STARR, OF THE DESERT
BY B. M. BOWER
AUTHOR OF CHIP OF THE FLYING U, ETC.
I A COMMONPLACE MAN WAS PETER
II IN WHICH PETER DISCOVERS A WAY OUT
III VIC SHOULD WORRY
IV STARR WOULD LIKE TO KNOW
V A GREASE SPOT IN THE SAND
VI "DARN SUCH A COUNTRY!"
VII MOONLIGHT, A MAN AND A SONG
VIII HOLMAN SOMMERS, SCIENTIST
IX PAT, A NICE DOGGUMS
X THE TRAIL OF SILVERTOWN CORDS
XI THE WIND BLOWS MANY STRAWS
XII STARR FINDS SOMETHING IN A SECRET ROOM
XIII HELEN MAY SIGHS FOR ROMANCE
XIV A SHOT FROM THE PINNACLE
XV HELEN MAY UNDERSTANDS
XVI STARR SEES TOO LITTLE OR TOO MUCH
XVII "IS HE THEN DEAD—MY SON?"
XVIII A PAGE OF WRITING
XIX HOLMAN SOMMERS TURNS PROPHET
XX STARR DISCOVERS THINGS
XXI THROUGH THE OPEN SKYLIGHT
XXII STARR TAKES ANOTHER PRISONER
STARR, OF THE DESERT
A COMMONPLACE MAN WAS PETER
Daffodils were selling at two bits a dozen in the flower stand beside the
New Era Drug Store. Therefore Peter Stevenson knew that winter was over,
and that the weather would probably "settle." There would be the spring
fogs, of course—and fog did not agree with Helen May since that last
spell of grippe. Peter decided that he would stop and see the doctor
again, and ask him what he thought of a bungalow out against the hills
behind Hollywood; something cheap, of course—and within the five-cent
limit on the street cars; something with a sleeping porch that opened
upon a pleasanter outlook than your neighbor's back yard. If Helen May
would then form the habit of riding to and from town on the open end of
the cars, that would help considerably; in fact, the longer the ride the
better it would be for Helen May. The air was sweet and clean out there
toward the hills. It would be better for Vic, too. It would break up
that daily habit of going out to see "the boys" as soon as he had
swallowed his dinner.
Peter finished refilling the prescription on which he was working, and
went out to see if he were needed in front. He sold a lip-stick to a
pert miss who from sheer instinct made eyes at him, and he wished that
Helen May had such plump cheeks—though he thanked God she had not the
girl's sophisticated eyes. (Yes, a bungalow out there against the hills
ought to do a lot for Helen May.) He glanced up at the great clock and
unconsciously compared his cheap watch with it, saw that in ten minutes
he would be free for the day, and bethought him to telephone the doctor
and make sure of the appointment. He knew that Helen May had seen the
doctor at noon, since she had given Peter her word that she would go,
and since she never broke a promise. He would find out just what the
When he returned from the 'phone, a fat woman wanted peroxide, and she
was quite sure the bottle he offered was smaller than the last two-bit
bottle she had bought. Peter very kindly and patiently discussed the
matter with her, and smiled and bowed politely when she finally decided
to try another place. His kidneys were hurting him again. He wondered if
Helen May would remember that he must not eat heavy meats, and would get
something else for their dinner.
He glanced again at the clock. He had four minutes yet to serve. He
wondered why the doctor had seemed so eager to see him. He had a vague
feeling of uneasiness, though the doctor had not spoken more than a dozen
words. At six he went behind the mirrored partition and got his topcoat
and hat; said good night to such clerks as came in his way, and went out
and bought a dozen daffodils from the Greek flower-vendor. All day he had
been arguing with himself because of this small extravagance which
tempted him, but now that it was settled and the flowers were in his
hand, he was glad that he had bought them. Helen May loved all growing
things. He set off briskly in spite of his aching back, thinking how
Helen May would hover over the flowers rapturously even while she scolded
him for his extravagance.
Half an hour later, when he turned to leave the doctor's office, he left
the daffodils lying forgotten on a chair until the doctor called him
back and gave them to him with a keen glance that had in it a good deal
"You're almost as bad off yourself, old man," he said bluntly. "I want
to watch those kidneys of yours. Come in to-morrow or next day and let
me look you over. Or Sunday will do, if you aren't working then. I
don't like your color. Here, wait a minute. I'll give you a
prescription. You'd better stop and fill it before you go home. Take the
first dose before you eat—and come in Sunday. Man, you don't want to
neglect yourself. You—"
"Then you don't think Hollywood—?" Peter took the daffodils and began
absently crumpling the waxed paper around them. His eyes, when he looked
into the doctor's face, were very wistful and very, very tired.
"Hollywood!" The doctor snorted. "One lung's already badly affected, I
tell you. What she's got to have is high, dry air—like Arizona or New
Mexico or Colorado. And right out in the open—live like an Injun for
a year or two. Radical change of climate—change of living. Another
year of office work will kill her." He stopped and eyed Peter
pityingly. "Predisposition—and then the grippe—her mother went that
way, didn't she?"
"Yes," Peter replied, flat-toned and patient. "Yes, she went—that way."
"Well, you know what it means. Get her out of here just as quick as
possible, and you'll probably save her. Helen May's a girl worth saving."
"Yes," Peter replied flatly, as before. "Yes—she's worth saving."
"You bet! Well, you do that. And don't put off coming here Sunday. And
don't forget to fill that prescription and take it till I see you again."
Peter smiled politely, and went down the hall to the elevator, and laid
his finger on the bell, and waited until the steel cage paused to let
him in. He walked out and up Third Street and waited on the corner of
Hill until the car he wanted stopped on the corner to let a few more
passengers squeeze on. Peter found a foothold on the back platform and
something to hang to, and adapted himself to the press of people around
him, protecting as best he could the daffodils with the fine, green
stuff that went with them and that straggled out and away from the
paper. Whenever human eyes met his with a light of recognition, Peter
would smile and bow, and the eyes would smile back. But he never knew
who owned the eyes, or even that he was performing one of the little
courtesies of life.
All he knew was that Helen May was going the way her mother had gone, and
that the only way to prevent her going that way was to take her to New
Mexico or Colorado or Arizona; and she was worth saving—even the doctor
had been struck with her worth; and a bungalow out against the hills
wouldn't do at all, not even with a sleeping porch and the open-air ride
back and forth every day. Radical change she must have. Arizona or New
Mexico or—the moon, which seemed not much more remote or inaccessible.
When his street was called he edged out to the steps and climbed down,
wondering how the doctor expected a man with Peter's salary to act upon
his advice. "You do that!" said the doctor, and left Peter to discover,
if he could, how it was to be done without money; in other words, had
blandly required Peter to perform a modern miracle.
Helen May was listlessly setting the table when he arrived. He went up to
her for the customary little peck on the cheek which passes for a kiss
among relatives, and Helen May waved him off with a half smile that was
unlike her customary cheerfulness.
"I've quit kissing," she said. "It's unsanitary."
"What did the doctor tell you, Babe? You went to see him, didn't you?"
Peter managed a smile—business policy had made smiling a habit—while he
unwound the paper from around the daffodils.
"Dad, I've told you and told you not to buy flowers! Oh, golly, aren't
they beautiful! But you mustn't. I'm going to get my salary cut, on the
first. They say business doesn't warrant my present plutocratic income.
Five a week less, Bob said it would be. That'll pull the company back to
a profit-sharing basis, of course!"
"Lots of folks are losing their jobs altogether," Peter reminded her
apathetically. "What did the doctor say about your cough, Babe?"
"Oh, he told me to quit working. Why is it doctors never have any brains
about such things? Charge a person two dollars or so for telling him to
do what's impossible. What does he think I am—a movie queen?"
She turned away from his faded, anxious eyes that hurt her with their
realization of his helplessness. There was a red spot on either
cheek—the rose of dread which her father had watched heart-sinkingly. "I
know what he thinks is the matter," she added defiantly. "But that
doesn't make it so. It's just the grippe hanging on. I've felt a lot
better since the weather cleared up. It's those raw winds—and half the
time they haven't had the steam on at all in the mornings, and the office
is like an ice-box till the sun warms it."
"Vic home yet?" Peter abandoned the subject for one not much more
cheerful. Vic, fifteen and fully absorbed in his own activities, was more
and more becoming a sore subject between the two.
"No. I called up Ed's mother just before you came, but he hadn't
been there. She thought Ed was over here with Vic. I don't know
where else to ask."
"Did you try the gym?"
"No. He won't go there any more. They got after him for something he
did—broke a window somehow. There's no use fussing, dad. He'll come when
he's hungry enough. He's broke, so he can't eat down town."
Peter sighed and went away to brush his thin, graying hair carefully over
his bald spot, while Helen May brewed the tea and made final preparations
for dinner. The daffodils she arranged with little caressing pulls and
pats in a tall, slim vase of plain glass, and placed the vase in the
center of the table, just as Peter knew she would do.
"Oh, but you're sweet!" she said, and stooped with her face close above
them. "I wish I could lie down in a whole big patch of you and just look
at the sky and at you nodding and perking all around me—and not do a
living thing all day but just lie there and soak in blue and gold and
sweet smells and silence."
Peter, coming to the open doorway, turned and tiptoed back as though he
had intruded upon some secret, and stood irresolutely smoothing his hair
down with the flat of his hand until she called him to come and eat. She
was cheerful as ever while she served him scrupulously. She smiled at him
now and then, tilting her head because the daffodils stood between them.
She said no more about the doctor's advice, or the problem of poverty.
She did not cough, and the movements of her thin, well-shaped hands were
sure and swift. More than once she made a pause while she pulled a
daffodil toward her and gazed adoringly into its yellow cup.
Peter might have been reassured, were it not for the telltale flush on
her cheeks and the unnatural shine in her eyes. As it was, every
fascinating little whimsy of hers stabbed him afresh with the pain of her
need and of his helplessness. Arizona or New Mexico or Colorado, the
doctor had said; and Peter knew that it must be so. And he with his
druggist's salary and his pitiful two hundred dollars in the savings
bank! And with the druggist's salary stopping automatically the moment he
stopped reporting for duty! Peter was neither an atheist nor a socialist,
yet he was close to cursing his God and his country whenever Helen May
smiled at him around the dozen daffodils.
"Your insurance is due the tenth, dad," she remarked irrelevantly when
they had reached the dessert stage of cream puffs from the delicatessen
nearest Helen May's work. "Why don't you cut it down? It's sinful, the
amount of money we've paid out for insurance. You need a new suit this
spring. And the difference—"
"I don't see what's wrong with this suit," Peter objected, throwing out
his scrawny chest and glancing down his front with a prejudiced eye,
refusing to see any shabbiness. "A little cleaning and pressing, maybe—"
"A little suit of that new gray everybody's wearing these days, you
mean," she amended relentlessly. "Don't argue, dad. You've got to have
a suit. And that old insurance—"
"Jitneys are getting thicker every day," Peter contended in feeble jest.
"A man needs to be well insured in this town. There's Vic—if anything
happened, he's got to be educated just the same. And by the endowment
plan, in twelve years more I'll have a nice little lump. It's—on account
of the endowment, Babe. I don't want to sell drugs all my life."
"Just the same, you're going to have a new suit." Helen May retrenched
herself behind the declaration. "And it's going to be gray. And a gray
hat with a dove-colored band and the bow in the back. And tan shoes," she
added implacably, daintily lifting the roof off her cream puff to see how
generous had been the filling.
"Who? Me?" Vic launched himself in among them and slid spinelessly into
his chair as only a lanky boy can slide. "Happy thought! Only I'll have
bottle green for mine. A fellow stepped on my roof this afternoon, so—"
"You'll wear a cap then—or go bareheaded and claim it's to make your
hair grow." Helen May regarded him coldly. "Lots of fellows do. You don't
get a single new dud before the fourth, Vic Stevenson."
"Oh, don't I?" Vic drawled with much sarcasm, and pulled two dollars from
his trousers pocket, displaying them with lofty triumph. "I get a new hat
to-morrow, Miss Stingy."
"Vic, where did you get that money?" Helen May's eyes flamed to the
battle. "Have you been staying out of school and hanging around those
"Yup—at two dollars per hang," Vic mouthed, spearing a stuffed green
pepper dexterously. "Fifty rehearsals for two one-minute scenes of
honorable college gangs honorably hailing the hee-ro. Waugh! Where'd you
get these things—or did the cat bring it in? Stuffed with laundry soap,
if you ask me. Why don't you try that new place on Spring?"
"Vic Stevenson!" Helen May began in true sisterly disapprobation. "Is
that getting you anywhere in your studies? A few more days out of
Peter's thoughts turned inward. He did not even hear the half playful,
half angry dispute between these two. Vic was a heady youth, much given
to rebelling against the authority of Helen May who bullied or wheedled
as her mood and the emergency might impel, as sisters do the world over.
Peter was thinking of his two hundred dollars saved against disaster; and
a third of that to go for life insurance on the tenth, which was just one
row down on the calendar; and Helen May going the way her mother had
gone—unless she lived out of doors "like an Indian" in Arizona
or—Peter's mind refused to name again the remote, inaccessible places
where Helen May might evade the penalty of being the child of her mother
and of poverty.
Gray hat for Peter or bottle-green hat for Vic—what did it matter if
neither of them ever again owned a hat, if Helen May must stay here in
the city and face the doom that had been pronounced upon her? What did
anything matter, if Babe died and left him plodding along alone? Vic did
not occur to him consolingly. Vic was a responsibility; a comfort he was
not. Like many men, Peter could not seem to understand his son half as
well as he understood his daughter. He could not see why Vic should
frivol away his time; why he should have all those funny little conceits
and airs of youth; why he should lord it over Helen May who was every day
proving her efficiency and her strength of character anew. If Helen May
went the way her mother had gone, Peter felt that he would be alone, and
that life would be quite bare and bleak and empty of every incentive
toward bearing the little daily burdens of existence.
He got up with his hand going instinctively to his back to ease the ache
there, and went out upon the porch and stood looking drearily down upon
the asphalted street, where the white paths of speeding automobiles
slashed the dusk like runaway sunbeams on a frolic. Then the street
lights winked and sputtered and began to glow with white brilliance.
Arizona or New Mexico or Colorado! Peter knew what the doctor had in
mind. Vast plains, unpeopled, pure, immutable in their calm; stars that
came down at night and hung just over your head, making the darkness
alive with their bright presence; a little cottage hunched against a
hill, a candle winking cheerily through the window at the stars; the
cries of night birds, the drone of insects, the distant howling of a
coyote; far away on the boundary of your possessions, a fence of barbed
wire stretching through a hollow and up over a hill; distance and quiet
and calm, be it day or night. And Helen May coming through the sunlight,
riding a gentle-eyed pony; Helen May with her deep-gold hair tousled in
the wind, and with health dancing in her eyes that were the color of a
ripe chestnut, odd contrast to her hair; Helen May with the little red
spots gone from her cheek bones, and with tanned skin and freckles on her
nose and a laugh on her lips, coming up at a gallop with the sun behind
her, and something more; with sickness behind her and the drudgery of
eight hours in an office, and poverty and unhappiness. And Vic—yes, Vic
in overalls and a straw hat, growing up to be the strong man he never
would be in the city.
Like many another commonplace man of the towns, for all his colorless
ways and his thinning hair and his struggle against poverty, Peter was
something of a dreamer. And like all the rest of us who build our dreams
out of wishes and hopes and maybes, Peter had not a single fact to use in
his foundation. Arizona, New Mexico or Colorado—to Peter they were but
symbols of all those dear unattainable things he longed for. And that he
longed for them, not for himself but for another who was very dear to
him, only made the longing keener and more tragic.
IN WHICH PETER DISCOVERS A WAY OUT
We are always exclaiming over the strange way in which events link
themselves together in chains; and when the chains bind us to a certain
condition or environment, we are in the habit of blandly declaring
ourselves victims of the force of circumstances. By that rule, Peter
found himself being swept into a certain channel of thought about which
events began at once to link themselves into a chain which drew him
perforce into a certain path that he must follow. Or it may have been his
peculiar single-mindedness that forced him to follow the path; however
that may be, circumstances made it easy.
If Helen May worried about her cough and her failing energy, she did not
mention the fact again; but that was Helen May's way, and Peter was not
comforted by her apparent dismissal of the subject. So far as he could
see she was a great deal more inclined to worry over Vic, who refused to
stay in school when he could now and then earn a dollar or two acting in
"mob scenes" for some photoplay company out in Hollywood. He did not
spend the money wisely; Helen May declared that he was better off with
Ordinarily Peter would have taken Vic's rebellion seriously enough to put
a stop to it. He did half promise Helen May that he would notify all the
directors he could get hold of not to employ Vic in any capacity; even to
"chase him off the studio grounds", as Helen May put it. But he did not,
because chance threw him a bit of solid material on which to rebuild his
air castle for Helen May.
He was edging his way down the long food counter, collecting his lunch of
rice pudding, milk and whole-wheat bread in a cafeteria on Hill Street.
He was late, and there was no unoccupied table to be had, so he finally
set his tray down where a haggard-featured woman clerk had just eaten
hastily her salad and pie. A brown-skinned young fellow with country
manners and a range-fostered disposition to talk with any one who tarried
within talking distance, was just unloading his tray load of provender on
the opposite side of the table. He looked across at Peter's tray, grinned
at the meager luncheon, and then looked up into Peter's face with
friendliness chasing the amusement from his eyes.
"Golly gee! There's a heap of difference in our appetites, from the looks
of our layouts," he began amiably. "I'm hungry as a she-wolf, myself.
Hope they don't make me wash the dishes when I'm through; I'm always
kinda scared of these grab-it-and-go joints. I always feel like making a
sneak when nobody's looking, for fear I'll be called back to clean up."
Peter smiled and handed his tray to a waiter. "I wish I could eat a meal
like that," he confessed politely.
"Well, you could if you lived out more in the open. Town kinda gits a
person's appetite. Why, first time I come in here and went down the chute
past the feed troughs, why it took two trays to pack away the grub I seen
and wanted. Lookout lady on the high stool, she give me two
tickets—thought there was two of, me, I reckon. But I ain't eatin' the
way I was then. Town's kinda gittin' me like it's got the rest of you.
Last night I come pretty near makin' up my mind to go back. Little old
shack back there in the greasewood didn't look so bad, after all. Only I
do hate like sin to bach, and a fellow couldn't take a woman out there in
the desert to live, unless he had money to make her comfortable. So I'm
going to give up my homestead—if I can find some easy mark to buy out my
relinquishment. Don't want to let it slide, yuh see, 'cause the
improvements is worth a little something, and the money'd come handy
right now, helpin' me into something here. There's a chance to buy into
a nice little service station, fellow calls it—where automobiles stop to
git pumped up with air and gasoline and stuff. If I can sell my
improvements, I'll buy in there. Looks foolish to go back, once I made up
my mind to quit."
He ate while he talked, and he talked because he had the simple mind of
a child and must think out loud in order to be perfectly at ease. He
had that hunger for speech which comes sometimes to men who have lived
far from their kind. Peter listened to him vaguely at first; then
avidly, with an inner excitement which his mild, expressionless face
hid like a mask.
"I was getting kinda discouraged when my horse up 'n died," the eater
went on. "And then when some durn greaser went 'n stole my burro, I jest
up 'n sold my saddle and a few head uh sheep I had, and pulled out. New
Mexico ranching is all right for them that likes it, but excuse me! I
want to live where I can see a movie once in a while, anyhow." He stopped
for the simple, primitive reason that he had filled his mouth to
overflowing with food, so that speech was for the moment a physical
Peter sipped his glass of milk, and his thoughts raced back and forth
between the door of opportunity that stood ajar, and the mountain of
difficulty which he must somehow move by his mental strength alone
before he and his might pass through that door.
"Ah—how much do you value your improvements at?" he asked. His emotion
was so great that his voice refused to carry it, and so was flat and as
expressionless as his commonplace face.
"Well," gurgled the young man, sluicing down his food with coffee, "it's
pretty hard to figure exactly. I've got a good little shack, you see, and
there's a spring right close handy by. Springs is sure worth money in
that country, water being scurse as it is. There's a plenty for the house
and a few head of stock; well, in a good wet year a person could raise a
little garden, maybe; few radishes and beans, and things like that. But
uh course, that can't hardly be called an improvement, 'cause it was
there when I took the place. A greaser, he had the land fenced and was
usin' the spring 'n' range like it was his own, and most folks, they was
scared to file on it. But she's sure filed on now, and I've got six weeks
yet before it can be jumped.
"Well, there's a shed for stock, and a pretty fair brush corral, and I
built me a pretty fair road in to the place—about a mile off the main
road, it is. I done that odd times the year I was on the place. The
sheep I sold; sheep's a good price now. I only had seventeen—coyotes
and greasers, they kep' stealin' 'em on me, or I'd 'n' had more. I'd
'a' lost 'em all, I guess, if it hadn't been for Loma—dog I got with
Peter looked at his watch in that furtive way which polite persons employ
when time presses and a companion is garrulous. He had finished his rice
pudding and his milk, and in five minutes he would be expected to hang up
his hat behind the mirrored partition of the New Era Drug Store and walk
out smilingly to serve the New Era customers, patrons, the New Era called
them. In five minutes he must be on duty, yet Peter felt that his very
life depended upon bringing this wordy young man to a point in his
"If you will come to the New Era Drug Store, at six o'clock," said Peter,
"I shall be glad to talk with you further about this homestead of yours.
I—ah—have a friend who has an idea of—ah—locating somewhere in
Arizona or New Mexico or Colorado—" Peter could name them now without
that sick feeling of despair "—and he might be interested. But," he
added hastily, "he could not afford to pay very much for a place. Still,
if your price is low enough—"
"Oh, I reckon we can git together on the price," the young man said
cheerfully, as Peter rose and picked up his check. "I'll be there at six,
sure as shootin' cats in a bag. I know where the New Era's at. I went in
there last night and got something to stop my tooth achin'. Ached like
the very devil for a while, but that stuff sure fixed her."
Peter smiled and bowed and went his way hurriedly, his pale lips working
nervously with the excitement that filled him. The mountain of difficulty
was there, implacably blocking the way. But beyond was the door of
opportunity, and the door was ajar. There must, thought Peter, be some
way to pass the mountain and reach the door.
Helen May telephoned that she meant to pick out that gray suit for him
that evening. Since it was Saturday, the stores would be open, and there
was a sale on at Hecheimer's. She had seen some stunning grays in the
window, one-third off. And would he….
Peter's voice was almost irritable when he told her that he had a
business engagement and could not meet her. And he added the information
that he would probably eat down town, as he did not know how long he
would be detained. Helen May was positively forbidden to do anything at
all about the suit until he had a chance to talk with her. After which
unprecedented firmness Peter left the 'phone hurriedly, lest Helen May
should laugh at his authority and lay down a law of her own, which she
was perfectly capable of doing.
At five minutes to six the young man presented himself at the New Era,
and waited for Peter at the soda fountain, with a lemon soda and a pretty
girl to smile at his naïve remarks. Peter's heart had given a jump and a
flutter when the young man walked in, fearing some one else might snap at
the chance to buy a relinquishment of a homestead in New Mexico. And yet,
how did Peter expect to buy anything of the sort? If Peter knew, he kept
the knowledge in the back of his mind, telling himself that there would
be some way out.
He went with the young man, whose name he learned was Johnny Calvert, and
had dinner with him at the cafeteria where they had met at noon. Johnny
talked a great deal, ate a great deal, and unconsciously convinced Peter
that he was an honest young man who was exactly what he represented
himself to be. He had papers which proved his claim upon three hundred
and twenty acres of land in Dona Ana County, New Mexico. He also had a
map upon which the location of his claim was marked with a pencil.
Malpais, he said, was the nearest railroad point; not much of a point,
but you could ride there and back in a day, if you got up early enough in
Peter asked about the climate and the altitude. Johnny was a bit hazy
about the latter, but it was close to mountains, he said, and it was as
high as El Paso, anyway, maybe higher. The climate was like all the
rest of the country, coming in streaks of good and bad. Peter, gaining
confidence as Johnny talked, spoke of his daughter and her impending
doom, and Johnny, instantly grasping the situation, waxed eloquent. Why,
that would be just the place, he declared. Dry as a bone, the weather
was most of the year; hot—the lungers liked it hot and dry, he knew.
And when it was cold, it was sure bracing, too. Why, the country was
alive with health-seekers. At that, most of 'em got well—them that
didn't come too late.
That last sentence threw Peter into a panic. What if he dawdled along and
kept Helen May waiting until it was too late? By that time I think Peter
had pretty clearly decided how he was to remove the mountain of
difficulty. He must have, or he would not have had the courage to drive
the bargain to a conclusion in so short a time.
Drive it he did, for at nine o'clock he let himself into the place he
called home and startled Helen May with the announcement that he had
bought her a claim in New Mexico, where she was to live out of doors like
an Indian and get over that cough, and grow strong as any peasant woman;
and where Vic was going to keep out of mischief and learn to amount to
something. He did not say what the effect would be upon himself; Peter
was not accustomed to considering himself except as a provider of
comfort for others.
Helen May did not notice the omission. "Bought a claim?" she repeated
and added grimly: "What with?"
"With two hundred dollars cash," Peter replied, smiling queerly. "It's
all settled, Babe, and the claim is to stand in your name. Everything is
attended to but the legal signatures before a notary. I was glad my money
was in the all-night bank, because I was not compelled to wait until
Monday to get it for young Calvert. You will have the relinquishment of
his right to the claim, Babe, and a small adobe house with sheds and
yards and a good spring of living water. In building up the place into a
profitable investment you will be building up your health, which is the
first and greatest consideration. I—you must not go the way your mother
went. You will not, because you will live in the open and throw off
"Dad—Stevenson!" Helen May was sitting with her arms lying loose in
her lap, palms upward. Her lips had been loose and parted a little with
the slackness of blank amazement. In those first awful minutes she really
believed that her father had suddenly lost his mind; that he was joking
never occurred to her. Peter was not gifted with any sense of humor
whatsoever, and Helen May knew it as she knew the color of his hair.
"You will no longer be a wage slave, doomed to spend eight hours of every
day before a typewriter in that insurance office. You will be
independent—a property owner who can see that property grow under your
thought and labor. You will see Vic growing up among clean, healthful
surroundings. He will be able to bear much of the burden—the brunt of
the work. The boy is in a fair way to be ruined if he stays here any
longer. There will be six weeks of grace before the claim can be
seized—ah—jumped, the young man called it. In that time you must be
located upon the place. But you should make all possible haste in any
case, on account of your health. Monday morning we will go together with
young Calvert and attend to the legal papers, and then I should advise
you to devote your time to making preparations—"
"Dad—Stevenson!" Helen May's voice ended in an exasperated, frightened
kind of wail. "I and Vic! Are you crazy?"
"Not at all. It is sudden, of course. But you will find, when you stop to
think it over, that many of the wisest things we ever do are done without
dawdling,—suddenly, one may say. No, Babe, I—"
"But two hundred dollars just for the rights to the claim! Dad, look at
it calmly! To build up a ranch takes money. I don't know a thing about
ranching, and neither do you; but we both know that much. One has to eat,
even on a ranch. I wouldn't have my ten a week, remember, and you
wouldn't have your salary, unless you mean to stay here and keep on at
the New Era. And that wouldn't work, dad. You know it wouldn't work. Your
salary would barely keep you, let alone sending money to us. You can't
expect to keep yourself and furnish us money; and you've paid out all you
had in the bank. The thing's impossible on the face of it!"
"Yes, planning from that basis, it would be impossible." Peter's eyes
were wistful. "I tried to plan that way at first; but I saw it wouldn't
do. The expense of getting there, even, would be quite an item in itself.
No, it couldn't be done that way, Babe."
"Then will you tell me how else it is to be done?" Helen May's voice was
tired and exasperated. "You say you have paid the two hundred. That
leaves us just the furniture in this flat; and it wouldn't bring enough
to take us to the place, let alone having anything to live on when we got
there. And my wages would stop, and so would yours. Dad, do you realize
what you've done?" She tilted her head forward and stared at him intently
through her lashes, which was a trick she had.
"Yes, Babe, I realize perfectly. I'm—not counting on just the
furniture. I—think it would pay to ship the stuff on to the claim."
"For heaven's sake, dad! What are you counting on?" Helen May gave a
hysterical laugh that set her coughing in a way to make the veins stand
out on forehead and throat. (Peter's hands blenched into fighting fists
while he waited for the spasm to wear itself out. She should not go the
way her mother had gone, he was thinking fiercely.) "What—are—you
counting on?" she repeated, when she could speak again.
"Well, I'm counting on—a source that is sure," Peter replied vaguely.
"The way will be provided, when the time comes. I—I have thought it all
out calmly, Babe. The money will be ready when you need it."
"Dad, don't borrow money! It would be a load that would keep us
staggering for years. We are going along all right, better than hundreds
of people all around us. I'm feeling better than I was; now the weather
is settled, I feel lots better. You can sell whatever you bought; maybe
you can make a profit on the sale. Try and do that, dad. Get enough
profit to pay for that gray suit I saw in the window!" She was smiling at
him now, the whimsical smile that was perhaps her greatest charm.
"Never mind about the gray suit." Peter spoke sharply. "I won't need
it." He got up irritably and began pacing back and forth across the
little sitting room. "You're not better," he declared petulantly. "That's
the way your mother used to talk—even up to the very last. A year in
that office would kill you. I know. The doctor said so. Your only chance
is to get into a high, dry place where you can live out of doors. He told
me so. This young man with the homestead claim was a godsend—a godsend,
I tell you! It would be a crime—it would be murder to let the chance
slip by for lack of money. I'd steal the money, if I knew of any way to
get by with it, and if there was no other way open. But there is a way.
I'm taking it.
"I don't want to hear any more argument," he exclaimed, facing her quite
suddenly. His eyes had a light she had never seen in them before. "Monday
you will go with me and attend to the necessary legal papers. After that,
I'll attend to the means of getting there."
He stood looking down at her where she sat with her hands clasped in her
lap, staring up at him steadfastly from under her eyebrows. His face
softened, quivered until she thought he was going to cry like a woman.
But he only came and laid a shaking hand on her head and smoothed her
hair as one caresses a child.
"Don't oppose me in this, Babe," he said wearily. "I've thought it all
out, and it's best for all of us. I can't see you dying here by
inches—in the harness. And think of Vic, if that happened. He's just at
the age where he needs you. I couldn't do anything much with him alone.
It's the best thing to do, the only thing to do. Don't say anything more
against it, don't argue. When the time comes, you'll do your part
bravely, as I shall do mine. And if you feel that it isn't worth while
for yourself, think of Vic."
Peter turned abruptly and went into his room, and Helen May dropped her
head down upon her arms and cried awhile, though she did not clearly
understand why, except that life seemed very cruel, like some formless
monster that caught and squeezed the very soul out of one. Soon she heard
Vic coming, and pulled herself together for the lecture he had earned by
going out without permission and staying later than he should. On one
point dad was right, she told herself wearily, while she was locking up
for the night. Town certainly was no place for Vic.
The next day, urged by her father, Helen May met Johnny Calvert, and
cooked him a nice dinner, and heard a great deal about her new claim. And
Monday, furthermore, the three attended to certain legal details. She had
many moments of panic when she believed her father was out of his mind,
and when she feared that he would do some desperate thing like stealing
money to carry out this strange plan. But she did as he wished. There was
a certain inflexible quality in Peter's mild voice, a certain
determination in his insignificant face that required obedience to his
wishes. Even Vic noticed it, and eyed Peter curiously, and asked Helen
May what ailed the old man.
An old man Peter was when he went to his room that night, leaving Helen
May dazed and exhausted after another evening spent in absorbing queer
bits of information from the garrulous Johnny Calvert. She would be able
to manage all right, now, Peter told her relievedly when Johnny left. She
knew as much about the place as she could possibly know without having
He said good night and left her wondering bewilderedly what strange thing
her dad would do next. In the morning she knew.
Peter did not answer when Helen May rapped on his door and said that
breakfast would be ready in five minutes. Never before had he failed to
call out: "All right, Babe!" more or less cheerfully. She waited a
minute, listening, and then rapped again and repeated her customary
announcement. Another wait, and she turned the knob and looked in.
She did not scream at what she found there. Vic, sleeping on the couch
behind a screen in the living room, yawned himself awake and proceeded
reluctantly to set his feet upon the floor and grope, sleepy-eyed, for
his clothes, absolutely unconscious that in the night sometime Peter had
passed a certain mountain of difficulty and had reached out unafraid and
pulled wide open the door of opportunity for his children.
Beyond the door, Helen May was standing rigidly beside the bed where
Peter lay, and was reading for the second time the letter which Peter had
held in his hand. At first her mind had refused to grasp its meaning.
Now, reading slowly, she knew …
Dear Babe, (said the letter).
Don't be horrified at what I have done. I have thought the whole matter
over calmly, and I am satisfied that this is the best way. My life could
not go on very long, anyway. The doctor made that plain enough to me
Sunday. I saw him. I was in a bad way with kidney trouble, he said. I
knew it before he told me. I knew I was only good for a few months more
at the most, and I would soon be a helpless burden. Besides, I have heart
trouble that will account for this sudden taking off, so you can escape
any unpleasant gossip.
Take the life insurance and use it on that claim, for you and Vic. Live
out in the open and get well, and make a man of Vic. Three thousand
dollars ought to be ample to put the ranch on a paying basis. And don't
blame your dad for collecting it now, when it will do the most good. I
could see no benefit in waiting and suffering, and letting you get
farther downhill all the while, making it that much harder to climb back.
Go at once to your claim, and do your best—that is what will make your
dad happiest. You will get well, and you will make a home for you and
Vic, and be independent and happy. In doing this you will fulfill the
last, loving wish of your father.
P.S. Better stock the place with goats. Johnny Calvert thinks they would
be better than sheep.
VIC SHOULD WORRY
Wise man or fool, Peter had taken the one way to impress obedience upon
Helen May. Had he urged and argued and kept on living, Helen May could
have brought forth reasons and arguments, eloquence even, to combat him.
But Peter had taken the simple, unanswerable way of stating his wishes,
opening the way to their accomplishment, and then quietly lying back upon
his pillow and letting death take him beyond reach of protest.
For days Helen May was numb with the sudden dropping of Life's big
responsibilities upon her shoulders. She could not even summon energy
enough to call Vic to an accounting of his absences from the house. Until
after the funeral Vic had been subdued, going around on his toes and
looking at Helen May with wide, solemn eyes and lips prone to trembling.
But fifteen years is the resilient age, and two days after Peter was
buried, Vic asked her embarrassedly if she thought it would look right
for him to go to the ball game. He had to do something, he added
"Oh, I guess so; run along," Helen May had told him absently, without in
the least realizing what it was he had wanted to do. After that Vic went
his way without going through the ceremony of asking her consent, secure
in the knowledge of her indifference.
The insurance company for which she had worked set in motion the wheels
that would eventually place in her hands the three thousand dollars for
which Peter had calmly given his life. She hated the money. She wanted to
tell her dad how impossible it was for her to use a cent of it. Yet she
must use it. She must use it as he had directed, because he had died to
open the way for her obedience. She must take Vic, against his violent
young will, she suspected, and she must go to that claim away off there
somewhere in the desert, and she must live in the open—and raise goats!
For there was a certain strain of Peter's simplicity in the nature of his
daughter. His last scrawled advice was to her a command which she must
obey as soon as she could muster the physical energy for obedience.
"What do I know about goats!" she impatiently asked her empty room one
morning after a night of fantastic dreams. "They eat tin cans and paper,
and Masonic candidates ride them, and they stand on high banks and look
silly, and have long chin whiskers and horns worn back from their
foreheads. But as to raising them—what are they good for, for
"Huh? Say, what are you mumbling about?" Vic, it happened, was awake, and
Helen May's door was ajar.
"Oh, nothing." Then the impulse of speech being strong in her, Helen May
pulled on a kimono and went out to where Vic lay curled up in the
blankets on the couch. "We've got to go to New Mexico, Vic, and, live on
that land dad bought the rights to, and raise goats!"
"Yes, we have—not!"
"We have. Dad said so. We've got to do it, Vic. I expect we'd better
start as soon as the insurance is paid, and that ought to be next week.
Malpais is the name of the darned place. Inez Garcia says Malpais means
bad country. I asked her when she was here yesterday. I expect it does,
though you can't tell about Inez. She's tricky about translating stuff;
she thinks it's funny to fake the meaning of things. But I expect it's
true; it sounds like that."
"I should worry," Vic yawned, with the bland triteness of a boy who
speaks mostly in current catch phrases. "I've got a good chance for a
juvenile part in that big five-reeler Walt's going to put on. Fat chance
anybody's got putting me to herding goats! That New Mexico dope got my
number the first time dad sprung it. Not for mine!"
Helen May sat down on the arm of a Mission chair, wrapped her kimono
around her thin figure, and looked at Vic from under her lashes. Besides
raising goats and living out in the open, she was to make a man of Vic.
She did not know which duty appalled her most, or which animal seemed to
her the more intractable.
"We've got to do it," she said simply. "I don't like it either, but that
doesn't matter. Dad planned that way for us."
Vic sat up crossly, groping for the top button of his pajama coat. His
long hair was tousled in front and stood straight up at the back, and his
lids were heavy yet with sleep. He looked very young and very unruly, and
as though several years of grace were still left to Helen May before she
need trouble herself about his manhood.
"Not for mine," he repeated stubbornly. "You can go if you want to, but
I'm going to stay in pictures." No film star in the city could have
surpassed Vic's tone of careless assurance. "Listen! Dad was queer along
towards the last. You know that yourself. And just because he had a nutty
idea of a ranch somewhere, is no reason why we should drop everything—"
"We've got to do it, and you needn't fuss, because you've got to go
along. I expect we can study up—on goats." Her voice shook a little, for
she was close to tears.
"Well, I'm darned if you ain't as nutty as dad was! Of course, he was
old and sick, and there was plenty of excuse for him to slop down along
towards the last. Now, listen! My idea is to get a nifty bungalow out
there handy to the studios, and both of us to go into pictures. We can
get a car; what I want is a speedy, sassy little boat that can travel.
Well, and listen. We'll have plenty to live on till we both land in
stock. I've got a good chance right now to work into a comedy company;
they say my grin screens like a million dollars, and when it comes to
making a comedy getaway I'm just geared right, somehow, to pull a laugh.
That college picture we made got me a lot of notice in the projection
room, and I was only doing mob stuff, at that. But I stood out. And
Walt's promised me a fat little bit in this five-reeler. I'll land in
stock before the summer's half over!
"And you can land with some good company if you just make a stab at it.
Your eyes and that trick of looking up under your eyebrows are just the
type for these sob leads, and you've got a good photographic face: a
good face for it," he emphasized generously. "And your figure couldn't
be beat. Believe me, I know. You ought to see some of them Janes—and at
that, they manage to get by with their stuff. A little camera experience,
under a good director that would bring out your good points—I was going
to spring the idea before, but I knew dad wouldn't stand for it."
"But we've got to go and live on that claim. We've got to."
