Chapter VII. Don't You Like My Desert, Mr. Holmes?
 

After his noon-day meal, Willard Holmes, following the example of others, sought the shade of the arcade in front of the hotel. Helping himself to a chair and moving a little away from the general company, he sat enjoying his cigar, musing on the novelty of his surroundings and reviewing his impressions of the last few hours.

It was natural that he should make comparisons--that he should see men and things in the light of the only men and things he had ever known. Abe Lee he measured by the standing of his own school-trained engineering friends, demanding that the desert-born and desert- trained surveyor exhibit all the hall-marks of Boston. He might as consistently have demanded that the flood of sunlight that fell in such blinding glory upon the new world before him should shine as through the smoke-grimed city atmosphere of New York. One was no more impossible than the other. Jefferson Worth he compared with the college and university friends of his father--with Mr. Greenfield and the New York-bred business men of his class, demanding that the western pioneer banker show the same characteristics that distinguished the cultured capitalists whose great-great- grandfathers were pioneers. Rubio City he saw in the light of those eastern cities that were founded in the days when men knew not that there was any world west of the Alleghanies.

Turning his head now and then to look over the typical groups that sat in the shade of the arcade, dressed--or undressed--with all the easy freedom of a land too young as yet to have conventions, he recalled his favorite hotels in his home cities and smiled to think what would happen if some of these roughly clad individuals were to appear there among the guests. He did not know yet that some of these roughly clad individuals were as much at home in those same favorite hotels as was he himself. Likewise as he watched the passing citizens in the street he recalled the scene from the windows of his club at home--a famous club on a famous avenue.

That young woman, for instance, with her khaki divided skirt, wide sombrero, fringed gauntlets and the big western saddle coming there on a horse whose feet seemed scarcely to touch the ground as he plunged and pranced impatiently along, springing side-wise, with arched neck and pointed ears, at every object that could possibly be made into something frightful by his playful fancy! What a sensation she would create at home! By Jove! but she could ride, though. He watched with admiring eyes the strong, graceful figure that sat the high-strung, uncertain horse as easily and unconsciously as any one of his women friends at home would rest in a comfortable chair.

As the horsewoman drew nearer he fell to wondering what she was like. Could she talk, for instance, of anything but the homely details of her own rough life? He shrugged his shoulders as he fancied her crude attempts at conversation, her uncouth language and raw expressions. The girl turned her horse toward the hotel entrance. As she drew still nearer he saw that she was not pretty. Her mouth was too large, her face too strong, her skin too tanned by the sun and wind.

At the sidewalk the girl swung from the saddle lightly, and throwing the bridle reins over the horse's head with a movement that brought out the beautiful lines of her figure, she turned her back upon the pawing, restless animal with as little concern as though she had delivered him to a correctly uniformed groom. No she was not pretty; she was--magnificent. The adjective forced itself upon him.

All along the arcade people were smiling in greeting, the men lifting their hats. Two cowboys in high-heeled boots and "chaps" paused in passing. "That new hawss of yours is sure some hawss, Miss Barbara," said one admiringly, sombrero in hand.

The girl smiled and Holmes saw the flash of her perfect teeth. "Oh, he'll do, Bob, when I've worked him down a little."

She passed into the hotel, followed by the eyes of every man in sight including the engineer, who had noted with surprise the purity and richness of her voice.

The New York man had turned and was watching a company of Indians farther down the street when that voice close beside him said: "I beg your pardon. Is this Mr. Holmes?"

He turned quickly, rising to his feet.

She smiled at his astonished look. "The clerk pointed you out to me. I am Barbara Worth. You met father at the bank this morning. Texas Joe and Pat told me about your being here and I could scarcely wait to see you. I'm afraid you must have thought them a little rough last night but really it's only their fun. They're as good as gold."

As she stood now close to him--the red blood glowing under the soft brown of her cheeks--Willard Holmes felt her rich personality as distinctly as one senses the presence of the ocean, the atmosphere of the woods or the air of meadows and fields. But by all his conventional gods, this was the unconventional limit! that this girl, the daughter of a banker, should openly seek out a total stranger to introduce herself to him on the public street before a crowd of hotel loungers! And the way she spoke of those rough men in the saloon, one would think they were her intimate friends.

