derrick's main
irrigating ditch, a vast trench not yet completed, which he and
Annixter, who worked the Quien Sabe ranch, were jointly
constructing. It ran directly across the road and at right
angles to it, and lay a deep groove in the field between Hooven's
and the town of Guadalajara, some three miles farther on.
Besides this, the ditch was a natural boundary between two
divisions of the Los Muertos ranch, the first and fourth.
Presley now had the choice of two routes. His objective point
was the spring at the headwaters of Broderson Creek, in the hills
on the eastern side of the Quien Sabe ranch. The trail afforded
him a short cut thitherward. As he passed the house, Mrs. Hooven
came to the door, her little daughter Hilda, dressed in a boy's
overalls and clumsy boots, at her skirts. Minna, her oldest
daughter, a very pretty girl, whose love affairs were continually
the talk of all Los Muertos, was visible through a window of the
house, busy at the week's washing. Mrs. Hooven was a faded,
colourless woman, middle-aged and commonplace, and offering not
the least characteristic that would distinguish her from a
thousand other women of her class and kind. She nodded to
Presley, watching him with a stolid gaze from under her arm,
which she held across her forehead to shade her eyes.
But now Presley exerted himself in good earnest. His bicycle
flew. He resolved that after all he would go to Guadalajara. He
crossed the bridge over the irrigating ditch with a brusque spurt
of hollow sound, and shot forward down the last stretch of the
Lower Road that yet intervened between Hooven's and the town. He
was on the fourth division of the ranch now, the only one whereon
the wheat had been successful, no doubt because of the Little
Mission Creek that ran through it. But he no longer occupied
himself with the landscape. His only concern was to get on as
fast as possible. He had looked forward to spending nearly the
whole day on the crest of the wooded hills in the northern corner
of the Quien Sabe ranch, reading, idling, smoking his pipe. But
now he would do well if he arrived there by the middle of the
afternoon. In a few moments he had reached the line fence that
marked the limits of the ranch. Here were the railroad tracks,
and just beyond--a huddled mass of roofs, with here and there an
adobe house on its outskirts--the little town of Guadalajara.
Nearer at hand, and directly in front of Presley, were the
freight and passenger depots of the P. and S. W., painted in the
grey and white, which seemed to be the official colours of all
the buildings owned by the corporation. The station was
deserted. No trains passed at this hour. From the direction of
the ticket window, Presley heard the unsteady chittering of the
telegraph key. In the shadow of one of the baggage trucks upon
the platform, the great yellow cat that belonged to the agent
dozed complacently, her paws tucked under her body. Three flat
cars, loaded with bright-painted farming machines, were on the
siding above the station, while, on the switch below, a huge
freight engine that lacked its cow-catcher sat back upon its
monstrous driving-wheels, motionless, solid, drawing long breaths
that were punctuated by the subdued sound of its steam-pump
clicking at exact intervals.
But evidently it had been decreed that Presley should be stopped
at every point of his ride that day, for, as he was pushing his
bicycle across the tracks, he was surprised to hear his name
called. "Hello, there, Mr. Presley. What's the good word?"
Presley looked up quickly, and saw Dyke, the engineer, leaning on
his folded arms from the cab window of the freight engine. But
at the prospect of this further delay, Presley was less troubled.
Dyke and he were well acquainted and the best of friends. The
picturesqueness of the engineer's life was always attractive to
Presley, and more than once he had ridden on Dyke's engine
between Guadalajara and Bonneville. Once, even, he had made the
entire run between the latter town and San Francisco in the cab.
Dyke's home was in Guadalajara. He lived in one of the
remodelled 'dobe cottages, where his mother kept house for him.
His wife had died some five years before this time, leaving him a
little daughter, Sidney, to bring up as best he could. Dyke
himself was a heavy built, well-looking fellow, nearly twice the
weight of Presley, with great shoulders and massive, hairy arms,
and a tremendous, rumbling voice.
"Hello, old man," answered Presley, coming up to the engine.
"What are you doing about here at this time of day? I thought
you were on the night service this month."
"We've changed about a bit," answered the other. "Come up here
and sit down, and get out of the sun. They've held us here to
wait orders," he explained, as Presley, after leaning his bicycle
against the tender, climbed to the fireman's seat of worn green
leather. "They are changing the run of one of the crack
passenger engines down below, and are sending her up to Fresno.
There was a smash of some kind on the Bakersfield division, and
she's to hell and gone behind her time. I suppose when she
comes, she'll come a-humming. It will be stand clear and an open
track all the way to Fresno. They have held me here to let her
He took his pipe, an old T. D. clay, but coloured to a beautiful
shiny black, from the pocket of his jumper and filled and lit it.
"Well, I don't suppose you object to being held here," observed
Presley. "Gives you a chance to visit your mother and the little
"And precisely they choose this day to go up to Sacramento,"
answered Dyke. "Just my luck. Went up to visit my brother's
people. By the way, my brother may come down here--locate here,
I mean--and go into the hop-raising business. He's got an option
on five hundred acres just back of the town here. He says there
is going to be money in hops. I don't know; may be I'll go in
"Why, what's the matter with railroading?"
Dyke drew a couple of puffs on his pipe, and fixed Presley with a
"There's this the matter with it," he said; "I'm fired."
"Fired! You!" exclaimed Presley, turning abruptly toward him.
"That's what I'm telling you," returned Dyke grimly.
"You don't mean it. Why, what for, Dyke?"
"Now, YOU tell me what for," growled the other savagely. "Boy
and man, I've worked for the P. and S. W. for over ten years, and
never one yelp of a complaint did I ever hear from them. They
know damn well they've not got a steadier man on the road. And
more than that, more than that, I don't belong to the
Brotherhood. And when the strike came along, I stood by them--
stood by the company. You know that. And you know, and they
know, that at Sacramento that time, I ran my train according to
schedule, with a gun in each hand, never knowing when I was going
over a mined culvert, and there was talk of giving me a gold
watch at the time. To hell with their gold watches! I want
ordinary justice and fair treatment. And now, when hard times
come along, and they are cutting wages, what do they do? Do they
make any discrimination in my case? Do they remember the man
that stood by them and risked his life in their service? No.
They cut my pay down just as off-hand as they do the pay of any
dirty little wiper in the yard. Cut me along with--listen to
this--cut me along with men that they had BLACK-LISTED; strikers
that they took back because they were short of hands." He drew
fiercely on his pipe. "I went to them, yes, I did; I went to the
General Office, and ate dirt. I told them I was a family man,
and that I didn't see how I was going to get along on the new
scale, and I reminded them of my service during the strike. The
swine told me that it wouldn't be fair to discriminate in favour
of one man, and that the cut must apply to all their employees
alike. Fair!" he shouted with laughter. "Fair! Hear the P. and
S. W. talking about fairness and discrimination. That's good,
that is. Well, I got furious. I was a fool, I suppose. I told
them that, in justice to myself, I wouldn't do first-class work
for third-class pay. And they said, 'Well, Mr. Dyke, you know
what you can do.' Well, I did know. I said, 'I'll ask for my
time, if you please,' and they gave it to me just as if they were
glad to be shut of me. So there you are, Presley. That's the P.
