"Go shut the oil off, Ernest," he shouted, "and get pails to catch that oil. Why the devil did some one leave the valve open? Gustav, give me a hand with this mess. Why didn't we have sense enough to fasten it securely? If we don't move it, it may blow the length of the trough."
Roger plunged hastily up among the panes of broken glass, Gustav following. After a moment of effort the guilty mass of sheet iron was shoved over onto the sand. Just at the last a particularly vicious blast of wind twisted it violently against Gustav's bare arm.
"Du lieber Gott!" he roared. "Be careful yet!"
"Now let's cover the engine," shouted Roger, giving no heed to Gustav's cry.
"Hell mit the engine! Look!" Gustav thrust his left hand in Roger's face. The sleeve was dripping blood. Roger seized Gustav's arm tightly above the elbow. "Come over to the tent, Gustav," he said.
Stumbling blindly through the sand drifts the two men reached the tent, where just as they crept inside the flap, Gustav fainted. Charley ran forward and before Roger could protest had helped lift Gustav to his cot.
"I don't think it's so bad. He never can stand the sight of blood," said Roger.
They stripped back the sleeve as Roger spoke. A gash several inches long in Gustav's upper arm had laid bare the bone. Felicia began to cry.
"I've got a first aid kit, somewhere," said Roger, running to dig wildly through the trunks, emerging in a moment with a black box, from which he produced a tourniquet. They applied this quickly.
"Now, is there some alcohol here?" asked Charley. "We will wash it off with that until we can boil some water. Felicia, you go put all the things back nicely in the boys' trunks, and don't pay any attention to us."
Felicia was quickly absorbed in this altogether fascinating task, while Charley's skillful fingers made a temporary bandage for Gustav's arm. He was conscious now and offered a sick protest against Charley's suggestion:
"Let's cut this shirt off him, Roger. It's saturated with blood. I'll sew it up for him later."
Gustav sat up and before he could do more, Roger and Charley had removed his shirt. To their surprise they found he was wearing two, the second shirt having a particularly huge pocket, full of papers that were blood saturated.
"Don't touch that, don't!" cried Gustav. Then catching sight of the blood stains, he fainted again.
"Who'd think old Gustav was such a perfect lady," chuckled Roger. "Here, let's get him cleaned up now before he comes to, again."
They pulled off the second shirt, and put on one of Roger's fresh ones. Then while Charley gave Gustav some water, Roger took the papers from the bloody pockets of the second shirt.
"I'll wipe these off before the blood sets," he said. Then his eye caught a memorandum in German "Low pressure engine—new detail. Moore." Roger quickly opened the paper. It was about six inches square and was a copy of a detail of one of Roger's patent drawings.
"I'll be damned!" muttered Roger, his face flushing darkly.
He ran through other sheets. There were more drawings and some carefully written notes on Roger's general scheme for heat utilization. He was reading these very deliberately when Ernest came in.
"Whew, what a country!" began Ernest, then he stopped with a gasp.
Gustav, who was sitting up again, groaned weakly.
"I vas a chicken-fool, eh, Miss Charley?"
Roger crossed to the bed with a stride. "Look here, Schmidt," he said, "the sooner you get your things together and get out of here, the better I'll like it."
Gustav stood up. His jaw dropped. Then his eye fell on the papers in Roger's hand.
"I told you not to take off the shirt from me!" he cried.
"What's the matter, Rog?" asked Ernest.
"Matter? Matter? Why, this fellow is a thief. He's been stealing my ideas. Go on now! Get out of here!"
Ernest took the blood-stained papers and glanced at them hurriedly.
"Hold on! Be cool, Roger! Give Gustav a chance to explain."
"Explain! Explain what? Just how he stole these? Tear those papers up, Ernest, and take this Dutchman out of my sight. Get him out, I tell you."
Ernest hesitated. In all the years he had known Roger he never had seen him in a passion like this. Felicia flew over to Charley who stood with wide troubled eyes on Roger's distorted face. The child was white and trembling.
"Ernest!" thundered Roger.
With a glance at Gustav, Ernest began to tear up the papers.
"Roger! Please! Bitte! I can explain," began Gustav.
"Don't speak to me. I've heard vague stories of how German manufacturers get their ideas. This, I know: in the morning, you'll start for Archer's Springs, you skunk!"
"Oh, Rog!" protested Ernest.
"How dare you protest, Ernest?" Roger turned on his friend furiously. "You know what that engine means to me. You know the difficulty of patent protection and now this dirty hound—"
"Here! That I von't take from any man," cried Gustav. "You vas acting like a fool, Roger."
Roger lunged forward with his right fist swinging. But before Ernest could interfere, Charley had caught the clenched fist with both her hands, and was clinging to it with all her fine strength.
"Oh, Roger!" she cried. "Oh, Roger! Roger!"
Roger dropped his arm and stared at her for a moment. Her eyes, so like Felicia's, so unlike them, returned his furious gaze, unflinching. Suddenly, he grew pale and without a word, turned on his heel and left the tent.
He made his way to the engine house. Ernest had covered the engine with a tent fly, but Roger did not even glance at the idol of his heart. He made his way back where the roof still offered some protection from the storm and sat down on an empty box. An hour, then another slipped by, the sand sifting heavily on Roger as he crouched motionless, his head in his hands.
At the end of the first hour, the storm had lessened perceptibly and by the time the second had passed, the westering sun was flashing through the dusty windows. Voices outside did not rouse Roger, but when Charley slipped in through the sagging door, he looked up. The girl returned his look soberly and sat down on a pile of adobe brick near him.
Roger looked at her curiously. No one, excepting his mother, had ever before checked one of his flights of fury, midway. Sometimes, as in the episode with young Hallock, he had been able to check himself, but this was not frequent.
"Why did you do that? Why did you interfere?" he asked abruptly.
"I couldn't stand by and see you make a mess of your life," replied Charley, "just as things seemed to be going well."
"Going well!" repeated Roger sardonically. "Why, I've been sitting here for hours, bringing myself to the realization of the fact that my life is a hopeless mess. I can't trust any one. I can't get help. I can't do it all alone. I'm going to quit this game and get a job."
"Roger," said Charley slowly, "do you want to know what's the matter with you, aside from your temper? You're completely work- and self-centered. You don't take human beings into your calculations at all. And you won't be a real success until you get to studying and liking people as well as you do machinery. If you'd given about a tenth of the thought to Gustav that you have, say, to stopping the leaks in the condenser, and then if you'd used the same patience with him to-day that you would to a big leak in the pipes, you'd be farther ahead on your job and a good deal bigger man. Roger, the more I see of you the more I'm convinced that your failure is a good deal less the result of other people's indifference than it is of your own temperamental peculiarities and weaknesses."
Roger's face flushed again. "What business have you got talking this way to me?" he blurted out, angrily.
"Every business in the world," returned Charley serenely. "I like you, and your work is very important. Anything I can do to help get it across, I'm going to do, regardless of your feelings. I have an idea that no one has really helped you since your mother died—that is, with your temper."
The anger died out of Roger's eyes. Once again he seemed to feel that faint and heavenly touch upon his forehead. It did not seem to him possible that what this girl said of him was true. And yet there was in the depths of her steady brown eyes a sort of ageless wisdom that made him feel awkward and immature. An ageless wisdom, with the sweetness and purity of the child Felicia's gaze. Lovely drooping lips that were Felicia's, and yet were, because of their sad patience, not Felicia's, but belonged to a woman who reminded him of his mother.
Roger continued to stare at Charley as if he never had seen her before. After a moment he said in a half-whisper, "By Jove, I believe you are a friend to me—with nerve enough to tell me the truth as you see it, which Ernest never had. And he's been my only friend. Perhaps you're right, perhaps part of the fault has been with myself. O Lord, Charley! I do need some one to tell me the truth, I certainly do."
Charley put out her hand to lay it on Roger's shoulder.
"Poor child!" she said, softly.
In a moment, Roger was a little boy again, back at his mother's side. "O God!" he whispered, and throwing himself forward on his knees, buried his head in Charley's lap. She laid her hand on his head with the touch that had been his mother's. "Poor lonely child," she said again. And for the first time in nearly ten years, Roger burst into tears.
Charley, smoothing his heavy black hair, said nothing more until Roger sheepishly raised his head and pulled out a very dirty handkerchief.
Then she said in a very matter-of-fact voice, "By the way, as soon as the storm let up a little, I had Ernest take Gustav up to the ranch. I can take care of him up there and I didn't want Dick to be alone any longer."
"Where's Felicia?" asked Roger.
"She's asleep in the tent, I must wake her up and take her home now. The storm is over."
"Leave her with me a little while," said Roger. "I'll bring her home."
"All right, come up for supper. Ernest and Dick will help me get it."
Roger nodded and Charley started along the drifted trail to the ranch while Roger went to the tent. Felicia slept on while he shaved and put the tent in order. Then he stooped over the cot and raised her.
"Suppertime, little sweetheart," he said.
Felicia woke with a start. "Don't be cross, Roger," she exclaimed after blinking at him for an instant.
"I couldn't be cross with you, Felicia," Roger lifted her in his arms and held her against his heart.
"Never, Felicia. You must never be afraid of me, even when I scold other people. Because I love you very much, Felicia."
The child threw her arms around Roger's neck and they both looked off to the ranch house, where the windows glowed red in the sunset. There was something infinitely soothing to Roger in Felicia's embrace and he held her until she wriggled impatiently and announced that she was hungry.
