OVER THE PASS
BY FREDERICK PALMER
AUTHOR OF THE VAGABOND, DANBURY RODD, ETC.
PART I—AN EASY TRAVELLER
I YOUTH IN SPURS
II DINOSAUR OR DESPERADO
III JACK RIDES IN COMPANY
IV HE CARRIES THE MAIL
V A SMILE AND A SQUARE CHIN
VI OBLIVION IS NOT EASY
VII WHAT HAPPENED AT LANG'S
VIII ACCORDING TO CODE
IX THE DEVIL IS OUT
X MARY EXPLAINS
XI SENOR DON'T CARE RECEIVES
XII MARY BRINGS TRIBUTE
XIII A JOURNEY ON CRUTCHES
XIV "HOW FAST YOU SEW!"
XV WHEN THE DESERT BLOOMS
XVI A CHANGE OF MIND
XVII THE DOGE SNAPS A RUBBER BAND
XVIII ANOTHER STRANGER ARRIVES
XIX LOOKING OVER PRECIPICES
XX A PUZZLED AMBASSADOR
XXI "GOOD-BY, LITTLE RIVERS!"
XXII "LUCK, JACK, LUCK!"
PART II—HE FINDS HIMSELF
XXIII LABELLED AND SHIPPED
XXIV IN THE CITADEL OF THE MILLIONS
XXV "BUT WITH YOU, YES, SIR!"
XXVII BY RIGHT OF ANCESTRY
XXVIII JACK GETS A RAISE
XXIX A MEETING ON THE AVENUE TRAIL
XXX WITH THE PHANTOMS
XXXI PRATHER WOULD NOT WAIT
XXXII A CRISIS IN THE WINGFIELD LIBRARY
XXXIII PRATHER SEES THE PORTRAIT
XXXIV "JOHN WINGFIELD, YOU—"
PART III—HE FINDS HIS PLACE IN LIFE
XXXV BACK TO LITTLE RIVERS
XXXVI AROUND THE WATER-HOLE
XXXVII THE END OF THE WEAVING
XXXVIII THEIR SIDE OF THE PASS
AN EASY TRAVELLER
YOUTH IN SPURS
Here time was as nothing; here sunset and sunrise were as incidents of an uncalendared, everlasting day; here chaotic grandeur was that of the earth's crust when it cooled after the last convulsive movement of genesis.
In all the region about the Galeria Pass the silence of the dry Arizona air seemed luminous and eternal. Whoever climbed to the crotch of that V, cut jagged against the sky for distances yet unreckoned by tourist folders, might have the reward of pitching the tents of his imagination at the gateway of the clouds.
Early on a certain afternoon he would have noted to the eastward a speck far out on a vast basin of sand which was enclosed by a rim of tumbling mountains. Continued observation at long range would have shown the speck to be moving almost imperceptibly, with what seemed the impertinence of infinitesimal life in that dead world; and, eventually, it would have taken the form of a man astride a pony.
The man was young, fantastically young if you were to judge by his garb, a flamboyant expression of the romantic cowboy style which might have served as a sensational exhibit in a shop-window. In place of the conventional blue wool shirt was one of dark blue silk. The chaparejos, or "chaps," were of the softest leather, with the fringe at the seams generously long; and the silver spurs at the boot-heels were chased in antique pattern and ridiculously large. Instead of the conventional handkerchief at the neck was a dark red string tie; while the straight-brimmed cowpuncher hat, out of keeping with the general effect of newness and laundered freshness, had that tint which only exposure to many dewfalls and many blazing mid-days will produce in light-colored felt.
There was vagrancy in the smile of his singularly sensitive mouth and vagrancy in the relaxed way that he rode. From the fondness with which his gaze swept the naked peaks they might have been cities en fete calling him to their festivities. If so, he was in no haste to let realization overtake anticipation. His reins hung loose. He hummed snatches of Spanish, French, and English songs. Their cosmopolitan freedom of variety was as out of keeping with the scene as their lilt, which had the tripping, self-carrying impetus of the sheer joy of living.
Lapsing into silence, his face went ruminative and then sad. With a sudden indrawing of breath he freed himself from his reverie, and bending over from his saddle patted a buckskin neck in affectionate tattoo. Tawny ears turned backward in appreciative fellowship, but without any break in a plodding dog-trot. Though the rider's aspect might say with the desert that time was nothing, the pony's expressed a logical purpose. Thus the speed of their machine-like progress was entirely regulated by the prospect of a measure of oats at the journey's end.
When they came to the foot-hills and the rider dismounted and led the way, with a following muzzle at times poking the small of his back, up the tortuous path, rounding pinnacles and skimming the edge of abysses, his leg muscles answered with the readiness of familiarity with climbing. At the top he saw why the pass had received its name of Galeria from the Spanish. A great isosceles of precipitous walls formed a long, natural gallery, which the heaving of the earth's crust had rent and time had eroded. It lay near the present boundary line of two civilizations: in the neutral zone of desert expanses, where the Saxon pioneer, with his lips closed on English s's, had paused in his progress southward; and the conquistadore, with tongue caressing Castilian vowels, had paused in his progress northward.
At the other side the traveller beheld a basin which was a thousand feet higher than the one behind him. It approached the pass at a gentler slope. It must be cooler than the other, its ozone a little rarer. A sea of quivering and singing light in the afternoon glow, it was lost in the horizon.
Not far from the foot-hills floated a patch of foliage, checkered by the roofs of the houses of an irrigation colony, hanging kitelike at the end of the silver thread of a river whose waters had set gardens abloom in sterile expanses. There seemed a refusal of intimacy with the one visible symbol of its relations with the outer world; for the railroad, with its lines of steel flashing across the gray levels, passed beyond the outer edge of the oasis.
"This beats any valley I've seen yet," and the traveller spoke with the confidence of one who is a connoisseur of Arizona valleys.
He paused for some time in hesitancy to take a farewell of the rapturous vista. A hundred feet lower and the refraction of the light would present it in different coloring and perspective. With his spell of visual intoxication ran the consciousness of being utterly alone. But the egoism of his isolation in the towering infinite did not endure; for the sound of voices, a man's and a woman's, broke on his ear.
The man's was strident, disagreeable, persistent. Its timbre was such as he had heard coming out of the doors of border saloons. The woman's was quiet and resisting, its quality of youth peculiarly emphasized by its restrained emotion.
Now the easy traveller took stock of his immediate surroundings, which had interested him only as a foothold and vantage-point for the panorama that he had been breathing in. Here, of all conceivable places, he was in danger of becoming eavesdropper to a conversation which was evidently very personal. Rounding the escarpment at his elbow he saw, on a shelf of decaying granite, two waiting ponies. One had a Mexican saddle of the cowboy type. The other had an Eastern side-saddle, which struck him as exotic in a land where women mostly ride astride. And what woman, whatever style of riding she chose, should care to come to this pass?
Judging by the direction from which the voices came, the speakers were hidden by still another turn in the defile. A few more steps brought eye as well as ear back to the living world with the sight of a girl seated on a bowlder. He could see nothing of her face except the cheek, which was brown, and the tip of a chin, which he guessed was oval, and her hair, which was dark under her hatbrim and shimmering with gold where it was kissed by the rays of the sun. An impression as swift as a flash of light could not exclude inevitable curiosity as to the full face; a curiosity emphasized by the poised erectness of her slender figure.
The man was bending over her in a familiar way. He was thirty, perhaps, in the prime of physical vigor, square-jawed, cocksure, a six-shooter slung at his hip. Though she was not giving way before him, her attitude, in its steadiness, reflected distress in a bowstrung tremulousness. Suddenly, at something he said which the easy traveller could not quite understand, she sprang up aflame, her hand flying back against the rock wall behind her for support. Then the man spoke so loud that he was distinctly audible.
"When you get mad like that you're prettier'n ever," he said.
It was a peculiar situation. It seemed incredible, melodramatic, unreal, in sight of the crawling freight train far out on the levels.
"Aren't you overplaying your part, sir?" the easy traveller asked.
The man's hand flew to his six-shooter, while the girl looked around in swift and eager impulse to the interrupting voice. Its owner, the color scheme of his attire emphasized by the glare of the low sun, expressed in his pose and the inquiring flicker of a smile purely the element of the casual. Far from making any movement toward his own six-shooter, he seemed oblivious of any such necessity. With the first glimpse of her face, when he saw the violet flame of her anger go ruddy with surprise and relief, then fluid and sparkling as a culminating change of emotion, he felt cheap for having asked himself the question—which now seemed so superficial—whether she were good-looking or not. She was, undoubtedly, yes, undoubtedly good-looking in a way of her own.
"What business is it of yours?" demanded the man, evidently under the impression that he was due to say something, while his fingers still rested on his holster.
"None at all, unless she says so," the deliverer answered. "Is it?" he asked her.
After her first glance at him she had lowered her lashes. Now she raised them, sending a direct message beside which her first glance had been dumb indifference. He was seeing into the depths of her eyes in the consciousness of a privilege rarely bestowed. They gave wing to a thousand inquiries. He had the thrill of an explorer who is about to enter on a voyage of discovery. Then the veil was drawn before his ship had even put out from port. It was a veil woven with fine threads of appreciative and conventional gratitude.
"It is!" she said decisively.
"I'll be going," said the persecutor, with a grimace that seemed mixed partly of inherent bravado and partly of shame, as his pulse slowed down to normal.
