[Frontispiece: Charles Ray as Bob Rogeen, and Barbara Bedford as Imogene Chandler.]
THE DESERT FIDDLER
WILLIAM H. HAMBY
ILLUSTRATED WITH SCENES FROM THE PHOTOPLAY A THOS. H. INCE PRODUCTION RELEASED BY PATHE PICTURES
GROSSET & DUNLAP
COPYRIGHT, 1919, BY
CURTIS PUBLISHING COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1921, BY
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES
THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N. Y.
Charles Ray as Bob Rogeen, and Barbara Bedford as Imogene Chandler . . . Frontispiece
Jenkins and Lolita awed by Percy's fiddling.
Lolita tries her wiles on Percy.
Reedy Jenkins makes a proposition to Imogene.
A mutual discovery—they both cared.
Holy Joe shanghaies Imogene's ranchmen and discovers Percy—a willing ally.
"Make it plain to the Chandler girl that this is her last chance to sell before I ruin her crop."
"Shut off the water? Why all the cotton in the valley will be withered in a day."
THE DESERT FIDDLER
Bob Rogeen slept in the east wing of the squat adobe house. About midnight there was a vigorous and persistent shaking of the screen door.
"Yes?" he called, sleepily.
"They have just telephoned in from the Red Butte Ranch"—it was Dayton, his employer, at the door—"the engine on that tractor has balked. They want a man out there by daylight to fix it."
Bob put up his arms and stretched, and replied yawningly:
"Well, I guess I'm the fixer."
"I guess you are," agreed the implement dealer. "You know the way, don't you? Better ride the gray; and don't forget to take your gun." The boss crossed the patio to his own wing of the house.
The young fellow sat up and kicked along under the edge of the bed, feeling for his shoes.
"A love—lee time to go to work," he growled, good-naturedly. "Here is where the early bird catches the tractor—and the devil."
When he came out of the door a few minutes later, buttoning his corduroy coat—even in Imperial Valley, which knows no winter, one needs a coat on a March night—Rogeen stood for a moment on the step and put up his long arms again to stretch some of the deep sleep from his muscles. He was not at all enthusiastic about odd jobs at midnight; but in a moment his eyes fell on the slanting moonlight that shone mistily on the chinaberry tree in the patio; the town on the American side was fast asleep; the wind with the smell of sagebrush stirred a clump of bamboo. The desert night had him—and when he rode away toward the Mexican line he had forgotten his gun and taken his fiddle.
He passed through Mexicali, the Mexican town, where the saloons were still open and the lights over the Red Owl, the great gambling hall, winked with glittering sleeplessness; and out upon the road by the irrigation canal, fringed with cottonwood and willows.
He let the reins drop over the saddlehorn, and brought the fiddle round in front of him. There was no hurry, he would be there before daylight. And he laughed as he ran his right thumb over the strings:
"What a combination—a fool, a fiddle, and a tractor."
Bob could not explain what impulse had made him bring a fiddle with him on the way to mend a balky gasoline engine. As a youth—they had called him rather a wild youth—he had often ridden through the Ozark hills at night time with his fiddle under his arm. But in the last eight years he had played the thing only once, and that once had come so near finishing him that he still carried the receipt of the undertaker who came to bury him the next day.
"Oh, well," Bob grinned into the night as he threw his right knee over the saddlehorn and put the fiddle to his shoulder, "we'll see how she goes once more."
For three miles he rode leisurely on, a striking figure in the dim moonlight—a tall young man on a gray horse, fiddling wildly to the desert night.
He crossed the bridge over the main canal, left the fringe of cottonwood and willow, and turned across the open toward the Red Butte Ranch. The fiddle was under his arm. Then he saw a shack in the open field to the right of the road. It was one of those temporary structures of willow poles and arrow weed that serve for a house for the renter on the Mexican side. The setting moon was at its back, and the open doorway showed only as a darker splotch. He lifted the fiddle again. "Chinaboy, Jap, Hindu, Poor Man, Rich Man, Beggar Man or Mexican—I'll give you a serenade all the samee."
The gleeful melody had scarcely jigged its way into the desert night when, in the black splotch of the doorway, a figure appeared—a woman in a white nightdress. Swiftly Bob changed the jig tune into a real serenade, a clear, haunting, calling melody. The figure stood straight and motionless in the dark doorway as long as he could see. Someway he knew it was a white woman and that she was young.
He put the fiddle back in the bag and turned in his saddle to mark the location of the hut in his mind—there was a clump of eucalyptus trees just north of it. Yes, he would know the place, and he would learn tomorrow who lived there. That listening figure had caught his imagination.
But again he grinned into the night, ruefully this time as he remembered the disaster that had followed his last two experiences with this diabolical instrument of glee and grief.
"Oh, well," he shook his head determinedly and threw his leg across the saddle, "the first time was with a preacher; the second with a gun; now we'll give the lady a chance."
The fiddle and the figure in the doorway had stirred in Bob a lot of reflections. At twenty he had given up his music and most of the careless fun that went with it, because a sudden jolt had made him see that to win through he must fight and not fiddle. For eight years he had worked tremendously hard at half a dozen jobs across half a dozen states; and there had been plenty of fighting. But what had he won?—a job as a hardware clerk at twenty dollars a week.
"Oh, well"—he had learned to give the Mexican shrug of the shoulder—"twenty dollars in a land of opportunity is better than fifty where everything is already fixed."
That must be the Red Butte Ranch across yonder. He turned into the left-hand fork of the road.
"Hello, there!" A tall, rambling fellow rose up from the side of the road. "Are you the good Samaritan or merely one of the thieves?"
"Neither," replied Bob, guessing this was a messenger from the Red Butte, "but I work for both. Where is your balky tractor?"
"This way." The rambling fellow turned to the right and started down the road, talking over his left shoulder:
"I'm the chauffeur of that blamed tractor—I told Old Benson I didn't know any more about it than he does of the New Jerusalem; but he put me at it anyhow.
"I'm a willin' cuss. But the main trouble with me is I ain't got no brains. If I had, I wouldn't be on this job, and if I was, I could fix the darn thing myself.
"My dad," continued the guide, "was purty strong on brains, but I didn't take after him much. If I was as posted on tractors as the old man was on hell fire, I wouldn't need you."
Something in this hill billy's tone stirred in Bob a sudden recollection.
"Was he a preacher?"
"Yep, named Foster, and I'm his wandering boy to-night."
Bob lifted his head and laughed. It was a queer world. He inquired about the trouble with the tractor.
"I sure hope you can fix it," said Noah Ezekiel. "Old Benson will swear bloody-murder if we don't get the cotton in before the tenth of April. He wants to unload the lease."
The sun was scarcely an hour high when the steady, energetic chuck, chuck of the tractor engine told Bob his work was done. He shut it off, and turned to Noah Ezekiel.
"There you are—as good as new. And it is worth ten men and forty mules. Not much like we used to farm back in the Ozarks, is it?"
"We?" Noah Ezekiel rubbed his lean jaw and looked questioningly at the fixer. "I'm from the Ozarks, but as the silk hat said to the ash can, 'Where in hell does the we come in?'"
"You don't happen to remember me?" There was a humorous quirk at the corner of Rogeen's mouth as he stood wiping the oil and grease from his hands with a bunch of dry grass.
The shambling hill billy took off his floppy-brimmed straw hat and scratched his head as he studied Bob with the careless but always alert blue eyes of the mountain-turkey hunter—eyes that never miss the turn of a leaf nor forget a trail.
Those eyes began at the feet, took in the straight waistline, the well-knit shoulders. Bob weighed a hundred and eighty and looked as though he were put together to stay. For a moment Noah Ezekiel studied the friendly mouth, the resolute nose, the frank brown eyes; but not until they concentrated on the tangled mop of dark hair did a light dawn on the hill billy's face.
"Well, I'll be durned!" The exclamation was deep and soul-satisfying, and he held out his hand. "If you ain't Fiddlin' Bob Rogeen, I'll eat my hat!"
"Save your hat." Bob met the recognition with a friendly grin.
"I never saw you but once," reflected Noah Ezekiel, "and that was the Sunday at Mt. Pisgah when my dad lambasted you in his sermon for fiddlin' for the dance Saturday night."
"That sermon," Bob's smile was still a little rueful, "lost me the best job I had ever had."
"Oh, well," consoled the hill billy, "if you hadn't lost it somethin' might have fell on you. That's what I always think when I have to move on." And he repeated with a nonchalant air a nonsensical hill parody:
I eat when I'm hungry, I drink when I'm dry, And if a tree don't fall on me I'll live till I die.
Then his eyes veered round to Bob's fiddle lying to one side on the grass.
"I notice," he grinned, "dad did not convert you."
"No," said Bob, "but he cured me—almost. I've only played the thing twice since."
Rogeen picked up his fiddle and started for his horse.
"Well, so long, Noah. You've got a nice place to work out here." His eyes swept almost covetously over the five-thousand-acre ranch, level as a floor, not a stump or a stone. "If I had this ranch I'd raise six thousand bales of cotton a year, or know the reason why."
"That ain't what the last fellow said," remarked the hill billy, grinningly. "Reedy Jenkins was out yesterday figuring on buyin' the lease; and he said: 'If I had it—I'd raise the rent.'"
Bob was out in front of the hardware store dressed in a woollen shirt and overalls, and bareheaded, setting up a cotton planter, when an old gentleman in a linen duster, who had been pacing restlessly up and down the walk like a distant relative waiting for the funeral procession to start, stopped on the sidewalk to watch him work. Whether it was the young man's appearance, his whistling at his work or merely the way he used his hands that attracted the old gentleman was not certain. But after a moment he remarked in a crabbedly friendly tone:
"Young man, you know your business."
"The other fellow's business, you mean," replied Bob without looking up from the bolt he was adjusting. "It is not mine, you know." Bob had been repeating during the last two days the remark of the hill billy—"I'm a willin' cuss, but I ain't got no brains." He had begun to wonder if he was not in the same wagon. He had always thought he had brains, but here he was at twenty-eight no better off than the hill billy. Perhaps not as well, for Noah Ezekiel Foster was getting more per month for riding one tractor than Bob was for selling twenty.
The old gentleman made a noise in his throat that corresponded to a chuckle in a less belligerent man.