& S. W. Railroad Company of California. I am on my last run
"Shameful," declared Presley, his sympathies all aroused, now
that the trouble concerned a friend of his. "It's shameful,
Dyke. But," he added, an idea occurring to him, "that don't shut
you out from work. There are other railroads in the State that
are not controlled by the P. and S. W."
Dyke smote his knee with his clenched fist.
Presley was silent. Dyke's challenge was unanswerable. There
was a lapse in their talk, Presley drumming on the arm of the
seat, meditating on this injustice; Dyke looking off over the
fields beyond the town, his frown lowering, his teeth rasping
upon his pipestem. The station agent came to the door of the
depot, stretching and yawning. On ahead of the engine, the empty
rails of the track, reaching out toward the horizon, threw off
visible layers of heat. The telegraph key clicked incessantly.
"So I'm going to quit," Dyke remarked after a while, his anger
somewhat subsided. "My brother and I will take up this hop
ranch. I've saved a good deal in the last ten years, and there
ought to be money in hops."
Presley went on, remounting his bicycle, wheeling silently
through the deserted streets of the decayed and dying Mexican
town. It was the hour of the siesta. Nobody was about. There
was no business in the town. It was too close to Bonneville for
that. Before the railroad came, and in the days when the raising
of cattle was the great industry of the country, it had enjoyed a
fierce and brilliant life. Now it was moribund. The drug store,
the two bar-rooms, the hotel at the corner of the old Plaza, and
the shops where Mexican "curios" were sold to those occasional
Eastern tourists who came to visit the Mission of San Juan,
sufficed for the town's activity.
At Solotari's, the restaurant on the Plaza, diagonally across
from the hotel, Presley ate his long-deferred Mexican dinner--an
omelette in Spanish-Mexican style, frijoles and tortillas, a
salad, and a glass of white wine. In a corner of the room,
during the whole course of his dinner, two young Mexicans (one of
whom was astonishingly handsome, after the melodramatic fashion
of his race) and an old fellow! the centenarian of the town,
decrepit beyond belief, sang an interminable love-song to the
accompaniment of a guitar and an accordion.
These Spanish-Mexicans, decayed, picturesque, vicious, and
romantic, never failed to interest Presley. A few of them still
remained in Guadalajara, drifting from the saloon to the
restaurant, and from the restaurant to the Plaza, relics of a
former generation, standing for a different order of things,
absolutely idle, living God knew how, happy with their cigarette,
their guitar, their glass of mescal, and their siesta. The
centenarian remembered Fremont and Governor Alvarado, and the
bandit Jesus Tejeda, and the days when Los Muertos was a Spanish
grant, a veritable principality, leagues in extent, and when
there was never a fence from Visalia to Fresno. Upon this
occasion, Presley offered the old man a drink of mescal, and
excited him to talk of the things he remembered. Their talk was
in Spanish, a language with which Presley was familiar.
"De La Cuesta held the grant of Los Muertos in those days," the
centenarian said; "a grand man. He had the power of life and
death over his people, and there was no law but his word. There
was no thought of wheat then, you may believe. It was all cattle
in those days, sheep, horses--steers, not so many--and if money
was scarce, there was always plenty to eat, and clothes enough
for all, and wine, ah, yes, by the vat, and oil too; the Mission
Fathers had that. Yes, and there was wheat as well, now that I
come to think; but a very little--in the field north of the
Mission where now it is the Seed ranch; wheat fields were there,
and also a vineyard, all on Mission grounds. Wheat, olives, and
the vine; the Fathers planted those, to provide the elements of
the Holy Sacrament--bread, oil, and wine, you understand. It was
like that, those industries began in California--from the Church;
and now," he put his chin in the air, "what would Father Ullivari
have said to such a crop as Senor Derrick plants these days? Ten
thousand acres of wheat! Nothing but wheat from the Sierra to
the Coast Range. I remember when De La Cuesta was married. He
had never seen the young lady, only her miniature portrait,
painted"--he raised a shoulder--"I do not know by whom, small, a
little thing to be held in the palm. But he fell in love with
that, and marry her he would. The affair was arranged between
him and the girl's parents. But when the time came that De La
Cuesta was to go to Monterey to meet and marry the girl, behold,
Jesus Tejeda broke in upon the small rancheros near Terrabella.
It was no time for De La Cuesta to be away, so he sent his
brother Esteban to Monterey to marry the girl by proxy for him.
I went with Esteban. We were a company, nearly a hundred men.
And De La Cuesta sent a horse for the girl to ride, white, pure
white; and the saddle was of red leather; the head-stall, the
bit, and buckles, all the metal work, of virgin silver. Well,
there was a ceremony in the Monterey Mission, and Esteban, in the
name of his brother, was married to the girl. On our way back,
De La Cuesta rode out to meet us. His company met ours at Agatha
dos Palos. Never will I forget De La Cuesta's face as his eyes
fell upon the girl. It was a look, a glance, come and gone like
THAT," he snapped his fingers. "No one but I saw it, but I was
close by. There was no mistaking that look. De La Cuesta was
"And the girl?" demanded Presley.
"She never knew. Ah, he was a grand gentleman, De La Cuesta.
Always he treated her as a queen. Never was husband more
devoted, more respectful, more chivalrous. But love?" The old
fellow put his chin in the air, shutting his eyes in a knowing
fashion. "It was not there. I could tell. They were married
over again at the Mission San Juan de Guadalajara--OUR Mission--
and for a week all the town of Guadalajara was in fete. There
were bull-fights in the Plaza--this very one--for five days, and
to each of his tenants-in-chief, De La Cuesta gave a horse, a
barrel of tallow, an ounce of silver, and half an ounce of gold
dust. Ah, those were days. That was a gay life. This"--he made
a comprehensive gesture with his left hand--"this is stupid."
"You may well say that," observed Presley moodily, discouraged by
the other's talk. All his doubts and uncertainty had returned to
him. Never would he grasp the subject of his great poem. To-
day, the life was colourless. Romance was dead. He had lived
too late. To write of the past was not what he desired. Reality
was what he longed for, things that he had seen. Yet how to make
this compatible with romance. He rose, putting on his hat,
offering the old man a cigarette. The centenarian accepted with
the air of a grandee, and extended his horn snuff-box. Presley
shook his head.
"I was born too late for that," he declared, "for that, and for
many other things. Adios."
"You are travelling to-day, senor?"
"A little turn through the country, to get the kinks out of the
muscles," Presley answered. "I go up into the Quien Sabe, into
the high country beyond the Mission."
"Ah, the Quien Sabe rancho. The sheep are grazing there this
Solotari, the keeper of the restaurant, explained:
"Young Annixter sold his wheat stubble on the ground to the sheep
raisers off yonder;" he motioned eastward toward the Sierra
foothills. "Since Sunday the herd has been down. Very clever,
that young Annixter. He gets a price for his stubble, which else
he would have to burn, and also manures his land as the sheep
move from place to place. A true Yankee, that Annixter, a good
After his meal, Presley once more mounted his bicycle, and
leaving the restaurant and the Plaza behind him, held on through
the main street of the drowsing town--the street that farther on
developed into the road which turned abruptly northward and led
onward through the hop-fields and the Quien Sabe ranch toward the
Mission of San Juan.