"As you please," answered that easy traveller. "I had no mind to exert any positive directions over your movements."
His politeness, his disinterestedness, and his evident disinclination to any kind of vehemence carried an implication more exasperating than an open challenge. They changed melodrama into comedy. They made his protagonist appear a negligible quantity.
"There's some things I don't do when women are around," the persecutor returned, grudgingly, and went for his horse; while oppressive silence prevailed. The easy traveller was not looking at the girl or she at him. He was regarding the other man idly, curiously, though not contemptuously as he mounted and started down the trail toward the valley, only to draw rein as he looked back over his shoulder with a glare which took the easy traveller in from head to foot.
"Huh! You near-silk dude!" he said chokingly, in his rancor which had grown with the few minutes he had had for self-communion.
"If you mean my shirt, it was sold to me for pure silk," the easy traveller returned, in half-diffident correction of the statement.
"We'll meet again!" came the more definite and articulate defiance.
"Perhaps. Who can tell? Arizona, though a large place, has so few people that it is humanly very small."
Now the other man rose in his stirrups, resting the weight of his body on the palm of the hand which was on the back of his saddle. He was rigid, his voice was shaking with very genuine though dramatic rage drawn to a fine point of determination.
"When we do meet, you better draw! I give you warning!" he called.
There was no sign that this threat had made the easy traveller tighten a single muscle. But a trace of scepticism had crept into his smile.
"Whew!" He drew the exclamation out into a whistle.
"Whistle—whistle while you can! You won't have many more chances! Draw, you tenderfoot! But it won't do any good—I'll get you!"
With this challenge the other settled back into the saddle and proceeded on his way.
"Whew!" The second whistle was anything but truculent and anything but apologetic. It had the unconscious and spontaneous quality of the delight of the collector who finds a new specimen in wild places.
From under her lashes the girl had been watching the easy traveller rather than her persecutor; first, studiously; then, in the confusion of embarrassment that left her speechless.
"Well, well," he concluded, "you must take not only your zoology, but your anthropology as you find it!"
His drollness, his dry contemplation of the specimen, and his absurdly gay and unpractical attire, formed a combination of elements suddenly grouped into an effect that touched her reflex nerves after the strain with the magic of humor. She could not help herself: she burst out laughing. At this, he looked away from the specimen; looked around puzzled, quizzically, and, in sympathetic impulse, began laughing himself. Thus a wholly unmodern incident took a whimsical turn out of a horror which, if farcical in the abstract, was no less potent in the concrete.
"Quite like the Middle Ages, isn't it?" he said.
"But Walter Scott ceased writing in the thirties!" she returned, quick to fall in with his cue.
"The swooning age outlasted him—lasted, indeed, into the era of hoop-skirts; but that, too, is gone."
"They do give medals," she added.
"For rescuing the drowning only; and they are a great nuisance to carry around in one's baggage. Please don't recommend me!"
Both laughed again softly, looking fairly at each other in understanding, twentieth-century fashion. She was not to play the classic damsel or he the classic rescuer. Yet the fact of a young man finding a young woman brutally annoyed on the roof of the world, five or six miles from a settlement—well, it was a fact. Over the bump of their self-introduction, free of the serious impression of her experience, she could think for him as well as for herself. This struck her with sudden alarm.
"I fear I have made you a dangerous enemy," she said. "Pete Leddy is the prize ruffian of our community of Little Rivers."
"I thought that this would be an interesting valley," he returned, in bland appreciation of her contribution of information about the habits of the specimen.
DINOSAUR OR DESPERADO
She faced a situation irritating and vitalizing, and inevitably, under its growing perplexity, her observation of his appearance and characteristics had been acute with feminine intuition, which is so frequently right, that we forget that it may not always be. She imagined him with a certain amiable aimlessness turning his pony to one side so as not to knock down a danger sign, while he rode straight over a precipice.
What would have happened if Leddy had really drawn? she asked herself. Probably her deliverer would have regarded the muzzle of Leddy's gun in studious vacancy before a bullet sent him to kingdom come. All speculation aside, her problem was how to rescue her rescuer. She felt almost motherly on his account, he was so blissfully oblivious to realities. And she felt, too, that under the circumstances, she ought to be formal.
"Now, Mister—" she began; and the Mister sounded odd and stilted in her ears in relation to him.
"Jack is my name," he said simply.
"Mine is Mary," she volunteered, giving him as much as he had given and no more. "Now, sir," she went on, in peremptory earnestness, "this is serious."
"It was," he answered. "At least, unpleasant."
"It is, now. Pete Leddy meant what he said when he said that he would draw."
"He ought to, from his repeated emphasis," answered Jack, in agreeable affirmation.
"He has six notches on his gun-handle—six men that he has killed!" Mary went on.
"Whew!" said Jack. "And he isn't more than thirty! He seems a hard worker who keeps right on the job."
She pressed her lips together to control her amusement, before she asked categorically, with the precision of a school-mistress:
"Do you know how to shoot?"
He was surprised. He seemed to be wondering if she were not making sport of him.
"Why should I carry a six-shooter if I did not?" he asked.
This convinced her that his revolver was a part of his play cowboy costume. He had come out of the East thinking that desperado etiquette of the Bad Lands was opera bouffe.
"Leddy is a dead shot. He will give you no chance!" she insisted.
"I should think not," Jack mused. "No, naturally not; otherwise there might have been no sixth notch. The third or the fourth, even the second object of his favor might have blasted his fair young career as a wood-carver. Has he set any limit to his ambition? Is he going to make it an even hundred and then retire?"
"I don't know!" she gasped.
"I must ask," he added, thoughtfully.
Was he out of his head? Certainly his eye was not insane. Its bluish-gray was twinkling enjoyably into hers.
"You exasperated him with that whistle. It was a deadly insult to his desperado pride. You are marked—don't you see, marked?" she persisted. "And I brought it on! I am responsible!"
He shook his head in a denial so unmoved by her appeal that she was sure he would send Job into an apoplectic frenzy.
"Pardon me, but you're contradicting your own statement. You just said it was the whistle," he corrected her. "It's the whistle that gives me Check Number Seven. You haven't the least bit of responsibility. The whistle gets it all, just as you said."
This was too much. Confuting her with her own words! Quibbling with his own danger in order to make her an accomplice of murder! She lost her temper completely. That fact alone could account for the audacity of her next remark.
"I wonder if you really know enough to come in out of the rain!" she stormed.
"That's the blessing of living in Arizona," he returned. "It is such a dry climate."
She caught herself laughing; and this only made her the more intense a second later, on a different tack. Now she would plead.
"Please—please promise me that you will not go to Little Rivers to-night. Promise that you will turn back over the pass!"
"You put me between the devil and the dragon. What you ask is impossible. I'll tell you why," he went on, confidentially. "You know this is the land of fossil dinosaurs."
"I had a brute on my hands," she thought; "now I have the Mad Hatter and the March Hare in collaboration!"
"There is a big dinosaur come to life on the other side," he proceeded. "I just got through the pass in time. I could feel his breath on my back—a hot, gun-powdery breath! It was awful, simply awful and horrible, too. And just as I had resigned myself to be his entree, by great luck his big middle got wedged in the bottom of the V, and his scales scraped like the plates of a ship against a stone pier!"
To her disgust she was laughing again.
"If I went back now out of fear of Pete Leddy," he continued, "that dinosaur would know that I was such insignificant prey he would not even take the trouble to knock me down with a forepaw. He would swallow me alive and running! Think of that slimy slide down the red upholstery of his gullet, not to mention the misery of a total loss of my dignity and self-respect!"
He had spoken it all as if he believed it true. He made it seem almost true.
"I like nonsense as much as anybody," she began, "and I do not forget that you did me a great kindness."
"Which any stranger, any third person coming at the right moment might have done," he interrupted. "Sir Walter's age has passed."
"Yes, but Pete Leddy belongs still farther back. We may laugh at his ruffianly bravado, but no one may laugh at a forty-four calibre bullet! Think what you are going to make me pay for your kindness! I must pay with memory of the sound of a shot and the fall of a body there in the streets of Little Rivers—a nightmare for life! Oh, I beg of you, though it is fun for you to be killed, consider me! Don't go down into that valley! I beg of you, go back over the pass!"
There was no acting, no suspicion of a gesture. She stood quite still, while all the power of her eyes reflected the misery which she pictured for herself. The low pitch of her voice sounded its depths with that restraint which makes for the most poignant intensity. As she reached her climax he had come out of his languid pose. He was erect and rigid. She saw him as some person other than the one to whom she had begun her appeal. He was still smiling, but his smile was of a different sort. Instead of being the significant thing about him in expression of his casualness, it seemed the softening compensation for his stubbornness.
"I'd like to, but it is hardly in human nature for me to do that. I can't!" And he asked if he might bring up her pony.
"Yes," she consented.
She thought that the faint bow of courtesy with which he had accompanied the announcement of his decision he would have given, in common politeness, to anyone who pointed at the danger sign before he rode over the precipice.
"May I ride down with you, or shall I go ahead?" he inquired, after he had assisted her to mount.
"With me!" she answered, quickly. "You are safe while you are with me."
The decisive turn to her mobile lips and the faint wrinkles of a frown, coming and going in various heraldry, formed a vividly sentient and versatile expression of emotions while she watched his silhouette against the sky as he turned to get his own pony.
"Come, P.D.—come along!" he called.
In answer to his voice an equine face, peculiarly reflective of trail wisdom, bony and large, particularly over the eyes, slowly turned toward its master. P.D. was considering.
