Part III. The Rawhide
Chapter Two. The Shapes of Illusion
 

Every day, as always, Senor Johnson rode abroad over the land. His surroundings had before been accepted casually as a more or less pertinent setting of action and condition. Now he sensed some of the fascination of the Arizona desert.

He noticed many things before unnoticed. As he jingled loosely along on his cow-horse, he observed how the animal waded fetlock deep in the gorgeous orange California poppies, and then he looked up and about, and saw that the rich colour carpeted the landscape as far as his eye could reach, so that it seemed as though he could ride on and on through them to the distant Chiricahuas. Only, close under the hills, lay, unobtrusive, a narrow streak of grey. And in a few hours he had reached the streak of grey, and ridden out into it to find himself the centre of a limitless alkali plain, so that again it seemed the valley could contain nothing else of importance.

Looking back, Senor Johnson could discern a tenuous ribbon of orange--the poppies. And perhaps ahead a little shadow blotted the face of the alkali, which, being reached and entered, spread like fire until it, too, filled the whole plain, until it, too, arrogated to itself the right of typifying Soda Springs Valley as a shimmering prairie of mesquite. Flowered upland, dead lowland, brush, cactus, volcanic rock, sand, each of these for the time being occupied the whole space, broad as the sea. In the circlet of the mountains was room for many infinities.

Among the foothills Senor Johnson, for the first time, appreciated colour. Hundreds of acres of flowers filled the velvet creases of the little hills and washed over the smooth, rounded slopes so accurately in the placing and manner of tinted shadows that the mind had difficulty in believing the colour not to have been shaded in actually by free sweeps of some gigantic brush. A dozen shades of pinks and purples, a dozen of blues, and then the flame reds, the yellows, and the vivid greens. Beyond were the mountains in their glory of volcanic rocks, rich as the tapestry of a Florentine palace. And, modifying all the others, the tinted atmosphere of the south-west, refracting the sun through the infinitesimal earth motes thrown up constantly by the wind devils of the desert, drew before the scene a delicate and gauzy veil of lilac, of rose, of saffron, of amethyst, or of mauve, according to the time of day. Senor Johnson discovered that looking at the landscape upside down accentuated the colour effects. It amused him vastly suddenly to bend over his saddle horn, the top of his head nearly touching his horse's mane. The distant mountains at once started out into redder prominence; their shadows of purple deepened to the royal colour; the rose veil thickened.

"She's the prettiest country God ever made!" exclaimed Senor Johnson with entire conviction.

And no matter where he went, nor into how familiar country he rode, the shapes of illusion offered always variety. One day the Chiricahuas were a tableland; next day a series of castellated peaks; now an anvil; now a saw tooth; and rarely they threw a magnificent suspension bridge across the heavens to their neighbours, the ranges on the west. Lakes rippling in the wind and breaking on the shore, cattle big as elephants or small as rabbits, distances that did not exist and forests that never were, beds of lava along the hills swearing to a cloud shadow, while the sky was polished like a precious stone--these, and many other beautiful and marvellous but empty shows the great desert displayed lavishly, with the glitter and inconsequence of a dream. Senor Johnson sat on his horse in the hot sun, his chin in his band, his elbow on the pommel, watching it all with grave, unshifting eyes.

Occasionally, belated, he saw the stars, the wonderful desert stars, blazing clear and unflickering, like the flames of candles. Or the moon worked her necromancies, hemming him in by mountains ten thousand feet high through which there was no pass. And then as he rode, the mountains shifted like the scenes in a theatre, and he crossed the little sand dunes out from the dream country to the adobe corrals of the home ranch.

All these things, and many others, Senor Johnson now saw for the first time, although he had lived among them for twenty years. It struck him with the freshness of a surprise. Also it reacted chemically on his mental processes to generate a new power within him. The new power, being as yet unapplied, made him uneasy and restless and a little irritable.

He tried to show some of his wonders to Parker.

"Jed," said he, one day, "this is a great country."

"You know it," replied the foreman.

"Those tourists in their nickel-plated Pullmans call this a desert. Desert, hell! Look at them flowers!"

The foreman cast an eye on a glorious silken mantle of purple, a hundred yards broad.

"Sure," he agreed; "shows what we could do if we only had a little water."

And again: "Jed," began the Senor, "did you ever notice them mountains?"

"Sure," agreed Jed.

"Ain't that a pretty colour?"

"You bet," agreed the foreman; "now you're talking! I always, said they was mineralised enough to make a good prospect."

This was unsatisfactory. Senor Johnson grew more restless. His critical eye began to take account of small details. At the ranch house one evening he, on a sudden, bellowed loudly for Sang, the Chinese servant.

"Look at these!" he roared, when Sang appeared.

Sang's eyes opened in bewilderment.

"There, and there!" shouted the cattleman. "Look at them old newspapers and them gun rags! The place is like a cow-yard. Why in the name of heaven don't you clean up here!"

"Allee light," babbled Sang; "I clean him."

The papers and gun rags had lain there unnoticed for nearly a year. Senor Johnson kicked them savagely.

"It's time we took a brace here," he growled, "we're livin' like a lot of Oilers."[5]

[5] Oilers: Greasers--Mexicans