Starr, of the Desert
B. M Bower
Part 1 out of 4
Produced by Suzanne Shell, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed
STARR, OF THE DESERT
BY B.M. BOWER
AUTHOR OF CHIP OF THE FLYING U, ETC.
I A COMMONPLACE MAN WAS PETER
II IN WHICH PETER DISCOVERS A WAY OUT
III VIC SHOULD WORRY
IV STARR WOULD LIKE TO KNOW
V A GREASE SPOT IN THE SAND
VI "DARN SUCH A COUNTRY!"
VII MOONLIGHT, A MAN AND A SONG
VIII HOLMAN SOMMERS, SCIENTIST
IX PAT, A NICE DOGGUMS
X THE TRAIL OF SILVERTOWN CORDS
XI THE WIND BLOWS MANY STRAWS
XII STARR FINDS SOMETHING IN A SECRET ROOM
XIII HELEN MAY SIGHS FOR ROMANCE
XIV A SHOT FROM THE PINNACLE
XV HELEN MAY UNDERSTANDS
XVI STARR SEES TOO LITTLE OR TOO MUCH
XVII "IS HE THEN DEAD--MY SON?"
XVIII A PAGE OF WRITING
XIX HOLMAN SOMMERS TURNS PROPHET
XX STARR DISCOVERS THINGS
XXI THROUGH THE OPEN SKYLIGHT
XXII STARR TAKES ANOTHER PRISONER
STARR, OF THE DESERT
A COMMONPLACE MAN WAS PETER
Daffodils were selling at two bits a dozen in the flower stand beside the
New Era Drug Store. Therefore Peter Stevenson knew that winter was over,
and that the weather would probably "settle." There would be the spring
fogs, of course--and fog did not agree with Helen May since that last
spell of grippe. Peter decided that he would stop and see the doctor
again, and ask him what he thought of a bungalow out against the hills
behind Hollywood; something cheap, of course--and within the five-cent
limit on the street cars; something with a sleeping porch that opened
upon a pleasanter outlook than your neighbor's back yard. If Helen May
would then form the habit of riding to and from town on the open end of
the cars, that would help considerably; in fact, the longer the ride the
better it would be for Helen May. The air was sweet and clean out there
toward the hills. It would be better for Vic, too. It would break up
that daily habit of going out to see "the boys" as soon as he had
swallowed his dinner.
Peter finished refilling the prescription on which he was working, and
went out to see if he were needed in front. He sold a lip-stick to a
pert miss who from sheer instinct made eyes at him, and he wished that
Helen May had such plump cheeks--though he thanked God she had not the
girl's sophisticated eyes. (Yes, a bungalow out there against the hills
ought to do a lot for Helen May.) He glanced up at the great clock and
unconsciously compared his cheap watch with it, saw that in ten minutes
he would be free for the day, and bethought him to telephone the doctor
and make sure of the appointment. He knew that Helen May had seen the
doctor at noon, since she had given Peter her word that she would go,
and since she never broke a promise. He would find out just what the
When he returned from the 'phone, a fat woman wanted peroxide, and she
was quite sure the bottle he offered was smaller than the last two-bit
bottle she had bought. Peter very kindly and patiently discussed the
matter with her, and smiled and bowed politely when she finally decided
to try another place. His kidneys were hurting him again. He wondered if
Helen May would remember that he must not eat heavy meats, and would get
something else for their dinner.
He glanced again at the clock. He had four minutes yet to serve. He
wondered why the doctor had seemed so eager to see him. He had a vague
feeling of uneasiness, though the doctor had not spoken more than a dozen
words. At six he went behind the mirrored partition and got his topcoat
and hat; said good night to such clerks as came in his way, and went out
and bought a dozen daffodils from the Greek flower-vendor. All day he had
been arguing with himself because of this small extravagance which
tempted him, but now that it was settled and the flowers were in his
hand, he was glad that he had bought them. Helen May loved all growing
things. He set off briskly in spite of his aching back, thinking how
Helen May would hover over the flowers rapturously even while she scolded
him for his extravagance.
Half an hour later, when he turned to leave the doctor's office, he left
the daffodils lying forgotten on a chair until the doctor called him
back and gave them to him with a keen glance that had in it a good deal
"You're almost as bad off yourself, old man," he said bluntly. "I want
to watch those kidneys of yours. Come in to-morrow or next day and let
me look you over. Or Sunday will do, if you aren't working then. I
don't like your color. Here, wait a minute. I'll give you a
prescription. You'd better stop and fill it before you go home. Take the
first dose before you eat--and come in Sunday. Man, you don't want to
neglect yourself. You--"
"Then you don't think Hollywood--?" Peter took the daffodils and began
absently crumpling the waxed paper around them. His eyes, when he looked
into the doctor's face, were very wistful and very, very tired.
"Hollywood!" The doctor snorted. "One lung's already badly affected, I
tell you. What she's got to have is high, dry air--like Arizona or New
Mexico or Colorado. And right out in the open--live like an Injun for
a year or two. Radical change of climate--change of living. Another
year of office work will kill her." He stopped and eyed Peter
pityingly. "Predisposition--and then the grippe--her mother went that
way, didn't she?"
"Yes," Peter replied, flat-toned and patient. "Yes, she went--that way."
"Well, you know what it means. Get her out of here just as quick as
possible, and you'll probably save her. Helen May's a girl worth saving."
"Yes," Peter replied flatly, as before. "Yes--she's worth saving."
"You bet! Well, you do that. And don't put off coming here Sunday. And
don't forget to fill that prescription and take it till I see you again."
Peter smiled politely, and went down the hall to the elevator, and laid
his finger on the bell, and waited until the steel cage paused to let
him in. He walked out and up Third Street and waited on the corner of
Hill until the car he wanted stopped on the corner to let a few more
passengers squeeze on. Peter found a foothold on the back platform and
something to hang to, and adapted himself to the press of people around
him, protecting as best he could the daffodils with the fine, green
stuff that went with them and that straggled out and away from the
paper. Whenever human eyes met his with a light of recognition, Peter
would smile and bow, and the eyes would smile back. But he never knew
who owned the eyes, or even that he was performing one of the little
courtesies of life.
All he knew was that Helen May was going the way her mother had gone, and
that the only way to prevent her going that way was to take her to New
Mexico or Colorado or Arizona; and she was worth saving--even the doctor
had been struck with her worth; and a bungalow out against the hills
wouldn't do at all, not even with a sleeping porch and the open-air ride
back and forth every day. Radical change she must have. Arizona or New
Mexico or--the moon, which seemed not much more remote or inaccessible.
When his street was called he edged out to the steps and climbed down,
wondering how the doctor expected a man with Peter's salary to act upon
his advice. "You do that!" said the doctor, and left Peter to discover,
if he could, how it was to be done without money; in other words, had
blandly required Peter to perform a modern miracle.
Helen May was listlessly setting the table when he arrived. He went up to
her for the customary little peck on the cheek which passes for a kiss
among relatives, and Helen May waved him off with a half smile that was
unlike her customary cheerfulness.
"I've quit kissing," she said. "It's unsanitary."
"What did the doctor tell you, Babe? You went to see him, didn't you?"
Peter managed a smile--business policy had made smiling a habit--while he
unwound the paper from around the daffodils.
"Dad, I've told you and _told_ you not to buy flowers! Oh, golly, aren't
they beautiful! But you mustn't. I'm going to get my salary cut, on the
first. They say business doesn't warrant my present plutocratic income.
Five a week less, Bob said it would be. That'll pull the company back to
a profit-sharing basis, of course!"
"Lots of folks are losing their jobs altogether," Peter reminded her
apathetically. "What did the doctor say about your cough, Babe?"
"Oh, he told me to quit working. Why is it doctors never have any brains
about such things? Charge a person two dollars or so for telling him to
do what's impossible. What does he think I am--a movie queen?"
She turned away from his faded, anxious eyes that hurt her with their
realization of his helplessness. There was a red spot on either
cheek--the rose of dread which her father had watched heart-sinkingly. "I
know what he _thinks_ is the matter," she added defiantly. "But that
doesn't make it so. It's just the grippe hanging on. I've felt a lot
better since the weather cleared up. It's those raw winds--and half the
time they haven't had the steam on at all in the mornings, and the office
is like an ice-box till the sun warms it."
"Vic home yet?" Peter abandoned the subject for one not much more
cheerful. Vic, fifteen and fully absorbed in his own activities, was more
and more becoming a sore subject between the two.
"No. I called up Ed's mother just before you came, but he hadn't
been there. She thought Ed was over here with Vic. I don't know
where else to ask."
"Did you try the gym?"
"No. He won't go there any more. They got after him for something he
did--broke a window somehow. There's no use fussing, dad. He'll come when
he's hungry enough. He's broke, so he can't eat down town."
Peter sighed and went away to brush his thin, graying hair carefully over
his bald spot, while Helen May brewed the tea and made final preparations
for dinner. The daffodils she arranged with little caressing pulls and
pats in a tall, slim vase of plain glass, and placed the vase in the
center of the table, just as Peter knew she would do.
"Oh, but you're sweet!" she said, and stooped with her face close above
them. "I wish I could lie down in a whole big patch of you and just look
at the sky and at you nodding and perking all around me--and not do a
living thing all day but just lie there and soak in blue and gold and
sweet smells and silence."
Peter, coming to the open doorway, turned and tiptoed back as though he
had intruded upon some secret, and stood irresolutely smoothing his hair
down with the flat of his hand until she called him to come and eat. She
was cheerful as ever while she served him scrupulously. She smiled at him
now and then, tilting her head because the daffodils stood between them.
She said no more about the doctor's advice, or the problem of poverty.
She did not cough, and the movements of her thin, well-shaped hands were
sure and swift. More than once she made a pause while she pulled a
daffodil toward her and gazed adoringly into its yellow cup.
Peter might have been reassured, were it not for the telltale flush on
her cheeks and the unnatural shine in her eyes. As it was, every
fascinating little whimsy of hers stabbed him afresh with the pain of her
need and of his helplessness. Arizona or New Mexico or Colorado, the
doctor had said; and Peter knew that it must be so. And he with his
druggist's salary and his pitiful two hundred dollars in the savings
bank! And with the druggist's salary stopping automatically the moment he
stopped reporting for duty! Peter was neither an atheist nor a socialist,
yet he was close to cursing his God and his country whenever Helen May
smiled at him around the dozen daffodils.
"Your insurance is due the tenth, dad," she remarked irrelevantly when
they had reached the dessert stage of cream puffs from the delicatessen
nearest Helen May's work. "Why don't you cut it down? It's sinful, the
amount of money we've paid out for insurance. You need a new suit this
spring. And the difference--"
"I don't see what's wrong with this suit," Peter objected, throwing out
his scrawny chest and glancing down his front with a prejudiced eye,
refusing to see any shabbiness. "A little cleaning and pressing, maybe--"
"A little suit of that new gray everybody's wearing these days, you
mean," she amended relentlessly. "Don't argue, dad. You've _got_ to have
a suit. And that old insurance--"
"Jitneys are getting thicker every day," Peter contended in feeble jest.
"A man needs to be well insured in this town. There's Vic--if anything
happened, he's got to be educated just the same. And by the endowment
plan, in twelve years more I'll have a nice little lump. It's--on account
of the endowment, Babe. I don't want to sell drugs all my life."
