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- The Desert Valley - 10/46 -
youngest of them had been twenty years older than Helen, and, whereas her father was always an old dear, sometimes a hopeless and helpless old dear, they were simply old fogies. They constituted, however, an important department in her male friends; the rest were as easily catalogued. They were the young college men--men in name only, boys in actuality. They were of her own age or two or four years older or a year younger. They danced and made mysterious references to the beer they had wickedly drunk; they motored in their fathers' cars and played tennis in their fathers' flannels when they fitted; no doubt they were men in the making, but to judge them as men already was like looking prematurely into the oven to see how the bread was doing; they were still under-baked. So far they were playing with the game of life; life, herself, had not yet taken them seriously, had not reached out the iron hand that eventually would seize them by the back of the neck, the slack of the trousers, and pitch them out into the open arena.
Helen was considerably pleased with the result of her meditations: her father's academic friends had held back behind college walls and thus had never come out into the scrimmage that makes men; her own young friends had not yet reached the time when they would buckle on their armour and mount and talk lance in hand. Alan Howard and John Carr were men who for a number of years had done man's work out in the open, no doubt giving and receiving doughty blows. She considered Carr: he had taken a monster outfit like Desert Valley and had made it over, in his own image, like a god working. There were thousands of acres, she had no idea how many. There were cattle and horses and mules; again she thought of them only vaguely as countless. There were many men obeying his orders, taking his daily wage. Carr had mastered a big job and the job had made a masterly man of him. Then had come Alan Howard with vision and determination and courage. He had expended almost his last cent for a first payment upon the huge property; he was risking all that he had gathered of the world's goods, he was out in the open waging his battle like a young king claiming his heritage. Helen clothed the act in the purple and gold of romance and thrilled at her own picture.
'After all,' she discovered, 'there _are_ different kinds of men and I never knew men like these two.'
Then, when she thought of Yellow Barbee, she sniffed. Barbee was about her own age; she considered him a mere child and transparent.
She had said good night to her father, but now suddenly in a mood for conversation went out into the hall and tiptoed to his door. When there came no response to her gentle tapping she opened the door and discovered only darkness and emptiness. She was mildly surprised; distinctly she had heard him go into his room and close his door and she had not heard him go out again.
There are men who, though they may live to be a hundred years old, keep always the fresh heart of twenty. James Edward Longstreet was one of them. He was a man of considerable erudition; he had always supposed that the choice had lain entirely with him. He had always been amply content with his existence, had genially considered that the whole of the bright stream of life, gently deflected, had flowed through his college halls and under his calm eyes. Now his youthful soul was in a delightful turmoil; adventures had come to him, more adventures were coming. Men like Barbee had given him the staunch hand of friendship; they had welcomed him as an equal. And something until now untouched, unguessed, that had lived on in his boy's heart, stirred and awoke and thrilled. To-night, with a vague sense of guilt which made the escapade but the more electric, while his daughter had imagined that he was getting himself sedately into his long-tailed, sedate nightgown, he was beaming warmly upon the highly entertained group of ranch hands down in the men's bunk-house, whither, by the way, he had been led by Barbee.
There comes now and then to such an isolation as Desert Valley a boon from the gods in the guise of a tenderfoot. But never tenderfoot, agreed the oldest Mexican with the youngest Texan, like this one. They sat lined in back-tilted chairs about the four walls and studied him with eyes that were at all times appreciative, often downright grave. His ignorance was astounding, his hunger for information amazing. He was a man from Mars who knew all that was to be known in his own world but brought into this strange planet a frank and burning curiosity. Barbee's chaps delighted him; a hair rope awoke in his soul an avaricious hunger for a hair rope of his own; commonplace ranch matters, like branding and marking and breeding and weaning and breaking, evoked countless eager questions. For so academic a man, the strange thing about him was his attitude toward these day labourers; he looked upon them as brothers; not only that, but as older brothers. He forgot his own wisdom in his thirst to partake of theirs. He gave the full of his admiration to a man whom he had seen that day cast a wide loop of rope about the horns of a running steer.
He was making discoveries hand over fist; perhaps therein lay a sufficient reason why the man of science in him was fascinated. True, those discoveries which he made were new only to him; yet one might say the same of America and Columbus. For one thing, it dawned on him that here was a new and excellent technical vocabulary; he stored away in his brain strange words as a squirrel sticks nuts and acorns into a hole. Hondo, tapaderos, bad hombre, tecolote, bronco, maverick, side-winder--rapaciously he seized upon them as bits of the argot of fairyland. He watched the expert roll the brown tube of a cigarette and yearned for the skill; he observed tricks in riding, and there was within him the compelling urge to ride like that; not a trifle escaped his shark-eyes, be it the way the men combed their hair, mounted their horses, or dragged their spurs. To-night and with unhidden elation he accepted Barbee's invitation to 'set in and roll the bones' with them. 'Roll the bones!' When some day he went back home, the owner of the 'greatest little mine this side of the Rockies,' he'd work that off on his old chum, Professor Anstruther. He drew up his chair to the table, piled a jumble of coins in front of him and took into his hands the enticing cubes.
