THE LONG CHANCE
THE LONG CHANCE
PETER B. KYNE
ILLUSTRATED BY FRANK TENNY JOHNSON
PRINTED AT GARDEN CITY, N. Y., U. S. A.
THE LONG CHANCE
It was sunrise on the Colorado desert.
As the advance guard of dawn emerged from behind the serrated peaks to the east and paused on their snow-encrusted summits before charging down the slopes into the open desert to rout the lingering shadows of the night, a coyote came out of his den in the tumbled malpais at the foot of the range, pointed his nose skyward and voiced his matutinal salute to the Hosts of Light.
Presently, far in the distant waste, seven dark objects detached themselves from the shadows and crawled toward the mountains. Like motes swimming in a beam of light, they came out of the Land of Nowhere, in the dim shimmering vistas over west, where the gray line of grease-wood met the blue of the horizon. Slowly they assumed definite shape; and the coyote ceased his orisons to speculate upon the ultimate possibility of breakfast and this motley trio of "desert rats" with their burro train, who dared invade his desolate waterless kingdom.
For, with the exception of the four burros, the three men who followed in their wake did, indeed, offer the rare spectacle of variety in this land of superlative monotony. One of the men wore a peaked Mexican straw hat, a dirty white cotton undershirt, faded blue denim overalls and a pair of shoes much too large for him; this latter item indicating a desire to get the most for his money, after the invariable custom of a primitive people. He carried a peeled catclaw gad in his right hand, and with this gad he continually urged to a shuffling half-trot some one of the four burros. This man was a Cahuilla Indian.
His two companions were white men. The younger of the pair was a man under thirty years of age, with kind bright eyes and the drawn but ruddy face of one whose strength seems to have been acquired more from athletic sports than by hard work. He was tall, broad-shouldered, slim- waisted, big-hipped and handsome; he stepped along through the clinging sand with the lithe careless grace of a mountain lion. An old greasy wide-brimmed gray felt hat, pinched to a "Montana peak," was shoved back on his curly black head; his shirt, of light gray wool, had the sleeves rolled to the elbow, revealing powerful forearms tanned to the complexion of those of the Indian. He seemed to revel in the airy freedom of a pair of dirty old white canvas trousers, and despite the presence of a long-barreled blue gun swinging at his hip he would have impressed an observer as the embodiment of kindly good nature and careless indifference to convention, provided his own personal comfort was assured.
The other white man was plainly an alien in the desert. He was slight, blonde, pale—a city man—with hard blue eyes set so close together that one understood instantly something of the nature of the man as well as the urgent necessity for his thick-lensed, gold-rimmed spectacles. He wore a new Panama hat, corded riding breeches and leggings. He was clean-shaven and sinfully neat. He wore no side-arms and appeared as much out of harmony with his surroundings as might a South American patriot at a Peace Conference.
"I say," he began presently, "how much further is it to this prospect hole of yours, if, indeed, you have a prospect as you represented to me a week ago?" His tone was fretful, peevish, complaining. One would readily have diagnosed the seat of his trouble. He had come prepared to ride—and he had been forced to walk.
The young man frowned. He seemed on the point of swearing, but appearing to think better of it, he replied banteringly, "Por ahi. Por ahi."
"What in blazes does that mean?"
"Oh, I was just talking the language of the country—a language, by the way, toward which you seem most indifferently inclined. 'Por ahi' means 'a considerable way,' 'a right smart piece, I reckon,' and conveys about the same relative amount of definite information as manana. Never having measured the distance to my prospect, I have tried for the past two days to give you an approximate idea. But in this country you must know that distance is a deceptive, 'find X' sort of proposition—so please refrain from asking me that same question every two miles. If the water holds out we'll get there; and when we get there we'll find more water, and then you may shave three times a day if you feel so inclined, I'm sorry you have a blister on your off heel, and I sympathize with you because of your prickly-heat. But it's all in the day's work and you'll survive. In the meantime, however, I suggest that you compose your restless New England soul in patience, old man, and enjoy with our uncommunicative Cahuilla friend and myself the glories of a sunrise on the Colorado desert."
"Damn the sunrise," the other retorted. He would have damned his tormentor had he dared. "I do not wish to be insulted."
"Listen to that coyote," replied the careless one, ignoring his companion's rising anger. "Listen to him yip-yapping over there on the ridge. There sits a shining example of bucolic joy and indifference to local annoyances. Consider the humble coyote, Boston, and learn wisdom. Of course, a coyote doesn't know a whole lot, but he does recognize a good thing when he sees it. His appreciation of a sunrise is always exuberant. Ever since that coyote's been big enough to rustle his own jack-rabbits he's howled at a lovely full moon, and if he's ever missed his sun-up cheer it's because something he ate the night before didn't agree with him."
"Sir," snapped the irascible one, "you're a trifler. You're—you're —a—"
"Say it," soothed the student of nature.
"Oh, damn it," rasped his victim, "talk business. This is a business trip, not a rehearsal for a comic opera. Talk sense."
"Well, all right—since you insist," drawled the other, smiling brightly. "In the first place, after this morning you will permit your whiskers to grow. Out here water is too precious to waste it shaving every morning. I suggested that point last night, but you ignored my polite hint. I hate to appear boorish, but I must remind you that these jacks are mine, that the four little kegs of water that they're carrying are mine, that this mozo—I beg your pardon—that this Indian is mine, and lastly—forgive me if I ascend once more into the realm of romance and improbability—this country is mine, and I love it, and I won't have it profaned by any growling, dyspeptic little squirt from a land where they have pie for breakfast. I positively forbid you to touch that water without my permission. I forbid you to cuss my mozo without my permission, and I forbid you to damn this country in my hearing. Just at this particular moment, Boston, the only things which you have and which you can call your own, and do what you please with, are your soul, your prickly-heat and your blistered heel. I'm fully convinced that you're quite a little man back in Boston for the reason that you're one hell of a small man out here, even if you do wear a string of letters after your name like the tail on a comet.
"You were swelling around in San Berdoo, talking big and hollering for an investment. I showed you samples of ore from my desert prospect and you got excited. You wanted to examine my claim, you said, and if you liked it you would engage to bring it to the attention of 'your associates' and pay me my price. I offered to bring you in here as my guest, and ever since you got off the train at Salton you've snarled and snapped and beefed and imposed on my hospitality, and it's got to stop. I don't need you; I don't care for you; I think you're a renegade four-flusher, bluffing on no pair, and if I had known what a nasty little old woman you are I'd never have opened negotiations with you. Now, you chirk up, Boston, and smile and try to be a good sport, or I'll work you over and make a man out of you. Savvy?"
Thoroughly squelched, the malingerer flushed, mumbled an apology and held out his hand. The Desert Rat took it, a little sorry that he had not been more temperate in his language.
"All right, we'll bury the hatchet" he said generously. "Maybe I'm a little too exacting and hard to get along with. I've got more on my brain than this prospect hole, and I'm worried. When I left the wife at San Berdoo we were expecting an arrival in camp, and—well, we were right down to bed-rock, and as it was a case of go now or never with you, I had to bring you in here or perhaps lose the opportunity for a fortune. She wanted me to go. She's a mighty brave little woman. You don't happen to be a married man, do you? With kids? I've got—"
The Indian had paused and was pointing with his gad to the south. Miles and miles away a great yellow cloud was gathering on the horizon, shutting out the sunlight and advancing with incredible speed.
"Sandstorm" warned the Desert Rat, and spoke quickly to the mozo in Spanish. The latter at once turned the cavalcade of burros toward the hills, less than a mile distant; shouting and beating the heavily laden little beasts into a trot, the party scurried for the shelter of a rocky draw before the sandstorm should be upon them.
They won. Throughout that day and night they camped up the draw, safe from the sand blast. Early next morning the wind had subsided and with the exception of some slight changes in topography due to the sandstorm, the desert was the same old silent pulseless mystery.
The party resumed its journey. While the Easterner remained with the Indian, the Desert Rat circled out into the open, heading for a little backbone of quartz which rose out of the sand. He had not noticed this exposed ledge during their flight into the draw, and it was evident that the sandstorm had exposed it.
Suddenly the mozo uttered a low "Whoa," and the burros halted. Off in the sage and sand the Desert Rat was standing with upraised arm, as a signal for them to halt and wait for him. For nearly half an hour he circled around, stepping off distances and building monuments. Presently, apparently having completed his investigations, he beckoned the rest of his party to approach.
"What's up?" demanded the Boston man the moment he and the Indian arrived.
"I've just found Jake Revenner's lost claim. It's one of these marvelously rich ledges that have been discovered and located and lost and found and lost again, and cost scores of human lives. The sandstorms expose them and cover them up again, and after a storm—as now—the contour of the desert is so changed that a man, having staked his claim and gone out for grub, can't find the claim when he comes back. It was that way with the Nigger Ben placer. It's been found and lost half a dozen times. There was a claim discovered out here by a man named Jake Revenner, but he lost it and blew out his brains in sheer disgust. I have just stumbled across one of his monuments with his old location notices buried in a can. The late sandstorm uncovered the ledge, and it looks 'fat' enough for yours truly. Mira?"
