Peter led the way down. Roger had been fortunate in the time he chose for his crossing. The river was at its lowest level, sliding lazily over the sand. As Roger descended the mountain he found water marks where at flood, the river had filled the valley and gnawed deep into the vitals of the range. He followed the burro across the sand to the water's edge. Peter buried his nose in the stream, then rolled himself joyfully in the moist sand, snorting and blowing. Roger stood staring at the little fellow. Then as Peter began to crop the coarse grass which grew in sparse clumps among the straight stalks of the arrow-weed, Roger gathered together some bits of drift wood for his supper fire.
He fried some bacon, made coffee, and seated himself in the sand. Peter dropped his soft nose over Roger's shoulders, and ate the bacon rinds one by one, then crowding still closer, tried to nibble at the cracker Roger was devouring.
"Hang you, Pete, get round on the other side of the fire!" exclaimed Roger.
It was the first time he had spoken in several hours and the sound of his own voice startled him. Peter trotted obediently around and stood opposite, head drooping as if in thought. Strangely small and gray he looked; strangely wise as if the same weathering of the centuries that had worn the mountain peaks into shapes of brooding significance had worn his little gray head into the semblance of Wise Patience, itself.
When Roger had finished his meal, and packed, he walked slowly up and down the river bank. But nowhere could he see a better place for crossing than at the spot where he had built his fire. Here a small island amid stream made the crossing seem possible. He found a cottonwood log to which he tied his food pack and canteen as well as his clothes which he took off and rolled up. He fastened Peter to a clump of arrow-weed, then waded out into the stream, pushing the log before him.
The water was very cold and the current much swifter than Roger had anticipated but he was an excellent swimmer and though the current carried him well down stream, he made a safe landing on the island with all his goods and chattels. Then he went back for Peter. He could not bear the thought of going on alone.
The lead rope was long. Roger pulled the reluctant Peter to the water's edge, plunged in and was swimming violently in the current before the rope stretched taut and he realized that Peter was braced, stiff-legged on the bank. Roger swam back and climbed out of the water.
"Come, Peter," he said gently. "I'll swim beside you so you needn't be afraid."
Peter moved his long ears back and forth.
"Come! Come! Don't make me beat you. Come, Peter."
Peter did not stir. Roger picked up a bit of driftwood and belaboured Peter's gray sides, but the beating might have been a sand flea hopping on him for all it appeared to move Peter.
"Darn you, Peter!" shouted Roger. "Have you quit me too? I tell you, you shall not! Come now, I'm too tired to argue."
He plunged once more into the water, once more swam into the current, whistling Peter's call as he did so. But to no avail. When he reached the bank this time he was angry. He roared at Peter and kicked at him with his bare toes. But he kicked him only once. Peter's ribs were strong and none too well covered.
Peter looked at Roger's thin white body and his brown angry face, moved his ears, breathed hard and snorted.
Roger roared again. "All right, sir! All right, sir! If you won't come with me, neither shall you go back to the Germans and their sympathizers. I'll fix you, young fellow!"
He led Peter up to a mesquite tree and with trembling fingers tied the little gray head as high as he could pull it.
"There," he said, "you can stay there till the buzzards get you" and without a backward glance he swam once more across to the island.
Here he dressed and lay for a time resting in the sand. The sun had sunk behind the ranges. The night shadows in the valley were cool. Partly because of this, partly from sheer nervous and physical exhaustion, Roger shivered. Finally when twilight had settled in the valley, he sat up and gazed across the river. It was too dark to see Peter. There was only the murmur of the river in all that barren solitude. Then suddenly Peter brayed. It was not the usual ridiculous hee haw of the burro but a strange blending of whinny and scream. Roger shuddered and told himself that he would keep Peter company just a little longer, then move on.
The desert night came on quickly and completely. The great desert stars had pricked out before the last light had left the mountain tops. An hour passed, then two. Roger was too weary to build a fire, too wretched to sleep. He sat huddled in the sand, his head against a great cottonwood log, his face toward the river. A dim red edge began to show over the ranges. It lifted into a crescent, then into a half circle. Suddenly the little valley was flooded with white light and the moon sailed free over the sliding river.
Roger stared eagerly toward the mesquite tree. Peter stood unmoving, his little gray head turned upward, his sturdy neck seeming unusually long and thin, stretched thus unnaturally. It seemed curious to Roger that the burro did not kick nor lunge. But Peter's patience, won by who knows what beaten and burdened ancestry, did not desert him. He did not tug at his rope but he brayed again, as if he were giving an eerie shriek of warning.
Roger bit his nails nervously, then hollowed out a bed in the sand and lying down tried to sleep. The stars glowed down on him quietly. From where he lay he could see Peter. The little gray head must be tired. How Felicia had loved the little burro. Used to wash his face and brush his foolish mane. Felicia! Little lost Felicia! Roger groaned and sat up.
His moment of reckoning had arrived, as it arrives once to every man.
First he thought of Felicia. He recalled that first day on the train when she had sat in his lap so long and he had felt the whisper of fate in their meeting. He came down through the desert days with her. How pitifully few there were of them, after all! And he lived them over, one by one. He recalled her loveliness, her childish curiosity, her love of his work. He thought of her affection and of her timidity, her shrinking fear of a rough word. And suddenly he groaned and said aloud:
"Thank God in His mercy that she didn't see me when I throttled Ernest!"
Ernest! The friend of his boyhood and his young manhood. Generous, sweet-tempered, easy going Ernest! How patiently he had endured Roger's temper! How loyally he had devoted himself to Roger's experiments. How utterly he had given himself to their friendship. Why had he betrayed Roger at the last? What had happened? Roger's brain seemed on fire as he turned over in his mind the events that had led to Tuesday's tragedy. Charley had come to him and had said:—
Well—no matter what she had said. Long before she had told him that his life failure was due to his selfish indifference to other people. He remembered that he had not believed her. But now the words seemed seared into his brain.
Roger took a long drink, then as methodically as he could he examined his own temperament. First, he tried to consider himself as if he were Ernest looking at Roger. What had Roger ever done for Ernest? He had been a constant spur to Ernest mentally, forcing him into new fields of research and experiment, but only after all, for Roger's own purposes, or Roger's own ideas. What return had Roger ever made for the exquisite hospitality of Ernest's home and the tenderness of Ernest's mother? None! None whatever! What return even in kindness had Roger ever made for Ernest's untiring efforts to promote the solar device. Once more Roger whispered huskily:
"None! None at all! Less than nothing!"
So Ernest must see him as a brain devoid of any human qualities save that of quick temper. Thank heaven, Felicia never had seen him angry but once! But Charley had seen every red hate that had swept him since he had come to the desert. What would he not give if this were not so! More than any one in the world, he suddenly thought, he wanted Charley's good opinion. And how must she see him? Impatient, ugly tempered, selfish,—excepting toward Felicia. Thank God, she had seen how he had loved that little child.
And so, here he was at thirty, a failure. It was better to acknowledge it now: to admit that the fault was his; to go on into some mining camp and lose himself than to drag on making a fool of himself at the Sun Plant. He would rest a little longer, then start on in the moonlight.
Once more Roger stretched himself out on his bed of sand. As he did so, Peter brayed again. Roger jumped to his feet, the cold sweat starting from his forehead. Felicia's little burro! What devil could have entered into him that he could treat a dumb brute so! He tore off his clothing and jumped into the water. It was not easy to breast the current, he was so tired. But he made the bank and staggering up to the mesquite tree, he untied Peter.
"There, old man," he said gently, "go back to your friends."
Then he turned to cross the river. He was carried far below his camp this time and for some minutes after he landed he lay naked and exhausted before he could urge himself back to the cottonwood log and climb into his clothing.
He was in a state now of utter despair. No grief, no anger can bring to the human mind the depth of suffering that self-loathing can. Roger lay with his forehead pillowed on his arm, for the first time in his life facing his own weaknesses. Just in the degree that his brain was clearer, his mind more honest, his nerves more highly strung than other men's, just in that degree did he suffer more.
Perhaps, after a time, he slipped into a half doze. But it seemed to him that the touch on his forehead was his mother's. No, it was Felicia's or was it Charley's? Again Charley and Felicia merged in his mind. Felicia was looking at him with adoring eyes. Thank God once more that she could never grow up to know the truth about him. But she had grown up and was stooping over him with a gentle hand on his forehead as if she understood him and forgave him a thousand times over.
