Starr, of the Desert
B. M Bower
Part 4 out of 4
"Speaking in words of one syllable, we have a damn better chance than you
may think," he said, in a tone as changed as his looks. "This country
lies wide open to any attack that is sudden and unexpected. Labor is in a
state of ferment. I predict that within a year we shall find ourselves
upon the brink of a civil war, with labor and capital lined up against
each other. Unless the government takes some definite step toward
placating organized labor, the whole standing army will not be
sufficient to keep the peace. That is the present internal condition,
and that condition will grow worse until we face the real crisis of
a national strike of some sort--I believe of the railroad employees,
since that is the most far-reaching and would prove the most
disastrous--therefore the most terrifying to the ruling class.
"On the other hand, and turning our faces outward, we are not much better
prepared for an emergency. We are a conceited nation, but insufferable
national conceit never yet won a battle. We are given to shouting rather
than shooting. Americanism to-day consists chiefly of standing up while
the Star Spangled Banner is being played by a brass band, and of shooting
off rockets on our national holiday. Were I of the capitalist class, I
should consider the situation desperate. But being allied with the
workers, I can laugh.
"Speaking still in words of one syllable, Elfigo, I can safely prophesy
what will happen first when the Alliance begins its active campaign.
Scarehead news in extra editions will be printed. The uprising will be
greatly exaggerated, I have no doubt. Women and children will be reported
massacred, whereas the Alliance has no intention of being more barbarous
than any warfare necessitates. Then there will be a buzzing of leagues
and clubs; and the citizens will march up and down the business section
of every town, bearing banners and shouting for the 'dear old flag.'
Women will rise up and sell sofa pillows and doilies to raise money to
buy chewing gum for our soldier boys. That, Elfigo, will sufficiently
occupy the masses for a week or two.
"Going higher, red tape will begin to unroll and entwine the heads of
departments, and every man who has any authority whatever will wait for
orders from some one higher up. Therefore, while the whole nation cheers
the street parades and the flags and the soldier boys and everything else
in sight, the Alliance will be getting under way--"
"We'll throw her into high and step on her!" Elfigo contributed, being a
"Something like that, yes. When you consider that the transportation of
troops to quell the uprising will require anywhere from three days to
three weeks, I am counting red tape and all, you will readily apprehend
how much may be accomplished before they are in a position to handle the
"On the other hand, Mexico is filled with fighters. So much has
oppression done for the peon; it has taught him the business of fighting.
Now, I grant you, she is a nation composed of warring factions topped by
a lamentably weak provisional government. _But_ with practically every
Spanish-American over here actually participating in a movement for
Mexico, all those various factions will coalesce, as tiny brooklets flow
together to form the mighty torrent."
"Still, she's a big country to lick," Elfigo pointed out, chiefly to see
what Holly would say.
"Ah, but Mexico does not comprehend that fact! And, in the same
breath, neither does this country, as a whole, comprehend how big a
country is Mexico to lick! Give a Mexican soldado a handful of beans a
day and something to shout _Viva_ for, and he can and will fight
indefinitely. If I mistake not, it will shortly behoove this country
to temporize, to make certain concessions. Whether those concessions
extend so far as to cede these three States back to Mexico, I cannot
hazard a prediction. I can see, however, where it is not at all
improbable that New Mexico and Arizona may be considered too costly to
hold. Texas," he smiled, "Texas remembers too vividly her Alamo.
Mexico, if she is wise, does not want Texas."
"I heard yesterday there's some talk amongst the Americans about
organizing home guards. We can't stand another postponement, Holly; it
might give them time to pull off something like that. Little Luis Medina
told me he heard a target marker for the San Bonito rifle club say
something about it. He heard the members talking. You know they're using
government rifles and ammunition. It would be a hell of a note to put
things off till every town had a home guard organized."
"I can see no necessity for putting things off," said Holly calmly. "So
far as I can learn, we are practically ready, over here. Ah! Here comes
our charming neighbor from Sunlight Basin. Perhaps, Elfigo, it would be
as well for you to disappear from the premises."
"Oh, I want to meet her," Elfigo smiled easily. "It'll be all right;
I just came after water for my radiator, anyway. She's dry as a bone.
I opened the drain cock and let her drain off and stood a fine chance
of freezing my engine too, before I got on past the puddle far enough
to be safe!"
"It was, as a matter of fact, a very grave mistake to come here at all,"
Holly told him with a courteous kind of severity. "I fear you greatly
underestimate the absolute necessity for extreme caution. The mere fact
that we have thus far elicited nothing more than a vague curiosity on the
part of the government, does not excuse any imprudence now. Rather, it
intensifies the need for caution. For myself--"
"Oh, anybody is liable to run dry, out here on the desert, Holly. If all
the Secret Service men in the country, and I know of one or two that's
been nosing around, were to come and find me here, they couldn't say I
hadn't a good, legitimate reason for coming. I had to come. I didn't want
to run on to any one from that inquest, and I had to see you. I wanted to
put you wise to the stand we're taking on the Estan Medina affair. We
can't help if that somebody bumped him off, but--"
"You can fill your water bag at the well, since that is what you came
for; and I should strongly advise you to terminate your visit as soon as
it is consistent with your errand to do so."
"Oh, don't crab my meeting a pretty girl, Holly! Introduce me, and I'll
take the water and go. Be a sport!" Elfigo had picked up his
five-gallon desert bag, but he was obviously waiting for Helen May to
ride up to the house.
To Starr, crouched behind on a rock on the ridge that divided the
Sommers place from the hidden arroyo where he had first seen trace of
the automobile, Elfigo's attitude of waiting for Helen May was too
obvious to question. A little, weakling offspring of Hope died then in
his heart. He had tried so hard to find some excuse for Helen May, and
he had almost succeeded. But his glasses were too strong; they
identified Elfigo Apodaca too clearly for any doubt. They were too
merciless in showing Starr that beside Elfigo stood the man who had
visited Helen May the day before.