"Do you sell farm machinery over there?" The store faced the line; and he nodded toward the Mexican side.
"Yes," answered Bob.
"Know the country pretty well?"
"Yes." The young man rose up with the wrench in his hand, and looked for the first time into the gray-blue eyes under the bushy iron-gray brows. "The country is the same as it is on this side. The people somewhat different."
"Any good chances to invest money over there?" asked the old gentleman.
"I suppose so." Bob stopped to pick up another nut and started to screw it on. "I'm not bothered much hunting for investments. But I reckon there is a chance for a man with money anywhere."
"To spend it," added the other fellow, sharply. "Any place will do for a fool and his money to part. But, young man, it is easier to earn money with brains than it is to keep it without them."
Bob's eyes looking past the old gentleman saw a youngish woman dressed in widow's weeds—very expensive weeds—coming rapidly down the walk from the hotel, and knew she was coming for the old man. As she came nearer, Bob saw she had tawny yellow hair, with slate-coloured eyes and a pious mouth. Her carriage was very erect, very ladylike, and patently she was from the East.
"Oh, Uncle," she gurgled and, as the old gentleman turned, with a little burst of enthusiasm she threw her arms about his neck.
"When did you get in, Evy?" The old gentleman managed to disengage the arms without giving the appearance of heartlessness. His voice was crabbed, but sounded as though it might be from the length of the vocal cords rather than the shortness of disposition.
"Last night." There was an aggrieved touch of self-denying complaint in the tone. "And the little hotel is perfectly wretched. I had such a horrid room—and I felt so conspicuous alone. The landlady told me you had been there looking for me this morning before I was up. I'm so glad to see you, Uncle; just as soon as I heard of poor Aunt Ellen's death I felt that I must come and look after you at any sacrifice." There was a slight pause in which the old gentleman did not venture a remark. "But, Uncle"—there was accusation in the tone—"why did you ever come out to this awful country? The dust was simply awful—I think some of my clothes are ruined."
"The old horse is across the street." The uncle turned and started toward a very high-powered, expensive car.
"Who was that old chap?" Bob asked of Dayton, who came up from breakfast just as the car drove off.
"That's Jim Crill—Texas oil fields. Staying at El Centro and looking for a place to drop his money, I hear. But I wonder who's the lady? I saw her get off the train with Reedy Jenkins yesterday evening."
"A dear relative," remarked Bob with a grin, "come to take care of him since his wife died—and he struck oil."
After a moment—the planter finished—Bob asked casually:
"Does Benson own the Red Butte Ranch?"
"No," answered the implement dealer, "it belongs to the Dan Ryan tract. Dan is one of the very few Americans who has a real title to land on the Mexican side. When Benson leased it two years ago it was merely sand hummocks and mesquite, like the rest of the desert. Spent a lot of money levelling it and getting it ready to water. He lives at Los Angeles, and is one of those fellows who try to farm with money instead of brains and elbow grease. Lost a lot on last year's crop, and now he wants to get rid of his lease."
Bob had been thinking of that ranch most of the time since he fixed the tractor. He loved the soil, and surely a man could get real returns from a field like that.
"I wonder," he remarked without meeting his employer's eyes, "if he would sublease it?"
"Don't know," replied Dayton; "Reedy Jenkins is trying to buy the lease."
"Then," thought Bob as his employer went into the store, "Jenkins ought to offer a market for farm machinery. I'll go up and see him."
On his way to Jenkins' office Bob's mind was busy with his own personal problems. He had been struggling with his ambitions a long time and never could quite figure why he did not get on faster. He had thought a great deal the last few days about Jim Crill, the old man with bushy eyebrows—and oil wells. Two or three things the gruff old chap had said stuck in Bob's mind. He had begun to wonder if it was not just as easy for a fellow to make a bad investment of his brains and muscles as it was with his money. "That's it," he said almost aloud at a definite conclusion; "I haven't been making a good investment of myself. I wonder if I could sublease that Red Butte Ranch?"
The more he thought of it, the more anxious he was to get hold of something he could manage himself. Of course, the idea of farming a five-thousand-acre ranch without capital was merely a pipe dream; but still, if Benson was losing money and wanted to get loose from his lease—it might be possible.
Reedy Jenkins' office was upstairs and on a back street. It had an outside stairway, one of those affairs that cling to an outer brick wall and end in a little iron platform. The only sign on the door was:
REEDY JENKINS, Cotton.
It did not explain whether Mr. Jenkins raised cotton, bought it, sold it, ginned it, or merely thought about it. The office was so located that in a morally crusading town, where caution was necessary, it would have suggested nocturnal poker. But as it was not necessary for a poker game in Calexico to be so modestly retiring, Reedy's choice of an office must be attributed solely to his love of quiet and unostentation.
As Bob turned up the side street, two people were coming down the iron stairway—one a dry, thin man who looked as though he might be the relict of some dead language, wearing a stiff hat and a black alpaca coat; the other, a girl of more than medium height, who took the narrow steps with a sort of spring without even touching the iron rail with her hand, and her eyes were looking out across the town.
"I beg your pardon," Bob met them at the foot of the stairs, "but can you tell me if Mr. Jenkins is in?"
It was the girl who turned to answer, and at one look Bob saw she was more than interesting—soft light hair, inquisitive eyes, an intuitive mouth—nothing dry or attenuated about her.
"Yes," she replied, with a slight twist of the mouth, "Mr. Jenkins is in. Have you a lease to sell?"
"Then go on up," she said, and turned across the street following the spindle-legged man who was unhitching two horses.
"Blooming sunflowers!" exclaimed Bob, his heart taking a quick twist as she walked away, "as sure as I'm a foot high, that's the girl who stood in the doorway that night."
As Bob entered the office Jenkins sat tipped back in a swivel chair, his left arm resting on his desk, the right free as though it had been gesturing. Reedy had rather large eyes, a plump, smooth face that was two shades redder than pink and one shade pinker than red. He always looked as though he had just shaved, and a long wisp of very black hair dangled diagonally across the corner of his forehead, such as one often sees on the storm-tossed head of an impassioned orator who is talking for the audience and working for himself.
"Sit down." He waved Bob to a chair. "I've been wanting to have a talk with you—got a proposition for you."
Reedy Jenkins lighted a very good cigar and sat studying Rogeen with a leisurely air. Bob was a good salesman and began at once: "Understand you have been buying up leases, and I came up to sell you some farm machinery."
Reedy took the cigar from his wide mouth and laughed at the joke. "I don't raise cotton, I leave that to Chinamen—I raise prices. I'm not a farmer but a financier."
Then returning the cigar to the corner of his mouth he remarked with a pink judicialness:
"I should say you have a way with the ladies."
Bob blushed. "I never discovered it, if I have."
"I have, myself." Reedy bit the end of his cigar and nodded with a doggish appreciation of his own fascination. "But I'm too busy just now to use it."
"Rogeen"—Reedy laid the smoking cigar on some papers on his desk and faced Bob—"I've had my eye on you for some time. I am buying up leases across the line. I need a good man to work over there. What is Dayton paying you?"
"Twenty a week." Bob was surprised at the turn of the conversation.
"I'll give you a hundred and fifty a month to start, and there'll be a fine chance for promotion."
"What am I to do?" inquired Bob.
"Here is the whole thing in an eggshell. No doubt you are acquainted with the situation over the line. You know, excepting one or two big concessions, no Americans own land on the Mexican side. The land is all farmed under leases and sub-leases. If a Chink or a Jap or a wandering American hayseed wants to open up a patch of the desert, he takes a five-year lease. As it costs him from ten to twenty dollars an acre to clear off the mesquite, level the sand hummocks, and get his ditches ready for water, he pays only one dollar rent the first year, two dollars the second, and so on.
"Now"—Reedy picked up his cigar, puffed a time or two, and looked speculatively over Bob's head—"if a fellow wants to speculate on the Mexican side, he doesn't deal in land; he buys and sells leases. That is my business. Of course, once in a while I take over a crop that is planted or partly raised, because I have to do it to get the lease. But you can say on general principles I'm about as much interested in farming as a ground hog is in Easter.
"The price of cotton has been low, and for various and sundry other reasons"—Reedy squinted his large eyes a little mysteriously—"a lot of the ranchers over there after getting their land in good shape have got cold feet and are willing to sell leases that have three or four years yet to run for nearly nothing.
"I'm acquiring a bunch of them and am going to make a fortune out of them. One of these days the price of cotton will take a jump, and I'll be subleasing ten thousand acres of land at ten dollars an acre that cost me three.
"Now what I want you for"—he brought his attention down squarely to Rogeen—"is to buy leases for me—I'll give you a list of what I want and the prices I'll pay. If you get a lease for less, I'll give you half the rake-off in addition to your wages."
Bob thought fast. This looked like a fine opportunity; perhaps he was worth more as a buyer than as a salesman.
"I'll have a try at it," he said. "But I won't sign up for any length of time until I see how it goes."
"That suits me," Reedy assented readily. His one fear had been that Bob might want a term contract.
"I'll see Dayton," Bob arose, "and let you know how soon he can let me off."
Dayton liked Bob and hated to lose him, but was one of those employers who prefer to suffer some inconvenience or loss rather than stand in the way of a young man's advancement.
"A hundred and fifty dollars a month is more than I can pay, Rogeen," he said. "You'd better take it. Begin at once. I'll get Jim Moody in your place."
At one o'clock Bob was back at Jenkins' office and reported ready for work.
Reedy reached in his desk for the map on which all the ranches below the line were carefully marked.
"The ranches I want to get first are along the Dillenbeck Canal. It is a private water system, and the water costs more; but the land is rich enough to make up the difference.
"The first one I want you to tackle is here"—he made a cross with his pencil—"Belongs to a little dried-up old geezer named Chandler. He is ready to sell; talk to the girl. Five hundred is my top price for their lease and equipment."
As Bob went down the outside stairway he passed a Mexican going up—a Mexican with features that suggested some one of his immediate forefathers was probably a Hebrew. Rogeen recognized him—his name was Madrigal; and he remembered that someone had told him that the Mexican was in the secret service over the line, or rather that he was an unofficial bearer of official information from some shady Mexican officials to some shady American concerns.
When the Mexican entered the office, Reedy got up and closed the door. Then he took the map again from a drawer and opened it out on the desk.