He tossed a sample to the Indian, and another of about the same size to the white man. The latter lifted it, examined it closely and sat down. He was quite excited.
"By thunder!" he managed to say. "We're in luck."
A slight smile flickered across the face of the Desert Rat, but his voice was as calm and grave as usual.
"Yes, it's rich—very rich. There's a comfortable fortune lying exposed on the surface. By the way, I think I shall pay you a liberal fee for your lost time and abandon that prospect I was taking you in to see. Compared with this, it's not worth considering."
"I should say you should abandon it" the other exulted. "You'd have a fine time trying to get me away from this ledge now. Why, there's millions in it, and I suggest we stake it out at once. Let's get busy."
He jumped up eagerly—from force of habit dusting the seat of his riding breeches—and turned peremptorily to the mozo.
"Get those packs off, Joe, or Jim or whatever your name is, and be quick—"
"You forget, old man," interjected the Desert Rat gently. "He doesn't speak English, and if he did he wouldn't obey you. You see," he added naively, "I've told him not to."
"Oh, well, I didn't mean anything. Don't be so touchy. Let's get busy, for heaven's sake, and stake this claim."
The Desert Rat stretched himself with feline grace. "I'm sorry" he replied with his tantalizing good-natured smile, "to be forced to object to your use of the plural pronoun in conjunction with that certain tract, piece and parcel of land known and described as the Baby Mine claim. The fact of the matter is, I have already staked it. You see, I was thinking of the little one that will be waiting for me in San Berdoo when I get back. See the point? My baby—Baby Mine—rather a neat play on words, don't you think?"
"Do you mean to say that I'm not in on this find?" demanded the man from Boston.
"Your penetration is remarkable. I do."
"But such a course is outrageous. It's opposed—"
"Please do not argue with me. I found it. Naturally I claim it. I could quote you verbatim the section of the mining law under which I am entitled to maintain this high-handed—er—outrage; but why indulge in such a dry subject? I found this claim, and since I don't feel generously disposed this morning, I'm going to keep it."
"But I'm in the party with you. It seems to me that common justice—"
"For goodness' sake, Boston, don't throw up to me the sins of my past. Of course you're in my party. That's my misfortune, not my fault. I observed this little backbone of quartz and asked you to walk over here with me for a look at it. You wouldn't come. You said your foot hurt you. So I came alone. If you had been with me at the time, now, of course that would have been different. But—"
"But I—well, in a measure—why, we're out here together, sort of partners as it were, and—"
"The Lord forgive you, Boston. My partner! You never were and never could be. I'm particular in the matter of partners. All Desert Rats in good standing are. You're the last man on earth I'd have for my partner. A partner shares the expenses of a trip and bears the hardships without letting out a roar every half mile. A partner sticks, Boston. He shares his grub and his money and his last drop of water, and when that's gone he'll die with you like a gentleman. That's what a partner does, but you wouldn't do it."
"Well, I'm entitled to a half interest and I'll see that I get it," shrilled the other furiously. "I'll sue you—"
"How about the Indian?"
"Only an Indian, eh? Well, you're entitled to your point of view. Only that mozo and I have slept under the same blanket so often—"
"You can't stop me from staking this claim, too" shouted the Boston man, and shook his skinny little fist under the Desert Rat's nose. The latter slapped him across the wrist.
"Pesky fly" he said.
"You can't stop me, I tell you."
"I can. But I won't. I'm not a bully."
"You think you can beat me out of my rights, do you? I'll show you. I'll beat you out of your half before I'm through with you."
"On whose water!"
The bantering smile broadened to a grin—the graceless young desert wanderer threw back his head and laughed.
"You're such a card, Boston" he chortled. "Such exquisite notions of social usage I have never observed outside the peerage. Really, you shouldn't be allowed to go visiting. You're unmannerly enough to ask for a third helping to cake."
"I insist that I am entitled to a half interest in this claim. As you decline to recognize my rights, I must take the matter in my own hands. I, too, shall stake the claim and endeavor to get my location notice filed in the land office before yours. If you haven't any sense of justice and decency, I have."
"Oh, all right, fire away. I'll take you back to civilization and see that you don't starve or die of thirst on the way. I'm not entirely heartless, Boston. In the meantime, however, while you're staking the claim, it occurs to me that I can gather together a very snug fortune in the next day or two. There appears to be more gold than quartz in this rock—some indeed, is the pure quill. All hands, including the jacks, will go on a short ration of water from now on. Of course we're taking chances with our lives, but what's life if a fellow can't take a chance for a fortune like this? I'd sooner die and be done with, it than live my life without a thrill. That's why I've degenerated from a perfectly matriculated mining engineer into a wandering desert rat. Would you believe it, Boston, I lived in your town once. Graduated from the Tech. Why, I once made love to a Boston girl in a conservatory. I remember her very well. She spilled pink lemonade over my dress shirt. I took a long chance that time; but out here, even if the chances are longer, when you win—"
He kissed his grimy paw airily and flung it into space.
"'The Lord is my shepherd,' he quoted, 'I shall not want.' This morning He left the door opened and I wandered into His Treasure House, so I guess I'll get busy and grab what I can before the Night Watchman comes around. Ever see the Night Watchman, Boston? I have. He's a grave old party with a long beard, and he carries a scythe. You see him when you're thirsty, and—well, in the pursuit of my inborn hobby for taking chances, I'll introduce you to him this trip. Permit me to remind you once more of the consequences if you help yourself to the water without consulting me. It'll militate against your chances of getting to the land office first."
The Desert Rat helped the mozo unpack the burros, while the man from Boston tore some pages from his notebook and proceeded to write out his location notices and cache them in monuments which he built beside those of his predecessors. He even copied the exact wording on the Desert Rat's notices. He forgot his blistered heel and worked with prodigious energy and interest, receiving with dogged silent disdain the humorous sallies of the Desert Rat, to whom the other's sudden industry was a source of infinite amusement. The Desert Rat and the Indian were busy with pans and prospector's picks gouging out "stringers" and crevices and picking up scattered pieces of "jewelry" rock. When all the "color" in sight had been cleaned up, the Desert Rat produced a drill and a stick of dynamite from the pack, put in a "shot" and uncovered a pocket of such richness that even the stolid Cahuilla could not forbear indulgence in one of his infrequent Spanish expletives. It was a deposit of rotten honeycombed rock that was nine- tenths pure gold—what is known in the parlance of the prospector as a "kidney."
The disgruntled claimant to a half interest in the Baby Mine reached into the hole and seized a nugget worth fully a thousand dollars. The Desert Rat tapped him smartly across the knuckles with the handle of his prospector's pick and made him drop it.
"If you please, Boston" he said gently. "You're welcome to share my grub, and I'll whack up even with you on the water, and I'll cook for you and wait on you, but I'll be doggoned if it isn't up to you to furnish your own dynamite. There was ten thousand in loose stuff lying, on the surface, and you might have been pardoned for helping yourself to as much of it as you could carry personally, but you elected to restake the claim and now all that easy picking belongs to the Indian and me. He's a good Indian and I'm going to let him have some of it. He won't take much because he's fond of me. I saved him from being lynched for killing a white man who deserved it. But for years he's just hungered for a top-buggy, with side bars and piano box and the whole blamed rig painted bright red, so he can take his squaw out in style; and I'm going to see that he gets it. However, that's neither here nor there. You keep your fingers out of the sugar bowl, old sport. It's a lovely sight and hard to resist, I know, but do be careful."
All that day the Desert Rat and his Indian retainer worked through the stringers and pockets of the Baby Mine, while the man from Boston sat looking at them, or, when the spirit moved him, casting about in the adjacent sand for stray "specimens" of which he managed to secure quite a number. The next morning, as soon as it was light enough to see, the work was commenced again, and by noon the last piece of rotten honeycombed rock with its streaks and wens of dull virgin gold had been cleaned up. The Desert Rat used the last of his dynamite in a vain endeavor to unearth another "kidney," and finally decided to call it quits.
"They took eighty-two thousand dollars out of one little carload of ore in the Delhi mine in Nevada county" he announced, "but the Baby Mine makes that record look amateurish. It's the richest strike I have ever heard of, with the exception, possibly, of the big strike at Antelope Peak. They took out nearly three hundred thousand there in less than three days, just scratching it out of stringers and crevices with their jack-knives. Boston, my dear man, I have more than three hundred pounds of gold with, as I said before, some quartz, but not enough to bother. At twelve ounces to the pound, twenty dollars to the ounce, I'm going back to San Bernardino and buy a bath, a new suit of store clothes and a fifty-dollar baby carriage for my expected heir. With my dear little wife and the baby and all this oro, I'll manage to be quite happy.
"However, just to show you that there isn't a mean bone in my body, I'm going to withdraw my claim to the Baby Mine. My mozo and I are about to load this magnificent bunch of untainted wealth into the kyacks, and hit for civilization, and while we're getting ready to break camp you run out and destroy my location notices. I leave the whole works to you. I do this for a number of reasons—the first being that you will thus be induced to return to this section of California. Not knowing the country, you will doubtless perish, and thus from the placid bosom of society a thorn will be removed. Secondly, if you should survive long enough to get in, you could never find your way out without me for a guide—and it wouldn't be safe to hire this Indian. He dislikes you. The third reason is that I believe this is just a phenomenally rich pocket and that I have about cleaned it out. The fourth reason is that another sandstorm will probably cover the Baby Mine before long, and the fifth reason is: 'What's the use going desert-ratting until your money's all gone!'"
