Roger shook himself. What a fool he was to lie awake over a thing as trivial as this. All men were moody. Roger told himself that, excepting Ernest, every man he knew had unaccountable grouches. Then he closed his eyes and opened them again. Would Dick row Charley? It was unthinkable that a man should row a woman of her type. Roger had discovered that he admired his old time playmate very much. She was so calm, so clear headed and keen thinking. With all the dignity of her splendid boyish physique added to her splendid intelligence, it was very unpleasant to think of her having to submit to bullying.
Roger turned over with a sigh. After a time of tossing, moved by an unaccountable impulse, he crept out of bed and peered from the tent flap toward the ranch house. A faint speck of light flecked the darkness. He scratched a match and looked at his watch. It was half past two. He went back to bed, where he lay for a half hour, wondering what was going on at the ranch house.
This was an unusual proceeding for Roger. Like most only children Roger had grown up self-centered and more or less selfish. His work had tended to increase these characteristics. Not since his mother's death, with the single exception of his thoughtful affection for Mamma Wolf, had Roger spent so much of himself on another's problem as he now was spending on Charley's.
He rose again. The light still shone from the adobe. He slipped into his clothes and noiselessly left the tent. It was nipping cold and he walked as fast as the heavy sand permitted. As he neared the ranch, a second light appeared and moved down to the corral. A few minutes later Roger had reached the bars.
"Dick," he cried softly to the dark figure that was pulling the harness off one of the horses. "It's Roger! Anything the matter? I saw the light." The figure dropped the harness and ran over to the bar. As the "bug" light caught her face, Roger saw that it was Charley.
"Oh, Roger!" she exclaimed. "I'm so glad, so glad to see you!"
He vaulted over the bar.
"Hush," she said, "Dick's sick and I've just gotten him to sleep."
"Sick! That accounts for his grouch then! Why couldn't he say so! Shall I go for the doctor, Charley?"
"No! No! He's subject to these attacks. Did—did Ernest mind his being cross?" In the candlelight Charley looked anxiously into Roger's face.
"Not a bit. He just wondered about it because the change came on so suddenly. What is it? His stomach?"
"Yes, his stomach," replied Charley.
"Sure you don't want me to go for the doctor?"
Charley's voice trembled a little. "Very sure! But you can hang up the harness for me while I hold the light." Then, as Roger obeyed with alacrity, she asked: "What made you come up this hour of the night?"
"I couldn't sleep. Then I began to think about your brother's grouch. I got up and took a look in this direction and saw the light. I don't know just why I came. Restless, I guess!"
He tossed the lines over a peg and came back to take the lantern from Charley. As the light flashed on her face he saw that she looked very tired and that her lip was quivering. A wordless surprise swept over Roger. The feeling he had had that Charley was like an interesting boy whom he would wish to keep for a friend was rudely shocked by that quivering lip. Only a girl's lip could tremble so.
"Something is wrong," he said, anxiously. "Let me help you."
"You have helped me, more than you can know. Go home to bed now or you won't be fit for work to-morrow. And that work is just about the most important thing in this valley."
Roger could think of no adequate reply. He lowered the bars for Charley and put them up again. The two stood in silent contemplation of the desert night. The night wind was dying as dawn approached. Above and below was one perfect blending of dusky blue, with only the faint fleck of star silver to mark the sky from the earth. Roger's nerves quickened to the wonder of the night. He turned to Charley.
"I don't feel as if I'd ever lived before," he half whispered.
"I know," replied the girl. "I don't believe a person could be a real agnostic in the desert, do you?"
"No," said Roger, simply.
"You must go to bed," repeated Charley. "And you mustn't worry any more about me." She turned to run quickly up the trail to the adobe.
Roger started campward.
He was wakened later in the morning by the sound of conversation.
"I'm sorry, madam, but I'm no cook, and I dislike olive oil, anyhow. If you'll eat the pancakes as I fry 'em, in bacon fat, you're more than welcome to all you wish. But if you want olive oil used, you must fry them yourself."
"Where's the other young man?" asked Mrs. von Minden.
"Hey! Rog!" roared Ernest. "You're wanted."
Roger sat up on the edge of his cot with a yawn. As he did so, his eye fell on the unopened letters on the trunk.
Without waiting to dress he opened the one postmarked Washington. He read it through twice, then very deliberately rose and pulled on his clothing. His face was pale beneath the tan as he stepped out into the morning sun.
"Ernest, here's some bad news!" he called. "Come over to the tent a moment."
As Ernest hurried up, Roger said slowly, "Austin is dead and the Smithsonian Institute says it doesn't know anything about the deal with me."
Ernest dropped the pancake turner he was holding. "Good God!" He read the letter, then looked up into Roger's somber face. "Dropped dead in New York three weeks ago. Poor chap!"
Roger nodded. "But what was he up to? The writer of that letter says that although the Smithsonian was interested in a general way in our work, Austin had no authority to go ahead. Now, where did he get the money?"
"I suppose he was afraid some one else would get in on it while the Smithsonian was hesitating, so he funded up himself. I suppose they'd have paid him back. You remember his cursing out the delays and the red tape that hampered everything connected with the government. I thought he was hipped on the subject, but now—"
"What makes you think all that?" asked Roger.
"Well, don't you remember in St. Louis, when he was ordering stuff from the Condit Iron Works he said he'd pay the bill himself, to get the stuff started?"
Roger shook his head. "I don't remember. But I guess you're right. Lord, what a good scout he was to have so much faith in me! I wonder how much he spent on us, and whether his wife is provided for?"
"That won't be hard to find out. What we've got to worry about now is the situation with the Smithsonian. They can't realize how far we've gone."
"Yes, they do," replied Roger. "That letter from, what does he sign himself—Hampton?—is in reply to the report I sent Austin from Archer's Springs, two weeks ago. Why, they've got to go on with it!"
"If they won't, we are up against it," groaned Ernest. "I don't want to ask father for money, and you and the Dean have tried every one in the world."
"And who the devil wants you to ask your father for money for me?" Roger shouted. "Haven't we got practically all the material we need, bought and paid for? We don't need anything except food. We'll do the work ourselves."
Ernest's gentle voice interrupted. "But, Rog—"
"Don't but me," roared Roger. "I tell you nothing shall stop me now! If it takes twenty years, I'll go through with this. I'd rather cut my throat than not go on with it. I've waited for five years for this chance. The death of one man won't stop me, nor the indifference of some fool government clerk. This plant is going to be built."
"What I started to say," said Ernest quietly, "when you began your brain-storm, was that if you'd sell your laboratory equipment up home it would guarantee us food for six months. The Dean would attend to it for you."
Roger sat down on his cot, rather suddenly. "That's a good idea, Ern," he said, meekly.
Ernest picked up the pancake turner. "I'm with you to a finish in this, Roger. You don't have to jaw me, you know."
"Sorry, old man," muttered Roger.
"It's all right," replied Ernest. "I'll finish getting breakfast. We've got all day to talk this over. One idea occurs to me. Perhaps this man Hampton who signs this letter would be less cold to the project if he had details. Why don't you give him the whole story, both of the plant and of our relationship to Austin?"
"That's a good hunch," exclaimed Roger, immensely cheered up by the suggestion. "Well," with a sigh, "I might have known I was having too much luck."
"It's the old lady. She's a bird of ill omen. I knew it the minute I saw her, this morning. Come out as soon as you can, Rog. I don't dare to be alone with her."
Roger grinned, but did not hasten his shaving. Ernest could be facetious. After all, the building of the plant was not Ernest's dream. Roger was shocked by the news of Austin's death, but the shock was not due to grief. Austin simply represented opportunity to the young inventor. A sudden fear was clutching at his heart lest now the plant would never be completed. Roger had learned much since his arrival in the desert. He had begun to realize that the desert fights ferociously any attempt to subdue her. He knew now that it was going to take much longer than the outside margin he had allowed to build the plant. If a driven well failed, he must try out the Prebles'. Perhaps Dick's knowledge of irrigation would prove to be sketchy and that water supply too would prove inadequate. He believed still that his plans for the plant itself would not have to be changed.
"I heard every word you two said," Mrs. von Minden's voice rose suddenly. "You needn't worry at all. I'll concentrate for you immediately after breakfast."
"In that case, we are ruined," Roger muttered, smiling in spite of himself, as he dropped the tent flap behind him.
The lady visitor was sitting on a bench beside the table in the cook tent, contemplating a cup of coffee and a plate of crackers.
"Was it your idea, madam," said Ernest, attacking a pile of pancakes some ten inches high, "that your husband would find you in this camp?"
"So the Yogis say," replied Mrs. von Minden.
"Why don't you fry yourself some cakes, Mrs. von Minden?" asked Roger.
"Part of my creed is never to prepare food for myself if it is possible to get some one else to do it. A complete inertia is a vital step toward Nirvana."
Roger grunted. "Then you'll never find Nirvana in this camp, I can tell you."
"Good morning!" cried Felicia, appearing suddenly in the doorway.
"Dicky is sick," she announced, "and Charley sent me down here for the day. She said please for you not to come up because Dicky is so cross, she doesn't want any one around."
Ernest and Roger looked at each other.
"I think I'd better go up," said Roger.
"No, I'll go," insisted Ernest.
"Charley doesn't want you," cried Felicia. "She says so and she always means what she says."
"Oh, you've found that out, have you?" asked Ernest. "Well, have a flapjack; my cook is an artist."
"I've had breakfast, thank you," replied the little girl. "I'm going out and look at the things in the wagon."
"Go to it!" exclaimed Ernest. Then to Roger, "I see you've struck water at last. That news evidently impressed you less than other events, last night."
Roger nodded. "There's not much of it and it's vile to taste. But it'll take care of our camp wants and the engine. Charley suggested that if we didn't strike an adequate supply when we drove the well farther, we'd better set the plant up at their place. They'd be our first customers."
"Better not take her up till you've done a lot of experimenting down here," said Ernest, quickly.
"I don't expect to do much experimenting," replied Roger. "But I've started here and I'll keep on here, especially since this unexpected mix up."
Mrs. von Minden, who seemed to have been lost in thought ever since Felicia's appearance, now spoke suddenly, but with closed eyes.
"No, don't leave this spot. You are destined to great good luck here."
The two men looked at each other. Ernest shrugged his shoulders and Roger sighed and asked:
"Did the pump come?"
"Yes, and the hose and the pipe for the condenser. We brought that and the glass, the cement, more lumber, and the drum of sulphur dioxide. There are two more big loads down there."
