"Jenkins"—Bob's fingers were clutching his own knees as though holding themselves off the rascal's throat—"that is the dirtiest steal I ever knew."
"That is not near what the water is really worth to you," said Reedy, nonchalantly. "It is only about 20 per cent. of what your crop will make—if it does not burn up."
The knots in Bob's arms flattened out, and his tone took on casualness again.
"Jenkins, I've got a couple of little bills against you that I'm authorized to collect. One on the American side is a trifle of $215,000 which you owe Mr. Crill; the other on this side is for $80,000 that you owe Ah Sing. Do you wish to take care of them now? Or shall I attach your cotton?"
Reedy's pink face and wide mouth took on a grin that fairly oozed amusement. "Attach my cotton, by all means."
Bob got up, hesitated a second, sat down again, and took out his check book. As his pen scratched for a moment, the grin on Reedy's face changed to one of victorious greed. Rogeen tore out the check and handed it to Reedy.
"There is $1,600. Turn water on the Chandler ranch. As for mine, you can be damned."
Reedy toyed idly with the check a moment, slowly tore it up, and threw it in the wastebasket.
"I'm sorry, but I can't get water to the Chandler ranch without the rest order it, too. Perhaps"—he again took on a leer—"if Miss Chandler should come in and see me personally, something might be arranged."
"Jenkins"—the coolest, most concentrated anger of his life was in Bob's tone—"I know your whole plot. You can't get away with it. You may ruin my cotton, probably will, but I'm going to smash you and sell the pieces to pay your debts."
Reedy got to his feet, and flushed hotly. The threat had gone home.
"There are six hundred Mexican soldiers and policemen that will answer my call. You won't make a move they don't see.
"Don't bank on any threat about the United States Government. Mexicans have been picking off Americans whenever they got ready for the last three years; and nothing ever happens. They aren't one bit scared of the American Government.
"Don't fool yourself, Rogeen; you are outclassed this time. I know what I'm doing, and I'm going to do it. If you don't want to rot in a Mexican jail or bleach on the sands somewhere, you'll walk softly and stay on the other side."
When Bob left the Mexican cotton gin after the interview with Reedy Jenkins he had the feeling of furious futility which many a brave man has felt under similar circumstances. Yonder, two hundred yards away, he could see American soldiers patrolling the border; yet so little influence and so little fear did that big benign government wield over here that he knew that scoundrel and his villainous Mexican confederates could ruin his fields, throw him in jail and, even as Reedy threatened, bleach his bones on the sand, and no help come from over there—not in time to save him.
And yet there must be ways. There were other Mexican officials than the thieving one that Reedy had bribed to protect his movements and robberies. There were some fair Mexicans; and there were others, even if unfair, on whom the pressure of self-interest could surely be brought to bear.
It was unfortunate, Bob reflected, that Jim Crill had bought up all the debts against Jenkins' cotton. If these debts had been left scattered among the banks and stores and implement dealers, there would have been some influential cooperation in his effort to get action from the Mexican officials.
Bob went across the line and filed a long telegram to the State Department at Washington outlining the situation and asking for assistance. Then he caught the train for Los Angeles, where he had learned the American consul at the nearest Mexican port, whom he knew, was on a vacation.
The consul was very indignant at the treatment Rogeen was receiving and promised to investigate.
"Investigate!" Bob ran his fingers through his thick, sweaty hair, and unconsciously gave it a jerk. "But, man, I need water right now! It's the most critical time of the whole crop. Every day of delay means a loss of ten, fifteen, twenty thousand dollars."
"I know," said the consul; "but don't you see no officer can act merely on the word of one man. We have to get evidence and forward it to the department. If only I had the authority to act on my own initiative, I could bring them to time in twenty-four hours."
"If you wired to the department for authority," suggested Bob, "couldn't you get it?"
The consul shook his head doubtfully. He really was impressed by Bob's desperate situation. "I'll try it, and I'll be down to-morrow to see what I can do."
Bob returned to Calexico with a little hope—not much but a little. Anyway, he was anxious to see the department's reply to his own appeal. But it had not replied. The Western Union operator was almost insulted that Bob should imagine there was a message there for him.
Bob wrote another appeal, a little longer, and if possible more urgent, and fired that into Washington.