"Come along! The trail, P.D.!" And P.D. came, but with democratic independence, taking his time to get into motion. "He is never fast," Jack explained, "but once he has the motor going, he keeps at it all day. So I call him P.D. without the Q., as he is never quick."
"Pretty Damn, you mean!" she exclaimed, with a certain spontaneous pride of understanding. Then she flushed in confusion.
"Oh, thank you! It was so human of you to translate it out loud! It isn't profane. Look at him now. Don't you think it is a good name for him?" Jack asked, seriously.
She was laughing again, oblivious of the impending tragedy.
JACK RIDES IN COMPANY
Let not the Grundy woman raise an eyebrow of deprecation at the informal introduction of Jack and Mary, or we shall refute her with her own precepts, which make the steps to a throne the steps of the social pyramid. If she wishes a sponsor, we name an impeccable majesty of the very oldest dynasty of all, which is entirely without scandal. We remind her of the ancient rule that people who meet at court, vouched for by royal favor, need no introduction.
These two had met under the roof of the Eternal Painter. His palette is somewhere in the upper ether and his head in the interplanetary spaces. His heavy eyebrows twinkle with star-dust. Dodging occasional flying meteors, which harass him as flies harass a landscapist out of doors on a hot day, he is ever active, this mighty artist of the changing desert sky. So fickle his moods, so versatile his genius, so quick to creation his fancy, that he never knows what his next composition will be till the second that it is begun.
No earthly rival need be jealous of him. He will never clog the galleries. He always paints on the same canvas, scraping off one picture to make room for another. And you do not mind the loss of the old. You live for the new.
His Majesty has no artistic memory. He is as young as he was the day that he flung out his first tentative lunette after chaos. He is the patron saint of all pilgrims from the city's struggle, where they found no oases of rest. He melts "pasts" and family skeletons and hidden stories of any kind whatsoever into the blue as a background with the abandoned preoccupation of his own brushwork. His lieges, who seek oblivion in the desert, need not worry about the water that will never run over the millwheel again, or dwell in prophecy on floods to come. The omnipotence of the moment transports and soothes them.
"Time is nothing!" says the Eternal Painter. "If you feel important, remember that man's hectic bustling makes but worm-work on the planet. Live and breathe joyfully and magnificently! Do not strain your eyes over embroidery! Come to my open gallery! And how do you like the way I set those silver clouds a-tumbling? Do you know anything better under the dome of any church or capitol? Shall I bank them? Line them with purple? It is done! But no! Let us wipe it all out, change the tint of our background, and start afresh!"
With his eleven hundred million billionth sunset, or thereabouts, His Majesty held a man and a woman who had met on the roof of the world in thrall. He was lurid at the outset, dipping his camel's hair in at the round furnace door sinking toward the hills, whose red vortex shot tongues of flame into canyons and crevasses and drove out their lurking shadows with the fire of its inquisition. The foliage of Little Rivers became a grove of quivering leaves of gold, set on a vast beaten platter of gold. And the man and the woman, like all things else in the landscape, were suffused in this still, Parnassian, penetrating brilliancy, which ought to make even a miser feel that his hoarded eagles and sovereigns are ephemeral dross.
"I love it all—all the desert!" said Mary Ewold.
"And I, too!"
"I have for six years."
"I for five."
The sentences had struck clearly as answering chimes, impersonally, in their preoccupied gazing.
"It gave me life!" he added.
"And it gave me life!"
Then they looked at each other in mutual surprise and understanding; each in wonder that the other had ever been anything but radiant of out-of-doors health. That fleck on the lungs which brought a doctor's orders had long ago been healed by the physician of the ozone they were breathing.
"And you remained," he said.
"And you, also," she answered.
Their own silence seemed to become a thing apart from the silence of the infinite. It was as if both recognized a common thought that even the Eternal Painter could not compel oblivion of the past to which they did not return; of the faith of cities to which they had been bred. But it is one of the Eternal Painter's rules that no one of his subjects should ask another of his subjects why he stays on the desert. Jack was the first to speak, and his voice returned to the casual key.
"Usually I watch the sunset while we make camp," he said. "I am very late to-night—late beyond all habit; and sunset and sunrise do make one a creature of habit out here. Firio and my little train will grow impatient waiting for me."
"You mean the Indian and the burro with the silver bells that came over the pass some time before you?"
Of course they belonged to him, she was thinking, even as she made the inquiry. This play cowboy, with his absurdly enormous silver spurs, would naturally put bells on his burro.
"Yes, I sent Firio with Wrath of God and Jag Ear on ahead and told him to wait at the foot of the descent. Wrath of God will worry—he is of a worrying nature. I must be going."
In view of the dinosaur nonsense she was already prepared for a variety of inventional talk from him. As they started down from the pass in single file, she leading, the sun sank behind the hills, leaving the Eternal Painter, unhindered by a furnace glare in the centre of the canvas, to paint with a thousand brushes in the radiant tints of the afterglow.
"You don't like that one, O art critics!" we hear him saying. "Well, here is another before you have adjusted your pince-nez, and I will brush it away before you have emitted your first Ah! I do not criticise. I paint—I paint for the love of it. I paint with the pigments of the firmament and the imagination of the universe."
The two did not talk of that sky which held their averted glances, while knowing hoofs that bore their weight kept the path. For how can you talk of the desert sky except in the banality of exclamations? It is lese majeste to the Eternal Painter to attempt description.
At times she looked back and their eyes met in understanding, as true subjects of His Majesty, and then they looked skyward to see what changes the Master's witchery had wrought. In supreme intoxication of the senses, breathing that dry air which was like cool wine coming in long sips to the palate, they rode down the winding trail, till, after a surpassing outburst, the Eternal Painter dropped his brush for the night.
It was dusk. Shadows returned to the crevasses. Free of the magic of the sky, with the curtains of night drawing in, the mighty savagery of the bare mountains in their disdain of man and imagination reasserted itself. It dropped Mary Ewold from the azure to the reality of Pete Leddy. She was seeing, the smoking end of a revolver and a body lying in a pool of blood; and there, behind her, rode this smiling stranger, proceeding so genially and carelessly to the fate which she had provided for him.
With the last turn, which brought them level with the plain, they came upon an Indian, a baggage burro, and a riding-pony. The Indian sprang up, grinning: his welcome and doffing a Mexican steeple-hat.
"I must introduce you all around," Jack told Mary.
She observed in his manner something new!—a positive enthusiasm for his three retainers, which included a certain well-relished vanity in their loyalty and character.
"Firio has Sancho Panza beaten to a frazzle," Jack said. "Sancho was fat and unresourceful; even stupid. Fancy him broiling a quail on a spit! Fancy what a lot of trouble Firio could have saved Don Quixote de la Mancha! Why, confound it, he would have spoiled the story!"
Firio was a solid grain, to take Jack's view, winnowed out of bushels of aboriginal chaff; an Indian, all Indian, without any strain of Spanish blood in the primitive southern strain.
"And Firio rides Wrath of God," Jack continued, nodding to a pony with a low-hung head and pendant lip, whose lugubrious expression was exaggerated by a scar. "He looks it, don't you think?—always miserable, whether his nose is in the oats or we run out of water. He is our sad philosopher, who has just as dependable a gait as P.D. I have many theories about the psychology of his ego. Sometimes I explain it by a desire both to escape and to pursue unhappiness, which amounts to a solemn kind of perpetual motion. But he has a positively sweet nature. There is no more malice in his professional mournfulness than in the cheerful humor of Jag Ear."
"It is plain to see which is Jag Ear," she observed, "and how he earned his name."
Every time a burro gets into the corn, an Indian master cuts off a bit of long, furry ear as a lesson. Before Jag Ear passed into kindlier hands he had been clipped closer than a Boston terrier. Only a single upstanding fragment remained in token of a graded education which had availed him nothing.
"There's no curtailing Jag Ear's curiosity," said Jack. "To him, everything is worth trying. That is why he is a born traveller. He has been with me from Colorado to Chihuahua, on all my wanderings back and forth."
While he spoke, Firio mounted Wrath of God and, with Jag Ear's bells jingling, the supply division set out on the road. Jack and Mary followed, this time riding side by side, pony nose to pony nose, in an intimacy of association impossible in the narrow mountain trail. It was an intimacy signalized by silence. There was an end to the mighty transports of the heights; the wells of whimsicality had dried up. The weight of the silence seemed balancing on a brittle thread. All the afternoon's events aligned themselves in a colossal satire. In the half light Jack became a gaunt and lonely figure that ought to be confined in some Utopian kindergarten.
Mary could feel her temples beating with the fear of what was waiting for him in Little Rivers, now a dark mass on the levels, just dark, without color or any attraction except the mystery that goes with the shroud of night. She knew how he would laugh at her fears; for she guessed that he was unafraid of anything in the world which, however, was no protection from Pete Leddy's six-shooter.
"I—I have a right to know—won't you tell me how you are going to defend yourself against Pete Leddy?" she demanded, in a sudden outburst.
"I hadn't thought of that. Certainly, I shall leave it to Pete himself to open hostilities. I hadn't thought of it because I have been too busy thinking out how I was going to break a piece of news to Firio. I have been an awful coward about it, putting it off and putting it off. I had planned to do it on my birthday two weeks ago, and then he gave me these big silver spurs—spent a whole month's wages on them, think of that! I bought this cowboy regalia to go with them. You can't imagine how that pleased him. It certainly was great fun."