Roger nodded. "I'll take my turn at it to-morrow. Did you see Schmidt?"
"Yes, and he suggested that if we'd tie Preble's team to our wagon, he'd drive a load back for us, so only you would need to come in."
"We can't afford to have Schmidt come out here now," sighed Roger.
"Let him come!" murmured the visitor, still with closed eyes. "He will be provided for. It's a great work and must go on."
Roger jerked himself to his feet. "Let's go outside, Ern," he exclaimed.
Madam opened her eyes for a moment to say, "Send the child in to wash the dishes!"
Ernest turned a chuckle into a hiccough and followed Roger over to the well. "Roger, it won't cost much to keep him for a week and that provides for getting Hackett's team back and stopping that expense."
Roger nodded. "Let's leave those dishes on the table till she does 'em or we have to get lunch."
"O. K.! There she goes into her tent. Rog, she's plain crazy. Well, what do we tackle to-day?"
"We'd better get the pump ready and then start to build the engine house. I want it big enough to include the laboratory."
"Right-o! Dick suggested we save lumber by making the engine house of adobe. He says the sand storms that'll blow next month will ruin our apparatus if we don't cover it well."
"Where'll we get the adobe?" asked Roger.
"He said that that layer of clay we struck about four feet down in the well is extra fine adobe and that he'll show us how to handle it. I wonder how long he'll be sick, poor chap! Was Dick ever sick this way before, Felicia?" he called.
"Lots of times!" the child called back. "Oh, Ernest, here's a little, little bundle that's so soft it can't be a machine. Can't I open it? It might be for me."
"Go ahead!" replied Ernest.
"If the adobe won't take too long, I like the idea," said Roger. "But with our new financial problem, we're working against time."
"Oh, isn't it awful. Nothing but dish cloths for Charley!" shrieked Felicia.
"She'll have all the small items in those wagons in a hard knot," exclaimed Roger. "Felicia! Come and help unpack the pump, there's a good girl!"
When the wagon had been unloaded, the two men began the installation of the pump. By noon they had not finished the job. Roger had infinite patience with machinery. Ernest practically none.
"You'd have kicked the face off any human being that acted as mulish as this pump, Rog," growled Ernest. "Hang the thing! Let's throw it away and get a good one."
Roger laughed. "And you'd have no end of patience with a pupil as onery as this pump, Ern. It's all right. We'll have it going in a moment."
And go she did, to the excited admiration of Felicia, who had been an attentive audience during the entire performance. Mrs. von Minden did not leave the confines of her tent until mid-afternoon, when she spent some time preparing herself a meal. After lunch, Ernest would have gone to offer his services at the adobe, had not Felicia protested to the point of tears, that Charley would be angry. Somewhat to their own amusement the two men gave in to the vehement small girl, and the ground work for the absorber being complete, they began to clear space for the engine house and consumer. Felicia with a kitchen knife and the pancake turner, toiled away after the two men all the afternoon.
About five o'clock Ernest took her home. He was gone some time and Roger had supper ready on his return. Ernest had fed the horses and milked for Charley, who said that Dick would be around on the morrow.
"Then I'll write my letter to-night and start in with the two teams at daylight," said Roger. "You finish grubbing off for the condenser, Ernest, and make a carpenter's bench. And try not to kill our visitor." But the visitor was invisible all the evening, nor had she appeared before Roger left the next morning. He was well on his way toward Archer's Springs by daylight. The wagons were empty and the horses fresh, so that he reached the railroad station by mid-afternoon and had the wagons loaded by dark ready for the return trip.
At the Chinese restaurant where he went for his supper he saw Schmidt.
"Well!" exclaimed the German. "You vas here at last, nicht wahr!"
Roger nodded. "I hear you are coming up for a visit."
"Visit? No! No! To stay. Ya! To stay!"
Roger shook his head. "Can't feed you, old man!" and then, before he knew it, he was telling the sympathetic German of the Smithsonian's dereliction.
"These American governments!" groaned Schmidt. "Vat a stupidness! In Germany such a foolishness is impossible. Vell, I come for a veek and bring my own grub. I haf a leetle money, enough to feed me. Vat I lack is vork—vork to keep me from going crazy with the heim-weh in this ocean of sand, and some one mit brain to talk to. The baggage-man—the storekeeper—the Chinaman—Gott! I know their every mind like a primer, so long have I talked to them."
There was to Roger something irresistibly likeable about Schmidt's sentimental, jovial face.
"Come ahead, then!" he said. "You'll have to bunk in the cook-tent, and bring your own bed with you, but we'll be delighted to have you with us."
Schmidt rubbed his stubby hands together. "I go at vonce and pack up," he exclaimed. "Ve vill drive by my place in the morning and pick me up," and he started for the door.
At five o'clock the next morning the two heavily laden wagons crawled out on the desert trail, campwards. It was slow going, particularly after they struck the deep sand which began ten miles out of the town. Gustav Schmidt was rather silent when they stopped at noon, to water and feed their horses and to eat the lunch the Chinaman had put up for them. He was heavily coated with dust and his face had burned badly.
Half way through the second sandwich he said: "Ve'll get even with that sun, eh? Ve harness him and make him pump vater on us and on this damn sand, eh? Gott, vat a country!"
"What's the matter with this country?" asked Roger, blowing the sand off a ripe olive. "It's exactly the kind of country I want to make solar power with and it's exactly the kind of country you want to cure your bad lungs. If you don't like it—"
"Vait! Vait!" interrupted Schmidt. "I know vat you vill say. If I don't like it, go back to Germany. Some day I do go back, but not yet. Ven I go, I try to take you and young Wolf mit me. This is the land of nature's opportunity. In the Fatherland, the government gif the opportunity. This is the land for the adventure, for the exploitation, nicht wahr? Germany the land for the thinker, like you? Nicht wahr?"
Roger shook his head. Nevertheless, his eyes were wistful. Many times during the afternoon he thought of Schmidt's remark. Roger's education and reading had long ago persuaded him that Germany was the land for the thinker, that there a man would not have to struggle for ten years to give birth to an idea such as his. He wondered why he never had cut loose and gone to the Fatherland. Some subconscious sense of obligation to his own country, he supposed. And yet, he thought bitterly what a fool he had been! Surely there could be no passion, not even the love for women, as deep-rooted, as overwhelming and as racially right as a man's desire to express his dreams. And that expression was denied him in his own country unless he put up a fight that depleted his creative force, surely by half.
He sighed heavily and yet his thoughts returned to the little new power plant with a vague heart warming as though already it spelled home to him.
Toward sundown, a curiously picturesque group passed them on the trail. Half a dozen squaws, with bare black heads and capes of red bandannas sewed together, were plodding toward town laden with ollas. Roger pulled up his team and called to them. Dick had told him to buy one of the great Indian water jars at his first opportunity.
"Will you sell me one?" he asked.
The oldest squaw nodded and held up a fine two gallon jar. It was just the color of the desert sand and was ornamented with swastikas and triangles in lines of vivid black.
"How much?" asked Roger.
"Eight bits," she said.
Roger dropped a dollar into her slender brown palm. The squaw flashed white teeth at him and a younger woman pressed forward holding up an olla no bigger than a teacup, a duplicate in design of the one he had just bought.
"I'll take that for Felicia," he murmured. "How much?"
He tossed her the quarter. "You make 'em camp up there?" asked the old squaw.
"Yes," replied Roger. "Come and call on us, ladies."
"We bring 'em baskets, maybe," replied the squaw.
Roger nodded and started the horses on, looking back from time to time for pure pleasure in the beauty of those scarlet fluttering capes.
They reached the camp about ten o'clock and were vociferously welcomed by Ernest, who, before taking the horses up to the corral, insisted on showing them his day's work.
"Nothing doing on the carpenter's bench," he said, flashing the "lightning bug" toward the site of the engine house. "Look here. Dick came over right after breakfast and we were hard at this all day."
All the lumber in the camp had been requisitioned to make adobe molds. "We mixed the adobe with that clutter of broken hay that the glass came in," explained Ernest. "Dick says the Mexicans use stable scrapings, but I couldn't stomach that. You see you just peg the boards up in the sand, a foot apart and pack them full of the adobe. That'll be the thickness of the house. Then when the strips are dried, we'll cut them the length we want. Two days more work will give us all we need."
"Vat a country!" exclaimed Gustav.
Ernest and Roger laughed. "I take it Dick is O. K. again," said Roger.
"Quite himself. Said Charley was used up, but she came down late this afternoon with Felicia and she said she was feeling fine. Felicia made those little bricks yonder. Charley has put her into overalls. She's simply ravishing in them."
"And how is your guest?" asked Roger. "I've been telling Schmidt about her. He's heard of Von Minden at Archer's. And it seems she outfitted there. Claimed to have come up from Phoenix and said she had an engagement with us."
"Well, she was invisible, practically until noon to-day. Then she brought her rocking chair here where Dick and I were at work and concentrated on us all the afternoon."
"Concentrated? Vat iss concentrated?" asked Gustav.
"Well, she rocks in the chair, holding the pink umbrella till Dick lashed it to the chair back for her. She keeps her eyes closed and doesn't speak, though she did explain that she was talking to her mother, who is on the seventh plane, concerning the successful erection of the engine house. Dick seems quite smitten by her. He gazes on her and gazes as if fascinated, then he goes off behind the living tent and laughs."
"My God, what a country!" groaned Roger.
"I've got a bed fixed up for you in the cook tent, Schmidt," said Ernest. "You'll be safe if none of Mrs. von Minden's spirit friends bother you. She told me that she heard them playing the accordion in the cook tent last night."
"I love music," was Schmidt's response, and the three men went laughing to bed. Roger wakened in the night but once. Through the open tent flap he beheld Mrs. von Minden rocking silently in the starlight before her tent.
"She's going to get on my nerves," he murmured and fell asleep again.
Dawn was just breaking over the mountains the next morning when Roger entered the cook tent. He was greeted by Gustav, who was purple with the cold but grinning cheerfully, and the smell of coffee.
"It vas not so soft, sleeping on Frau Nature's heart in the desert, nicht wahr!" he exclaimed. "Coyotes vere eating the garbage last night mit gulps and snortings and I slept not. It vas not the music I had been promised. So I make the breakfast early."
"I didn't sleep well myself the first night or two," said Roger. "Desert silence makes a lot of noise to a town-bred man. Hey!"—going to the door—"Ern! You lazy Dutchman! The new cook'll leave if you don't get up for your breakfast."