Vic's face purpled. "Say, are you plumb bugs? Why—" Vic gulped and
stuttered. "Say, where do you get that stuff? You better tie a can to it,
sis; it don't get over with me. I'm for screen fame, and I'm going to get
it too. Why, by the time I'm twenty, I'll betcha I can pull down a salary
that'll make Charlie Chaplin look like an extra! Why, my grin—"
"Your grin you can use on the goats," Helen May quelled unfeelingly. "I
only hope it won't scare the poor things to death. You needn't argue
about it—as if I was crazy to go! Do you think I want to leave Los
Angeles, and everybody I know, and everything I care about, and go to New
Mexico and live like a savage, and raise goats? I'd rather go to jail, if
you ask me. I hate the very thought of a ranch, Vic Stevenson, and you
know I do. But that doesn't matter a particle. Dad—"
"I told you dad was crazy!" Vic's tone was too violent for grief. His
young ambitions were in jeopardy, and even his dad's death must look
unimportant alongside the greater catastrophe that threatened. "Do you
think, for gosh sake, the whole family's got to be nutty just because he
was sick and got a queer streak?"
"You've no right to say that. Dad—knew what he was doing."
"Aw, where do you get that dope?" Vic eyed her disgustedly, and with a
good deal of condescension. "If you had any sense, you'd knew he was
queer for days before it happened. I noticed it, all right, and if
Helen May did not say anything at all. She got up and went to her room
and came back with Peter's last, pitiful letter. She gave it to Vic and
sat down again on the arm of the Mission chair and waited, looking at him
from, under her lashes, her head tilted forward.
Vic was impressed, impressed to a round-eyed silence. He knew his dad's
handwriting, and he unfolded the sheet and read what Peter had written.
"I found that letter in—his hand—that morning." Helen May tried to
keep her voice steady. "You mustn't tell any one about it, Vic. They
mustn't know. But you see, he—after doing that to get the money for me,
why—you see, Vic, we've got to go there. And we've got to make good.
We've got to."
There must have been a little of Peter's disposition in Vic, too. He
lay for several minutes staring hard at a patch of sunlight on the
farther wall. I suppose when one is fifteen the ambition to be a movie
star dies just as hard as does later the ambition to be president of
the United States.
"You see, don't you, Vic?" Helen May watched him nervously.
"Well, what do you think I am?" Vic turned upon her with a scowl. "You
might have said it was for your health. You wasn't playing fair. You—you
kept saying it was to raise goats!"
STARR WOULD LIKE TO KNOW
Properly speaking Starr did not belong to New Mexico. He was a Texas man,
and, until a certain high official asked him to perform a certain mission
for the Secret Service, he had been a ranger. Puns were made upon his
name when he was Ranger Starr, but he was a ranger no longer, and the
puns had ceased to trouble him. His given name was Chauncy DeWitt;
perhaps that is why even his closest friends called him Starr, it was so
much easier to say, and it seemed to fit him so much better.
Ostensibly, and for a buffer to public curiosity, Starr was acting in the
modest capacity of cattle buyer for a big El Paso meat company.
Incidentally he bought young sheep in season, and chickens from the
Mexican ranchers, and even a bear that had been shot up in the mountains
very early in the spring, before the fat had given place to leanness.
Whatever else Starr did he kept carefully to himself, but his meat buying
was perfectly authentic and satisfactory. And if those who knew his past
record wondered at his occupation, Starr had plenty of reasons for the
change, and plenty of time in which to explain those reasons.
As to his personal appearance, there is not a great deal to say. I'm
afraid Starr would not have attracted any notice in a crowd. He was a
trifle above average height, perhaps, and he had nice eyes whose color
might be a matter of dispute; because they were a bit too dark for gray,
a bit too light for real hazel, with tiny flecks of green in certain
lights. His lashes were almost heavy enough to be called a mark of
beauty, and when he took off his hat, which was not often except at
mealtime and when he slept in a real bed, there was something very
attractive about his forehead and the way his hair grew on his temples.
His mouth was pleasant when his mood was pleasant, but that was not
always. One front tooth had been gold-crowned, which made his smile a
trifle conspicuous, but could not be called a disfigurement. For the
rest, he was tanned to a real desert copper, and riding kept him
healthily lean. But as I said before, you would never pick him out of a
crowd as the hero of this story or of any other.
Like most of us, Starr did not dazzle at the first sight. One must come
into close contact with him to find him different from any other passably
attractive, intelligent man of the open. Oh, if you must have his age, I
think he gave it at thirty-one, the last time he was asked, but he might
have said twenty-five and been believed. He was bashful, and he got on
better with men than he did with women; but if you will stop to think,
most decent men do if they have lived under their hats since they grew to
the long-trouser age. And if they have spent their working days astride a
stock saddle, you may be sure they are bashful unless they are overbold
and impossible. Well, Starr was of the bashful, easily stampeded type. As
to his morals, he smoked and he swore a good deal upon occasion, and he
drank, and he played pool, and now and then a little poker, and he would
lie for a friend any time it was necessary and think nothing of it. Also,
he would fight whenever the occasion seemed to warrant it. He had not
been to church since he wore square collars starched and spread across
his shoulders, and the shine of soap on his cheeks. And a pretty girl
would better not make eyes too boldly if she objected to being kissed,
although Starr had never in his life asked a girl to marry him.
It doesn't sound very promising for a hero. He really was just a human
being and no saint. Saint? You wouldn't think so if you had heard what
he said to his horse, Rabbit, just about an hour before you were
introduced to him.
Rabbit, it seems had been pacing along, half asleep in the blistering
heat of midday, among the cactus and the greasewood and those
depressing, yellowish weeds that pretend to be clothing the desert with
verdure, when they are merely emphasizing its barrenness. Starr had
been half asleep too, riding with one leg over the saddle horn to rest
his muscles, and with his hat brim pulled down over his eyebrows to
shade his eyes from the pitiless glare of New Mexico sunlight. Rabbit
might be depended upon to dodge the prairie dog holes and rocks and
dirt hummocks, day or night, waking or sleeping; and since they were
riding cross-country anyway, miles from a trail, and since they were
headed for water, and Rabbit knew as well as Starr just where it was to
be found, Starr held the reins slack in his thumb and finger and let
the horse alone.
That was all right, up to a certain point. Rabbit was a perfectly
dependable little range horse, and sensible beyond most horses. He was
ambling along at his easy little fox-trot that would carry Starr many a
mile in a day, and he had his eyes half shut against the sun glare, and
his nose almost at a level with his knees. I suppose he was dreaming of
cool pastures or something like that, when a rattlesnake, coiled in the
scant shade of a weed, lifted his tail and buzzed as stridently, as
abruptly as thirteen rattles and a button can buzz.
Rabbit had been bitten once when he was a colt and had gone around with
his head swollen up like a barrel for days. He gave a great, horrified
snort, heaved himself straight up in the air, whirled on his hind feet
and went bucking across the scenery like a rodeo outlaw.
Starr did not accompany him any part of the distance. Starr had gone off
backward and lit on his neck, which I assure you is painful and
disturbing to one's whole physical and moral framework. I'll say this
much for Starr: The first thing he did when he got up was to shoot the
head off the snake, whose tail continued to buzz in a dreary, aimless way
when there was absolutely nothing to buzz about. Snakes are like that.
Starr was a little like that, also. He continued to cuss in a fretful,
objectless way, even after Rabbit had stopped and waited for him with
apology written in the very droop of his ears. When he had remounted, and
the horse had settled again to his straight-backed, shuffling fox-trot,
Starr would frequently think of something else to say upon the subject of
fool horses and snakes and long, dry miles and the interminable desert;
but since none of the things would bear repeating, we will let it go at
that. The point is that Starr was no saint.
He knew of a spring where the water was sweet and cold, and where a
lonesome young fellow lived by himself and was always glad to see some
one ride up to his door. The young fellow was what is called a good
feeder, and might be depended upon to have a pot of frijoles cooked, and
sourdough bread, and stewed fruit of some kind even in his leanest times,
and call himself next door to starvation. And if he happened to be in
funds, there was no telling; Starr, for instance, had eaten canned plum
pudding and potted chicken and maraschino cherries and ginger snaps, all
at one sitting, when he happened to strike the fellow just after selling
a few sheep. Thinking of these things, Starr clucked to Rabbit and told
him for gosh sake to pick his feet off the ground and not to take root
and grow there in the desert like a several-kinds of a so-and-so cactus.
Rabbit twitched back his ears to catch the drift of Starr's remarks,
rattled his teeth in a bored yawn, and shuffled on. Starr laughed.
"Durn it, why is it you never take me serious?" he complained. "I can
name over all the mean things you are, and you just waggle one ear, much
as to say, 'Aw, hell! Same ole tune, and nothing to it but noise.' Some
of these days you're going to get your pedigree read to you—and read
right!" He leaned forward and lovingly lifted Rabbit's mane, holding it
for a minute or two away from the sweaty neck. "Sure's hot out here
to-day, ain't it, pardner?" he murmured, and let the mane fall again into
place. "Kinda fries out the grease, don't it? If young Calvert's got any
hoss-feed in camp, I'm going to beg some off him. Get along, the faster
you go, the quicker you'll get there."
The desert gave place to scattered, brown cobblestones of granite. Rabbit
picked his way carefully among these, setting his feet down daintily in
the interstices of the rocks. He climbed a long slope that proved itself
to be a considerable hill when one looked back at the desert below. The
farther side was more abrupt, and he took it in patient zigzags where the
footing promised some measure of security. At the bottom he turned short
off to the right and made his way briskly along a rough wagon trail that
hugged the hillside.
"Fresh tracks going in—and then out again," Starr announced musingly
to Rabbit. "Maybe young Calvert hired a load of grub brought out; that,
or he's had a visitor in the last day or two—maybe a week back,
though; this dry ground holds tracks a long while. Go on, it's only a
mile or so now."
The trail took a sudden turn toward the bottom of the wide depression as
though it wearied of dodging rocks and preferred the loose sand below. Of
his own accord Rabbit broke into a steady lope, flinging his head
sidewise now and then to discourage the pestiferous gnats that swarmed
about his ears. Starr, also driven to action of some kind, began to fling
his hands in long sweeping gestures past his face. He hoped that the
cabin, being on a higher bit of ground, would be free from the pests.
Bounding a sharp turn, Starr glimpsed the cabin and frowned as something
unfamiliar in its appearance caught his attention. For just a minute he
could not name the change, and then "Curtains at the windows!" he
snorted. "Now, has the dub gone and got married, wonder?" He hoped not,
and his hope was born not so much from sympathy with any woman who must
live in such a place, but from a very humanly, selfish regard for his own
passing comfort. With a woman in the cabin, Starr would not feel so free
to break his journey there with a rest and a meal or two.
He went on, however, sitting passively in the saddle while Rabbit headed
straight for the spring. The bit of white curtain at the one small,
square window facing that way troubled Starr, though it could not turn
him back thirsty into the desert.
It was Rabbit who, ignorant of the significance of that flapping bit of
white, was taken unawares and ducked sidewise when Helen May, standing
precariously on a rock beside the spring, cupped her hands around her
sun-cracked lips and shouted "Vic!" at the top of her voice. She nearly
fell off the rock when she saw the horse and rider so close. They had
come on her from behind, round another sharp nose of the rock-strewn
hillside, so that she did not see them until they had discovered her.
"Oh!" said Helen May quite flatly, dropping her hands from her sunburned
face and looking Starr over with the self-possessed, inquiring eyes of
one who is accustomed to gazing upon strange faces by the thousands.
"How do you do?" said Starr, lifting his hat and foregoing instinctively
the easy "Howdy" of the plains. "Is—Mr. Calvert at home?"
"That depends," said Helen May, "on where he calls home. He isn't
Rabbit, not in the least confused by the presence of a girl in this
out-of-the-way place, pushed forward and thrust his nose deep into the
lower pool of the spring where the water was warmed a little by the sun
on the rocks. Starr could not think of anything much to say, so he sat
leaning forward with a hand on Rabbit's mane, and watched the muscles
working along the neck, when the horse swallowed.
"Oh—would you mind killing that beast down there in that little hollow?"
Helen May had decided that it would be silly to keep on shouting for Vic
when this man was here. "It's what they call a young Gila Monster, I
think. And the bite is said to be fatal. I don't like the way he keeps
looking at me. I believe he's getting ready to jump at me."
Starr glanced quickly at her face, which was perfectly serious and even a
trifle anxious, and then down in the direction indicated by a
broken-nailed, pointing finger. He did not smile, though he felt like it.
He looked again at Helen May.
"It's a horned toad," he informed her gravely. "The one Johnny Calvert
kept around for a pet, I reckon. He won't bite—but I'll kill it if you
say so." He dismounted and picked up a stone, and then looked at her
Helen May eyed the toad askance. "Of course, if it's accustomed to being
a pet—but it looks perfectly diabolical. It—came after me."
"It thought you would feed it, maybe."
"Well, I won't. It can think again," said Helen May positively. "You
needn't kill it, but if you'd chase it off somewhere out of sight—it
gives me shivers. I don't like the way it stares at a person and blinks."
Starr went over and picked up the toad, holding it cupped between his
palms. He carried it a hundred feet away, set it down gently on the
farther side of a rock, and came back. "Lots of folks keep them for
pets," he said. "They're harmless, innocent things."
He washed his hands in the pool where Rabbit had drunk, took the tin
can that had stood on a ledge in the shade when Starr first came to the
spring a year ago, and dipped it full from the inner pool that was
always cool under the rocks. He turned his back to Helen May and drank
satisfyingly. The can was rusted and it leaked a swift succession of
drops that was almost a stream. Helen May decided that she would bring a
white granite cup to the spring and throw the can away. It was
unsanitary, and it leaked frightfully, and it was a disgrace to
"Pretty hot, to-day," Starr observed, when he had emptied the can and put
it back. He turned and pulled the reins up along Rabbit's neck and took
the stirrup in his hand.
"Oh, won't you stop—for lunch? It's a long way to town." Helen May
flushed behind her sunburn, but she felt that the law of the desert
demanded some show of hospitality.
"Thanks, I must be getting on," said Starr, touched his hat brim and
rode away. He had a couple of fried-ham sandwiches in his pocket, and
he ought to make the Medina ranch by two o'clock, he reminded himself
philosophically. A woman on Johnny Calvert's claim was disconcerting.
What was she there for, anyway? From the way she spoke about Johnny,
she couldn't be his wife, or if she were, she had a grudge against
him. She didn't look like the kind of a girl that would marry the
Johnny Calvert kind of a man. Maybe she was just stopping there for a
day or so, with her folks. Still, that white curtain at the window
looked permanent, somehow.
Starr studied the puzzle from all angles. He might have stayed and had
his curiosity satisfied, but it was second nature with Starr to hide any
curiosity he might feel; his riding matter-of-factly away, as though the
girl were a logical part of the place, was not all bashfulness. Partly it
was habit. He wondered who Vic was—man, woman or child? Man, he guessed,
since she was probably calling for help with the horned toad, Starr
grinned when he thought of her naming it a Gila Monster. If she had ever
seen one of those babies! She must certainly be new to the country, if
she didn't even know a horned toad when she saw one! What was she doing
there, anyway? Starr meant to find out. It was his business to find out,
and besides, he wanted to know.
A GREASE SPOT IN THE SAND
Starr, took his cigarette from his lips, sent an oblique glance of mental
measurement towards his host, and shifted his saddle-weary person to a
more comfortable position on the rawhide covered couch. He had eaten his
fill of frijoles and tortillas and a chili stew hot enough to crisp the
tongue. He had discussed the price of sheep and had with much dickering
bought fifty dry ewes at so much on foot delivered at the nearest
shipping point. He had given what news was public talk, of the great war
and the supposedly present whereabouts of Villa, and what was guessed
would happen if Mexican money went any lower.
On his own part, Estancio Medina, called Estan for short, had talked very
freely of these things. Villa, he was a bad one, sure. He would yet make
trouble if some_body_ didn't catch him, yes. For himself, Estan Medina,
he was glad to be on this side the border, yes. The American government
would let a poor man alone, yes. He could have his little home and his
few sheep, and no_body_ would take them away. Villa, he was a bad one!
All Mexicans must sure hate Villa—even the men who did his fighting for
him, yes. Burros, that's what they are. Burros, that have no mind for
thinking, only to do what is tol'. And if troubles come, all Mexicans in
these country should fight for their homes, you bet. All these Mexicans
ought to know what's good for them. They got no business to fight gainst
these American gov'ment, not much, they don't. They come here because
they don't like it no more in Mexico where no poor man can have a home
like here. You bet.
Estan Medina was willing to talk a long while on that subject. His
mother, sitting just inside the doorway, nodded her head now and then and
smiled just as though she knew what her son was saying; proud of his high
learning, she was. He could talk with the Americanos, and they listened
with respect. Their language he could speak, better than they could speak
it themselves. Did she not know? She herself could now and then
understand what he was talking about, he spoke so plainly.
"You've got new neighbors, I see," Starr observed irrelevantly, when
Estan paused to relight his cigarette. "Over at Johnny Calvert's," he
added, when Estan looked at him inquiringly.
"Oh-h, yes! That poor boy and girl! You seen them?"
"I just came from there," Starr informed him easily. "What brought them
away out here?"
"They not tell, then? That man Calvert, he's a bad one, sure! He don'
stay no more—too lazy, I think, to watch his sheeps from the coyotes,
and says they're stole. He comes here telling me I got his sheeps—yes.
We quarrel a little bit, maybe. I don' like to be called thief, you bet.
He's big mouth, that feller—no brains, aitre. Then he goes some_where_,
and he tells what fine rancho he's got in Sunlight Basin. These boy and
girl, they buy. That's too bad. They don' belong on these desert, sure.
W'at they know about hard life? Pretty soon they get tired, I think, and
go back where comes from. That boy—what for help he be to that girl?
Jus' boy—not so old my brother Luis. Can't ride horse; goes up and down,
up an' down like he's back goes through he's hat. What that girl do? Jus'
slim, big-eye girl with soft hand and sickness of lungs. Babes, them boy
and girl. Whan Calvert he should be shot dead for let such inocentes be
fool like that."
"Where is Johnny Calvert?"
"Him? He's gone, sure! Not come back, I bet you! He's got money—them
babes got rancho—" Estan lifted his shoulders eloquently.
"What are they going to do, now they're here?" Starr abstractedly wiped
off the ash collar of his cigarette against the edge of the couch.
"Quien sabe?" countered Estan, and lifted his shoulders again. "I think
pretty quick they go."
Starr looked at his watch, yawned, and rose with much evident reluctance.
"Same here," he said. "I've got to make San Bonito in time for that
Eastbound. You have the sheep in the stockyards by Saturday, will you? If
I'm not there myself, I'll leave the money with Johnson at the express
office. Soon as the sheep's inspected, you can go there and get it.
Addios. Mucho gracias, Señora."
"She likes you fine—my mother," Estan observed, as the two sauntered to
the corral where Rabbit was stowing away as much secate as he could
against future hunger. "Sometimes you come and stay longer. We not see so
many peoples here. Nobody likes to cross desert when she's hot like this.
Too bad you must go now."
Starr agreed with him and talked the usual small talk of the desert
Places while he placed the saddle on Rabbit's still sweaty back. He went
away down the rocky trail with the sun shining full on his right cheek,
and was presently swallowed up by the blank immensity of the land that
looked level as a floor from a distance, but which was a network of small
ridges and shallow draws and "dry washes" when one came to ride over it.
The trail was narrow and had many inconsequential twists and turns in it,
as though the first man to travel that way had gone blind or dizzy and
could not hold a straight line across the level. When an automobile, for
instance, traveled that road, it was with many skiddings in the sand on
the turns, which it must take circumspectly if the driver did not care
for the rocky, uneven floor of the desert itself.
Just lately some one had actually preferred to make his own trail, if
tracks told anything. Within half a mile of the Medina rancho Starr saw
where an automobile had swerved sharply off the trail and had taken to
the hard-packed sand of a dry arroyo that meandered barrenly off to the
southeast. He turned and examined the trail over which he had traveled,
saw that it offered no more discouragement to an automobile than any
other bit of trail in that part of the country, and with another glance
at the yellow ribbon of road before him, he also swerved to the
For a mile the machine had labored, twisting this way and that to avoid
rocky patches or deep cuts where the spring freshets had dug out the
looser soil. So far as Starr could discover there was nothing to bring a
machine up here. The arroyo was as thousands of other arroyos in that
country. The sides sloped up steeply, or were worn into perpendicular
banks. It led nowhere in particular; it was not a short cut to any place
that he knew of. The trail to Medina's ranch was shorter and smoother,
supposing Medina's ranch were the objective point of the trip.
Starr could not see any sense in it, and that is why he followed the
tortuous track to where the machine had stopped. That it had stood there
for some time he knew by the amount of oil that had leaked down into the
sand. He did not know for certain, since he did not know the oil-leaking
habits of that particular car, but he guessed that it had stood there for
a couple of hours at least before the driver had backed and turned around
to retrace his way to the trail.
In these days of gasoline travel one need not be greatly surprised to
meet a car, or see the traces of one, in almost any out-of-the-way spot
where four wheels can possibly be made to travel. On the other hand, the
man at the wheel is not likely to send his machine over rocks and through
sand where the traction is poor, and across dry ditches and among
greasewood, just for the fun of driving. There is sport with rod or gun
to lure, or there is necessity to impel, or the driver is lost and wants
to reach some point that looks familiar, or he is trying to dodge
something or somebody.
Starr sat beside that grease spot in the sand and smoked a cigarette
and studied the surrounding hills and tried to decide what had brought
the car up here. Not sport, unless it was hunting of jack rabbits; and
there were more jack rabbits out on the flat than here. There was no
trout stream near, at least, none that was not more accessible from
another point. To be sure, some tenderfoot tourist might have been told
some yarn that brought him up here on a wild-goose chase. You can,
thought Starr, expect any fool thing of a tourist. He remembered running
across one that was trying between trains to walk across the mesa from
Albuquerque to the Sandia mountains. It had been hard to convince that
particular specimen that he was not within a mile or so of his goal, and
that he would do well to reach the mountains in another three hours or
so of steady walking. Compared with that, driving a car up this arroyo
did not look so foolish.
But tourists did not invade this particular locality with their
overconfident inexperience, and Starr did not give that explanation much
serious thought. Instead he followed on up the narrowed gulch to higher
ground, to see where men would be most likely to go from there. At the
top he looked out upon further knobs and hollows and aimless
depressions, just as he had expected. Half a mile or so away there
drifted a thin spiral of smoke, from the kitchen stove of the Señora
Medina, he guessed. But there was no other sign of human life anywhere
within the radius of many miles, or, to be explicit, within the field of
He looked for footprints, but in a few minutes he gave up in disgust.
The ridge he stood on stretched for miles, up beyond Medina's home
ranch and down past the Sommers' ranch, five or six miles nearer town,
and on to the railroad. And it was a rocky ridge if ever there was one;
granite outcroppings, cobblestones, boulders, anything but good loose
soil where tracks might be followed. A dog might have followed a trail
there before the scent was baked out by blistering heat; but Starr
certainly could not.
He stood looking across to where the smoke curled up into the intense
Blue of the sky. If a man wanted to reach the Medina ranch by the most
obscure route, he thought, this would be one way to get there. He went
back to where the automobile had stood and searched there for some sign
of those who had ridden this far. But if any man left that machine, he
had stepped from the running board upon rock, and so had left no telltale
print of his foot.
"And that looks mighty darn queer," said Starr, "if it was just
accidental. But if a fellow wanted to take to the rocks to cover his
trail, why, he couldn't pick a better place than this. She's a dandy
ridge and a dandy way to get up on her, if that's what's wanted." Starr
looked at his watch and gave up all hope of catching the next eastbound
train, if that had really been his purpose. He lifted his hat and drew
his fingers across his forehead where the perspiration stood in beads,
resettled the hat at an angle to shade his face from the glare of the
sun, ran two fingers cursorily between the cinch and Rabbit's sweaty
body, picked up the stirrup, thrust in his toe and eased himself up into
the saddle; and his mind had not consciously directed a single movement.
"Well, they've left one mark behind 'em that fair hollers," he stated, in
so satisfied a tone that Rabbit turned his head and looked back at him
inquiringly. Starr, you must know, was not given to satisfied tones when
he and Rabbit were enduring the burden of heat and long miles. "And you
needn't give me that kinda look, neither. Take a look at them tire
tracks, you ole knot-head. Them's Silvertown cords, and they ain't
equipping jitneys with cord tires—not yet. Why, yo're whole carcass
ain't worth the price uh one tire, let alone four, you old sheep. You
show me the car in this country that's sportin' Silvertowns all around,
and I'll show you—"
Just what he would show, Starr did not say, because he did not know. But
there was something there which might be called a mystery, and where
there was mystery there was Starr, working tirelessly on the solution.
This might be a trivial thing; but until he knew beyond all doubt that it
was trivial, Starr pushed other matters, such as a young woman afraid of
a horned toad, out of his mind that he might study the puzzle from all
"DARN SUCH A COUNTRY!"
Helen May stood on the knobby, brown rock pinnacle that formed the head
of Sunlight Basin and stared resentfully out over the baked desert and
the forbidding hills and the occasional grassy hollows that stretched
away and away to the skyline. So clear was the air that every slope,
every hollow, every acarpous hilltop lay pitilessly revealed to her
unfriendly eyes, until the sheer immensity of distance veiled its
barrenness in a haze of tender violet. The sky was blue; deeply,
intensely blue, with little clouds like flakes of bleached cotton
floating aimlessly here and there. In a big, wild, unearthly way it was
beautiful beyond any words which human beings have coined.
Helen May felt its bigness, its wildness, perhaps also its beauty, though
the beauties of the desert land do not always appeal to alien eyes. She
felt its bigness and its wildness; and she who had lived the cramped life
of the town resented both, because she had no previous experience by
which to measure any part of it. Also, she summed up all her resentment
and her complete sense of bafflement at its bigness in one vehement
sentence that lacked only one word of being a curse.
"Darn such a country!" is what she said, gritting the words between
"See anything of 'em?" bellowed Vic from the spring below, where he was
engaged in dipping up water with a tomato can and pouring it over his
head, shivering ecstatically as the cold trickles ran down his neck.
Helen May glanced down at him with no softening of her eyes. Vic had lost
nine goats out of the flock he had been set to herd, and he failed to
manifest any great concern over the loss. On the contrary, he had told
Helen May that he wished he could lose the whole bunch, and that he hoped
coyotes had eaten them up, if they didn't have sense enough to stay with
the rest. There had been a heated argument, and Helen May had not felt
sure of coming out of it a victor.
"No, I didn't, and you'd better get back to work or the rest will be
gone, too," she called down to him petulantly. "It's bad enough to lose
nine, without letting the rest go."
"Aw, 's matter with yuh, anyway?" Vic retorted in a tone he thought would
not reach her ears. "By gosh, you don't want a feller to cool off, even!
By gosh, you'd make a feller sleep with them darned goats if you could
get away with it! Bu-lieve me, anybody can have my job that wants it.
'S hot enough to fry eggs in the shade, and she thinks, by hen, that I
oughta stay out there—"
"Yes, I do. And if you want anything to eat to-night, Vic Stevenson, you
get right back there with those goats! They're going over the hill this
minute. Hurry, Vic! For heaven's sake, are you trying to take a bath in
that can? Climb up that ridge and cut across and head them off! That old
Billy's headed for town again—hurry!"
"Aw for gosh sake!" grumbled Vic, stooping reluctantly to pick up the old
hoe-handle he used for a staff. "What ridge?" He paused to thunder up at
her, his voice unexpectedly changing to a shrill falsetto on the last
word, as frequently happens to rob a mancub of his dignity just when he
needs it most.
"That ridge before your face, chump," Helen May informed him crossly. "If
it comes to choosing between goats and a boy, I'll take the goats! And if
there's any spot on the face of the earth worse than this, I'd like to
know where it is. The idea of expecting people to live in such a country!
It looks for all the world like magnified pictures of the moon's surface.
And," she added with a dreary kind of vindictiveness, "it's here, and I'm
here. I can't get away from it—that's the dickens of it." Then, because
Helen May had a certain impish sense of humor, she sat down and laughed
at the incongruity of it all. "Me—me, here in the desert trying to
raise goats! Can you beat that?"
She watched Vic toiling up the ridge, using the hoe-handle with a slavish
dependence upon its support that tickled Helen May again. "You'd think,"
she told the scenery for want of other companionship, "you'd think Vic
was seventy-nine years old at the very least. Makes a difference whether
he's after a bunch of tame goats or hiking with a bunch of boy scouts to
the top of Mount Wilson! I don't believe that kid ever did wear his legs
out having fun, and it's a sure thing he'll never wear them out working!
Say goats to him and he actually gets round-shouldered and limps."
Vic disappeared over the ridge beyond the spring. Lower down, where the
ridge merged into the Basin itself, the big curly-horned Billy that had
cost Helen May more than any half dozen of his followers stepped out
briskly at the head of the band. Helen May wondered what new depravity
was in his mind, and whether Vic would cross the gully he was in and
confront Billy in time to change the one idea that seemed always to
possess that animal.
Helen May did not know how vitally important it is to have a good dog at
such work. She did not know that Billy and his band felt exactly like
boys who have successfully eluded a too lax teacher, and that they would
have yielded without argument to the bark of a trained sheep dog. She had
set Vic a harder task than she realized; a task from which any
experienced herder would have shrunk. In her ignorance she blamed Vic,
and called him lazy and careless and a few other sisterly epithets which
he did not altogether deserve.
She watched now, impatient because he was so long in crossing the gully;
telling herself that he was trying to see how slow he could be, and that
he did it just to be disagreeable and to irritate her—as if she were
there of her own desire, and had bought those two hundred miserable
goats to spite him. Harmony, as you must see, did not always dwell in
Eventually Vic toiled up the far side of the gully, which was deep and as
hot as an oven, and followed it down within rock-throwing distance of the
goats. A well-aimed pebble struck Billy on the curve of one horn and
halted him, the band huddling vacant-eyed behind him. Vic aimed and threw
another, and Billy, turning his whiskered face upward, stared with
resentful head-tossings and a defiant blat or two before he swerved back
into the Basin, his band and Vic plodding after.
"Well, for a wonder!" Helen May ejaculated ungraciously, grudging Vic
the small tribute of praise that was due him. But she was immediately
ashamed of that, and told herself that it was pretty hard on the poor
kid, and that after all he must hate the country worse than she did,
even, which would certainly mean a good deal; and that she supposed he
missed his boy chums just as much as she missed her friends, and found it
just as hard to fit himself comfortably into a life for which he had no
liking. Besides, it wasn't his health that had shunted them both out here
into the desert, and she ought to be ashamed of herself for treating him
the way she did.
After that she decided that it was her business to find the nine goats
that were lost. Vic certainly could not do both at once; and deep down in
her heart Helen May knew that she was terribly afraid of Billy and would
rather trudge the desert for hours under the hot sun than stay in the
Basin watching the main flock. She wished that she could afford to hire a
herder, but she shrunk from the expense. It seemed to her that she and
Vic should be able to herd that one band, especially since there was
nothing else for them to do out there except cook food and eat it.
Speaking of food, it seemed to take an enormous quantity to satisfy the
hunger of two persons. Helen May was appalled at the insatiable appetite
of Vic, who seemed never to have enough in his stomach. As for
herself—well, she recalled the meal she had just eaten, and wondered how
it could be possible for hunger to seize upon her so soon again. But even
so, food could not occupy all of their time, and a two-room cabin does
not take much keeping in order. They would simply be throwing away money
if they hired a herder, and yet, how they both did loathe those goats!
She climbed back down the pinnacle, watching nervously for snakes and
lizards and horned toads and such denizens of the desert. With a
certain instinct for preparing against the worst, she took a two-quart
canteen, such as soldiers carry, to the spring, and filled it and slung
it over her shoulder. She went to the cabin and made a couple of
sandwiches, and because she was not altogether inhuman she cut two
thick slices of bread, spread them lavishly with jam, and carried them
to Vic as a peace offering.
"I'm going to hunt those nasty brutes, Vic," she cried from a safe
distance. "Come here and get this jam sandwich, and lend me that stick
you've got. And if I don't get back by five, you start a fire."
"Where you going to look? If you couldn't see 'em from up there, I don't
see the use of hunting." Vic was taking long steps towards the sandwich,
and he stretched his sunburned face in that grin which might have made
him famous in comedy had fate not set him down before his present ignoble
task. "Yuh don't want to go far," he advised her perfunctorily. "We ought
to have a couple of saddle horses. Why don't yuh—"
"What would we feed them on? Besides we've got to save what money we've
got, Vic. We can walk till these insects grow wool enough to pay for
something to ride on."
"Hair, you mean. I can get a gentle horse from that Mexican kid, Luis. He
good as offered us the one—that I borrowed—" Vic was giving too much
attention to the jam sandwich to argue very coherently.
"There's that old Billy starting off again; you watch him, Vic. Don't let
him get a start, or goodness knows where he'll head for next. We can't
keep a horse, I tell you. We need all this grass for the goats."
"Oh, darn the goats!"
In her heart Helen May quite agreed with the sentiment, but she could not
consistently betray that fact to Vic. She therefore turned her back upon
him, walking down the trail that led out of the Basin to the main trail a
mile away, the trail which was the link connecting them with civilization
of a sort.
Here passed the depressed, dust-covered stage three times a week. Here,
in a macaroni box mounted on a post, they received and posted their
mail. Helen May had indulged herself in a subscription to the Los
Angeles daily paper that had always been left at their door every
morning, the paper which Peter had read hastily over his morning mush.
Every paper brought a pang of homesickness for the flower-decked city of
her birth, but she felt as though she could not have kept her sanity
without it. The full-page bargain ads she read hungrily. The weekly
announcements of the movie shows, the news, the want columns—these were
at once her solace and her torment; and if you have ever been exiled,
you know what that means.
Here, too, she left her shopping list and money for the stage driver, who
bought what she needed and left the goods at the foot of the post, and
what money remained in a buckskin bag in the macaroni box.
An obliging stage driver was he, a tobacco chewing, red-faced,
red-whiskered stage driver who nagged at his four horses incessantly and
never was known to beat one of them; a garrulous, soft-hearted stage
driver who understood very well how lonely these two young folks must be,
and who therefore had some moth-eaten joke ready for whoever might be
waiting for him at the macaroni box. Whenever Helen May apologized for
the favor she must ask of him—which was every time she handed him a
list—the stage driver invariably a nasal kind of snort, spat far out
over the wheel, and declared pettishly:
"It ain't a mite uh trouble in the world. That's what I'm fur—to help
folks out along my rowt. Don't you worry a mite about that." Often as he
said it, he yet gave it the tone of sincerity and of convincing
freshness, as though he had never before given the matter a thought.
Helen May did not know what she would have done without that stage driver
to bridge the gulf between Sunlight Basin and the world.
But this was not stage day. That is to say, the stage had passed to the
far side of its orbit, and would not return until to-morrow. From San
Bonito it swung in a day-long journey across the desert to Malpais,
thence by a different route to San Bonito again, so that Helen May never
saw it returning whence it had come.
A cloud of desert dust always heralded its approach from the east.
Sometimes after the first dust signal, it took him nearly an hour to top
the low ridge which was really one rim of the Basin. Then Helen May would
know that he carried passengers or freight that straightened the backs of
the straining four horses in the long stretch of sand beyond the ridge
and made their progress slow.
But to-day there was no dust signal, and the macaroni box was but a
dismal reminder of her exile. The world was very far away, behind the
violet rim of mountains, and she was just a speck in the desert. Her high
laced boots were heavy, and the dust settled in the creases around her
slim ankles, that could be perfectly fascinating in silken hose and
dainty slippers. Her khaki skirt, of the divided kind much affected by
tourists, had lost two big, pearl buttons, and she had no others to
replace them. Her shirt-waist had its collar turned inside for coolness,
and the hollow of her neck was sun-blistered and beginning to peel. Also
her nose and her neck at the sides were showing a disposition to grow new
skin for old. So much had the desert sun done for her.
But there was something else which the desert had done, something which
Helen May did not fully realize. It had put a clear, steady look into her
eyes in place of the glassy shine of fever. It was beginning to fill out
that hollow in her neck, so that it no longer showed the angular ends of
her collar bones. It had put a resilient quality into her walk, firmness
into the poise of her head. It had made it physically possible, for
instance, for Helen May to trudge out into the wild to hunt nine goats
that had strayed from the main band.
Though she did not know it, a certain dream of Peter's had very nearly
come true. For here were the vast plains, unpeopled, pure, immutable in
their magnificent calm. At night the stars seemed to come down and hang
just over Helen May's head. There was the little cottage of which Peter
had dreamed—only Helen May called it a miserable little shack—hunched
against a hill; sometimes a light winked through the window at the stars;
sometimes Helen May was startled at the nearness and the shrill
insistence of the coyotes. Here as Peter had dreamed so longingly and so
hopelessly, were distance and quiet and calm. And here was Helen May
coming through the sunlight—Peter never dreamed how hot it would
be!—with her deep-gold hair tousled in the wind and with the little red
spots gone from her cheeks and with health in her eyes that were the
color of ripe chestnuts. When her skin had adjusted itself to the rigors
of the climate, she would no doubt have freckles on her nose, just as
Peter had dreamed she might have. And if she were walking, instead of
riding the gentle-eyed pony which Peter had pictured, that was not
Peter's fault, nor the fault of the dream. There was no laugh on her
lips, however. Dreams are always pulling a veil of idealism over the face
of reality, and so Helen May's face was not happy, as Peter had dreamed
it might be, but petulant and grimly determined; her ripe-red lips were
moving in anathemas directed at nine detested goats.
Peter could never have dreamed just that, but all the same it is a pity
that, in order to make the dream a reality, Peter had been forced to deny
himself the joy of seeing Helen May growing strong in "Arizona, New
Mexico, or Colorado." It would have made the price he paid seem less
terrible, less tragic.
MOONLIGHT, A MAN AND A SONG
Just out from the entrance to a deep, broad-bottomed arroyo where an
automobile had been, Starr came upon something that surprised him very
much, and it was not at all easy to surprise Starr. Here, in the first
glory of a flaming sunset that turned the desert to a sea of unearthly,
opal-tinted beauty, he came upon Helen May, trudging painfully along with
an old hoe-handle for a staff, and driving nine reluctant nanny goats
that alternately trotted and stood still to stare at the girl with
foolish, amber-colored eyes.
Starr was trained to long desert distances, but his training had made it
second nature to consider a horse the logical means of covering those
distances. To find Helen May away out here, eight miles and more from
Sunlight Basin, and to find her walking, shocked Starr unspeakably;
shocked him out of his shyness and into free speech with her, as though
he had known her a long while.
"Y' lost?" was his first greeting, while he instinctively swung Rabbit
to head off a goat that suddenly "broke back" from the others.
Helen May looked up at him with relief struggling through the apathy of
utter weariness. "No, but I might as well be. I'll never be able to get
home alive, anyhow." She shook the hoe-handle menacingly at a hesitating
goat and quite suddenly collapsed upon the nearest rock, and began to
cry; not sentimentally or weakly or in any other feminine manner known to
Starr, but with an angry recklessness that was like opening a safety
valve. Helen May herself did not understand why she should go along for
half a day calmly enough, and then, the minute this man rode up and spoke
to her sympathetically, she should want to sit down and cry.
"I just—I've been walking since one o'clock! If I had a gun, I'd shoot
every one of them. I just—I think goats are simply damnable things!"