"Well, I'll see that I get my share of that plunder" snapped the unhappy tenderfoot. "Of course, right now, it may seem perfectly proper from your point of view to take advantage of certain adventitious circumstances, but—"
"Yes, the humble little jackass is really an adventitious circumstance. By jingo, that hadn't occurred to me at all. I guess you're right, Boston. I'll have to give you half the plunder. Now that we've settled that point, let's divide the adventitious circumstances. I have four of them and I'll sell you two for your half of the gold. No? Price too high? All right! I'll agree to freight your share in for you, only I'm afraid transportation rates are so high in the desert that the freight will about eat up all the profit. I'm afraid that the best I can do for you is to give you your half and let you carry it yourself. If you want to tote it out on your back, Boston, help yourself. No! Well, well!"
"We'll not discuss the matter further, if you please. At another time and place, perhaps—"
"Perhaps? Perhaps! Well, I'm stripping down our food supply to the bare necessities in order to make room for this gold, and the water is pretty low. If we don't strike water at Chuckwalla Tanks there'll be real eloquence to that word 'perhaps.' However, that discussion can wait. Everything appears to be propitious for an immediate start, so let's defer the argument and vamoose. Giddap, you hairy little desert birds. Crack along out o' this."
But following the dictates of his nature, when Fortune smiled and bade him "take a chance," the Desert Rat had already delayed too long his departure from the Baby Mine. The supply of water still left in the kegs was so meager that with any other man the situation would have given rise to grave concern. As it was, however, all that troubled the Desert Rat was what he was going to do with the man from Boston when that inconsistent and avaricious individual should "peter out." More than once, in his pursuit of the rainbow, the Desert Rat had known what it was to travel until he couldn't travel another yard; then to jump up and travel ten miles more—to water! He did not know the extent of his own strength, but whatever might be its limitations he knew that the Cahuilla was good for an equal demonstration of endurance. But the man from Boston! He was quickly read. The Desert Rat gave him until midnight that night, but he wilted at ten o'clock.
"A sore heel, a mean soul and no spunk have killed more men than whisky" the Desert Rat commented whimsically, as he pulled the weak brother out of a cluster of catclaw. "Boston, you're an awful nuisance —you are, for a fact. You've had water three times to our once, and yet you go to work and peter out with Chuckwalla Tanks only five miles away. Why, I've often covered that distance on my hands and knees. Come, now, buck up. Hang on to the rear cross of one of the pack saddles and let the jack snake you along."
"I can't, I'm exhausted. I'll die if I don't have a drink."
"No, you'll not die. No such luck. And there isn't any more water. However, you've been spoiled in the raising, so I suppose we'll have to defer to you—particularly since it's my fault that we're short of water. What can't be cured must be endured, and I can't let you die."
He spoke to the Indian, who took two canteens and departed into the night.
"He's going to hike on ahead to Chuckwalla Tanks and bring back some water for you, Boston" the Desert Rat explained. "He'll return about daylight, and we'll wait here until he arrives. It's dangerous, but the jacks aren't in a bad way yet. They can make it to the Tanks, even after sunrise."
"Thanks" murmured the sufferer.
The Desert Rat grinned. "You're getting on" he commented.
"Where is Chuckwalla Tanks?" The tenderfoot sat up and stared after the figure of the departing Indian, still visible in the dim moonlight.
"In a little gorge between those low hills. You can just make out their outlines."
"Yes, I see them. And after that the closest water is where?"
"The Colorado river—forty miles due south. But we're headed northwest and must depend on tanks and desert water-holes. It's hard to tell how close one is to water on that course. But it doesn't matter. We'll refill the kegs at Chuckwalla Tanks. There's most always water there."
"And you say the Colorado river is forty miles due south."
"Well, between forty and fifty."
"Much obliged for the information, I'm sure."
He straightened suddenly and drew back his arm. The Desert Rat saw that he was about to hurl a large smooth stone, and simultaneously he dodged and reached for his gun. But he was a fifth of a second too slow. The stone struck him on the side of the head, rather high up, and he collapsed into a bloody heap.
On the instant the footsore man from Boston developed an alacrity and definiteness of purpose that would have surprised the Desert Rat, had he been in condition to observe it. He seized the gad which the mozo had dropped, climbed upon the lightest laden burro and, driving the others before him, set off for Chuckwalla Tanks. The Indian had disappeared by this time, and there was little danger of overtaking him; so with the two low hills as his objective point, the Easterner circled a mile out of the direct course which he knew the Indian would take, and when the dawn commenced to show in the east he herded the pack-animals down into a swale between two sand-dunes. With remarkable cunning he decided to scout the territory before proceeding further; hence, as soon as there was light enough to permit of a good view, he climbed to the crest of a high dune and looked out over the desert. As far as he could see no living thing moved; so he drove the pack train out of the swale and headed for the gorge between the hills. The thirsty burros broke into a run, hee-hawing with joy as they sniffed the water, and within a few minutes man and beasts were drinking in common at Chuckwalla Tanks.
The man permitted them to drink their fill, after which they fell to grazing on the short grass which grew in the draw. While he realized the necessity for haste if he was to succeed in levanting with the gold, the tenderfoot had been too long a slave to his creature comforts to face another day without breakfast. He abstracted some grub from one of the packs and stayed the pangs of hunger. Then he bathed his blistered feet, filled the water kegs, rounded up his pack train and departed up the draw. After traveling a mile the draw broadened out into the desert, and the man from Boston turned south and headed for the Rio Colorado. He was walking now and appeared to have forgotten about his blistered heel, for at times he broke into a run, beating the burros, screaming curses at them with all the venom of his wolfish soul, for he was pursued now by the fragments of his conscience. His attack upon the Desert Rat had been the outgrowth of a sudden murderous impulse, actuated fully as much by his hatred and fear of the man as by his desire to possess the gold. One moment he would shudder at the thought that he had committed murder; the next he was appalled at the thought that after all he had only stunned the man—that even now the Desert Rat and his Indian retainer were tracking him through the waste, bent on wreaking summary vengeance.
He need not have worried so prematurely. A low range of black malpais buttes stretched between him and the man he had despoiled, and as yet the direction of his flight could not be observed. He drifted rapidly south and presently disappeared into one of those long swales which slope gradually to the river.
Here, weaving his way among the ironwood that grow thickly in this section of the desert, for the first time since the commission of his crime he felt safe.
It was still dark when the Desert Rat regained consciousness. He lay for quite a while thereafter, turning things over in his befuddled brain, striving to gather together the tangled thread of the events of the night. Eventually he succeeded in driving his faculties into line. He rolled over, got to his hands and knees and paused a minute to get a fresh grip on himself. His aching head hung low, like that of a dying horse; in the silence of the night he could hear the drip, drip of his blood into the sand.
Presently he began to move. Round and round in the sage he crawled, like some weary wounded animal, breaking off the rotten dead limbs which, lie close to the base of the shrub. Three piles of sage he gathered, placing the piles in a row twenty feet apart. Then he set fire to them and watched them burst into flame.
It was the desert call for help: three fires in a row by night, three columns of smoke against the horizon by day—and the Cahuilla Indian, coming down the draw from Chuckwalla Tanks five miles away, saw flaming against the dawn this appeal of the white man he loved, for whom he lived and labored. Straight across the desert he ran, with the long tireless stride that was the heritage of his people. His large heavy shoes retarded him; he removed them, tucked them under his arm and with a lofty disdain of tarantulas and side-winders fled barefooted. Three- quarters of an hour from the time he had first seen the signal-fires, the mozo was kneeling beside the stricken Desert Rat, who lay unconscious close to one of the fires. The water from the mozo's canteen revived him, however, and presently he sat up, while the Cahuilla washed the gash in his head and bound it up with his master's bandanna handkerchief.
As the Indian worked, the white man related what had occurred and how. He recalled his conversation with his assailant, and shrewdly surmised that he would head for the Colorado river, after having first secured a supply of water at Chuckwalla Tanks. The Desert Rat's plan of action was quickly outlined.
"You will help me to get to the Tanks, where I'll have water and a chance to rest for a day or two until I'm able to travel; then I'll head for the Rio Colorado and wait for you in Ehrenburg. I'll keep one canteen and you can take the other; I have matches and my six-shooter, and I can live on quail and chuckwallas until I get to the river. You have your knife. Track that man, if you have to follow him into hell, and when you find him—no, don't kill him; he isn't worth it, and besides, that's my work. It's your job to run him down. Bring him to me in Ehrenburg."
It was past noon when they arrived at the Tanks, and the Indian was carrying the Desert Rat on his back. While the man was quite conscious, he was still too weak from the effect of the blow and loss of blood to travel in the heat.