"Just the same, you're going to have a new suit." Helen May retrenched
herself behind the declaration. "And it's going to be gray. And a gray
hat with a dove-colored band and the bow in the back. And tan shoes," she
added implacably, daintily lifting the roof off her cream puff to see how
generous had been the filling.
"Who? Me?" Vic launched himself in among them and slid spinelessly into
his chair as only a lanky boy can slide. "Happy thought! Only I'll have
bottle green for mine. A fellow stepped on my roof this afternoon, so--"
"You'll wear a cap then--or go bareheaded and claim it's to make your
hair grow." Helen May regarded him coldly. "Lots of fellows do. You don't
get a single new dud before the fourth, Vic Stevenson."
"Oh, don't I?" Vic drawled with much sarcasm, and pulled two dollars from
his trousers pocket, displaying them with lofty triumph. "I get a new hat
to-morrow, Miss Stingy."
"Vic, where did you get that money?" Helen May's eyes flamed to the
battle. "Have you been staying out of school and hanging around those
"Yup--at two dollars per hang," Vic mouthed, spearing a stuffed green
pepper dexterously. "Fifty rehearsals for two one-minute scenes of
honorable college gangs honorably hailing the hee-ro. Waugh! Where'd you
get these things--or did the cat bring it in? Stuffed with laundry soap,
if you ask me. Why don't you try that new place on Spring?"
"Vic Stevenson!" Helen May began in true sisterly disapprobation. "Is
that getting you anywhere in your studies? A few more days out of
Peter's thoughts turned inward. He did not even hear the half playful,
half angry dispute between these two. Vic was a heady youth, much given
to rebelling against the authority of Helen May who bullied or wheedled
as her mood and the emergency might impel, as sisters do the world over.
Peter was thinking of his two hundred dollars saved against disaster; and
a third of that to go for life insurance on the tenth, which was just one
row down on the calendar; and Helen May going the way her mother had
gone--unless she lived out of doors "like an Indian" in Arizona
or--Peter's mind refused to name again the remote, inaccessible places
where Helen May might evade the penalty of being the child of her mother
and of poverty.
Gray hat for Peter or bottle-green hat for Vic--what did it matter if
neither of them ever again owned a hat, if Helen May must stay here in
the city and face the doom that had been pronounced upon her? What did
anything matter, if Babe died and left him plodding along alone? Vic did
not occur to him consolingly. Vic was a responsibility; a comfort he was
not. Like many men, Peter could not seem to understand his son half as
well as he understood his daughter. He could not see why Vic should
frivol away his time; why he should have all those funny little conceits
and airs of youth; why he should lord it over Helen May who was every day
proving her efficiency and her strength of character anew. If Helen May
went the way her mother had gone, Peter felt that he would be alone, and
that life would be quite bare and bleak and empty of every incentive
toward bearing the little daily burdens of existence.
He got up with his hand going instinctively to his back to ease the ache
there, and went out upon the porch and stood looking drearily down upon
the asphalted street, where the white paths of speeding automobiles
slashed the dusk like runaway sunbeams on a frolic. Then the street
lights winked and sputtered and began to glow with white brilliance.
Arizona or New Mexico or Colorado! Peter knew what the doctor had in
mind. Vast plains, unpeopled, pure, immutable in their calm; stars that
came down at night and hung just over your head, making the darkness
alive with their bright presence; a little cottage hunched against a
hill, a candle winking cheerily through the window at the stars; the
cries of night birds, the drone of insects, the distant howling of a
coyote; far away on the boundary of your possessions, a fence of barbed
wire stretching through a hollow and up over a hill; distance and quiet
and calm, be it day or night. And Helen May coming through the sunlight,
riding a gentle-eyed pony; Helen May with her deep-gold hair tousled in
the wind, and with health dancing in her eyes that were the color of a
ripe chestnut, odd contrast to her hair; Helen May with the little red
spots gone from her cheek bones, and with tanned skin and freckles on her
nose and a laugh on her lips, coming up at a gallop with the sun behind
her, and something more; with sickness behind her and the drudgery of
eight hours in an office, and poverty and unhappiness. And Vic--yes, Vic
in overalls and a straw hat, growing up to be the strong man he never
would be in the city.
Like many another commonplace man of the towns, for all his colorless
ways and his thinning hair and his struggle against poverty, Peter was
something of a dreamer. And like all the rest of us who build our dreams
out of wishes and hopes and maybes, Peter had not a single fact to use in
his foundation. Arizona, New Mexico or Colorado--to Peter they were but
symbols of all those dear unattainable things he longed for. And that he
longed for them, not for himself but for another who was very dear to
him, only made the longing keener and more tragic.
IN WHICH PETER DISCOVERS A WAY OUT
We are always exclaiming over the strange way in which events link
themselves together in chains; and when the chains bind us to a certain
condition or environment, we are in the habit of blandly declaring
ourselves victims of the force of circumstances. By that rule, Peter
found himself being swept into a certain channel of thought about which
events began at once to link themselves into a chain which drew him
perforce into a certain path that he must follow. Or it may have been his
peculiar single-mindedness that forced him to follow the path; however
that may be, circumstances made it easy.
If Helen May worried about her cough and her failing energy, she did not
mention the fact again; but that was Helen May's way, and Peter was not
comforted by her apparent dismissal of the subject. So far as he could
see she was a great deal more inclined to worry over Vic, who refused to
stay in school when he could now and then earn a dollar or two acting in
"mob scenes" for some photoplay company out in Hollywood. He did not
spend the money wisely; Helen May declared that he was better off with
Ordinarily Peter would have taken Vic's rebellion seriously enough to put
a stop to it. He did half promise Helen May that he would notify all the
directors he could get hold of not to employ Vic in any capacity; even to
"chase him off the studio grounds", as Helen May put it. But he did not,
because chance threw him a bit of solid material on which to rebuild his
air castle for Helen May.
He was edging his way down the long food counter, collecting his lunch of
rice pudding, milk and whole-wheat bread in a cafeteria on Hill Street.
He was late, and there was no unoccupied table to be had, so he finally
set his tray down where a haggard-featured woman clerk had just eaten
hastily her salad and pie. A brown-skinned young fellow with country
manners and a range-fostered disposition to talk with any one who tarried
within talking distance, was just unloading his tray load of provender on
the opposite side of the table. He looked across at Peter's tray, grinned
at the meager luncheon, and then looked up into Peter's face with
friendliness chasing the amusement from his eyes.
"Golly gee! There's a heap of difference in our appetites, from the looks
of our layouts," he began amiably. "I'm hungry as a she-wolf, myself.
Hope they don't make me wash the dishes when I'm through; I'm always
kinda scared of these grab-it-and-go joints. I always feel like making a
sneak when nobody's looking, for fear I'll be called back to clean up."
Peter smiled and handed his tray to a waiter. "I wish I could eat a meal
like that," he confessed politely.
"Well, you could if you lived out more in the open. Town kinda gits a
person's appetite. Why, first time I come in here and went down the chute
past the feed troughs, why it took two trays to pack away the grub I seen
and wanted. Lookout lady on the high stool, she give me two
tickets--thought there was two of, me, I reckon. But I ain't eatin' the
way I was then. Town's kinda gittin' me like it's got the rest of you.
Last night I come pretty near makin' up my mind to go back. Little old
shack back there in the greasewood didn't look so bad, after all. Only I
do hate like sin to bach, and a fellow couldn't take a woman out there in
the desert to live, unless he had money to make her comfortable. So I'm
going to give up my homestead--if I can find some easy mark to buy out my
relinquishment. Don't want to let it slide, yuh see, 'cause the
improvements is worth a little something, and the money'd come handy
right now, helpin' me into something here. There's a chance to buy into
a nice little service station, fellow calls it--where automobiles stop to
git pumped up with air and gasoline and stuff. If I can sell my
improvements, I'll buy in there. Looks foolish to go back, once I made up
my mind to quit."
He ate while he talked, and he talked because he had the simple mind of
a child and must think out loud in order to be perfectly at ease. He
had that hunger for speech which comes sometimes to men who have lived
far from their kind. Peter listened to him vaguely at first; then
avidly, with an inner excitement which his mild, expressionless face
hid like a mask.
"I was getting kinda discouraged when my horse up 'n died," the eater
went on. "And then when some durn greaser went 'n stole my burro, I jest
up 'n sold my saddle and a few head uh sheep I had, and pulled out. New
Mexico ranching is all right for them that likes it, but excuse me! I
want to live where I can see a movie once in a while, anyhow." He stopped
for the simple, primitive reason that he had filled his mouth to
overflowing with food, so that speech was for the moment a physical
Peter sipped his glass of milk, and his thoughts raced back and forth
between the door of opportunity that stood ajar, and the mountain of
difficulty which he must somehow move by his mental strength alone
before he and his might pass through that door.
"Ah--how much do you value your improvements at?" he asked. His emotion
was so great that his voice refused to carry it, and so was flat and as
expressionless as his commonplace face.
"Well," gurgled the young man, sluicing down his food with coffee, "it's
pretty hard to figure exactly. I've got a good little shack, you see, and
there's a spring right close handy by. Springs is sure worth money in
that country, water being scurse as it is. There's a plenty for the house
and a few head of stock; well, in a good wet year a person could raise a
little garden, maybe; few radishes and beans, and things like that. But
uh course, that can't hardly be called an improvement, 'cause it was
there when I took the place. A greaser, he had the land fenced and was
usin' the spring 'n' range like it was his own, and most folks, they was
scared to file on it. But she's sure filed on now, and I've got six weeks
yet before it can be jumped.
"Well, there's a shed for stock, and a pretty fair brush corral, and I
built me a pretty fair road in to the place--about a mile off the main
road, it is. I done that odd times the year I was on the place. The
sheep I sold; sheep's a good price now. I only had seventeen--coyotes
and greasers, they kep' stealin' 'em on me, or I'd 'n' had more. I'd
'a' lost 'em all, I guess, if it hadn't been for Loma--dog I got with
Peter looked at his watch in that furtive way which polite persons employ
when time presses and a companion is garrulous. He had finished his rice
pudding and his milk, and in five minutes he would be expected to hang up
his hat behind the mirrored partition of the New Era Drug Store and walk
out smilingly to serve the New Era customers, patrons, the New Era called
them. In five minutes he must be on duty, yet Peter felt that his very
life depended upon bringing this wordy young man to a point in his
"If you will come to the New Era Drug Store, at six o'clock," said Peter,
"I shall be glad to talk with you further about this homestead of yours.
I--ah--have a friend who has an idea of--ah--locating somewhere in
Arizona or New Mexico or Colorado--" Peter could name them now without
that sick feeling of despair "--and he might be interested. But," he
added hastily, "he could not afford to pay very much for a place. Still,
if your price is low enough--"
"Oh, I reckon we can git together on the price," the young man said
cheerfully, as Peter rose and picked up his check. "I'll be there at six,
sure as shootin' cats in a bag. I know where the New Era's at. I went in
there last night and got something to stop my tooth achin'. Ached like
the very devil for a while, but that stuff sure fixed her."
Peter smiled and bowed and went his way hurriedly, his pale lips working
nervously with the excitement that filled him. The mountain of difficulty
was there, implacably blocking the way. But beyond was the door of
opportunity, and the door was ajar. There must, thought Peter, be some
way to pass the mountain and reach the door.
