Mrs. Mortimer arrived with seed catalogs and farm books, to find Saxon immersed in the farm books borrowed from Edmund. Saxon showed her around, and she was delighted with everything, including the terms of the lease and its option to buy.
"And now," she said. "What is to be done? Sit down, both of you. This is a council of war, and I am the one person in the world to tell you what to do. I ought to be. Anybody who has reorganized and recatalogued a great city library should be able to start you young people on in short order. Now, where shall we begin?"
She paused for breath of consideration.
"First, Madrono Ranch is a bargain. I know soil, I know beauty, I know climate. Madrono Ranch is a gold mine. There is a fortune in that meadow. Tilth--I'll tell you about that later. First, here's the land. Second, what are you going to do with it? Make a living? Yes. Vegetables? Of course. What are you going to do with them after you have grown them? Sell. Where?--Now listen. You must do as I did. Cut out the middle man. Sell directly to the consumer. Drum up your own market. Do you know what I saw from the car windows coming up the valley, only several miles from here? Hotels, springs, summer resorts, winter resorts--population, mouths, market. How is that market supplied? I looked in vain for truck gardens.--Billy, harness up your horses and be ready directly after dinner to take Saxon and me driving. Never mind everything else. Let things stand. What's the use of starting for a place of which you haven't the address. We'll look for the address this afternoon. Then we'll know where we are--at." --The last syllable a smiling concession to Billy.
But Saxon did not accompany them. There was too much to be done in cleaning the long-abandoned house and in preparing an arrangement for Mrs. Mortimer to sleep. And it was long after supper time when Mrs. Mortimer and Billy returned.
"You lucky, lucky children," she began immediately. "This valley is just waking up. Here's your market. There isn't a competitor in the valley. I thought those resorts looked new--Caliente, Boyes Hot Springs, E1 Verano, and all along the line. Then there are three little hotels in Glen Ellen, right next door. Oh, I've talked with all the owners and managers."
"She's a wooz," Billy admired. "She'd brace up to God on a business proposition. You oughta seen her."
Mrs. Mortimer acknowledged the compliment and dashed on.
"And where do all the vegetables come from? Wagons drive down twelve to fifteen miles from Santa Rosa, and up from Sonoma. Those are the nearest truck farms, and when they fail, as they often do, I am told, to supply the increasing needs, the managers have to express vegetables all the way from San Francisco. I've introduced Billy. They've agreed to patronize home industry. Besides, it is better for them. You'll deliver just as good vegetables just as cheap; you will make it a point to deliver better, fresher vegetables; and don't forget that delivery for you will be cheaper by virtue of the shorter haul.
"No day-old egg stunt here. No jams nor jellies. But you've got lots of space up on the bench here on which you can't grow vegetables. To-morrow morning I'll help you lay out the chicken runs and houses. Besides, there is the matter of capons for the San Francisco market. You'll start small. It will be a side line at first. I'll tell you all about that, too, and send you the literature. You must use your head. Let others do the work. You must understand that thoroughly. The wages of superintendence are always larger than the wages of the laborers. You must keep books. You must know where you stand. You must know what pays and what doesn't and what pays best. Your books will tell that. I'll show you all in good time. "
"An' think of it--all that on two acres!" Billy murmured.
Mrs. Mortimer looked at him sharply.
"Two acres your granny," she said with asperity. "Five acres. And then you won't be able to supply your market. And you, my boy, as soon as the first rains come will have your hands full and your horses weary draining that meadow. We'll work those plans out to-morrow Also, there is the matter of berries on the bench here--and trellised table grapes, the choicest. They bring the fancy prices. There will be blackberries--Burbank's, he lives at Santa Rosa--Loganberries, Mammoth berries. But don't fool with strawberries. That's a whole occupation in itself. They're not vines, you know. I've examined the orchard. It's a good foundation. We'll settle the pruning and grafts later."
"But Billy wanted three acres of the meadow," Saxon explained at the first chance.
"To grow hay and other kinds of food for the horses he's going to raise."
"Buy it out of a portion of the profits from those three acres," Mrs. Mortimer decided on the instant.
Billy swallowed, and again achieved renunciation.
"All right," he said, with a brave show of cheerfulness. "Let her go. Us for the greens."
During the several days of Mrs. Mortimer's visit, Billy let the two women settle things for themselves. Oakland had entered upon a boom, and from the West Oakland stables had come an urgent letter for more horses. So Billy was out, early and late, scouring the surrounding country for young work animals. In this way, at the start, he learned his valley thoroughly. There was also a clearing out at the West Oakland stables of mares whose feet had been knocked out on the hard city pave meets, and he was offered first choice at bargain prices. They were good animals. He knew what they were because he knew them of old time. The soft earth of the country, with a preliminary rest in pasture with their shoes pulled off, would put them in shape. They would never do again on hard-paved streets, but there were years of farm work in them. And then there was the breeding. But he could not undertake to buy them. He fought out the battle in secret and said nothing to Saxon.
At night, he would sit in the kitchen and smoke, listening to all that the two women had done and planned in the day. The right kind of horses was hard to buy, and, as he put it, it was like pulling a tooth to get a farmer to part with one, despite the fact that he had been authorized to increase the buying sum by as much as fifty dollars. Despite the coming of the automobile, the price of heavy draught animals continued to rise. From as early as Billy could remember, the price of the big work horses had increased steadily. After the great earthquake, the price had jumped; yet it had never gone back.
