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A Two-handed Game


Othat flowed from a California mountain, I overtook a large, fat man. He wore white suspenders, a blue shirt, skin-tight gray trousers with gray stripes, and a wide expanse of jolly sunburnt face.

"How's luck?" said I.

"I think I have a little left," said he, and reached for his hip pocket.

Half an hour later we sat together on the top of a rounded knoll letting the cool valley breezes play on us. Above were mountains; ahead, sixty miles of valley planted like a park with live-oaks; to the right, the leafy canon; to the left, the trout-stream; over head, an infinitely blue sky. We each held a sandwich in one hand and a pipe in the other.

My companion proved to be a real-estate man. He spoke sadly of present stagnation, confidently of future progress, enthusiastically of boom-days when property sold hig er per front foot in the weary desert than on State Street, Chicago. Thence came reminiscence, and finally the story of his life. This is what he told me of his first real-estate holdings:

"My father," he began,"was a solid old capitalist of a small New England village. He had two hobbies. The first was, profitable investment. The second, a theory that every man should make his own way in life. As he had six boys, that developed a case of six mighty sad souls turned out to earn a living.

"'Boys,' said he, 'I can remember the time I got up eighteen hours before daylight, and washed in slush ice, and carried the fire-wood nine miles to breakfast, and studied Horace by a single ray of light shining through a crack in the stove.'

When father began to talk of what we called his 'barefoot days,' we boys used to duck. But at the time Jim—he was the oldest—got to be twenty-one, the old man had the laugh on his side.

"'Jim.' he says, 'you're a man now. When I was your age I was keeping books fifteen hours a day on two dollars a week, and supporting my aged great-aunt. It's time you rustled. You can cut cord-wood down on the forty, or you can make your own way. Here's a hundred dollars. That's all you'll get until I die.'

"Jim looked mighty troubled, you bet, but it had to go. And the rest of us looked solemn too, in various degrees depending on how old we were. Well, when my time came, I took my hundred dollars and got married. The news of that seemed to tickle the old man—he had a sense of humor all right—and he called me in.

"'Charley,' says he, 'what you going to do now?'

"'I'm going West, father,' says I: 'I'm going out to Michigan and kill bears and grow up with the country.'

"'Good boy.' says he.

"Two or three days later he came down to see me. 'When you going to start, Charley?' he asked.

"'Next week,' says I.

"He kind of pulled his back hair in the way he had.

"'Charley,' says he at last, 'that's a brand-new country out there, and from what I hear I guess it's a good one. I got a lot of confidence in your judgment, my son. and while I don't intend that you shall be like these nickel-plated dudes that know where to get their cash without work, I want you to understand that the old man has a stray penny or so, and if you see any thing real good, you let me know. Those new countries is the place to get in on the ground-floor.'

"Of course I promised all right, and the next week me and Mary we piked out. They didn't have any North Shore Limiteds in those days. Not much. A fellow got as far as Detroit by water, and then he just naturally swallowed sand over the worst roads the Lord ever permitted a wagon to pull through on.

"We got there somehow. Then I staked out a farm and put in the summer building a log house. Say, I was a jim-dandy farmer! I guess everything I planted grew down, if it grew at all: it certainly didn't grow up. I was done in every cow trade; and if I got a good horse, I bought a harness that galled him useless in no time. When it wasn't potato-bugs it was these infernal pigeons that ate everything in sight and kicked for more. The bear-killing was no dream either. In fact, if it hadn't been that I was a pretty good shot, I don't know what we'd have done. I humped myself round-shouldered all day. and Mary hustled all the time. No go. That hundred dollars just melted. Likewise all I could borrow. Likewise my credit gave out. Mary and I took three seconds off every week to go and look at Lake Michigan. It sort of cheered us up to see there was so much of anything, even if it was only water. We couldn't die of thirst, anyway.

"Well, we were in a pretty hard fix. Mary just worked herself to death. One night she fainted dead away. That scared me. And there was the old man with a good half-million. One night I sat down and wrote a letter to him. It ran something like this:

" 'Dear Dad.—You remember you told me to let you know if I struck anything good out here. Well, I think there's a future to this place.'

(Then I gave him a lot of natural-resources talk—you know the kind.)

'I've got a chance to buy a good corner lot cheap—$250. If you think well of it, send the cash.

Your dutiful son,

"It was pretty slim, I know, but I had to do something. I didn't much think it would go down, and I nearly fell off the place when he sent on the money. I told Mary about it late one afternoon when we were looking at Lake Michigan as per usual.