Starr turned and looked at the animals disapprovingly. "They sure are,"
he assented comfortingly. "Where you trying to take 'em—or ain't you?"
he asked, with the confidence-inviting tone that made him so valuable to
those who paid for his services.
"Home, if you can call it that!" Helen May found her handkerchief and
proceeded to wipe the tears and the dust off her cheeks. She looked at
Starr more attentively than at first when he had been just a human being
who seemed friendly. "Oh, you're the man that stopped at the spring.
Well, you know where I live, then. I was hunting these; they wandered off
and Vic couldn't find them yesterday, so I—it was just accident that I
came across them. I followed some tracks, and it looked to me as if
they'd been driven off. There were horse tracks. That's what made me keep
going—I was so mad. And now they won't go home or anywhere else. They
just want to run around every which way."
Starr looked up the arroyo, hesitating. On the edge of San Bonito he had
picked up the track of Silvertown cord tires, and he had followed it to
the mouth of this arroyo. From certain signs easy for an experienced man
to read, he had known the track was fairly fresh, fresh enough to make it
worth his while to follow. And now here was a girl all tired out and a
long way from home.
"Here, you climb onto Rabbit. He's gentle when he knows it's all right,
and I won't stand for him acting up." Starr swung off beside her. "I'll
help get the goats home. Where's your dog?"
"I haven't any dog. The man we bought the goats from wanted to sell me
one, to help herd them, he said. But he asked twenty-five dollars for
it—I suppose he thought because I looked green I'd stand for that!—and
I wouldn't be held up that way. Vic and I have nothing to do but watch
them. You—you mustn't bother," she added half-heartedly. "I can get them
home all right. I'm rested now, and there's a moon, you know. Really, I
can't let you bother about it. I know the way."
"Put your foot in the stirrup and climb on. You, Rabbit, you stand still,
or I'll beat the—"
"Really, you mustn't think, because I cried a little bit—"
"Pile on to him now, while I hold him still. Or shall I pick you up and
put you on?" Starr smiled while he said it, but there was a look in his
eyes and around his mouth that made Helen May yield suddenly.
By her awkwardness Starr and Rabbit both knew that she had probably never
before attempted to mount a horse. By the set of her lips Starr knew that
she was afraid, but that she would break her neck before she would
confess her fear. He liked her for that, and he was glad to see that
Rabbit understood the case and drew upon his reserve of patience and good
nature, standing like a rock until Helen May was settled in the saddle
and Starr had turned the stirrups on their sides in the leather so that
they would come nearer being the right length for her. Starr's hand
sliding affectionately up Rabbit's neck and resting a moment on his jaw
was all the assurance Rabbit needed that everything was all right.
"Now, just leave the reins loose, and let Rabbit come along to please
himself," Starr instructed her quietly. "He'll follow me, and he'll pick
his own trail. You don't have to do a thing but sit there and take it
easy. He'll do the rest."
Helen May looked at him doubtfully, but she did not say anything. She
braced herself in the stirrups, took a firm grip of the saddlehorn with
one hand, and waited for what might befall. She had no fear of Starr, no
further uneasiness over the coming night, the loneliness, the goats, or
anything else. She felt as irresponsible, as safe, as any sheltered woman
in her own home. I did not say she felt serene; she did not know yet how
the horse would perform; but she seemed to lay that responsibility also
on Starr's capable shoulders.
They moved off quietly enough, Starr afoot and driving the goats, Rabbit
picking his way after him in leisurely fashion. So they crossed the
arroyo mouth and climbed the ragged lip of its western side and traveled
straight toward the flaming eye of the sun that seemed now to have winked
itself nearly shut. The goats for some inexplicable reason showed no
further disposition to go in nine different directions at once. Helen
May relaxed from her stiff-muscled posture and began to experiment a
little with the reins.
"Why, he steers easier than an automobile!" she exclaimed suddenly. "You
just think which way you want to go, almost, and he does it. And you
don't have to pull the lines the least bit, do you?"
Starr delayed his answer until he had made sure that she was not
irritating Rabbit with a too-officious guidance. When he saw that she
was holding the reins loosely as he had told her to do, and was merely
laying the weight of a rein on one side of the neck and then on the
other, he smiled.
"I guess you've rode before," he hazarded. "The way you neck-rein—"
"No, honest. But my chum's brother had a big six, and Sundays he used to
let me fuss with it, away out where the road was clear. It steered just
like this horse; just as easy, I mean. I—why, see! I just wondered if
he'd go to the right of that bush, and he turned that way just as if I'd
told him to. Can you beat that?"
Starr did not say. Naturally, since she was a girl, and pretty, and since
he was human, he was busy wondering what her chum's brother was like. He
picked up a small rock and shied it at a goat that was not doing a thing
that it shouldn't do, and felt better. He remembered then that at any
rate her chum's brother was a long way off, and that he himself had
nothing much to complain of right now. Then Helen May spoke again and
shifted his thoughts to another subject.
"I believe I'd rather have a horse like this," she said, "than own that
big, lovely take-me-to-glory car that was pathfinding around like a
million dollars, a little while ago. I'll own up now that I was weeping
partly because four great big porky men could ride around on cushions a
foot thick, while a perfectly nice girl had to plough through the sand
afoot. The way they skidded past me and buried me in a cloud of dust made
me mad enough to throw rocks after them. Pigs! They never even stopped to
ask if I wanted a ride or anything. They all glared at me through their
goggles as if I hadn't any business walking on their desert."
"Did you know them?" Starr came and walked beside her, glancing
frequently at her face.
"No, of course I didn't. I don't know anybody but the stage driver. I
wouldn't have ridden with them, anyway. From what I saw of them they
looked like Mexicans. But you'd think they might have shown some
interest, wouldn't you?"
"I sure would," Starr stated with emphasis. "What kinda car was it, did
you notice? Maybe I know who they are."
"Oh, it was a great big black car. They went by so fast and I was so
tired and hot and—and pretty near swearing mad, I didn't notice the
number at all. And they were glaring at me, and I was glaring at them,
and then the driver stepped on the accelerator just at a little crook in
the road, and the hind wheels skidded about a ton of sand into my face
and they were gone, like they were running from a speed cop. I'd much
rather have a nice little automatic pony like this one," she added
feelingly. "You don't have to bundle yourself up in dusters and goggles
and things when you take a ride, do you? It—it makes the bigness of the
country, and the barrenness of it, somehow fit together and take you into
the pattern, when you ride a horse over it, don't you think?"
"I guess so," Starr assented, with an odd little slurring accent on the
last word which gave the trite sentence an individual touch that
appealed to Helen May. "It don't seem natural, somehow, to walk in a
country like this."
"Oh, and you've got to, while I ride your horse! Or, have you got to? Is
it just movie stuff, where a man rides behind on a horse, and lets the
girl ride in front? I mean, is it feasible, or just a stunt for
"Depends on the horse," Starr evaded. "It's got the say-so, mostly,
whether it'll pack one person or two. Rabbit will, and when I get tired
walking, I'll ride."
"Oh, that makes it better. I wasn't feeling comfortable riding, but men
are so queer about thinking they must give a woman all the choice bits of
comfort, and a woman has to give in or row about it. If you'll climb up
and ride when you feel like it, I'll just settle down and enjoy myself."
Settling down and enjoying herself seemed to consist of gazing out over
the desert and the hills and up at the sky that was showing the deep
purple of dusk. It was what Starr wanted most of all, just then, for it
left him free to study what she had told him of the big black automobile
with four coated and goggled men who had looked like Mexicans; four men
who had glared at her and then had speeded up to get away from her
For the first time since she had seen it from the spring seat of a
jolting wagon from the one livery stable in Malpais, Helen May discovered
that this wild, strange land was beautiful. For the first time she
gloried in its bigness and its wildness, and did not resent its
barrenness. The little brown birds that fluttered close to the ground and
cheeped wistfully to one another in the dusk gave her an odd, sweet
thrill of companionship. Jack rabbits sitting up on their hind legs for
a brief scrutiny before they scurried away made her laugh to herself. The
reddened clouds that rimmed the purple were the radiant shores of a
wonderful, bottomless sea, where the stars were the mast lights on ships
hull down in the distance. She lifted her chest and drew in long breaths
of clean, sweet air that is like no other air, and she remembered all at
once that she had not coughed since daylight. She breathed again, deep
and long, and felt that she was drawing some wonderful, healing ether
into her lungs.
She looked at Starr, walking steadily along before her, swinging the
hoe-handle lightly in his right hand, setting his feet down in the
smoothest spots always and leaving nearly always a clear imprint of his
foot in the sandy soil. There was a certain fascination in watching the
lines of footprints he left behind him. She would know those footprints
anywhere, she told herself. Small for a man, they were, and well-shaped,
with the toes pointing out the least little bit, and with no blurring
drag when he lifted his feet. She did not know that Starr wore riding
boots made to his measure and costing close to twenty dollars a pair; if
she had she would not have wondered at the fine shape of them, or at the
individuality of the imprint they made. She conceived the belief that
Rabbit knew those footprints also. She amused herself by watching how
carefully the horse followed wherever they led. If Starr stepped to the
right to avoid a rock, Rabbit stepped to the right to avoid that rock;
never to the left, though the way might be as smooth and open. If Starr
crossed a gully at a certain place, Rabbit followed scrupulously the
tracks he made. Helen May considered that this little gray horse showed
really human intelligence.
She realized the deepening dusk only when Starr's form grew vague and
she could no longer see the prints his boots made. They were nearing the
brown, lumpy ridge which hid Sunlight Basin from the plain, but Helen
May was not particularly eager to reach it. For the first time she
forgot the gnawing heart-hunger of homesickness, and was content with
her present surroundings; content even with the goats that trotted
submisively ahead of Starr.
When a soft radiance drifted into the darkness and made it a luminous,
thin veil, Helen May gave a little cry and looked back. Since her hands
moved with the swing of her shoulders, Rabbit turned sharply and faced
the way she was looking, startled, displeased, but obedient. Starr
stopped abruptly and turned back, coming close up beside her.
"What's wrong?" he asked in an undertone. "See anything?"
"The moon," Helen May gave a hushed little laugh. "I'd
forgotten—forgotten I was alive, almost. I was just soaking in the
beauty of it through every pore. And then it got dark so I couldn't see
your footprints any more, and then such a queer, beautiful look came on
everything. I turned to look, and this little automatic pony turned to
look, too. But—isn't it wonderful? Everything, I mean. Just
everything—the whole world and the stars and the sky—"
Starr lifted an arm and laid it over Rabbit's neck, fingering the
silver-white mane absently. It brought him quite close to Helen May, so
that she could have put her hand on his shoulder.
"Yes. It's wonderful—when it ain't terrible," he said, his voice low.
After a silent minute she answered him, in the hushed tone that seemed
most in harmony with the tremendous sweep of sky and that great stretch
of plain and bare mountain. "I see what you mean. It is terrible even
when it's most wonderful. But one little human alone with it would be—"
"Sh-sh." he whispered. "Listen a minute. Did you ever hear a big
silence like this?"
"No," she breathed eagerly. "Sh-sh—"
At first there was nothing save the whisper of a breeze that stirred the
greasewood and then was still. Full in their faces the moon swung clear
of the mountains behind San Bonito and hung there, a luminous yellow ball
in the deep, star-sprinkled purple. Across the desert it flung a faint,
straight pathway in the sand. Rabbit gave a long sigh, turned his head to
look back at his master, and then stood motionless again. Far on a
hilltop a coyote pointed his nose to the moon and yap-yap-yapped, with a
shrill, long-drawn tremolo wail that made the girl catch her breath.
Behind them the nine goats moved closer together and huddled afraid
beside a clump of bushes. The little breeze whispered again. A night bird
called in a hurried, frightened way, and upon the last notes came the
eerie cry of a little night owl.
The girl's face was uplifted, delicately lighted by the moon. Her eyes
shone dark with those fluttering, sweet wraiths of thoughts which we may
not prison in speech, which words only deaden and crush into vapid
sentimentalism. Life, held in a great unutterable calm, seemed to lie out
there in the radiant, vague distance, asleep and smiling cryptically
while it slept.
Her eyes turned to Starr, whose name she did not know; who had twice come
riding out of the distance to do her some slight service before he rode
on into the distance that seemed so vast. Who was he? What petty round of
duties and pleasures made up his daily, intimate life? She did not know.
She did not feel the need of knowing.
Standing there with his thin face turned to the moon so that she saw,
clean-cut against the night, his strong profile; with one arm thrown
across the neck of his horse and his big hat tilted back so that she
could see the heavy, brown hair that framed his fine forehead; with the
look of a dreamer in his eyes and the wistfulness of the lonely on his
lips, all at once he seemed to be a part of the desert and its mysteries.
She could picture him living alone somewhere in its wild fastness, aloof
from the little things of life. He seemed to epitomize vividly the
meaning of a song she had often sung unmeaningly:
"From the desert I come to thee,
On my Arab shod with fire;
And the winds are left behind
In the speed of my desire."
While she looked—while the words of that old Bedouin Love Song
thrummed through her memory, quite suddenly Starr began to sing, taking
up the song where her memory had brought her:
"Till the sun grows cold,
And the stars are old,
And the leaves of the Judgment Book unfold!"
Softly he sang, as though he had forgotten that she was there. Softly,
but with a resonant, vibrating quality that made the words alive and
quivering with meaning.
Helen May caught her breath. How did he know she was thinking that song?
How did he chance to take it up just at the point where her memory had
carried it? Had he read her mind? She stared at him, her lips parted;
wondering, a little awed, but listening and thrilling to the human
sweetness of his tones. And when he had sung the last yearning note of
primitive desire, Starr turned his head and looked into her eyes.
Helen May felt as though he had taken her in his arms and kissed her
lingeringly. Yet he had not moved except to turn his face toward her. She
could not look away, could not even try to pull her eyes from his. It was
as though she yielded. She felt suffocated, though her breath came
quickly, a little unevenly.
Starr looked away, across the desert where the moon lighted it whitely.
It was as though he had released her. She felt flustered, disconcerted.
She could not understand herself or him, or the primary forces that had
moved them both. And why had he sung that Bedouin Love Song just as she
was thinking it as something that explained him and identified him? It
was mysterious as the desert itself lying there so quiet under the moon.
It was weird as the cry of the coyote. It was uncanny as spirit rappings.
But she could not feel any resentment; only a thrill that was part
pleasure and part pain. She wondered if he had felt the same; if he knew.
But she could not bring herself to face even the thought of asking him.
It was like the night silence around them: speech would dwarf and cheapen
Rabbit lifted his head again, perking his ears forward toward a new sound
that had nothing weird or mysterious about it; a sound that was
essentially earthly, material, modern, the distant purr of a high-powered
automobile on the trail away to their right. Starr turned his face that
way, listening as the horse listened. It seemed to Helen May as though he
had become again earthy and material and modern, with the desert love
song but the fading memory of a dream. He listened, and she received the
impression that something more than idle curiosity held him intent upon
The purring persisted, lessened, grew louder again. Starr still looked
that way, listening intently. The machine swept nearer, so that the clear
night air carried the sounds distinctly to where they stood. Starr even
caught the humming of the rear gears and knew that only now and then does
a machine have that peculiar, droning hum; Starr studied it, tried to
impress the sound upon his memory.
The trail looped around the head of a sandy draw and wound over the crest
of a low ridge before it straightened out for a three-mile level run in
the direction of San Bonito, miles away. In walking, Starr had cut
straight across that gully and the loop, so that they had crossed the
trail twice in their journey thus far, and were still within half a mile
of the head of the loop. They should have been able to see the lights, or
at least the reflection of them on the ridge when they came to the draw.
But there was no bright path on sky or earth.
They heard the car ease down the hill, heard the grind of the gears as
the driver shifted to the intermediate for the climb that came after.
They heard the chug of the engine taking the steep grade. Then they
should have caught the white glare of the headlights as the car topped
the ridge. Starr knew that nothing obstructed the view, that in daylight
they could have seen the yellow-brown ribbon of trail where it curved
over the ridge. The machine was coming directly toward them for a short
distance, but there was no light whatever. Starr knew then that whoever
they were, they were running without lights.
"Well, I guess we'd better be ambling along," he said casually, when the
automobile had purred its way beyond hearing. "It's three or four miles
yet, and you're tired."
"Not so much." Helen May's voice was a little lower than usual, but that
was the only sign she gave of any recent deep emotion. "I'd as soon walk
awhile and let you ride." She shrank now from the thought of both riding.
"When you've ridden as far as I have," said Starr, "you'll know it's a
rest to get down and travel afoot for a few miles." He might have added
that it would have been a rest had he not been hampered by those
high-heeled riding boots, but consideration for her mental ease did not
permit him to mention it. He said no more, but started the goats ahead of
him and kept them moving in a straight line for Sunlight Basin. As
before, Rabbit followed slavishly in his footsteps, nose dropped to the
angle of placid acceptance, ears twitching forward and back so that he
would lose no slightest sound.
Helen May fell again under the spell of the desert and the moon. Starr,
walking steadily through the white-lighted barrenness with his shadow
always moving like a ghost before him, fitted once more into the desert.
Again she repeated mentally the words of the song:
Let the night-winds touch thy brow
With the breath of my burning sigh,
And melt thee to hear the vow
Of a love that shall not die!
Till the sun grows cold,
And the stars are old,
And the leaves of the Judgment Book unfold!
And now the lines sung themselves through her brain with the memory of
Starr's voice. But Starr did not sing again, though Helen May, curious to
know if her thoughts held any power over him, gazed intently at his back
and willed him to sing. He did not look back at her, even when she
finally descended weakly to the more direct influence of humming the air
softly—but not too softly for him to hear.
Starr paid no attention whatever. He seemed to be thinking deeply—but he
did not seem to be thinking of Helen May, nor of desert love songs. Helen
May continued to watch him, but she was piqued at his calm indifference.
Why, she told herself petulantly, he paid more attention to those goats
than he did to her—and one would think, after that song and that
look…. But there she stopped, precipitately retreating from the thought
of that look.
He was a queer fellow, she told herself with careful tolerance and a
little condescension. A true product of the desert; as changeable and as
sphynxlike and as impossible from any personal, human standpoint. Look
how beautiful the desert could be, how terribly uplifting and calm
and—and big. Yet to-morrow it might be either a burning waste of heat
and sand and bare rock, or it might be a howling waste of wind and sand
(if one of those sand storms came up). To herself she called him the Man
of the Desert, and she added the word mysterious, and she also added two
lines of the song because they fitted exactly her conception of him as
she knew him. The lines were these:
From the desert I come to thee,
On my Arab shod with fire.
This, in spite of the fact that Rabbit had none of the fiery traits of an
Arabian steed; nor could he by any stretch of the imagination be accused
of being shod with fire, he who planted his hoofs so sedately! Shod with
velvet would have come nearer describing him.
So Helen May, who was something of a dreamer when Life let her alone long
enough, rode home through the moonlight and wove cloth-of-gold from the
magic of the night, and with the fairy fabric she clothed Starr—who was,
as we know, just an ordinary human being—so that he walked before her,
not as a plain, ungrammatical, sometimes profane young man who was
helping her home with her goats, but a mysterious, romantic figure
evolved somehow out of the vastness in which she lived; who would
presently recede again into the mysterious wild whence he had come.
It was foolish. She knew that it was foolish. But she had been living
rather harshly and rather materially for some time, and she hungered for
the romance of youth. Starr was the only person who had come to her
untagged by the sordid, everyday petty details of life. It did not hurt
him to be idealized, but it might have hurt Helen May a little to know
that he was pondering so earthly a subject as a big, black automobile
careering without lights across the desert and carrying four men who
looked like Mexicans.
HOLMAN SOMMEKS, SCIENTIST
Helen May, under a last year's parasol of pink silk from which the sun
had drawn much of its pinkness and the wind and dust its freshness, sat
beside the road with her back against the post that held the macaroni
box, and waited for the stage. Her face did not need the pink light of
the parasol, for it was red enough after that broiling walk of yesterday.
The desert did not look so romantic by the garish light of midday, but
she stared out over it and saw, as with eyes newly opened to
appreciation, that there was a certain charm even in its garishness. She
had lost a good deal of moodiness and a good deal of discontent,
somewhere along the moonlight trail of last night, and she hummed a tune
while she waited. No need to tell you that it was: "Till the sun grows
cold, till the stars are old—" No need to tell you, either, of whom she
was thinking while she sang.
But part of the time she was wondering what mail she would get. Her chum
would write, of course; being a good, faithful chum, she would probably
continue to write two or three letters a week for the next three months.
After that she would drop to one long letter a month for awhile; and
after that—well, she was a faithful chum, but life persists in bearing
one past the eddy that holds friendship circling round and round in a
pool of memories. The chum's brother had written twice, however;
exuberant letters full of current comedy and full-blooded cheerfulness
and safely vague sentiment which he had partly felt at the time he wrote.
He had "joshed" Helen May a good deal about the goats, even to the extent
of addressing her as "Dear Goat-Lady" in the last letter, with the word
"Lady" underscored and scrawled the whole width of the page. Helen May
had puzzled over the obscure meaning of that, and had decided that it
would have sounded funny, perhaps, if he had said it that way, but that
it "didn't get over" on paper.
She wondered if he would write again, or if his correspondence would
prove as spasmodic, as easily interrupted as his attentions had been when
they were both in the same town. Chum's brother was a nice, big, comfy
kind of young man; the trouble was that he was too popular to give all
his interest to one girl. You know how it is when a man stands six feet
tall and has wavy hair and a misleading smile and a great, big,
deep-cushioned roadster built for two. Helen May appreciated his writing
two letters to her, he who hated so to write letters, but her faith in
the future was small. Still, he might write. It seemed worth while to
wait for the stage.
Just when she was telling herself that the stage was late, far over the
ridge rose the dust signal. Her pulse quickened expectantly; so much had
loneliness done for her. She watched it, and she tried not to admit to
herself that it did not look like the cloud kicked up by the four
trotting stage horses. She tried not to believe that the cloud was much
too small to have been made by their clattering progress. It must be the
stage. It was past time for it to arrive at the post. And it had not gone
by, for she had sent for a can of baking powder and a dozen lemons and
fifty cents worth of canned milk (the delicatessen habit of buying in
small quantities still hampered her) and, even if the stage had passed
earlier than usual, the stuff would have been left at the post for her,
even though there was no mail. But it could not have passed. She would
have seen the dust, that always hung low over the trail like the drooping
tail of a comet, and when the day was still took half an hour at least to
settle again for the next passer-by. And besides, she had come to know
the tracks the stage left in the trail. It could not have passed. And
it had to come; it carried the government mail. And yet, that dust did
not look like the stage dust. (Trivial worries, you say? Then try living
forty miles from a post office, ten from the nearest neighbor, and
fifteen hundred from your dearly beloved Home Town. Try living there, not
because you want to but because you must; hating it, hungering for human
companionship. Try it with heat and wind and sand and great, arid
stretches of a land that is strange to you. Honestly, I think you would
have been out there just after sunrise to wait for that stage, and if it
were late you would have walked down the trail to meet it!)
Helen May remained by the post, but she got up and stood on a rock that
protruded six inches or so above the sand. Of course she could not see
over the ridge—she could not have done that if she had climbed a
telegraph pole; only there was no pole to climb—but she felt a little
closer to seeing. That dust did not look like stage dust!
You would be surprised to know how much Helen May had learned about dust
clouds. She could tell an automobile ten miles away, just by the swift
gathering of the gray cloud. She could tell where bands of sheep or herds
of cattle were being driven across the plain. She even knew when a saddle
horse was coming, or a freight team or—the stage.
She suddenly owned to herself that she was disappointed and rather
worried. For behind this cloud that troubled her there was no second one
building up over the skyline and growing more dense as the disturber
approached. She could not imagine what had happened to that
red-whiskered, tobacco-chewing stage driver. She looked at her wrist
watch and saw that he was exactly twenty minutes later than his very
latest arrival, and she felt personally slighted and aggrieved.
For that reason she sat under her pink silk parasol and stared crossly
under her eyebrows at the horse and man and the dust-grimed
rattle-wheeled buggy that eventually emerged from the gray cloud. The
horse was a pudgy bay that set his feet stolidly down in the trail, and
dragged his toes through it as though he delighted in kicking up all the
dust he could. By that trick he had puzzled Helen May a little, just at
first, though he had not been able to simulate the passing of four
horses. The buggy was such as improvident farmers used to drive (before
they bought Fords) near harvest time; scaly as to paint, warped and
loose-spoked as to wheels, making more noise than progress along the
The man held the lines so loosely that they sagged under the wire-mended
traces of sunburned leather. He leaned a little forward, as though it was
not worth while sitting straight on so hot a day. He wore an old Panama
hat that had cost him a good deal when it was new and had saved him a
good deal since in straw hats which he had not been compelled to buy so
long as this one held together. It was pulled down in front so that it
shaded his face—a face lean and lined and dark, with thin lips that
could be tender and humorous in certain moods. His eyes were hazel, like
the eyes of Starr, yet one never thought of them as being at all like
Starr's eyes. They burned always with some inner fire of life; they
laughed at life, and yet they did not seem to express mirth. They seemed
to say that life was a joke, a damnable joke on mankind; that they saw
the joke and resented it even while they laughed at it. For the rest, the
man was more than fifty years old, but his hair was thick and black as a
crow, and his eyebrows were inclined to bushiness, inclined also to slant
upward. A strong face; an unusual face, but a likeable one, it was. And
that is a fair description of Holman Sommers as Helen May first saw him.
He drove up to where she sat, and she tilted her pink silk parasol
between them as though to keep the dust from settling thick upon her
stained khaki skirt and her desert-dingy high-laced boots. She was not
interested in him, and her manner of expressing indifference could not
have misled a horned toad. She was too fresh from city life to have
fallen into the habit of speaking to strangers easily and as a matter of
country courtesy. Even when the buggy stopped beside her, she did not
show any eagerness to move the pink screen so that they might look at
"How do you do?" said he, quite as though he were greeting her in her own
home. "You are Miss Stevenson, I feel sure. I am Holman Sommers, at your
service. I am under the impression that I have with me a few articles
which may be of some interest to you, Miss Stevenson. I chanced to come
upon the stage several miles farther down the road. A wheel had given
away, and there was every indication that the delay would prove serious,
so when the driver mentioned the fact that he had mail and merchandise
for you, I volunteered to act as his substitute and deliver them safely
into your hands. I hope therefore that the service will in some slight
measure atone for my presumption in forcing my acquaintance upon you."
At the second sentence the pink parasol became violently agitated. At the
third Helen May was staring at him, mentally if not actually
open-mouthed. At the last she was standing up and reaching for her mail,
and she had not yet decided in her mind whether he was joking or whether
he expected to be taken seriously. Even when he laughed, with that odd,
dancing light in his eyes, she could not be sure. But because his voice
was warm with human sympathy and the cordiality of a man who is very
sure of himself and can afford to be cordial, she smiled back at him.
"That's awfully good of you, Mr. Sommers," she said, shuffling her
handful of letters eagerly to see who had written them; more particularly
to see if Chum's brother had written one of them. "I hope you didn't
drive out of your way to bring them" (there was one; a big, fat one
that had taken two stamps! And one from Chum herself, and—but she went
back gloatingly to the thick, heavy envelope with the bold, black
handwriting that needed the whole face of the envelope for her name and
address), "because I know that miles are awfully long in this country."
"Yes? You have discovered that incontrovertible fact, have you? Then I
hope you will permit me to drive you home, especially since these
packages are much too numerous and too weighty for you to carry in your
arms. As a matter of fact, I have been hoping for an opportunity to meet
our new neighbors. Neighbors are precious in our sight, I assure you,
Miss Stevenson, and only the misfortune of illness in the household has
prevented my sister from looking you up long ago. How long have you been
here? Three weeks, or four?" His tone added: "You poor child," or
something equally sympathetic, and he smiled while he cramped the old
buggy so that she could get into it without rubbing her skirt against the
Helen May certainly had never seen any one just like Holman Sommers,
though she had met hundreds of men in a business way. She had met men who
ran to polysyllables and pompousness, but she had never known the
polysyllables to accompany so simple a manner. She had seen men slouching
around in old straw hats-and shoddy gray trousers and negligée shirts
with the tie askew, and the clothes had spelled poverty or shiftlessness.
Whereas they made Holman Sommers look like a great man indulging himself
in the luxury of old clothes on a holiday.
He seemed absolutely unconscious that he and his rattly buggy and the
harness on the horse were all very shabby, and that the horse was fat and
pudgy and scrawny of mane; and for that she admired him.
Before they reached the low adobe cabin, she felt that she was much
better acquainted with Holman Sommers than with Starr, whose name she
still did not know, although he had stayed an hour talking to Vic and
praising her cooking the night before. She did not, for all the time
she had spent with him, know anything definite about Starr, whereas
she presently knew a great deal about Holman Sommers, and approved of
all she knew.
He had a past which, she sensed vaguely, had been rather brilliant. He
must have been a war correspondent, because he compared the present great
war with the Japanese-Russian War and with the South African War, and he
seemed to have been right in the middle of both, or he could not have
spoken so intimately of them. He seemed to know all about the real,
underlying causes of them and knew just where it would all end, and what
nations would be drawn into it before they were through. He did not say
that he knew all about the war, but after he had spoken a few casual
sentences upon the subject Helen May felt that he knew a great deal more
than he said.
He also knew all about raising goats. He slid very easily, too, from the
war to goat-raising. He had about four hundred, and he gave her a lot of
valuable advice about the most profitable way in which to handle them.
When he saw Vic legging it along the slope behind the Basin to head off
Billy and his slavish nannies, he shook his head commiseratingly. "There
is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind," he told her gently, "that a
trained dog would be of immeasurable benefit to you. I fear you made a
grave mistake, Miss Stevenson, when you failed to possess yourself of a
good dog. I might go so far as to say that a dog is absolutely
indispensable to the successful handling of goats, or, for that matter,
of sheep, either." (He pronounced the last word eyether.)
"That's what my desert man told me," said Helen May demurely, "only he
didn't tell me that way, exactly."
"Yes? Then I have no hesitation whatever in assuring you that your desert
man was unqualifiedly accurate in his statement of your need."
Helen May bit her lip. "Then I'll tell him," she said, still more
Secretly she hoped that he would rise to the bait, but he apparently
accepted her words in good faith and went on telling her just how to
range goats far afield in good weather so that the grazing in the Basin
itself would be held in reserve for storms. It was a very grave error,
said Holman Sommers, to exhaust the pasturage immediately contiguous to
the home corral. It might almost be defined as downright improvidence.
Then he forestalled any resentment she might feel by apologizing for his
seeming presumption. But he apprehended the fact that she and her brother
were both inexperienced, and he would be sorry indeed to see them suffer
any loss because of that inexperience. His practical knowledge of the
business was at her service, he said, and he should feel that he was
culpably negligent of his duty as a neighbor if he failed to point out to
her any glaring fault in their method.
Helen May had felt just a little resentful of the words downright
improvidence. Had she not walked rather than spend money and grass on a
horse? Had she not daily denied herself things which she considered
necessities, that she might husband the precious balance of Peter's
insurance money? But she swallowed her resentment and thanked him quite
humbly for his kindness in telling her how to manage. She owned to her
inexperience, and she said that she would greatly appreciate any advice
which he might care to give.
Her Man of the Desert, she remembered, had not given her advice, though
he must have seen how badly she needed it. He had asked her where her dog
was, taking it for granted, apparently, that she would have one. But when
she had told him about not buying the dog, he had not said another word
about it. And he had not said anything about their letting the goats eat
up all the grass in the Basin, first thing, instead of saving it for bad
weather. This Holman Sommers, she decided, was awfully kind, even if he
did talk like a professor or something; kinder than her desert man. No,
not kinder, but perhaps more truly helpful.
At the house he told her just how to fix a "coolereupboard" under the
lone mesquite tree which stood at one end of the adobe cabin. It was
really very simple, as he explained it, and he assured her, in his
scientific terminology, that it would be cool. He went to the spring and
showed her where she could have Vic dig out the bank and fit in a rock
shelf for butter. He assured her that she was fortunate in having a
living spring so near the house. It was, he said, of incalculable
importance in that country to have cold, pure water always at hand.
When he discovered that she was a stenographer, and that she had her
typewriter with her, he was immensely pleased, so pleased that his eyes
shone with delight.
"Ah! now I see why the fates drove me forth upon the highway this
morning," said he. "Do you know that I have a large volume of work for an
expert typist, and that I have thus far felt that my present isolation in
the desert wastes was an almost unsurmountable obstacle to having the
work done in a satisfactory manner? I have been engaged upon a certain
work on sociological problems and how they have developed with the growth
of civilization. You will readily apprehend that great care must be
exercised in making the copy practically letter perfect. Furthermore, I
find myself constantly revising the manuscript. I should want to
supervise the work rather closely, and for that reason I have not as yet
arranged for the final typing.
"Now if you care to assume the task, I can assure you that I shall feel
tremendously grateful, besides making adequate remuneration for the labor
That is the way he put it, and that is how it happened that Helen May let
herself in for the hardest piece of work she had ever attempted since she
sold gloves at Bullocks' all day and attended night school all the
evening, learning shorthand and typewriting and bookkeeping, and
permitting the white plague to fasten itself upon her while she bent to
She let herself in for it because she believed she had plenty of time,
and because Holman Sommers was in no hurry for the manuscript, which he
did not expect to see completed for a year or so, since a work so erudite
required much time and thought, being altogether different from current
fiction, which requires none at all.
Helen May was secretly aghast at the pile of scrawled writing interlined
and crossed out, with marginal notes and footnotes and references and
what not; but she let herself in for the job of typing his book for
him—which is enough for the present.
PAT, A NICE DOGGUMS
"'The human polyp incessantly builds upon a coral reef. They become
lithified as it were and constitute the strata of the psychozoic
stage'—I told you the butter's at the spring. Will you leave me alone?
That's the third page I've spoiled over psycho-what-you-call-it. Go on
back and herd your goats, and for gracious sake, can that tulip-and-rose
song! I hate it." Helen May ripped a page with two carbon copies out of
the machine, pulled out the carbons and crumpled three sheets of paper
into a ball which she threw into a far corner.
"Gee, but you're pecky to-day! You act like an extra slammed into a sob
lead and gettin' up stage about it. I wish that long-worded hide had
never showed up with his soiled package of nut science. A feller can't
live with you, by gosh, since you—"
"Well, listen to this, Vic! 'There is a radical difference between
organic and social evolution, the formula most easily expressing this
distinction being that environment transforms the animal, while man
transforms the environment. This transformation—'"
"Hel-up! Hel-up!" Vic went staggering out of the door with his palm
pressed against his forehead in the gesture meant to register great
mental agony, while his face was split with that nearly famous comedy
grin of his. "Serves you right," he flung hack at her in his normal tone
of brotherly condescension. "The way you fell for that nut, like you was
a starved squirrel shut up in a peanut wagon, by gosh! Hope you're bogged
down in jawbreakers the rest of the summer. Serves yuh right, but you
needn't think you can take it out on me. And," he draped himself around
the door jamb to add pointedly, "you should worry about the tulip song.
If I'm willing to stand for you yawping day and night about the sun
growin' co-old, and all that bunk—"
"Oh, beat it, and shut up!" Helen May looked up from evening the edges of
fresh paper and carbon to say sharply: "You better take a look and see
where Billy is. And I'll tell you one thing: If you go and lose any more
goats, you needn't think for a minute that I'll walk my head off getting
them for you."
"Aw, where do you get that line—walk your head off? I seem to remember a
close-up of you riding home on horseback with moonlight atmosphere and a
fellow to drive your goats. And you giving him the baby-eyed stare like
he was a screen idol and you was an extra that was strong for him.
Bu-lieve me, Helen Blazes, I'm wise. You're wishing a goat would get
lost—now, while the moon's workin' steady!"
"Oh, beat it, Vic! I've got work to do, if you haven't." And to prove it,
Helen May began to type at her best speed.
Vic languidly removed himself from the door jamb and with a parting "I
should bibble," started back to his goats, which he had refused to graze
outside the Basin as Holman Sommers advised. Helen May began valiantly to
struggle with the fine, symmetrical, but almost unreadable chirography of
the man of many words. She succeeded in transcribing the human polyp
properly lithified and correctly constituting the strata of the
psychozoic age, when Vic stuck his head in at the door again.
"From the des-urt he comes to thee-ee-ee,
And he's got a dog for thee to see-ee."
He paraphrased mockingly, going down to that terrifically deep-sea bass
note of a boy whose voice is changing.
Helen May threw her eraser at him and missed. It went hurtling out into
the yard and struck Starr on the point of the jaw, as he was riding up to
Whereat Vic gave a brazenly exultant whoop and rushed off to his goats,
"When you wore a too-lup, a sweet yellow too-lup
'N I wore a big red ro-o-ose—"
and looking back frequently in a half curious, half wistful way. Vic, if
you will stop to think of it, had been transplanted rather suddenly from
the midst of many happy-go-lucky companions to an isolation lightened
only by a mere sister's vicarious comradeship. If he yearned secretly for
a share of Starr's interest, surely no one can blame him; but that he
should voluntarily remove himself from Starr's presence in the belief
that he had come to see Helen May exclusively, proves that Vic had the
makings of a hero.
Starr dismounted and picked up the eraser from under the investigative
nose of a coarse-haired, ugly, brown and black dog that had been
following Rabbit's heels. He took the eraser to Helen May, standing
embarrassed in the doorway, and the dog followed and sniffed first her
slipper toes and then her hands, which she held out to it ingratiatingly;
after which appraisement the dog waggled its stub of a tail in token of
"If you was a Mexican he'd a showed you his teeth," Starr observed
pridefully. "How are you, after your jaunt the other night?"
"Just fine," Helen May testified graciously. It just happened (or had it
just happened?) that she was dressed that day in a white crêpe de chine
blouse and a white corduroy skirt, and had on white slippers and white
stockings. At the top button of her blouse (she could not have touched
that button with her chin if she had tried) was a brown velvet bow the
exact shade of her eyes. Her hair was done low and loose with a negligent
wave where it turned back from her left eyebrow. Peter had worshipped
dumbly his Babe in that particular dress, and had considered her
beautiful. One cannot wonder then that Starr's eyes paid tribute with a
second long glance.
Starr had ridden a good many miles out of his way and had argued for a
good while, and had finally paid a good many dollars to get the dog that
sniffed and wagged at Helen May. The dog was a thoroughbred Airedale and
had been taught from its puppyhood to herd goats and fight all intruders
upon his flock and to hate Mexicans wherever he met them. He had learned
to do both very thoroughly, hence the argument and the dollars necessary
before Starr could gain possession of him.
Starr did not need a dog; certainly not that dog. He had no goats to
herd, and he could hate Mexicana without any help or encouragement when
they needed hating. But he had not grudged the trouble and expense,
because Helen May needed it. He might have earned more gratitude had he
told her the truth instead of hiding it like guilt. This was his way of
going at the subject, and he waited, mind you, until he had announced
nonchalantly that he must be getting along, and that he had just stopped
to get a drink and to see how they were making out!
"Blame dog's taken a notion to you. Followed me out from town. I throwed
rocks at him till my arm ached—"
"Why, you mean thing! You might have hit him and hurt him, and he's a
nice dog. Poor old purp! Did he throw rocks, honest? He did? Well, just
for that, I've got a nice ham bone that you can have to gnaw on, and he
can't have a snippy bit of it. All he can do is eat a piece of lemon pie
that will probably make him sick. We hope so, don't we? Throwing rocks at
a nice, ugly, stubby dog that wanted to follow!"