The Home ranch of the Quien Sabe was in the little triangle
bounded on the south by the railroad, on the northwest by
Broderson Creek, and on the east by the hop fields and the
Mission lands. It was traversed in all directions, now by the
trail from Hooven's, now by the irrigating ditch--the same which
Presley had crossed earlier in the day--and again by the road
upon which Presley then found himself. In its centre were
Annixter's ranch house and barns, topped by the skeleton-like
tower of the artesian well that was to feed the irrigating ditch.
Farther on, the course of Broderson Creek was marked by a curved
line of grey-green willows, while on the low hills to the north,
as Presley advanced, the ancient Mission of San Juan de
Guadalajara, with its belfry tower and red-tiled roof, began to
show itself over the crests of the venerable pear trees that
clustered in its garden.
When Presley reached Annixter's ranch house, he found young
Annixter himself stretched in his hammock behind the mosquito-bar
on the front porch, reading "David Copperfield," and gorging
himself with dried prunes.
Annixter--after the two had exchanged greetings--complained of
terrific colics all the preceding night. His stomach was out of
whack, but you bet he knew how to take care of himself; the last
spell, he had consulted a doctor at Bonneville, a gibbering busy-
face who had filled him up to the neck with a dose of some
hogwash stuff that had made him worse--a healthy lot the doctors
knew, anyhow. HIS case was peculiar. HE knew; prunes were what
he needed, and by the pound.
Annixter, who worked the Quien Sabe ranch--some four thousand
acres of rich clay and heavy loams--was a very young man, younger
even than Presley, like him a college graduate. He looked never
a year older than he was. He was smooth-shaven and lean built.
But his youthful appearance was offset by a certain male cast of
countenance, the lower lip thrust out, the chin large and deeply
cleft. His university course had hardened rather than polished
him. He still remained one of the people, rough almost to
insolence, direct in speech, intolerant in his opinions, relying
upon absolutely no one but himself; yet, with all this, of an
astonishing degree of intelligence, and possessed of an executive
ability little short of positive genius. He was a ferocious
worker, allowing himself no pleasures, and exacting the same
degree of energy from all his subordinates. He was widely hated,
and as widely trusted. Every one spoke of his crusty temper and
bullying disposition, invariably qualifying the statement with a
commendation of his resources and capabilities. The devil of a
driver, a hard man to get along with, obstinate, contrary,
cantankerous; but brains! No doubt of that; brains to his boots.
One would like to see the man who could get ahead of him on a
deal. Twice he had been shot at, once from ambush on Osterman's
ranch, and once by one of his own men whom he had kicked from the
sacking platform of his harvester for gross negligence. At
college, he had specialised on finance, political economy, and
scientific agriculture. After his graduation (he stood almost at
the very top of his class) he had returned and obtained the
degree of civil engineer. Then suddenly he had taken a notion
that a practical knowledge of law was indispensable to a modern
farmer. In eight months he did the work of three years, studying
for his bar examinations. His method of study was
characteristic. He reduced all the material of his text-books to
notes. Tearing out the leaves of these note-books, he pasted
them upon the walls of his room; then, in his shirt-sleeves, a
cheap cigar in his teeth, his hands in his pockets, he walked
around and around the room, scowling fiercely at his notes,
memorising, devouring, digesting. At intervals, he drank great
cupfuls of unsweetened, black coffee. When the bar examinations
were held, he was admitted at the very head of all the
applicants, and was complimented by the judge. Immediately
afterwards, he collapsed with nervous prostration; his stomach
"got out of whack," and he all but died in a Sacramento boarding-
house, obstinately refusing to have anything to do with doctors,
whom he vituperated as a rabble of quacks, dosing himself with a
patent medicine and stuffing himself almost to bursting with
liver pills and dried prunes.
He had taken a trip to Europe after this sickness to put himself
completely to rights. He intended to be gone a year, but
returned at the end of six weeks, fulminating abuse of European
cooking. Nearly his entire time had been spent in Paris; but of
this sojourn he had brought back but two souvenirs, an electro-
plated bill-hook and an empty bird cage which had tickled his
He was wealthy. Only a year previous to this his father--a
widower, who had amassed a fortune in land speculation--had died,
and Annixter, the only son, had come into the inheritance.
For Presley, Annixter professed a great admiration, holding in
deep respect the man who could rhyme words, deferring to him
whenever there was question of literature or works of fiction.
No doubt, there was not much use in poetry, and as for novels, to
his mind, there were only Dickens's works. Everything else was a
lot of lies. But just the same, it took brains to grind out a
poem. It wasn't every one who could rhyme "brave" and "glaive,"
and make sense out of it. Sure not.
But Presley's case was a notable exception. On no occasion was
Annixter prepared to accept another man's opinion without
reserve. In conversation with him, it was almost impossible to
make any direct statement, however trivial, that he would accept
without either modification or open contradiction. He had a
passion for violent discussion. He would argue upon every
subject in the range of human knowledge, from astronomy to the
tariff, from the doctrine of predestination to the height of a
horse. Never would he admit himself to be mistaken; when
cornered, he would intrench himself behind the remark, "Yes,
that's all very well. In some ways, it is, and then, again, in
some ways, it ISN'T."
Singularly enough, he and Presley were the best of friends. More
than once, Presley marvelled at this state of affairs, telling
himself that he and Annixter had nothing in common. In all his
circle of acquaintances, Presley was the one man with whom
Annixter had never quarrelled. The two men were diametrically
opposed in temperament. Presley was easy-going; Annixter, alert.
Presley was a confirmed dreamer, irresolute, inactive, with a
strong tendency to melancholy; the young farmer was a man of
affairs, decisive, combative, whose only reflection upon his
interior economy was a morbid concern in the vagaries of his
stomach. Yet the two never met without a mutual pleasure, taking
a genuine interest in each other's affairs, and often putting
themselves to great inconvenience to be of trifling service to
help one another.
As a last characteristic, Annixter pretended to be a woman-hater,
for no other reason than that he was a very bull-calf of
awkwardness in feminine surroundings. Feemales! Rot! There was
a fine way for a man to waste his time and his good money, lally
gagging with a lot of feemales. No, thank you; none of it in
HIS, if you please. Once only he had an affair--a timid, little
creature in a glove-cleaning establishment in Sacramento, whom he
had picked up, Heaven knew how. After his return to his ranch, a
correspondence had been maintained between the two, Annixter
taking the precaution to typewrite his letters, and never
affixing his signature, in an excess of prudence. He furthermore
made carbon copies of all his letters, filing them away in a
compartment of his safe. Ah, it would be a clever feemale who
would get him into a mess. Then, suddenly smitten with a panic
terror that he had committed himself, that he was involving
himself too deeply, he had abruptly sent the little woman about
her business. It was his only love affair. After that, he kept
himself free. No petticoats should ever have a hold on him.
As Presley came up to the edge of the porch, pushing his bicycle
in front of him, Annixter excused himself for not getting up,
alleging that the cramps returned the moment he was off his back.
"What are you doing up this way?" he demanded.