He managed to say: "Really, I am delighted, Miss Worth. May I escort you to the hotel parlor?"

She looked at him curiously. "Oh, no indeed! It is much nicer out here in the arcade, don't you think? But you may bring another chair." Dumbly he obeyed, feeling that every eye was on him and flushing with embarrassment for her.

"When Texas and Pat told me that you were one of the engineers going out with The King's Basin party I could scarcely wait to see you. It makes it all seem so real, you know--your coming all the way out here from New York. I have dreamed so much about the reclamation of The King's Basin Desert; and you see I consider all civil engineers my personal friends."

"Indeed," he said. It is always safely correct to say "indeed" as he said it, particularly when you have nothing else to say.

She regarded him doubtfully with an open, straight-forward look which was somewhat disconcerting. She was so unconscious of the strength of her splendid womanhood and he felt her presence so vividly.

"I suppose you must find everything out here very strange," she said slowly. "Father says this is your first visit to the West and of course it can't be like your part of the country."

"It is all very interesting," he murmured. This also was sane and safe.

"I know that Abe is very busy and father never leaves the bank except on business, so there is no one but me to look after you"-- she smiled--"that is--no one of our King's Basin people."

Willard Holmes was of that type of corporation servant who recognizes no interests but the financial interests of the capital employing him. His services as a civil engineer belonged wholly to those who bought them for their own profit. Barbara's innocent words aroused him. What the deuce did she mean by "our King's Basin people"? Greenfield and his friends thought that they were The King's Basin people. In the interests of his employers he must look into this.

[Illustration: "But I don't ride, you know."]

"It is very kind of you, I am sure," he said with a little more warmth. "To tell the truth I was feeling a bit strange, you know."

"I'm sure you must be nearly dead with lonesomeness. Wouldn't you like to go for a ride? I would so like to show you my Desert."

"Her Desert!" he mentally observed. Indeed he must look into this. Fully alert now he answered heartily: "I should be delighted, I'm sure. You are more than kind. When could we go?"

"Right now," she said quickly. "Here comes Pablo Garcia. I'll send him for another horse." She called to the passing Mexican: "Here Pablo."

The young fellow came to her quickly and stood, sombrero in hand, his dark eyes shining with pride at the recognition. In Spanish she directed him to fetch a horse for the Senor.

"Si, Senorita." With a low bow the Mexican turned to obey.

The eastern man, not understanding the words, but awakening suddenly to the meaning of the action, broke forth with--"Here, wait a minute."

"Wait," repeated Barbara in Spanish. Pablo paused.

"You are sending him for a horse and saddle?" asked Holmes.

"Yes; it will take only a few minutes."

"But I don't ride, you know."

"You don't ride?" The girl looked at him in blank amazement. "I don't think I ever saw a man before who didn't ride."

He laughed indulgently. Something in her voice and manner touched his sense of humor. "I'm very sorry. I know I ought to," he said in mock humility.

"Oh, well; we can drive. I'll have Pablo bring a rig." She explained what she wanted to the Mexican in his native tongue, and this time he mounted her horse and rode away.

When the man returned a little later with a span of restless, half- wild broncos hitched to a light buggy, the girl stepped into the vehicle and took the reins as a matter of course. With a low chuckle of amusement the engineer took his place at her left. He was beginning really to enjoy the situation. Shying and plunging the team demanded all of Barbara's attention but she managed to steal a look at her silent companion now and then, as if expecting him to show signs of nervousness. Willard Holmes, on his part, was wrapped in silent admiration of her strength and skill.

"They'll cool down in a little while," the girl volunteered, as if to reassure her guest, after a particularly wild break on the part of the horses. But on the extreme edge of town, where the wagon road runs closest to the railroad track, a passing switch engine proved too much for the excited team. In a moment the frightened animals were running toward the Mesa at full speed. With all her strength Barbara struggled to regain control, but her arms were a woman's arms and the horses, quick to recognize their advantage, put back their ears and ran the faster in mad defiance.