"We'll head for supper," he said, and putting her down he took her hand and they started through the sand for the ranch and Charley. Gustav was waiting for them at the edge of the corral.
"Felicia, you run on up to the house and tell Charley I'll be there in a minute," said Roger.
DEATH IN THE DESERT
"Don't scold Gustav," cried Felicia.
"I won't," replied Roger, grimly, and the child sped up the path to the porch.
"Roger! I did not mean nodings to hurt you! Vy, you ver like my own son. I vas having a plan to help you. Please, Roger, listen—Bitte sehr!"
Roger was a little pale and his lips were stiff but he had himself well in hand.
"Look here, Gustav, you know you sneaked on me, don't you?"
"Yes, but it vas to help you. I vas an inventor, Roger. I haf many ideas."
"Oh! That was it, was it?" He looked at Gustav's sweaty face, usually so placid, now distorted with pain and anxiety. "Well, all right, old man! I guess I was a bit hasty. But I want you to give me your word of honor to take no more notes and under no circumstances to give any one any information about my work."
Gustav's face cleared as if by magic. He shook Roger's proffered hand heartily. "I promise. Absolute, I promise. Thank you; thank you much, Roger."
"Right-o—come on now, let's go to supper," and the two swung up the trail, and into the adobe, where, after a glance at their faces, their waiting friends greeted them hilariously.
"The alfalfa has come through, Roger," shouted Dick. "I guess the worst is over for me, all right. I'll take an order right now for five tons of alfalfa from you, Charley."
"Better let Felicia order," replied Charley. "I understand that Mr. von Minden is going to find a burro for her, the exact twin of Peter."
"And he's going to learn to do everything Peter does," added Felicia, "and Ernest says I must name him Re-peater. Please let's have supper."
Gustav made a poor fist at eating. His arm gave him a great deal of pain and it was finally decided that Ernest should take the patient team and that night drive Gustav to the doctor. They made the start immediately after supper and did not return until the third day following. Gustav was one-armed for some time but managed to make himself indispensable, nevertheless.
As summer advanced, a new working schedule that precluded labor in the middle of the day was inaugurated. The more intense the heat grew, the more intense, it seemed to Roger, grew the weird beauty of the desert. The midnight stars seemed hardly to have blossomed before dawn turned the desert world to a delicate transparent yellow, deepening at the zenith to blue and on the desert floor to orange. As the sun rose, the yellow changed suddenly to scarlet and for a few moments earth and sky quivered in a lambent red fire. When the sun had shot clear of the mountains, details of landscape and contrasts of color were accented. Clear black of peaks, crimson of canyons, purple of rifts in the ranges, bright moss green of cactus dots on the yellow desert floor. And always to the west that far melting loveliness of blue and gold and black that was the River Range. And always the quivering, parching air that burned against the body like a furnace blast.
Ernest felt the heat more than Roger did and lost weight. But though he complained a great deal he stuck to his work manfully.
After Ernest and Gustav had returned from Archer's Springs and the ravages caused by the desert storm had been repaired, Roger started on a hunt into the ranges for more window glass. He dared spend his money for nothing but food.
He outfitted for a three day trip, carrying a blanket, the two-gallon canteen, beans, canned pears and a batch of baking powder biscuits. Dick gave him minute directions as to the location of different mines and of springs, and Roger started off confidently.
There was very little glass left in the Goodloe mines where Roger had located the oil. But Dick knew of mines some ten miles north along the backbone of the ranges and these Roger had as an objective when he left the camp in the yellow dawn.
He reached the Goodloe district by mid-morning. There was no trail to the north but he jogged along all the afternoon by compass and sun, keeping to the top of the ridge whenever possible. During all this time he saw no sign of human habitation. Indeed the only living beings he beheld that day were two buzzards circling meditatively over a distant peak and a lonely coyote skulking against the sky on a neighboring ridge. By six o'clock he was tired beyond expression and he had lost all idea of the number of miles he had covered, so tortuous had been the seemingly direct line of the ridge.
Roger was in no wise discomfitted or discouraged, however. He made his camp in a little sandy draw on the side of the ridge which was full of stunted cedars. He cut up one cedar for his fire and drew on the others for sufficient twigs to cushion his blanket bed, then in spite of the heat he slept the sleep that belongs to the open.
He was on his way at daylight, whistling cheerfully into the vast distances that unrolled about him. Mid-morning came, and then noon. Half the time allotted for the trip had gone, and still there was no sign of deserted mines.
Roger smoked a long pipe after his lunch, chewing impatiently on his pipestem and swearing under his breath from time to time. He was tempted violently to keep on to the north, but remembering Dick's repeated warnings as to the danger of running out of water he finally won his own consent to turning back. He determined, however, to make the return trip on the neighboring range, to the east.
He hoisted his pack and started heavily down into the valley that separated him from the next range. It was a good two miles of tooth and nail climbing and the canyon was filled with afternoon shadows when Roger reached the foot-wall of the east range. The heat was almost intolerable.
As he paused here, far above his head a donkey brayed. Roger started quickly upward and for an hour was led by the brayings that grew louder as he neared the top. As he crawled around the last brown rock heap that crowned the ridge, he almost stepped on a man beside whom stood a little gray burro.
"Peter!" said Roger. Then, "I say, Von Minden!"
He stooped over the quiet form at his feet. The little German was lying on his face, his iron-gray head resting on his arm. His blue overalls and faded red sweater were covered with a light sifting of dust. His pack lay beside him, unopened.
Roger turned him over, and as he did so Peter backed off. Von Minden was dead. He had been dead a long time Roger thought, as shuddering, he looked down on the bearded, distorted face. Roger took off his own pack and went over the body carefully. There was no sign whatever of any violence. He made a careful survey of the immediate surroundings, but there was no trace of Mrs. von Minden to be found.
Peter watched Roger's every move, moving his long ears back and forth enquiringly.
There was nothing whatever in Von Minden's pockets, except a jack knife. There was neither food in his pack nor water in his canteen. The one sack contained only a few ore samples. The dispatch box was not to be found.
It was impossible to dig a grave on that peak of solid rock. Moreover, Roger had an idea that the authorities—if there were authorities in the desert world—ought to find the body as he had found it. He cut down several of the stunted cedars and piled them over the pathetic heap, under the blanket. On these he heaped stones, as heavy as he could lift until he felt sure that neither coyote, nor yet the buzzards that circled meditatively above could disturb the mound.
The sun was setting when he had finished.
"There Peter," said he, "you did your bit, keeping the beasts away. And now I've done mine, so we'll move on."
Roger stood for a moment looking from Peter to the mound, then at the wide sweep of the ranges about. The whole world was spread before him in utter silence; range beyond range, desert beyond desert into a violet distance so great that the fancy staggered in contemplating it. For the first time a feeling of utter desolation swept over Roger.
What a death! What a burial! Moved by the impulse that is the heritage of the ages, Roger took off his hat and bowed his head.
"O God!" he said softly. "Receive this man's soul and give him peace. Amen!"
Then he turned south along the range. He had gone a hundred yards when he remembered Peter and turned back. The little fellow was standing, head drooping, ears flopping beside the grave. Roger whistled but Peter gave no heed, and finally Roger was compelled to go back, tie the lead rope to Peter's bridle and fairly pull him along the trail.
Roger did not pause until he had put a peak between himself and that lonely grave. Then, when the moon was sailing high, he made camp by a great bowlder. He turned Peter loose, a little fearfully at first, but the wise little burro made no attempt to turn back. When Roger was seated cross-legged by the fire eating bacon and beans, Peter dropped his nose over Roger's shoulder with a sigh.
"Hungry, old Peter?" asked Roger. "I haven't got much, but by Jove, you can have half of that," and he scooped half of the contents of his plate on a nearby stone. Peter ate it gravely, after which Roger poured a cup of his precious water into the frying pan for the little donkey's benefit. Then while Peter seemed to doze with his nose dropped almost to the ground, Roger sat long in the hot night, smoking and wrapped in thought.
Since the death of his father, Roger had had no contact with the Grim Reaper, and the tragic discovery of the afternoon had shaken him. Yet as he sat looking out over the impenetrable calm and mystery of the ranges that lifted their noble peaks to the sailing moon, it seemed to him that death in the desert was a clean and normal part of life. If his Sun Plant were finished, if the best of him, his dreams, were made permanent in concrete and steel, what more happy ending could he ask than to lie at last asleep on a desert peak: these peaks still unsmirched by the hand of man; still fresh from the hand of God.
It was with this thought that Roger finally fell asleep while the moon sank behind the far horizon, the night wind rose and Peter searched for herbage in the rock crevices.
The next day was a long one. Roger found no trace of a trail and by mid-afternoon, the last of the water was gone. When this fact was established, the heat seemed worse and Dick's many stories of men who had thirsted to death in the ranges began to haunt Roger. He noticed that Peter's little legs were hourly more unsteady and his heart ached for the little chap. He ate sparingly that evening, giving Peter the larger share. The food was like dry sawdust in his parched mouth. He slept uneasily, waking from dreams of running water to toss for an hour before sleep came again.
With the first streak of dawn he was up and on. Going was slow, for now the real torture of desert thirst was on him and he knew that unless he found water that day, buzzards would be circling over him on the morrow. By ten o'clock his tongue was swelling and he seemed to have ceased to sweat, and Peter leaned panting against the rocks in the shade of which Roger paused to rest. After a half hour, Roger rose to his feet. The morning had been breathless but as he rose, a little hot gust of air blew up from the canyon below.