At the Tanks the Indian picked up the trail of four burros and a man. He refilled his canteen, took a long drink from the Tank, grunted an "Adios, senor," and departed up the draw at the swift dog-trot which is typical of the natural long-distance runner.
The Desert Rat gazed after him. "God bless your crude untutored soul, you best of mozos" he murmured. "You have one virtue that most white men lack—you'll stay put and be faithful to your salt. And now, just to be on the safe side, I'll make my will and write out a detailed account of this entire affair—in case."
For half an hour he scribbled haltingly in an old russet-covered note- book. This business attended to, he crawled into the meager shade of a palo verde tree and fell asleep. When he awoke an hour or two later and looked down the draw to the open desert, he saw that another sandstorm was raging.
"That settles it" he soliloquized contentedly. "The trail is wiped out and the best Indian on earth can't follow a trail that doesn't exist, But that wretched little bandit is out in this sandstorm, and the jacks will stampede on him and he'll pay his bill to society—with interest. When the wind dies down the pack outfit will drift back to this water-hole, and when Old Reliable finds out that the trail is lost, he'll drift back too. Anyhow, if the burros don't show we'll trail them by the buzzards and find the packs. Ah, you great mysterious wonderful desert, how good you've been to me! I can sleep now—in peace."
He slept. When he awoke again, he discovered to his surprise that he had been walking in his sleep. He had an empty canteen over his shoulder and he was bareheaded. His head ached and throbbed, his tongue and throat felt dry and cottony; he seemed to have been wandering in a weary land for a long time, for no definite reason, and he was thirsty.
He glanced around him for the water-hole beside which he had lain down to sleep and await the mozo and the burros. On all sides the vast undulating sea of sand and sage stretched to the horizon, and then the Desert Rat understood. He had been delirious. With the fever from his wound and the thought of the fortune of which he had been despoiled, uppermost even in his subconscious brain, he had left Chuckwalla Tanks and started in pursuit. How far or in what direction he had wandered he knew not. He only knew that he was lost, that he was weak and thirsty, that the pain and fever had gone out of his head, and that the Night Watchman walked beside him in the silent waste.
It came into his brain to light three fires—to flash the S. O. S. call of the desert in letters of smoke against the sky—and he fumbled in his pocket for matches. There were none; and with a sigh, that was almost a sob the dauntless Argonaut turned his faltering footsteps to the south and lurched away toward the Rio Colorado.
Throughout the long cruel day he staggered on. Night found him close to the mouth of a long black canyon between two ranges of black hills, whose crests marked them as a line of ancient extinct volcanoes.
"I'll camp here to-night," he decided, "and early tomorrow morning I'll go up that canyon and hunt for water. I might find a 'tank.'"
He lay down in the sand, pillowed his sore head on his arm, and, God being merciful and the Desert Rat's luck still holding, he slept.
At daylight he was on his way, stiff and cramped with the chill of the desert night. Slowly he approached the mouth of the canyon, crossing a bare burnt space that looked like an old "wash."
Suddenly he paused, staring. There, before him in the old wash, was the fresh trail of two burros and a man. The trail of the man was not well defined; rather scuffed in fact, as if he had been half dragged along.
"Hanging to the pack-saddle and letting the jack drag him" muttered the lost Desert Rat. "I'll bet it's little Boston, after all, and I'm not yet too late to square accounts with that hombre."
In the prospect of twining his two hands around the rascal's throat there was a certain primitive pleasure that added impetus to the passage of the Desert Rat up the lonely canyon. The thought lent new strength to the man. Dying though he knew himself to be, yet would he square accounts with the man who had murdered him. He would—
He paused. He had found the man with the two burros. There could be no mistake about that, for the canyon ended in a sheer cliff that towered two hundred feet above him, and in this horrible cul de sac lay the bleached bones of two burros and a man.
Here was a conundrum. The Desert Rat had followed a fresh trail and found stale bones. Despite his youth, the desert had put something of its own grim haunting mystery into this man who loved it; to him had it been given to understand much that to the layman savored of the occult; at birth, God had been very good to him, in that He had ordained that during all his life the Desert Rat should be engaged in learning how to die, and meet the issue unafraid. For the Desert Rat was a philosopher, and even at this ghastly spectacle his sense of humor did not desert him. He sat down on the skull of one of the burros and laughed—a dry cackling gobble.
"What a great wonderful genius of a desert it is!" he mumbled. "It's worth dying in after all—a fitting mausoleum for a Desert Rat. Here I come staggering in, with murder in my heart, stultifying my manhood with the excuse that it would be justice in the abstract, and the Lord shows me an example of the vanity and littleness of life. All right, Boston, old man. You win, I guess, but I've got an ace coppered, and even if you do get through, some day you'll pay the price."
He sat there on the bleached skull, his head in his hands, trembling, pondering, yet unafraid in the face of the knowledge that here his wanderings must end. He was right. It was a spot eminently befitting the finish of such a man. It was at least exclusive, for the vulgar and the common would never perish here. In all the centuries since its formation no human feet, save his own and those of the man whose skeleton lay before him, had ever awakened the echoes in its silent halls. Pioneers, dreamers both, men of the Great Outdoors, each had heard the call of the silent places—each had essayed to fight his way into the treasure vaults of the desert; and as they had begun, so had they finished—in the arms of Nature, who had claimed the utmost of their love.
The Desert Rat was a true son of the desert. To him the scowl of the sun-baked land at midday had always turned to a smile of promise at dawn; to him the darkest night was but the forerunner of another day of glorious battle, when he could rise out of the sage, stretch his young legs and watch the sun rise over his empire. He knew the desert—he saw the issue now, but still he did not falter.
"Poor little wife," he mumbled; "poor little unborn baby! You'll hope, through the long years, waiting for me to come back—and you'll never know!"
His faltering gaze wandered down the canyon where his own tracks and those of the dead shone gray against the brown of the sun-swept wash. He had followed a trail that might have been ten years old; perhaps, in the years to come, some other wanderer would see his tracks, halting, staggering, uncertain, blazing the ancient call of the desert: "Come to me or I perish." And following the trail, even as the Desert Rat had followed this other, he, too, in his own time, would come at length to the finish—and wonder.
The Desert Rat sighed, but if in that supreme moment he wept it was not for himself. He had many things to think of, he had much of happiness to renounce, but he was of that breed that dares to approach the end.
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch. About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
For him the trail had ended here, as it had for this other remnant of vanished life that lay before him now with arms outstretched. The Desert Rat stared at the relic. A cross! The body formed a cross! Here again was The Promise—
A thought came to the perishing wanderer. "I'll leave a message" he gobbled. He could not forbear a joke. "To be delivered when called for" he added. "This other man might have done the same, but perhaps he didn't care—perhaps there wasn't anybody waiting at home for him."
From his shirt pocket he drew the stub of a lead pencil and the note- book in which he had written his will and the record of his betrayal. He added the story of his wanderings since leaving Chuckwalla Tanks, and the postscript:
The company in which I will be found was not of my own seeking. He was here before me by several years and I found nothing whereby he might be identified.
He tore the leaves out of the note-book, stuffed them inside his empty canteen and screwed the cap on tight; after which he cast about for a prominent place where he might leave his last message to the world.
At the head of the canyon stood an extinct volcano, its precipitous sides forming the barrier at the western end of the canyon. Away back in the years when the world was young, a stream of thin soupy lava, spewed from this ancient crater, had flowed down the canyon out onto the desert. It was this which the Desert Rat had at first taken for an old "wash." Owing to the pitch of the canyon floor, most of the lava had run out, but a thin crust, averaging in thickness from a quarter to three quarters of an inch, still remained. Originally, this thin lava had been a creamy white, but with the passage of centuries the sun had baked it to a dirty brown and the lava had become disintegrated and rotten. As the hot lava had hardened and dried it had cracked, after the fashion of a lake bed when the water has evaporated, but into millions and millions of smaller cracks than in the case where water has evaporated from mud. As a result of this peculiar condition, the entire lava capping in the canyon was split into small fragments, each fragment fitting exactly into its appointed place, the whole forming a marvelous piece of natural mosaic that could only have been designed by the Master Artist.
With the point of his pocket knife the Desert Rat pried loose one of these sections of lava. Where it had been exposed to the sun on top it was brown, but the under side was the original creamy white.
The mystery of the phantom trail was solved at last. In fact, not to state a paradox, there had been no mystery at first—at least to the Desert Rat. The moment he saw the bones he guessed the answer to that weird puzzle.
The tracks were easily explained. When one walked on the surface of this thin lava crust it broke beneath him and crumbled into dust. The brown dust on top mingled with the underlying white, the blend of colors on the whole forming a slate-colored patch with creamy edges, marking the boundaries of the footprints; and here, in this horrible canyon, where rains would never erode nor winds obliterate, the tracks would show for years until the magic of the desert had again wrought its spell on the landscape and the ghostly white tracks had faded and blended again into the all-prevailing brown.
The Desert Rat was something of a geologist, and had he not been dying, an extended examination of this weird formation would have interested him greatly. But he had his message to leave to his loved ones, and time pressed. In the joy and pride of his strength and youth he had dared the desert. He had dreamed of a fortune, and this—this was to be the awakening...