The consul came the following day. He interviewed the other ranchers and verified Bob's statements. He took affidavits, and made up quite a bulky report and dispatched it by mail to Washington. In the meantime he wired, briefly outlining the substance of his letter, and asked for temporary authority to take measures that would force the Mexican officials to act.
Bob was fairly hopeful over this. He waited anxiously for twenty-four hours for some answer. None came. This was the third day since his cotton began to need water. The thermometer went to 131 at two o'clock. No green plant could survive long without water.
He rode all day enlisting the cooperation of influential men in the valley on the American side, and got several of them to send wires to Washington. Every night when he returned to Calexico he went eagerly to the telegraph office; but each time the operator emphatically shook his head. Then Bob laboured over another long telegram, begging for haste; he paid nine dollars and forty cents toll and urged that the message be rushed.
By the fifth day Rogeen was getting desperate. He returned to Calexico at seven o'clock, jumped out of his car, and hurried into the telegraph office.
A message! A telegram for him at last! He had got action. Maybe even yet he could save most of his crop. The message was collect—$1.62. He dropped two silver dollars on the counter and without noticing the change tore open the message. It was from the department at Washington and was brief:
If you file your complaints in writing, they will be referred to the proper department for consideration.
R. P. M., Ass't to Sec. of State.
Then Bob gave up, turned about gloomily, and went out to his machine, and started south toward the Chandler ranch.
As the sun, like a burnished lid to some hotter caldron, slid down behind the yellow sandhills that rimmed the desert, Imogene Chandler felt as though she must scream. She would have made some wild outcry of relief if it had not been for her father, who still sat in the doorway of the shack, as he had all day, gray and bent like a dusty, wilted mullein stalk.
It had been a terrible day—the hottest of the summer. And for a week now the irrigation ditches had been dry. To-day the cotton leaves had wilted; and the girl had looked away from the fields all afternoon. It tortured her to see those rich green plants choking for water.
The sun gone, and a little relief from the heat, she began to prepare supper.
As she stirred flour for biscuits, Imogene was blaming herself for ever bringing her father here. But it had looked so like the great opportunity to escape from the fetters of dry rot and poverty. So near were they to success, with the rising prices this crop would make them a small fortune—five thousand, perhaps seven or eight thousand dollars clear—if only it had water. But to see it burn day by day, and all because of the greed of Reedy Jenkins! She had sent her father with the tribute of sixteen hundred dollars to Jenkins, but he had refused it. He could not turn on the water for so small a ranch. She knew he was trying to force Bob Rogeen through her to submit to the robbery.
Imogene and her father were dully eating their supper when Bob's machine stopped at the ranch. But the moment the light from the swinging lantern over the table fell on his face, she knew it was hopeless, and her mind leaped from her own trouble to his.
"It all comes down to this"—they had not discussed the fight until the little professor had gone to bed—"my backing must mean more to the Mexican officials than Reedy Jenkins'. If I could only get Washington to give the consul power to act, then we could apply pressure. But"—he shrugged his shoulders fatalistically and looked moodily up at the glittering stars—"you see how hopeless that is."
She gave a jump that almost scared him, and grabbed his arm. Her face was so close to his he could see the excitement in her eyes even through the dusk.
"I can help; it can be done!"
She was electrically alive now. "Daddy was a classmate of the President's and was an instructor under him before we came West. He thinks a lot of daddy, but daddy would never use his friendship with the President to get a job. He's got to use it now—for you—for all of us! Write a personal telegram to the President—the sort that will get immediate action—and I'll make daddy sign it."
Bob was fairly white with excitement, and his hand shook as they sat down at the board table under the lantern and carefully composed that telegram. This was their one last hope, and it must get action.
"There, that will do it," Imogene nodded sagely. They were sitting side by side, their heads close together, studying the final draft of the appeal. The night wind blew a strand of her hair against his face, and for a moment he forgot the desert, forgot the fight, forgot the telegram, and saw only her. Then he shook himself free from the spell. He must save the girl and himself before he dared speak.
Imogene roused up her father, and had him sign the message. And an hour later by a combination of bribes, threats, and pleadings Bob got a sleepy operator to reopen the telegraph office and speed the message to Washington.
At five o'clock the next day the reply came. Bob signed for it, and his fingers shook as he tore it open.
State Department instructing consul by wire to take any action necessary to protect American ranchers.
By eleven o'clock that night he got a message from the consul; and thirty minutes later Bob was speeding toward Tia Juana, a hundred and fifty miles west, to see the Mexican governor.
