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The Desert Chariot








From: Cavanaugh: Forest Ranger

Lee Virginia Wetherford began her return journey into the mountain West
with exultation. From the moment she opened her car-window that August
morning in Nebraska the plain called to her, sustained her illusions. It
was all quite as big, as tawny, as she remembered it--fit arena for the
epic deeds in which her father had been a leader bold and free.

Her memories of Roaring Fork and its people were childish and romantic.
She recalled, vividly, the stagecoach which used to amble sedately, not to
say wheezily, from the railway to the Fork and from the Fork back to the
railway, in the days when she had ridden away in it a tearful, despairing,
long-limbed girl, and fully expected to find it waiting for her at Sulphur
City, with old Tom Quentan still as its driver.

The years of absence had been years of growth, and though she had changed
from child to woman in these suns and moons, she could not think of the
Fork as anything other than the romantic town she had left--a list wherein
spurred and steel-girt cow-men strode lamely over uneven sidewalks, or
swooped, like the red nomads of the desert, in mad troops through the
starlit night.

The first hint of "the new West" came to her by way of the pretentious
Hotel Alma, which stood opposite the station at Sulphur, and to which she
was led by a colored porter of most elaborate and kindly manners.

This house, which furnished an excellent dinner and an absorbing mixture
of types both American and European, was vaguely disturbing to her. It was
plainly not of the old-time West--the West her father had dominated in the
days "before the invasion." It was, indeed, distinctly built for the
tourist trade, and was filled with all that might indicate the comfortable
nearness of big game and good fishing.

Upon inquiry as to the stage, she was amazed to hear that an automobile
now made the journey to the Fork in five hours, and that it left
immediately after the midday meal.

This was still more disconcerting than the hotel, but the closer she came
to the ride, the more resigned she became, for she began to relive the
long hours of torture on the trip outward, during which she had endured
clouds of dust and blazing heat. There were some disadvantages in the old
stage, romantic as her conception of it had been. Furthermore, the coach
had gone; so she made application for her seat at once.

At two o'clock, as the car came to the door, she entered it with a sense
of having stepped from one invading chariot of progress to another, so big
and shining and up to date was its glittering body, shining with brass and
glowing with brave red paint. It was driven, also, by a small, lean young
fellow, whom the cowboys on her father's ranch would have called a
"lunger," so thin and small were his hands and arms. He was quite as far
from old Tom Quentan as the car was from the coach on which he used to
perch.

The owner of the machine, perceiving under Virginia's veil a girl's pretty
face, motioned her to the seat with the driver, and rode beside her for a
few minutes (standing on the foot-board), to inquire if she were visiting
friends in the Fork.

"Yes," she replied, curtly, "I am."

Something in her tone discouraged him from further inquiry, and he soon
dropped away.

The seats were apparently quite filled with men, when at the last moment a
middle-aged woman, with a penetrating, nasal, drawling utterance, inquired
if she were expected to be "squoze in betwixt them two strange men on that
there back seat."

Lee Virginia turned, and was about to greet the woman as an old
acquaintance when something bold and vulgar in the complaining vixen's
face checked the impulse.

The stage-agent called her "Miss McBride," and with exaggerated courtesy
explained that travel was heavy, and that he had not known that she was
intending to go.

One of the men, a slender young fellow, moved to the middle of the seat,
and politely said, "You can sit on the outside, madam."

She clambered in with doleful clamor. "Well, I never rode in one of these
pesky things before, and if you git me safe down to the Fork I'll promise
never to jump the brute another time."

A chuckle went 'round the car; but it soon died out, for the new-comer
scarcely left off talking for the next three hours, and Virginia was very
glad she had not claimed acquaintanceship.

As they whirled madly down the valley the girl was astonished at the
transformation in the hot, dry land. Wire fences ran here and there,
enclosing fields of alfalfa and wheat where once only the sage-brush and
the grease-wood grew. Painted farm-houses shone on the banks of the
creeks, and irrigating ditches flashed across the road with an air of
business and decision.