He crawled out into a smooth undisturbed space and fell to work with the point of his knife. Carefully he raised piece after piece of the natural mosaic, inverted it and laid it back in its appointed place. At the end of two hours he finished. There, in inlaid letters of creamy white against the desert brown, his message flared almost imperishable:
Friend, look in my canteen and see that I get justice.
A century must pass before that message faded; as for the coming of the messenger, he would leave that to the Almighty.
The Desert Rat was going fast now. He moved back a few feet, fearful that at the end he might obliterate his message. With his fading gaze fixed on the mouth of the canyon he lay waiting, hoping, praying, brave to the last ... and presently help came.
It was the Night Watchman!
Serenely indifferent to the fact that but a few hours' average running time intervenes between it and San Francisco on the north, and Los Angeles on the south, the little desert station of San Pasqual has always insisted upon remaining a frontier town.
One can pardon San Pasqual readily for this apparent apathy. Not to do so would savor strongly of an application of the doctrine of personal responsibility in the matter of a child with a club-foot. San Pasqual isn't responsible. It has nothing to be proud of, nothing to incite even a sporadic outburst of civic pride. It never had.
Here, in this story, occurs a description. In a narrative of human emotions, descriptions are, perhaps, better appreciated when they are dispensed with unless, as in the case of San Pasqual, they are worth the time and space and trouble. Assuming, therefore, that San Pasqual, for all its failings, is distinctive enough to warrant this, we will describe the town as it appeared early in the present decade; and, for that matter, will continue to appear, pending the day when they strike oil in the desert and San Pasqual picks itself together, so to speak, and begins to take an interest in life. Until then, however, as a center of social, scenic, intellectual and commercial activity, San Pasqual will never attract globe-trotters, folks with Pilgrim ancestors or retired bankers from Kansas and Iowa seeking an attractive investment in western real estate.
San Pasqual is such a weather-beaten, sad, abject little town that one might readily experience surprise that the trains even condescend to stop there. It squats in the sand a few miles south of Tehachapi pass, hemmed in by mountain ranges ocher-tinted where near by, mellowed by distance into gorgeous shades of turquoise and deep maroon. They are very far away, these mountains, even though their outlines are so distinct that they appear close at hand. The desert atmosphere has cast a kindly spell upon them, softening their hellish perspective into lines of beauty in certain lights. It is well that this is so, for it helps to dispel an illusion of the imaginative and impressionable when first they visit San Pasqual—the illusion that they are in prison.
The basin that lies between these mountains is the waste known as the Mojave desert. It stretches north and south from San Pasqual, fading away into nothing, into impalpable, unlovely, soul-crushing suggestions of space illimitable; dancing and shimmering in the heat waves, it seems struggling to escape. When the wind blows, the dust-devils play tag among the low sage and greasewood; the Joshua trees, rising in the midst of this desolation, stretch forth their fantastically twisted and withered arms, seeming to invoke a curse on nature herself while warning the traveler that the heritage of this land is death. There is a bearing down of one's spirit in the midst of all this loneliness and desolation that envelops everything; yet, despite the uncanny mystery of it, the sense of repression it imparts, of unconquerable isolation from all that is good and sweet and beautiful, there are those who find it possible to live in San Pasqual without feeling that they are accursed.
At the western boundary of the Mojave desert lies San Pasqual, huddled around the railroad water tank. It is the clearing-house for the Mojave, for entering or leaving the desert men must pass through San Pasqual. From the main-line tracks a branch railroad now extends north across the desert, through the eastern part of Kern county and up the Owens river valley into Inyo, although at the time Donna Corblay enters into this story the railroad had not been built and a stage line bore the brunt of the desert travel as far north as Keeler—constituting the main outlet from that vast but little known section of California that lies east of the Sierra Nevada range.
Hence, people entering or leaving this great basin passed through San Pasqual, which accounted for the town that grew up around the water tank; the little row of so-called "pool parlors," cheap restaurants, saloons and gambling houses, the post-office, a drug store, a tiny school-house with a belfry and no bell and the little row of cottages west of the main-line tracks where all the good people lived— which conglomerate mass of inchoate architecture is all that saved San Pasqual from the ignominy of being classed as a flag station.
We are informed that the good people lived west of the tracks. East of the tracks it was different. The past tense is used with a full appreciation of the necessity for grammatical construction, for times have changed in San Pasqual, since it is no longer encumbered with the incubus that made this story possible—Harley P. Hennage, the town gambler and the worst man in San Pasqual.
Close to the main-line tracks and midway between both strata of society stood San Pasqual's limited social and civic center—the railroad hotel and eating-house. Here, between the arrival and departure of all through trains, the San Pasqualians met on neutral ground, experiencing mild mental relaxation watching the waitresses ministering to the gastronomic necessities of the day-coach tourists from the Middle West. At the period in which the action of this story takes place, however, most people preferred to find relief from the aching desolation of San Pasqual and its environs in the calm, restful, spiritual face of Donna Corblay.
Donna was the young lady cashier at the combination news stand, cigar and tobacco emporium and pay-as-you-leave counter in the eating-house. She was more than that. She was an institution. She was the day hotel clerk; the joy and despair of traveling salesmen who made it a point of duty to get off at San Pasqual and eat whether they were hungry or not; information clerk for rates and methods of transportation for all desert points north, south, east and west. She was the recipient of confidences from waitresses engaged in the innocent pastime of across- the-counter flirtations with conductors and brakemen. She was the joy of the men and the envy of the women. In fact, Donna was an exemplified copy of that distinctive personality with which we unconsciously invest any young woman upon whose capable shoulders must fall such multifarious duties as those already described; particularly when, as in Donna's case, they are accepted and disposed of with the gentle, kindly, interested yet impersonal manner of one who loves her little world enough to be a very distinct part of it; yet, seeing it in its true light, manages to hold herself aloof from it; unconsciously conveying to one meeting her for the first time the impression that she was in San Pasqual on her own sufferance—a sort of strayling from another world who had picked upon the lonely little desert town as the scene of her sphere of action for something of the same reason that prompts other people to collect postage stamps or rare butterflies.
It has already been stated that Donna Corblay was an institution. That is quite true. She was the mistress of the Hat Ranch.
This last statement requires elucidation. Just what is a hat ranch? you ask. It is—a hat ranch. There is only one Hat Ranch on earth and it may be found a half mile south of San Pasqual, a hundred yards back from the tracks. Donna Corblay owned it, worked it in her spare moments and made it pay.
You see, San Pasqual lies just south of Tehachapi pass, and about five days in every week, the year round, the north wind comes whistling down the pass. When it strikes the open desert it appears to become possessed of an almost human disposition to spurt and get by San Pasqual as quickly as possible. Hence, when the tourist approaching the station sticks his head out of the window or unwisely remains on the platform of the observation car, this forty-mile "zephyr," as they term it in San Pasqual, sighs joyously past him, snatches his headgear, whirls it down the tracks and deposits it at the western boundary of Donna's "ranch." This boundary happens to be a seven-foot adobe wall— so the hat sticks there.
In the days when Donna lived at the Hat Ranch she would pause at this wall every evening on her way home from work long enough to gather up the orphaned hats. Later, after cleaning and brushing them, she would sell them to the boys up in San Pasqual. There was a wide variety of style, size and color in Donna's stock of hats, and fastidious indeed was he who could not select from the lot a hat to match his peculiar style of masculine beauty. And, furthermore: damned was he who so far forgot tradition and local custom as to purchase his "every-day" hat elsewhere. He might buy his Sunday hat in Bakersfield or Los Angeles and still retain caste, but his every-day hat—never! Such a proceeding would have been construed by Donna's admirers as a direct attack on home industry. In fact, one made money by purchasing his hats of Donna Corblay. If she never accepted less than one dollar for a hat, regardless of age, color, original price and previous condition of servitude, she never charged more. Hence, everybody was satisfied—or, if not satisfied at the time, all they had to do was to await the arrival of the next train. The "zephyrs" were steady and reliable and in San Pasqual it is an ill wind that doesn't blow somebody a hat.
In San Pasqual stray hats were not looked upon as flotsam and jetsam and subject to a too liberal interpretation of the "Losers-weepers- finders-keepers" rule. There was a dead-line for hats beyond which no gentleman would venture, for, after a hat had once blown beyond the town limits it was no longer a maverick and subject to branding, but on the other hand was the absolute, undeniable and legal property of Donna Corblay.
So much for the hats. As for the ranch itself, it wasn't, properly speaking, a ranch at all. It was a low, four-room adobe house with a lean-to kitchen built of boards. It had a dirt roof and iron-barred windows and in the rear there was a long rectangular patio with a fountain and a flower garden. In fact, the ranch was more of a fortress than a dwelling-place and was surrounded by an adobe wall which enclosed about an acre of the Mojave desert. Originally it had been the habitation of a visionary who wandered into San Pasqual, established the ranch and sunk an artesian well. With irrigation the rich alluvial soil of the desert will grow anything, and the original owner planned to raise garden-truck and cater to the local trade. He prospered, but being of that vast majority of humankind to whom prosperity proves a sort of mental hobble, he made up his mind one day to go prospecting. So he wrote out a notice, advertising the property for sale, and tacked it to a telegraph pole in front of the eating-house.