Helen May telephoned that she meant to pick out that gray suit for him
that evening. Since it was Saturday, the stores would be open, and there
was a sale on at Hecheimer's. She had seen some stunning grays in the
window, one-third off. And would he....
Peter's voice was almost irritable when he told her that he had a
business engagement and could not meet her. And he added the information
that he would probably eat down town, as he did not know how long he
would be detained. Helen May was positively forbidden to do anything at
all about the suit until he had a chance to talk with her. After which
unprecedented firmness Peter left the 'phone hurriedly, lest Helen May
should laugh at his authority and lay down a law of her own, which she
was perfectly capable of doing.
At five minutes to six the young man presented himself at the New Era,
and waited for Peter at the soda fountain, with a lemon soda and a pretty
girl to smile at his naive remarks. Peter's heart had given a jump and a
flutter when the young man walked in, fearing some one else might snap at
the chance to buy a relinquishment of a homestead in New Mexico. And yet,
how did Peter expect to buy anything of the sort? If Peter knew, he kept
the knowledge in the back of his mind, telling himself that there would
be some way out.
He went with the young man, whose name he learned was Johnny Calvert, and
had dinner with him at the cafeteria where they had met at noon. Johnny
talked a great deal, ate a great deal, and unconsciously convinced Peter
that he was an honest young man who was exactly what he represented
himself to be. He had papers which proved his claim upon three hundred
and twenty acres of land in Dona Ana County, New Mexico. He also had a
map upon which the location of his claim was marked with a pencil.
Malpais, he said, was the nearest railroad point; not much of a point,
but you could ride there and back in a day, if you got up early enough in
Peter asked about the climate and the altitude. Johnny was a bit hazy
about the latter, but it was close to mountains, he said, and it was as
high as El Paso, anyway, maybe higher. The climate was like all the
rest of the country, coming in streaks of good and bad. Peter, gaining
confidence as Johnny talked, spoke of his daughter and her impending
doom, and Johnny, instantly grasping the situation, waxed eloquent. Why,
that would be just the place, he declared. Dry as a bone, the weather
was most of the year; hot--the lungers liked it hot and dry, he knew.
And when it was cold, it was sure bracing, too. Why, the country was
alive with health-seekers. At that, most of 'em got well--them that
didn't come too late.
That last sentence threw Peter into a panic. What if he dawdled along and
kept Helen May waiting until it was too late? By that time I think Peter
had pretty clearly decided how he was to remove the mountain of
difficulty. He must have, or he would not have had the courage to drive
the bargain to a conclusion in so short a time.
Drive it he did, for at nine o'clock he let himself into the place he
called home and startled Helen May with the announcement that he had
bought her a claim in New Mexico, where she was to live out of doors like
an Indian and get over that cough, and grow strong as any peasant woman;
and where Vic was going to keep out of mischief and learn to amount to
something. He did not say what the effect would be upon himself; Peter
was not accustomed to considering himself except as a provider of
comfort for others.
Helen May did not notice the omission. "_Bought_ a claim?" she repeated
and added grimly: "What with?"
"With two hundred dollars cash," Peter replied, smiling queerly. "It's
all settled, Babe, and the claim is to stand in your name. Everything is
attended to but the legal signatures before a notary. I was glad my money
was in the all-night bank, because I was not compelled to wait until
Monday to get it for young Calvert. You will have the relinquishment of
his right to the claim, Babe, and a small adobe house with sheds and
yards and a good spring of living water. In building up the place into a
profitable investment you will be building up your health, which is the
first and greatest consideration. I--you must not go the way your mother
went. You will not, because you will live in the open and throw off
"Dad--_Stevenson_!" Helen May was sitting with her arms lying loose in
her lap, palms upward. Her lips had been loose and parted a little with
the slackness of blank amazement. In those first awful minutes she really
believed that her father had suddenly lost his mind; that he was joking
never occurred to her. Peter was not gifted with any sense of humor
whatsoever, and Helen May knew it as she knew the color of his hair.
"You will no longer be a wage slave, doomed to spend eight hours of every
day before a typewriter in that insurance office. You will be
independent--a property owner who can see that property grow under your
thought and labor. You will see Vic growing up among clean, healthful
surroundings. He will be able to bear much of the burden--the brunt of
the work. The boy is in a fair way to be ruined if he stays here any
longer. There will be six weeks of grace before the claim can be
seized--ah--jumped, the young man called it. In that time you must be
located upon the place. But you should make all possible haste in any
case, on account of your health. Monday morning we will go together with
young Calvert and attend to the legal papers, and then I should advise
you to devote your time to making preparations--"
"Dad--_Stevenson_!" Helen May's voice ended in an exasperated, frightened
kind of wail. "I and Vic! Are you crazy?"
"Not at all. It is sudden, of course. But you will find, when you stop to
think it over, that many of the wisest things we ever do are done without
dawdling,--suddenly, one may say. No, Babe, I--"
"But two hundred dollars just for the rights to the claim! Dad, look at
it calmly! To build up a ranch takes money. I don't know a thing about
ranching, and neither do you; but we both know that much. One has to eat,
even on a ranch. I wouldn't have my ten a week, remember, and you
wouldn't have your salary, unless you mean to stay here and keep on at
the New Era. And that wouldn't work, dad. You know it wouldn't work. Your
salary would barely keep you, let alone sending money to us. You can't
expect to keep yourself and furnish us money; and you've paid out all you
had in the bank. The thing's impossible on the face of it!"
"Yes, planning from that basis, it would be impossible." Peter's eyes
were wistful. "I tried to plan that way at first; but I saw it wouldn't
do. The expense of getting there, even, would be quite an item in itself.
No, it couldn't be done that way, Babe."
"Then will you tell me how else it is to be done?" Helen May's voice was
tired and exasperated. "You say you have paid the two hundred. That
leaves us just the furniture in this flat; and it wouldn't bring enough
to take us to the place, let alone having anything to live on when we got
there. And my wages would stop, and so would yours. Dad, do you realize
what you've done?" She tilted her head forward and stared at him intently
through her lashes, which was a trick she had.
"Yes, Babe, I realize perfectly. I'm--not counting on just the
furniture. I--think it would pay to ship the stuff on to the claim."
"For heaven's sake, dad! What are you counting on?" Helen May gave a
hysterical laugh that set her coughing in a way to make the veins stand
out on forehead and throat. (Peter's hands blenched into fighting fists
while he waited for the spasm to wear itself out. She should not go the
way her mother had gone, he was thinking fiercely.) "What--are--you
counting on?" she repeated, when she could speak again.
"Well, I'm counting on--a source that is sure," Peter replied vaguely.
"The way will be provided, when the time comes. I--I have thought it all
out calmly, Babe. The money will be ready when you need it."
"Dad, don't borrow money! It would be a load that would keep us
staggering for years. We are going along all right, better than hundreds
of people all around us. I'm feeling better than I was; now the weather
is settled, I feel lots better. You can sell whatever you bought; maybe
you can make a profit on the sale. Try and do that, dad. Get enough
profit to pay for that gray suit I saw in the window!" She was smiling at
him now, the whimsical smile that was perhaps her greatest charm.
"Never mind about the gray suit." Peter spoke sharply. "I won't need
it." He got up irritably and began pacing back and forth across the
little sitting room. "You're not better," he declared petulantly. "That's
the way your mother used to talk--even up to the very last. A year in
that office would kill you. I know. The doctor said so. Your only chance
is to get into a high, dry place where you can live out of doors. He told
me so. This young man with the homestead claim was a godsend--a godsend,
I tell you! It would be a crime--it would be murder to let the chance
slip by for lack of money. I'd steal the money, if I knew of any way to
get by with it, and if there was no other way open. But there is a way.
I'm taking it.
"I don't want to hear any more argument," he exclaimed, facing her quite
suddenly. His eyes had a light she had never seen in them before. "Monday
you will go with me and attend to the necessary legal papers. After that,
I'll attend to the means of getting there."
He stood looking down at her where she sat with her hands clasped in her
lap, staring up at him steadfastly from under her eyebrows. His face
softened, quivered until she thought he was going to cry like a woman.
But he only came and laid a shaking hand on her head and smoothed her
hair as one caresses a child.
"Don't oppose me in this, Babe," he said wearily. "I've thought it all
out, and it's best for all of us. I can't see you dying here by
inches--in the harness. And think of Vic, if that happened. He's just at
the age where he needs you. I couldn't do anything much with him alone.
It's the best thing to do, the only thing to do. Don't say anything more
against it, don't argue. When the time comes, you'll do your part
bravely, as I shall do mine. And if you feel that it isn't worth while
for yourself, think of Vic."
Peter turned abruptly and went into his room, and Helen May dropped her
head down upon her arms and cried awhile, though she did not clearly
understand why, except that life seemed very cruel, like some formless
monster that caught and squeezed the very soul out of one. Soon she heard
Vic coming, and pulled herself together for the lecture he had earned by
going out without permission and staying later than he should. On one
point dad was right, she told herself wearily, while she was locking up
for the night. Town certainly was no place for Vic.
The next day, urged by her father, Helen May met Johnny Calvert, and
cooked him a nice dinner, and heard a great deal about her new claim. And
Monday, furthermore, the three attended to certain legal details. She had
many moments of panic when she believed her father was out of his mind,
and when she feared that he would do some desperate thing like stealing
money to carry out this strange plan. But she did as he wished. There was
a certain inflexible quality in Peter's mild voice, a certain
determination in his insignificant face that required obedience to his
wishes. Even Vic noticed it, and eyed Peter curiously, and asked Helen
May what ailed the old man.
An old man Peter was when he went to his room that night, leaving Helen
May dazed and exhausted after another evening spent in absorbing queer
bits of information from the garrulous Johnny Calvert. She would be able
to manage all right, now, Peter told her relievedly when Johnny left. She
knew as much about the place as she could possibly know without having
He said good night and left her wondering bewilderedly what strange thing
her dad would do next. In the morning she knew.
Peter did not answer when Helen May rapped on his door and said that
breakfast would be ready in five minutes. Never before had he failed to
call out: "All right, Babe!" more or less cheerfully. She waited a
minute, listening, and then rapped again and repeated her customary
announcement. Another wait, and she turned the knob and looked in.
She did not scream at what she found there. Vic, sleeping on the couch
behind a screen in the living room, yawned himself awake and proceeded
reluctantly to set his feet upon the floor and grope, sleepy-eyed, for
his clothes, absolutely unconscious that in the night sometime Peter had
passed a certain mountain of difficulty and had reached out unafraid and
pulled wide open the door of opportunity for his children.
Beyond the door, Helen May was standing rigidly beside the bed where
Peter lay, and was reading for the second time the letter which Peter had
held in his hand. At first her mind had refused to grasp its meaning.
Now, reading slowly, she knew ...
Dear Babe, (said the letter).
Don't be horrified at what I have done. I have thought the whole matter
over calmly, and I am satisfied that this is the best way. My life could
not go on very long, anyway. The doctor made that plain enough to me
Sunday. I saw him. I was in a bad way with kidney trouble, he said. I
knew it before he told me. I knew I was only good for a few months more
at the most, and I would soon be a helpless burden. Besides, I have heart
trouble that will account for this sudden taking off, so you can escape
any unpleasant gossip.
Take the life insurance and use it on that claim, for you and Vic. Live
out in the open and get well, and make a man of Vic. Three thousand
dollars ought to be ample to put the ranch on a paying basis. And don't
blame your dad for collecting it now, when it will do the most good. I
could see no benefit in waiting and suffering, and letting you get
farther downhill all the while, making it that much harder to climb back.