Recognition of the man came with something of a shock to Starr. He had
heard of Holman Sommers often enough, though he had never seen him. He
had heard him described as a "highbrow" who wrote scientific articles,
sometimes published in obscure magazines, read by few and understood by
none. A recluse student, he had been described to Starr, who knew Todd
Sommers by sight, and who had tagged the family as being too American for
any suspicion to point their way.
As often happens, Starr had formed a mental picture of Holman Sommers
which was really the picture of a type made familiar to us mostly by our
humorists. He had imagined that Holman Sommers, being a "highbrow," was a
little, dried-up man with a bald head and weak eyes that made spectacles
a part of his face; an insignificant little man well past middle life,
with a gray beard, Starr saw him mentally. He should have known better
than to let his imagination paint him a portrait of any man, in those
ticklish times. But they were Americans, which was disarming in itself.
And the plump sister, who had talked for ten minutes with Starr when he
called at the ranch one day to see if they had any stock they wanted to
sell, had further helped to ward off any suspicion.
Now that he knew, by the smoking jacket and the slippers and the
uncovered thatch of jet-black hair, that this man must be Holman Sommers;
when he saw Elfigo Apodaca there, seated and talking earnestly with him,
as he could tell by the gestures with which they elaborated their speech;
when he saw Helen May riding in to the ranch, he had before him all the
outward, visible evidence of a conference. The only false note, to
Starr's way of thinking, was the brazenness of it. They must, he told
himself, be so sure of themselves that they could snap their fingers at
risk, or else they were so desperately in need of conferring together
that they overlooked the risk. And that second explanation might easily
be the true one, in view of Estan Medina's death and the possible
consequence to the Alliance.
Starr was hampered by not hearing anything that was being said down there
at that homey-looking ranch house, where everything was clearly visible
to him through his field glasses. But even so it did not require speech
to tell him that Elfigo Apodaca had never before met Helen May Stevenson,
and that Holman Sommers was not overeager to introduce him to her. Starr,
watching every movement of the three when they came together, frowned
with puzzlement. Why had they been strangers until just now?
He saw the three stand and talk for perhaps two minutes; commonplace,
early-acquaintance nothings, he judged from their faces and actions. He
saw Helen May offer Holman Sommers the package she carried; saw Holman
take it negligently and tuck it under his arm while he went on talking.
He saw Helen May turn then and go around to the door, which was opened
effusively by the plump sister whom he knew. He saw the two men go to the
well, and watched Elfigo fill the water bag and go away down the uneven
trail to where his automobile stood, perhaps a quarter of a mile nearer
the main road. When he turned his glasses from Elfigo to the house,
Holman had gone inside, and the two women were out beyond the house
admiring a flock of chickens which Maggie called to her with a few
handfuls of grain.
There seemed no further profit in watching the Sommers house, and Starr
was about to leave his post when he saw the dingy, high-powered roadster
of the sheriff come careening up the trail. He came near upsetting his
machine in getting around Apodaca's big car, but he negotiated the
passing with some skill and came on to where he met Elfigo himself
sweating down the trail with his full five-gallon water bag.
Here again Starr wished that he could hear as well as he could see. That
the sheriff had seized the opportunity to place Elfigo under arrest, he
knew well enough, by faces and gestures, just as he had known of Elfigo's
introduction to Helen May. But here were no polite nothings being
mouthed. Elfigo was talking angrily, and Starr would have given a great
deal to hear what he was saying; calling it an outrage, he supposed, and
heaping maledictions on the stupidity of the law.
The sheriff did not seem to pay much attention to what Elfigo was saying
beyond pulling a pair of handcuffs from his coat pocket, and tossing
them to his prisoner--with the invitation to put them on, Starr knew
very well, having himself done the same thing more than once. Still
talking furiously, Elfigo obeyed, and then was invited to climb in
beside the sheriff, who stooped and did something with one of Elfigo's
stylishly trousered legs; manacled him to something in the machine,
Starr guessed. From which he also gathered that Elfigo's remarks must
have been pretty strong.
The sheriff started on, ran to where he could turn without upsetting, and
backed the car around as though his errand were done. Quick work it had
been. Evidently Sheriff O'Malley had attended the inquest with a blank
warrant in his pocket, for fear Elfigo might take alarm and give them
the slip. He must have been on the way back when he had either seen
Elfigo's car on the Sommers trail, or else had noted where it had turned
off and had come up the trail in a purely investigative spirit. However
that might be, he had not let the chance slip. Which was characteristic
of Sheriff O'Malley, essentially a man of action.
Starr should have been glad. Perhaps he was, though he did not look it as
he went back to where Rabbit was browsing on whatever he could get while
he waited for his master. Elfigo in jail even for a few days would be an
advantage, Starr believed. It would set the rest to buzzing, so that he
could locate them with less delay. But at the same time--
"If it came to a showdown right now, I'd have to take her along with the
rest," he came up squarely against his real problem. "She's got it
coming; but it's hell, all the same!"
STARR DISCOVERS THINGS
Starr was sitting on the side of his bed with one boot off and dangling
in his hand, and with his thoughts gone journeying out over the mesa and
the desert and the granite ridge beyond, to a squatty, two-room adobe
shack at the head of Sunlight Basin. During the days he had been too
fully occupied with the work he had to do to dwell much on the miserable
fact of Helen May's duplicity, her guilt of the crime of treason against
her native country. But at night the thought of her haunted him like the
fevered ache of a wound too deep to heal quickly.
He swore an abrupt oath as a concrete expression of his mood, and dropped
the boot with a thump to the floor. The word and the action served to
swing his thoughts into another channel not much more pleasant, but a
great deal more impersonal.
"He's shore foxy--that hombre!" he said, thinking of Elfigo Apodaca.
As matters stood that evening, Starr felt that Elfigo had the right to
laugh at him and the whole Secret Service. Elfigo was in jail, yes.
Only that day he had been given his preliminary hearing on the charge
of murdering Estan Medina, and he had been remanded without bail to
On the face of it, that looked as though Starr had gained a point. In
reality he felt that he had in some manner played into Elfigo's hands.