It was Charley, of course, Charley with the great heart and the seeing mind. What an awful thing for him to have brought another failure to the valley! Charley had had a sad life. Perhaps she had had dreams of her own, before she merged her destiny with Dick's. Dick was a poor weakling. But Felicia's death had saved him. Dick was a man now. If Felicia had seen him attack Ernest, she would have run away to her death, just as she had for Dick's frenzy. Potentially, he was a murderer too. But now he was a failure and as far as his red devil was concerned, Felicia had died in vain.
Roger's heart seemed to stop beating with the horror of this thought. Try as he would he could not get away from the idea that potentially he shared Dick's guilt. And Felicia had been sacrificed in vain. Suddenly he clenched his fists. No, by heaven, this should not be!
Roger pulled himself to his knees beside the cottonwood log and lifted his ravished face to the stars.
"Listen, God!" he shouted. "It was not in vain! I'm going back! I'm going back to Felicia and Charley and prove myself a man. I don't know why Ernest did it. But that doesn't matter. I'm going back. Listen to me, God!"
Half kneeling, half crouching, with the sinking moon touching his burning eyes, his trembling lips, Roger watched the great compassionate desert stars as if waiting for an answer. And as he waited, the answer came. Roger whispered as if in reply.
"Yes! Yes! I love her! I love her! I love her! Oh, Charley, my darling! I'm coming back to you and show you that Felicia did not die in vain!"
Then he slipped down into the sand and fell asleep as deeply, as sweetly as a child, and the quiet stars looked down upon the dark slender figure with infinite understanding.
The first rays of the sun roused Roger. He lay for a time blinking and trying to account for the peace and happiness of which he was conscious from the instant he opened his eyes. After a moment, memory spoke and he jumped to his feet and stretched himself. Then he gave a sudden shout.
"Oh, I say, old Peter! You are a good scout! Waiting for me, are you? Hang it! I couldn't blame you if you were just waiting to kick my brains out. Just hold on till I get some breakfast and I'll be with you."
At Roger's shout, Peter left off his desultory browsing, lifted his tail and brayed, an honest old fashioned bray that set Roger at his breakfast getting with a broad grin.
The sun was not an hour high when the two started on the home trail. Peter scorned the lead rope now but led the way nimbly, finding a far easier trail than Roger had dragged him over the day before. Roger was tired and stiff. He was dirty and unshaven. But he was happy; happy as he had never dreamed of being; too happy, too utterly brain weary to think. He only knew that he was going home to Charley.
They reached the mesa that evening, at sundown. With all the desire in the world, Roger could not go on. So he made camp in a little draw and lay down to sleep. He did not waken until morning.
It was well toward supper time when Roger reached the ranch. There was no one to be seen. Roger turned Peter into the corral and fed him, then went into the living tent, shaved and changed his clothing. Charley, Elsa and Dick were at supper when Roger entered and with a quick sense of remorse he saw that each face turned toward him wore a look of startled anxiety. He paused in the doorway, the lamp glow disclosing the lines of exhaustion around his mouth.
"Hello," he said, huskily, "I've come back to you people, if you'll have me!"
Elsa was the first to rush to him. "Oh, Roger, did you really want to come back?" she cried.
Roger stooped and kissed her cheek. "Want to come back? Why, I've almost died of impatience getting back."
Dick shoved Elsa gently aside. "I'm sure things can be fixed up, Roger," he said. "Ernest isn't—"
Roger interrupted by placing both hands on Dick's shoulders. "Old man," he said. "The important thing to me now is for you to understand how I feel about you, how I understand what you've been through and how I need your help, just because of what you've been through."
There was a sudden silence. Charley, her great eyes on Roger's face, did not move. Dick cleared his throat.
"Why—why—Roger!—My God—do you mean it? That you don't hate me any more? Don't bluff me, Roger! I've been in too lonely a hell. What's happened to you, Rog?"
"I've come to," replied Roger, dropping his hands from Dick's shoulders and crossing the room to stand before Charley.
She had risen and was standing quietly behind her chair. Roger, with his eyes on hers, lifted both her hands against his breast.
"Charley!" he said, huskily, "Oh, Charley! Charley!" and then, his voice and his will failed him and he bowed his head on her shoulder.
Charley freed one hand and laid it on his head. "Poor child!" she murmured. "Poor old Roger!"
Elsa sniffed in a manner peculiarly like a sob, and Roger raised his head with a sheepish laugh.
"I guess I'm about all in," he said.
"You're hungry and tired out," exclaimed Charley. "Sit down, Roger and have some supper."
There was a little flurry of bringing fresh plates and an extra chair and the interrupted meal was begun again.
"Where on earth did you go, Roger?" asked Elsa. "We saw you start straight across the valley."
"I got as far as the river. I didn't do Ernest any real damage, did I?" Roger looked at Dick inquiringly.
"I guess not. He seems to have worked around, as usual. He and Gustav went into Archer's Springs yesterday."
There was a moment's pause, then Elsa said, "What do you intend to do, Roger?"
Roger laid down his knife and fork, dejectedly. "I don't know! How could a man like Ernest do such a rotten trick!"
"He refused to make us any explanation whatever," said Dick. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm through with him unless he comes across with a satisfactory statement. I don't like the look of the whole thing."
"Elsa agrees with Dick and me," Charley looked at Elsa's troubled face sympathetically, "that Ernest's got to be kept in Coventry until something drastic is done. We were all hoping and believing that you'd come back to see the matter through."
Roger finished his second cup of coffee in deep thought. "I'll have to have a talk with Ernest," he said, finally.
"Hackett brought in the new pump yesterday morning," said Dick. "He brought a bunch of newspapers. We've been floored by their contents."
"Yes," exclaimed Charley, "the war news is unbelievable."
"They've sacked Louvain!" cried Elsa.
"Who sacked Louvain? It sounds like the Dark Ages!" asked Roger.
"The Germans!" Elsa, evidently controlling her voice with difficulty went on, "They've shot old women and children as hostages. Hostages! Why that word belongs to the Dark Ages. It's unbelievable! And the library—all those priceless things are burned."
"Good God!" exclaimed Roger. Then, "What does Ernest say to this?"
"None of us have talked to him since you left," said Charley.
"But whether it's a war of offense or defense, there's no excuse for that sort of thing. I thought German culture—" Roger paused and Elsa cut in excitedly—
"Culture! I tell you they never were cultured, the Germans. Look at Professor Rosenthal and Dad and Ernest. How deep is their so-called culture? Bah! Petty tyrants in their homes and bloody savages, I'll bet, if they run amuck."
"Keep your hair on, Elsa, old dear." Dick patted the excited girl on the shoulder.
"Some one's coming up the trail," exclaimed Charley.
There was a footstep on the porch as she spoke and Ernest appeared in the doorway. His face was sullen and he made no pretense of a greeting.
"I came up to say that Mr. Werner will be here to-morrow and it will be necessary for you to see both him and me, Roger, and settle this miserable affair. We'll come up as soon as Werner arrives, probably late in the afternoon."
Ernest turned abruptly on his heel. Roger sprang to his feet. Charley laid a quick hand on his arm. Roger gave her a glance. "It's all right, Charley. Don't worry! Hold on, Ernest. We'll have this thing out right now."
Ernest turned back slowly. "There's nothing to have out. A man has a right to his own political opinion. And as for the Werner matter, you insulted me for doing you a favor and I'm through with you."
"Favor!" gasped Roger. "Why Ernest, you're crazy! You lied to me and sneaked on me and it wasn't to do me a favor, at all. It was for Germany. That's what gets all our goats. For Germany!"
"Well, what's the matter with Germany? You've worshiped at her shrine all these years, haven't you? And now in her hour of need, you turn against her," sneered Ernest.
Roger looked from Charley to Dick in utter bewilderment. "Germany's hour of need! The hour of need of a horde of vandals.—Where's your common sense, Ern?"
"It's a Dutchman's logic, Roger, that's all!" cried Elsa. "You're just beginning to recognize it! Lord, I was brought up on it!"
"Oh, dry up, Elsa! You were always a disloyal minx," growled Ernest. "Now, you folks are welcome to think what you please. I'm not like Roger, ready to murder a man who has a different political opinion from me. I'm going to see that Werner's given a square deal, then I'm going to quit the whole bunch of you."
"Look here, Ern, you've got to straighten this business out," insisted Roger. "Crazy Dutch and Werner and Gustav and you! It's a dirty deal, somehow. Just why did you turn on your best friend, Ernest?"
"Turn on my best friend! I like that from you, with your devil's temper. And you've turned nasty nice all of a sudden, about where you get your money, after robbing all the mines around here."
"You know I've sent a list of everything I've taken from each mine to each mine owner and asked him to send a bill!" shouted Roger.