Starr accepted the pie gratefully and looked properly ashamed of himself.
The dog accepted the ham bone and immediately stretched himself out with
his nose and front paws hugging it close, and growling threats at
imaginary vandals. Now and then he glanced up gratefully at Helen May,
who continued to speak of him in a commiserating tone.
"He sure has taken a notion to you," Starr persisted between mouthfuls.
"You can have him, for all of me. I don't want the blame cur tagging me
around. I'm liable to take a shot at him if I get peeved over
"You dare!" Helen May regarded him sternly from under her lashes, her
chin tilted downward. "Do you always take a shot at something when you
"Well, I'm liable to," Starr admitted darkly. "A dog especially. You
better keep him if you don't want him hurt or anything." He took a bite
of pie. (It was not very good pie. The crust was soggy because Johnny
Calvert's cook stove was not a good baker, and the frosting had gone
watery, because the eggs were stale, and Helen May had made a mistake and
used too much sugar in the filling; but Starr liked it, anyway, just
because she had made it.) "Maybe you can learn him to herd goats," he
suggested, as though the idea had just occurred to him.
"Oh, I wonder if he would! Would you, doggums?"
"We'll try him a whirl and see," Starr offered cheerfully. He finished
the pie in one more swallow, handed back the plate, and wiped his
fingers, man-fashion, on his trousers.
"Come on, Pat. He likes Pat for a name," he explained carefully to Helen
May. "I called him about every name I could think of, and that's the one
he seems to sabe most."
"I should say he does! Why, he left his bone when you called Pat. Now
that's a shame, doggums!"
"Oh, well, we'll let him polish off his bone first." Starr made the offer
with praiseworthy cheerfulness, and sat down on his heels with his back
against the adobe wall to wait the dog's pleasure.
"Well, that makes up for some of the rocks," Helen May approved
generously, "and for some of the names you say you called him. And that
reminds me, Man of the Desert, I suppose you have a name of some sort. I
never heard what it was. Is it—Smith, perhaps?"
"My name's Starr," he told her, with a little glow under the tan of his
cheeks. "S, t, a, double r, Starr. I forgot I never told you. I've got a
couple of given names, but I'd want to shoot a man that called me by
'em. Folks always call me just Starr, and maybe a few other things
behind my back."
Helen May dropped her chin and looked at him steadily from under her
eyebrows. "If there's anything that drives me perfectly wild," she said
finally, "it's a mystery. I've just simply got to know what those names
are. I'll never mention them, honest. But—"
"Chauncy DeWitt," Starr confessed. "Forget 'em. They was wished onto me
when I wasn't able to defend myself."
"Given names are horrid things, aren't they?" Helen May sympathized.
"I think mine is perfectly imbecile. Fathers and mothers shouldn't be
allowed to choose names for their children. They ought to wait till
the kids are big enough to choose for themselves. If I ever have any,
I'll call them It. When they grow up they can name themselves anything
"You've got no right to kick," Starr declared bluntly. "Your name suits
His eyes said more than that, so that Helen May gave her attention to the
dog. "There, now, you've licked it and polished it and left teeth marks
all over it," she said, meaning the bone. "Come on, Pat, and let's see if
you're a trained doggums." She looked up at Starr and smiled. "Suppose he
starts running after them; he might chase them clear off the ranch, and
"I guess the supply of rocks'll hold out," Starr hinted, and snapped his
fingers at the dog, which went to heel as a matter of course.
"If you throw rocks at that dog, I'll throw rocks at you," Helen May
"And I'll hit, and you'll miss," Starr added placidly. "Come on, let's
get busy and see if you deserved that bone."
Helen May had learned from uncomfortable experience that high-heeled
slippers are not made for tramping over rocks and sand. She said that she
would come as soon as she put on some shoes; but Starr chose to wait for
her, though he pretended, to himself as much as to her, that he must take
the bridle off Rabbit and let him pick a few mouthfuls of grass while he
had the chance. Also he loosened the cinch and killed a fly or two on
Rabbit's neck, and so managed to put in the time until Helen May appeared
in her khaki skirt and her high boots.
"That's the sensible outfit for this work," Starr plucked up courage to
comment as they started off. "That kid brother of yours must get pretty
lonesome too, out here," he added. "If you had some one to stay with you,
I'd take him out on a trip with me once in a while and show him the
country and let him learn to handle himself with a horse and gun. A
fellow's got to learn, in this country. So have you. How about it? Ever
shoot a gun, either of you?"
"Vic used to keep me broke, begging money for the shooting gallery down
near our place," said Helen May. "I used to shoot there a little."
"Popgun stuff, but good practice," said Starr succinctly. "Got a gun on
"No, only Vic's little single-shot twenty-two. That's good enough for
jack rabbits. What would we want a gun for?"
Starr laughed. "Season's always open for coyotes, and you could pick up a
little money in bounties now and then, if you had a gun," he said. "That
would keep you out in the open, too. I dunno but what I've got a rifle I
could let you have. I did have one, a little too light a calibre for me,
but it would be just about right for you. It's a 25-35 carbine. I'm right
sure I've got that gun on hand yet. I'll bring it over to you. You sure
ought to have a gun."
They were nearing the goats scattered over the slope that was shadiest,
chosen for Vic's comfort and not because of any thought for his charges.
Vic himself was sprawled in the shade of a huge rock, and for pastime he
was throwing rocks at every ground squirrel that poked its nose out of a
hole. The two hundred goats were scattered far and wide, but as long as
Billy was nibbling a bush within sight, Vic did not worry about the rest.
He lifted himself to a sitting posture and grinned when the two came up.
"Didn't think to bring any pie, I s'pose?" he hinted broadly, and grinned
companionably at Starr.
"You've had two handouts since lunch. I guess you'll last another hour,"
Helen May retorted unfeelingly. "See the dog that followed Mr. Starr out
from town, Vic! We're going to see if he can herd goats."
"Well, if he can, he's got my permission, that's a cinch."
"I do believe he can; see him look at them! His name's Pat, and he likes
me awfully well."
"Now, where does he get that idea?" taunted Vic, and winked openly at
Starr, who was good enough to smile over what he considered a very
"Well, let's see you bunch 'em, Pat." Starr made a wide, sweeping gesture
with his left arm, his eyes darting a quick look at the girl.
Pat looked up at him, waggled his stub of a tail, and darted down the
slope to the left, now and then uttering a yelp. Scattered goats lifted
heads to look, their jaws working comically sidewise as though they felt
they must dispose of that particular mouthful before something happened
to prevent. As Pat neared them, they scrambled away from him, running to
the right, which was toward the bulk of the band.
Down into the Basin itself the dog ran, after a couple of goats that had
strayed out into the level. These he drove back in a panic of haste,
dodging this way and that, nipping, yelping now and then, until they had
joined the others. Then he went on to the further fringes of the hand,
which evened like the edge of a pie crust under the practised fingers of
a good cook.
"Well, would you look at that!" Helen May never having watched a good
sheep-dog at work, spoke in an awed tone. "Vic, please write!"
Vic, watching open-mouthed, actually forgot to resent the implication
that Pat had left him hopelessly behind in the art of handling goats.
"Seems to have the savvy, all right," Starr observed, just as though he
had not paid all those dollars for the "savvy" that made Pat one of the
best goat dogs in the State.
"Savvy? Why, that dog's human. Now, I suppose he's stopping over there to
see what he must do next, is he?"
"Wants to know whether I want 'em all rounded up, or just edged up outa
the Basin. G' round 'em, Pat," he called, and made a wide, circular sweep
with his right arm.
Pat gave a yelp, dropped his head, and scurried up the ridge, driving all
stragglers back toward the center of the flock. He went to every crest
and sniffed into the wind to satisfy himself that none had strayed beyond
his sight; returned and evened up the ragged edges of the hand, and then
came trotting back to Starr with six inches of pink tongue draped over
his lower jaw and a smile in his eyes and a waggle of satisfaction at
loved work well done. The goats, with a meek Billy in the foreground,
huddled in a compact mass on the slope and eyed the dog as they had never
eyed Vic, for all his hoe-handle and his accuracy with rocks.
Helen May dropped her hand on Pat's head and looked soberly into his
upturned eyes. "You're a perfect miracle of a dog, so you can't be my
dog, after all," she said. "Your owner will be riding day and night to
find you. I know I should, if you got lost from me." Then she looked at
Starr. "Don't you think you really ought to take him back with you?
It—somehow it doesn't seem quite right to keep a dog that knows so
much. Why, the man I bought the goats from had a dog that could herd
them, and he wanted twenty-five dollars for it, and at that, he claimed
he was putting the price awfully low for me, just because I was a lady,
Starr, was (as he put it) kicking himself for having lied himself
into this dilemma. Also he was wondering how best he might lie
himself out of it.
"You want to look out for these marks that say they're giving you the big
end of a bargain just because you're a lady," he said. "Chances are
they're figuring right then on doing you. If that fellow had got
twenty-five dollars for his dog, take it from me, he wouldn't have lost
"Well, but do you think it would he right to keep this dog?"
Since she put it that way, Starr felt better. "I sure do. Keep him anyway
till he's called for. When I go back, I'll find out where he comes from;
and when I've located the owner, maybe I'll be able to fix it up with him
somehow. You sure ought to have a dog. So let it stand that way. I'll
tell yuh when to give him up."
Helen May opened her lips, and Starr, to forestall argument and to save
his soul from further sin, turned toward the dog. "Bring 'em home, Pat,"
he said, and then started toward the corral, which was down below the
spring. "Watch him drive," he said to Helen May and so managed to
distract her attention from the ethics of the case.
Without any assistance, Pat drove the goats to the corral. More than
that, at Starr's command, he split the band and held half of them aloof
while the rest went in. He sent these straight down the Basin until Starr
recalled him, when he swung back and corralled them with the others. He
came then toward the three for further orders, whereupon Vic, who had
been silent from sheer amazement, gave a sudden whoop.
"Hey, Pat! You forgot something. Go back and put up the bars!" he
yelled. Then he heaved his hoe-handle far from him and stretched his arms
high over his head like one released from an onerous task. "I'll walk out
and let Pat have my job," he said. "Herding goats is dog's work anyhow,
and I told you so the first day, Helen Blazes. Hadn't herded 'em five
minutes before I knew I wasn't cut out for a farmer."
"Go on, Pat; you stay with your goats," Starr commanded gently. And Pat,
because he had suckled a nanny goat when he was a pup, and had grown up
with her kid, and had lived with goats all his life, trotted into the
corral, found himself a likeable spot near the gate, snuffed it all over,
turned around twice, and curled himself down upon it in perfect content.
"He'll stay there all night," Starr told them, laying the bars in their
sockets. "It's a little early to corral 'em, sundown is about the regular
time, but it's a good scheme to give him plenty of time to get acquainted
with the layout. You get up early, Vic, and let 'em out on the far side
of the ridge. Pat'll do the rest. I'll have to jog along now."
"Well, say," Vic objected, rubbing his tousled blond hair into a
distracted, upstanding condition, "I wish you'd show me just how
you shift his gears. How the dickens do you do it? He don't know
what you say."
Before he left, Starr showed him the gestures, and Vic that evening
practised them so enthusiastically that he nearly drove Helen May wild.
Perhaps that is why, when she was copying a sentence where Holman Sommers
had mentioned the stars of the universe, Helen May spelled stars,
"Starr's" and did not notice the mistake at all.
THE TRAIL OF SILVERTOWN CORDS
Having wasted a couple of hours more than he intended to spend in
delivering the dog, Starr called upon Rabbit to make up those two hours
for him. And, being an extremely misleading little gray horse, with a
surprising amount of speed and endurance stored away under his hide,
Rabbit did not fall far short of doing so.
Starr had planned an unexpected visit to the Medina ranch. In the guise
of stock-buyer his unexpectedness would be perfectly plausible, and he
would be well pleased to arrive there late, so long as he did not arrive
after dark. Just before sundown would do very well, he decided. He would
catch Estan Medina off his guard, and he would have the evening before
him, in case he wanted to scout amongst the arroyos on the way home.
Starr very much wanted to know who drove an automobile without lights
into isolated arroyos and over the desert trails at night. He had not,
strange to say, seen any machine with Silvertown cord tires in San Bonito
or in Malpais, though he had given every car he saw the second glance to
make sure. He knew that such tires were something new and expensive, so
much so that they were not in general use in that locality. Even in El
Paso they were rarely seen at that time, and only the fact that the great
man who gave him his orders had happened to be using them on his machine,
and had mentioned the fact to Starr, who was honored with his friendship,
had caused Starr to be familiar with them and to recognize instantly the
impress they left in soft soil. It was a clue, and that was the best he
could say for it. It was just a little better than nothing, he decided.
What he wanted most was to see the machine itself at close range, and to
see the men who rode in it—and I am going to tell you why.
There was a secret political movement afoot in the Southwest; a movement
hidden so far underground as to be practically unnoticed on the surface;
but a movement, nevertheless, that had been felt and recorded by that
political seismograph, the Secret Service of our Government. It had been
learned, no mere citizen may know just how, that the movement was called
the Mexican Alliance. It was suspected that the object was the
restoration of three of our States to Mexico, their original owner.
Suspected, mind you; and when even the Secret Service can do no more than
suspect, you will see how well hidden was the plot. Its extent and its
ramifications they could only guess at. Its leaders no man could name,
nor even those who might be suspected more than others.
But a general uprising in three States, in conjunction with, and under
the control of, a concerted, far-sweeping revolution across the border,
would not be a thing to laugh over. Uncle Sam smiled tolerantly when some
would have had him chastise. Uncle Sam smiled, and watched, and waited
and drummed his fingers while he read secret reports from men away out
somewhere in Arizona, and New Mexico, and Texas, and urged them to burrow
deeper and deeper underground, and to follow at any cost the molelike
twistings and blind turnings of this plot to steal away three whole
States in a lump.
Now you see, perhaps, why Starr was so curious about that automobile, and
why he was interested in Estancio Medina, Mexican-American rancher who
owned much land and many herds, and who was counted a power among his
countrymen; who spoke English with what passed for fluency, and who had
very decided and intelligent opinions upon political matters, and who
boldly proclaimed his enthusiasm for the advancement of his own race.
But he did not go to the Medina ranch that evening, for the very good
reason that he met his man fair in the trail as it looped around the head
of the draw where he had heard the automobile running without lights. As
on that other evening, Starr had cut straight across the loop, going east
instead of west. And where the trail forked on the farther side he met
Estan Medina driving a big, lathery bay horse hitched to a shiny, new
covered buggy. He seemed in a hurry, but he pulled up nevertheless to
have a word with Starr. And Starr, always observant of details, saw that
he had three or four packages in the bottom of the buggy, which seemed to
bear out Estan's statement that he had been to town, meaning San Bonito.
Starr rolled a cigarette, and smoked it while he gossiped with Estan of
politics, pretty girls, and the price of mutton. He had been eyeing the
new buggy speculatively, and at last he spoke of it in that admiring tone
which warms the heart of the listener.
"Some turnout, Estan," he summed up. "But you ought to be driving an
automobile. All your friends are getting them."
Estan lifted his shoulders in true Spanish fashion and smiled. "No,
amigo. Me, I can take pleasure yet from horses. And the madre, she's so
'fraid of them automobiles. She cries yet when she knows I ride in one a
little bit. Now she's so proud, when I drive the new buggy home! She
folds so pretty her best mantilla over her head and rides with me to
church, and she bows so polite—to all the señoras from the new buggy!
And her face shines with the happiness in her heart. Oh, no, not me for
the big automobile!" He smiled and shrugged and threw out his hands. "I
like best to see my money walking around with wool on the back! Excuse,
señor. I go now to bring the new buggy home and to see the smile of my
mother." Then he bethought him of the tradition of his house. "You come
and have a soft bed and the comfort of my house," he urged. "It is far to
San Bonito, and it is not so far to my house."
Starr explained plausibly his haste, sent a friendly message to the
mother and Luis, and rode on thoughtfully. Now and then he turned to
glance behind him at the dust cloud rolling rapidly around the head
of the draw.
Since Estan had been to town himself that day, Starr reasoned that
there would not be much gained by scouting through the arroyos that led
near the Medina ranch. Estan would have seen in town the men he wanted
to see. He could do so easily enough and without exciting the least
suspicion; for San Bonito had plenty of saloons that were popular, and
yet unobtrusive, meeting places. No need for the mysterious automobile
to make the long journey through the sand to-day, if Estan Medina were
the object of the visit, and Starr knew of no other Mexican out that
way who would be important enough to have a hand in the mixing of
He rode on, letting Rabbit drop into his poco-poco trail trot. He carried
his head bent forward a little, and his eyebrows were pulled into a scowl
of concentrated thought. It was all very well to suspect Estan Medina and
to keep an eye upon him, but there were others who came nearer to the
heart of the plot. He wanted to know who these were, and he believed that
if he could once identify the four Mexicans whom Helen May had seen, he
would be a long step ahead. He considered the simple expedient of asking
her to describe them as closely as she could. But since secrecy was the
keynote of his quest, he did not want to rouse her curiosity, and for
purely personal reasons he did want to shield her as far as possible from
any uneasiness or any entanglement in the affair.
Thinking of Helen May in that light forced him to consider what would be
her plight if he and his co-workers failed, if the plan went on to actual
fulfillment, and the Mexican element actually did revolt. Babes, they
were, those two alone there in Sunlight Basin, with a single-shot
"twenty-two" for defense, when every American rancher in three States
considered high-power rifles and plenty of ammunition as necessary in his
home as flour and bacon!
Starr shivered a little and tried to pull his mind away from Helen May
and her helplessness. At any rate, he comforted himself, they had the dog
for protection, the dog who had been trained to jump the corral fence at
any hour of the night if a stranger, and especially a Mexican came
But he and his co-workers must not fail. If intrigue burrowed deep, then
they must burrow deeper.
So thinking, he came just after sundown to where the trail branched in
three directions. One was the direct road to San Bonito, another took a
roundabout way through a Mexican settlement on the river and so came to
the town from another angle, and the third branch wound over the granite
ridge to Malpais. Studying the problem as a whole, picturing the havoc
which an uprising would wreak upon those vast grazing grounds of the
southwest, and how two nations would be embroiled in spite of themselves,
he was hoping that his collaborators, scattered here and there through
the country, men whose names even he did not know, were making more
headway than he seemed to be making here.
He would not know, of course, unless he were needed to assist or to
supplement their work in some way. But he hoped they had found out
something definite, something which the War Department could take hold
of; a lever, as it were, to pry up the whole scheme. He was thinking of
these things, but his mind was nevertheless alert to the little trail
signs which it had become second nature to read. So he saw, there in the
dust of the trail, where a buggy had turned around and gone back whence
it had come. He saw that it had been traveling toward town but had turned
and come back. And looking more closely, he saw that one horse had pulled
He stopped to make sure of that and to search for footprints. But those
he found were indistinct, blurred partly by the looseness of the sand and
partly by the sparse grass that grew along the trail there, because the
buggy had turned in a hollow. He went on a couple of rods, and he saw
where an automobile had also come to this point and had turned and gone
back toward town, or rather, it had swung sharply around and taken the
trail which led through the Mexican settlement; but he guessed that it
had gone back to town, for all that. And the tire marks were made by
Starr stopped and looked back to where the buggy tracks were faintly
outlined in the dust of the hollow, and he spoke aloud his thought:
"You'd think, just to see him and talk to him, that Estan Medina
assays one hundred per cent, satisfied farmer. He's sure some
fox—that same greaser!" After that he shook Rabbit into a long,
distance-eating lope for town.
Night came with its flaring forerunners of purple and crimson and all the
gorgeous blendings of the two. By the time he reached San Bonito, the
stars were out, and the electric lights were sputtering on certain street
corners. Starr had rented a small adobe cabin and a corral with a shed on
the outskirts of town where his movements might be unobserved. He did not
always use these, but stopped frequently at a hotel with a garrulous
landlord, and stabled his horse at a certain livery which he knew to be a
hotbed of the town's gossip. In both places he was a privileged patron
and was the recipient of many choice bits of scandal whispered behind a
prudent palm, with a wink now and then to supply the finer shades of
meaning. But to-night he chose the cabin and the corral sandwiched
a transfer company's warehouse and a steam laundry that had been closed
by the sheriff. The cabin fronted on a street that was seldom used, and
the corral ran back to a dry arroyo that was used mainly as a dump for
the town's tin cans and dead cats and such; not a particularly attractive
place but secluded.
He turned Rabbit into the corral and fed him, went in and cooked himself
some supper, and afterwards, in a different suit and shoes and a hat that
spoke loudly of the latest El Paso fad in men's headgear, he strolled
down to the corner and up the next street to the nearest garage.
Ostensibly he was looking for one Pedro Miera, who had a large sheep
ranch out east of San Bonito, and who always had fat sheep for sale.
Starr considered it safe to look for Miera, whom he had seen two or three
days before in El Paso just nicely started on a ten-day spree that never
stopped short of the city jail.
Since it was the dull hour between the day's business and the evening's
pleasure, Starr strolled the full length of the garage and back again
before any man spoke to him. He made sure that no car there had the kind
of tires he sought, so he asked if Miera and his machine had showed up
there that day, and left as soon as the man said no.
San Bonito was no city and it did not take long to make the round of the
garages. No one had seen Miera that day, and Starr's disappointment was
quite noticeable, though misunderstood. Not a car in any of the four
garages sported Silvertown cords.
At the last garage an arc light flared over the wide doorway. Starr,
feeling pretty well disgusted, was leaving when he saw a tire track
alongside the red, gasoline filling-pump. He stopped and, under cover of
lighting his cigarette, he studied the tread. Beyond all doubt the car he
wanted had stopped there for gas. But the garage man was a Mexican, so
Starr dared not risk a question or show any interest whatever in the car
whose tires left those long-lined imprints to tell of its passing. He
puffed at his cigarette until he had studied the angle of the front-wheel
track and decided that the car must have been headed south, and that it
had made a rather short turn away from the pump.
This was puzzling for a while. The driver might have been turning around
to go back the way he had come. But it was more likely that he had driven
into the cross street to the west. He strolled over that way, but the
light was too dim to trace automobile tracks in the dust of the street so
he went back to the adobe cabin and put in the next hour oiling and
cleaning and polishing a 25-35 carbine which he meant to give Helen May,
and in filling a cartridge belt with shells.
He sat for some time turning two six-shooters over in his hands, trying
to decide which would please her most. One was lighter than the other,
with an easier trigger action; almost too easy for a novice, he told
himself. But it had a pearl handle with a bulldog carved on the side that
would show when the gun was in its holster. She'd like that fancy stuff,
he supposed. Also he could teach her to shoot straighter with that light
"pull." But the other was what Starr called a sure-enough go-getter.
He finally decided, of course, to give her the fancy one. For Vic he
would have to buy a gun; an automatic, maybe. He'd have to talk coyotes
pretty strong, in order to impress it upon them that they must never go
away anywhere without a gun. Good thing there was a bounty on coyotes;
the money would look big to the kid, anyway. It occurred to him further
that he could tell them there was danger of running into a rabid coyote.
Rabies had caused a good deal of trouble in the State, so he could make
the danger plausible enough.
He did not worry much over frightening the girl. She had nerve enough.
Think of her tackling that ranch proposition, with just that cub brother
to help! When Starr thought of that slim, big-eyed, smiling girl in white
fighting poverty and the white plague together out there on the rim of
the desert, a lump came up in his throat. She had nerve enough—that
plucky little lady with the dull-gold hair, and the brown velvet
eyes!—more nerve than he had where she was concerned.
He went to bed and lay for a long time thinking of Helen May out there
in that two-roomed adobe cabin, with a fifteen-year-old boy for
protection and miles of wilderness between her and any other human
habitation. It was small comfort then to Starr that she had the dog. One
bullet can settle a dog, and then—Starr could not look calmly at the
possibility of what might happen then.
"They've no business out there like that, alone!" he muttered, rising to
an elbow and thumping his hard pillow viciously. "Good Lord! Haven't they
got any folks?"
THE WIND BLOWS MANY STRAWS
Soon after daylight, Rabbit snorted and ran a little way down the corral
toward the cabin. Starr, trained to light sleeping and instant waking,
was up and standing back from the little window with his six-shooter in
his hand before Rabbit had stopped to whirl and look for what had scared
him. So Starr was in time to see a "big four" Stetson hat with a
horsehair hatband sink from sight behind the high board fence at the rear
of the corral.
Starr waited. Rabbit shook his head as though he were disgusted with
himself, and began nosing the ground for the wisps of hay which a high
wind had blown there. Starr retreated to a point in the room where he
could see without risk of being seen, and watched. In a few minutes, when
the horse had forgotten all about the incident and was feeding again, the
Stetson hat very cautiously rose once more. Under its gray brim Starr saw
a pair of black eyes peer over the fence. He watched them glancing here
and there, coming finally to rest upon the cabin itself. They watched
Rabbit, and Starr knew that they watched for some sign of alarm rather
than from any great interest in the horse: Rabbit lifted his head and
looked that way boredly for a moment before he went back to his feeding,
and the eyes lifted a little, so that the upper part of the owner's face
came into view. A young Mexican, Starr judged him, because of his smooth
skin around the eyes. He waited. The fellow rose now so that the fence
came just below his lips, which were full and curved in the pleasant
lines of youth. His eyes kept moving this way and that, so that the
whites showed with each turn of the eyeball. Starr studied what he could
see of the face. Thick eyebrows well formed except that the left one took
a whimsical turn upward; heavy lashes, the high, thin nose of the Mexican
who is part Indian—as are practically all of the lower, or peon
class—that much he had plenty of time to note. Then there was the mouth,
which Starr knew might be utterly changed in appearance when one saw the
chin that went with it.
A hundred young fellows in San Bonito might answer equally well a
description of those features. And the full-crowned gray Stetson may be
seen by the thousand in at least four States; and horsehair hatbands may
be bought in any saddlery for two or three dollars—perhaps for less, if
one does not demand too long a pair of tassels—and are loved by Indians
and those who think they are thus living up to the picturesque Old West.
So far as he could see, there was nothing much to identify the fellow,
unless he could get a better look at him.
The Mexican gave another long look at the cabin, studying every point,
even to the roof. Then he tried to see into the shed where Starr kept his
saddle and where Rabbit could shelter himself from the cold winds. There
was no door, no front, even, on the side toward the house. But the end of
the shed was built out into the corral so that the fellow could not see
around its corner.
He moved along the fence, which gave Starr a very good idea of his
height, and down to the very corner of the vacant laundry building. There
he stopped and looked again. He was eyeing Starr's saddle, apparently
taking in every detail of its workmanship. He looked again at Rabbit, who
was turned then so that his brand, the double Turkey-track, stood out
plainly on both thighs. Then, with another slant-eyed inspection of the
cabin, he ducked down behind the fence and disappeared, his going
betrayed by his hat crown which was taller than he imagined and showed a
good four inches above the fence.
Starr had edged along the dark wall of the room so that he had kept the
man in sight. Now, when the hat crown moved away down the trail that
skirted the garbage-filled arroyo, he snorted, threw his gun down on the
bed, and began to dress himself, rummaging in his "warbag" for a gray
checked cap and taking down from the wall a gray suit that he had never
liked and had never worn since the day it came from the mail, looking
altogether different from the four-inch square he had chosen from a
tailor agent's sample book. He snorted again when he had the suit on, and
surveyed it with a dissatisfied, downward glance. In his opinion he
looked like a preacher trying to disguise himself as a sport, but to
complete the combination he unearthed a pair of tan shoes and put them
on. After that he stood for a minute staring down the fresh-creased gray
trousers to his toes.
"Looks like the very devil!" he snorted again. "But anyway, it's
different." He dusted the cap by the simple expedient of slapping it
several times against his leg. When he had hung it on the back of his
head and pulled it well down in front—as nine out of ten men always put
on a cap—he did indeed look different, though he did not look at all
like the demon he named. Helen May, for instance, would have needed a
second close glance before she recognized him, but that glance would
probably have carried with it a smile for his improved appearance.
He surveyed as much of the neighborhood as he could see through the
windows, looked at his watch, and saw that it was late enough for him to
appear down town without exciting comment from the early birds, and went
out into the corral and fed Rabbit. He looked over the fence where the
Mexican had stood, but the faint imprints of the man's boots were not
definite enough to tell him anything. He surveyed the neighborhood from
different angles and could see no trace of any one watching the place, so
he felt fairly satisfied that the fellow had gone for the present, though
he believed it very likely that he might return later.
As he saw the incident, he was not yet considered worth shadowing, but
had in some way excited a certain degree of curiosity about himself.
Starr did not like that at all. He had hoped to impress every one with
his perfect harmlessness, and to pass for a stock buyer and nothing else.
He could not imagine how he had possibly excited suspicion, and he wanted
to lull it immediately and permanently. The obvious way to do that would
be to rise late, saddle Rabbit and ride around town a little—to the post
office and a saloon, for instance—get his breakfast at the
best-patronized place in town, and then go about his legitimate
business. On the other hand, he wanted to try and trace those cord tires
down the cross street, if he could, and he could not well do that on
horseback without betraying himself.
The shed was built out flush with the arroyo edge, so that at the rear of
the corral one could only go as far as the gate, which closed against the
end of the shed. It occurred to Starr that if the young Mexican had been
looking for something to steal, he would probably have come in at the
gate, which was fastened only with a stout hook on the inside. The arroyo
bank had caved under the farther corner of the shed, so that a hole the
size of a large barrel showed at that end of the manger. Cats and dogs,
and perhaps boys, had gone in and out there until a crude kind of trail
was worn down the bank to the arroyo bottom. At some risk to his tan
shoes and his new gray suit, Starr climbed into the manger and let
himself down that hole. The trail was firm and dry and so steep he had to
dig his heels in to keep from tobogganing to the bottom, but once down he
had only to follow the arroyo bottom to a place where he could climb out.
Before he found such a place he came to a deep, dry gully that angled
back toward the business part of town. A footpath in the bottom of it
encouraged him to follow it, and a couple of hundred yards farther along
he emerged upon the level end of a street given over to secondhand
stores, junk shops and a plumber's establishment. From there to the main
street was easy enough.
As he had expected, only a few citizens were abroad and Starr strolled
over to the cross street he wanted to inspect. He found the long-lined
tread of the tires he sought plainly marked where they had turned into
this street. After that he lost them where they had been blotted out by
the broad tires of a truck. When he was sure that he could trace them no
farther, he turned back, meaning to have breakfast at his favorite
restaurant. And as he turned, he met face to face a tall young Mexican in
a full-crowned Stetson banded with horsehair.
Now, as I have said before, San Bonito was full of young Mexicans who
wore Stetson hats and favored horsehair bands around them. Starr
glanced at the fellow sharply, got the uninterested, impersonal look
of the perfect stranger who neither knows nor cares who you are, and
who has troubles of his own to occupy his mind; the look which
nineteen persons out of twenty give to a stranger on the street. Starr
went on unconcernedly whistling under his breath, but at the corner he
turned sharply to the left, and in turning he flicked a glance back at
the fellow. The Mexican was not giving him any attention whatever, as
far as he could see; on the contrary, he was staring down at the
ground as though he, too, were looking for something. Starr gave him
another stealthy look, gained nothing from it, and shrugged his
shoulders and went on.
He ate his breakfast while he turned the matter over in his mind. What
had he done to rouse suspicion against himself? He could not remember
anything, for he had not yet found anything much to work on; nothing, in
fact, except that slight clue of the automobile, and he did not even know
who had been in it. He suspected that they had gone to meet Estan Medina,
but as long as that suspicion was tucked away in the back of his mind,
how was any one going to know that he suspected Estan? He had not been
near the chief of police or the sheriff or any other officer. He had not
talked with any man about the Mexican Alliance, nor had he asked any man
about it. Instead, he had bought sheep and cattle and goats and hogs from
the ranchers, and he had paid a fair price for them and had shipped them
openly, under the eye of the stock inspector, to the El Paso Meat
Company. So far he had kept his eyes open and his mouth shut, and had
waited until some ripple on the surface betrayed the disturbance
He was not sure that the young man he met on the street was the one who
had been spying over the fence, but he did not mean to take it for
granted that he was not the same, and perhaps be sorry afterwards for his
carelessness. He strolled around town, bought an automatic gun and a lot
of cartridges for Vic, went into a barber shop on a corner and had a
shave and a haircut, and kept his eyes open for a tall young Mexican who
might be unduly interested in his movements.
He met various acquaintances who expressed surprise at not having seen
him around the hotel. To these he explained that he had rented a corral
for his horse, where he could be sure of the feed Rabbit was getting, and
to save the expense of a livery stable. Rabbit had been kinda off his
feed, he said, and he wanted to look after him himself. So he had been
sleeping in the cabin that went with the corral.
His friends thought that was a sensible move, and praised his judgment,
and Starr felt better. He did not, however, tell them just where the
corral was located. He had some notion of moving to another place, so he
considered that it would be just as well not to go into details.
So thinking, he took his packages and started across to the gully which
led into the arroyo that let him into his place by the back way. He meant
to return as he had come; and if any one happened to be spying, he would
think Starr had chosen that route as a short cut to town, which it was.
A block away from the little side street that opened to the gully, Starr
stopped short, shocked into a keener attention to his surroundings. He
had just stepped over an automobile track on the walk, where a machine
had crossed it to enter a gateway which was now closed. And the track had
been made by a cord tire. He looked up at the gate of unpainted planks,
heavy-hinged and set into a high adobe wall such as one sees so often in
New Mexico. The gate was locked, as he speedily discovered; locked on the
inside, he guessed, with bars or great hooks or something.
He went on to the building that seemed to belong to the place; a long
two-story adobe building with the conventional two-story gallery running
along the entire front, and with the deep-set, barred windows that are
also typically Mexican. Every town in the adobe section of the southwest
has a dozen or so buildings almost exactly like this one. The door was
blue-painted, with the paint scaling off. Over it was a plain lettered
sign: LAS NUEVAS.
Starr had seen copies of that paper at the Mexican ranches he visited,
and as far as he knew, it was an ordinary newspaper of the country-town
style, printed in Mexican for the benefit of a large percentage of
Mexican-Americans whose knowledge of English print is extremely hazy.
He walked on slowly to the corner, puzzling over this new twist in the
faint clue he followed. It had not occurred to him that so innocuous a
sheet as Las Nuevas should be implicated, and yet, why not? He turned
at the corner and went back to the nearest newstand, where he bought an
El Paso paper for a blind and laid it down on a pile of Las Nuevas
while he lighted his cigarette. He talked with the little, pock-marked
Mexican who kept the shop, and when the fellow's back was turned toward
him for a minute, he stole a copy of Las Nuevas off the pile and
strolled out of the shop with it wrapped in his El Paso paper.
He stole it because he knew that not many Americans ever bought the
paper, and he feared that the hombre in charge might wonder why an
American should pay a nickel for a copy of Las Nuevas. As it happened,
the hombre in charge was looking into a mirror cunningly placed for the
guarding of stock from pilferers, and he saw Starr steal the paper. Also
he saw Starr slip a dime under a stack of magazines where it would be
found later on. So he wondered a great deal more than he would have done
if Starr had bought the paper, but Starr did not know that.
Starr went back to his cabin by way of the arroyo and the hole in the
manger. When he unlocked the door and went in, he had an odd feeling that
some one had been there in his absence. He stood still just inside the
door and inspected everything, trying to remember just where his clothes
had been scattered, where he had left his hat, just how his blankets had
been flung back on the bed when he jumped up to see what had startled
Rabbit; every detail, in fact, that helps to make up the general look of
a room left in disorder.
He did remember, for his memory had been well trained for details. He
knew that his hat had been on the table with the front toward the wall.
It was there now, just as he had flung it down. He knew that his pillow
had been dented with the shape of his head, and that it had lain askew on
the bed; it was just as it had been. Everything—his boots, his dark coat
spread over the back of the chair, his trousers across the foot of the
bed—everything was the same, yet the feeling persisted.
Starr was no more imaginative than he needed to be for the work he had
to do. He was not in the least degree nervous over that work. Yet he was
sure some one had been in the room during his absence, and he could not
tell why he was sure. At least, for ten minutes and more he could not
tell why. Then his eyes lighted upon a cigarette stub lying on the
hearth of the little cookstove in one corner of the room. Starr always
used "wheat straw" papers, which were brown. This cigarette had been
rolled in white paper. He picked it up and discovered that one end was
still moist from the lips of the smoker, and the other end was still
warm from the fire that had half consumed it. Starr gave an enlightened
sniff and knew it was his olfactory nerves that had warned him of an
alien presence there; for the tobacco in this cigarette was not the
brand he smoked.
He stood thinking it over; puzzling again over the mystery of their
suspicion of him. He tried to recall some careless act, some imprudent
question, an ill-considered remark. He was giving up the riddle again
when that trained memory of his flashed before him a picture that,
trivial as it was in itself, yet was as enlightening as the white paper
of the cigarette on the stove hearth.
Two days before, just after his last arrival in San Bonito, he had sent a
wire to a certain man in El Paso. The message itself had not been of very
great importance, but the man to whom he had sent it had no connection
whatever with the Meat Company. He was, in fact, the go-between in the
investigation of the Secret Service. Through him the War Department
issued commands to Starr and his fellows, and through him it kept in
touch with the situation. Starr had used two code words and a number in
And, he now distinctly remembered, the girl who had waited upon him was
dark, with a Spanish cast of features. When she had counted the words and
checked the charge and pushed his change across to him, she had given him
a keen, appraising look from under her lashes, though the smile she sent
with it had given the glance a feminine and wholly flattering
interpretation. Starr remembered that look now and saw in it something
more than coquetry. He remembered, too, that he had glanced back from the
doorway and caught her still looking after him; and that he had smiled,
and she had smiled swiftly in return and had then turned away abruptly to
her work. To her work? Starr remembered now that she had turned and
spoken to a sulky-faced messenger boy who was sitting slumped down on the
curve of his back with his tightly buttoned tunic folded up to his
armpits so that his hands could burrow to the very bottom of his pockets.
He had looked up, muttered something, reluctantly removed himself from
the chair, and started away. The boy, too, had the Mexican look.
Well, at any rate, he knew now how the thing had started. He heaved a
sigh of relief and threw himself down on the bed, wadding the pillow
into a hard ball under the nape of his neck and unfolding the Mexican
newspaper. He had intended to move camp; but now that they had begun to
trail him, he decided to stay where he was and give them a run for their
money, as he put it.
Starr could read Spanish well enough for ordinary purposes. He went
carefully through Las Nuevas, from war news to the local
advertisements. There was nothing that could even be twisted into a
message of hidden meaning to the initiated. Las Nuevas was what it
called itself: The News. It was exactly as innocuous as he had believed
it to be. Its editorial page, even, was absolutely banal in its servility
to the city, county, state and national policy.
"That's a hell of a thing to steal!" grumbled Starr, and threw the paper
disgustedly from him.