"I'll get Benson's lease this week." Reedy put his pencil on the Red Butte Ranch. "And these," he pointed to smaller squares along the Dillenbeck Canal, "are the ones I have marked for early annexation. How many of them have you seen?"
"Thes, and thes, and thes." Madrigal pointed off three ranches.
"I've sent the new man down to see Chandler," said Reedy. "He's the sort that can win over that girl. I must have that ranch. It is one of the best of the small ranches."
"Si, si." Madrigal grinned, and smoothed up his black pompadoured hair. "Eet will be easy. I gave them big scare about the duty on cotton next fall."
"And then my friend who manages the Dillenbeck system gave them another about the price of water this summer," smiled Reedy. "But"—he frowned—"if the girl should continue obstinate, and they refuse to sell?"
"Then I'll attend to the senorita"—the Mexican put his hand on his heart and bowed gallantly—"the ladies are easy for Senor Madrigal."
"Yes," said Reedy, shutting his wide mouth determinedly, "and if he fails, I'll 'tend to Rogeen."
It was a little after sundown when Bob rode up to the Chandler ranch. The girl was out under the cottonwood trees by the irrigation canal gathering up dry sticks for stove wood. He hitched his horse and went to her.
"Good evening," he said.
"Where is your fiddle?" There was a faint twist of amusement at the corner of her mouth.
"How did you know?"
"Guessed it," she replied, with a little lift of the eyebrows; and then stooped to pick up the armful of dry sticks she had gathered.
"Let me have them." He stepped forward to take the wood.
"Why should you?" she said, without offering to relinquish them. "I prefer to carry my own sticks—then I don't have to build fires for other people." He laughed, and followed her up the path toward the shack.
"Let us sit down here." She led the way to a homemade bench in the open. "Daddy has had a hard day and has gone to bed, and I don't want to disturb him. He's very tired and has been upset over this lease business."
That was an opening, but before he could take advantage of it she abruptly changed the conversation:
"But you haven't told me why you didn't bring your fiddle this time. I'd love to hear it on a night like this." Dusk was coming swiftly and the stars had begun to glimmer.
"Oh, I don't carry it round as a business," he answered. "Fact is, until the other night I had not played it but twice in eight years."
"Why?" She turned to him with curious interest.
"It hasn't usually brought me good luck."
"What happened the other two times?"
He looked off at the very bright star in the west and smiled with whimsical ruefulness. "I love music—that is, what I call music. When I was in the Ozarks I fiddled a lot, but discovered it did not bring me what I wanted, so I went to work. I got a job in a bank at Oakville; was to begin work Monday. I was powerful proud of that job, and had got a new suit of clothes and went to town Saturday. That night there was a dance, and they asked me to play for it." He stopped to chuckle, but still a little regretfully. "My playing certainly made a hit. Sunday morning a preacher lambasted the dance, and called me the special messenger of the devil. My job was with a pillar of his church. I didn't go to work Monday morning. It's a queer world; that preacher was the father of Noah Ezekiel Foster, who is now working for Benson."
She was looking out at the west, smiling; the desert wind pushed the hair back from her forehead. "And the other time you played?"
"That was up at Blindon, Colorado." He showed some reluctance to go ahead.
"An old doctor and his daughter came to the camp to invest. I overheard them in the next room at the boarding house, and knew a gang of sharks was selling them a fake mine. I tried to attract their attention through the partition by playing a fool popular song—'If you tell him yes; you are sure to cry, by and by.'"
"Did you make them understand?" She had locked her hands round her knees and leaned interestedly toward him.
"Yes—and also the gang. The camp made up money to pay the undertaker to bury me next day. I still have the receipt."
"You have had a lot of experience," she said with a touch of envy.
"More than the wisdom I have gathered justifies, I fear," he replied.
"Experiences are interesting," she observed. "I haven't had many, but I'm beginning. Daddy was professor of Sanskrit in a little one-horse denominational college back in the hog-feeding belt of the Middle West. Heavens!" she spoke with sudden fierceness, "can you imagine anything more useless than teaching Sanskrit? His salary was two hundred dollars a year less than the janitor's. I hated being poor; and I hated worse the dry rot of that little faculty circle. The deadly seriousness of their piffling, pedantic talk about fine-spun scholastic points that were not interesting nor useful a thousand years ago, and much less now that they are absolutely dead. I hated being prim and pretentious. I could not stand it any longer, and made Daddy resign and go somewhere to plant something. We came out here and I thought I saw a fortune in cotton.
"Daddy's worked like a galley slave getting this field in; he's done the work of two men. With one Chinaman's help part of the time he's got in a hundred and sixty acres of cotton. We've put through two hot summers here; and spent every dollar we got for our household goods and his life insurance. And now"—she was frowning in the dark—"we are warned to get out."
"Who warned you?" Bob asked quickly.
"A Mexican named Madrigal. He has been right friendly to us; and warned us last week that the Mexican Government is going to raise the duty on cotton so high this fall that it will take all the profit. He advises us to sell our lease for anything we can get."
"Have you had an offer?"
"Yes," she shrugged in the dusk and spoke with bitter weariness, "a sort of an offer. Mr. Jenkins offered us $500. Daddy wanted to take it, but I objected. I guess, though, it is better than nothing."
Bob stood up, his muscles fairly knotted. He understood in a flash why the Mexican Jew was going to Jenkins' office. They were stampeding the small ranchers out of the country, and virtually stealing their leases. The stars ran together in an angry blur. He felt a swelling of the throat. It was lucky he was miles away from Reedy Jenkins.
"Don't take it!" he said with vehemence.
Reedy Jenkins had just opened his office next morning and sat down at the desk to read his mail when Bob Rogeen walked in. Reedy looked up from a letter and asked greedily:
"Did you get it?"
"No." There was something ominous in Rogeen's tone.
"Couldn't you persuade them to sell?" Jenkins was openly vexed.
"I persuaded them not to." Bob's hands opened and shut as though they would like to get hold of something. "I don't care for this job. I'm done."
"What's the idea?" There was a little sneer in Jenkins' tone. "Decided you would go back to the old job selling pots and pans?"
"No," and Bob's brown eyes, almost black now, looked straight into Reedy's flushed, insolent face, "I'm going across the line to raise cotton."
Reedy's wide mouth opened in a contemptuous sneer.
"It's rather hot over there for rabbits."
"Yes," Bob's lips closed warningly, "and it may become oppressive for wolves."
Their eyes met defiantly for a moment, and each knew the other understood—and it meant a fight.
Bob had never known a resolution before. He thought he had, but he knew now that all the rest compared to what he felt as he left Reedy Jenkins' office were as dead cornstalks to iron rods.
One night nearly nine years ago, when returning through the hills with his fiddle under his arm, he had stopped at the door of his cabin and looked up at the stars. The boisterous fun of an hour ago had all faded out, leaving him dissatisfied and lonesome. He was shabbily dressed, not a dollar in his pocket—not a thing in the world his own but that fiddle—and he knew he was no genius with that. He was not getting on in the world; he was not making anything of himself. It was then that the first big resolution came to him: He would quit this fooling and go to work; he would win in this game of life. Since then in the main he had stuck to that resolution. He had not knowingly passed any opportunity by; certainly he had dodged nothing because it was hard. He had won a little here, and lost there, always hoping, always tackling the new job with new pluck. Yet these efforts had been simple; somebody had offered him a job and he tried to make good at it—and usually had. But to win now, and win big as he was determined to do, he must have a job of his own; and he would have to create that job, organize it, equip it.
"What I'll make it with—or just how—I don't know. But by all the gods of the desert I'm going to win right here—in spite of the thermometer, the devil, and Reedy Jenkins."
To raise cotton one must have a lease, tools, teams, provisions—all of which costs money; and he had just $167.35. But if that girl and her Sanskrit father could get in a cotton crop, he could. It was not too late. Cotton might be planted in the Imperial Valley even up to the last of May. He would get a field already prepared if he could; if not, then he would prepare it.
And a man with a good lease and a good reputation could usually borrow some money on which to raise a crop. Bob's mind again came back to the Red Butte Ranch. It was so big that it almost swamped his imagination, but if he was going to do big things he must think big. If he could possibly sublease that ranch from Benson. But it would take $100,000 to finance a five-thousand-acre cotton crop. Then he thought of Jim Crill, the old man of the Texas oil fields who was looking for investments.
It was daring enough to seem almost fantastic, but Bob quickened his step and turned toward the depot. He could yet catch the morning train for Los Angeles.
But he passed Benson on the way. The same morning Bob called at the Los Angeles office Benson went to Reedy Jenkins in Calexico.
The Red Butte lease had three years to run. Benson began by offering the lease and all the equipment for $40,000. He had spent more than $90,000 on it.
Reedy pushed back the long black lock of hair from his forehead, shook his head lugubriously, and grew pessimistically oratorical. Things were very unsettled over the line: there was talk of increased Mexican duty on cotton, of a raise in water rates; the price of cotton was down; ranchers were coming out instead of going in; no sale at all for leases. He himself had not had an offer for a lease in two months.
They dickered for an hour. Reedy watching with a gloating shrewdness the impractical fellow who had tried to farm with money. He knew Benson had lost money on the last crop, and besides had been thoroughly scared by the sly Madrigal.
"I'm tired of the whole thing." Benson spoke with annoyed vexation. "I tell you what I'll do: I'll walk off the ranch and leave you the whole damn thing for $20,000."
"I'll take it." Reedy knew when the limit was reached. "I'll pay you $2,000 now to bind the bargain; and the balance within ten days."
As Benson left the office with the check, Reedy began figuring feverishly. It was the biggest thing he had ever pulled off. The lease, even with cotton selling for only eight cents, was worth certainly $50,000, the equipment at least $10,000 more. And the five thousand acres was already planted and coming up! In the Imperial Valley the planting is by far the most expensive part of the cotton crop up to picking. It costs from seven to ten dollars an acre to get it planted; after that it is easy. There are so few weeds and so little grass that one man, with a little extra help once or twice during the summer, can tend from forty to eighty acres.
It was such an astounding bargain that Reedy's pink face grew a little pale, and he moistened his lips as he figured. He was trying to reassure himself that it would be dead easy to borrow the other $18,000. He did not have it. In truth, he had only two hundred left in the bank. He thought of Tom Barton and two of the banks from whom he had already borrowed. They did not seem promising. Then he thought of Jim Crill, and the pinkness came slowly back to his face. He smiled doggishly as he picked up the phone, called El Centro, and asked for Mrs. Evelyn Barnett.
