When Annixter arrived at the Los Muertos ranch house that same
evening, he found a little group already assembled in the dining-
room. Magnus Derrick, wearing the frock coat of broadcloth that
he had put on for the occasion, stood with his back to the
fireplace. Harran sat close at hand, one leg thrown over the arm
of his chair. Presley lounged on the sofa, in corduroys and high
laced boots, smoking cigarettes. Broderson leaned on his folded
arms at one corner of the dining table, and Genslinger, editor
and proprietor of the principal newspaper of the county, the
"Bonneville Mercury," stood with his hat and driving gloves under
his arm, opposite Derrick, a half-emptied glass of whiskey and
water in his hand.
As Annixter entered he heard Genslinger observe: "I'll have a
leader in the 'Mercury' to-morrow that will interest you people.
There's some talk of your ranch lands being graded in value this
winter. I suppose you will all buy?"
In an instant the editor's words had riveted upon him the
attention of every man in the room. Annixter broke the moment's
silence that followed with the remark:
"Well, it's about time they graded these lands of theirs."
The question in issue in Genslinger's remark was of the most
vital interest to the ranchers around Bonneville and Guadalajara.
Neither Magnus Derrick, Broderson, Annixter, nor Osterman
actually owned all the ranches which they worked. As yet, the
vast majority of these wheat lands were the property of the P.
and S. W. The explanation of this condition of affairs went back
to the early history of the Pacific and Southwestern, when, as a
bonus for the construction of the road, the national government
had granted to the company the odd numbered sections of land on
either side of the proposed line of route for a distance of
twenty miles. Indisputably, these sections belonged to the P.
and S. W. The even-numbered sections being government property
could be and had been taken up by the ranchers, but the railroad
sections, or, as they were called, the "alternate sections,"
would have to be purchased direct from the railroad itself.
But this had not prevented the farmers from "coming in" upon that
part of the San Joaquin. Long before this the railroad had
thrown open these lands, and, by means of circulars, distributed
broadcast throughout the State, had expressly invited settlement
thereon. At that time patents had not been issued to the
railroad for their odd-numbered sections, but as soon as the land
was patented the railroad would grade it in value and offer it
for sale, the first occupants having the first chance of
purchase. The price of these lands was to be fixed by the price
the government put upon its own adjoining lands--about two
dollars and a half per acre.
With cultivation and improvement the ranches must inevitably
appreciate in value. There was every chance to make fortunes.
When the railroad lands about Bonneville had been thrown open,
there had been almost a rush in the matter of settlement, and
Broderson, Annixter, Derrick, and Osterman, being foremost with
their claims, had secured the pick of the country. But the land
once settled upon, the P. and S. W. seemed to be in no hurry as
to fixing exactly the value of its sections included in the
various ranches and offering them for sale. The matter dragged
along from year to year, was forgotten for months together, being
only brought to mind on such occasions as this, when the rumour
spread that the General Office was about to take definite action
in the affair.
"As soon as the railroad wants to talk business with me,"
observed Annixter, "about selling me their interest in Quien
Sabe, I'm ready. The land has more than quadrupled in value. I
ll bet I could sell it to-morrow for fifteen dollars an acre, and
if I buy of the railroad for two and a half an acre, there's
boodle in the game."
"For two and a half!" exclaimed Genslinger. "You don't suppose
the railroad will let their land go for any such figure as that,
do you? Wherever did you get that idea?"
"From the circulars and pamphlets," answered Harran, "that the
railroad issued to us when they opened these lands. They are
pledged to that. Even the P. and S. W. couldn't break such a
pledge as that. You are new in the country, Mr. Genslinger. You
don't remember the conditions upon which we took up this land."
"And our improvements," exclaimed Annixter. "Why, Magnus and I
have put about five thousand dollars between us into that
irrigating ditch already. I guess we are not improving the land
just to make it valuable for the railroad people. No matter how
much we improve the land, or how much it increases in value, they
have got to stick by their agreement on the basis of two-fifty
per acre. Here's one case where the P. and S. W. don't get
everything in sight."
Genslinger frowned, perplexed.
"I am new in the country, as Harran says," he answered, "but it
seems to me that there's no fairness in that proposition. The
presence of the railroad has helped increase the value of your
ranches quite as much as your improvements. Why should you get
all the benefit of the rise in value and the railroad nothing?
The fair way would be to share it between you."
"I don't care anything about that," declared Annixter. "They
agreed to charge but two-fifty, and they've got to stick to it."
"Well," murmured Genslinger, "from what I know of the affair, I
don't believe the P. and S. W. intends to sell for two-fifty an
acre, at all. The managers of the road want the best price they
can get for everything in these hard times."
"Times aren't ever very hard for the railroad," hazards old
Broderson was the oldest man in the room. He was about sixty-
five years of age, venerable, with a white beard, his figure bent
earthwards with hard work.
He was a narrow-minded man, painfully conscientious in his
statements lest he should be unjust to somebody; a slow thinker,
unable to let a subject drop when once he had started upon it.
He had no sooner uttered his remark about hard times than he was
moved to qualify it.
"Hard times," he repeated, a troubled, perplexed note in his
voice; "well, yes--yes. I suppose the road does have hard times,
maybe. Everybody does--of course. I didn't mean that exactly.
I believe in being just and fair to everybody. I mean that we've
got to use their lines and pay their charges good years and bad
years, the P. and S. W. being the only road in the State. That
is--well, when I say the only road--no, I won't say the only
road. Of course there are other roads. There's the D. P. and M.
and the San Francisco and North Pacific, that runs up to Ukiah.
