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- Transcriber's Note: A number of very obvious typographical errors have been corrected in this text. For a complete list please see the bottom of the document. -
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THE IRON FURROW
BY GEORGE C. SHEDD
FRONTISPIECE BY HENRY A. BOTKIN
A.L. BURT COMPANY Publishers New York
Published by arrangement with Doubleday, Page & Company
COPYRIGHT, 1919, 1920, BY DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES AT THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N.Y.
THE IRON FURROW
THE IRON FURROW
The Ventisquero Range stretches across the circumference of one's vision in a procession of mountains that come tall and blue out of the distant north and seemingly march past to vanish in the remote south like azure phantoms. The mountains wall the horizon and dominate the mesa, their black forest-clad flanks crumpled and broken and gashed by canons, lifting above timber-line peaks of bare brown rock that pierce the clouds floating along the range. At sunrise they cast immense shadows upon the mesa spreading westward from their base; and at sunset they reflect golden and purple glows upon the plain until the earth appears swimming in some iridescent sea of ether; while over them from dawn till dusk, traversed by a few fleecy clouds, lies the turquoise sky of New Mexico.
At a certain point in the range a small canon opens upon the mesa with a gush of gravel and sand that flows a short way into the sagebrush and forms a creek bed. Tucked back in the little canon there is a considerable growth of bushes and trees, cool and fresh-looking in the shadow of the gorge during the summer season, a splash of vivid green there at the bottom of the dusty gray mountain, but at the canon's mouth this verdure ceases.
Only an insignificant stream of water ran, one day, in the stony creek bed that meandered out upon the mesa, and it appeared under the hot July sun and among the hot stones for all the world like a rivulet of liquid glass. That was all the mesa had to show, only its endless gray sagebrush and the creek bed almost dry—unless one should reckon the three parched cottonwood trees beside the stream, a little way down from the canon, and the flat-roofed adobe house near by, and the empty corral behind built of aspen poles. In that immensity of mountain and mesa the house looked like a brick of sun-baked mud, the corral like a child's device of straws, the three cottonwoods like three twigs stuck in the earth. Or, at any rate, that is how they appeared to a horseman regarding them from the main mesa trail a mile away.
The rider, a slender tanned young fellow of about twenty-eight, sat in the saddle with the relaxed ease of habit which allowed his body to accommodate itself to the steady jogging trot of his horse. A roll comprising clothes wrapped in a black rubber coat was tied behind the cantle. His Stetson hat was tilted up at the rear and down in front almost on his nose—a thin, bony nose, slightly curved and with the suggestion of a hook in the tip, just the sort of nose to accord with his lean, sunburnt cheeks and clean-cut chin and straight-lipped mouth. Under the hat brim drawn forward to his line of vision his eyes, notwithstanding his air of lounging indolence, gazed forth keen and observant. He had the appearance of a man who might be seeking a few stray cattle, or riding to town for mail, and in no particular hurry about it, either, this hot afternoon; but, for all that, Lee Bryant was proceeding on important business—important for him, anyhow. When everything one possesses is about to be risked on a venture, the matter is naturally vital; and at this moment he was moving straight to the initiative of his enterprise.
Where the road crossed the creek bed to continue northward, a trail branched off and followed up the stream to the little ranch house by the three cottonwood trees. Here the creek had not yet begun to cut an arroyo and had washed merely a course five or six feet deep and some fifty feet wide through the mesa, so that from a distance the shallow gash was invisible and the ground appeared unbroken. It was because of the flat character of the mesa, too, that Bryant on reaching the bank of the stream was able to see on the opposite side two persons a quarter of a mile off riding toward him; women, he perceived. Far north of them on the road, a black spot in a haze of dust, seemingly motionless but as one could guess advancing rapidly, was an automobile.
Bryant rode his horse down into the creek bed and turned him aside to a small pool on the upper side of the crossing, under the cut-bank, where the horse thrust his muzzle into the water and drank greedily. The rider swung himself out of the saddle, knelt a pace beyond, where the rivulet trickled into the pool, and also drank.
"Wet anyway, even if warm, eh, Dick?" he remarked, when done. "Don't drink it all, old scout; leave a swallow for the ladies." Still on his knees he looked appraisingly down the creek and then up it, and added derisively, "Some stream, this Perro, some stream!"
After rolling and lighting a cigarette, he meditated for a time in the same kneeling position. His horse finished drinking and moved a step nearer his master, where he stood with head lowered, water dripping from his lip, body inert. But presently he pricked his ears and turning his head toward the other bank gave a low whinny. Bryant got to his feet.
The two women he had beheld at a distance had now reached the ford. Their ponies snuffing water immediately dipped into the creek bed and crossed its sandy bottom with quickened steps. Young women the riders were, scarcely more than girls, it seemed to Bryant; wearing divided khaki skirts and white shirt waists and wide-brimmed straw hats tied with thongs under their chins. In this region where white men were none too numerous, and women of their own kind scarcer yet, and girls scarcest of all, the presence here of the pair aroused in the young fellow a lively interest.
He led Dick aside that their ponies might approach the pool.
"Thank you; they are very thirsty," said the nearer girl, with a nod. The ponies plunged forefeet into the water and stood thus with noses buried, drinking with eager gulps. "The afternoon is so hot and the road so dusty," the speaker continued, "that the poor things were almost choked."
She was the smaller of the pair, of medium height and having a graceful, well-molded figure, with frank gray eyes, a nose showing a few freckles, smooth soft cheeks slightly reddened by sun, and an expressive mouth. Bryant judged that she had small, firm hands, but could not see them as she wore gauntlets. He further decided that she was neither plain nor pretty: just average good-looking, one might say. An air of friendliness was in her favour, though what might or might not be a prepossessing trait, depending on circumstances, was the suggested obstinacy in her round chin.
"Don't you yourselves wish a drink? You must be thirsty, too," Bryant addressed the young ladies. "If your ponies won't stand, I'll look after them."
"Oh, they'll not run off, unless we forget to let the reins hang, as has happened once or twice," said the girl who previously had spoken. "For they're regular cow-ponies. At first we had a hard time remembering just to drop the lines when we dismounted instead of tying them to a post somewhere; and for a while we had a feeling that they certainly would gallop off if we did let the reins hang, as we'd been instructed. But they never did." She turned to her companion. "Imo, aren't you thirsty? I'm going to get down and have a drink." With which she swung herself down from her saddle upon the sand.
The second girl was tall and thin, lacking both the spirits and stamina of the other; a crown of fluffy golden hair was hinted by the little of it the young fellow could see under the brim of her big hat; her eyes were of a soft blue colour, probably weak; while her face, the skin of which was exceedingly white with but a tinge of the sun's fiery burn, was regular of feature and delicately formed.
She walked to the rill languidly, where stooping she drank from her palm. Most of the water that she dipped escaped before reaching her lips; and Bryant doubted if she were really successful in quenching her thirst. The heat, the dust, and the ride appeared to have been almost too much for her strength, exhausting her slender store of vitality. The other girl, who had coiled herself down by the trickling stream and bent forward resting her hands in the water, drank directly from the rivulet.
"There, that's the way to do it, Imo," she declared, when she had straightened up, hat-brim, nose, chin, all dripping. "Like the ponies! I hope I haven't lost my handkerchief." And she began to search about her waist.
"I'd fall flat in the water if I tried it, as sure as the world," the taller girl responded.
They rose to their feet and joined Bryant.
"You're the young ladies who are homesteading just south of here, aren't you?" he inquired, politely.
"Yes, two miles south on Sarita Creek," the smaller answered. Then after an appraising regard of him she continued, "We took our claims only last April. And they're not very good claims, either, we're beginning to fear; the creek goes dry about this time. That's why no one had filed on the locations before. Have you a ranch somewhere near?"
"No. That is, not yet. I'm a civil engineer, but I'm thinking strongly of settling down here. If I do, we shall be neighbours. My name is Lee Bryant; this is my horse Dick; and I've a dog called Mike, which stopped aways back on the road to investigate a prairie dog hole. Now you know who we are," he concluded, with a smile.
The girl thereupon told him her name was Ruth Gardner and that of her companion Imogene Martin.
"We'll be very glad to have you call at our little ranch when you're riding by," Ruth Gardner said, graciously. "Aside from Imogene's uncle and aunt, who live in Kennard and who've come to see us several times, we've not had a single visitor in the three months and a half we've been there, except once an old Mexican who was herding sheep near by and came to ask for matches. Of course, not many people know we're there, I imagine. From the road one can't see our cabins—we had to have two, you know, one for each claim, and they sit side by side—because they're in the mouth of the canon among the trees. It's really cool and pleasant there during the heat of the day. Any time you come, you'll be welcome."
"Yes, Mr. Bryant," Imogene Martin affirmed. "A man now and then in the scenery will help out wonderfully."
"I'll stop the first time I'm passing," he stated.
Lee Bryant understood the significance of the invitation: they were starved for company and would be grateful for the society of a person they believed respectable. He had seen a good deal of homesteading conditions in the West; he knew the hardships involved in "holding down" claims, of which the dreary monotony and loneliness of the life were not the least. One earned ten times over every bit one got of a free government homestead. For men it was bad enough; but for woman, for girls like these, who had probably come from the East in trustful ignorance and with rosy visions, the homestead venture impressed him not only as pitiful but as tragic.
"I'll certainly ride down to see you," he assured them again.
"And perhaps, being an engineer, you'll show us why the water doesn't run downhill in our bean patch, as it ought to do," Imogene Martin remarked.
Bryant laughed and nodded agreement.
"You'll find that it's your eyes, and not the water, that have been playing tricks," he said. "Ground levels and ditch grades are deceiving things close to the mountains, because the latter tilt one's natural line of vision. That's why water seems to run uphill when you look toward the range. I'll soon fix your ditch line when I set an instrument in your bean patch and sight through it once or twice. The water will behave after that, I promise you."