Early next morning Rogeen got an interview with the executive of the Mexican province, whom he had never met. The governor received him most courteously and manifested both alert intelligence and a spirit of fairness. During that long night ride Bob had thought out most carefully his exact line of appeal.
"Your Excellency," he said, earnestly, "wishes, of course, for the fullest development of the Imperial Valley in Mexico. To that end the ranchers must know they have full protection, not alone for their lives as they now have, but also for their crops. They must know it is profitable to farm in Mexico. I, myself, have five thousand acres of cotton, which will pay in export duties alone perhaps $25,000. Next year I wish to grow much more. Besides, I'm the agent for a very rich man who lends hundreds of thousands of dollars to other ranchers in your province.
"But this can continue only if those who do business on your side of the line obey the laws and pay their debts. Such men as Reedy Jenkins must be compelled to deal honestly or get out."
The governor agreed to what Rogeen said, and promised to take prompt action.
"But," insisted Bob, "to save us, it must be done quickly. Jenkins' cotton must be seized and held for his debts, and the water turned into the canals at once."
This was also promised as soon as legal papers could be prepared. In leaving the office Bob dropped the telegram from the consul, accidentally.
"It apparently will not be needed," he said to himself as he left the office, "but it won't hurt to lose it."
The telegram left in the office read:
Present your situation to the governor, and if immediate relief is not given I'll close the border within twenty-four hours so tight that not a man, a mule, nor a machine can cross it either way.
Two hours later a secretary who spoke good English and a Mexican captain appeared at the Chinese hotel where Bob was waiting.
"We have here," the secretary presented Bob with two papers, "an attachment for Senor Jenkins' cotton and an order that the water must be turned into the canals at once, and at the old rate. El Capitan and I will accompany you in the governor's own machine to see these orders are obeyed."
Rogeen requested that no message be sent to Mexicali regarding these attachments, as that would give Reedy a chance to dodge.
"Can we go back over the Mexican road, and come into the valley round the Laguna Salada?" Bob asked. Reedy might already be rushing his cotton on those trucks down to the waiting boat on the Gulf, and by going this route they would intercept them.
The road over the mountains was not completed, said the secretary, but they could have another machine from the valley to meet them, and in that machine make the circuit as proposed.
At ten o'clock that night Rogeen, the captain, and the secretary left the machine and the chauffeur at the top of the mountain grade, and began the two-mile descent to the ancient bed of the sea—the desert round the Laguna Salada.
Bob's satisfaction at winning the governor was more than overbalanced by the torturing fear that it would all be too late. He believed they would be in time to stop Reedy from getting away with his four hundred thousand dollars' worth of cotton. Jenkins would not start until he had lost hope of getting that $150,000 from the ranchers for water. But Bob feared he was already too late to save his own cotton and Chandler's.
The point on the mountain where they left the machine was almost a mile high. The descent to the valley was by a steep and precarious trail. The captain who was familiar with it took the lead.
It was twelve-thirty when they reached the road at the bottom which led to Mexicali. The machine was not there.
"What do you suppose is the matter?" Bob's voice sounded surprisingly cool but a little flat, even to himself. Although the hot winds struck them here, his skin felt clammily cold.
"He'll be here by and by." The secretary lighted a cigarette. He did not share Bob's anxiety and felt no undue fret over a little delay. "I telegraphed the comandante to send driver and car here about midnight. He'll be here before long," he reassured. For an hour Bob walked back and forth peering at every turn far into the desert, listening until his ears ached. But no sight of car, no sound of puffing engine. Another hour passed, and another. His anxiety increased until the delay seemed unbearable.
They waited nine hours. At last they saw the black bug of a machine crawling snortingly across the twenty-mile strip of sand between them and the pass through the Cocopa Mountains.
At nine-thirty the car arrived, a powerful machine of expensive make. The chauffeur was a slender, yellowish young Mexican who delighted in taking dangerous curves at fifty miles an hour and who savagely thrilled at the terrific punishment his car could take and still go.
Through the secretary Bob told him of the plan to skirt the Laguna Salada and go south round the Cocopas instead of going through the pass. This way they would follow the ancient bed of the Gulf of California and forty miles south turn across the desert of the Lower Colorado, thence northeastward until they struck the trail along the river. By this route they could reach the Red Butte, the head of the Dillenbeck canal, almost as quickly as through the pass and by Mexicali, while at the same time they would follow for thirty miles up the river trail down which Jenkins' trucks must pass on the way to the head of the Gulf.
