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leave him standing there like a statue.

"And there is more land here to make gardens like this?" he asked
slowly, absorbed.

"Yes, with water and labor and time."

Though his face was in the full light of the sun, it seemed at times in
shadow; then it glowed, as if between two passions. For an instant it was
grim, the chin coming forward, the brows contracting; then it was
transformed with something that was as a complete surrender to the
transport of irresistible temptation. He looked down at her quickly and
she saw him in the mood of story-telling to the children, suffused with
the radiance of a decision.

"I prefer the Leddys of Little Rivers to the Leddys of New York," he
said. "I am not going to-morrow! I am going to have land and a home under
the aegis of the Eternal Painter and in sight of Galeria, and worship at
the shrine of fecund peace. Will you and the Doge help me?" he asked with
an enthusiasm that was infectious. "May I go to his school of
agriculture, horticulture, and floriculture?"

Dumfounded, she bent her head and stared at the ground to hide her
astonishment.

"You want citizens, industrious young citizens, don't you?" he persisted.

"Yes, yes!" she said hastily and confusedly.

"Do you know a good piece of land?" he continued.

"Yes, several parcels," she answered, recovering her poise and smiling
in mockery.

"Come on!" he cried.

He was taking long, jumping steps on his crutches as they went up the
path.

"You will take me to look at the land, won't you, please - now? I want to
get acquainted with my future estate. I mean to beat the Smiths at plums,
Jim Galway at alfalfa, even rival Bob Worther at pumpkins and peonies.
And you will help me lay out the flower garden, won't you? You see, I
shall have to call in the experts in every line to start with, before I
begin to improve on them and make them all jealous. I may find a kind of
plum that will grow on alfalfa stalks," he hazarded. "What a
horticultural sensation!"

"And a spineless cactus called the Leddy!"

His eyes were laughing into hers and hers irresistibly laughed back. She
guessed that he was only joking. He had acted so well in the latest rôle
that she had actually believed in his sincerity for a moment. He meant to
take the train, of course, but his resourceful capriciousness had
supplied him with a less awkward exit from the garden than she had
provided. He would yet have the last word if she did not watch out - a
last mischievous word at her expense.

"First, you will have to plow the ground, in the broiling hot sun," she
said tauntingly, when they had passed around to the porch. She was
starting into the house with nervous, precipitate triumph. The last word
was hers, after all.

"But you are going to show me the land now!"

His tone was so serious and so hurt that she paused.

"And" - with the seriousness electrified by a glance that sought for
mutual understanding - "and we are to forget about that duel and the whole
hero-desperado business. I am a prospective settler who just arrived this
afternoon. I came direct to headquarters to inquire about property. The
Doge not being at home, won't you show me around?"

Again he had said the right thing at the right time, with a delightful
impersonality precluding sentiment.

"I couldn't be unaccommodating," she admitted. "It is against all Little
Rivers ethics."

"I feel like a butterfly about to come out of his miserable chrysalis!
Haven't you a walking-stick? I am going to shed the crutches!"

She became femininely solicitous at once.

"Are you sure you ought? Did the doctor say you might? Is the
wound healed?"

"There isn't any wound!" he answered. "That is one of the things which we
are to forget."

She brought a stick and he laid the crutches on the porch.

He favored the lame leg, yet he kept up a clipping pace, talking the
while as fast as the Doge himself as they passed through one of the side
streets out onto the cactus-spotted, baking, cracked levels.

"This is it!" she said finally. "This is all that father and I had to
begin with."

"Enough!" he answered, and held out his hands, palms open. "With
callouses I will win luxuriance!"

She showed him the irrigation ditch from which he should draw his water;
she told him of the first steps; She painted all the difficulties in the
darkest colors, without once lessening the glow of his optimism. He was
so overwhelmingly, boyishly happy that she had to be happy with him in
making believe that he was about to be a real rancher. But he should not
have the sport all on his side. He must not think that she accepted this
latest departure of his imagination incarnated by his Thespian gift in
anything but his own spirit.

"You plowing! You spraying trees for the scale! You digging up weeds! You
stacking alfalfa! You settling down in one place as a unit of co-ordinate
industry! You earning bread by the sweat of your brow! You with
callouses!" Thus she laughed at him.