STARR FINDS SOMETHING IN A SECRET ROOM
That day Starr rode out into the country and looked at a few head of cows
and steers that a sickly American wanted to sell so he could go East for
his health (there being in most of us some peculiar psychological leaning
toward seeking health afar). Starr went back to town afterwards and made
Rabbit comfortable in the corral, reasoning that if he were going to be
watched, he would be watched no matter where he went; but he ate his
supper in the dining room of the Plaza Hotel, and sat in the lobby
talking with a couple of facetious drummers until the mechanical piano in
the movie show across the street began to play.
He went to the show, sat through it patiently, strolled out when it was
over, and visited a saloon or two. Then, when he thought his evening
might be considered well rounded out with harmless diversions, he went
out to his cabin, following the main street but keeping well in the
shadow as though he wished to avoid observation.
He had reason to believe that some one followed him out there, which did
not displease him much. He lighted his lamp and fussed around for half an
hour or so before he blew out the light and went to bed.
At three o'clock in the morning, with a wind howling in from the
mountains, Starr got up and dressed in the dark, fumbling for a pair of
"sneakers" he had placed beside his bed. He let himself out into the
corral, being careful to keep close to the wall of the house until he
reached the high board fence. Here, too, he had to feel his way because
of the pitchy blackness of the night; and if the rattling wind prevented
him from hearing any footsteps that might be behind him, it also covered
the slight sound of his own progress down the fence to the shed. But he
did not think he would be seen or followed, for he had been careful to
oil the latch and hinges of his door before he went to bed; and he would
be a faithful spy indeed who shivered through the whole night, watching a
man who apparently slept unsuspectingly and at peace.
Down the hole from the manger Starr slid, and into the arroyo bottom. He
stumbled over a can of some sort, but the wind was rattling everything
movable, so he merely swore under his breath and went on. He was not a
range man for nothing, and he found his way easily to the adobe house
with LAS NUEVAS over the door, and the adobe wall with the plank gate
that had been closed.
It was closed now, and the house itself was black and silent. Starr
stooped and gave a jump, caught the top of the wall with his hooked
fingers, went up and straddled the top where it was pitch black against
the building. For that matter, it was nearly pitch black whichever way
one looked, that night. He sat there for five minutes, listening and
straining his eyes into the enclosure. Somewhere a piece of corrugated
iron banged against a board. Once he heard a cat meow, away back at the
rear of the lot. He waited through a comparative lull, and when the wind
whooped again and struck the building with a fresh blast, Starr jumped to
the ground within the yard.
He crouched for a minute, a shot-loaded quirt held butt forward in his
hand. He did not want to use a gun unless he had to, and the loaded end
of a good quirt makes a very efficient substitute for a blackjack. But
there was no movement save the wind, so presently he followed the wall of
the house down to the corner, stood there listening for awhile and went
on, feeling his way rapidly around the entire yard as a blind man feels
out a room that is strange to him.
He found the garage, with a door that kept swinging to and fro in the
wind, banging shut with a slam and then squealing the hinges as it
opened again with the suction. He drew a breath of relief when he came to
that door, for he knew that any man who happened to be on guard would
have fastened it for the sake of his nerves if for nothing else.
When he was sure that the place was deserted for the night, Starr went
back to the garage and went inside. He fastened the door shut behind him
and switched on his pocket searchlight to examine the place. If he had
expected to see the mysterious black car there he was disappointed, for
the garage was empty—which perhaps explained the swinging door, that had
been left open in the evening when there was no wind. Small comfort in
that for Starr, for it immediately occurred to him that the car would
probably return before daylight if it had gone after dark.
He turned his hand slowly, painting the walls with a brush of brilliant
light. "Huh!" he grunted under his breath. For there in a far corner were
four Silvertown cord tires with the dust of the desert still clinging to
the creases of the lined tread. Near-by, where they had been torn off in
haste and flung aside, were the paper wrappings of four other tires,
So they—he had no more definite term by which to call them—they had
sensed the risk of those unusual tires, and had changed for others of a
more commonly-used brand! Starr wondered if some one had seen him looking
at tire-tracks, the young Mexican he had met on the side street, perhaps.
Or the Mexican garage man may have caught him studying that track by the
"Well," Starr summed up the significance of the discovery, "the game's
open; now we'll get action."
He glanced down to make sure that he had not left any tracks on the floor
and was glad he had not worn his boots. Then he snapped off the light,
went out, and left the door swinging and banging as it had been before.
If he learned no more, at least he was paid for the trip.
He went straight to the rear door of the building, taking no pains to
conceal his footsteps. The wind, he knew, would brush them out completely
with the sand and dust it sent swirling around the yard with every gust.
As he had hoped, the door was not bolted but locked with a key, so he let
himself in with one of the pass keys he carried for just such work as
this. He felt at the windows and saw that the blinds were down, and
turned on his light.
The place had all the greasy dinginess of the ordinary print shop. The
presses were here, and the motor that operated them. Being a bi-weekly
and not having much job printing to do, it was evident that Las Nuevas
did not work overtime. Things were cleaned up for the night and ready for
the next day's work. It all looked very commonplace and as innocent as
the paper it produced.
Starr went on slowly, examining the forms, the imperfect first proofs of
circulars and placards that had been placed on hook files. AVISO! stared
up at him in big, black type from the top of many small sheets, with the
following notices of sales, penalties attached for violations of certain
ordinances, and what not. But there was nothing that should not be there,
nothing that could be construed as seditionary in any sense of the word.
Still, some person or persons connected with this place had found it
expedient to change four perfectly good and quite expensive tires for
four new and perfectly commonplace ones, and the only explanation
possible was that the distinctive tread of the expensive ones had been
observed. There must, Starr reasoned, be something else in this place
which it would be worth his while to discover. He therefore went
carefully up the grimy stairway to the rooms above.
These were offices of the comfortless type to be found in small towns.
Bare floors, stained with tobacco juice and the dust of the street.
Bare desks and tables, some of them unpainted, homemade affairs, all
of them cheap and old. A stove in the larger office, a few
wooden-seated armchairs. Starr took in the details with a flick here
and there of his flashlight that he kept carefully turned away from the
News items, used and unused, he found impaled on desk files. Bills paid
and unpaid he found also. But in the first search he found nothing
else, nothing that might not be found in any third-rate newspaper
establishment. He stood in the middle room—there were three in a row,
with an empty, loft-like room behind—and considered where else he
He went again to a closet that had been built in with boards behind the
chimney. At first glance this held nothing but decrepit brooms, a
battered spittoon, and a small pile of greasewood cut to fit the heater
in the larger room; but Starr went in and flashed his light around the
wall. He found a door at the farther end, and he knew it for a door
only when he passed his hands over the wall and felt it yield. He
pushed it open and went into another room evidently built across one
end of the loft, a room cunningly concealed and therefore a room likely
to hold secrets.
He hitched his gun forward a little, pushed the door shut behind him, and
began to search that room. Here, as in the outer offices, the first
superficial examination revealed nothing out of the way. But Starr did
not go at things superficially. First the desk came under close scrutiny.
There were no letters; they were too cautious for that, evidently. He
looked in the little stove that stood near the wall where the chimney
went up in the closet, and saw that the ashes consisted mostly of charred
paper. But the last ones deposited therein had not yet been lighted, or,
more exactly, they had been lighted hastily and had not burned except
around the edges. He lifted out the one on top and the one beneath it.
They were two sheets of copy paper scribbled closely in pencil. The first
was entitled, with heavy underscoring that signified capitals, "Souls in
Bondage." This sounded interesting, and Starr put the papers in his
pocket. The others were envelopes addressed to Las Nuevas; there was no
more than a handful of papers in all.
In a drawer of the desk, which he opened with a skeleton key, he found
many small leaflets printed in Mexican. Since they were headed ALMAS DE
CAUTIVERO, he took one and hoped that it would not be missed. There were
other piles of leaflets in other drawers, and he helped himself to a
sample of each, and relocked the drawers carefully. But search as he
might, he could find nothing that identified any individual, or even
pointed to any individual as being concerned in this propaganda work; nor
could he find any mention of the Mexican Alliance.
He went out finally, let the door swing behind him as it seemed
accustomed to do, climbed through a window to the veranda that bordered
all these rooms like a jutting eyebrow, and slid down a corner post to
the street. It was close to dawn, and Starr had no wish to be found near
the place; indeed, he had no wish to be found away from his cabin if any
one came there with the breaking of day to watch him.
As he had left the cabin, so he returned to it. He went back to bed and
lay there until sunrise, piecing together the scraps of information he
had gleaned. So far, he felt that he was ahead of the game; that he had
learned more about the Alliance than the Alliance had learned about him.
As soon as the light was strong enough for him to read without a lamp, he
took from his pocket the papers he had gleaned from the stove, spread out
the first and began to decipher the handwriting. And this is what he
finally made out:
"Souls in Bondage:
"The plundering plutocrats who suck the very life blood of your mother
country under the guise of the development of her resources, are working
in harmony with the rich brigands north of the border to plunder you
further, and to despoil the fair land you have helped to win from the
"Shall strong men be content in their slavery to the greed of others?
Rise up and help us show the plunderers that we are men, not slaves. Let
this shameless persecution of your mother country cease!
"American bandits would subjugate and annex the richest portion of
Mexico. Why should not Mexico therefore reclaim her own? Why not turn the
tables and annex a part of the vast territory stolen from her by the
octopus arms of our capitalist class?
"We are a proud people and we never forget. Are we a cowardly people who
would cringe and yield when submission means infamy?
"Awake! Strike one swift, successful blow for freedom and your bleeding
"Texas, New Mexico, California and Arizona were stolen from Mexico, just
as the riches of her mines are being stolen from her to-day. Sons of
Mexico, you can help her reclaim her own. Will you stand by and see her
further despoiled? Let your voices rise in a mighty cry for justice! Let
your arms be strong to strike a blow for the right!
"Souls in bondage, wake up and strike off your shackles! Be not slaves
but free men!
"Texas, New Mexico and Arizona for Mexico, to whom they rightfully
"They sure do make it strong enough," Starr commented, feeling for a
match with which to relight his cigarette that had gone out. He laid down
the written pages and took up the leaflet entitled, "ALMAS DE CAUTIVERO."
The text that followed was like the heading, simply a translation into
Spanish of the exhortation he had just read in English. But he read it
through and noted the places where the Spanish version was even more
inflammatory than the English—which, in Starr's opinion, was going some.
The other pamphlets were much the same, citing well-known instances of
the revolution across the border which seemed to prove conclusively that
justice was no more than a jest, and that the proletariat of Mexico was
getting the worst of the bargain, no matter who happened to be in power.
Starr frowned thoughtfully over the reading. To him the thing was
treason, and it was his business to help stamp it out. For the powers
that be cannot afford to tolerate the planting of such seeds of
dissatisfaction amongst the untrained minds of the masses.
But, and Starr admitted it to himself with his mouth pulled down at the
corners, the worst of it was that under the bombast, under the
vituperative utterances, the catch phrases of radicalism, there remained
the grains of truth. Starr knew that the masses of Mexico were
suffering, broken under the tramplings of revolution and
counter-revolution that swept back and forth from gulf to gulf. Still, it
was not his business to sift out the plump grains of truth and justice,
but to keep the chaff from lighting and spreading a wildfire of sedition
through three States.
"'Souls in bondage' is right," he said, setting his feet to the floor
and reaching for his boots. "In bondage to their own helplessness, and
helpless because they're so damned ignorant. But," he added grimly while
he stamped his right foot into its boot, "they ain't going at it the
right way. They're tryin' to tear down, when they ain't ready to build
anything on the wreck. They're right about the wrong; but they're wrong
as the devil about the way to mend it. Them pamphlets will sure raise
hell amongst the Mexicans, if the thing ain't stopped pronto."
He dressed for riding, and went out and fed Rabbit before he went
thoughtfully up to the hotel for his breakfast.
HELEN MAY SIGHS FOR ROMANCE
Helen May was toiling over the ridgy upland which in New Mexico is called
a mesa, when it is not a desert—and sometimes when it is one—taking her
turn with the goats while Vic nursed a strained ankle and a grouch under
the mesquite tree by the house. With Pat to help, the herding resolved
itself into the exercise of human intelligence over the dog's skill. Pat,
for instance, would not of his own accord choose the best grazing for his
band, but he could drive them to good grazing once it was chosen for him.
So, theoretically, Helen May was exercising her human intelligence;
actually she was exercising her muscles mostly. And having an abundance
of brain energy that refused to lie dormant, she had plenty of time to
think her own thoughts while Pat carried out her occasional orders.
For one thing, Helen May was undergoing the transition from a mild
satisfaction with her education and mentality, to a shamed consciousness
of an appalling ignorance and mental crudity. Holman Sommers was
unwittingly the cause of that. There was nothing patronizing or
condescending in the attitude of Holman Sommers, even if he did run to
long words and scientifically accurate descriptions of the smallest
subjects. It was the work he placed before her that held Helen May
abashed before his vast knowledge. She could not understand half of what
she deciphered and typed for him, and because she could not understand
she realized the depth of her benightedness.
She was awed by the breadth and the scope which she sensed more or less
vaguely in The Evolution of Sociology. Holman Sommers quoted freely,
and discussed boldly and frankly, such abstruse authors as Descartes,
Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Comte, Gumplowicz, some of them names she had
never heard of and could not even spell without following her copy
letter by letter. Holman Sommers seemed to have read all of them and to
have weighed all of them and to be able to quote all of them offhand;
whereas Schopenhauer was the only name in the lot that sounded in the
least familiar to Helen May, and she had a guilty feeling that she had
always connected the name with music instead of the sort of things
Holman Sommers quoted him as having said or written, she could not make
Helen May, therefore, was suffering from mental growing pains. She
struggled with new ideas which she had swallowed whole, without any
previous elementary knowledge of the subject. Her brain was hungry, her
life was stagnant, and she seized upon these sociological problems which
Holman Sommers had placed before her, and worried over them, and wondered
where Holman Sommers had learned so much about things she had never heard
of. Save his vocabulary, which wearied her, he was the simplest, the
kindest of men, though not kind as her Man of the Desert was kind.
Just here in her thoughts Holman Sommers faded, and Starr's lean,
whimsical face came out sharply defined before her mental vision. Starr
certainly was different! Ordinary, and not educated much beyond the three
Rs, she suspected. Just a desert man with a nice voice and a gift for
provocative little silences. Two men could not well be farther apart in
personality, she thought, and she amused herself by comparing them.
For instance, take the case of Pat. Sommers had told her just why and
just how desperately she needed a dog for the goats, and had urged her by
all means to get one at the first opportunity. Starr had not said
anything about it; he had simply brought the dog. Helen May appreciated
the different quality of the kindness that does things.
Privately, she suspected that Starr had stolen that dog, he had seemed so
embarrassed while he explained how he came by Pat; especially, she
remembered, when she had urged him to take the dog back. She would not,
of course, dare hint it even to Vic; and theoretically she was of course
shocked at the possibility. But, oh, she was human! That a nice man
should swipe a dog for her secretly touched a little, responsive
tenderness in Helen May. (She used the word "swipe," which somehow made
the suspected deed sound less a crime and more an amusing peccadillo than
the word "steal" would have done. Have you ever noticed how adroitly we
tone down or magnify certain misdeeds simply by using slang or dictionary
words as the case may be?)
Oh, she saw it quite plainly, as she trudged over to the shady side of a
rock ridge and sat down where she could keep an eye on Pat and the goats.
She told herself that she would ask her Man of the Desert, the next time
he happened along, whether he had found out who the dog belonged to. If
he acted confused and dodged the issue, then she would know for sure.
Just what she would do when she knew for sure, Helen May had not decided.
The goats were browsing docilely upon the slope, eating stuff which only
a goat would attempt to eat. Helen May was not afraid of Billy since Pat
had taken charge. Pat had a way of keeping Billy cowed and as harmless
as the nannies themselves. Just now Pat was standing at a little distance
with his tongue slavering down over his white teeth, gazing over the band
as a general looks at his army drawn up in review.
He turned his head and glanced at Helen May inquiringly, then trotted
over to where she sat in the shade. His tongue still drooped quiveringly
over his lower jaw; and now and then he drew it back and licked his lips
as though they were dry. Helen May found a rock that was hollowed like a
crude saucer, and poured water into the hollow from her canteen. Pat
lapped it up thirstily, gave his stubby tail a wag of gratitude, lay down
with his front paws on the edge of her skirt with his head dropped down
upon them, and took a nap—with one eye opening now and then to see that
the goats were all right, and with his ears lifting to catch the meaning
of every stray bleat from a garrulous nanny.
Helen May had changed a good deal in the past two or three weeks. Now
when she stared away and away over the desert and barren slope and ridges
and mountain, she did not feel that she hated them. Instead, she saw that
the yellow of the desert, the brown of the slopes, and the black of the
distant granite ledges basseting from bleak hills were more beautiful
than the tidy little plots of tilled ground she used to think so lovely.
There was something hypnotic in these bald distances. She could not read,
when she was out like this; she could only look and think and dream.
She wished that she might ride out over it sometime, away over to the
mountains, perhaps, as far as she could see. She fell to dreaming of the
old days when this was Spanish territory, and the king gave royal grants
of land to his favorites: for instance, all the country lying between two
mountain ranges, to where a river cut across and formed a natural
boundary. Holman Sommers had told her about the old Spanish grants, and
how many of the vast estates of Mexican "cattle kings" and "sheep kings"
were still preserved almost intact, just as they had been when this was a
part of Mexico.
She wished that she might have lived here then, when the dons held sway
and when señoritas were all beautiful and when señoras were every one of
them imposing in many jewels and in rich mantillas, and when vaqueros
wore red sashes and beautiful serapes and big, gold-laced sombreros, and
rode prancing steeds that curveted away from jingling, silver-rowelled
spurs. Helen May, you must remember, knew her moving-picture romance. She
could easily vision these things exactly as they had been presented to
her on the screen. That is why she peopled this empty land so gorgeously.
It was different now, of course. All the Mexicans she had seen were
like the Mexicans around the old Plaza in Los Angeles. All the señoritas
she had met—they had not been many—powdered and painted abominably to
the point of their jaws and left their necks dirty. And their petticoats
were draggled and their hats looked as though they had been trimmed from
the ten-cent counter of a cheap store. All the señoras were smoky
looking with snakish eyes, and the dresses under their heavy-fringed
black mantillas were more frowsy than those of their daughters. They
certainly were not imposing; and if they wore jewelry at all it looked
brassy and cheap.
There was no romance, nothing like adventure here nowadays, said Helen
May to herself, while she watched the little geysers of dust go dancing
like whirling dervishes across the sand. A person lived on canned stuff
and kept goats and was abjectly pleased to see any kind of human being.
There certainly was no romance left in the country, though it had seemed
almost as though there might be, when her Man of the Desert sang and all
the little night-sounds hushed to listen, and the moon-trail across the
sand of the desert lay like a ribbon of silver. It had seemed then as
though there might be romance yet alive in the wide spaces.
So she had swung back again to Starr, just as she was always doing
lately. She began to wonder when he would come again, and what he would
have to say next time, and whether he had really annexed some poor sheep
man's perfectly good dog, just because he knew she needed one. It would
never do to let on that she guessed; but all the same, it was mighty nice
of him to think of her, even if he did go about it in a queer way. And
when Pat, who had seemed to be asleep, lifted his head and looked up into
her eyes adoringly, Helen May laid her hand upon his smooth skull and
No more romance, said Helen May—and here was Starr, a man of mystery, a
man feared and distrusted by the sons of those passionate dons of whom
she dreamed! Here was Starr, Secret Service man (there is ever a glamor
in the very name of it), the very essence and forefront of such romance
and such adventure as she had gasped over, when she had seen it pictured
on the screen! She was living right in the middle of intrigue that was
stirring the rulers of two nations; she was coming close to real
adventure, and there she sat, with Pat lying on the hem of her skirt, and
mourned that she was fifty or a hundred years too late for even a glimpse
at romance! And fretted because she was helping Pat herd goats, and
because life was dull and commonplace.
"Honestly," she told Pat, "I've got to the point where I catch myself,
looking forward to the chance visits of a wandering cowboy who is
perfectly commonplace. Why, he'd be absolutely lost on the screen; you
wouldn't know he was in the picture unless his horse bucked or fell down
or something! And I don't suppose he ever has a thought beyond his work
and his little five-cent celebrations in San Bonito, maybe. Most likely
he flirts with those grimy-necked Mexican girls, too. You can't tell—
"And think of me being so hard up for excitement that I've got to play
he's some mysterious creature of the desert! Honest to goodness, Pat,
it's got so bad that the mere sight of a real, live man is thrilling.
When Holman Sommers comes and lifts that old Panama like a crown prince,
and smiles at me and talks about all the different periods of the human
race, and gems and tribal laws and all that highbrow dope, I just sit and
drink it in and wish he'd keep on for hours! Can you beat that? And if by
any chance a common, ordinary specimen of desert man should ride by, I
might be desperate enough—"
Her gaze, wandering always out over the tremendous sweep of plateau which
from that point looked illimitable as the ocean, settled upon a whirlwind
that displayed method and a slow sedateness not at all in keeping with
the erratic gyrations of those gone before. Watching it wistfully with a
half-formed hope that it might not be just a dry-weather whirlwind, her
droning voice trailed off into silence. A faint beating in her throat
betrayed what it was she half hoped. She was so desperately lonesome!
Pat tilted his head and looked up at her and licked her hand until she
drew it away impatiently.
"Good gracious, Pat! Do you want to plaster me with germs?" she reproved.
And Pat dropped his head down upon his paws and eyed her furtively from
under his brown lids, waiting for her to repent her harshness and smooth
his head caressingly, as was her wont.
But Helen May was watching that slow-moving column of dust, just as
she had watched the cloud which had heralded the coming into her life
of Holman Sommers. It might be—but it couldn't, for this was away
off the road. No one would be cutting straight across that hummocky
From the desert I come to thee,
On my Arab shod with fire—
"Oh, I'm getting absolutely mushy!" she muttered angrily. "If I've
reached the point where I can't see a spot of dust without getting
heart-failure over it, why it's time I was shut up somewhere. What are
you lolling around me for, Pat? Go on and tend to your goats, why don't
you? And do get off my skirt!"
Pat sprang up as though she had struck him; gave her an injured glance
that was perfectly maddening to Helen May, whose conscience was
sufficient punishment, and went slinking off down the slope. Half-way to
the band he stopped and sat down on his haunches in the hot sun, as
dejected a dog as ever was made to suffer because his mistress was
displeased with herself.
Helen May sat there scowling out across the wide spaces, while romance
and adventure, and something more, rode steadily nearer, heralded by the
small gray cloud. When she was sure that a horseman was coming, she
perversely removed herself to another spot where she would not be seen.
And there she sat, out of sight from below and thus fancying herself
undiscovered, refusing so much as a sly glance around her granite shield.
For if there was anything which Helen May hated more than another it was
the possibility of being thought cheaply sentimental, mushy, as the
present generation vividly puts it. Also she was trying to break herself
of humming that old desert love-song all the while. Vic was beginning to
"kid" her unmercifully about it, for one thing. To think that she should
sing it without thinking a word about it, just because she happened to
see a little dust! She would not look. She would not!
Starr might have passed her by and gone on to the cabin if he had not,
through a pair of powerful binoculars, been observing her when she sent
Pat off, and when she got up and went over to the other ledge and sat
down. Through the glasses he had seen her feet crossed, toes up, just
past the nose of the rock, and he could see the spread of her skirt.
Luckily, he could not read her mind. He therefore gave a yank at the
lead-rope in his hand and addressed a few biting remarks to a
white-lashed, blue-eyed pinto trailing reluctantly behind Rabbit; and
rode forward with some eagerness toward the ridge.
"'Sleep?" he greeted cheerfully, when he had forced the two horses to
scramble up to the shade of the ledge, and had received no attention
whatever from the person just beyond. The tan boots were still crossed,
and not so much as a toe of them moved to show that the owner heard him.
Starr knew that he had made noise enough, so far as that went.
"Why, no, I'm not asleep. What is it?" came crisply, after a
"It ain't anything at all," Starr retorted, and swung Rabbit into the
shade which Helen May had left. He dismounted, sat himself down with his
back against a rock, and proceeded to roll a cigarette. By no means
would he intrude upon the privacy of a lady, though the quiet, crossed
feet and the placid folds of the khaki skirt told him that she was
sitting there quietly—pouting about something, most likely, he diagnosed
her silence shrewdly. Well, it was early, and so long as he reached a
certain point by full dark, he was not neglecting anything. As a matter
of fact, he told himself philosophically, he really wanted to kill half a
day in a perfectly plausible manner. There was no hurry, no hurry at all.
Pat looked back at him ingratiatingly, and Starr called. Pat came running
in long leaps, nearly wagging himself in two because someone he liked was
going to be nice to him. Starr petted him and talked to him and pulled
his ears and slapped him on the ribs, and Pat in his joy persisted in
trying to lick Starr's cheek.
"Quit it! Lay down and be a doormat, then. You've got welcome wrote all
over you. And much as I like welcome, I hate to be licked."
Pat lay down, and Starr eyed the tan boot toes. They moved impatiently,
but they did not uncross. Starr smiled to himself and proceeded to carry
on a one-sided conversation with Pat, and to smoke his cigarette.
"Sick, over there?" he inquired casually after perhaps five minutes;
either of them would have sworn it ten or fifteen.
"Why, no," chirped the crisp voice. "Why?"
"Seemed polite to ask, is all," Starr confessed. "I didn't think you
was." He finished his smoke in the silence that followed. Then, because
he himself owned a perverse streak, he took his binoculars from their
case and began to study the low-lying ridge in the distance, in a pocket
of which nestled the Medina ranch buildings. He was glad this ridge
commanded all but the "draws" and hollows lying transversely between here
and Medina's place. It was Medina whom he had been advised by his chief
to watch particularly, when Starr had found a means of laying his clues
before that astute gentleman. If he could sit within ten feet of Helen
May while he kept an eye on that country over there, all the better.
He saw a horseman ride up out of a hollow and disappear almost
immediately into another. The man seemed to be coming over in this
direction, though Starr could not be sure. He watched for a reappearance
of the rider on high ground, but he saw no more of the fellow. So after a
little he took down the glasses to scan the country as a whole.
It was then that he glanced toward the other rock and saw that the tan
boots had moved out of sight. He believed that he would have heard her if
she moved away, and so he kept his eyes turned upon the corner of the
rock where her feet had shown a few minutes before.
A SHOT FROM THE PINNACLE
"Why—did some one come with you, Mr. Starr? I thought you were alone."
Starr turned his head and saw Helen May standing quite close, on the
other side of him. She was glancing inquiringly from him to the pinto
pony, and she was smiling the least little bit, though her eyes had a
shamed, self-conscious look. Starr eyed her keenly, a bit reproachfully,
and she blushed.
"I thought maybe you'd come around where I was," she defended herself
lamely. "It—seemed cooler there—"
"Yes, I noticed it was pretty cool, from the tone of your voice."
"Well—oh, I was just nursing a grouch, and I couldn't stop all at once,"
Helen May surrendered suddenly, sitting down beside him and crossing her
feet. "I've read in stories how sheepherders go crazy, and I know now
just why that is. They see so few people that they don't know how to act
when some one does come along. They get so they hate themselves and
everybody else. I had just finished abusing poor old Pat till he went
off and sulked too."
"I thought probably you and Pat had just had a run-in, the way he acted."
Starr went back to scanning that part of the mesa where he had glimpsed
the rider. He could not afford to forget business in the pleasure of
talking aimless, trivial things with Helen May.
"What are you looking for?"
"Stock," said Starr, falling back on the standard excuse of the
"And what's the idea of two saddle-horses and two saddles and two
bridles?" Helen May's voice was as simply curious as a child's.
"The idea is that you're going to ride instead of walk from now on. It's
an outfit I got from a fellow that was leaving. He borrowed money from me
and left his horse and saddle, for a kind of security. I didn't want it,
but he had to leave 'em somewhere. So I thought you might as well keep
the horse and use it till he comes back, or something." Starr did very
well with this explanation; much better than he had done in explaining
Pat. The truth was that he had bought the horse for the express purpose
of giving it to Helen May; just as he had bought the dog.
Helen May studied his face while he studied the distant plain. She
thought he acted as though he didn't care much whether she kept the
horse or not, and for that reason, and because his explanation had
sounded like truth, she hesitated over refusing the offer, though she
felt that she ought to refuse.
"It ain't right for you to be out here afoot," said Starr, as though he
had read her thoughts. "It's bad enough for you to be here at all. What
ever possessed you to do such a crazy thing, anyhow?"
"Well, sometimes people can't choose. Dad got the notion first. And
then—when he died—Vic and I just went ahead with it."
"Did he know anything about this country? Did he know—what chances you'd
be taking?" Starr was trying to choose his words so that they would
impress her without alarming her. It angered him to have to worry over
the girl's welfare and to keep that worry to himself.
"What chances, for gracious sake? I never saw such a mild, perfectly
monotonous life. Why, there are more chances in Los Angeles every time a
person goes down town. It's deadly dull here, and it's too lonesome for
words, and I hate it. But as for taking chances—" Her voice was frankly
contemptuous of the idea.
"Chances of going broke. It takes experience—"
"Oh, as to that, it's partly a matter of health," said Helen May
lightly. "I have to live where the climate—"
"You could live in Albuquerque, or some other live town; close to it,
anyway. You don't have to stick away down here, where—"
"I don't see as it matters. So long as it isn't Los Angeles, no place
appeals to me. And dad had bought the improvements here, so—"
"I'll pay you for the improvements, if that's all," Starr said shortly.
Helen May laughed. "That sounds exactly as though you want to get me out
of the country," she challenged.
Starr did not rise to the bait. He took another long look for the
horseman, saw not so much as a flurry of dust, and slid the glasses into
"I brought out that carbine I was speaking about. And the shells that go
with it. I'm kind of a gun fiend, I guess. I'm always accumulating a lot
of shooting irons I never use. I run across a six-shooter and belt, too.
Come here, Rabbit!"
Rabbit came, and Starr untied the weapons, smiling boyishly. "You may as
well be using 'em; they'll only rust, kicking around in the shack. Buckle
this around you. I punched another hole or two, so the belt would come
within a mile or so of fitting. You want to wear that every time you go
out on the range. The time you leave it home is the very time when you'll
see a coyote or something.
"And if you expect to get rich in the goat business, you never want to
pass up a coyote. There's a bounty on 'em, for one thing, because they do
lots of damage among sheep and goats. And for another," he added
impressively, "the rabies that's been epidemic on the Coast is spreading.
You've maybe read about it. A rabid coyote would come right at you, and
you know the consequences. Or it would bite Pat, and then Pat would
"Oh!" Helen May had turned a sickly shade. Her eyes went anxiously over
the slope as though she half expected something of the sort to happen
then and there.
"That's why," said Starr solemnly, looking down into her face, "I'm kinda
worried about you ranging around afoot and without a gun—"
"But nobody else has even mentioned—"
"Everybody else goes prepared, and they're inclined to take chances as a
matter of course. I reckon they think you know all about rabies being in
the country. This has always been a scrappy kinda place, remember, and
folks are used to packing guns and using 'em when the case demands it.
You wear this six-gun, lady, and keep your eyes open from now on. I've
got another one for Vic; an automatic. Now we'll go down here in the
shade and practice shooting. I brought plenty of shells, and I want to
learn you how to handle a gun."
Silently she followed him down the slope on the side toward the Basin. He
stopped beside the pinto, took it by the bridle-reins and, whipping out
his gun, fired it once to test the horse. The pinto twitched its ears at
the sound and looked at Starr. Starr laughed.
"I'll learn you to shoot from horseback," he called back to Helen May.
"He's broke to it, I can see now."
"Oh, I wonder if I could! Don't tell Vic, will you? I'd like to take
him by surprise. Boys are so conceited and self-sufficient! You'd
think Vic was my grandfather, the way he lords it over me. First of
all, what is the right way to get on a horse? I wish you'd teach me
about riding, too."
This sort of instruction grew absorbing to both. Before either guessed
how the time had flown, the sun stood straight overhead; and Pat,
standing in front of her with an expectant look in his eyes and an
occasional wag of his stubby tail, reminded Helen May that it was time
for lunch. They had used almost a full box of shells, and Helen May had
succeeded in shooting from the back of the pinto and in hitting a certain
small hummock of pure sand twice in six shots. She was tremendously
proud of the feat, and she took no pains to conceal her pride. She wanted
to start in on another box of shells, but Pat's eyes were so reproachful,
and her sense of hospitality was so urgent that she decided to wait until
they had eaten the lunch she had brought with her.
The rocks which had cast a shadow were now baking in the glare, and the
sand where Helen May and Starr had sat was radiating heat waves. Starr
took another long look down toward Medina's ranch through his field
glasses, while Helen May went to find a comfortable bit of shade.
"If you'll come over this way, Mr. Starr," she called abruptly, "I'll
give you a sandwich. It's hot everywhere to-day, but this is a little
better than out in the sun."
Starr took the glasses down from his eyes and let them dangle by their
cord while he walked over the nose of the ridge to where she was
waiting for him.
Half-way there, a streak of fire seemed to sear his arm near his
shoulder. Starr knew the feeling well enough. He staggered and went
down headlong in a clump of greasewood, and at the same instant the
report of a rifle came clearly from the high pinnacle at the head of
Helen May came running, her face white with horror, for she had seen
Starr fall just as the sound of the shot came to tell her why. She did
not cry out, but she rushed to where he lay half concealed in the bushes.
When she came near him, she stopped short. For Starr was lying on his
stomach with his head up and elbows in the sand, steadying the glasses to
his eyes that he might search that pinnacle.
"W-what made you fall down like that?" Helen May cried exasperatedly.
"I—I thought you were shot!"
"I am, to a certain extent," Starr told her unconcernedly. "Kneel down
here beside me and act scared, will you? And in a minute I want you to
climb on the pinto and ride around behind them rocks and wait for me.
Take Rabbit with you. Act like you was going for help, or was scared
and running away from a corpse. You get me? I'll crawl over there after
"W-why? Are you hurt so you can't walk?"
Helen May did not have to act; she was scared quite enough for
"Oh, I could walk, but walking ain't healthy right now. Jump up now and
climb your horse like you was expecting to ride him down to a whisper. Go
on—beat it. And when you get outa sight of the pinnacle, stay outa
There were several questions which Helen May wanted to ask, but she only
gave him a hasty, imploring glance which Starr did not see at all, since
his eyes were focussed on the pinnacle. She ran to the pinto and scared
him so that he jumped away from her. Starr heard and glanced impatiently
back at her. He saw that she had managed to get the reins and was
mounting with all the haste and all the awkwardness he could possibly
expect of her, and he grinned and returned to his scrutiny of the peak.
Whatever he saw he kept to himself; but presently he began to wriggle
backward, keeping the greasewood clump, and afterwards certain rocks and
little ridges, between himself and a view of the point he had fixed upon
as the spot where the shooter had stood.
When he had rounded the first rock ledge he got up and looked for Helen
May, and found her standing a couple of rods off, watching him anxiously.
He smiled reassuringly at her while he dusted his trousers with the flat
of his hands.
"Fine and dandy," he said. "Whoever took a pot-shot at me thinks he got
me first crack. See? Now listen, lady. That maybe was some herder out
gunning for coyotes, and maybe he was gunning for me. I licked a herder
that ranges over that way, and he maybe thought he'd play even. But
anyway, don't say anything about it to anybody, will you. I kinda—"
"Why not? If he shot at you, he wanted to kill you. And that's murder; he
ought to be—"
"Now, you know you said yourself that herders go crazy. I don't want to
get the poor boob into trouble. Let's not say anything about it. I've got
to go now; I've stayed longer than I meant to, as it is. Have Vic put
that halter that's on the saddle on the pinto, and tie the rope to it and
let it drag. He won't go away, and you can catch him without any bother.
If Vic don't know how to set the saddle, you take notice just how it's
fixed when you take it off. I meant to show you how, but I can't stop
now. And don't go anywhere, not even to the mail box, without Pat or your
six-gun, or both. Come here, Rabbit, you old scoundrel!
"I wish I could stay," he added, swinging up to the saddle and looking
down at her anxiously. "Don't let Vic monkey with that automatic till I
come and show him how to use it. I—"
"You said you were shot," said Helen May, staring at him enigmatically
from under her lashes. "Are you?"
"Not much; burnt a streak on my arm, nothing to bother about. Now
remember and don't leave your gun—"
"I don't believe it was because you licked a herder. What made somebody
shoot at you? Was it—on account of Pat?"
"Pat? No, I don't see what the dog would have to do with it. It was some
half-baked herder, shooting maybe because he heard us shoot and thought
we was using him for a target. You can't," Starr declared firmly, "tell
what fool idea they'll get into their heads. It was our shooting, most
likely. Now I must go. Adios, I'll see yuh before long."
"Well, but what—"
Helen May found herself speaking to the scenery. Starr was gone with
Rabbit at a sliding trot down the slope that kept the ridge between him
and the pinnacle. She stood staring after him blankly, her hat askew on
the back of her head, and her lips parted in futile astonishment. She did
not in the least realize just what Starr's extreme caution had meant. She
had no inkling of the real gravity of the situation, for her ignorance of
the lawless possibilities of that big, bare country insulated her against
What struck her most forcibly was the cool manner in which he had ordered
her to act a part, and the unhesitating manner in which she had obeyed
him. He ordered her about, she thought, as though he had a right; and she
obeyed as though she recognized that right.
She watched him as long as he was in sight, and tried to guess where he
was going and what he meant to do, and what was his business—what he did
for a living. He must be a rancher, since he had said he was looking for
stock; but it was queer he had never told her where his ranch lay, or how
far off it was, or anything about it.
After a little it occurred to her that Starr would want the man who had
shot at him to think she had left that neighborhood, so she called to
Pat and had him drive the goats around where they could not be seen from
Then she sat down and ate her sandwiches thoughtfully, with long,
meditative intervals between bites. She regarded the pinto curiously,
wondering if Starr had really taken him as security for a debt, and
wishing that she had asked him what its name was. It was queer, the way
he rode up unexpectedly every few days, always bringing something he
thought she needed, and seeming to take it for granted that she would
accept everything he offered. It was much queerer that she did accept
everything without argument or hesitation. For that matter, everything
that concerned Starr was queer, from Helen May's point of view.
HELEN MAY UNDERSTANDS
Pat, lying at her feet and licking his lips contentedly after his bone
and the crusts of her sandwich, raised his head suddenly and rumbled a
growl somewhere deep in his chest. His upper lip lifted and showed his
teeth wickedly, and the hair on the back of his neck stood out in a ruff
that made him look a different dog.
Helen May felt a cold shiver all up and down her spine. She had never
seen Pat, nor any other dog for that matter, look like that. It was much
more terrifying than that mysterious shot which had effected Starr so
strangely. Pat was staring directly behind her, and his eyes had a
greenish tinge in the iris, and the white part was all pink and
bloodshot. Helen May thought he must have rabies or something; or else a
rabid coyote was up on the ridge behind her. She wanted to scream, but
she was afraid; she was afraid to look behind her, even.
Pat got up and stood digging his toe nails into the earth in the most
horribly suggestive way imaginable. The green light in his eyes
terrified her. His ruff bristled bigger on his neck. He looked ready to
spring at something. Helen May was too scared to move so much as a
finger. She waited, and her heart began beating so hard in her throat
that it nearly suffocated her. She never once thought of the six-shooter
which Starr had given her. She did not think of anything, except that a
rabid coyote was right behind her, and in a minute Pat would jump at it,
if it did not first jump at her! And then Pat would be bitten, and would
go mad and bite her and Vic, and they'd all die horribly of hydrophobia.