"Billy, you make more money as a horse-buyer than a common laborer, don't you?" Mrs. Mortimer asked. "Very well, then. You won't have to drain the meadow, or plow it, or anything. You keep right on buying horses. Work with your head. But out of what you make you will please pay the wages of one laborer for Saxon's vegetables. It will be a good investment, with quick returns."
"Sure," he agreed. "That's all anybody hires any body for--to make money outa 'm. But how Saxon an' one man are goin' to work them five acres, when Mr. Hale says two of us couldn't do what's needed on two acres, is beyond me."
"Saxon isn't going to work," Mrs. Mortimer retorted.
"Did you see me working at San Jose? Saxon is going to use her head. It's about time you woke up to that. A dollar and a half a day is what is earned by persons who don't use their heads. And she isn't going to be satisfied with a dollar and a half a day. Now listen. I had a long talk with Mr. Hale this afternoon. He says there are practically no efficient laborers to be hired in the valley."
"I know that," Billy interjected. "All the good men go to the cities. It's only the leavin's that's left. The good ones that stay behind ain't workin' for wages."
"Which is perfectly true, every word. Now listen, children. I knew about it, and I spoke to Mr. Hale. He is prepared to make the arrangements for you. He knows all about it himself, and is in touch with the Warden. In short, you will parole two good-conduct prisoners from San Quentin; and they will be gardeners. There are plenty of Chinese and Italians there, and they are the best truck-farmers. You kill two birds with one stone. You serve the poor convicts, and you serve yourselves."
Saxon hesitated, shocked; while Billy gravely considered the question.
"You know John," Mrs. Mortimer went on, "Mr. Hale's man about the place? How do you like him?"
"Oh, I was wishing only to-day that we could find somebody like him," Saxon said eagerly. "He's such a dear, faithful soul. Mrs. Hale told me a lot of fine things about him."
"There's one thing she didn't tell you," smiled Mrs. Mortimer. "John is a paroled convict. Twenty-eight years ago, in hot blood, he killed a man in a quarrel over sixty-five cents. He's been out of prison with the Hales three years now. You remember Louis, the old Frenchman, on my place? He's another. So that's settled. When your two come--of course you will pay them fair wages--and we'll make sure they're the same nationality, either Chinese or Italians--well, when they come, John, with their help, and under Mr. Hale's guidance, will knock together a small cabin for them to live in. We'll select the spot. Even so, when your farm is in full swing you'll have to have more outside help. So keep your eyes open, Billy, while you're gallivanting over the valley."
The next night Billy failed to return, and at nine o'clock a Glen Ellen boy on horseback delivered a telegram. Billy had sent it from Lake County. He was after horses for Oakland.
Not until the third night did he arrive home, tired to exhaustion, but with an ill concealed air of pride.
"Now what have you been doing these three days?" Mrs. Mortimer demanded.
"Usin' my head," he boasted quietly. "Killin' two birds with one stone; an', take it from me, I killed a whole flock. Huh! I got word of it at Lawndale, an' I wanta tell you Hazel an' Hattie was some tired when I stabled 'm at Calistoga an' pulled out on the stage over St. Helena. I was Johnny-on-the-spot, an' I nailed 'm-- eight whoppers--the whole outfit of a mountain teamster. Young animals, sound as a-dollar, and the lightest of 'em over fifteen hundred. I shipped 'm last night from Calistoga. An', well, that ain't all.
"Before that, first day, at Lawndale, I seen the fellow with the teamin' contract for the pavin'-stone quarry. Sell horses! He wanted to buy 'em. He wanted to buy 'em bad. He'd even rent 'em, he said."
"And you sent him the eight you bought!" Saxon broke in.
"Guess again. I bought them eight with Oakland money, an' they was shipped to Oakland. But I got the Lawndale contractor on long distance, and he agreed to pay me half a dollar a day rent for every work horse up to half a dozen. Then I telegraphed the Boss, tellin' him to ship me six sore-footed mares, Bud Strothers to make the choice, an' to charge to my commission. Bud knows what I 'm after. Soon as they come, off go their shoes. Two weeks in pasture, an' then they go to Lawndale. They can do the work. It's a down-hill haul to the railroad on a dirt road. Half a dollar rent each--that's three dollars a day they'll bring me six days a week. I don't feed 'em, shoe 'm, or nothin', an' I keep an eye on 'm to see they're treated right. Three bucks a day, eh! Well, I guess that'll keep a couple of dollar-an '-a-half men goin' for Saxon, unless she works 'em Sundays. Huh! The Valley of the Moon! Why, we'll be wearin' diamonds before long. Gosh! A fellow could live in the city a thousan' years an' not get such chances. It beats China lottery."
He stood up.
"I 'm goin' out to water Hazel an' Hattie, feed 'm, an' bed 'm down. I'll eat soon as I come back."
The two women were regarding each other with shining eyes, each on the verge of speech when Billy returned to the door and stuck his head in.
"They's one thing maybe you ain't got," he said. "I pull down them three dollars every day; but the six mares is mine, too. I own 'm. They're mine. Are you on?"