"Huh! That may be, but when it comes to giving Mr. Werner a chance at the Solar Plant, I recalled all that and didn't suppose you'd be finicky."
Roger's drawn face burned. Felicia's clock on the mantel ticked and Charley's deep eyes did not leave Roger's clenched fists. He ground his teeth, then drew a long breath.
"That was a rotten thing to say to me, Ern, but I guess I deserved part of it. Of course, the contract with Werner's got to be broken, and I want you to chew on this. You've got to choose between Werner and me. Our friendship ends unless you drop Germany."
"Oh, hell!" grunted Ernest and he turned and disappeared into the night.
Elsa shrugged her shoulders and began to gather up the dishes. Charley followed her example mechanically. Roger and Dick lighted their pipes and stood with their backs to the empty fireplace, and no one spoke until the dishes were finished and the girls were seated with their sewing.
Then, "By Jove," said Dick. "I don't know what to suggest."
"Neither do I," echoed Roger. "But this much I know. The main point is to save Ernest. The Solar Plant is secondary. He's got to do what's right in this."
"You'll never get away with it, Roger," exclaimed Dick. "Ernest really believes in this superman stuff. He's a German."
"He's got to do what's right," repeated Roger, this time with a tired break in his voice. "I feel as if I'd never believe in a man again unless he does. What can I do, Elsa?"
Elsa shook her head. "I don't know. If you people will think back you'll realize you've all been raised on adulation of Germany. Ernest is merely the logical product of his ancestry and environment."
"How did you escape the poison, Elsa?" asked Charley.
"Overstuffed," she replied. "And I'm not alone. There's any number of us American children of German parents who've been fed up on the 'Vaterland' stuff."
"Elsa," asked Dick, suddenly, "is Ernest a spy?"
The girl turned crimson. Roger interrupted quickly: "Oh, I say, Dick, give Ernest first chance to answer that question."
"No, I'll answer it," replied Elsa. "He wasn't up to the time he came to the desert, I'm sure. He was just wonderfully prepared soil, ready for the planting of any sort of seed. What Mr. Werner did to him, I don't know."
"Do you think Werner is a spy?" asked Charley.
"Probably, of an exalted order. As I look back now, he's been using Papa and all the rest of the silly Turnverein, any way he wants to. How much they know we never shall know. My heavens, what a dirty place the world is!"
No one replied to this comment. Roger sighed deeply and a pitying glance passed between the two girls as he dropped his head dejectedly on his hands.
"Well, let's postpone more talk until morning," said Dick. "Elsa, going to help me put the menagerie to bed?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Elsa with alacrity, adding, as she followed Dick to the door, "Don't you think Roger'd better sleep here, to-night? With Gustav in the living tent—"
Charley nodded. "I'll make up the cot on the porch." She eyed Roger's drooping head with tear-dimmed eyes, as the others went out.
Roger lifted his worn face and gave Charley a long look. She was recovering some of her tone. Her eyes were bright and though the deepened sadness of her mouth would never lessen, the despondency that had marked her face when in repose ever since Felicia's death was gone. As Roger watched her, it seemed to him that if Charley as well as Ernest failed him, the blackness of the pit would indeed close around him. He rose suddenly and crossed the room to kneel beside her. He clasped her hands against his heart, and said slowly:
"Charley, look in my face and tell me that you realize I am a changed man! That you need never fear my temper again!"
Charley caught her lower lip which would tremble, between her teeth, and steady, wise, brown eyes gazed long into deep-set, wearied, blue eyes.
"What happened, Roger?" Charley asked, at last.
"I fully recognized my devil, for the first time, and fought him to a finish. I'm going to have many a tough struggle but you'll never see again nor will any one else, the thing little Felicia was so afraid of. You understand and believe me, don't you?"
Charley nodded, not trusting her quivering lips to words.
Roger dropped her hands and took her face in a tender clasp.
"Charley, it's a poor, broken, futile thing just now, my life, but so help me, God, it will not always be so. And whatever it is or will be, it belongs to you. Will you take it, Charley?"
There was a long pause during which Felicia's old enemy, the alarm clock, ticked loudly. Then Charley smiled and said uncertainly:
"While I'm taking my own share of you, I think I'll take Felicia's too. Then I'll have all of you!"
"Charley! Oh, Charley! My dearest love! My dearest!" Roger jumped up, pulled Charley to her feet and clasping the slender body in his arms laid his lips hungrily to hers. He kissed her eyes, her hair. "Charley! Charley! I'm a selfish brute, but you'll never know what you're doing for me. You ought to have a man worth ten of me but I'm going to have you just the same. Now I can bear even Ernest's failure. Do you really love me, my darling?"
"Curiously enough, I do!" replied Charley with the old whimsical lift of her eyebrows. "Oh, you dear old single-track thinking machine, you!"
Roger held her off and looked at her wonderingly. "You mean—Oh, Charley, I have been a fool in every possible way, haven't I?"
Charley laughed, with her cheek against Roger's, her arm about his neck. Roger held her closer still. "Well," he said huskily, "I'm through with one kind of foolishness! Charley, will you ride into Archer's Springs to-morrow and marry me?"
The girl laughed outright. "I certainly won't! Let me go, Roger. Here come Elsa and Dick."
Elsa entered the room, her head on one side, her eyes bright and questioning.
"Well, Rog?" she exclaimed breathlessly.
"Yes, Elsa," he replied. "By Jove, I can't believe it myself but Charley says she'll marry me."
"Thank the Lord for that!" sighed Elsa.
"You're not good enough for her, Roger," said Dick, coming across the room with right hand outstretched but a grim face. "But when I think about Elsa taking me—"
He did not finish the sentence but Roger nodded understandingly and the two men, regarding each other seriously over a long hand clasp, laid at that moment the foundation of a close friendship that was to last them to the end of their lives.
"Poor old Ernest!" Roger broke the silence with a sigh.
"Try not to think about him to-night, Roger," Charley laid a gentle hand on his arm. "You are so fearfully tired, I'm going to fix the porch couch and you must go to bed at once."
Roger was glad to stretch out on the cot and close his weary eyes. But he could not sleep. The thrilling joy of Charley's welcome, the burning soft touch of her lips on his and with this, the sick sense of loss in the constantly recurring thought of Ernest combined to make sleep long in coming. He heard Dick, then Elsa call good night. He heard the subdued clatter of Charley in the kitchen making her breakfast preparations, and after a few minutes the sound of Felicia's alarm clock being wound for the night.
"Charley!" he called softly.
In a moment Charley's lovely head was outlined against the lamplight as she paused in the door.
"Haven't you been asleep, Roger dear?"
"Charley, how could Ernest have done it? I can't sleep for thinking about it."
Charley came over to his cot and sitting down on the edge of it, lifted Roger's hot hand against her cheek. "You must realize that he thinks he loves the 'Vaterland' and that he is doing the best thing for the world in placing loyalty to Germany first."
"Then he should be shot as a traitor," said Roger. "I can't believe that he thinks so crooked. Why, he's got a mind that's as pellucid as that spring Peter found in Lost Canyon."
Charley smoothed his hair back from his forehead. "Poor old Roger! You may have been selfish toward your friends, but you certainly loved them. Try to go to sleep now, dearest. You'll need a clear head if you're going to save Ernest and the Solar Plant. Aren't the stars beautiful? I never lose my awe of their nearness in the desert."
"They were wonderful over in the River Canyon," said Roger, relaxing with a long breath at Charley's touch on his forehead, while he clung closely to her other hand. "Do you really love me, Charley, my sweetheart?"
Suddenly the girl slipped to her knees beside the cot and buried her face against his on the pillows. "Oh, Roger! Roger! Just as much and more than Felicia did and for nearly as long."
"And I you," replied Roger, brokenly, "only I was such a self-centered fool I didn't know it. Don't kneel there, Charley, you're tired and must go to bed."
"Oh, Roger! Roger! I've wanted you so! And the years have been so hard! Never leave me, dear! Don't make me go now! Let me watch here beside you till you sleep, just as you did for me that night Felicia died."
"I'll never leave you, you darling! Even my work shall never drive me from you. We'll put things through together from now on. Oh, Charley! I don't deserve it!"
"I know you don't!" this with a chuckle that was half a sob, "but somehow even old Peter can't bear to be separated from you."
"Bless his old gray head! Charley, let me tell you about Peter and the river." Roger began eagerly but before his story was half finished his sentences were broken and finally ended abruptly. Roger was fast asleep. Charley, with a soft kiss on his hair, rose from the cramped position on her knees and went into the house. In a short time the adobe was in darkness and Peter, with a wisp of alfalfa on which he chewed meditatively, hanging from his mouth, leaned his gray head on the corral bars and eyed the stars unblinkingly.
