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The Elephant's Love Story








From: Still Jim

"Coyotes hunt weaker things. Humans hunt all things, even
each other, which the coyote will not do."

MUSINGS OF THE ELEPHANT.


"Don't let me keep you here, Jim," exclaimed Pen so hastily that Jim
could not help smiling. She scuttled hastily up the trail ahead of him,
her heavy little hunting boots doing wonders on the rough path.

The Secretary's letter disturbed Jim very much. It was not the result he
had expected from the Hearing at all. Nor was the letter itself easy for
Jim to understand.

"MY DEAR MR. MANNING:

"There are several facts connected with your work that I
would like to call to your attention. The Reclamation
Service is an experiment, a magnificent one. It is not a
test of engineering efficiency, except indirectly. Engineers
as a class are efficient. It is an experiment to discover
whether or not the American people is capable of
understanding and handling such an idea as the Service idea.
It is a problem of human adjustment. Is an engineer capable
of handling so gigantic a human as well as technical
problem? I shall be interested in getting your ideas along
this line.

"---- Secretary of the Interior."

Jim laid the letter down. He recalled the Secretary's fine, inscrutable
face and that something back of its mask that he had liked and
understood. He felt sure that the letter had been impelled by that
far-seeing quality that he knew belonged to the Secretary but for which
he had no lucid word. And yet the letter roused in Jim the old sense of
resentment. What did the Secretary want him to do; turn peanut
politician and fight the water power trust? Did no one realize that the
erecting of the dam was heavy enough responsibility for any one man?

His first impulse was to take the letter over to Pen. Then he smiled
wryly. He must not take all his troubles to her or she would get no
relief from the burdening that Sara put upon her. So he brooded over the
letter until supper time when he went with Henderson down to the lower
mess. Jim ate with the lower mess frequently. It was almost the only way
he had now of keeping in touch personally with his workmen.

After supper and a pipe in the steward's room Jim climbed the long road
to the dam. The road hung high above the dam site. The mountains and the
bulk of the Elephant were black in the shadowy regions beyond the arc
lights. Black and purple and silver below lay the mighty section of
concrete, with black specks of workmen moving back and forth on it,
pygmies aiding in the birth of a Colossus. The night sky was dim and
remote here. Despite the roar of the cableways, the whistles of foremen,
the rushing to and fro of workmen, the flicker of electric lights, one
could not lose the sense of the project's isolation. One knew that the
desert was pressing in on every side. One knew that old Jezebel, having
crossed endless wastes, having fed on loneliness, whispered threats of
trouble to the narrow flume that for a moment throttled her. One knew
that the Elephant never for a moment lost his sardonic sense of the
impermanence of human effort.

When Jim reached his house, he found old Suma-theek camped on the
doorstep.

"What is it, Suma-theek?" asked Jim.

"Old Suma-theek, he want make talk with you," replied the Indian.

Jim nodded. "I'd like to talk with you, Suma-theek. Wait till I get
enough tobacco for us both and we'll go up on the Elephant's back, eh?"

Suma-theek grunted. The two reached the Elephant's top without
conversation and sat for perhaps half an hour, smoking and mute. This
was quite an ordinary procedure with them.

Finally Suma-theek said, "Why you make 'em this dam?"

"So that corn and cattle and horses will increase in the valley,"
replied Jim.

The Indian grunted. "Much talk! Why you make 'em?"

"It's my job; the kind of work I like."

"What use?" insisted Suma-theek. "People down in valley they much swear
at you. Big Sheriff at Washington, he much swear at you. You much
lonely. Much sad. Why you stay? What use? Much old Suma-theek wonder at
that. Why old Iron Skull work on this dam? Why you, so young, so strong,
no have wife, no have child, marry dam instead? You tell old Suma-theek
why."

Jim had learned on the Makon that while war and hunting might have been
an Indian's business in life, his avocation was philosophizing. He had
learned that many a pauperized and decrepit old Indian, warming his back
in the sun, despised of the whites, held locked in his marvelous mind
treasures of philosophy, of comment on life and living, Indian and
white, that the world can ill afford to lose, yet never will know.

Jim struggled for words. "Back east, five sleeps, where I was born,
there are many people of many tribes. They fight for enough food to eat,
for enough clothes to wear. When I was a boy I said to myself I would
come out here, make place for those people to come."

"But," said Suma-theek, "the dam it will no keep whites from fighting.
They fight now in valley to see who can get most land. What use?"