Gustav and Roger were half through the meal when Ernest appeared. "Mud-pie making is hard work," he groaned, sliding stiffly onto the bench beside Roger.
"I certainly hate to make adobe brick when every day counts so," said Roger. "Let's use sheet iron."
"It'll be better to take Dick's advice," insisted Ernest. "He says the dust storms are frightful here and the heat worse. The adobe shelter will be grateful on many counts."
"Ve'll all vork hard," said Gustav, "and the 'dobe vill be up strong, before ve know it. Ven it is done, it is done good, and that is right. I vash the damn dishes. You go make the mud mixing. Then I come."
"We're going to hate to let that chap go when his visit's up," said Roger, as he and Ernest began work on the adobe.
"Maybe we won't have to let him go," replied Ernest. "You stir the mess up, Rog, and I'll put it into the molds. Dick is going on with his grading, but he'll be over in a day or so and show us how to begin the house building."
"The trouble with you is, Ern, that you're flighty-minded. You're tired of making a Sun Plant and all excitement over building a mud house."
"I wouldn't have a single track mind like yours for a million dollars," returned Ernest cheerfully.
Roger grinned and presently began to whistle as he worked. Mrs. von Minden proved to be an exceedingly unexacting guest. After it was evident to her that her hosts had not the slightest intention of doing special cooking for her she did her own. She ate only two meals a day, preparing one at mid-morning and one at sundown. The remainder of the day she spent within her tent, reading or rocking in her chair, concentrating on the camp work. She seldom talked and then only on the matter of what she called Yogi-ism.
Gustav took a violent dislike to her and refused to work if she looked at him. Roger declared that on the next trip to town he was going to telegraph Phoenix and see if she had not escaped from an insane asylum. But Ernest only laughed.
"Poor old soul! She's not crazy except on her religion. Let her alone. She's no expense and no trouble!"
"She gives me the willies," insisted Roger. "I never knew before that I had a temperament."
"Gosh, I could have broken that to you twenty-five years ago," said Ernest. "Only I supposed obvious facts were as plain to you as to other people. Here she comes for her afternoon's work, bless her, pink umbrella, pink nighty and all. What a lucky dog Von Minden is."
Roger chuckled and joined Gustav, who moved hastily to continue his brick making back of the lady's chair.
Working so, he was facing the ranch and presently he saw Charley cross the alfalfa field to join Dick. A moment later, the two figures were following the team across the field. Next Felicia flashed down the trail, a tiny dot of blue, and shortly he saw Dick lift her to one of the horse's backs. Roger's mind harked back to old days. He recalled Charley's father giving her and him just such a ride over the fertile corn fields of home. And he pondered for a moment on the thing called fate.
There was a little hand that clung to his as he and Charley scuffled up the dusty road to the farm. There was Dick's ruddy boyish face, sternly disapproving. There was a childish treble, "I shall love Charley. She'll take such care of me as never was on sea nor land. Aunt May says so." And finally there was the woman's voice. "Go home to bed now, or you won't be fit for work to-morrow. And that work is about the most important thing in this valley now."
And now, Charley drove a team over a desert field, while he—what was he doing after all? Roger rose abruptly and lighting his pipe began to stroll aimlessly around the camp. Was this dream that had worked itself into the very fiber of his nature worth while? The desert, shimmering in endless silence about him, seemed very far from that world of machinery that he had worshiped so long. Supposing that Charley did bring the desert to bearing. Supposing that he did harness the sun and start an empire to building in these barren wastes. To what avail?
Though his dream were the very foundation of their existence, men would fight here for the supremacy of riches, just as of old. And why not? Through the welter of cut-throat striving man had won his intelligence. Who was he to endeavor to lessen that competition?
How restless, how discontented he had been for nearly ten years! Was he not missing the best of life and was not happiness the real goal of living? And did not men get the only real joy from wife and child? Did any work that did not focus round these two bring real content?
A sudden swelling of his heart, a sudden rush of blood through his brain, a sudden thrill of his lean strong body that seemed to extend to the very heart of the desert, brought Roger to pause in his walking. He gazed for a long moment at the little blue figure astride the horse, and at the tall figure in khaki beside Dick.
The March afternoon was hot but with a clear tang that was as exhilarating as winter frost. The range back of the ranch house was brown where the sky line shone clear. But the gashed and eroded sides of the mountains were filled with drifts of purple clouds that melted now in soft blue billows into the sky, now in ragged streams of crimson into canyons black in the distance. The little sounds of the camp were as nothing. The pygmy figures in the alfalfa field were infinitesimal. A new sense of the immensity of the universe poured into Roger's soul with devastating force and for the first time in his life Roger realized his own lack of importance.
A moment of this and then the instinct that has lifted man above the brutes spoke in him again. He would not belong to life only through children. He would make himself immortal through his work, work by which men should live and think and have their being for ages to come.
With a long sigh, Roger tossed his black hair back from his face and returned to his brick making.
The three men toiled arduously for two days on the brick making. At the end of that time the desert all about the camp was paved with adobe brick, baking in the sun until Dick should come to start them on their house building. On the evening of the second day, Roger tramped up to the ranch house and proposed to Dick that they exchange work for half a day; Roger to finish Dick's grading, while Dick instructed Gustav and Ernest in the gentle art of adobe laying.
But Dick would not strike the bargain. "I've only an hour's work before I'm ready to start the seeding," he said, "and I won't trust any one to attend to that but myself. I'll just ride over to the Sun Plant in the morning and it won't take half an hour to teach you fellows all I know about putting up the house."
"I'm going too," said Felicia. She was sitting, cuddling her doll before the fire, for the nights were still cool.
"Almost your bedtime, Felicia," warned Charley.
The child gave Roger an agonized look.
"I brought you a present, Felicia," he said, and pulled the tiny olla out of his pocket.
"Oh, a water jar! Just like yours, Charley!" shrieked Felicia, taking the little bowl carefully in her slender childish fingers. "Where did you get it, Roger?"
Roger described his meeting with the squaws, and Dick added, "The whole outfit is camping on a canyon the other side of the range. Old Rabbit Tail told me this morning when he brought down the wood. It's there they find the rock they make these ollas of. It's a kind of decomposed granite. They pulverize it with their metates, add boiling water and get a very fair clay. Qui-tha is up there with them and his strong medicine has made a hit."
"Do they make dishes cheap, Dicky?" asked Felicia, crowding close to her brother's knee. "Would they make me some doll dishes cheap, do you think?"
Dick lifted the little girl to his knee and kissed her. "Why cheap, little old chick-a-biddy?"
"Because I heard you tell Charley funds were getting awful low now you'd sold the last of the turquoise. But this doll will starve, Dicky, if she doesn't have dishes to eat off of."
"She looks fairly well fed," suggested Charley, shaking her head a little helplessly over the frank statement of the family finances.
"She mustn't get run down, though," said Dick. "When I see one of the squaws, I'll order some dishes, money or no money."
"I don't see why Aunt May didn't send along more of her toys," sighed Charley. "It was so stupid of her! There is nothing at Archer's Springs."
"Don't you worry, Charley!" cried Felicia. "The squaws will make me some. I'll ask 'em."
"That's a good sport," said Dick, hugging the child against his broad chest. He was Felicia's devoted slave, and Charley had no help from him in maintaining discipline. It was she who said now:
"Look at the clock, Felicia, dear."
"I'd rather not," answered Felicia. Nevertheless, she slid off Dick's lap and with the doll and the olla in her arms, kissed each of the grown-ups in turn, and went off to bed.
"She's the best kid I ever saw," said Dick, after her bedroom door had closed.
"And the prettiest," added Roger.
"You men spoil her," protested Charley, "and it's too bad because she really is unusual."
"Pshaw! You were just like her," grunted Dick, "and we all petted you. And heaven knows, you aren't spoiled. Of course, you're much too strict with Felicia—and me."
Charley flushed. "You don't really think so, do you, Dick?" she asked.
Roger joined Dick in a chuckle at this. Charley's adoration of her brother was obvious to the most casual observer. She laughed a little herself and it occurred to Roger that her laugh was much like Felicia's, just as innocent and spontaneous.
"I can always get a rise that way, eh, old girl," cried Dick. "And I know why you're blushing. You hate on top of this, to remind me that I haven't bedded the horses. Well, I'll attend to it instantly and relieve your embarrassment. I'll be back in a moment, Roger."
"Dick is in good trim again," said Roger.
"Oh, I do so hope he'll stay well!" exclaimed Charley with a sudden fervor that surprised Roger. "He's such a dear and he's been so handicapped! I think it's going to make a big difference to him, having Felicia and you people here. He's been so lonely."
"Haven't you been lonely?" asked Roger.
"Yes," replied Charley. Then after a pause, "How does your work go?"
"Very slowly! I get half crazy with impatience. Even after all the warnings I received, I had no idea of the difficulties in the desert. I realize now that I'm only about half equipped, for desert building."
"You mean mentally or financially?" asked Charley with a quick look.
"Financially, of course—or—what made you ask me that?" Roger's voice was a little indignant.
"Well, you see," answered Charley, "I've been in the desert longer than you and I know that impatience leads to madness. And you're an impatient sort of person."
"Impatient!" Roger burst out. "Impatient! When for ten years I've clung to one idea, hoping against hope, believing that the impossible would happen."
"You poor boy! Don't you suppose I know? But now that you're down here at work, you've got to be even more patient. The desert is cussed mean. You and Dick have both got to contend with the old vixen for a long time before you put your dreams through."
"Don't you worry about my impatience," replied Roger. "My middle name is patience. You'll see!"
Dick's cheerful whistle came up the trail. Charley looked at Roger as he thoughtfully relighted his pipe. His bronze black hair was ruddy in the firelight, Charley liked his hair and she liked his square jaw and deep gray eyes, though they seemed to her a little cold and selfish as were his lips. Charley had been educated with boys in the big middle western town whither the Prebles had moved. From the time that she had entered kindergarten at four until she graduated from college at twenty-two she had buffeted through life shoulder to shoulder with boys. Charley knew men and she had read Roger as clearly as though his mind were an open book. She knew that the desert would either make or ruin a man of Roger's temperament.
Dick swung open the kitchen door. Roger rose, slowly.
"You folks had better have supper with us, to-morrow night," he suggested.