THE BLACK BOX
Roger was awakened the next morning by the sound of Dick uncrating the new pump. He rose at once feeling quite himself. He had his belated breakfast alone, with Charley hovering in attendance.
"Ernest and Gustav are down at the old camp as usual," she reported. "What are you going to do to-day, Roger?"
"I want to go through Von Minden's papers. If I'd done a thorough job on that in the beginning, all the trouble might have been obviated."
"I don't know about that," said Charley. "It couldn't have been foreseen that Ernest would get in touch with Werner."
"Will you help me?" asked Roger. "I want to get through before Werner comes."
"Are you feeling fairly calm for the interview, dear?" Charley smoothed Roger's hair back, caressingly.
"Calm!" Roger suddenly caught the girl to him in a passionate embrace. "Calm! I don't want to be calm when I think of you and all you are to me. Oh, my darling, my darling!"
With Dick and Elsa's help, the Von Minden papers had been thoroughly gone over by mid-afternoon.
It was well on toward four o'clock before Ernest appeared with his unwelcome guest. Dick had descried a dust-cloud on the Archer's Springs trail about three o'clock and they all had seen a buckboard with two figures in it drive into the Sun Camp.
"Werner must have come," said Roger, only half succeeding in keeping his voice casual.
Dick nodded. "Hackett was telling me that he'd finally made up his mind to get a tin Lizzy. These old-time cowboys do certainly hate to give up their horses, don't they? But when the Chinaman said that he was going to buy a jitney for the miners, poor Hackett had to give in. Of course, he'll still have to use his horses and the pack-train for mountain work."
Roger grunted absentmindedly and stored Von Minden's box in the kitchen, as Hackett drove Werner and Ernest up to the corral.
Herr Werner, badly sunburned and dusty, seemed unfeignedly glad to have reached the ranch. He greeted Elsa and Charley effusively, shook hands with Dick and showed Roger a mixture of cordiality and deference in manner that was irreproachable.
Left alone in the living room with Roger and Ernest, he came to the point at once:
"Wolf tells me, Mr. Moore, that you have been much angered at his selling the solar device to me."
"I certainly have been and I haven't the least idea of letting the thing go through," replied Roger. "A considerable part of the money you advanced has been spent but I shall spend no more of it and my friend Preble can arrange a loan that will cover what has been spent."
"You know, of course," Werner took an audible sip of lemonade, "that a bargain is a bargain and that the contract Wolf signed is binding."
"Ordinarily, yes," said Roger, "but I have an idea that before I'm through with you, you'll be glad to let go."
"For heaven's sake, Roger!" cried Ernest irritably, throwing his cigarette in the fireplace, and taking a quick turn up and down the room, "don't start a row."
"If you mean not to lose my temper, I can promise that," returned Roger, "but Germany can never have my solar apparatus."
"How're you going to help yourself?" asked Ernest, with an ugly edge to his voice.
"There are ways! Mr. Werner, Von Minden was a part of Germany's great system, was he not, for exploiting America? He was one of your agents and his job was to outline the desert empire Germany plans to take over. But being German, like Ernest's father who never will take the human element into consideration, you didn't count on the desert's sending your poor tool crazy, so he blabbed. Gustav is your watch-dog and spy, keeping you in touch at present with all my doings. Your own activities, outside of these minor ones, I imagine, center round the banking and educational interests of America. You've seen to it that our high schools and universities produce students that admire Germany. I must say that you have been highly successful up to now. But the superman stuff is a bit thick, Mr. Werner. It makes our American gorge rise in our throats."
Roger fingered his cold pipe, swallowed several times, looked out the open door where he could see Charley at the bars, rubbing Peter's head, then went on:
"What you've done to Ernest is obvious. He's the sweetest tempered, most easily influenced chap in the world. You caught him in New York after he'd failed with the Smithsonian—probably after some spy in the Smithsonian had put you wise, and fed him up with the superman idea and he, poor mut, fell for it."
"Roger!" shouted Ernest. "You can't talk about me as if I were feeble-minded."
"But hang it, Ern, you have been!" exclaimed Roger. Then, with a little break in his voice, "I tell you, you've been thinking and speaking treason and I won't have it! I won't have it!"
"Come! Come! Mr. Moore!" said Werner; "supposing what you've surmised should turn out to be true. Might is right in this world."
"You can't draw me into a discussion of ethics, Mr. Werner. Ernest and I'll have that out afterward. I'm just telling you this, that Germany can't have my solar device and it can't have Ernest. There's enough evidence in that tin dispatch box of Von Minden's, Mr. Werner, almost to persuade Congress to declare war on your super-fatherland. There's enough evidence in that box to make headlines in every American paper for a month. What it would do to pro-German sentiment in this country is a caution."
Werner's sunburned face went purple. "Gott im Himmel!" he roared. "Did the fool keep my letters?"
"No, but he copied them into his journal, with all sorts of other data of vital interest to the American public. We had a very pleasant morning reading his journal. My great regret is that I've so neglected that document box."
With surprising quickness for a stout man, Werner pulled a revolver from his hip pocket, and pointed it at Roger.
"I want that box, Moore!" he roared.
Quick as a cat, Ernest crossed the room, and with a twist of Werner's wrist disarmed him.
"None of that!" he said.
"Keep your shirt on, Mr. Werner!" said Roger. "You're going to need it, take my word for that!"
Werner bit his nails for a moment. "Very well, sir. Give me back the box and I'll turn back the contract."
"Not on your life! You turn back the contract and I'll give you a week to get out of the country before I turn the box over to the Department of Justice. Just one week, mind you, no more!"
"Look here, Rog, you can't do that! It would be a dirty trick! Why, it's blackmail!" Ernest dropped the revolver on the table with a thud.
"Good God, Ernest! Blackmail! Toward a man who is a spy—a man who plots against the physical and moral fiber of your country! Blackmail! Come out of your trance. There are some things that can't be done, Ern! Life's full of forbidden trails. My temper was one of them and poor old Dick's drinking was another. And the one most impossible of all for a real man to take is the one you're headed toward—a real man can't be renegade to his country."
Werner, chewing nervously at his thumb knuckle, eyed Roger blackly. Then he turned abruptly to Ernest.
"And you!" he roared. "A fine German you are, you milk sop! A beautiful muddle you've made of this. Von Minden's letters here for months and what use have they come to? There'd have been an Iron Cross in this for you, had you shown sense."
Ernest gave a sudden short laugh. "An Iron Cross would have been a wonderful reward for breaking up a man's life friendship. An Iron Cross! My word! Where's your sense of humor, Werner?"
"Come, Werner, the contract!" urged Roger.
"Damn you!" shrieked the German, jerking a heavy envelope from his inner pocket and throwing it in Roger's face. Roger caught it and after examining the contents, put it into his own pocket with a nod.
"Now, Mr. Werner," he said, "if you'll just annex Gustav, and plan to leave at sun down, Hackett will drive you in with Preble's team. I hate to lose Gustav. He was born to be a white man, poor devil."
Werner cleared his throat and spoke sneeringly: "And how do I know you'll live up to your bargain, Moore?"
"Oh, I'm an American! I promise to hold the papers a week and a promise isn't a scrap of paper in America. After the week's up, you won't enjoy the climate, I can assure you of that. I'll send you a check for the amount I've spent, next week, with the amount still untouched."
"Roger!" shouted Ernest, "Don't be a fool! It's the chance of your life you're throwing down!"
"Come with me, Wolf," cried Werner, "Come with me! I'll give you opportunities that you never dreamed of. You don't belong to this nation of thick-headed numb-skulls. You're a German. You know all that Moore knows about using solar heat. Come and help the Vaterland. Let this man rot. Bah! He belongs to a nation of swine!"
There was silence in the adobe living room. Roger's face turned a slow purple and sweat stood on his forehead. But by a supreme effort he kept his clenched fists in his pockets and his eyes riveted on Ernest's.
"Choose, Ernest," he said, suddenly.
Ernest seemed scarcely to hear him. The sullenness that his face had worn constantly for many days changed slowly to a look of anger that distorted his features until his expression was demoniacal.
He clutched the revolver and leaned across the table with a hoarse whisper:
"By God, if you insult America again, I'll shoot you! It's one thing to admire Germany. It's another to sling mud at America."