"Do you think we can do it?" Bob asked the chauffeur.
The chap lighted a cigarette, shrugged, and replied they could do any damn thing.
"Let's be doing it then," urged Bob, jumping into the luxurious car.
The Laguna Salada is a dead lake made from the overflow of the Colorado River and salted by the ancient bed of the sea. There is no vegetation round it, no life upon it. Along the salty, sandy shore that glitters in the sun there is no road, no broken trail. But the reckless chauffeur hit the sand with the exultant fierceness of a bull fighter. And at every lunge Bob clung to the iron bar overhead and devoutly prayed that the machine would live through it.
It did. At one o'clock they swung round the headlands into the main desert—the worst of its size on the continent, the desert of the Lower Colorado.
As far as the eye could see stretched the dead waste, so dead that not a mesquite bush, not a cactus, not a living thing grew or crawled or flew. And upon it smote the sun so hot it seemed a flame, and over it boiled a wind like the breath of a volcano.
It staggered even the four men, used as they were to the heat of the valley. But it was only forty miles to the river.
"Pretty damn bad," the chauffeur muttered in Spanish, and shrugged. Then he turned the nose of his machine northeast, and straight across the hard-packed sand shot into the blistering desert.
"Two miles, four miles, six——" Bob counted off, watching the speedometer. Every mile took him nearer the road, the water gates—and Reedy Jenkins.
"Eight—nine——" he continued. Then a terrific roar; the machine staggered; the chauffeur swore and applied the brakes.
They all jumped out. It was the right hind tire—a hole blown through it ten inches long. The chauffeur kicked it two or three times, lighted a cigarette, and stood looking at the burst tire. Finally he shrugged and glanced across the desert. The wind was blowing hard; there was sand in it. He shrugged and sauntered round to the front of the car, got out his jack and wrenches, took the wheel off, prowled round a quarter of an hour, then lighted another cigarette, again stood looking at the burst tire, and kicked it a few times as though trying to make it wake up and mend itself.
"What is the matter?" asked Bob. He had been afraid to ask.
"He says," interpreted the secretary, "he has no inner tube. Forgot to bring any."
"Then he'll have to run on the rim," said Bob, desperately; "we've got to get out of this."
But the secretary nodded toward the radiator which roared as though about to blow up.
"Where is his water?" Rogeen felt more than the heat surging through his head.
The chauffeur sauntered round the car twice as though looking for it.
"Says," explained the secretary, "he had a can but must have lost it."
They tried running on the rim, without water and with the hot wind blowing the same direction they were going. The machine lasted four miles, and then quit in the middle of a sand drift, with the most infernal finality in its death surge.
Bob got out and looked at the stalled car hopelessly. The boiling wind surged over the hot dust and smote him witheringly. The driven sand almost suffocated him. It was twenty-five miles at least to the river, twenty more to possible assistance. He looked at his watch—it was five minutes after one. Six hours before the sun would set, and until then walking would be suicide.
He climbed back into the machine, and sank limply into the shaded corner of the seat. Six hours of this—it would be torture; and there would be one long night of walking to reach water; another day of waiting for night—without food—and again a long, staggering walk before they reached a human habitation.
Two days and nights of delay—then it would be too late!
There are times when torture of the body heals the suffering of the mind, and times when mental agony blots out physical pain. But there are other times when the two run together. It was so with Bob as they toiled doggedly through that long night across the desert toward the river. He kept his course by the North Star, and lost little distance by getting off the compass. It was just daylight when they reached the river. The stream was bank full—midsummer is high water for the Colorado—and was very muddy. But its water was more beautiful than jasper seas to those four men.
After they had drunk and cooled themselves in it, they crawled under a clump of willows beside the road to rest through the day. Bob had just stretched out on his back and covered his face with a handkerchief, ready to sleep, when a chuck-chuck and a grinding noise came down the road. He was up instantly, and so were the three Mexicans.
"A machine!" they exclaimed. Relief! They would not have to walk that other twenty miles.
The deep chug of the engine indicated a powerful machine pulling heavily. It was coming rather slowly. The road was hidden by miles of rank wild hemp; but directly the machine came round a curve.