The Prebles accepted with alacrity and Roger wandered slowly home across the desert. He liked the Prebles, better than he had ever liked any family but Ernest's. Patience! He'd show that tall, dark-eyed girl that his fund was limitless.
Schmidt was worth two ordinary men, in spite of the fact that he was not in full health, and that he was deliberate in all his movements. His deliberation meant that he used his head to guide his hands. What with his steady persistent following of Roger's rapid, feverish energy and of Ernest's cheerful conscientious poddering, by mid-afternoon the engine house walls were half finished. When Charley, carrying a great basket, reached them about sundown, the door frames were almost covered in.
Ernest introduced Schmidt, who laughingly showed his muddy hands.
"I never saw three people who more evidently needed baths," Charley laughed in turn. "I suppose Felicia is the worst of the lot. Where is the child?"
"Felicia!" ejaculated Roger.
"She hasn't been here to-day," exclaimed Ernest.
Charley set the basket slowly down on the sand while her face whitened. "She started down here at nine o'clock with her doll and her olla."
There was a moment's silence, then Roger cried cheerfully, "Well, don't be frightened! Nothing could have happened to her. She must have gone on an investigating trip of her own."
"I'll go after Preble," said Ernest, "and we'll take the horses and round her up in a jiffy."
He and Gustav started immediately up the trail. Roger stopped long enough to carry the heavy basket to the cook tent. "Look out for Miss Preble, will you, Mrs. von Minden?" he said to that lady who was finishing her second meal.
"I must go home," faltered Charley. "She may—Roger, look in the old Mellish shaft." She gave a little sob and Mrs. von Minden suddenly put her arm about her.
Roger started on a run after the others.
They overtook Dick, just as he was turning out of the lower end of the alfalfa field into the trail. At their shout he pulled up the horses and waited. He began to unharness before the first sentence was finished. He and Roger both mounted, leaving Gustav and Ernest to go up to the corral after the other two horses. Just at this moment there came through the afterglow a familiar treble shriek.
"Oh! Oh! Dickeee!"
The four men were motionless. Coming down the trail from the mountains was a little figure in blue overalls, curly head glorious in the last of the sunset gleam.
"Wait for me, Roger, wait!" shrieked Felicia, trying to quicken a very tired gait, and much impeded by a basket, which she clasped with both arms. Ernest suddenly broke into a run and picked the child up, basket and all. Dick dropped from his horse and followed to lift her away from Ernest's clinging arms.
"She's my sister, let me take her," he said hoarsely.
"Vere vas you, liebchen?" asked Schmidt.
"Well," said Felicia, looking a little bewildered—"Oh, Roger dear, look—the squaw gave me a basket and some eenty dishes, just like the olla."
"Felicia, where have you been?" begged Roger; "tell us, honey."
"Why, I just went over the mountain to find the place Dick told about where the Indians make dishes. And I got lost, and a squaw found me and I had a funny dinner with her and I bought these dishes and I told her Dick would pay for them and I brought you each a present and I'm awful tired." She stopped for lack of breath.
Dick looked helplessly at the other men. "It's five mountain miles to that Indian camp," he said.
"I got tired," Felicia nodded her head, "but Qui-tha brought me home. He wanted some more peroxide. So I gave him the bottle in your room, Dicky. He was so good to bring me home. He went right back with it."
"I wish I'd had a quart for the good old fool," said Dick.
"Where are you all going? Where's Charley?" asked Felicia.
"She's nearly frantic about you," exclaimed Roger. "We were all going to look for you."
Felicia's liquid eyes widened with sudden understanding. "Put me down, Dick, I want to go to Charley."
"Here she comes now," said Ernest.
Charley was breathless with running. Felicia set her basket in the sand and rushed into her sister's arms. The men all started explaining at once. Charley, still clasping Felicia, listened, then looked down on the curly head resting against her heart.
"Felicia, how could you be so naughty," she asked gently.
"Now, don't you scold her, Charley," protested Dick.
"Do I ever scold any one, Dick? Only Felicia must realize that she did a very dangerous thing that she must never, never do again."
"How do you mean, dangerous?" asked Felicia. "Did I make you feel badly, Charley?"
"You made me sick at heart with fear, Felicia," replied Charley.
Felicia gave a great sob. "Oh, I wouldn't do that for anything!"
"I move," said Roger, "that we go on over to the Sun Plant and that the two ladies talk this over after supper. And I'll carry Felicia pig-a-back."
The motion was unanimously carried. Ernest went up to help Dick with the chores and Roger and Gustav prepared supper while Charley sat on the bench with Felicia in her lap, and directed operations. The pot of beans and the biscuit she had brought in the basket made the meal-getting a simple matter. Mrs. von Minden was almost human, that evening. She sat with the young people during their meal and for an hour afterward, once rising, unexpectedly, to kiss Charley.
Felicia went to sleep when half way through supper, just after she had given Roger his present.
"It's a little clock," she said, holding out a small steam gauge, rusty and battered. "I found it in one of the sheds up on the mountain, where I stopped to rest."
Roger looked at it curiously. "That was an expensive gauge in its day," he said. "How do you suppose she happened to find it?"
"Harder not to find it," replied Dick. "The ranges are full of deserted mines. They took out all the free gold, then tried to work out the rest, found it too expensive, went broke and walked out. There's enough fine machinery up in the mountains to make you believe what folks say around here, that more money goes into the ground than ever comes out of it."
Roger looked at Dick thoughtfully. "I'm glad to know that," he said. "Felicia's given me a sure-enough present, haven't you, little girl?"
But Felicia, her head burrowed against Dick's willing shoulder was fast asleep.
"When do you expect to cut your first crop, Dick?" asked Ernest.
"If the alfalfa gets a toe hold before the first of May I'll get a crop this summer. The dust storms don't begin till May. They all blow down from the north or west and I'm sure that that draw between here and the field will protect me. I shall start cottonwoods and arrow-weed wind breaks as soon as I turn the water in. Hackett is getting some young trees for me."
"Isn't farming a terrible thing—terrible," said Mrs. von Minden suddenly. Then she closed her eyes and began to speak rapidly. "When we first came out here Otto wanted me to run a ranch for him while he did his other work. I was so innocent and so ignorant that I let him start me at it.
"In the Colorado river bottoms it was, below Fort Mohave. A group of fools like me thought to grow alfalfa in the bottom land, and dike the fields to keep the Colorado out at flood. Covered with arrow-weed, six and eight feet tall, the land was, when we got there. But the dikes were finished and some of the folks were beginning to clear the land.
"Otto cut enough arrow weed to put the tent up and then he found that he must put our bed high on a platform, the rattlesnakes were so thick. This done, he left me some money and told me to get an Indian to help me and off he went on one of his prospecting trips. I used to lie at night staring at the sky and crying with fear, fear of Otto and fear of the snakes that rattled and whirred all night.
"I found an Indian and he and I cleared about five acres of land and got the seed in. But the water used to run out of my mouth every minute with the snake fear. Then one night a rattler got one of our horses and my fear of what Otto would say if the other was bitten was greater than my fear of the snakes, and one night, while I watched beside the remaining horse, I killed a rattler. I waited for him to coil, then as I had seen the others do, I brought the butt end of an arrow-weed down on the coils and my fear of snakes was gone.
"Food was hard to get. There were only eight of us there. And as it got hot, some of them left. By the time we were expecting the river to rise in spring flood, there were only three fools in the colony. And I seldom saw the other two. There was a hundred acres of arrow-weed between them and me. My Indian left, after the crop came up. So I was all alone when the flood came. The first day my dikes began to leak. For eighteen hours I toted adobe to mend them with. When my strength gave out the water was two feet deep over my little field. My baby came that night, much too soon. I'd have died just as it did, if my Indian with a squaw hadn't happened back to beg for food. They took me over to the California side in their flat boat, and I never went back to the ranch again, though Otto tried to make me."
There was silence for a time. Mrs. von Minden, eyes still closed, seemed to be concentrating. Suddenly Charley leaned forward to say a little huskily,
"But why are you going back to him, Mrs. von Minden?"
"I have a message for him from the Yogis."
"I know him pretty well," Charley went on, carefully, "and he's been very kind to me. But he's never mentioned you. He's quick and queer, he's been alone so much, and very quick with his gun."
"He won't touch me," answered Mrs. von Minden. "He's afraid of me, the German bully."
"Tut, madam, tut!" exclaimed Gustav. "Germans no more mistreat their vomen than other peoples."
Madam opened her eyes. "Tell that to some one who hasn't been married to one."
"There are brutes in all nations," said Ernest. "You certainly have had more than your share of trouble."
"Hah!" the gaunt face in the rocking chair was scornful, "I merely told you my ranching experience. I've mined with Otto, too, and prospected and herded sheep and cattle and run a boarding house."
"Mrs. von Minden, you can't be very comfortable in this rough camp," pleaded Charley. "Do come up to my comfortable house. I'd love to have a woman visitor."
"You're very kind, my child, but I must stay here. I've been so ordered."
"We'd better be starting back, Charley," suggested Dick. "Felicia is getting sounder asleep every minute."
And so the party ended.
The erection of the engine house went on briskly. Before even Roger's impatience could have demanded it, the sheet iron roof was on and Schmidt began to putter with the doors and windows. The completed building was not unpicturesque. The dull yellow-gray walls were topped by a roof of red corrugated iron, with deeply projecting eaves.
Roger had bought the sheet iron from Dick, who had used considerable of this material in the buildings round his turquoise mine. Ernest and Gustav toiled up to the mine one morning and at night returned with a good supply of the sheet iron. Roger made a concrete base for the engine, at one end of the building. Gustav made two doors, one for either end, by nailing the corrugated iron onto a wooden frame. A work bench and shelves erected by Ernest completed the work on the engine house except for the hanging of the doors.
The three workmen were pleased with their job and sat contemplating it in great contentment, one evening after supper.
"The engine should be here next month," said Roger.
"That is to be of your design?" asked Gustav.
Roger nodded. "The Dean of our old college is getting it made for us. He began work on it as soon as we closed the deal with Austin. If he doesn't hustle we'll be ready for it before he is. We'll begin work on the absorber, to-morrow."
"I must uphang my door to-morrow," said Gustav. "Vat place did you put the hinges?"
"Hinges! By Jove, we haven't a hinge to our names!" exclaimed Ernest. "Dick will have to help us out again."
But for once Dick failed them. "It's too bad," he told Ernest the next day, "but I've been meaning to get hinges every time I've gone to town. But I forgot. You'll have to use some stout leather, the way I do."