I got a brother-in-law in Ukiah. That's not much of a wheat
country round Ukiah though they do grow some wheat there, come to
think. But I guess it's too far north. Well, of course there
isn't much. Perhaps sixty thousand acres in the whole county--if
you include barley and oats. I don't know; maybe it's nearer
forty thousand. I don't remember very well. That's a good many
years ago. I----"
But Annixter, at the end of all patience, turned to Genslinger,
cutting short the old man:
"Oh, rot! Of course the railroad will sell at two-fifty," he
cried. "We've got the contracts."
"Look to them, then, Mr. Annixter," retorted Genslinger
significantly, "look to them. Be sure that you are protected."
Soon after this Genslinger took himself away, and Derrick's
Chinaman came in to set the table.
"What do you suppose he meant?" asked Broderson, when Genslinger
"About this land business?" said Annixter. "Oh, I don't know.
Some tom fool idea. Haven't we got their terms printed in black
and white in their circulars? There's their pledge."
"Oh, as to pledges," murmured Broderson, "the railroad is not
always too much hindered by those."
"Where's Osterman?" demanded Annixter, abruptly changing the
subject as if it were not worth discussion. "Isn't that goat
Osterman coming down here to-night?"
"You telephoned him, didn't you, Presley?" inquired Magnus .
Presley had taken Princess Nathalie upon his knee stroking her
long, sleek hair, and the cat, stupefied with beatitude, had
closed her eyes to two fine lines, clawing softly at the corduroy
of Presley's trousers with alternate paws.
"Yes, sir," returned Presley. "He said he would be here."
And as he spoke, young Osterman arrived.
He was a young fellow, but singularly inclined to baldness. His
ears, very red and large, stuck out at right angles from either
side of his head, and his mouth, too, was large--a great
horizontal slit beneath his nose. His cheeks were of a brownish
red, the cheek bones a little salient. His face was that of a
comic actor, a singer of songs, a man never at a loss for an
answer, continually striving to make a laugh. But he took no
great interest in ranching and left the management of his land to
his superintendents and foremen, he, himself, living in
Bonneville. He was a poser, a wearer of clothes, forever acting
a part, striving to create an impression, to draw attention to
himself. He was not without a certain energy, but he devoted it
to small ends, to perfecting himself in little accomplishments,
continually running after some new thing, incapable of persisting
long in any one course. At one moment his mania would be
fencing; the next, sleight-of-hand tricks; the next, archery.
For upwards of one month he had devoted himself to learning how
to play two banjos simultaneously, then abandoning this had
developed a sudden passion for stamped leather work and had made
a quantity of purses, tennis belts, and hat bands, which he
presented to young ladies of his acquaintance. It was his policy
never to make an enemy. He was liked far better than he was
respected. People spoke of him as "that goat Osterman," or "that
fool Osterman kid," and invited him to dinner. He was of the
sort who somehow cannot be ignored. If only because of his
clamour he made himself important. If he had one abiding trait,
it was his desire of astonishing people, and in some way, best
known to himself, managed to cause the circulation of the most
extraordinary stories wherein he, himself, was the chief actor.
He was glib, voluble, dexterous, ubiquitous, a teller of funny
stories, a cracker of jokes.
Naturally enough, he was heavily in debt, but carried the burden
of it with perfect nonchalance. The year before S. Behrman had
held mortgages for fully a third of his crop and had squeezed him
viciously for interest. But for all that, Osterman and S.
Behrman were continually seen arm-in-arm on the main street of
Bonneville. Osterman was accustomed to slap S. Behrman on his
fat back, declaring:
"You're a good fellow, old jelly-belly, after all, hey?"
As Osterman entered from the porch, after hanging his cavalry
poncho and dripping hat on the rack outside, Mrs. Derrick
appeared in the door that opened from the dining-room into the
glass-roofed hallway just beyond. Osterman saluted her with
effusive cordiality and with ingratiating blandness.
"I am not going to stay," she explained, smiling pleasantly at
the group of men, her pretty, wide-open brown eyes, with their
look of inquiry and innocence, glancing from face to face, "I
only came to see if you wanted anything and to say how do you
She began talking to old Broderson, making inquiries as to his
wife, who had been sick the last week, and Osterman turned to the
company, shaking hands all around, keeping up an incessant stream
"Hello, boys and girls. Hello, Governor. Sort of a gathering of
the clans to-night. Well, if here isn't that man Annixter.
Hello, Buck. What do you know? Kind of dusty out to-night."
At once Annixter began to get red in the face, retiring towards a
corner of the room, standing in an awkward position by the case
of stuffed birds, shambling and confused, while Mrs. Derrick was
present, standing rigidly on both feet, his elbows close to his
sides. But he was angry with Osterman, muttering imprecations to
himself, horribly vexed that the young fellow should call him
"Buck" before Magnus's wife. This goat Osterman! Hadn't he any
sense, that fool? Couldn't he ever learn how to behave before a
feemale? Calling him "Buck" like that while Mrs. Derrick was
there. Why a stable-boy would know better; a hired man would
have better manners.
All through the dinner that followed Annixter was out of sorts,
sulking in his place, refusing to eat by way of vindicating his
self-respect, resolving to bring Osterman up with a sharp turn if
he called him "Buck" again.
The Chinaman had made a certain kind of plum pudding for dessert,
and Annixter, who remembered other dinners at the Derrick's, had
been saving himself for this, and had meditated upon it all
through the meal. No doubt, it would restore all his good
humour, and he believed his stomach was so far recovered as to be
able to stand it.
