By Helen Hinckley Jones
The Story So Far: Prudy, eager to find Mother’s brother, Angus, goes to Sacramento with the Freibers. Sister Freiber doesn’t allow her to speak to strangers, however, so she has had no success in her quest up to the time when John joins her. He plans to travel up the Sacramento River on a cattle boat searching along the way for news of Uncle Angus. Prudy tries to disguise herself as a boy and go along, but John won’t let her. Disconsolately she remains in Sacramento.
Prudy felt a little guilty in Elwood’s clothes as she tiptoed around the Freiber house. She would go up the backstairs and return the clothes before anyone else was up, and she’d never say anything about her wild plan to go with John. “I should have known from the first it wouldn’t work,” she told herself. “But I did want to go with him. Oh, well – stay here and keep my eyes open and maybe John will be right. Who knows?”
She had just opened the back door and stepped into the tiny entrance hall, hung thick with everyday coats and sweaters, when she heard Sister Freiber say, “But I hate to do that, Hans. I promised her folks I wouldn’t send her home until I got a chance with some Latter-day Saints.”
Brother Freiber answered, “Well, these aren’t Latter-day Saints, but they seem like fine people, and they’ll pay her fare as far as Ogden in return for her tending their two young ones. I told them how she helped you coming down.”
“Yes, and she helps me now. She’s a good child – so quick to learn and willing and all that. I can still use her. I don’t want to –”
Brother Freiber’s voice sounded a little cross. “No doubt she does earn her board and keep. But the point is, we can’t afford it, Bertha. I want to look around for a likely young person to help me in the shop with the setting of type, cleaning up, and other odd jobs. I’d like to be able to give board and room as well as a little salary.”
There was a pause, and Prudy was startled to discover that she had stopped still and had been listening to words that were not meant for her ears. Brother Freiber’s voice came again. “Well, I’ll make the arrangements. They should be going by the last of the week.”
The last of the week! Prudy felt almost too dizzy to climb the stairs. So soon. John wouldn’t be back. Everything would be spoiled. “I’ll go tell Brother Freiber that I’ve absolutely got to stay,” she decided. Then she remembered that she had listened in on a conversation that hadn’t been intended for her ears. She’d simply have to wait until he or his wife spoke to her about going home. But then the arrangements would be made and it would be too late. The tears came to her eyes and she had a hard time seeing well enough to comb out her thick brown hair and roll it into smooth ringlets for school.
When she hurried into the kitchen and began to set the table for breakfast, she hoped that Brother Freiber would say something about going home to her. Instead he turned from the mush he was stirring on the stove and said, “How would you like to go on a picnic?” Sister Freiber looked over Allie’s head and her busy fingers went on with the intricate French braids she put in the child’s hair twice a week. “A picnic?” she asked, her eyebrows going up in a question. She shook Allie a little. “Stand quiet, Allie,” she said patiently. “Don’t dance around so.”
“A picnic, a picnic,” Allie was shouting.
Elwood came in with an armload of wood. “What’s this about a picnic?”
“A picnic,” Brother Freiber said with a jovial voice, “and everything is free. There’s free carriages to take us down to the river, free lunch when we get there, free entertainment – Everything’s free.”
Sister Freiber pursed her lips and shook her head. “I mistrust anything that’s free,” she said.
“This is how it is,” Brother Freiber explained. “There’s this real estate company and they have some land down by the river. They want to sell it and they’ve cut it up into lots and put inside walks and streets and everything. It’s a free picnic to show the lots and sell them.”
“We’d better stay away,” Sister Freiber said emphatically, winding the end of one of Allie’s braids with some hair from the comb.
“We don’t need to buy,” Brother Freiber explained. “The reason I know about it, I’ve printed their broadsides and dodgers and they invited me to go along. When I told them that Prudy and Elwood and maybe Allie would pass the handbills for them they invited all of us to come along.”
Allie twisted around to see her mother’s face. “We’ll go, won’t we, Ma?”