The girl was not frightened; she was annoyed. "I--I'm afraid they are running away," she gasped at last.

To her surprise a hearty laugh was the only answer to her confession. She shot a quick glance over her left shoulder. Her companion was leaning back in his seat, his merry face expressing the keenest enjoyment.

Then the girl felt a big hard shoulder pressing against her; long powerful arms stretched over hers; and two masterful hands closed on the reins above her cramped fingers. She relinquished her hold and shrank back out of the way with a sigh of relief and--yes, a look of admiration as the horses, with a few wild leaps and ineffectual attempts to run again, settled down to a more rational gait.

"My!" she gasped, at the exhibition of the engineer's strength, "I believe you could pull their front feet off the ground."

Her companion was still smiling.

"Why didn't you tell me you could drive?" she demanded.

He chuckled maliciously, for he had understood her reason for taking the reins at the start and he had not been insensible of the meaning of her glances at the beginning of the ride. "You didn't ask me, and besides I enjoyed seeing you handle them."

"But you told me you couldn't ride," she said reproachfully.

"I can't," he returned. "That is I never did; not as you people in this country ride." Then he laughed again. "Confess now. Didn't you expect me to jump, back there?"

"I shall confess nothing," she retorted, sharply. "And hereafter I shall take nothing for granted."

On the high ground near the foot of the hill at the canyon's mouth she asked him to turn around and stop. Willard Holmes had been too much occupied with the team and the girl to notice the landscape; and now that wonderful view of the Mesa, The King's Basin and the mountains burst upon him without warning. No sane man could be insensible of the grandeur of that scene. The man, whose eyes had looked only upon eastern landscapes that bore in every square foot of their limited range the evidence of man's presence, was silent-- awe-stricken before the mighty expanse of desert that lay as it was fashioned by the creative forces that formed the world. Turning at last from the glorious, ever-changing scenes, wrought in colors of gold and rose and lilac and purple and blue, to the girl whose eyes were fixed questioningly upon him, he said in a low voice: "Is it always like this?"

Barbara nodded. "Always like that, but always changing. It is never the same, but always the same. Like--like life itself. Do you understand?"

He turned again to the scene in silent wonder.

"Do you like my Desert?" she asked, after a little time had passed.

His mind caught at the expression. "Do you mean to say that that is The King's Basin--that we are going there to work?"

"Why, of course." She laughed uneasily. "Don't you like it?"

"Like it?" he repeated. "But is there anyone living out there?"

She was amazed at his words. "Living there? Of course not. But you are going to make it so that thousands and thousands can live there --you and the others. Don't you understand?" Her voice expressed a shade of impatience.

"I'm afraid I did not realize," he answered slowly.

"That's just it!" she cried, thoroughly aroused now and speaking passionately. "That's just the trouble with you eastern men; you don't realize. For years the dear old Seer and a few others have been trying to make you see what a work there is to do out here, and you won't even look up from your little old truck patches to give them intelligent attention. You think this King's Basin is big? Why, the Seer says that if every foot of that land was under cultivation it wouldn't be a posy bed beside what there is to do in the West. I suppose you must have done some great things in your profession, Mr. Holmes, or those capitalists wouldn't have sent you out here; but you can't have done anything that will mean to the world what the reclamation of The King's Basin Desert will mean one hundred years from now, because this work is going to make the people realize, don't you see?"

The young engineer's face flushed under her words, and as he watched her strong face glowing with enthusiasm for the Seer's dream, he felt the sweet power of her personality sweep over him as he felt the breeze from off the desert. He was held as though by some magic spell--not by the lure of her splendid womanhood, but by that and something else--something that was like the country of which she spoke so passionately. And he remembered wondering if this girl could talk!

He relieved the tense strain of the situation by holding out the reins and saying, with a whimsical smile:

"Here, you can drive."