Alas for the frailty and suspicion of human nature! The self-centered and self-satisfied citizens of San Pasqual had condemned the vegetable venture from the start. It had been too radical a departure from the desert order of things, and the fact that a mere stranger had conceived the idea sufficed to damn the enterprise even with those who gloried in the convenience of fresh vegetables; while the fact that the vegetable culturist was now about to leave branded the experiment a failure and was productive of a chorus of "I told you so's." The announcement of the proprietor of the ranch that he would entertain offers on a property to which he had no title other than that entailed in the God- given right of every American citizen to squat on a piece of land until he is driven off, was received as a rare piece of humor. In disgust the founder of the Hat Ranch abandoned his vegetable business, loaded his worldly effects on two burros and departed, leaving the kitchen door wide open. He never returned.
In the course of time a young woman with a two-months-old daughter came to San Pasqual to accept the position of cashier in the eating-house. The old adobe ranch was still deserted—the kitchen door still wide open. It was the only vacant dwelling in San Pasqual, and the woman with the baby decided to move in. She hired a Mexican woman to clean the house, sent to Bakersfield for some installment furniture and to Los Angeles for some assorted seeds. About a week later a Cahuilla buck with his squaw alighted from a north-bound train and were met by the woman with the baby girl. That night the entire party took possession of the Hat Ranch.
That first mistress of the Hat Ranch was Donna Corblay's mother, so before we plunge into the heart of our story and present to the reader Donna Corblay as she appeared at twenty years of age behind the counter at the eating-house on the night that Bob McGraw rode into her life on his Roman-nosed mustang, Friar Tuck, a short history of those earlier years at the Hat Ranch will be found to repay the time given to its perusal.
For more than sixteen years after her arrival in San Pasqual, Donna's mother had presided behind the eating-house pay counter. She was quiet and uncommunicative—a handsome woman whose chief beauty lay in her eyes—wonderful for their brilliance and color and the shadows that lurked in them, like the ghosts of a sorrow ineffable. Up to the day she died nobody in San Pasqual knew very much about her—where she came from or why she came. She gave no confidences and invited none. In a general way it was known that she was a widow. Her husband had gone away and never returned, and it was a moot question in San Pasqual whether the Widow Corblay was grass or natural. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the absent one was missed and that his wife remained faithful to his memory, as several frontier gentlemen, who had sought her hand in marriage, might have testified had they so desired.
Mrs. Corblay lived for her child, and was accused of being wantonly and sinfully extravagant in her manner of dressing this child. She maintained and supported two Indian servants, which fact alone raised her a notch or two socially above the wives, sisters and daughters of the railroad men and local business men who lived in the cottages west of the tracks. A great many of these estimable females disliked her accordingly and charged her with "'puttin' on airs." Indeed, more than one of them had ventured the suggestion that Mrs. Corblay had a past, and that her child was its outward expression. Of course, they couldn't prove anything, but—and there the matter rested, abruptly. That "but" ended it, even as the tracks end at the bumper in a roundhouse. One felt the jar just the same.
Some hint of this provincial interest in her and her affairs must have reached Mrs. Corblay shortly after her arrival, so with true feminine obstinacy she declined to alleviate the abnormal curiosity which gnawed at the heart of the little community. She died as she had lived, considerable of a mystery, and San Pasqual, retaining its resentment of this mystery, visited its resentment upon Donna Corblay when Donna, in the course of time, gave evidence that she, also, possessed an ultra- feminine, almost heroic capacity for attending strictly to her own business and permitting others to attend to theirs.
Early in her occupation of the adobe ranch house Mrs. Corblay had inaugurated the hat industry, with fresh vegetables as a side line. The garden was presided over by a dolorous squaw who responded to the rather fanciful appellation of Soft Wind. Sam Singer, her buck, was a stolid, stodgy savage, with eyes like the slits in a blackberry pie. Originally the San Pasqualians had christened him "Psalm Singer," because of the fact that once, during a revival held by an itinerant evangelist in a tent next door to the Silver Dollar saloon, the buck had attended regularly, attracted by the melody of a little portable organ, the plaintive strains of which appeared to charm his heathen soul. An unorthodox citizen, in the sheer riot of his imagination, had saddled the buck with his new name. It had stuck to him, and since in the vernacular psalm singer was pronounced "sam singer," the Indian came in time to be known by that name and would answer to none other.
Donna grew up slightly different from the other little girls in San Pasqual. For instance: she was never allowed to play in the dirt of the main street with other children; she wore white dresses that were always clean, new ribbons in her hair; she always carried a handkerchief; she attended the little public school with the belfry but no bell, and her mother trained her in domestic science and the precepts of religion, which, lacking definite direction perhaps by reason of the fact that there was no church in San Pasqual, served, nevertheless, as a bulwark against the assaults of vice and vulgarity which, in a frontier town, are very thinly veiled. As a child she was neither precocious nor shy. From a rather homely, long-legged gangling girl of fourteen she emerged apparently by a series of swift transitions into a young lady at sixteen, giving promise of a beauty which lay, not so much in her physical attractions, which were generous, but in that easily discernible nobility of character which indicates beauty of soul—that superlative beauty which entitles its possessor to be alluded to as "sweet," rather than pretty or handsome. At the dawn of womanhood she was a lovely little girl, kind, affectionate, imaginative, distinctly virginal,
—a flower... born to blush unseen, And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
When Donna was nearly seventeen years old her mother died. It was the consensus of opinion that heart trouble had something to do with it. In fact, Mrs. Corblay had often complained of pains in her heart and was subject to fainting spells; besides which, there was that in her eyes which seemed to predicate a heartache of many years' standing. At any rate, she fainted at the eating-house one day and they carried her home. She passed away very quietly the same night, leaving an estate which consisted of Donna, the two Indian servants, and a quantity of coin in a teapot in the cupboard at the Hat Ranch which upon investigation was found to total the stupendous sum of two hundred and twenty-eight dollars and ninety-five cents.
There was no one except Donna to attend to the funeral arrangements, and for eight hours following her mother's death she was too distracted to think of anything but her great grief. Soft Wind prepared her mistress for the grave after a well-meant but primitive fashion, while Sam Singer squatted all morning in the sand in front of the compound and smoked innumerable cigarettes. Presently he got up, went to his own little cabin within the enclosure and was invisible for ten minutes. When he emerged he was clad in a new pair of "bull breeches," a white stiff-bosomed shirt without a collar but with a brass collar button doing duty nevertheless, while a red silk handkerchief, with the ends drawn through a ring fashioned from a horseshoe nail, enveloped his swarthy neck. He had rummaged through the stock of hats and appropriated a Grand Army hat with cord and tassels, and arrayed thus Sam Singer walked up the tracks to San Pasqual.
Arrived here Sam's very appearance heralded news of grave importance at the Hat Ranch. Such extraordinary and unwonted attention to dress could portend but one of two things—a journey or a funeral. Inasmuch, however, as Sam was coatless and Mrs. Corblay had been carried home ill the day before, San Pasqual allowed itself one guess and won.
To those who sought to question him, however, Sam Singer had nothing more polite than a tribal grunt. He proceeded directly to the Silver Dollar saloon, where he held converse with a man who seemed much interested in the news which Sam had to impart, for he nodded gravely several times, gave Sam fifty cents and a cigar and then hurried around to the public telephone station in "Doc" Taylor's drug store.
Five minutes later, by some mysterious person, Mrs. Daniel Pennycook, wife of the yardmaster, was informed over the telephone that Donnie Corblay's mother was dead.
"So I understand" replied Mrs. Pennycook volubly. "Poor thing! There was always somethin' so mysterious like about—"
The use of the word "like" was habit with Mrs. Pennycook. She rarely took a decided stand in anything except Mr. Pennycook, and always modified her modifying adjective with the word "like"; an annoying practice which had always rendered her an object of terror to Mrs. Corblay. To the latter it always seemed as if Mrs. Pennycook was desirous of saying something nasty, but lacked the courage to come out flatfooted with it.
Her unknown informant interrupted, or attempted to interrupt, but Mrs. Pennycook was now started on her favorite topic, in such haste that she failed to give the customary telephonic challenge:
"Who's speaking, please?"
She continued. "Yes, she was kinder quiet like any kept to herself like—"
"Well," said the unknown, "she's dead now, and that little daughter o' hers is all alone down there with her Indian woman. If you knew Mrs. Corblay was dead, why in blue blazes didn't you or some other woman in this heartless village go down there and comfort that child? I've asked three of your neighbors already, but they're washin' or dustin' or cookin' or somethin'."
"I was so terrible shocked like when I heard it—"
"Well, if the shock's over, for decency's sake, Mrs. Pennycook, go down to the Hat Ranch and keep that little girl comp'ny till this afternoon."
"Who's talkin'?" demanded Mrs. Pennycook belligerently.
"Who are you?"
For several seconds Mrs. Pennycook shot questions into the transmitter, but receiving no response she hung up, furious at having been denied the inalienable right of her sex to the last word. Shortly thereafter her worthy spouse, Dan Pennycook, came in for his lunch. To him Mrs. Pennycook imparted the tale of the strange man who had rung her up, demanding that she go down to the Hat Ranch and see Donnie Corblay. Pennycook's stupid good-natured face clouded.