"What use," returned Jim, "that you bring your young men up here and
make them work? I know the answer. You are their chief. It is your
business to do what you can to keep their stomachs full and their backs
warm. You don't ask why or the end."

The Indian rolled another cigarette. He was like a fine dim cameo in the
starlight. "I sabez!" he said at last. "Blood of man, it no belong to
self but to tribe. So with Injuns. So with some whites. Not so with
hombres."

Again the eagle, disturbed by voices, dipped across the canyon. "See,
Suma-theek, make the story for me," said Jim. "There are the eagle and
the flag so young and the Elephant so old. Make the story for me."

There was a long silence once more. The desert wind sighed over the two
men. The noise of building came up faintly from below but the radiance
of the stars was here undimmed.

Finally Suma-theek spoke:

"Long, long, many, many years ago, before whites were born, Injuns lived
far away to the west, maybe across the great water. All Injuns then had
one chief. He very great, very wise, very strong. But he no have son. He
heap wise. He know, man no stronger than number of his sons. He get old.
No have son. Then he call all young men of tribe to him, and say: 'That
young man shall be my son who shows me in one year the strongest thing
in world, stronger than sun, stronger than wind, stronger than desert,
than mountains, than rivers at flood.'

"All young men, they start out to hunt. All time they bring back to old
chief strong medicine, like rattlesnake poison, like ropes of yucca
fiber, like fifty coyotes fastened together. But that old chief he laugh
and shake his head.

"One day young buck named Theeka, he start off with bow and arrow. He
say he won't come back until he sure. Theeka, he walk through desert
many days. Injuns no have horses then. Walk till he get where no man go
before. And far, far away on burning sand, he see heap big animal move.
It was bigger than a hundred coyotes made into one. Theeka he run, get
pretty close, see this animal is elephant.

"And he say to self, 'There is strongest thing in world.' And he start
follow this elephant. Many days he follow, never get closer. The more he
follow, the more he want that elephant. One morning he see other dot
move in desert. Dot come closer. It woman, young woman, much beautiful.
She never say word. She just run long by Theeka.

"All time he look from elephant to her. All time he feel he love her.
All time he think he no speak to her for fear he lose sight of elephant.
By'mby, beautiful girl, she fall, no get up again. Theeka, he run on but
his heart, it ache. By'mby he no can stand it. He give one look at
elephant, say, 'Good-by, you strongest thing! I go back to her I love.'
Then his spirit, it die within him, while his heart, it sing.

"He go back to girl. She no hurt at all. She put her arms round Theeka's
neck and kiss him. Then Theeka say, 'Let strongest thing go. I love you,
O sweet as arrow weed in spring!'

"And beautiful girl, she say: 'I show you strongest thing in world.
Come!' And she take him by hand and lead him on toward elephant. And
that elephant, all of a sudden, it stand still. They come up to it. They
see it stand still because little To-hee bird, she circle round his
head, sing him love songs.

"'O yahee! O yahai!
Sweet as arrow weed in spring!'

sing that little bird to Elephant. And he stop, stop so long here by
river while that little bird build her nest in his side, he turn to
stone and live forever.

"Then Theeka, he sabez. He lead his beautiful girl back to chief and he
say to chief: 'I have found strongest thing in world. It is love.'

"And chief, he say: 'You and your children's children shall be chiefs. I
have not known love and so I die.'"

Suma-theek's mellow voice merged into the desert silence. "But the eagle
and the flag?" asked Jim.

"Injuns no understand about them," replied the old chief. "You sabez the
story old Suma-theek tell you?"

"I understand," replied Jim.

"Then I go home to sleep," said Suma-theek, and he left Jim alone on the
Elephant's back.

Jim sat long alone on the night stars. The sense of failure was heavy
upon him. Wherein, he asked himself, had he failed? How could he find
himself? Was his life to be like his father's after all? Had he put off
until too late the mission he had set himself so long ago, that of
seeking the secret of his father's inadequacy? For a few wild moments,
Jim planned to answer the Secretary's letter with his resignation, to
give up the thankless fight and return--to what?

Jim could not picture for himself any work or life but that which he was
doing; could not by the utmost effort of imagination separate himself
from his job. His mind went back to Charlie Tuck. He wondered what
Charlie would have said to the Secretary's letter. It seemed to Jim that
Charlie had had more imagination than he. Perhaps Charlie would have
been able to have helped him now. Then he thought of Iron Skull and of
that last interrupted talk with him. What had Iron Skull planned to say?
What had he foreseen that Jim had been unable to see? It seemed to Jim
that he would have given a year of his life to know what advice had been
in his old friend's mind.