She caught his meaning and smiled in acknowledgment. "Thank you, but I don't want to drive. That's really the man's part, you know. I suppose," she added, "that you think me bold and mannish and coarse and everything else that a girl ought not to be, but I"--she turned away her face and her voice trembled--"but you can't understand, Mr. Holmes, what this desert means to me."

"Perhaps I don't understand," he said seriously. "But I am sure of this: somewhere back of every really great work that has ever been accomplished in any age there has been a woman like you."

Then they drove back to the hotel where she left him and drove to the barn herself. A few minutes later he saw her pass again, riding her own quick-stepping horse.

During the two weeks that followed before the Seer's return, while Abe Lee was busy getting ready for the work in Barbara's Desert, Willard Holmes and the girl were often together. The man from New York admitted somewhat proudly, Barbara thought--as if the very confession somehow established the superiority of the East--that he was shockingly ignorant of all things Western. But apparently overlooking the subtle assumption in the manner of his confession, she laughingly undertook his education. For one thing he must learn to ride.

"Really," he demurred, "I don't think I care for that particular amusement. I have never taken it up at home, you know, but of course if it is the thing to do, why--"

"Amusement!" she laughed. "Riding isn't an amusement; it's a necessity. The horse is our street car and railroad and steamboat. Where you think city blocks and squares we think miles; and where you think miles we think hundreds of miles. Two legs are not enough in this country, so we double the number and go on four. You'll find yourself wishing for eight before you get back from The King's Basin."

So, at her bidding, Texas Joe secured a horse for him and almost every afternoon the two were in their saddles. And every night over his evening cigar at the hotel the engineer found himself reviewing the incidents and conversations of the ride; forced to wonder at some new and unexpected revelation of the mind and character of this western girl who was so interested in the reclamation work and so unconscious of her womanly power. He came quickly to look forward to their hours together and to plan and carry out many conversational experiments. Invariably he had his reward.

One afternoon he tried skillfully to shape the conversation to the end that he might tell her--quite without ostentation--of the proud history and social position of his family and of his own rank in the upper eastern world.

She humored him patiently, helping him out with questions and artless, admiring exclamations and comments, until he was quite sure that she was properly impressed. Then she said, in a tone of honest sympathy: "But you mustn't let all this worry you, you know."

"Worry me?" he echoed in amazement.

She nodded seriously, but with a glint of mischief in her eyes. "Yes, I can understand that it must be hard for a man to do his work handicapped as you are but no one away out here will count it against you. Every man here has a chance no matter what his past has been. You see, we don't care what a man has been or what his fathers were; we accept him for what he is and value him for what he can do. So all you need to do is to forget and go straight ahead with your work and you'll easily live it down. Only, of course," she added gently, "I wouldn't advise you to tell everybody what you have told me. Some might not understand."

He retorted warmly: "Of course you cannot understand our point of view. Everything is so new and raw out here that you have no social standards."

"New and raw?" She laughed again. "Why, Mr. Holmes, you are the only new thing in this country. Do you see that man over there?"

They were riding south on the road that follows the river and she pointed to an Indian who sat idly in the shade of his pole and mud hut.

"What's the matter with him?" asked the engineer.

"Nothing. Only he, too, has ancestors. Ages and ages before your forefathers knew that this continent existed, that man's people lived in a city not far from here--a city with laws, customs, religions, social standards--yes, and civil engineers, for you can easily trace the lines of their canals, in which they brought water from the river and carried it through a tunnel in the mountains to irrigate their land, just as you modern engineers are planning to do. The Seer and I rode over there once and he told me about it. I'll show you, if you like. New! Why the West was ages old before the East was discovered! The Seer says that if Columbus had come first to the western coast New England to-day would still be an uninhabitable, howling wilderness."

"But I don't see what all this has to do with social standards," he said, nettled at her reply.

"Simply this. If a man's position in life is to be fixed by the age of his family or the number of years that they have occupied a certain section of the country, then that Indian is your superior. His ancestors lived here long before yours settled in New England."

"But we are proud of our ancestors because of what they were and what they accomplished. We have a right to be. Think of what the world owes them!"