Mrs. Evelyn Barnett sat on the porch shaded by a wistaria vine, her feet discreetly side by side on the floor, her hands primly folded in her lap; her head righteously erect, as one who could wear her widow's weeds without reproach, having been faithful to the very last ruffle of her handsome dress to the memory of her deceased.
She had insisted on taking Uncle Crill from the hotel, which was ruining his digestion, and making a home for him. She had leased an apartment bungalow, opening on a court, and with the aid of three servants had, at great personal sacrifice, managed to give Uncle Crill a "real home." True, Uncle was not in it very much, but it was there for him to come back to.
"Uncle," she had said, piously, showing him the homelike wonders that three servants had been able to achieve in the six rooms, "in the crudities of this horrid, uncouth country, we must keep up the refinements to which we were accustomed in the East." The old gentleman had grunted, remembering what sort of refinements they had been accustomed to, but made no outward protests at being thus frillily domesticated after ten years in the Texas oil fields.
And as Mrs. Barnett sat on the porch this morning, fully and carefully dressed, awaiting the result of that telephone message from Calexico, she watched with rank disapproval her neighbours to the right and left. It was quite hot already and Mrs. Borden on the right had come out on the porch, dressed with amazing looseness of wrapper, showing a very liberal opening at the throat, and stood fanning herself with a newspaper. Mrs. Cramer on the left, having finished her sweeping, had come out on the porch also, and in garments that indicated no padding whatever dropped into a rocking chair, crossed her legs, made a dab at her loosely piled hair to see it did not topple down, and proceeded to read the morning newspaper. It was positively shocking, thought Mrs. Barnett, how women could so far forget themselves. She never did.
Directly her primly erect head turned slightly, and her eyes which always seemed looking for something substantial—no dream stuff for her—widened with satisfaction and she put her hand up to her collar to see if the breastpin was in place.
It was Reedy Jenkins who got out of the machine which stopped at the entrance. He took off his hat when halfway to the porch—his black hair was smoothly brushed—his face opened with a flattering smile and he quickened his step. Mrs. Barnett permitted herself to rise, take two short steps forward, and to smile reservedly as she offered her hand.
Reedy Jenkins had not exaggerated when he said he had a way with the ladies. He did have. It was rather a broad way, but there are plenty of ladies who are not subtle.
"You have a lovely little place here." Reedy gave a short, approving glance round as he took the offered chair. "It's wonderful what a woman's touch can do to make a home. No place like home, if there is some dear woman there to preside."
Mrs. Barnett's mouth simpered at the implied flattery; but her eyes, always looking calculatingly for substantial results, were studying Reedy Jenkins. He certainly had handsome black hair, and he was well dressed—and the manner of a gentleman. He reminded her of an evangelist she had known back in Indiana. She had intended to marry that evangelist if his wife died in time; but she did not.
"It is very hard to do much here," Mrs. Barnett said, deprecatingly. "There is so much dust, and the market is so poor, and servants are so untrained and so annoying. But of course I do what little I can to make dear Uncle a good home. It was a great sacrifice for me to come, but when duty calls one must not think of self."
"No, I suppose not." Reedy sighed and shook his head until the long black lock dangled across the corner of his forehead—he did look like that evangelist. "But I wish sometime that we could forget the other fellow and think of ourselves. I'd have been a millionaire by now if I hadn't been so chicken-hearted about giving the other fellow the best of it."
"We never lose by being generous," said Mrs. Barnett with conviction.
"No, I suppose not," Reedy sighed. "No doubt it pays in the long run. I know I've been put in the way of making many thousands of dollars first and last by fellows I had been good to." Then Reedy looked at Mrs. Barnett steadily and with wide admiration in his large eyes—looked until she blushed very deeply.
"It may be a rough place to live," said Reedy, "but it certainly has been good for your colour. You are pink as a—a flower; you look positively swee——" He broke off abruptly. "I beg your pardon; I almost forgot myself."
Then Reedy changed the subject to the matter of business on which he had come.
"Yes," Mrs. Barnett said, giving him her hand as he rose to go, "I'll see Uncle to-night; and I'm sure Mr. Jenkins"—he still held her hand and increased the pressure—"he'll be most glad to do it."
Three days after Bob had returned from Los Angeles and found that Reedy Jenkins had bought the Benson lease, he rode up from the Mexican side and jumped off in front of the hardware store. Dayton was talking to the old man with bushy eyebrows and a linen duster.
"Here's Rogeen now," said the implement dealer. "Mr. Crill was just inquiring about you, Bob."
The two men shook hands.
"How you comin'?" asked the old man, his blue eyes looking sharply into Rogeen's.
"I'm starting in on my own," replied Bob; "going to raise cotton over the line."
"Why?" The heavy brows worked frowningly.
"Got to win through." Bob's brows also contracted and he shook his head resolutely. "And I can't do it working by the month. Some men can, but I can't."
"See that?" The old gentleman pointed to a tractor with ten plows attached. "That's success. Those plows are good and the engine is good; but it's only when they are hooked up together they are worth twenty teams and ten men. That's the way to multiply results—hook good things together. Resolution and hard work aren't enough. Got to have brains. Got to use 'em. Organize your forces.
"Don't tell me," the old chap spoke with some heat, "that a man who uses his brains and by one day's work makes something that saves a million men ten days' work is only entitled to one day's pay. Not a bit of it. He's entitled to part of what he saves every one of those million men. That's the difference between a little success and a big success. The little one makes something for himself; the big one makes something for a thousand men—and takes part of it. Has a right to. Those Chinamen across the line get sixty-five cents a day. If you can manage them so they earn a dollar and a half a day and give them a dollar and thirty cents of it and keep twenty cents, you are a public benefactor as well as a smart man. That is the way to do it; use your brains to increase other men's production and take a fair per cent. of it, and you'll be both rich and honest."
Bob's brown eyes were eagerly attentive. He liked this cryptic old man. This was real stuff he was talking; and it was getting at the bottom of Rogeen's own problem. All these years he had tried to produce value single-handed. But to win big, he must think, plan, organize so as to make money for many people, and therefore entitle himself to large returns.
"I'm going to try that very thing," he said. "I've just leased one hundred and sixty acres. Half already planted in cotton, and I'm going to plant the rest."
Bob was proud of his achievement. He had been really glad he failed to get the Red Butte Ranch. It was entirely too big to tackle without capital or experience. But he had found a rancher anxious to turn loose his lease for about half what he had spent improving it. Rogeen then convinced a cotton-gin man that he was a good risk; and offered to give him ten per cent. interest, half the cotton seed, and to gin the crop at his mill if he would advance money sufficient to buy the lease and raise the crop. The gin man had agreed to do it.
Crill jerked his head approvingly. "Good move. That's the way to go at it. Think first, then work like the devil at the close of a revival."
Crill paused, and then asked abruptly:
"Know a man named Jenkins?"
"Yes," replied Bob.
"Is he safe?"
Bob grinned. "About as safe as a rattlesnake in dog days."
As Jim Crill stalked up the outside stairway of Reedy Jenkins' office, the wind whipping the tail of the linen duster about his legs, he carried with him two very conflicting opinions of Reedy—Mrs. Barnett's and Bob Rogeen's. Maybe one of them was prejudiced—possibly both. Well, he would see for himself.
Reedy jumped up, gave his head a cordial fling, and grabbed Jim Crill's hand as warmly as though he were chairman of the committee welcoming the candidate for vice-president to a tank-station stop. Reedy remembered very distinctly meeting Mr. Crill in Chicago five years ago. In fact, Mr. Crill had for a long time been Mr. Jenkins' ideal of the real American business man—shrewd, quick to think, and fearless in action; willing to take a chance but seldom going wrong.
"Evy said you wanted to see me about borrowing some money," the old man dryly interrupted the flow of eloquence.
"Yes—why, yes." Reedy brought up suddenly before he had naturally reached his climax, floundered for a moment. "Why, yes, we have an investment that I thought would certainly interest you." Reedy had decided not only to get the old man to finance the Red Butte purchase but his whole project.
He began to explain his maps and figures as volubly as though he were selling the Encyclopedia Britannica, and again the old man cut in:
"How many acres you got leased?"
"Ten thousand—practically." Reedy paused to answer, his pencil touching the Dillenbeck Canal.
"What did you pay for them?"
"I got most of them for about a third to half what they cost the ranchers."
"Why did they sell so cheap?"
"Oh," Reedy waved, vaguely evasive, "you know how that is; fellows are like sheep—stampede into a country, and then one makes a break, and they stampede out. Now that Benson has sold, a lot more of them will get cold feet."
"Altogether how much money have you put in over there?"
"Forty-two thousand dollars," replied Reedy, consulting a memorandum. "You understand," he continued to explain, "I'm not a cotton grower at all; I am an investor. I'm dealing in leases; and I merely took over the planted crop on the Benson leases because I got it so cheap there is bound to be money in it."
"What is it you want?" demanded Crill.
"Seventy thousand or so for the lease and the crop. I have 8,000 acres already planted, some of it coming up. I'll pay you 10 per cent. for the money, and half the cotton seed, and give you first mortgage on the crop. Those are the usual terms here."
The sharp blue eyes under the shaggy brows had been investigating Reedy as they talked. He wanted to make loans, for he had a lot of idle money. "There are two sorts of men who pay their debts," the old man said to himself. "One who wants to owe more, and one who doesn't want to owe anything." Jenkins would want to borrow more, therefore he would pay his first loan. Even rascals are usually good pay when they are making money. And it looked like this fellow would make money on these leases. Anyway, Jim Crill moved a little annoyedly in his chair at the thought of his niece. It would be almost worth the risk to be rid of Evy's nagging him about it.
"Fix up the papers," he said, shortly, to Reedy's delight. He had expected to have to work much harder on the old man.
The next morning after the interview with Jim Crill Bob was at the hardware store assembling the implements he had bought, when a tall, shambling hill billy sauntered up.
"Hello, Noah Ezekiel Foster," said Bob, without looking up.
"Hello," responded the hill billy. "Reckon you know a hoss at long range."
"Reckon I do." Bob resumed his whistling.