Very seriously he held out his hands and ran a finger around a palm and
across the finger-joints:

"That is where I shall get them," he said. "But not on the thumb. I
believe you get them on the thumb only by playing golf."

He asked about carpenters and laborers; he chose the site for his house;
he plotted the walks and orchards. She could not refuse her advice. Who
can about the planning of new houses and gardens? He had everything
quite settled except the land grant from the Doge when they started
back; while the sun, with the swift passage of time in such fascinating
diversion, had swung low in its ellipse. When they reached the main
street the Doge was on the porch passing his opinion on the Eternal
Painter's evening work.

"Some very remarkable purples to-night, I admit, Your Majesty, without
any intention of giving you too good an opinion of yourself; but
otherwise, you are not up to your mark. There must have been a downpour
in the rainy world on the other side of the Sierras that moistened your
pigments. Next thing we know you will be turning water-colorist!" he was
saying, when he heard Jack's voice.

"Here's a new settler!" Jack called. "I am going to stay in Little Rivers
and win all the prizes."

"You are joking!" gasped the Doge.

"Not joking," said Jack. "I want to close the bargain to-night."

"You bring color and adventure - yes! I did not expect the honor - the
town will be delighted! I am overwhelmed! Will you plow with Pete
Leddy's gun drawn by Wrath of God, sir, and harrow with your spurs drawn
by Jag Ear? Shall you make a specialty of olives? Do you dare to aspire
as high as dates?"

The Doge's speech had begun incoherently, but steadied into rallying
humor at the close.

"I haven't seen the date-tree yet," said Jack. "Not until I have can I
judge whether or not I shall dare to rival the lord of the manor in his
own specialty. And there are business details which I must settle with
you, O Doge of this city of slender canals!"

"O youth, will you tarry with peace between wars?" answered the Doge, in
quick response to the spirit of nonsense as a basis for their new
relations. "Come, and I will show you our noblest product of peace, the
Date-Tree Wonderful!" he said, leading the way to the garden, while Mary
hurried rather precipitately into the house.

Jasper Ewold was at his best, a glowing husbandman, when he pointed aloft
to the clusters of fruit pendent from the crotches of the stiff
branches, enclosed in cloth bags to keep them free of insects.

"Do you see strange lettering on the cloth?" he asked.

"Yes, it looks like Arabic."

"So it is! Among other futile diversions in a past incarnation I studied
Arabic a little, and I still have my lexicon. Perhaps my construction
might not please the grammarians of classic Bagdad, but the sentiment is
there safe enough in the language of the mother romance world of the
date: 'All hail, first-born of our Western desert fecundity!' It is
calling out to the pass and the range from the wastes where the
sagebrush has had its own way since the great stir that there was in the
world at genesis."

"With the unlimited authority I have in bestowing titles," said Jack, "I
have a mind to make you an Emir. But it's a pity that you haven't a camel
squatting under your date-tree and placidly chewing his cud."

"A tempting thought!" declared the Doge unctuously.

"Bob Worther could ride him on the tours of inspection. I think the
jounce would be almost as good a flesh-reducer as pedestrianism."

"There you go! You would have the camel wearing bells, with reins of red
leather and a purple saddle-cloth hung with spangles, and Bob - our
excellent Bob - in a turban! Persiflage, sir! A very demoralization of
the faculties with cataracts of verbiage, sir!" declared the Doge as he
started back to the house. "Little Rivers is a practical town," he
proceeded seriously. "We indulge in nonsense only after sunset and when a
stranger appears riding a horse with a profane name. Yes, a practical
town; and I am surprised at your disloyalty to your own burro by
mentioning camels."

"It rests with you, I believe, to let me have the land and also the
water," said Jack.

"We grow businesslike!" returned the Doge with a change of manner.

"Very!" declared Jack.

"The requirement is that you become a member of the water users'
association and pay your quota of taxes per acre foot; and the price you
pay for your land also goes to the association. But I decide on the
eligibility of the applicant."