Certainly he had not gained anything in the way of producing any buzzing
of the Alliance leaders. Not a Mexican had shown his face at the hearing,
save Luis Medina and his mother, who had been called as witnesses.
Luis had been badly scared but stubborn, insisting that he had heard
Elfigo call Estan from the house just before the shot was fired. The
mother also had been badly frightened, but not at all stubborn. Indeed,
she was not even certain of anything beyond the drear fact that her son
was dead, and that he had fallen with the lamp in his hand, unarmed and
unsuspecting. She was frightened at the unknown, terrible Law that had
brought her there before the judge, and not at anything tangible.
But Luis knew exactly what it was he feared. Starr read that in his eyes
whenever they turned toward the calm, inscrutably smiling Elfigo. Hate
was in the eyes of Luis, but the hate was almost submerged by the terror
that filled him. He shook when he stood up to take the oath. His voice
trembled in spite of him when he spoke; but he spoke boldly for all
that--falsely, too. He had lied when he told of the quarrel over the old
water right. It was not a water right which the two had discussed, and
Starr knew it.
But it was Elfigo that puzzled Starr most. Elfigo had smiled, as though
the whole thing amused him even though it annoyed him to be under arrest.
He denied, of course, that he had known anything at all about the murder
until it was common news about town. He had been somewhere else at the
time Estan was shot, and he could and would prove, when the time came,
that it would have been physically impossible for him to have shot Estan
Medina. He preferred not to produce any witnesses now, however. Let it go
to a jury trial, and then he would clear himself of the charge. All
through his lawyer, of course, while Elfigo sat back with his hands in
his pockets and his feet thrust out before him, whimsically contemplating
his tan shoes.
He had seemed confident that bail would be accepted, and he was
unmistakably crestfallen when the judge, who acted under certain
instructions from those above him, refused to accept bail. But Elfigo had
scored, nevertheless; he had not permitted any of his friends to become
identified in any manner whatsoever with his movements, and he had
withheld his side of the case altogether.
So Starr was left in the dark where he had expected to find the light he
needed to direct him. He had also permitted Luis to mark himself for
another murder in the Medina family. Well, Luis was a conspirator, for
that matter; but he was a boy, and his judgment had not ripened. It
seemed a shame that a youngster like that should be drawn into such a
mess. Starr, determined to do what he could to protect Luis, had seen to
it that Luis was locked up, for the purely technical reason that he was
an important witness and they wanted to be sure of him; but really to
protect him from the wrath of Elfigo.
"And now," Starr's thoughts ran on, "I stand just where I stood before,
except that I know a whole heap more than I wish I knew. And if the thing
breaks loose before the trial, Elfigo will be in jail where he's got a
cast-iron alibi. The rest of the bunch must be strong enough to go on
without him, but I shore did hope they'd be stirred up some over this
shooting. They'll likely get together right away, hold a meeting and make
arrangements to do without Elfigo. If I knew where..."
He lifted the other foot to remove its boot, hesitated, and set it down
again. Surely the Alliance would have to adjust itself to the loss of
Elfigo. They would get together, and what buzzing they did would be
behind barred doors, since they had been too cunning to show themselves
at the hearing; that night, probably, since they knew now that Elfigo had
been bound over to the grand jury, and that he was held without bail.
Where would they meet? That was what Starr wished he knew.
He sat there rumpling his hair and studying the question. He could not
fix upon any particular place, unless it was the Sommers ranch; and that
was too far from town for any urgent business, and travelers to and from
the place would be taking too great a risk. For he was sure there would
be a dozen or more who would make up the Junta, and for so many men to be
traveling in one direction would excite curiosity from any one who saw
them leave town or return.
There was another possible meeting place--the office of _Las Nuevas_.
Starr thought of that rather hopelessly. Just as a common precaution,
they would guard the doors if the Junta met there, or they would have men
stationed on the stairs; that he would not be able to get up without
giving the alarm he knew as well as though he had tried and failed.
His thoughts went to that hidden, inner office where he had found the
pamphlets and the writing that pointed to Helen May as one of the band.
There, where there were no outside windows to betray a midnight
conference by any showing of light within; where eavesdropping was
absolutely impossible; where the men who met there might gain the yard by
various means, since it faced on three streets, and be practically safe
from observation, he became convinced would be the logical meeting place.
To be sure, he was only guessing. He had no evidence whatever save his
own reason that there would be a meeting, much less that it would be held
in the secret office room of _Las Nuevas_. But he put on the boot he had
taken off and reached for his coat. A half hour or so ought to prove him
right or wrong in his deductions, and Starr would not have grudged a full
night to satisfy himself on that point.
It was late, nearly midnight, to be exact, when he slipped out to the
shed, and watched from its shadow until he was sure that no one had seen
him, before he let himself down through the hole in the manger to the
arroyo bottom. He went hurriedly, but he was very careful not to show
himself without first making sure that the way was clear.
For that reason he escaped being seen by a tall young Mexican whom he
caught sight of lounging at the corner opposite the building that held
_Las Nuevas_. Ostensibly the fellow had merely stopped to light a
cigarette, but while Starr watched him he struck three matches in
succession, and immediately afterwards a shadow glided from the shelter
of a plumber's shop opposite, slipped down to the gate that was always
barred, and disappeared.
Starr circled warily to the rear of the yard to see what chance there
might be of getting over the wall unseen. He did not know what good it
would do him to get into the yard, but he hoped that he might be lucky
enough to see any one who entered the back door, which would be the
logical means of ingress.
He was standing back of the garage where he had found the cord tires,
when the quiet of the night was split with the shrill, nerve-racking
shriek of the fire whistle, four or five blocks away. In spite of
himself, he was startled with its suddenness, and he stood tensed and
waiting for the dismal hoots that would tell what ward the fire was
in. One--two--three, croaked the siren like a giant hoot-owl calling
in the night.
"Third ward--down around the depot, probably," he heard a voice say
guardedly on the other side of the fence. Another voice, more guarded
even than the first, muttered a reply which Starr could not catch.
Neither voice was recognizable, and the sentence he heard was so obvious
a remark as to be practically meaningless; probably a hundred persons in
town had said "Third ward," when the siren had tooted the number.
