Starr, of the Desert
B. M Bower
Part 2 out of 4
After a silent minute she answered him, in the hushed tone that seemed
most in harmony with the tremendous sweep of sky and that great stretch
of plain and bare mountain. "I see what you mean. It is terrible even
when it's most wonderful. But one little human alone with it would be--"
"Sh-sh." he whispered. "Listen a minute. Did you ever _hear_ a big
silence like this?"
"No," she breathed eagerly. "Sh-sh--"
At first there was nothing save the whisper of a breeze that stirred the
greasewood and then was still. Full in their faces the moon swung clear
of the mountains behind San Bonito and hung there, a luminous yellow ball
in the deep, star-sprinkled purple. Across the desert it flung a faint,
straight pathway in the sand. Rabbit gave a long sigh, turned his head to
look back at his master, and then stood motionless again. Far on a
hilltop a coyote pointed his nose to the moon and yap-yap-yapped, with a
shrill, long-drawn tremolo wail that made the girl catch her breath.
Behind them the nine goats moved closer together and huddled afraid
beside a clump of bushes. The little breeze whispered again. A night bird
called in a hurried, frightened way, and upon the last notes came the
eerie cry of a little night owl.
The girl's face was uplifted, delicately lighted by the moon. Her eyes
shone dark with those fluttering, sweet wraiths of thoughts which we may
not prison in speech, which words only deaden and crush into vapid
sentimentalism. Life, held in a great unutterable calm, seemed to lie out
there in the radiant, vague distance, asleep and smiling cryptically
while it slept.
Her eyes turned to Starr, whose name she did not know; who had twice come
riding out of the distance to do her some slight service before he rode
on into the distance that seemed so vast. Who was he? What petty round of
duties and pleasures made up his daily, intimate life? She did not know.
She did not feel the need of knowing.
Standing there with his thin face turned to the moon so that she saw,
clean-cut against the night, his strong profile; with one arm thrown
across the neck of his horse and his big hat tilted back so that she
could see the heavy, brown hair that framed his fine forehead; with the
look of a dreamer in his eyes and the wistfulness of the lonely on his
lips, all at once he seemed to be a part of the desert and its mysteries.
She could picture him living alone somewhere in its wild fastness, aloof
from the little things of life. He seemed to epitomize vividly the
meaning of a song she had often sung unmeaningly:
"From the desert I come to thee,
On my Arab shod with fire;
And the winds are left behind
In the speed of my desire."
While she looked--while the words of that old _Bedouin Love Song_
thrummed through her memory, quite suddenly Starr began to sing, taking
up the song where her memory had brought her:
"Till the sun grows cold,
And the stars are old,
And the leaves of the Judgment Book unfold!"
Softly he sang, as though he had forgotten that she was there. Softly,
but with a resonant, vibrating quality that made the words alive and
quivering with meaning.
Helen May caught her breath. How did he know she was thinking that song?
How did he chance to take it up just at the point where her memory had
carried it? Had he read her mind? She stared at him, her lips parted;
wondering, a little awed, but listening and thrilling to the human
sweetness of his tones. And when he had sung the last yearning note of
primitive desire, Starr turned his head and looked into her eyes.
Helen May felt as though he had taken her in his arms and kissed her
lingeringly. Yet he had not moved except to turn his face toward her. She
could not look away, could not even try to pull her eyes from his. It was
as though she yielded. She felt suffocated, though her breath came
quickly, a little unevenly.
Starr looked away, across the desert where the moon lighted it whitely.
It was as though he had released her. She felt flustered, disconcerted.
She could not understand herself or him, or the primary forces that had
moved them both. And why had he sung that _Bedouin Love Song_ just as she
was thinking it as something that explained him and identified him? It
was mysterious as the desert itself lying there so quiet under the moon.
It was weird as the cry of the coyote. It was uncanny as spirit rappings.
But she could not feel any resentment; only a thrill that was part
pleasure and part pain. She wondered if he had felt the same; if he knew.
But she could not bring herself to face even the thought of asking him.
It was like the night silence around them: speech would dwarf and cheapen
Rabbit lifted his head again, perking his ears forward toward a new sound
that had nothing weird or mysterious about it; a sound that was
essentially earthly, material, modern, the distant purr of a high-powered
automobile on the trail away to their right. Starr turned his face that
way, listening as the horse listened. It seemed to Helen May as though he
had become again earthy and material and modern, with the desert love
song but the fading memory of a dream. He listened, and she received the
impression that something more than idle curiosity held him intent upon
The purring persisted, lessened, grew louder again. Starr still looked
that way, listening intently. The machine swept nearer, so that the clear
night air carried the sounds distinctly to where they stood. Starr even
caught the humming of the rear gears and knew that only now and then does
a machine have that peculiar, droning hum; Starr studied it, tried to
impress the sound upon his memory.
The trail looped around the head of a sandy draw and wound over the crest
of a low ridge before it straightened out for a three-mile level run in
the direction of San Bonito, miles away. In walking, Starr had cut
straight across that gully and the loop, so that they had crossed the
trail twice in their journey thus far, and were still within half a mile
of the head of the loop. They should have been able to see the lights, or
at least the reflection of them on the ridge when they came to the draw.
But there was no bright path on sky or earth.
They heard the car ease down the hill, heard the grind of the gears as
the driver shifted to the intermediate for the climb that came after.
They heard the chug of the engine taking the steep grade. Then they
should have caught the white glare of the headlights as the car topped
the ridge. Starr knew that nothing obstructed the view, that in daylight
they could have seen the yellow-brown ribbon of trail where it curved
over the ridge. The machine was coming directly toward them for a short
distance, but there was no light whatever. Starr knew then that whoever
they were, they were running without lights.
"Well, I guess we'd better be ambling along," he said casually, when the
automobile had purred its way beyond hearing. "It's three or four miles
yet, and you're tired."
"Not so much." Helen May's voice was a little lower than usual, but that
was the only sign she gave of any recent deep emotion. "I'd as soon walk
awhile and let you ride." She shrank now from the thought of both riding.
"When you've ridden as far as I have," said Starr, "you'll know it's a
rest to get down and travel afoot for a few miles." He might have added
that it would have been a rest had he not been hampered by those
high-heeled riding boots, but consideration for her mental ease did not
permit him to mention it. He said no more, but started the goats ahead of
him and kept them moving in a straight line for Sunlight Basin. As
before, Rabbit followed slavishly in his footsteps, nose dropped to the
angle of placid acceptance, ears twitching forward and back so that he
would lose no slightest sound.
Helen May fell again under the spell of the desert and the moon. Starr,
walking steadily through the white-lighted barrenness with his shadow
always moving like a ghost before him, fitted once more into the desert.
Again she repeated mentally the words of the song:
Let the night-winds touch thy brow
With the breath of my burning sigh,
And melt thee to hear the vow
Of a love that shall not die!
Till the sun grows cold,
And the stars are old,
And the leaves of the Judgment Book unfold!
And now the lines sung themselves through her brain with the memory of
Starr's voice. But Starr did not sing again, though Helen May, curious to
know if her thoughts held any power over him, gazed intently at his back
and willed him to sing. He did not look back at her, even when she
finally descended weakly to the more direct influence of humming the air
softly--but not too softly for him to hear.
Starr paid no attention whatever. He seemed to be thinking deeply--but he
did not seem to be thinking of Helen May, nor of desert love songs. Helen
May continued to watch him, but she was piqued at his calm indifference.
Why, she told herself petulantly, he paid more attention to those goats
than he did to her--and one would think, after that song and that
look.... But there she stopped, precipitately retreating from the thought
of that look.
He was a queer fellow, she told herself with careful tolerance and a
little condescension. A true product of the desert; as changeable and as
sphynxlike and as impossible from any personal, human standpoint. Look
how beautiful the desert could be, how terribly uplifting and calm
and--and big. Yet to-morrow it might be either a burning waste of heat
and sand and bare rock, or it might be a howling waste of wind and sand
(if one of those sand storms came up). To herself she called him the Man
of the Desert, and she added the word mysterious, and she also added two
lines of the song because they fitted exactly her conception of him as
she knew him. The lines were these:
From the desert I come to thee,
On my Arab shod with fire.
This, in spite of the fact that Rabbit had none of the fiery traits of an
Arabian steed; nor could he by any stretch of the imagination be accused
of being shod with fire, he who planted his hoofs so sedately! Shod with
velvet would have come nearer describing him.
So Helen May, who was something of a dreamer when Life let her alone long
enough, rode home through the moonlight and wove cloth-of-gold from the
magic of the night, and with the fairy fabric she clothed Starr--who was,
as we know, just an ordinary human being--so that he walked before her,
not as a plain, ungrammatical, sometimes profane young man who was
helping her home with her goats, but a mysterious, romantic figure
evolved somehow out of the vastness in which she lived; who would
presently recede again into the mysterious wild whence he had come.
It was foolish. She knew that it was foolish. But she had been living
rather harshly and rather materially for some time, and she hungered for
the romance of youth. Starr was the only person who had come to her
untagged by the sordid, everyday petty details of life. It did not hurt
him to be idealized, but it might have hurt Helen May a little to know
that he was pondering so earthly a subject as a big, black automobile
careering without lights across the desert and carrying four men who
looked like Mexicans.
HOLMAN SOMMEKS, SCIENTIST
Helen May, under a last year's parasol of pink silk from which the sun
had drawn much of its pinkness and the wind and dust its freshness, sat
beside the road with her back against the post that held the macaroni
box, and waited for the stage. Her face did not need the pink light of
the parasol, for it was red enough after that broiling walk of yesterday.
The desert did not look so romantic by the garish light of midday, but
she stared out over it and saw, as with eyes newly opened to
appreciation, that there was a certain charm even in its garishness. She
had lost a good deal of moodiness and a good deal of discontent,
somewhere along the moonlight trail of last night, and she hummed a tune
while she waited. No need to tell you that it was: "_Till the sun grows
cold, till the stars are old_--" No need to tell you, either, of whom she
was thinking while she sang.
But part of the time she was wondering what mail she would get. Her chum
would write, of course; being a good, faithful chum, she would probably
continue to write two or three letters a week for the next three months.
After that she would drop to one long letter a month for awhile; and
after that--well, she was a faithful chum, but life persists in bearing
one past the eddy that holds friendship circling round and round in a
pool of memories. The chum's brother had written twice, however;
exuberant letters full of current comedy and full-blooded cheerfulness
and safely vague sentiment which he had partly felt at the time he wrote.
He had "joshed" Helen May a good deal about the goats, even to the extent
of addressing her as "Dear Goat-Lady" in the last letter, with the word
"Lady" underscored and scrawled the whole width of the page. Helen May
had puzzled over the obscure meaning of that, and had decided that it
would have sounded funny, perhaps, if he had said it that way, but that
it "didn't get over" on paper.
She wondered if he would write again, or if his correspondence would
prove as spasmodic, as easily interrupted as his attentions had been when
they were both in the same town. Chum's brother was a nice, big, comfy
kind of young man; the trouble was that he was too popular to give all
his interest to one girl. You know how it is when a man stands six feet
tall and has wavy hair and a misleading smile and a great, big,
deep-cushioned roadster built for two. Helen May appreciated his writing
two letters to her, he who hated so to write letters, but her faith in
the future was small. Still, he might write. It seemed worth while to
wait for the stage.