They continued to chat of this and of the failing of Sarita Creek, until the automobile that Bryant had earlier sighted shot into view on the northern bank of the creek, whence at decreased speed it descended into the bottom and ground its way across through sand and gravel. Driving the hooded car was a man of about thirty years, of slim figure and with a pale olive skin that betrayed an admixture of American and Mexican blood. Beside him in the front seat sat a girl whose clear pink complexion made plain that in her was no mingling of races; her hat held by a streaming blue veil and her form incased in a silk dust coat. The tonneau was occupied by two men: one an American with a van dyke beard sprinkled with gray, the other a short, stout, swarthy Mexican, whose sweeping white moustache was in marked contrast to his coffee-coloured face.
The car, with radiator steaming and hissing, was stopped at a spot close to where Lee Bryant and his companions stood. The young man at the wheel, unlatching the door, stepped out.
"I'll bet the stop-cock of the radiator is open," he addressed the girl with the blue veil, "or the engine wouldn't be so hot." After making an examination of the faucet, he returned to the door and procured a folding canvas bucket, saying, "That's the trouble, and the radiator is empty."
But the young lady scarcely heeded him. She had loosened the blue veil knotted at her throat and pushed it back from her cheeks to free them to the air; she sat regarding with interested eyes the group of three standing a few paces off by the horses. In her gaze, too, there was a faint curiosity, as if she wondered who the persons might be, and what they were doing here, and of what they had been conversing when interrupted. An exceedingly lovely girl she was, as the engineer had instantly perceived; her features molded in soft lines and curves that enchanted, a tint like that of peach petals in her cheeks, with warm, sensitive lips and brown, shining eyes—a radiant, intelligent face. Against the background of the place, the creek bed of sand and stones and the banks fringed with dusty sagebrush, she glowed with the freshness of a desert rose.
The driver of the car took a step toward Bryant, extending the bucket.
"Dip me some water out of that hole while I look at my tires, will you?" he said.
At the words, which were rather more of a command than a request, the engineer regarded him fixedly while the blood stirred beneath his tan, but finally took the bucket. The other turned back to the car, where he made a pretense of inspecting a front wheel and then, with a foot on the running-board and elbow resting on knee, twisting indolently a point of his small moustache, he began to converse with his companion of the blue veil.
Bryant filled the radiator. Two trips to the pool were necessary to obtain enough water for that purpose, but he finished the job with the same thoroughness that he went through with any business once undertaken, whether pleasant or otherwise. As he poured the contents of the bucket into the radiator's spout, he took stock of the automobile party. His face hardened with a slight contempt when he considered the effeminate-appearing young Mexican who had bade him bring water and the girl talking with him; which she must have noticed and taken to herself, for when their eyes met he saw that a flush dyed her cheeks and that she bit her lip nervously.
He snapped the radiator cap shut. At the click the man stopped fingering his moustache, ended his talk, mounted to his seat, and started the engine. Bryant handed him the bucket, folded flat again, which the recipient tossed down by his feet.
"Here, my man," said the olive-skinned young fellow at the wheel, with a forefinger and thumb searching a waistcoat pocket as the car began slowly to move forward.
He tossed a quarter to the engineer. Bryant instinctively caught it, as one catches any suddenly thrown object. For an instant he remained transfixed, incredulous, astounded, then the blood flamed in his face and he cast the coin back at its donor.
"No Mexican can throw money to me!" he exclaimed.
For answer he received an angry look and snarled word from the driver. Beyond the man Bryant beheld the startled, embarrassed, and yet interested face of the girl with the veil, her lips a little parted, her eyes intent on him. Then the car lurched out of the sand, splashed through the rivulet, ascended the inclined roadway of the creek bank, and sped from view.
The sudden spark of antagonism flashing between the engineer and the young Mexican made the two girls by the ponies acutely aware that the horseman after all was a stranger, a man of whom they knew nothing, an unknown quantity. And so the two exchanged a glance and drew on their gauntlets and said they must be riding home. Thereupon Bryant assisted them to mount.
As he separated from them to follow the trail up the creek to the ranch house by the three cottonwoods, Ruth Gardner called to him not to forget his promised visit to their cabins. He assured them he should remember. When the girls were some distance off, they waved across the sagebrush at him and he swung his hat in reply. Off then the pair went at a gallop, with the automobile on the road far south of them leaving a hazy streamer of dust above the earth; the riders going farther and farther away, becoming smaller and smaller on the mesa, until at last they were but bobbing specks in the golden sunshine.
As Lee Bryant reined his horse to a stop before the small ranch house, a man seated on a stool just within the open doorway rose and came out to join him. He was a man of thin, stooped body; his sandy hair streaked with gray formed a fringe about his bald crown; and on his lined, sunburnt face there rested a shadow of worry that appeared to be habitual. Bryant dismounted and shook hands with the ranchman.
"Well, how are you making it, Mr. Stevenson?" he greeted. "As I promised if I should be riding by this way again, I've stopped to say 'howdy.' Doesn't seem a month has passed since I stayed over night with you? How's Mrs. Stevenson? Hope you're both well."
"Just feeling fair, just fair. Glad you stopped, Bryant," was the answer. "My wife was wondering only the other day what had become of you. Bring your horse around to the corral."
They went behind the house, where the young man removed saddle and bridle from Dick and turned him into the enclosure. Stevenson gathered an armful of hay from a small heap near by and tossed it over the fence to the horse, which began to eat eagerly. Lee glanced about, gave a sharp whistle; from the trail by the creek a bark answered him. Then an Airedale came racing through the sagebrush, now and again leaping high to gain a view of his master and finally breaking out upon the clear ground about the ranch house.
"Mike, you're too inquisitive about other animals' dwellings," Lee addressed him as he arrived, wet from an immersion in the creek and panting from his run. "Some day a rattler in a hole you're digging into will nip you on the nose and you'll wish you'd been more polite. Come along now and be good."
He walked with Stevenson back to the house, where leaving the dog to drop in the shade outside they entered. The interior was cool and dim after the hot, glaring sunshine; and Bryant, having greeted Mrs. Stevenson, sat down gratefully in a rocking-chair, glad to avail himself of the room's comfort. Crude as an adobe house is both in appearance and in construction, it is admirably adapted to the climate of the arid Southwest; its flat dirt roof and thick walls built of sun-baked mud bricks, plastered within and smoothly surfaced without, defying alike the heat of midsummer and the icy blasts of winter and lasting in that dry clime half a century. This ranch house of the Stevensons', originally built by some Mexican, as Bryant judged, had been standing twenty-five or thirty years and was still tight and staunch.
"Your creek's pretty dry, I see," the young fellow remarked afteratime, when they had exchanged news.
"By August there won't be any water in it at all," Stevenson said, "except a little that always runs in the canon. I'll have to haul it from there then. You see now why I can't keep stock here."
His wife stopped the needle with which she mended an apron while they talked, and looked out of a window. On her face was the same tired, anxious expression that marked her husband's countenance.
"I've barely kept our garden alive," she said, "but it won't be for much longer."
"That's too bad, Mrs. Stevenson," Lee Bryant replied. "However, one can't do anything without water. Still, your sheep are doing well, I suppose; the grass is good on the mountains this summer."
An answer was not immediately forthcoming from the rancher; he sat staring absently at the backs of his roughened hands, now and again rubbing one or the other, and enveloped in a gloom that Bryant could both see and feel. Then all at once Stevenson began to talk, in a voice querulous and morose.
"We're going to quit here, sell the sheep, and go back East. I was swindled when I bought this ranch, and I want to get away before I lose my last cent. Came out to this country five years ago from Illinois with forty thousand dollars, and now we're going back with what I can sell my sheep for, maybe twenty-five hundred cash. Menocal robbed me right at the start, selling me this place for twenty-five thousand—twenty thousand down and a mortgage for the remaining five thousand—when the place was just five thousand acres of sagebrush, with no more water than runs in this creek. I was a tenderfoot all right! The land agent at Kennard showed it to me in June when the Perro was booming, and I believed him when he said it ran that way all the year around. Look at it now! I didn't have sense enough to inquire and learn about it, being in a hurry to get into the sheep business and thinking I should be rich in no time. That agent sold it to me for irrigated land, and a bargain at five dollars an acre. Menocal, who owned it and deeded it to me, pretends he isn't responsible for what the man said. Five dollars an acre! It's worth about fifty cents for winter range, and no more."
"If it could be irrigated, it would be a bargain sure enough at five dollars," Lee stated. "And there's another water right for the place you said when I was here before."
"Yes, there is—on paper. Water was appropriated out of the Pinas River, but that's eight miles north of here, and it would cost a hundred thousand dollars, if not more, to build a dam and a canal along the mountain side. No, sir; that appropriation was just some more of Menocal's tricky work! He jammed it through the land office thirty years ago and, they say, never did any more to comply with the law requiring delivery of the water on this ground than to have a man drive around pouring a bucketful out of a barrel upon each quarter section."
"Some pretty shady transactions were put across in those early days," Bryant commented.
"Well, ain't matters just as bad now?" Stevenson asked, quickly. "He still has the appropriation, or rather I'm supposed to have it with this ranch. Because Menocal controls the Mexican vote hereabouts, which is about all the vote there is, why, nobody has ever disturbed him about that water right. And he's using that water, belonging to me, to irrigate a lot of bottom farms along the river, for which no water can be appropriated, the Pinas not carrying enough. I rode over one day and looked at those farms—all grain and alfalfa. Well, he'll get this ranch back, anyway. The mortgage he holds on it is due next week and I can't pay it. Wouldn't even if I had the money. We're going to pull up stakes and leave."
Bryant silently regarded the other's haggard face and stooped figure, whose expression and resigned attitude revealed clearly Stevenson's surrender. He was a man discouraged, disheartened, whipped.
"What's wrong with the sheep?" he questioned, at length.