Mary could only shake her head hopelessly.
"Firio and Jag Ear and Wrath of God and old P.D. here—we've sort of grown used to one another's foolishness. Now I can't put it off any longer, and I'd about as soon be murdered as tell him that I am going East in the morning."
"You mean you are going to leave here for good?" She mistrusted her own hearing. She was dazzled by this sudden burst of light through the clouds.
"Yes, by the first train. This is my last desert ride."
Why had he not said so at first? It would not only have saved her from worry, but from the humiliation of pleading with a stranger. Doubtless he had enjoyed teasing her. But no matter. The affair need not last much longer, now. She told herself that, if necessary, she would mount guard over him for the remaining twelve hours of his stay. Once he was aboard the Pullman he would be out of danger; her responsibility would be over and the whole affair would become a bizarre memory; an incident closed.
"Back to New York," he said, as one who enters a fog without a compass. "Back to fight pleosaurs, dinosaurs, and all kinds of monsters," he added, with a cheeriness which rang with the first false note she had heard from him. "I don't care," he concluded, and broke into a Spanish air, whose beat ran with the trickling hoof-beats of the ponies in the sand.
"That is it!" she thought. "That explains. He just does not care about anything."
Ahead, the lamps were beginning to twinkle in the little settlement which had sent such a contrast in citizenship as Mary Ewold and Pete Leddy out to the pass. They were approaching a single, isolated building, from the door of which came a spray of light and the sound of men's voices.
"That is Bill Lang's place," Mary explained. "He keeps a store, with a bar in the rear. He also has the post-office, thanks to his political influence, and this is where I have to stop for the mail when I return from the pass."
She had not spoken with any sense of a hint which it was inevitable he should accept.
"Let me get it for you;" and before she had time to protest, he had dismounted, drawing rein at the edge of the wooden steps.
She rode past where his pony was standing. When he entered the door, his tallness and lean ease of posture silhouetted in the light, she could look in on the group of idling male gossips.
It was a half cry from her, hardly audible in an intensity which she knew was futile in the surge of her torturing self-incrimination. Why had she not thought that it would be here that Pete Leddy was bound to wait for anyone coming in by the trail from Galeria? The loungers suddenly dropped to the cover of boxes and barrels, as a flicker of steel shot upward, and behind the gleaming rim of a revolver muzzle held rigid was a brown hand and Leddy's hard, unyielding face.
What matter if the easy traveller could shoot? He was caught like a man coming out of an alley. He had no chance to draw in turn. In the click of a second-hand the thing would be over. Mary's eyes involuntarily closed, to avoid seeing the flash from the revolver. She listened for the report; for the fall of a body which should express the horror she had visualized for the hundredth time. A century seemed to pass and there was no sound except the beat of her heart, which ran in a cataract throb to her temples; no sound except that and what seemed to be soft, regular steps on the bare floor of the store.
"Coward!" she told herself, with the agony of her suspense breaking. "He saved you from inexpressible humiliation and you are afraid even to look!"
She opened her eyes, prepared for the worst. Had she gone out of her head? Could she no longer trust her own eyesight? What she saw was inconceivable. The startled faces of the loungers were rising from behind the boxes and barrels. Pete Leddy's gun had dropped to his side and his would-be victim had a hand on Pete's shoulder. Jack was talking apparently in a kindly and reasoning tone, but she could not make out his words.
One man alone evidently had not taken cover. It was Jim Galway, a rancher, who had been standing at the mail counter. To judge by his expression, what Jack was saying had his approval.
With a nod to Leddy and then a nod to the others, as if in amicable conclusion of the affair, Jack wheeled around to the counter, disclosing Leddy's face wry with insupportable chagrin. His revolver was still in his hand. In the swift impulse of one at bay who finds himself released, he brought it up. There was murder, murder from behind, in the catlike quickness of his movement; but Jim Galway was equally quick. He threw his whole weight toward Leddy in a catapult leap, as he grasped Leddy's wrist and bore it down. Jack faced about in alert readiness. Seeing that Galway had the situation pat, he put up his hand in a kind of questioning, puzzled remonstrance; but Mary noticed that he was very erect. He spoke and Galway spoke in answer. Evidently he was asking that Leddy be released. To this Galway consented at length, but without drawing back until he had seen Leddy's gun safe in the holster.
Then Leddy raised himself challengingly on tiptoes to Jack, who turned to Galway in the manner of one extending an invitation. On his part, Leddy turned to Ropey Smith, another of Little Rivers' ruffians. After this, Leddy went through the door at the rear; the loungers resumed their seats on the cracker barrels and gazed at one another with dropped jaws, while Bill Lang proceeded with his business as postmaster.
HE CARRIES THE MAIL
When the suspense was over for Mary, the glare of the store lamp went dancing in grotesque waves, and abruptly, uncannily, fell away into the distant, swimming glow of a lantern suffused with fog. She swayed. Only the leg-rest kept her from slipping off the pony. Her first returning sense of her surroundings came with the sound of a voice, the same careless, pleasant voice which she had heard at Galeria asking Pete Leddy if he were not overplaying his part.
"You were right," said the voice. "It was the whistle that made him so angry."
Indistinctly she associated a slowly-shaping figure with the voice and realized that she had been away in the unknown for a second. Yes, it was all very well to talk about Sir Walter being out of fashion, but she had been near to fainting, and in none of the affectation of the hoop-skirt age, either. Had she done any foolish thing in expression of a weakness that she had never known before? Had she extended her hand for support? Had he caught her as she wobbled in the saddle? No. She was relieved to see that he was not near enough for that.
"By no stretch of ethics can you charge yourself with further responsibility or fears," he continued. "Pete and I understand each other perfectly, now."
But in his jocularity ran something which was plain, if unspoken. It was that he would put an end to a disagreeable subject. His first words to her had provided a bridge—and burned it—from the bank of the disagreeable to the bank of agreeable. Her own desire, with full mastery of her faculties coming swiftly, fell in with his. She wanted to blot out that horror and scotch a sudden uprising of curiosity as to the exact nature of the gamble in death through which he had passed. It was enough that he was alive.
The blurry figure became distinct, smiling with inquiry in a glance from her to the stack of papers, magazines, and pamphlets which crowded his circling arms. He seemed to have emptied the post-office. There had not been any Pete Leddy; there had been no display of six-shooters. He had gone in after the mail. Here he was ready to deliver it by the bushel, while he waited for orders. She had to laugh at his predicament as he lowered his chin to steady a book on the top of the pile.
"Oh, I meant to tell you that you were not to bring the second-class matter!" she told him. "We always send a servant with a basket for that. You see what comes of having a father who is not only omnivorous, but has a herbivorous capacity."
He saw that the book had a row of Italian stamps across the wrapper. Unless that popular magazine stopped slipping, both the book and a heavy German pamphlet would go. He took two hasty steps toward her, in mock distress of appeal.
"I'll allow salvage if you act promptly!" he said.
She lifted the tottering apex just in time to prevent its fall.
"I'll take the book," she said. "Father has been waiting months for it. We can separate the letters and leave the rest in the store to be sent for."
"The railroad station is on the other side of the town, isn't it?" he asked.
"I shall camp nearby, so it will be no trouble to leave my burden at your door as I pass."
"He does have the gift of oiling the wheels in either, big or little moments," she thought, as she realized how simple and considerate had been his course from the first. He was a stranger going on his way, stopping, however, to do her or any other traveller a favor en route.
"Firio, we're ready to hear Jag Ear's bells!" he called.
"Si!" answered Firio.
All the while the Indian had kept in the shadow, away from the spray of light from the store lamp, unaware of the rapid drama that had passed among the boxes and barrels. He had observed nothing unusual in the young lady, whose outward manifestation of what she had, witnessed was the closing of her eyes.
It was out of the question that Jack should mount a horse when both arms were crowded with their burden. He walked beside Mary's stirrup leather in the attitude of that attendant on royalty who bears a crown on a cushion.
"Little Rivers is a new town, isn't it?" he asked.
"Yes, the Town Wonderful," she answered. "Father founded it."
She spoke with an affection which ran as deep into the soil as young roots after water. If on the pass she had seemed a part of the desert, of great, lonely distances and a far-flung carpet of dreams, here she seemed to belong to books and gardens.
"I wish I had time to look over the Town Wonderful in the morning, but my train goes very early, I believe."
After his years of aimless travelling, to which he had so readily confessed, he had tied himself to a definite hour on a railroad schedule as something commanding and inviolable. Such inconsistency did not surprise her. Had she not already learned to expect inconsistencies from him?
"Oh, it is all simple and primitive, but it means a lot to us," she said.
"What one's home and people mean to him is pretty well all of one's own human drama," he returned, seriously.
The peace of evening was in the air and the lights along the single street were a gentle and persistent protest of human life against the mighty stretch of the enveloping mantle of night. From the cottages of the ranchers came the sound of voices. The twang of a guitar quivering starward made medley with Jag Ear's bells.
Here, for a little distance, the trail, in its long reach on the desert, had taken on the dignity of the urban name of street. On either side, fronting the cottages, ran the slow waters of two irrigation ditches, gleaming where lamp-rays penetrated the darkness. The date of each rancher's settlement was fairly indicated by the size of the quick-growing umbrella and pepper-trees which had been planted for shade. Thus all the mass of foliage rose like a mound of gentle slope toward the centre of the town, where Jack saw vaguely the outlines of a rambling bungalow, more spacious if no more pretentious than its neighbors in its architecture. At a cement bridge over the ditch, leading to a broad veranda under the soft illumination of a big, wrought-iron lantern, Mary drew rein.