Just when she was telling herself that the stage was late, far over the
ridge rose the dust signal. Her pulse quickened expectantly; so much had
loneliness done for her. She watched it, and she tried not to admit to
herself that it did not look like the cloud kicked up by the four
trotting stage horses. She tried not to believe that the cloud was much
too small to have been made by their clattering progress. It must be the
stage. It was past time for it to arrive at the post. And it had not gone
by, for she had sent for a can of baking powder and a dozen lemons and
fifty cents worth of canned milk (the delicatessen habit of buying in
small quantities still hampered her) and, even if the stage had passed
earlier than usual, the stuff would have been left at the post for her,
even though there was no mail. But it could not have passed. She would
have seen the dust, that always hung low over the trail like the drooping
tail of a comet, and when the day was still took half an hour at least to
settle again for the next passer-by. And besides, she had come to know
the tracks the stage left in the trail. It _could not_ have passed. And
it had to come; it carried the government mail. And yet, that dust did
not look like the stage dust. (Trivial worries, you say? Then try living
forty miles from a post office, ten from the nearest neighbor, and
fifteen hundred from your dearly beloved Home Town. Try living there, not
because you want to but because you must; hating it, hungering for human
companionship. Try it with heat and wind and sand and great, arid
stretches of a land that is strange to you. Honestly, I think you would
have been out there just after sunrise to wait for that stage, and if it
were late you would have walked down the trail to meet it!)
Helen May remained by the post, but she got up and stood on a rock that
protruded six inches or so above the sand. Of course she could not see
over the ridge--she could not have done that if she had climbed a
telegraph pole; only there was no pole to climb--but she felt a little
closer to seeing. That dust did not look like stage dust!
You would be surprised to know how much Helen May had learned about dust
clouds. She could tell an automobile ten miles away, just by the swift
gathering of the gray cloud. She could tell where bands of sheep or herds
of cattle were being driven across the plain. She even knew when a saddle
horse was coming, or a freight team or--the stage.
She suddenly owned to herself that she was disappointed and rather
worried. For behind this cloud that troubled her there was no second one
building up over the skyline and growing more dense as the disturber
approached. She could not imagine what had happened to that
red-whiskered, tobacco-chewing stage driver. She looked at her wrist
watch and saw that he was exactly twenty minutes later than his very
latest arrival, and she felt personally slighted and aggrieved.
For that reason she sat under her pink silk parasol and stared crossly
under her eyebrows at the horse and man and the dust-grimed
rattle-wheeled buggy that eventually emerged from the gray cloud. The
horse was a pudgy bay that set his feet stolidly down in the trail, and
dragged his toes through it as though he delighted in kicking up all the
dust he could. By that trick he had puzzled Helen May a little, just at
first, though he had not been able to simulate the passing of four
horses. The buggy was such as improvident farmers used to drive (before
they bought Fords) near harvest time; scaly as to paint, warped and
loose-spoked as to wheels, making more noise than progress along the
The man held the lines so loosely that they sagged under the wire-mended
traces of sunburned leather. He leaned a little forward, as though it was
not worth while sitting straight on so hot a day. He wore an old Panama
hat that had cost him a good deal when it was new and had saved him a
good deal since in straw hats which he had not been compelled to buy so
long as this one held together. It was pulled down in front so that it
shaded his face--a face lean and lined and dark, with thin lips that
could be tender and humorous in certain moods. His eyes were hazel, like
the eyes of Starr, yet one never thought of them as being at all like
Starr's eyes. They burned always with some inner fire of life; they
laughed at life, and yet they did not seem to express mirth. They seemed
to say that life was a joke, a damnable joke on mankind; that they saw
the joke and resented it even while they laughed at it. For the rest, the
man was more than fifty years old, but his hair was thick and black as a
crow, and his eyebrows were inclined to bushiness, inclined also to slant
upward. A strong face; an unusual face, but a likeable one, it was. And
that is a fair description of Holman Sommers as Helen May first saw him.
He drove up to where she sat, and she tilted her pink silk parasol
between them as though to keep the dust from settling thick upon her
stained khaki skirt and her desert-dingy high-laced boots. She was not
interested in him, and her manner of expressing indifference could not
have misled a horned toad. She was too fresh from city life to have
fallen into the habit of speaking to strangers easily and as a matter of
country courtesy. Even when the buggy stopped beside her, she did not
show any eagerness to move the pink screen so that they might look at
"How do you do?" said he, quite as though he were greeting her in her own
home. "You are Miss Stevenson, I feel sure. I am Holman Sommers, at your
service. I am under the impression that I have with me a few articles
which may be of some interest to you, Miss Stevenson. I chanced to come
upon the stage several miles farther down the road. A wheel had given
away, and there was every indication that the delay would prove serious,
so when the driver mentioned the fact that he had mail and merchandise
for you, I volunteered to act as his substitute and deliver them safely
into your hands. I hope therefore that the service will in some slight
measure atone for my presumption in forcing my acquaintance upon you."
At the second sentence the pink parasol became violently agitated. At the
third Helen May was staring at him, mentally if not actually
open-mouthed. At the last she was standing up and reaching for her mail,
and she had not yet decided in her mind whether he was joking or whether
he expected to be taken seriously. Even when he laughed, with that odd,
dancing light in his eyes, she could not be sure. But because his voice
was warm with human sympathy and the cordiality of a man who is very
sure of himself and can afford to be cordial, she smiled back at him.
"That's awfully good of you, Mr. Sommers," she said, shuffling her
handful of letters eagerly to see who had written them; more particularly
to see if Chum's brother had written one of them. "I hope you didn't
drive out of your way to bring them" (there _was_ one; a big, fat one
that had taken two stamps! And one from Chum herself, and--but she went
back gloatingly to the thick, heavy envelope with the bold, black
handwriting that needed the whole face of the envelope for her name and
address), "because I know that miles are awfully long in this country."
"Yes? You have discovered that incontrovertible fact, have you? Then I
hope you will permit me to drive you home, especially since these
packages are much too numerous and too weighty for you to carry in your
arms. As a matter of fact, I have been hoping for an opportunity to meet
our new neighbors. Neighbors are precious in our sight, I assure you,
Miss Stevenson, and only the misfortune of illness in the household has
prevented my sister from looking you up long ago. How long have you been
here? Three weeks, or four?" His tone added: "You poor child," or
something equally sympathetic, and he smiled while he cramped the old
buggy so that she could get into it without rubbing her skirt against the
Helen May certainly had never seen any one just like Holman Sommers,
though she had met hundreds of men in a business way. She had met men who
ran to polysyllables and pompousness, but she had never known the
polysyllables to accompany so simple a manner. She had seen men slouching
around in old straw hats-and shoddy gray trousers and negligee shirts
with the tie askew, and the clothes had spelled poverty or shiftlessness.
Whereas they made Holman Sommers look like a great man indulging himself
in the luxury of old clothes on a holiday.
He seemed absolutely unconscious that he and his rattly buggy and the
harness on the horse were all very shabby, and that the horse was fat and
pudgy and scrawny of mane; and for that she admired him.
Before they reached the low adobe cabin, she felt that she was much
better acquainted with Holman Sommers than with Starr, whose name she
still did not know, although he had stayed an hour talking to Vic and
praising her cooking the night before. She did not, for all the time
she had spent with him, know anything definite about Starr, whereas
she presently knew a great deal about Holman Sommers, and approved of
all she knew.
He had a past which, she sensed vaguely, had been rather brilliant. He
must have been a war correspondent, because he compared the present great
war with the Japanese-Russian War and with the South African War, and he
seemed to have been right in the middle of both, or he could not have
spoken so intimately of them. He seemed to know all about the real,
underlying causes of them and knew just where it would all end, and what
nations would be drawn into it before they were through. He did not say
that he knew all about the war, but after he had spoken a few casual
sentences upon the subject Helen May felt that he knew a great deal more
than he said.
He also knew all about raising goats. He slid very easily, too, from the
war to goat-raising. He had about four hundred, and he gave her a lot of
valuable advice about the most profitable way in which to handle them.
When he saw Vic legging it along the slope behind the Basin to head off
Billy and his slavish nannies, he shook his head commiseratingly. "There
is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind," he told her gently, "that a
trained dog would be of immeasurable benefit to you. I fear you made a
grave mistake, Miss Stevenson, when you failed to possess yourself of a
good dog. I might go so far as to say that a dog is absolutely
indispensable to the successful handling of goats, or, for that matter,
of sheep, either." (He pronounced the last word eyether.)
"That's what my desert man told me," said Helen May demurely, "only he
didn't tell me that way, exactly."
"Yes? Then I have no hesitation whatever in assuring you that your desert
man was unqualifiedly accurate in his statement of your need."
Helen May bit her lip. "Then I'll tell him," she said, still more
Secretly she hoped that he would rise to the bait, but he apparently
accepted her words in good faith and went on telling her just how to
range goats far afield in good weather so that the grazing in the Basin
itself would be held in reserve for storms. It was a very grave error,
said Holman Sommers, to exhaust the pasturage immediately contiguous to
the home corral. It might almost be defined as downright improvidence.
Then he forestalled any resentment she might feel by apologizing for his
seeming presumption. But he apprehended the fact that she and her brother
were both inexperienced, and he would be sorry indeed to see them suffer
any loss because of that inexperience. His practical knowledge of the
business was at her service, he said, and he should feel that he was
culpably negligent of his duty as a neighbor if he failed to point out to
her any glaring fault in their method.
Helen May had felt just a little resentful of the words downright
improvidence. Had she not walked rather than spend money and grass on a
horse? Had she not daily denied herself things which she considered
necessities, that she might husband the precious balance of Peter's
insurance money? But she swallowed her resentment and thanked him quite
humbly for his kindness in telling her how to manage. She owned to her
inexperience, and she said that she would greatly appreciate any advice
which he might care to give.
Her Man of the Desert, she remembered, had not given her advice, though
he must have seen how badly she needed it. He had asked her where her dog
was, taking it for granted, apparently, that she would have one. But when
she had told him about not buying the dog, he had not said another word
about it. And he had not said anything about their letting the goats eat
up all the grass in the Basin, first thing, instead of saving it for bad
weather. This Holman Sommers, she decided, was awfully kind, even if he
did talk like a professor or something; kinder than her desert man. No,
not kinder, but perhaps more truly helpful.
At the house he told her just how to fix a "coolereupboard" under the
lone mesquite tree which stood at one end of the adobe cabin. It was
really very simple, as he explained it, and he assured her, in his
scientific terminology, that it would be cool. He went to the spring and
showed her where she could have Vic dig out the bank and fit in a rock
shelf for butter. He assured her that she was fortunate in having a
living spring so near the house. It was, he said, of incalculable
importance in that country to have cold, pure water always at hand.
When he discovered that she was a stenographer, and that she had her
typewriter with her, he was immensely pleased, so pleased that his eyes
shone with delight.
"Ah! now I see why the fates drove me forth upon the highway this
morning," said he. "Do you know that I have a large volume of work for an
expert typist, and that I have thus far felt that my present isolation in
the desert wastes was an almost unsurmountable obstacle to having the
work done in a satisfactory manner? I have been engaged upon a certain
work on sociological problems and how they have developed with the growth
of civilization. You will readily apprehend that great care must be
exercised in making the copy practically letter perfect. Furthermore, I
find myself constantly revising the manuscript. I should want to
supervise the work rather closely, and for that reason I have not as yet
arranged for the final typing.
