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The Heart Of A Desert Wife








From: Still Jim

"The squaws who come at times to crouch upon my back have
the slow listening patience of the rabbits."

MUSINGS OF THE ELEPHANT.


Pen paused, eyes angry, mouth disgusted: "You are the last person I'd
ever tell, Sara, if I were. Don't add idiocy to your other
accomplishments."

Sara's black eyes continued to glare for a moment. Then for the second
time he astonished Penelope by laughing. He dropped back on his pillow.

"Pen! Pen! a lawyer could have given no better answer than that! I'm not
worrying, Pen. You've stuck by me all these years. I know I'm safe to
the end."

Penelope's scorn changed to pity. "I've been horrid today. You will have
to forgive me, Sara. You must remember that you are no mild June day to
live with!"

Sara gave a short nod. "Give me my pipe, Pen, and then jolly Mrs. Flynn
up."

Mrs. Flynn, whose curiosity was only equaled by her kindness of heart,
was only too willing to take care of Sara. Had a caged South African
lion been placed in her care she would have had the same thrill at the
thought of caring for it as at watching Sara. Great stories of Sara's
marvelous temper had gone about the camp. Any extra steps he caused Mrs.
Flynn she felt would be more than compensated for in the delectable
gossip she would pick.

Pen did not ask Jim to take her down to the Ames place. She arranged to
go down with Bill Evans, who kept a hog ranch near the dam. Bill fed his
hogs on the camp table scrapings and filled in odd moments "renting out"
his automobile. This was a sad-looking vehicle of an early vintage, held
together by binding wire and bits of sheet iron. But Bill got twenty
miles an hour out of the machine and took better care of it than he did
of his wife.

The Ames ranch lay in the desert valley below the dam. Two hours after
they left the dam, Bill drew up before the Ames door with a rattle and a
series of staccato explosions that would have done credit to an
approaching army.

The trip down had been a noisy rush through multicolored ranges out onto
a desert floor of brilliant yellow dotted with giant cactus, that
austere sentinel of the desolate plains. Long before they left the
mountain road Bill pointed out to Penelope the green spot in the desert
that was the Ames ranch. The road, leaving the desert, ran along an
irrigating ditch fringed with cotton woods. Beyond the road lay acre
after acre of alfalfa, its peculiar living green melting far beyond in
the shimmering of olive orchard and orange grove.

The ranch house was of yellow gray adobe, long and low, with a red roof.
Oscar had made no attempt at beauty when he had added, year after year,
room on room to the original box he had built for Jane. But he
unknowingly had kept close to real art. He had built of the material of
the country in the manner best suited to the exigencies of the country.
The result, consequently, was satisfying to eye and taste.

The walls of a desert house must be thick, for coolness. The lines of
the house must be broad and low and strong, to withstand the fearful
winds of late winter and early spring. The Ames house lay comfortably on
the desert as if it had grown up out of the sand and proposed to live
forever. It was as natural a part of the landscape as the sentinel
cactus.

Jane Ames, in a blue gingham dress, was standing in the door. She waved
both hands as she recognized Pen. When the machine stopped she took
Pen's bag.

"Of course I knew it was Bill's machine half an hour ago, but I didn't
know my luck had changed enough to bring you."

"I can stay over night," said Pen, like a child out of school.

"Come straight into the parlor bedroom," said Jane. "Bill, you'll find
Oscar in the lower corral."

Pen followed into the house. Jane led her through a vista of rooms into
the parlor, which was furnished with a complete "near" mahogany set in
green velvet. The parlor bedroom was furnished to match. Jane always
showed the people whose opinion she valued her parlor first that the
edge might be taken off the living room. After Pen had taken off her
hat, she followed her hostess kitchenward.

The living room was big and square, the original house. It contained a
wide adobe fireplace and its windows opened toward the orange grove. It
was furnished with tables and chairs that Mrs. Ames had bought from an
old mission in the neighborhood. They were hand-hewn and black with age.
The Navajo floor rugs were soft and well worn. Jane apologized for the
room, saying she left it old and ugly for the hired men and the
children, then she established Pen in a rocking chair in the kitchen.