At any rate some one was there in the yard of _Las Nuevas_, and it would
not be wise for Starr to attempt getting over the wall. He waited
therefore until he heard careful footsteps moving away; whereupon he
himself stole quietly to the corner, thence down the side wall to the
front of the building, so that he could look across the street to where
the Mexican had revealed himself for a moment in the light of a distant
If the Mexican had been on watch there, he had left his post. In a minute
Starr saw him hurrying down the unused side street, toward the angry glow
that told where the fire had started. Too much temptation, Starr
interpreted the fellow's desertion of his post; or else no more men were
expected at _Las Nuevas_, and the outpost was no longer needed. Taking it
for granted that a meeting had been called here, Starr reasoned from that
He waited another minute or two, watching and listening. There was
nothing at the front to break the quiet or spoil the air of desertion
that surrounds an empty office building at midnight. He went cautiously
to the rear corner and turned there to look back at the building,
watchful for any stray beam of light or any movement.
The upper story was dark as the rest of the yard and building, and Starr
could almost believe that he was on the wrong track entirely, and that
nothing was going on here. But he continued to stand there, loath to give
up and go home with nothing accomplished.
Close beside the building and back perhaps twenty feet from the front
corner, a telephone and electric light pole stood with outstretched arms,
holding aloft its faintly humming wires. Starr stood looking that way for
some time before it occurred to him that there was no street light near
enough to send that warm, yellow glow across the second bar from the
bottom. The rest of the pole was vague and shadowy, like everything else
in the immediate neighborhood. The bottom of the pole he could not see at
all from where he stood, it was so dark alongside the building. But that
second cross-arm was lighted as from a near-by window. Yet there was no
lighted window anywhere in the place.
Starr was puzzled. Being puzzled, he went slowly toward the pole, his
face turned upward. The nearest street lamp was a full block away, and it
would have lighted up the whole top of the pole evenly, if at all. At the
foot of the pole Starr stood for a minute, still staring upward. Then he
reached up, gripped the metal steps and began carefully to climb.
Before he had reached the lighted cross-arm he knew that the glow must
come from a skylight; and that the skylight must be the one that had
saved that hidden little office room from being dark. He was no lineman,
but he knew enough to be careful about the wires, so it took him several
minutes to work his way to where he could straddle a crosstree that had
Just below him and no more than twelve or fifteen feet distant was the
skylight he had suspected, but before he gave that much attention, he
looked across to where the fire was sending up a column of crimson smoke
and bright, eddying sparks, four blocks or so away. The man left on guard
would find it difficult to tear himself away from all that excitement,
Starr thought satisfiedly; though if he came back he could scarcely help
seeing Starr on that lighted perch, and he would undoubtedly take a shot
at him if he were any man at all and had a spark of loyalty to his
fellows. For Starr's business up there could not be mistaken by the
stupidest greaser in the town.
With the fire to help his cause, Starr craned toward the building and
looked down through the skylight. It had been partly raised for
ventilation, which was needed in that little, inside room, especially
since twelve men were foregathered there, and since every man in the lot
was burning tobacco in some form.
Sommers was there, seated at the end of a table that had been moved
into the center of the room, which brought it directly under the
skylight. He sat facing Starr, and he was reading something to himself
while the others waited in silence until he had finished. His strong,
dark face was grave, his high forehead creased with the wrinkles of
deep thinking. He had a cigar in one corner of his mouth, and he was
absentmindedly chewing it rather than smoking. He looked the leader,
though his clothes were inclined to shabbiness and he sat slouched
forward in his chair. He looked the leader, and their leader those
others proclaimed him by their very silence, and by the way their faces
turned toward him while they waited.
THROUGH THE OPEN SKYLIGHT
Sommers took his cigar from his mouth and laid it carefully down upon the
edge of the table, although he was plainly unconscious of the movement.
He lifted his head with a little toss that threw back a heavy lock of his
jet-black hair. He glanced around the table, and his eyes dominated those
"I have here," he began in the sonorous voice and the measured
enunciation of the trained orator, "a letter from our esteemed--and
unfortunate--comrade and fellow worker, Elfigo Apodaca. Without taking
your valuable time by reading the letter through from salutation to
signature, I may say briefly that its context is devoted to our cause and
to the inconvenience which may be entailed because of our comrade's
present incarceration, the duration of which is as yet undetermined.
"Comrade Apodaca expresses great confidence in his ultimate release. He
maintains that young Medina is essentially a traitor, and that his
evidence at the preliminary hearing was given purely in the spirit of
revenge. That Comrade Apodaca will be exonerated fully of the charge of
murder, I myself can entertain no scintilla of doubt. We may therefore
dismiss from our minds any uneasiness we may, some of us, have
entertained on that score.
"The question we are foregathered here to decide to-night is whether the
date set for our public demonstration shall remain as it stands; whether
we shall seek permission to postpone that date, or whether it shall be
deemed expedient to set it forward to the earliest possible moment. As
you all are doubtless aware, our esteemed compatriots in Mexico are ready
and waiting our pleasure, like hounds straining at the leash. The work of
organization on this side of the line has of necessity been slow, because
of various adverse influences and a slothful desire for present ease and
safety, which we have been constrained to combat. Also the accumulation
of arms and ammunition in a sufficient quantity for our purpose without
exciting suspicion has required much tactful manipulation.
"But we have here assembled the trusted representatives from our twelve
districts in the State, and I trust that each one of you has come
prepared to furnish this Junta with the data necessary for an
intelligent action upon the question we have to decide to-night. Am I
right, gentlemen, in that assumption?"
Eleven men nodded assent and looked down at the slips of paper they had
produced from inner pockets and held ready in their hands.
"Then I shall ask you, compadres, to listen carefully to the report from
each district, so that you may judge the wisdom of foreshortening the
interval between to-night and the date set for the uprising.