"Then," he demanded, "why don't you do it? I've been workin' with that string of empties below town all mornin', an' if any woman in this charitable community passed me goin' to the Hat Ranch I didn't see her. It's a shame. Put on your other things right after lunch, Arabella, an' go down. I'll go with you."
"But the gall o' the man, askin' me to do this! I intended goin' anyhow, but him ringin' me up so sudden like, I—"
"My dear," said Mr. Pennycook, "he paid you a compliment."
"Humph" responded Mrs. Pennycook. Then she sniffed. She continued to sniff at intervals during the meal; she was still sniffing when later she joined her husband at the front gate and set off with him down the tracks to the Hat Ranch.
Arrived at the Hat Ranch Mrs. Pennycook saw at once that Donna was "too upset like" to have any of the details of her mother's funeral thrust upon her. Here was a situation which required the supervision of a calm, executive person—Mrs. Daniel Pennycook, for instance. At any rate Mrs. Pennycook decided to take charge. She was first on the scene and naturally the task was hers, not only as a matter of principle but also by right of discovery.
Now, under the combined attentions of Donna, Mrs. Corblay and Soft Wind, the house, while primitive, had, nevertheless, been made comfortable and kept immaculate. But there is a superstition rampant in all provincial communities which dictates that the first line of action to be pursued when there is a death in the family is to scrub the house thoroughly from cellar to garret, and Mrs. Pennycook had been inoculated with the virus of this superstition very early in life. She tucked up her skirts, seized a broom and a mop, rounded up Soft Wind and proceeded to produce chaos where neatness and order had always reigned.
It was at this juncture that Donna Corblay first gave evidence of having a mind of her own. She dried her tears and gently but firmly informed Mrs. Pennycook that the house had been thoroughly cleaned and scrubbed three days previous. She begged Mrs. Pennycook to desist. Mrs. Pennycook desisted, for if Donna couched her request in the language of entreaty, her young eyes flashed a stern command, and Mrs. Pennycook was not deficient in the intuition of her sex. So she composed herself in a rocking chair and by blunt brutal questioning presently ascertained that Mrs. Corblay had left her daughter two hundred and twenty-eight dollars and ninety-five cents.
This decided Mrs. Pennycook. She dilated upon the importance of having a clergyman come down from Bakersfield for the funeral, and suggested the services (at the metropolitan rates usually accorded such functionaries) of the local alleged quartette, which regularly made night hideous in San Pasqual's lone barber shop.
"It'll be kinder nice like, don't you think, Donna?" she queried.
Donna nodded dubiously.
"An' what was your poor dear mamma's church?" continued Mrs. Pennycook.
"She didn't have any" Donna answered, truthfully enough.
Again Mrs. Pennycook sniffed. "Well, then, I suppose Mr. Tillingham, of the Universal Church—"
Donna interrupted. "Mamma always knew she would be taken from me without warning, and she often told me not to give her an expensive funeral. I think she would have liked some services but I can't afford them."
"But, dearie, that's so barbarous like!" exclaimed the dismayed Samaritan. "There ought to be some one to say some prayers an' sing a hymn or two."
"Mamma always said she wanted to be buried simply. She thought it was sweet and beautiful to have services, but not essential. She was always skimping and saving for me, Mrs. Pennycook. She said I wasn't to wear mourning; that the—living needed more prayers than—the—dead. She— she said that when she was gone God would be good to her and that—I— she said I would need all the money we had."
"A-a-h-h-h!" breathed Mrs. Pennycook. She understood now. What a baggage the girl was! How heartless, begrudging her poor dead mother the poor comfort of a Christian burial, because she wanted the money for herself! Privately Mrs. Pennycook prophesied a bad ending for Donnie Corblay. She winked knowingly at her husband, then with truly feminine sarcasm:
"Well, at least, Donna, you'll have to buy a coffin an' a grave an' have the grave dug—"
"Sam Singer will attend to that. I'm going to bury mamma among the flowers at the end of our garden. I'll have a nice plain coffin made in San Pasqual—"
"Oh!" Mrs. Pennycook trembled.
"Mamma always said," Donna continued, "that undertakers preyed on the dead and traded in human grief, and for me not to engage one for her funeral. I'm going to do just what she told me to do, Mrs. Pennycook."
"Quite right, Donnie, quite right" interjected Mr. Pennycook. He was an impulsive creature and even under the hypnotic eye of Mrs. P. he sometimes broke out of bounds.
Daniel! At the mention of his Christian name Mr. Pennycook quivered. He knew he was in for it now, but he didn't care. It occurred to him that he might as well, to quote a homely proverb, "be hanged for a sheep as a lamb." He had visited the Hat Ranch to tender aid and sympathy, and despite the impending visitation of his wife's wrath he resolved to be reckless for once and deliver the goods in bulk.
"Your poor mother was a sensible woman, Donnie girl," he told the orphan, "an' you're a dutiful daughter to follow out her last wishes under these—er—deplorable circumstances—er—er—I mean it's a terrible hard thing to lose your mother, Donnie, an'—damme, Donnie, I'm sorry. 'Pon my word, I'm sorry."
Mrs. Pennycook's lips moved, and while no sound issued therefrom, yet did Dan Pennycook, out of his many years of marital submission, comprehend the unspoken sentence:
"Dan Pennycook, you're a fool!"
"Ya-a-h" growled Mr. Pennycook, thoroughly aroused now and striving to appear belligerent. His wife silenced him with a look; then turned to Donna. She had a duty to perform. She was a great woman for "principle" and the performance of what she conceived to be her duty. She was a well-meaning but misguided person ordinarily, who loved a fight with her own family on the broad general ground that it denoted firmness of character. Mrs. Pennycook was so long on virtue and character herself that half her life was spent disposing of a portion of these attributes to the less fortunate members of her household.
She entered now upon a calm yet stern discussion of the perfectly impossible proceeding of making a private cemetery out of one's back yard; but Mr. Pennycook had recovered his poise and decided that here was one of those rare occasions when it behooved him to declare himself—by the way, a very rare proceeding with Mr. Pennycook, he being known in San Pasqual as the original Mr. Henpeck.
"Mrs. Pennycook," he thundered, "you will please 'tend to your own business, ma'am. Donnie, my dear, I'm goin' to wire Los Angeles an' order up a heap o' big red roses on 25—damme, Mrs. Pennycook, what the devil are you lookin' at, ma'am?"
"Nothing" she retorted, although it is a fact that had she been Medusa a singularly life-like replica of Dan Pennycook in concrete might have been produced, upon which the posterity of San Pasqual might gaze and be warned of the dangers attendant upon mating with the Mrs. Pennycooks of this world.
Donna commenced to cry. Mr. Pennycook's sympathy, albeit checked and moderated to a great extent by the presence of his wife, was, nevertheless, the most genuine sample of that rare commodity which she had received up to that moment. His action had been so—brave—so spontaneous—he knew—he understood; Dan Pennycook had a soul. And besides he was going to wire for some red roses—and O, how scarce were red roses in San Pasqual!
"O Mr. Pennycook, dear Mr. Pennycook" she wailed, and sought instant refuge on his honest breast. She placed her arms around his neck and cried, and Mr. Pennycook cried also, until his single Sunday handkerchief was used up—whereat he pleaded dumbly with his wife for her handkerchief—and was refused. So, like some great blubbering boy, he used his fists, while Mrs. Pennycook looked coldly on, working her lower lip and the tip of her nose, rabbit-fashion, for all the world like one who, having anticipated a sniff of the spices of Araby, has detected instead a shocking aroma of corned beef and cabbage.
It was a queer tableau, indeed; Donna weeping on Mr. Pennycook's breast, when every instinct of her sex, even the vaguest acceptance of tradition and custom, dictated that she should have wept on Mrs. Pennycook's breast. Mrs. Pennycook realized the incongruity of the situation and was shrewd enough to attribute it to a strong aversion to her on the part of Donna Corblay. She resolved to make them both pay for her humiliation—Dan, within the hour, Donna whenever the opportunity should occur.
When Donna and Mr. Pennycook had succeeded eventually in overcoming their emotions, the worthy yardmaster and his wife took their departure. Mr. Pennycook was compelled to return to work and something told him that Donna would be happier alone than with Mrs. Pennycook; hence he made no objection to her leaving the Hat Ranch.
They had scarcely left when the man whom Sam Singer had consulted at the Silver Dollar saloon earlier in the day appeared from the north angle of the adobe wall, where he had been lurking, and dodged into the Hat Ranch enclosure. Donna was seated at the kitchen table, her face in her hands, when he arrived. He could see her through the open half- window of the lean-to, so he came to the window, thrust his head and shoulders in and coughed.
Donna raised her head and gazed into the face of the worst man in San Pasqual!