"Now if you care to assume the task, I can assure you that I shall feel
tremendously grateful, besides making adequate remuneration for the labor
That is the way he put it, and that is how it happened that Helen May let
herself in for the hardest piece of work she had ever attempted since she
sold gloves at Bullocks' all day and attended night school all the
evening, learning shorthand and typewriting and bookkeeping, and
permitting the white plague to fasten itself upon her while she bent to
She let herself in for it because she believed she had plenty of time,
and because Holman Sommers was in no hurry for the manuscript, which he
did not expect to see completed for a year or so, since a work so erudite
required much time and thought, being altogether different from current
fiction, which requires none at all.
Helen May was secretly aghast at the pile of scrawled writing interlined
and crossed out, with marginal notes and footnotes and references and
what not; but she let herself in for the job of typing his book for
him--which is enough for the present.
PAT, A NICE DOGGUMS
"'The human polyp incessantly builds upon a coral reef. They become
lithified as it were and constitute the strata of the psychozoic
stage'--I told you the butter's at the spring. Will you leave me alone?
That's the third page I've spoiled over psycho-what-you-call-it. Go on
back and herd your goats, and for gracious sake, can that tulip-and-rose
song! I hate it." Helen May ripped a page with two carbon copies out of
the machine, pulled out the carbons and crumpled three sheets of paper
into a ball which she threw into a far corner.
"Gee, but you're pecky to-day! You act like an extra slammed into a sob
lead and gettin' up stage about it. I wish that long-worded hide had
never showed up with his soiled package of nut science. A feller can't
_live_ with you, by gosh, since you--"
"Well, listen to this, Vic! 'There is a radical difference between
organic and social evolution, the formula most easily expressing this
distinction being that environment transforms the animal, while man
transforms the environment. This transformation--'"
"Hel-up! Hel-up!" Vic went staggering out of the door with his palm
pressed against his forehead in the gesture meant to register great
mental agony, while his face was split with that nearly famous comedy
grin of his. "Serves you right," he flung hack at her in his normal tone
of brotherly condescension. "The way you fell for that nut, like you was
a starved squirrel shut up in a peanut wagon, by gosh! Hope you're bogged
down in jawbreakers the rest of the summer. Serves yuh right, but you
needn't think you can take it out on me. And," he draped himself around
the door jamb to add pointedly, "you should worry about the tulip song.
If I'm willing to stand for you yawping day and night about the sun
growin' co-old, and all that bunk--"
"Oh, beat it, and shut up!" Helen May looked up from evening the edges of
fresh paper and carbon to say sharply: "You better take a look and see
where Billy is. And I'll tell you one thing: If you go and lose any more
goats, you needn't think for a minute that I'll walk my head off getting
them for you."
"Aw, where do you get that line--walk your head off? I seem to remember a
close-up of you riding home on horseback with moonlight atmosphere and a
fellow to drive your goats. And you giving him the baby-eyed stare like
he was a screen idol and you was an extra that was strong for him.
Bu-lieve me, Helen Blazes, I'm wise. You're wishing a goat would get
lost--now, while the moon's workin' steady!"
"Oh, beat it, Vic! I've got work to do, if you haven't." And to prove it,
Helen May began to type at her best speed.
Vic languidly removed himself from the door jamb and with a parting "I
should bibble," started back to his goats, which he had refused to graze
outside the Basin as Holman Sommers advised. Helen May began valiantly to
struggle with the fine, symmetrical, but almost unreadable chirography of
the man of many words. She succeeded in transcribing the human polyp
properly lithified and correctly constituting the strata of the
psychozoic age, when Vic stuck his head in at the door again.
"From the des-urt he comes to thee-ee-ee,
And he's got a dog for thee to see-ee."
He paraphrased mockingly, going down to that terrifically deep-sea bass
note of a boy whose voice is changing.
Helen May threw her eraser at him and missed. It went hurtling out into
the yard and struck Starr on the point of the jaw, as he was riding up to
Whereat Vic gave a brazenly exultant whoop and rushed off to his goats,
"When you wore a too-lup, a sweet yellow too-lup
'N I wore a big red ro-o-ose--"
and looking back frequently in a half curious, half wistful way. Vic, if
you will stop to think of it, had been transplanted rather suddenly from
the midst of many happy-go-lucky companions to an isolation lightened
only by a mere sister's vicarious comradeship. If he yearned secretly for
a share of Starr's interest, surely no one can blame him; but that he
should voluntarily remove himself from Starr's presence in the belief
that he had come to see Helen May exclusively, proves that Vic had the
makings of a hero.
Starr dismounted and picked up the eraser from under the investigative
nose of a coarse-haired, ugly, brown and black dog that had been
following Rabbit's heels. He took the eraser to Helen May, standing
embarrassed in the doorway, and the dog followed and sniffed first her
slipper toes and then her hands, which she held out to it ingratiatingly;
after which appraisement the dog waggled its stub of a tail in token of
"If you was a Mexican he'd a showed you his teeth," Starr observed
pridefully. "How are you, after your jaunt the other night?"
"Just fine," Helen May testified graciously. It just happened (or had it
just happened?) that she was dressed that day in a white crepe de chine
blouse and a white corduroy skirt, and had on white slippers and white
stockings. At the top button of her blouse (she could not have touched
that button with her chin if she had tried) was a brown velvet bow the
exact shade of her eyes. Her hair was done low and loose with a negligent
wave where it turned back from her left eyebrow. Peter had worshipped
dumbly his Babe in that particular dress, and had considered her
beautiful. One cannot wonder then that Starr's eyes paid tribute with a
second long glance.
Starr had ridden a good many miles out of his way and had argued for a
good while, and had finally paid a good many dollars to get the dog that
sniffed and wagged at Helen May. The dog was a thoroughbred Airedale and
had been taught from its puppyhood to herd goats and fight all intruders
upon his flock and to hate Mexicans wherever he met them. He had learned
to do both very thoroughly, hence the argument and the dollars necessary
before Starr could gain possession of him.
Starr did not need a dog; certainly not that dog. He had no goats to
herd, and he could hate Mexicana without any help or encouragement when
they needed hating. But he had not grudged the trouble and expense,
because Helen May needed it. He might have earned more gratitude had he
told her the truth instead of hiding it like guilt. This was his way of
going at the subject, and he waited, mind you, until he had announced
nonchalantly that he must be getting along, and that he had just stopped
to get a drink and to see how they were making out!
"Blame dog's taken a notion to you. Followed me out from town. I throwed
rocks at him till my arm ached--"
"Why, you mean thing! You might have hit him and hurt him, and he's a
nice dog. Poor old purp! Did he throw rocks, honest? He _did_? Well, just
for that, I've got a nice ham bone that you can have to gnaw on, and he
can't have a snippy bit of it. All he can do is eat a piece of lemon pie
that will probably make him sick. We hope so, don't we? Throwing rocks at
a nice, ugly, stubby dog that wanted to follow!"
Starr accepted the pie gratefully and looked properly ashamed of himself.
The dog accepted the ham bone and immediately stretched himself out with
his nose and front paws hugging it close, and growling threats at
imaginary vandals. Now and then he glanced up gratefully at Helen May,
who continued to speak of him in a commiserating tone.
"He sure has taken a notion to you," Starr persisted between mouthfuls.
"You can have him, for all of me. I don't want the blame cur tagging me
around. I'm liable to take a shot at him if I get peeved over
"You dare!" Helen May regarded him sternly from under her lashes, her
chin tilted downward. "Do you always take a shot at something when you
"Well, I'm liable to," Starr admitted darkly. "A dog especially. You
better keep him if you don't want him hurt or anything." He took a bite
of pie. (It was not very good pie. The crust was soggy because Johnny
Calvert's cook stove was not a good baker, and the frosting had gone
watery, because the eggs were stale, and Helen May had made a mistake and
used too much sugar in the filling; but Starr liked it, anyway, just
because she had made it.) "Maybe you can learn him to herd goats," he
suggested, as though the idea had just occurred to him.
"Oh, I wonder if he would! Would you, doggums?"
"We'll try him a whirl and see," Starr offered cheerfully. He finished
the pie in one more swallow, handed back the plate, and wiped his
fingers, man-fashion, on his trousers.
"Come on, Pat. He likes Pat for a name," he explained carefully to Helen
May. "I called him about every name I could think of, and that's the one
he seems to sabe most."
"I should say he does! Why, he left his bone when you called Pat. Now
that's a shame, doggums!"
"Oh, well, we'll let him polish off his bone first." Starr made the offer
with praiseworthy cheerfulness, and sat down on his heels with his back
against the adobe wall to wait the dog's pleasure.
"Well, that makes up for some of the rocks," Helen May approved
generously, "and for some of the names you say you called him. And that
reminds me, Man of the Desert, I suppose you have a name of some sort. I
never heard what it was. Is it--Smith, perhaps?"
"My name's Starr," he told her, with a little glow under the tan of his
cheeks. "S, t, a, double r, Starr. I forgot I never told you. I've got a
couple of given names, but I'd want to shoot a man that called me by
'em. Folks always call me just Starr, and maybe a few other things
behind my back."
Helen May dropped her chin and looked at him steadily from under her
eyebrows. "If there's anything that drives me perfectly wild," she said
finally, "it's a mystery. I've just simply got to know what those names
are. I'll never mention them, honest. But--"
"Chauncy DeWitt," Starr confessed. "Forget 'em. They was wished onto me
when I wasn't able to defend myself."
"Given names are horrid things, aren't they?" Helen May sympathized.
"I think mine is perfectly imbecile. Fathers and mothers shouldn't be
allowed to choose names for their children. They ought to wait till
the kids are big enough to choose for themselves. If I ever have any,
I'll call them It. When they grow up they can name themselves anything
"You've got no right to kick," Starr declared bluntly. "Your name suits
His eyes said more than that, so that Helen May gave her attention to the
dog. "There, now, you've licked it and polished it and left teeth marks
all over it," she said, meaning the bone. "Come on, Pat, and let's see if
you're a trained doggums." She looked up at Starr and smiled. "Suppose he
starts running after them; he might chase them clear off the ranch, and
"I guess the supply of rocks'll hold out," Starr hinted, and snapped his
fingers at the dog, which went to heel as a matter of course.
"If you throw rocks at that dog, I'll throw rocks at you," Helen May
"And I'll hit, and you'll miss," Starr added placidly. "Come on, let's
get busy and see if you deserved that bone."
Helen May had learned from uncomfortable experience that high-heeled
slippers are not made for tramping over rocks and sand. She said that she
would come as soon as she put on some shoes; but Starr chose to wait for
her, though he pretended, to himself as much as to her, that he must take
the bridle off Rabbit and let him pick a few mouthfuls of grass while he
had the chance. Also he loosened the cinch and killed a fly or two on
Rabbit's neck, and so managed to put in the time until Helen May appeared
in her khaki skirt and her high boots.
"That's the sensible outfit for this work," Starr plucked up courage to
comment as they started off. "That kid brother of yours must get pretty
lonesome too, out here," he added. "If you had some one to stay with you,
I'd take him out on a trip with me once in a while and show him the
country and let him learn to handle himself with a horse and gun. A
fellow's got to learn, in this country. So have you. How about it? Ever
shoot a gun, either of you?"
"Vic used to keep me broke, begging money for the shooting gallery down
near our place," said Helen May. "I used to shoot there a little."
"Popgun stuff, but good practice," said Starr succinctly. "Got a gun on
"No, only Vic's little single-shot twenty-two. That's good enough for
jack rabbits. What would we want a gun for?"