"Each representative will give the number, in his district, of armed
members of the Alliance; the amount of ammunition at hand; the number of
agents secretly occupying positions of trust where they can give the most
aid to the movement; the number of Spanish-Americans who, like our
unfortunate neighbor, Estancio Medina, have refused thus far to come into
the Alliance; the number, in his district, who may be counted upon to
come in, once they see that the cause is not hopeless; who may be
expected to take the purely American side, and who may be safely depended
upon to remain neutral. I shall ask each of you to tell us also the
extent and nature of such opposition as your district must be prepared to
meet. There has been a rumor of some preparation for resistance to our
movement, and we shall want to know all that you can tell us of that
phase of the situation as observed in your district.
"These seemingly unimportant details are absolutely essential, gentlemen
of the Junta. For in this revolutionary movement you must bear in mind
that brother will rise up against brother, as it were. You will be called
upon, perchance, to slay the dearest friend of your school days; your
neighbor, if so be he is allied against you when the great day comes. We
must not weaken; we must keep our eyes fixed upon the ultimate good that
will come out of the turmoil. But we must know! We must not make the
irretrievable error of taking anything for granted. Keeping that in mind,
gentlemen, we will hear first the report from Bernalillo district."
A man at the right of Sommers unfolded his little slip of paper, cleared
his throat and began, in strongly accented English, to read. The eleven
who listened leaned forward, elbows on the table, and drank in the
terrible figures avidly. Sommers set down the figures in columns and made
notes on the pad before him, his lips pressed together in a straight line
that twisted now and then with a sinister kind of satisfaction.
"That, gentlemen, is how the Cause stands in the county that has the
largest population and approximately the smallest area of any county in
the State. While this report is not altogether new to me, yet I am
struck anew with the great showing that has been made in that county.
With the extensive yards and shops of the Santa Fe at Albuquerque seized
and held by our forces, together with the junction points and--"
Starr did not wait to hear any more, but edged hastily back to the pole
and began to climb down as though a disturbed hornets' nest hung above
him. The report that had so elated Sommers sent a chill down Starr's
back. If one county could show so appalling an insurrectory force, what
of the whole State? Yes, and the other States involved! And the thing
might be turned loose at any time!
He dropped to the ground, sending a scared glance for the watchman who
had gone to the fire. He was nowhere to be seen, and Starr, running to
the rear of the lot, skirted the high wall at a trot; crossed a narrow,
black alley, hurried down behind the next lots to the cross street,
walked as fast as he dared to the next corner, turned into the main
street, and made for the nearest public telephone booth.
He sweated there in the glass cage for a long ten minutes before he had
managed to get in touch with Sheriff O'Malley and the chief of police,
and to tell each in turn what he wanted and where they must meet him, and
how many minutes they might have to do it in. He came out feeling as
though he had been in there an hour, and went straight to the rendezvous
he had named, which was a shed near the building of _Las Nuevas_, only on
They came, puffing a little and a good deal mystified. Starr, not
daring to state his real business with them, had asked for men to
surround and take a holdup gang. All told, there were six of them when
all had arrived, and they must have been astounded at what Starr told
them in a prudent undertone and speaking swiftly. They did not say
anything much, but slipped away after him and came to the high wall
that hid so much menace.
"There was a hombre on guard across the street," Starr told the sheriff.
"He went off to the fire, but he's liable to come back. Put a man over
there in the shade of that junk shop to watch out for him and nab him
before he can give the alarm. This is ticklish work, remember. Any
Mexican in town would knife you if he knew what you're up to.
"Johnson, you can climb the pole and pull down on 'em through the
skylight, but wait till you see by their actions that they've got the tip
something's wrong, and don't shoot if you can help it. Remember this is
Secret Service work, and the quieter it's done, the better pleased
they'll be in Washington. There can't be any hullabaloo at all. You two
fellows watch the front and back gates, and the no-shooting rule goes
with you, too. If there's anything else you can do, don't shoot. But it's
better to fire a cannon than let a man get away. Sabe? Now, Chief, you
and the sheriff can come with me, and we'll bust up the meetin' for 'em."
He went up on the shoulder of the man who was to watch outside the rear
wall, and straddled the wall for a brief reconnoiter. Evidently the Junta
felt safe in their hidden little room, for no guard had been left in the
yard. The back door was locked, and Starr opened it as silently as he
could with his pass key. Close behind him came Sheriff O'Malley and the
chief of police, whose name was Whittier. They had left their shoes
beside the doorstep and walked in their socks, making no noise at all.
Starr did not dare use his searchlight, but felt his way down past the
press and the forms, to where the stairs went up to the second floor. On
the third step from the bottom, Starr, feeling his way with his hands,
touched a dozing watchman and choked him into submission before the
fellow had emitted more than a sleepy grunt of surprise. They left him
gagged and tied to the iron leg of some heavy piece of machinery, and
went on up the stairs, treading as stealthily as a prowling cat.
Starr turned to the right, found the door locked, and patiently turned
his key a hair's breadth at a time in the lock, until he slid the bolt
back. Behind him the repressed breathing of O'Malley fanned warmly the
back of his neck. He pushed the door open a half inch at a time, found
the outer office dark and silent, and crossed it stealthily to the closet
behind the stove. O'Malley and Whittier were so close behind that he
could feel them as they entered the closet and crept along its length.
Starr was reaching out before him with his hands, feeling for the door
into the secret office, when Sheriff O'Malley struck his foot against the
old tin spittoon, tried to cover the sound, and ran afoul of the brooms,
which tripped him and sent him lurching against Starr. There in that
small space where everything had been so deathly still the racket was
appalling. O'Malley was not much given to secret work; he forgot himself
now and swore just as full-toned and just as fluently as though be had
tripped in the dark over his own wheelbarrow in his own back yard.
Starr threw himself against the end of the closet where he knew the door
was hidden in the wall, felt the yielding of a board, and heaved against
it with his shoulder. He landed almost on top of a fat-jowled
representative from Santa Fe, but he landed muzzle foremost, as it were,
and he was telling the twelve to put up their hands even before he had
his feet solidly planted on the floor.