Go at once to your claim, and do your best--that is what will make your
dad happiest. You will get well, and you will make a home for you and
Vic, and be independent and happy. In doing this you will fulfill the
last, loving wish of your father.
P.S. Better stock the place with goats. Johnny Calvert thinks they would
be better than sheep.
VIC SHOULD WORRY
Wise man or fool, Peter had taken the one way to impress obedience upon
Helen May. Had he urged and argued and kept on living, Helen May could
have brought forth reasons and arguments, eloquence even, to combat him.
But Peter had taken the simple, unanswerable way of stating his wishes,
opening the way to their accomplishment, and then quietly lying back upon
his pillow and letting death take him beyond reach of protest.
For days Helen May was numb with the sudden dropping of Life's big
responsibilities upon her shoulders. She could not even summon energy
enough to call Vic to an accounting of his absences from the house. Until
after the funeral Vic had been subdued, going around on his toes and
looking at Helen May with wide, solemn eyes and lips prone to trembling.
But fifteen years is the resilient age, and two days after Peter was
buried, Vic asked her embarrassedly if she thought it would look right
for him to go to the ball game. He had to do _something_, he added
"Oh, I guess so; run along," Helen May had told him absently, without in
the least realizing what it was he had wanted to do. After that Vic went
his way without going through the ceremony of asking her consent, secure
in the knowledge of her indifference.
The insurance company for which she had worked set in motion the wheels
that would eventually place in her hands the three thousand dollars for
which Peter had calmly given his life. She hated the money. She wanted to
tell her dad how impossible it was for her to use a cent of it. Yet she
must use it. She must use it as he had directed, because he had died to
open the way for her obedience. She must take Vic, against his violent
young will, she suspected, and she must go to that claim away off there
somewhere in the desert, and she must live in the open--and raise goats!
For there was a certain strain of Peter's simplicity in the nature of his
daughter. His last scrawled advice was to her a command which she must
obey as soon as she could muster the physical energy for obedience.
"What do I know about goats!" she impatiently asked her empty room one
morning after a night of fantastic dreams. "They eat tin cans and paper,
and Masonic candidates ride them, and they stand on high banks and look
silly, and have long chin whiskers and horns worn back from their
foreheads. But as to _raising_ them--what are they good for, for
"Huh? Say, what are you mumbling about?" Vic, it happened, was awake, and
Helen May's door was ajar.
"Oh, nothing." Then the impulse of speech being strong in her, Helen May
pulled on a kimono and went out to where Vic lay curled up in the
blankets on the couch. "We've got to go to New Mexico, Vic, and, live on
that land dad bought the rights to, and raise goats!"
"Yes, we have--not!"
"We have. Dad said so. We've got to do it, Vic. I expect we'd better
start as soon as the insurance is paid, and that ought to be next week.
Malpais is the name of the darned place. Inez Garcia says Malpais means
bad country. I asked her when she was here yesterday. I expect it does,
though you can't tell about Inez. She's tricky about translating stuff;
she thinks it's funny to fake the meaning of things. But I expect it's
true; it sounds like that."
"I should worry," Vic yawned, with the bland triteness of a boy who
speaks mostly in current catch phrases. "I've got a good chance for a
juvenile part in that big five-reeler Walt's going to put on. Fat chance
anybody's got putting _me_ to herding goats! That New Mexico dope got my
number the first time dad sprung it. Not for mine!"
Helen May sat down on the arm of a Mission chair, wrapped her kimono
around her thin figure, and looked at Vic from under her lashes. Besides
raising goats and living out in the open, she was to make a man of Vic.
She did not know which duty appalled her most, or which animal seemed to
her the more intractable.
"We've got to do it," she said simply. "I don't like it either, but that
doesn't matter. Dad planned that way for us."
Vic sat up crossly, groping for the top button of his pajama coat. His
long hair was tousled in front and stood straight up at the back, and his
lids were heavy yet with sleep. He looked very young and very unruly, and
as though several years of grace were still left to Helen May before she
need trouble herself about his manhood.
"Not for mine," he repeated stubbornly. "You can go if you want to, but
I'm going to stay in pictures." No film star in the city could have
surpassed Vic's tone of careless assurance. "Listen! Dad was queer along
towards the last. You know that yourself. And just because he had a nutty
idea of a ranch somewhere, is no reason why we should drop everything--"
"We've got to do it, and you needn't fuss, because you've got to go
along. I expect we can study up--on goats." Her voice shook a little, for
she was close to tears.
"Well, I'm darned if you ain't as nutty as dad was! Of course, he was
old and sick, and there was plenty of excuse for him to slop down along
towards the last. Now, listen! My idea is to get a nifty bungalow out
there handy to the studios, and both of us to go into pictures. We can
get a car; what I want is a speedy, sassy little boat that can _travel_.
Well, and listen. We'll have plenty to live on till we both land in
stock. I've got a good chance right now to work into a comedy company;
they say my grin screens like a million dollars, and when it comes to
making a comedy getaway I'm just geared right, somehow, to pull a laugh.
That college picture we made got me a lot of notice in the projection
room, and I was only doing mob stuff, at that. But I stood out. And
Walt's promised me a fat little bit in this five-reeler. I'll land in
stock before the summer's half over!
"And you can land with some good company if you just make a stab at it.
Your eyes and that trick of looking up under your eyebrows are just the
type for these sob leads, and you've got a good photographic face: a
_good_ face for it," he emphasized generously. "And your figure couldn't
be beat. Believe me, I know. You ought to see some of them Janes--and at
that, they manage to get by with their stuff. A little camera experience,
under a good director that would bring out your good points--I was going
to spring the idea before, but I knew dad wouldn't stand for it."
"But we've got to go and live on that claim. We've _got_ to."
Vic's face purpled. "Say, are you plumb _bugs_? Why--" Vic gulped and
stuttered. "Say, where do you get that stuff? You better tie a can to it,
sis; it don't get over with me. I'm for screen fame, and I'm going to get
it too. Why, by the time I'm twenty, I'll betcha I can pull down a salary
that'll make Charlie Chaplin look like an extra! Why, my grin--"
"Your grin you can use on the goats," Helen May quelled unfeelingly. "I
only hope it won't scare the poor things to death. You needn't argue
about it--as if I was crazy to go! Do you think I want to leave Los
Angeles, and everybody I know, and everything I care about, and go to New
Mexico and live like a savage, and raise goats? I'd rather go to jail, if
you ask me. I hate the very thought of a ranch, Vic Stevenson, and you
know I do. But that doesn't matter a particle. Dad--"
"I told you dad was crazy!" Vic's tone was too violent for grief. His
young ambitions were in jeopardy, and even his dad's death must look
unimportant alongside the greater catastrophe that threatened. "Do you
think, for gosh sake, the whole family's got to be nutty just because he
was sick and got a queer streak?"
"You've no right to say that. Dad--knew what he was doing."
"Aw, where do you get that dope?" Vic eyed her disgustedly, and with a
good deal of condescension. "If you had any sense, you'd knew he was
queer for days before it happened. _I_ noticed it, all right, and if
Helen May did not say anything at all. She got up and went to her room
and came back with Peter's last, pitiful letter. She gave it to Vic and
sat down again on the arm of the Mission chair and waited, looking at him
from, under her lashes, her head tilted forward.
Vic was impressed, impressed to a round-eyed silence. He knew his dad's
handwriting, and he unfolded the sheet and read what Peter had written.
"I found that letter in--his hand--that morning." Helen May tried to
keep her voice steady. "You mustn't tell any one about it, Vic. They
mustn't know. But you see, he--after doing that to get the money for me,
why--you see, Vic, we've _got_ to go there. And we've got to make good.
We've got to."
There must have been a little of Peter's disposition in Vic, too. He
lay for several minutes staring hard at a patch of sunlight on the
farther wall. I suppose when one is fifteen the ambition to be a movie
star dies just as hard as does later the ambition to be president of
the United States.
"You see, don't you, Vic?" Helen May watched him nervously.
"Well, what do you think I am?" Vic turned upon her with a scowl. "You
might have said it was for your health. You wasn't playing fair. You--you
kept saying it was to raise goats!"
STARR WOULD LIKE TO KNOW
Properly speaking Starr did not belong to New Mexico. He was a Texas man,
and, until a certain high official asked him to perform a certain mission
for the Secret Service, he had been a ranger. Puns were made upon his
name when he was Ranger Starr, but he was a ranger no longer, and the
puns had ceased to trouble him. His given name was Chauncy DeWitt;
perhaps that is why even his closest friends called him Starr, it was so
much easier to say, and it seemed to fit him so much better.
Ostensibly, and for a buffer to public curiosity, Starr was acting in the
modest capacity of cattle buyer for a big El Paso meat company.
Incidentally he bought young sheep in season, and chickens from the
Mexican ranchers, and even a bear that had been shot up in the mountains
very early in the spring, before the fat had given place to leanness.
Whatever else Starr did he kept carefully to himself, but his meat buying
was perfectly authentic and satisfactory. And if those who knew his past
record wondered at his occupation, Starr had plenty of reasons for the
change, and plenty of time in which to explain those reasons.
As to his personal appearance, there is not a great deal to say. I'm
afraid Starr would not have attracted any notice in a crowd. He was a
trifle above average height, perhaps, and he had nice eyes whose color
might be a matter of dispute; because they were a bit too dark for gray,
a bit too light for real hazel, with tiny flecks of green in certain
lights. His lashes were almost heavy enough to be called a mark of
beauty, and when he took off his hat, which was not often except at
mealtime and when he slept in a real bed, there was something very
attractive about his forehead and the way his hair grew on his temples.
His mouth was pleasant when his mood was pleasant, but that was not
always. One front tooth had been gold-crowned, which made his smile a
trifle conspicuous, but could not be called a disfigurement. For the
rest, he was tanned to a real desert copper, and riding kept him
healthily lean. But as I said before, you would never pick him out of a
crowd as the hero of this story or of any other.
Like most of us, Starr did not dazzle at the first sight. One must come
into close contact with him to find him different from any other passably
attractive, intelligent man of the open. Oh, if you must have his age, I
think he gave it at thirty-one, the last time he was asked, but he might
have said twenty-five and been believed. He was bashful, and he got on
better with men than he did with women; but if you will stop to think,
most decent men do if they have lived under their hats since they grew to
the long-trouser age. And if they have spent their working days astride a
stock saddle, you may be sure they are bashful unless they are overbold
and impossible. Well, Starr was of the bashful, easily stampeded type. As
to his morals, he smoked and he swore a good deal upon occasion, and he
drank, and he played pool, and now and then a little poker, and he would
lie for a friend any time it was necessary and think nothing of it. Also,
he would fight whenever the occasion seemed to warrant it. He had not
been to church since he wore square collars starched and spread across
his shoulders, and the shine of soap on his cheeks. And a pretty girl
would better not make eyes too boldly if she objected to being kissed,
although Starr had never in his life asked a girl to marry him.
It doesn't sound very promising for a hero. He really was just a human
being and no saint. Saint? You wouldn't think so if you had heard what
he said to his horse, Rabbit, just about an hour before you were
introduced to him.