"Well, let me have some leather, then," begged Ernest
"Sorry, old chap, but there's not a scrap of leather an inch long around this place. You see I sole Charley's and my shoes, and I've robbed all the mines around here of belting to do it with and that doesn't mean that I've had much belting either. Lots of other people have had the same idea I've had. But take a day off and go up to the Sun's Luck, five miles up that trail yonder and I think you'll find a few pieces."
Ernest groaned, then laughed. "Dick, poor old Roger will faint at the idea of more delay, and for hinges! We'd better let the doors go till some of us go into Archer's."
Dick shook his head. "Ern, you get those doors up, and up right. I'm betting on there not being a real sand storm for six weeks yet, but if one should come, and you have any delicate apparatus in the engine house, you'll regret not having sand proof doors and windows. And to tell the truth, Charley and Felicia are both nearly bare foot."
"So am I," said Ernest, "and Rog is too."
"What's a day in the desert?" laughed Dick. "Go on and bring down some leather for the crowd, Ern."
And go he did, although Roger protested until Ernest mentioned the matter of Charley's and Felicia's shoes. Then he gave a ready consent. Ernest returned by mid-afternoon with perhaps a yard of belting, the half of which he gave to Dick, much to that hard worked gentleman's delight.
The days passed swiftly. Ernest was less homesick after Schmidt's arrival and the intelligent German's industry and interest in the work completely won Roger's heart. When the week of his visit was up, Roger resolved that he would find a way to feed three instead of two if he had to start the camp to eating desert mice. He wrote now to the Dean, asking him to sell his laboratory equipment. Dick took the letter to town.
The absorber was not as ambitious a structure as the engine house. Nevertheless, it took twice as long to build as Roger had thought it would. The foundations consisted of a shallow trough raised from the ground on four by four supports. It covered several hundred square feet and sloped very gently to carry the flow of oil. It was covered with double layers of window sash. The task of laying this was considerable and in spite of the men's best efforts, the breakage was large enough to use up practically all the reserve glass. But the most trying task of all was that of making the great trough leak proof with asphaltum. Even after the rest of the job was done and the huge cold frame lay gleaming mightily in the desert sun, the men still puttered with leaks in the trough, which they tested by pouring water over in lieu of the oil which would ultimately form the flow.
Roger and Ernest were at work on this task one morning when Gustav returned with a barrel of water from the ranch. Before driving back with the team he came excitedly round the corner of the engine house.
"The alfalfa vas up already!" he shouted. "A little shadow of green on yellow sand. Lieber Gott! vat a country! And the kleine Felicia almost eating it like a little rabbit. And Dick talks like it vas golt. And he vas vorried. He says a sand storm vas coming to-day. Look!"
Gustav pointed down the valley to the south. A gray blue haze, not unlike a sea fog, was slowly advancing.
"Fasten up the tents. I go back mit the horses," said Gustav, disappearing as abruptly as he had arrived.
"If any one thinks a little thing like a sand storm can stop work on the plant, he's mistaken," grunted Roger. "Anyhow Dick said one wasn't due for six weeks."
Ernest looked from the approaching gray cloud to Roger's obstinate mouth, shrugged his shoulders and daubed another brush full of hot asphaltum over a crack.
Suddenly a hot blast of air took their hats off. The tent gave a boom. The window-sash resting against the engine house wall fell with a tinkling crack. Without a word the two men ran to close the tent. When they had finished, the whole world was a swirling dust cloud through which they could not perceive each other when ten feet apart.
"Make for the engine house!" roared Ernest. "I'll fetch the old lady."
He was better than his word for he brought not only the madam, but her rocking chair and a book. Certainly no one could have accused their visitor of being a trial. She took the storm with the utmost philosophy and spoke scarcely a hundred words until the storm was over.
When he had stowed Mrs. von Minden and her rocker inside Ernest slammed the door shut and turned the button. "If Gustav tries to get back through this, he'll lose his way, without fail," said Roger.
"How long do you suppose it'll last?" asked Ernest.
"The Lord knows! Have you got any tobacco with you?" Roger sat down on a box of window glass and took out his pipe. For half an hour they sat listening to the howl of the wind while Madam read.
"Evidently it doesn't intend to quit for a while," said Roger finally. "Guess I'll make up my diary and write some letters. I understand now why Dick was so insistent on this adobe. You take a look at the cook tent and I'll see if the house tent is still standing while I get some paper."
The wind increased in violence until long past noon. They retrieved some canned stuff from the kitchen tent and ate it with their mouths full of the sand that sifted through the cracks of the doors and windows. Madam satisfied herself with crackers. It was very hot, even in the adobe. About three o'clock Roger wiped the sweat out of his eyes and paused—pipe poised:
"It's letting up, Ern," he said.
Ernest paused to listen. There was a perceptible lull in the uproar, and the lull increased until at five o'clock they emerged from their shelter. The air had miraculously cleared. The sky was a deep, rich violet and the desert, lighted by the westering sun, was a beaten gold and remodeled to unfamiliar lines. Well known cat's-claw and cactus clumps had disappeared. A sand drift a foot in length covered the well curb. A drift that touched the thatch lay against the east side of the cook tent and had spilled within, half burying the tables and benches. Within the living tent, sand lay thick on trunks and cots. But the tents had withstood the day's siege, stolidly.
"Let's look at the absorber," said Roger, gloomily.
They plowed through a great billow of sand at the end of the engine house. Ernest groaned. Two of the four by fours at the end of the great trough had been undermined and had collapsed, carrying a great part of the trough with it. The exposed part of the trough was filled with an indiscriminate mixture of sand and asphaltum.
"My God! What a country!" cried Ernest.
"My God! What a pair of fools," returned Roger. "After all Dick's warnings, why didn't we build for sand storms! Lend me a hand here, Ern, with this four by four. My word! Where's Dick going? Hey, Dick! What's your hurry?"
He might as well have hailed the setting sun. Dick driving his own team, Hackett's hitched to his wagon tail, whirled by at a gallop.
Roger and Ernest stood gaping, first at the receding puff of dust on the Archer's Springs trail, then at each other.
"Something's wrong at the ranch!" exclaimed Roger finally.
Ernest nodded and they both turned to stare toward the ranch house. As they stood scowling into the blinding desert light, a little gray burro rounded the corner of the cook tent, and a moment later Crazy Dutch appeared.
"We need a traffic policeman in this desert," said Ernest solemnly. "There's too much passing at this corner."
"Get your gun, quick, Ern. It's Von Minden," cried Roger.
Ernest obeyed hurriedly. But the visitor shot his arms even more hurriedly into the air.
"Don't shoot!" he cried. "My gun's strapped on Peter. I came to make apologies. Search Peter and me."
"I certainly will," said Roger, starting to suit action to word, as Ernest came running back with his shot gun. But he was interrupted. Mrs. von Minden came slowly forth from her tent, the broom in her hand with which she had been sweeping the sand drifts from her bed and floor.
"Gott im Himmel!" roared Crazy Dutch.
"He cannot hear such as you." Madam's tone was grim, as she advanced majestically.
She was a good foot taller than her husband, but he did not flinch, even at sight of the broom.
"What are you doing here?" he took a threatening step toward her.
"I was waiting for you, Otto."
"Well, I don't want you. I finished with you a good many years ago. There are just two things in my life now and they are my work and my emperor."
"Fudge!" exclaimed Mrs. von Minden, unexpectedly. "There's just two things in your life, just as there's always been, your work and your German cussedness. Otto, I want that strong box of yours. Give it to me and I'll go back to Phoenix."
Crazy Dutch gave an ugly laugh. "I'm likely to do that! What do you want of it?"
"If you won't let me take it, let me go through it. There is something in it I want."
"And what is that?" queried her husband.
"I don't know," replied Madam, very simply.
"You don't know?" roared Crazy Dutch.
"No, Otto, I don't know. The Yogis told me to come up and they told me that when I went through the papers I would recognize some that I wanted."
Von Minden turned appealingly to Roger and Ernest. "Have you any idea what she's talking about?"
Ernest shook his head.
"Wouldn't you like to go into the engine house to talk this over?" suggested Roger. "You'd have privacy there."
"Don't leave me alone with him," exclaimed Mrs. von Minden. "He's not safe."
"All right," said Roger. "I've searched him and now I'm going through his pack, and I shall confiscate any weapon I find."
"Don't you dare to give her my strong box," shouted Crazy Dutch.
"I'll put the box back where I find it," replied Roger. "Come on, Ern, begin."
It was a pitifully mean little pack, quite poverty stricken compared with Mrs. von Minden's. A woolen quilt and a Navajo, a coffee pot, frying pan and a small sack of sugar, a canteen, a flannel shirt and a pair of ragged socks, a gun, a small strong box, with a geological hammer, a barometer and a compass, comprised Peter's load.
Roger took the gun into the living tent and Ernest remade the pack. During the search, Mrs. von Minden had not spoken, though she eyed the work with keenest interest.
"Now," said Roger, "I will tell you both frankly that I don't care to have a family row carried on in this camp."
"I'm not trying to row, certainly," exclaimed von Minden. "It's all this woman."
"The woman is your wife, isn't she?" asked Ernest.
"In name only. I tell you I finished with women, years ago."
"But I haven't finished with you yet," commented his wife.
"What can you do to me?" sneered Crazy Dutch.
"I can do what They tell me. And They tell me to hang on to you like grim death until They bid me stop. I shall follow you and that strong box to the end of the earth, Otto!"
"But why! But why! You've always been glad enough to be rid of me before."
Mrs. von Minden, her pink sunbonnet pushed back to her shoulders, her eyes gleaming, took a menacing step toward her husband, and her voice rose hysterically.
"I know you! I know you! With your sneaking ways and your secret letters. I know that you're a dirty German spy. I know what that box holds. But what I want out of it is my marriage certificate and whatever else They tell me. I can't read German and They can. I can't throw fear into your black heart but They can. And if I told you the way They have interpreted some of your acts to me, you would crawl on your hands and knees to me."
Von Minden watched the woman with a stolid face. "Who are They?" he growled.
"They are the spirits of the dead. The great ones of the Universe are talking to me now, Otto von Minden! They directed me here. The hand of Fate is in it. Listen! You have not long to live, Otto. And all that you have lived for will be dust and ashes. All the work that you have done will be cast to the four winds of Heaven, while this man," pointing to Roger, "will found your empire for you. You have planted in intrigue and you will die in shame. Otto, let me go through the strong box."