Starr laughed. "Season's always open for coyotes, and you could pick up a
little money in bounties now and then, if you had a gun," he said. "That
would keep you out in the open, too. I dunno but what I've got a rifle I
could let you have. I did have one, a little too light a calibre for me,
but it would be just about right for you. It's a 25-35 carbine. I'm right
sure I've got that gun on hand yet. I'll bring it over to you. You sure
ought to have a gun."
They were nearing the goats scattered over the slope that was shadiest,
chosen for Vic's comfort and not because of any thought for his charges.
Vic himself was sprawled in the shade of a huge rock, and for pastime he
was throwing rocks at every ground squirrel that poked its nose out of a
hole. The two hundred goats were scattered far and wide, but as long as
Billy was nibbling a bush within sight, Vic did not worry about the rest.
He lifted himself to a sitting posture and grinned when the two came up.
"Didn't think to bring any pie, I s'pose?" he hinted broadly, and grinned
companionably at Starr.
"You've had two handouts since lunch. I guess you'll last another hour,"
Helen May retorted unfeelingly. "See the dog that followed Mr. Starr out
from town, Vic! We're going to see if he can herd goats."
"Well, if he can, he's got my permission, that's a cinch."
"I do believe he can; see him look at them! His name's Pat, and he likes
me awfully well."
"Now, where does he get that idea?" taunted Vic, and winked openly at
Starr, who was good enough to smile over what he considered a very
"Well, let's see you bunch 'em, Pat." Starr made a wide, sweeping gesture
with his left arm, his eyes darting a quick look at the girl.
Pat looked up at him, waggled his stub of a tail, and darted down the
slope to the left, now and then uttering a yelp. Scattered goats lifted
heads to look, their jaws working comically sidewise as though they felt
they must dispose of that particular mouthful before something happened
to prevent. As Pat neared them, they scrambled away from him, running to
the right, which was toward the bulk of the band.
Down into the Basin itself the dog ran, after a couple of goats that had
strayed out into the level. These he drove back in a panic of haste,
dodging this way and that, nipping, yelping now and then, until they had
joined the others. Then he went on to the further fringes of the hand,
which evened like the edge of a pie crust under the practised fingers of
a good cook.
"Well, would you look at that!" Helen May never having watched a good
sheep-dog at work, spoke in an awed tone. "Vic, please write!"
Vic, watching open-mouthed, actually forgot to resent the implication
that Pat had left him hopelessly behind in the art of handling goats.
"Seems to have the savvy, all right," Starr observed, just as though he
had not paid all those dollars for the "savvy" that made Pat one of the
best goat dogs in the State.
"Savvy? Why, that dog's human. Now, I suppose he's stopping over there to
see what he must do next, is he?"
"Wants to know whether I want 'em all rounded up, or just edged up outa
the Basin. G' round 'em, Pat," he called, and made a wide, circular sweep
with his right arm.
Pat gave a yelp, dropped his head, and scurried up the ridge, driving all
stragglers back toward the center of the flock. He went to every crest
and sniffed into the wind to satisfy himself that none had strayed beyond
his sight; returned and evened up the ragged edges of the hand, and then
came trotting back to Starr with six inches of pink tongue draped over
his lower jaw and a smile in his eyes and a waggle of satisfaction at
loved work well done. The goats, with a meek Billy in the foreground,
huddled in a compact mass on the slope and eyed the dog as they had never
eyed Vic, for all his hoe-handle and his accuracy with rocks.
Helen May dropped her hand on Pat's head and looked soberly into his
upturned eyes. "You're a perfect miracle of a dog, so you can't be my
dog, after all," she said. "Your owner will be riding day and night to
find you. I know I should, if you got lost from me." Then she looked at
Starr. "Don't you think you really ought to take him back with you?
It--somehow it doesn't seem quite right to keep a dog that knows so
much. Why, the man I bought the goats from had a dog that could herd
them, and he wanted twenty-five dollars for it, and at that, he claimed
he was putting the price awfully low for me, just because I was a lady,
Starr, was (as he put it) kicking himself for having lied himself
into this dilemma. Also he was wondering how best he might lie
himself out of it.
"You want to look out for these marks that say they're giving you the big
end of a bargain just because you're a lady," he said. "Chances are
they're figuring right then on doing you. If that fellow had got
twenty-five dollars for his dog, take it from me, he wouldn't have lost
"Well, but do you think it would he right to keep this dog?"
Since she put it that way, Starr felt better. "I sure do. Keep him anyway
till he's called for. When I go back, I'll find out where he comes from;
and when I've located the owner, maybe I'll be able to fix it up with him
somehow. You sure ought to have a dog. So let it stand that way. I'll
tell yuh when to give him up."
Helen May opened her lips, and Starr, to forestall argument and to save
his soul from further sin, turned toward the dog. "Bring 'em home, Pat,"
he said, and then started toward the corral, which was down below the
spring. "Watch him drive," he said to Helen May and so managed to
distract her attention from the ethics of the case.
Without any assistance, Pat drove the goats to the corral. More than
that, at Starr's command, he split the band and held half of them aloof
while the rest went in. He sent these straight down the Basin until Starr
recalled him, when he swung back and corralled them with the others. He
came then toward the three for further orders, whereupon Vic, who had
been silent from sheer amazement, gave a sudden whoop.
"Hey, Pat! You forgot something. Go back and put up the bars!" he
yelled. Then he heaved his hoe-handle far from him and stretched his arms
high over his head like one released from an onerous task. "I'll walk out
and let Pat have my job," he said. "Herding goats is dog's work anyhow,
and I told you so the first day, Helen Blazes. Hadn't herded 'em five
minutes before I knew I wasn't cut out for a farmer."
"Go on, Pat; you stay with your goats," Starr commanded gently. And Pat,
because he had suckled a nanny goat when he was a pup, and had grown up
with her kid, and had lived with goats all his life, trotted into the
corral, found himself a likeable spot near the gate, snuffed it all over,
turned around twice, and curled himself down upon it in perfect content.
"He'll stay there all night," Starr told them, laying the bars in their
sockets. "It's a little early to corral 'em, sundown is about the regular
time, but it's a good scheme to give him plenty of time to get acquainted
with the layout. You get up early, Vic, and let 'em out on the far side
of the ridge. Pat'll do the rest. I'll have to jog along now."
"Well, say," Vic objected, rubbing his tousled blond hair into a
distracted, upstanding condition, "I wish you'd show me just how
you shift his gears. How the dickens do you do it? He don't know
what you say."
Before he left, Starr showed him the gestures, and Vic that evening
practised them so enthusiastically that he nearly drove Helen May wild.
Perhaps that is why, when she was copying a sentence where Holman Sommers
had mentioned the stars of the universe, Helen May spelled stars,
"Starr's" and did not notice the mistake at all.
THE TRAIL OF SILVERTOWN CORDS
Having wasted a couple of hours more than he intended to spend in
delivering the dog, Starr called upon Rabbit to make up those two hours
for him. And, being an extremely misleading little gray horse, with a
surprising amount of speed and endurance stored away under his hide,
Rabbit did not fall far short of doing so.
Starr had planned an unexpected visit to the Medina ranch. In the guise
of stock-buyer his unexpectedness would be perfectly plausible, and he
would be well pleased to arrive there late, so long as he did not arrive
after dark. Just before sundown would do very well, he decided. He would
catch Estan Medina off his guard, and he would have the evening before
him, in case he wanted to scout amongst the arroyos on the way home.
Starr very much wanted to know who drove an automobile without lights
into isolated arroyos and over the desert trails at night. He had not,
strange to say, seen any machine with Silvertown cord tires in San Bonito
or in Malpais, though he had given every car he saw the second glance to
make sure. He knew that such tires were something new and expensive, so
much so that they were not in general use in that locality. Even in El
Paso they were rarely seen at that time, and only the fact that the great
man who gave him his orders had happened to be using them on his machine,
and had mentioned the fact to Starr, who was honored with his friendship,
had caused Starr to be familiar with them and to recognize instantly the
impress they left in soft soil. It was a clue, and that was the best he
could say for it. It was just a little better than nothing, he decided.
What he wanted most was to see the machine itself at close range, and to
see the men who rode in it--and I am going to tell you why.
There was a secret political movement afoot in the Southwest; a movement
hidden so far underground as to be practically unnoticed on the surface;
but a movement, nevertheless, that had been felt and recorded by that
political seismograph, the Secret Service of our Government. It had been
learned, no mere citizen may know just how, that the movement was called
the Mexican Alliance. It was suspected that the object was the
restoration of three of our States to Mexico, their original owner.
Suspected, mind you; and when even the Secret Service can do no more than
suspect, you will see how well hidden was the plot. Its extent and its
ramifications they could only guess at. Its leaders no man could name,
nor even those who might be suspected more than others.
But a general uprising in three States, in conjunction with, and under
the control of, a concerted, far-sweeping revolution across the border,
would not be a thing to laugh over. Uncle Sam smiled tolerantly when some
would have had him chastise. Uncle Sam smiled, and watched, and waited
and drummed his fingers while he read secret reports from men away out
somewhere in Arizona, and New Mexico, and Texas, and urged them to burrow
deeper and deeper underground, and to follow at any cost the molelike
twistings and blind turnings of this plot to steal away three whole
States in a lump.
Now you see, perhaps, why Starr was so curious about that automobile, and
why he was interested in Estancio Medina, Mexican-American rancher who
owned much land and many herds, and who was counted a power among his
countrymen; who spoke English with what passed for fluency, and who had
very decided and intelligent opinions upon political matters, and who
boldly proclaimed his enthusiasm for the advancement of his own race.
But he did not go to the Medina ranch that evening, for the very good
reason that he met his man fair in the trail as it looped around the head
of the draw where he had heard the automobile running without lights. As
on that other evening, Starr had cut straight across the loop, going east
instead of west. And where the trail forked on the farther side he met
Estan Medina driving a big, lathery bay horse hitched to a shiny, new
covered buggy. He seemed in a hurry, but he pulled up nevertheless to
have a word with Starr. And Starr, always observant of details, saw that
he had three or four packages in the bottom of the buggy, which seemed to
bear out Estan's statement that he had been to town, meaning San Bonito.
Starr rolled a cigarette, and smoked it while he gossiped with Estan of
politics, pretty girls, and the price of mutton. He had been eyeing the
new buggy speculatively, and at last he spoke of it in that admiring tone
which warms the heart of the listener.
"Some turnout, Estan," he summed up. "But you ought to be driving an
automobile. All your friends are getting them."
Estan lifted his shoulders in true Spanish fashion and smiled. "No,
amigo. Me, I can take pleasure yet from horses. And the madre, she's so
'fraid of them automobiles. She cries yet when she knows I ride in one a
little bit. Now she's so proud, when I drive the new buggy home! She
folds so pretty her best mantilla over her head and rides with me to
church, and she bows so polite--to all the senoras from the new buggy!
And her face shines with the happiness in her heart. Oh, no, not me for
the big automobile!" He smiled and shrugged and threw out his hands. "I
like best to see my money walking around with wool on the back! Excuse,
senor. I go now to bring the new buggy home and to see the smile of my
mother." Then he bethought him of the tradition of his house. "You come
and have a soft bed and the comfort of my house," he urged. "It is far to
San Bonito, and it is not so far to my house."