It was a motor truck loaded high with cotton bales!
Bob's heart beat quick. They were in time to save at least part of it, after all.
The captain bristled. Here was work to do, authority to display. He stepped into the middle of the road, put his hand on his gun, and gave a ringing call to halt.
The Mexican driver came to a sudden stop. He knew el capitan. And whatever faults may be attributed to the governor of Baja California, all admits he is a governor. When he speaks in person or by messenger there is never any hesitancy about obedience.
The captain read his orders to the chauffeur and commanded him to turn round. The four climbed on, and the truck started back.
The driver told them that only two trucks had gone on ahead; sixteen were behind, with Senor Jenkins on the last, and each truck carried twenty bales of cotton.
They stopped the next truck when they met it, and then waited until all seventeen were backed up the road.
Reedy Jenkins leaped from the rear one, nervous and violent of temper, swore, and hurried forward to see what was the trouble. To his unutterable wrath he saw the end truck headed about.
"What the hell! you damned greasers." But then he quit. Something was wrong here. He strode forward angrily.
"Rogeen, get off that truck and do it damn quick."
"I'm getting off," said Bob. With a quick leap he landed in the road and went straight for Reedy. The secretary and the captain followed.
"I have a writ of attachment here," said Bob, bringing out the paper issued by the governor, "for your cotton in favour of Ah Sing. I have further orders from the governor to deliver the cotton to the compress on the American side and sell it in the open market.
"Captain," Bob turned to the officer, "order the drivers to turn back. You ride on the front one with the driver, and I'll ride on the back one with my kind friend Senor Jenkins."
That night after Bob Rogeen had left her with the telegram Imogene Chandler was too wrought up to sleep. And the longer she thought of it, the more determined she became to take action herself. She had some faith that the telegram would bring results, but not much faith that those results would come in time to save their crop. While Bob was riding through the days and nights, fighting for them, she and the other ranchers were doing nothing but watch their cotton burn for water.
About eleven o'clock Imogene went to the corral and bridled and saddled a horse. With the bridle reins in her left hand and her revolver in her right, she galloped off north toward Rogeen's ranch to consult Noah Ezekiel.
A mile up the road she met Noah riding south.
"What's the matter? Your dad not sick?" He was much astonished to see her riding out at this time of night.
"No," replied the girl, "it is our cotton that is sick. And I'm going after a doctor. Noah, I want you to go with me and show me where those water gates are. I'm going to have water or fight. They wouldn't shoot a woman."
"Oh, wouldn't they?" said Noah. "That shows how naturally scarce of information you are.
"No," said the hill billy determinedly but with a current of tenderness in his tone, "you ain't goin' to the water gates; you are goin' back to your ranch. You are just naturally sweet enough to gentle a horse, but you ain't cut out to fight Mexicans."
She had turned her horse round and was riding beside him back toward her ranch.
"Now, listen here," said Noah as he saw signs of rebellion in the swing of her body and the grip on her revolver, "you go home and get your dad and your Chinaman ready. There's goin' to be water in them ditches before daylight or there will be one less hill billy in this vale of tears."
During these fervid days Noah Ezekiel had not been asleep, although much of the time he looked as though he were on the verge of it. He had had his eye on both ranches—the Chandlers' and the Red Butte. Twice he had cautiously reconnoitred the full length of the water ditches.
At a point on the Valley Irrigation Company's big canal, about seven miles below the intake from the Colorado River, two diverting ditches branched off; the larger of these furnished the main water supply of the Mexican side of the valley, the smaller was the Dillenbeck system.
At these gates the Valley Company kept water keepers and guards day and night. As the Dillenbeck Company were merely private consumers, water was turned into this canal only on their orders, and charged for by the thousand feet.
Four miles below where this canal began to branch to the various ranches it supplied was the Dillenbeck water station. It was the keeper in charge here who ordered water from the main canal and who opened the sluice gates and apportioned it to the various ranches.
Noah Ezekiel on his reconnoitring discovered two things: The night water keeper had been reenforced by a Mexican guard; and besides Madrigal, the Mexican Jew, usually spent the night with these two. Expecting trouble, a company of twenty Mexican special guards was camped a quarter of a mile down the canal, in easy calling distance. These guards, while authorized by the comandante, were hired and paid by Reedy Jenkins. It was their duty to patrol the canal above and below by the main water gates and be ready at all times to repulse any threatened attack.