Instantly Peter raised his head and sniffed. The gust increased to a breeze. With ears lapped forward the burro tottered to the canyon edge and began feebly to pick his way downward.
Roger watched him for a moment. Then, "I don't know what you've discovered, old man," he said thickly, "but what's good enough for you, is good enough for me," and he followed weakly after him.
There was considerable rolling and scrambling done by both Peter and Roger before they reached bottom. When Roger finally scrambled panting to his feet, face burning, ears ringing, he found that they were in a narrow valley thick grown with scrub oak. Peter had rolled the last ten feet, and when he brought up against a barrel cactus, he could not rise until Roger had pottered over and pulled weakly on his bridle. Then he walked shakily across the canyon, Roger close behind him. A little pool reflecting the sky and the fern-like leaves of the mesquite that bordered it lay at the base of the great brown rock.
Roger, as he drank, had vague recollections of warnings he had read about the dangers of over-drinking after water famine. But he was developing an implicit faith in Peter's wisdom and Peter was drinking till his thin ribs swelled. When he had entirely slaked his thirst, Roger rested for a bit, then looked about him. A trail led along the canyon from the spring, westward. Roger filled the canteen, then he and Peter took the trail. It led perhaps a quarter of a mile to a deserted mine, a mine of vast workings and huge ramshackle sheds that were innocent of either windows or doors. The engine house had been nailed up, but Roger's strength and spirits had been much revived by the water. He rested for awhile, then wrenched off some boards and went in, Peter struggling to follow, then giving the idea up and standing at rest in the shade. A complete ore separator plant was installed within. At the fore end of the shed was a gas producer engine in perfect condition as far as Roger could tell, except for the sand that had sifted over it. It was of a type with which he was not familiar and he spent a half hour in thoughtfully examining it, and making notes on a scrap of paper concerning it. He was absorbed in a new idea when he closed up the shed and whistled to Peter who had found some old alfalfa hay in a manger under a shed and was just finishing it off.
There was a trail still leading westward out of the camp, and Roger, with a blind faith that his luck had turned, followed it to the opposite canyon wall, and here, where it evidently once had been a fair mountain road, followed it on up to the top of the range. It was late afternoon when this was accomplished. The ridge where Roger now found himself was high and barren. At first it seemed to him that the trail ended here where the winds had swept unhampered by man so long. But Peter was untroubled. He crossed the ridge nimbly, picked up a range trail on the opposite side and started to descend.
His new master followed with a chuckle that increased to a laugh as he descried far to the north on the west range, the faint outlines of buildings, with the trail faintly marked along valley and mountainside toward it. Just at dusk they reached it. It was the Goodloe mine! In spite of utter fatigue and hunger, Roger would not stop now. In high spirits he took the familiar road toward home.
It was nine o'clock when he passed the Preble ranch house, silent and lightless, but with the horses munching in the corral. He stopped to pick up a measure of oats for Peter, then he began the last lap of his journey. There was a bright fire glowing at the Sun Plant. As he neared it, he gave a shout. There was an answering shout and Ernest and Gustav came rushing through the desert to meet him.
They had been consumed with anxiety about him. Dick had said that they must start on the hunt for him at dawn. Ernest had lighted the fire with the hope that it might help him.
Gustav took Roger's pack and Ernest threw a helping arm about him. They led him straight to the cook tent where they had kept the coffee pot warm, and seated him at the table where a place was set for him. Their joy and relief almost unmanned Roger.
"My dear chaps," he insisted, "I was in no such great danger!"
"In no danger! You should have heard what Dick and Charley said," cried Ernest.
"Well, it's all right now," said Roger. "I've wasted a lot of time but I've located some rich loot, believe me."
"Where'd you pick up the burro?" asked Ernest. "He looks just like Peter."
"It is Peter," replied Roger. "Gustav, give him those oats in my coffee pot and let me eat, then I'll tell you all about it."
It was scarcely dawn and Roger was still fast asleep, when Ernest met Dick at the corral with the news of Roger's safe return and of the tragedy of poor Crazy Dutch. Dick was much upset at hearing of Von Minden's death.
"He was a poor old loon, but mighty good-hearted," he said, "and I swear I don't know what we'd have done sometimes without him—especially Charley. She's going to be all broken up over this. I'll tell her, then I'll come down and talk to Roger."
"Roger thought we ought to notify the folks at Archer's Springs right away," said Ernest.
"Shucks! That's not necessary. When some of us go in we can notify the sheriff. Dutch had a bum heart and had run out of food and water. Not a bad death, poor old chap."
When Dick came down to the camp, and they all had talked a little sadly of Von Minden's lonely death, Ernest asked suddenly:
"Did you find any window glass, Rog?"
Roger gave him a blank look. "By Jove, no! I was so excited over Von Minden and that new type engine and a hunch I got, that I forgot all about it. Well, I'll just have to start out again."
"By the way," Ernest went on, "I went into town while you were gone to get the mail. There was just one letter. It was from Elsa. She's on her way down here. She's due on Sunday."
Roger looked from Dick to Ernest. "What the devil shall we do with her?"
"Well, she'll have to outfit and grubstake herself. She knows that, and she knows we're broke. I think this is a cooked up job of hers and mother's just to help us out. And gee!—but I'll be glad to see old Elschen!"
"So'll I, old man. But Ernest, this is no place nor circumstances for an Old Home week. I'm sweating to finish this plant against almost impossible odds."
"Don't I know it? Have I failed you any?"
"You have been absolutely O. K. and we'll try to give Elsa a good time."
"It will be a perfect godsend to Charley," said Dick. "She almost cried when Gustav told us."
"Then that's settled," said Ernest with a sigh.
"Just as soon as it can be managed, we'll have to give Von Minden a decent burial, Roger," said Dick. "I won't be using the horses to-morrow and you'll be in good trim by then, won't you, Rog?"
"Yes," replied Roger, and if he smothered a sigh for another day lost from his work, no one noticed it.
Roger spent the remainder of the day in the engine house, going over his engine, shaking his head, muttering to himself like an old man, finally straightening his shoulders stubbornly and whistling through his teeth.
After an early supper, the three went up to the ranch. Felicia, who was wiping the dishes for Charley, hurled herself at Roger, dishcloth and all.
"Oh!" she shrieked. "You must never leave me like this again, Roger. I worried so about you that my stomach ached all the time you were gone."
Charley laughed with the rest, but quickly sobered. "I'm so glad you were able to take care of poor Uncle Otto," she said. "I shall miss him so. None of you knew him as I did." There was a pause, then Charley went on, "Just think of Ernest's sister coming! I remember her vaguely. She's like you, isn't she, Ernest?"
"Not a bit," said Roger. "She's full of pep and very good looking."
"Well, what do you know about that?" asked Ernest, looking at Roger wonderingly.
"She's going to stay with us, isn't she? Please say yes," cried Charley.
"Oh, no, don't have her here. She wouldn't like to be here all the time," begged Felicia. Then she blushed and retreated behind Roger's chair. She refused half tearfully to explain her statement when Dick urged her, at first jokingly, then in a commanding manner.
"Tell me, Felicia, don't you like it here?" drawing her to his side.
"Oh, let her alone, Dicky," begged Charley. "Why insist on a child's reason for anything?"
"But I want to know! Tell me, Felicia, don't you like it here?"
"Yes," said Felicia, with trembling lips, "I like it here, 'cept when you get sick and are so awful cross with me and Charley and make Charley cry. I wouldn't want Elsa to see you that way."
Dick turned purple. "Oh, well," cut in Roger, quickly, "Elsa'll have three men's crossness to put up with down at our camp, Felicia. Just think of that! And if it should happen that we'd all get cross at once, probably we'd blow the roof of the engine house off again."
"That's why we want Elsa to stay with us," said Ernest. "You see when men are cross, the only thing that cures them is having a nice girl around to make them ashamed of themselves."
"Sometimes already, if it gets too much vhen I make myself mad," added Gustav, "maybe ve get a squaw to come by our camp to vip us bad boys for Fraeulein Elsa, eh?"
"If all the men in the world get cross, like you, Dicky," asked Felicia, wonderingly, "why do ladies marry them?"
"They don't, chicken! No one's married me."
"Maybe Elsa will. Unless Gustav gets her," suggested Felicia.
"Maybe Roger, he gets her, eh?" asked Gustav.
"Oh, no!" in sudden alarm, crossing over to Roger's knee to look up into his face with a depth of love in her brown eyes that tightened his throat as he lifted her into his lap. "Roger's going to marry me. Only Roger, if ever you're as cross to me as you were to Gustav, I shall just walk out of the house and never, never come back."
It was Roger's turn to blush and he did so thoroughly, while Dick burst into a roar of laughter in which the other men joined. Under its cover, Charley hustled Felicia off to bed.
At dawn the next day Roger and Dick started on their melancholy errand. The climbing was in many instances too precipitous for the horses and they made many detours. It was late in the afternoon, on a detour across a wide canyon that they came upon the end of the Von Minden drama. The canyon was really a part of the desert floor and was deep with sand. Roger it was, who first noted footprints.
"Look, Dick!" he called. "An Indian must have been here! Look at the naked footprints!"
Dick rode up beside him. "I wonder!" he said.
Both men glanced about them. "Yonder are some clothes, let's pick up this trail," suggested Dick.
