The Tent House
From: Still Jim
"Leave Old Jezebel to herself and she soon returns to old
ways. She likes them best for she is a woman."
MUSINGS OF THE ELEPHANT.
Pen's voice, when it came, was lower and fuller than he had remembered
it but there was the old soft chuckle in it.
"Cross patch! Draw the latch! Say please, like a nice child and then
I'll play a game of cards with you."
Jim rapped on the door and stepped in. "Hello, Pen!" he said, holding
out his hand.
She was changed and yet unchanged. A little thinner, older, yet more
beautiful in her young womanhood than in her charming girlhood. Her
chestnut hair was wrapped in soft braids around her head instead of
being bundled up in her neck. Her eyes looked larger and deeper set but
they were the same steady, clear eyes of old; ageless eyes; the eyes of
the woman who thinks. She had the same full soft lips, and as Jim held
out his hand the same flash of dimples.
"Hello, Still! The mountains have come to Mahomet!"
"And a poor welcome I gave you," replied Jim. "Hello, Sara."
Jim turned to the great invalid chair. There, propped up in cushions,
lay a fat travesty of the old Saradokis. This was a Sara whose tawny
hair was turning gray with suffering; whose mouth, once so full and
boyish, was now heavy and sinister, whose buoyancy had changed to the
bitter irritability of the hopeless invalid.
Sara looked Jim over deliberately, then dropped his hand. "How do you
think I am? Enjoying the dirty deal I've had from life?"
Jim had not realized before just what a dirty deal Sara had been given.
"I'm sorry about it, Sara," he said.
Saradokis gave an ugly laugh. "Sounds well! I've never heard a word from
you since the day we ran the Marathon. You hold a grudge as well as a
"Gee, I'd forgotten all about the race!" exclaimed Jim.
"I haven't," returned Sara. "Neither the race nor several other things."
Jim shrugged his shoulders and turned to Pen, who was watching the two
"Tell me about your plans. I'm mighty happy to have you here."
"Sara's had the feeling for a long time that this climate would help
him, and we've talked in a general way about coming. It was Mr. Freet
that told Sara he thought there were some good real estate chances here
and that decided Sara. Sara has done him a number of good turns in
investments round New York."
Jim looked at Sara sharply but made no comment on Pen's remarks. "Are
you comfortable here?" he asked, looking about the tent house.
It was a roomy place. There was a good floor and a wooden wainscoting
that rose three feet above it. The tent was set on this wainscoting,
which gave plenty of head space. A gasolene stove in one corner with a
table and chairs and a cupboard formed the kitchen. A cot for Pen and a
book shelf or two with a corner clothes closet and some hammock swung
chairs completed the furniture. Pen had achieved the homelike with some
chintz hangings and a rug.
"I am getting our meals right here," said Pen. "The steward said we
could have them sent up from the mess, but it's less expensive and more
fun to get them camp fashion here. The government store is a very good
one and all the neighbors have called and have brought me everything
from fresh baked bread to cans of jelly. They are so wonderfully kind to
Sara was staring at Jim with an insolent sort of interest. He had full
use of his arms, as was evident when he gave the great wheel chair a
quick flip about so as to shade his eyes from the lamp. As Jim watched
him all the resentment of the past eight years welled up within him with
an added repugnance for Sara's fat helplessness and ugly temper that
made it difficult for him to sit by the invalid's chair.
When Pen had finished her account Sara said, "You made rather a mess,
didn't you, in handling the flood today?"
"You were splendid, Jimmy!" cried Pen. "I saw the whole thing!"
Jim shook his head. "It was expensive splendor!"
"You will find it difficult to explain your lack of preparation to an
investigating committee, won't you?" asked Sara.
"If you can give a recipe for flood preparation," said Jim good
naturedly, "you will have every dam builder in the world at your feet."
Sara grunted and changed the subject and his manner abruptly.
"Got any decent smoking tobacco, Still?"
"That is hard to find here," replied Jim. "It dries out fast and loses
flavor. I've got some over at the house I brought back from the East.
I'll go over and get it now. Will you let Pen walk over with me? I'd
like to have her see my house."
"Makes no difference to me what she does. Hand me that book, Pen, before
Out under the stars Jim pulled Pen's hand within his arm and asked,
"Pen, is he always like that?"
"Always," answered Pen. "Do you remember the 'Wood-carver of Olympus'?
How he was hurt like Sara and how he blasphemed God and was embittered
for years? He was reconciled to his lot after a time and people loved
him. I have so hoped for that change in poor Sara, but none has come."
"Pen!" cried Jim suddenly. "I gave you my sign and seal! Why did you
Pen answered slowly, "Jim, why wouldn't you understand and take me West
with you when I begged you to?"
"Understand what?" asked Jim, tensely.