For the first half-hour it seemed as if the dominion of the cattle-man had
ended, but as the swift car drew away from the valley of the Bear and
climbed the divide toward the north, the free range was disclosed, with
few changes, save in the cattle, which were all of the harmless or
hornless variety, appearing tame and spiritless in comparison with the
old-time half-wild broad-horn breeds.

No horsemen were abroad, and nothing was heard but the whirr of the motor
and the steady flow of the garrulous woman behind. Not till the machine
was descending the long divide to the west did a single cowboy come into
view to remind the girl of the heroic past, and this one but a symbol--a
figure of speech. Leaning forward upon his reeling, foaming steed, he
spurred along the road as if pursued, casting backward apprehensive
glances, as if in the brassy eyes of the car he read his doom--the doom of
all his kind.

Some vague perception of this symbolism came into Virginia's thought as
she watched the swift and tireless wheels swallow the shortening distance
between the heels of the flying pony and the gilded seat in which she sat.
Vain was the attempt to outride progress. The rider pulled out, and as
they passed him the girl found still greater significance in the fact that
he was one of her father's old-time cowboys--a grizzled, middle-aged,
light-weight centaur whom she would not have recognized had not the driver
called him by his quaint well-known nickname.

Soon afterward the motor overhauled and passed the battered stage
lumbering along, bereft of its passengers, sunk to the level of carrying
the baggage for its contemptuous aristocratic supplanter; and as Lee
Virginia looked up at the driver, she caught the glance of a simple-minded
farm-boy looking down at her. Tom Quentan no longer guided the plunging,
reeling broncos on their swift and perilous way--he had sturdily declined
to "play second fiddle to a kerosene tank."

Lee began to wonder if she should find the Fork much changed--her mother
was a bad correspondent.

Her unspoken question, opportunely asked by another, was answered by Mrs.
McBride. "Oh, Lord, yes! Summer tourists are crawlin' all over us sence
this otto line began. 'Pears like all the bare-armed boobies and
cross-legged little rips in Omaha and Denver has jest got to ride in and
look us over. Two of them new hotels in Sulphur don't do a thing but feed
these tenderfeet. I s'pose pro-hi-bition will be the next grandstand-play
on the part of our town-lot boomers. We old cow-punchers don't care
whether the town grows or not, but these hyer bankers and truck-farmers
are all for raisin' the price o' land and taxin' us quiet fellers out of
our boots."

Virginia winced a little at this, for it flashed over her that all the
women with whom she had grown up spoke very much in this fashion--using
breeding terms almost as freely as the ranchers themselves. It was natural
enough. What else could they do in talking to men who knew nothing but
cows? And yet it was no longer wholly excusable even to the men, who
laughed openly in reply.

The mountains, too, yielded their disappointment. For the first hour or
two they seemed lower and less mysterious than of old. They neither wooed
nor threatened--only the plain remained as vast and as majestic as ever.
The fences, the occasional farms in the valleys could not subdue its
outspread, serene majesty to prettiness. It was still of desert sternness
and breadth.

From all these impersonal considerations the girl was brought back to the
vital phases of her life by the harsh voice of one of the men. "Lize
Wetherford is goin' to get jumped one o' these days for sellin' whiskey
without a license. I've told her so, too. Everybody knows she's a-doin'
it, and what beats me is her goin' along in that way when a little time
and money would set her straight with the law."

The shock of all this lay in the fact that Eliza Wetherford was the mother
to whom Lee Virginia was returning after ten years of life in the East,
and the significance of the man's words froze her blood for an instant.
There was an accent of blunt truth in his voice, and the mere fact that a
charge of such weight could be openly made appalled the girl, although her
recollections of her mother were not entirely pleasant.

The young fellow on the back seat slowly said: "I don't complain of Lize
sellin' bad whiskey, but the grub she sets up is fierce."

"The grub ain't so bad; it's the way she stacks it up," remarked another.
"But, then, these little fly-bit cow-towns are all alike and all bad, so
far as hotels are concerned."