"Ah—is this a modern, dramatic version of Beauty and the Beast? If so,
it is a masterpiece in depicting perfect repose on the part of Beauty,
while the Beast vivifies the protective instinct of the stronger toward
the weaker. Speaking in the common parlance, if you will call off your
dog, Miss Stevenson, I might be persuaded to venture within hand-shaking
distance." A little laugh, that was much more humorous than the words,
followed the speech.
Helen May felt as though she were going to faint. "Pat!" she tried to say
admonishingly; but her voice was a weak whisper that did not carry ten
feet. She pulled herself together and tried again. "Pat, lie down!"
Pat turned his bead a trifle and sent her a tolerant glance, but the
hair did not lie down on his neck, and the growl did not cease to rumble
in his throat.
"Pat!" Helen May began to recover a little from the reaction. "Come here
to me! I—don't think he'll bite you, Mr. Sommers. It's—it's only
Mexicans that he's supposed to hate. I—I didn't know it was you."
Holman Sommers, being careful to keep a safe distance between himself and
Pat, came around to where he could see her face. "As a matter of fact,"
he began, "it's really my sister who came to visit you. Your brother
informed us that you were out here, and I came to tell you. Why, did I
frighten you so badly, Miss Stevenson? Your face is absolutely colorless.
What did I do to so terrify you? I surely never intended—" His eyes were
remorseful as he stood and looked at her.
"It was just the way Pat acted. I—I'd been hearing about rabid coyotes,
and I thought one was behind me, Pat acted so queer. Lie down, Pat!"
Holman Sommers spoke to the dog ingratiatingly, but Pat did not exhibit
any tail-wagging desire for friendly acquaintance. He slunk over to
Helen May and flattened himself on his belly with his nose on his paws,
and his eyes, that still showed greenish lights and bloodshot whites,
fixed on the man.
"It may be," said Sommers judgmatically, "that he has been taught to
resent strangers coming in close proximity to the animals he has in
charge. A great many dogs are so trained, and are therefore in no wise to
blame for exhibiting a certain degree of ferocity. The canine mind is
wholly lacking in the power of deduction, its intelligence consisting
rather of a highly developed instinctive faculty for retaining
impressions which invariably express themselves in some concrete form
such as hate, fear, joy, affection and like primitive emotions. Pat, for
instance, has been taught to regard strangers as interlopers. He
therefore resents the presence of all strangers, and has no mental
faculty for distinguishing between strangers, as such, and actual
intruders whose presence is essentially undesirable."
Helen May gave a little, half-hysterical laugh, and Holman Sommers looked
at her keenly, as a doctor sometimes looks at a patient.
"I am intensely sorry that my coming frightened you," he said gently.
Then he laughed. "I am also deeply humiliated at the idea of being
mistaken, in the broad light of midday, for a rabid coyote. May I ask
just wherein lies the resemblance?"
Helen May looked at him, saw the dancing light in his eyes and a mirthful
quirk of his lips, and blushed while she smiled.
"It's just that I happened to be thinking about them," she said,
instinctively belittling her fear. "And then I never saw Pat act the way
he's acting now."
Holman Sommers regarded the dog with the same keen, studying look he had
given Helen May. Pat did not take it as calmly, however, as Helen May had
done. Pat lifted his upper lip again and snarled with an extremely
concrete depiction of the primitive emotion, hate.
"There are such things as rabid coyotes, aren't there? Just—do you
know how they act, and how a person could tell when something has caught
the disease from them?"
"I think I may safely assert that there undoubtedly are rabid coyotes in
the country. As a matter of fact, and speaking relatively, they have
been, and probably still are, somewhat of a menace to stock running
abroad without a herder amply provided with the means of protecting his
charge. At the same time I may point with pardonable pride to the
concerted action of both State and Stock Association to rid the country
of these pests. So far we feel highly gratified at the success which has
attended our efforts. I gravely doubt whether you would now find, in this
whole county, a single case of infection. But on the other hand, I could
not, of course, venture to state unqualifiedly that there may not be
certain isolated cases—"
"Pat! Do stop that growling! What ails you, anyway? I never saw him act
that way before. I wonder if he could possibly be—" She looked at
"Infected?" he finished for her understandingly. "As a matter of fact,
that may be possible, though I should not consider it altogether
probable. Since the period of incubation varies from three weeks to six
months, as in man, the dog may possibly have been infected before coming
into your possession. If that were true, you would have no means of
discovering the fact until he exhibits certain premonitory symptoms,
which may or may not form in themselves conclusive evidence of the
presence of the disease."
Helen May got up from the rock and moved away, eyeing Pat suspiciously.
Pat got up and followed her, keeping a watchful eye on Sommers.
"What are the symptoms, for gracious sake?" she demanded fretfully,
worried beyond caring how she chose her words for Holman Sommers. "His
eyes look queer, don't you think?"
"Since you ask me, and since the subject is not one to be dismissed
lightly, I will say that I have been studying the dog's attitude with
some slight measure of concern," Holman Sommers admitted guardedly. "The
suffused eyeball is sometimes found in the premonitory stage of the
disease, after incubation has progressed to a certain degree. Also
irritability, nervousness, and depression are apt to be present. Has the
dog exhibited any tendency toward sluggishness, Miss Stevenson?"
"Well, he's been lying around most of the time to-day," Helen May
confessed, staring at Pat apprehensively. "Of course, there hasn't been
anything much for him to do. But he certainly does act queer, just since
Holman Sommers spoke with the prim decision of a teacher instructing a
class, but that seemed to be only his way, and Helen May was growing used
to it. "His evidencing a tendency toward sluggishness to-day, and his
subsequent irritability, may or may not be significant of an abnormality.
If, however, the dog progresses to the stage of hyperaesthesia, and the
muscles of deglutition become extremely rigid, so that he cannot swallow,
convulsions will certainly follow. There will also appear in the mouth
and throat a secretion of thick, viscid mucus, with thickened saliva,
which will be an undubitable proof of rabies."
Having thus innocently damned poor Pat with the suspicion of a dreadful
malady, Sommers made a scientific attempt to soothe Helen May's fears.
He advised, with many words and much kind intent, that Pat be muzzled
until the "hyperaesthesia" did or did not develop. Helen May thought that
the terribly-termed symptoms might develop before they could get a muzzle
from town, but she did not like to say so.
Partly to be hospitable, and partly to get away from Pat, she mounted the
pinto, told Pat to watch the goats, and rode down to the house to see
Martha Sommers. She did not anticipate any pleasure in the visit, much as
she had longed for the sound of a woman's voice. She was really worried
half to death over Starr, and the rabies, and Pat, and the nagging
consciousness that she had not accomplished as much copying of manuscript
as Holman Sommers probably expected.
She did not hear half of what Sommers was saying on the way to the cabin.
His very amiability jarred upon her nervous depression. She had always
liked him, and respected his vast learning, but to-day she certainly did
not get much comfort out of his converse. She wondered why she had been
so light-hearted while Starr was with her showing her how to shoot, and
lecturing her about the danger of going gunless abroad; and why she was
so perfectly dejected when Holman Sommers talked to her about the very
same thing. Starr had certainly painted things blacker than Holman had
done, but it did not seem to have the same effect.
"I don't see what we're going to do for a muzzle," she launched suddenly
into the middle of Holman Sommers' scientific explanation of mirages.
"Vic can undoubtedly construct one out of an old strap," Holman Sommers
retorted impatiently, and went on discoursing about refraction and
reflection and the like.
Helen May tried to follow him, and gave it up. When they were
almost to the spring she again unwittingly jarred Holman Sommers
out of his subject.
"Did all those words you used mean that Pat will foam at the mouth like
mad dogs you read about?" she asked abruptly.
Holman Sommers, tramping along beside the pinto, looked at her queerly.
"If Pat does not, I strongly suspect that I shall," he told her
weightily, but with a twinkle in his eyes. "I have been endeavoring, Miss
Stevenson, to wean your thoughts away from so unhappy a subject. Why
permit yourself to be worried? The thing will happen, or it will not
happen. If it does happen, you will be powerless to prevent. If it does
not, you will have been anxious over a chimera of the imagination."
"Chimera of the imagination is a good line," laughed Helen May
flippantly. "All the same, if Pat is going to gallop all over the
scenery, foaming at the mouth and throwing fits at the sight of water—"
"As a matter of fact," Holman Sommers was beginning again in his most
instructive tone, when a whoop from the spring interrupted him.
Vic had hobbled obligingly down there to get cool water for the plump
lady who was Holman Sommers' sister, and he had nearly stepped on a
sleepy rattler stretched out in the sun. Vic was making a collection of
rattles. He had one set, so far, of five rattles and a "button." He
wanted to get these which were buzzing stridently enough for three
snakes, it seemed to Vic. He was hopping around on his good foot and
throwing rocks; and the snake, having retreated to a small heap of loose
cobblestones, was thrusting his head out in vicious little striking
gestures, and keeping the scaly length of him bidden.
"Wait a minute, I'll get him, Vic," called Helen May, suddenly anxious to
show off her newly acquired skill with firearms. Starr had told her that
lots of people killed rattlesnakes by shooting their heads off. She
wanted to try it, anyway, and show Vic a thing or two. So she rode up as
close as she dared, though the pinto shied away from the ominous sound;
pulled her pearl-handled six-shooter from its holster, aimed, and fired
at the snake's head.
You have heard, no doubt, of "fool's luck." Helen May actually tore the
whole top off that rattlesnake's head (though I may as well say right
here that she never succeeded in shooting another snake) and rode
nonchalantly on to the cabin as though she had done nothing at all
unusual, but smiling to herself at Vic's slack-jawed amazement at seeing
her on horseback, with a gun and such uncanny skill in the use of it.
She felt better after that, and she rather enjoyed the plump sister of
Holman Sommers. The plump sister called him Holly, and seemed to be
inordinately proud of his learning and inordinately fond of nagging at
him over little things. She was what Helen May called a vegetable type of
woman. She did not seem to have any great emotions in her make-up. She
sat in the one rocking-chair under the mesquite tree and crocheted lace
and talked comfortably about Holly and her chickens in the same breath,
and frankly admired Helen May's "spunk" in living out alone like that.
"Don't overlook Vic, though," Helen May put in generously. "I honestly
don't believe I could stand it without Vic."
The plump sister seemed unimpressed. "In this country," she said with a
certain snug positiveness that was the keynote of her personality, "it's
the women that have the courage. They wouldn't be here if they didn't
have. Think how close we are to the Mexican border, for instance.
Anything that is horrible to woman can come out of Mexico. Not that I
look down on them over there," she added, with a complacent tolerance in
her tone. "They are victims of the System that has kept them degraded and
ignorant. But until they are lifted up and educated and raised to our
standards they are bad.
"You can't get around it, Holly, those ignorant Mexicans are bad!" She
had lifted her eyes accusingly to where Holman Sommers sat on the ground
with his knees drawn up and his old Panama hat hung upon them. He was
smoking a pipe, and he did not remove it from his mouth; but Helen May
saw that amused quirk of the lips just the same.
"You can't get around it. You know it as well as I do," she reiterated.
"Cannibals are worth saving, but before they are saved they are liable to
eat the missionary. And it's the same thing with your Mexicans. You want
to educate them and raise them to your standards, and that's all right as
far as it goes. But in the meantime they're bad. And if Miss Stevenson
wasn't such a good shot, I wouldn't be able to sleep nights, thinking of
her living up here alone, with just a boy for protection."
"Why, I never heard of such a thing as any danger from Mexicans!" Helen
May looked inquiringly from plump sister to cynical brother.
"Well, you needn't wonder at Holly not telling you," said the plump
sister,—her name was Maggie. "Holly's a fool about some things. Holly
is trying the Uplift, and he shuts his eyes to things that don't fit in
with his theories. If you've copied much of that stuff he's been
writing, you ought to know how impractical he is. Holly's got his head
in the clouds, and he won't look at what's right under his feet." Again
she looked reproof at Holly, and again Holly's lips quirked around the
stem end of his pipe.
"You just keep your eyes open, Miss Stevenson," she admonished, in a
purring, comfortable voice. "I ain't afraid, myself, because I've got
Holly and my cousin Todd, when he's at home. And besides, Holly's always
doing missionary stunts, and the Mexicans like him because he'll let them
rob him right and left and come back and take what they forgot the first
time, and Holly won't do a thing to them. But you don't want to take any
chances, away off here like you are. You lock your door good at night,
and you sleep with a gun under your pillow. And don't go off anywhere
alone. My, even with a gun you ain't any too safe!"
Helen May gave a gasp. But Holman Sommers laughed outright—an easy,
chuckling laugh that partly reassured her. "Danger is Maggie's favorite
joke," he said tolerantly. "As a matter of fact, and speaking from a
close, personal knowledge of the people hereabouts, I can assure you,
Miss Stevenson, that you are in no danger whatever from the source my
"Well, but Holly, I've said it, and I'll say it again; you can't tell
what may come up out of Mexico." Plump Maggie rolled up her lace and
jabbed the ball decisively with the crochet hook, "We'll have to go now,
or the chickens will be wondering where their supper is coming from. You
do what I say, and lock your doors at night, and have your gun handy,
Miss Stevenson. Things may look calm enough on the surface, but they
ain't, I can tell you that!"
"Woman, cease!" cried Holly banteringly, while he dusted his baggy
trousers with his palms. "Miss Stevenson will be haunted by nightmares if
you keep on."
Once they were gone, Helen May surrendered weakly to one fear, to the
extent that she let Vic take the carbine and the pinto and ride over to
where she had left Pat and the goats, for the simple reason that she
dreaded to face alone that much maligned dog. Vic, to be sure, would have
quarreled with her if necessary, to get a ride on the pinto, and he was a
good deal astonished at Helen May's sweet consideration of a boy's
hunger for a horse. But she tempered his joy a bit by urging him to keep
an eye on Pat, who had been acting very queer.
"He kept ruining up his back and showing his teeth at Mr. Sommers," she
explained nervously. "If he does it when you go, Vic, and if he foams at
the mouth, you'd better shoot him before he bites something. If a mad dog
bites you, you'll get hydrophobia, and bark and growl like a dog, and
have fits and die."
"G-oo-d night!" Vic ejaculated fervently, and went loping awkwardly
down the trail past the spring.
That left Helen May alone and free to think about the horrors that might
come up out of Mexico, and about the ignorant Mexicans who, until they
are uplifted, are bad. It seemed strange that, if this were true, Starr
had never mentioned the danger. And yet—
"I'll bet anything that's just what Starr-of-the-Desert did mean!" she
exclaimed aloud, her eyes fixed intently on the toes of her scuffed
boots. "He just didn't want to scare me too much and make me suspicious
of everybody that came along, and so he talked mad coyotes at me. But it
was Mexicans he meant; I'll bet anything it was!"
If that was what Starr meant, then the shot from the pinnacle, and
Starr's crafty, Indian-like method of getting away unseen, took on a
new and sinister meaning. Helen May shivered at the thought of Starr
riding away in search of the man who had tried to kill him, and of the
risk he must be taking. And what if the fellow came back, sneaking back
in the dark, and tried to get in the house, or something? It surely was
lucky that Starr-of-the-Desert had just happened to bring those guns.
But had he just happened to bring them? Helen May was not stupid, even
if she were ignorant of certain things she ought to know, living out
alone in the wild. She began to see very clearly just what Starr had
meant; just how far he had happened to have extra guns in his shack,
and had just happened to get hold of a horse that she and Vic could
use; and the dog, too, that hated Mexicans!
"That's why he hates to have me stay on the claim!" she deduced at last.
"Only he just wouldn't tell me right out that it isn't safe. That's what
he meant by asking if dad knew the chances I'd have to take. Well, dad
didn't know, but after the price dad paid, why—I've got to stay, and
make good. There's no sense in being a coward about it. Starr wouldn't
want me to be a coward. He's just scheming around to make it as safe as
he can, without making me cowardly."
A slow, half-tender smile lit her chestnut-tinted eyes, and tilted her
lips at the corners. "Oh, you desert man o' mine, I see through you
now!" she said under her breath, and kept on smiling afterwards, since
there was not a soul near to guess her thoughts. "Desert man o' mine"
was going pretty strong, if you stop to think of it; but Helen May would
have died—would have lied—would have gone to any lengths to keep Starr
from guessing she had ever thought such a thing about him. That was the
woman of her.
The woman of her it was too that kept her dwelling pleasedly on Starr's
shy, protective regard for her, instead of watching the peaks in fear and
trembling lest another bad, un-uplifted Mexican should be watching a
chance to send another bullet zipping down into the Basin on its mission
of wanton wickedness.
STARR SEES TOO LITTLE OR TOO MUCH
Carefully skirting the ridge where Helen May had her goats; keeping
always in the gulches and never once showing himself on high ground,
Starr came after a while to a point where he could look up to the
pinnacle behind Sunlight Basin, from the side opposite the point where
he had wriggled away behind a bush. He left Rabbit hidden in a
brush-choked arroyo that meandered away to the southwest, and began
cautiously to climb.
Starr did not expect to come upon his man on the peak; indeed he would
have been surprised to find the fellow still there. But that peak was as
good as any for reconnoitering the surrounding country, was higher than
any other within several miles, in fact. What he did hope was to pick up
with his glasses the man's line of retreat after a deed he must believe
successfully accomplished. And there might be some betraying sign there
that would give him a clue.
There was always the possibility, however, that the fellow had lingered
to see what took place after the supposed killing. He must believe that
the girl who had been with Starr would take some action, and he might
want to know to a certainty what that action was. So Starr went
carefully, keeping behind boulders and rugged outcroppings and in the
bottom of deep, water-worn washes when nothing else served. He did not
think the fellow, even if he stayed on the peak, would be watching behind
him, but Starr did not take any chances, and climbed rather slowly.
He reached the summit at the left of where the man had stood when he
shot; very close to the spot where Helen May had stood and looked upon
Vic and the goats and the country she abhorred. Starr saw her tracks
there in a sheltered place beside a rock and knew that she had been up
there, though in that dry soil he could not, of course, tell when. When
that baked soil takes an imprint, it is apt to hold it for a long while
unless rain or a real sand-storm blots it out.
He hid there for a few minutes, craning as much as he dared to see if
there were any sign of the man he wanted. In a little he left that spot
and crept, foot by foot, over to the cairn, the "sheepherder's monument,"
behind which the fellow had stood. There again he found the prints of
Helen May's small, mountain boots, prints which he had come to know very
well. And close to them, looking as though the two had stood together,
were the larger, deeper tracks of a man.
Starr dared not rise and stand upright. He must keep always under cover
from any chance spying from below. He could not, therefore, trace the
footprints down the peak. But he got some idea of the man's direction
when he left, and he knew, of course, where to find Helen May. He did not
connect the two in his mind, beyond registering clearly in his memory the
two sets of tracks.
He crept closer to the Basin side of the peak and looked down, following
an impulse he did not try to analyze. Certainly he did not expect to see
any one, unless it were Vic, so he had a little shock of surprise when he
saw Helen May riding the pinto up past the spring, with a man walking
beside her and glancing up frequently into her face. Starr was human; I
have reminded you several times how perfectly human he was. He
immediately disliked that man. When he heard faintly the tones of Helen
May's laugh, he disliked the man more.
He got down, with his head and his arms—the left one was lame in
the biceps—above a rock. He made sure that the sun had swung around
so it would not shine on the lenses and betray him by any
heliographic reflection, and focussed his glasses upon the two. He
saw as well as heard Helen May laugh, and he scowled over it. But
mostly he studied the man.
"All right for you, old boy," he muttered. "I don't know who the devil
you are, but I don't like your looks." Which shows how human jealousy
will prejudice a man.
He saw Vic throwing rocks at something which he judged was a snake, and
he saw Helen May rein the pinto awkwardly around, "square herself for
action," as Starr would have styled it, and fire. By her elation;
artfully suppressed, by the very carelessness with which she shoved the
gun in its holster, he knew that she had hit whatever she shot at. He
caught the tones of Holman Sommers' voice praising her, and he hated the
tones. He watched them come on up to the little house, where they
disappeared at the end where the mesquite tree grew. Sitting in the shade
there, talking, he guessed they were doing, and for some reason he
resented it. He saw Vic lift a rattlesnake up by its tail, and heard him
yell that it had six rattles, and the button was missing.
After that Starr turned his hack on the Basin and began to search
scowlingly the plain. He tried to pull his mind away from Helen May and
her visitor and to fix it upon the would-be assassin. He believed that
the horseman he had seen earlier in the day might be the one, and he
looked for him painstakingly, picking out all the draws, all the dry
washes and arroyos of that vicinity. The man would keep under cover, of
course, in making his getaway. He would not ride across a ridge if he
could help it, any more than would Starr.
Even so, from that height Starr could look down into many of the deep
places. In one of them he caught sight of a horseman picking his way
carefully along the boulder-strewn bottom. The man's back was toward him,
but the general look of him was Mexican. The horse was bay with a rusty
black tail, but there were in New Mexico thousands of bay horses with
black tails, so there was nothing gained there. The rider seemed to be
making toward Medina's ranch, though that was only a guess, since the
arroyo he was following led in that direction at that particular place.
Later it took a sharp turn to the south, and the rider went out of sight
before Starr got so much as a glimpse at his features.
He watched for a few minutes longer, sweeping his glasses slowly to
right and left. He took another look down into the Basin and saw no one
stirring, that being about the time when the plump sister was rolling
up her fancy work and tapering off her conversation to the point of
making her adieu. Starr did not watch long enough for his own peace of
mind. Five more minutes would have brought the plump one into plain
view with her brother and Helen May, and would have identified Holman
Sommers as the escort of a lady caller. But those five minutes Starr
spent in crawling back down the peak on the side farthest from the
Basin, leaving Holman Sommers sticking in his mind with the unpleasant
flavor of mystery.
He mounted Rabbit again and made a detour of several miles so that he
might come up on the ridge behind Medina's without running any risk of
crossing the trail of the men he wanted to watch. About two o'clock he
stopped at a shallow, brackish stream and let Rabbit rest and feed for an
hour while Starr himself climbed another rocky pinnacle and scanned the
country between there and Medina's.
The gate that let one off the main road and into the winding trail which
led to the house stood out in plain view at the mouth of a shallow draw.
This was not the trail which led out from the home ranch toward San
Bonito, where Starr had been going when he saw the track of the
mysterious automobile, but the trail one would take in going from
Medina's to Malpais. The ranch house itself stood back where the draw
narrowed, but the yellow-brown trail ribboned back from the gate in
Here again Starr was fated to get a glimpse and no more. He focussed his
glasses on the main road first; picked up the Medina branch to the gate,
followed the trail on up the draw, and again he picked up a man riding a
bay horse. And just as he was adjusting his lenses for a sharper clarity
of vision, the horse trotted around a bend and disappeared from sight.
Starr swore, but that did not bring the man back down the trail. Starr
was not at all sure that this was the same man he had seen in the draw,
and he was not sure that either was the man who had shot at him. But
roosting on that heat-blistered pinnacle swearing about the things he
didn't know struck him as a profitless performance, so he climbed down,
got into the saddle again, and rode on.
He reached the granite ridge back of Medina's about four o'clock in the
afternoon. He was tired, for he had been going since daylight, and for a
part of the time at least he had been going on foot, climbing the steep,
rocky sides of peaks for the sake of what he might see from the top, and
then climbing down again for sake of what some one else might see if he
stayed too long. His high-heeled riding boots that Helen May so greatly
admired were very good-looking and very comfortable when he had them
stuck into stirrups to the heel. But they had never been built for
walking. Therefore his feet ached abominably. And there was the heat, the
searing, dry heat of midsummer in the desert country. He was dog tired,
and he was depressed because he had not seemed able to accomplish
anything with all his riding and all his scanning of the country.
He climbed slowly the last, brown granite ridge, the ridge behind Estan
Medina's house. He would watch the place and see what was going on there.
Then, he supposed he should go back and watch Las Nuevas, though his
chief seemed to think that he had discovered enough there for their
purposes. He had sent on the pamphlets, and he knew that when the time
was right, Las Nuevas would be muzzled with a postal law and, he
hazarded, a seizure of their mail.
What he had to do now was to find the men who were working in conjunction
with Las Nuevas; who were taking the active part in organizing and in
controlling the Mexican Alliance. So far he had not hit upon the real
leaders, and he knew it, and in his weariness was oppressed with a sense
of failure. They might better have left him in Texas, he told himself
glumly. They sure had drawn a blank when they drew him into the Secret
Service, because he had accomplished about as much as a pup trying to run
down a coyote.
A lizard scuttled out of his way, when he crawled between two boulders
that would shield him from sight unless a man walked right up on him
where he lay—and Starr did not fear that, because there were too many
loose cobbles to roll and rattle; he knew, because he had been twice as
long as he liked in getting to this point quietly. He took off his hat,
telling himself morosely that you couldn't tell his head from a lump of
granite anyway, when he had his hat off, and lifted his glasses to his
The Medina ranch was just showing signs of awakening after a siesta.
Estan himself was pottering about the corral, and Luis, a boy about
eighteen years old, was fooling with a colt in a small enclosure that had
evidently been intended for a garden and had been permitted to grow up in
weeds and grass instead.
After a while a peona came out and fed the chickens, and hunted through
the sheds for eggs, which she carried in her apron. She stopped to watch
Luis and the colt, and Luis coaxed her to give him an egg, which he was
feeding to the colt when his mother saw and called to him shrilly from
the house. The peona ducked guiltily and ran, stooping, beside a stone
wall that hid her from sight until she had slipped into the kitchen. The
señora searched for her, scolding volubly in high-keyed Mexican, so that
Estan came lounging up to see what was the matter.
Afterwards they all went to the house, and Starr knew that there would be
real, Mexican tortillas crisp and hot from the baking, and chili con
carne and beans, and perhaps another savory dish or two which the señora
herself had prepared for her sons.
Starr was hungry. He imagined that he could smell those tortillas from
where he lay. He could have gone down, and the Medinas would have greeted
him with lavish welcome and would have urged him to eat his fill. They
would not question him, he knew. If they suspected his mission, they
would cover their suspicion with much amiable talk, and their
protestations of welcome would be the greater because of their
insincerity. But he did not go down. He made himself more comfortable
between the boulders and settled himself to wait and see what the night
First it brought the gorgeous sunset, that made him think of Helen May
just because it was beautiful and because she would probably be gazing up
at the crimson and gold and all the other elusive, swift-changing shades
that go to make a barbaric sunset. Sure, she would be looking at it,
unless she was still talking to that man, he thought jealously. It
fretted him that he did not know who the fellow was. So he turned his
thoughts away from the two of them.
Next came the dusk, and after that the stars. There was no moon to taunt
him with memories, or more practically, to light for him the near
country. With the stars came voices from the porch of the adobe house
below him. Estan's voice he made out easily, calling out to Luis inside,
to ask if he had shut the colt in the corral. The señora's high voice
spoke swiftly, admonishing Luis. And presently Luis could be seen dimly
as he moved down toward the corrals.
Starr hated this spying upon a home, but he held himself doggedly to the
task. Too many homes were involved, too many sons were in danger, too
many mothers would mourn if he did not play the spy to some purpose now.
This very home he was watching would be the happier when he and his
fellows had completed their work and the snake of intrigue was beheaded
just as Helen May had beheaded the rattler that afternoon. This home was
happy now, under the very conditions that were being deplored so
bombastically in the circulars he had read. Why, then, should its peace
be despoiled because of political agitators?
Luis put the colt up for the night and returned, whistling, to the house.
The tune he whistled was one he had learned at some movie show, and in a
minute he broke into singing, "Hearts seem light, and life seems bright
in dreamy Chinatown." Starr, brooding up there above the boy, wished that
Luis might never be heavier of heart than now, when he went singing up
the path to the thick-walled adobe. He liked Luis.
The murmur of voices continued, and after awhile there came plaintively
up to Starr the sound of a guitar, and mingling with it the voice of Luis
singing a Spanish song. La Golondrina, it was, that melancholy song of
exile which Mexicans so love. Starr listened gloomily, following the
words easily enough in that still night air.
Away to the northwest there gleamed a brighter, more intimate star than
the constellation above. While Luis sang, the watcher in the rocks fixed
his eyes wistfully on that gleaming pin point of light, and wondered what
Helen May was doing. Her lighted window it was; her window that looked
down through the mouth of the Basin and out over the broken mesa land
that was half desert. Until then he had not known that her window saw so
far; though it was not strange that he could see her light, since he was
on the crest of a ridge higher than any other until one reached the bluff
that held Sunlight Basin like a pocket within its folds.
Luis finished the song, strummed a while, sang a popular rag-time,
strummed again and, so Starr explained his silence, went to bed. Estan
began again to talk, now and then lifting his voice, speaking earnestly,
as though he was arguing or protesting, or perhaps expounding a theory of
some sort. Starr could not catch the words, though he knew in a general
way the meaning of the tones Estan was using.
A new sound brought him to his knees, listening: the sound of a
high-powered engine being thrown into low gear and buzzing like angry
hornets because the wheels did not at once grip and thrust the car
forward. Sand would do that. While Starr listened, he heard the chuckle
of the car getting under way, and a subdued purring so faint that, had
there not been a slow, quiet breeze from that direction, the sound would
never have reached his ears at all. Even so, he had no more than
identified it when the silence flowed in and covered it as a lazy tide
covers a pebble in the moist sand.
Starr glanced down at the house, heard Estan still talking, and got
carefully to his feet. He thought he knew where the car had slipped in
the sand, and he made toward the place as quickly as he could go in the
dark and still keep his movements quiet. It was back in that arroyo where
he had first discovered traces of the car he now felt sure had come from
the yard of Las Nuevas.
He remembered that on the side next him the arroyo had deep-cut banks
that might get him a nasty fall if he attempted them in the dark, so he
took a little more time for the trip and kept to the rougher, yet safer,
granite-covered ridge. Once, just once, he caught the glow of dimmed
headlights falling on the slope farthest from him. He hurried faster,
after that, and so he climbed down into the arroyo at last, near the
point where he had climbed out of it that other day.
He went, as straight as he could go in the dark, to the place where he
had first seen the tracks of the Silvertown cords. He listened, straining
his ears to catch the smallest sound. A cricket fiddled stridently, but
there was nothing else.
Starr took a chance and searched the ground with a pocket flashlight. He
did not find any fresh tracks, however. And while he was standing in the
dark considering how the hills might have carried the sound deceptively
to his ear, and how he may have been mistaken, from somewhere on the
other side of the ridge came the abrupt report of a gun. The sound was
muffled by the distance, yet it was unmistakable. Starr listened, heard
no second shot, and ran back up the rocky gulch that led to the ridge he
had just left, behind Medina's house.
He was puffing when he reached the place where he had lain between the
two boulders, and he stopped there to listen again. It came,—the sound
he instinctively expected, yet dreaded to hear; the sound of a woman's
"IS HE THEN DEAD—MY SON?"
Starr hurried down the bluff, slipping, sliding, running where the way
was clear of rocks. So presently he came to the stone wall, vaulted over
it, and stopped beside the tragic little group dimly outlined in the
house yard just off the porch.
"My son—my son!" the old woman was wailing, on her knees beside a long,
inert figure lying on its back on the hard-packed earth. Back of her the
peona hovered, hysterical, useless. Luis, half dressed and a good deal
dazed yet from sleep and the suddenness of his waking, knelt beside his
mother, patting her shoulder in futile affection, staring down
bewilderedly at Estan.
So Starr found them. Scenes like this were not so unusual in his life,
which had been lived largely among unruly passions. He spoke quietly to
Luis and knelt to see if the man lived. The señora took comfort from his
calm presence and with dumb misery watched his deft movements while he
felt for heartbeats and for the wound.
"But is he then dead, my son?" she wailed in Spanish, when Starr gently
laid down upon Estan's breast the hand he had been holding. "But so
little while ago he lived and to me he talked. Ah, my son!"
Starr looked at her quietingly. "How, then, did it happen? Tell me,
señora, that I may assist," he said, speaking easily the Spanish which
"Ah, the good friend that thou art! Ah, my son that I loved! How can I
tell what is mystery? Who would harm my son—my little Estan that was so
good? Yet a voice called softly from the dark—and me, I heard, though to
my bed I had but gone. 'Estan!' called the voice, so low. And my son—ah,
my son!—to the door he went swiftly, the lampara in his hand, holding
it high—so—that the light may shine into the dark.
"'Who calls?' Me, I heard my son ask—ah, never again will I hear his
voice! Out of the door he went—to see the man who called. To the
porch-end he came—I heard his steps. Ah, my son! Never again thy dear
footsteps will I hear!" And she fell to weeping over him.
"And then? Tell me, señora. What happened next?"
"Ah—the shot that took from me my son! Then feet running away—then I
came out—Ah, querido mio, that thou shouldst be torn from thy
"And you don't know—?"
"No, no—no—ah, that my heart should break with sorrow—"
"Hush, mother! 'Twas Apodaca! He is powerful—and Estan would not come
into the Alliance. I told him it would be—" Luis, kneeling there,
beating his hands together in the dark, spoke with the heedless
passion of youth.
"Which Apodaca? Juan?" Starr's voice was low, with the sympathetic tone
that pulls open the floodgates of speech when one is stricken hard.
"Not Juan; Juan is a fool. Elfigo Apodaca it was—or some one obeying his
order. Estan they feared—Estan would not come in, and the time was
coming so close—and Estan held out and talked against it. I told him his
life would pay for his holding out. I told him! And now I shall kill
Apodaca—and my life also will pay—"
"What is this thou sayest?" The mother, roused from her lamentations by
the boy's vehemence, plucked at his sleeve. "But thou must not kill, my
little son. Thou art—"
"Why not? They'll all be killing in a month!" flashed Luis unguardedly.
Starr, kneeling on one knee, looked at the boy across Estan's chilling
body. A guarded glance it was, but a searching glance that questioned and
weighed and sat in judgment upon the truth of the startling assertion.
Yet younger boys than Luis are commanding troops in Mexico, for the
warlike spirit develops early in a land where war is the chief business
of the populace. It was not strange then that eighteen-year-old Luis
should be actively interested in the building of a revolution on this
side the border. It was less strange because of his youth; for Luis would
have all the fiery attributes of the warrior, unhindered by the cool
judgment of maturity. He would see the excitement, the glory of it. Estan
would see the terrible cost of it, in lives and in patrimony. Luis loved
action. Estan loved his big flocks and his acres upon acres of land, and
his quiet home; had loved too his foster country, if he had spoken his
true sentiments. So Starr took his cue and thanked his good fortune that
he had come upon this tragedy while it was fresh, and while the shock of
it was loosening the tongue of Luis.
"A month from now is another time, Luis," he said quietly. "This is
murder, and the man who did it can be punished."
"You can't puneesh Apodaca," Luis retorted, speaking English, since Starr
had used the language, which put their talk beyond the mother's
understanding. "He is too—too high up—But I can kill," he added
"The law can get him better than you can," Starr pointed out cannily.
"Can you think of anybody else that might be in on the deal?"
"N-o—" Luis was plainly getting a hold on himself, and would not tell
all he knew. "I don't know notheeng about it."
"Well, what you'd better do now is saddle a horse and ride in to town and
tell the coroner—and the sheriff. If you don't," he added, when he
caught a stiffening of opposition in the attitude of Luis, "if you don't,
you will find yourself in all kinds of trouble. It will look bad. You
have to notify the coroner, anyway, you know. That's the law. And the
coroner will see right away that Estan was shot. So the sheriff will be
bound to get on the job, and it will be a heap better for you, Luis, if
you tell him yourself. And if you try to kill Apodaca, that will rob your
mother of both her sons. You must think of her. Estan would never bring
trouble to her that way. You stand in his place now. So you ride in and
tell the sheriff and tell the coroner. Say that you suspect Elfigo
Apodaca. The sheriff will do the rest."
"What does the señor advise, my son?" murmured the mother, plucking at
the sleeve of Luis. "The good friend he was to my poor Estan—my son! Do
thou what he tells thee, for he is wise and good, and he would not guide
Luis hesitated, staring down at the dead body of Estan. "I will go," he
said, breaking in upon the sound of the peona's reasonless weeping. "I
will do that. The sheriff is not Mexican, or—" He checked himself
abruptly and peered across at Starr. "I go," he repeated hastily.
He stood up, and Starr rose also and assisted the old lady to her feet.
She seemed inclined to cling to him. Her Estan had liked Starr, and for
that her faith in him never faltered now. He laid his arm protectively
around her shaking shoulders.
"Señora, go you in and rest," he commanded gently, in Spanish. "Have the
girl bring a blanket to cover Estan—for here he must remain until he is
viewed by the coroner—you understand? Your son would be grieved if you
do not rest. You still have Luis, your little son. You must be brave and
help Luis to be a man. Then will Estan be proud of you both." So he
suited his speech to the gentle ways of the old señora, and led her back
to the shelter of the porch as tenderly as Estan could have done.
He sent the peona for a lamp to replace the one that had broken when
Estan fell with it in his hand. He settled the señora upon the
cowhide-covered couch where her frail body could be comfortable and she
still could feel that she was watching beside her son. He placed a pillow
under her head, and spread a gay-striped serape over her, and tucked it
carefully around her slippered feet. The señora wept more quietly, and
called him the son of her heart, and brokenly thanked God for the
tenderness of all good men.
He explained to her briefly that he had been riding to town by a
short-cut over the ridge when he heard the shot and hurried down; and
that, having left his horse up there, he must go up after it and bring it
around to the corral. He would not be gone longer than was absolutely
necessary, he told her, and he promised to come back and stay with her
while the officers were there. Then he hurried away, the señora's broken
thanks lingering painfully in his memory.
At the top of the bluff, where he had climbed as fast as he could, he
stood for a minute to get his breath back. He heard the muffled
pluckety-pluck of a horse galloping down the sandy trail, and he knew
that there went Luis on his bitter mission to San Bonito. His eyes turned
involuntarily toward Sunlight Basin. There twinkled still the light from
Helen May's window, though it was well past midnight. Starr wondered at
that, and hoped she was not sick. Then immediately his face grew
lowering. For between him and the clear, twinkling light of her window he
saw a faint glow that moved swiftly across the darkness; an automobile
running that way with dimmed headlights.
"Now what in thunder does that mean?" he asked himself uneasily. He had
not in the least expected that move. He had believed that the automobile
he had heard, which very likely had carried the murderer, would hurry
straight to town, or at least in that direction. But those dimmed lights,
and in that the machine surely betrayed a furtiveness in its flight,
seemed to be heading for Sunlight Basin, though it might merely be making
the big loop on its way to Malpais or beyond. He stared again at the
twinkling light of Helen May's lamp. What in the world was she doing up
at that hour of the night? "Oh, well, maybe she sleeps with a light
burning." He dismissed the unusual incident, and went on about his more
Rabbit greeted him with a subdued nicker of relief, telling plainly as a
horse can speak that he had been seriously considering foraging for his
supper and not waiting any longer for Starr. There he had stood for six
or seven hours, just where Starr had dismounted and dropped the reins. He
was a patient little horse, and he knew his business, but there is a
limit to patience, and Rabbit had almost reached it.