But, unfortunately, the pudding was served with a sauce that he
abhorred--a thick, gruel-like, colourless mixture, made from
plain water and sugar. Before he could interfere, the Chinaman
had poured a quantity of it upon his plate.
"Faugh!" exclaimed Annixter. "It makes me sick. Such--such
sloop. Take it away. I'll have mine straight, if you don't
"That's good for your stomach, Buck," observed young Osterman;
"makes it go down kind of sort of slick; don't you see? Sloop,
hey? That's a good name."
"Look here, don't you call me Buck. You don't seem to have any
sense, and, besides, it isn't good for my stomach. I know
better. What do you know about my stomach, anyhow? Just looking
at sloop like that makes me sick."
A little while after this the Chinaman cleared away the dessert
and brought in coffee and cigars. The whiskey bottle and the
syphon of soda-water reappeared. The men eased themselves in
their places, pushing back from the table, lighting their cigars,
talking of the beginning of the rains and the prospects of a rise
in wheat. Broderson began an elaborate mental calculation,
trying to settle in his mind the exact date of his visit to
Ukiah, and Osterman did sleight-of-hand tricks with bread pills.
But Princess Nathalie, the cat, was uneasy. Annixter was
occupying her own particular chair in which she slept every
night. She could not go to sleep, but spied upon him
continually, watching his every movement with her lambent, yellow
eyes, clear as amber.
Then, at length, Magnus, who was at the head of the table, moved
in his place, assuming a certain magisterial attitude. "Well,
gentlemen," he observed, "I have lost my case against the
railroad, the grain-rate case. Ulsteen decided against me, and
now I hear rumours to the effect that rates for the hauling of
grain are to be advanced."
When Magnus had finished, there was a moment's silence, each
member of the group maintaining his attitude of attention and
interest. It was Harran who first spoke.
"S. Behrman manipulated the whole affair. There's a big deal of
some kind in the air, and if there is, we all know who is back of
it; S. Behrman, of course, but who's back of him? It's
Shelgrim! The name fell squarely in the midst of the
conversation, abrupt, grave, sombre, big with suggestion,
pregnant with huge associations. No one in the group who was not
familiar with it; no one, for that matter, in the county, the
State, the whole reach of the West, the entire Union, that did
not entertain convictions as to the man who carried it; a giant
figure in the end-of-the-century finance, a product of
circumstance, an inevitable result of conditions, characteristic,
typical, symbolic of ungovernable forces. In the New Movement,
the New Finance, the reorganisation of capital, the amalgamation
of powers, the consolidation of enormous enterprises--no one
individual was more constantly in the eye of the world; no one
was more hated, more dreaded, no one more compelling of unwilling
tribute to his commanding genius, to the colossal intellect
operating the width of an entire continent than the president and
owner of the Pacific and Southwestern.
"I don't think, however, he has moved yet," said Magnus.
"The thing for us, then," exclaimed Osterman, "is to stand from
under before he does."
"Moved yet!" snorted Annixter. "He's probably moved so long ago
that we've never noticed it."
"In any case," hazarded Magnus, "it is scarcely probable that the
deal--whatever it is to be--has been consummated. If we act
quickly, there may be a chance."
"Act quickly! How?" demanded Annixter. "Good Lord! what can
you do? We're cinched already. It all amounts to just this: you
can't buck against the railroad. We've tried it and tried it,
and we are stuck every time. You, yourself, Derrick, have just
lost your grain-rate case. S. Behrman did you up. Shelgrim owns
the courts. He's got men like Ulsteen in his pocket. He's got
the Railroad Commission in his pocket. He's got the Governor of
the State in his pocket. He keeps a million-dollar lobby at
Sacramento every minute of the time the legislature is in
session; he's got his own men on the floor of the United States
Senate. He has the whole thing organised like an army corps.
What are you going to do? He sits in his office in San
Francisco and pulls the strings and we've got to dance."
"But--well--but," hazarded Broderson, "but there's the Interstate
Commerce Commission. At least on long-haul rates they----"
"Hoh, yes, the Interstate Commerce Commission," shouted Annixter,
scornfully, "that's great, ain't it? The greatest Punch and
Judy; show on earth. It's almost as good as the Railroad
Commission. There never was and there never will be a California
Railroad Commission not in the pay of the P. and S. W."
"It is to the Railroad Commission, nevertheless," remarked
Magnus, "that the people of the State must look for relief. That
is our only hope. Once elect Commissioners who would be loyal to
the people, and the whole system of excessive rates falls to the
"Well, why not have a Railroad Commission of our own, then?"
suddenly declared young Osterman.
"Because it can't be done," retorted Annixter. "You can't buck
against the railroad and if you could you can't organise the
farmers in the San Joaquin. We tried it once, and it was enough
to turn your stomach. The railroad quietly bought delegates
through S. Behrman and did us up."
"Well, that's the game to play," said Osterman decisively, "buy
"It's the only game that seems to win," admitted Harran gloomily.
"Or ever will win," exclaimed Osterman, a sudden excitement
seeming to take possession of him. His face--the face of a comic
actor, with its great slit of mouth and stiff, red ears--went
"Look here," he cried, "this thing is getting desperate. We've
fought and fought in the courts and out and we've tried agitation
and--and all the rest of it and S. Behrman sacks us every time.