"That Sara's hold on me was almost hypnotic, that it was you I really
cared for, as I realized as soon as Sara was hurt. If only you had had
the courage of your convictions, Still!"
Jim winced but found no reply and Pen went on, her voice meditative and
soft as if she were talking not of herself but of some half-forgotten
"I used to feel resentful that Sara thought I was worth such constant
attention, while you, in spite of the Sign and Seal, were quite as
contented with Uncle Denny as with me. And yet, after it all was over
and I had settled down to nursing Sara for the rest of my life, I could
see that I had had nothing to give you then and Uncle Denny had. Life is
so mercilessly logical--to look back on, Jimmy."
Jim put his hand over the cold little fingers on his arm. Pen went on.
"I did not try to write to you. I----"
But Jim could bear no more. "Pen! Pen! What a miserable fool I am!"
"You are nothing of the kind!" exclaimed Pen, indignantly "What do you
think of the mess I've made of my life, if you think you are foolish?"
"What am I to do? How can I make it up to you?" cried Jim.
"By letting me stay in your desert for a time," answered Pen. "I know
I'm going to love it."
They were at Jim's doorstep and he made no reply. As usual, words seemed
futile to him. He showed Pen his house and found the tobacco, letting
Mrs. Flynn do all the talking. Then, still in silence, he led Pen back
to her tent. At the door he gave her the tobacco and left her.
Jim had a bad night. He stayed in bed until midnight; then to get away
from his own thoughts he dressed and went out to the dam. The water had
reached its height. There was nothing to be done save wait until Old
Jezebel grew weary of mischief. But Jim tramped up and down the great
road between the dam and the lower town all night.
His mind swung from Pen to the Hearing and from the Hearing to the
flood, then back to Pen again. From Pen his thoughts went to his father
and with his father he paused for a long time.
Was the evil destiny that had made his father fail to follow him, too?
Jim had always believed himself stronger than his father, somehow better
fitted to cope with destiny. Yet ever since his trouble with Freet on
the Makon there had been growing in Jim a vague distrust of his own
powers. He could build the dams, yes, if "they" would leave him free to
do so. If "they" would not fret and hound him until his efficiency was
gone. It was the very subtlety and intangibility of "they" that made him
uneasy, made him less sure of himself and his own ability.
He had planned, after he had finished his work, to turn his attention to
solving the problems of old Exham. How was he to do this if he was not
big enough to cope with his own circumstance? And was he going to miss
the continuation of the Manning line because he had failed to grasp
opportunity in love as in everything else?
Dawn found Jim watching the Elephant grow bronze against the sky. The
Elephant had a very real personality to Jim as it had to everyone else
in the valley.
"What is to be, is to be, eh, old friend?" said Jim. "But why? Tell me
The sun rolled up and the Elephant changed from bronze to gold. Jim
sighed and went up to his house.
All that day crowds of workmen on the banks watched Old Jezebel romp
over their working place and they swore large and vivid oaths regarding
what they would do to her once they got to balking her again. It was
about noon that a buckboard drawn by two good horses stopped at the foot
of the cable tower. The driver called to Iron Skull Williams, who was
chewing a toothpick and chatting to Pen. Williams led Pen up to the
"Like to introduce Oscar Ames, one of our old-time irrigation farmers,"
said Iron Skull. "And this is Mrs. Ames, his boss. And this lady is a
friend of the Big Boss--Mrs. Saradokis."
Pen held out her hand and the two women looked at each other in the
quick appraising way of women. Mrs. Ames was perhaps fifty years old.
She was small and thin and brown, with thin gray hair under her dusty
hat and a thin throat showing under her linen duster. Her face was
heavily lined. Her eyes were wonderful; a clear blue with the far-seeing
gaze of eyes that have looked long on the endless distances of the
desert. Yet, perhaps, the look was not due altogether to the desert, for
young as she was, Pen's eyes had the same expression.
"I am glad to know you," said Penelope.
"Thank you," said Mrs. Ames, bashfully.
Oscar Ames shook hands heartily. He was a big man of fifty, with hair
and skin one shade of ruddy tan.
"Glad to meet you, ma'am. Say, Iron Skull, how'd you come to let the
water beat you to it? This adds another big cost to us farmers' bill."
Williams grunted. "Wish you folk had been up on the Makon. That's where
we had real floods. Ames, we are doing our limit. Ain't you old enough
yet to know that a lift under the arm carries a fellow twice as far as a
kick in the pants? Here's the Boss now. Light on him! Poor old scout!"
Jim was on horseback. He rode slowly up and dismounted. "How are you,
Ames? And Mrs. Ames? Have you met Mrs. Saradokis? Ames, before you begin
to chant my funeral march let me ask you if you don't want to sell that
south forty you say I'm not irrigating right. Mr. Saradokis represents
some Eastern interests. Perhaps you'd like to meet him."