Lee Virginia, crimson and burning hot, was in agony lest they should go
further in their criticism.

She knew that her mother kept a boarding-house; and while she was not
proud of it, there was nothing precisely disgraceful in it--many widowed
women found it the last resort; but this brutal comment on the way in
which her business was carried on was like a slash of mud in the face. Her
joy in the ride, her impersonal exultant admiration of the mountains was
gone, and with flaming cheeks and beating heart she sat, tense and bent,
dreading some new and keener thrust.

Happily the conversation turned aside and fell upon the Government's
forest policy, and Sam Gregg, a squat, wide-mouthed, harsh-voiced
individual, cursed the action of Ross Cavanagh the ranger in the district
above the Fork. "He thinks he's Secretary of War, but I reckon he won't
after I interview him. He can't shuffle my sheep around over the hills at
his own sweet will."

The young fellow on the back seat quietly interposed. "You want to be sure
you've got the cinch on Cavanagh good and square, Sam, or he'll be
a-ridin' you."

"He certainly is an arbitrary cuss," said the old woman. "They say he was
one of Teddy's Rough-riders in the war. He sure can ride and handle a gun.
'Pears like he thinks he's runnin' the whole range," she continued, after
a pause. "Cain't nobody so much as shoot a grouse since he came on, and
the Supervisor upholds him in it."

Lee Virginia wondered about all this supervision, for it was new to her.

Gregg, the sheepman, went on: "As I tell Redfield, I don't object to the
forest policy--it's a good thing for me; I get my sheep pastured cheaper
than I could do any other way, but it makes me hot to have grazing lines
run on me and my herders jacked up every time they get over the line. Ross
run one bunch off the reservation last Friday. I'm going to find out about
that. He'll learn he can't get 'arbitrary' with me."

Lee Virginia, glancing back at this man, felt sorry for any one who
opposed him, for she recalled him as one of the fiercest of the
cattle-men--one ever ready to cut a farmer's fence or burn a
sheep-herder's wagon.

The old woman chuckled: "'Pears like you've changed your tune since '98,
Sam."

He admitted his conversion shamelessly. "I'm for whatever will pay best.
Just now, with a high tariff, sheep are the boys. So long as I can get on
the reserve at seven cents a head--lambs free--I'm going to put every
dollar I've got into sheep."

"You're going to get thrown off altogether one of these days," said the
young man on the back seat.

Thereupon a violent discussion arose over the question of the right of a
sheepman to claim first grass for his flocks, and Gregg boasted that he
cared nothing for "the dead-line." "I'll throw my sheep where I please,"
he declared. "They've tried to run me out of Deer Creek, but I'm there to
stay. I have ten thousand more on the way, and the man that tries to stop
me will find trouble."

The car was descending into the valley of the Roaring Fork now, and wire
fences and alfalfa fields on either side gave further evidence of the
change in the land's dominion. New houses of frame and old houses in fresh
paint shone vividly from the green of the willows and cottonwoods. A
ball-ground on the outskirts of the village was another guarantee of
progress. The cowboy was no longer the undisputed prince of the country
fair.

Down past the court-house, refurbished and deeper sunk in trees, Lee
Virginia rode, recalling the wild night when three hundred armed and
vengeful cowboys surrounded it, holding three cattle-barons and their
hired invaders against all comers, resolute to be their own judge, jury,
and hangman. It was all as peaceful as a Sunday afternoon at this moment,
with no sign of the fierce passions of the past.

There were new store-buildings and cement walks along the main street of
the town, and here and there a real lawn, cut by a lawn-mower; but as the
machine buzzed on toward the river the familiar little old battlemented
buildings came to view. The Palace Hotel, half log, half battlement,
remained on its perilous site beside the river. The triangle where the
trails met still held Halsey's Three Forks Saloon, and next to it stood
Markheit's general store, from which the cowboys and citizens had armed
themselves during the ten days' war of cattle-men and rustlers.