Now comes the time when there's a prospect of a big crop; we've
had no rain for two years and the land has had a long rest. If
there is any rain at all this winter, we'll have a bonanza year,
and just at this very moment when we've got our chance--a chance
to pay off our mortgages and get clear of debt and make a strike--
here is Shelgrim making a deal to cinch us and put up rates.
And now here's the primaries coming off and a new Railroad
Commission going in. That's why Shelgrim chose this time to make
his deal. If we wait till Shelgrim pulls it off, we're done for,
that's flat. I tell you we're in a fix if we don't keep an eye
open. Things are getting desperate. Magnus has just said that
the key to the whole thing is the Railroad Commission. Well, why
not have a Commission of our own? Never mind how we get it,
let's get it. If it's got to be bought, let's buy it and put our
own men on it and dictate what the rates will be. Suppose it
costs a hundred thousand dollars. Well, we'll get back more than
that in cheap rates."
"Mr. Osterman," said Magnus, fixing the young man with a swift
glance, "Mr. Osterman, you are proposing a scheme of bribery,
"I am proposing," repeated Osterman, "a scheme of bribery.
"And a crazy, wild-eyed scheme at that," said Annixter gruffly.
"Even supposing you bought a Railroad Commission and got your
schedule of low rates, what happens? The P. and S. W. crowd get
out an injunction and tie you up."
"They would tie themselves up, too. Hauling at low rates is
better than no hauling at all. The wheat has got to be moved."
"Oh, rot!" cried Annixter. "Aren't you ever going to learn any
sense? Don't you know that cheap transportation would benefit
the Liverpool buyers and not us? Can't it be fed into you that
you can't buck against the railroad? When you try to buy a Board
of Commissioners don't you see that you'll have to bid against
the railroad, bid against a corporation that can chuck out
millions to our thousands? Do you think you can bid against the
P. and S. W.?"
"The railroad don't need to know we are in the game against them
till we've got our men seated."
"And when you've got them seated, what's to prevent the
corporation buying them right over your head?"
"If we've got the right kind of men in they could not be bought
that way," interposed Harran. "I don't know but what there's
something in what Osterman says. We'd have the naming of the
Commission and we'd name honest men."
Annixter struck the table with his fist in exasperation.
"Honest men!" he shouted; "the kind of men you could get to go
into such a scheme would have to be dis-honest to begin with."
Broderson, shifting uneasily in his place, fingering his beard
with a vague, uncertain gesture, spoke again:
"It would be the chance of them--our Commissioners--selling out
against the certainty of Shelgrim doing us up. That is," he
hastened to add, "almost a certainty; pretty near a certainty."
"Of course, it would be a chance," exclaimed Osterman. "But it's
come to the point where we've got to take chances, risk a big
stake to make a big strike, and risk is better than sure
"I can be no party to a scheme of avowed bribery and corruption,
Mr. Osterman," declared Magnus, a ring of severity in his voice.
"I am surprised, sir, that you should even broach the subject in
"And," cried Annixter, "it can't be done."
"I don't know," muttered Harran, "maybe it just wants a little
spark like this to fire the whole train."
Magnus glanced at his son in considerable surprise. He had not
expected this of Harran. But so great was his affection for his
son, so accustomed had he become to listening to his advice, to
respecting his opinions, that, for the moment, after the first
shock of surprise and disappointment, he was influenced to give a
certain degree of attention to this new proposition. He in no
way countenanced it. At any moment he was prepared to rise in
his place and denounce it and Osterman both. It was trickery of
the most contemptible order, a thing he believed to be unknown to
the old school of politics and statesmanship to which he was
proud to belong; but since Harran, even for one moment,
considered it, he, Magnus, who trusted Harran implicitly, would
do likewise--if it was only to oppose and defeat it in its very
And abruptly the discussion began. Gradually Osterman, by dint
of his clamour, his strident reiteration, the plausibility of his
glib, ready assertions, the ease with which he extricated himself
when apparently driven to a corner, completely won over old
Broderson to his way of thinking. Osterman bewildered him with
his volubility, the lightning rapidity with which he leaped from
one subject to another, garrulous, witty, flamboyant, terrifying
the old man with pictures of the swift approach of ruin, the
imminence of danger.
Annixter, who led the argument against him--loving argument
though he did--appeared to poor advantage, unable to present his
side effectively. He called Osterman a fool, a goat, a
senseless, crazy-headed jackass, but was unable to refute his
assertions. His debate was the clumsy heaving of brickbats,
brutal, direct. He contradicted everything Osterman said as a
matter of principle, made conflicting assertions, declarations
that were absolutely inconsistent, and when Osterman or Harran
used these against him, could only exclaim:
"Well, in a way it's so, and then again in a way it isn't."
But suddenly Osterman discovered a new argument. "If we swing
this deal," he cried, "we've got old jelly-belly Behrman right
where we want him."
"He's the man that does us every time," cried Harran. "If there
is dirty work to be done in which the railroad doesn't wish to
appear, it is S. Behrman who does it. If the freight rates are
to be 'adjusted' to squeeze us a little harder, it is S. Behrman
who regulates what we can stand. If there's a judge to be
bought, it is S. Behrman who does the bargaining. If there is a
jury to be bribed, it is S. Behrman who handles the money. If
there is an election to be jobbed, it is S. Behrman who
manipulates it. It's Behrman here and Behrman there. It is
Behrman we come against every time we make a move. It is Behrman
who has the grip of us and will never let go till he has squeezed
us bone dry. Why, when I think of it all sometimes I wonder I
keep my hands off the man."