"Oh, I must have misunderstood you. You seemed to place so much emphasis on their having come over in the Mayflower. They were grand--those brave old pioneers. I am proud of them too for what they were. And did they have social positions by which they fixed a man's place in life, I wonder?"

"Of course they could not have had a society with the wealth and culture that we have now. The country was all new--something like the West is to-day, I suppose."

She laughed aloud. "And you are proud of them! How fine! Isn't it splendid to think that in two or three hundred years, when the West has been civilized and the Desert reclaimed as your pioneer forefathers civilized and reclaimed the East, when wealth and culture have come, a man's social standing will be determined by his relation to us and people will be proud of what we are doing? After all, Mr. Holmes, the only difference between the East and the West seems to be that you have ancestors and that we are going to be ancestors. You look back to what has been; we look forward to what will be. You are proud and take rank because of what your forefathers did; we are proud and take rank because of what we are doing. And we are doing exactly what they did! Honestly now, which would you rather--worship an ancestor or be an ancestor worshipped?"

When they had laughed together over this he said: "I am beginning to understand, Miss Worth, that the ideal American, whom we are always hearing about but never meet, must be a Westerner; he couldn't possibly be of the East, could he?" His words were almost a sneer.

"The ideal American is neither Eastern nor Western in the way you mean, Mr. Holmes. He is both."

"Indeed? You admit that we of the East could give him something, then?"

"You could give him all that your forefathers have given you."

"And what could the West give him?"

She looked at him steadily a moment before answering slowly: "I think you will have to find that out for yourself."

He was taken a little aback by her answer. It sounded as though she wished to end the conversation. But her talk had stirred him strongly, though he tried to hide this under cover of a cynical tone. He said triumphantly: "But you see, after all, you admit that one is not altogether hopeless because he happens to come of a good family!"

"Certainly I admit it!" she cried, "but don't you see what I mean? Ancestors are to be counted as a valuable asset, but not as working capital."

As she spoke she turned toward him again with that steady look, and the man felt the strange, mysterious power of her personality, the challenging lure of her young womanhood--that and more. What was it back of those steady eyes that called to him, inspired him, that almost frightened him; that made him feel as Barbara herself felt in the presence of the Desert.

There was no trace of cynicism in his voice now, nor any hint of a sneer on his face, as Willard Holmes straightened unconsciously in his saddle.

"By George!" he said, "it's good to hear you say those things. Nobody talks that way nowadays. I suppose our great-great- grandmothers did, though."

She colored with pleasure, but answered lightly: "That puts me a long ways behind the times, doesn't it?"

"Or a long way ahead," he offered.

In the meantime, while the education of Willard Holmes progressed, the party that was to make the first survey in Barbara's Desert was being formed and equipped under the direction of Abe Lee. Horses, mules, wagons, camp outfits and supplies, with Indian and Mexican laborers, teamsters of several nationalities and here and there a Chinese cook, were assembled. Toward the last from every part of the great West country came the surveyors and engineers--sunburned, khaki-clad men most of them, toughened by their out-of-doors life, overflowing with health and good spirits. They hailed one another joyously and greeted Abe with extravagant delight, overwhelming him with questions. For the word had gone out that the Seer, beloved by all the tribe, and his lieutenant, almost equally beloved, were making "big medicine" in The King's Basin Desert. Not a man of them would have exchanged his chance to go for a crown and scepter.

The eastern engineer met these hardened professional brothers cordially. He listened to their reminiscences of life and work in mountain, plain and desert with interest, discovering to his surprise that most of them were eastern born and bred, with technical training in the schools with which he was familiar. But their almost boyish enthusiasm over the work ahead, their admiration for the Chief and for Abe Lee he viewed with cold indifference.

With all his duties Abe found frequent opportunity to report to Barbara, for the girl's interest in every detail of the preparations was never failing. Her friends protested that they never saw her now at their little social affairs, for she was always off somewhere with some engineer, and that when they did chance to catch her alone she would talk of nothing but that horrid King's Basin country.