"Don't also know somebody that wants a chauffeur for a tractor? Benson sold out my job."
"No." Bob straightened up and looked at the lank fellow appraisingly. "But I know a fellow who wants a chauffeur for a team of mules."
Noah Ezekiel shook his head. "Me and mules have parted ways a long time ago. I prefer gasoline." Then in a moment: "Who is the fellow?"
Bob grinned and tapped himself. "I'm the man."
Noah Ezekiel shook his head again.
"You look too all-fired industrious; I'd rather work for a fellow that lives at Los Angeles."
Bob laughed. "Just as you like."
But Noah Ezekiel ventured one more question:
"You workin' for Reedy Jenkins?"
"Not much!" Bob put emphasis in that.
"Where is your ranch?"
"On the road a couple of miles north of Chandler's."
The hill billy's forehead wrinkled and his eyes looked off into empty space.
"I reckon I'll change my mind. I'll take the job. How much am I gettin' a month?"
Some men fail because they invest their money in bad business. More fail because they invest themselves in sorry human material. They trust their plans to people who cannot or will not carry them out.
Bob from his first day as an employer realized that to be able to plan and work himself was only half of success. One must be able to pick men who will carry out his plans, must invest his brains, his generosity, his fair treatment, and his affections in human beings who will return him loyalty for loyalty.
He had made no mistake in Noah Ezekiel Foster. Noah was a good cotton planter; moreover, he knew a good deal about Chinese. Bob had employed six Chinamen to help get the ground in shape and the cotton planted.
"Noah," Bob stopped beside the disk plow and its double team, "you understand mules."
"I ought to." Noah rubbed his lean jaw. "I've been kicked by 'em enough."
Bob smiled. Somehow Noah's look of drollery always put him in a good humour. He noticed it also tickled the Chinamen, who thought "Misty Zeekee" one of the greatest of Anglo-Saxons.
"You see," remarked Noah, picking up the lines again, "as my dad used to say, 'He that taketh hold of the handles of a plow and looketh back, verily, he shall be kicked by a mule.' I never calculate to be kicked in the back. But if that Chinaman over there"—he frowned at a Chinaboy who was fumbling over a cotton planter—"don't get a move on him, he'll be kicked wherever he happens to hit my foot first. Hi, there"—Noah threw up his head and yelled to the Chinaboy—"get a move on. Plantee cotton. Goee like hellee." And the Chinaman did.
"Do you reckon you could let me have five dollars to-night?" Noah Ezekiel asked, looking down at his plow. "I want to go up to the Red Owl at Mexicali."
"Not going to gamble, are you?" Bob asked.
Noah Ezekiel shook his head. "No, I ain't goin' to gamble. Goin' to invest the five in my education. I want to learn how many ways there are for a fool and his money to part."
After supper, when Noah Ezekiel had ridden away to invest his five dollars in the educational processes of the Red Owl, Bob brought a stool out of the house and sat down to rest his tired muscles and watch the coming night a little while before he turned in. Bob and his foreman occupied the same shack—the term "house," as Noah Ezekiel said, being merely a flower of speech. Although there were several hundred thousand acres of very rich land under cultivation on the Mexican side, with two or three exceptions there was not a house on any of the ranches that two men could not have built in one day and still observe union hours. Four willow poles driven in the ground, a few crosspieces, a thatch of arrowweed, three strips of plank nailed round the bottom, some mosquito netting, and it was done. A Chinaman would take another day off and build a smoking adobe oven; but Bob and Noah had a second-hand oil stove on which a Chinese boy did their cooking.
Bob sat and looked out over the level field in the dusk. A quarter of a mile away the light glimmered in the hut of his Chinese help, and there came the good-natured jabber of their supper activities. He felt the expansive thrill of the planter, the employer—the man who organizes an enterprise and makes it go.
The heat of the day was already gone, and pleasant coolness was on the night wind that brought the smell of desert sage from beyond the watered fields. Bob stirred from the chair and got up. His tiredness was gone. The desert night had him. He went into the shack and took from an old scarred trunk his fiddle, and started down the road that passed his ranch to the south. He had not yet called on the Chandlers.
The little house was dark. Rogeen wondered if the Chandlers were asleep. But his heart took a quicker turn; he fancied he saw something white in the yard—the girl was also feeling the spell of the desert night.
Then suddenly, but softly, a guitar thrummed, and a voice with the half-wailing cadence of the Spanish took up the melody.
Bob stood still, the blood crowding his veins until his face was hot and his whole body prickled. This was Madrigal, the Mexican Jew.
The song ended. Faintly came the clapping of hands, and the ripple of a girl's laughter. Bob turned angrily and walked swiftly back up the road, walked clear past his own ranch without noticing, and finally turned aside by a clump of cottonwood trees along the levee of the main irrigation canal. The water, a little river here, ran swiftly, muddily, black under the desert stars. Bob lifted his fiddle and flung it into the middle of the stream.
The heat of his anger was gone. He felt instantly cold, and infinitely lonesome. There upon the muddy water floated away the thousand songs of the hills—the melody, the ecstasy, the colour and light of his early youth.
With sudden repentance he turned and dashed down the bank after the hurrying current. The fall is rapid here, and the fiddle was already far down the stream. He ran stumblingly, desperately, along the uneven bank, dodging willows and arrowweed, stopping now and again to peer up and down the stream.
It was nowhere in sight. A sort of frenzy seized him. He had a queer fancy that in that moment of anger he had thrown away his soul—all of him that was not bread and dollars. He must get it back—he must! Another dash, and again he stopped on the bank. Something darker than the current bobbed upon the muddy water. Without a moment's hesitancy he plunged into the stream and waded waist deep into the middle of the current.
Yes, it was his violin. Back on the bank, dripping wet, he hugged it to him like a little girl with a doll that was lost and is found.
The next morning at breakfast Noah Ezekiel remarked:
"I wonder where that skunk got the money."
"What skunk and what money?" Bob was pouring sirup on a pancake, a product of much patience both on his part and the Chinese cook's.
"Jenkins." Noah answered both questions in one word. "Not long ago he had to borrow a dime for a doughnut. Last night he was at the Red Owl gambling with both fists. And I heard he's bought altogether ten thousand acres in leases. 'Verily,' as dad used to say, 'the sinner flourisheth like a thorn tree.'"
"Do you know if he has bought Chandler's?" Bob asked, casually, not meeting Noah's eye.
"No, but I reckon he will. He seems out for a clean-up."
"If you see the Chandlers," suggested Rogeen, "advise them not to sell."
Noah Ezekiel reached for the towel to wipe his mouth, and shook his head.
"I ain't strong on giving advice. I believe in doin' as you'd be done by, and most all the advice I ever got was as hard to take as castor oil. Advice is like givin' a dog ipecac—it may break him of suckin' eggs, but it sure is hard on the dog."
Bob laughed and got up and started to work.
The first Saturday in June Rogeen and Noah quit at noon, for the rush was over.
"I reckon," Noah insinuated, suavely, "if you are feelin' right good I might strike you for another five to-night."
"Certainly," said Bob. "But look here, Noah, you ought not to gamble away your wages."
Noah Ezekiel pulled a long face.
"You sound like my dad. And I ain't fully persuaded you are enough of a saint to preach."
"You are incorrigible, Zeke," Bob laughed. "And I think I'll go with you to-night to the Red Owl."
Noah shook his head. "I wouldn't advise it. Gamblin' ain't to be recommended to employers. It's liable to put wages in japordy."
"I am not going to gamble," said Bob. "I am looking for a man—a couple of them, in fact."
Reedy Jenkins had returned to his office about two o'clock after making a complete circuit of his leases. The crop looked fine—so everybody told him. He knew little about cotton, but Ah Sing was a wonderful farmer—he knew how to handle the Chinese labourer.
Then he looked at his watch and frowned. He wished that blankety-blank Mexican would be more prompt in keeping his appointments. He wanted to get away. He was to drive to El Centro for a visit with Mrs. Barnett and then to-night he would return for a little recreation across the line.
It was nearly four when Madrigal finally appeared, wearing an expensive white summer suit and a jaunty straw hat. "He is a handsome devil," thought Reedy, eying him with disfavour because of his lateness. The Mexican took off his straw hat attached to a buttonhole by a silk cord, and pushed up his black pompadoured hair.
"Have you got the Chandler ranch yet?" Jenkins came directly to the point.
"Not yet, senor." Madrigal's bold, dark eyes smiled with supreme confidence. "Not yet—but soon."
The Mexican stood up and returned his hat to his head. He put up his hands as though strumming a guitar, turned up his eyes languishingly, and hummed a flirting air.
"If this, senor," he said, breaking off, "does not win the senorita, we will try—what you call hem—direct action. You shall have your ranch, never fear."
"And that damned Rogeen—what of him?"
The Mexican smiled sinisterly. "He get news tonight that make heem lose much sleep.
"Now may I trouble Senor Jenkins for fifty dollar?"
Reedy grumbled, but paid. The Mexican lifted his hand, pressed it to his heart, and bowed with mocking gallantry.
"Until to-night, senor."
Reedy Jenkins and Mrs. Barnett sat in a cool, shadowed corner of the porch. Reedy took a plump yellow cigar from his vest pocket, and with a deferential bow:
"Will you permit me?"
"Certainly, Mr. Jenkins." Mrs. Barnett spoke in a liberal-minded tone. "I do not object at all to the fragrance of a good cigar—especially out of doors."
"It is a vile habit," said Jenkins, deprecatingly, as he began to puff. "But after a fellow has worked hard on some big deal, and is all strung up, it seems to offer a sort of relaxation. Of course, I think a man ought to smoke in reason. We are coarse brutes at the best—and need all the refining influences we can get."
"I think it is bad for the throat," said Evelyn Barnett. "That is what I tell Uncle Crill. He smokes entirely too much."
Uncle Crill was absent. He usually was. The old chap was willing for Evy to save his digestion within reason—but not his soul.
"My dear friend," Reedy made a rather impetuous gesture with his right hand toward the demure widow, "it was splendid of you to persuade your uncle to lend me that money for the big deal. It was the sort of thing that one never forgets. We have plenty of friends willing to help us spend our money, but only a few, a very few loyal ones, willing to help us make it.
"Depend upon it, my dear young lady, I'll not forget that favour—never. And as I promised before I shall give you personally one fourth of the profits."