Starr explained plausibly his haste, sent a friendly message to the
mother and Luis, and rode on thoughtfully. Now and then he turned to
glance behind him at the dust cloud rolling rapidly around the head
of the draw.
Since Estan had been to town himself that day, Starr reasoned that
there would not be much gained by scouting through the arroyos that led
near the Medina ranch. Estan would have seen in town the men he wanted
to see. He could do so easily enough and without exciting the least
suspicion; for San Bonito had plenty of saloons that were popular, and
yet unobtrusive, meeting places. No need for the mysterious automobile
to make the long journey through the sand to-day, if Estan Medina were
the object of the visit, and Starr knew of no other Mexican out that
way who would be important enough to have a hand in the mixing of
He rode on, letting Rabbit drop into his poco-poco trail trot. He carried
his head bent forward a little, and his eyebrows were pulled into a scowl
of concentrated thought. It was all very well to suspect Estan Medina and
to keep an eye upon him, but there were others who came nearer to the
heart of the plot. He wanted to know who these were, and he believed that
if he could once identify the four Mexicans whom Helen May had seen, he
would be a long step ahead. He considered the simple expedient of asking
her to describe them as closely as she could. But since secrecy was the
keynote of his quest, he did not want to rouse her curiosity, and for
purely personal reasons he did want to shield her as far as possible from
any uneasiness or any entanglement in the affair.
Thinking of Helen May in that light forced him to consider what would be
her plight if he and his co-workers failed, if the plan went on to actual
fulfillment, and the Mexican element actually did revolt. Babes, they
were, those two alone there in Sunlight Basin, with a single-shot
"twenty-two" for defense, when every American rancher in three States
considered high-power rifles and plenty of ammunition as necessary in his
home as flour and bacon!
Starr shivered a little and tried to pull his mind away from Helen May
and her helplessness. At any rate, he comforted himself, they had the dog
for protection, the dog who had been trained to jump the corral fence at
any hour of the night if a stranger, and especially a Mexican came
But he and his co-workers must not fail. If intrigue burrowed deep, then
they must burrow deeper.
So thinking, he came just after sundown to where the trail branched in
three directions. One was the direct road to San Bonito, another took a
roundabout way through a Mexican settlement on the river and so came to
the town from another angle, and the third branch wound over the granite
ridge to Malpais. Studying the problem as a whole, picturing the havoc
which an uprising would wreak upon those vast grazing grounds of the
southwest, and how two nations would be embroiled in spite of themselves,
he was hoping that his collaborators, scattered here and there through
the country, men whose names even he did not know, were making more
headway than he seemed to be making here.
He would not know, of course, unless he were needed to assist or to
supplement their work in some way. But he hoped they had found out
something definite, something which the War Department could take hold
of; a lever, as it were, to pry up the whole scheme. He was thinking of
these things, but his mind was nevertheless alert to the little trail
signs which it had become second nature to read. So he saw, there in the
dust of the trail, where a buggy had turned around and gone back whence
it had come. He saw that it had been traveling toward town but had turned
and come back. And looking more closely, he saw that one horse had pulled
He stopped to make sure of that and to search for footprints. But those
he found were indistinct, blurred partly by the looseness of the sand and
partly by the sparse grass that grew along the trail there, because the
buggy had turned in a hollow. He went on a couple of rods, and he saw
where an automobile had also come to this point and had turned and gone
back toward town, or rather, it had swung sharply around and taken the
trail which led through the Mexican settlement; but he guessed that it
had gone back to town, for all that. And the tire marks were made by
Starr stopped and looked back to where the buggy tracks were faintly
outlined in the dust of the hollow, and he spoke aloud his thought:
"You'd think, just to see him and talk to him, that Estan Medina
assays one hundred per cent, satisfied farmer. He's sure some
fox--that same greaser!" After that he shook Rabbit into a long,
distance-eating lope for town.
Night came with its flaring forerunners of purple and crimson and all the
gorgeous blendings of the two. By the time he reached San Bonito, the
stars were out, and the electric lights were sputtering on certain street
corners. Starr had rented a small adobe cabin and a corral with a shed on
the outskirts of town where his movements might be unobserved. He did not
always use these, but stopped frequently at a hotel with a garrulous
landlord, and stabled his horse at a certain livery which he knew to be a
hotbed of the town's gossip. In both places he was a privileged patron
and was the recipient of many choice bits of scandal whispered behind a
prudent palm, with a wink now and then to supply the finer shades of
meaning. But to-night he chose the cabin and the corral sandwiched
a transfer company's warehouse and a steam laundry that had been closed
by the sheriff. The cabin fronted on a street that was seldom used, and
the corral ran back to a dry arroyo that was used mainly as a dump for
the town's tin cans and dead cats and such; not a particularly attractive
place but secluded.
He turned Rabbit into the corral and fed him, went in and cooked himself
some supper, and afterwards, in a different suit and shoes and a hat that
spoke loudly of the latest El Paso fad in men's headgear, he strolled
down to the corner and up the next street to the nearest garage.
Ostensibly he was looking for one Pedro Miera, who had a large sheep
ranch out east of San Bonito, and who always had fat sheep for sale.
Starr considered it safe to look for Miera, whom he had seen two or three
days before in El Paso just nicely started on a ten-day spree that never
stopped short of the city jail.
Since it was the dull hour between the day's business and the evening's
pleasure, Starr strolled the full length of the garage and back again
before any man spoke to him. He made sure that no car there had the kind
of tires he sought, so he asked if Miera and his machine had showed up
there that day, and left as soon as the man said no.
San Bonito was no city and it did not take long to make the round of the
garages. No one had seen Miera that day, and Starr's disappointment was
quite noticeable, though misunderstood. Not a car in any of the four
garages sported Silvertown cords.
At the last garage an arc light flared over the wide doorway. Starr,
feeling pretty well disgusted, was leaving when he saw a tire track
alongside the red, gasoline filling-pump. He stopped and, under cover of
lighting his cigarette, he studied the tread. Beyond all doubt the car he
wanted had stopped there for gas. But the garage man was a Mexican, so
Starr dared not risk a question or show any interest whatever in the car
whose tires left those long-lined imprints to tell of its passing. He
puffed at his cigarette until he had studied the angle of the front-wheel
track and decided that the car must have been headed south, and that it
had made a rather short turn away from the pump.
This was puzzling for a while. The driver might have been turning around
to go back the way he had come. But it was more likely that he had driven
into the cross street to the west. He strolled over that way, but the
light was too dim to trace automobile tracks in the dust of the street so
he went back to the adobe cabin and put in the next hour oiling and
cleaning and polishing a 25-35 carbine which he meant to give Helen May,
and in filling a cartridge belt with shells.
He sat for some time turning two six-shooters over in his hands, trying
to decide which would please her most. One was lighter than the other,
with an easier trigger action; almost too easy for a novice, he told
himself. But it had a pearl handle with a bulldog carved on the side that
would show when the gun was in its holster. She'd like that fancy stuff,
he supposed. Also he could teach her to shoot straighter with that light
"pull." But the other was what Starr called a sure-enough go-getter.
He finally decided, of course, to give her the fancy one. For Vic he
would have to buy a gun; an automatic, maybe. He'd have to talk coyotes
pretty strong, in order to impress it upon them that they must never go
away anywhere without a gun. Good thing there was a bounty on coyotes;
the money would look big to the kid, anyway. It occurred to him further
that he could tell them there was danger of running into a rabid coyote.
Rabies had caused a good deal of trouble in the State, so he could make
the danger plausible enough.
He did not worry much over frightening the girl. She had nerve enough.
Think of her tackling that ranch proposition, with just that cub brother
to help! When Starr thought of that slim, big-eyed, smiling girl in white
fighting poverty and the white plague together out there on the rim of
the desert, a lump came up in his throat. She had nerve enough--that
plucky little lady with the dull-gold hair, and the brown velvet
eyes!--more nerve than he had where she was concerned.
He went to bed and lay for a long time thinking of Helen May out there
in that two-roomed adobe cabin, with a fifteen-year-old boy for
protection and miles of wilderness between her and any other human
habitation. It was small comfort then to Starr that she had the dog. One
bullet can settle a dog, and then--Starr could not look calmly at the
possibility of what might happen then.
"They've no business out there like that, alone!" he muttered, rising to
an elbow and thumping his hard pillow viciously. "Good Lord! Haven't they
got any folks?"
THE WIND BLOWS MANY STRAWS
Soon after daylight, Rabbit snorted and ran a little way down the corral
toward the cabin. Starr, trained to light sleeping and instant waking,
was up and standing back from the little window with his six-shooter in
his hand before Rabbit had stopped to whirl and look for what had scared
him. So Starr was in time to see a "big four" Stetson hat with a
horsehair hatband sink from sight behind the high board fence at the rear
of the corral.
Starr waited. Rabbit shook his head as though he were disgusted with
himself, and began nosing the ground for the wisps of hay which a high
wind had blown there. Starr retreated to a point in the room where he
could see without risk of being seen, and watched. In a few minutes, when
the horse had forgotten all about the incident and was feeding again, the
Stetson hat very cautiously rose once more. Under its gray brim Starr saw
a pair of black eyes peer over the fence. He watched them glancing here
and there, coming finally to rest upon the cabin itself. They watched
Rabbit, and Starr knew that they watched for some sign of alarm rather
than from any great interest in the horse: Rabbit lifted his head and
looked that way boredly for a moment before he went back to his feeding,
and the eyes lifted a little, so that the upper part of the owner's face
came into view. A young Mexican, Starr judged him, because of his smooth
skin around the eyes. He waited. The fellow rose now so that the fence
came just below his lips, which were full and curved in the pleasant
lines of youth. His eyes kept moving this way and that, so that the
whites showed with each turn of the eyeball. Starr studied what he could
see of the face. Thick eyebrows well formed except that the left one took
a whimsical turn upward; heavy lashes, the high, thin nose of the Mexican
who is part Indian--as are practically all of the lower, or peon
class--that much he had plenty of time to note. Then there was the mouth,
which Starr knew might be utterly changed in appearance when one saw the
chin that went with it.
A hundred young fellows in San Bonito might answer equally well a
description of those features. And the full-crowned gray Stetson may be
seen by the thousand in at least four States; and horsehair hatbands may
be bought in any saddlery for two or three dollars--perhaps for less, if
one does not demand too long a pair of tassels--and are loved by Indians
and those who think they are thus living up to the picturesque Old West.
So far as he could see, there was nothing much to identify the fellow,
unless he could get a better look at him.
The Mexican gave another long look at the cabin, studying every point,
even to the roof. Then he tried to see into the shed where Starr kept his
saddle and where Rabbit could shelter himself from the cold winds. There
was no door, no front, even, on the side toward the house. But the end of
the shed was built out into the corral so that the fellow could not see
around its corner.
He moved along the fence, which gave Starr a very good idea of his
height, and down to the very corner of the vacant laundry building. There
he stopped and looked again. He was eyeing Starr's saddle, apparently
taking in every detail of its workmanship. He looked again at Rabbit, who
was turned then so that his brand, the double Turkey-track, stood out
plainly on both thighs. Then, with another slant-eyed inspection of the
cabin, he ducked down behind the fence and disappeared, his going
betrayed by his hat crown which was taller than he imagined and showed a
good four inches above the fence.