"Not much that isn't wrong. When I started five years ago, I invested in three thousand head. One time I had them increased to fifty-five hundred—three bands. Thought I was doing first rate; and I was then. But everything began to go against me. It seemed as if I always got the worst herders; and not having any water to raise alfalfa I had to buy winter feed, which was expensive; and a lot of them got the scab and died; and last year I lost nearly all my lambs at lambing time, the band being caught out in a storm and being in the wrong place. Just one thing after another, to break my back. Had trouble about the range, too. When I started them off this spring, they were down to seven hundred; and I've been losing some right along from one cause or another. No lambs, either, this spring, except dead ones. I thought I could hang on till my luck changed, but losing a hundred head two weeks ago was the last straw. I'm done now."
"What happened, Stevenson?"
"One of Menocal's herders mixed his flock with my six hundred, did it deliberately, I'm convinced; there were three thousand head of his. Billy was tending ours—and Billy is only fourteen, you know. I had come down here for some supplies and when I returned, I found him crying. The Mexican had separated the sheep and we were a hundred short, gone with his, and he would pay no attention to Billy, swearing he had only his own band. And he drove them away. I went to Menocal, who was very polite, but he said I must be mistaken as his herders were all honest men; and I've not got my sheep back, and I'm not likely to. For that band is now thirty miles away somewhere. No use to go to court—Menocal owns everything and everybody around here. So I'm quitting."
"The sheep business isn't all roses, that's certain," Lee Bryant remarked. "It's hard luck that your band ran down just when the price of mutton and wool is going up. So you're letting the ranch slide?"
"Yes, I can't pay the mortgage; Menocal would foreclose at once if I tried to stay. Last time I was in town he asked me about paying it off and when I told him I shouldn't be able to do that, he said he'd have me deed it back to him to save foreclosure proceedings. And he was smiling, too. He knew all the time that he'd get the ranch back; and when he does, he'll sell it to some other sucker."
"Both of us have wished a hundred times that we'd never sold our Illinois farm to come here," Mrs. Stevenson said, plaintively. "I don't know what we'll do when we go back, for that matter. Just rent a place, I guess. Land is so high-priced there that we'll never be able to buy a farm again."
"Renting there is better than starving here," her husband declared. "We'll have a better home, too. When we first came to this place, we planned on building a fine house, but I never had the money loose, and we've just kept on from year to year living in this 'dobe hole. Good thing I didn't have the money, however, for we'd lose the house along with the ranch if we had built. Well, we're going back East, anyhow, as soon as I sell the sheep. Graham, who has the big ranch on Diamond Creek, south of where those girls are homesteading, is coming up in a day or two to look at them, maybe buy them. You can see Graham's big white house from the Kennard trail."
Bryant nodded. "I know the place, saw it when passing," said he. Then he went on, "When I was at the ford watering my horse before coming here, an auto crossed the creek. In the rear seat were a fat Mexican, whom I took to be Menocal, and a white man with a pointed beard. The latter perhaps was Graham?"
"Yes, that must have been him. Which way were they driving?"
"Going to the Graham ranch, I s'pose."
"There was a slim young fellow driving the car—some Mexican blood in him," Lee stated.
"Menocal's son, Charlie, a half-breed snippet who puts on airs because his father's rich," Stevenson said, in a disgusted tone. "A white woman married Menocal, you know."
"In the front seat with the young fellow was a girl, rather pretty," Bryant appended.
"That's Louise, I imagine," Mrs. Stevenson said, reflectively. "Yes, it must have been her. She's Mr. Graham's daughter. A nice girl, too. That Menocal boy is crazy to marry her, the talk is."
"And is she crazy to marry him?" Lee inquired, amused by this gossip.
"Well, not exactly crazy, I'd say; I don't see how she could be. But he'll be worth a lot of money some day, and she may overlook considerable on that account. Menocal's boy has been to college; besides, the family goes everywhere with white folks. I guess a Mexican is supposed to be really white, isn't he?"
"Those having pure Spanish blood," the engineer explained. "Nearly all the ones around here that I've seen have more Indian in them than anything else, however, with a dash of other races perhaps. From the glimpse I had of Menocal, I'll venture to say he has Red men among his ancestors."
"Mexican or Indian or whatever he is, he can squeeze money out of nothing, like a Jew," Stevenson complained. "Look how much he has made out of this ranch; look at what he has made out of me! And it's just that way with everything he holds. The Mexicans all around this section sell him their stuff cheap and take what he pays, because they don't know any better and because he's their leader. He has the big store at Bartolo, which you've seen, and owns the bank there, and has any number of farms up and down the Pinas River, and runs I don't know how many bands of sheep; and besides, he elects the county officers, and fixes the taxes to suit himself, and recommends the water inspector for this district, and—and—well, what chance has an ordinary man to get ahead here?"
Lee Bryant let a pause ensue. He rolled a cigarette and struck a light and carefully got the tobacco to burning.
"You say you're going to let the ranch go back to Menocal," he stated, abruptly. "You've made up your mind that you won't keep it, anyway. All right. Now I've a proposition to make you."
Stevenson looked at him with curiosity.
"A proposition? What is it?" he asked.
"It's this: I've a farm of eighty acres in Nebraska that I'll trade you for it. I could offer you less, but I won't; you have an equity here of value, and I'm not the kind of man to beat you down to nothing. If we deal, you shall have something in return for your interest. This eighty of mine is worth a hundred dollars an acre—eight thousand; it's mortgaged for five thousand, which leaves an equity of three thousand; on it are good buildings and it's rented until next March. You could then take possession. It's a good farm, and with the money you'll have from the sale of your sheep you can make a good start on the place, which is in the corn and wheat section. My equity of three thousand isn't worth, to be sure, anything like what you paid Menocal for this ranch, but it's something—and all that I can afford to give."
The rancher stared at Lee as if he could not credit his ears.
"Are you in earnest?" he demanded, at last. "Why I've just told you there's no water here. A man can't make a living on the place, and the mortgage is due next week."
"I'll pay off the mortgage; I've enough money saved up to do that."
"But, man, without water——"
"Listen, Stevenson, I know exactly what I'm about," the engineer interrupted. "This thing's a gamble with me, I admit, but you needn't do any worrying on that score. I'm going in with my eyes open; I know the risks and am willing to take them. What about my offer?"
Stevenson, still gazing at his visitor in wonderment, was at a loss; he rubbed his knuckles doubtfully, hitched about on his chair and knit his brows, perplexed, hesitating, as was his manner when presented with any new affair, even with one palpably to his advantage. It was clear that in this lack of quick decision lay much of the reason for his failure.
His wife exclaimed in appeal, "Oh, John, if Mr. Bryant really means it, why don't you say yes? I can't understand why he makes us such a fine offer, but he is making it. We can start again; we'll be back in a farming country like what we're used to, even if it isn't in Illinois; we'll have a farm of our own, a home of our own, and will not have to rent. Oh, why don't you say yes?"
The rancher looked from his wife to Bryant and back again, pursing his lips.
"But I don't understand this," he said.
"You heard what he explained," she replied, anxiously. "He expects to pay off the mortgage and be rid of Mr. Menocal. Perhaps he knows the sheep business better than you do; you never did learn it well, John, and you ought never to have stopped farming. You were a good farmer; you will be again. We can go on this place in Nebraska and raise corn and wheat and hogs, and I'll have chickens to help clear the debt. Why, it's a chance for us to be independent again, and have a home, and neighbours, and attend church, and—and be happy, John!"
"That's so," her husband agreed.
"We are going to leave here anyway," she continued to urge. "We wouldn't have had anything but the money from the sheep, but now you'll be getting a farm, too. I'd think you'd jump at Mr. Bryant's offer."
"But maybe, after all, the ranch is worth more than I thought," Stevenson speculated.
His wife sank back in her seat, picked up her sewing, and tried to resume her task, but her fingers trembled and her lashes were winking fast. Lee gazed at her sympathetically. Then he lifted his hat from the floor and stood up.
"Well, there are other places I can trade for," he remarked. "I thought I was doing you a good turn in proposing the exchange, especially as you're about to lose your place. I wouldn't be beating you out of anything, certainly, and as your wife says, you'd really be getting something for nothing. The mortgage is due next week, you must remember."
Stevenson's mind, however, was running in another channel.
"I'll tell you how we can deal," he said, with an assumption of shrewdness. "You pay me the five thousand you plan to pay off the mortgage with, and get Menocal to renew the loan. Five thousand—why, my equity is worth more than that! Besides, you've some scheme for making money out of this ranch."
"What if I have?"
"That makes a difference when it comes to a deal."
"Not with me," the engineer stated, curtly. "If that's your attitude, we'll drop the matter. Probably you yourself can arrange an extension of the mortgage or a renewal, if you're minded to remain."
"You know, John, that you can't; Mr. Menocal has already refused," Mrs. Stevenson said, in a low voice.
"I ought to have cash in addition to your farm," her husband insisted.
"You get none," Lee replied. "Well, this trade is what I came to see you about. From the way you talked when I was here last I supposed you might consider my offer favourably, but I guess we can't do business. I'll ride on to Bartolo."
At this statement Mrs. Stevenson wiped her eyes, rose and went into the inner room, closing the door after her. The engineer moved as if to depart.
"Now, wait a minute," Stevenson exclaimed.
"I'll take—let me figure a minute."
Bryant tossed his hat on the table in disgust and relighted his cigarette.
"Stevenson, listen," he began. "You're an older man than I am, but just the same I'm going to say a few things that you need to hear. I couldn't say them and wouldn't say them before your wife, but now I'm going to turn loose. You can do as you damn please about trading, take my offer or leave it; if you refuse, though, you'll lose both ranch and farm. The trouble with you is that you can't see the difference between a good proposition and a bad one. That's why you bought this ranch on say-so. That's why now you're turning down my offer. You either jump without first looking, or you wait until it's too late. You don't pay attention strictly to what's immediately under your hand, but waste your energy wondering if you can't get rich from something out of your reach. That's what has been the trouble with you in the sheep business, I imagine. Here when I offer you a farm for a ranch that's slipping through your fingers, you at once get greedy. Most of the time you don't know your own mind; you hesitate and speculate and vacillate and worry. Why, you deserve to lose your ranch and your sheep and everything else. And your wife suffers for your faults! You're a failure, and you've dragged her down with you. If you're not a failure, and a fool, too, go bring her back into this room and tell her you're going to make this trade, so you two will have a farm and the home she wants and so her mind will be easy once more. You've been thinking of only yourself long enough; now begin to think of her comfort and happiness."