"Oh, just having a look around," answered Presley. "How's the
"Say," observed the other, ignoring his question, "what's this I
hear about Derrick giving his tenants the bounce, and working Los
Muertos himself--working ALL his land?"
Presley made a sharp movement of impatience with his free hand.
"I've heard nothing else myself since morning. I suppose it must
"Huh!" grunted Annixter, spitting out a prune stone. "You give
Magnus Derrick my compliments and tell him he's a fool."
"What do you mean?"
"I suppose Derrick thinks he's still running his mine, and that
the same principles will apply to getting grain out of the earth
as to getting gold. Oh, let him go on and see where he brings
up. That's right, there's your Western farmer," he exclaimed
contemptuously. "Get the guts out of your land; work it to
death; never give it a rest. Never alternate your crop, and then
when your soil is exhausted, sit down and roar about hard times."
"I suppose Magnus thinks the land has had rest enough these last
two dry seasons," observed Presley. "He has raised no crop to
speak of for two years. The land has had a good rest."
"Ah, yes, that sounds well," Annixter contradicted, unwilling to
be convinced. "In a way, the land's been rested, and then,
again, in a way, it hasn't."
But Presley, scenting an argument, refrained from answering, and
bethought himself of moving on.
"I'm going to leave my wheel here for a while, Buck," he said,
"if you don't mind. I'm going up to the spring, and the road is
rough between here and there."
"Stop in for dinner on your way back," said Annixter. "There'll
be a venison steak. One of the boys got a deer over in the
foothills last week. Out of season, but never mind that. I
can't eat it. This stomach of mine wouldn't digest sweet oil to-
day. Get here about six."
"Well, maybe I will, thank you," said Presley, moving off. "By
the way," he added, "I see your barn is about done."
"You bet," answered Annixter. "In about a fortnight now she'll
be all ready."
"It's a big barn," murmured Presley, glancing around the angle of
the house toward where the great structure stood.
"Guess we'll have to have a dance there before we move the stock
in," observed Annixter. "That's the custom all around here."
Presley took himself off, but at the gate Annixter called after
him, his mouth full of prunes, "Say, take a look at that herd of
sheep as you go up. They are right off here to the east of the
road, about half a mile from here. I guess that's the biggest
lot of sheep YOU ever saw. You might write a poem about 'em.
Lamb--ram; sheep graze--sunny days. Catch on?"
Beyond Broderson Creek, as Presley advanced, tramping along on
foot now, the land opened out again into the same vast spaces of
dull brown earth, sprinkled with stubble, such as had been
characteristic of Derrick's ranch. To the east the reach seemed
infinite, flat, cheerless, heat-ridden, unrolling like a gigantic
scroll toward the faint shimmer of the distant horizons, with
here and there an isolated live-oak to break the sombre monotony.
But bordering the road to the westward, the surface roughened and
raised, clambering up to the higher ground, on the crest of which
the old Mission and its surrounding pear trees were now plainly
Just beyond the Mission, the road bent abruptly eastward,
striking off across the Seed ranch. But Presley left the road at
this point, going on across the open fields. There was no longer
any trail. It was toward three o'clock. The sun still spun, a
silent, blazing disc, high in the heavens, and tramping through
the clods of uneven, broken plough was fatiguing work. The slope
of the lowest foothills begun, the surface of the country became
rolling, and, suddenly, as he topped a higher ridge, Presley came
upon the sheep.
Already he had passed the larger part of the herd--an intervening
rise of ground having hidden it from sight. Now, as he turned
half way about, looking down into the shallow hollow between him
and the curve of the creek, he saw them very plainly. The fringe
of the herd was some two hundred yards distant, but its farther
side, in that illusive shimmer of hot surface air, seemed miles
away. The sheep were spread out roughly in the shape of a figure
eight, two larger herds connected by a smaller, and were headed
to the southward, moving slowly, grazing on the wheat stubble as
they proceeded. But the number seemed incalculable. Hundreds
upon hundreds upon hundreds of grey, rounded backs, all exactly
alike, huddled, close-packed, alive, hid the earth from sight.
It was no longer an aggregate of individuals. It was a mass--a
compact, solid, slowly moving mass, huge, without form, like a
thick-pressed growth of mushrooms, spreading out in all
directions over the earth. From it there arose a vague murmur,
confused, inarticulate, like the sound of very distant surf,
while all the air in the vicinity was heavy with the warm,
ammoniacal odour of the thousands of crowding bodies.
All the colours of the scene were sombre--the brown of the earth,
the faded yellow of the dead stubble, the grey of the myriad of
undulating backs. Only on the far side of the herd, erect,
motionless--a single note of black, a speck, a dot--the shepherd
stood, leaning upon an empty water-trough, solitary, grave,
For a few moments, Presley stood, watching. Then, as he started
to move on, a curious thing occurred. At first, he thought he
had heard some one call his name. He paused, listening; there
was no sound but the vague noise of the moving sheep. Then, as
this first impression passed, it seemed to him that he had been
beckoned to. Yet nothing stirred; except for the lonely figure
beyond the herd there was no one in sight. He started on again,
and in half a dozen steps found himself looking over his
shoulder. Without knowing why, he looked toward the shepherd;
then halted and looked a second time and a third. Had the
shepherd called to him? Presley knew that he had heard no
voice. Brusquely, all his attention seemed riveted upon this
distant figure. He put one forearm over his eyes, to keep off
the sun, gazing across the intervening herd. Surely, the
shepherd had called him. But at the next instant he started,
uttering an exclamation under his breath. The far-away speck of
black became animated. Presley remarked a sweeping gesture.
Though the man had not beckoned to him before, there was no doubt
that he was beckoning now. Without any hesitation, and
singularly interested in the incident, Presley turned sharply
aside and hurried on toward the shepherd, skirting the herd,
wondering all the time that he should answer the call with so
little question, so little hesitation.
But the shepherd came forward to meet Presley, followed by one of
his dogs. As the two men approached each other, Presley, closely
studying the other, began to wonder where he had seen him before.
It must have been a very long time ago, upon one of his previous
visits to the ranch. Certainly, however, there was something
familiar in the shepherd's face and figure. When they came
closer to each other, and Presley could see him more distinctly,
this sense of a previous acquaintance was increased and
The shepherd was a man of about thirty-five. He was very lean
and spare. His brown canvas overalls were thrust into laced
boots. A cartridge belt without any cartridges encircled his
waist. A grey flannel shirt, open at the throat, showed his
breast, tanned and ruddy. He wore no hat. His hair was very
black and rather long. A pointed beard covered his chin, growing
straight and fine from the hollow cheeks. The absence of any
covering for his head was, no doubt, habitual with him, for his
face was as brown as an Indian's--a ruddy brown quite different
from Presley's dark olive. To Presley's morbidly keen
observation, the general impression of the shepherd's face was
intensely interesting. It was uncommon to an astonishing degree.
Presley's vivid imagination chose to see in it the face of an
ascetic, of a recluse, almost that of a young seer. So must have
appeared the half-inspired shepherds of the Hebraic legends, the
younger prophets of Israel, dwellers in the wilderness, beholders
of visions, having their existence in a continual dream, talkers
with God, gifted with strange powers.
Suddenly, at some twenty paces distant from the approaching
shepherd, Presley stopped short, his eyes riveted upon the other.