He did not think of it as gambling; he had never gambled, had never wanted to. But he was all alive to join in the amusements of his new friends, to be like them. After all, he was putting up as sorts of markers a few five and ten-cent pieces with an occasional quarter or half-dollar, and to him money had never had much significance. The game was the thing and he found in it from the first a keen mathematical interest. There were five dice; each dice with its six surfaces had six different numbers. While he beamed into the veiled eyes of the old Mexican he was figuring upon the various combinations possible and the likelihood, the theory of chances, of a six or an ace upon the second throw. From the jump the game fascinated him; it is to be questioned, however, if ever before a man knew just the sort of fascination which enthralled him. No matter who won or lost, when the rolling cubes behaved in conformity with the mathematical laws, he fairly sparkled. And in the end he lost only six or seven dollars and did not in the least realize that he had lost a cent. When at last he left to go to bed, all of the eyes in the room followed him. They were puzzled eyes.
'The old boy's all right,' said one man. It was Tod Barstow, an old hand. And he added, nodding, 'He's a damn good loser.'
Barbee chuckled and pocketed his small winnings.
'That's what I'm playing him for, Toddy,' he admitted with his cheerful grin.
In the end the Longstreets went from Desert Valley straight on to the nearest town, that of Big Run, only a dozen miles still east of the ranch. The suggestion came from Longstreet himself, who had had a picturesque account of the settlement from Barbee.
'I estimate,' the professor announced at breakfast, 'that we shall be the matter of two or three months at Last Ridge. What comforts we have there will be the results of our own efforts. Now, though we have brought with us certain of the absolute necessities, there is much in the way of provision and sundries that we should have. Mr. Howard has been so very considerate as to offer us a wagon and horses and even a driver. I think, my dear, that we would do well to drive into Big Run, which I understand is a progressive community with an excellent store. We can get what we require there and the next day return to the Last Ridge.'
Only approval greeted his words. Howard, it appeared, had business in Big Run and would make the trip with them; Carr judged that it was time for him to be clearing out, and his way led through Big Run. So they hurried through breakfast and started.
Tod Barstow handled the reins of the four mules; beside him on the high, rocking seat, sat Longstreet. During his sojourn on the ranch he had acquired a big bright-red bandana handkerchief which now was knotted loosely about his sun-reddened throat; the former crease in his big hat had given place to a tall peak: he wore a pair of leather wrist-cuffs which he had purchased from Barbee. Barstow grunted and turned the grunt into a shrill yell directed at his mules; they knew his voice and jammed their necks deep into their collars, taking the road at a run. Longstreet, taken unawares, bounced and came dangerously near toppling off the seat. Then with both hands he clung to the iron guard-rod at the back of the seat and took his joy out of a new mode of travel.
Helen had elected to go on horseback. Howard had brought out for her a pretty little mare, coal-black and slender-limbed, but sufficiently gentle. Barbee, who had been watching, suddenly set his toe in his own stirrup and went up into the saddle, racing on to overtake and pass the wagon. Howard and Carr glanced swiftly at each other; then their eyes went to the girl. Howard helped her to mount and reined in at her right, Carr dropped into place at her left, and so, the three abreast, they followed Barbee.
They rode slowly, and now Howard, now Carr, told her of the points of interest along the trail. When they crossed the lower end of the valley and came to the top of the gentle slope extending along its eastern edge, Helen made a discovery. All these latter days she had thought of the desert as behind her, lying all to the westward. Now she understood how the ranch was aptly named Desert Valley; it was a freak, an oasis, a fertile valley with desert lands to east as well as west, and to north and south. When they had ridden down the far slope of the hills they were once more upon the edges of the solitudes of sand-sweep and sand-ridge and cactus and mesquite and utter drought. Every step their horses took carried them further into a land of arid menace; at the end of the first hour it was difficult to imagine green water-fields only a handful of miles away.
'It's just the water that makes the difference,' Howard told her. 'Isn't it, John?' Carr nodded. 'If a man could get water to put on this land that is burning our horses' fetlocks off right now, he'd have all the crops and stock range he wanted. Why, the bigger part of Desert Valley was like this before John took hold of it; he developed the water, and I've gone on with his work, and look what we've got now!'
'That makes your ranch all the more wonderful!' cried Helen.
Howard's eyes glowed; she noted that they always did when he spoke thus of Desert Valley or when she bespoke her hearty approval of his choice.
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