A useless death! A life too soon withdrawn! Suddenly Jim's whole heart
rose in longing for his friend and in loyalty to him. His death must not
be useless! The simple sweetness of the sacrifice must not go
unrewarded. His life would not be ended!

Jim looked far over the glistening, glowing night and registered a vow.
So help him God, he would not die childless and forlorn as Iron Skull
had done. Some day, some way, he would marry Penelope. And somehow he
would make the dam a success, that in it Iron Skull's last record of
achievement might live forever.

Strangely comforted, Jim went home.

The Secretary's letter remained unanswered for several days. The next
morning Henderson reported that a section of the abutments showed signs
of decomposition. At the first suggestion of a technical problem with
which to wrestle, Jim thrust the Secretary's elusive one aside. He
started for the dam site eagerly, and refused to think again that day of
the shadow that haunted his work.

In excavating for the abutments a thick stratum of shale had been
exposed that air-slaked as fast as it was uncovered. Jim gave orders
that drifts be driven through the stratum until a safe distance from
possible exposure was reached. These were to be filled with concrete
immediately. It was careful and important work. The concrete of the dam
must have a solid wall to which to tie and drift after drift must be
driven and filled to supply this wall. Jim would trust no one's judgment
but his own in this work. He stayed on the dam all the morning, watching
the shale and rock and directing the foremen.

At noon he went to the lower mess where he could talk with the masonry
workers. Five hundred workmen were polishing off their plates in the
great room. Jim chuckled as he sat down with Henderson at one of the
long tables.

"If I could get the hombres to work as fast as they eat," he said, "I
could take a year off the allotted time for the dam."

The masonry workers and teamsters at whose table Jim was sitting
grinned.

"There's only one form of persuasion to use with an hombre," commented
Henderson, gently. "There's just one kind of efficiency he gets, outside
of whisky."

"What kind is that?" asked a teamster.

"The kind you get with a good hickory pick-handle across his skull,"
said Henderson in a tender, meditative way as he took down half a cup of
coffee at a gulp. "I've worked hombres in Mexico and in South America
and in America. You must never trust 'em. Just when you get where their
politeness has smoothed you down, look out for a knife in your back. I
never managed to make friends for but one bunch of hombres."

Henderson reached for the coffee pot and a fresh instalment of beef and
waited patiently while Jim talked with the master mason. Finally Jim
said: "Go ahead with the story, Jack. I know you'll have heartburn if
you don't!"

"It was in Arizona," began Henderson. The singing quality in his voice
was as tender as a girl's. "I had fifty hombres building a bridge over a
draw, getting ready for a mining outfit. No whites for a million miles
except my two cart drivers, Ryan and Connors. The hombres and the Irish
don't get on well together and I was always expecting trouble.

"One day I was in the tent door when Ryan ran up the trail and beckoned
me with his arm. I started on the run. When I got to the draw I saw the
fifty hombres altogether pounding something with their shovels. I
grabbed up a spade and dug my way through to the middle."

Henderson's voice was lovingly reminiscent. "There I found Ryan and
Connors in bad shape. Connors had backed his cart over an hombre and
the whole bunch had started in to kill him. Ryan had run for me and then
gone in to help his friend. I used the spade freely and then dragged the
two Irishmen down to the river and stuck their heads in. When they came
to, they were both for starting in to kill all the hombres. I argued
with 'em but 'twas no use, so I had to hit 'em over the head with a
pick-handle and put 'em to sleep. Then I went back and subdued the
hombres to tears with the same weapon."

"Did you ever have any more trouble?" asked a man.

"Trouble?" said Henderson, gently. "They didn't know but a word or two
of English, but from that time on they always called me 'Papa'!"

Jim roared with the rest and said as he rose, "If you think you've
absorbed enough pie to ward off famine, let's get back to the dam."

Henderson followed the Big Boss meekly. They started up the road in
silence, Jim leading his horse. Suddenly Jack pulled off his hat and ran
his fingers through his bush of hair.

"Boss," he said, "I chin a lot to keep me cheered up while I finish Iron
Skull's job. I wish he could have stayed to finish it. Of course he
helped on the Makon but he never had as good a job as he's got here.
Ain't it hell when a man goes without a trace of anything living behind
him! A man ought to have kids even if he don't have ideas. I often told
Iron Skull that. But he said he couldn't ask a woman to live the way he
had to. I always told him a woman would stand anything if you loved her
enough."