The kitchen was a model of convenience, boasting running water as well
as a kitchen cabinet and a gasoline range.

"It took me just five years to raise enough chickens and eggs to buy the
cabinet and the range," said Jane, taking a peep at the bread in the
oven. "I begged and begged Oscar to get me things to work with every
time he sent to the mail-order house to get farm machinery. But he'd
just grunt. Finally I got mad. He had running water put in the barn and
wouldn't send it on up to the house. He went to San Francisco that fall
and I had men out here and put water in the kitchen. When he got back
the bill was waiting for him and he was ashamed to complain. It isn't
that men are so bad. It's just because they haven't any idea what real
work housework is. How is your husband?"

"About as usual," replied Pen.

Jane Ames looked out the door, then back at Pen. "Are you ever sorry you
got married?"

Pen looked a little startled, but after a moment she answered, "I used
to be."

"You mean you aren't now?" asked Jane.

"I mean I'm glad I've got the things marriage has brought me."

Jane's eyes lighted. She sat down opposite Pen. "I'm just starved for a
talk with some woman who isn't afraid to say what she really thinks
about this marriage business. What have you got out of being married to
a cripple?"

Pen chuckled. "Well, I'm really a first-class nurse, and like Bismarck,
I can keep my mouth shut in seven different languages."

"Isn't that so!" exclaimed Jane. "Oscar insists on doing all the talking
for us and I let him. Some day if I ever find anything worth saying,
though, I'll surprise him. I'm in the 'What's the use?' stage right now.
Men are awful hard to live with."

"Almost as hard as women!" said Pen. "We're all so silly about it. We
expect marriage to bring us happiness with no effort on our own parts,
just as if the only aim of getting married were to be happy."

"Mercy sakes!" exclaimed Jane. She sat forward on the edge of the chair.
"Go on! Don't stop. I knew the minute I saw you that talking to you
would beat writing to the advice column of a woman's magazine. What is
it we marry for, anyhow?"

Pen laughed. "Well, when we don't marry to be happy, we marry out of
curiosity. It's funny when you think of it. Two people with nothing in
common have a period of insanity during which they tie themselves
together in a hard knot which they can't undo and then they must feed on
each other for the rest of their lives."

Jane gasped a little. "You--you aren't bitter, are you, Mrs. Penelope? I
can't say your other name easy. You believe there are some happy
marriages, don't you?"

Pen shrugged her shoulders. "No, I'm not bitter. I've just lost my
illusions. I don't happen to know of any marriages so happy that they
would tempt me to marry again."

"I feel kind of wicked talking this way," said Jane. "But," recklessly,
"you've seen the world and I haven't. And it's my chance to learn real
life. You don't mean people ought not to marry, do you?" This in a
half-whisper of utter demoralization.

"Oh, no! Marriage is the best means we've found for perpetuating and
improving the race. It's a duty we owe society, to marry. I don't
believe much in divorce either. Except for unfaithfulness. Unless the
average lot of us are true to the marriage ideal the whole institution
will be tainted. I guess the safety of society lies in each of us
looking at ourselves as average and not exceptional persons. Then we
stick to the conventions. And the conventions weren't foisted on society
from above. They were sweated out from beneath to satisfy; make it
possible for us to endure each other."

Jane Ames threw up both her hands. "O my! You have been hurt or you'd
never be so cold-blooded! I can't look at it as calmly as you do as if
it all belonged to someone else. You never bore children to a man. You
can't realize what selfishness and unkindness from the father of your
children can mean. Do you know that I've borne two babies in this
room--alone--not even a squaw to help me? And I've watched the desert
through the door and I've cursed it for what it's made of my marriage!"
Jane gave a short laugh and held up her knotted, rough hands. "I had
dimples on my knuckles when I came to this country."