"Clarissa," exclaimed Von Minden, with for the first time a note of pity in his voice, "you've gone crazy."
His wife smiled sardonically. "I'm going to see what is in the strong box, if I follow you to China," and with this she turned on her heel and disappeared into her tent. Nor did she come out again that night.
"Now, Mr. von Minden," said Roger sternly. "I tell you quite frankly, that you're not welcome here. If Miss Preble hadn't interceded for you, I'd hand you over to the authorities."
Crazy Dutch nodded affably. "You're quite right. I deserve it. But I've had a touch of the sun and for a moment I was out of my head. In this lonely country we must bear with each other."
"The way you bear with your wife, I suppose," suggested Ernest.
Von Minden looked half apprehensively over his shoulder at his wife's tent, then he said in a confidential whisper, "Now she is crazy and has been for years. Only she's crazy all the time so the only thing to do is to keep away from her. She was a very good, hard working woman, once."
"So I should judge from what she tells us," Roger's voice was grim. "It strikes us that you treated her as if she were a horse and not a woman. But that's not our business. Why did you come back here, Von Minden?"
"I came to apologize."
"Well, I accept the apology. Now you had better go on about your business and I'll get your wife back to Phoenix, some way."
Von Minden drew himself up. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Moore, I'm not in the habit of being spoken to in this manner. Apologize at once!"
Roger turned red. "Why you infernal little shrimp—" he began.
But Ernest interrupted. "Keep your temper, Rog. All this isn't worth seeing red for."
"Of course it isn't," said the little German briskly. "Now I'm planning to spend the evening with the Prebles and then I'll go on into the range. Peter, my dear, I'll give you a drink now. We were out in all this storm, gentlemen, but we don't mind them, Peter and I. There is a beauty about them, these passions of the desert. How are the Prebles?"
The two men started. "We were going up there," said Ernest. "Dick just went driving by at a gallop, without a word, toward Archer's Springs."
Von Minden scowled, started to speak, was silent, then said: "What do you think was the matter?"
"Let's go find out," urged Ernest.
The three men, Peter trailing at the rear, started hurriedly along the half obliterated trail toward the ranch.
The stillness after the day of warfare was heavenly. The violet of the sky had changed to the blue of larkspur, that now was shot with lacey streamers, rose pink from the setting sun. An oriole, balancing itself on Dick's line fence, poured forth a melody of transporting sweetness.
"O, by Jove!" exclaimed Roger suddenly, "look at Dick's alfalfa!"
The oriole fluttered away as they approached the fence. The field had not drifted badly. The draw to the north had prevented that. But the bright green shadow on the yellow sand of which Gustav had told them in the morning, was no more. A huge blight lay on the field with every tender plant blackened and dead.
"Poor old Dick!" groaned Ernest. Then he added plaintively, "But he's no tenderfoot. He knows desert storms. Why did he attempt it?"
"A storm like this, this time of year, is unheard of," said Von Minden. "Close to the mountain like this, Dick was choosing a good spot. See there are few drifts. Poor fellow!"
There were actual tears in Ernest's blue eyes as he looked at the blackened field. "Let's get to the girls," he urged.
At the corral gate they met Gustav.
"What's the trouble, Gustav?" cried Roger.
"Dick he vent to the field down to see how the alfalfa vas, then he came running like a mad man. He scolded Fraeulein Charley like it vas her fault, then he ran to the corral, hitched up and vent."
"But didn't you try to stop him?" demanded Roger.
"Not Fraeulein Charley. She just sat on the step and little Felicia on her lap and say nothing. But I vent to the corral to talk to Dick and he told me to go to hell. He vas a mad man, I tell you. Now I go milk."
Charley, at the sound of voices, came out to the steps. "Hello, Uncle Otto," she called. The men looked up at her. Her tanned cheeks were flushed, her fine square shoulders were tense. But her voice was gay:
"Have you and Mr. Moore had your duel?"
"It's postponed," replied Crazy Dutch.
Felicia scrambled past her sister and ran down to Roger: "Dick went away mad," she exclaimed. "He scolded Charley and me awful and made me cry. I hate to cry. It hurts my insides so."
Charley had joined them now. "Poor Dick!" she said. "That alfalfa field was dearer to him than any of you know. He'll cool down by the time he reaches Archer's and brings back more seed. Why can't you all stay to supper here?"
"It's too much trouble for you," protested Ernest, weakly.
"You can all help," said Charley. "Please all stay." Something in the eagerness of her low voice touched Roger as it did the other men.
"Of course, we're delighted to stay," he exclaimed, tossing Felicia to his shoulder. "Come along, chicken, we'll split some wood for sister."
"And me, I must wash myself," said Crazy Dutch, "and give Peter some hay."
"And me, I'll help get the supper," said Ernest.
THE LONELY HUNTER
As soon as Ernest and she were alone in the kitchen, Charley whispered: "How about Mrs. von Minden?"
"Oh, they had a fine row. She wants his strong box. She said at first that she didn't know what she wanted but later confessed that it was her marriage certificate plus something the Yogis were to put her wise to."
"Poor old soul!" exclaimed Charley softly. "What tragedy do you suppose is back of all this?"
"I don't know. But none of us urged the poor old girl to come up here with us. He says he's going to spend the night with you, but if Dick isn't here—"
"That's all right," said Charley. "He stays here often when Dick is gone. He and I are great friends. I shall say nothing at all about his wife, unless he does."
"That's the best cue, I think," agreed Ernest; "I'm so darned sorry about the alfalfa, Charley."
"Pioneer luck," replied the girl shaking her dark head. "I feel rather heartsick about it myself. If only Dick wouldn't go to pieces so! That's what worries me, because we may have many failures before the alfalfa catches and he is going to have such a hard time."
"I can't see why you chose such a difficult part of the world to farm in," mused Ernest.
"That's where the sport comes in," returned Charley with a smile.
Whatever discomfort Dick's surly and erratic moods may have cost her Charley gave no sign that evening of having any thought save the comfort and entertainment of her guests. Before Felicia had been sent to bed and after the men, all smoking, had listened to Von Minden's dissertation on sand storms, Charley suggested that Peter be invited in and put through his paces.
To the surprise and delight of the others, when Crazy Dutch went to the door and whistled, there was the sound of little hoof-beats on the porch, then Peter's gray head appeared enquiringly in the doorway.
"Wipe your feet and come in, Peter," said Crazy Dutch, returning to his seat by the fire.
The little donkey rubbed one hoof after the other on the straw mat before the sill, then advanced into the room. Felicia, who was in Roger's lap, trembled with excitement and pleasure.
"Now, Peter dear, here is your pipe," pulling a corncob from his pocket; "sit down and smoke it like a gentleman."
Peter took his pipe somewhat gingerly between his teeth and then with considerable difficulty backed his haunches down onto the box that Von Minden kicked over to him. There he sat gravely holding the empty pipe, his long ears moving slowly back and forth.
"All right, sweetheart, there's a bit of sugar for you. Shake hands with the ladies and gentlemen."
Like a great gray dog, Peter went from one to another, lifting his tiny hoof to be shaken. Felicia was afraid at first but ended by shaking the little unsteadily proffered hoof and kissing the little fellow's dusty forehead with a squeal of delight.
"Now you give us each a good night kiss, liebchen," ordered Von Minden, and as he indicated each person in turn, Peter followed and touched each one on the back of the neck, with his velvet nose.
"Now say good night," was the last order and Peter lifted his voice in a bray that shook the very rafters, after which he trotted out the door.
Certainly Peter and his master had never played to a more enthusiastic audience. Felicia wanted to go out and ride him then and there and Charley had to use considerable persuasion to get the excited little girl off to bed. But after this was accomplished Roger asked:
"Where did you get Peter? Will you sell him?"
Crazy Dutch darted an ugly look at Roger.
Charley cut in quickly. "Tell us where you found him, Uncle Otto. Mr. Moore was merely showing how much he admired Peter."
"I thought he'd be so fine for Felicia," exclaimed Roger.
Von Minden grunted. Then he lighted his pipe. "I have not always been as you see me now," he said. "I was a geologist of reputation and when my health demanded a hot climate, it was natural I should come here to look for mines for a great German company. I am lucky and I have brains and I have the greatest training in the world, German training, so I find several mines and then jealousies, jealousies—jealousies—" he fell to mumbling to himself.
Charley prompted him. "So you decided to strike out for yourself, about five years ago."
"Yes, I do so. By then, you see, I had gotten to understand the desert loneliness. I loved it and I sold myself to the desert, body and soul. All I asked was to wander about on her magnificent barren bosom. It seemed to me I was entirely happy. But one day I found a little young burro stuck in a crevice in a blind canyon. Evidently he had been abandoned by an Indian. Me, I climb down in the crevice and I tie his heels so he can't kick and with my geologist's pick and hammer I work so carefully all day till I get him out. Why such toil? Because I find when I look into Peter's deep eyes that I am lonely—lonely beyond the power of thought or word to describe. And Peter, from that day to this, has never left me, day or night."
"You are in excellent health again, Mr. von Minden," said Ernest. "Don't you plan ever to return to the Vaterland?"
"Yes! Yes!" cried Crazy Dutch, "but only when I can return with an empire in my hand for my Kaiser."
"Hoch!" said Gustav softly, "Hoch!"
"Hoch!" Roger and Ernest took up the exclamation with a laugh and a wave of their pipes, and Charley joined them, smiling. Von Minden looked deeply pleased.
"Yes! Yes!" he cried. "You all are good children, properly educated, ready to understand Germany as the citizens of no other country. You all speak German? Yes! And you all know German literature and music to be the best. Yes, ah, these great universities and high schools, they are doing their work wonderfully."
"If I fall down all together in getting my plant funded in this country, I'm going to Germany with it," said Roger abruptly.
"No, you aren't!" cried Charley, quickly; "I love Germany too, but America comes first."
Ernest rose with a sigh. "That may be, but with me, bed comes first."
"You will not be cross the next time we meet, eh?" asked Crazy Dutch as the men made their adieux.
"I'll try not to be!" replied Roger, not too enthusiastically.
When they had crawled into their cots, an hour later, Roger said: "Ern, do you realize that we haven't a drop of crude oil for the absorber flow?"
"Sure, I do," replied Ernest. "I've been wondering for days what we would do about it, but until I had a suggestion, I didn't want to bring the matter up."