"What, you too, you hybrid!" shrieked Werner. "You play Germany into the hands of this swine; this monkey-headed inventor; this letter thief, this——"
With an inarticulate roar, Ernest pulled the trigger just as Roger knocked the revolver upward. The bullet lodged in the ceiling. But Werner had had enough. While Roger clung to the roaring Ernest, he rushed down the trail to the corral, where Hackett began at once to hitch Dick's team to the buckboard.
"Let go of me, Roger! Let me get at him!" howled Ernest.
Dick came running up the trail. "It's all right, Dick, don't bother!" called Roger. "Leave us alone a little while longer. What's the matter, Ernest? Be quiet, man! Let's talk like men and not row like a couple of dogs."
Roger eased Ernest into a chair and Ernest ceased to struggle, but stared at Roger gloomily.
"Well, what are you going to do about it?" he asked sullenly.
"I'm going to make you see the error of your ways." Roger smiled grimly. "Use your common sense, Ernest. What could Germany give you, except money? All your life ties are here."
"Wonderful ties!" sneered Ernest. "Charley has turned me down, my father has turned me out and you've beaten me up."
Roger concealed a grin. "Poor old chap!" he murmured. "So a woman's at the bottom of it all, eh?"
"I don't know why her refusing me affected me so," said Ernest, as if to himself. "But I felt as if nothing mattered. And then to have the Sun Plant a failure and my father's attitude! O pshaw, what's the use? Let me alone, Roger. I'm going to pack up and get out of here."
"Ernest," said Roger, "if you don't stay by while we straighten this out, I'll never get over it and no more will you. We've loved each other too long, Ern. Our lives have become interwoven. If we break now we'll go lame all our days. You know that, don't you, old man? You folks have all done so much for me. I've got to keep your friendship in order to pay up some of my indebtedness, eh, Ernie?"
Ernest drew a long breath and suddenly dropped his head into his hands and burst into tears.
"And now I'm crying!" he said. "Now I'm crying! There's no limit to my weakness."
Roger, still with a little twisted grin, lighted a cigarette. "A peach of a superman you are, eh, Ern?"
Ernest did not answer and Roger walked up and down the room, waiting. Finally Ernest lifted his flushed face and took the cigarette which Roger offered him, and began to speak, rapidly:
"I was desperate, after the Smithsonian turned me down. Seems that they didn't like the look of things Austin did and that's why they dropped you. Werner looked me up. I found out later that Gustav had kept him informed, and that Werner had got Austin just as they got me. I honestly thought I was doing a great thing for you and the world, Rog. Werner showed me a list of names of people in this country that're helping Germany that would make your eyes start. And he was always praising America."
"Ernest, has Werner any drawings of the plant?" asked Roger.
"No, he hasn't."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, because that's the first thing he asked me for, this afternoon. All our stuff that Austin had, his widow burned with his other papers. She said he told her to if anything happened to him. And you know I brought yours back, as I promised. What Gustav may have sent him I don't know, but evidently not satisfactory drawings or he wouldn't have been so keen to get more!"
"I wonder about the new engine," mused Roger. "Well, I have little fear of that. Gustav isn't enough of an engineer to guess what he doesn't see. He couldn't make a drawing of the idea of that engine to save his neck. And Dean Erskine's got the only plan I ever finished of it."
"I'm sure you're safe on that," insisted Ernest.
"I think I am," agreed Roger, "and now, Ernest, I want to know how I can square up with you for my attack on you the other night."
Ernest looked up at Roger and the sullen look which even his tears had not washed out lifted a little.
"You mean—?" he asked.
"I mean that I had no business attacking you as I did. It was a rotten trick and I'm ashamed and sorry. My temper has been a brutal thing and you've always put up with it. If we can clear this thing up, I'm going to do better by you, Ern."
There was a curious look in Ernest's beautiful eyes. "Do you know, I hoped for twenty years you'd get to see yourself in that light," he spoke thoughtfully. "What you've just said does away with any resentment I may have had about your temper, Roger. As for the other thing—" He paused.
"Ern, how could you do it?" asked Roger huskily.
"Before heaven, Roger, I did it solely for love of you. And you know I was brought up on admiration of Germany. I honestly thought that we could make you see it as I do. I've been seeing for days what a skunk trick it must have looked to you, but this obstinate streak in me wouldn't let me give up until Werner slanged America. Rog, I'll make it up to you somehow so you'll trust me again! See if I don't!"
"I'll trust you fast enough, old man, if you'll assure me that you're through with this superman stuff. Are you an American or a German, Ern?"
With a smile of extraordinary sweetness, Ernest put a hand on Roger's shoulder and said in a voice of utter sincerity, "I'm whatever you are, Roger. Thy country shall be my country and thy God, my God. After all, what is a man's country but the place of his loves and his friendships? And America has all of mine, Roger, all of mine."
The two men stood in silence after this until Roger said, brokenly, "Thank you, Ernest, you've made a new man of me."
"And now," said Ernest, briskly, "being considerably worse in debt than ever, the question before the house is whom do we do next?"
"I don't know! I swear I don't," Roger sighed, as he took one of Ernest's cigarettes.
Ernest gave a scornful laugh. "He doesn't know! the poor little woolly lamb! He doesn't know! with a plant such as is now established in the Prebles' backyard! Why, man, I could sell that to an Egyptian mummy."
Roger laughed and at the sound Dick called in through the open door,
"For the love of heaven, put us out of our misery! What's happened? We've been sweating blood!"
Both men hurried out to the porch. Seated in a solemn row on the steps were Charley, Dick and Elsa.
Ernest looked at Roger pleadingly. "You tell them, Rog. I want to attend to something in the tent."
Roger sat down beside Charley and told the story. When it was finished, Dick said, "Are you sure he's not German, Roger?"
"Certainly he's not any longer!" exclaimed Elsa. "The strongest thing in Ernest's life is his love for Roger. He'll never give any woman what he's given Roger. That love has saved Ernest and will keep him safe. Oh, I'm so thankful! So thankful!"
"Don't cry, Elsa! I've had all the emotion I can stand in one day," cried Roger.
"I wouldn't waste a tear on either of you," returned Elsa, stoutly as she wiped her eyes. "Come along, Dicky belovedest. You're the only one who treats me with respect. I'm going to cook you the most perfect biscuits ever invented for supper."
Ernest came into supper that night and after the first moment of embarrassment, the meal resolved itself into a frank discussion of ways and means, quite as if nothing had happened. Roger flatly refused to take Dick's possible loan.
"You keep that for a rainy day fall back," he said. "You and Elsa aren't going to have smooth sledding for a long time yet."
"How about you and Charley?" returned Dick. "Don't forget you've got a woman to provide for now!"
"Thanks for reminding me," smiled Roger. "She's an extravagant minx too and accustomed to luxury."
"Well, something will turn up, see if it doesn't," said Ernest. "In the meantime, there's considerable work to be done before Roger can claim that he's irrigating twenty-five acres of alfalfa. I'll guarantee that something will turn up before he's able to do that."
"Looks to me as if I were going to cash in pretty heavily on this business," said Dick. "Well, I'll supply you alfalfa for the rest of your lives."
"Thank you for nothing," returned Charley, sweetly.
October came in with a decided diminution of heat and with an accented brilliancy in sky and sand. The work of getting the remainder of the twenty-five acres into alfalfa went on rapidly. And in spite of the money uncertainty, there was the lift of hopefulness and happiness in the atmosphere of the ranch.
The alfalfa grew amazingly. One morning Elsa electrified the ranch by announcing that the second field now in blossom was full of wild bees. No one believed her. Every one decamped at once to the field. It was quite true. Far and wide swept the burning barrens of the desert. But close about corral and pumping plant crowded the unbelievable verdure of alfalfa with the fringed green lines of cottonwoods on its borders silhouetted against the sullen yellow sand. And wild bees, drunk with rapturous surprise, buzzed thick in the heavy blossoms. Whence they came no one could guess. Dick was willing to wager that there was nothing else within a hundred miles on which a bee might feed.
It was early morning. Roger and Charley allowed the others to drift back to their various occupations while they remained to watch the field. Seated side by side on a rock heap, Roger's arm around Charley's shoulders, they listened to the humming of the bees.
"If you weren't here, it would make me homesick," said Roger. "I can shut my eyes and see the old Preble farm and my mother in her phlox bed, calling to me to drive the bees away. I wonder if a fellow ever gets over his heartache for his mother."
"Not the right kind of a fellow for the right kind of a mother," replied Charley, lifting Roger's hand against her cheek. "The price we pay for any kind of love is pain."