Osterman got on his feet; leaning across the table, gesturing
wildly with his right hand, his serio-comic face, with its bald
forehead and stiff, red ears, was inflamed with excitement. He
took the floor, creating an impression, attracting all attention
to himself, playing to the gallery, gesticulating, clamourous,
full of noise.
"Well, now is your chance to get even," he vociferated. "It is
now or never. You can take it and save the situation for
yourselves and all California or you can leave it and rot on your
own ranches. Buck, I know you. I know you're not afraid of
anything that wears skin. I know you've got sand all through
you, and I know if I showed you how we could put our deal through
and seat a Commission of our own, you wouldn't hang back.
Governor, you're a brave man. You know the advantage of prompt
and fearless action. You are not the sort to shrink from taking
chances. To play for big stakes is just your game--to stake a
fortune on the turn of a card. You didn't get the reputation of
being the strongest poker player in El Dorado County for nothing.
Now, here's the biggest gamble that ever came your way. If we
stand up to it like men with guts in us, we'll win out. If we
hesitate, we're lost."
"I don't suppose you can help playing the goat, Osterman,"
remarked Annixter, "but what's your idea? What do you think we
can do? I'm not saying," he hastened to interpose, "that you've
anyways convinced me by all this cackling. I know as well as you
that we are in a hole. But I knew that before I came here to-
night. You've not done anything to make me change my mind. But
just what do you propose? Let's hear it."
"Well, I say the first thing to do is to see Disbrow. He's the
political boss of the Denver, Pueblo, and Mojave road. We will
have to get in with the machine some way and that's particularly
why I want Magnus with us. He knows politics better than any of
us and if we don't want to get sold again we will have to have
some one that's in the know to steer us."
"The only politics I understand, Mr. Osterman," answered Magnus
sternly, "are honest politics. You must look elsewhere for your
political manager. I refuse to have any part in this matter. If
the Railroad Commission can be nominated legitimately, if your
arrangements can be made without bribery, I am with you to the
last iota of my ability."
"Well, you can't get what you want without paying for it,"
Broderson was about to speak when Osterman kicked his foot under
the table. He, himself, held his peace. He was quick to see
that if he could involve Magnus and Annixter in an argument,
Annixter, for the mere love of contention, would oppose the
Governor and, without knowing it, would commit himself to his--
This was precisely what happened. In a few moments Annixter was
declaring at top voice his readiness to mortgage the crop of
Quien Sabe, if necessary, for the sake of "busting S. Behrman."
He could see no great obstacle in the way of controlling the
nominating convention so far as securing the naming of two
Railroad Commissioners was concerned. Two was all they needed.
Probably it would cost money. You didn't get something for
nothing. It would cost them all a good deal more if they sat
like lumps on a log and played tiddledy-winks while Shelgrim sold
out from under them. Then there was this, too: the P. and S. W.
were hard up just then. The shortage on the State's wheat crop
for the last two years had affected them, too. They were
retrenching in expenditures all along the line. Hadn't they just
cut wages in all departments? There was this affair of Dyke's to
prove it. The railroad didn't always act as a unit, either.
There was always a party in it that opposed spending too much
money. He would bet that party was strong just now. He was kind
of sick himself of being kicked by S. Behrman. Hadn't that pip
turned up on his ranch that very day to bully him about his own
line fence? Next he would be telling him what kind of clothes he
ought to wear. Harran had the right idea. Somebody had got to
be busted mighty soon now and he didn't propose that it should be
"Now you are talking something like sense," observed Osterman.
"I thought you would see it like that when you got my idea."
"Your idea, your idea!" cried Annixter. "Why, I've had this idea
myself for over three years."
"What about Disbrow?" asked Harran, hastening to interrupt. "Why
do we want to see Disbrow?"
"Disbrow is the political man for the Denver, Pueblo, and
Mojave," answered Osterman, "and you see it's like this: the
Mojave road don't run up into the valley at all. Their terminus
is way to the south of us, and they don't care anything about
grain rates through the San Joaquin. They don't care how anti-
railroad the Commission is, because the Commission's rulings
can't affect them. But they divide traffic with the P. and S. W.
in the southern part of the State and they have a good deal of
influence with that road. I want to get the Mojave road, through
Disbrow, to recommend a Commissioner of our choosing to the P.
and S. W. and have the P. and S. W. adopt him as their own."
"Who, for instance?"
"Darrell, that Los Angeles man--remember?"
"Well, Darrell is no particular friend of Disbrow," said
Annixter. "Why should Disbrow take him up?"
"Pree-cisely," cried Osterman. "We make it worth Disbrow's while
to do it. We go to him and say, 'Mr. Disbrow, you manage the
politics for the Mojave railroad, and what you say goes with your
Board of Directors. We want you to adopt our candidate for
Railroad Commissioner for the third district. How much do you
want for doing it?' I know we can buy Disbrow. That gives us one
Commissioner. We need not bother about that any more. In the
first district we don't make any move at all. We let the
political managers of the P. and S. W. nominate whoever they
like. Then we concentrate all our efforts to putting in our man
in the second district. There is where the big fight will come."
"I see perfectly well what you mean, Mr. Osterman," observed
Magnus, "but make no mistake, sir, as to my attitude in this
business. You may count me as out of it entirely."
"Well, suppose we win," put in Annixter truculently, already
acknowledging himself as involved in the proposed undertaking;
"suppose we win and get low rates for hauling grain. How about
you, then? You count yourself in then, don't you? You get all
the benefit of lower rates without sharing any of the risks we
take to secure them. No, nor any of the expense, either. No,
you won't dirty your fingers with helping us put this deal
through, but you won't be so cursed particular when it comes to
sharing the profits, will you?"
