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