Starr had edged along the dark wall of the room so that he had kept the
man in sight. Now, when the hat crown moved away down the trail that
skirted the garbage-filled arroyo, he snorted, threw his gun down on the
bed, and began to dress himself, rummaging in his "warbag" for a gray
checked cap and taking down from the wall a gray suit that he had never
liked and had never worn since the day it came from the mail, looking
altogether different from the four-inch square he had chosen from a
tailor agent's sample book. He snorted again when he had the suit on, and
surveyed it with a dissatisfied, downward glance. In his opinion he
looked like a preacher trying to disguise himself as a sport, but to
complete the combination he unearthed a pair of tan shoes and put them
on. After that he stood for a minute staring down the fresh-creased gray
trousers to his toes.
"Looks like the very devil!" he snorted again. "But anyway, it's
different." He dusted the cap by the simple expedient of slapping it
several times against his leg. When he had hung it on the back of his
head and pulled it well down in front--as nine out of ten men always put
on a cap--he did indeed look different, though he did not look at all
like the demon he named. Helen May, for instance, would have needed a
second close glance before she recognized him, but that glance would
probably have carried with it a smile for his improved appearance.
He surveyed as much of the neighborhood as he could see through the
windows, looked at his watch, and saw that it was late enough for him to
appear down town without exciting comment from the early birds, and went
out into the corral and fed Rabbit. He looked over the fence where the
Mexican had stood, but the faint imprints of the man's boots were not
definite enough to tell him anything. He surveyed the neighborhood from
different angles and could see no trace of any one watching the place, so
he felt fairly satisfied that the fellow had gone for the present, though
he believed it very likely that he might return later.
As he saw the incident, he was not yet considered worth shadowing, but
had in some way excited a certain degree of curiosity about himself.
Starr did not like that at all. He had hoped to impress every one with
his perfect harmlessness, and to pass for a stock buyer and nothing else.
He could not imagine how he had possibly excited suspicion, and he wanted
to lull it immediately and permanently. The obvious way to do that would
be to rise late, saddle Rabbit and ride around town a little--to the post
office and a saloon, for instance--get his breakfast at the
best-patronized place in town, and then go about his legitimate
business. On the other hand, he wanted to try and trace those cord tires
down the cross street, if he could, and he could not well do that on
horseback without betraying himself.
The shed was built out flush with the arroyo edge, so that at the rear of
the corral one could only go as far as the gate, which closed against the
end of the shed. It occurred to Starr that if the young Mexican had been
looking for something to steal, he would probably have come in at the
gate, which was fastened only with a stout hook on the inside. The arroyo
bank had caved under the farther corner of the shed, so that a hole the
size of a large barrel showed at that end of the manger. Cats and dogs,
and perhaps boys, had gone in and out there until a crude kind of trail
was worn down the bank to the arroyo bottom. At some risk to his tan
shoes and his new gray suit, Starr climbed into the manger and let
himself down that hole. The trail was firm and dry and so steep he had to
dig his heels in to keep from tobogganing to the bottom, but once down he
had only to follow the arroyo bottom to a place where he could climb out.
Before he found such a place he came to a deep, dry gully that angled
back toward the business part of town. A footpath in the bottom of it
encouraged him to follow it, and a couple of hundred yards farther along
he emerged upon the level end of a street given over to secondhand
stores, junk shops and a plumber's establishment. From there to the main
street was easy enough.
As he had expected, only a few citizens were abroad and Starr strolled
over to the cross street he wanted to inspect. He found the long-lined
tread of the tires he sought plainly marked where they had turned into
this street. After that he lost them where they had been blotted out by
the broad tires of a truck. When he was sure that he could trace them no
farther, he turned back, meaning to have breakfast at his favorite
restaurant. And as he turned, he met face to face a tall young Mexican in
a full-crowned Stetson banded with horsehair.
Now, as I have said before, San Bonito was full of young Mexicans who
wore Stetson hats and favored horsehair bands around them. Starr
glanced at the fellow sharply, got the uninterested, impersonal look
of the perfect stranger who neither knows nor cares who you are, and
who has troubles of his own to occupy his mind; the look which
nineteen persons out of twenty give to a stranger on the street. Starr
went on unconcernedly whistling under his breath, but at the corner he
turned sharply to the left, and in turning he flicked a glance back at
the fellow. The Mexican was not giving him any attention whatever, as
far as he could see; on the contrary, he was staring down at the
ground as though he, too, were looking for something. Starr gave him
another stealthy look, gained nothing from it, and shrugged his
shoulders and went on.
He ate his breakfast while he turned the matter over in his mind. What
had he done to rouse suspicion against himself? He could not remember
anything, for he had not yet found anything much to work on; nothing, in
fact, except that slight clue of the automobile, and he did not even know
who had been in it. He suspected that they had gone to meet Estan Medina,
but as long as that suspicion was tucked away in the back of his mind,
how was any one going to know that he suspected Estan? He had not been
near the chief of police or the sheriff or any other officer. He had not
talked with any man about the Mexican Alliance, nor had he asked any man
about it. Instead, he had bought sheep and cattle and goats and hogs from
the ranchers, and he had paid a fair price for them and had shipped them
openly, under the eye of the stock inspector, to the El Paso Meat
Company. So far he had kept his eyes open and his mouth shut, and had
waited until some ripple on the surface betrayed the disturbance
He was not sure that the young man he met on the street was the one who
had been spying over the fence, but he did not mean to take it for
granted that he was not the same, and perhaps be sorry afterwards for his
carelessness. He strolled around town, bought an automatic gun and a lot
of cartridges for Vic, went into a barber shop on a corner and had a
shave and a haircut, and kept his eyes open for a tall young Mexican who
might be unduly interested in his movements.
He met various acquaintances who expressed surprise at not having seen
him around the hotel. To these he explained that he had rented a corral
for his horse, where he could be sure of the feed Rabbit was getting, and
to save the expense of a livery stable. Rabbit had been kinda off his
feed, he said, and he wanted to look after him himself. So he had been
sleeping in the cabin that went with the corral.
His friends thought that was a sensible move, and praised his judgment,
and Starr felt better. He did not, however, tell them just where the
corral was located. He had some notion of moving to another place, so he
considered that it would be just as well not to go into details.
So thinking, he took his packages and started across to the gully which
led into the arroyo that let him into his place by the back way. He meant
to return as he had come; and if any one happened to be spying, he would
think Starr had chosen that route as a short cut to town, which it was.
A block away from the little side street that opened to the gully, Starr
stopped short, shocked into a keener attention to his surroundings. He
had just stepped over an automobile track on the walk, where a machine
had crossed it to enter a gateway which was now closed. And the track had
been made by a cord tire. He looked up at the gate of unpainted planks,
heavy-hinged and set into a high adobe wall such as one sees so often in
New Mexico. The gate was locked, as he speedily discovered; locked on the
inside, he guessed, with bars or great hooks or something.
He went on to the building that seemed to belong to the place; a long
two-story adobe building with the conventional two-story gallery running
along the entire front, and with the deep-set, barred windows that are
also typically Mexican. Every town in the adobe section of the southwest
has a dozen or so buildings almost exactly like this one. The door was
blue-painted, with the paint scaling off. Over it was a plain lettered
sign: LAS NUEVAS.
Starr had seen copies of that paper at the Mexican ranches he visited,
and as far as he knew, it was an ordinary newspaper of the country-town
style, printed in Mexican for the benefit of a large percentage of
Mexican-Americans whose knowledge of English print is extremely hazy.
He walked on slowly to the corner, puzzling over this new twist in the
faint clue he followed. It had not occurred to him that so innocuous a
sheet as _Las Nuevas_ should be implicated, and yet, why not? He turned
at the corner and went back to the nearest newstand, where he bought an
El Paso paper for a blind and laid it down on a pile of _Las Nuevas_
while he lighted his cigarette. He talked with the little, pock-marked
Mexican who kept the shop, and when the fellow's back was turned toward
him for a minute, he stole a copy of _Las Nuevas_ off the pile and
strolled out of the shop with it wrapped in his El Paso paper.
He stole it because he knew that not many Americans ever bought the
paper, and he feared that the hombre in charge might wonder why an
American should pay a nickel for a copy of _Las Nuevas_. As it happened,
the hombre in charge was looking into a mirror cunningly placed for the
guarding of stock from pilferers, and he saw Starr steal the paper. Also
he saw Starr slip a dime under a stack of magazines where it would be
found later on. So he wondered a great deal more than he would have done
if Starr had bought the paper, but Starr did not know that.
Starr went back to his cabin by way of the arroyo and the hole in the
manger. When he unlocked the door and went in, he had an odd feeling that
some one had been there in his absence. He stood still just inside the
door and inspected everything, trying to remember just where his clothes
had been scattered, where he had left his hat, just how his blankets had
been flung back on the bed when he jumped up to see what had startled
Rabbit; every detail, in fact, that helps to make up the general look of
a room left in disorder.
He did remember, for his memory had been well trained for details. He
knew that his hat had been on the table with the front toward the wall.
It was there now, just as he had flung it down. He knew that his pillow
had been dented with the shape of his head, and that it had lain askew on
the bed; it was just as it had been. Everything--his boots, his dark coat
spread over the back of the chair, his trousers across the foot of the
bed--everything was the same, yet the feeling persisted.
Starr was no more imaginative than he needed to be for the work he had
to do. He was not in the least degree nervous over that work. Yet he was
sure some one had been in the room during his absence, and he could not
tell why he was sure. At least, for ten minutes and more he could not
tell why. Then his eyes lighted upon a cigarette stub lying on the
hearth of the little cookstove in one corner of the room. Starr always
used "wheat straw" papers, which were brown. This cigarette had been
rolled in white paper. He picked it up and discovered that one end was
still moist from the lips of the smoker, and the other end was still
warm from the fire that had half consumed it. Starr gave an enlightened
sniff and knew it was his olfactory nerves that had warned him of an
alien presence there; for the tobacco in this cigarette was not the
brand he smoked.
He stood thinking it over; puzzling again over the mystery of their
suspicion of him. He tried to recall some careless act, some imprudent
question, an ill-considered remark. He was giving up the riddle again
when that trained memory of his flashed before him a picture that,
trivial as it was in itself, yet was as enlightening as the white paper
of the cigarette on the stove hearth.
Two days before, just after his last arrival in San Bonito, he had sent a
wire to a certain man in El Paso. The message itself had not been of very
great importance, but the man to whom he had sent it had no connection
whatever with the Meat Company. He was, in fact, the go-between in the
investigation of the Secret Service. Through him the War Department
issued commands to Starr and his fellows, and through him it kept in
touch with the situation. Starr had used two code words and a number in
And, he now distinctly remembered, the girl who had waited upon him was
dark, with a Spanish cast of features. When she had counted the words and
checked the charge and pushed his change across to him, she had given him
a keen, appraising look from under her lashes, though the smile she sent
with it had given the glance a feminine and wholly flattering
interpretation. Starr remembered that look now and saw in it something
more than coquetry. He remembered, too, that he had glanced back from the
doorway and caught her still looking after him; and that he had smiled,
and she had smiled swiftly in return and had then turned away abruptly to
her work. To her work? Starr remembered now that she had turned and
spoken to a sulky-faced messenger boy who was sitting slumped down on the
curve of his back with his tightly buttoned tunic folded up to his
armpits so that his hands could burrow to the very bottom of his pockets.
He had looked up, muttered something, reluctantly removed himself from
the chair, and started away. The boy, too, had the Mexican look.