Rabbit, it seems had been pacing along, half asleep in the blistering
heat of midday, among the cactus and the greasewood and those
depressing, yellowish weeds that pretend to be clothing the desert with
verdure, when they are merely emphasizing its barrenness. Starr had
been half asleep too, riding with one leg over the saddle horn to rest
his muscles, and with his hat brim pulled down over his eyebrows to
shade his eyes from the pitiless glare of New Mexico sunlight. Rabbit
might be depended upon to dodge the prairie dog holes and rocks and
dirt hummocks, day or night, waking or sleeping; and since they were
riding cross-country anyway, miles from a trail, and since they were
headed for water, and Rabbit knew as well as Starr just where it was to
be found, Starr held the reins slack in his thumb and finger and let
the horse alone.
That was all right, up to a certain point. Rabbit was a perfectly
dependable little range horse, and sensible beyond most horses. He was
ambling along at his easy little fox-trot that would carry Starr many a
mile in a day, and he had his eyes half shut against the sun glare, and
his nose almost at a level with his knees. I suppose he was dreaming of
cool pastures or something like that, when a rattlesnake, coiled in the
scant shade of a weed, lifted his tail and buzzed as stridently, as
abruptly as thirteen rattles and a button can buzz.
Rabbit had been bitten once when he was a colt and had gone around with
his head swollen up like a barrel for days. He gave a great, horrified
snort, heaved himself straight up in the air, whirled on his hind feet
and went bucking across the scenery like a rodeo outlaw.
Starr did not accompany him any part of the distance. Starr had gone off
backward and lit on his neck, which I assure you is painful and
disturbing to one's whole physical and moral framework. I'll say this
much for Starr: The first thing he did when he got up was to shoot the
head off the snake, whose tail continued to buzz in a dreary, aimless way
when there was absolutely nothing to buzz about. Snakes are like that.
Starr was a little like that, also. He continued to cuss in a fretful,
objectless way, even after Rabbit had stopped and waited for him with
apology written in the very droop of his ears. When he had remounted, and
the horse had settled again to his straight-backed, shuffling fox-trot,
Starr would frequently think of something else to say upon the subject of
fool horses and snakes and long, dry miles and the interminable desert;
but since none of the things would bear repeating, we will let it go at
that. The point is that Starr was no saint.
He knew of a spring where the water was sweet and cold, and where a
lonesome young fellow lived by himself and was always glad to see some
one ride up to his door. The young fellow was what is called a good
feeder, and might be depended upon to have a pot of frijoles cooked, and
sourdough bread, and stewed fruit of some kind even in his leanest times,
and call himself next door to starvation. And if he happened to be in
funds, there was no telling; Starr, for instance, had eaten canned plum
pudding and potted chicken and maraschino cherries and ginger snaps, all
at one sitting, when he happened to strike the fellow just after selling
a few sheep. Thinking of these things, Starr clucked to Rabbit and told
him for gosh sake to pick his feet off the ground and not to take root
and grow there in the desert like a several-kinds of a so-and-so cactus.
Rabbit twitched back his ears to catch the drift of Starr's remarks,
rattled his teeth in a bored yawn, and shuffled on. Starr laughed.
"Durn it, why is it you never take me serious?" he complained. "I can
name over all the mean things you are, and you just waggle one ear, much
as to say, 'Aw, hell! Same ole tune, and nothing to it but noise.' Some
of these days you're going to get your pedigree read to you--and read
right!" He leaned forward and lovingly lifted Rabbit's mane, holding it
for a minute or two away from the sweaty neck. "Sure's hot out here
to-day, ain't it, pardner?" he murmured, and let the mane fall again into
place. "Kinda fries out the grease, don't it? If young Calvert's got any
hoss-feed in camp, I'm going to beg some off him. Get along, the faster
you go, the quicker you'll get there."
The desert gave place to scattered, brown cobblestones of granite. Rabbit
picked his way carefully among these, setting his feet down daintily in
the interstices of the rocks. He climbed a long slope that proved itself
to be a considerable hill when one looked back at the desert below. The
farther side was more abrupt, and he took it in patient zigzags where the
footing promised some measure of security. At the bottom he turned short
off to the right and made his way briskly along a rough wagon trail that
hugged the hillside.
"Fresh tracks going in--and then out again," Starr announced musingly
to Rabbit. "Maybe young Calvert hired a load of grub brought out; that,
or he's had a visitor in the last day or two--maybe a week back,
though; this dry ground holds tracks a long while. Go on, it's only a
mile or so now."
The trail took a sudden turn toward the bottom of the wide depression as
though it wearied of dodging rocks and preferred the loose sand below. Of
his own accord Rabbit broke into a steady lope, flinging his head
sidewise now and then to discourage the pestiferous gnats that swarmed
about his ears. Starr, also driven to action of some kind, began to fling
his hands in long sweeping gestures past his face. He hoped that the
cabin, being on a higher bit of ground, would be free from the pests.
Bounding a sharp turn, Starr glimpsed the cabin and frowned as something
unfamiliar in its appearance caught his attention. For just a minute he
could not name the change, and then "Curtains at the windows!" he
snorted. "Now, has the dub gone and got married, wonder?" He hoped not,
and his hope was born not so much from sympathy with any woman who must
live in such a place, but from a very humanly, selfish regard for his own
passing comfort. With a woman in the cabin, Starr would not feel so free
to break his journey there with a rest and a meal or two.
He went on, however, sitting passively in the saddle while Rabbit headed
straight for the spring. The bit of white curtain at the one small,
square window facing that way troubled Starr, though it could not turn
him back thirsty into the desert.
It was Rabbit who, ignorant of the significance of that flapping bit of
white, was taken unawares and ducked sidewise when Helen May, standing
precariously on a rock beside the spring, cupped her hands around her
sun-cracked lips and shouted "Vic!" at the top of her voice. She nearly
fell off the rock when she saw the horse and rider so close. They had
come on her from behind, round another sharp nose of the rock-strewn
hillside, so that she did not see them until they had discovered her.
"Oh!" said Helen May quite flatly, dropping her hands from her sunburned
face and looking Starr over with the self-possessed, inquiring eyes of
one who is accustomed to gazing upon strange faces by the thousands.
"How do you do?" said Starr, lifting his hat and foregoing instinctively
the easy "Howdy" of the plains. "Is--Mr. Calvert at home?"
"That depends," said Helen May, "on where he calls home. He isn't
Rabbit, not in the least confused by the presence of a girl in this
out-of-the-way place, pushed forward and thrust his nose deep into the
lower pool of the spring where the water was warmed a little by the sun
on the rocks. Starr could not think of anything much to say, so he sat
leaning forward with a hand on Rabbit's mane, and watched the muscles
working along the neck, when the horse swallowed.
"Oh--would you mind killing that beast down there in that little hollow?"
Helen May had decided that it would be silly to keep on shouting for Vic
when this man was here. "It's what they call a young Gila Monster, I
think. And the bite is said to be fatal. I don't like the way he keeps
looking at me. I believe he's getting ready to jump at me."
Starr glanced quickly at her face, which was perfectly serious and even a
trifle anxious, and then down in the direction indicated by a
broken-nailed, pointing finger. He did not smile, though he felt like it.
He looked again at Helen May.
"It's a horned toad," he informed her gravely. "The one Johnny Calvert
kept around for a pet, I reckon. He won't bite--but I'll kill it if you
say so." He dismounted and picked up a stone, and then looked at her
Helen May eyed the toad askance. "Of course, if it's accustomed to being
a pet--but it looks perfectly diabolical. It--came after me."
"It thought you would feed it, maybe."
"Well, I won't. It can think again," said Helen May positively. "You
needn't kill it, but if you'd chase it off somewhere out of sight--it
gives me shivers. I don't like the way it stares at a person and blinks."
Starr went over and picked up the toad, holding it cupped between his
palms. He carried it a hundred feet away, set it down gently on the
farther side of a rock, and came back. "Lots of folks keep them for
pets," he said. "They're harmless, innocent things."
He washed his hands in the pool where Rabbit had drunk, took the tin
can that had stood on a ledge in the shade when Starr first came to the
spring a year ago, and dipped it full from the inner pool that was
always cool under the rocks. He turned his back to Helen May and drank
satisfyingly. The can was rusted and it leaked a swift succession of
drops that was almost a stream. Helen May decided that she would bring a
white granite cup to the spring and throw the can away. It was
unsanitary, and it leaked frightfully, and it was a disgrace to
"Pretty hot, to-day," Starr observed, when he had emptied the can and put
it back. He turned and pulled the reins up along Rabbit's neck and took
the stirrup in his hand.
"Oh, won't you stop--for lunch? It's a long way to town." Helen May
flushed behind her sunburn, but she felt that the law of the desert
demanded some show of hospitality.
"Thanks, I must be getting on," said Starr, touched his hat brim and
rode away. He had a couple of fried-ham sandwiches in his pocket, and
he ought to make the Medina ranch by two o'clock, he reminded himself
philosophically. A woman on Johnny Calvert's claim was disconcerting.
What was she there for, anyway? From the way she spoke about Johnny,
she couldn't be his wife, or if she were, she had a grudge against
him. She didn't look like the kind of a girl that would marry the
Johnny Calvert kind of a man. Maybe she was just stopping there for a
day or so, with her folks. Still, that white curtain at the window
looked permanent, somehow.
Starr studied the puzzle from all angles. He might have stayed and had
his curiosity satisfied, but it was second nature with Starr to hide any
curiosity he might feel; his riding matter-of-factly away, as though the
girl were a logical part of the place, was not all bashfulness. Partly it
was habit. He wondered who Vic was--man, woman or child? Man, he guessed,
since she was probably calling for help with the horned toad, Starr
grinned when he thought of her naming it a Gila Monster. If she had ever
seen one of those babies! She must certainly be new to the country, if
she didn't even know a horned toad when she saw one! What was she doing
there, anyway? Starr meant to find out. It was his business to find out,
and besides, he wanted to know.
A GREASE SPOT IN THE SAND
Starr, took his cigarette from his lips, sent an oblique glance of mental
measurement towards his host, and shifted his saddle-weary person to a
more comfortable position on the rawhide covered couch. He had eaten his
fill of frijoles and tortillas and a chili stew hot enough to crisp the
tongue. He had discussed the price of sheep and had with much dickering
bought fifty dry ewes at so much on foot delivered at the nearest
shipping point. He had given what news was public talk, of the great war
and the supposedly present whereabouts of Villa, and what was guessed
would happen if Mexican money went any lower.
On his own part, Estancio Medina, called Estan for short, had talked very
freely of these things. Villa, he was a bad one, sure. He would yet make
trouble if some_body_ didn't catch him, yes. For himself, Estan Medina,
he was glad to be on this side the border, yes. The American government
would let a poor man alone, yes. He could have his little home and his
few sheep, and no_body_ would take them away. Villa, he was a bad one!
All Mexicans must sure hate Villa--even the men who did his fighting for
him, yes. Burros, that's what they are. Burros, that have no mind for
thinking, only to do what is tol'. And if troubles come, all Mexicans in
these country should fight for their homes, you bet. All these Mexicans
ought to know what's good for them. They got no business to fight gainst
these American gov'ment, not much, they don't. They come here because
they don't like it no more in Mexico where no poor man can have a home
like here. You bet.