They were in front of the house by this time, and again the Doge gave
Jack that sharp, quick, knowing glance of scrutiny through his heavy,
tufted eyebrows, before he proceeded:

"The concession for the use of the river for irrigation is mine,
administered by the water users' association as if it were theirs, under
the condition that no one who has not my approval can have membership.
That is, it is practically mine, owing to my arrangement with old Mr.
Lefferts, who lives upstream. He is an eccentric, a hermit. He came here
many years ago to get as far away from civilization as he could, I judge.
That gives him an underlying right. Originally he had two partners, squaw
men. Both are dead. He had made no improvements beyond drawing enough
water for a garden and for his horse and cow. When I came to make a
bargain with him he named an annual sum which should keep him for the
rest of his life; and thus he waived his rights. First, Jim Galway, then
other settlers drifted in. I formed the water users' association. All
taxes and sums for the sale of land go into keeping the dam and ditches
in condition."

"You take nothing for yourself!"

"A great deal. The working out of an idea - an idea in moulding a little
community in my old age in a fashion that pleases me; while my own
property, of course, increases in value. At my death the rights go to the
community. But no Utopia; Sir Chaps! Just hard-working, cheerful men and
women in a safe refuge!"

"And I am young!" exclaimed Jack, with a hopeful smile. "I have good
health. I mean to work. I try to be cheerful. Am I eligible?"

"Sir Chaps, you - you have done us a great favor. Everybody likes you. Sir
Chaps" - the Doge hesitated for an instant, with a baffling, unspoken
inquiry in his eyes - "Sir Chaps, I like your companionship and your
mastery of persiflage. Jim Galway, who is secretary of the association,
will look after details of the permit and Bob Worther will turn the water
on your land, and the whole town will assist you with advice! Luck, Sir
Chaps, in your new vocation!"

That evening, while the Doge took down the David and set a fragment from
the frieze of the Parthenon in its place, Little Rivers talked of the
delightful news that it was not to lose its strange story-teller and
duelist. Little Rivers was puzzled. Not once had Jack intimated a thought
of staying. By his own account, so far as he had given any, his wound had
merely delayed his departure to New York, where he had pressing business.
He had his reservation on the Pullman made for the morning express; he
had paid a farewell call at the Ewolds, and apparently then had changed
his mind and his career. These were the only clues to work on, except the
one suggested by Mrs. Galway, who was the wise woman of the community,
while Mrs. Smith was the propagandist.

"I guess he likes the way Mary Ewold snubs him!" said Mrs. Galway.

But there was one person in town who was not surprised at Jack's
decision. When Jack sang out as he entered the Galway yard on returning
from the Doge's, "We stay, Firio, we stay!" Firio said: "_Sí_, Señor
Jack!" with no change of expression except a brighter gleam than usual in
his velvety eyes.




XV

WHEN THE DESERT BLOOMS


Perhaps we may best describe this as a chapter of Incidents; or, to use a
simile, a broad, eddying bend in a river on a plateau, with cataracts and
canyons awaiting it on its route to the sea. Or, discarding the simile
and speaking in literal terms, in a search for a theme on which to hang
the incidents, we revert to Mary's raillery at the announcement of an
easy traveller that he was going to turn sober rancher.

"You plowing! You blistering your hands! You earning your bread by the
sweat of your brow!"

But there he was in blue overalls, sinking his spade deep for settings,
digging ditches and driving furrows through the virgin soil, while the
masons and carpenters built his ranch house.

"They are straight furrows, too!" Jack declared.

"Passably so!" answered Mary.

"And look at the blisters!" he continued, exhibiting his puffy palms.

"You seem to think blisters a remarkable human phenomenon, a sensational
novelty to a laboring population!"

"Now, would you advise pricking?" he asked, with deference to her
judgment.

"It is so critical in your case that you ought to consult a doctor rather
than take lay advice."

"Jim Galway says that the thorough way, I mulched my soil before
putting in my first crop of alfalfa is a model for all future settlers,"
he ventured.

She remarked that Jim was always encouraging to new-comers, and remarked
this in a way that implied that some new-comers possibly needed hazing.

"And I am up at dawn and hard at it for six hours before midday."

"Yes, it is wonderful!" she admitted, with a mock show of being
overwhelmingly impressed. "Nobody in the world ever worked ten hours a
day before!"

"I'm doing more than any man that I pay two-fifty. I do perspire, and if
you don't call that earning your bread with the sweat of your brow, why
this is an astoundingly illogical world!"

"There is a great difference between sporadic display and that continuity
which is the final proof of efficiency," she corrected him.

"Long, involved sentences often indicate the loss of an argument!"
declared Jack.

"There isn't any argument!" said Mary with superior disinterestedness.