"Vanamee!" he exclaimed.
The shepherd smiled and came forward, holding out his hands,
saying, "I thought it was you. When I saw you come over the
hill, I called you."
"But not with your voice," returned Presley. "I knew that some
one wanted me. I felt it. I should have remembered that you
could do that kind of thing."
"I have never known it to fail. It helps with the sheep."
"With the sheep?"
"In a way. I can't tell exactly how. We don't understand these
things yet. There are times when, if I close my eyes and dig my
fists into my temples, I can hold the entire herd for perhaps a
minute. Perhaps, though, it's imagination, who knows? But it's
good to see you again. How long has it been since the last time?
Two, three, nearly five years."
It was more than that. It was six years since Presley and
Vanamee had met, and then it had been for a short time only,
during one of the shepherd's periodical brief returns to that
part of the country. During a week he and Presley had been much
together, for the two were devoted friends. Then, as abruptly,
as mysteriously as he had come, Vanamee disappeared. Presley
awoke one morning to find him gone. Thus, it had been with
Vanamee for a period of sixteen years. He lived his life in the
unknown, one could not tell where--in the desert, in the
mountains, throughout all the vast and vague South-west,
solitary, strange. Three, four, five years passed. The shepherd
would be almost forgotten. Never the most trivial scrap of
information as to his whereabouts reached Los Muertos. He had
melted off into the surface-shimmer of the desert, into the
mirage; he sank below the horizons; he was swallowed up in the
waste of sand and sage. Then, without warning, he would
reappear, coming in from the wilderness, emerging from the
unknown. No one knew him well. In all that countryside he had
but three friends, Presley, Magnus Derrick, and the priest at the
Mission of San Juan de Guadalajara, Father Sarria. He remained
always a mystery, living a life half-real, half-legendary. In
all those years he did not seem to have grown older by a single
day. At this time, Presley knew him to be thirty-six years of
age. But since the first day the two had met, the shepherd's
face and bearing had, to his eyes, remained the same. At this
moment, Presley was looking into the same face he had first seen
many, many years ago. It was a face stamped with an unspeakable
sadness, a deathless grief, the permanent imprint of a tragedy
long past, but yet a living issue. Presley told himself that it
was impossible to look long into Vanamee's eyes without knowing
that here was a man whose whole being had been at one time
shattered and riven to its lowest depths, whose life had suddenly
stopped at a certain moment of its development.
The two friends sat down upon the ledge of the watering-trough,
their eyes wandering incessantly toward the slow moving herd,
grazing on the wheat stubble, moving southward as they grazed.
"Where have you come from this time?" Presley had asked. "Where
have you kept yourself?"
The other swept the horizon to the south and east with a vague
"Off there, down to the south, very far off. So many places that
I can't remember. I went the Long Trail this time; a long, long
ways. Arizona, The Mexicos, and, then, afterwards, Utah and
Nevada, following the horizon, travelling at hazard. Into
Arizona first, going in by Monument Pass, and then on to the
south, through the country of the Navajos, down by the Aga Thia
Needle--a great blade of red rock jutting from out the desert,
like a knife thrust. Then on and on through The Mexicos, all
through the Southwest, then back again in a great circle by
Chihuahua and Aldama to Laredo, to Torreon, and Albuquerque.
From there across the Uncompahgre plateau into the Uintah
country; then at last due west through Nevada to California and
to the valley of the San Joaquin."
His voice lapsed to a monotone, his eyes becoming fixed; he
continued to speak as though half awake, his thoughts elsewhere,
seeing again in the eye of his mind the reach of desert and red
hill, the purple mountain, the level stretch of alkali, leper
white, all the savage, gorgeous desolation of the Long Trail.
He ignored Presley for the moment, but, on the other hand,
Presley himself gave him but half his attention. The return of
Vanamee had stimulated the poet's memory. He recalled the
incidents of Vanamee's life, reviewing again that terrible drama
which had uprooted his soul, which had driven him forth a
wanderer, a shunner of men, a sojourner in waste places. He was,
strangely enough, a college graduate and a man of wide reading
and great intelligence, but he had chosen to lead his own life,
which was that of a recluse.
Of a temperament similar in many ways to Presley's, there were
capabilities in Vanamee that were not ordinarily to be found in
the rank and file of men. Living close to nature, a poet by
instinct, where Presley was but a poet by training, there
developed in him a great sensitiveness to beauty and an almost
abnormal capacity for great happiness and great sorrow; he felt
things intensely, deeply. He never forgot. It was when he was
eighteen or nineteen, at the formative and most impressionable
period of his life, that he had met Angele Varian. Presley
barely remembered her as a girl of sixteen, beautiful almost
beyond expression, who lived with an aged aunt on the Seed ranch
back of the Mission. At this moment he was trying to recall how
she looked, with her hair of gold hanging in two straight plaits
on either side of her face, making three-cornered her round,
white forehead; her wonderful eyes, violet blue, heavy lidded,
with their astonishing upward slant toward the temples, the slant
that gave a strange, oriental cast to her face, perplexing,
enchanting. He remembered the Egyptian fulness of the lips, the
strange balancing movement of her head upon her slender neck, the
same movement that one sees in a snake at poise. Never had he
seen a girl more radiantly beautiful, never a beauty so strange,
so troublous, so out of all accepted standards. It was small
wonder that Vanamee had loved her, and less wonder, still, that
his love had been so intense, so passionate, so part of himself.
Angele had loved him with a love no less than his own. It was
one of those legendary passions that sometimes occur, idyllic,
untouched by civilisation, spontaneous as the growth of trees,
natural as dew-fall, strong as the firm-seated mountains.
At the time of his meeting with Angele, Vanamee was living on the
Los Muertos ranch. It was there he had chosen to spend one of
his college vacations. But he preferred to pass it in out-of-
door work, sometimes herding cattle, sometimes pitching hay,
sometimes working with pick and dynamite-stick on the ditches in
the fourth division of the ranch, riding the range, mending
breaks in the wire fences, making himself generally useful.
College bred though he was, the life pleased him. He was, as he
desired, close to nature, living the full measure of life, a
worker among workers, taking enjoyment in simple pleasures,
healthy in mind and body. He believed in an existence passed in
this fashion in the country, working hard, eating full, drinking
deep, sleeping dreamlessly.
But every night, after supper, he saddled his pony and rode over
to the garden of the old Mission. The 'dobe dividing wall on
that side, which once had separated the Mission garden and the
Seed ranch, had long since crumbled away, and the boundary
between the two pieces of ground was marked only by a line of
venerable pear trees. Here, under these trees, he found Angele
awaiting him, and there the two would sit through the hot, still
evening, their arms about each other, watching the moon rise over
the foothills, listening to the trickle of the water in the moss-
encrusted fountain in the garden, and the steady croak of the
great frogs that lived in the damp north corner of the enclosure.
Through all one summer the enchantment of that new-found,
wonderful love, pure and untainted, filled the lives of each of
them with its sweetness. The summer passed, the harvest moon
came and went. The nights were very dark. In the deep shade of
the pear trees they could no longer see each other. When they
met at the rendezvous, Vanamee found her only with his groping
hands. They did not speak, mere words were useless between them.