“Course we’ll go,” Brother Freiber said. He turned to his wife. “Don’t’ you worry, Bertha, I’m not fixing to buy anything.”
Sister Freiber shrugged her shoulders tiredly. “It’s so hard for you to pass up a sale, Papa.”
Brother Freiber laughed as he dished up the mush. The family sat down to breakfast and the talk was all of the picnic. Even Sister Freiber began to get excited as Brother Freiber talked about the carriage ride through the country, the hot bologna sandwiches with mustard, the races and sports for the children.
Prudy was the only one that didn’t join in the excitement. She could not think of anything but the conversation she had overheard. She was worrying about being in Utah when John got back to Sacramento. She thought about it as she hurried through the dishes, as she walked to school, even as she tried to keep her mind on her school studies. “Well,” she told herself, trying to get the depressing thought off her mind, “If I’m imposing on the Freibers, I certainly don’t want to stay.”
But Saturday morning the plans for the picnic took the worry out of her thoughts. “Look your best,” Brother Freiber had told all of them. And Prudy sang as she washed her face until it shone like an apple, and brushed her hair to a silk-like sheen.
The ride through the town and out to the river wasn’t all Brother Freiber had thought it would be. Instead of grassy fields and meadows, the road led through street after street of tumble-down shacks, unpainted and leaning wearily on each other. At last the huts appeared only in patches and then there was a stretch of meadow. A road led toward the river and the carriages rolled along through the new-cut ruts. The rain had softened the clay road so that even a light carriage left wheel tracks, then several days of unexpected sunshine had baked it. The baby that Prudy held on her lap laughed with every bump, but Prudy’s body ached from trying to sit upright on the carriage seat.
At last they arrived at the picnic grounds. Many carriages were before them, and already there was a noisy crowd gathered around the amusement booths, eating buns and visiting noisily together. A red faced man in wide topped checked trousers and a tight black waistcoat hurried up when he saw Brother Freiber. Brother Freiber took the handbills from the floor of the carriage. “I’ll start the young ones to getting these out right now,” he said.
The red faced man laughed and put his arm around Brother Freiber’s shoulder. “That’ll be fine. Fine!” he said.
Elwood, Allie, and Prudy each took an armful of handbills and passed through the crowd, putting them into people’s hands. It seemed to Prudy that nobody read them. Pretty soon the ground was covered with the bills.
As soonas Prudy had finished the task she turned away from the crowd. She had seen the Sacramento River many times in the busy region of the docks, but this was the first chance she had had to see it calm and peaceful, flowing through country banks. The crowd had made her feel unaccountably homesick, and she felt that if she could get away to a quiet spot she would feel less lonely for John and Mother and Father and all of the familiar things she’d left behind when she came with Sister Freiber and the children to Sacramento. Then, too, she wanted to think of Brother Freiber’s plan to send her home. If she could only think of some way to be worth her bed and board, perhaps they’d keep her at least until John came back.
She was disappointed that she couldn’t get clear to the river without crossing a great deal of gravel in her one pair of good shoes. There hadn’t yet been enough fall rains to make the river fill its channel and a wide stretch of dry bed was between her and the water. However, she found a nice place where the branches of scrub trees practically made a roof overhead and where the fall rains had made a lively growth of soft green grass. Carefully she lay down on her back so as not to muss her best frock. She folded her hands behind her head and looked up into the leaves. In Utah the leaves would be gold and red and bronze, now. These were still green.
“My, it’s nice to be quiet,” she thought. But just then she heard a loud, rough laugh. Someone was coming toward her. She turned her head and saw through the willows four men. One of them must be the man who had talked with Brother Freiber. She saw first the checked trousers, then the tight waistcoat, then the jovial red face. The three men with him looked strangely like him, though if you stopped to look hard, their size and their features weren’t at all the same. “They’re just the same sort of men,” Prudy analyzed it, but she didn’t stop to think what kind of men they were.