This peculiarly distinguished individual was Mr. Harley P. Hennage, the proprietor of a faro game in the Silver Dollar saloon. He had an impassive, almost dull, face (accentuated, perhaps, from much playing of poker in early life) which, at times, would light up with the shy smile of a trustful child, revealing three magnificent golden upper teeth. He bore no more resemblance to the popular conception of a western gambler than does a college professor to a coal passer. Mr. Hennage lived in his shirtsleeves, paid cash and hated jewelry. He had never been known to carry a derringer or a small, genteel, silver- plated revolver in his waist-coat pocket. Neither did he appear in public with a bowie knife down his bootleg. Not being a Mexican, he did not carry a knife, and besides he always wore congress gaiters. Owing to the fact that he was a large florid sandy person, with a freckled bristly neck and a singularly direct fearless manner of looking at his man with eyes that were small, sunken, baleful and rather piggy, the exigencies of Mr. Hennage's profession had never even warranted recourse to his two most priceless possessions—his hands. Yet, despite this fact, and the further fact that he had never accomplished anything more reprehensible than staking his coin against that of his neighbor, Mr. Hennage had acquired the reputation of being the worst man in San Pasqual. In the language of the country, he was a hard hombre, for he looked it. When one gazed at Mr. Hennage he observed a human bulldog, a man who would finish anything he started. Hence, he was credited with the ability and inclination to do the most impossible things if given half an excuse. It is needless, therefore, to remark that Mr. Hennage's depravity, like Mrs. Pennycook's virtue, partook more or less of the nature of the surrounding country; that is to say, it was susceptible of development.
Most people in this queer world of ours harbor an impression that if you make friends with a dog he will not bite you, and that lion tamers are enabled to accumulate gray hairs merely by the exercise of nerve and the paralyzing influence of the human eye. Hence, when the worst man in San Pasqual confronted Donna, she did not at once scream for Sam Singer, but looked Mr. Hennage in the eye and quavered.
"Good morning, Mr. Hennage."
It was hard work continuing to look Mr. Hennage in the eye. To-day he looked more like a bulldog than ever, for his eyes were red-lidded and watery.
Mr. Hennage nodded. He drew a silk handkerchief from his coat pocket and blew his nose with a report like a pistol shot before he spoke.
"How's the kitty?" he demanded.
Donna glanced toward the store and about the kitchen wearily and replied.
"I don't know, Mr. Hennage. I guess she's around the house somewhere."
"The Lord love you" murmured the gambler. The hard lips lifted, the dull impassive face was lit for an instant by the trustful childish smile, and through the glory of that infrequent facial expression Harley P.'s three gold front teeth flashed like triple searchlights.
"I mean, Miss Corblay, have you any money?"
"Only a little bit, Mr. Hennage" Donna quavered. The question frightened her and she hastened to assure the bad man that it was a very little bit indeed, and all that her mother had been able to save. She trembled lest the monster might take a notion to rob her of even this meager amount.
"I just had a hunch it was that way with you." The worst man in San Pasqual wagged his great head, as if to compliment himself on his penetration. "I just knew it."
This was not strictly the truth. Sam Singer had managed to convey to the gambler some hint of the Corblay fortunes, financial as well as material, and had begged of him to exercise his superior white man intelligence to aid the Indian in wrestling with this white man's problem that confronted the dwellers at the Hat Ranch. Rather a queer source, indeed, for Sam Singer to seek help for his young mistress; but then Sam was not an educated aborigine; he was not given to reflecting upon the ethics of any given line of procedure. The fact of the matter was that Harley P. Hennage was the only white man in San Pasqual who deigned to honor Sam Singer with a greeting and his cast-off shoes. In return Sam had honored Harley P. with his confidence and an appeal to him for further aid.
"I have attended to everything" continued Mr. Hennage. "Preacher, quartette from Bakersfield—they're real good, too. Playin' in a theater up there, but I engaged to get 'em back in time for the evenin' performance on a special train—so they said they'd come. An' I've ordered an elegant coffin, the best they had in stock, with a floral piece from Sam Singer an' his squaw an' a piller o' white carnations with 'Mother' in violets—from you, understand? Everything the best, spick an' span an' no cost to the estate. Compliments o' Harley P. Hennage, Miss Donna." He paused and rubbed his hairy freckled hands together in an embarrassed manner. "I hope you won't think I'm actin' forward, because I ain't one o' the presumin' kind. I just wanted to do somethin' to help out because—your mother was a very lovely lady. Three times a day for ten years she give me my change an' there never was a time when she didn't have a decent, kindly word for me—the only good woman in this town that'd look at me—God bless her! Mum's the word, Miss Donnie. Don't let nobody know I did it, because it'd hurt your reputation. And don't tell Mrs. Pennycook! Pennycook's a clean, decent old sport, but look out for the missus!" Here Mr. Hennage lowered his voice, glanced cautiously around to make certain that he would not be overheard by Mrs. Pennycook, leaned further in the window and improvising a megaphone with his hands, whispered hoarsely the damning words: "She talks!"
Donna nodded. For a long time she had suspected Mrs. Pennycook of this very practice.
"I've got to light out now" Mr. Hennage continued. "Folks'll wonder if they see me hangin' around here. But before I go I want to tell you somethin'. Your mother was a-countin' out my change yesterday when she got took. She thought she was goin' then on account o' the pain bein' sharper than common, an' she cries out: 'Donnie! Donnie! My baby, whatever is a-goin' to become o' you when I'm gone!' I was the only one that heard her say it. I caught her when she was fallin', an' I told her I'd see that you didn't lack for nothin' while I lived an' that I'd keep an eye on you an' see that nothin' wrong happened to you. Your mother couldn't speak none then, Miss Donnie, but she give my hand a little press to show she was on an' that whatever I did was done with her say-so. Consequently, Miss Donnie, any time you need a friend you just ring up the Silver Dollar saloon an' tell the barkeep to call Hennage to the 'phone. Remember! I ain't the presumin' kind, but I can be a good friend—"
He dodged back as if somebody had struck at him. Before Donna could quite realize what he had been saying he had disappeared. She ran to the iron-barred gate, looked out and saw him walking up the railroad tracks toward San Pasqual. She called after him. He turned, waved his hand and continued on—a great fat bow-legged commonplace figure of a man, mopping his high bald forehead—a plain, lowly citizen of uncertain morals; a sordid money-snatcher coming forth from his den of iniquity to masquerade for an hour as the Angel of Hope, and returning —hopeless.
For the last tie that bound Harley P. Hennage to San Pasqual was severed. His soul was not mediocre; he could dwell no longer in San Pasqual without feeling himself accursed. Never again could he bear to sit on his high stool at the lunch counter in the railroad eating- house, where he had boarded for ten years, and watch a stranger taking cash. He had watched Donna's mother so long that the vigil had become a part of his being—a sort of religious ceremony—and in this little tragedy of life no understudy could ever star for Harley P. Her beautiful sad eyes were closed forever now and the tri-daily joy of his sordid existence had vanished.
"What little things go to make up the big pleasures of life! Who could guess, for instance, that the simple deceit of presenting a twenty- dollar piece in payment of a fifty-cent meal check had held for Harley P. a greater joy than the promise of ultimate salvation? Yet it had; for during the slight wait at the pay counter while the cashier counted out his change he had been privileged to view her at close quarters, to mark the contour of her nose, to note the winning sweetness of her tender mouth, to hearken to the music of her low voice counting out the dollars, and, perchance, saying something commonplace himself as he gathered up his change! Yet that had been sufficient to make of San Pasqual a paradise for Harley P. He knew his limitations; he had presumed but once, long enough to ask the cashier to marry him. Her refusal had made him worship her the more, only he worshiped thereafter in silence and from afar. She had not laughed at him nor scorned him nor upbraided him, lowly worm that he was, for daring to hope that he might be good enough for her! No. She had told him about her husband, who had gone prospecting and never returned; of Sam Singer who had been rescued on the desert when close to death, of his return with a wild story of much gold and a man, whose name he did not know, who had killed her husband and escaped with the gold. She respected Mr. Hennage, she admired him, she knew he was good and kind—and she did not refer to his method of making a living. She merely laid her soft hand on his, as he reached for his nineteen dollars and a half change, and said:
"Do you understand, Harley?"
Yes, she had called him Harley that day, and he had understood. Her heart was out in the desert. He took the terrible blow with a smile and a flash of his gold teeth, and never referred to his secret again.
He thought of her now, as he waddled back to his neglected game in the Silver Dollar saloon. He wished that he might have been privileged to admittance into that little room off the kitchen where something told him she was lying; he wished that he might see her once again before they buried her—but that would be presuming. He wished he knew of some plan whereby that poor body might be spared the degradation of interment in the lonely, windswept, desert cemetery, side by side with Indians, Mexicans, Greek section hands and the rude forefathers of San Pasqual.
What a profanation! That horrible cemetery, surrounded by a fence of barbed wire and superannuated railroad ties, to receive that beloved clay. He pictured her as he had seen her every day for ten years, and a rush of vain regret brought the big tears to his buttermilk eyes; the chords of memory twanged in his breast and he paused on the outskirts of San Pasqual with hands upraised, fists clenched in an agony of desperation.
"I can't stand it" he muttered. "I can't. It'll be lonely. I've got to get out. I'll close my game after the funeral an' vamose."