Stevenson came angrily to his feet.
"No man ever talked to me like that before, I'll have you know!" he cried.
The engineer kept his place, with no change of countenance.
"Well, one has talked to you like that now and I'm the man," he said. "And I don't retract a word. It's the truth straight from the shoulder. What are you going to do about it? Why, nothing, just nothing. Because I've talked cold, hard facts, and you know it."
The momentary fire died from Stevenson's eyes. He shuffled his feet for a little, looked about the room with the worried aspect he usually showed, brushed his lips with the back of his hand.
"You're pretty rough——" he began.
"Don't stand there talking; go get your wife," Bryant said, sharply.
Stevenson turned and walked slowly to the closed door. He cleared his throat, stared at the panels for a moment, and at last pushed it open.
"Come out, Sarah, we're going to trade," he announced.
The woman came forth. About her eyes was a slight redness, but on her lips there was a tremulous smile.
"I'm glad," she said, "I'm glad, John."
"Yes, I decided it was a good trade to make," her husband assured her. "No need to think it over longer."
They came to where Bryant stood, unconcealed pleasure showing on Mrs. Stevenson's face.
"You may like to see these kodak pictures of the farm and its house," the young man said, producing an envelope from a pocket. "Take a chair here by the window, Mrs. Stevenson, where you'll have the light. See, this one shows the house, with the trees and lilac bushes in front, and gives you a glimpse of the flower garden. Pretty, don't you think?"
She readjusted her spectacles. After a time she gazed from the pictures through the window at the stretch of sagebrush.
"And I'll have neighbours, too," she said, in an unsteady voice. "The loneliness here was killing me."
Stevenson considered the backs of his hands in awkward silence.
"Neighbours, lots of them," Bryant affirmed.
"I kind of pity you having to stay," she said, looking up at him with a smile.
The engineer laughed.
"Why, this country suits me right down to the ground," he replied. "I've been in the West ten years, wouldn't live anywhere else. And I don't expect to be lonely; Menocal will probably attend to that. Besides, there are two good-looking young ladies just south of here, on Sarita Creek."
"That's so," she said, laughing also.
"First thing we hear, you'll be married," Stevenson remarked, with a quick grin.
"Oh, I'm safe—there are two of them," Bryant returned, clapping the rancher on the shoulder.
The town of Bartolo slumbered in the July sunshine. Nothing stirred on its one long street, lined with scarcely a break on either side by mud-plastered houses that made a continuous brown wall, marked at intervals by a door or pierced by a window; nothing stirred, neither in front of Menocal's large frame store at the upper end of it, with the little bank adjoining, nor before the small courthouse grounds across the way, where the huge old cottonwoods spread their shade, nor along the entire length of the beaten street down to Gomez's blacksmith shop and Martinez's saloon across from each other at the lower end; nothing, not even the pair of burros drowsing in the shade of the wall, or the dogs lying before doors, or the goats a-kneel by the saloon, or the fowls nested down in the dust. Only the Pinas River, issuing from the black canon a mile or so above, was in motion; and, indeed, it appeared to partake of the general somnolence, barely rippling along its gravelly bed, shallow and shrunken, and giving forth but an indolent glitter as it flowed past the town. The day was hot and it was the hour of the siesta, therefore everything slept—everything, man, beast and fowl, from Menocal, who was snoring in his hammock on the vine-clad veranda of his big stuccoed house just beyond the store at the head of the street, to the goats at the foot of it by the silent saloon.
Bryant, descending from the mesa into the river bottom and riding into the street, had he not known otherwise, might have supposed the population vanished in a body. But he was aware that it only slept; and he had no consideration for a siesta that retarded his affairs. He dismounted before the courthouse and entered the building, whose corridor and chambers appeared as silent, as lifeless, as forsaken as the street itself. Coming into the Recorder's office, he halted for a look about, then pushed through the wicket of the counter and stepped into an inner room, where he stirred by a thumb in the ribs a thin, dusky-skinned youth reclining in a swivel chair with feet in repose on a window-sill, who slept with head fallen back, arms hanging, and mouth open.
"Come, amigo, your dinner's settled by this time," the engineer stated. "Grab a pen and record this deed."
The clerk sleepily shifted his feet into a more comfortable position.
"We're behind in our work," said he. "Just leave your deed, and the fee, and we'll get around to it in a few days."
"So you're too busy now, eh?"
"Yes. We've had a good many papers to record this month."
"Where's the Recorder?"
"Not back from dinner yet," was the answer.
The speaker once again prepared to rest. From the outer office the slow ticking of a clock sounded with lulling effect, while the grassy yard beyond the window, shaded by the boughs of the cottonwoods, diffused peace and drowsiness. The clerk closed his eyes.
"Just leave the deed and fee on the desk here," he murmured.
"And tip-toe out, too, I suppose."
"If you feel like it," the young Mexican remarked, with a faint insolence in his voice, the insolence of a subordinate who believes himself protected by his place.
Bryant's hand shot swiftly out to the speaker's shoulder. With a snap that brought him up standing the clerk was jerked from his seat, and before his startled wits gathered what was happening he was propelled into the outer office.
"Record this deed, you forty-dollar-a-month penpusher, before I grow peevish and rearrange your face," Bryant ordered, with his fingers tightening their grasp on the youth's collar. "You're receiving your pay from the county, and are presumed to give value received. Anyway, value received is what I'm going to have now."
"Let go my neck!"
"Let go nothing. When I see you settle down to this big book, then I let go. No 'manana' with me, boy; right here and now you're going to give me an exhibition of rapid penmanship. Savey? Take up your pen; that's the stuff. Now dip deep in the ink and draw a full breath and go to it."
Bryant released his hold on the cowed clerk, but remained by his side, where his presence exerted an amazingly energizing effect upon the scribe. The pen scratched industriously to and fro across the page, over which the youth humped himself as if enamoured of the tome, only at intervals risking a glance at the lean-faced, vigilant American. When he had finished the transcription, stamped the deed and closed the book, Bryant handed him the amount of the fee.
"Thank you," the clerk said, with an excess of politeness.
He was still nervous. He furtively observed his visitor stowing the deed in a pocket, as if expecting Bryant to initiate some new violence, and resolved on flight if he should.
"There, my friend, that's all you can do for me just now," the engineer remarked. "But I shall return soon, so keep awake and ready. When you see me entering, advance pronto. If anything annoys me, it's being kept waiting by a Mexican boy-clerk. Do you get that clearly?"
"Si, senor," the other replied, unconsciously lapsing into his native tongue.
"Muy bueno—and bear it in mind. Now I advise you to get to work on the documents you've allowed to accumulate; it's half-past two and you've had enough of a siesta for one noon." With which Bryant took his departure.
Outside he led his horse across the street to the frame store. Beside the latter stood Menocal's house, with its smooth green lawn and its beds of poppies, its trees, its fence massed with sweet peas, and its vine-covered veranda, where the engineer had a glimpse of a corpulent figure in a hammock. The only sound from the place was the musical gurgle of water in a little irrigation ditch bordering the lawn.
Inside the long store Bryant aroused the only man in sight, a Mexican who slept on the counter with his head pillowed on a pile of overalls.
"Go tell Menocal there's a man here to see him on business," Lee said.
The awakened sleeper slid off his perch, rubbed his eyes, yawned, stretched himself, and then shook his head with great gravity.
"Mr. Menocal takes his siesta till three o'clock; you can see him at that time," he said, in English.
"I'll see him now."
"Impossible! He is very angry when awakened for a small matter."
Bryant went a step nearer to the speaker.
"Where do you get the authority to decide that my business is a small matter?" he demanded, with a menace of manner that caused the other to retreat in haste. "Go bring him and make me no more trouble."
The man went. Bryant lighted a cigarette and fell to surveying the store's merchandise. Several minutes passed before a murmur of voices apprised him of the coming of the men. Menocal entered the side door first, approaching heavily and sleepily the spot where the engineer waited. He had not put on coat or collar; his short figure appeared more than ever obese; his sweeping white moustache divided his plump, shiny brown face; and his air was that of one who must put up with vexatious interruptions because of the important position he filled.
"You wish to speak with me?" he asked, shortly.
"That's why I'm here," Bryant returned.
Menocal gazed at him owlishly for a time.
"You're the man who threw my son's money back at the ford day before yesterday, aren't you?" he questioned.
"Why did you throw it back?"
"Why did he throw it at me in the first place? You should train him to use better judgment. You yourself wouldn't have done it."
"No," Menocal said. Then, as if the subject were dismissed, he asked, "What do you wish to see me about?"
"About the mortgage on the Stevenson place: I've bought the ranch. Stevenson moves off in a few days."
Menocal's brows lifted and remained so, as if fixed in their new elevation. He slowly rubbed the end of his nose with his forefinger. The sleepiness had wholly vanished from his countenance.
"Come into the bank," he said, finally; and moved toward the front door.
The engineer accompanied him. In a space railed off from the cashier's grille in the little building next door they sat down. The teller was visible in the cage, where now he appeared very busy though he had undoubtedly been drowsing when they entered.
"So you've bought the Stevenson ranch," Menocal said.
"Yes. I've just had the deed recorded."
"The mortgage is due in a few days; I told him it wouldn't be renewed by me."
"Perhaps now that I have the place——"
"No; I've carried that loan long enough. If it isn't paid when due, I'll start foreclosure proceedings immediately."
"Well, I merely asked out of curiosity," said he. "It's your right to demand payment—and I'm on hand with the money. Make out a release so that I can clear the record. Here's a Denver draft for six thousand dollars—I figure principal and interest at five thousand four hundred and you can have the balance placed to my credit in the bank. I shouldn't continue the loan at its present rate of interest in any case; eight per cent. is too much for money. Besides, I want the ranch clear of incumbrance."
With an expressionless face Menocal gazed at the draft, turned it over, examined the back, then at last laid it down on his desk.