Silently as his reaching hands touched her warm body, he took her
in his arms, searching for her lips with his. Then one night the
tragedy had suddenly leaped from out the shadow with the
abruptness of an explosion.
It was impossible afterwards to reconstruct the manner of its
occurrence. To Angele's mind--what there was left of it--the
matter always remained a hideous blur, a blot, a vague, terrible
confusion. No doubt they two had been watched; the plan
succeeded too well for any other supposition. One moonless
night, Angele, arriving under the black shadow of the pear trees
a little earlier than usual, found the apparently familiar figure
waiting for her. All unsuspecting she gave herself to the
embrace of a strange pair of arms, and Vanamee arriving but a
score of moments later, stumbled over her prostrate body, inert
and unconscious, in the shadow of the overspiring trees.
Who was the Other? Angele was carried to her home on the Seed
ranch, delirious, all but raving, and Vanamee, with knife and
revolver ready, ranged the country-side like a wolf. He was not
alone. The whole county rose, raging, horror-struck. Posse
after posse was formed, sent out, and returned, without so much
as a clue. Upon no one could even the shadow of suspicion be
thrown. The Other had withdrawn into an impenetrable mystery.
There he remained. He never was found; he never was so much as
heard of. A legend arose about him, this prowler of the night,
this strange, fearful figure, with an unseen face, swooping in
there from out the darkness, come and gone in an instant, but
leaving behind him a track of terror and death and rage and
undying grief. Within the year, in giving birth to the child,
Angele had died.
The little babe was taken by Angele's parents, and Angele was
buried in the Mission garden near to the aged, grey sun dial.
Vanamee stood by during the ceremony, but half conscious of what
was going forward. At the last moment he had stepped forward,
looked long into the dead face framed in its plaits of gold hair,
the hair that made three-cornered the round, white forehead;
looked again at the closed eyes, with their perplexing upward
slant toward the temples, oriental, bizarre; at the lips with
their Egyptian fulness; at the sweet, slender neck; the long,
slim hands; then abruptly turned about. The last clods were
filling the grave at a time when he was already far away, his
horse's head turned toward the desert.
For two years no syllable was heard of him. It was believed that
he had killed himself. But Vanamee had no thought of that. For
two years he wandered through Arizona, living in the desert, in
the wilderness, a recluse, a nomad, an ascetic. But, doubtless,
all his heart was in the little coffin in the Mission garden.
Once in so often he must come back thither. One day he was seen
again in the San Joaquin. The priest, Father Sarria, returning
from a visit to the sick at Bonneville, met him on the Upper
Eighteen years had passed since Angele had died, but the thread
of Vanamee's life had been snapped. Nothing remained now but the
tangled ends. He had never forgotten. The long, dull ache, the
poignant grief had now become a part of him. Presley knew this
to be so.
While Presley had been reflecting upon all this, Vanamee had
continued to speak. Presley, however, had not been wholly
inattentive. While his memory was busy reconstructing the
details of the drama of the shepherd's life, another part of his
brain had been swiftly registering picture after picture that
Vanamee's monotonous flow of words struck off, as it were, upon a
steadily moving scroll. The music of the unfamiliar names that
occurred in his recital was a stimulant to the poet's
imagination. Presley had the poet's passion for expressive,
sonorous names. As these came and went in Vanamee's monotonous
undertones, like little notes of harmony in a musical
progression, he listened, delighted with their resonance. -
Navajo, Quijotoa, Uintah, Sonora, Laredo, Uncompahgre--to him
they were so many symbols. It was his West that passed,
unrolling there before the eye of his mind: the open, heat-
scourged round of desert; the mesa, like a vast altar, shimmering
purple in the royal sunset; the still, gigantic mountains,
heaving into the sky from out the canyons; the strenuous, fierce
life of isolated towns, lost and forgotten, down there, far off,
below the horizon. Abruptly his great poem, his Song of the
West, leaped up again in his imagination. For the moment, he all
but held it. It was there, close at hand. In another instant he
would grasp it.
"Yes, yes," he exclaimed, "I can see it all. The desert, the
mountains, all wild, primordial, untamed. How I should have
loved to have been with you. Then, perhaps, I should have got
hold of my idea."
"The great poem of the West. It's that which I want to write.
Oh, to put it all into hexameters; strike the great iron note;
sing the vast, terrible song; the song of the People; the
forerunners of empire!"
Vanamee understood him perfectly. He nodded gravely.
"Yes, it is there. It is Life, the primitive, simple, direct
Life, passionate, tumultuous. Yes, there is an epic there."
Presley caught at the word. It had never before occurred to him.
"Epic, yes, that's it. It is the epic I'm searching for. And
HOW I search for it. You don't know. It is sometimes almost an
agony. Often and often I can feel it right there, there, at my
finger-tips, but I never quite catch it. It always eludes me. I
was born too late. Ah, to get back to that first clear-eyed view
of things, to see as Homer saw, as Beowulf saw, as the Nibelungen
poets saw. The life is here, the same as then; the Poem is here;
my West is here; the primeval, epic life is here, here under our
hands, in the desert, in the mountain, on the ranch, all over
here, from Winnipeg to Guadalupe. It is the man who is lacking,
the poet; we have been educated away from it all. We are out of
touch. We are out of tune."
Vanamee heard him to the end, his grave, sad face thoughtful and
attentive. Then he rose.
"I am going over to the Mission," he said, "to see Father Sarria.
I have not seen him yet."
"How about the sheep?"
"The dogs will keep them in hand, and I shall not be gone long.
Besides that, I have a boy here to help. He is over yonder on
the other side of the herd. We can't see him from here."
Presley wondered at the heedlessness of leaving the sheep so
slightly guarded, but made no comment, and the two started off
across the field in the direction of the Mission church.
"Well, yes, it is there--your epic," observed Vanamee, as they
went along. "But why write? Why not LIVE in it? Steep oneself
in the heat of the desert, the glory of the sunset, the blue haze
of the mesa and the canyon."
"As you have done, for instance?"
"No, I could not do that," declared Presley; "I want to go back,
but not so far as you. I feel that I must compromise. I must
find expression. I could not lose myself like that in your
desert. When its vastness overwhelmed me, or its beauty dazzled
me, or its loneliness weighed down upon me, I should have to
record my impressions. Otherwise, I should suffocate."
"Each to his own life," observed Vanamee.
The Mission of San Juan, built of brown 'dobe blocks, covered
with yellow plaster, that at many points had dropped away from
the walls, stood on the crest of a low rise of the ground, facing
to the south. A covered colonnade, paved with round, worn
bricks, from whence opened the doors of the abandoned cells, once
used by the monks, adjoined it on the left. The roof was of
tiled half-cylinders, split longitudinally, and laid in alternate
rows, now concave, now convex. The main body of the church
itself was at right angles to the colonnade, and at the point of
intersection rose the belfry tower, an ancient campanile, where
swung the three cracked bells, the gift of the King of Spain.
Beyond the church was the Mission garden and the graveyard that
overlooked the Seed ranch in a little hollow beyond.