"This is home," she said; "and—and thank you!"
He could not see her face, which was in the shadow turned toward him, as he looked into the light of the lantern from the other side of her pony.
It was as if she had been on the point of saying something else and could not get the form of any sentence except these two words. Was there anything further to say except "Thank you"? Anything but to repeat "Thank you"?
There he stood, this stranger so correctly introduced by the Eternal Painter, with his burden, waiting instructions in this moment of awkward diffidence. He looked at her and at the porch and at his bundle of mail in a quizzical appeal. Then she realized that, in a peculiar lapse of abstraction, she had forgotten about his encumberment.
Before she could speak there was a sonorous hail from the house; a hail in keeping with the generous bulk of its owner, who had come through the door. He was well past middle-age, with a thatch of gray hair half covering his high forehead. In one hand he held the book that he had been reading, and in the other a pair of big tortoise-shell glasses.
"Mary, you are late—and what have we here?"
He was beaming at Jack as he came across the bridge and he broke into hearty laughter as he viewed Jack's preoccupation with the second-class matter.
"At last! At last we have rural free delivery in Little Rivers! We are the coming town! And your uniform, sir"—Jasper Ewold took in the cowboy outfit with a sweeping glance which warmed with the picturesque effect—"it's a great improvement on the regulation; fit for free delivery in Little Rivers, where nobody studies to be unconventional in any vanity of mistaking that for originality, but nobody need be conventional."
He took some of the cargo in his own hands. With the hearty breeze of his personality he fairly blew Jack onto the porch, where magazines and pamphlets were dropped indiscriminately in a pile on a rattan settee.
"You certainly have enough reading matter," said Jack. "And I must be getting on to camp."
For he had no invitation to stay from Mary and the conventional fact that he had to recognize is that a postman's call is not a social call. As he turned to go he faced her coming across the bridge. An Indian servant, who seemed to have materialized out of the night, had taken charge of her pony.
"To camp! Never!" said Jasper Ewold. "Sir Knight, slip your lance in the ring of the castle walls—but having no lance and this being no castle, well, Sir Knight in chaparejos—that is to say, Sir Chaps—let me inform you"—here Jasper Ewold threw back his shoulders and tossed his mane of hair, his voice sinking to a serious basso profundo—"yes, inform you, sir, that there is one convention, a local rule, that no stranger crosses this threshold at dinner-time without staying to dinner." There was a resonance in his tone, a liveliness to his expression, that was infectious.
"But Firio and Jag Ear and Wrath of God wait for me," Jack said, entering with real enjoyment into the grandiose style.
"High sounding company, sir! Let me see them!" demanded Jasper Ewold.
Jack pointed to his cavalcade waiting in the half shadows, where the lamp-rays grew thin. Wrath of God's bony face was pointed lugubriously toward the door; Jag Ear was wiggling his fragment of ear.
"And Moses on the mountain-top says that you stay!" declared Jasper Ewold.
Jack looked at Mary. She had not spoken yet and he waited on her word.
"Please do!" she said. "Father wants someone to talk to."
"Yes, Sir Chaps, I shall talk; otherwise, why was man given a tongue in his head and ideas?"
Refusal was out of the question. Accordingly, Firio was sent on to make camp alone.
"Now, Sir Chaps, now, Mr.—" began Jasper Ewold, pausing blankly. "Why, Mary, you have not given me his city directory name!"
"Mr.—" and Mary blushed. She could only pass the, blame back to the Eternal Painter's oversight in their introduction.
"Jack Wingfield!" said Jack, on his own account.
"Jack Wingfield!" repeated Jasper Ewold, tasting the name.
A flicker of surprise followed by a flicker of drawn intensity ran over his features, and he studied Jack in a long glance, which he masked just in time to save it from being a stare. Jack was conscious of the scrutiny. He flushed slightly and waited for some word to explain it; but none came. Jasper Ewold's Olympian geniality returned in a spontaneous flood.
"Come inside, Jack Wingfield," he said. "Come inside, Sir Chaps—for that is how I shall call you."
The very drum-beat of hospitality was in his voice. It was a wonderful voice, deep and warm and musical; not to be forgotten.
A SMILE AND A SQUARE CHIN
When a man comes to the door book in hand and you have the testimony of the versatility and breadth of his reading in half a bushel of mail for him, you expect to find his surroundings in keeping. But in Jasper Ewold's living-room Jack found nothing of the kind.
Heavy, natural beams supported the ceiling. On the gray cement walls were four German photographs of famous marbles. The Venus de Milo looked across to the David of Michael Angelo; the Flying Victory across to Rodin's Thinker. In the centre was a massive Florentine table, its broad top bare except for a big ivory tusk paper-knife free from any mounting of silver. On the shelf underneath were portfolios of the reproductions of paintings.
An effect which at first was one of quiet spaciousness became impressive and compelling. Its simplicity was without any of the artificiality that sometimes accompanies an effort to escape over-ornamentation. No one could be in the room without thinking through his eyes and with his imagination. Wherever he sat he would look up to a masterpiece as the sole object of contemplation.
"This is my room. Here, Mary lets me have my way," said Jasper Ewold. "And it is not expensive."
"The Japanese idea of concentration," said Jack.
Jasper Ewold, who had been watching the effect of the room on Jack, as he watched it on every new-comer, showed his surprise and pleasure that this young man in cowboy regalia understood some things besides camps and trails; and this very fact made him answer in the vigorous and enjoyed combatancy of the born controversialist.
"Japanese? No!" he declared. "The little men with their storks and vases have merely discovered to us in decoration a principle which was Greek in a more majestic world than theirs. It was the true instinct of the classic motherhood of our art before collectors mistook their residences for warehouses."
"And the books?" Jack asked, boyishly. "Where are they? Yes, what do you do with all the second-class matter?"
The question was bait to Jasper Ewold. It gave him an opportunity for discourse.
"When I read I want nothing but a paper-cutter close at hand—a good, big paper-cutter, whose own weight carries it through the leaves. And I want to be alone with that book. If I am too lazy to go to the library for another, then it is not worth reading. When I get head-achy with print and look up, I don't want to stare at the backs of more books. I want something to rest and fill the eye. I—"
"Father," Mary admonished him, "I fear this is going to be long. Why not continue after Mr. Wingfield has washed off the dust of travel and we are at table?"
"Mary is merely jealous. She wants to hurry you to the dining-room, which was designed to her taste," answered her father, with an affectation of grand indignation. "The dust of travel here is clean desert dust—but I admit that it is gritty. Come with me, Sir Chaps!"
He bade Jack precede him through a door diagonally opposite the one by which he had entered from the veranda. On the other side Jack found himself surrounded by walls of books, which formed a parallelogram around a great deal table littered with magazines and papers. Here, indeed, the printed word might riot as it pleased in the joyous variety and chaos of that truly omnivorous reader of herbivorous capacity. Out of the library Jack passed into Jasper Ewold's bedroom. It was small, with a soldier's cot of exaggerated size that must have been built for his amplitude of person, and it was bare of ornament except for an old ivory crucifix.
"There's a pitcher and basin, if you incline to a limited operation for outward convention," said Jasper Ewold; "and through that door you will find a shower, if you are for frank, unlimited submersion of the altogether."
"Have I time for the altogether?" Jack asked.
"When youth has not in this house, it marks a retrocession toward barbarism for Little Rivers which I refuse to contemplate. Take your shower, Sir Chaps, and"—a smile went weaving over the hills and valleys of Jasper Ewold's face—"and, mind, you take off those grand boots or they will get full of water! You will find me in the library when you are through;" and, shaking with subterranean enjoyment of his own joke, he closed the door.
Cool water from the bowels of the mountains fell on a figure as slender as that of the great Michael's David pictured in the living-room; a figure whose muscles ran rippling with leanness and suppleness, without the bunching over-development of the athlete. He bubbled in shivery delight with the first frigid sting of the downpour; he laughed in ecstasy as he pulled the valve wide open, inviting a Niagara.
While he was still glowing with the rough intimacy of the towel, he viewed the trappings thrown over the chair and his revolver holster on the bureau in a sense of detachment, as if in the surroundings of civilization some voice of civilization made him wish for flannels in which to dine. Then there came a rap at the door, and an Indian appeared with an envelope addressed in feminine handwriting. On the corner of the page within was a palm-tree—a crest to which anybody who dwelt on the desert might be entitled; and Jack read:
"DEAR MR. WINGFIELD:
"Please don't tell father about that horrible business on the pass. It will worry him unnecessarily and might interfere with my afternoon rides, which are everything to me. There is not the slightest danger in the future. After this I shall always go armed.
The shower had put him in such lively humor that his answer was born in a flash from memory of her own catechising of him on Galeria.
"First, I must ask if you know how to shoot," he scribbled beneath her signature.
The Indian seemed hardly out of the doorway before he was back with a reply:
"I do, or I would not go armed," it said.
She had capped his satire with satire whose prick was, somehow, delicious. He regarded the sweep of her handwriting with a lingering interest, studying the swift nervous strokes before he sent the note back with still another postscript:
"Of course I had never meant to tell anybody," he wrote. "It is not a thing to think of in that way."