Holman Sommers sat facing him. He had been writing, and he still held his
pencil in his hand. He slowly crumpled the sheet of paper, his vivid eyes
lifted to Starr's face. Tragic eyes they were then, for beyond Starr they
looked into the stern face of the government he would have defied. They
looked upon the wreck of his dearest dream; upon the tightening chains of
the wage slaves he would have freed--or so he dreamed.
Starr stared back, his own mind visioning swiftly the havoc he had
wrought in the dream of this leader of men. He saw, not a political
outlaw caught before he could do harm to his country, but a man fated to
bear in his great brain an idea born generations too soon into a brawling
world of ideas that warred always with sordid circumstance. A hundred
years hence this man might be called great. Now he was nothing more than
a political outlaw chief, trapped with his band of lesser outlaws.
Sommers' eyes lightened impishly. His thin lips twisted in a smile at the
damnable joke which Life was playing there in that room.
"Gentlemen of the Junta," he said in his sonorous, public-platform
voice, "I find it expedient, because of untoward circumstances, to
advise that you make no resistance. From the unceremonious and
unheralded entry of our esteemed opponents, these political prostitutes
who have had the effrontery to come here in the employ of a damnable
system of political tyranny and frustrate our plans for the liberation
of our comrades in slavery, I apprehend the fact that we have been
basely betrayed by some foul Judas among us. I am left with no
alternative but to advise that you surrender your bodies to these
minions of what they please to call the law.
"Whether we part now, to spend the remaining years of our life in some
foul dungeon; whether to die a martyr's death on the scaffold, or whether
the workers of the land awake to their power and, under some wiser,
stronger leadership, liberate us to enjoy the fruits of the harvest we
have but sown, I cannot attempt to prophesy. We have done what we could
for our fellowmen. We have not failed, for though we perish, yet our
blood shall fructify what we have sown, that our sons and our sons' sons
may reap the garnered grain. Gentlemen, of the Junta, I declare our
Starr's eyes were troubled, but his gun did not waver. It pointed
straight at the breast of Holman Sommers, who looked at him measuringly
when he had finished speaking.
"I can't argue about the idea back of this business," Starr said gravely.
"All I can do is my duty. Put on these handcuffs, Mr. Sommers. They stand
for something you ain't big enough to lick--yet."
"Certainly," said Holman Sommers composedly. "You put the case like a
philosopher. Like a philosopher I yield to the power which, I grant you,
we are not big enough to lick--yet. In behalf of our Cause, however,
permit me to call your attention to the fact that we might have come
nearer to victory, had you not discovered and interrupted this meeting
to-night." Though his face was paler than was natural, he slipped on the
manacles as matter-of-factly as he would have put on clean cuffs, and
rose from his chair prepared to go where Starr directed.
"No, sit down again," said Starr brusquely. "Sheriff, gather up all those
pieces of paper for evidence against these men, and give them to me. Give
me a receipt for the men--I'll wait for it. I want you and Chief Whittier
to hold them here in this room till I come back. I won't be long--half an
hour, maybe." He took the slips of paper which the sheriff folded and
handed to him, and slipped them into his pocket.
He was gone a little longer than he said, for he had some trouble in
locating the railroad official he wanted, and in convincing that sleepy
official that he was speaking for the government when he demanded an
engine and day coach to be placed on a certain dark siding he mentioned,
ready for a swift night run to El Paso and a little beyond--to Fort
Bliss, in fact.
He got it, trust Starr for that! And he was only twenty minutes behind
the time he had named, though the sheriff and the chief of police
betrayed a nervous relief when he walked in upon them and announced that
he was ready now to move the prisoners.
They untied the terrified watchman and added him to the group. In the
dark, and by way of vacant lots and unlighted streets, he took them to a
certain point where an engine had just backed a single, unlighted day
coach on to a siding and stood there with air-pump wheezing and the
engineer crawling around beneath with his oil can. By the rear steps of
the coach a mystified conductor stood waiting with his lantern hidden
under his coat. A big man was the conductor; once a policeman and
therefore with a keen nose--don't laugh!--for mysteries.
He wore a satisfied look when he saw the men that were being hustled into
the car. His uniform tightened as he swelled with the importance of his
mission. He nodded to Sheriff O'Malley and the chief of police, cast an
obliquely curious glance at Starr, who stayed on the ground, and when
Starr gave the word he swung his lantern to the watching fireman, and
caught the handrail beside the steps.
"Fort Bliss it is; and there won't nothing stop us, buh-lieve me!" he
muttered confidentially to Starr, whom he recognized only as the man who
stood behind the mystery. The engine began to creep forward, and he swung
up to the lower step. "We may go in the ditch or something; but we'll get
there, you listen to me!"
"Go to it, and good luck," said Starr, but there was no heartiness in his
voice. He stood with his thumbs hooked inside his gun-belt and watched
the coach that held the peace of the country within its varnished walls
go sliding out of the yard, its green tail lights the only illumination
anywhere behind the engine. When it had clicked over the switch and was
picking up speed for its careening flight south through the cool hours of
early morning, he gave a sigh that had no triumph in it, and turned away
toward his cabin.
"Well, there goes the revolution," he said somberly to himself. "And here
I go to do the rest of the job; and alongside what I've got to do, hell
would be a picnic!"
STARR TAKES ANOTHER PRISONER
With a slip of paper in his pocket that would have gone a long way toward
clearing Helen May, had he only taken the trouble to look at it, Starr
rode out in the cool early morning to Sunlight Basin. He looked white and
worn, and his eyes were sunken and circled with the purple of too little
sleep and too much worry, for in the three days since he had seen her,
Starr had not been able to forget his misery once in merciful sleep. Only
when he was busy with capturing the Junta had he lost for a time the keen
pain of his hurt.
Now it was back like an aching tooth set going again with cold water or
sweets. He tried to make himself think that he hated Helen May, and that
a girl of that type--a girl who could lend herself to such
treachery--could not possibly win from him anything but a pitying
contempt. He told himself over and over again that he was merely sore
because a girl had "put something over on him"; that a man hated to have
a woman make a fool of him.