Estan Medina was willing to talk a long while on that subject. His
mother, sitting just inside the doorway, nodded her head now and then and
smiled just as though she knew what her son was saying; proud of his high
learning, she was. He could talk with the Americanos, and they listened
with respect. Their language he could speak, better than they could speak
it themselves. Did she not know? She herself could now and then
understand what he was talking about, he spoke so plainly.
"You've got new neighbors, I see," Starr observed irrelevantly, when
Estan paused to relight his cigarette. "Over at Johnny Calvert's," he
added, when Estan looked at him inquiringly.
"Oh-h, yes! That poor boy and girl! You seen them?"
"I just came from there," Starr informed him easily. "What brought them
away out here?"
"They not tell, then? That man Calvert, he's a bad one, sure! He don'
stay no more--too lazy, I think, to watch his sheeps from the coyotes,
and says they're stole. He comes here telling me I got his sheeps--yes.
We quarrel a little bit, maybe. I don' like to be called thief, you bet.
He's big mouth, that feller--no brains, aitre. Then he goes some_where_,
and he tells what fine rancho he's got in Sunlight Basin. These boy and
girl, they buy. That's too bad. They don' belong on these desert, sure.
W'at they know about hard life? Pretty soon they get tired, I think, and
go back where comes from. That boy--what for help he be to that girl?
Jus' boy--not so old my brother Luis. Can't ride horse; goes up and down,
up an' down like he's back goes through he's hat. What that girl do? Jus'
slim, big-eye girl with soft hand and sickness of lungs. Babes, them boy
and girl. Whan Calvert he should be shot dead for let such inocentes be
fool like that."
"Where is Johnny Calvert?"
"Him? He's gone, sure! Not come back, I bet you! He's got money--them
babes got rancho--" Estan lifted his shoulders eloquently.
"What are they going to do, now they're here?" Starr abstractedly wiped
off the ash collar of his cigarette against the edge of the couch.
"_Quien sabe_?" countered Estan, and lifted his shoulders again. "I think
pretty quick they go."
Starr looked at his watch, yawned, and rose with much evident reluctance.
"Same here," he said. "I've got to make San Bonito in time for that
Eastbound. You have the sheep in the stockyards by Saturday, will you? If
I'm not there myself, I'll leave the money with Johnson at the express
office. Soon as the sheep's inspected, you can go there and get it.
_Addios. Mucho gracias, Senora_."
"She likes you fine--my mother," Estan observed, as the two sauntered to
the corral where Rabbit was stowing away as much _secate_ as he could
against future hunger. "Sometimes you come and stay longer. We not see so
many peoples here. Nobody likes to cross desert when she's hot like this.
Too bad you must go now."
Starr agreed with him and talked the usual small talk of the desert
Places while he placed the saddle on Rabbit's still sweaty back. He went
away down the rocky trail with the sun shining full on his right cheek,
and was presently swallowed up by the blank immensity of the land that
looked level as a floor from a distance, but which was a network of small
ridges and shallow draws and "dry washes" when one came to ride over it.
The trail was narrow and had many inconsequential twists and turns in it,
as though the first man to travel that way had gone blind or dizzy and
could not hold a straight line across the level. When an automobile, for
instance, traveled that road, it was with many skiddings in the sand on
the turns, which it must take circumspectly if the driver did not care
for the rocky, uneven floor of the desert itself.
Just lately some one had actually preferred to make his own trail, if
tracks told anything. Within half a mile of the Medina rancho Starr saw
where an automobile had swerved sharply off the trail and had taken to
the hard-packed sand of a dry arroyo that meandered barrenly off to the
southeast. He turned and examined the trail over which he had traveled,
saw that it offered no more discouragement to an automobile than any
other bit of trail in that part of the country, and with another glance
at the yellow ribbon of road before him, he also swerved to the
For a mile the machine had labored, twisting this way and that to avoid
rocky patches or deep cuts where the spring freshets had dug out the
looser soil. So far as Starr could discover there was nothing to bring a
machine up here. The arroyo was as thousands of other arroyos in that
country. The sides sloped up steeply, or were worn into perpendicular
banks. It led nowhere in particular; it was not a short cut to any place
that he knew of. The trail to Medina's ranch was shorter and smoother,
supposing Medina's ranch were the objective point of the trip.
Starr could not see any sense in it, and that is why he followed the
tortuous track to where the machine had stopped. That it had stood there
for some time he knew by the amount of oil that had leaked down into the
sand. He did not know for certain, since he did not know the oil-leaking
habits of that particular car, but he guessed that it had stood there for
a couple of hours at least before the driver had backed and turned around
to retrace his way to the trail.
In these days of gasoline travel one need not be greatly surprised to
meet a car, or see the traces of one, in almost any out-of-the-way spot
where four wheels can possibly be made to travel. On the other hand, the
man at the wheel is not likely to send his machine over rocks and through
sand where the traction is poor, and across dry ditches and among
greasewood, just for the fun of driving. There is sport with rod or gun
to lure, or there is necessity to impel, or the driver is lost and wants
to reach some point that looks familiar, or he is trying to dodge
something or somebody.
Starr sat beside that grease spot in the sand and smoked a cigarette
and studied the surrounding hills and tried to decide what had brought
the car up here. Not sport, unless it was hunting of jack rabbits; and
there were more jack rabbits out on the flat than here. There was no
trout stream near, at least, none that was not more accessible from
another point. To be sure, some tenderfoot tourist might have been told
some yarn that brought him up here on a wild-goose chase. You can,
thought Starr, expect any fool thing of a tourist. He remembered running
across one that was trying between trains to walk across the mesa from
Albuquerque to the Sandia mountains. It had been hard to convince that
particular specimen that he was not within a mile or so of his goal, and
that he would do well to reach the mountains in another three hours or
so of steady walking. Compared with that, driving a car up this arroyo
did not look so foolish.
But tourists did not invade this particular locality with their
overconfident inexperience, and Starr did not give that explanation much
serious thought. Instead he followed on up the narrowed gulch to higher
ground, to see where men would be most likely to go from there. At the
top he looked out upon further knobs and hollows and aimless
depressions, just as he had expected. Half a mile or so away there
drifted a thin spiral of smoke, from the kitchen stove of the Senora
Medina, he guessed. But there was no other sign of human life anywhere
within the radius of many miles, or, to be explicit, within the field of
He looked for footprints, but in a few minutes he gave up in disgust.
The ridge he stood on stretched for miles, up beyond Medina's home
ranch and down past the Sommers' ranch, five or six miles nearer town,
and on to the railroad. And it was a rocky ridge if ever there was one;
granite outcroppings, cobblestones, boulders, anything but good loose
soil where tracks might be followed. A dog might have followed a trail
there before the scent was baked out by blistering heat; but Starr
certainly could not.
He stood looking across to where the smoke curled up into the intense
Blue of the sky. If a man wanted to reach the Medina ranch by the most
obscure route, he thought, this would be one way to get there. He went
back to where the automobile had stood and searched there for some sign
of those who had ridden this far. But if any man left that machine, he
had stepped from the running board upon rock, and so had left no telltale
print of his foot.
"And that looks mighty darn queer," said Starr, "if it was just
accidental. But if a fellow _wanted_ to take to the rocks to cover his
trail, why, he couldn't pick a better place than this. She's a dandy
ridge and a dandy way to get up on her, if that's what's wanted." Starr
looked at his watch and gave up all hope of catching the next eastbound
train, if that had really been his purpose. He lifted his hat and drew
his fingers across his forehead where the perspiration stood in beads,
resettled the hat at an angle to shade his face from the glare of the
sun, ran two fingers cursorily between the cinch and Rabbit's sweaty
body, picked up the stirrup, thrust in his toe and eased himself up into
the saddle; and his mind had not consciously directed a single movement.
"Well, they've left one mark behind 'em that fair hollers," he stated, in
so satisfied a tone that Rabbit turned his head and looked back at him
inquiringly. Starr, you must know, was not given to satisfied tones when
he and Rabbit were enduring the burden of heat and long miles. "And you
needn't give me that kinda look, neither. Take a look at them tire
tracks, you ole knot-head. Them's Silvertown cords, and they ain't
equipping jitneys with cord tires--not yet. Why, yo're whole carcass
ain't worth the price uh one tire, let alone four, you old sheep. You
show me the car in this country that's sportin' Silvertowns all around,
and I'll show you--"
Just what he would show, Starr did not say, because he did not know. But
there was something there which might be called a mystery, and where
there was mystery there was Starr, working tirelessly on the solution.
This might be a trivial thing; but until he knew beyond all doubt that it
was trivial, Starr pushed other matters, such as a young woman afraid of
a horned toad, out of his mind that he might study the puzzle from all
"DARN SUCH A COUNTRY!"
Helen May stood on the knobby, brown rock pinnacle that formed the head
of Sunlight Basin and stared resentfully out over the baked desert and
the forbidding hills and the occasional grassy hollows that stretched
away and away to the skyline. So clear was the air that every slope,
every hollow, every acarpous hilltop lay pitilessly revealed to her
unfriendly eyes, until the sheer immensity of distance veiled its
barrenness in a haze of tender violet. The sky was blue; deeply,
intensely blue, with little clouds like flakes of bleached cotton
floating aimlessly here and there. In a big, wild, unearthly way it was
beautiful beyond any words which human beings have coined.
Helen May felt its bigness, its wildness, perhaps also its beauty, though
the beauties of the desert land do not always appeal to alien eyes. She
felt its bigness and its wildness; and she who had lived the cramped life
of the town resented both, because she had no previous experience by
which to measure any part of it. Also, she summed up all her resentment
and her complete sense of bafflement at its bigness in one vehement
sentence that lacked only one word of being a curse.
"Darn such a country!" is what she said, gritting the words between
"See anything of 'em?" bellowed Vic from the spring below, where he was
engaged in dipping up water with a tomato can and pouring it over his
head, shivering ecstatically as the cold trickles ran down his neck.
Helen May glanced down at him with no softening of her eyes. Vic had lost
nine goats out of the flock he had been set to herd, and he failed to
manifest any great concern over the loss. On the contrary, he had told
Helen May that he wished he could lose the whole bunch, and that he hoped
coyotes had eaten them up, if they didn't have sense enough to stay with
the rest. There had been a heated argument, and Helen May had not felt
sure of coming out of it a victor.
"No, I didn't, and you'd better get back to work or the rest will be
gone, too," she called down to him petulantly. "It's bad enough to lose
nine, without letting the rest go."
"Aw, 's matter with yuh, anyway?" Vic retorted in a tone he thought would
not reach her ears. "By gosh, you don't want a feller to cool off, even!
By gosh, you'd make a feller _sleep_ with them darned goats if you could
get away with it! Bu-lieve _me_, anybody can have my job that wants it.
'S hot enough to fry eggs in the shade, and she thinks, by hen, that I
oughta stay out there--"
"Yes, I do. And if you want anything to eat to-night, Vic Stevenson, you
get right back there with those goats! They're going over the hill this
minute. Hurry, Vic! For heaven's sake, are you trying to take a _bath_ in
that can? Climb up that ridge and cut across and head them off! That old
Billy's headed for town again--hurry!"
"Aw for gosh sake!" grumbled Vic, stooping reluctantly to pick up the old
hoe-handle he used for a staff. "What ridge?" He paused to thunder up at
her, his voice unexpectedly changing to a shrill falsetto on the last
word, as frequently happens to rob a mancub of his dignity just when he
needs it most.