This, he thought, must be the end of the correspondence; but he was wrong. The peripatetic go-between reappeared, and under Jack's last communication was written, "Thank you!" He could hardly write "Welcome!" in return. It was strictly a case of nothing more to say by either duelist. In an impulse he slipped the sheet, with its palm symbolic of desert mystery and oasis luxuriance, into his pocket.
"Here I am in the midst of the shucks and biting into the meat of the kernel," said Jasper Ewold, as Jack entered the library to find him standing in the midst of wrappings which he had dropped on the floor; "yes, biting into very rich meat."
He held up the book which was evidently the one that had balanced uncertainly on the pile which Jack had brought from the post-office.
"Professor Giuccamini's researches! It is as interesting as a novel. But come! You are hungry!"
Book in hand, and without removing his tortoise-shell spectacles, he passed out into the garden at the rear. There a cloth was laid under a pavilion.
"In a country where it never rains," said the host, "where it is eternal spring, walls to a house are conventions on which to stack books and hang pictures. Mary has chosen nature for her decorative effect—cheaper, even, than mine. In the distance is Galeria; in the foreground, what was desert six years ago."
The overhead lamp deepened to purple the magenta of the bougainvillea vines running up the pillars of the pavilion; made the adjacent rows of peony blossoms a pure, radiant white; while beyond, in the shadows, was a broad path between rows of young palms.
Mary appeared around a hedge which hid the open-air kitchen. The girl of the gray riding-habit was transformed into a girl in white. Jack saw her as a domestic being. He guessed that she had seen that the table was set right; that she had had a look-in at the cooking; that the hands whose boast it was that they could shoot, had picked the jonquils in the slender bronze vase on the table.
"Father, there you are again, bringing a book to the dining-room against the rules," she warned him; "against all your preachments about reading at meals!"
"That's so, Mary," said Jasper Ewold, absently, regarding the book as if some wicked genius had placed it in his hand quite unbeknown to him. "But, Mary, it is Professor Giuccamini at last! Giuccamini that I have waited for so long! I beg your pardon, Sir Chaps! When I have somebody to talk to I stand doubly accused. Books at dinner! I descend into dotage!"
In disgust he started toward the house with the book. But in the very doorway he paused and, reopening the book, turned three or four pages with ravenous interest.
"Giuccamini and I agree!" he shouted. "He says there is no doubt that Burlamacchi and Pico were correct. Cosmo de' Medici did call Savonarola to his death-bed, and I am glad of it. I like good stories to turn out true! But here I have a listener—a live listener, and I ramble on about dead tyrants and martyrs. I apologize—I apologize!" and he disappeared in the library.
"Father does not let me leave books in the living-room, which is his. Why should he bring them to the dining-room, which is mine?" Mary explained.
"There must be law in every household," Jack agreed.
"Yes, somebody fresh to talk to, at, around, and through!" called Jasper Ewold, as he reappeared. "Yes, and over your head; otherwise I shall not be flattered by my own conversation."
"He glories in being an intellectual snob," Mary said. "Please pretend at times not to understand him."
"Thank you, Mary. You are the corrective that keeps my paternal superiority in balance," answered her father, with a comprehending wave of his hand indicating his sense of humor at the same time as playful insistence on his role as forensic master of the universe.
How he did talk! He was a mill to which all intellectual grist was welcome. Over its wheel the water ran now singing, again with the roar of a cataract. He changed theme with the relish of one who rambles at will, and the emotion of every opinion was written on the big expanse of his features and enforced with gestures. He talked of George Washington, of Andrea del Sarto, of melon-growing, trimming pepper-trees, the Divina Commedia, fighting rose-bugs, of Schopenhauer and of Florence—a great deal about Florence, a city that seemed to hang in his mind as a sort of Renaissance background for everything else, even for melon-growing.
"You are getting over my head!" Jack warned him at times, politely.
"That is the trouble," said Jasper Ewold. "Consider the hardship of being the one wise man in the world! I find it lonely, inconvenient, stupefying. Why, I can't even convince Jim Galway that I know more about dry farming than he!"
Jack listened raptly, his face glowing. Once, when he looked in his host's direction suddenly, after speaking to Mary, he found that he was the object of the same inquiring scrutiny that he had been on the porch. In lulls he caught the old man's face in repose. It had sadness, then, the sadness of wreckage; sadness against which he seemed to fence in his wordy feints and thrusts.
"Christian civilization began in the Tuscan valley," the philosopher proceeded, harking back to the book which had arrived by the evening's mail. "Florence was a devil—Florence was divine. They raised geniuses and devils and martyrs: the most cloud-topping geniuses, the worst devils, the most saintly martyrs. But better than being a drone in a Florence pension is all this"—with a wave of his hand to the garden and the stars—"which I owe to Mary and the little speck on her lungs which brought us here after—after we had found that we had not as much money as we thought we had and an old fellow who had been an idling student, mostly living abroad all his life, felt the cramp of the material facts of board-and-clothes money. It made Mary well. It made me know the fulness of wisdom of the bee and the ant, and it brought me back to the spirit of America—the spirit of youth and accomplishment. Instead of dreaming of past cities, I set out to make a city like a true American. Here we came to camp in our first travelled delight of desert spaces for her sake; and here we brought what was left of the fortune and started a settlement."
The spectator-philosopher attitude of audience to the world's stage passed. He became the builder and the rancher, enthusiastically dwelling on the growth of orchards and gardens in expert fondness. As Jack listened, the fragrance of flowers was in his nostrils and in intervals between Jasper Ewold's sentences he seemed to hear the rustle of borning leaf-fronds breaking the silence. But the narrative was not an idyll. Toil and patience had been the handmaidens of the fecundity of the soil. Prosperity had brought an entail of problems. Jasper Ewold mentioned them briefly, as if he would not ask a guest to share the shadows which they brought to his brow.
"The honey of our prosperity brings us something besides the bees. It brings those who would share the honey without work," said he. "It brings the Bill Lang hive and Pete Leddy."
At the mention of the name, Jack's and Mary's glances met.
"You have promised not to tell," hers was saying.
"I will not," his was answering.
But clearly he had grasped the fact that Little Rivers was getting out of its patron's hands, and every honest man in that community wanted to be rid of Pete Leddy.
"I should think your old friend, Cosmo de' Medici, would have found a way," Jack suggested.
"Cosmo is for talk," said Mary. "At heart father is a Quaker."
"Some are for lynching," said Jasper Ewold, thoughtfully. "Begin to promote order with disorder and where will you end?" he inquired, belligerently. "This is not the Middle Ages. This is the Little Rivers of peace."
Then, after a quotation from Cardinal Newman, which seemed pretty far-fetched to deal with desert ruffians, he was away again, setting out fruit trees and fighting the scale.
"And our Date Tree Wonderful!" he continued. "This year we get our first fruit, unless the book is wrong. You cannot realize what this first-born of promise means to Little Rivers. Under the magic of water it completes the cycle of desert fecundity, from Scotch oats and Irish potatoes to the Arab's bread. Bananas I do not include. Never where the banana grows has there been art or literature, a good priesthood, unimpassioned law-makers, honest bankers, or a noble knighthood. It is just a little too warm. Here we can build a civilization which neither roasts us in summer nor freezes us in winter."
There was a fluid magnetism in the rush of Jasper Ewold's junketing verbiage which carried the listener on the bosom of a pleasant stream. Jack was suddenly reminded that it must be very late and he had far overstayed the retiring hour of the desert, where the Eternal Painter commands early rising.
"Going—going so soon!" protested Jasper Ewold.
"So late!" Jack smiled back.
To prove that it was, he called attention to the fact, when they passed through the living-room to the veranda, that not a light remained in any ranch-house.
"I have not started my talk yet," said Jasper. "But next time you come I will really make a beginning—and you shall see the Date Tree Wonderful."
"I go by the morning train," Jack returned.
"So! so!" mused Jasper. "So! so!" he objected, but not gloomily. "I get a good listener only to lose him!"
But Jack was hardly conscious of the philosopher's words. In that interval he had still another glimpse of Mary's eyes without the veil and saw deeper than he had before; saw vast solitudes, inviting yet offering no invitation, where bright streams seemed to flash and sing under the sunlight and then disappear in a desert. That was her farewell to the easy traveller who had stopped to do her a favor on the trail. And he seemed to ask nothing more in that spellbound second; nor did he after the veil had fallen, and he acquitted himself of some spoken form of thanks for an evening of happiness.
"A pleasant journey!" Mary said.
"Luck, Sir Chaps, luck!" called Jasper Ewold.
Jack's easy stride, as he passed out into the night, confirmed the last glimpse of his smiling, whimsical "I don't care" attitude, which never minded the danger sign on the precipice's edge.
"He does not really want to go back to New York," Mary remarked, and was surprised to find that she had spoken her thought aloud.
"I hardly agree with that opinion," said her father absently, his thoughts far afield from the fetter of his words. "But of one thing I am sure, John Wingfield! A smile and a square chin!"
OBLIVION IS NOT EASY
"A smile and a square chin!" Mary repeated, as they went back into the living-room.
"Yes, hasn't he both, this Wingfield?" asked her father.
"This Wingfield"—on the finish of the sentence there was a halting, appreciable accent. He moved toward the table with the listlessness of some enormous automaton of a man to whom every step of existence was a step in a treadmill. There was a heavy sadness about his features which rarely came, and always startled her when it did come with a fear that they had so set in gloom that they would never change. He raised his hand to the wick screw of the lamp, waiting for her to pass through the room before turning off the flame which bathed him in its rays, giving him the effect of a Rodinesque incarnation of memory.