Magnus rose abruptly to his full height, the nostrils of his
thin, hawk-like nose vibrating, his smooth-shaven face paler than
"Stop right where you are, sir," he exclaimed. "You forget
yourself, Mr. Annixter. Please understand that I tolerate such
words as you have permitted yourself to make use of from no man,
not even from my guest. I shall ask you to apologise."
In an instant he dominated the entire group, imposing a respect
that was as much fear as admiration. No one made response. For
the moment he was the Master again, the Leader. Like so many
delinquent school-boys, the others cowered before him, ashamed,
put to confusion, unable to find their tongues. In that brief
instant of silence following upon Magnus's outburst, and while he
held them subdued and over-mastered, the fabric of their scheme
of corruption and dishonesty trembled to its base. It was the
last protest of the Old School, rising up there in denunciation
of the new order of things, the statesman opposed to the
politician; honesty, rectitude, uncompromising integrity,
prevailing for the last time against the devious manoeuvring, the
evil communications, the rotten expediency of a corrupted
For a few seconds no one answered. Then, Annixter, moving
abruptly and uneasily in his place, muttered:
"I spoke upon provocation. If you like, we'll consider it
unsaid. I don't know what's going to become of us--go out of
business, I presume."
"I understand Magnus all right," put in Osterman. "He don't have
to go into this thing, if it's against his conscience. That's
all right. Magnus can stay out if he wants to, but that won't
prevent us going ahead and seeing what we can do. Only there's
this about it." He turned again to Magnus, speaking with every
degree of earnestness, every appearance of conviction. "I did
not deny, Governor, from the very start that this would mean
bribery. But you don't suppose that I like the idea either. If
there was one legitimate hope that was yet left untried, no
matter how forlorn it was, I would try it. But there's not. It
is literally and soberly true that every means of help--every
honest means--has been attempted. Shelgrim is going to cinch us.
Grain rates are increasing, while, on the other hand, the price
of wheat is sagging lower and lower all the time. If we don't do
something we are ruined."
Osterman paused for a moment, allowing precisely the right number
of seconds to elapse, then altering and lowering his voice,
"I respect the Governor's principles. I admire them. They do
him every degree of credit." Then, turning directly to Magnus,
he concluded with, "But I only want you to ask yourself, sir, if,
at such a crisis, one ought to think of oneself, to consider
purely personal motives in such a desperate situation as this?
Now, we want you with us, Governor; perhaps not openly, if you
don't wish it, but tacitly, at least. I won't ask you for an
answer to-night, but what I do ask of you is to consider this
matter seriously and think over the whole business. Will you do
Osterman ceased definitely to speak, leaning forward across the
table, his eves fixed on Magnus's face. There was a silence.
Outside, the rain fell continually with an even, monotonous
murmur. In the group of men around the table no one stirred nor
spoke. They looked steadily at Magnus, who, for the moment, kept
his glance fixed thoughtfully upon the table before him. In
another moment he raised his head and looked from face to face
around the group. After all, these were his neighbours, his
friends, men with whom he had been upon the closest terms of
association. In a way they represented what now had come to be
his world. His single swift glance took in the men, one after
another. Annixter, rugged, crude, sitting awkwardly and
uncomfortably in his chair, his unhandsome face, with its
outthrust lower lip and deeply cleft masculine chin, flushed and
eager, his yellow hair disordered, the one tuft on the crown
standing stiffly forth like the feather in an Indian's scalp
lock; Broderson, vaguely combing at his long beard with a
persistent maniacal gesture, distressed, troubled and uneasy;
Osterman, with his comedy face, the face of a music-hall singer,
his head bald and set off by his great red ears, leaning back in
his place, softly cracking the knuckle of a forefinger, and, last
of all and close to his elbow, his son, his support, his
confidant and companion, Harran, so like himself, with his own
erect, fine carriage, his thin, beak-like nose and his blond
hair, with its tendency to curl in a forward direction in front
of the ears, young, strong, courageous, full of the promise of
the future years. His blue eyes looked straight into his
father's with what Magnus could fancy a glance of appeal. Magnus
could see that expression in the faces of the others very
plainly. They looked to him as their natural leader, their chief
who was to bring them out from this abominable trouble which was
closing in upon them, and in them all he saw many types. They--
these men around his table on that night of the first rain of a
coming season--seemed to stand in his imagination for many
others--all the farmers, ranchers, and wheat growers of the great
San Joaquin. Their words were the words of a whole community;
their distress, the distress of an entire State, harried beyond
the bounds of endurance, driven to the wall, coerced, exploited,
harassed to the limits of exasperation.
"I will think of it," he said, then hastened to add, "but I can
tell you beforehand that you may expect only a refusal."
After Magnus had spoken, there was a prolonged silence. The
conference seemed of itself to have come to an end for that
evening. Presley lighted another cigarette from the butt of the
one he had been smoking, and the cat, Princess Nathalie,
disturbed by his movement and by a whiff of drifting smoke,
jumped from his knee to the floor and picking her way across the
room to Annixter, rubbed gently against his legs, her tail in the
air, her back delicately arched. No doubt she thought it time to
settle herself for the night, and as Annixter gave no indication
of vacating his chair, she chose this way of cajoling him into
ceding his place to her. But Annixter was irritated at the
Princess's attentions, misunderstanding their motive.