Starr led him up over the rocky ridge into the arroyo where the
automobile had been, and from there he rode down to the trail and back to
the Medina ranch. He watered Rabbit at the ditch, pulled off the saddle,
and turned him into the corral, throwing him an armful of secate from a
half-used stack. Then he went up to the house and sat on the edge of the
porch beside the señora, who was still weeping and murmuring yearning
endearments to the ears that could not hear.
He did not know how long he would have to wait, but he knew that Luis
would not spare his horse. He smoked, and studied the things which Luis
had let drop; every word of immense value to him now. Elfigo Apodaca he
knew slightly, and he wondered a little that he would be the Alliance
leader in this section of the State.
Elfigo Apodaca seemed so thoroughly Americanized that only his swarthy
skin and black hair and eyes reminded one that he was after all a son of
the south. He did a desultory business in real estate, and owned an
immense tract of land, the remnant of an old Spanish grant, and went in
for fancy cattle and horses. He seemed more a sportsman than a
politician—a broadminded, easy-going man of much money. Starr had still
a surprised sensation that the trail should lead to Elfigo. Juan, the
brother of Elfigo, he could find it much easier to see in the role of
conspirator. But horror does not stop to weigh words, and Starr knew that
Luis had spoken the truth in that unguarded moment.
He pondered that other bit of information that had slipped out: "In a
month they'll all be killing." That was a point which he and his
colleagues had not been able to settle in their own minds, the proposed
date of the uprising. In a month! The time was indeed short, but now that
they had something definite to work on, a good deal might be done in a
month; so on the whole Starr felt surprisingly cheerful. And if Elfigo
found himself involved in a murder trial, it would help to hamper his
activities with the Alliance. Starr regretted the death of Estan, but he
kept thinking of the good that would come of it. He kept telling himself
that the shooting of Estan Medina would surely put a crimp in the
revolution. Also it would mark Luis for a mate to the bullet that reached
Estan, if that hotheaded youth did not hold his tongue.
He was considering the feasibility of sending Luis and his mother out of
the country for awhile, when the sheriff and coroner and Luis came
rocking down the narrow trail in a roadster built for speed where speed
was no pleasure but a necessity.
The sheriff was an ex-cattleman, with a desert-baked face and hard eyes
and a disconcerting habit of chewing gum and listening and saying nothing
himself. For the sake of secrecy, Starr had avoided any acquaintance with
him and his brother officers, so the sheriff gave him several sharp
glances while he was viewing the body and the immediate surroundings.
Luis had told him, coming out, the meager details of the murder, and he
had again accused Elfigo Apodaca, though he had done some real thinking
on the way to town, and had cooled to the point where he chose his words
more carefully. The sheriff's name was O'Malley, which is reason enough
why Luis was chary of confiding Mexican secrets to his keeping.
Elfigo Apodaca had quarreled with Estan, said Luis. He had come to the
ranch, and Luis had heard them quarreling over water rights. Elfigo had
threatened to "get" Estan, and to "fix" him, and Luis had been afraid
that Estan would be shot before the quarrel was over. He had heard the
voice that called Estan out of the house that night, and he told the
sheriff that he had recognized Elfigo's voice. Luis surely did all he
could to settle any doubt in the mind of the sheriff, and he felt that he
had been very smart to say they quarreled over water rights; a lawsuit
two years ago over that very water-right business lent convincingness to
The sheriff had not said anything at all after Luis had finished his
story of the shooting. He had chewed gum with the slow, deliberate jaw of
a cow meditating over her cud, and he had juggled the wheel of his
machine and shifted his gears on hills and in sandy stretches with the
same matter-of-fact deliberation. Sheriff O'Malley might be called one of
the old school of rail-roosting, stick-whittling thinkers. He took his
time, and he did not commit himself too impulsively to any cause. But he
could act with surprising suddenness, and that made him always an
uncertain factor, so that lawbreakers feared him as they feared
The sheriff, then, stood around with his hands in his pockets and his
feet planted squarely under him, squeezing a generous quid of gum
between his teeth and very slightly teetering on heels and toes, while
the coroner made a cursory examination and observed, since it was coming
gray daylight, how the lamp lay shattered just where it had fallen with
Estan. He asked, in bad Spanish, a few questions of the grief-worn
señora, who answered him dully as she had answered Starr. She had heard
the call, yes.
"You know Elfigo Apodaca?" the sheriff asked suddenly, and watched how
the eyes of the señora went questioningly, uneasily, to Luis; watched how
she hesitated before she admitted that she knew him.
"You know his voice?"
But the señora closed her thin lips and shook her head, and in a minute
she laid her head back on the pillow and closed her eyes also, and would
talk no more.
The sheriff chewed and teetered meditatively, his eyes on the ground.
From the tail of his eye Starr watched him, secretly willing to bet that
he knew what the sheriff was thinking. When O'Malley turned and strolled
back to the porch, his hands still in his pockets and his eyes still on
the ground as though he were weighing the matter carefully, Starr stood
where he was, apparently unaware that the sheriff had moved. Starr seemed
to be watching the coroner curiously, but he knew just when the sheriff
passed cat-footedly behind him, and he grinned to himself.
The sheriff made one of his sudden moves, and jerked the six-shooter from
its holster at Starr's hip, pulled out the cylinder pin and released the
cylinder with its customary five loaded chambers and an empty one under
the hammer. He tilted the gun, muzzle to him, toward the rising sun and
squinted into its barrel that shone with the care it got, save where
particles of dust had lodged in the bore. He held the gun close under his
red nose and sniffed for the smell of oil that would betray a fresh
cleaning. And Starr watched him interestedly, smiling approval.
"All right, far as you've gone," he said casually, when the sheriff was
replacing the cylinder in the gun. "If you want to go a step farther, I
reckon maybe I can show you where I come down off the bluff when I
heard the shot, and where I went back again after my horse. And you'll
see, maybe, that I couldn't shoot from the bluff and get a man around
on the far side of the house. Won't take but a minute to show yuh." He
gave the slight head tilt and the slight wink of one eye which, the
world over, asks for a secret conference, and started off around the
corner of the house.
The sheriff followed noncommittally but he kept close at Starr's heels as
though he suspected that Starr meant to disappear somehow. So they
reached the bluff, which Starr knew would be out of hearing from the
house so long as they did not speak loudly. He pointed down at the prints
of his boots where he had left the rocks of the steep hillside for the
sand of the level; and he even made a print beside the clearest track to
show the sheriff that he had really come down there as he climbed. But it
was plain that Starr's mind was not on the matter of footprints.
"Keep on looking around here, like you was tracing up my trail," he said
in a low voice, pointing downward. "I've got something I want to tell
yuh, and I want you to listen close and get what I say, because I ain't
apt to repeat it. And I don't want that coroner to get the notion we're
talking anything over. That little play you made with my gun showed that
you've got hoss sense and ain't overlooking any bets, and it may be that
I'll have use for yuh before long. Now listen."
The sheriff listened, chewing industriously and wandering about while
Starr talked. His hard eyes changed a little, and twice he nodded his
head in assent.
"Now you do that," said Starr at last, with an air of one giving orders.
"And see to it that you get a hearing as soon as possible. I can't appear
except as a witness, of course, but I want a chance to size up the
fellows that take the biggest interest in the trial. And keep it all on
the basis of a straight quarrel, if you can. You'll have to fix that up
with the prosecuting attorney, if you can trust him that far."
"I can, Mr. Starr. He's my brother-in-law, and he's the best man we could
pick in the county for what you want. I get you, all right. There won't
be anything drop about what you just told me."
"There better hadn't be anything drop!" Starr told him dryly. "You're
into something deeper than county work now, ole-timer. This is Federal
business, remember. Come on back and stall around some more, and let me
go on about my own business. You can get word to me at the Palacia if you
want me at the inquest, but don't get friendly. I'm just a stock-buyer
that happened along. Keep it that way."
"I sure will, Mr. Starr. I'll do my part." The sheriff relapsed into his
ruminative manner as he led the way back to the house. One may guess that
Starr had given him something worth ruminating about.
In a few minutes, he told Starr curtly that he could go if he wanted to;
and he bettered that by muttering to the coroner that he had a notion to
hold the fellow, but that he seemed to have a pretty clear alibi, and
they could get him later if they wanted him. To which the coroner agreed
in neighborly fashion.
Starr was saddling Rabbit for another long ride, and he was scowling
thoughtfully while he did it.
A PAGE OF WRITING
Wind came with the sun and went shrieking across the high levels, taking
with it clouds of sand and bouncing tumbleweeds that rolled and lodged
for a minute against some rock or bush and then went whirling on again in
a fresh gust. Starr had not ridden two miles before his face began to
feel the sting of gravel in the sand clouds. His eyes, already aching
with a day's hard usage and a night of no sleep, smarted with the impact
of the wind. He fumbled at the band of his big, Texas hat and pulled down
a pair of motor goggles and put them on distastefully. Like blinders on a
horse they were, but he could not afford to face that wind with
unprotected eyes—not when so very much depended upon his eyes and his
ears and the keenest, coolest faculties of his mind.
Still worry nagged at him. He wanted to know who was the man that had
visited Helen May so soon after he had left, and he wanted to know why a
light had shone from her window at one o'clock last night; and whether
the automobile had been going to Sunlight Basin, or merely in that
He hurried, for he had no patience with worries that concerned Helen May.
Besides, he meant to beg a breakfast from her, and he was afraid that if
he waited too late she might be out with Pat and the goats, and he would
have to waste time on the kid (Vic would have resented that term as
applied to himself) who might be still laid up with his sprained ankle.
He was not thinking so much this morning about the knowledge he had
gained in the night. He had given several quiet hours to thought upon
that subject, and he had his course pretty clearly defined in his mind.
He also had Sheriff O'Malley thoroughly coached and prepared to do his
part. The matter of Elfigo Apodaca, then, he laid aside for the present,
and concerned himself chiefly with what on the surface were trifles, but
which, taken together, formed a chain of disquieting incidents. Rabbit
felt his master's desire for haste, and loped steadily along the trail,
dropping now and then into his smooth fox-trot, that was almost as fast a
gait; so it was still early morning when he dropped reins outside and
rapped on the closed door.
Helen May opened the door cautiously, it seemed to him; a scant six
inches until she saw who he was, when she cried "Oh!" in a surprised,
slightly confused tone, and let him in. Starr noticed two things at the
first glance he gave her. The first was the blue crocheted cap which she
wore; he did not know that it was called a breakfast-cap and that it was
very stylish, for Starr, you must remember, lived apart from any intimate
home life that would familiarize him with such fripperies. The cap
surprised him, but he liked the look of it even though he kept that
liking to himself.
The second thing he noticed was that Helen May was hiding something in
her right hand which was dropped to her side. When she had let him in and
turned away to offer him a chair, he saw that she had the pearl-handled
She disappeared behind a screen, and came out with her right hand empty,
evidently believing he had not seen how she had prepared herself for an
emergency. She had only yesterday told him emphatically how harmless she
considered the country; and he had been careful to warn her only about
rabid coyotes, so that without being alarmed, she would not go unarmed
away from home. It seemed queer to Starr that she should act as though
she expected rabid coyotes to come a-knocking at her door in broad
daylight. Had she, he thought swiftly, been only pretending that she
considered the country perfectly safe?
He could not help it; that six-shooter hidden in the folds of her skirt
stuck in his mind. It was just a trifle, like her lighted window at one
o'clock in the morning; like that strange man who had called on her just
after Starr had left her, and with whom she had seemed to be on such
friendly terms. He had warned her of coyotes. She was not supposed to
know that it was wise to arm herself before she opened her door to a
daylight caller. At night, yes. But at seven o'clock in the morning?
Starr did not suspect Helen May of anything, but he had been trained to
suspect mysterious trifles. In spite of himself, this trifle nagged at
He fancied that Helen May was just a shade flustered in her welcome; just
a shade nervous in her movements, in her laughter, in the very tones of
"You're out early," she said. "Vic isn't up yet; I suppose the goats
ought to be let out, too. You couldn't have had your breakfast—or have
you? One can expect almost anything of a man who just rides out of
nowhere at all hours, and disappears into nowhere."
"I shore wish that was so," Starr retorted banteringly. "I wish I had to
ride nowhere to-day."
"Oh, I meant the mystery of the unknown," she hurried to correct herself.
"You come out of the desert just any old time. And you go off into the
desert just as unexpectedly; by the way, did you—"
"Nope. I did not." She might forget that Vic was in the house, but Starr
never forgot things of that sort, and he wilfully forestalled her
intention to ask about the shooting. "I didn't have any supper, either,
beyond a sandwich or two that was mostly sand after I'd packed 'em around
all day. I just naturally had to turn tramp and come ask for a handout,
when I found out at daylight how close I was to breakfast."
"Why, of course. You know you won't have to beg very hard. I was just
going to put on the coffee. So you make yourself at home, and I'll have
breakfast in a few minutes. Vic, for gracious sake, get up! Here's
company already. And you'll have to let out the goats. Pat can keep them
together awhile, but he can't open the gate, and I'm busy."
Starr heard the prodigious yawn of the awakening Vic, who slept
behind a screen in the kitchen, bedrooms being a superfluous luxury
in which Johnny Calvert had not indulged himself. Starr followed her
to the doorway.
"I'll go let out the goats," he offered. "I want to take off the bridle
anyway, so Rabbit can feed around a little." He let himself out into the
whooping wind, feeling, for some inexplicable reason, depressed when he
had expected to feel only relief.
"Lord! I'm getting to the point where anything that ain't accompanied by
a chart and diagrams looks suspicious to me. She's got more hawse sense
than I gave her credit for, that's all. She musta seen through my yarnin'
about them mad coyotes. She's pretty cute, coming to the door with her
six-gun just like a real one! And never letting on to me that she had it
right handy. I must be getting off my feed or something, the way I take
things wrong. Now her being up late—I'm just going to mention how far
off I saw her light burning—and how late it was. I'll see what she says
But he did nothing of the kind, and for what he considered a very good
reason. The wind was blowing in eddying gusts, of the kind that seizes
and whirls things; such a gust swooped into the room when he opened the
door, seized upon some papers which lay on her writing desk, and sent
them clear across the room.
Starr hastily closed the door and rescued the papers where they had
flattened against the wall; and he wished he had gone blind before he saw
what they were. A glance was all he gave, at first—the involuntary
glance which one gives to a bit of writing picked up in an odd place—but
that was enough to chill his blood with the shock of damning
enlightenment. A page of writing, it was, fine, symmetrical, hard to
decipher—a page of Holly Sommers' manuscript; you know that, of course.
But Starr did not know. He only knew the writing matched the pages of
revolutionary stuff he had found in the office of Las Nuevas. There was
no need of comparing the two; the writing was unmistakable. And he
believed that Helen May was the writer. He believed it when he glanced up
and saw her coming in from the kitchen, and saw her eyes go to what he
had in his hand, and saw the start she gave before she hurried to take
the paper away.
"My gracious! My work—" she said agitatedly, when she had the papers in
her hand. She went to her desk, looking perturbed, and gave a quick,
seeking glance at the scattered papers there; then at Starr.
"Did any more—?"
"That's all," Starr said gravely. "It was the wind when I opened the
door, caught them."
"My own carelessness. I don't know why I left my desk open," she said.
And while he stood looking at her, she pulled down the roll-top with a
slam, still visibly perturbed.
It was strange, he thought, that she should have a roll-top desk out
here, anyway. He had seen it the other time he was at the house, and it
had struck him then as queer, though he had not given it more than a
As a matter of fact, it was not queer. Johnny Calvert had dilated on the
destructiveness of rats, "pack rats" he called them. They would chew
paper all to bits, he said. So Helen May, being finicky about having her
papers chewed, had brought along this mouse-proof desk with her other
furniture from Los Angeles.
Her perturbed manner, too, was the result of a finicky distaste for
having any disorder in her papers, especially when it was work intrusted
to her professionally. She never talked about the work she did for
people, and she always kept it away from the eyes of those not concerned
in it. That, she considered, was professional etiquette. She had strained
a point when she had read a little of the manuscript to Vic. Vic was just
a kid, and he was her brother, and he wouldn't understand what she read
any more than would the horned toad down by the spring. But Starr was
different, and she felt that she had been terribly careless and
unprofessional, leaving the manuscript where pages could blow around the
room. What if a page had blown outside and got lost!
Starr had turned his back and was staring out of the window. He might
have been staring at a blank wall, for all he saw through the glass. He
was as pale as though he had just received some great physical shock, and
he had his hands doubled up into fists, so that his knuckles were white.
His eyes were almost gray instead of hazel, and they were hard and
Something in the set of his head and in the way his shoulders had
stiffened told Helen May that things had gone wrong just in the last
few minutes. She gave him a second questioning glance, felt her
heart go heavy while her brain seemed suddenly blank, and retreated
to the kitchen.
Helen May, influenced it may be by Starr's anxious thoughts of her, had
dreamed of him; one of those vivid, intimate dreams that color our moods
and our thoughts long after we awaken. She had dreamed of being with him
in the moonlight again; and Starr had sung again the love song of the
desert, and had afterwards taken her in his arms and held her close, and
kissed her twice lingeringly, looking deep into her eyes afterwards.
She had awakened with the thrill of those kisses still tingling her lips,
so that she had covered her face with both hands in a sort of shamed joy
that dreams could be so terribly real—so terribly sweet, too. And then,
not fifteen minutes after she awoke, and while the dream yet clogged her
reason, Starr himself had confronted her when she opened the door. She
would have been a remarkable young woman if she had not been flustered
and nervous and inclined toward incoherent speech.
And now, it was perfectly idiotic to judge a man's temper by the back of
his neck, she told herself fiercely in the kitchen; perfectly idiotic,
yet she did it. She was impressed with his displeasure, his bitterness,
with some change in him which she could not define to herself. She wanted
to cry, and she did not in the least know what there could possibly be to
Vic appeared, tousled and yawning and stupid as an owl in the sun. He
growled because the water bucket was empty and he must go to the spring,
and he irritated Helen May to the point of wanting to shake him, when he
went limping down the path. She even called out sharply that he was
limping with the wrong foot, and that he ought to tie a string around his
lame ankle so he could remember which one it was. Which made her feel
more disagreeable than ever, because Vic really did have a bad ankle, as
the swelling had proven when he went to bed last night.
Nothing seemed to go right, after that. She scorched the bacon, and she
caught her sleeve on the handle of the coffee pot and spilled about half
the coffee, besides burning her wrist to a blister. She broke a cup, but
that had been cracked when she came, and at any other time she would not
have been surprised at all, or jarred out of her calm. She took out the
muffins she had hurried to make for Starr, and they stuck to the tins and
came out in ragged pieces, which is enough to drive any woman desperate,
I suppose. Vic slopped water on the floor when he came back with the
bucket full, and the wind swooped a lot of sand into the kitchen, and
she was certain the bacon would be gritty as well as burned.
Of Starr she had not heard a sound, and she went to the door nervously to
call him when breakfast was at last on the table. He was standing exactly
as he had stood when she left the room. So far as she could see, he had
not moved a muscle or turned his head or winked an eyelid. His stoniness
chilled her so that it was an effort to form words to tell him that
breakfast was ready.
There was an instant's pause before he turned, and Helen May felt that he
had almost decided not to eat. But he followed her to the kitchen and
spoke to Vic quite humanly, as he took the chair she offered, and
unfolded the napkin that struck an odd note of refinement among its
makeshift surroundings; for the stove had only two real legs, the other
two corners being propped up on rocks; the dish cupboard was of boxes,
and everything in the way of food supplies stood scantily hidden behind
thin curtains of white dotted swiss that Helen May had brought with her.
An hour ago Starr would have dwelt gloatingly upon these graceful
evidences of Helen May's brave fight against the crudities of her
surroundings. Now they gave him a keener thrust of pain. So did the
tremble of her hand when Helen May poured his coffee; it betrayed to
Starr her guilty fear that he had seen what was on those two papers. He
glanced up at her face, and caught her own troubled glance just flicking
away from him. She was scared, then! he told himself. She was watching to
see if he had read anything that seemed suspicious. Well, he'd have to
calm her down a little, just as a matter of policy. He couldn't let her
tip him off to the bunch, whatever happened.
Starr smiled. "I sure feel like I'm imposing on good nature," he said,
looking at her again with careful friendliness. "Coming here begging for
breakfast, and now when you've gone to the trouble of cooking it, I've
got one of my pet headaches that won't let me enjoy anything. Hits me
that way sometimes when I've had an extra long ride. But I sure wish it
had waited awhile."
Helen May gave him a quick, hopeful smile. "I have some awfully good
tablets," she said. "Wait till I give you one, before you eat. My doctor
gave me a supply before I left home, because I have headache so much—or
did have. I'm getting much better, out here! I've hardly felt like the
same person, the last two or three weeks."
"You have got to show me where you're any better acting," Vic pointed
out, with the merciless candor of beauty's young brother. "It sure ain't
your disposition that's improved, I can tell you those."
"And with those few remarks you can close," Helen May retorted gleefully,
hurrying off to get the headache tablet. It was just a headache, poor
fellow! He wasn't peeved at all, and nothing was wrong!
It was astonishing how her mood had lightened in the past two minutes.
She got him a glass of water to help the tablet down his throat, and
stood close beside him while he swallowed it and thanked her, and began
to make some show of eating his breakfast. She was, in fact, the same
whimsically charming Helen May he had come to care a great deal for.
That made things harder than ever for Starr. If the tablet had been
prescribed for heartache rather than headache, Starr would have swallowed
thankfully the dose. The murder, over against the other line of hills,
had not seemed to him so terrible as those sheets of scribbled paper
locked away inside Helen May's desk. The grief of Estan's mother over her
dead son was no more bitter than was Starr's grief at what he believed
was true of Helen May. Indeed, Starr's trouble was greater, because he
must mask it with a smile.
All through breakfast he talked with her, looked into her eyes, smiled at
her across the table. But he was white under his tan. She thought that
was from his headache, and was kinder than she meant to be because of
it; perhaps because of her dream too, though she was not conscious of any
change in her manner.
Starr could have cursed her for that change, which he believed was a sly
attempt to win him over and make him forget anything he may have read on
those pages. He would not think of it then; time enough when he was away
and need not pretend or set a guard over his features and his tongue. The
hurt was there, the great, incredible, soul-searing hurt; but he would
not dwell upon what had caused that hurt. He forced himself to talk and
to laugh now and then, but afterwards he could not remember what they had
As soon as he decently could, he went away again into the howling wind
that had done him so ill a turn. He did not know what he should do; this
discovery that Helen May was implicated had set him all at sea, but he
felt that he must get away somewhere and think the whole thing out before
he went crazy.
He left the Basin, rode around behind it and, leaving Rabbit in the
thicket where he had left him the day before, he toiled up the pinnacle
and sat down in the shelter of a boulder pile where he would be out of
the wind as well as out of sight, and where he could still stare somberly
down at the cabin.
And there he faced his trouble bravely, and at the same time he
fulfilled his duty toward his government by keeping a watch over the
place that seemed to him then the most suspicious place in the country.
The office of Las Nuevas, even, was not more so, as Starr saw things
then. For if Las Nuevas were the distributing point for the propaganda
literature, this cabin of Helen May's seemed to be the fountain head.
First of all, and going back to the beginning, how did he really know
that her story was true? How, for instance, did he know that her father
had not been one of the heads of the conspiracy? How did he know that her
father—it might even be her husband!—was dead? He had simply accepted
her word, as a matter of course, because she was a young woman, and more
attractive than the average young woman. Starr was terribly bitter, at
that point in his reasoning, and even felt certain that he hated all
women. Well, then, her reason for being in the neighborhood would bear a
lot of looking into.
Then there was that automobile that had passed where he had found her and
her goats, that evening. Was it plausible, he asked himself, that she had
actually walked over there? The machine had returned along the same
trail, running by moonlight with its lights out. Might it not have been
coming to pick her up? Only he had happened along, and she had let him
walk home with her, probably to keep him where she could watch him!
There was that shot at him from the pinnacle behind her cabin. There was
her evident familiarity with firearms, though she professed not to own a
gun. There was the man who had been down there with her, not more than an
hour after he had left her with a bullet burn across his arm. Starr saw
now how that close conversation might easily have been a conference
between her and the man who had shot at him.
There was the light in her window at one o'clock in the morning, and the
machine with dimmed headlights making toward her place. There was her
evident caution against undesirable callers, her coming to the door with
a six-shooter hidden against her skirt. There was that handwriting, to
which Starr would unhesitatingly have sworn as being the same as on the
pages he had found in the office of Las Nuevas. The writing was
unmistakable: fine, even, symmetrical as print, yet hard to decipher;
slanting a little to the left instead of the right. He had studied too
often the pages in his pocket not to recognize it at a glance.
Most damning evidence of all the evidence against her were two or three
words which his eyes had picked from the context on the page uppermost in
his hand. He had become familiar with those words, written in that
peculiar chirography. "Justice… submission … ruling …" He had
caught them at a glance, though he did not know how they were connected,
or what relation they bore to the general theme. Political bunk, his mind
tagged it therefore, and had no doubt whatever that he was right.
"She's got brown eyes and blond hair, and that looks like mixed blood,"
he reminded himself suddenly, after he had sat for a long while staring
down at the house. "How do I know her folks aren't Spanish or something?
How do I know anything about her? I just swallowed what she handed
out—like a damn' fool!"
Just after noon, when the wind had shown some sign of dying down to a
more reasonable blow, Helen May came forth in her riding skirt and a
Tam o' Shanter cap and a sweater, with a package under her arm—a
package of manuscript which she had worked late to finish and was now
going to deliver.
She got the pinto pony which Vic had just ridden sulkily down to the
corral and left for her, and she rode away down the trail, jolting a good
deal in the saddle when the pinto trotted a few steps, but apparently
well pleased with herself.
Starr watched until she turned into the main trail that led toward San
Bonito. Then, when he was reasonably sure of the direction she meant to
take, he hurried down to where Rabbit waited, mounted that long-suffering
animal and followed, using short cuts and deep washes that would hide him
from sight, but keeping Helen May in view most of the time for all that.
HOLMAN SOMMERS TURNS PROPHET
Holman Sommers, clad outwardly in old wool trousers of a dingy gray, a
faded brown smoking jacket that had shrunk in many washings until it was
three inches too short in the sleeves, and old brown slippers, sat tilted
back in a kitchen chair against the wall of his house and smoked a
beautifully colored meerschaum with solid gold bands and a fine amber
mouthpiece, while he conferred comfortably with one Elfigo Apodaca.
There was no quizzical twinkle in the eyes of Holman Sommers, vividly
alive though they were always. With his low slipper heels hooked over
the rung of his chair and his right hand nursing the bowl of his pipe
and his black hair rumpled in the wind, he was staring at the granite
"I am indeed sorry to hear that Estan Medina was shot," he said after a
pause. "Even in the interests of the Cause it was absolutely
unjustifiable. The man could do no harm; indeed, he served to divert
suspicion from others. Only crass stupidity would resort to brute
violence in the effort to further propaganda. Laying aside the human—"
"Of course," Elfigo interrupted sarcastically, "there's nothing violent
in a revolution! Where do you get your argument for gentleness, Holly?
That's what bothers me. You can stir up a bunch of Mexicans quicker than
a barrel of mezcal with your revolution talks."
"Ah, but you do not take into account the great, fundamental truth that
cooperative effort, on the part of the proletariat, is wholly
justifiable, in that it furthers the good of all humanity. Whereas
violence on the part of the individual merely retards the final result
for which we are striving. The murder of Estan Medina, for instance, may
be the one display of individual violence which will nullify all our
efforts toward a common good.
"For myself, I am bending every energy toward the formation of a
cooperative colony which will demonstrate the feasibility of a
cooperative form of government for the whole nation—the whole world, in
fact. Your Junta has pledged itself to the assistance of this colony, the
incalculable benefits of which will, I verily believe, be the very
salvation of Mexico as a nation. Mexico, now in the throes of national
parturition, is logically the pioneer in the true socialistic form of
government. From Mexico the seed will be carried overseas to drop upon
soil made fertile by the bones of those sacrificed to the blood-lust of
the war mad lords of Europe.
"Here, in this little corner of the world, is where the first tiny plant
must be grown. Can you not grasp, then, the tremendous significance of
what, on the face of it, is the pitifully small attempt of a pitifully
weak people to strike a feeble blow for the freedom of labor? To
frustrate that feeble blow now, by the irresponsible, lawless murder
of a good citizen, merely because he failed at first to grasp the meaning
of the lesson placed before him to learn, is, to my way of thinking, not
only unjustifiable but damnably weak and reprehensible."
Elfigo Apodaca, in another kitchen chair tilted back against an angle of
the wall so that he half faced Holman Sommers, stretched out his legs and
smiled tolerantly. A big, good-looking, thoroughly Americanized Mexican
was Elfigo; the type of man who may be found at sunrise whipping the best
stream in the State, the first morning of the trout season; the type of
man whose machine noses in the closest to the judge's stand when a big
race is on; the type of man who dances most, collects the most picture
postals of pretty girls, laughs most at after-dinner speeches; the type
of man who either does not marry at all, or attains much notoriety when
the question of alimony is being fought out to the last cipher; the last
man you would point out as a possible conspirator against anything save
the peace and dignity of some other man's home. But it takes money to be
all of these things, and Elfigo could see a million or two ahead of him
along the revolution trail. That is why he smiled tolerantly upon his
colleague who talked of humanity instead of dollars.
Then Elfigo harked back frowningly to what Holman Sommers had said about
feebleness. He rolled his cigar from the right corner of his mouth to the
left corner and spoke his thought.
"Speaking of feeble blow, and all that bunk," he said irreverently, "how
do we stand, Holly? Just between you and me as men—cut out any interest
we may have in the game—what's your honest opinion? Do we win?"
Holman Sommers raised one hand and hid the amused twitching of his lips.
He could have put that question far more clearly, he believed, and he
could have expressed much better the thought that was in Elfigo's mind.
He had deliberately baited Elfigo, and it amused him to see how blindly
the bait had been taken. He regarded Elfigo through half closed lids.
"As a matter of fact, and speaking relatively, every concerted revolt on
the part of the proletariat is a victory. Though every leader in the
movement be placed with his back against a stone wall, there to stand
until he falls to the earth riddled with bullets, yet have the people
won; a step nearer the goal, one more page writ in the glowing history of
the advancement of the human race toward a true brotherhood of man. There
can be no end save ultimate victory. That the victory may not be apparent
for fifty years, or a hundred, cannot in any sense alter the immutable
law of evolution. Posterity will point back to this present uprising as
the first real blow struck for the freedom of the laboring classes of
Mexico, and, indirectly, of the whole world."
Elfigo, his thumbs hooked in the armholes of his vest, mark of the
dominant note in the human male since clothes were invented to furnish
armholes for egotistic thumbs, contemplated his polished tan shoes
"Oh, to hell with posterity!" he blurted impatiently. "What about us poor
devils that's furnishing the time and money and brains to put it over? Do
we get lined up against a wall?"
Holly Sommers chuckled. "Not if your car can put you across the line soon
enough. Then, even though Mexico might be called upon to execute one
Elfigo Apodaca as an example to the souls in bondage, some other
bullet-riddled cadaver with your name and physical likeness would do as
well as your own carcass." He chuckled again.
"Cheerful prospect," grinned Elfigo ruefully. "But I like a sporting
chance, myself. The real point I'm trying to get at is, what chance do
you think the Alliance has got of winning? Come down outa the clouds,
Holly, and never mind about humanity for a minute. You've helped organize
the Alliance, you've talked to the hombres, you've been the god in the
machine in this part of the country, and all that. Now be a prophet in
words of one syllable and tell me what you think of the outlook."
With his fingers Holly Sommers packed the tobacco down into the bowl of
his pipe. His whole expression changed from the philosopher to the
cunning leader of what might well be called a forlorn hope.
"Speaking in words of one syllable, we have a damn better chance than you
may think," he said, in a tone as changed as his looks. "This country
lies wide open to any attack that is sudden and unexpected. Labor is in a
state of ferment. I predict that within a year we shall find ourselves
upon the brink of a civil war, with labor and capital lined up against
each other. Unless the government takes some definite step toward
placating organized labor, the whole standing army will not be
sufficient to keep the peace. That is the present internal condition,
and that condition will grow worse until we face the real crisis of
a national strike of some sort—I believe of the railroad employees,
since that is the most far-reaching and would prove the most
disastrous—therefore the most terrifying to the ruling class.
"On the other hand, and turning our faces outward, we are not much better
prepared for an emergency. We are a conceited nation, but insufferable
national conceit never yet won a battle. We are given to shouting rather
than shooting. Americanism to-day consists chiefly of standing up while
the Star Spangled Banner is being played by a brass band, and of shooting
off rockets on our national holiday. Were I of the capitalist class, I
should consider the situation desperate. But being allied with the
workers, I can laugh.
"Speaking still in words of one syllable, Elfigo, I can safely prophesy
what will happen first when the Alliance begins its active campaign.
Scarehead news in extra editions will be printed. The uprising will be
greatly exaggerated, I have no doubt. Women and children will be reported
massacred, whereas the Alliance has no intention of being more barbarous
than any warfare necessitates. Then there will be a buzzing of leagues
and clubs; and the citizens will march up and down the business section
of every town, bearing banners and shouting for the 'dear old flag.'
Women will rise up and sell sofa pillows and doilies to raise money to
buy chewing gum for our soldier boys. That, Elfigo, will sufficiently
occupy the masses for a week or two.
"Going higher, red tape will begin to unroll and entwine the heads of
departments, and every man who has any authority whatever will wait for
orders from some one higher up. Therefore, while the whole nation cheers
the street parades and the flags and the soldier boys and everything else
in sight, the Alliance will be getting under way—"
"We'll throw her into high and step on her!" Elfigo contributed, being a
"Something like that, yes. When you consider that the transportation of
troops to quell the uprising will require anywhere from three days to
three weeks, I am counting red tape and all, you will readily apprehend
how much may be accomplished before they are in a position to handle the
"On the other hand, Mexico is filled with fighters. So much has
oppression done for the peon; it has taught him the business of fighting.
Now, I grant you, she is a nation composed of warring factions topped by
a lamentably weak provisional government. But with practically every
Spanish-American over here actually participating in a movement for
Mexico, all those various factions will coalesce, as tiny brooklets flow
together to form the mighty torrent."
"Still, she's a big country to lick," Elfigo pointed out, chiefly to see
what Holly would say.
"Ah, but Mexico does not comprehend that fact! And, in the same
breath, neither does this country, as a whole, comprehend how big a
country is Mexico to lick! Give a Mexican soldado a handful of beans a
day and something to shout Viva for, and he can and will fight
indefinitely. If I mistake not, it will shortly behoove this country
to temporize, to make certain concessions. Whether those concessions
extend so far as to cede these three States back to Mexico, I cannot
hazard a prediction. I can see, however, where it is not at all
improbable that New Mexico and Arizona may be considered too costly to
hold. Texas," he smiled, "Texas remembers too vividly her Alamo.
Mexico, if she is wise, does not want Texas."
"I heard yesterday there's some talk amongst the Americans about
organizing home guards. We can't stand another postponement, Holly; it
might give them time to pull off something like that. Little Luis Medina
told me he heard a target marker for the San Bonito rifle club say
something about it. He heard the members talking. You know they're using
government rifles and ammunition. It would be a hell of a note to put
things off till every town had a home guard organized."
"I can see no necessity for putting things off," said Holly calmly. "So
far as I can learn, we are practically ready, over here. Ah! Here comes
our charming neighbor from Sunlight Basin. Perhaps, Elfigo, it would be
as well for you to disappear from the premises."
"Oh, I want to meet her," Elfigo smiled easily. "It'll be all right;
I just came after water for my radiator, anyway. She's dry as a bone.
I opened the drain cock and let her drain off and stood a fine chance
of freezing my engine too, before I got on past the puddle far enough
to be safe!"
"It was, as a matter of fact, a very grave mistake to come here at all,"
Holly told him with a courteous kind of severity. "I fear you greatly
underestimate the absolute necessity for extreme caution. The mere fact
that we have thus far elicited nothing more than a vague curiosity on the
part of the government, does not excuse any imprudence now. Rather, it
intensifies the need for caution. For myself—"
"Oh, anybody is liable to run dry, out here on the desert, Holly. If all
the Secret Service men in the country, and I know of one or two that's
been nosing around, were to come and find me here, they couldn't say I
hadn't a good, legitimate reason for coming. I had to come. I didn't want
to run on to any one from that inquest, and I had to see you. I wanted to
put you wise to the stand we're taking on the Estan Medina affair. We
can't help if that somebody bumped him off, but—"
"You can fill your water bag at the well, since that is what you came
for; and I should strongly advise you to terminate your visit as soon as
it is consistent with your errand to do so."
"Oh, don't crab my meeting a pretty girl, Holly! Introduce me, and I'll
take the water and go. Be a sport!" Elfigo had picked up his
five-gallon desert bag, but he was obviously waiting for Helen May to
ride up to the house.
To Starr, crouched behind on a rock on the ridge that divided the
Sommers place from the hidden arroyo where he had first seen trace of
the automobile, Elfigo's attitude of waiting for Helen May was too
obvious to question. A little, weakling offspring of Hope died then in
his heart. He had tried so hard to find some excuse for Helen May, and
he had almost succeeded. But his glasses were too strong; they
identified Elfigo Apodaca too clearly for any doubt. They were too
merciless in showing Starr that beside Elfigo stood the man who had
visited Helen May the day before.
Recognition of the man came with something of a shock to Starr. He had
heard of Holman Sommers often enough, though he had never seen him. He
had heard him described as a "highbrow" who wrote scientific articles,
sometimes published in obscure magazines, read by few and understood by
none. A recluse student, he had been described to Starr, who knew Todd
Sommers by sight, and who had tagged the family as being too American for
any suspicion to point their way.
As often happens, Starr had formed a mental picture of Holman Sommers
which was really the picture of a type made familiar to us mostly by our
humorists. He had imagined that Holman Sommers, being a "highbrow," was a
little, dried-up man with a bald head and weak eyes that made spectacles
a part of his face; an insignificant little man well past middle life,
with a gray beard, Starr saw him mentally. He should have known better
than to let his imagination paint him a portrait of any man, in those
ticklish times. But they were Americans, which was disarming in itself.
And the plump sister, who had talked for ten minutes with Starr when he
called at the ranch one day to see if they had any stock they wanted to
sell, had further helped to ward off any suspicion.
Now that he knew, by the smoking jacket and the slippers and the
uncovered thatch of jet-black hair, that this man must be Holman Sommers;
when he saw Elfigo Apodaca there, seated and talking earnestly with him,
as he could tell by the gestures with which they elaborated their speech;
when he saw Helen May riding in to the ranch, he had before him all the
outward, visible evidence of a conference. The only false note, to
Starr's way of thinking, was the brazenness of it. They must, he told
himself, be so sure of themselves that they could snap their fingers at
risk, or else they were so desperately in need of conferring together
that they overlooked the risk. And that second explanation might easily
be the true one, in view of Estan Medina's death and the possible
consequence to the Alliance.
Starr was hampered by not hearing anything that was being said down there
at that homey-looking ranch house, where everything was clearly visible
to him through his field glasses. But even so it did not require speech
to tell him that Elfigo Apodaca had never before met Helen May Stevenson,
and that Holman Sommers was not overeager to introduce him to her. Starr,
watching every movement of the three when they came together, frowned
with puzzlement. Why had they been strangers until just now?