"'And what gets me,' I finishes. 'is that he wants the "descriptions"—just by way of memorandum, he says. I'm to keep the deeds.'

"'Of course she kicks at first, like all women, but it was too late then. So after a little she turns in to help me.

"'What's this we're on?" she asks.

"'Where? Here on the beach?' I asks.

"'Yes,' says she.

"'8,17,' says I.

"'And what is that out there?' she asks again, pointing due west.

"'Where?' I inquires. You see, I don't tumble to her game yet.

"'Right there: where I'm pointing: about a mile out.'

"'In the lake?' I yells.

"'Of course,' says she; 'we'll sell him that.'

"'You bet I lay down and howled with joy at the idea of selling the old man a lot a mile out in Lake Michigan, but she hauled me back mighty sober-minded, and did me the great moral-lecture act, and made me promise we would never do such a thing again. Mary was a mighty good woman.

"My son, that two hundred and fifty lasted just about as long as a bunch of fire crackers on Chinese New-Year's. And then, too, we had the kid, and I was a loo-loo bird of a farmer. I sold the old man another lot. Just to make it artistic I sold him one next door to the other. Told him it would come in better in case he wanted it for a factory site. I got a mighty good letter from him—enclosing draft. He said he'd been looking up that Michigan country, and it was going to be a good thing: he always had thought I had the best business head of all the boys, and to keep my eyes open for more good chances. It made me feel a little mean at first, hut then I looked around at that dark little log cabin and its bum furnishings and got over it. Mary was onto me, of course, but she didn't kick so awful much. I guess she was thinking of what that baby needed.

"I lived in that country for five years. She's all right now—finest fruit farms in the world,—but then she was a terror. You know the old rhyme:

"In Michigan are many lakes.
And around the lakes are rattlesnakes
And fever shakes and ague aches.

"It wasn't any poetic license. I didn't improve much in farming. I reckon if I was to keep at it until Uncle Sam had gray whiskers I couldn't raise cabbages, and they do say cabbages are a fool vegetable to raise. And in that time I sold the old gentleman most the whole of Lake Michigan. Why, that noble body of water was the only thing in the world that ever kept us going. Mary'd come to me and say, 'Charley, the last potato's gone. I reckon we'll have to sell your father another lot.' and the old man always ponied up cheerfully, and gave us a lot of talk about the future of such a country, and how it was always wise to get right in at the start, and all that. I knew we had it coming to us sooner or later, but, great guns! we had to have the money.

"That's how I developed my talent for selling. I had a good deal of fun over it. I remember once I told him the lot carried with it unlimited water-rights. It did. By the time I'd finished getting those five years of support from the old man, I had a better education in my own line than a business college could have given me. And education's what the old man owed me, after all.

"Then I got word that he was very sick, and that I'd better come on right away. We talked it over pretty hard, and it was decided I should go. In those days there were no railroads. I had to stage it, and by the time I got there the old man was pretty far gone. He knew me all right, though.

"'Charley,' said he, 'I'm pleased with you. You have done well by me, and I hope you've done well by yourself. After I am gone you will read in my will how I have appreciated your efforts for me during the last five years.'

"I tell you, I felt like a pup.

"Next day he died, and the day after the funeral the will was read. By this time the old man was pretty well off, and I tell you there was a lot of interest among us six boys, especially as we'd none of us had a cent outside that original hundred dollars. Except me, of course, and they didn't know anything about that. The property was scattered and invested—I told you he was a great hand for that—and one after the other the boys got their share. I could see them figuring up the approximate value of it. They panned out over a hundred thousand apiece. Then it came my turn.

"'Believing as I do,' run the will, or some such words, 'in the future of the new country in which my son Charles has cast his lot, and appreciating at their true value his efforts on my behalf, I am of the firm opinion that I can do no better than to make him a partaker in the prosperity he has foreseen. I, therefore, bequeath to him, as his full share of my estate, the Michigan properties acquired by him for me during the last five years.'

"Say, wouldn't that jar you? As far as being paid for was concerned, I owned all of Lake Michigan and most of the Strait of Mackinac—and nothing else!"

The real-estate agent relit his pipe in sad reminiscence. The valley quail, gathering after the morning's feeding, called to one another. An eagle wheeled in and out the shadows of the upper cañon.

That's how I happened to start in the real-estate business," concluded my friend. "But what I'd like to know is this: was father onto me? Or was he not? He had a sort of a sense of humor."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1946, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.