"I hope when yours and my time comes to go we can go together," said Roger, "and that we won't have to start until our work is done. Queer how life's values shift. When I came down here, the thing I wanted most in life was to make a success of heat engineering. I thought it was impossible for me to reach an equal degree of desire about anything else. And now, while I want just as much as ever to go on with my profession, successfully, I want a thousand times more to be your husband and to be the right kind of a husband. I never have pipe-dreamed much about marriage, though I've done my share of flirting in my day. But for the first time in my life I realize that Bobby Burns knew what human life is in its innermost essence when he said:
"'To make a happy fireside clime for wean and wife, That's the true purpose and sublime, of human life!'"
Charley did not speak but she turned and looked into Roger's blue eyes with her own bespeaking a depth of feeling that was beyond words. Roger, looking at the splendid brow above the brown eyes, kissed it reverently and then gazing at the beautiful curving mouth, he crushed his lips to Charley's. Then again they sat watching the bees in the alfalfa.
Charley noted before Roger the sound of hoof beats and looking round, beheld Hackett's two seated buckboard crawling slowly toward them.
"Who on earth now!" exclaimed Roger. "It can't be—yes, by Jove it is Dean Erskine—and—and Mamma and Papa Wolf! Oh, Elsa and Dick are going to have real trouble now!"
They hurried round to the corral, and shouted to the others so that the whole ranch was present to welcome the travelers. Ernest was first, lifting his mother bodily to the ground and kissing her a dozen times before Elsa had a chance.
"Guess I can pull off a surprise party when I try!" he shouted. "Here, Papa, this is Charley. Don't you remember the little roly-poly who used to play in the swimming pool? And Dick—who tried to boss us."
"Come up to the house! I know you're half dead," said Charley, leading the way as she spoke.
"I don't want to go into any house till I've seen the Plant," exclaimed Dean Erskine, wiping the sand from his face.
"Not a Plant for me, but coffee and some shade and a little breeze, maybe," cried Papa Wolf.
"Better have some breakfast first, Dean," suggested Roger. "There's a long story goes with seeing the plant."
"There's a long story goes with a number of things here I would suspect," grunted Papa Wolf, mounting the steps to the porch.
"Now, Papa, don't try to talk until you've eaten," called Mamma anxiously, from Ernest's arm. "Oh, but children, this is very pleasant," as the party entered the living room. "How do you keep it so cool and how have you endured this dreadful heat?"
"Heat!" laughed Elsa, "why, Mamma, this is our cool fall weather we're having now. You should have been here in the good old summer time."
"God forbid, if it was warmer than this yet. Papa, take off your coat, and you too, Dean." Mamma lifted her dusty little black hat from a very flushed forehead. "These boys look cool in their flannel shirts and you so hot in your coats. And see what a nice fine place and a nice clock and a—"
"Hold, Mamma! Hold! You needn't talk every minute," interrupted Papa Wolf. "I promised to say nothing until we all have eaten. So now, enjoy your breakfast."
But Papa and probably the Dean were the only persons who really enjoyed the meal. Elsa was plainly rattled and Dick whose worn face recently had looked much less haggard had settled again into lines of suffering. Except in looking after the guests' comfort, he had nothing to say. Charley and Roger were apprehensive as to the outcome of what was plainly to be a family row. Ernest, who talked a great deal, seemed excited and uneasy.
When the coffee pot had been emptied and pipes and cigars lighted, Dean Erskine rose. He was small and thin and his Van Dyke beard was nearly white but he still gave the impression of tremendous nervous energy.
"Now, I'm ready for the Plant, Roger," he said energetically.
"No! No! The Plant can wait!" protested Papa. "You know all about why we have come, Dean, and I want you to stay and lend your good sense to the interview."
"But my dear Wolf, it will be very unpleasant for me," exclaimed the Dean.
"And for me!" added Roger.
"For you, Roger! Why you're the cause of all our troubles and the Dean has backed you in all! Come now, don't be a coward. See it through! I must take my two children back with me. That is settled."
"Is that what brought you down here, Papa?" inquired Elsa.
"Ernest's letter brought me down here. It's the only letter he has written me since he left my roof. But it was most important."
"You see, it was this way," Ernest cleared his throat, nervously, but his blue eyes were steady. "You told me not to communicate with you, but I've written regularly to Mother. So, of course, it amounted to the same thing. Naturally, I've tried not to write you about our worries. But finally, I made up my mind, Papa, that you needed to learn one or two things that I had learned down here. I knew there was no use in my asking you to come, so I merely wrote you of Elsa's engagement."
Ernest turned to his sister and Dick, who sat side by side on the living-room cot.
"I'm not going to apologize to you two. Mamma and Papa had to know sometime or other. And I wanted Papa down here."
"You should have let me write, Ernest. I might have given myself a fair show, I think." Dick's voice was bitter.
"I did you no harm in the long run, Dick, old man," said Ernest, eagerly. "Just bear with me for a while."
"Ernie, you always were an old butter-in," cried Elsa angrily. "As if I weren't perfectly capable of managing my own affairs. Now you've ruined everything. Papa, I am going to marry Dick. Mamma, you will love him."
"Wait, Elsa, wait," exclaimed Ernest.
But Papa could not wait. "Marry a Preble!" he roared. "Marry a drunkard, the son of a drunkard! Oh, don't try to hush me, Mamma! You know you're just as anxious about the matter as I am. I had the Dean look Dick Preble up. His record in college was that of a drunken rounder. His father drank the old farm up, you remember that, Roger."
"I remember folks said so, but all I know and all I want to know about Dick is what he is now. He's a new man and a mighty fine one."
"Impossible! His father—"
Dick jumped to his feet, but Charley spoke first. "Leave our father absolutely out of this, Mr. Wolf, if you please. He's not here to defend himself. Dick is."
"Impossible!" roared Papa Wolf.
Charley crossed the room swiftly and standing in all the dignity of her good height and her quiet beauty, she looked down on Papa Wolf.
"I am telling you," she did not raise her voice, "not to include my father or my mother in this conversation. My brother and I stand on our own reputations and no one else's."
Papa Wolf swallowed two or three times. "But inheritance," he said feebly.
"Nobody inherits the drink habit," returned Charley, disdainfully. "You can inherit a weak will but not a habit. Dick drank because he thought he was going to die and he went the pace, thinking like other fool men that he was living life to the full, in that way. By the time he had been cured of his illness, he had the drink appetite. But he's cured of that now."
"How do you know?" asked Papa Wolf, belligerently.
"Because I know," replied Charley, shortly, returning to her chair, while Dick and Elsa stared at her, astonishment and gratitude both struggling in their faces.
"Well, do I want my daughter to marry a man who's been a bum, eh? Do you think I, Karl Wolf—"
"Hold on, Mr. Wolf," interrupted Dick. "I never was a bum. Drink was my failing. I've always, with Charley's help, paid my own way. I have a real business down here now. Elsa loves the desert life and she loves me. I can take care of her and make her happy, I know."
"You know, huh! Yet you remember Elsa's home. All its luxury?"
"Yes, I remember Elsa's home and I remember that Elsa and her mother were high class, unpaid servants in that home."
Papa Wolf jumped to his feet. Ernest laid a hand on his arm.
"Wait now, Papa. You've got the top layer off your chest. Now I'm going to tell you the inside story of what has happened in this desert in the seven or eight months. Light your pipe, Papa. It's going to be a long story."
"Pipe! Pipe! I will not light my pipe!"
"Why not? Nobody's married yet. You've got days and weeks if you wish to argue about that and you'll be liking Dick better all the time you're arguing. Now Elsa's marriage isn't the important matter you've to decide down here, at all. Light your pipe. Papa dear! You always did give me good advice, except about coming down here. Here, take a fresh box of matches."
Papa Wolf, established once more, Ernest took a turn or two up and down the room, coming finally to a stop before the empty fire place. Roger, looking at his chum closely, realized suddenly that Ernest had aged in the past few months. There were lines around his eyes and his lips. Ernest looked from his father to his mother with a little smile.
"Roger and I, in spite of our thirty years, were unsophisticated kids when we came into this country. I think we're grown up now. I think we're pretty certain to go a straight and decent trail to the end. But that I came mighty near to going a forbidden trail as Roger calls it, is your fault, Papa—and yours, Dean Erskine."
He paused and although the Dean and Ernest's father looked at each other in amazement, neither interrupted and the younger man went on.
"I never saw death until I came down here—I never knew love. I never knew real work. But here I have learned all three. We have lived here with an intensity as great as the heat. The—the primal passions have shaken us, Papa—and burned us clean—You know some creeds speak of Christ's hours between the Last Supper and His death as the passion of the cross. Sometimes I feel as if I could call my months down here my passion of the desert."