"Isidro," he called to the teller, "make out a mortgage release for the Stevenson place. Copy the description from the mortgage in my file in the vault. Afterward credit six hundred dollars to—What is your name?"
"Six hundred dollars to Lee Bryant, Isidro. Mr. Bryant will give you his signature." Again facing his visitor, he said, "Do you know that that ranch has no water to speak of? I'm afraid you may not find the property what you expect."
"It has a good appropriation from the Pinas River here."
"Ah, but it can't be used," Menocal exclaimed, with a bland smile.
"I propose to use it."
Bryant kept his eyes fixed on the amazed banker's orbs.
"Didn't I speak clearly?" he inquired. "I own one hundred and twenty-five second feet of water in this river and it's my intention to apply it. I'm going to make a real ranch down there."
A shadow seemed to settle on Menocal's face, leaving it altered, less placid, more purposeful.
"Considerable capital will be required to build a canal there," he remarked. "You're certainly not going into this thing on your own account, are you? Who is putting up the money? Eastern people?"
Bryant smiled, but made no answer. His smile and his silence provoked an angry gleam from the banker's eyes.
"Well, it doesn't matter," Menocal continued. "But you're going to discover that you haven't this water right, after all."
"What makes you think so?"
"Because it was never used, because no real canal was ever built, only a little ditch that doesn't exist now. The right will be cancelled, and the water will be reappropriated for lands along the river."
"For farms on which you're now using it, you mean?"
"I'm not saying where."
Bryant leaned forward and tapped the banker's desk with a finger-tip.
"Mr. Menocal, don't try to start any trouble with me," he said, with jaw a little outthrust.
"Dios! You dare talk that way to me?"
"I repeat it, don't attempt to keep something that doesn't belong to you. You may want to—but don't try it. I know all about the water appropriation for the ranch I've bought; all about your sworn affidavit filed thirty years ago, with an accompanying map, certifying that a canal was built and water delivered to the land. It's a matter of record. Now you seek to reappropriate this water, or to have the right cancelled, and see where you wind up. Thirty years ago men winked at false affidavits, but it's different to-day."
The Mexican's white moustache drew up tight under his thick nose, disclosing his teeth in a snarl.
"You threaten me—me!"
"I'm not threatening, only warning you. Or if you wish a still milder word, let me say advising," Bryant rejoined.
The banker's eyes, however, continued to flash at the engineer, as if alive in their sockets and hunting a mark to strike.
"You accuse me of dishonour!" he exclaimed. "I don't know why I should pay attention to your charge, which is false. A ditch was built to the ranch—"
"Mighty small one, then. No trace of it remains."
"One was built, one was built!"
"Very well, Mr. Menocal, grant that it was. It but strengthens my position. But let us pass to recent times; five years ago you passed title to Stevenson with the water right as a reality when you sold him the ranch; your son is water inspector for this district, or was until a year ago, anyway, making reports to the state. Did he say anything in them about this canal or water right having ceased to exist? No."
"His reports were largely routine," the other stated, regaining his composure.
"Still they were official. I'm simply pointing out to you, Mr. Menocal, why it will be unwise for you to endeavour to have this water appropriation cancelled. You sold it to Stevenson as a live right—the deed proves that; and now that I have the property I shall make it such in fact. You've been using the water for other land, which possibly will suffer afterward, but that doesn't affect the case in the least. That water is a valuable property; when it's delivered on my ranch, the land will be worth fifty dollars an acre. You may have calculated that no one who got hold of the Perro Creek ranch ever would or could use the water, but in that you were in error: I can and will use it, and you must understand that fact."
Menocal fell into consideration. He folded his hands across his stomach and remained thus, pondering, occasionally lifting his lids for a scrutiny of Bryant's face.
"I'll give you ten thousand cash for the place as it stands and hand you my check now," he said, at length.
"Not to-day, thank you," the engineer replied.
"What is your price?"
"The ranch isn't for sale. It'll be worth a quarter of a million when it's watered. No, it's not on the market at present."
A deep sigh issued from the banker's lips; he blinked slowly several times before speaking, with a resigned countenance.
"I see you've some capitalists behind you," said he, "for it will take money to build a dam and a canal. If they saw a reasonable profit without the trouble of construction, no doubt they would be willing to sell."
"Put your mind at rest, Mr. Menocal; you have only me to deal with; there are no capitalists running this show yet. But the water system will be built, never fear."
Menocal's eyebrows went up. "Ah, so?" he asked, softly.
Then his face smoothed itself out; and Bryant realized that he had been led into a betrayal of importance.
"You would do well to name a price, Mr. Bryant."
"No; I propose to develop the ranch," the engineer answered, curtly. "Is the release made out? If it is, I'll be on my way."
"It's too bad you refuse, too bad," Menocal said, with a lugubrious shake of his head.
He called Isidro. The clerk placed a card before Bryant for his signature and gave him a check book. Then he laid the mortgage release in front of Menocal, who signed and passed it to the engineer.
"You'll find it correct," the Mexican stated. "Isidro is a notary and has filled out the acknowledgment."
Nevertheless, the visitor took care to read the paper and compare it with his deed before he rose.
"Well, that ends my business for the afternoon," said he, "and I'll take no more of your time. You understand where I stand, Mr. Menocal."
The latter gave a number of slow nods saying, "I understand, I understand. Good day, Mr. Bryant. And remember that you have an account with us and that the bank will be pleased to render you any service possible."
Sleepily the banker, watching through the bank window, saw the young man lead his horse across the street and once more disappear within the courthouse. Then for some minutes he continued in somnolent contemplation of the courthouse front. At last he called:
"Isidro, Isidro! Go find Joe Garcia and tell him I wish to speak with him in half an hour in my garden. Look for him at home and in the saloon, but find him wherever he is. That man who just went out now, Isidro,——"
"Yes," answered Isidro.
"He's one of those hard, obstinate Americans, Isidro—and his eyes, they are bad eyes, I don't like them."
"Yes," Isidro concurred, who had not noticed the eyes at all.
Charlie Menocal, who after his sleep had read a few chapters in a novel, went out of the shaded room where he had reposed and into the garden. There he discovered his father in talk with Joe Garcia.
"What's going on?" he exclaimed. "Lost a horse, or a wife or something, Joe?"
"No, Charlie; this is business," Garcia said, with a grin.
Menocal continued to give his instructions to the latter. They had to do with bringing a few hundred sheep from one of the bands feeding in the hills. They were to be driven down on the mesa to graze, and kept moving about near the Stevenson ranch house; Garcia was to observe what the young man there did, all he did, whom he saw, and as far as possible where he went. Particularly was he to note if surveyors came and set to work anywhere. If the young man appeared to be engaged at any task on the mountain side, Joe was to approach with his sheep. And he was to report everything he learned.
Charlie's attention became more lively as he listened to his father's directions to the man, and when Garcia had departed he asked, "Who are you after? Who's this young fellow you speak of as being at the Perro Creek ranch? Didn't Stevenson deed the place back?"
Menocal senior twisted an end of his flaring moustache.
"May a thousand damnations fall on him! No, he didn't," he responded, wrathfully.
"But that only means you'll have to foreclose the mortgage. It will take longer, that's all."
Charlie was vice-president of his father's bank—his name was so printed on the stationery, at least—and was familiar with his parent's affairs, though he was averse to anything like industry. He much preferred the pursuit of pleasure to work, and his automobile to the grille of the bank. He was accurately aware, too, of his father's weakness for him, an only child, and of his father's inclination to indulge his desires; and shrewdly played upon the fact. Nevertheless, in matters of business he possessed a certain sharpness.
"Stevenson sold the ranch to this young man Bryant, who just now paid off the mortgage," Menocal explained.
"Then he was stung," Charlie averred.
"Wait, you don't know all, my son. He plans to build a dam and a canal and use that old water right out of the Pinas, taking the water with which we irrigate the farms down at Rosita. It will leave them dry; the alfalfa will die; no more grain or peas or beans will be raised on them; they won't have even good pasturage; they will go back to sagebrush and cactus—all those farms, all those beautiful ranches! Altogether four or five thousand acres! They are worth two hundred thousand dollars now—to-morrow worth nothing! Half my winter hay comes from them; half my peas for fattening lambs. I shall have to sell part of my sheep. I'm a millionaire now, but I'll be reduced, I'll be less than a millionaire, and so almost poor again. It's very bad; it mustn't be; I must stop him using the water."
Even Charlie became solemn at the prospect of losing two hundred thousand dollars and being less than a millionaire.
"The right hasn't been used; we'll have it cancelled," he said, with sudden confidence.
"He refused to sell the place to me for ten thousand dollars cash," the father stated. "He's no fool—and he's a bad customer, Charlie; he said he would send me to prison for perjury if I tried to cancel the right."
"Perjury, pouf!" Charlie sneered.
"He couldn't send me to prison, of course, for I have too much money, but he might make it unpleasant for me, very unpleasant. Politics are to be considered; I mustn't get a bad name in the party and in the state. I must be careful. The records show that the ranch has had the water, and while in my possession. As he says, that would be difficult for me to explain if I entered court against him. The matter mustn't get into court or into the land office. Later we can have the water right cancelled and reappropriated—later, when he has gone away, when no dust can be raised about it."
"Is he going away?"
"Don't be stupid, Charlie. He must go away; that is necessary: I'm considering plans. He must be pursuaded—or——"
"Or forced," said his son, with reckless bright eyes.
"Men generally depart from a locality when public opinion is brought to bear on them," the elder remarked. "He can be made unpopular until he desires to leave."
"We'll run him out, just leave that part to me."
"Charlie, nothing rash must be done, remember that, and nothing illegal. I shall think of some plan soon."
"Nothing rash, but nothing uncertain, father. Two hundred thousand is a lot of money. I, too, shall plan."