"By Jove, it's Mrs. von Minden's pink wrapper!" cried Roger, "and over there are her shoes."
"Rog, we've got to brace ourselves," Dick pulled up his horse. "When folks thirst to death in the desert, they often strip off their clothes and run around in a big circle."
Roger bit his dry lips. "All right, Dick, come on," he muttered.
The foot marks swung in a wide circle. It was a mile farther on that they found the madam, stark naked, her gaunt face turned to the sky. She too had been dead for many days.
"I don't see why the buzzards didn't get her. Her burro wasn't Peter, he deserted her," murmured Dick. "Look, Rog, under her head."
It was the dispatch box, lightly sifted over with sand as was the body.
"What do you suppose happened?" asked Roger.
"She obviously thirsted to death. But she got the box first. Do you suppose she killed him, to get it?"
"Perhaps she found him dead and took it," suggested Roger.
"Well, we'll never know. Let's gather up what we can of her clothes and bury her. Poor old devil. Her story's ended," said Dick.
They dug Clarissa von Minden's grave and put her in it, then Dick pulled a prayer book from his pocket.
"Charley made me bring it," he explained. "I'm glad of it, now. Somehow it seems worse to chuck a woman away without a minister to help, than it does a man. I guess she did some tall suffering, from first to last, eh Rog?"
Roger nodded. Dick read the burial service reverently and they finished this gruesome job. Roger tied the little black metal box to his saddle and they started on their way. They made camp in the mountains that evening, not far from the peak that sheltered Von Minden. They had ample firewood for they camped near a clump of cedars and they went hastily through the contents of the dispatch box, by the light of the flames.
There was no marriage certificate. The entire box was filled with notes in German in a microscopic hand. Roger read excerpts of it. Von Minden seemed to have made an exhaustive study of the resources of this section of the desert and of the north of Mexico.
"He had some sort of a huge irrigation scheme in his head," Roger said. "He's got some letters copied in here and a lot of stuff. We ought to turn this over to a German consul, somewhere and let him notify the proper relations."
"That a good idea," agreed Dick. "He used to tell Charley and me strange things when he was off his head. Once he said he was charting this region for the Kaiser. The poor old lunatic."
"His ideas were not so crazy as they might be," protested Roger. "I've some dreams myself for this country, you know."
"What are they, Rog?" asked Dick. "I know in only the vaguest way."
"If I can irrigate your twenty-five acres with my little plant, don't you see that I have proven that I am able to tap unlimited cheap power. The possibilities of this country with cheap power are staggering. I don't blame Von Minden for calling it a kingdom. That's just what it might be, with the mountains of the west range and the Rockies to the east forming natural boundaries. It seems as if a kingdom really could be self-supporting in here. If only I can harness the sun to a cheap apparatus that any one can buy and operate! Why all these ranges would be studded with going mines. Every valley would be green with growing crops. I hardly dare let my imagination go on it. Our little old U. S. has got a wonderful unborn commonwealth down here."
"Well, your dreaming is a lot more practical than his, anyhow," said Dick. "More power to your elbow, old man, I say."
"I won't forget what you people have done for me!" Roger returned the papers to the dispatch box.
They found the crude grave intact, the next morning. They were able with the aid of the pick to make a shallow trough in the rock. They built this up with stone and the last chapter of the Von Minden story was ended. They reached home at dusk.
Ernest and Roger sat before the tent alone that night while Gustav wrote a letter in the cook house. The heat did not seem to have lessened much with the going down of the sun. The stars low-hung over the engine house seemed to glow with fire and the darkness was like a hot blanket over the sand. Ernest was unusually silent. He sat with his pipe unlighted, staring at the stars so long that Roger said, at last:
Ernest grunted. "What did you say? Eh—no—I don't think so. Say, Roger, old man, she's refused me."
"She? Who? What are you talking about, Ernest?"
"About Charley. Who else would it be?"
Roger nearly fell off the box on which he was sitting. "Proposed to Charley? Why, you weren't in love with her, were you, Ernest?"
"You great nut! Why else should I propose to her? Just because you don't admire her is no reason that other men are wooden headed."
"I never said I didn't admire her," exclaimed Roger.
"You did. You said you didn't care for big women."
"Did I? Well, I guess I don't. But I never think of her as a woman. She's just like a fine young fellow that you want for a friend."
Ernest grunted. "I wouldn't have a temperament like yours for real money, Roger."
"I don't see that yours is giving you much joy right now, old chap."
"Never you mind," returned Ernest. "I'd rather suffer as I am suffering than never have loved her."
Roger, who had helped his friend to recover from a good many heart-breaks patted him on the shoulder. "Awfully sorry, old Ern."
"I know what you're thinking," said Ernest, "but this one is different, just as she's different. I'll never get over this. You realize that she's different, don't you, you wooden image?"
Roger answered thoughtfully. "Yes, Charley is different. I really like her very much. But she's like a younger brother, so clean-cut and direct and—" His voice trailed away to nothing as suddenly he thought of Charley's hand on his head, that memorable afternoon in the engine house. Indeed, he wondered if the thought of that touch would ever leave him. He believed that it would become as much a part of his memory as his mother's gentle touch.
Finally, Ernest said, "If it weren't for you and the help I can give you, I'd go home."
"You are hard hit, old man! Maybe it'll be easier when Elsa comes."
"Yes, I think it will," replied Ernest. "I thought I'd go in to-morrow and hang around Archer's till she gets here. You'll be tinkering on the engine and won't miss me. Suppose we can fix up Mrs. von Minden's tent for her, instead of her buying a new one."
"Good idea! But, by Jove, the thought of going to Archer's Springs for mental distraction is either funny or pathetic! I don't know which. I hope I can have a test of the plant on Monday."
"So do I," replied Ernest. "Guess I'll go to bed. Gustav's blown out his bug."
"I'm with you," agreed Roger, and was asleep long before Ernest ceased to toss in the hot silence of the tent.
It was late Sunday afternoon when dust on the south trail announced the coming of Elsa and Ernest. Gustav and Roger had given the entire morning to putting the camp in order. Gustav had achieved his chef-d'oeuvre in a huge "welcome" made of yucca stalks outlined over the living tent door. Roger had given Peter to Felicia and about two o'clock she appeared, riding the little burro whose face she explained she had washed with soap and water for the occasion. Charley and Dick followed not long after.
For the first time Roger realized that Charley's isolation had meant more to her than she allowed any of them to suspect. She nearly wept as she begged that Elsa be permitted to stay with them and went over the living tent and the cook tent with a critical eye. When the cloud of dust appeared upon the horizon Roger saw her whiten under her tan.
"Suppose she doesn't like me," she exclaimed suddenly to the three men. "Suppose she finds me rough and stupid after all these years of hardship. Oh, what would I do! The first woman after so long!"
"Well," Dick's voice was angry, "if she doesn't like you she's a fool, that's all."
Tears had sprung to Gustav's eyes. "She vill love you on sight," he said slowly.
"You wait!" cried Roger. "You two girls were made to be friends."
Charley gave a nervous glance at her khaki clothing. The men did not know that the day before she had routed out a white frock, the remnant of her college days and after much debate with herself, had rejected it. It was of a bygone date and fashion. It had been worn by a happy-go-lucky college girl, who had little in common with the mature, sunburned, wind-blown woman who looked back at Charley from the mirror.
The horses plodded slowly through the sand. Dick pulled up before the living tent.
"She's come! Here she is!" shouted Ernest, as if the watching group in the burning western sun could doubt its eyes. Roger lifted Elsa down from the wheel.
"Never knew I could be so glad to see you, Elsa," he said. "And you're prettier than ever even if your nose is peeling. Look! Here's Charley Preble and Felicia and Dick and Gustav."
Elsa, freshly burned, but with her silk traveling suit smart in spite of the dust, shook hands all round.
She turned back from Gustav to Charley again, and looked at her with frank interest. "You know, Ernest never told me what to wear, so I didn't bring a bit of khaki. Wasn't I foolish? It looks just right down here."
"I've some extra skirts you can wear till you can send back for some," said Charley. "Let's go into the living tent out of this heat while the boys unload."
They went alone, for Felicia, after standing in an agony of indecision for a moment or two, decided in favor of the tantalizing packages in the wagon box. The girls were not in the tent long. When they came out, they had their arms about each other.
"Elsa's going up to the house with me and get a bath and change her clothes. We'll be down for supper," said Charley.
There was a flush of happiness on her face that made Dick say, "I hope you stay forever, Elsa! Come along! I'll take the team up and your trunk. What do you want done with the cot and things, Ernest?"
"Never mind those," said Elsa, serenely. "I'm going to stay with Charley."
The men looked at each other speechlessly. As the wagon rattled off, Roger said to Ernest:
"They were in that tent less than five minutes. What do you suppose happened?"
Ernest shook his head. "I've given up trying to understand women. Look at that cot and the lumber—a whole darned outfit, and I nearly killed the horses getting the mess up in one load because Elsa insisted she'd have to have it to-night. Women!"
All day Monday, Roger and his two helpers sweated to prepare for the plant's first trial. Roger would let no one touch the engine but himself, but Ernest and Gustav puttered with the condenser and the pump and at dawn started the oil circulating through the absorber. All day long the burning desert sun poured its heat through the glass into the oil which caught and imprisoned it for Roger's purpose, until the storage pit was full. Roger had set the time of trial as nine o'clock in the evening in order to prove the night as well as the day power of his plant. The Prebles appeared shortly before the hour.