"How much money do you think the Dean can get for the laboratory equipment?" asked Roger.
"Well, I hope at least two hundred dollars. But you know how those things go."
"We'll have to save every cent of that for grub," mused Roger. "Dick told me that over on Snake Peak there is a mine that closed down four years ago and that their engine was an oil burner. He says there hasn't been a watchman there for a year. There's a chance that they have left some oil."
"How'll you pay for it?" asked Ernest.
"Pay for it!" grunted Roger. "Wait till I find it, will you? You and Gustav clean up after the storm to-morrow and go on with the absorber. I'll take a tramp up to Snake Peak."
He was on his way before sun-up, the next morning, a canteen of water over his shoulder and a lunch in his pocket. He moved as rapidly as the heavy walking permitted, driven by a sense of impatience to which he gave no name. But subconsciously he realized that forever behind that beauty of the desert to which, like Von Minden, he felt he might gladly sell himself, loomed the menace of the desert's brutality which he was not equipped to fight and which he could overcome only by the extraordinary precision and swiftness of his work.
The sun was not half an hour high when Roger reached the top of the mountain behind the ranch. Here he gazed eastward across the low ranges to a peak which dominated all the crests around it, a jagged, black and brown monster, its top crimson now in the morning glow.
Roger stood breathing deeply, hat in hand, the sun turning his bronze hair red, his thin strong body erect against the morning sky. He could see no trail, so he determined to reach Snake Peak by a direct cross line. The peak would be lost to view when he reached the valley below so he sighted a lonely cedar on the crest of the opposite range and began to climb downward. It was stiff going. The prickly pear cactus and the ollas grew thick and the ground was covered with broken rock that made short work of his already well-worn shoes.
When Roger reached the lonely cedar the sun was two hours high. He had thought to make it in twenty minutes. He dropped, trembling with weariness in the shadow of a little tree, drank deeply of the canteen and gave himself ten minutes of rest, lying flat on his back, his eyes on the magnificent expanse of the heavens.
The ten minutes up, he crossed the narrow ridge and after a moment found a landmark on the opposite crest, a single black rock against a lavender outcropping. Again he plunged into the narrow valley below him falling, sliding and swearing, then scrambling and clambering with knee and elbow and broken nail, until after another hour's interval, he cast himself down on the lavender outcropping.
Snake Peak was now just across the canyon and he could see clearly the gray white of the tailing dump that marked the mine. It was well after eleven when in a fury of impatience he reached his final goal.
The loneliness of the untouched wilderness is not so great as that of the deserted habitation. Roger had not felt the desert's solitude until he dropped on a bench outside the cook house and began to examine the lost endeavor about him. There were bunk houses and office buildings, shaft and engine houses, aerial tramways and car tracks, all the many and costly appurtenances of desert mining. Sand lay thick over everything. The silence was complete save for the flopping of the torn canvas that had been fastened over a hoist.
A sense of profound depression settled upon Roger. He dropped his head in his hands with a groan. A dream, vastly better financed than his own, had come to naught in the face of the distances and the difficulties of the desert. Was there any greater hell, he wondered than to be hounded by a creative desire for which there was no outlet; to have stored within one's brain gifts indispensable to humanity's best development, of which humanity would take heed only after the creator had been crucified by desperate handicaps and indifference.
As Roger brooded, his eyes fell on the engine house and a carefully locked shed beside it. His face brightened. He got stiffly to his feet and plodded up to the window of the engine house, raised it and clambered within. A great engine shrouded with greasy canvas lay in the dusky room. It was a gas-producer type, in excellent condition. Roger went over it as tenderly and eagerly as a horseman goes over a thoroughbred racer. Then he went through the open door into the shed adjoining. It was full of oil drums, some of them empty but with a sufficient number filled to more than satisfy Roger's needs.
He suddenly began to whistle cheerfully, went over the engine again and was still whistling when he climbed out of the window and sat down on the bench to eat his lunch. When he had finished eating he lighted his pipe and sat smoking at ease. Life was not so bad, by Jove! One could make the desert his if one had resourcefulness and courage. As soon as Dick's horses were rested after their return from Archer's Springs, they must start hauling oil. Of course, though, that beastly re-seeding would have to be done first. Roger's shoulders twitched impatiently and he started abruptly homeward.
The sun had set, when weary beyond words, he reached the Sun Plant.
"Well! Did you run across the Von Mindens?" was Ernest's greeting.
"No! What's happened?"
"We don't know. The old lady was so long coming out of her tent that toward noon I investigated, to find that she was no longer with us. I went up to Prebles' and Charley reported that two of the madam's burros were missing this morning as well as the pack ropes. We think that she hit out in the night and is trailing the old boy up in the ranges. He started off early, serene in the thought that she was down here. Charley didn't mention the burros to him."
"Well, thank heaven for small favors!" exclaimed Roger. "She certainly got on my nerves."
"Did you find oil?" asked Gustav.
"Yes, I unearthed a fine cache of it. I wish you folks could see the outfit up there on Snake Peak," and he told them what he had found.
"But you aren't going to annex that oil until you hear from the owners?" exclaimed Ernest.
"You write to the owners, when we get it here, enclosing a check for the oil at market rates. I may have trouble, but I doubt it."
They were sitting as usual before their tent smoking their good night pipes.
"You will get into trouble, Rog," warned Ernest. "Impatience is all right and good driving power, but what's the use of laying yourself open to difficulties?"
"Don't be an old maid, Ern, with your piffling German conscientiousness. I haven't the slightest notion of stealing. I'll pay for every drop of the oil—"
"How vas the road?" asked Gustav.
"No road at all," replied Roger. "I just plunged through across country."
"Then, the horses, where—"
"Lord, that's right!" interrupted Roger. "I noticed that there was a good enough road leading out of the mine to the south—toward Archer's Springs. But it's clear on the other side of the range and parallel to this trail, of course. No good to us at all. Don't tell me we've got to build a road to get that oil out. My lord, what a country!"
"Vell," said Gustav, "if it is too hard to get it out, then you don't steal it, then you don't break the law, then you don't get arrested, so that is good."
"Don't you think I won't get it out, if I have to pack it out in a canteen," said Roger. "High treason, arson, murder are nothing to stand between me and that cache of oil."
"You'd better swipe two teams of horses, Rog, on one of your predatory expeditions," exclaimed Ernest. "Dick may need his own horses occasionally this spring."
Roger rose and knocked the ashes out of his pipe. "I'd like to swipe that gas producer engine up there," he replied and went to bed.
It was late the next afternoon when Dick drove slowly along the trail. The three men were flat on their backs under the absorber, patching leaks, when they heard the squeak of the wagon and the soft tread of horses' hoofs in the sand. They made no attempt to greet him.
The next morning, however, Roger plodded up to the ranch house to consult with Dick about the moving of the oil. Although it was close to eight o'clock, Dick was just finishing breakfast. He was cheerful and talkative.
"Don't try to use horses," he urged. "There's old Rabbit Tail lives ten miles over the range. He's got a bunch of little wild burros and he does packing for the miners when there is any. He'll pack that oil for you."
Roger brightened up, then shook his head. "I can't pay him. The Smithsonian folks aren't coming up to the scratch and I've got to finish this job without funds. I've about twenty-five dollars in hand and two hundred more in sight. I thought perhaps I could exchange work with you. Help you to re-seed and then to increase your irrigating capacity here."
"Gosh, that's hard luck!" exclaimed Dick. "Did you hear that, Charley, about Roger's money?"
Charley, who had been busy in the kitchen, came in now with a fresh cup of coffee for Roger in one hand and an extra chair in the other. Had Roger's mind been less concentrated on the problem in hand he might have noted the fine ease with which she swung the chair up to the table for him before either he or Dick could proffer help. Charley was so slender that one did not easily recognize the splendid strength she sometimes displayed.
"Yes, I heard," said Charley with a look of sympathy at the restless fire in Roger's deep gray eyes. "I guess we're all up against it and will have to cultivate patience. Perhaps Rabbit Tail will trust you, Roger."
"I call him Roger dear, and he likes it. Why don't you too, Charley?" interrupted Felicia, coming in from the porch where she had been building an adobe doll house.
The abstracted look left Roger's face for a moment. "Yes, why don't you, Charley?" he asked with a grin that made his face look bright.
Charley laughed. "If it will make you look human, like that," she exclaimed, "I will call you anything you wish, Roger dear!"
Roger's grin faded to an expression that was curiously tense. Dick, who had been giving only half attention to this exchange, now said: "Rabbit Tail won't trust you. He's had too many dealings with the whites, poor devil. We'll have to break a trail to the mine and use our team. Just let me get that alfalfa in again, Roger, and I'll help you out."
"I can pay you up in days' work as far as the use of your time and team go," said Roger. "What I'll always be in your debt for is the advice and backing you give me."
Dick grunted. "I'm glad my four years' hell down here is of value to some one. I'll let you know when I've finished re-seeding."
"I want to help on that," insisted Roger. "Our international debt is getting too one-sided."
"Well, I'll be mighty grateful to you," sighed Dick. "I'll take your help on the re-seeding, but I'll be still more appreciative if you'll take a look at my gasoline engine to-morrow morning. I've spun that fly wheel until my hope of salvation's gone. And I've got to wet that field down."
"I'll get at it now," said Roger.
With Felicia trailing at his heels, Roger made his way to the shed beside the spring. The engine and pump were both old. Roger tinkered for a half hour, Felicia standing by to hand him the wrench or the oil can on demand.
"Do you love me, Roger?" the child asked, as Roger tugged at a rusty oil cup screw.
"I certainly do. Do you love me?"
"Yes. Do you love Charley?"
"Well, I'm fond of Charley. I've known her a long time, you know."
"But you aren't fonder of her than you are of me?" insisted Felicia.
"Certainly not! You're my best sweetheart. Now the oil can, Felicia."
The little girl stared at Roger, with speculative eyes. "Charley says you're very interesting. What is an interesting man, Roger?"
"One who knows how to start a gas engine, chicken," exclaimed Charley, coming into the shed. "Mercy, Felicia, are you always as personal as this?"
"Felicia is nothing if not feminine." Roger tugged at the fly wheel and grinned at Charley who made a little grimace.
"Roger likes it!" exclaimed Felicia. "He belongs to me, Charley. He likes me bettern you, he says so."
"Well, it is like this, Charley—" began Roger elaborately.