"That ridge before your face, chump," Helen May informed him crossly. "If
it comes to choosing between goats and a boy, I'll take the goats! And if
there's any spot on the face of the earth worse than this, I'd like to
know where it is. The idea of expecting people to live in such a country!
It looks for all the world like magnified pictures of the moon's surface.
And," she added with a dreary kind of vindictiveness, "it's here, and I'm
here. I can't get away from it--that's the dickens of it." Then, because
Helen May had a certain impish sense of humor, she sat down and laughed
at the incongruity of it all. "Me--me, here in the desert trying to
raise goats! Can you beat that?"
She watched Vic toiling up the ridge, using the hoe-handle with a slavish
dependence upon its support that tickled Helen May again. "You'd think,"
she told the scenery for want of other companionship, "you'd think Vic
was seventy-nine years old at the very least. Makes a difference whether
he's after a bunch of tame goats or hiking with a bunch of boy scouts to
the top of Mount Wilson! I don't believe that kid ever did wear his legs
out having fun, and it's a sure thing he'll never wear them out working!
Say goats to him and he actually gets round-shouldered and limps."
Vic disappeared over the ridge beyond the spring. Lower down, where the
ridge merged into the Basin itself, the big curly-horned Billy that had
cost Helen May more than any half dozen of his followers stepped out
briskly at the head of the band. Helen May wondered what new depravity
was in his mind, and whether Vic would cross the gully he was in and
confront Billy in time to change the one idea that seemed always to
possess that animal.
Helen May did not know how vitally important it is to have a good dog at
such work. She did not know that Billy and his band felt exactly like
boys who have successfully eluded a too lax teacher, and that they would
have yielded without argument to the bark of a trained sheep dog. She had
set Vic a harder task than she realized; a task from which any
experienced herder would have shrunk. In her ignorance she blamed Vic,
and called him lazy and careless and a few other sisterly epithets which
he did not altogether deserve.
She watched now, impatient because he was so long in crossing the gully;
telling herself that he was trying to see how slow he could be, and that
he did it just to be disagreeable and to irritate her--as if she were
there of her own desire, and had bought those two hundred miserable
goats to spite him. Harmony, as you must see, did not always dwell in
Eventually Vic toiled up the far side of the gully, which was deep and as
hot as an oven, and followed it down within rock-throwing distance of the
goats. A well-aimed pebble struck Billy on the curve of one horn and
halted him, the band huddling vacant-eyed behind him. Vic aimed and threw
another, and Billy, turning his whiskered face upward, stared with
resentful head-tossings and a defiant blat or two before he swerved back
into the Basin, his band and Vic plodding after.
"Well, for a wonder!" Helen May ejaculated ungraciously, grudging Vic
the small tribute of praise that was due him. But she was immediately
ashamed of that, and told herself that it was pretty hard on the poor
kid, and that after all he must hate the country worse than she did,
even, which would certainly mean a good deal; and that she supposed he
missed his boy chums just as much as she missed her friends, and found it
just as hard to fit himself comfortably into a life for which he had no
liking. Besides, it wasn't his health that had shunted them both out here
into the desert, and she ought to be ashamed of herself for treating him
the way she did.
After that she decided that it was her business to find the nine goats
that were lost. Vic certainly could not do both at once; and deep down in
her heart Helen May knew that she was terribly afraid of Billy and would
rather trudge the desert for hours under the hot sun than stay in the
Basin watching the main flock. She wished that she could afford to hire a
herder, but she shrunk from the expense. It seemed to her that she and
Vic should be able to herd that one band, especially since there was
nothing else for them to do out there except cook food and eat it.
Speaking of food, it seemed to take an enormous quantity to satisfy the
hunger of two persons. Helen May was appalled at the insatiable appetite
of Vic, who seemed never to have enough in his stomach. As for
herself--well, she recalled the meal she had just eaten, and wondered how
it could be possible for hunger to seize upon her so soon again. But even
so, food could not occupy all of their time, and a two-room cabin does
not take much keeping in order. They would simply be throwing away money
if they hired a herder, and yet, how they both did loathe those goats!
She climbed back down the pinnacle, watching nervously for snakes and
lizards and horned toads and such denizens of the desert. With a
certain instinct for preparing against the worst, she took a two-quart
canteen, such as soldiers carry, to the spring, and filled it and slung
it over her shoulder. She went to the cabin and made a couple of
sandwiches, and because she was not altogether inhuman she cut two
thick slices of bread, spread them lavishly with jam, and carried them
to Vic as a peace offering.
"I'm going to hunt those nasty brutes, Vic," she cried from a safe
distance. "Come here and get this jam sandwich, and lend me that stick
you've got. And if I don't get back by five, you start a fire."
"Where you going to look? If you couldn't see 'em from up there, I don't
see the use of hunting." Vic was taking long steps towards the sandwich,
and he stretched his sunburned face in that grin which might have made
him famous in comedy had fate not set him down before his present ignoble
task. "Yuh don't want to go far," he advised her perfunctorily. "We ought
to have a couple of saddle horses. Why don't yuh--"
"What would we feed them on? Besides we've got to save what money we've
got, Vic. We can walk till these insects grow wool enough to pay for
something to ride on."
"Hair, you mean. I can get a gentle horse from that Mexican kid, Luis. He
good as offered us the one--that I borrowed--" Vic was giving too much
attention to the jam sandwich to argue very coherently.
"There's that old Billy starting off again; you watch him, Vic. Don't let
him get a start, or goodness knows where he'll head for next. We can't
keep a horse, I tell you. We need all this grass for the goats."
"Oh, darn the goats!"
In her heart Helen May quite agreed with the sentiment, but she could not
consistently betray that fact to Vic. She therefore turned her back upon
him, walking down the trail that led out of the Basin to the main trail a
mile away, the trail which was the link connecting them with civilization
of a sort.
Here passed the depressed, dust-covered stage three times a week. Here,
in a macaroni box mounted on a post, they received and posted their
mail. Helen May had indulged herself in a subscription to the Los
Angeles daily paper that had always been left at their door every
morning, the paper which Peter had read hastily over his morning mush.
Every paper brought a pang of homesickness for the flower-decked city of
her birth, but she felt as though she could not have kept her sanity
without it. The full-page bargain ads she read hungrily. The weekly
announcements of the movie shows, the news, the want columns--these were
at once her solace and her torment; and if you have ever been exiled,
you know what that means.
Here, too, she left her shopping list and money for the stage driver, who
bought what she needed and left the goods at the foot of the post, and
what money remained in a buckskin bag in the macaroni box.
An obliging stage driver was he, a tobacco chewing, red-faced,
red-whiskered stage driver who nagged at his four horses incessantly and
never was known to beat one of them; a garrulous, soft-hearted stage
driver who understood very well how lonely these two young folks must be,
and who therefore had some moth-eaten joke ready for whoever might be
waiting for him at the macaroni box. Whenever Helen May apologized for
the favor she must ask of him--which was every time she handed him a
list--the stage driver invariably a nasal kind of snort, spat far out
over the wheel, and declared pettishly:
"It ain't a mite uh trouble in the world. That's what I'm _fur_--to help
folks out along my rowt. Don't you worry a mite about that." Often as he
said it, he yet gave it the tone of sincerity and of convincing
freshness, as though he had never before given the matter a thought.
Helen May did not know what she would have done without that stage driver
to bridge the gulf between Sunlight Basin and the world.
But this was not stage day. That is to say, the stage had passed to the
far side of its orbit, and would not return until to-morrow. From San
Bonito it swung in a day-long journey across the desert to Malpais,
thence by a different route to San Bonito again, so that Helen May never
saw it returning whence it had come.
A cloud of desert dust always heralded its approach from the east.
Sometimes after the first dust signal, it took him nearly an hour to top
the low ridge which was really one rim of the Basin. Then Helen May would
know that he carried passengers or freight that straightened the backs of
the straining four horses in the long stretch of sand beyond the ridge
and made their progress slow.
But to-day there was no dust signal, and the macaroni box was but a
dismal reminder of her exile. The world was very far away, behind the
violet rim of mountains, and she was just a speck in the desert. Her high
laced boots were heavy, and the dust settled in the creases around her
slim ankles, that could be perfectly fascinating in silken hose and
dainty slippers. Her khaki skirt, of the divided kind much affected by
tourists, had lost two big, pearl buttons, and she had no others to
replace them. Her shirt-waist had its collar turned inside for coolness,
and the hollow of her neck was sun-blistered and beginning to peel. Also
her nose and her neck at the sides were showing a disposition to grow new
skin for old. So much had the desert sun done for her.
But there was something else which the desert had done, something which
Helen May did not fully realize. It had put a clear, steady look into her
eyes in place of the glassy shine of fever. It was beginning to fill out
that hollow in her neck, so that it no longer showed the angular ends of
her collar bones. It had put a resilient quality into her walk, firmness
into the poise of her head. It had made it physically possible, for
instance, for Helen May to trudge out into the wild to hunt nine goats
that had strayed from the main band.
Though she did not know it, a certain dream of Peter's had very nearly
come true. For here were the vast plains, unpeopled, pure, immutable in
their magnificent calm. At night the stars seemed to come down and hang
just over Helen May's head. There was the little cottage of which Peter
had dreamed--only Helen May called it a miserable little shack--hunched
against a hill; sometimes a light winked through the window at the stars;
sometimes Helen May was startled at the nearness and the shrill
insistence of the coyotes. Here as Peter had dreamed so longingly and so
hopelessly, were distance and quiet and calm. And here was Helen May
coming through the sunlight--Peter never dreamed how hot it would
be!--with her deep-gold hair tousled in the wind and with the little red
spots gone from her cheeks and with health in her eyes that were the
color of ripe chestnuts. When her skin had adjusted itself to the rigors
of the climate, she would no doubt have freckles on her nose, just as
Peter had dreamed she might have. And if she were walking, instead of
riding the gentle-eyed pony which Peter had pictured, that was not
Peter's fault, nor the fault of the dream. There was no laugh on her
lips, however. Dreams are always pulling a veil of idealism over the face
of reality, and so Helen May's face was not happy, as Peter had dreamed
it might be, but petulant and grimly determined; her ripe-red lips were
moving in anathemas directed at nine detested goats.
Peter could never have dreamed just that, but all the same it is a pity
that, in order to make the dream a reality, Peter had been forced to deny
himself the joy of seeing Helen May growing strong in "Arizona, New
Mexico, or Colorado." It would have made the price he paid seem less
terrible, less tragic.
MOONLIGHT, A MAN AND A SONG
Just out from the entrance to a deep, broad-bottomed arroyo where an
automobile had been, Starr came upon something that surprised him very
much, and it was not at all easy to surprise Starr. Here, in the first
glory of a flaming sunset that turned the desert to a sea of unearthly,
opal-tinted beauty, he came upon Helen May, trudging painfully along with
an old hoe-handle for a staff, and driving nine reluctant nanny goats
that alternately trotted and stood still to stare at the girl with
foolish, amber-colored eyes.
Starr was trained to long desert distances, but his training had made it
second nature to consider a horse the logical means of covering those
distances. To find Helen May away out here, eight miles and more from
Sunlight Basin, and to find her walking, shocked Starr unspeakably;
shocked him out of his shyness and into free speech with her, as though
he had known her a long while.
"Y' _lost_?" was his first greeting, while he instinctively swung Rabbit
to head off a goat that suddenly "broke back" from the others.