Again Ernest paused, and those who had lived with him through these months of passion—passion of joy, of fear, of sorrow, of love, of personal grief and of world pain, listened with astonishment that jovial, easy-going Ernest should have felt as deeply as they.
"Mrs. von Minden died first. Roger and Dick found her dead up in a remote canyon. She had thirsted to death. I wrote Elsa of her but not of her death. That would have set you to worrying about me, Muetterchen. She had the little black box with her that I wrote Elsa she had demanded from her husband. Whether she found in it what she wanted no one will ever know. But her death ended one of those strange, feverish life dramas that this trackless desert is always turning up. Next they found Von Minden, alone except for Peter. (You must meet Peter, Papa.) He probably died of heart failure. We don't know how she got the box away from him. Maybe she poisoned him. And next Felicia,—Felicia was exactly as Charley was, Mamma, when she used to come to play with us in the pool."
Ernest looked at Charley—"I've got to talk about her, Charley, to make them understand."
Charley moistened her lips, but nodded and Dick put his hand over his eyes.
"She was like Charley too in that she was the kind of a girl that decent men instinctively love—not with one of these headlong, unreasoning loves, you understand. But with the kind of a deep-seated adoration for beauty and goodness and brain that gets a man where he lives and never leaves him. That's the way I got to caring for Charley and that's the way, in embryo, we all loved Felicia.
"In the meantime, you understand we were all working like the very devil to get the plant up and the alfalfa in. I wrote home of that. How difficult the work here in the desert was is beyond description. And, what made it more difficult, after the Smithsonian turned Roger down, he got to working against time, and though he never said much, he gave an atmosphere of desperate hurry and worry to the camp, that simply got us all strung up to the breaking point. At intervals, too, he lost that famous temper of his. These tempers upset Felicia terribly."
Roger filled his pipe with fingers that trembled a little. But Ernest was staring out the door now, with eyes that saw nothing.
"Dick varied the monotony two or three times by getting drunk. He is an ugly whelp when he's drunk. Once he knocked Charley down and Felicia saw it and Roger and he mixed up over it and Elsa finally straightened it out, and we let him out of Coventry. But the next time he got drunk, Felicia, in her fright, ran away into the desert and was killed by a rattler. Charley and Roger found her. It nearly killed us all. But it cured Dick of drinking—that's one reason why I'm telling you. Don't cry, Muetterchen."
"But you have Charley, Ernie! You have Charley!" sobbed his mother.
"No, I haven't Charley. Roger has Charley. None of us deserved her, but Roger is nearer fit than the rest."
"Don't, Ernest!" pleaded Charley.
"I must, Charley. You'll see in a few moments what I'm getting at. Well, Papa, in the meantime, there was no money and it looked as if there would be no food. Roger's plant didn't work out as we'd planned. I wrote home the difficulties even of hanging a door. You can picture Roger trying to build a new engine out of wire and a string he had tramped ten miles into the ranges to find and steal. The alfalfa was dying for lack of water and there was no adequate pumping system even if we'd had adequate water.
"It was at this point that I decided to go to Washington, Papa, and try the Smithsonian. You would have been the one, naturally, for me to turn to, but even if I'd had the inclination, which I hadn't, Roger absolutely wouldn't stand for the suggestion. So I went to Washington, all sort of strung up, you understand, and in bad mental trim because of—of everything. And in Washington I got a good swift kick. So I went to New York and spent the rest of Elsa's good money on Broadway. It didn't take me very far but when I went broke, I looked up your friend Werner. This is the point where you come in too, Dean Erskine.
"Now I had been brought up at home, naturally, to worship all things German. I liked to think of myself not as an American but as a German. At school, this home influence should have been counteracted if America expects to make real citizens. But it wasn't. The High School taught us German and no other modern language. In college, all things mental centered on the German idea in the majority of the departments. And your department was the worst of all, Dean. You are a Germanophile yourself and you taught your students to be.
"So behold me, calling on Werner and finding that Werner among other activities has been the head of an organized effort on the part of the German government for twenty years to Germanize America—through schools, churches, singing societies—oh, countless ways. And he was deeply worried about our British sympathies. And he wanted my influence in the college and elsewhere and he wanted Roger's big mechanical brain for Germany and so he offered me fifty thousand dollars for the Sun Plant and I took it."
"Fine! Wonderful!" exclaimed Papa Wolf.
"So I thought," said Ernest dryly, "but Roger and the others here thought differently. In fact when Roger found out about Werner, he tried to kill me, and then went away into the mountains with Peter for three days."
"Oh, Ernie! Oh, Roger!" moaned Mamma Wolf.
Papa Wolf's lips tightened. "But why, Roger?" he demanded.
"Wait, Roger! I'm telling the story. Rog tried to kill me for selling out secretly the idea that was bone of his bone. He tried to kill me because I sold it to a government that has gone through Belgium like a Hunnish horde, and because I claimed to admire it for that. Well, he didn't kill me and I was very sore and decided to go to Germany to live. Then Werner came down to settle details with Roger, and Roger told him what was in the black box and made him give back the contract."
"The black box! What black box?" asked Dean Erskine.
"The Von Mindens' black box. When I brought back word that Werner wanted it, Roger and Charley read the contents. It developed that Von Minden was one of a group working for the German government with the idea of making Arizona and New Mexico into German colonies. Gustav—you remember my writing of Gustav—was Werner's spy, keeping Werner informed of our every move and what he could about Von Minden."
"I don't believe a word of it! Not a word! It's all British influence," exclaimed Papa Wolf stoutly.
"You'll have to believe it, because it's true," returned Ernest. "Roger was angry and threw Werner and Gustav out of the camp and made me choose between him and Werner. I chose Roger, because the time had come in my life when I'd got to make a tremendous decision. It's one you've got to make, Papa, and so has the Dean. I wanted you to make it my way. That's why I got you down here to see the things that I'd been up against."
"You don't intend to ask us to break our neutrality, surely, Ernest," protested Dean Erskine.
"I'll develop your job in just a moment, Dean. Papa, what I want is that you repudiate Werner and all his works, and undertake to finance Roger's project."
"My heavens, Ern!" cried Roger.
"Tut! Tut! Rog—you be quiet. Dean, your job is to sell the Plant to my father, after you've both made your decision."
"I cannot understand your talking to me in this manner, Ernest," shouted Papa Wolf, pounding on the table till the belated breakfast dishes rattled.
"I'll explain," said Ernest, imperturbably. "There's love of human beings. There's love of work. There's love of country. They make up a man's life. I had the first two and I thought that they were enough. But lately, I've discovered differently and I think a good many people in this country are finding out the same thing. I never gave the matter any thought until the Werner episode. Then I began to examine this thing called patriotism and I found that it was the very wellspring of a man's usefulness as a citizen. Without it family pride is a travesty. Without it, the impulse to build up sane and humane and lasting governments is lacking. Without it, a man may be ever so learned, ever so rich, yet he lacks any real place in community life. Patriotism is to a man's community life what religion is to his moral life.
"Now I intend to lead a full, normal man's life. I want to love a country, and I couldn't see, when I got down to brass tacks, why that country should be Germany. This is the land that bred me and fed me. Actually I'm a physical part of the soil of America. What do I care how cultured Germany may or may not be? Here in America are the hills and valleys, the rivers and mountains that I know and care for. Here is the kind of government I like. Here is the place of my profession. I wouldn't marry a German fraeulein for anything. A slangy, athletic, bossy, saucy, well-educated American girl for mine! All the people that I love are here in America. You folks and all the relatives are here. Roger is here, Charley is here and up there on an American mountainside lies little Felicia. Papa, I am an American, not a German."
Again there was full silence in the room. Then Dean Erskine cleared his throat. "Ernest, I want to thank you very much. I, too, am an American."
Papa Wolf blew his nose and walked slowly out of the house. There was no one in the room who had not been moved deeply by the something poignant in Ernest's face, even though his voice was so sedulously casual. Before any one else had opportunity to speak however, Papa Wolf was back.
"I don't believe a word about Werner," he said to Ernest. "But I am surprised, Ernest, after your upbringing that you should have deceived Roger as you did."
"But are you an American, Papa?" persisted Ernest.
"You numb-skull!" shouted his father. "I have been an American longer than you have hairs to your head. It's my land, even if I am sentimental about Germany."
Once more he marched out the door.
"Come, Dean, and see the Plant," said Roger. The Dean rose with alacrity and bumped into Papa Wolf, who came in again shaking his head.