Well, at any rate, he knew now how the thing had started. He heaved a
sigh of relief and threw himself down on the bed, wadding the pillow
into a hard ball under the nape of his neck and unfolding the Mexican
newspaper. He had intended to move camp; but now that they had begun to
trail him, he decided to stay where he was and give them a run for their
money, as he put it.
Starr could read Spanish well enough for ordinary purposes. He went
carefully through _Las Nuevas_, from war news to the local
advertisements. There was nothing that could even be twisted into a
message of hidden meaning to the initiated. _Las Nuevas_ was what it
called itself: _The News_. It was exactly as innocuous as he had believed
it to be. Its editorial page, even, was absolutely banal in its servility
to the city, county, state and national policy.
"That's a hell of a thing to steal!" grumbled Starr, and threw the paper
disgustedly from him.
STARR FINDS SOMETHING IN A SECRET ROOM
That day Starr rode out into the country and looked at a few head of cows
and steers that a sickly American wanted to sell so he could go East for
his health (there being in most of us some peculiar psychological leaning
toward seeking health afar). Starr went back to town afterwards and made
Rabbit comfortable in the corral, reasoning that if he were going to be
watched, he would be watched no matter where he went; but he ate his
supper in the dining room of the Plaza Hotel, and sat in the lobby
talking with a couple of facetious drummers until the mechanical piano in
the movie show across the street began to play.
He went to the show, sat through it patiently, strolled out when it was
over, and visited a saloon or two. Then, when he thought his evening
might be considered well rounded out with harmless diversions, he went
out to his cabin, following the main street but keeping well in the
shadow as though he wished to avoid observation.
He had reason to believe that some one followed him out there, which did
not displease him much. He lighted his lamp and fussed around for half an
hour or so before he blew out the light and went to bed.
At three o'clock in the morning, with a wind howling in from the
mountains, Starr got up and dressed in the dark, fumbling for a pair of
"sneakers" he had placed beside his bed. He let himself out into the
corral, being careful to keep close to the wall of the house until he
reached the high board fence. Here, too, he had to feel his way because
of the pitchy blackness of the night; and if the rattling wind prevented
him from hearing any footsteps that might be behind him, it also covered
the slight sound of his own progress down the fence to the shed. But he
did not think he would be seen or followed, for he had been careful to
oil the latch and hinges of his door before he went to bed; and he would
be a faithful spy indeed who shivered through the whole night, watching a
man who apparently slept unsuspectingly and at peace.
Down the hole from the manger Starr slid, and into the arroyo bottom. He
stumbled over a can of some sort, but the wind was rattling everything
movable, so he merely swore under his breath and went on. He was not a
range man for nothing, and he found his way easily to the adobe house
with LAS NUEVAS over the door, and the adobe wall with the plank gate
that had been closed.
It was closed now, and the house itself was black and silent. Starr
stooped and gave a jump, caught the top of the wall with his hooked
fingers, went up and straddled the top where it was pitch black against
the building. For that matter, it was nearly pitch black whichever way
one looked, that night. He sat there for five minutes, listening and
straining his eyes into the enclosure. Somewhere a piece of corrugated
iron banged against a board. Once he heard a cat meow, away back at the
rear of the lot. He waited through a comparative lull, and when the wind
whooped again and struck the building with a fresh blast, Starr jumped to
the ground within the yard.
He crouched for a minute, a shot-loaded quirt held butt forward in his
hand. He did not want to use a gun unless he had to, and the loaded end
of a good quirt makes a very efficient substitute for a blackjack. But
there was no movement save the wind, so presently he followed the wall of
the house down to the corner, stood there listening for awhile and went
on, feeling his way rapidly around the entire yard as a blind man feels
out a room that is strange to him.
He found the garage, with a door that kept swinging to and fro in the
wind, banging shut with a slam and then squealing the hinges as it
opened again with the suction. He drew a breath of relief when he came to
that door, for he knew that any man who happened to be on guard would
have fastened it for the sake of his nerves if for nothing else.
When he was sure that the place was deserted for the night, Starr went
back to the garage and went inside. He fastened the door shut behind him
and switched on his pocket searchlight to examine the place. If he had
expected to see the mysterious black car there he was disappointed, for
the garage was empty--which perhaps explained the swinging door, that had
been left open in the evening when there was no wind. Small comfort in
that for Starr, for it immediately occurred to him that the car would
probably return before daylight if it had gone after dark.
He turned his hand slowly, painting the walls with a brush of brilliant
light. "Huh!" he grunted under his breath. For there in a far corner were
four Silvertown cord tires with the dust of the desert still clinging to
the creases of the lined tread. Near-by, where they had been torn off in
haste and flung aside, were the paper wrappings of four other tires,
So they--he had no more definite term by which to call them--they had
sensed the risk of those unusual tires, and had changed for others of a
more commonly-used brand! Starr wondered if some one had seen him looking
at tire-tracks, the young Mexican he had met on the side street, perhaps.
Or the Mexican garage man may have caught him studying that track by the
"Well," Starr summed up the significance of the discovery, "the game's
open; now we'll get action."
He glanced down to make sure that he had not left any tracks on the floor
and was glad he had not worn his boots. Then he snapped off the light,
went out, and left the door swinging and banging as it had been before.
If he learned no more, at least he was paid for the trip.
He went straight to the rear door of the building, taking no pains to
conceal his footsteps. The wind, he knew, would brush them out completely
with the sand and dust it sent swirling around the yard with every gust.
As he had hoped, the door was not bolted but locked with a key, so he let
himself in with one of the pass keys he carried for just such work as
this. He felt at the windows and saw that the blinds were down, and
turned on his light.
The place had all the greasy dinginess of the ordinary print shop. The
presses were here, and the motor that operated them. Being a bi-weekly
and not having much job printing to do, it was evident that _Las Nuevas_
did not work overtime. Things were cleaned up for the night and ready for
the next day's work. It all looked very commonplace and as innocent as
the paper it produced.
Starr went on slowly, examining the forms, the imperfect first proofs of
circulars and placards that had been placed on hook files. AVISO! stared
up at him in big, black type from the top of many small sheets, with the
following notices of sales, penalties attached for violations of certain
ordinances, and what not. But there was nothing that should not be there,
nothing that could be construed as seditionary in any sense of the word.
Still, some person or persons connected with this place had found it
expedient to change four perfectly good and quite expensive tires for
four new and perfectly commonplace ones, and the only explanation
possible was that the distinctive tread of the expensive ones had been
observed. There must, Starr reasoned, be something else in this place
which it would be worth his while to discover. He therefore went
carefully up the grimy stairway to the rooms above.
These were offices of the comfortless type to be found in small towns.
Bare floors, stained with tobacco juice and the dust of the street.
Bare desks and tables, some of them unpainted, homemade affairs, all
of them cheap and old. A stove in the larger office, a few
wooden-seated armchairs. Starr took in the details with a flick here
and there of his flashlight that he kept carefully turned away from the
News items, used and unused, he found impaled on desk files. Bills paid
and unpaid he found also. But in the first search he found nothing
else, nothing that might not be found in any third-rate newspaper
establishment. He stood in the middle room--there were three in a row,
with an empty, loft-like room behind--and considered where else he
He went again to a closet that had been built in with boards behind the
chimney. At first glance this held nothing but decrepit brooms, a
battered spittoon, and a small pile of greasewood cut to fit the heater
in the larger room; but Starr went in and flashed his light around the
wall. He found a door at the farther end, and he knew it for a door
only when he passed his hands over the wall and felt it yield. He
pushed it open and went into another room evidently built across one
end of the loft, a room cunningly concealed and therefore a room likely
to hold secrets.
He hitched his gun forward a little, pushed the door shut behind him, and
began to search that room. Here, as in the outer offices, the first
superficial examination revealed nothing out of the way. But Starr did
not go at things superficially. First the desk came under close scrutiny.
There were no letters; they were too cautious for that, evidently. He
looked in the little stove that stood near the wall where the chimney
went up in the closet, and saw that the ashes consisted mostly of charred
paper. But the last ones deposited therein had not yet been lighted, or,
more exactly, they had been lighted hastily and had not burned except
around the edges. He lifted out the one on top and the one beneath it.
They were two sheets of copy paper scribbled closely in pencil. The first
was entitled, with heavy underscoring that signified capitals, "Souls in
Bondage." This sounded interesting, and Starr put the papers in his
pocket. The others were envelopes addressed to _Las Nuevas_; there was no
more than a handful of papers in all.
In a drawer of the desk, which he opened with a skeleton key, he found
many small leaflets printed in Mexican. Since they were headed ALMAS DE
CAUTIVERO, he took one and hoped that it would not be missed. There were
other piles of leaflets in other drawers, and he helped himself to a
sample of each, and relocked the drawers carefully. But search as he
might, he could find nothing that identified any individual, or even
pointed to any individual as being concerned in this propaganda work; nor
could he find any mention of the Mexican Alliance.
He went out finally, let the door swing behind him as it seemed
accustomed to do, climbed through a window to the veranda that bordered
all these rooms like a jutting eyebrow, and slid down a corner post to
the street. It was close to dawn, and Starr had no wish to be found near
the place; indeed, he had no wish to be found away from his cabin if any
one came there with the breaking of day to watch him.
As he had left the cabin, so he returned to it. He went back to bed and
lay there until sunrise, piecing together the scraps of information he
had gleaned. So far, he felt that he was ahead of the game; that he had
learned more about the Alliance than the Alliance had learned about him.
As soon as the light was strong enough for him to read without a lamp, he
took from his pocket the papers he had gleaned from the stove, spread out
the first and began to decipher the handwriting. And this is what he
finally made out:
"Souls in Bondage:
"The plundering plutocrats who suck the very life blood of your mother
country under the guise of the development of her resources, are working
in harmony with the rich brigands north of the border to plunder you
further, and to despoil the fair land you have helped to win from the
"Shall strong men be content in their slavery to the greed of others?
Rise up and help us show the plunderers that we are men, not slaves. Let
this shameless persecution of your mother country cease!
"American bandits would subjugate and annex the richest portion of
Mexico. Why should not Mexico therefore reclaim her own? Why not turn the
tables and annex a part of the vast territory stolen from her by the
octopus arms of our capitalist class?
"We are a proud people and we never forget. Are we a cowardly people who
would cringe and yield when submission means infamy?
"Awake! Strike one swift, successful blow for freedom and your bleeding
"Texas, New Mexico, California and Arizona were stolen from Mexico, just
as the riches of her mines are being stolen from her to-day. Sons of
Mexico, you can help her reclaim her own. Will you stand by and see her
further despoiled? Let your voices rise in a mighty cry for justice! Let
your arms be strong to strike a blow for the right!
"Souls in bondage, wake up and strike off your shackles! Be not slaves
but free men!
"Texas, New Mexico and Arizona for Mexico, to whom they rightfully
"They sure do make it strong enough," Starr commented, feeling for a
match with which to relight his cigarette that had gone out. He laid down
the written pages and took up the leaflet entitled, "ALMAS DE CAUTIVERO."
The text that followed was like the heading, simply a translation into
Spanish of the exhortation he had just read in English. But he read it
through and noted the places where the Spanish version was even more
inflammatory than the English--which, in Starr's opinion, was going some.
The other pamphlets were much the same, citing well-known instances of
the revolution across the border which seemed to prove conclusively that
justice was no more than a jest, and that the proletariat of Mexico was
getting the worst of the bargain, no matter who happened to be in power.
Starr frowned thoughtfully over the reading. To him the thing was
treason, and it was his business to help stamp it out. For the powers
that be cannot afford to tolerate the planting of such seeds of
dissatisfaction amongst the untrained minds of the masses.