Mrs. Barnett gave her head a little depreciating twist and smoothed the dress over her right knee.
"That will be very generous of you, Mr. Jenkins. But of course one does not do things for one's friends for money. Not but I can use it—to do good with," she hastened.
"My poor husband would have left me a comfortable fortune in my own right if it had not been for the meddlesomeness of some one who had no business to interfere.
"Mr. Barnett was a mine owner—and a most excellent business man. He had large interests in Colorado. One mine he was going to sell. An old gentleman and his daughter were just ready to buy it. The papers were all drawn, and they were to pay over their money that evening. But some horrid young man, a wandering fiddler or something, got to meddling and persuaded them not to trade.
"It was an awful loss to poor Tom. He was to have had $60,000 out of the sale—and he never got one cent out of that mine, not a cent."
"What did they do to that fellow that broke up the trade?" asked Reedy, puffing interestedly at his cigar.
"Oh, Mr. Barnett said they taught him a lesson that would keep him from spoiling any more trades." Mrs. Barnett laughed. And then accusingly: "Isn't it queer how mean some people are. Now just that little interference from that meddlesome stranger kept me from having a small fortune." A deep sigh. "And one can do so much good with money. Just think if I had that money how many poor people around here I could help. I hear there are families living across the line in little shacks—one or two rooms with dirt floors—and no bathroom. Isn't it awful? And women, too!"
Reedy twisted his chair about so he looked squarely at the widow. The sun had gone down, and the quick twilight was graying the row of palm trees that broke the skyline to the south. Jenkins was in a hurry to get away, but his visit was not quite rounded out.
"You must be very lonely," he said with a deep, sad voice—"since your husband died. Loneliness—ah loneliness! is the great ache of the human heart."
"Y-e-s. Oh, yes," Mrs. Barnett did not sound utterly desolate. "But of course, Mr. Barnett being away so much——" There was a significant pause. "He was an excellent man—a good business man, but you know. Well, some people are more congenial than others. We never had a cross word in our lives. But—well—our tastes were different, you know."
Reedy smoked and nodded in appreciative silence. The dusk came fast. Mrs. Barnett rustled her starched skirts and sighed.
"You know, Mr. Jenkins," she began on a totally different subject, "it has been such a pleasure to me to meet someone out here in this God-forsaken country with fine feelings—one who loves the higher things of life."
"Thank you, Mrs. Barnett." Reedy bowed in all seriousness.
A moment later when he took his leave he held her hand a thought longer than necessary, and pressed it as though in a sympathetic impulse for her loneliness—or his—or maybe just because.
It was dark as Reedy threw the clutch into high and put his foot on the accelerator. He was out of town too quick to be in danger of arrest for speeding. He was late. The three others who were to seek recreation for the evening with him would be waiting.
And biting the end of his cigar he said fervently:
"Thank God for Jim Crill—and his niece."
Reedy's three friends were waiting—but dinner was ready. They had ordered a special dinner at the Pepper Tree Hotel, served out in a little pergola in the back yard.
They were all hearty eaters, but not epicures; and anyway they did not take time to taste much. From where they sat they could look out between the latticed sides of the pergola across the Mexican line, and see above and beyond the squat darker buildings a high arch of winking electric lights.
That was the Red Owl.
And while they talked jerkily and broadly of cotton and real estate—and women, their thoughts were over there with those winking lights.
Just across the line there was the old West again—the West of the early Cripple Creek days, of Carson City and Globe. Still wide open, still raw, still unashamed.
Over there underneath these lights, in that great barnlike structure, were scores of tables across which fortunes flowed every night. There men met in the primitive hunt for money—quick money, and won—and lost, and lost, and lost.
There, too, the tinkle of a piano out of tune, the blare of a five-piece orchestra, and the raucous singing of girls who had lost their voices as significantly as other things. And beyond that, along shadowy corridors, were other girls standing or sitting in doorways—lightly dressed.
"Well, are you fellows through?" Reedy had pushed back his chair. "Let's go."
It was perhaps an hour later that Bob Rogeen went down the main street of the Mexican town, also headed for the Owl. Off this main street only a few lights served to reveal rather than dissipate the night. But under the dimness Mexicali was alive—a moving, seething, passionate sort of aliveness. The sidewalks were full, the saloons were busy. In and out of the meat shops or the small groceries occasionally a woman came and went. But the crowd was nearly all men—Mexicans, Chinamen, American ranchers and tourists, Germans, Negroes from Jamaica, Filipinos, Hindus with turbans. All were gathered in this valley of intense heat—this ancient bed of the sea now lower than the sea—not because of gold mines or oil gushers, but for the wealth that grew from the soil: the fortunes in lettuce, in melons, in alfalfa, and in cotton.
"Odd," thought Bob, "that the slowest and most conservative of all industries should find a spot of the earth so rich that it started a stampede almost like the rush to the Klondike, of men who sought sudden riches in tilling the soil."
Across the way from a corner saloon came the twang of a mandolin; and half a dozen Mexican labourers began singing a Spanish folk song. In a shop at his right a Jap girl sold soda water; in another open door an old Chinaman mended shoes; and from another came the click of billiard balls. But most of the crowd was moving toward the Owl.
As Bob stepped inside the wide doors of the gambling hall the scene amazed him. There were forty tables running—roulette, blackjack, craps, stud poker—and round them men crowded three to five deep. Down the full length of one side of the room ran a bar nearly a hundred and fifty feet long, and in the rear end of the great barnlike structure thirty or forty girls, most of them American, sang and danced and smoked and drank with whosoever would buy.
Bob stood to one side of the surging crowd that milled round the gaming tables, and watched. There was no soft-fingered, velvet-footed glamour about this place. No thick carpets, rich hangings, or exotic perfumes. Most of the men were direct from the fields with the soil of the day's work upon their rough overalls—and often on their faces and grimy hands. The men who ran the games were in their shirt sleeves, alert, sweatingly busy; some of them grim, a few predatory, but more of them easily good-natured. The whole thing was swift, direct, businesslike. Men were trying to win money from the house; and the house was winning money from them. This was raw gambling, raw drinking, raw vice. It was the old Bret Harte days multiplied by ten.
And yet there was a fascination about it. Bob felt it. It is idiotic to deny that gambling, which is the lure of quick money reduced to minutes and seconds, has not a fascination for nearly all men. As Bob stood leaning with his back against the bar—there was no other place to lean, not one place in that big hall to sit down—the scene filled him with the tragedy of futile trust in luck.
All these men knew that a day's work, a bale of cotton, a crate of melons, a cultivator—positive, useful things—brought money, positive, useful returns. And yet they staked that certainty on a vague belief in luck—and always, and always lost the certainty in grabbing for the shadow.
Most of these men were day labourers, clerks, small-salaried men. It cost a thousand dollars a day to run this house, and it made another thousand dollars in profits. Two thousand dollars—a thousand days' hard work squandered every night by the poor devils who hoped to get something easy. And some of them squandered not merely one day's work but a month's or six months' hard, sweaty toil flipped away with one throw of the dice or one spin of the ball.
While Bob's eyes watched the ever-shifting crowd that moved from table to table he saw Rodriguez, the man for whom he was searching. He was with Reedy Jenkins and three others coming from that end of the building devoted to alleged musical comedy. Besides the natty Madrigal, the sad-looking Rodriguez and Reedy, there were a Mexican and an American Bob did not know. All of them except Rodriguez wore expensive silk shirts and panama hats, and had had several drinks and were headed for more. Reedy, pink and expansive, chuckling and oratorical, was evidently the host. He was almost full enough and hilarious enough to do something ridiculous if the occasion offered.
After two more rounds of drinks the party started for the gaming tables. The crowd was too thick for them to push their way in as a body, so they scattered. Reedy bought ten dollars' worth of chips at a roulette table, played them in stacks of twenty, and lost in three minutes. As he turned away he caught sight of Bob Rogeen and came across to him.
"Hello, Cotton-eyed Joe," he said with drunken jocularity, "let's have a drink."
"Thanks," replied Bob, "my wildest dissipation is iced rain water."
Bob just then caught sight of Noah Ezekiel and moved away from Reedy Jenkins. He felt it safer—especially for Reedy, to stay out of reach of him.
Noah Ezekiel's lank form was leaning against a roulette table, a stack of yellow chips in front of him.
"Hello," said the hill billy as Bob edged his way up to his side.
"How is it going?" asked Bob.
"Fine," answered Noah, carefully laying five chips in the shape of a star. "I got a system and I'm going to clean 'em up."
Bob smiled and watched. The wheel spun around. The ball slowed and dropped on 24. Noah's magical star spread around 7. The dealer reached over and wiped in his five chips.
"You see," Noah explained, taking it for granted Bob knew nothing of the games, "this is ruelay. You play your money on one number and then rue it." The hill billy chuckled at his pun. "There are 36 numbers on the table," he pointed a long forefinger, "and there are 36 numbers on the wheel. You put your money or chip—the chips are five cents apiece—on one number, and if the ball stops at that number on the wheel, you win 35 times what you played."
"But if it doesn't stop on your number?" said Bob.
"Then you are out of luck." Noah Ezekiel had again begun to place his chips.
"Of course," he explained, "you play this thing dozens of ways; one to two on the red or black, or you can play one to three on the first, second or third twelve. Or you can play on the line between two numbers, and if either number wins you get 17 chips."
Noah won this time. The number in the centre of his star came up and he got 67 chips.
"Better quit now, hadn't you?" suggested Bob.
"Nope—just beginning to rake 'em in," replied Noah.
"Wish you would," said Bob, "and show me the rest of the games."
Noah reluctantly cashed in. He had begun with a dollar and got back $4.60.
"You see," said Noah, clinking the silver in his hands as they moved away, "this is lots easier than work. The only reason I work for you is out of the kindness of my heart. I made that $4.60 in twenty minutes."
"Here is craps." They had stopped at a table that looked like a gutted piano, with sides a foot above the bottom.
"You take the dice"—Noah happened to be in line and got them as the last man lost—"and put down say a half dollar." He laid one on the line. "You throw the two dice. If seven comes up—— Ah, there!" he chuckled. "I done it." The face of the dice showed [3 and 4]. "You see I win." The dealer had thrown down a half dollar on top of Noah's. "Now, come, seven." Noah flung them again.