Two of the men were holding bun sandwiches, dripping mustard. One had a bottle of pop about a third gone. The other had his hands in his pockets. He was the one that was doing most of the talking. They stopped on a little hill overlooking the river. One of the men kept pointing to spots along the river with the hand that held the bun. All of them laughed often. They seemed to be having a fine time.
Prudy couldn’t help but hear what they said, but she could understand very little of it.Her English ears weren’t yet tuned to broad American speech. Then, too, these men used words she had never heard before. “Sucker,” “bite,” “rook.” These words appeared again and again in their conversation.
At last one of them said something that did make sense. He was a large man wearing pinstripe trousers, fawn colored gaiters, a black cutaway coat, and a great expanse of silk vest and white shirt front.”Well,” he said with a laugh that sounded indescribably ugly, “it’s a good thing for us these suckers don’t know that the city lots they’ll buy today will be covered with water the first time the river really rises.” The other men nodded their heads. The one who had spoken took out a great white handkerchief and wiped his mustache with a flourish.”Well, here’s for the killing,” he said.
Prudy lay perfectly still while the four men got out of sight. Then she jumped up, brushed the grass out of her hair and from her dress and set out in search of the Freibers. She must find them and tell them what she had just overheard.
It took her some time to get back to the picnic grounds, and when she did, two of the men whom she had seen by the river were standing on a platform draped with bunting. The other two were nowhere to be seen. The man who had gestured so often with his sandwich bun was speaking. His voice was very different from the one Prudy had heard ass he lay in the thicket. Now it was smooth and round, almost like music. The words that came out of his mouth were beautiful words. “Friends,” he was saying, and his outstretched arms took in the crowd as if everyone there were his personal friend, “today you are being given the opportunity to purchase just the city lot to build the home you’ve been dreaming of. But the opportunity knocks today – not tomorrow nor the next day. You must decide today to buy that piece of land that will mean a home for you. That piece of land which will mean, if you care to hold it and sell it later, a rich investment that will bring great returns.” Now his smile was broad and his chuckle friendly. “But you know about Old Man Opportunity. He knocks but once, and if you don’t grab him by the forelock, away he goes.” The man snapped his fingers and threw out his hands, palms toward the crowd. His voice dropped to a persuasive whisper. “Today.”
There was more to his speech, but Prudy was busy looking around for the other two men. Finally she saw them. One was near the platform leaning on his cane and listening intently. The other was near the back of the crowd, moving slowly from one knot of people to another.
Finally the talk was done. The voice had been beautiful, but Prudy knew something was wrong with what he was saying. He was too – well, oily, or something. The word “insincere” came into her mind and stayed with her. With the end of the speech his voice changed again. Now it was louder and his words came faster. He rolled down a map at the back of the platform, took a pointer and began the auction. Pointing to the map he said, “How much am I bid for this lovely river frontage. Beautiful!”
“Ten dollars,” shouted someone in the crowd.
“Ten dollars?” The auctioneer’s voice was incredulous. “What am I bid?”
“Seventy-five dollars,” came a voice that was somewhat familiar. Prudy looked around. It was the man she had spotted moving about at the back of the crowd.
“Seventy-five? Chicken feed! What am I bid?”
Someone bid eighty, and the same man at the back of the crowd jumped the bid to one hundred dollars.
The bidding went on. The man at the back of the crowd dropped the bid just before the auctioneer cried “Sold!”
The bidding on the next lot was faster. The man near the platform raised the bid whenever excitement slumped. The man who had been at the back of the crowd slipped unobtrusively far to the side. It was from this position that he entered the bidding for the third lot and forced the price up.
It was plain to Prudy what the men were doing. The two in the crowd were cooperating with the two on the platform to sell each lot for the highest possible price they could draw from the crowd. It was so plain that Prudy wondered why everybody in the group hadn’t already seen it. She wondered what she could do to let the people know that they were being duped and cheated.
A familiar voice brought her out of her thoughts and back to the land auction. Brother Freiber had excitedly entered the bidding for a lot. “One hundred and eighty-seven,” he was shouting. He had pushed his way forward. Now Mrs. Freiber, who had been holding onto the children, left the man elbowed her way toward him. “One hundred and ninety-five,” he cried before she reached his elbow.