By common inspiration they had established a truce of nonsense. She still
called him Jack; he still called her Mary. It was the only point of tacit
admission that they had ever met before he asked her to show a
prospective settler a parcel of land.

Their new relations were as the house of cards of fellowship: cards of
glass, iridescent and brittle, mocking the idea that there could be
oblivion of the scene in Lang's store, the crack of Leddy's pistol in the
_arroyo_, or the pulse of Jack's artery under her thumb! She was sure
that he could forget these experiences, even if she could not. That was
his character, as she saw it, free of clinging roots of yesterday's
events, living some new part every day.

In the house of cards she set up a barrier, which he saw as a veil over
her eyes. Not once had he a glimpse of their depths. There was only the
surface gleam of sunbeams and sometimes of rapier-points, merry but
significant. She frequently rode out to the pass and occasionally, when
his day's work was done, he would ride to the foot of the range to meet
her, and as they came back he often sang, but never whistled. Indeed, he
had ceased to whistle altogether. Perhaps he regarded the omission as an
insurance against duels.

Aside from nonsense they had common interests in cultural and daily life,
from the Eternal Painter's brushwork to how to dress a salad. She did
extend her approval for the generous space which he was allowing for
flower-beds, and advised him in the practical construction of his
kitchen; while the Doge decorated the living-room with Delia Robbias,
which, however, never arrived at the express office. He was a neighbor
always at home in the Ewold house. The Doge revelled in their
disputations, yet never was really intimate or affectionate as he was
with Jim Galway, who knew not the Pitti, the Prado, nor the Louvre, and
could not understand the intoning of Dante in the original as Jack could,
thanks to his having been brought up in libraries and galleries.

The town, which was not supposed to ask about pasts, could not help
puzzling about his. What was the story of this teller of stories? The
secluded little community was in a poor way to find out, even if the
conscientious feeling about a custom had not been a restraint that kept
wonder free from inquiring hints. They took him for what he was in all
their personal relations; that was the delightful way of Little Rivers,
which inner curiosity might not alloy. His broader experience of that
world over the pass which stretched around the globe and back to the
other range-wall of the valley, seemed only to make him fall more easily
into the simple ways of the fellow-ranchers of the Doge's selection, who
were genuine, hall-marked people, whatever the origin from which the
individual sprang. He knew the fatigue of productive labor as something
far sweeter than the fatigue that comes from mere exercise, and the
neophyte's enthusiasm was his.

"I'm sitting at the outer edge of the circle," he told Jim Galway.
"But when my first crop is harvested I shall be on the inside - a
real rancher!"

"You've already got one foot over the circle," said Jim.

"And with my first crop of dates I'll be in the holy of holies of
pastoral bliss!"

"Yes, I should say so!" Jim responded, but in a way that indicated
surprise at the thought of Jack's remaining in Little Rivers long enough
for such a consummation.

When his alfalfa covered the earth with a green carpet Jack was under a
spell of something more than the never-ending marvel of dry seeds
springing into succulent abundance without the waving of any magic wand.

"I made it out of the desert!" he cried. "It laughs in triumph at the
bare stretches around it, waiting on water!"

"That is it," said Jim; "waiting on water!"

"The promise of what might come!"

"It will come! Some day, Jack, you and I will ride up into the river
canyon and I will show you a place where you can see the blue sky between
precipitous walls two hundred feet high. The abyss is so narrow you can
throw a stone across it."

"What lies beyond?" asked Jack, his eyes lighting vividly.

"A great basin which was the bed of an ancient lake before the water wore
its way through."

"A dam between those walls - and you have another lake!"

"Yes, and the spring freshets from the northern water-shed all held in a
reservoir - none going to waste! And, Jack, as population spreads the dam
must come."

"Why, the Doge has a kingdom!"

"Yes, that's the best of it, the rights being in his hands. He shares
up with everybody and we get it when he dies. That's why we are ready
to accept the Doge's sentiments as kind of gospel. If ornamental hedges
waste water and bring bugs and are contrary to practical ranching
ideas, why - well, why not? It's our Little Rivers to enjoy as we
please. We aren't growing so fast, but we're growing in a clean,
beautiful way, as Jasper Ewold says. What if that river was owned by
one man! What if we had to pay the price he set for what takes the
place of rain, as they do in some places in California? We're going to
say who shall build that dam!"