Jim nodded. Iron Skull's life in many ways seemed a personal reproach to
Jim for his own way of living.

The work at the abutments absorbed Jim until late afternoon; absorbed
him and cheered him. About five o'clock he started off to call on Pen,
and tell her about the Secretary's letter. He found her plodding up the
road toward the tent house with a pile of groceries in her arms.

"I missed the regular delivery," she replied to his protests as he took
the packages from her, "and I love to go down to the store, shopping.

It's like a glorified cross-roads emporium. All the hombres and their
wives and the 'rough-necks' and their wives and the Indians. Why it's
better than a bazaar!"

Jim laughed. "Pen, you are a good mixer. You ought to have my job. You'd
make more of it than I do."

"That reminds me," said Pen. "Jim, that man Fleckenstein is going to run
for United States Senator. He's going to promise the ranchers that he'll
get the government to remit the building charges on the dam. Will that
hurt you?"

"Where did you hear this?" asked Jim.

"Fleckenstein and Oscar came up this morning and they talked it over
with Oscar. Sara was guarded in what he said before me, but I believe
he's going to get campaign money back East. Why should he, Jim?"

She eyed Jim anxiously. There was hardly a moment of the day that the
thought of the responsibility that Iron Skull had placed on her
shoulders was not with her. But she was resolved to say nothing to Jim
until she had a vital suggestion to make to him.

Jim looked at the shimmering lavenders and grays of the desert. It had
come. A frank step toward repudiation. A blow at the fundamental idea of
the Service. That was to be the next move of the Big Enemy. And what had
Sara to do with it? All thought of the Secretary's letter left Jim. He
must see Sara. But Penelope must not be unduly worried. He turned to her
with his flashing smile.

"Some sort of peanut politics, Pen. Is Sara alone now? I'll go talk to
him."

As if in answer Sara's voice came from the tent which they were almost
upon. "Pen, come here!"

Pen did not quicken her pace. "I don't like to change speeds going up a
steep grade," she called.

"You hustle when I call you!" roared Sara.

Jim pulled the reins off his arm and dropped them to the ground over the
horse's head, the simple process which hitches a desert horse. He left
Pen with long strides and entered the tent.

"Sara, if I hear you talk to Pen that way again, I don't care if you are
forty times a cripple, I'll punch your face in! What's the matter with
you, anyhow? Did your tongue get a twist with your back?"

"Get out of here!" shouted Sara.

Jim recovered his poise at the sight of Pen's anxious eyes. "Now
Sweetness," he said to Sara, "don't hurry me! You make me so nervous
when you speak that way to me! I think I'll get a burro up here for you
to talk to. He'd understand the richness of your vocabulary. Look here
now, Sara, we all know you're having a darned hard time and there isn't
anything we wouldn't do for you. Don't you realize that Pen is
sacrificing her whole life to being your nurse girl? Don't you think you
ought to make it as easy for her as you can?"

"Easy!" mocked Sara. "Easy for anyone that can walk and run and come and
go? What consideration do they need?"

Pen and Jim winced a little. There was a whole world of tragedy in
Sara's mockery. He looked fat and middle-aged. His hair was graying
fast. His fingers trembled a good deal although the strength in his arms
still was prodigious. Yet Pen and Jim both had a sense of resentment
that Sara should take his life tragedy so ill, a feeling that he was
indecorous in flaunting his bitterness in their faces. As if he sensed
their resentment, Sara went on sneeringly:

"Easy for you two, with your youth and good looks and health to
patronize me and fancy how much more decently you could die than I. I
wish the two of you were chained to my inert body. How sweet and patient
you would be! Bah! You weary me. Pen, will you go over to Mrs. Flynn's
for the root beer she promised me?"

Pen made her escape gladly. When she was out of hearing Jim said, "Sara,
why do you want the building charges repudiated?"

"Who said I wanted them repudiated?" asked Sara.

"A tent is a poor place to hold secrets," replied Jim. "Did you come
here to do me dirt, Sara? Did I ever do you any harm?"

Sara turned purple. He raised himself on his elbow. "Why," he shouted,
"did you destroy my chances with Pen by getting her love? You wanted it
only to discard it!"





Next: Too Late For Love

Previous: The Heart Of A Desert Wife



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