Charley cut him off with a wave of her hand. "Nothing can explain away that blow, Roger." Then she went on, soberly. "Do you suppose the old lemon will pull us through our first crop?"
"I don't know, Charley. One never does about a gasoline engine. There's always more life in an old one though than one realizes. If this does fail you, however, I'll be in running shape in two months' time with my solar engine. Don't forget that."
"When do you expect to make your first actual test?" asked Charley.
"Well, the engine will be here almost any time now. If the Dean has done a good construction job, I ought to be able to make a tentative connection in six weeks' time."
"How do you mean a good job?" asked Charley.
"Well, this is the first full size fifty horse power engine that we've built. You see, I've had no money and we've worked from models, though I did build one ten horse power engine. That worries me a little, but I'm sure that any defects that appear will be easily remedied. Now then, this old mule ought to begin to kick!"
Roger turned the fly wheel again and an obstinate Put! Put! Put! came from the engine, then a long pause, during which the audience of three waited anxiously, then a steady Put! Put! Put! Put! Put! that promised to last as long as did the gasoline.
"If the old thing could just realize all that depends on its behaving itself!" exclaimed Charley. "Roger, let's throw in the pump, I really believe it's going to run!"
And run it did, during the entire day, with only three stops for repair. Roger worked until late afternoon with Dick and the next day Gustav took his place. The damage done by the dust storm to the absorber was now completely remedied and Roger and Ernest began work on a shallow concrete trough on which the condenser was to be erected. By the time this was completed, Dick's second sowing was finished and he announced himself ready for road building.
At first, Roger felt violently resentful at the thought of having to build a road. It seemed to him that after all his years of patient persistency, fate at the last was playing him a scurvy trick. She had brought his goal within sight, only to beset it with delays and difficulties whose very paltriness it seemed to him he could not endure. And a feverish little flame of impatience began to glow within him that was not to be extinguished for many months. However when, pick in hand, he actually began with the others to break the road, a sudden elation swept over him. After all, primitive as this work might be, it was empire building of the most fundamental sort. And, in spite of his anxieties and impatience, Roger did his share of the road building with right good will.
They began work in the range back of the ranch, taking advantage of draw and canyon whenever possible, even when this demanded a long detour. Sometimes, the canyon bottoms were astonishingly level. At other times boulders and crevices would block them until they had made free use of dynamite. They had all sorts of minor mishaps. Dick was not an expert either in road grading or blasting, although he was far ahead of the Sun Planters in his information about both.
In running the road up the side of Snake Peak he used too heavy a charge and brought down a land slide which it took them a day to clear. On a previous day he had blasted too close to the wagon and a bowlder had smashed the rear axle. He took extraordinarily narrow chances with the steepness of grade but in spite of the Sun Planters' prophecies they did not lose either horses or wagon down canyon or mountain side. Ernest, however, slipped on top of one of the finished sections and rolled two hundred feet before he could stop himself.
When, after two weeks' steady labor, Dick pronounced the road good enough, the others looked at him aghast. "You'll break your wagon and your horses' necks, to say nothing of losing the oil!" protested Ernest.
Dick only laughed. "This is a boulevard compared with some of the desert routes I've taken. With just a few drums of oil lashed on at a time, we'll make it."
And make it he did, though nearly another week was consumed in the doing, and four drums of the oil were lost in different draws and canyons. After the road was finished, the transporting of the oil was turned over to Ernest and Dick while Roger and Gustav began the erecting of the condenser. Ernest was now quite reconciled to the use of the oil for Hackett had received a telegram from the owner in San Francisco that the deal was more than satisfactory to him.
Roger and Gustav worked well together. The self-controlled German, evidently accustomed to hard grind and overwork in an office job, was not in the least ruffled by Roger's impatient ways. And he distinctly enjoyed the vim and imagination that were characteristic of Roger's work even when it involved the seemingly simple task of cutting and threading condenser pipe. For cutting and threading condenser pipe so that it shall be leak proof is not a simple job at all.
April came to the desert with a noon temperature of a hundred degrees in the shade. Imperceptibly the daily breeze stiffened to a noon gale. There were no sand storms however for six weeks and the second alfalfa crop caught toe hold and grew, an amazing patch of green on the thirsty yellow sand.
The ranch house engine misbehaved, regularly, but Roger developed what Charley called actual genius for tinkering and somehow the five acres were watered. When the morning stillness was broken by the first uneven Put! Put! of the engine, the Sun Planters would pause in their work and listen intently. If, after due patience, the Put! Put! developed into a steady throb, they resumed work. But if after a spasm or two, silence reigned again, Roger would pull his hat over his eyes and start for the ranch, and eventually that day, water would be given the parching fields. In the meantime, Dick began to prepare a second five-acre patch for late sowing.
Early in the month Roger received a check from the Dean for one hundred and sixty dollars. He resolved to put all but a few dollars of this into a supply of food and with Charley's help, he made a list that Gustav filled at Hackett's. There was provision for over three months in this list and Roger felt sure that this period of time would see the completion of the plant.
A curt letter had come to Roger from the Smithsonian Institution saying merely that his case was being investigated and that in due time a report and decision would reach him. With this, Roger was obliged to be content. He had little faith, however, that the Institution would go on with Austin's undertaking and he resolved to push ahead with all speed, taking advantage of what was left of the golden opportunity Austin had offered him.
Late in April, the engine reached Archer's Springs. Hackett, who was properly equipped for heavy freighting, as poor willing Dick was not, undertook to haul the engine to the camp. He was entirely willing, he told Roger, to wait for his pay.
"No great loss," he said, "if I don't get it. But I got confidence in you and though your idea do seem awful nutty, if anything comes of it, I ain't going to have it said I done something to set back our community here. We got a great state and a great county and I'm here to promote 'em both."
So the dismantled engine was landed, without too great difficulty, in the waiting engine house and as soon as the condenser was finished, the three men began to set up this child of Roger's heart and brain. But after the heavy work was done Roger would let no one attempt adjusting the parts but himself. He set Ernest and Gustav to digging the oil pit for the storing of the sun-heated oil and spent his days and part of his nights in the engine house.
As the weeks slipped into May, many were the surmises as to what had become of the Von Mindens. The madam's tent stood just as she had left it and the burros she had left behind ranged about the desert, near the Preble corral, coming home each night for the good feed Dick gave them.
Almost every day Felicia came to the plant. Her love for Roger and Roger's for her was an accepted thing now between the two households. Only Charley could draw the child away from the abstracted, hard-driven young engineer and Dick showed his innate generosity in that though he adored the little girl he did not harbor a grudge because Felicia so frankly declared her preference for Roger.
After the condenser was finished Felicia took a deep interest in helping Roger to find leaks in the system. Roger taught her to squirt oil from an oil can over the different points and to interpret bubbles rising from the resulting oil flow as leaks. It was the quaintest sight in the world to see the slender little figure in blue overalls, brown head running over with short curls, crawling like a little lizard over the greasy pipes while Roger followed with pipe wrench, cold chisel and peen hammer. After Roger began work on the engine, Felicia became a sort of plumber's assistant and a clever one, at that.
Sometimes Charley came late in the afternoon to take Felicia home. She would perch on the edge of the work bench and talk to Roger about the work in a voice and with an unself-conscious manner so like her small sister's that Roger, his restless mind on the problems of his work, often confused the two girls in his thoughts and answered or directed them indiscriminately. And Charley would chuckle as she watched him.
The day in May that the men began a test for oil leaks in the absorber dawned with a promise of ferocious heat. Felicia appeared as usual but admitted that she had come over Charley's protest.
"We'll have to leave off work at eleven, and not begin again until three as Dick suggested, if this heat keeps up," observed Ernest.
"Then we'll begin work at dawn," said Roger, with a sigh. "Every minute counts, old man."
About nine o'clock Charley came panting down the trail.
"Felicia must come home at once," she cried. "There's a big sand storm coming. Dick is getting the stock under cover as fast as he can."
The men dropped their tools hurriedly and looked up the valley. A great gray cloud was approaching so rapidly that as they gazed they caught the sound of its increasing roar. The sky, which had been sapphire of an unusual translucence that morning, turned all in a moment to a sullen red gray. There was a dry rattle of lizards and horned toads scuttling into the roots of grease wood and cactus.
"You mustn't try to go home, Charley," exclaimed Roger.
"But I must! Dick and his alfalfa! He can't be alone!"
But Dick was destined to spend the day in solitude. With a very Niagara of sound the sand storm struck the camp. Charley and Felicia ran for the living tent where the men shortly joined them. They closed the flaps and settled to a day of discomfort. The engine house would have been more comfortable than the tent but it was too cumbered with machinery now to be used as a sitting room. There was no work that could be done indoors. The heat was stifling, a hundred and six the thermometer over the washstand trunk reported. The tent rocked and bellied, bellied and flapped with reverberations like drum-beats. Felicia was frightened at first and hid her head in Charley's lap. Charley herself was white-lipped, less, Ernest thought, from fear of the storm than from that vague apprehension about Dick that never seemed to leave her.
For a time Roger sat scowling with impatience, then Felicia's fear moved him and calling the child to him he began to tell her of the old swimming pool. The others listened and laughed and when Felicia begged for more, Gustav told a charming tale of his own Bavarian childhood. And he and Ernest sang together some tender folk songs which Felicia insisted on learning. While Gustav and Ernest undertook this pleasant task Charley and Roger talked.
At Charley's request, Roger brought out his blue prints and explained the plant to her. He felt his impatience lifting as he talked. Explaining his work always seemed to increase his critical vision. New ideas came flooding, and he pulled out his note book, feeling that after all the day was not entirely wasted.
So, in spite of the bitter taste of alkali in their mouths and its sting in their eyes, in spite of the breathless burning heat, the morning passed cheerfully. They even managed to satisfy their hunger with canned beef and canned brown bread. They had washed down the last of the unsavory lunch with the tepid, nauseously alkaline water from the olla when a gust of wind of tremendous proportions tore open the door flap and filled the room with a blinding swirl of sand. At the same moment there was a fearful crash from without, followed by the sound of breaking glass. Leaving Charley to refasten the door flap, the three men bolted toward the absorber.
The sand cloud was so dense that they could distinguish little until in actual contact with the edge of the trough. Then the trouble was obvious. A part of the sheet iron roof had blown off the engine house, and lay in a great twisted heap on the absorber. Roger immediately crawled under the trough. The heavy metal had pierced the floor of the absorber and oil was pouring out in a thin but steady stream. He pawed his way out hurriedly.