The prospect of ousting an intruder who had challenged his family's right to control what it wished here, who indeed had the audacity to attempt to robe the effort under a claim of legality, appealed to young Menocal as an undertaking most attractive. The fact that all the advantage was on his side, of influence, of wealth, of race, of power that might be exerted through ignorant Mexicans in a hundred subtle and vindictive ways, made the enterprise all the more alluring. The Indian strain in his blood—a strain which accounts for much that sets American and Mexican apart, unconsciously in his case gave a tinge of cruelty to his anticipation. Aspiring himself to pass as an American, it never failed to please him when he could slight or humiliate an American; and he lacked his father's restraint of impulses, as he came short of his sagacity and perseverance. Indeed, secretly the son believed his father too conservative, too cautious, too old-fashioned and slow; and at times was exceedingly impatient with methods that he was confident he could immensely improve.
His father considered him for a time.
"Charlie, you leave this matter alone," he said. "You keep out of it. Whatever's to be done, I'll do. You would go too far. You can give your attention to seeing that the crops are watered and the hay cut on time; you should be down at Rosita now looking after things."
"I'll run down in the car this evening," was the answer. "To-morrow I'm going to Kennard, where I haven't been for two weeks. The wool in the warehouse there should be sold, and a buyer from Boston wrote, you know, that he would be there this week. And I think we can get our price."
Kennard was the nearest railroad point and forty miles south. It was a pleasant little city, with some of the attractions of larger places. Of these Charlie was thinking rather than of the wool. He would attend to the wool business, of course, but it was an excuse instead of a reason for the projected visit on the morrow.
"Very well, it's time the wool is sold; the price is good at present," his father agreed.
Charlie recurred to the matter of the Stevenson ranch.
"What's this fellow's name who bought out Stevenson?"
"Lee Bryant. A young man. And I don't like him; I'm afraid he's a trouble-maker. You should remember him, Charlie, for he's the fellow who filled the radiator of the car at the ford on Perro Creek and who threw your money back in your face."
Young Menocal's thin figure stiffened, while his small black moustache rose in two points of ire.
"Him! That scoundrel who insulted me before Louise! That lamb-stealer!" he shrilled.
"That is the man," his father affirmed.
Charlie spat forth a string of Spanish curses. When he had recovered from his outburst of passion, he said:
"Well, I'm glad he's the man. He'll pay for that. Louise said nothing, but she heard him. And now he's trying to steal our water, too! I'd like to tie him down on a cactus-bed and run a band of sheep over him."
"Charlie, Charlie, control yourself. Don't exhaust your strength by being angry; it's bad for you in this heat; sunstrokes are sometimes brought on that way. Besides, such talk as you uttered is foolish and dangerous."
"Bah, I'm not afraid of a sunstroke."
"Anyway, it's unwise to be angry," his father warned. "When you're in a temper, you talk loud; and people may hear it and repeat it, making trouble. Now I must return to the bank. But remember what I say: you're not to meddle in this Perro Creek matter. Do you hear?"
"Oh, yes, I hear," said Charlie.
His face as his father walked away did not, however, indicate acquiescence in this tame course. His heart was full of rancour for the insulting stranger of the ford; and where the fires of his hatred blew, his feet would follow.
Though Lee Bryant, during his colloquy with Menocal, had spoken confidently of his ability to obtain money wherewith to construct a canal system linking the Pinas River and the Perro Creek ranch, he had no definite promise of funds from any source. Nor would the project be ripe for financing before he had completed his surveys and made his cost estimates.
He had become interested in the undertaking in this way. Staying over night with the Stevensons by chance a month previous, a stranger, his speculation was aroused when through questions about the ranch he learned of the unused Pinas River water right, a right valid but apparently impracticable. Was it indeed impracticable? Would the cost of bringing water to the land be, after all, prohibitive? In fact, had a competent engineer ever gone into the matter? He doubted it. The history of the property, so far as he could glean from Stevenson, disclosed on the part of no one any serious effort ever to develop the ranch. In the beginning Menocal had probably had some faint notion of carrying out the scheme, but if so, had afterward abandoned the enterprise. The tract of five thousand acres of land had originally been a small Mexican grant; it lay in the midst of government land; and when Menocal came into possession of the ranch, some conception of utilizing water from the Pinas must have inspired him to acquire the appropriation of one hundred and twenty-five second feet. Well, the land, theoretically at any rate, had water; and if water actually could be delivered, an extraordinary value would accrue to the now nearly worthless tract. It was a problem for engineers; it was one of the possibilities that if seized might be converted into a fact. Bryant was an engineer, and he was just then foot-loose.
From the worried ranchman, Stevenson, who appeared glad to talk of his affairs to someone, he learned that the man was both dissatisfied with the country and straitened in circumstances. Bryant judged that his host would consider any offer which would enable him to realize something on the ranch and to depart; so that particular aspect of the matter if undertaken, namely, securing title to the land and water right, seemed favourable. If no insurmountable obstacle stood in the way of building a dam and a canal, arising from construction elements, it assuredly looked as if money was to be made out of the project.
With his mind kindling to the idea Bryant rode northward next morning along the base of the mountains, studying the hillsides where a canal naturally should run, all the way up to the Pinas River. Afterward he reconnoitered the mesa, hitting at last on a slight elevation, hardly to be called a ridge, that projected from a hillside a mile below Bartolo and curved in a gentle crescent for about three miles from the range of mountains down the mesa, again bending in toward the hills close to the north line of the Perro Creek ranch.
Next, he absented himself for a week at the state capital, where he industriously studied the water and land records pertaining to the district. When he returned, he brought with him a surveying instrument and a boy for helper. He pitched a tent out of sight in a hollow at the foot of a hill, worked early and late running his lines, establishing a dam site, and surveying the river bottom near the mouth of Pinas Canon, and remained practically unseen except by a few incurious Mexicans. His instrument proved the correctness of his conclusion regarding the crescent-shaped elevation as a practical grade for a canal, which though necessitating a longer course would nevertheless immensely lessen the time, expense, and difficulties of digging when compared with a line along the mountains' flanks with its danger of washouts and earth slides. Nor did he stop there. He made rapid but reliable topographical measurements, on a general scale, of the mesa for five miles out from the mountains, between Bartolo and Perro Creek, locating among other things a large depression in the plain, three miles southwest of the town, which might by diking be converted into a flood water reservoir. Then he folded his tent and again disappeared for a week. When, finally, he rode to Stevenson's ranch house that hot July afternoon and made a trade for the five thousand acres of land, he was the possessor of considerably more knowledge of the locality and its possibilities than any one would have guessed.
And now he was owner of the ranch and committed to the enterprise.
A few days after Bryant's visit to Bartolo Stevenson disposed of his sheep to Graham, the owner of the large ranch on Diamond Creek, loaded his household goods, except the stove and some of the furniture which the engineer bought, and with his wife and boy drove away in his sheep wagon for Kennard and for the new farm in Nebraska. Bryant's own effects—trunk, bedding, provisions, surveying instruments, draughting-board, and the like, came up from the railroad town by wagon, and with them the fourteen-year-old lad, Dave Morris, a gangling, long-legged boy extremely dependable and extraordinarily serious, who had carried rod for the engineer during the week of preliminary surveying.
The man and boy now attacked the canal line in earnest, with Bryant intent on establishing its course, location, and displacement exactly, so that he could make necessary blueprints and compile construction estimates. It was while they were working along the first mile of the line, where it ran from the Pinas River along the base of a hill to the low ridge that bore out upon the mesa, that they received their first interruption. The worst and most expensive part of the canal to build would be this section, and the engineer was therefore taking especial care in its surveying; near the river the line traversed several fenced tracts of ground extending part way up the hillside, fields owned by natives; and it was one of these Mexicans who slouched forward to the spot where Bryant and Dave worked and ordered them to get out of his field.
Bryant straightened up from sighting through his transit, and asked, "What's on your mind? What's disturbing your brain, hombre?"
"You get off," was the unkempt fellow's answer.
"You can't come on my ranch; get off."
The engineer pulled a map from his hip pocket—a copy made from one filed in the land commissioner's office thirty years previous. He spread it open before the Mexican.
"See this? Here is Bartolo, here is the river, here is your field," he said, pointing with a finger. "Now look at that line; it runs across this field right where we stand. That's the Perro Creek Canal, extending down to Perro Creek."
The man stared at the earth under his feet.
"No, I see no canal," he stated, now looking right and left as if to make sure. "There is no canal."
"Yes, there is. But it needs cleaning badly. I'm surveying its banks again and then I shall clean out the dirt. You can see that it needs cleaning, because you can scarcely see it at all. Menocal, the banker, didn't take very good care of the canal after he built it; that's the trouble. Hello, does that surprise you? Yes, Mr. Menocal got the water right and dug the ditch in the first place; and he also secured a right of way across these fields, sixty feet wide, by buying it from whoever owned the ground at that time, and the right of way is certified to the state. Now, I own Perro Creek ranch and the Perro Creek canal and likewise the right of way. So you see, Jose, or whatever your name is, we're standing on my ground and not yours; I could even make you take down your fence where it crosses my right of way."
The Mexican blinked stupidly.
"I was born here; my father was born here; my grandfather lived here," he said. "There have been little ditches, many of them, but never a big canal in this field. You must get off."
"No; you're mistaken. Go see Mr. Menocal and he will set you right."
"I saw Charlie Menocal, who said to drive strangers off."
"Well, Charlie had best keep his fingers out of this dish, or he may find it full of pepper, and you tell him so next time you talk with him."
Bryant folded his map and restored it to his pocket, while the Mexican went away to his house.
That day the engineer worked until darkness shut down. At three o'clock next morning he routed his young assistant out of bed and by dawn they were in the fields again. Knowing that the Menocals had set about impeding and if possible altogether obstructing him, he proposed to be done, as quickly as careful surveying allowed, with the fenced part of the hillside where plausible controversies could be invented.
Toward the end of the second day he had progressed into the last tract of owned ground. He breathed more freely. In his statement to the Mexican concerning the right of way he had been exactly right; and he was following to a dot the original course taken by the early ditch. He could have improved upon this section of the canal by another survey, but that would have involved him in a host of troubles, very likely unsolvable ones, in securing title to another strip of ground across the fields. Without question Menocal's influence would prevent the owners from selling, even if Bryant had the money with which to buy a second right of way, which he had not. Dollar for dollar it would be cheaper in the long run to use the old line. Well, Dave was already across the last fence with his rod; they would soon be working entirely on government land; and with that, it did not matter for the present what the Mexican landowners thought or did.