"Get out!" he exclaimed, lifting his feet to the rung of the
chair. "Lord love me, but I sure do hate a cat."
"By the way," observed Osterman, "I passed Genslinger by the gate
as I came in to-night. Had he been here?"
"Yes, he was here," said Harran, "and--" but Annixter took the
words out of his mouth.
"He says there's some talk of the railroad selling us their
sections this winter."
"Oh, he did, did he?" exclaimed Osterman, interested at once.
"Where did he hear that?"
"Where does a railroad paper get its news? From the General
Office, I suppose."
"I hope he didn't get it straight from headquarters that the land
was to be graded at twenty dollars an acre," murmured Broderson.
"What's that?" demanded Osterman. "Twenty dollars! Here, put me
on, somebody. What's all up? What did Genslinger say?"
"Oh, you needn't get scared," said Annixter. "Genslinger don't
know, that's all. He thinks there was no understanding that the
price of the land should not be advanced when the P. and S. W.
came to sell to us."
"Oh," muttered Osterman relieved. Magnus, who had gone out into
the office on the other side of the glass-roofed hallway,
returned with a long, yellow envelope in his hand, stuffed with
newspaper clippings and thin, closely printed pamphlets.
"Here is the circular," he remarked, drawing out one of the
pamphlets. "The conditions of settlement to which the railroad
obligated itself are very explicit."
He ran over the pages of the circular, then read aloud:
"'The Company invites settlers to go upon its lands before
patents are issued or the road is completed, and intends in such
cases to sell to them in preference to any other applicants and
at a price based upon the value of the land without
improvements,' and on the other page here," he remarked, "they
refer to this again. 'In ascertaining the value of the lands,
any improvements that a settler or any other person may have on
the lands will not be taken into consideration, neither will the
price be increased in consequence thereof.... Settlers are thus
insured that in addition to being accorded the first privilege of
purchase, at the graded price, they will also be protected in
their improvements.' And here," he commented, "in Section IX. it
reads, 'The lands are not uniform in price, but are offered at
various figures from $2.50 upward per acre. Usually land covered
with tall timber is held at $5.00 per acre, and that with pine at
$10.00. Most is for sale at $2.50 and $5.00."
"When you come to read that carefully," hazarded old Broderson,
"it--it's not so very reassuring. 'Most is for sale at two-fifty
an acre,' it says. That don't mean 'all,' that only means some.
I wish now that I had secured a more iron-clad agreement from the
P. and S. W. when I took up its sections on my ranch, and--and
Genslinger is in a position to know the intentions of the
railroad. At least, he--he--he is in touch with them. All
newspaper men are. Those, I mean, who are subsidised by the
General Office. But, perhaps, Genslinger isn't subsidised, I
don't know. I--I am not sure. Maybe--perhaps"
"Oh, you don't know and you do know, and maybe and perhaps, and
you're not so sure," vociferated Annixter. "How about ignoring
the value of our improvements? Nothing hazy about that
statement, I guess. It says in so many words that any
improvements we make will not be considered when the land is
appraised and that's the same thing, isn't it? The unimproved
land is worth two-fifty an acre; only timber land is worth more
and there's none too much timber about here."
"Well, one thing at a time," said Harran. "The thing for us now
is to get into this primary election and the convention and see
if we can push our men for Railroad Commissioners."
"Right," declared Annixter. He rose, stretching his arms above
his head. "I've about talked all the wind out of me," he said.
"Think I'll be moving along. It's pretty near midnight."
But when Magnus's guests turned their attention to the matter of
returning to their different ranches, they abruptly realised that
the downpour had doubled and trebled in its volume since earlier
in the evening. The fields and roads were veritable seas of
viscid mud, the night absolutely black-dark; assuredly not a
night in which to venture out. Magnus insisted that the three
ranchers should put up at Los Muertos. Osterman accepted at
once, Annixter, after an interminable discussion, allowed himself
to be persuaded, in the end accepting as though granting a
favour. Broderson protested that his wife, who was not well,
would expect him to return that night and would, no doubt, fret
if he did not appear. Furthermore, he lived close by, at the
junction of the County and Lower Road. He put a sack over his
head and shoulders, persistently declining Magnus's offered
umbrella and rubber coat, and hurried away, remarking that he had
no foreman on his ranch and had to be up and about at five the
next morning to put his men to work.
"Fool!" muttered Annixter when the old man had gone. "Imagine
farming a ranch the size of his without a foreman."
Harran showed Osterman and Annixter where they were to sleep, in
adjoining rooms. Magnus soon afterward retired.
Osterman found an excuse for going to bed, but Annixter and
Harran remained in the latter's room, in a haze of blue tobacco
smoke, talking, talking. But at length, at the end of all
argument, Annixter got up, remarking:
"Well, I'm going to turn in. It's nearly two o'clock."
He went to his room, closing the door, and Harran, opening his
window to clear out the tobacco smoke, looked out for a moment
across the country toward the south.
The darkness was profound, impenetrable; the rain fell with an
uninterrupted roar. Near at hand one could hear the sound of
dripping eaves and foliage and the eager, sucking sound of the
drinking earth, and abruptly while Harran stood looking out, one
hand upon the upraised sash, a great puff of the outside air
invaded the room, odourous with the reek of the soaking earth,
redolent with fertility, pungent, heavy, tepid. He closed the
window again and sat for a few moments on the edge of the bed,
one shoe in his hand, thoughtful and absorbed, wondering if his
father would involve himself in this new scheme, wondering if,
after all, he wanted him to.