The car crossed the Roaring Fork and drew up before two small shacks, one
of which bore a faded sign, "The Wetherford House," and the other in
fresher paint, "The Wetherford Cafe." On the sidewalk a group of Indians
were sitting, and a half-dozen slouching white men stood waiting at the
door.

At sight of her mother's hotel Virginia forgot every other building, every
other object, and when the driver asked, respectfully, "Where will you
want to get off, miss?" she did not reply, but rose unsteadily in her
seat, blindly reaching for her bag and her wraps. Her slim, gray-robed
figure, graceful even in her dismay, appealed to every onlooker, but Gregg
was the one to offer a hand.

"Allow me, miss," he said, with the smile of a wolf.

Declining his aid, she took her bag from the driver and walked briskly up
the street as if she were a resident and knew precisely where she wanted
to go. "One o' those Eastern tourists, I reckon?" she heard the old woman
say.

As she went past the hotel-porch her heart beat hard and her breath
shortened. In a flash she divined the truth. She understood why her mother
had discouraged her coming home. It was not merely on account of the
money--it was because she knew that her business was wrong.

What a squalid little den it was! How cheap, bald, and petty the whole
town seemed of a sudden. Lee Virginia halted and turned. There was only
one thing to be done, and that was to make herself known. She retraced her
steps, pulled open the broken screen door, and entered the cafe. It was a
low, dingy dining-room filled with the odor of ham and bad coffee. At the
tables ten or fifteen men, a motley throng, were busily feeding their
voracious jaws, and on her left, behind a showcase filled with cigars,
stood her mother, looking old, unkempt, and worried. The changes in her
were so great that the girl stood in shocked alarm. At last she raised her
veil. "Mother," she said, "don't you know me?"

A look of surprise went over the older woman's flabby face--a glow which
brought back something of her other self, as she cried: "Why, Lee
Virginny, where did you come from?"

The boarders stopped chewing and stared in absorbed interest, while
Virginia kissed her blowsy mother.

"By the Lord, it's little Virginny!" said one old fellow. "It's her
daughter."

Upon this a mutter of astonishment arose, and the waiter-girls, giggling,
marvelling, and envious, paused, their platters in hand, to exchange
comment on the new-comer's hat and gown. A cowboy at the washing-sink in
the corner suspended his face-polishing and gaped over his shoulder in
silent ecstasy.

For a full minute, so it seemed, this singular, interesting, absorbed
immobility lasted; then a seedy little man rose, and approached the girl.
His manner was grotesquely graceful as he said: "We are all glad to greet
you home again, Miss Virginia."

She gave her hand hesitatingly. "It's Mr. Sifton, isn't it?"

"It is," he replied; "the same old ha'penny, only a little more
worn--worn, not polished," he added, with a smile.

She remembered him then--an Englishman, a remittance man, a "lord," they
used to say. His eyes were kind, and his mouth, despite its unshaved
stubble of beard, was refined. A harmless little man--his own worst enemy,
as the saying goes.

Thereupon others of the men came forward to greet her, and though she had
some difficulty in recognizing one or two of them (so hardly had the years
of her absence used them), she eventually succeeded in placing them all.

At length her mother led her through the archway which connected the two
shanties, thence along a narrow hall into a small bedroom, into which the
western sunset fell. It was a shabby place, but as a refuge from the crowd
in the restaurant it was grateful.

Lize looked at her daughter critically. "I don't know what I'm going to do
with a girl like you.--Why, you're purty--purty as a picture. You were
skinny as a child--I'm fair dazed. Great snakes, how you have opened
out!--You're the living image of your dad.--What started you back? I told
you to stay where you was."

The girl stared at her helplessly, trying to understand herself and her
surroundings. There was, in truth, something singularly alien in her
mother's attitude. She seemed on the defensive, not wishing to be too
closely studied. "Her manner is not even affectionate--only friendly. It
is as if I were only an embarrassing visitor," the girl thought. Aloud she
said: "I had no place to go after Aunt Celia died. I had to come home."