"Everything O. K.?" asked Dick, with a creditable effort at being off-hand.
"One never knows till afterward," replied Roger. "Come into the engine house. No room for you, Peter, old man."
There were three "bugs" lighted over the engine. Ernest and Gustav were both smoking violently. Dick was chewing gum. Elsa and Charley said nothing but watched every movement on the part of the men.
"Come here, Felicia," said Roger, biting at his cold pipe. "You see this little valve? All right. Now, as I've told you many times, I hope that when you turn this, that the sun which shone to-day will turn the big fly wheel round. When I give the wheel a twist, you turn the valve clear over."
"Yes, Roger," replied Felicia, her little fingers quivering as she grasped the valve.
"Now!" exclaimed Roger, tugging at the fly-wheel.
There was a moment's breathless silence. Then very slowly and sedately, the fly wheel began to revolve, gathered speed and shortly was chugging away steadily. A little cheer rose from Roger's audience. He grinned.
"Now Ern, let's throw in the pump." A belt, connecting the engine with the pump outside, was quickly slipped in place. The engine slowed down. But a moment later the sound of water pouring over the condenser pipes was heard above the chugging of the engine and pump.
Gustav and Ernest fell on each other's necks. "It works!" squealed Felicia. "It works and I helped make it, I did." Peter, his head as far in at one of the windows as a very short neck would carry it, brayed. Roger watched the pressure gauge and scratched his head thoughtfully.
Charley and Felicia slipped outside to inspect the pump, and Charley called: "Does anybody smell anything?" At the same moment Felicia shrieked.
"Oh! oh, Roger! There's a terrible leak out here!"
Roger shut off the engine and followed by the others, he darted to the condenser. The odor of sulphur dioxide filled the night.
"By Jove, it's big enough to lose my charge!" groaned Roger. "Bring bugs, everybody."
Felicia, "bug" and oil can in hand, was running over the pipes at the top before the others had arrived.
"Here it is, Roger! Oh, an awful one. There!"
The leak was in a pipe joint at the top of the stack. The odor grew almost unbearable. For half an hour the men wrestled with it, turn about, and at last succeeded in stopping it. Other minor leaks occurred but all were located and controlled. Finally Roger announced all safe and lighted his pipe. In the flash of the match, his face showed tense and dripping with sweat, his eyes bloodshot from the gas fumes.
"Darn the leaks!" exclaimed Elsa.
"Well, it's what we'll have to expect as long as I can't afford to buy bent pipe or an acetylene welding outfit," said Roger. "But after all, the leaks are the least of my troubles."
"What is troubling you?" asked Charley quickly.
"There isn't as much power there as my calculations had indicated there would be."
"I told you that you were running pretty close on your absorption area," exclaimed Ernest. "You see your temperature readings have been lower right along down here than that table we had up in the laboratory for this region."
"But I don't want to increase the absorption area in order to get more power. It's a clumsy solution. It makes the plant too large and too high priced. The solution to the problem lies in making that engine more efficient." Roger sighed.
"Now don't change your engine design, Roger!" cried Ernest. "That is a peach and has been for years."
"Yes, I know," replied Roger. "But there's a possibility that you and the Dean and I have been too complacent about that engine."
"Gee, but you're a regular pessimist, Rog!" exclaimed Dick.
"No, I'm not. No inventor is. I'm just open minded. And don't think I'm blue, either. If I weren't so heckled and worried by the time and money element I'd be having the time of my life. Wouldn't I, Felicia, honey?"
There was no answer. Felicia, with the oil can hugged tight against her middy, was curled up on the work bench, fast asleep.
"Well, it seems to me I'd better take my family home," said Dick. "Where's the rest of my harem? Elsa! Charley! Come with papa."
By eleven o'clock the camp was quiet. Roger prowled about the condenser a bit, covered the engine with canvas and then went to bed. It had been a hard day and none of the three men were wakened by the smell of sulphur dioxide that began to hang over the camp at midnight. The dawn wind blew most of it away, but when Gustav rose to get breakfast, he sniffed suspiciously and called Roger. They traced a leak in the lower tier. Half the charge had evaporated during the night.
"At least two weeks before we get more and a chunk out of the precious grub money," groaned Ernest at breakfast.
"Patience! Patience!" exclaimed Gustav. "I'll start to Archer's Spring mit the empty drums to-morrow."
Roger, who had been bolting his breakfast in silence, suddenly set down his coffee cup. Patience! He had told Charley that he was a patient man. Yet every muscle of his body at the moment was twitching with impatience. He acknowledged this to himself, then said aloud:
"No use getting nervous, boys, I'm not. You get the new charge, Gustav. I'll leave that in your hands and think no more about it. I'm going over my heat tables again."
"I'll help you check over," said Ernest.
"If you don't mind I'd rather grind for a few days on it alone. I can think better that way. Then I'll go over the results with you."
"All right," returned Ernest, with his usual good nature. "Gustav and I'll offer our services to Dick to-day on his new field. Do increase your absorbing area, Roger!"
Roger shook his head. "That's an awkward and expensive solution. The answer's in the engine!"
He began to figure on an old envelope. When this was covered, he continued his calculations on the margin of an old newspaper spread over the work house table. Long after Gustav and Ernest had gone about their day's business Elsa found him here, sweating in the stifling glare from the sun and sand, hair disheveled, shirt open at the throat. Elsa looked almost cool in comparison in her soft white blouse and one of Charley's khaki skirts.
"Well, Roger," she exclaimed, "hasn't your cook the decency to wash the breakfast dishes for you?"
"It does look rotten, doesn't it?" said Roger, staring vaguely around the kitchen. "But the cook seems to be on a strike and I forgot to clean things up."
"If you'll get out of the way, I'll do it." Elsa began to roll up her sleeves.
"It's too hot now. Wait until late afternoon," suggested Roger, glancing from his papers out to the yellow waves of heat dancing from sand to deep blue of sky.
"I can stand the heat if Charley can," returned Elsa. "She's baking bread and cookies. The thermometer on the porch says 112 deg.. I should judge that it was about 190 deg. in her kitchen. Rog, do you know that she's a highly educated girl? Why do you suppose she's throwing her life away down here, cut off from everything?"
Roger looked up from his figures with a little sigh of resignation.
"What did you say, Elsa?"
Elsa smiled but repeated her inquiry.
"She's not wasting her life," replied Roger. "This is really a superb country and she takes to pioneering like a fine boy. This is about the last big adventure there is in America, this desert pioneering."
"Like a boy!" sniffed Elsa. "Roger, you're hopeless! She's just the most womanly woman I ever met—and one of the saddest. She's got some trouble on her mind."
"Aw shucks, Elsa! Don't try to make Charley out temperamental. She's not and that's why she's such a pal to us fellows. Wholesome and clean-cut and direct, that's Charley."
"Oh, well, have it your own way, stupid! Only, go on over to the living tent while I clean up here." This with a curious glance at Roger's preoccupied eyes; those fine, steady, clear-seeing eyes, that saw so much and so little of life.
"Just one thing more, Roger," she said. He paused in the doorway and looked at her with a smile. "Yes, ma'am."
"Ernest told me on the way out about your money troubles. I don't want you to worry about the cost of keeping me. I can pay my way. I had to come against Papa's wishes, of course, but I had my own little chunk of savings and Mamma had a little. And I just made up my mind I was going to get away from home for a while if it was the last act of my life. And I know I can do lots of things to make you all comfortable."
"I'm as glad as I can be to have you here, Elsa. And after all you folks have done for me, it makes me sick not to be able to do everything for you. But I swear I'm right up against it. Some day I'll make it all up to you and Ern. See if I don't. If you can keep homesick old Ern bucked up you'll be doing your bit. Your father need have had no fear. Ern'll be back in the University when this is done contented to teach the rest of his life."
"I know it. And how about you, Roger?"
"Me? Oh, I've struck my gait down here. I'm going to follow heat problems round the world, see if I don't."
He looked off over the desert with a glow in his face that the girl never had seen there before. She gave a wistful little sigh, and began to unroll the kitchen apron she had brought under her arm.
"Run along while I try to make the place fit for white people to live in," she said.
It was a comfort to have a woman about the camp. The three men testified to this at supper time as they ate the meal she had prepared in an immaculate kitchen. That evening after Roger had taken Elsa back up to the ranch, Ernest decided he would accompany Gustav into Archer's to get some khaki for Elsa and to endeavor to locate some sulphur dioxide by telegraph. Elsa announced that although she would sleep and take breakfast at the ranch she would spend the day at the Plant as housekeeper.
It was perhaps four o'clock the next afternoon, that Roger, at work in the engine house, saw Felicia half running, half plodding through the sand. Elsa, sewing in the living tent, saw her at the same time.
"What can they mean by letting her come out in this awful heat?" she called to Roger.
Roger made no reply but shouted to Felicia, "Don't run, child! It's too hot!"
Felicia's answer was to quicken her pace. With a sudden sense of apprehension Roger went to meet her. Felicia was sobbing when he reached her. He lifted her in his arms.
"What is it, sweetheart?"
Felicia was almost beyond words. "Dicky—he's—sick again! And—he yelled at me—and slapped me, and he knocked Charley over with his fist. And I ran away—to you—"
Roger's lips stiffened. Elsa had joined them and as he set Felicia down, he said hurriedly, "Take her into the tent. Cool her down gradually. Keep her there till I come."