Any melancholy that beset him was her own enemy, to be fought and cajoled. Mary slipped to his side, dropping her head on his shoulder and patting his cheek. But this magic which had so frequently rallied him brought only a transient, hazy smile and in its company what seemed a random thought.
"And you and he came down the pass together? Yes, yes!" he said. His tone had the vagueness of one drawing in from the sea a net that seemed to have no end.
Had Jack Wingfield been more than a symbol? Had he brought something more than an expression of culture, manner, and ease of a past which nothing could dim? Had he suggested some personal relation to that past which her father preferred to keep unexplained? These questions crowded into her mind speculatively. They were seeking a form of conveyance when she realized that she had been adrift with imaginings. He was getting older. She must expect his preoccupation and his absent-mindedness to become more exacting.
"Yes, yes!" His voice had risen to its customary sonority; his eyes were twinkling; all the hard lines had become benignant wrinkles of Olympian charm. "Yes, yes! You and this funny tourist! What a desert it is! I wonder—now, I wonder if he will go aboard the Pullman in that stage costume. But come, come, Mary! It's bedtime for all pastoral workers and subjects of the Eternal Painter. Off you go, or we shall be playing blind-man's-buff in the dark!" He was chuckling as he turned down the wick. "His enormous spurs, and Jag Ear and Wrath of God!" he said.
Her fancy ran dancing rejoicingly with his mood.
"Don't forget the name of his pony!" she called merrily from the stairs. "It's P.D."
"P.D.!" said her father, with the disappointment of one tempted by a good morsel which he finds tasteless. "There he seems to have descended to alphabetic commonplace. No imagery in that!"
"He is a slow, reliable pony," put in Mary, "without the Q."
"Pretty Damn, without the Quick! Oh, I know slang!"
Jasper Ewold burst into laughter. It was still echoing through the house when she entered her room. As it died away it seemed to sound hollow and veiled, when the texture of sunny, transparent solidity in his laugh was its most pronounced characteristic.
Probably this, too, was imagination, Mary thought. It had been an overwrought day, whose events had made inconsiderable things supreme over logic. She always slept well; she would sleep easily to-night, because it was so late. But she found herself staring blankly into the darkness and her thoughts ranging in a shuttle play of incoherency from the moment that Leddy had approached her on the pass till a stranger, whom she never expected to see again, walked away into the night. What folly! What folly to keep awake over an incident of desert life! But was it folly? What sublime egoism of isolated provincialism to imagine that it had been anything but a great event! Naturally, quiet, desert nerves must still be quivering after the strain. Inevitably, they would not calm instantly, particularly as she had taken coffee for supper. She was wroth about the coffee, though she had taken less than usual that evening.
She heard the clock strike one; she heard it strike two, and three. And he, on his part—this Sir Chaps who had come so abruptly into her life and evidently set old passions afire in her father's mind—of course he was sleeping! That was the exasperating phlegm of him. He would sleep on horseback, riding toward the edge of a precipice!
"A smile and a square chin—and dreamy vagueness," she kept repeating.
The details of the scene in the store recurred with a vividness which counting a flock of sheep as they went over a stile or any other trick for outwitting insomnia could not drive from her mind. Then Pete Leddy's final look of defiance and Jack Wingfield's attitude in answer rose out of the pantomime in merciless clearness.
All the indecisiveness of the interchange of guesses and rehearsed impressions was gone. She got a message, abruptly and convincingly. This incident of the pass was not closed. An ultimatum had been exchanged. Death lay between these two men. Jack had accepted the issue.
The clock struck four and five. Before it struck again daylight would have come; and before night came again, what? To lie still in the torment of this new experience of wakefulness with its peculiar, half-recognized forebodings, had become unbearable. She rose and dressed and went down stairs softly, candle in hand, aware only that every agitated fibre of her being was whipping her to action which should give some muscular relief from the strain of her overwrought faculties. She would go into the garden and walk there, waiting for sunrise. But at the edge of the path she was arrested by a shadow coming from the servants' sleeping-quarters. It was Ignacio, the little Indian who cared for her horse, ran errands, and fought garden bugs for her—Ignacio, the note-bearer.
"Senorita! senorita!" he exclaimed, and his voice, vibrant with something stronger than surprise, had a certain knowing quality, as if he understood more than he dared to utter. "Senorita, you rise early!"
"Sometimes one likes to look at the morning stars," she remarked.
But there were no stars; only a pale moon, as Ignacio could see for himself.
"Senorita, that young man who was here and Pete Leddy—do you know, senorita?"
"The young man who came down from the pass with me, you mean?" she asked, inwardly shamed at her simulation of casual curiosity.
"Yes, he and Leddy—bad blood between them'" said Ignacio. "You no know, senorita? They fight at daybreak."
The pantomime in the store, Jack's form disappearing with its easy step into the night, analyzed in the light of this news became the natural climax of a series of events all under the spell of fatality.
"Come, Ignacio!" she said. "We must hurry!" And she started around the house toward the street.
WHAT HAPPENED AT LANG'S
While Jack had been playing the pioneer of rural free delivery in Little Rivers, Pete Leddy, in the rear of Bill Lang's store, was refusing all stimulants, but indulging in an unusually large cud of tobacco.
"Liquor ain't no help in drawing a bead," he explained to the loungers who followed him through the door after Jack had gone.
If Pete did not want to drink it was not discreet to press him, considering the mood he was in. The others took liberal doses, which seemed only to heighten the detail of the drama which they had witnessed. To Mary it had been all pantomime; to them it was dynamic with language. It was something beyond any previous contemplation of possibility in their cosmos.
The store had been enjoying an average evening. All present were expressing their undaunted faith in the invincibility of James J. Jeffries, when a smiling stranger appeared in the doorway. He was dressed like a regular cowboy dude. His like might have appeared on the stage, but had never been known to get off a Pullman in Arizona. And the instant he appeared, up flashed Pete Leddy's revolver.
The gang had often discussed when and how Pete would get his seventh victim, and here they were about to be witnesses of the deed. Instinct taught them the proper conduct on such occasions. The tenderfoot was as good as dead; but, being a tenderfoot and naturally a bad shot and prone to excitement, he might draw and fire wild. They ducked with the avidity of woodchucks into their holes—all except Jim Galway, who remained leaning against the counter.
"I gin ye warning!" they heard Pete say, and closed their eyes involuntarily—all except Jim Galway—with their last impression the tenderfoot's ingenuous smile and the gleam on Pete's gun-barrel. They waited for the report, as Mary had, and then they heard steps and looked up to see that dude tenderfoot, still smiling, going straight toward the muzzle pointed at his head, his hands at his side in no attempt to draw. The thing was incredible and supernatural.
"Pete is letting him come close first," they thought.
But there, unbelievable as it was, Pete was lowering his revolver and the tenderfoot's hand was on his shoulder in a friendly, explanatory position. Pete seemed in a trance, without will-power over his trigger finger, and Pete was the last man in the world that you would expect to lose his nerve. Jim Galway being the one calm observer, whose vision had not been disturbed by precipitancy in taking cover, let us have his version.
"He just walked over to Pete—that's all I can say—walked over to him, simple and calm, like he was going to ask for a match. All I could think of and see was his smile right into that muzzle and the glint in his eyes, which were looking into Pete's. Someway you couldn't shoot into that smile and that glint, which was sort of saying, 'Go ahead! I'm leaving it to you and I don't care!'—just as if a flash of powder was all the same to him as a flash of lightning."
The desert had given Jack life; and it would seem as if what the desert had given, it might take away. He was not going to humble himself by throwing up his arms or standing still for execution. He was on his way into the store and he continued on his way. If something stopped him, then he would not have to take the train East in the morning.
"Now if you want to kill me, Pete Leddy," the astonished group heard this stranger say, "why, I'm not going to deny you the chance. But I don't want you to do it just out of impulse, and I know that is not your own reasoned way. You certainly would want sporting rules to prevail and that I should have an equal chance of killing you. So we will go outside, stand off any number of paces you say, let our gun-barrels hang down even with the seams of our trousers, and wait for somebody to say 'one, two, three—fire!'"
Not once had that peculiar smile faded from Jack's lips or the glint in his eyes diverted from its probe of Leddy's eyes. His voice went well with the smile and with an undercurrent of high voltage which seemed the audible corollary of the glint. Every man knew that, despite his gay adornment, he was not bluffing. He had made his proposition in deadly earnest and was ready to carry it out. Pete Leddy shuffled and bit the ends of his moustache, and his face was drawn and white and his shoulder burning under the easy grip of Jack's hand. From the bore of the unremitting glance that had confounded him he shifted his gaze sheepishly.
"Oh, h—l!" he said, and the tone, in its disgust and its attempt to laugh off the incident, gave the simplicity of an exclamation from his limited vocabulary its character. "Oh, h—l! I was just trying you out as a tenderfoot—a little joke!"
At this, all the crowd laughed in an explosive breath of relief. The inflection of the laugh made Pete go red and look challengingly from face to face, with the result that all became piously sober.
"Then it is all right? I meant in no way to wound your feelings or even your susceptibilities," said Jack; and, accepting the incident as closed, he turned to the counter and asked for the Ewold mail.