Bryant had walked fifty yards or so away from his transit to call something to Dave, when the crack of a rifle sounded from the hillside and a bullet whined near by. The engineer pivoted about. Another shot followed, and he beheld a spurt of dust close by his instrument. The hidden rifleman was not seeking to murder him, but to destroy his tools.
There were no more shots and he resumed work. Later on, as he neared the fence and was establishing his last points within the field, a horseman with a gray moustache came galloping up along the stretch of barb wire. He nodded, inquired if the engineer was named Bryant, and announced that he had half a dozen injunctions to serve.
"I expected something like this; glad you didn't arrive any sooner," Lee remarked.
"Well, I was away from town, or I'd have been here by noon," the horseman, an American, stated. "The injunctions cover all these places between here and the river. You and any one you hire must keep off the tracts specified until the cases come up before the judge."
"All right, sheriff. Wait till I take a last squint or two and I'll vacate."
The horseman idly watched the engineer make his final measurements, then when Bryant had lifted his tripod over the wire and told his assistant Dave they would call it a day and stop, he dismounted and sat down for a smoke with the man on whom he had served his papers.
"Looks as if you've stirred up some interest in your doings," he remarked, expelling a thread of smoke. "All the Mexicans from here down to Rosita are gabbling about your canal. Don't seem pleased with you."
"There's one who doesn't, in any case," was the response. "He took a couple of shots at my instrument a while ago from up yonder in the sagebrush when I had stepped aside for a moment."
The sheriff gazed at the hillside.
"A few hombres around here will bear watching," said he. For a little he meditated, then went on, "You're a white man and so am I; they don't like our colour any too well, at bottom. I s'pose you know that."
"Yes. But they needn't express their feelings with rifles. As far as these injunctions are concerned, they'll be dismissed eventually, for there's no question about my right of way through here. Menocal secured it himself and it's all a matter of record—the deeds, the certificate to the state, and the rest."
"Menocal got it, you say?"
"Nobody else. Some time or other he must have expected to water Perro Creek ranch, which he owned until he sold it to Stevenson."
"I knew he had that place," said the visitor, "but I didn't know it carried a water right from the Pinas. Where does this move of yours hit Menocal?"
"In his ranches down the river; he's been using this water for them," Bryant explained. "I suppose it's been taken for granted by nearly everyone that the water belonged to those farms down there, but it doesn't."
"How much water in this right?"
"Hundred and twenty-five second feet."
"Whew! That takes a chunk out of the Pinas. And I presume that by this time Menocal knows what you're doing?"
"Oh, yes; I told him. He doesn't like it, of course."
The sheriff turned for a full view of Bryant's face. In respect to features the two men were not unlike: both had the same thin curving nose and level eyes and cut of jaw.
"Well, let me say as between man and man," the elder spoke, "that Menocal won't let you take away that much water from him if he can help it. And I'll drop you some more news, in addition: several Mexicans are going to file on homesteads or desert claims along the base of the hills south of here, scattered along like and running part way up the mountain sides. I don't know where your canal to Perro Creek will go, but if its line follows the foot of the range, as may be likely, it might happen to find those claims in the way."
"Any idea in your mind where those fellows may locate their filings?"
"No; I can't say definitely. Shouldn't be surprised if they began stringing them along a couple of miles south of here till they reached Perro Creek."
Bryant gazed at the flank of the mountain. The gentle ridge where his ditch line left the hillside was but half a mile away. Beyond that the Mexicans could file to their hearts' content, for they would be left on one side by the canal. But in all this he perceived Menocal's cunning hand.
"Much obliged to you, sheriff," said he. "I'll see if I can't find some way to satisfy those chaps when the time comes."
His visitor rose and put foot in stirrup.
"If any of these Mexicans grow ugly, let me know," he remarked. "I'll tell them where to head in. Drop in at my office at the courthouse when you're in town; Winship's my name. I brought these notices over myself in order to look at you, for they were saying you are a trouble-maker, but that's what these natives frequently state when they want to fix an alibi for themselves before they start something. I'll see if I can learn anything of the fellow who was up yonder shooting. These hombres are altogether too free with firearms, anyway. Better feed that lad there with you a few more meals a day; looks as if he could use them."
"Dave's a little lean, but he's all there. Looks don't count, do they, partner?"
"I do the best I can," Dave responded, solemnly.
"Not at meal-time, I reckon," the sheriff said. "Feed up and get fat. A kid like you has no business having so many joints and bones sticking out."
"I been through a hard winter last winter, and this spring, too, till Mr. Bryant picked me up."
"How's that?" the horseman inquired.
"My mother died at Kennard. I didn't get on very well after that; not much there for a boy to work at. And I hadn't any folks."
"Hump. What's your last name?"
"Any relation to Jack Morris?"
"He was my father."
The sheriff nodded. "Knew him well; he died four years ago. And your mother died last winter? Little woman, I recall."
"Little, but a lot better than plenty of bigger ones I know of," Dave asserted, stoutly. "She died of pneumonia."
"Boy, I've held you on my knee when you were about as high as my hand. But I guess you don't remember that, and I'm mighty sorry to learn your mother's gone. Dave—is that your name? Well, now, Dave, fight your grub harder from now on."
The speaker gathered his reins, nodded, and rode away along the barb wire fence.
"When gentlemen of a dark and sinister cast of mind deliberately set out to frustrate one's legitimate efforts under a misapprehension as to the course to be pursued, the proper diplomacy in such a case is to foster the delusion circulating in their craniums as long as possible and thus divert their attention from the real purpose. Don't you agree with me, David?" Lee Bryant gravely inquired of his young companion, as they were about to set forth next morning.
"Yes, sir," Dave affirmed, to whom the statement was so much Greek.
"Then since the vote is unanimous, we'll proceed to run a line along the mountain side where it will collide with these new homesteads."
The engineer shouldered tripod and rod, whistled Mike to heel, and with Dave started forward. Half way to Bartolo they perceived three men busy on the hillside, so Bryant swung up to a point a quarter of a mile off and began surveying. When he approached the workmen, Mexicans naturally, he saw that they were engaged in setting fence posts, of which a row was already in line part way up the hill.
The men dropped their tools and confronted him as he drew near.
"This is my land; you keep away," one exclaimed, with waving arms, while the other backed him up in a show of force.
"How can I build a canal here if you won't let me go through?" Bryant demanded.
"No go through, no canal on my claim!"
"Well, just let me run a line, anyhow."
"No. Keep off, keep off," was the obstinate answer.
The engineer continued to argue, now as if in anger and now with a conciliatory mien, all the while protesting that the homesteader must not prevent the construction of the canal. But he received only shakes of the head, short replies, and malicious looks. So at length, with every pretense of disappointment and dejection, he went down the hillside.
A mile farther along, where he found two more men occupied at similar labour, he likewise dissembled his purpose, with the same opposition, controversy, and retreat. He thereupon led Dave back to the ranch house, where he prepared and ate dinner with satisfaction. Very likely Menocal would receive reports that evening faithfully depicting his chagrin and despair, or whatever were the Mexican equivalents.
Yet while he deluded the banker, he must secretly carry on his actual surveying on the mesa. Since the men setting fence posts had a fairly wide view of the plain, he determined to work in the open only for two or three hours at daybreak before the Mexicans were about. For Menocal, or any one else, must have no suspicion of his real ditch line until an application for construction of the project had been filed in the state engineer's office.
Signs that the banker had taken measures to keep him under surveillance were not wanting.
"Dave," he said, "have you noticed a sheepherder with a bunch of sheep hanging around here, when he should be up in the mountains where the range is good?"
"Yes, I've seen him. And he hasn't a full band, either."
"Looks as if he's grazing down here on the mesa so as to watch us," Bryant mused. "When we went north, he and his sheep drifted in that direction; when we were over on the mountain side, they followed there. What shall we do about it?"
"I don't see that we can do anything except to watch him, too, and fool him." The lad took thought for a moment, and then proceeded, "Somebody was around here yesterday while we were away, for I saw a brown paper cigarette stub on the ground in front of the door this morning. You use white papers; it's mostly Mexicans who have those straw papers."
"Then we had better put an extra nail or two in the windows as a precaution," Lee stated, "before we go down to Sarita Creek. And I'll leave Mike here also. If anybody comes fooling around, he'll take a piece out of the fellow's leg."
In addition to nailing the windows and leaving Mike at the door, much to his dissatisfaction, Bryant secreted his papers, note-books, and maps, the theft of which would be an extremely serious loss. Menocal probably would not instigate open lawlessness, but his hirelings might break into the house on their own initiative. And this was not unlikely since a bitter feeling was systematically being aroused against Bryant and his project among the preponderate Mexican inhabitants.
But for the time being he dismissed this matter from his thoughts, when with tripod and rod and a bundle of stakes on Dick's saddle he and Dave set out for Sarita Creek, leading the horse. Bryant had postponed, under pressure of work, the business of fixing the feminine homesteaders' garden ditch, until his conscience began to prick him on the subject. He had neither seen nor had news of them since the chance meeting at the ford; but now, as he could survey his canal line on the mesa only during the early hours, he planned to make frequent visits to the girls.
That they already had a caller this afternoon he discovered on arriving at the two little cabins built of boards, peeping forth from among the trees in the mouth of the canon. The place was indeed charming, with its grass and shade, with its brook flowing close by the dwellings, with walls of rock rising behind. Just now an automobile rested before the trees; and the engineer saw a man sitting on the grass with Ruth Gardner and Imogene Martin, the three chatting and laughing gaily. When Bryant got a good look at the other visitor he gave vent to an ejaculation in which was blended surprise and contempt. "That magpie! Of all damn impudence!" For the cavalier so debonairly entertaining the young ladies was none other than the olive-skinned Charlie Menocal.