"I don't see, Ernie, how you could have treated Roger so. Of course, I think he's crazy and all his works. But I've always loved him, though I was and am very mad at him for bringing you down here. I don't see how you could have done it."
"I thought I owed it to Germany and that it would help him. You forget my German superman upbringing."
"I'll look at the Plant, of course," said Papa Wolf, "just to see what you have wasted your life blood on. But not one cent of money, boys."
"I don't want your money, sir," exclaimed Roger, proudly.
"You don't eh! Then we're all satisfied," returned Ernest's father, following the Dean out of the door.
The last place inspected was the engine house. Ernest made a simple explanation of the machinery while the Dean went over the engine almost as lovingly and keenly as Roger would have. Then Roger led the Dean back to the porch for a talk.
"So this is the result of all your years of work, eh, Ernie?" said Papa Wolf. "Do you mean to say that you made that machine out of your own head?"
"I only helped Roger," replied Ernest, "but it means a lot to me. Father, this solar work of ours will be recorded in history as the beginning of a new harnessing of energy."
The older man looked at his son with interest. "You should have taken the trouble to explain all this to me, years ago, my son."
"I know it," replied Ernest. "Well, anyhow, I've done my bit down here. When you go back I'll go back with you. I'm a teacher, not a pioneer."
Papa Wolf seized both of Ernest's hand. "No! Really! Ernest, you really will go on with the professorship! Then I am satisfied. But we must not let this work be in vain. This child of your mind, Ernest, it must be recorded. It will help you in your professorship, eh?"
Ernest nodded. "It's really a great thing, father. Roger has a wonderful mind."
"He's got a good mind, yes, but I'm asking you where would he have been all these years without my boy? O Ernie! Ernie! You've taken ten years off me! Now, you let me think. I'll sit and watch this engine of yours. You go along about your work, Ernie." And Ernest, a tired look in his eyes, went along as he was bidden.
It was dinner time before the tour of inspection was done. Mamma Wolf spent the morning, after a nap, helping the girls to prepare a huge dinner. She and Elsa wept a little on each other's necks, and Mamma Wolf promised to take Dick to her heart and love him as another son. And somehow Elsa put full faith in Ernest's bringing his father around.
No one talked business or politics at dinner. There were many details of the camp life to be told and many stories of the Von Mindens that invariably brought Papa Wolf to the verge of apoplexy with laughter. Ernest never had been more charming than he was now. And by some magic of his own, he drew Dick out to tell the story of his turquoise mining. Like almost any story of desert endeavor it was full of drama, of quiet heroism, and of weird humor. Papa and Mamma Wolf hung breathless on every word of it.
"Himmel!" exclaimed Papa at the end, "if I were thirty years younger, I'd like just such adventuring!" The others looked at one another and smiled.
When the long dinner hour was over, Papa Wolf lighted his meerschaum. "And now let's look at that engine again. You should come and see it, Mamma. Run by sunshine and almost as silent as the sun and powerful like it. Wonderful! Wonderful!"
"You've hardly looked at the alfalfa, Papa," said Ernest.
"Plenty of time for that. One thing at a time. Come along, Dean. If you should explain that engine through to me two or three times more, I'll understand it. Ernest and Roger, they never thought to take old Papa to see the working model at the University. They thought because I was a fool about the working drawings, I knew nothing. Come on, Dean! Come along."
Seated on two up-ended boxes before the engine, the two gray headed men spent the afternoon. The Dean could have been enticed away to examine the alfalfa and the pumping system. But not Papa. He went out at intervals to look at the absorber and to read the thermometer at the oil storage pit, then back to the engine.
"And this is what Ernie has been working on for all these years. And I never could get it through my old head."
"Ernest and Roger too," the Dean would suggest.
"Of course, Roger. But you know Ernest and his fine mind. Observe now, Dean, out there the parching, cruel sun, that strikes and kills. Here Ernest's magic, this silent machine that catches that sun and turns its death kiss into life. And out there, where the honey bees buzz, the magic made vital. My boy's brain did such miracles and I never knew it until now. I even forbade him the house when he insisted on giving birth to his idea."
The others drifted in and out and at last the supper hour came and once more the clan gathered at the familiar table.
"Why, Papa, I haven't seen you with such appetite or with such spirits since last Christmas," said Mamma.
"You haven't seen me with such cause. And how mad I was when I came—eh, Mamma!"
"You know, Papa," said Ernest, "we never could have put over the Plant if it hadn't been for the Prebles. I swear Charley has fed us and Dick has guided us and had faith in us when it seemed as if the whole world outside had turned us down."
"Is it so?" exclaimed Papa as if realizing that fact for the first time. "So you stood by my boy, eh, Dick? Well, that's good! My boy has stood by you and so will I. Now listen, boys. Why can't I do a little adventuring, eh? Let's make this a thousand acre Plant. And the Dean says that this engine will put every other low temperature, high speed engine off the market. Why not build some and sell them, eh?"
"But Mr. Wolf," said Roger. "I haven't felt as if you ought to put money in. If anything should go wrong and you should lose by it, I'd never forgive myself."
Papa Wolf put his hand on Roger's knee. "Roger, I've known you since you were born and I loved your father. He died a disappointed man. When I think of the things Ernie said this morning I realize that perhaps if I'd been a better patriot I wouldn't have let a man so valuable to the community die a disappointed man. Now you're an even more valuable man than your father was, and so is Ernest. Shall I wait for outsiders to do for my son and your father's son? Or shall I help you organize so as to develop this hot country for America? And again I did my only son an unkindness in not understanding his work—almost a fatal unkindness. Suppose he had left us for Germany. Shall I not make it up to him? And lastly, my son treated you dishonorably. Shall he and I not together try to make it up?"
Roger's tense face worked.
"Now, don't speak! I know how you feel," cried Papa. "Now I have more than enough tucked away for Mamma and me. And I have two friends, one in the brewery, one in the bank. We can organize a company. We have Dick's ranch and the turquoise mine and Ernest's and your plant. We can get plenty of money. I'll make all those Maennerchors come down here. We'll irrigate this whole desert. We'll open up mines—we'll—"
He got up to pace the floor. "Why there's an empire here for Uncle Sam that the Reclamation Service can't handle. We'll do it."
"Roger has talked of Asia Minor," said Dick, with twinkling eyes.
"Well, we'll tackle that later," replied Papa dreamily. "America is a good field. Dean, are you coming in with us?"
"Thanks," returned the Dean. "But Ernest and I have another job, fighting furor Teutonicus up at the university. But I'll be on hand for such advice as I can give."
"I think," Papa went on after a brisk nod, "we'll spend a month or so down here, Mamma and I. Ernest, you can go on up and open the house and we'll be back after Christmas. If all works well, I'll have to spend a part of each year down here. Dick, can't you get those Indians you talk of to build Mamma and Ernie and me a little house, near by? Then you and Elsa can have this and Charley and Roger must build them a little nest somewhere. And we all are fixed, see!"
There was a little pause, then Elsa ran across the room and threw herself in her father's arms. "Oh, Papa! Papa! I never knew what a saint you were until now."
Papa Wolf smoothed Elsa's hair tenderly. "I still think you are a fool, Elschen. But if your mother and I are down here to watch closely—the very first time, sir," he glared at Dick, "that I find—"
"You won't have to do anything, Mr. Wolf," said Dick. "I'll cut my throat."
"Don't talk silly," exclaimed Papa. "Just try to be a good boy and we'll help. Of course, I think Elsa is a fool but I thought Ernest was one and now look!"
The Dean slipped out, unobserved and a moment later Charley whispered to Roger,
"Let's get out and let Dick have his chance to clear everything up."
And so Roger and Charley found themselves alone, under the stars.
"I just can't realize it, at all, can you, Roger dearest?" asked Charley.
Roger did not answer for a moment. They were standing beside the corral, looking toward the shadowy mountainside where lay Felicia's grave.
"I wish I could believe she saw and knew everything," he said, brokenly. Then as Charley said nothing, he turned and took her in his arms with a sudden passion that found expression in hot kisses and half broken sentences.
"Oh, Charley! Charley! After all I'm not a failure. I am—Darling, you do love me, you are sure of that—! How beautiful you are! How beautiful! You are as lovely as the desert. God, Charley, but I'm happy!"
Charley, clinging to him speechlessly, finally raised her head, and looked with Roger across the desert night of silence and blue, while the rich sense of space, of mystery, of heaven very near and life's bitternesses far away touched them both at once. And Peter, a wisp of cat's claw hanging from his mouth, rubbed his patient head affectionately against Roger's arm.