Sure enough seven came up again. A dollar was pitched out to him. He left the two dollars lying. This time he threw eleven and won again. Four dollars! Noah was in great glee.
"Let's go," urged Bob.
"One more throw," Noah brought up a 6 this time.
"Now," he explained, "I've got to throw until another 6 comes. If I get a seven before I do a six, they win." His next throw was a seven, and the dealer raked in the four dollars.
"Oh, well," sighed Noah, "only fifty cents of that was mine, anyway. And the poor gamblers have to live.
"This," he explained, stopping at a table waist high around which a circle of men stood with money and cards in front of them, "is Black Jack.
"You put down the amount of money you want to bet. The banker deals everybody two cards, including himself. But both your cards are face down, while his second card is face up.
"The game is to see who can get closest to 21. You look at your cards. All face cards count for ten; ace counts for either 1 or 11 as you prefer.
"If your cards don't add enough, you can get as many more as you ask for. But if you ask for a card and it makes you run over 21, you lose and push your money over. Say you get a king and a 9—that is 19, and you stand on that, and push your cards under your money.
"When all the rest have all the cards they want, the dealer turns his over. Say he has a 10 and a 8. He draws. If he gets a card that puts him over 21, he goes broke and pays everybody. But if he gets say 18—then he pays all those who are nearer 21 than he; but all who have less than 18 lose."
While Noah had been explaining, he had been playing, and lost a dollar on each of two hands.
They moved on to a chuck-a-luck game.
"This, you see," said Noah, "is a sort of bird cage with three overgrown dice. You put your money on any one of these six numbers. He whirls the cage and shakes up the fat dice. They fall—and if one of the three numbers which come up is yours, you win. Otherwise—ouch!" Noah had played a dollar on the 5; and a 1, 2 and a 6 came up.
As they moved away Noah was shaking his head disconsolately.
"Money is like a shadow that soon flees away—and you have to hoe cotton in the morning."
"Don't you know," said Bob, earnestly, "that everyone of these games give the house from 6 to 30 per cent., and that you are sure to lose in the end?"
"Yeah," said Noah, wearily. "You're sure to die in the end, too; but that don't keep you from goin' on tryin' every day to make a livin' and have a little fun. It's all a game, and the old man with the mowin' blade has the last call."
"But," persisted Bob, "when you earn a thing and get what you earn, it is really yours, and has a value and gives a pleasure that you can't get out of money that comes any other way."
"Don't you believe it," Noah shook his head lugubriously. "The easier money comes the more I enjoy it. Only it don't never come. It goes. This here gamblin' business reminds me of an old dominecker hen we used to have. That hen produced an awful lot of cackle but mighty few eggs. It is what my dad would have called the shadow without the substance. But your blamed old tractor gives me a durned lot more substance than I yearn for."
They were still pushing among the jostling crowd. There were more than a thousand men in the hall—and a few women. Soiled Mexicans passed through the jostle with trays on their heads selling sandwiches and bananas. Fragments of meat and bread and banana peelings were scattered upon the sawdust floor. It was a grimy scene. And yet Bob still acknowledged the tremendous pull of it—the raw, quick action of the stuff that life and death are made of.
Noah nudged Bob and nodded significantly toward the bar, where Reedy with his three friends and two or three Mexicans, including Madrigal, were drinking.
"He's cookin' up something agin you," said Noah in a low tone. "Better go over and talk to him. He's gettin' full enough to spill some of it."
Bob took the suggestion and sauntered over toward the bar. As he approached, Reedy turned around and nodded blinkingly at him.
"Say," Reedy leaned his elbows on the bar and spoke in a propitiatory tone, "I'sh sorry you went off in such a huff. Right good fello', I understand. If you'd asked me, I'd saved you lot of trouble and money on that lease." Reedy stopped to hiccough. "Even now, take your lease off your hands at half what it cost."
"So?" Bob smiled sarcastically.
"Well, hell," Reedy was nettled at the lack of appreciation of his generosity, "that's a good deal better than nothing."
"My lease is not on the market," Bob replied, dryly.
"Now look here!" Reedy half closed his plump eyes and nodded knowingly. "'Course you are goin' to sell—I got to have four more ranches to fill out my farm—and when I want 'em I get 'em, see? As Davy Crockett said to the coon, 'Better come on down before I shoot, and save powder.'"
"Shoot," said Bob, contemptuously.
"Now look here," Reedy lurched still closer to Bob, and put his plump fingers down on the bar as though holding something under his hand; "I got unlimited capital back of me—million dollars—two million—all I want. That's on 'Merican side—on this side—I got pull. See? Fifty ways I can squelch you—just like that." He squeezed his plump, soft hand together as though crushing a soft-shelled egg.
"You are drunk," Bob said, disgustedly, "and talking through a sieve." He moved away from him and sauntered round the hall. At one of the tables he came upon Rodriguez, the man he was looking for.
He looked more Spanish than Mexican, had a moustache but did not curl it, a thin face and soft brown eyes, and the pensive look of a poet who is also a philosopher.
"Well?" Bob questioned in an undertone as they drifted outside of the gambling hall and stood in the shadows beyond the light of the open doors. "Did you learn anything?"
Rodriguez nodded. "They have two, three plans to make you get out. Senor Madrigal is—what you call hem?—detec—detectave in Mexico. Ver' bad man. He work for Senor Jenkins on the side."
Bob left his Mexican friend. He stood in the shadow of the great gambling hall for a moment, pulled in opposite directions by two desires. He remembered a red spot on Reedy Jenkins' cheek just under his left eye that he wanted to hit awfully bad. He could go back and smash him one that would knock him clear across the bar. On the other hand, he wanted to get on his horse and ride out into the silence and darkness of the desert and think. After all, smashing that red spot on Reedy's cheek would not save his ranch. He turned quickly down the street to where his horse was hitched.
One of the hardest layers of civilization for a woman to throw off is the cook stove. She can tear up her fashion plates, dodge women's clubs, drop her books, forsake cosmetics and teas, and yet be fairly happy. But to the last extremity she clings to her cook stove.
Imogene Chandler had her stove out in the open at a safe distance from the inflammable weed roof of the "house." The three joints of stovepipe were held up by being wired to two posts driven in the ground beside it.
The girl alternately stuffed light, dry sticks into the stove box, and then lifted the lid of a boiling kettle to jab a fork into the potatoes to see if they were done. The Chandler larder was reduced to the point where Imogene in her cooking had to substitute things that would do for things that tasted good.
Chandler, in from the field, filled a tin washbasin at the tank, set it on a cracker box, and proceeded to clean up for supper. He rolled his sleeves up far above his elbows and scrubbed all the visible parts of his body from the top of his bald head to the shoulder blade under the loose collar of his open-necked shirt. About the only two habits from his old life that clung to the ex-professor were his use of big words and soap.
Chandler sat down at the little board table, also out in the open. It was after sundown and the heat was beginning to abate. As Imogene poured coffee into the pint tin cup beside his plate she looked down at him with protective admiration.
"Dad, I'm proud of you. You've got a tan that would be the envy of an African explorer; and you are building up a muscle, too; you are almost as good a man in the field as a Chinese coolie—really better than a Mexican."
"It has been my observation," said the ex-professor, tackling the boiled potatoes with a visible appetite, "that when a man quits the scholarly pursuits he instinctively becomes an agriculturist. Business is anathema to me; but I must confess that it gives me pleasure to watch the germination of the seed, and to behold the flower and fruitage of the soil."
Imogene laughed. "It is the fruitage that I'm fond of—especially when it is a bale to the acre. And it is going to make that this year or more; I never saw a finer field of cotton."
"It is doing very well," Chandler admitted with pride. "Yet, ah, perhaps there is one field better, certainly as good, and that is the American's north of here; the person you referred to as a fiddler."
"Daddy," and under the tone of raillery was a trace of wistfulness, "we've lived like Guinea Negroes here for three years, and yet I believe you like it. I don't believe you'd go back right now as professor of Sanskrit at Zion College."
The little professor did not reply, but remarked as he held out the cup for another pint of coffee:
"I notice I sleep quite soundly out here, even when the weather is excessively hot."
The girl smiled and felt fully justified in the change she had forced in his way of living.
"I think," remarked Chandler, reflectively, "at the end of the month I'll let Chang Lee go. I think I can some way manage the rest of the season alone."
"Perhaps," assented Imogene, soberly, as she began to pick up the knives and forks and plates. She had not told him that when Chang Lee's wages for June were paid it would leave them less than twenty dollars to get through the summer on. "I've been learning to irrigate the cotton rows and I can help," she said. "It will be a lot of fun."
The ex-professor was vaguely troubled. He knew in a remote sort of way that their finances were at a low ebb. Imogene always attended to the business.
"Do you suppose, daughter," he asked, troubled, "that it is practical for us to continue in our present environment for another season?"
"Surest thing, you know," she laughed reassuringly. "Run along now to bed; you are tired." He sighed with a delicious sense of relief and sleepiness, and went.
But Imogene was not tired enough either to sit still or to sleep. She got up and walked restlessly round the camp. Known problems and unknown longings were stirring uneasily in her consciousness.
She stood at the edge of the field where the long rows of cotton plants, freshly watered, grew rank and green in the first intense heat of summer. There was a full moon to-night—a hazy, sleepy full moon with dust blown across its face creeping up over the eastern desert.
Just a little while ago and it was all desert. Two years ago when they first came this cotton field was uneven heaps of blown sand, desert cactus, and mesquite—barren and forbidding as a nightmare of thirst and want. It had taken a year's work and nearly all their meagre capital to level it and dig the water ditches. And the next year—that was last year—the crop was light and the price low. They had barely paid their debts and saved a few hundred for their next crop. Now that was gone, and with it six hundred, the last dollar she could borrow at the bank. Just how they were going to manage the rest of the summer she did not know. And worst of all were these vague but persistent rumours and warnings that the ranchers were somehow to be robbed of their crops.
She turned and walked back into the yard of the little shack and stood bareheaded looking at the moon, the desert wind in her face. Another summer of heat was coming swiftly now. She had lived through two seasons of that terrific heat when the sun blazed all day, day after day, and the thermometer climbed and climbed until it touched the 130 mark. And all these two years had been spent here at this shack, with its dirt yard and isolation.