Free from that smile and the glint of the eyes, Pete came to in a torrent of reaction. He, with six notches on his gun-handle, had been trifled with by a grinning tenderfoot. Rage mounted red to his brow. No man who had humiliated him should live. He would have shot Jack in the back if it had not been for Jim Galway, lean as a lath, lantern-jawed, with deep-set blue eyes, his bearing different from that of the other loungers. Jim had not joined in the laugh over Pete's explanation; he had remained impassive through the whole scene; but the readiness with which he knocked Leddy's revolver down showed that this immovability had let nothing escape his quiet observation.
When Jack looked around and understood what had passed, his face was without the smile. It was set and his body had stiffened free of the counter.
"I'll take the gun away from him. It's high time somebody did," said Galway.
"I think you had better, if that is the only way that he knows how to fight," said Jack. "I have wondered how he got the six. Presumably he murdered them."
"To their faces, as I'll get you!" Leddy answered. "I'll play your way now, one, two, three—fire!"
Galway, convinced that this stranger did not know how to shoot, turned to Jack:
"It's not worth your being a target for a dead shot," he said.
"In the morning, yes," answered Jack; and he was smiling again in a way that swept the audience with uncanniness. "But to-night I am engaged. Make it early to-morrow, as I have to take the first train East."
"Well, are you going to let me go?" Leddy asked Jim, while he looked in appeal to the loungers, who were his men.
"Yes, by all means," Jack told Galway. "And as I shall want a man with me, may I rely on you? Four of us will be enough, with a fifth to give the word."
"Ropey Smith can go with me," said Leddy.
It scarcely occurred to them to give the name of duel to this meeting, which Jack held was the only fair way when one felt that he must have satisfaction from an adversary in the form of death. An arroyo a mile from town was chosen and the time dawn, for a meeting which was to reverse the ethics of that boasted fair-play in which the man who first gets a bead is the hero.
"It seems a mediaeval day for me," Jack said, when the details were concluded. "Good-night, gentlemen," he added, after Bill Lang, with fingers that bungled from agitation, had filled his arms with second-class matter.
Jim Galway resumed his position, leaning against the counter watchfully as the gang filed out to the rear to wet up, and in his right hand, which was in his pocket, nestled an automatic pistol.
"I'd shot Pete Leddy dead—'twas the first real fair chance within the law—so help me, God! I would," he thought, "if there had been time to spare, and save that queer tenderfoot's life. And me a second in a regular duel! Well, I'll be—but it ain't no regular duel. One of 'em is going to drop—that is, the tenderfoot is. I don't just know how to line him up. He beats me!"
ACCORDING TO CODE
It was the supreme moment of night before dawn. A violet mist shrouded everything. The clamminess of the dew touched Mary's forehead and her hand brushed the moisture-laden hedge as she left the Ewold yard. She remembered that Jack had said that he would camp near the station, so there was no doubt in which direction she should go. Hastening along the silent street, it was easy for her to imagine that she and Ignacio were the only sentient beings, abroad in a world that had stopped breathing.
Softly, impalpably, with both the graciousness of a host and the determinedness of an intruder who will not be gainsaid, the first rays of morning light filtered into the mist. The violet went pink. From pale pink it turned to rose-pink; to the light of life which was as yet as still as the light of the moon. The occasional giant cactus in the open beyond the village outskirts ceased to be spectral.
For the first time Mary Ewold was in the presence of the wonder of daybreak on the desert without watching for the harbinger of gold in the V of the pass, with its revelation of a dome of blue where unfathomable space had been. For the first time daybreak interested her only in broadening and defining her vision of her immediate surroundings.
When the permeating softness suddenly yielded to full transparency, spreading from the fanfare of the rising sun come bolt above the range, and the mist rose, she left the road at sight of two ponies and a burro in a group, their heads together in drooping fellowship. She knew them at once for P.D., Wrath of God, and Jag Ear. Nearby rose a thin spiral of smoke and back of it was a huddled figure, Firio, preparing the morning meal. Animals and servant were as motionless as the cactus. Evidently they did not hear her footsteps. They formed a picture of nightly oblivion, unconscious that day had come. Firio's face was hidden by his big Mexican hat; he did not look up even when she was near. She noted the two blanket-rolls where the two comrades of the trail had slept. She saw that both were empty and knew that Jack had already gone.
"Where is Mr. Wingfield?" she demanded, breathlessly.
Firio was not startled. To be startled was hardly in his Indian nature. The hat tipped upward and under the brim-edge his black eyes gleamed, as the sandy soil all around him gleamed in the dew. He shrugged his shoulders when he recognized the lady speaking as the one who had delayed him at the foot of the pass the previous afternoon. Thanks to her, he had been left alone without his master the whole evening.
"He go to stretch his legs," answered Firio.
Apparently, Sir Chaps had been disinclined to disturb the routine of camp by telling Firio anything about the duel.
"Where did he go? In which direction?" Mary persisted.
Firio moved the coffee-pot closer to the fire. This seemed to require the concentration of all his faculties, including that of speech. He was a fit servant for one who took duels so casually.
"Where? Where?" she repeated.
"Where? Have you no tongue?" snapped Ignacio.
Firio gazed all around as if looking for Jack; then nodded in the direction of rising ground which broke at the edge of a depression about fifty yards away. Her impatience had made the delay of a minute seem hours, while the brilliance of the light had now become that of broad day. She forgot all constraint. She ran, and as she ran she listened for a shot as if it were something inevitable, past due.
And then she uttered a muffled cry of relief, as the scene in a depression which had been the bed of an ancient river flashed before her with theatric completeness. In the bottom of it were five men, two moving and three stationary. Jim Galway and Ropey Smith were walking side by side, keeping a measured step as they paced off a certain distance, while Bill Lang and Pete Leddy and Jack stood by. Leddy and Lang were watching the process inflexibly. Jack was in the costume which had flushed her curiosity so vividly on the pass and he appeared the same amused, disinterested and wondering traveller who had then come upon strange doings.
She stopped, her temples throbbing giddily, her breaths coming in gasps; stopped to gain mastery of herself before she decided what she would do next. On the opposite bank of the arroyo was a line of heads, like those of infantry above a parapet, and she comprehended that, in the same way that news of a cock-fight travels, the gallery gods of Little Rivers had received a tip of a sporting event so phenomenal that it changed the sluggards among them into early risers. They were making themselves comfortable lying flat on their stomachs and exposing as little as possible of their precious bodies to the danger of that tenderfoot firing wild.
It was a great show, of which they would miss no detail; and all had their interest whetted by some possible new complication of the plot when they saw the tall, familiar figure of Jasper Ewold's daughter standing against the skyline. She felt the greedy inquiry of their eyes; she guessed their thoughts.
This new element of the situation swept her with a realization of the punishment she must suffer for that chance meeting on Galeria and then with resentful anger, which transformed Jack Wingfield's indifference to callous bravado.
Must she face that battery of leers from the town ruffians while she implored a stranger, who had been nothing to her yesterday and would be nothing tomorrow, to run away from a combat which was a creation of his own stubbornness? She was in revolt against herself, against him, and against the whole miserable business. If she proceeded, public opinion would involve her in a sentimental interest in a stranger. She must live with the story forever, while to an idle traveller it was only an adventure at a way-station on his journey.
She had but to withdraw in feigned surprise from the sight of a scene which she had come upon unawares and she would be free of any association with it. For all Little Rivers knew that she was given to random walks and rides. No one would be surprised that she was abroad at this early hour. It would be ascribed to the nonsense which afflicted the Ewolds, father and daughter, about sunrises.
Yes, she had been in a nightmare. With the light of day she was seeing clearly. Had she not warned him about Leddy? Had not she done her part? Should she submit herself to fruitless humiliation? Go to him in as much distress as if his existence were her care? If he would not listen to her yesterday, why should she expect him to listen to her now?
She would return to her garden. Its picture of content and isolation called her away from the stare of the faces on the other bank. She turned on her heel abruptly, took two or three spasmodic steps and stopped suddenly, confronted with another picture—one of imagination—that of Jack Wingfield lying dead. The recollection of a voice, the voice that had stopped the approach of Leddy's passion-inflamed face to her own on the pass, sounded in her ears.
She faced around, drawn by something that will and reason could not overcome, to see that Jim Galway and Ropey Smith had finished their task of pacing off the distance. The two combatants were starting for their stations, their long shadows in the slant of the morning sunlight travelling over the sand like pursuing spectres. Leddy went with the quick, firm step which bespoke the keenness of his desire; Jack more slowly, at a natural gait. His station was so near her that she could reach him with a dozen steps. And he was whistling—the only sound in a silence which seemed to stretch as far as the desert—whistling gaily in apparent unconsciousness that the whole affair was anything but play. The effect of this was benumbing. It made her muscles go limp. She sank down for very want of strength to keep erect; and Ignacio, hardly observed, keeping close to her dropped at her side.
"Ignacio, tell the young man, the one who was our guest last evening, that I wish to see him!" she gasped.
With flickering, shrewd eyes Ignacio had watched her distress. He craved the word that should call him to service and was off with a bound. His rushing, agitated figure was precipitated into a scene hard set as men on a chess-board in deadly serenity. Leddy and Jack, were already facing each other.
"Senor! Senor!" Ignacio shouted, as he ran. "Senor Don't Care of the Big Spurs—wait!"
The message which he had to give was his mistress's and, therefore, nobody else's business. He rose on tiptoes to whisper it into Jack's ear. Jack listened, with head bent to catch the words. He looked over to Mary for an instant of intent silence and then raised his empty left hand in signal.