"You wrote they was willing to keep you."

"They were, but I couldn't ask it of them. I had no right to burden them,
and, besides, Mrs. Hall wrote me that you were sick."

"I am; but I didn't want you to come back. Lay off your things and come
out to supper. We'll talk afterward."

The eating-house, the rooms and hallways, were all of that desolate
shabbiness which comes from shiftlessness joined with poverty. The carpets
were frayed and stained with tobacco-juice, and the dusty windows were
littered with dead flies. The curtains were ragged, the paper peeling from
the walls, and the plastering cracked into unsightly lines. Everything on
which the girl's eyes fell contrasted strongly with her aunt's home on the
Brandywine--not because that house was large or luxurious, but because it
was exquisitely in order, and sweet with flowers and dainty arrangement of
color.

She understood now the final warnings uttered by her friends. "You will
find everything changed," they had said, "because you are changed."

She regretted bitterly that she had ever left her Eastern friends. Her
mother, in truth, showed little pleasure at her coming, and almost nothing
of the illness of which a neighbor had written. It was, indeed, this
letter which had decided her to return to the West. She had come, led by a
sense of duty, not by affection, for she had never loved her mother as a
daughter should--they were in some way antipathetic--and now she found
herself an unwelcome guest.

Then, too, the West had called to her: the West of her childhood, the
romantic, chivalrous West, the West of the miner, the cattle-man, the
wolf, and the eagle. She had returned, led by a poetic sentiment, and here
now she sat realizing as if by a flash of inward light that the West she
had known as a child had passed, had suddenly grown old and
commonplace--in truth, it had never existed at all!

One of the waitresses, whose elaborately puffed and waved hair set forth
her senseless vanity, called from the door: "You can come out now, your ma
says! Your supper's ready!"

With aching head and shaking knees Virginia reentered the dining-room,
which was now nearly empty of its "guests," but was still misty with the
steam of food, and swarming with flies. These pests buzzed like bees
around the soiled places on the table-cloths, and one of her mother's
first remarks was a fretful apology regarding her trials with those
insects. "Seems like you can't keep 'em out," she said.

Lee Virginia presented the appearance of some "settlement worker," some
fair lady on a visit to the poor, as she took her seat at the table and
gingerly opened the small moist napkin which the waiter dropped before
her. Her appetite was gone. Her appetite failed at the very sight of the
fried eggs and hot and sputtering bacon, and she turned hastily to her
coffee. A fly was in that! She uttered a little choking cry, and buried
her face in her handkerchief and sobbed.

Lize turned upon the waitress and lashed her with stinging phrases. "Can't
you serve things better than this? Take that cup away! My God, you make me
tired--fumblin' around here with your eyes on the men! Pay more attention
to your work and less to your crimps, and you'll please me a whole lot
better!"

With desperate effort Lee conquered her disgust. "Never mind, I'm tired
and a little upset. I don't need any dinner."

"The slob will go, just the same. I've put up with her because help is
scarce, but here's where she gits off!"

In this moment Virginia perceived that her mother was of the same nature
with Mrs. McBride--not one whit more refined--and the gulf between them
swiftly widened. Hastily sipping her coffee, she tried hard to keep back
the tears, but failed; and no sooner did her mother turn away than she
fled to her room, there to sob unrestrainedly her despair and shame. "Oh,
I can't stand it," she called. "I can't! I can't!"

Outside, the mountains deepened in splendor, growing each moment more
mysterious and beautiful under the sunset sky, but the girl derived no
comfort from them. Her loneliness and her perplexities had closed her eyes
to their majestic drama. She felt herself alien and solitary in the land
of her birth.

Lize came in half an hour later, pathetic in her attempt at "slicking up."
She was still handsome in a large-featured way, but her gray hair was
there, and her face laid with a network of fretful lines. Her color was
bad. At the moment her cheeks were yellow and sunken.