And he set off as fast as he dared in the burning sun. As he neared the ranch house, he could hear Dick's incoherent shouts and as he ran up the trail, Dick appeared on the porch.
"Get out of here, Roger!" he roared, thickly.
Roger ran up the steps. "Where's Charley?"
Dick planted himself belligerently in the doorway, "Get out!" Roger moved slowly toward him. A heavy odor of cologne enveloped Dick. A quick surmise flashed over Roger.
"Felicia needs Charley, Dick, I've got to fetch her."
"Get out!" repeated Dick sullenly. He gave a lunge toward Roger and Roger met him with a quick undercut on the jaw that laid Dick flat. He dragged him down the trail to the seed and tool shack, where he turned the heavy button on the door. Then he ran into the house.
Charley lay on the floor, her hair in disorder about her. Roger, with an oath, stooped over her, then ran for a cup of water and bathed her face. In a moment she opened her eyes. Roger's own eyes were black with excitement but he met her puzzled gaze with a twisted smile.
"There you are, Charley! Where are you hurt?"
She did not answer but struggled to rise and Roger putting an arm under her shoulder helped her to her feet where she leaned dizzily against him, for a moment, shoulder to shoulder.
"Where's Felicia, Roger?"
"Safe with Elsa at the Plant. Sit down here on the couch, Charley. Where did Dick strike you?"
"He—he—where is he, Roger?" clinging suddenly to Roger's hand as he laid her back on the couch.
"Locked in the tool house. Charley, you must tell me what happened so I can help you."
"Why—he—he pushed me backward and I must have hit something when I fell. The back of my head is very sore and my head aches terribly—and I'm a little sick at my stomach."
"Let me see your head," said Roger peremptorily. He parted the mass of bronze brown hair, wondering even in his anger and pity at its softness and thickness. It was not difficult to locate the great lump at the base of the skull.
"He might have killed you if it hadn't been for your hair. The skin isn't broken. Be still, Charley, till I get a basin of water and a towel."
He was back in a moment and sitting down on the edge of the couch, he attempted to bathe the swelling. But Charley groaned in agony at the first touch, so he gave that up and bathed her face and wrist awkwardly but very gently.
"I guess it's my turn to say 'Poor Child,'" Roger murmured.
The quick tears sprang to Charley's eyes. At this moment Dick gave an incoherent shout. Charley gripped Roger's hand.
"It's all right," he said. "He can't get out, the whelp!"
"Roger! Don't hurt him. Promise me you won't hurt him!"
"Hurt him!" Roger burst forth. "How can you be so foolish! He ought to be beaten within an inch of his life. He's gotten drunk on cologne!"
"Roger, he's never been this bad before. He's been growing slowly better all these years. He never struck me before."
"And you've been living with a drunkard all these years who might have killed you. You knew this, yet you let little Felicia come to you. How could you do it?" Roger paced up and down the floor.
Charley looked at him piteously, but he went on, his voice growing louder.
"You must know that a periodic drunkard is the worst kind and almost never cured. I thought you were unafraid of truth, but you've been living just like a sentimental woman, after all."
Charley raised her hands and dropped them as if in despair. "I promised mother I'd never leave him. And he's put up a fight. Oh, you'll never know what a fight! And I love him. He's a dear when he's not drinking."
Dick roared again and Roger stared at Charley's sick white face.
"Promise me you won't hurt him, Roger."
"How can I promise when I know if I get another glimpse of him I'll break every bone in his carcass?"
Again Charley dropped her hands with that despairing gesture. "Then how can I help fearing your dreadful temper as much as I do Dick's drinking? What difference is there?"
Roger jumped as if she had struck him. "You can't mean that! You're sick and unstrung and don't know what you're saying. I'll go after Ern."
"I have to mean it," insisted Charley wearily, "after seeing you that time with Gustav."
"I'm not like Dick!" shouted Roger. "I wouldn't touch a woman or a child!"
"How do you know you wouldn't?" asked Charley.
A sudden burning recollection of the little boy who had struck his mother's hand from his shoulder flashed through Roger's mind. He groaned and dropped his head. Charley did not speak and for some moments Roger did not move. Then he came over to the couch and said quietly:
"I'll not hurt Dick. Where did he get the cologne, Charley?"
"He must have found it in Elsa's room. I didn't know she had it, or I'd have put it away. And now, every one will know! Oh, Roger, must they all know?"
"I don't see how it can be helped. But you can be sure none of us will say more than has to be said. Charley, I'm going to get Peter and take you down to the Plant for the night. You need absolute rest and quiet and you can't get it so near Dick."
"Dick must fend for himself in the tool shack. I'll put a canteen of water and a blanket in there and by morning he'll be ready for conversation."
"But he won't be. Drink makes him terribly sick. His stomach is very bad. That's why I always say it's stomach trouble. He ought to be taken care of to-night."
"He'll stay where he is and by himself," said Roger, grimly. "When I have a temper fit the next time, you can do the same by me. Lord, I'm glad Elsa is here! You lie quiet while I go milk."
When he had put the milk away he found that Charley had braided her hair but was still very white and shaken. Dick's shouts and curses floated in at the open door. Roger tied the little bundle of night things she had made up to the saddle and helped her to mount. She swayed dizzily and he put a strong, steadying arm about her. They made their way very slowly and Roger heaved a sigh of relief when they were finally beyond ear shot of poor Dick.
Elsa met them a short distance from the camp. "Hello, Charley," she said. "Felicia has just fallen asleep."
Roger nodded and at the living-tent door, helped Charley from the saddle. "Get this patient to sleep too, Elsa, if you can."
Elsa's eyes filled with tears as she looked at Charley. "You poor dear," she said, "come and let me take care of you."
One touch of a woman's sympathy, after her starved years, was too much for Charley. She burst into deep drawn sobs. Elsa, motioning Roger away, put her arm about the girl and led her into the tent.
Roger paced up and down in the sand for a while, listening to the low despairing sobs from the tent. Then he unsaddled Peter and put a huge bottle of water to heat. He had heard somewhere that women took great comfort in a cup of tea.
Roger passed rather a restless night. He had put Elsa's cot which she never had used, in the living tent so that Elsa could be close to her two patients, and himself put in the night in Gustav's shack which was built against the kitchen tent.
It was early July and the summer's heat was at its height. Three times between midnight and dawn Roger scratched a match and looked at the thermometer. It never registered below 118 deg.. Even the night wind did not rise. The silence of the desert was complete as though torridity had overwhelmed every other aspect of nature. The stars were magnificent and for an hour or so, hoping to find the air outside cooler, Roger put a blanket on the work bench near the condenser and lay there, his face to the sky.
He wanted to keep his mind fastened lucidly on his engine problem, but he found it impossible to put away the events of the day. Dick's bestial voice, Charley's white, proud face, little Felicia's clinging arms, Charley's sobs from the living tent and her bitter words concerning his temper. These words he pondered unwillingly for some time, following with his eye the constellations of the Great Bear. Finally he rolled on his face with a groan. Perhaps she was right. God knew though that he'd fought the red demon within him. After a time he rolled back. Felicia had not wakened for her supper. She had slept straight through. It was a great pity, he thought, that she should have seen Dick drunk, that she should have seen him knock Charley down. He wondered if there were any way he could make her forget it. Then with a deep flush in the starlight he wished to God she had not seen him lose his temper like a fool. Felicia! tender, high strung little Felicia!
At last when the stars were growing dim, Roger fell asleep. He rose at sunrise, and went up to the ranch. Dick was lying on the adobe floor of the tent house, evidently very sick and very cross.
"How'd I come in here? Send Charley to me!" he snarled.
"I will, like thunder, you drunken bum! You did your best to beat up both of your sisters. I'm going to keep them at the Sun Plant until some new arrangement can be made. The best I can do for you is to leave this door open. Fend for yourself, hang you!" And Roger walked off to do the milking.
When he had finished milking he glanced in at the open door of the tool house. Dick lay where Roger had left him, staring with eyes of feverish agony at the roof above his head. Roger, without a word, went back to the plant. To his relief, Felicia appeared at the breakfast table, very hungry and quite herself. But Charley was not able to get up. It seemed as if the long years of strain had culminated in yesterday's events, and that Charley had no will-power left.
The girl lay on Ernest's cot, the tent flap lifted beside her, with no apparent desire save to stare at the desert dancing in heat waves against the sky. What thoughts were passing behind those quiet brown eyes, no one knew.
It was mid-morning when Roger went in to see her. He pulled a box up beside the cot. "Well, old dear," he said. "How is the head?"
Charley smiled. "Sore and aching, but better than during the night. I am so tired and that's very unusual. I'm always so strong."
Roger nodded. "It was a bad knock, to leave you senseless for half an hour. I suspect you ought to take pretty good care of yourself for several days. I've been talking with Elsa and she thinks you ought to stay here for a few days. And I do too. Don't worry about Dick. I saw him this morning and he'll be himself by sundown. And I've promised Elsa I won't see him again until after she does."
Charley eyed Roger's long brown face as if taking in the full significance of all he had said. Then she gave a little sigh of relief.
"If I could rest here in this peaceful tent, just for a day or two."
"The tent's all right at night, but I've moved Gustav's cot into the engine house, and I'm going to help you over there. It's ten degrees cooler than here. Elsa and Felicia are established there and I won't disturb you for I'm drawing, which act is noiseless."