A sense of pique was Bryant's succeeding feeling. He would have disdainfully denied that he was moved by a pang of jealousy. But he had anticipated finding the girls alone and having a pleasant chat with them, enjoying their companionship, relaxing from the strain of arduous work, harkening to their badinage. Indeed, if the interloper had been someone else, some other man, at least, he would have experienced a turn of disappointment—but that the individual should be this tricky, coddled, egotistical Charlie Menocal! Well, he should align the girls' irrigating ditch and then go about his business.
"I've been delayed in coming to correct your water flow," he remarked, when the fair homesteaders had given him greeting, "but I'm on hand at last."
Ruth Gardner, looking prettier and fuller of spirits than ever, assured him the ditch was behaving no better than before. Her next words, however, left him with an impression that he and not Charlie Menocal was the intruder, which hardened his annoyance into a desire to have done with the matter.
"I wish you had come some other day, for we're just about to depart," she exclaimed. "Mr. Menocal is very kindly taking Imo and me in his car to see the old ruins of a pueblo somewhere over west. We'll be gone probably all the rest of the afternoon, and there'll be no one to show you the ditch and what's wrong with it."
"Oh, I'll find out what's wrong and straighten out the trouble," the engineer replied. "You've a spade or shovel, I suppose? Go right ahead with your exploring expedition and don't worry about me; the ditch will be working properly when you return."
"Well, if you don't really need us——"
"Not in the least," was his assurance.
She still hesitated, while her look travelled from Bryant to Menocal and back again. To the engineer that inclusive regard indicated that her mind was less concerned with the garden ditch than with a comparison of her two visitors; and with a sudden feeling of warmth about his neck Bryant admitted to himself that he presented no attractions. He wore laced boots, soiled khaki trousers and flannel shirt, with his hat pulled over one eye against the sun; Menocal was dressed in light gray clothes, thin and cool, low white shoes, a pale pink silk shirt (trust a Mexican for colour somewhere!) a vivid rose-hued scarf, and a white cap. To further emphasize the contrast, Bryant led a loaded horse and a gangling boy, while Charlie Menocal leaned at ease against his twin-six. Quite a difference, for a fact. And it was plain that Ruth Gardner noted it with discrimination.
Imogene Martin now spoke.
"I don't think I'll go, Ruth. I've not been feeling well the last day or two, as you know, and I'm afraid to risk the sun."
"Oh, come on, Imo. The ride will do you good," her friend replied, with a trace of impatience.
"No, I told Mr. Menocal when he proposed the expedition that I doubted if I should go."
"Too bad not to come, Miss Martin," that worthy remarked, without enthusiasm. Clearly his interest in what company he should have did not point toward her.
"I'm going, at any rate," Ruth Gardner said. And then, "Oh, dear! I overlooked altogether introducing you you two gentlemen."
Bryant was human; the opportunity was one he could not let pass. So smiling broadly he said:
"We've met before, haven't we, Menocal? At Perro Creek ford." And receiving no response but a scowl, he spoke at large, "Well, I must get busy if I'm to save those beans."
He led Dick, with Dave at his side, toward the garden on open ground below the trees, where the bean vines were already turning yellow for lack of water. He chuckled as he went, for the disappearance of Charlie Menocal's patronizing air and the sudden thundercloud hanging on his visage attested that the charge had gone home.
Ten minutes later the automobile passed the garden, but Bryant, who had set up his tripod and stationed Dave with his rod some distance off, did not see the hand Ruth Gardner waved. His eye was where an engineer's eye should be, at his transit.
"She waved at you," Dave called.
"That girl with the Mexican."
"Well, what of it?"
When Bryant used that tone, Dave recognized the wisdom of silence. He pretended that he had not heard. Even his employer, whom he worshipped, had strange, mysterious moods.
The defect in the ditch proved to be one of minor character, which Bryant corrected after a few observations and half an hour's work with a shovel. While he was thus engaged, Imogene Martin, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, strolled out to watch his operations. She was in a friendly and talkative mood, and asked questions concerning ditches and irrigation and surveying, and about Dave, and speculated on the ruins of the pueblo whither Ruth and Charlie Menocal had gone, and said she was glad Bryant had bought the ranch just north of their claims and would be their neighbour. Only, she added, she was sorry to learn that he was having trouble with the people about; Mr. Menocal had stated such to be a fact, though what he had further hinted of Bryant's endeavour to gain property to which he had no title and of the engineer's being a trouble-maker, she did not for one instant believe.
"I'll be a trouble-maker for Charlie and his dad if they continue their present policy," Lee vouchsafed, tossing aside a shovelful of earth.
Imogene Martin carefully flattened a hill of bean plants for a seat, sat down, and locked her hands over her knees.
"I think you're to be trusted, so I'll tell you a secret," she remarked, smiling. "Charlie Menocal doesn't make a 'hit' with me, either. When you referred to the ford, I could scarcely keep my face straight; and my feeling ill this afternoon, though partly true, was also partly manufactured, because I didn't want to go to those old ruins with him. I don't care for men like him especially. I share the feeling of my uncle in Kennard—"
"You have an uncle there? I thought you were from the East."
"I am; from Ohio. But I've an uncle and aunt living in Kennard, which is the reason Ruth and I came to this section for homesteads. Ruth was crazy to take up a claim, having read how easily one is acquired, while my health was not very good and the doctor at home thought it would be improved by being in the open in a high altitude. Uncle said I'd better stay with him and aunt, but I knew how terribly disappointed Ruth would be if I did, because she couldn't homestead alone. So uncle declared that if homesteaders we had to be, then we must locate near him where he could have me under his eye, so to speak. I myself am not taking this claim business very seriously. And now uncle, who once had some controversy with the elder Menocal, wouldn't be very well pleased if he knew the son was making calls on us."
"So others besides myself have trouble with the Menocals," Bryant stated.
"Apparently. I don't know what this particular difficulty was about, but uncle is president of a bank in Kennard and so it may have been some financial matter. Or it may have been over politics; both of them mix in that. Anyway, he doesn't think highly of the elder Menocal, and has no use at all for the younger; so I know he would be vexed at Ruth and me for receiving this Charlie."
"You didn't know him that day he and I clashed at the ford," Lee suggested.
"Oh, no. Our meeting came about one afternoon about a week afterward. He overtook us on the road a mile or so away from here and politely offered to bring us home in his car; we were walking and couldn't very well refuse his courtesy, and then he asked to call and Ruth at once gave him permission, and that's the way it came about. But I thought it wise to draw the line at going off miles and miles with him to see ruins. Of course, Ruth hasn't any uncle to consider, but uncle or no uncle I should have drawn the line just the same."
"A colour line, eh?" Lee asked, with a lift of his brows.
"Yes, that's it, though I hesitated to put it in just those words," she agreed, with a nod, while both her lips and her blue eyes smiled at him in amusement. "Really, Mexicans are of different blood and race, you know, and I feel the—gulf. That probably sounds foolish and ridiculous, still I can't help the feeling. When I look at a man like Charlie Menocal, I see the Mexican strain uppermost even if his mother was white; and I think what strange, savage, unguessed traits may lurk in his blood from a long time back; and I shiver. One dare not say they have ceased. There may be forces at work in his soul that are inherited from the very tribesmen who dwelt in that pueblo ages ago, whose ruins he and Ruth have gone to see. Who knows? And I'm never able to rid myself of the feeling that such forces exist in him and his kind."
The engineer thrust his shovel into the earth and seated himself beside the girl.
"Nor I," said he. "And I suppose that feeling will remain between persons of different races as long as the races themselves last. Those who ignore or deny it are simply blind. Why, look, there's antipathy between even white men of different nationalities! So what else is to be expected when the question is one of race and colour? Nor will one or two generations change what is infused in blood and sinew."
"Now, that's what uncle says," Imogene Martin declared, "and asserts that's the reason why Mexicans born and raised here are in sympathy with those across the border in any trouble Mexico has with our country." Her face all at once became amused. "He says craniums were shaped long before governments."
Bryant laughed on hearing that concise summing up of the case. And then they continued to talk of this and other subjects, while Dave Morris drew near and silently drank in the conversation, most of which passed above his head. As for the engineer, he found in his companion a peculiar charm that he never would have suspected from their first meeting at the ford; a pleasure begotten of a quick intelligence and a keen, trained mind.
"I've delayed you in your work," she exclaimed, at length.
"Except to throw out a few shovelfuls of dirt, and that will take but a moment. I was done. I didn't sit down until it was practically put in shape. I hope we shall have another talk soon; this one has been a great treat for me. Let me help you up."
When he had cleaned the last clods from the ditch, he set off with tripod and shovel on shoulder to walk with her to the cabins, while Dave followed with Dick. At the houses Bryant cast an appraising look at the scanty heap of chopped wood and wound up his visit by seizing the axe and attacking the store of dry poles hauled from the canon by the man who had built the cabins.
"There, that will keep you going for awhile," he stated, when he had produced a large pile of sticks. "I don't believe you're strong enough to handle an axe, Miss Martin; and it would grieve me deeply to learn you had removed a toe in the attempt. Really, this homesteading game isn't for women and girls."
"Oh, we've made out fairly well."
"Your spirit is admirable, but I can't say as much for your judgment in the matter," he returned, good-naturedly. "Still, we all go hunting trouble in our own individual fashion; if not in one way, why, then in another."
It was after five o'clock when Lee Bryant and Dave, once more leading the loaded horse, took their departure and followed Sarita Creek down to the mesa trail. When they had struck into the latter and travelled it for half a mile, they saw a long distance ahead someone walking toward them, also leading a horse. In a land where men saddle a mount to ride a few hundred yards, the singular coincidence excited their curiosity. They wondered why the fellow walked, as doubtless he was wondering the same thing of them. But as they drew nearer they perceived the pedestrian to be not a man but a woman; and when they met Bryant recognized in her the girl who had sat by Charlie Menocal in his automobile at the ford. Her gray corded riding habit was dusty; she appeared both hot and tired; and her countenance showed a deep dejection. The horse she led was limping.