He tried to gloat over the fact that he had found her out before she had
any inkling of how he felt toward her; he actually believed that! He
tried not to wince at the thought of her at Fort Bliss, a Federal
prisoner, charged with conspiring against the government. She must have
known the risk she took, he kept telling himself. The girl was no fool,
was way above the average in intelligence. That was why she had appealed
to him; he had felt the force of her personality, the underlying strength
of her character that had not harshened her outward charm, as strength so
often does for a woman.
That was the worst of it. Had she been weak she would never have mixed
with any political conspiracy; they would not have wanted her, for
intrigue has no place for weaklings. But had she been weak she would
never have attracted Starr so deeply, however innocent she might have
been. So his reasoning went round and round in a circle, until he was
utterly heartsick with no hope of finding peace.
There was one thing he could do: it would be tightening the screws of his
torture, but he meant to do it for her sake. He would take her to Fort
Bliss himself, shielding her from publicity and humiliation; and he would
take charge of Vic, and see that the kid did not suffer too much on
account of his sister.
He would make a man of Vic; he never guessed that he was taking up
mentally the burden which Peter had laid upon Helen May. He believed
there was good stuff in that kid, and with the right handling he would
come out all right. He would put in a plea to his chief for leniency
toward the girl too. He would say that she was young and inexperienced
and that Holman Sommers had probably drawn her into his scheme--Starr
could see how that might easily be--and that her health was absolutely
dependent upon open air. They couldn't keep her shut up long; a girl
could not do much harm, if the rest of the bunch was convicted. Maybe
the lesson and the scare would be all she needed to pull her back into
lawful living. She was not a hardened adventuress; why, she couldn't be
much over twenty-one or two! After a while, when she had straightened
up, maybe ...
So Starr thought and thought, fighting to keep a little hope alive, to
see a little gleam of light in the blackness of his soul. His head bent,
his eyes staring unseeingly at the yellow-brown dust of the trail, he
rode along unconscious of everything save the battle raging fiercely
within. He did not know what pace Rabbit was taking; he even forgot that
he was on Rabbit's back. He did not know that his duty as a man and his
man's love were fighting the fiercest battle of his life, or if he did,
he never thought to call it a battle.
There had been one black night in the cabin--the night before this last
one, it was--when he had considered for a while how he might smuggle
Helen May out of the country, suppressing the fact of her complicity. He
planned just how he could put her on a train and "shoot her to Los
Angeles," as he worded it to himself. How she could take a boat there for
Vancouver, and how he could hold back developments here until he knew she
was safe. He figured the approximate cost and the hole it would make in
his little savings account. He thought of everything, even to marrying
her before she left, so that he could not be compelled to testify against
her, in case she was caught.
He had dozed afterwards, and had dreamed that he put his plan to the test
of reality. He had married Helen May and taken her himself to Los
Angeles. But there had not been money enough for him to go any farther,
and his chief had wired him peremptorily to return and arrest the leaders
of the Alliance and all connected with it. So he had bought a steerage
ticket for Helen May and put her aboard the boat, where she must herd
with a lot of leering Chinamen. He had stood on the pier and watched the
boat swing out and nose its way to the open sea, and a submarine had
torpedoed it when it had sailed beyond the three-mile limit off the
coast, so he could not go after her. He was just taking off his coat to
try it, anyway, when he awoke.
That was all the good his sleep had done him: set him upright in bed with
a cold sweat on his face and his hands shaking. But the reaction from
that nightmare had been complete, and Starr had not again planned how he
might dodge his plain duty. But he kept thinking around and around the
subject for all that, as though he could not give up entirely the hope of
being able to save her somehow.
He did not know, until he passed the corral, that he was already in
Sunlight Basin, and that the house stood just up the slope before him.
Rabbit must have taken it for granted that Starr was bound for this place
and so had kept the trail of his own accord, for Starr could not remember
turning from the main road. He did not even know that he had passed not
more than a hundred yards from Vic and the goats, and that Vic had
shouted "hello" to him.
He took a long breath when he glanced up and saw the house so close, but
he did not attempt to dodge or even delay the final tragedy of his
mission. He let Rabbit keep straight on. And when the horse stopped
before the closed front door, Starr slid off and walked, like a tired old
man, to the door and knocked.
Helen May had been washing the breakfast dishes, and Starr heard the
muffled sound of her high-heeled slippers clicking over the bare floor
for a minute before she came into the front room and opened the door. She
had a dish towel over her right arm, opening the door with her left.
Starr knew that the dish towel was merely a covering for her six-shooter,
and his heart hardened a little at that fresh reminder of her
preparedness and her guile.
"Why, good morning, desert man," she said brightly, after the first
little start of surprise. "Come on in. The coffee's fine this morning;
and I just had a hunch I'd better not throw it out for a while yet.
There's a little waffle batter left, too."
Starr had choked down a cup of coffee and a sandwich at the station lunch
counter before he left San Bonito, and he was glad now that he was not
hungry. He stepped inside, but he did not smile back at Helen May; nor
could he have accepted her hospitality to save himself from starvation.
He felt enough like Judas as it was.
"Don't put down your gun yet," he said abruptly, standing beside the door
with his hat in his hand, as though his visit would be very short. "You
can shoot me if you want to, but that's about all the leeway I can give
you. I rounded up the revolution leaders last night. They're likely at
Fort Bliss by now, so you can take your choice between handing me a
bullet, or going along with me to Fort Bliss. Because if I live, that's
where I'll have to take you. And," he added as an afterthought, "I don't
care much which it is."
Helen May stood with her chin tilted down, and stared at him from under
her eyebrows. She did not speak for a minute, and Starr leaned back
against the closed door with his arms folded negligently and his hat
dangling from one hand, waiting her decision. He stared back at her,
somberly apathetic. He had spoken the simple truth when he said he did
not care which she decided to do. He had come to the limit of suffering,
it seemed to him. He could look into her tawny brown eyes now without any
"You don't smell drunk," said Helen May suddenly and very bluntly, "and
you don't look crazy. What is the matter with you, Starr of the desert?
Is this a joke, or what?"
"It didn't strike me as any joke," Starr told her passionlessly.