Presley and Vanamee went down the long colonnade to the last door
next the belfry tower, and Vanamee pulled the leather thong that
hung from a hole in the door, setting a little bell jangling
somewhere in the interior. The place, but for this noise, was
shrouded in a Sunday stillness, an absolute repose. Only at
intervals, one heard the trickle of the unseen fountain, and the
liquid cooing of doves in the garden.
Father Sarria opened the door. He was a small man, somewhat
stout, with a smooth and shiny face. He wore a frock coat that
was rather dirty, slippers, and an old yachting cap of blue
cloth, with a broken leather vizor. He was smoking a cheap
cigar, very fat and black.
But instantly he recognised Vanamee. His face went all alight
with pleasure and astonishment. It seemed as if he would never
have finished shaking both his hands; and, as it was, he released
but one of them, patting him affectionately on the shoulder with
the other. He was voluble in his welcome, talking partly in
Spanish, partly in English.
So he had come back again, this great fellow, tanned as an
Indian, lean as an Indian, with an Indian's long, black hair.
But he had not changed, not in the very least. His beard had not
grown an inch. Aha! The rascal, never to give warning, to drop
down, as it were, from out the sky. Such a hermit! To live in
the desert! A veritable Saint Jerome. Did a lion feed him down
there in Arizona, or was it a raven, like Elijah? The good God
had not fattened him, at any rate, and, apropos, he was just
about to dine himself. He had made a salad from his own lettuce.
The two would dine with him, eh? For this, my son, that was lost
is found again.
But Presley excused himself. Instinctively, he felt that Sarria
and Vanamee wanted to talk of things concerning which he was an
outsider. It was not at all unlikely that Vanamee would spend
half the night before the high altar in the church.
He took himself away, his mind still busy with Vanamee's
extraordinary life and character. But, as he descended the hill,
he was startled by a prolonged and raucous cry, discordant, very
harsh, thrice repeated at exact intervals, and, looking up, he
saw one of Father Sarria's peacocks balancing himself upon the
topmost wire of the fence, his long tail trailing, his neck
outstretched, filling the air with his stupid outcry, for no
reason than the desire to make a noise.
About an hour later, toward four in the afternoon, Presley
reached the spring at the head of the little canyon in the
northeast corner of the Quien Sabe ranch, the point toward which
he had been travelling since early in the forenoon. The place
was not without its charm. Innumerable live-oaks overhung the
canyon, and Broderson Creek--there a mere rivulet, running down
from the spring--gave a certain coolness to the air. It was one
of the few spots thereabouts that had survived the dry season of
the last year. Nearly all the other springs had dried
completely, while Mission Creek on Derrick's ranch was nothing
better than a dusty cutting in the ground, filled with brittle,
concave flakes of dried and sun-cracked mud.
Presley climbed to the summit of one of the hills--the highest--
that rose out of the canyon, from the crest of which he could see
for thirty, fifty, sixty miles down the valley, and, filling his
pipe, smoked lazily for upwards of an hour, his head empty of
thought, allowing himself to succumb to a pleasant, gentle
inanition, a little drowsy comfortable in his place, prone upon
the ground, warmed just enough by such sunlight as filtered
through the live-oaks, soothed by the good tobacco and the
prolonged murmur of the spring and creek. By degrees, the sense
of his own personality became blunted, the little wheels and cogs
of thought moved slower and slower; consciousness dwindled to a
point, the animal in him stretched itself, purring. A delightful
numbness invaded his mind and his body. He was not asleep, he
was not awake, stupefied merely, lapsing back to the state of the
faun, the satyr.
After a while, rousing himself a little, he shifted his position
and, drawing from the pocket of his shooting coat his little
tree-calf edition of the Odyssey, read far into the twenty-first
book, where, after the failure of all the suitors to bend
Ulysses's bow, it is finally put, with mockery, into his own
hands. Abruptly the drama of the story roused him from all his
languor. In an instant he was the poet again, his nerves
tingling, alive to every sensation, responsive to every
impression. The desire of creation, of composition, grew big
within him. Hexameters of his own clamoured, tumultuous, in his
brain. Not for a long time had he "felt his poem," as he called
this sensation, so poignantly. For an instant he told himself
that he actually held it.
It was, no doubt, Vanamee's talk that had stimulated him to this
point. The story of the Long Trail, with its desert and
mountain, its cliff-dwellers, its Aztec ruins, its colour,
movement, and romance, filled his mind with picture after
picture. The epic defiled before his vision like a pageant.
Once more, he shot a glance about him, as if in search of the
inspiration, and this time he all but found it. He rose to his
feet, looking out and off below him.
As from a pinnacle, Presley, from where he now stood, dominated
the entire country. The sun had begun to set, everything in the
range of his vision was overlaid with a sheen of gold.
First, close at hand, it was the Seed ranch, carpeting the little
hollow behind the Mission with a spread of greens, some dark,
some vivid, some pale almost to yellowness. Beyond that was the
Mission itself, its venerable campanile, in whose arches hung the
Spanish King's bells, already glowing ruddy in the sunset.
Farther on, he could make out Annixter's ranch house, marked by
the skeleton-like tower of the artesian well, and, a little
farther to the east, the huddled, tiled roofs of Guadalajara.
Far to the west and north, he saw Bonneville very plain, and the
dome of the courthouse, a purple silhouette against the glare of
the sky. Other points detached themselves, swimming in a golden
mist, projecting blue shadows far before them; the mammoth live-
oak by Hooven's, towering superb and magnificent; the line of
eucalyptus trees, behind which he knew was the Los Muertos ranch
house--his home; the watering-tank, the great iron-hooped tower
of wood that stood at the joining of the Lower Road and the
County Road; the long wind-break of poplar trees and the white
walls of Caraher's saloon on the County Road.
But all this seemed to be only foreground, a mere array of
accessories--a mass of irrelevant details. Beyond Annixter's,
beyond Guadalajara, beyond the Lower Road, beyond Broderson
Creek, on to the south and west, infinite, illimitable,
stretching out there under the sheen of the sunset forever and
forever, flat, vast, unbroken, a huge scroll, unrolling between
the horizons, spread the great stretches of the ranch of Los
Muertos, bare of crops, shaved close in the recent harvest. Near
at hand were hills, but on that far southern horizon only the
curve of the great earth itself checked the view. Adjoining Los
Muertos, and widening to the west, opened the Broderson ranch.
The Osterman ranch to the northwest carried on the great sweep of
landscape; ranch after ranch. Then, as the imagination itself
expanded under the stimulus of that measureless range of vision,
even those great ranches resolved themselves into mere
foreground, mere accessories, irrelevant details. Beyond the
fine line of the horizons, over the curve of the globe, the
shoulder of the earth, were other ranches, equally vast, and
beyond these, others, and beyond these, still others, the
immensities multiplying, lengthening out vaster and vaster. The
whole gigantic sweep of the San Joaquin expanded, Titanic, before
the eye of the mind, flagellated with heat, quivering and
shimmering under the sun's red eye. At long intervals, a faint
breath of wind out of the south passed slowly over the levels of
the baked and empty earth, accentuating the silence, marking off
the stillness. It seemed to exhale from the land itself, a
prolonged sigh as of deep fatigue. It was the season after the
harvest, and the great earth, the mother, after its period of
reproduction, its pains of labour, delivered of the fruit of its
loins, slept the sleep of exhaustion, the infinite repose of the
colossus, benignant, eternal, strong, the nourisher of nations,
the feeder of an entire world.