Every evening, early after supper, the surveyor would slip away from his companions at the hotel to spend an hour on the veranda at the banker's home talking in his straightforward way with Barbara and her father, of the work that was so dear to the heart of the girl. And because it was his work and in the nature of a report to one who, he felt, had in some subtle way authority to hear, Abe talked with a freedom that would have astonished many of his friends who thought they knew him best.

Three times while Abe was there Willard Holmes appeared, and each time, at the engineer's presence, the surveyor's painful diffidence became apparent and he soon--with some stammering excuse--left.

The last time this happened Barbara walked down to the gate with the painfully embarrassed surveyor. Everything was in readiness for the coming of the Chief, who would arrive the next day, and the following morning the expedition would start for the field.

"Buenos noches, hermano--Good night, brother," called Barbara, as the tall surveyor walked away down the street.

"Buenos noches," came the answer.

Willard Holmes heard and frowned. "You seem to be very fond of Spanish, Miss Worth," he said, when the girl came back to the porch. "I notice you use it so often with our long friend there."

Barbara laughed at his evident displeasure. "The language seems to belong so to this country. To me its colors are all soft and warm like the colors of the Desert. I never thought of it before, but I suppose I use it so often with Abe because he, too, seems to belong to this country."

The engineer looked at her curiously. "I don't think I quite see the connection. You mean that he has Spanish blood?"

"Not at all," said Barbara quickly. "But he is desert-born and desert-trained. He has the same patient stillness, the same natural bigness and the same unconquerable hardness."

"Oh, but you say the desert is not unconquerable; that it will be subdued. Your analogy is at fault."

"No, Mr. Holmes, it is you who do not understand. There is something about this country that will always remain as it is now. Abe Lee is like that. Whatever changes may come, he will always be Abe Lee of the Desert."

"Your views are really poetical and your character analyses very clever, Miss Worth, but after all men are men wherever you find them. Human nature is the same the world over."

"Oh, I'm sure that is so, Mr. Holmes. I know there must be many western men in the east, only they haven't found themselves yet."

He laughed heartily as he rose to go. "Will you ever bid me good night in your language of the desert?" he asked.

"Perhaps, when you have learned that language," she said with an answering smile.

"By George, I shall try to learn it," he answered.

"Oh, I wish you would," came the earnest answer. "I know you could."

And again the engineer felt strongly, back of her words, that unvoiced appeal. As he went down the street he knew that she did not refer to the Spanish tongue when she wished him to learn the language of her Desert.

Alone in her room that night Barbara's mind was too active for sleep and she sat for a long time by the open window, looking out into the vast silent world under the still stars.

Until she introduced herself to Willard Holmes, Barbara had never known eastern people. Tourists she had seen and, at rare intervals, met in a casual way. But they had always examined her with such frankly curious eyes that she had felt like some strange animal on exhibition and had repaid their interest with all the indifference she could command. Occasionally also she had been introduced to eastern business men, whom she chanced upon talking with her father in the bank, but they had turned quickly away to the matters of their world after the usual polite nothings demanded by the introduction. The home-land and life of Willard Holmes were as foreign to her as her land and life were strange to him.

So it happened in this instance also that in the education of the eastern engineer the teacher learned quite as much as the pupil.

The traits that stood out so prominently in the western men whom Barbara knew and so much admired were, in Willard Holmes, buried deeply under the habits and customs of the life and thought of the world to which he belonged--buried so deeply that the man himself scarcely realized that they were there and so was led to wonder at himself when his blood tingled with some strong presentation of this western girl's views.

But Barbara knew. Beneath the conventionalities of his class the girl felt the man a powerful character, with all the latent strength of his nation-building ancestors. She wanted him--as she put it to herself--to wake up. Would he? Would he learn the language of her Desert? She believed that he would, even as she believed in the reclamation of The King's Basin lands.

And she was glad--glad that the Seer and Abe and Tex and Pat and her father--the men who had brought her out of the Desert--were going now back into that land of death to save that land itself from itself. And--she whispered it softly under the stars--she was glad-- glad that Willard Holmes had come to go with them--to learn the language of her land.