Oscar grinned a little sheepishly. "Business before pleasure! I'll go
right up to see him now."
"Then you must come up with me," said Penelope to Mrs. Ames, and the two
women followed after Jim and Oscar.
The climb was short but stiff. Pen had not yet become accustomed to the
five thousand feet of elevation at which the officers' camp was set, so
she had no breath for conversation until they reached the tent house.
Sara lay in his invalid chair before the open door, maps, tobacco and
magazines scattered over the swing table that covered his lap. Pen, as
if to ward off any rudeness, began to explain as she mounted the steps:
"Here is a gentleman who has land for sale, Sara." Sara's scowl
disappeared. He gave the Ames family such a pleasant welcome that Jim
was puzzled. Ames and Jim dropped down on the doorstep while Mrs. Ames
and Pen took the hammock chairs.
"Have you people been long in this country?" asked Pen.
"Thirty years this coming fall," replied Ames, taking the cigar Sara
offered him and smelling it critically. "I was a kid of 21 when I took
up my section down on the old canal. I couldn't have sold that land for
two bits an acre a year after I took it up. I refused two hundred
dollars an acre for the alfalfa land the other day."
"You must have done some work in the interval," commented Sara.
Jim, leaning against the door post, watched Sara through half closed
eyes and glanced now and again at Pen's eager face. Ames puffed at his
cigar and gazed out over the desert.
"Work!" he said with a half laugh, "why when I took up that land sand
and silence, whisky and poker were the staples round here. I built a
one-room adobe, bought a team, imported a plow and a harrow and a
scraper and went at it. I've got a ten-acre orange grove now and two
hundred acres of alfalfa and a foreman who lets me gad! But no one who
ain't been a desert farmer can imagine how I worked."
Pen spoke softly. "Were you with him then, Mrs. Ames?"
The little woman looked at Pen with her far-seeing eyes. "Oh, yes, I
don't know that Oscar remembers, but we were married in York State. I
was a school teacher."
After the little laugh Pen asked, "Do you like the desert farming?"
"I never did get through being homesick," answered Mrs. Ames. "My first
two babies died there in that first little adobe. I was all alone with
them and the heat and the work."
"Jane, you let me talk," interrupted Oscar briskly. "We both worked. The
worst of everything was the uncertainty about water. Us farmers built
the dam that laid sixty miles below here. Just where government
diversion dam is now. But we never knew when the spring floods came
whether we'd have water that year or not. More and more people took up
land and tapped the river and the main canal. Gosh! It got fierce. Old
friends would accuse each other of stealing each other's water. Then we
had a series of dry years. No rain or snow in the mountains. And green
things died and shriveled, aborning: The desert was dotted with dead
cattle. Three years we watched our crops die and----"
Mrs. Ames suddenly interrupted. There was a dull red in her brown
cheeks. "I wanted to go home the third year of the drought. All I had to
show for fifteen years in the desert was two dead babies. I wanted to go
"And I says to her," said Ames, "I said 'For God's sake, Jane, where is
home if it isn't here? I can't expect you to feel like I do about this
ranch for you've stuck to the house. I know every inch of this ranch.
Ain't I fought for every acre of it, cactus and sand storm and water
famine? Ain't I sweat blood over every acre? Ain't I given the best
years of my life to it? And you say, 'Let's give it up! It ain't home!'
I certainly was surprised at Jane."
"I have worked too," said Jane Ames, gently, to Penelope. "I'd had no
help and had cooked for half a dozen men and--and--then the babies!
Having four babies is not play, you know!"
"Oh, I know!" exclaimed Amos impatiently. "You worked. That was why I
was so surprised at you wanting to let everything go. But you hadn't
made things grow like I had. I suppose that's why you felt different.
That winter the snows was heavy in the mountains and we were tickled at
the thought of high water in the spring. We all got out in May to
strengthen the dam, hauling brush and stone. But the water rose like the
very devil. We divided into night and day shifts, then we worked all the
time. But it was no use. The whole darned thing went out like Niagara.
Forty-three hours at a stretch I worked and the dam went out! And the
next year the same. Then it was that we began to ask for the Reclamation
Pen drew a long breath and looked from Ames' strong tanned face out at
the breathless wonder of the landscape. Far beyond the brooding bronze
Elephant lay the chaos of the desert, yellow melting into purple and
purple into the faint peaks of the mountains.
"What I can't understand, Ames," said Jim slowly, "after all this, is
why you roast the Service so."
Ames flushed. "Because," he shouted, "you are so damned pig-headed! You
aren't building the dam for us farmers. You are building it for the
glory of your own reputation as an engineer."
There was a moment's silence in the tent house.
Next: The End Of Iron Skull's Road
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