In a dim corner of the adobe engine house in Gustav's cot Charley spent the day. Elsa, when she was not playing housekeeper sat beside her with her sewing and Felicia visited between the cot and Roger's drawing board.
Once when Charley seemed to be in an uneasy sleep, Felicia asked Roger, "Is Charley very sick?"
"Not really sick at all, chicken. She's just tired. She's worked too hard for you and Dick."
Felicia stared at him with her innocent, speculative gaze so like Charley's, yet so unlike.
"Can't we live here with you, instead of up at the ranch, Roger? I know Charley would like it better."
"You can stay and make us a visit, anyhow. Then we'll see."
At sunset, after the dishes were finished and Charley had moved back to the living tent for the night, Elsa went up to the ranch house. She was gone a long time. Charley was dozing and Felicia asleep. Roger prowled up and down the camp closely followed by Peter until he could bear the suspense no longer. A sudden fear that Dick might have discovered more liquor somewhere started him along the ranch trail. He met Elsa just as the afterglow disappeared and the parching night came down like a star dotted curtain. She came trudging through the sand as if she were tired.
"It does seem as if I'd wilt with the heat," she exclaimed. "You needn't have worried about me, Roger. Dick came back with me till we saw you."
"He did, huh! Then he's neither drunk nor dead?"
"Rog! Don't say such awful things about the poor fellow."
"Poor fellow! You didn't see Charley lying on the floor as I did. Well, what has he to say for himself?"
"He's in an awful state of mind. He was trying to cook some supper when I got there. He'd succeeded in milking. When he saw me, he gasped. 'Is Charley sick?' and dropped the kettle of water he was lifting."
"I told him just what you had seen and what an exhausted state Charley's nerves seemed to be in. He just stood and took it looking like a sick cat. When I had finished he asked what you had said and I told him and he sort of groaned, 'You women should have let Roger beat me to death. Why did you interfere?' Poor Dick!"
Elsa drew a long breath and was silent for a moment before she began again. "He's in a most awful frame of mind. He's like a man who knows he has fits of insanity and feels perfectly helpless to prevent them. He cried and cried while he told me how he had fought drink. I never knew any one could suffer so. He's much more to be pitied than Charley."
"Huh! Women!" grunted Roger. "Why, he's just the usual thing in drunks, you little ninny. What's he going to do?"
"Well, I want Charley to give him one more chance."
"I thought so! Well, he doesn't get it."
"But, Roger, you can't prevent it. And he's not going into Archer's Springs again. He's going to let us do his errands. That's where the trouble has been."
"Except when he drinks cologne."
"What makes you so hard, Roger?"
"I saw Charley lying where Dick had knocked her down. And I felt little Felicia almost in convulsions from fear. Let him keep out of my sight until I can forget that."
"Of course, all I can do is to advise, anyhow," said Elsa. "Dick is coming down in the morning and take his medicine. He insists on it. He's a fine man, Roger, in many ways."
"You've not seen him drunk," returned Roger. "Commend me to a woman every time for sentimentality."
"There are other weaknesses men have than drunkenness that their sentimentality helps women to endure, aren't there, Roger?" asked Elsa quietly. Roger dropped Elsa's arm and left her without a word.
He was at work in the engine house, the next morning when Dick came slowly down the trail and was led by Elsa into the living tent. Then she went off to the cook tent with Felicia. Roger, working with strained concentration on his engine, heard on the one side the low murmur of Dick's and Charley's voices and on the other Felicia's occasional happy laugh above Elsa's little songs. After perhaps an hour, Dick came out and went to the cook tent and in a moment Felicia came flying into the engine house and threw her arms around Roger.
"I won't stay where Dicky is," she panted. "I won't!"
The child was trembling violently. Roger sat down and held her to his heart.
"Dick won't hurt you, honey, now. It's only when he's sick."
Felicia shuddered. "He slapped me and he knocked Charley over with his fist and in the night I dream about it. I am going to live with you. You won't get mad again like you did with Gustav, will you, Roger?"
Roger bowed his forehead on the soft bronze brown head that rested so confidently on his breast.
"You do love poor old Roger, don't you, sweetheart?" he asked, brokenly.
As if she sensed some secret pain, Felicia turned and put her arms about him and kissed him softly on the lips. "I love you as much as I do Charley. Don't send me back to Dicky, dearest Roger."
"I won't." Roger's lips tightened grimly.
Charley came out to lunch that noon, looking much stronger.
"I'm so grateful to you, Roger and Elsa," she said, "and after I've helped with the dishes, if you'll loan me Peter, we'll go home."
Roger dropped his knife and fork, then looked at Felicia. "Felicia, you know Roger's trunk? Well, if you'll run to the living tent and open the trunk and take all the things out of it, at the very bottom you'll find some Christmas cake Elsa made last year. Then put all the things back carefully and bring the cake here."
Felicia gave an ecstatic "Oh, Roger!" and disappeared. Roger turned to Charley.
"I'm going to say one more thing. Do you realize fully that in living with Dick you jeopardize both yours and Felicia's lives?"
"Oh, no, Roger! He never touched us before. It was the poison in that cologne."
Roger shrugged his shoulders.
"How can you be so hard?" pleaded Charley. "Dick's my own flesh and blood. It might have been I instead of Dick with this appetite. You're hard, Roger."
"I'm not hard. I'm disappointed. I didn't think you were a sentimentalist."
"I wonder," exclaimed Elsa, "how women will ever get time to vote when it takes all their time to make men endurable to live with. My word! I'm glad I haven't one of the critters!"
She said this with such heartfelt sincerity that Charley laughed and Roger joined her. By the time Felicia came running back with the Christmas cake, the atmosphere was considerably lighter.
"We're going home, Felicia! Aren't you glad I'm well again?" said Charley. "And haven't the Sun Planters been kind?"
Felicia whitened under her tan.
"Oh, but, Charley, I'm not going. I don't have to, do I, Roger? I'm so afraid of Dicky. He slapped me twice, Charley, and he knocked you over with his fist. Oh, let me stay with Roger!"
Charley gasped. "Oh, Felicia! Felicia! Oh, my little Felicia!"
Roger spoke quickly. "Why not let her stay for a little visit, Charley? I'll finish Elsa's tent this afternoon and she can share that with Elsa, till her nerves become normal."
"But I'm going up to stay with Charley," said Elsa; "that's part of the cure."
"Then let her stay alone. She'll be safe and happy with me," replied Roger. "Dick deserves punishment."
Charley looked at Roger, then at Felicia. "I think that's a good idea," she said, slowly.
And so when Ernest and Gustav came home that night, they found Felicia watching the camp fire beside Roger, and after she was asleep in her tent, they heard the whole story. Ernest was indignant at the thought of Elsa's staying on at the ranch.
"I am going to be firm with her in the morning," he said.
But Elsa's firmness was greater than Ernest's and shortly the two households had settled down and Dick was gradually reinstated in every one's good graces but Roger's. Felicia stayed on for a week, to the joy of the three camp mates who spoiled her outrageously. Then one Saturday evening Dick came down and he and Felicia had a long talk, at the end of which Felicia said good-by to Roger, Ernest and Gustav, and returned to the ranch, quite happily.
DICKY'S LAST BOUT
The fact that the engine had fallen below expectations brought the Sun Planters' food problem into prominence again. When Elsa had begun housekeeping for the men she had protested over the meagerness and the simplicity of the food supplies. But Roger had explained their situation frankly and Elsa had proceeded to make good German magic over the canned food of which the camp had been so weary.
"The Lord knows," exclaimed Ernest at the breakfast table one morning, "how long we'll be tied up in this Hades. If Roger's begun puttering on the engine we may be here ten years."
"This isn't Hades, Ern!" exclaimed Elsa. "I'm having the time of my life."
"I notice that Dick's down here a good deal," said Ernest, slyly, "and I suppose that adds to the hilarity of the nations."
"By the way," Elsa ignored her brother except for a blush, "what are we going to do about the food problem, Ern? All the cotton-tails and quail that Gustav shoots, won't keep us much longer."
"Do you suppose Hackett would let us run a bill with him and take a mortgage on the outfit here as security? Of course, I haven't any right to give a mortgage but I'll explain the whole situation to him." Roger's voice had a desperate note in it.
"Well, that is worth the try, eh?" said Gustav. "Me, I might borrow a little yet, from a friend in the East."
"You'll do nothing of the kind, Gustav," exclaimed Roger. "You're far from home and you may need all your borrowing power for yourself—not but what I appreciate your offer, old man!"
"I've got a little—my fare home and about a hundred beside," offered Elsa.
"Keep it, old girl," Roger's voice was husky. "By Jove, I may be poor in everything else, but I'm rich in friends. Ern, what do you think of my suggestion?"
"Well, I hate debt worse than anything in the world. But we're in this thing up to our necks and I'm willing to try anything that's honest. If Hackett knows the whole story—"
"He knows it now, I guess, but I'll give him all the details. I may as well go in to-day and get a yes or no at once."
"I'll go," said Ernest. "I'd like to and you'd better not lose a day."
Roger nodded in a relieved manner.
"Listen! There goes the Lemon!" exclaimed Elsa. "I do hope she goes to-day."
"Put! Put!" came over the desert. "Put! Put! Put!"
"I guess she's launched and I've got a clear day for work." Roger rose as he spoke. "Dick's having a struggle to get enough water for that second five acres of his. He insists that he's going ahead with the next five, though."