Ha! there it was, his epic, his inspiration, his West, his
thundering progression of hexameters. A sudden uplift, a sense
of exhilaration, of physical exaltation appeared abruptly to
sweep Presley from his feet. As from a point high above the
world, he seemed to dominate a universe, a whole order of things.
He was dizzied, stunned, stupefied, his morbid supersensitive
mind reeling, drunk with the intoxication of mere immensity.
Stupendous ideas for which there were no names drove headlong
through his brain. Terrible, formless shapes, vague figures,
gigantic, monstrous, distorted, whirled at a gallop through his
He started homeward, still in his dream, descending from the
hill, emerging from the canyon, and took the short cut straight
across the Quien Sabe ranch, leaving Guadalajara far to his left.
He tramped steadily on through the wheat stubble, walking fast,
his head in a whirl.
Never had he so nearly grasped his inspiration as at that moment
on the hilltop. Even now, though the sunset was fading, though
the wide reach of valley was shut from sight, it still kept him
company. Now the details came thronging back--the component
parts of his poem, the signs and symbols of the West. It was
there, close at hand, he had been in touch with it all day. It
was in the centenarian's vividly coloured reminiscences--De La
Cuesta, holding his grant from the Spanish crown, with his power
of life and death; the romance of his marriage; the white horse
with its pillion of red leather and silver bridle mountings; the
bull-fights in the Plaza; the gifts of gold dust, and horses and
tallow. It was in Vanamee's strange history, the tragedy of his
love; Angele Varian, with her marvellous loveliness; the Egyptian
fulness of her lips, the perplexing upward slant of her violet
eyes, bizarre, oriental; her white forehead made three cornered
by her plaits of gold hair; the mystery of the Other; her death
at the moment of her child's birth. It was in Vanamee's flight
into the wilderness; the story of the Long Trail, the sunsets
behind the altar-like mesas, the baking desolation of the
deserts; the strenuous, fierce life of forgotten towns, down
there, far off, lost below the horizons of the southwest; the
sonorous music of unfamiliar names--Quijotoa, Uintah, Sonora,
Laredo, Uncompahgre. It was in the Mission, with its cracked
bells, its decaying walls, its venerable sun dial, its fountain
and old garden, and in the Mission Fathers themselves, the
priests, the padres, planting the first wheat and oil and wine to
produce the elements of the Sacrament--a trinity of great
industries, taking their rise in a religious rite.
Abruptly, as if in confirmation, Presley heard the sound of a
bell from the direction of the Mission itself. It was the de
Profundis, a note of the Old World; of the ancient regime, an
echo from the hillsides of mediaeval Europe, sounding there in
this new land, unfamiliar and strange at this end-of-the-century
By now, however, it was dark. Presley hurried forward. He came
to the line fence of the Quien Sabe ranch. Everything was very
still. The stars were all out. There was not a sound other than
the de Profundis, still sounding from very far away. At long
intervals the great earth sighed dreamily in its sleep. All
about, the feeling of absolute peace and quiet and security and
untroubled happiness and content seemed descending from the stars
like a benediction. The beauty of his poem, its idyl, came to
him like a caress; that alone had been lacking. It was that,
perhaps, which had left it hitherto incomplete. At last he was
to grasp his song in all its entity.
But suddenly there was an interruption. Presley had climbed the
fence at the limit of the Quien Sabe ranch. Beyond was Los
Muertos, but between the two ran the railroad. He had only time
to jump back upon the embankment when, with a quivering of all
the earth, a locomotive, single, unattached, shot by him with a
roar, filling the air with the reek of hot oil, vomiting smoke
and sparks; its enormous eye, cyclopean, red, throwing a glare
far in advance, shooting by in a sudden crash of confused
thunder; filling the night with the terrific clamour of its iron
Abruptly Presley remembered. This must be the crack passenger
engine of which Dyke had told him, the one delayed by the
accident on the Bakersfield division and for whose passage the
track had been opened all the way to Fresno.
Before Presley could recover from the shock of the irruption,
while the earth was still vibrating, the rails still humming, the
engine was far away, flinging the echo of its frantic gallop over
all the valley. For a brief instant it roared with a hollow
diapason on the Long Trestle over Broderson Creek, then plunged
into a cutting farther on, the quivering glare of its fires
losing itself in the night, its thunder abruptly diminishing to a
subdued and distant humming. All at once this ceased. The
engine was gone.
But the moment the noise of the engine lapsed, Presley--about to
start forward again--was conscious of a confusion of lamentable
sounds that rose into the night from out the engine's wake.
Prolonged cries of agony, sobbing wails of infinite pain, heart-
The noises came from a little distance. He ran down the track,
crossing the culvert, over the irrigating ditch, and at the head
of the long reach of track--between the culvert and the Long
Trestle--paused abruptly, held immovable at the sight of the
ground and rails all about him.
In some way, the herd of sheep--Vanamee's herd--had found a
breach in the wire fence by the right of way and had wandered out
upon the tracks. A band had been crossing just at the moment of
the engine's passage. The pathos of it was beyond expression.
It was a slaughter, a massacre of innocents. The iron monster
had charged full into the midst, merciless, inexorable. To the
right and left, all the width of the right of way, the little
bodies had been flung; backs were snapped against the fence
posts; brains knocked out. Caught in the barbs of the wire,
wedged in, the bodies hung suspended. Under foot it was
terrible. The black blood, winking in the starlight, seeped down
into the clinkers between the ties with a prolonged sucking
Presley turned away, horror-struck, sick at heart, overwhelmed
with a quick burst of irresistible compassion for this brute
agony he could not relieve. The sweetness was gone from the
evening, the sense of peace, of security, and placid contentment
was stricken from the landscape. The hideous ruin in the
engine's path drove all thought of his poem from his mind. The
inspiration vanished like a mist. The de Profundis had ceased to
He hurried on across the Los Muertos ranch, almost running, even
putting his hands over his ears till he was out of hearing
distance of that all but human distress. Not until he was beyond
ear-shot did he pause, looking back, listening. The night had
shut down again. For a moment the silence was profound,
Then, faint and prolonged, across the levels of the ranch, he
heard the engine whistling for Bonneville. Again and again, at
rapid intervals in its flying course, it whistled for road
crossings, for sharp curves, for trestles; ominous notes, hoarse,
bellowing, ringing with the accents of menace and defiance; and
abruptly Presley saw again, in his imagination, the galloping
monster, the terror of steel and steam, with its single eye,
cyclopean, red, shooting from horizon to horizon; but saw it now
as the symbol of a vast power, huge, terrible, flinging the echo
of its thunder over all the reaches of the valley, leaving blood
and destruction in its path; the leviathan, with tentacles of
steel clutching into the soil, the soulless Force, the iron-
hearted Power, the monster, the Colossus, the Octopus.
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
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
"How about that seed?" demanded Harran when he had got Cutter on
The other made excuses for an unavoidable delay, and was adding
that he was on the point of starting out, when Harran cut in
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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."