The desert had bit deeply into her consciousness. Even the heat, the wind-driven sand, the stillness, the aloneness of it had entered into her soul with a sort of fascination.
"I'm not sorry," she shut her hands hard and pressed her lips close together, "even if we do lose—but we must not lose! We can't go on in poverty, either here or over there. We must not lose—we must not!"
She turned her head sharply; something toward the road had moved; some figure had appeared a moment and then disappeared. A fear that was never wholly absent made her move toward the door of her own shack. A revolver hung on a nail there.
And then out on the night stole the singing, quivering note of a violin. Instantly the fear was gone, the tension past, and the tears for the first time in all the struggle slipped down her cheeks. She knew now that for weeks she had been hoping he would come again.
When the violin cords ceased to sing, Imogene clapped her hands warmly, and the fiddler rose from beside a mesquite bush and came toward her.
"I'm glad you brought it this time," she said as he approached and sat down on a box a few feet away. "That was the best music I have heard for years."
"The best?" he questioned.
She caught the meaning in his emphasis and smiled to herself as she answered: "The best violin music." Although her face was in the shadow, the moonlight was on her hair and shoulders. Something in her figure affected him as it had that night when she stood in the doorway—some heroic endurance, some fighting courage that held it erect, and yet it was touched by a yearning as restless and unsatisfied as the desert wind. Bob knew her father was incapable of grappling alone with the problems of life. This project had all been hers; it was her will, her brain, her courage that had wrought the change on the face of this spot of desert. Yet how softly girlish as she sat there in the moonlight; and how alone in the heart of this sleeping desert in an alien country. He wished she had not qualified that praise of his playing. Bob knew very little about women.
"How do you like being a cotton planter?" She was first to break the silence.
"Oh, very well." He turned his eyes from her for the first time, looked down at his fiddle, and idly picked at one of the strings. "But of course I can't truthfully say I love manual labour. I can do it when there is something in it; but I much prefer a hammock and a shade and a little nigger to fan me and bring me tall glasses full of iced drinks."
She laughed, for she knew already he had the reputation of being one of the best workers in the valley.
"But this country has me," he added. "It fascinates me. When I make a fortune over here I'm going across on the American side and buy a big ranch.
"You know"—he continued softly to strum on the violin strings—"this Imperial Valley seems to me like a magic spot of the tropics, some land of fable. Richer than the valley of the Nile it has lain here beneath the sea level for thousands of years, dead under the breath of the desert, until a little trickle of water was turned in from the Colorado River, and then it swiftly put forth such luxuriant wealth of food and clothes and fruit and flowers that its story sounds like the demented dreams of a bankrupt land promoter."
"I am glad you like it," she said, "and I hope you'll get your share of the fabled wealth that it is supposed to grow—and, oh, yes, by the way, do you happen to need another Chinaman?"
"No, I've got more than I can pay now."
"We are going to let Chang Lee go the last of the month. He's a good Chinaman, and I wanted him to have a job."
"Why let him go?"
"We won't need him."
"Won't need him!" Bob exclaimed. "With a hundred and sixty acres of cotton to irrigate and keep chopped out?"
"I can do a lot of the irrigating"—the girl spoke a little evasively—"and daddy can manage the rest."
He knew this was another case of exhausted funds.
"Can't you borrow any more?"
She laughed a frank confession.
"You guessed it. We haven't money to pay him. I've borrowed six hundred on the crop, and can't get another dollar."
He sat silent for several minutes looking off toward the cotton fields that would cry for water to-morrow in their fight against the eternal desert that brooded over this valley, thinking of her pluck. It made him ashamed of any wavering thought that ever scouted through his own mind.
He stood up. "And are you going to see it through?"
Alone beside the field as the moon rose she had wavered in doubt; but the answer came now with perfect assurance.
"So am I," he said. "Good-night."
But before he turned she put out her hand to touch his violin—her fingers touched his hand instead.
"Please—just once more," she asked.
He laughed whimsically as he sat down on the box and drew the bow.
"I'm proud of the human race," he said, "that fights for bread and still looks at the stars."
He began to play: he did not know what. It might have been something he had heard; but anyway to-night it was his and hers, the song of the rose that fought the desert all day for its life and then blossomed with fragrance in the night.
At the sound of the violin a man sitting on the edge of the canal by the cottonwood trees stirred sharply. There was a guitar across his knee. He had been waiting for the sound of voices to cease; and now the accursed fiddle was playing again. He spat vindictively into the stream.
"Damn the Americano!"
Bob saw as he turned into the Bungalow Court at El Centro a youngish woman in white sitting on the second porch. In spite of the absence of the weeds he recognized her as the widow who had come down the street that other morning to meet Jim Crill. This, then, was Crill's place. Evidently the twelve months of bereavement had elapsed, and Mrs. Barnett, having done her full duty, felt that the ghost of her departed could no longer have any just complaints if she wore a little white of her own.
Bob had come to see Crill. Since that evening with Imogene Chandler he had worried a good deal about their being without money. He had tried to get the ginning company that had advanced his own funds to make them a loan. But everybody had grown wary and quit lending across the line. Bob as a last resort had come up to see if Crill could be induced to help.
"Good morning." Rogeen lifted his straw hat as he stood on the first step of the porch, and smiled. "Is Mr. Crill at home?"
"No." Mrs. Barnett had nodded rather stiffly in response to his greeting, and lifted her eyes questioningly. She was waiting for someone else, and hence felt no cordiality for this stranger, whom she dimly seemed to remember.
"When will he be in?" The young man was obviously disappointed, and he really was good to look at.
"I don't know exactly." Mrs. Barnett relented slightly, having glanced down the road to be sure another machine was not coming. "But as I attend to much of his business, perhaps if you will tell me what it is you want I can arrange it for you. Won't you come up and have a chair?"
Bob accepted the invitation, not that he intended to mention his business to her, but he had a notion that Jim Crill was due to arrive about lunch time.
"Are you from the East?" That was Mrs. Barnett's idea of tactful flattery. She asked it of all callers.
"What part, may I ask?"
"All parts," he smiled, "east of here and west of the Mississippi."
"It is so different here," Mrs. Barnett lifted her brows and raised her eyes as though she were singing "The Lost Chord," "from what I am used to."
"Yes," assented Bob, "it is different from what I am used to. That is why I like it."
"Oh, do you?" Shocked disappointment in her tone implied that it was too bad he was not a kindred spirit. "I find everything so crude; and such loose standards here." A regretful shake of the head. "The women especially"—she thought of her tact again—"seem to have forgotten all the formalities and nice conventions of good society—if they ever knew. I suppose most of them were hired girls and clerks before they were married."
Bob made no comment. He did not know much about "nice formalities," but it had struck him that the women of Imperial Valley were uncommonly good, friendly human beings, and he had seen a number of college diplomas scattered round the valley.
"I heard of a woman recently," Mrs. Barnett went on, "who in the East was in college circles; now she's living in a hut. Think of it, a hut over on the other side among the Chinese and Mexicans! The only woman there, and practically alone. It seems perfectly incredible! I don't see how any decent woman could do a thing like that. Why, I'd rather work in somebody's kitchen. There, at least, one could be respectable."
Bob got up.
"I guess I'll not wait longer for Mr. Crill," he said, and he went down the steps, walking with rapid aversion. If Jim Crill left his business to this female, he didn't want any of his money for the Chandlers.
The ginning company had agreed to lend Bob up to $1,500 on the crop, advancing it along as he needed it. He was renting his teams, and had bought very little machinery, so he had managed to use less than his estimate. On his way back to the ranch he stopped at the company's office in Calexico, and drew two hundred dollars more on the loan.
A few days later Rogeen, watching his opportunity, saw Chandler riding alone toward town, and went out to the road and stopped him. After some roundabout conversation Bob remarked:
"By the way, a friend of mine has a little money he wants to lend to cotton growers at 10 per cent. Do you suppose you would be able to use a couple of hundreds of it?"
"Ahem!" The ex-professor ran a bony hand over a lean chin. "It is extremely probable, young man, extremely probable. I am very much inclined to think that I can—that is, provided he would esteem my personal signature to a promissory note sufficient guarantee for the payment of the indebtedness."
"That will be entirely sufficient." Bob smiled reassuringly, and pretended to write out—it was already prepared—a note. Chandler signed, and Bob gave him two hundred dollars in currency.
The next evening when Bob returned from the field he found a sealed envelope on the little board table in his shack. It contained $100 in currency and a note which read:
You can't afford this loan; but we need the money so darned bad I'm going to split it with you. I like the fiddle better than any musical instrument that is made.
Toward the last of June old cotton growers told Bob that his field was sure to go a bale and a quarter an acre, and Chandler's was about as good.
On the twenty-sixth of June a Mexican officer came to the ranch and arrested Rogeen's Chinese cook and one of his field hands. Bob offered bail, but it was refused. The day following the remaining Chinaman was arrested.
Bob got other hands, but on July first all three of these were arrested.
"I see," Bob said to himself, thinking it over that evening, "this is the first of Jenkins' schemes. They are going to make Chinamen afraid to work for me. Well, Noah and I can manage until I can hire some Americans."
At nine o'clock it was yet too hot to sleep, and Bob too restless to sit still. He got up and started out to walk. Without any definite intention he turned down the road south. He had gone about half a mile and thought of turning back when he saw something in the road ahead—something white. It was a woman, and she was running toward him.
Bob hastened to meet the figure in the road. He knew it was Imogene Chandler, and that her haste meant she was either desperately frightened or in great trouble.
"Is that you, Mr. Rogeen?" She checked up and called to him fifty yards away.
"Yes. What is the matter?"
"I've been frightened three times in the last week." She caught her breath. "A man hid in the weeds near the house, and his movements gave me a scare; but I didn't think so much about it until Saturday night, when I went out after dark to gather sticks for the breakfast cooking, a man slipped from the shadow of the trees and spoke to me and I ran and he followed me nearly to the house. I got my gun and shot at him.
"But to-night," she gasped for breath again, "just as I was going from papa's tent to my own, a man jumped out and grabbed me. I screamed and he ran away."
Bob put his hand on her arm. He felt it still quivering under his fingers.
"I'll walk back with you," he said in a quiet, reassuring tone.
"Can you lend me a blanket?" he asked when they reached the Chandler ranch. "And let me have your gun, I'll sleep out here to one side of your tent."