Helen May looked up at him with relief struggling through the apathy of
utter weariness. "No, but I might as well be. I'll never be able to get
home alive, anyhow." She shook the hoe-handle menacingly at a hesitating
goat and quite suddenly collapsed upon the nearest rock, and began to
cry; not sentimentally or weakly or in any other feminine manner known to
Starr, but with an angry recklessness that was like opening a safety
valve. Helen May herself did not understand why she should go along for
half a day calmly enough, and then, the minute this man rode up and spoke
to her sympathetically, she should want to sit down and cry.
"I just--I've been walking since one o'clock! If I had a gun, I'd shoot
every one of them. I just--I think goats are simply _damnable_ things!"
Starr turned and looked at the animals disapprovingly. "They sure are,"
he assented comfortingly. "Where you trying to take 'em--or ain't you?"
he asked, with the confidence-inviting tone that made him so valuable to
those who paid for his services.
"Home, if you can call it that!" Helen May found her handkerchief and
proceeded to wipe the tears and the dust off her cheeks. She looked at
Starr more attentively than at first when he had been just a human being
who seemed friendly. "Oh, you're the man that stopped at the spring.
Well, you know where I live, then. I was hunting these; they wandered off
and Vic couldn't find them yesterday, so I--it was just accident that I
came across them. I followed some tracks, and it looked to me as if
they'd been driven off. There were horse tracks. That's what made me keep
going--I was so mad. And now they won't go home or anywhere else. They
just want to run around every which way."
Starr looked up the arroyo, hesitating. On the edge of San Bonito he had
picked up the track of Silvertown cord tires, and he had followed it to
the mouth of this arroyo. From certain signs easy for an experienced man
to read, he had known the track was fairly fresh, fresh enough to make it
worth his while to follow. And now here was a girl all tired out and a
long way from home.
"Here, you climb onto Rabbit. He's gentle when he knows it's all right,
and I won't stand for him acting up." Starr swung off beside her. "I'll
help get the goats home. Where's your dog?"
"I haven't any dog. The man we bought the goats from wanted to sell me
one, to help herd them, he said. But he asked twenty-five dollars for
it--I suppose he thought because I looked green I'd stand for that!--and
I wouldn't be held up that way. Vic and I have nothing to do but watch
them. You--you mustn't bother," she added half-heartedly. "I can get them
home all right. I'm rested now, and there's a moon, you know. Really, I
can't let you bother about it. I know the way."
"Put your foot in the stirrup and climb on. You, Rabbit, you stand still,
or I'll beat the--"
"Really, you mustn't think, because I cried a little bit--"
"Pile on to him now, while I hold him still. Or shall I pick you up and
_put_ you on?" Starr smiled while he said it, but there was a look in his
eyes and around his mouth that made Helen May yield suddenly.
By her awkwardness Starr and Rabbit both knew that she had probably never
before attempted to mount a horse. By the set of her lips Starr knew that
she was afraid, but that she would break her neck before she would
confess her fear. He liked her for that, and he was glad to see that
Rabbit understood the case and drew upon his reserve of patience and good
nature, standing like a rock until Helen May was settled in the saddle
and Starr had turned the stirrups on their sides in the leather so that
they would come nearer being the right length for her. Starr's hand
sliding affectionately up Rabbit's neck and resting a moment on his jaw
was all the assurance Rabbit needed that everything was all right.
"Now, just leave the reins loose, and let Rabbit come along to please
himself," Starr instructed her quietly. "He'll follow me, and he'll pick
his own trail. You don't have to do a thing but sit there and take it
easy. He'll do the rest."
Helen May looked at him doubtfully, but she did not say anything. She
braced herself in the stirrups, took a firm grip of the saddlehorn with
one hand, and waited for what might befall. She had no fear of Starr, no
further uneasiness over the coming night, the loneliness, the goats, or
anything else. She felt as irresponsible, as safe, as any sheltered woman
in her own home. I did not say she felt serene; she did not know yet how
the horse would perform; but she seemed to lay that responsibility also
on Starr's capable shoulders.
They moved off quietly enough, Starr afoot and driving the goats, Rabbit
picking his way after him in leisurely fashion. So they crossed the
arroyo mouth and climbed the ragged lip of its western side and traveled
straight toward the flaming eye of the sun that seemed now to have winked
itself nearly shut. The goats for some inexplicable reason showed no
further disposition to go in nine different directions at once. Helen
May relaxed from her stiff-muscled posture and began to experiment a
little with the reins.
"Why, he steers easier than an automobile!" she exclaimed suddenly. "You
just think which way you want to go, almost, and he does it. And you
don't have to pull the lines the least bit, do you?"
Starr delayed his answer until he had made sure that she was not
irritating Rabbit with a too-officious guidance. When he saw that she
was holding the reins loosely as he had told her to do, and was merely
laying the weight of a rein on one side of the neck and then on the
other, he smiled.
"I guess you've rode before," he hazarded. "The way you neck-rein--"
"No, honest. But my chum's brother had a big six, and Sundays he used to
let me fuss with it, away out where the road was clear. It steered just
like this horse; just as easy, I mean. I--why, see! I just _wondered_ if
he'd go to the right of that bush, and he turned that way just as if I'd
told him to. Can you beat that?"
Starr did not say. Naturally, since she was a girl, and pretty, and since
he was human, he was busy wondering what her chum's brother was like. He
picked up a small rock and shied it at a goat that was not doing a thing
that it shouldn't do, and felt better. He remembered then that at any
rate her chum's brother was a long way off, and that he himself had
nothing much to complain of right now. Then Helen May spoke again and
shifted his thoughts to another subject.
"I believe I'd rather have a horse like this," she said, "than own that
big, lovely take-me-to-glory car that was pathfinding around like a
million dollars, a little while ago. I'll own up now that I was weeping
partly because four great big porky men could ride around on cushions a
foot thick, while a perfectly nice girl had to plough through the sand
afoot. The way they skidded past me and buried me in a cloud of dust made
me mad enough to throw rocks after them. Pigs! They never even stopped to
ask if I wanted a ride or anything. They all glared at me through their
goggles as if I hadn't any business walking on their desert."
"Did you know them?" Starr came and walked beside her, glancing
frequently at her face.
"No, of course I didn't. I don't know anybody but the stage driver. I
wouldn't have ridden with them, anyway. From what I saw of them they
looked like Mexicans. But you'd think they might have shown some
interest, wouldn't you?"
"I sure would," Starr stated with emphasis. "What kinda car was it, did
you notice? Maybe I know who they are."
"Oh, it was a great big black car. They went by so fast and I was so
tired and hot and--and pretty near swearing mad, I didn't notice the
number at all. And they were glaring at me, and I was glaring at them,
and then the driver stepped on the accelerator just at a little crook in
the road, and the hind wheels skidded about a ton of sand into my face
and they were gone, like they were running from a speed cop. I'd much
rather have a nice little automatic pony like this one," she added
feelingly. "You don't have to bundle yourself up in dusters and goggles
and things when you take a ride, do you? It--it makes the bigness of the
country, and the barrenness of it, somehow fit together and take you into
the pattern, when you ride a horse over it, don't you think?"
"I guess so," Starr assented, with an odd little slurring accent on the
last word which gave the trite sentence an individual touch that
appealed to Helen May. "It don't seem natural, somehow, to walk in a
country like this."
"Oh, and you've got to, while I ride your horse! Or, have you got to? Is
it just movie stuff, where a man rides behind on a horse, and lets the
girl ride in front? I mean, is it feasible, or just a stunt for
"Depends on the horse," Starr evaded. "It's got the say-so, mostly,
whether it'll pack one person or two. Rabbit will, and when I get tired
walking, I'll ride."
"Oh, that makes it better. I wasn't feeling comfortable riding, but men
are so queer about thinking they must give a woman all the choice bits of
comfort, and a woman has to give in or row about it. If you'll climb up
and ride when you feel like it, I'll just settle down and enjoy myself."
Settling down and enjoying herself seemed to consist of gazing out over
the desert and the hills and up at the sky that was showing the deep
purple of dusk. It was what Starr wanted most of all, just then, for it
left him free to study what she had told him of the big black automobile
with four coated and goggled men who had looked like Mexicans; four men
who had glared at her and then had speeded up to get away from her
For the first time since she had seen it from the spring seat of a
jolting wagon from the one livery stable in Malpais, Helen May discovered
that this wild, strange land was beautiful. For the first time she
gloried in its bigness and its wildness, and did not resent its
barrenness. The little brown birds that fluttered close to the ground and
cheeped wistfully to one another in the dusk gave her an odd, sweet
thrill of companionship. Jack rabbits sitting up on their hind legs for
a brief scrutiny before they scurried away made her laugh to herself. The
reddened clouds that rimmed the purple were the radiant shores of a
wonderful, bottomless sea, where the stars were the mast lights on ships
hull down in the distance. She lifted her chest and drew in long breaths
of clean, sweet air that is like no other air, and she remembered all at
once that she had not coughed since daylight. She breathed again, deep
and long, and felt that she was drawing some wonderful, healing ether
into her lungs.
She looked at Starr, walking steadily along before her, swinging the
hoe-handle lightly in his right hand, setting his feet down in the
smoothest spots always and leaving nearly always a clear imprint of his
foot in the sandy soil. There was a certain fascination in watching the
lines of footprints he left behind him. She would know those footprints
anywhere, she told herself. Small for a man, they were, and well-shaped,
with the toes pointing out the least little bit, and with no blurring
drag when he lifted his feet. She did not know that Starr wore riding
boots made to his measure and costing close to twenty dollars a pair; if
she had she would not have wondered at the fine shape of them, or at the
individuality of the imprint they made. She conceived the belief that
Rabbit knew those footprints also. She amused herself by watching how
carefully the horse followed wherever they led. If Starr stepped to the
right to avoid a rock, Rabbit stepped to the right to avoid that rock;
never to the left, though the way might be as smooth and open. If Starr
crossed a gully at a certain place, Rabbit followed scrupulously the
tracks he made. Helen May considered that this little gray horse showed
really human intelligence.
She realized the deepening dusk only when Starr's form grew vague and
she could no longer see the prints his boots made. They were nearing the
brown, lumpy ridge which hid Sunlight Basin from the plain, but Helen
May was not particularly eager to reach it. For the first time she
forgot the gnawing heart-hunger of homesickness, and was content with
her present surroundings; content even with the goats that trotted
submisively ahead of Starr.
When a soft radiance drifted into the darkness and made it a luminous,
thin veil, Helen May gave a little cry and looked back. Since her hands
moved with the swing of her shoulders, Rabbit turned sharply and faced
the way she was looking, startled, displeased, but obedient. Starr
stopped abruptly and turned back, coming close up beside her.
"What's wrong?" he asked in an undertone. "See anything?"
"The moon," Helen May gave a hushed little laugh. "I'd
forgotten--forgotten I was alive, almost. I was just soaking in the
beauty of it through every pore. And then it got dark so I couldn't see
your footprints any more, and then such a queer, beautiful look came on
everything. I turned to look, and this little automatic pony turned to
look, too. But--isn't it wonderful? Everything, I mean. Just
everything--the whole world and the stars and the sky--"
Starr lifted an arm and laid it over Rabbit's neck, fingering the
silver-white mane absently. It brought him quite close to Helen May, so
that she could have put her hand on his shoulder.
"Yes. It's wonderful--when it ain't terrible," he said, his voice low.
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