But suddenly he was aware of a commotion, issuing from the
direction of Annixter's room, and the voice of Annixter himself
upraised in expostulation and exasperation. The door of the room
to which Annixter had been assigned opened with a violent wrench
and an angry voice exclaimed to anybody who would listen:
"Oh, yes, funny, isn't it? In a way, it's funny, and then,
again, in a way it isn't."
The door banged to so that all the windows of the house rattled
in their frames.
Harran hurried out into the dining-room and there met Presley and
his father, who had been aroused as well by Annixter's clamour.
Osterman was there, too, his bald head gleaming like a bulb of
ivory in the light of the lamp that Magnus carried.
"What's all up?" demanded Osterman. "Whatever in the world is
the matter with Buck?"
Confused and terrible sounds came from behind the door of
Annixter's room. A prolonged monologue of grievance, broken by
explosions of wrath and the vague noise of some one in a furious
hurry. All at once and before Harran had a chance to knock on
the door, Annixter flung it open. His face was blazing with
anger, his outthrust lip more prominent than ever, his wiry,
yellow hair in disarray, the tuft on the crown sticking straight
into the air like the upraised hackles of an angry hound.
Evidently he had been dressing himself with the most headlong
rapidity; he had not yet put on his coat and vest, but carried
them over his arm, while with his disengaged hand he kept
hitching his suspenders over his shoulders with a persistent and
hypnotic gesture. Without a moment's pause he gave vent to his
indignation in a torrent of words.
"Ah, yes, in my bed, sloop, aha! I know the man who put it
there," he went on, glaring at Osterman, "and that man is a pip.
Sloop! Slimy, disgusting stuff; you heard me say I didn't like
it when the Chink passed it to me at dinner--and just for that
reason you put it in my bed, and I stick my feet into it when I
turn in. Funny, isn't it? Oh, yes, too funny for any use. I'd
laugh a little louder if I was you."
"Well, Buck," protested Harran, as he noticed the hat in
Annixter's hand, "you're not going home just for----"
Annixter turned on him with a shout.
"I'll get plumb out of here," he trumpeted. "I won't stay here
He swung into his waistcoat and coat, scrabbling at the buttons
in the violence of his emotions. "And I don't know but what it
will make me sick again to go out in a night like this. No, I
won't stay. Some things are funny, and then, again, there are
some things that are not. Ah, yes, sloop! Well, that's all
right. I can be funny, too, when you come to that. You don't
get a cent of money out of me. You can do your dirty bribery in
your own dirty way. I won't come into this scheme at all. I
wash my hands of the whole business. It's rotten and it's wild-
eyed; it's dirt from start to finish; and you'll all land in
State's prison. You can count me out."
"But, Buck, look here, you crazy fool," cried Harran, "I don't
know who put that stuff in your bed, but I'm not going; to let
you go back to Quien Sabe in a rain like this."
"I know who put it in," clamoured the other, shaking his fists,
"and don't call me Buck and I'll do as I please. I will go back
home. I'll get plumb out of here. Sorry I came. Sorry I ever
lent myself to such a disgusting, dishonest, dirty bribery game
as this all to-night. I won't put a dime into it, no, not a
He stormed to the door leading out upon the porch, deaf to all
reason. Harran and Presley followed him, trying to dissuade him
from going home at that time of night and in such a storm, but
Annixter was not to be placated. He stamped across to the barn
where his horse and buggy had been stabled, splashing through the
puddles under foot, going out of his way to drench himself,
refusing even to allow Presley and Harran to help him harness the
"What's the use of making a fool of yourself, Annixter?"
remonstrated Presley, as Annixter backed the horse from the
stall. "You act just like a ten-year-old boy. If Osterman wants
to play the goat, why should you help him out?"
"He's a pip," vociferated Annixter. "You don't understand,
Presley. It runs in my family to hate anything sticky. It's--
it's--it's heredity. How would you like to get into bed at two
in the morning and jam your feet down into a slimy mess like
that? Oh, no. It's not so funny then. And you mark my words,
Mr. Harran Derrick," he continued, as he climbed into the buggy,
shaking the whip toward Harran, "this business we talked over to-
night--I'm out of it. It's yellow. It's too cursed dishonest."
He cut the horse across the back with the whip and drove out into
the pelting rain. In a few seconds the sound of his buggy wheels
was lost in the muffled roar of the downpour.
Harran and Presley closed the barn and returned to the house,
sheltering themselves under a tarpaulin carriage cover. Once
inside, Harran went to remonstrate with Osterman, who was still
up. Magnus had again retired. The house had fallen quiet again.
As Presley crossed the dining-room on the way to his own
apartment in the second story of the house, he paused for a
moment, looking about him. In the dull light of the lowered
lamps, the redwood panelling of the room showed a dark crimson as
though stained with blood. On the massive slab of the dining
table the half-emptied glasses and bottles stood about in the
confusion in which they had been left, reflecting themselves deep
into the polished wood; the glass doors of the case of stuffed
birds was a subdued shimmer; the many-coloured Navajo blanket
over the couch seemed a mere patch of brown.
Around the table the chairs in which the men had sat throughout
the evening still ranged themselves in a semi-circle, vaguely
suggestive of the conference of the past few hours, with all its
possibilities of good and evil, its significance of a future big
with portent. The room was still. Only on the cushions of the
chair that Annixter had occupied, the cat, Princess Nathalie, at
last comfortably settled in her accustomed place, dozed
complacently, her paws tucked under her breast, filling the
deserted room with the subdued murmur of her contented purr.