But, and Starr admitted it to himself with his mouth pulled down at the
corners, the worst of it was that under the bombast, under the
vituperative utterances, the catch phrases of radicalism, there remained
the grains of truth. Starr knew that the masses of Mexico _were_
suffering, broken under the tramplings of revolution and
counter-revolution that swept back and forth from gulf to gulf. Still, it
was not his business to sift out the plump grains of truth and justice,
but to keep the chaff from lighting and spreading a wildfire of sedition
through three States.
"'Souls in bondage' is right," he said, setting his feet to the floor
and reaching for his boots. "In bondage to their own helplessness, and
helpless because they're so damned ignorant. But," he added grimly while
he stamped his right foot into its boot, "they ain't going at it the
right way. They're tryin' to tear down, when they ain't ready to build
anything on the wreck. They're right about the wrong; but they're wrong
as the devil about the way to mend it. Them pamphlets will sure raise
hell amongst the Mexicans, if the thing ain't stopped pronto."
He dressed for riding, and went out and fed Rabbit before he went
thoughtfully up to the hotel for his breakfast.
HELEN MAY SIGHS FOR ROMANCE
Helen May was toiling over the ridgy upland which in New Mexico is called
a mesa, when it is not a desert--and sometimes when it is one--taking her
turn with the goats while Vic nursed a strained ankle and a grouch under
the mesquite tree by the house. With Pat to help, the herding resolved
itself into the exercise of human intelligence over the dog's skill. Pat,
for instance, would not of his own accord choose the best grazing for his
band, but he could drive them to good grazing once it was chosen for him.
So, theoretically, Helen May was exercising her human intelligence;
actually she was exercising her muscles mostly. And having an abundance
of brain energy that refused to lie dormant, she had plenty of time to
think her own thoughts while Pat carried out her occasional orders.
For one thing, Helen May was undergoing the transition from a mild
satisfaction with her education and mentality, to a shamed consciousness
of an appalling ignorance and mental crudity. Holman Sommers was
unwittingly the cause of that. There was nothing patronizing or
condescending in the attitude of Holman Sommers, even if he did run to
long words and scientifically accurate descriptions of the smallest
subjects. It was the work he placed before her that held Helen May
abashed before his vast knowledge. She could not understand half of what
she deciphered and typed for him, and because she could not understand
she realized the depth of her benightedness.
She was awed by the breadth and the scope which she sensed more or less
vaguely in _The Evolution of Sociology_. Holman Sommers quoted freely,
and discussed boldly and frankly, such abstruse authors as Descartes,
Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Comte, Gumplowicz, some of them names she had
never heard of and could not even spell without following her copy
letter by letter. Holman Sommers seemed to have read all of them and to
have weighed all of them and to be able to quote all of them offhand;
whereas Schopenhauer was the only name in the lot that sounded in the
least familiar to Helen May, and she had a guilty feeling that she had
always connected the name with music instead of the sort of things
Holman Sommers quoted him as having said or written, she could not make
Helen May, therefore, was suffering from mental growing pains. She
struggled with new ideas which she had swallowed whole, without any
previous elementary knowledge of the subject. Her brain was hungry, her
life was stagnant, and she seized upon these sociological problems which
Holman Sommers had placed before her, and worried over them, and wondered
where Holman Sommers had learned so much about things she had never heard
of. Save his vocabulary, which wearied her, he was the simplest, the
kindest of men, though not kind as her Man of the Desert was kind.
Just here in her thoughts Holman Sommers faded, and Starr's lean,
whimsical face came out sharply defined before her mental vision. Starr
certainly was different! Ordinary, and not educated much beyond the three
Rs, she suspected. Just a desert man with a nice voice and a gift for
provocative little silences. Two men could not well be farther apart in
personality, she thought, and she amused herself by comparing them.
For instance, take the case of Pat. Sommers had told her just why and
just how desperately she needed a dog for the goats, and had urged her by
all means to get one at the first opportunity. Starr had not said
anything about it; he had simply brought the dog. Helen May appreciated
the different quality of the kindness that does things.
Privately, she suspected that Starr had stolen that dog, he had seemed so
embarrassed while he explained how he came by Pat; especially, she
remembered, when she had urged him to take the dog back. She would not,
of course, dare hint it even to Vic; and theoretically she was of course
shocked at the possibility. But, oh, she was human! That a nice man
should swipe a dog for her secretly touched a little, responsive
tenderness in Helen May. (She used the word "swipe," which somehow made
the suspected deed sound less a crime and more an amusing peccadillo than
the word "steal" would have done. Have you ever noticed how adroitly we
tone down or magnify certain misdeeds simply by using slang or dictionary
words as the case may be?)
Oh, she saw it quite plainly, as she trudged over to the shady side of a
rock ridge and sat down where she could keep an eye on Pat and the goats.
She told herself that she would ask her Man of the Desert, the next time
he happened along, whether he had found out who the dog belonged to. If
he acted confused and dodged the issue, then she would know for sure.
Just what she would do when she knew for sure, Helen May had not decided.
The goats were browsing docilely upon the slope, eating stuff which only
a goat would attempt to eat. Helen May was not afraid of Billy since Pat
had taken charge. Pat had a way of keeping Billy cowed and as harmless
as the nannies themselves. Just now Pat was standing at a little distance
with his tongue slavering down over his white teeth, gazing over the band
as a general looks at his army drawn up in review.
He turned his head and glanced at Helen May inquiringly, then trotted
over to where she sat in the shade. His tongue still drooped quiveringly
over his lower jaw; and now and then he drew it back and licked his lips
as though they were dry. Helen May found a rock that was hollowed like a
crude saucer, and poured water into the hollow from her canteen. Pat
lapped it up thirstily, gave his stubby tail a wag of gratitude, lay down
with his front paws on the edge of her skirt with his head dropped down
upon them, and took a nap--with one eye opening now and then to see that
the goats were all right, and with his ears lifting to catch the meaning
of every stray bleat from a garrulous nanny.
Helen May had changed a good deal in the past two or three weeks. Now
when she stared away and away over the desert and barren slope and ridges
and mountain, she did not feel that she hated them. Instead, she saw that
the yellow of the desert, the brown of the slopes, and the black of the
distant granite ledges basseting from bleak hills were more beautiful
than the tidy little plots of tilled ground she used to think so lovely.
There was something hypnotic in these bald distances. She could not read,
when she was out like this; she could only look and think and dream.
She wished that she might ride out over it sometime, away over to the
mountains, perhaps, as far as she could see. She fell to dreaming of the
old days when this was Spanish territory, and the king gave royal grants
of land to his favorites: for instance, all the country lying between two
mountain ranges, to where a river cut across and formed a natural
boundary. Holman Sommers had told her about the old Spanish grants, and
how many of the vast estates of Mexican "cattle kings" and "sheep kings"
were still preserved almost intact, just as they had been when this was a
part of Mexico.
She wished that she might have lived here then, when the dons held sway
and when senoritas were all beautiful and when senoras were every one of
them imposing in many jewels and in rich mantillas, and when vaqueros
wore red sashes and beautiful serapes and big, gold-laced sombreros, and
rode prancing steeds that curveted away from jingling, silver-rowelled
spurs. Helen May, you must remember, knew her moving-picture romance. She
could easily vision these things exactly as they had been presented to
her on the screen. That is why she peopled this empty land so gorgeously.
It was different now, of course. All the Mexicans she had seen were
like the Mexicans around the old Plaza in Los Angeles. All the senoritas
she had met--they had not been many--powdered and painted abominably to
the point of their jaws and left their necks dirty. And their petticoats
were draggled and their hats looked as though they had been trimmed from
the ten-cent counter of a cheap store. All the senoras were smoky
looking with snakish eyes, and the dresses under their heavy-fringed
black mantillas were more frowsy than those of their daughters. They
certainly were not imposing; and if they wore jewelry at all it looked
brassy and cheap.
There was no romance, nothing like adventure here nowadays, said Helen
May to herself, while she watched the little geysers of dust go dancing
like whirling dervishes across the sand. A person lived on canned stuff
and kept goats and was abjectly pleased to see any kind of human being.
There certainly was no romance left in the country, though it had seemed
almost as though there might be, when her Man of the Desert sang and all
the little night-sounds hushed to listen, and the moon-trail across the
sand of the desert lay like a ribbon of silver. It had seemed then as
though there might be romance yet alive in the wide spaces.
So she had swung back again to Starr, just as she was always doing
lately. She began to wonder when he would come again, and what he would
have to say next time, and whether he had really annexed some poor sheep
man's perfectly good dog, just because he knew she needed one. It would
never do to let on that she guessed; but all the same, it was mighty nice
of him to think of her, even if he did go about it in a queer way. And
when Pat, who had seemed to be asleep, lifted his head and looked up into
her eyes adoringly, Helen May laid her hand upon his smooth skull and
No more romance, said Helen May--and here was Starr, a man of mystery, a
man feared and distrusted by the sons of those passionate dons of whom
she dreamed! Here was Starr, Secret Service man (there is ever a glamor
in the very name of it), the very essence and forefront of such romance
and such adventure as she had gasped over, when she had seen it pictured
on the screen! She was living right in the middle of intrigue that was
stirring the rulers of two nations; she was coming close to real
adventure, and there she sat, with Pat lying on the hem of her skirt, and
mourned that she was fifty or a hundred years too late for even a glimpse
at romance! And fretted because she was helping Pat herd goats, and
because life was dull and commonplace.
"Honestly," she told Pat, "I've got to the point where I catch myself,
looking forward to the chance visits of a wandering cowboy who is
perfectly commonplace. Why, he'd be absolutely lost on the screen; you
wouldn't know he was in the picture unless his horse bucked or fell down
or something! And I don't suppose he ever has a thought beyond his work
and his little five-cent celebrations in San Bonito, maybe. Most likely
he flirts with those grimy-necked Mexican girls, too. You can't tell--
"And think of me being so hard up for excitement that I've got to play
he's some mysterious creature of the desert! Honest to goodness, Pat,
it's got so bad that the mere sight of a real, live man is thrilling.
When Holman Sommers comes and lifts that old Panama like a crown prince,
and smiles at me and talks about all the different periods of the human
race, and gems and tribal laws and all that highbrow dope, I just sit and
drink it in and wish he'd keep on for hours! Can you beat that? And if by
any chance a common, ordinary specimen of desert man should ride by, I
might be desperate enough--"
Her gaze, wandering always out over the tremendous sweep of plateau which
from that point looked illimitable as the ocean, settled upon a whirlwind
that displayed method and a slow sedateness not at all in keeping with
the erratic gyrations of those gone before. Watching it wistfully with a
half-formed hope that it might not be just a dry-weather whirlwind, her
droning voice trailed off into silence. A faint beating in her throat
betrayed what it was she half hoped. She was so desperately lonesome!
Pat tilted his head and looked up at her and licked her hand until she
drew it away impatiently.
"Good gracious, Pat! Do you want to plaster me with germs?" she reproved.
And Pat dropped his head down upon his paws and eyed her furtively from
under his brown lids, waiting for her to repent her harshness and smooth
his head caressingly, as was her wont.
But Helen May was watching that slow-moving column of dust, just as
she had watched the cloud which had heralded the coming into her life
of Holman Sommers. It might be--but it couldn't, for this was away
off the road. No one would be cutting straight across that hummocky
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