"Elsa, want to go into Archer's with me?" asked Ernest.
"Sorry, Ern, but I'm going to help Charley can pumpkins to-day. She planted some for luck up by the engine house where the pump leaks, you remember, and the crop is wonderful."
"Oh, well, if you prefer pumpkins to me and Archer's Springs, I've nothing to say," groaned Ernest.
"I'll go," offered Gustav. "I haf letters and other things."
Ernest accepted the offer with alacrity. He was beginning to recover some of his old spirits but he had not been himself since Charley's refusal. Roger had never known Ernest to take one of his affairs quite so hard before. He dreaded to be alone and was often moody: a rare state of mind for easy going Ernest.
The two men made a quick and successful trip to Archer's, for Hackett agreed to sell them food to the sum of two hundred dollars. He didn't see how a mortgage could be given but he was willing to take Roger's personal note for ninety days. This Roger gave with some misgivings but with a sigh of relief that the day of starvation had been put off once more. Then he gave his whole mind to his engine problem.
He was planning some changes in his engine that were fundamental and that were really the outcome of his early trip through the ranges in the search for window glass. He worked at his redesigning with a single minded passion that set him apart from the others. All of them except Felicia found him tense and at times irritable.
As August came in, the beauty of the desert seemed to increase daily. The heat, whilst it added to one's sense of the desert's cruelty, added at the same time to the unreality and to the mystery of silence and of distances that are so large a part of the desert's fascination.
The sand was alive with an uncanny, tiny life. Horned toads flopped unexpectedly across the trail. Lizards were everywhere, running over and under the tent floors and along the thatching of the condenser and the engine house. There were many rattlesnakes too, particularly dangerous at this time of year because, Dick said, they were shedding their skins and were blind, striking at any sound. There were Gila monsters now and again. There were many scorpions and centipedes, with once in a while a tarantula.
Dick and Charley laid down certain laws of the summer desert. No one was to go to bed without examining the bedding for tarantulas or centipedes. No one was to dress without subjecting every article of apparel to the same scrutiny. No one was to go out at night without a "bug" for fear of the blind striking of a rattler. Every one must learn to kill a snake with a snake stick. And every one, even Felicia, must learn to treat snake bites.
Elsa, clear-headed and matter of fact, was very little annoyed by all this gliding venomous summer life. But little Felicia's horror of it was difficult to control. It seemed to Roger that the child's nerves had been uneven ever since the "cologne affair," as Ernest called it. But he could not be sure of this, for Charley insisted that the little girl's fears of all that uncanny fraternity of the sand was exactly what hers had been four years before.
August was slipping by, quietly enough when Gustav, returning one day from Archer's Springs, delivered to Roger a letter from Hampton of the Smithsonian saying that on the thirtieth day of August a representative of the Smithsonian would reach Archer's Springs on his way to Los Angeles; that he had but two days to spare but would be glad to give these days to the Moore experiment.
Roger was in despair. "Two days!" he groaned. "Why, it takes two days to come up and back. Better stay away."
"Don't be an idiot, Rog," exclaimed Ernest. "You get him here, and he'll stay for a day or so. How can he get away? The thing that bothers me is that darned engine of yours."
"It doesn't bother me," replied Roger, with a quick gleam in his gray eyes and a sudden smile. "I've got a week before he gets here and by Jove, the old kettle's got to be ready!" He gave a sudden long sigh and looked off toward the distant line of the river range. "I thought it was queer of the Smithsonian to treat me as it did. Ern, this puts new life in me."
If new life means redoubled effort, Roger had found it indeed. He gave himself as little sleep as possible during the week before the expected visit. All day and a larger part of the night he was at work in the engine house, till his eyes were bigger and his face gaunter than ever. Felicia was his little shadow. Her taste for mechanics made her seem more like a small boy than ever. And although Roger's tense nerves grew tenser and his impatience with the others was shown oftener and oftener, to Felicia he showed only the gentleness for which she loved him.
Charley and Elsa were forming a real friendship. The isolation of the little desert community was almost complete. Since the death of Von Minden no one from the outer rim of the desert or of the world had been near either camp or ranch. Even the Indians who had been camping in the remote canyon where Felicia had visited them had found good hunting in some still more remote section and never had appeared in the camp. This isolation forced the friendship between the two young women to a quick growth. Charley was happier, Dick said, than he had seen her since her college days.
Two days before the visitor was due, Roger announced that one day's work would make him ready for a test, so that, and he did not believe that he was over-confident, when Gustav arrived with the Smithsonian investigator, the plant would be in full action. He made this announcement at breakfast. Ernest and Gustav cheered.
"I never thought you'd make it," said Gustav.
"I had to make it," replied Roger. "I have the conviction that if this man, whoever he is, sees the plant working, the thing will be done, and that if he doesn't find the wheels going round, I'm going to miss the chance of my life."
"If the heat would just let up for a little while," sighed Ernest. "If he's a northerner, it may put him out of business."
"Pshaw! they'll send an experienced man, never fear!" Roger poured himself another cup of coffee. "Hello! Here's a caller!"
It was Qui-tha, riding a half-starved pony whose mangy sides were working in the early morning sun like a pair of bellows.
He dismounted and grinned affably. "How! You give Qui-tha more strong medicine, maybe!"
"Look here, Qui-tha, I'll give you all the strong medicine you want, if you'll stay and help me for a week," cried Ernest.
Qui-tha shook his head. "No got time to work. Must go back to Injun camp take care of sick Injun. Qui-tha heap big medicine man, now."
"All right!" Ernest shrugged his shoulders. "No work, no strong medicine."
Qui-tha shrugged his shoulders and remounting, he started on up the trail to the ranch house. Elsa reported later in the day that Dick, having no peroxide, had promised to get some from Archer's Springs if Qui-tha would do a day's work for him. Qui-tha, she said, was giving the matter due consideration.
Late that evening, while Roger and Gustav were working at the little forge, Ernest came out of the living tent where he had been writing letters.
"Did you fellows hear a gun shot a little bit ago?" he asked. "You two are making such an infernal racket, I can't tell what it was."
Roger and Gustav both stopped work and listened. The desert was breathlessly silent.
"Are you sure?" asked Roger. "Did you think it might have been at the ranch?"
"I couldn't tell. It may have been nothing at all but you folks here. But if I hear it again, I'm going up there."
It was fifteen or twenty minutes later that Elsa's voice came from the trail.
"Ernest! Roger! Gustav!"
The three men started on a run to meet her. A dark figure in the starlight, she staggered exhausted toward them.
"The Indian—had whiskey—he and Dick both drunk. The Indian shot Dick—in the leg and ran away."
"Did he hurt you girls?" cried Roger.
"Not a bit. But Dick's terrible. We've got him in his bedroom. But if his leg didn't prevent him he'd climb out of the window."
As she spoke, she turned back toward the ranch with the men. "You go ahead. I'm all in and will follow slowly," she said.
"Not with that Indian around in the desert," exclaimed Ernest. "Gustav, you come along with Elsa and Roger and I'll run for it."
They could hear Dick's roars as they neared the adobe. When they burst breathlessly into the living room, Charley was standing by the door holding in place a chair which hung on the knob and against the door jamb made an effective bolt.
"Is he armed?" asked Roger.
"No," replied Charley. "There's the only gun in the house," pointing to the one on the table. "And Qui-tha had his with him as he ran out of the house."
Roger turned to Ernest. "We could just leave him in there alone to wake up, if there wasn't danger of his bleeding to death. Come on, Ern. Remember he's as strong as a bear and be ready to jump him with me. Get some clean rags and water, Charley, and bring them in when we call. And keep Gustav out. He'll faint."
They slid quickly into Dick's room, closing the door behind them. Dick lay on the bed, blood oozing through his pants leg below the knee. He seemed too sick to move, but Roger would take no chances.
"Ern, you hold his hands above his head while I cut off that pants leg."
The precautions were unnecessary. Dick lay muttering and limp while Roger uncovered a nasty wound that had plowed to the bone down Dick's skin.
"Qui-tha must have been at close quarters when that happened," said Ernest. "You'll need help, Roger. Hand me that towel and I'll tie his hands."
Roger handed Ernest the towel, then went out for the rags and water. Gustav and Elsa had arrived. He had hardly answered them that Dick's wound was not very serious when there was a sudden uproar. Dick had gone amuck again and even the girls had to be called into service to help with the bandaging while the men held him quiet.
By the time the blood flow was staunched and the rude bandaging finished, Dick had subsided into a drunken stupor, from which, in spite of his evident pain, there seemed little danger of his rousing for some hours. Leaving Gustav to watch, the others withdrew to the living room.
"What have you done with Felicia?" asked Roger.
"She's slept through it all, thank heaven," replied Charley. "I ran into her room as soon as Qui-tha had clattered away and she was sound asleep. So I just locked the door. I'll go in now and attend to her."
She picked up a candle and tiptoed into the bedroom. There was a moment's hush, then Charley rushed back into the living room.
"She's not there! Felicia!" Her voice rising to a scream. "Felicia! Where are you?"
Elsa ran wildly into the bedroom followed by the others. The little room was empty. Felicia's nightdress lay in a heap on the floor. The clothing she had taken off was gone. A quick search of the house, then of the outbuildings was made. To no avail. Some one gasped:
But Charley who had recovered her self control, vetoed this idea at once. "An Indian isn't like that! Roger, she climbed out of the window to run to you."