"Think of it! Think of it!" Jack half whispered, his imagination in play.
"Plot after plot being added to this little oasis until it extends from
range to range, one sea of green! Many little towns, with Little Rivers
the mother town, spreading its ideas! Yes, think of being in at the
making of a new world, seeing visions develop into reality as, stone by
stone, an edifice rises! I - I - " Jack paused, a cloud sweeping over his
features, his eyes seeming to stare at a wall. His body alone seemed in
Little Rivers, his mind on the other side of the pass. He was in one of
those moods of abstraction that ever made his fellow-ranchers feel that
he would not be with them permanently.

Indeed, he had whole days when his smile had a sad turn; when, though he
spoke pleasantly, the inspiration of talk was not in him and when Belvy
Smith could not rouse any action in the cat with two black stripes down
its back. But many Little Riversites, including the Doge, had their sad
days, when they looked away at the pass oftener than usual, as if seeing
a life-story framed in the V. His came usually, as Mrs. Smith observed,
when he had a letter from the East. And it was then that he would pretend
to cough to Firio. These mock coughing spells were one of the few
manifestations that made the impassive Firio laugh.

"Now you know I am not well, don't you, Firio?" he would ask, waggishly,
the very thought seeming to take him out of the doldrums. "I could never
live out of this climate. Why, even now I have a cough, kuh-er!"

Firio had turned a stove cook. He accepted the humiliation in a spirit of
loyalty. But often he would go out among the sagebrush and return with a
feathery tribute, which he would broil on a spit in a fire made in the
yard. Always when Jack rode out to meet Mary at the foot of the range,
Firio would follow; and always he had his rifle. For it was part of
Jack's seeming inconsistency, emphasizing his inscrutability, that he
would never wear his revolver. It hung beside Pete's on the wall of the
living-room as a second relic. Far from being a quarrel-maker, he was
peaceful to the point of Quakerish predilection.

"Nobody ever hears anything of Leddy," said Jim; "but he will never
forget or forgive, and one day he will show up unexpectedly."

"Not armed!" said Jack.

"Do you think he will keep his word?"

"I know he will. I asked him and he said he would."

"You're very simple, Jack. But mind, he can keep his word and still use
a gun outside the town!"

"So he might!" admitted Jack, laughing in a way that indicated that the
subject was distasteful to him; for he would never talk of the duel.

Now we come to that little affair of Pedro Nogales. Pedro was a
half-breed, whose God among men was Pete Leddy no less than Jack was
Firio's and the Doge was Ignacio's. In his shanty back of Bill Lang's the
Mexicans and Indians lost their remaining wages in gambling after he had
filled them with _mescal_. It happened that Gonzalez, head man of the
laborers under Bob Worther, who had saved quite a sum, came away
penniless after taking but one drink. Every ounce of Bob's avoirdupois
was in a rage.

"It's time we cleaned out Pedro's place, seh!" he told Jack; "and you and
Jim Galway have got to help me do it!"

"I don't like to get into a row," said Jack very soberly.

"Then I'll undertake the job alone," Bob retorted. "That will be a good
deal worse, for when I get going I lose my temper and I tell you, seh,
I've got a lot to lose! And, Jack, are you going to stand by and see
robbery done by the meanest, most worthless greaser in the valley - and a
good Indian the victim?"

"Yes, Jack," said Jim, "you've got such a formidable reputation since
your set-to with Leddy that the Indians think you are a regular master of
magic. You're just the one to make Pedro come to terms."

"A formidable reputation without firing a shot!" admitted Jack
quizzically, and consented.

"You'll surely want your gun this time!" Bob warned him.

"No," said Jack.

"But - "

"I have hung up my gun!" Jack said decisively. "We'll try to handle this
peacefully. Come on!"

"Well, we've got our guns, anyway!" Jim put in.

It was mid-afternoon, a slack hour for Pedro's kind of trade, and the
shanty was empty of customers when the impromptu vigilance committee
entered. Pedro himself was half dozing in the faro dealer's chair. His
small, ferret eyes flashed a spark at the visitors as he rose, but he was
politeness itself.

"Señores! It is great honor! Be seated, señores!" he said with eloquent
deference.

The very sight of him set all the ounces in Bob quivering in an outburst:



Online LibraryFrederick PalmerOver the Pass → online text (page 8 of 26)