Pen looked out the door and tried to picture to herself this other
woman's life.

"I--I guess my safety has lain in my getting an impersonal view of
things," she said apologetically.

"There, the bread is burning!" exclaimed Jane.

Pen laughed reminiscently. "There's a verse that says:

"'Ice cream is very strange; so's a codfish ball,
But the people people marry is the strangest thing of all!'"

"I guess you need me," said Jane, "as much as I need you. There comes
Oscar and I haven't set the table."

Oscar was coming up the dooryard. He stepped a little high, in the gait
of one accustomed to walking in shifting sands. He was big and
upstanding, with a look of honesty that Pen liked.

No one who has not known a desert farmer can realize what his acres
meant to Oscar Ames. The farmer of northern lands loves his acres. But
he did not create them--he did not fight nature for them, until he had
made himself over along with his land.

Nature fights inch by inch every effort of man to harness the desert to
his uses. She scorches the soil with heat. She poisons it with alkali.
She infests it with deadly vermin and--last and supreme touch of
cruelty--she forbids the soil water unless she surrounds the getting of
it with infinite travail and danger.

Heat and sandstorm, failure and famine, toil unutterable, these had
been Oscar Ames' portion. When at last he had won his acres, had brought
the barren sand to bearing, had made three hundred acres of desert a
thing of breathing beauty from January to January, the ranch meant
something to him that a northern farmer could not understand. And these
three hundred acres were Oscar's world. He could not see beyond them.
The dam was a mere adjunct to the Ames ranch. He would leave no stone
unturned to see that it served his own ranch's needs as he saw them. If
Sara saw this quality in Oscar and had any motive for playing on it, he
could do infinite harm to Jim.

It was something of all this that Pen was thinking as Oscar crossed the
yard. He came into the kitchen in a leisurely way and greeted Pen with
the cordiality that belongs to the desert country. Penelope helped Jane
to put the dinner on the table and the three sat down to eat.

The two were eager to hear details of Iron Skull's death, and after Pen
had described it to them, Oscar began to talk about Sara.

"How long's your husband been bedridden?" he asked.

"Oscar!" exclaimed Jane.

"Jane, you keep quiet. What's the use of being secret about it? I guess
both him and her know he's bedridden."

Pen told them the story of the accident.

"Isn't that fierce!" exclaimed Oscar. "He's the smartest young fellow
I've met in years. I wish even now he was running the dam instead of
Manning."

"Why?" asked Penelope.

"He'd build it for the farmer and have some business sense about it."

"You don't understand Mr. Manning," said Pen. "I wish you'd try to get
to know him better."

Oscar grunted. "Does the doctors think your husband will get well?" he
asked, finishing off his pie.

"Oscar!" cried Jane.

"Jane, you keep quiet. These are business questions. If Sardox and I are
going to run this dam, we got to understand each other's limitations. I
can't ask him if he's going to die."

"We just don't know anything about it," said Pen, gently. "Mr. Ames, I'm
curious to know just how you and Sara are going to run the dam."

Oscar closed his mouth importantly to open it again and say, "I never
talk business with ladies."

Jane laughed suddenly. "Gracious, Oscar! I'm not worrying but what I'll
get all the details. He's the original human sieve, Mrs. Penelope."

Oscar joined in Pen's laugh and started for the door, shaking his head
and picking his teeth. Pen looked after him uneasily.

That afternoon Pen and Jane went with Bill and Oscar for an automobile
ride over the desert. The two women sat in the tonneau, Oscar in front
with Bill. The desert road was rough, full of bowlders and ruts. But
neither Oscar nor Bill was hampered by roads. Whenever some distant spot
roused their curiosity, the machine left the road and plunged madly
across the desert, through cactus thickets and yucca clumps, through
draws and over sand drifts.