She complained of being short of breath and lame and tired. "I'm always
tired," she explained. "'Pears like sometimes I can't scarcely drag myself
around, but I do."

A pang of comprehending pain shot through Virginia's heart. If she could
not love, she could at least pity and help; and reaching forth her hand,
she patted her mother on the knee. "Poor old mammy!" she said. "I'm going
to help you."

Lize was touched by this action of her proud daughter, and smiled sadly.
"This is no place for you. It's nothin' but a measly little old cow-town
gone to seed--and I'm gone to seed with it. I know it. But what is a
feller to do? I'm stuck here, and I've got to make a living or quit. I
can't quit. I ain't got the grit to eat a dose, and so I stagger along."

"I've come back to help you, mother. You must let me relieve you of some
of the burden."

"What can you do, child?" Lize asked, gently.

"I can teach."

"Not in this town you can't."

"Why not?"

"Well, there's a terrible prejudice against--well, against me. And,
besides, the places are all filled for the next year. The Wetherfords
ain't among the first circles any more."

This daunted the girl more than she could express, but she bravely made
advance. "But there must be other schools in the country."

"There are--a few. But I reckon you better pull out and go back, at least,
to Sulphur; they don't know so much about me there, and, besides, they're
a little more like your kind."

Lee Virginia remembered Gregg's charge against her mother. "What do you
mean by the prejudice against you?" she asked.

Lize was evasive. "Since I took to running this restaurant my old friends
kind o' fell off--but never mind that to-night. Tell me about things back
East. I don't s'pose I'll ever get as far as Omaha again; I used to go
with Ed every time I felt like it. He was good to me, your father. If ever
there was a prince of a man, Ed Wetherford was him."

The girl's thought was now turned into other half-forgotten channels. "I
wish you would tell me more about father. I don't remember where he was
buried."

"Neither do I, child--I mean I don't know exactly. You see, after that
cattle-war, he went away to Texas."

"I remember, but it's all very dim."

"Well, he never came back and never wrote, and by-and-by word came that he
had died and was buried; but I never could go down to see where his grave
was at."

"Didn't you know the name of the town?"

"Yes; but it was a new place away down in the Pan Handle, and nobody I
knew lived there. And I never knew anything more."

Lee sighed hopelessly. "I hate to think of him lying neglected down
there."

"'Pears like the whole world we lived in in them days has slipped off the
map," replied the older woman; and as the room was darkening, she rose and
lighted a dusty electric globe which dangled from the ceiling over the
small table. "Well, I must go back into the restaurant; I hain't got a
girl I can trust to count the cash."

Left alone, Lee Virginia wept no more, but her face settled into an
expression of stern sadness. It seemed as if her girlhood had died out of
her, and that she was about to begin the same struggle with work and worry
which had marked the lives of all the women she had known in her
childhood.

Out on the porch a raw youth was playing wailing tunes on a mouth-organ,
and in the "parlor" a man was uttering silly jokes to a tittering girl.
The smell of cheap cigars filled the hallway and penetrated to her
nostrils. Every sight and sound sickened her. "Can it be that the old
town, the town of my childhood, was of this character--so sordid, so
vulgar?" she asked herself. "And mother--what is the matter with her? She
is not even glad to see me!"

Weary with her perplexities, she fastened her door at last, and went to
bed, hoping to end--for a few hours, at least--the ache in her heart and
the benumbing whirl of her thought.

But this respite was denied her. Almost at once she began to fancy that a
multitudinous minute creeping and stirring was going on about her--in her
hair, over her neck, across her feet. For a time she explained this by
reference to her disordered nerves, but at last some realization of the
truth came to her, and she sprang out upon the floor in horror and
disgust. Lighting the lamp, she turned to scrutinize her couch. It swarmed
with vermin. The ceiling was spattered with them. They raced across the
walls in platoons, thin and voracious as wolves.

With a choking, angry, despairing moan she snatched her clothing from the
chair and stood at bay. It needed but this touch to complete her
disillusionment.





Next: The Forest Ranger

Previous: The Result



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