“Papa, don’t!” she begged in a voice loud enough to be heard through the crowd. “Papa, don’t. We haven’t the money. We haven’t the money without –”
“Two hundred,” the man in the cutaway coat cried, and the auctioneer, somehow mimicking Sister Freiber’s voice shouted, “going to let him have it for two hundred – Papa?”
The crowd roared with an appreciative laugh. Brother Freiber blushed to a beet red and tried to shake his wife from his arm; but she held on.”You can’t pay for the press, Hans. Not if you –”
“Brother Freiber, listen,” Prudy cut in, pushing up to his other side. The words rushed out in a torrent as she tried to tell him what she heard in the thicket, but he wouldn’t listen.
The bidding went on as Brother Freiber turned exasperatedly to his wife. “Now the two of you have cut me out of this lot! I’ll bid on the next one.” He turned to Prudy. “And you can tend to your own business, child.”
For a moment Prudy was silenced, but the resolve was growing to somehow save Brother Freiber from losing his money. If he didn’t have enough to bed and board one little girl, he certainly didn’t have enough to buy a lot that would be underwater as soon as the river rose. “Underwater,” Prudy said to herself. Yes, that’s what they had said –and they had laughed.
Resolutely she elbowed her way to the platform and called in the loudest voice she could muster, “Is it true that these lots will be covered with water when the river rises?”
“Seventy-five. Is seventy-five all I’m bid for–” the auctioneer went on, as if he hadn’t heard Prudy’s question.
But the crowd had heard her. A young man standing next to her shouted, “The young lady asked a question. Have you an answer?”
The auctioneer laughed. “What is it the young lady wants to know?”
“Is it true that these lots will be covered with water when the river rises?” Prudy repeated, her voice quavering with self consciousness as the crowd stopped shuffling to listen.
The auctioneer laughed again. “Why, that’s absurd. Will you please come up here, Senator Higgins?” Prudy turned her head. The man who was coming importantly to the platform was the large man with the pinstripe trousers, the fawn-colored gaiters, the black cutaway coat and the great expanse of white waistcoat. The auctioneer went to the edge of the platform and greeted him.”Come up on the platform, Senator Higgins.” He turned to the crowd. “This, my friends, is the Right Honorable Senator Higgins. Do you think for a minute that he’d be buying lots covered with water? Here are his deeds. Senator Higgins has just bought three lots.”
The crowd seemed satisfied, but Prudy’s voice came in a surprised shout. “Why, that’s the man who said not more than half an hour ago that the suckers wouldn’t know that these city lots would be covered with water the first day the river rises.”
Almost before she had finished speaking, two burly young men seemed to come from nowhere. One on each side of her, they half pushed, half carried her from her place near the platform. But Prudy knew that the auction was over – at least with this group of people. The crowd was breaking up and though the auctioneer was still shouting, his voice couldn’t be heard above the angry rumbling of the crowd. Already men who had purchased lots were gathering around the platform demanding their money back and threatening harm to the auctioneer and his companion behind the money table. The burly young men who had rushed Prudy away left her and went back to the platform, attempting to keep the angry crowd away from the money table.
Prudy felt a hand on her shoulder. “How did you know, child?” Brother Freiber’s face and voice were contrite.
“I just wanted to be alone,” Prudy began, and then she told him about the four men near the river.
“You’re a smart child,” Brother Freiber said. “You’ll do to keep around. You’ve certainly earned your way today.”
Suddenly Prudy’s heart lifted. She knew that Brother Freiber wouldn’t send her home before John got back down the river. Somehow he’d find a way to keep her.
She turned away, happier than she had been since the day she had seen John. In spite of the efforts of the burly young men, the crowd were closing in on the protesting land salesmen. She thought she saw the angry gaze of the auctioneer meet her own. She shivered. She definitely didn’t want to meet any of the perspiring red-faced men when she was alone.