Noah Ezekiel had been approached several times by infuriated ranchers with suggestions that they organize a mob. But American ranchers were too few and unpopular to make mobs highly hopeful. An attack on these guards would bring on a conflict with the whole Mexican garrison at Mexicali, consisting of several hundred well-trained troops. Noah Ezekiel advised strongly against this. Noah was opposed to strife of any kind. But he had been doing a little plotting of his own.
He knew the Red Owl employed a number of boosters for the games—men who went from table to table and gambled with the house's money. The psychology of gambling is like the psychology of anything else—the livelier the game the more there are who want to get into it. The job of the booster is to stimulate business by gambling freely himself. These boosters are paid four dollars a day; and the ordinary Mexican, if given his choice between being secretary of state and a booster at the Red Owl, would pick the Owl every time.
After a reasonable wait to see if water was coming in by the due process of law and growing doubtful about it, Noah Ezekiel had begun carefully laying plans.
That morning he had gone to the Red Owl and had a secret session with Jack the Ace of Diamonds, one of the game keepers. Jack and the hill billy had become good friends, and Jack was more than willing to accommodate a friend.
"Now, Ace," said Noah, "the idea is like this: This afternoon you send a Mexican out to that camp on the Dillenbeck canal with the information that the Owl wants to hire about eleven good boosters to begin work at twelve o'clock to-night; and have the messenger casually but secretly give each of them a slip of paper that is dead sure to get him one of the jobs.
"And," Noah grinned, "you give every one of 'em that applies a job for two days—as a treat on me. You can fix it with the boss."
"Sure," grinned Jack, "I'll fix it." And a Mexican messenger had been dispatched on the spot.
Noah sat at the ranch shack as dark came on and counted them as they went by down the road. As he guessed, the officer would get away first, and the rest begin to drop away from camp one or two at a time soon after dark. By eleven o'clock he had counted seventeen: and then Noah saddled his horse. When he had met Imogene, he had thought she was another Mexican, but he was not alarmed at one or even three.
A little before one o'clock Noah tied his horse to a cottonwood tree a half mile below the Dillenbeck water gates.
He skirted through the fields round the deserted guard camp. His caution was not necessary, not a Mexican soldier was left. He grinned to think of the boosters about now in the Red Owl. Two hundred yards from the little open shack that served as office and home for the water keeper Noah took off his shoes and left his hat, and slipped toward the light. In his hands, muzzle forward, was the double-barrelled shotgun—the riot gun sure to hit its mark at close range that Bob had got for him with which to guard the Chandler ranch.
Noah, bent low, slipped forward in utter silence—more silence than necessary. The American water keeper, Madrigal, and the Mexican guard were too profoundly busy with a crap game on the floor under the lantern to be disturbed by the mere breaking of a twig.
But all at once from out the night came a drawling voice:
"Brethren, let's raise our hands." Three pairs of eyes leaped up from the dice and looked into the muzzle of the most vicious shotgun they had ever seen—not ten feet away. Six hands went up without a word.
"Stand up," was the next drawling command. "Turn your backs." Noah flung two small ropes at their feet.
"You," he ordered Madrigal, "tie the Mex's hands behind him—and stand him over by the wall."
"Whitey," he ordered the water keeper when that was done, "tie the Hebrew's hands and feet and set him down over by the wall, facing this way.
"Now," Noah again commanded the water keeper, "go to the telephone and order the water turned in. Tell 'em we are dry—that all the trouble is settled, and to shoot the water down banks full, right away, quick."
The water keeper was shaking as though with the ague. He knew danger when he saw it and he was perfectly sure he saw it.
He went to the telephone and called the keeper at the Valley Irrigation Company's office. As he started to speak Madrigal stirred on the floor as though trying to get up.
Still keeping the water keeper covered with the shotgun, Noah looked round at Madrigal and drawled:
"If I was you, Hebrew, I'd keep sayin' over that parable which reads: 'Once there was a Mexican who was shot in the stomach with half a pint of buckshot; and in hell he lifted up his eyes and said, "Father Abraham, send me a drop of water." And Father Abraham says, "Not a drop. Ain't you the man that helped burn up the Imperial Valley? Hell's too good for you, but it's all we've got."'"
The telephone message was given.