Oscar and Bill kept up a shouted conversation with each other. But Pen
and Jane each clutched a side of the machine, braced their feet and
gave their entire attention to keeping from being flung bodily from the
car. Forewarned for miles, no living creature crossed their path. The
din and the dust, the hairbreadth escapes made the discomfort of the
ride for the two women indescribable.

When Bill finally drew up before the ranch house door with his usual
flourish of staccato explosions, Oscar alighted and watched Pen and his
wife crawl feebly from the tonneau.

"Caramba!" he said. "That was a fine ride! I've been wanting to get a
look at that country and a talk with you, Bill, for a month. I feel well
rested."

Pen and Jane looked at each other and at the two men's grins of
complaisance. Then, without a word, the two women sank against each
other on the doorstep and laughed until the men, bewildered and
exasperated, took themselves off to the barn. Finally Jane rose and
wiped her eyes.

"There's not an inch on my body that isn't black and blue," she said
weakly.

Pen pulled herself up by clinging to the door knob. "That was a real
'pleasure exertion,'" she whispered feebly. "But I'd do it twice over
for a laugh like this. I haven't laughed so for eight years."

Jane gave Pen a kitchen apron and tied one on herself while she nodded.
"Thank heaven! I always could laugh. It's saved my reason many a time. I
don't want you to do a thing about getting supper, but you'll be sitting
round in the kitchen and that'll keep your skirt clean."

Pen picked up a pan of cold boiled potatoes and began to peel them with
more good will than skill. "I do like you, Jane Ames," she said. "Two
people couldn't laugh together like that and not have been meant to
understand each other."

Jane set the tea kettle firmly on the stove. "We'll see each other a lot
if we have to walk. Peel them thin, dear child. I'm a little low on
potatoes."

"I'm not very expert," apologized Pen. "Sara is putting up with a good
deal just now, for I'm learning how to cook."

"I guess he don't suffer in silence!" sniffed Jane.

The next morning, when Penelope climbed regretfully onto the front seat
of the automobile, Oscar came hurriedly from the corral with a
dark-mustached young man in a business suit.

"This is Mr. Fleckenstein, Mrs. Sardox," he said. "He's a lawyer and him
and I are going up to the dam with you. He just stopped here on his way.
I'm leaving his horse in the corral, Jane."

Jane and Penelope exchanged puzzled looks. "Your hair needs fixing, Mrs.
Penelope," said Jane. "Come in the house for a minute."

Pen clambered down obediently and Jane led her far into the parlor
bedroom. "Your hair was all right," she whispered, "but I want to warn
you. Oscar is just a great big innocent. He is crazy over anyone he
thinks is smart. That Fleckenstein is a shyster lawyer. I wouldn't trust
a hot stove in his hands. You see that your husband don't get thick with
him. Do you trust your husband in business?"

Pen winced but she looked into Jane's blue eyes and answered, "No."

"Do you like Mr. Manning and want him to succeed?"

"Yes," replied Pen.

"Well then, it's time I took notice of things on this project and you
can help me by watching things up there. I won't take time to say any
more right now. Oscar will be storming in here in a minute."

When they reached the dam that afternoon, Oscar and Fleckenstein called
on Sara. Pen found that they would talk nothing but land values while
she was in the tent, so she wandered out in search of Jim.

She found him at the dam site. He was talking to a heavy-set, red-faced
man in khaki. He was considerably older than Jim, who introduced the
stranger as Mr. Jack Henderson.

"Henderson will take Iron Skull's place," explained Jim. "You must
remember how I wrote home of him and how he helped me save my reputation
as a road-builder on the Makon. He's been down on the diversion dam."

Penelope held out her hand. "I shall never cease regretting that I
didn't get to see the Makon," she said.

Henderson's gray eyes lost their keenness for a moment. "It was hard for
me to come up knowing I was to take Iron Skull's job." Pen listened in
surprise to his low, gentle voice. "You know, Boss Still Jim, if he'd
had a better chance for a education he'd have made his mark. He was just
naturally big. He could see all over and around a thing and what it had
to do with things a hundred years back and a hundred years on. That's
what I call being big. A good many fellows that lives a long time in the
desert gets a little of that, but Iron Skull had it more than anyone I
know. I wish he'd had a better chance. I can fill his job, Boss, as far
as the day's work goes, but I can't give you the big look of things he
could."