"Thirteen of them I rounded up. Holman Sommers was the head of the whole
thing. Elfigo Apodaca is in jail, held for the shooting of Estan Medina.
Luis Medina is in jail too, held as a witness and to keep Apodaca's men
from killing him before he can testify in court. I hated to see the kid
tangled up with it--and I hate to see you in it. But that don't give me
any license to let you off. You're under arrest. I'm a Secret Service
man, sent here to prevent the revolution that's been brewing all spring
and summer. I guess I've done it, all right." He stared at her with
growing bitterness in his eyes. His hurt began dully to ache again.
"Helen May, what in God's name did you tangle up with 'em for?" he
flashed in a sudden passion of grief and reproach.
Helen May's chin squared a little; but she who had not screamed when she
found her father dead in his bed; she who had read his letter without
whimpering held her voice quiet now, though womanlike she answered
Starr's question with another.
"What makes you think I am tangled up with it? What reason have you got
for connecting me with such a thing?"
A stain of anger reddened Starr's cheek bones, that had been pale. "What
reason? Well, I'll tell you. In the office of _Las Nuevas_, in that
little, inside room with the door opening out of a closet to hide it,
where I got my first real clue, I found two sheets of paper with some
strong revolutionary stuff written in English. Also I found a pamphlet
where the same stuff had been printed in Spanish. I kept that writing,
and I kept the pamphlet. I've got it now. I'd know the writing anywhere
I saw it, and I saw a sample of it here in this very room, when the wind
blew those papers off your desk."
"You--in this room!" Helen May caught her breath. "Why--why, you couldn't
have! I never wrote any revolution stuff in my life! Why--I don't know
the first thing about _Las Nuevas_, as you call it. How could my
writing--?" She caught her breath again, for she remembered.
"Why, Starr of the desert, that was Holman Sommers' writing you saw! I
remember now. Some pages of his manuscript blew off the desk when you
were here. See, I can show you a whole pile of it!" She ran to the desk,
Starr following her mechanically. "See? All kinds of scientific junk that
he wanted typed. Isn't that the writing you meant? Isn't it?" Her hands
trembled so that the papers she held close to Starr's face shook, but
Starr recognized the same symmetrical, hard-to-read chirography.
"Yes, that's it." His voice was so husky that she could hardly hear him.
He moistened his lips, that had gone dry. Was it possible? His mind kept
asking over and over.
"And here! I don't ask you to take my word for it--I know that just those
pages don't prove anything, because I might have written that stuff
myself--if I knew enough! But here's a lot that he sent over by the
stage driver yesterday. I haven't even opened it yet. You can see the
same handwriting in the address, can't you? And if he has written a
note--he does sometimes--and signed it--he always signs his name in
full--why, that will be proof, won't it?" Her eyes burned into his and
steadied a little his whirling thoughts.
"Open it, desert man! Open it, and see if there's a note! And you can ask
the stage driver, if you don't believe me; here, break the string!"
She was now more eager than he to see what was inside the wrapping of
newspaper. "See? That's an El Paso paper--and I don't take anything but
the _Times_ from Los Angeles! Oh, goody! There is a note! You read it,
Starr. Read it out loud. If that doesn't convince you, why--why I can
prove by Vic--"
Starr had unfolded the sheet of tablet paper, and Helen May interrupted
herself to listen. Starr's voice was uneven, husky when he tried to
control the quiver in it. And this he read, in the handwriting of which
he had such bitter knowledge:
"My Dear Miss Stevenson:
"I am enclosing herewith a part of Chapter Two, which I have revised
considerably and beg you to retype for me. If you have no asterisk sign
upon your machine, will you be so kind as to make use of the period sign
to indicate a break in the context of the quotations from the various
authors whom I have cited?
"I wish to inform you that I am deeply sorry to place this extra burden
of work upon you, and also assure you that I am more than delighted with
the care you have exercised in deciphering correctly my most abominable
"May I also suggest, with all due respect to your intelligence and with a
keen appreciation of the potent influences of youth and romance upon even
the drudgery of an amanuensis, that in writing "stars of the universe" in
a scientific document, the connotation is marred somewhat when stars is
"Very apologetically your friend,
It took several seconds for the full significance of that last
paragraph to sink into minds so absorbed with another matter. But when
it did sink in--
"Oh-h!" gasped Helen May, and backed a step, her face the color of a red
Starr looked up from reading those pregnant words a second time to
himself. He reached out and caught Helen May by her two shoulders.
"Did you do that?" he whispered impellingly. "Did you spell my name into
that man's manuscript?"
"No, I didn't! I don't believe I did--I never noticed--well, even if I
did, that doesn't mean--anything." I hope the printers will set that
_anything_ in their very smallest type, just to show you how weak and
futile and scarcely audible and absolutely unconvincing the word sounded.
For one reason, Helen May did not have much breath to say it with; and
for another reason, she knew there was not much use in saying it.
* * * * *
Helen May, sitting unabashed on Starr's lap, with an arm around his
neck and her head on his shoulder, with her dish towel and gun lying
just where she had dropped them on the floor some time before, took
Peter's last letter from Starr's fingers and drew it tenderly down
along her cheek.
"I only wish you could have known dad," she said with a gentle melancholy
that was a great deal lightened by her present happiness. "He wasn't at
all striking on the surface; he was so quiet and so unassuming. But he
was just the dearest and the bravest man--and when I think what he did
"I know he was dear and brave; I can judge by his daughter." Starr
reached up and prisoned hand and letter together and held them against
his lips. "Seems like a nightmare now that I ever thought--And to think I
headed out here to..."
"Well, I _am_ your prisoner." Helen May answered that part of the
sentence which Starr had left unspoken. "Listen, desert man o' mine.
I--I want to be your prisoner forever and ever and ever!"
"You won't get anything less than a life sentence, lady! And--"
"Hully gosh!" Vic, bursting open the door just in the middle of a kiss,
skidded precipitately through to the kitchen. "Fade out!" he advised
himself as he went. "But say! When you get around to it, I'd like
something to eat, Helen Blazes!"
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