"It sounded all right," said Noah to the water keeper. "Sit down over there and be comfortable, while we wait and see; and keep your eye on the muzzle of the gun. It is the only way to keep it from smokin'."
Forty minutes passed. Noah's eyes were on his prisoners, but his ears kept listening. Fifty minutes, then he heard a loud woosh—almost a roar. The water was coming!
"Now let's go out and open up all gates," ordered Noah. The water keeper obeyed.
"For the time being," drawled Noah, "you can lie down out there in the open beside the canal and take a nap. Shootin' craps has been sort of hard on your nerves. I'll look after the water for a spell."
About nine o'clock at night Imogene Chandler came in from the cotton field.
Out there in the dim starlight stretched the long rows of cotton, erect, green, luxuriant. The water had come in time. It had flowed into their ditches at four o'clock the morning after Noah Ezekiel passed. They had been ready for it. For three days it had flowed abundantly, and all their fields were watered.
Imogene lifted her face to the wind. She loved the desert again. And yet there was restlessness in her movements; even in the stillness her ears strained to catch some other sound than the soft rustle of the wind.
Nothing had happened to him of course or she would have heard. But she had watched for him that first night after the water was turned in; the next night she was expecting him, and last night she felt sure he would come. If he did not come tonight—— Maybe something had happened, maybe he had been shot by some of Jenkins' hired assassins? Fear, which really had been hovering about for three days, but put off by her faith in Bob's utter competence to take care of himself, swooped down on her suddenly. Her throat grew dry, her heart beat like a frightened bird's, she whirled and started to run for the house. She would start in search at once.
Then came the sound that her ears had been straining for—the chuck, chuck of his little machine.
She dropped down on the bench under the arrowwood shelter and let herself go. But the sobs were over, her eyes dry, her lips smiling, as he came across the yard in the dusk with a dark bulk under his arms.
He had brought his fiddle. She did not stir from the bench. She felt utterly, blissfully relaxed. Her arm lay loosely along the back of the bench, her head dropped slightly forward, the wind still stirring her hair.
"Hello." That was her only greeting. But the tone of it went through him like a soft breath of wind in the woods following a lull in the storm.
"Hello," and that was his only reply as he sat down on the bench beside her, the fiddle across his knees.
Her arm lying lazily along the back of the bench was almost touching him; but he had not noticed it, and she left it there.
"I don't hardly know where to begin," Bob said directly, and laughed to try to cover up his emotions. He knew that no matter where he began he never could put in words the horror of the night when the ghost of utter defeat and failure walked with him over that terrible desert; nor yet the great upsweep of triumph that engulfed him when he reached the water gates the next day and learned that Noah Ezekiel and a double-barrelled shotgun had saved the crops three days before—his and all the rest.
To feel one moment that he was in debt for life, beaten and wrecked, and the next to know he would be worth in three months at least a hundred thousand dollars! No, he could not put that in words; so he merely twanged softly the violin strings with his thumb, and remarked casually:
"Well, I got the money."
"What money?" Still the girl did not stir. She was so blissfully lethargic, and she was not thinking at all of money or cotton.
"For poor old Ah Sing, and for Jim Crill. I seized Reedy's cotton this morning and sold it this afternoon. Got $410,000 for the cotton and the seed. But Jenkins was in deeper than we knew. He's gambled away fifty thousand or so. After I'd paid up all his debts, including the duty, there was only $25,000 left for Reedy. And Mrs. Barnett came down on me like a squawking hen, demanding that. Said Reedy had promised it to her for getting the loans from her uncle. But Reedy denied it."
"What did you do?" asked Imogene as he paused. "I compromised—told Reedy I was entitled to that much for commission and damages, but that I'd give it to him provided he and Mrs. Barnett married. They did."
Imogene laughed, a rich warm laugh in which there was no sting of revenge, only humour for human faults. This was such a good world, and such a beautiful desert!
Bob did not think of anything more to tell of his exploits. Somehow his mind would not stay on them. Instead, he looked up at the stars and sighed with deep content, then put the fiddle to his shoulder and raised the bow.
When he finished he turned to look down at her, and in that moment felt the touch of her arm at his back. She was very still; he was not sure whether she was crying or smiling.
"Do you know what it said?" he asked, huskily.
"Y-e-s," she answered, softly, "but I want to hear it in words, too."
He slipped his arm round her and drew her to him. "You wonderful darling," he said, kissing her, "you'll hear it a million times in words."