Henderson was standing with his hat off, and now he rumpled his gray
hair and shook his head. Pen liked him at once.

Jim nodded. "I miss him. I always shall miss him. I often thought that
if my father had come out to this country, he'd have grown to be like
Iron Skull. And they are both gone."

"That's the way life acts," said Henderson. "It's always the man that
ought to stay that goes. And there's never any explanation of how you're
going to fill the gap. He's jerked out of your life and you will go lame
the rest of your life for all you know. These here story books that try
to show death has got a lot of logic about it are liars. There ain't any
reason or sense about death. It just goes around, hit or miss, like a
lizard snapping flies."

There was a moment's silence during which the three stared at the
Elephant. Then Jack cleared his throat and said casually, in his gentle
voice:

"You're going to have a devil of a job enforcing your liquor ruling,
Boss. It'll make trouble with the whites and more with the hombres."

Jim's steel jaw set. "There's not to be a drop of liquor on this dam
except in the hospital. I expect you to back me in this, Jack. You know
what trouble I had on the Makon because I never came down hard."

"Sure, I'll back you," said Henderson gently. "But I just wanted you to
realize that it's going to be hell round a half mile track to enforce
it. You never saw me backward about getting into a fight, did you?"

Jim smiled reminiscently and then said, "I'm going to start an ice
cream and soft drink joint next to the moving picture show."

Here Pen laughed. "I asked one of the oilers in the cable tower the
other day if he liked to work for the government. He grunted. I asked
him if Uncle Sam didn't take good care of him and he said: 'Yes, and so
does a penitentiary! What does men like the Big Boss know about what we
want? Why don't he ask me?'"

Jim nodded. "That's typical. One of the hoboes I brought in half-starved
the other day came to my office this morning and told me how to feed the
camp. He doesn't like our menu. As near as I can make out this was his
first experience at three meals a day and he never saw a bathtub before.
There isn't a rough-neck in the camp that isn't convinced he could build
that dam better than I. Eh, Jack?"

"Sure, all except the old Makon bunch."

"Well, we're up against the same old problem here, Henderson. We've got
to have better co-operation and yet enough rivalry to keep every man on
the job working his limit. The foremen don't pull together."

"In that case," said Henderson tenderly, "I'll begin by going over and
kick the head off the team boss."

He smiled at Pen and started up the trail. Pen watched the workmen who
were cleaning up the top of the concrete section.

"Did you have a good time with Mrs. Ames?" asked Jim.

"Still, she's a dear! And Oscar isn't so bad when you know him. Do you
know, Jim, he actually believes that you are not building the dam for
the farmers! Can't you do something to make him understand you?"

"Look here, Pen," replied Jim, "I'm building this dam for this valley,
for all time, not for Oscar Ames or Bill Evans, nor for any one man. I'm
doing my share in building. I'm not hired to educate these idiots."

Pen eyed Jim intently, trying to get his viewpoint and turning old Iron
Skull's words over in her mind. Jim was standing with his hat under his
arm and his brown hair blowing across his forehead.

"Pen," he said suddenly, "you are the most beautiful woman in the
world."

Pen blushed clean to her eyebrows. Jim went on eagerly: "Penelope, I
want to tell you how I feel about you. Will you let me?"

Pen looked at the Elephant helplessly. But the great beast lay mute and
inscrutable in the sun. There was a look in Jim's eyes that Pen would
have found hard to control had not Jim's secretary chosen that moment to
interrupt them.

"Mr. Manning," he said, "a letter has just come in for you from the
Secretary of the Interior. You told me to notify you when it came."





Next: The Elephant's Love Story

Previous: The Elephant's Back



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