He saw the three stand and talk for perhaps two minutes; commonplace,
early-acquaintance nothings, he judged from their faces and actions. He
saw Helen May offer Holman Sommers the package she carried; saw Holman
take it negligently and tuck it under his arm while he went on talking.
He saw Helen May turn then and go around to the door, which was opened
effusively by the plump sister whom he knew. He saw the two men go to the
well, and watched Elfigo fill the water bag and go away down the uneven
trail to where his automobile stood, perhaps a quarter of a mile nearer
the main road. When he turned his glasses from Elfigo to the house,
Holman had gone inside, and the two women were out beyond the house
admiring a flock of chickens which Maggie called to her with a few
handfuls of grain.
There seemed no further profit in watching the Sommers house, and Starr
was about to leave his post when he saw the dingy, high-powered roadster
of the sheriff come careening up the trail. He came near upsetting his
machine in getting around Apodaca's big car, but he negotiated the
passing with some skill and came on to where he met Elfigo himself
sweating down the trail with his full five-gallon water bag.
Here again Starr wished that he could hear as well as he could see. That
the sheriff had seized the opportunity to place Elfigo under arrest, he
knew well enough, by faces and gestures, just as he had known of Elfigo's
introduction to Helen May. But here were no polite nothings being
mouthed. Elfigo was talking angrily, and Starr would have given a great
deal to hear what he was saying; calling it an outrage, he supposed, and
heaping maledictions on the stupidity of the law.
The sheriff did not seem to pay much attention to what Elfigo was saying
beyond pulling a pair of handcuffs from his coat pocket, and tossing
them to his prisoner—with the invitation to put them on, Starr knew
very well, having himself done the same thing more than once. Still
talking furiously, Elfigo obeyed, and then was invited to climb in
beside the sheriff, who stooped and did something with one of Elfigo's
stylishly trousered legs; manacled him to something in the machine,
Starr guessed. From which he also gathered that Elfigo's remarks must
have been pretty strong.
The sheriff started on, ran to where he could turn without upsetting, and
backed the car around as though his errand were done. Quick work it had
been. Evidently Sheriff O'Malley had attended the inquest with a blank
warrant in his pocket, for fear Elfigo might take alarm and give them
the slip. He must have been on the way back when he had either seen
Elfigo's car on the Sommers trail, or else had noted where it had turned
off and had come up the trail in a purely investigative spirit. However
that might be, he had not let the chance slip. Which was characteristic
of Sheriff O'Malley, essentially a man of action.
Starr should have been glad. Perhaps he was, though he did not look it as
he went back to where Rabbit was browsing on whatever he could get while
he waited for his master. Elfigo in jail even for a few days would be an
advantage, Starr believed. It would set the rest to buzzing, so that he
could locate them with less delay. But at the same time—
"If it came to a showdown right now, I'd have to take her along with the
rest," he came up squarely against his real problem. "She's got it
coming; but it's hell, all the same!"
STARR DISCOVERS THINGS
Starr was sitting on the side of his bed with one boot off and dangling
in his hand, and with his thoughts gone journeying out over the mesa and
the desert and the granite ridge beyond, to a squatty, two-room adobe
shack at the head of Sunlight Basin. During the days he had been too
fully occupied with the work he had to do to dwell much on the miserable
fact of Helen May's duplicity, her guilt of the crime of treason against
her native country. But at night the thought of her haunted him like the
fevered ache of a wound too deep to heal quickly.
He swore an abrupt oath as a concrete expression of his mood, and dropped
the boot with a thump to the floor. The word and the action served to
swing his thoughts into another channel not much more pleasant, but a
great deal more impersonal.
"He's shore foxy—that hombre!" he said, thinking of Elfigo Apodaca.
As matters stood that evening, Starr felt that Elfigo had the right to
laugh at him and the whole Secret Service. Elfigo was in jail, yes.
Only that day he had been given his preliminary hearing on the charge
of murdering Estan Medina, and he had been remanded without bail to
On the face of it, that looked as though Starr had gained a point. In
reality he felt that he had in some manner played into Elfigo's hands.
Certainly he had not gained anything in the way of producing any buzzing
of the Alliance leaders. Not a Mexican had shown his face at the hearing,
save Luis Medina and his mother, who had been called as witnesses.
Luis had been badly scared but stubborn, insisting that he had heard
Elfigo call Estan from the house just before the shot was fired. The
mother also had been badly frightened, but not at all stubborn. Indeed,
she was not even certain of anything beyond the drear fact that her son
was dead, and that he had fallen with the lamp in his hand, unarmed and
unsuspecting. She was frightened at the unknown, terrible Law that had
brought her there before the judge, and not at anything tangible.
But Luis knew exactly what it was he feared. Starr read that in his eyes
whenever they turned toward the calm, inscrutably smiling Elfigo. Hate
was in the eyes of Luis, but the hate was almost submerged by the terror
that filled him. He shook when he stood up to take the oath. His voice
trembled in spite of him when he spoke; but he spoke boldly for all
that—falsely, too. He had lied when he told of the quarrel over the old
water right. It was not a water right which the two had discussed, and
Starr knew it.
But it was Elfigo that puzzled Starr most. Elfigo had smiled, as though
the whole thing amused him even though it annoyed him to be under arrest.
He denied, of course, that he had known anything at all about the murder
until it was common news about town. He had been somewhere else at the
time Estan was shot, and he could and would prove, when the time came,
that it would have been physically impossible for him to have shot Estan
Medina. He preferred not to produce any witnesses now, however. Let it go
to a jury trial, and then he would clear himself of the charge. All
through his lawyer, of course, while Elfigo sat back with his hands in
his pockets and his feet thrust out before him, whimsically contemplating
his tan shoes.
He had seemed confident that bail would be accepted, and he was
unmistakably crestfallen when the judge, who acted under certain
instructions from those above him, refused to accept bail. But Elfigo had
scored, nevertheless; he had not permitted any of his friends to become
identified in any manner whatsoever with his movements, and he had
withheld his side of the case altogether.
So Starr was left in the dark where he had expected to find the light he
needed to direct him. He had also permitted Luis to mark himself for
another murder in the Medina family. Well, Luis was a conspirator, for
that matter; but he was a boy, and his judgment had not ripened. It
seemed a shame that a youngster like that should be drawn into such a
mess. Starr, determined to do what he could to protect Luis, had seen to
it that Luis was locked up, for the purely technical reason that he was
an important witness and they wanted to be sure of him; but really to
protect him from the wrath of Elfigo.
"And now," Starr's thoughts ran on, "I stand just where I stood before,
except that I know a whole heap more than I wish I knew. And if the thing
breaks loose before the trial, Elfigo will be in jail where he's got a
cast-iron alibi. The rest of the bunch must be strong enough to go on
without him, but I shore did hope they'd be stirred up some over this
shooting. They'll likely get together right away, hold a meeting and make
arrangements to do without Elfigo. If I knew where…"
He lifted the other foot to remove its boot, hesitated, and set it down
again. Surely the Alliance would have to adjust itself to the loss of
Elfigo. They would get together, and what buzzing they did would be
behind barred doors, since they had been too cunning to show themselves
at the hearing; that night, probably, since they knew now that Elfigo had
been bound over to the grand jury, and that he was held without bail.
Where would they meet? That was what Starr wished he knew.
He sat there rumpling his hair and studying the question. He could not
fix upon any particular place, unless it was the Sommers ranch; and that
was too far from town for any urgent business, and travelers to and from
the place would be taking too great a risk. For he was sure there would
be a dozen or more who would make up the Junta, and for so many men to be
traveling in one direction would excite curiosity from any one who saw
them leave town or return.
There was another possible meeting place—the office of Las Nuevas.
Starr thought of that rather hopelessly. Just as a common precaution,
they would guard the doors if the Junta met there, or they would have men
stationed on the stairs; that he would not be able to get up without
giving the alarm he knew as well as though he had tried and failed.
His thoughts went to that hidden, inner office where he had found the
pamphlets and the writing that pointed to Helen May as one of the band.
There, where there were no outside windows to betray a midnight
conference by any showing of light within; where eavesdropping was
absolutely impossible; where the men who met there might gain the yard by
various means, since it faced on three streets, and be practically safe
from observation, he became convinced would be the logical meeting place.
To be sure, he was only guessing. He had no evidence whatever save his
own reason that there would be a meeting, much less that it would be held
in the secret office room of Las Nuevas. But he put on the boot he had
taken off and reached for his coat. A half hour or so ought to prove him
right or wrong in his deductions, and Starr would not have grudged a full
night to satisfy himself on that point.
It was late, nearly midnight, to be exact, when he slipped out to the
shed, and watched from its shadow until he was sure that no one had seen
him, before he let himself down through the hole in the manger to the
arroyo bottom. He went hurriedly, but he was very careful not to show
himself without first making sure that the way was clear.
For that reason he escaped being seen by a tall young Mexican whom he
caught sight of lounging at the corner opposite the building that held
Las Nuevas. Ostensibly the fellow had merely stopped to light a
cigarette, but while Starr watched him he struck three matches in
succession, and immediately afterwards a shadow glided from the shelter
of a plumber's shop opposite, slipped down to the gate that was always
barred, and disappeared.
Starr circled warily to the rear of the yard to see what chance there
might be of getting over the wall unseen. He did not know what good it
would do him to get into the yard, but he hoped that he might be lucky
enough to see any one who entered the back door, which would be the
logical means of ingress.
He was standing back of the garage where he had found the cord tires,
when the quiet of the night was split with the shrill, nerve-racking
shriek of the fire whistle, four or five blocks away. In spite of
himself, he was startled with its suddenness, and he stood tensed and
waiting for the dismal hoots that would tell what ward the fire was
in. One—two—three, croaked the siren like a giant hoot-owl calling
in the night.
"Third ward—down around the depot, probably," he heard a voice say
guardedly on the other side of the fence. Another voice, more guarded
even than the first, muttered a reply which Starr could not catch.
Neither voice was recognizable, and the sentence he heard was so obvious
a remark as to be practically meaningless; probably a hundred persons in
town had said "Third ward," when the siren had tooted the number.
At any rate some one was there in the yard of Las Nuevas, and it would
not be wise for Starr to attempt getting over the wall. He waited
therefore until he heard careful footsteps moving away; whereupon he
himself stole quietly to the corner, thence down the side wall to the
front of the building, so that he could look across the street to where
the Mexican had revealed himself for a moment in the light of a distant
If the Mexican had been on watch there, he had left his post. In a minute
Starr saw him hurrying down the unused side street, toward the angry glow
that told where the fire had started. Too much temptation, Starr
interpreted the fellow's desertion of his post; or else no more men were
expected at Las Nuevas, and the outpost was no longer needed. Taking it
for granted that a meeting had been called here, Starr reasoned from that
He waited another minute or two, watching and listening. There was
nothing at the front to break the quiet or spoil the air of desertion
that surrounds an empty office building at midnight. He went cautiously
to the rear corner and turned there to look back at the building,
watchful for any stray beam of light or any movement.
The upper story was dark as the rest of the yard and building, and Starr
could almost believe that he was on the wrong track entirely, and that
nothing was going on here. But he continued to stand there, loath to give
up and go home with nothing accomplished.
Close beside the building and back perhaps twenty feet from the front
corner, a telephone and electric light pole stood with outstretched arms,
holding aloft its faintly humming wires. Starr stood looking that way for
some time before it occurred to him that there was no street light near
enough to send that warm, yellow glow across the second bar from the
bottom. The rest of the pole was vague and shadowy, like everything else
in the immediate neighborhood. The bottom of the pole he could not see at
all from where he stood, it was so dark alongside the building. But that
second cross-arm was lighted as from a near-by window. Yet there was no
lighted window anywhere in the place.
Starr was puzzled. Being puzzled, he went slowly toward the pole, his
face turned upward. The nearest street lamp was a full block away, and it
would have lighted up the whole top of the pole evenly, if at all. At the
foot of the pole Starr stood for a minute, still staring upward. Then he
reached up, gripped the metal steps and began carefully to climb.
Before he had reached the lighted cross-arm he knew that the glow must
come from a skylight; and that the skylight must be the one that had
saved that hidden little office room from being dark. He was no lineman,
but he knew enough to be careful about the wires, so it took him several
minutes to work his way to where he could straddle a crosstree that had
Just below him and no more than twelve or fifteen feet distant was the
skylight he had suspected, but before he gave that much attention, he
looked across to where the fire was sending up a column of crimson smoke
and bright, eddying sparks, four blocks or so away. The man left on guard
would find it difficult to tear himself away from all that excitement,
Starr thought satisfiedly; though if he came back he could scarcely help
seeing Starr on that lighted perch, and he would undoubtedly take a shot
at him if he were any man at all and had a spark of loyalty to his
fellows. For Starr's business up there could not be mistaken by the
stupidest greaser in the town.
With the fire to help his cause, Starr craned toward the building and
looked down through the skylight. It had been partly raised for
ventilation, which was needed in that little, inside room, especially
since twelve men were foregathered there, and since every man in the lot
was burning tobacco in some form.
Sommers was there, seated at the end of a table that had been moved
into the center of the room, which brought it directly under the
skylight. He sat facing Starr, and he was reading something to himself
while the others waited in silence until he had finished. His strong,
dark face was grave, his high forehead creased with the wrinkles of
deep thinking. He had a cigar in one corner of his mouth, and he was
absentmindedly chewing it rather than smoking. He looked the leader,
though his clothes were inclined to shabbiness and he sat slouched
forward in his chair. He looked the leader, and their leader those
others proclaimed him by their very silence, and by the way their faces
turned toward him while they waited.
THROUGH THE OPEN SKYLIGHT
Sommers took his cigar from his mouth and laid it carefully down upon the
edge of the table, although he was plainly unconscious of the movement.
He lifted his head with a little toss that threw back a heavy lock of his
jet-black hair. He glanced around the table, and his eyes dominated those
"I have here," he began in the sonorous voice and the measured
enunciation of the trained orator, "a letter from our esteemed—and
unfortunate—comrade and fellow worker, Elfigo Apodaca. Without taking
your valuable time by reading the letter through from salutation to
signature, I may say briefly that its context is devoted to our cause and
to the inconvenience which may be entailed because of our comrade's
present incarceration, the duration of which is as yet undetermined.
"Comrade Apodaca expresses great confidence in his ultimate release. He
maintains that young Medina is essentially a traitor, and that his
evidence at the preliminary hearing was given purely in the spirit of
revenge. That Comrade Apodaca will be exonerated fully of the charge of
murder, I myself can entertain no scintilla of doubt. We may therefore
dismiss from our minds any uneasiness we may, some of us, have
entertained on that score.
"The question we are foregathered here to decide to-night is whether the
date set for our public demonstration shall remain as it stands; whether
we shall seek permission to postpone that date, or whether it shall be
deemed expedient to set it forward to the earliest possible moment. As
you all are doubtless aware, our esteemed compatriots in Mexico are ready
and waiting our pleasure, like hounds straining at the leash. The work of
organization on this side of the line has of necessity been slow, because
of various adverse influences and a slothful desire for present ease and
safety, which we have been constrained to combat. Also the accumulation
of arms and ammunition in a sufficient quantity for our purpose without
exciting suspicion has required much tactful manipulation.
"But we have here assembled the trusted representatives from our twelve
districts in the State, and I trust that each one of you has come
prepared to furnish this Junta with the data necessary for an
intelligent action upon the question we have to decide to-night. Am I
right, gentlemen, in that assumption?"
Eleven men nodded assent and looked down at the slips of paper they had
produced from inner pockets and held ready in their hands.
"Then I shall ask you, compadres, to listen carefully to the report from
each district, so that you may judge the wisdom of foreshortening the
interval between to-night and the date set for the uprising.
"Each representative will give the number, in his district, of armed
members of the Alliance; the amount of ammunition at hand; the number of
agents secretly occupying positions of trust where they can give the most
aid to the movement; the number of Spanish-Americans who, like our
unfortunate neighbor, Estancio Medina, have refused thus far to come into
the Alliance; the number, in his district, who may be counted upon to
come in, once they see that the cause is not hopeless; who may be
expected to take the purely American side, and who may be safely depended
upon to remain neutral. I shall ask each of you to tell us also the
extent and nature of such opposition as your district must be prepared to
meet. There has been a rumor of some preparation for resistance to our
movement, and we shall want to know all that you can tell us of that
phase of the situation as observed in your district.
"These seemingly unimportant details are absolutely essential, gentlemen
of the Junta. For in this revolutionary movement you must bear in mind
that brother will rise up against brother, as it were. You will be called
upon, perchance, to slay the dearest friend of your school days; your
neighbor, if so be he is allied against you when the great day comes. We
must not weaken; we must keep our eyes fixed upon the ultimate good that
will come out of the turmoil. But we must know! We must not make the
irretrievable error of taking anything for granted. Keeping that in mind,
gentlemen, we will hear first the report from Bernalillo district."
A man at the right of Sommers unfolded his little slip of paper, cleared
his throat and began, in strongly accented English, to read. The eleven
who listened leaned forward, elbows on the table, and drank in the
terrible figures avidly. Sommers set down the figures in columns and made
notes on the pad before him, his lips pressed together in a straight line
that twisted now and then with a sinister kind of satisfaction.
"That, gentlemen, is how the Cause stands in the county that has the
largest population and approximately the smallest area of any county in
the State. While this report is not altogether new to me, yet I am
struck anew with the great showing that has been made in that county.
With the extensive yards and shops of the Santa Fe at Albuquerque seized
and held by our forces, together with the junction points and—"
Starr did not wait to hear any more, but edged hastily back to the pole
and began to climb down as though a disturbed hornets' nest hung above
him. The report that had so elated Sommers sent a chill down Starr's
back. If one county could show so appalling an insurrectory force, what
of the whole State? Yes, and the other States involved! And the thing
might be turned loose at any time!
He dropped to the ground, sending a scared glance for the watchman who
had gone to the fire. He was nowhere to be seen, and Starr, running to
the rear of the lot, skirted the high wall at a trot; crossed a narrow,
black alley, hurried down behind the next lots to the cross street,
walked as fast as he dared to the next corner, turned into the main
street, and made for the nearest public telephone booth.
He sweated there in the glass cage for a long ten minutes before he had
managed to get in touch with Sheriff O'Malley and the chief of police,
and to tell each in turn what he wanted and where they must meet him, and
how many minutes they might have to do it in. He came out feeling as
though he had been in there an hour, and went straight to the rendezvous
he had named, which was a shed near the building of Las Nuevas, only on
They came, puffing a little and a good deal mystified. Starr, not
daring to state his real business with them, had asked for men to
surround and take a holdup gang. All told, there were six of them when
all had arrived, and they must have been astounded at what Starr told
them in a prudent undertone and speaking swiftly. They did not say
anything much, but slipped away after him and came to the high wall
that hid so much menace.
"There was a hombre on guard across the street," Starr told the sheriff.
"He went off to the fire, but he's liable to come back. Put a man over
there in the shade of that junk shop to watch out for him and nab him
before he can give the alarm. This is ticklish work, remember. Any
Mexican in town would knife you if he knew what you're up to.
"Johnson, you can climb the pole and pull down on 'em through the
skylight, but wait till you see by their actions that they've got the tip
something's wrong, and don't shoot if you can help it. Remember this is
Secret Service work, and the quieter it's done, the better pleased
they'll be in Washington. There can't be any hullabaloo at all. You two
fellows watch the front and back gates, and the no-shooting rule goes
with you, too. If there's anything else you can do, don't shoot. But it's
better to fire a cannon than let a man get away. Sabe? Now, Chief, you
and the sheriff can come with me, and we'll bust up the meetin' for 'em."
He went up on the shoulder of the man who was to watch outside the rear
wall, and straddled the wall for a brief reconnoiter. Evidently the Junta
felt safe in their hidden little room, for no guard had been left in the
yard. The back door was locked, and Starr opened it as silently as he
could with his pass key. Close behind him came Sheriff O'Malley and the
chief of police, whose name was Whittier. They had left their shoes
beside the doorstep and walked in their socks, making no noise at all.
Starr did not dare use his searchlight, but felt his way down past the
press and the forms, to where the stairs went up to the second floor. On
the third step from the bottom, Starr, feeling his way with his hands,
touched a dozing watchman and choked him into submission before the
fellow had emitted more than a sleepy grunt of surprise. They left him
gagged and tied to the iron leg of some heavy piece of machinery, and
went on up the stairs, treading as stealthily as a prowling cat.
Starr turned to the right, found the door locked, and patiently turned
his key a hair's breadth at a time in the lock, until he slid the bolt
back. Behind him the repressed breathing of O'Malley fanned warmly the
back of his neck. He pushed the door open a half inch at a time, found
the outer office dark and silent, and crossed it stealthily to the closet
behind the stove. O'Malley and Whittier were so close behind that he
could feel them as they entered the closet and crept along its length.
Starr was reaching out before him with his hands, feeling for the door
into the secret office, when Sheriff O'Malley struck his foot against the
old tin spittoon, tried to cover the sound, and ran afoul of the brooms,
which tripped him and sent him lurching against Starr. There in that
small space where everything had been so deathly still the racket was
appalling. O'Malley was not much given to secret work; he forgot himself
now and swore just as full-toned and just as fluently as though be had
tripped in the dark over his own wheelbarrow in his own back yard.
Starr threw himself against the end of the closet where he knew the door
was hidden in the wall, felt the yielding of a board, and heaved against
it with his shoulder. He landed almost on top of a fat-jowled
representative from Santa Fé, but he landed muzzle foremost, as it were,
and he was telling the twelve to put up their hands even before he had
his feet solidly planted on the floor.
Holman Sommers sat facing him. He had been writing, and he still held his
pencil in his hand. He slowly crumpled the sheet of paper, his vivid eyes
lifted to Starr's face. Tragic eyes they were then, for beyond Starr they
looked into the stern face of the government he would have defied. They
looked upon the wreck of his dearest dream; upon the tightening chains of
the wage slaves he would have freed—or so he dreamed.
Starr stared back, his own mind visioning swiftly the havoc he had
wrought in the dream of this leader of men. He saw, not a political
outlaw caught before he could do harm to his country, but a man fated to
bear in his great brain an idea born generations too soon into a brawling
world of ideas that warred always with sordid circumstance. A hundred
years hence this man might be called great. Now he was nothing more than
a political outlaw chief, trapped with his band of lesser outlaws.
Sommers' eyes lightened impishly. His thin lips twisted in a smile at the
damnable joke which Life was playing there in that room.
"Gentlemen of the Junta," he said in his sonorous, public-platform
voice, "I find it expedient, because of untoward circumstances, to
advise that you make no resistance. From the unceremonious and
unheralded entry of our esteemed opponents, these political prostitutes
who have had the effrontery to come here in the employ of a damnable
system of political tyranny and frustrate our plans for the liberation
of our comrades in slavery, I apprehend the fact that we have been
basely betrayed by some foul Judas among us. I am left with no
alternative but to advise that you surrender your bodies to these
minions of what they please to call the law.
"Whether we part now, to spend the remaining years of our life in some
foul dungeon; whether to die a martyr's death on the scaffold, or whether
the workers of the land awake to their power and, under some wiser,
stronger leadership, liberate us to enjoy the fruits of the harvest we
have but sown, I cannot attempt to prophesy. We have done what we could
for our fellowmen. We have not failed, for though we perish, yet our
blood shall fructify what we have sown, that our sons and our sons' sons
may reap the garnered grain. Gentlemen, of the Junta, I declare our
Starr's eyes were troubled, but his gun did not waver. It pointed
straight at the breast of Holman Sommers, who looked at him measuringly
when he had finished speaking.
"I can't argue about the idea back of this business," Starr said gravely.
"All I can do is my duty. Put on these handcuffs, Mr. Sommers. They stand
for something you ain't big enough to lick—yet."
"Certainly," said Holman Sommers composedly. "You put the case like a
philosopher. Like a philosopher I yield to the power which, I grant you,
we are not big enough to lick—yet. In behalf of our Cause, however,
permit me to call your attention to the fact that we might have come
nearer to victory, had you not discovered and interrupted this meeting
to-night." Though his face was paler than was natural, he slipped on the
manacles as matter-of-factly as he would have put on clean cuffs, and
rose from his chair prepared to go where Starr directed.
"No, sit down again," said Starr brusquely. "Sheriff, gather up all those
pieces of paper for evidence against these men, and give them to me. Give
me a receipt for the men—I'll wait for it. I want you and Chief Whittier
to hold them here in this room till I come back. I won't be long—half an
hour, maybe." He took the slips of paper which the sheriff folded and
handed to him, and slipped them into his pocket.
He was gone a little longer than he said, for he had some trouble in
locating the railroad official he wanted, and in convincing that sleepy
official that he was speaking for the government when he demanded an
engine and day coach to be placed on a certain dark siding he mentioned,
ready for a swift night run to El Paso and a little beyond—to Fort
Bliss, in fact.
He got it, trust Starr for that! And he was only twenty minutes behind
the time he had named, though the sheriff and the chief of police
betrayed a nervous relief when he walked in upon them and announced that
he was ready now to move the prisoners.
They untied the terrified watchman and added him to the group. In the
dark, and by way of vacant lots and unlighted streets, he took them to a
certain point where an engine had just backed a single, unlighted day
coach on to a siding and stood there with air-pump wheezing and the
engineer crawling around beneath with his oil can. By the rear steps of
the coach a mystified conductor stood waiting with his lantern hidden
under his coat. A big man was the conductor; once a policeman and
therefore with a keen nose—don't laugh!—for mysteries.
He wore a satisfied look when he saw the men that were being hustled into
the car. His uniform tightened as he swelled with the importance of his
mission. He nodded to Sheriff O'Malley and the chief of police, cast an
obliquely curious glance at Starr, who stayed on the ground, and when
Starr gave the word he swung his lantern to the watching fireman, and
caught the handrail beside the steps.
"Fort Bliss it is; and there won't nothing stop us, buh-lieve me!" he
muttered confidentially to Starr, whom he recognized only as the man who
stood behind the mystery. The engine began to creep forward, and he swung
up to the lower step. "We may go in the ditch or something; but we'll get
there, you listen to me!"
"Go to it, and good luck," said Starr, but there was no heartiness in his
voice. He stood with his thumbs hooked inside his gun-belt and watched
the coach that held the peace of the country within its varnished walls
go sliding out of the yard, its green tail lights the only illumination
anywhere behind the engine. When it had clicked over the switch and was
picking up speed for its careening flight south through the cool hours of
early morning, he gave a sigh that had no triumph in it, and turned away
toward his cabin.
"Well, there goes the revolution," he said somberly to himself. "And here
I go to do the rest of the job; and alongside what I've got to do, hell
would be a picnic!"
STARR TAKES ANOTHER PRISONER
With a slip of paper in his pocket that would have gone a long way toward
clearing Helen May, had he only taken the trouble to look at it, Starr
rode out in the cool early morning to Sunlight Basin. He looked white and
worn, and his eyes were sunken and circled with the purple of too little
sleep and too much worry, for in the three days since he had seen her,
Starr had not been able to forget his misery once in merciful sleep. Only
when he was busy with capturing the Junta had he lost for a time the keen
pain of his hurt.
Now it was back like an aching tooth set going again with cold water or
sweets. He tried to make himself think that he hated Helen May, and that
a girl of that type—a girl who could lend herself to such
treachery—could not possibly win from him anything but a pitying
contempt. He told himself over and over again that he was merely sore
because a girl had "put something over on him"; that a man hated to have
a woman make a fool of him.
He tried to gloat over the fact that he had found her out before she had
any inkling of how he felt toward her; he actually believed that! He
tried not to wince at the thought of her at Fort Bliss, a Federal
prisoner, charged with conspiring against the government. She must have
known the risk she took, he kept telling himself. The girl was no fool,
was way above the average in intelligence. That was why she had appealed
to him; he had felt the force of her personality, the underlying strength
of her character that had not harshened her outward charm, as strength so
often does for a woman.
That was the worst of it. Had she been weak she would never have mixed
with any political conspiracy; they would not have wanted her, for
intrigue has no place for weaklings. But had she been weak she would
never have attracted Starr so deeply, however innocent she might have
been. So his reasoning went round and round in a circle, until he was
utterly heartsick with no hope of finding peace.
There was one thing he could do: it would be tightening the screws of his
torture, but he meant to do it for her sake. He would take her to Fort
Bliss himself, shielding her from publicity and humiliation; and he would
take charge of Vic, and see that the kid did not suffer too much on
account of his sister.
He would make a man of Vic; he never guessed that he was taking up
mentally the burden which Peter had laid upon Helen May. He believed
there was good stuff in that kid, and with the right handling he would
come out all right. He would put in a plea to his chief for leniency
toward the girl too. He would say that she was young and inexperienced
and that Holman Sommers had probably drawn her into his scheme—Starr
could see how that might easily be—and that her health was absolutely
dependent upon open air. They couldn't keep her shut up long; a girl
could not do much harm, if the rest of the bunch was convicted. Maybe
the lesson and the scare would be all she needed to pull her back into
lawful living. She was not a hardened adventuress; why, she couldn't be
much over twenty-one or two! After a while, when she had straightened
up, maybe …
So Starr thought and thought, fighting to keep a little hope alive, to
see a little gleam of light in the blackness of his soul. His head bent,
his eyes staring unseeingly at the yellow-brown dust of the trail, he
rode along unconscious of everything save the battle raging fiercely
within. He did not know what pace Rabbit was taking; he even forgot that
he was on Rabbit's back. He did not know that his duty as a man and his
man's love were fighting the fiercest battle of his life, or if he did,
he never thought to call it a battle.
There had been one black night in the cabin—the night before this last
one, it was—when he had considered for a while how he might smuggle
Helen May out of the country, suppressing the fact of her complicity. He
planned just how he could put her on a train and "shoot her to Los
Angeles," as he worded it to himself. How she could take a boat there for
Vancouver, and how he could hold back developments here until he knew she
was safe. He figured the approximate cost and the hole it would make in
his little savings account. He thought of everything, even to marrying
her before she left, so that he could not be compelled to testify against
her, in case she was caught.
He had dozed afterwards, and had dreamed that he put his plan to the test
of reality. He had married Helen May and taken her himself to Los
Angeles. But there had not been money enough for him to go any farther,
and his chief had wired him peremptorily to return and arrest the leaders
of the Alliance and all connected with it. So he had bought a steerage
ticket for Helen May and put her aboard the boat, where she must herd
with a lot of leering Chinamen. He had stood on the pier and watched the
boat swing out and nose its way to the open sea, and a submarine had
torpedoed it when it had sailed beyond the three-mile limit off the
coast, so he could not go after her. He was just taking off his coat to
try it, anyway, when he awoke.
That was all the good his sleep had done him: set him upright in bed with
a cold sweat on his face and his hands shaking. But the reaction from
that nightmare had been complete, and Starr had not again planned how he
might dodge his plain duty. But he kept thinking around and around the
subject for all that, as though he could not give up entirely the hope of
being able to save her somehow.
He did not know, until he passed the corral, that he was already in
Sunlight Basin, and that the house stood just up the slope before him.
Rabbit must have taken it for granted that Starr was bound for this place
and so had kept the trail of his own accord, for Starr could not remember
turning from the main road. He did not even know that he had passed not
more than a hundred yards from Vic and the goats, and that Vic had
shouted "hello" to him.
He took a long breath when he glanced up and saw the house so close, but
he did not attempt to dodge or even delay the final tragedy of his
mission. He let Rabbit keep straight on. And when the horse stopped
before the closed front door, Starr slid off and walked, like a tired old
man, to the door and knocked.
Helen May had been washing the breakfast dishes, and Starr heard the
muffled sound of her high-heeled slippers clicking over the bare floor
for a minute before she came into the front room and opened the door. She
had a dish towel over her right arm, opening the door with her left.
Starr knew that the dish towel was merely a covering for her six-shooter,
and his heart hardened a little at that fresh reminder of her
preparedness and her guile.
"Why, good morning, desert man," she said brightly, after the first
little start of surprise. "Come on in. The coffee's fine this morning;
and I just had a hunch I'd better not throw it out for a while yet.
There's a little waffle batter left, too."
Starr had choked down a cup of coffee and a sandwich at the station lunch
counter before he left San Bonito, and he was glad now that he was not
hungry. He stepped inside, but he did not smile back at Helen May; nor
could he have accepted her hospitality to save himself from starvation.
He felt enough like Judas as it was.
"Don't put down your gun yet," he said abruptly, standing beside the door
with his hat in his hand, as though his visit would be very short. "You
can shoot me if you want to, but that's about all the leeway I can give
you. I rounded up the revolution leaders last night. They're likely at
Fort Bliss by now, so you can take your choice between handing me a
bullet, or going along with me to Fort Bliss. Because if I live, that's
where I'll have to take you. And," he added as an afterthought, "I don't
care much which it is."
Helen May stood with her chin tilted down, and stared at him from under
her eyebrows. She did not speak for a minute, and Starr leaned back
against the closed door with his arms folded negligently and his hat
dangling from one hand, waiting her decision. He stared back at her,
somberly apathetic. He had spoken the simple truth when he said he did
not care which she decided to do. He had come to the limit of suffering,
it seemed to him. He could look into her tawny brown eyes now without any
"You don't smell drunk," said Helen May suddenly and very bluntly, "and
you don't look crazy. What is the matter with you, Starr of the desert?
Is this a joke, or what?"
"It didn't strike me as any joke," Starr told her passionlessly.
"Thirteen of them I rounded up. Holman Sommers was the head of the whole
thing. Elfigo Apodaca is in jail, held for the shooting of Estan Medina.
Luis Medina is in jail too, held as a witness and to keep Apodaca's men
from killing him before he can testify in court. I hated to see the kid
tangled up with it—and I hate to see you in it. But that don't give me
any license to let you off. You're under arrest. I'm a Secret Service
man, sent here to prevent the revolution that's been brewing all spring
and summer. I guess I've done it, all right." He stared at her with
growing bitterness in his eyes. His hurt began dully to ache again.
"Helen May, what in God's name did you tangle up with 'em for?" he
flashed in a sudden passion of grief and reproach.
Helen May's chin squared a little; but she who had not screamed when she
found her father dead in his bed; she who had read his letter without
whimpering held her voice quiet now, though womanlike she answered
Starr's question with another.
"What makes you think I am tangled up with it? What reason have you got
for connecting me with such a thing?"
A stain of anger reddened Starr's cheek bones, that had been pale. "What
reason? Well, I'll tell you. In the office of Las Nuevas, in that
little, inside room with the door opening out of a closet to hide it,
where I got my first real clue, I found two sheets of paper with some
strong revolutionary stuff written in English. Also I found a pamphlet
where the same stuff had been printed in Spanish. I kept that writing,
and I kept the pamphlet. I've got it now. I'd know the writing anywhere
I saw it, and I saw a sample of it here in this very room, when the wind
blew those papers off your desk."
"You—in this room!" Helen May caught her breath. "Why—why, you couldn't
have! I never wrote any revolution stuff in my life! Why—I don't know
the first thing about Las Nuevas, as you call it. How could my
writing—?" She caught her breath again, for she remembered.
"Why, Starr of the desert, that was Holman Sommers' writing you saw! I
remember now. Some pages of his manuscript blew off the desk when you
were here. See, I can show you a whole pile of it!" She ran to the desk,
Starr following her mechanically. "See? All kinds of scientific junk that
he wanted typed. Isn't that the writing you meant? Isn't it?" Her hands
trembled so that the papers she held close to Starr's face shook, but
Starr recognized the same symmetrical, hard-to-read chirography.
"Yes, that's it." His voice was so husky that she could hardly hear him.
He moistened his lips, that had gone dry. Was it possible? His mind kept
asking over and over.
"And here! I don't ask you to take my word for it—I know that just those
pages don't prove anything, because I might have written that stuff
myself—if I knew enough! But here's a lot that he sent over by the
stage driver yesterday. I haven't even opened it yet. You can see the
same handwriting in the address, can't you? And if he has written a
note—he does sometimes—and signed it—he always signs his name in
full—why, that will be proof, won't it?" Her eyes burned into his and
steadied a little his whirling thoughts.
"Open it, desert man! Open it, and see if there's a note! And you can ask
the stage driver, if you don't believe me; here, break the string!"
She was now more eager than he to see what was inside the wrapping of
newspaper. "See? That's an El Paso paper—and I don't take anything but
the Times from Los Angeles! Oh, goody! There is a note! You read it,
Starr. Read it out loud. If that doesn't convince you, why—why I can
prove by Vic—"
Starr had unfolded the sheet of tablet paper, and Helen May interrupted
herself to listen. Starr's voice was uneven, husky when he tried to
control the quiver in it. And this he read, in the handwriting of which
he had such bitter knowledge:
"My Dear Miss Stevenson:
"I am enclosing herewith a part of Chapter Two, which I have revised
considerably and beg you to retype for me. If you have no asterisk sign
upon your machine, will you be so kind as to make use of the period sign
to indicate a break in the context of the quotations from the various
authors whom I have cited?
"I wish to inform you that I am deeply sorry to place this extra burden
of work upon you, and also assure you that I am more than delighted with
the care you have exercised in deciphering correctly my most abominable
"May I also suggest, with all due respect to your intelligence and with a
keen appreciation of the potent influences of youth and romance upon even
the drudgery of an amanuensis, that in writing "stars of the universe" in
a scientific document, the connotation is marred somewhat when stars is
"Very apologetically your friend,
It took several seconds for the full significance of that last
paragraph to sink into minds so absorbed with another matter. But when
it did sink in—
"Oh-h!" gasped Helen May, and backed a step, her face the color of a red
Starr looked up from reading those pregnant words a second time to
himself. He reached out and caught Helen May by her two shoulders.
"Did you do that?" he whispered impellingly. "Did you spell my name into
that man's manuscript?"
"No, I didn't! I don't believe I did—I never noticed—well, even if I
did, that doesn't mean—anything." I hope the printers will set that
anything in their very smallest type, just to show you how weak and
futile and scarcely audible and absolutely unconvincing the word sounded.
For one reason, Helen May did not have much breath to say it with; and
for another reason, she knew there was not much use in saying it.
* * * * *
Helen May, sitting unabashed on Starr's lap, with an arm around his
neck and her head on his shoulder, with her dish towel and gun lying
just where she had dropped them on the floor some time before, took
Peter's last letter from Starr's fingers and drew it tenderly down
along her cheek.
"I only wish you could have known dad," she said with a gentle melancholy
that was a great deal lightened by her present happiness. "He wasn't at
all striking on the surface; he was so quiet and so unassuming. But he
was just the dearest and the bravest man—and when I think what he did
"I know he was dear and brave; I can judge by his daughter." Starr
reached up and prisoned hand and letter together and held them against
his lips. "Seems like a nightmare now that I ever thought—And to think I
headed out here to…"
"Well, I am your prisoner." Helen May answered that part of the
sentence which Starr had left unspoken. "Listen, desert man o' mine.
I—I want to be your prisoner forever and ever and ever!"
"You won't get anything less than a life sentence, lady! And—"
"Hully gosh!" Vic, bursting open the door just in the middle of a kiss,
skidded precipitately through to the kitchen. "Fade out!" he advised
himself as he went. "But say! When you get around to it, I'd like
something to eat, Helen Blazes!"