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HELEN MAY SIGHS FOR ROMANCE
Helen May was toiling over the ridgy upland which in New Mexico is called a mesa, when it is not a desert--and sometimes when it is one--taking her turn with the goats while Vic nursed a strained ankle and a grouch under the mesquite tree by the house. With Pat to help, the herding resolved itself into the exercise of human intelligence over the dog's skill. Pat, for instance, would not of his own accord choose the best grazing for his band, but he could drive them to good grazing once it was chosen for him. So, theoretically, Helen May was exercising her human intelligence; actually she was exercising her muscles mostly. And having an abundance of brain energy that refused to lie dormant, she had plenty of time to think her own thoughts while Pat carried out her occasional orders.
For one thing, Helen May was undergoing the transition from a mild satisfaction with her education and mentality, to a shamed consciousness of an appalling ignorance and mental crudity. Holman Sommers was unwittingly the cause of that. There was nothing patronizing or condescending in the attitude of Holman Sommers, even if he did run to long words and scientifically accurate descriptions of the smallest subjects. It was the work he placed before her that held Helen May abashed before his vast knowledge. She could not understand half of what she deciphered and typed for him, and because she could not understand she realized the depth of her benightedness.
She was awed by the breadth and the scope which she sensed more or less vaguely in The Evolution of Sociology. Holman Sommers quoted freely, and discussed boldly and frankly, such abstruse authors as Descartes, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Comte, Gumplowicz, some of them names she had never heard of and could not even spell without following her copy letter by letter. Holman Sommers seemed to have read all of them and to have weighed all of them and to be able to quote all of them offhand; whereas Schopenhauer was the only name in the lot that sounded in the least familiar to Helen May, and she had a guilty feeling that she had always connected the name with music instead of the sort of things Holman Sommers quoted him as having said or written, she could not make out which.
Helen May, therefore, was suffering from mental growing pains. She struggled with new ideas which she had swallowed whole, without any previous elementary knowledge of the subject. Her brain was hungry, her life was stagnant, and she seized upon these sociological problems which Holman Sommers had placed before her, and worried over them, and wondered where Holman Sommers had learned so much about things she had never heard of. Save his vocabulary, which wearied her, he was the simplest, the kindest of men, though not kind as her Man of the Desert was kind.
Just here in her thoughts Holman Sommers faded, and Starr's lean, whimsical face came out sharply defined before her mental vision. Starr certainly was different! Ordinary, and not educated much beyond the three Rs, she suspected. Just a desert man with a nice voice and a gift for provocative little silences. Two men could not well be farther apart in personality, she thought, and she amused herself by comparing them.
For instance, take the case of Pat. Sommers had told her just why and just how desperately she needed a dog for the goats, and had urged her by all means to get one at the first opportunity. Starr had not said anything about it; he had simply brought the dog. Helen May appreciated the different quality of the kindness that does things.
Privately, she suspected that Starr had stolen that dog, he had seemed so embarrassed while he explained how he came by Pat; especially, she remembered, when she had urged him to take the dog back. She would not, of course, dare hint it even to Vic; and theoretically she was of course shocked at the possibility. But, oh, she was human! That a nice man should swipe a dog for her secretly touched a little, responsive tenderness in Helen May. (She used the word "swipe," which somehow made the suspected deed sound less a crime and more an amusing peccadillo than the word "steal" would have done. Have you ever noticed how adroitly we tone down or magnify certain misdeeds simply by using slang or dictionary words as the case may be?)
Oh, she saw it quite plainly, as she trudged over to the shady side of a rock ridge and sat down where she could keep an eye on Pat and the goats. She told herself that she would ask her Man of the Desert, the next time he happened along, whether he had found out who the dog belonged to. If he acted confused and dodged the issue, then she would know for sure. Just what she would do when she knew for sure, Helen May had not decided.
The goats were browsing docilely upon the slope, eating stuff which only a goat would attempt to eat. Helen May was not afraid of Billy since Pat had taken charge. Pat had a way of keeping Billy cowed and as harmless as the nannies themselves. Just now Pat was standing at a little distance with his tongue slavering down over his white teeth, gazing over the band as a general looks at his army drawn up in review.
He turned his head and glanced at Helen May inquiringly, then trotted over to where she sat in the shade. His tongue still drooped quiveringly over his lower jaw; and now and then he drew it back and licked his lips as though they were dry. Helen May found a rock that was hollowed like a crude saucer, and poured water into the hollow from her canteen. Pat lapped it up thirstily, gave his stubby tail a wag of gratitude, lay down with his front paws on the edge of her skirt with his head dropped down upon them, and took a nap--with one eye opening now and then to see that the goats were all right, and with his ears lifting to catch the meaning of every stray bleat from a garrulous nanny.
Helen May had changed a good deal in the past two or three weeks. Now when she stared away and away over the desert and barren slope and ridges and mountain, she did not feel that she hated them. Instead, she saw that the yellow of the desert, the brown of the slopes, and the black of the distant granite ledges basseting from bleak hills were more beautiful than the tidy little plots of tilled ground she used to think so lovely. There was something hypnotic in these bald distances. She could not read, when she was out like this; she could only look and think and dream.
She wished that she might ride out over it sometime, away over to the mountains, perhaps, as far as she could see. She fell to dreaming of the old days when this was Spanish territory, and the king gave royal grants of land to his favorites: for instance, all the country lying between two mountain ranges, to where a river cut across and formed a natural boundary. Holman Sommers had told her about the old Spanish grants, and how many of the vast estates of Mexican "cattle kings" and "sheep kings" were still preserved almost intact, just as they had been when this was a part of Mexico.
She wished that she might have lived here then, when the dons held sway and when seņoritas were all beautiful and when seņoras were every one of them imposing in many jewels and in rich mantillas, and when vaqueros wore red sashes and beautiful serapes and big, gold-laced sombreros, and rode prancing steeds that curveted away from jingling, silver-rowelled spurs. Helen May, you must remember, knew her moving-picture romance. She could easily vision these things exactly as they had been presented to her on the screen. That is why she peopled this empty land so gorgeously.
It was different now, of course. All the Mexicans she had seen were like the Mexicans around the old Plaza in Los Angeles. All the seņoritas she had met--they had not been many--powdered and painted abominably to the point of their jaws and left their necks dirty. And their petticoats were draggled and their hats looked as though they had been trimmed from the ten-cent counter of a cheap store. All the seņoras were smoky looking with snakish eyes, and the dresses under their heavy-fringed black mantillas were more frowsy than those of their daughters. They certainly were not imposing; and if they wore jewelry at all it looked brassy and cheap.
There was no romance, nothing like adventure here nowadays, said Helen May to herself, while she watched the little geysers of dust go dancing like whirling dervishes across the sand. A person lived on canned stuff and kept goats and was abjectly pleased to see any kind of human being. There certainly was no romance left in the country, though it had seemed almost as though there might be, when her Man of the Desert sang and all the little night-sounds hushed to listen, and the moon-trail across the sand of the desert lay like a ribbon of silver. It had seemed then as though there might be romance yet alive in the wide spaces.
So she had swung back again to Starr, just as she was always doing lately. She began to wonder when he would come again, and what he would have to say next time, and whether he had really annexed some poor sheep man's perfectly good dog, just because he knew she needed one. It would never do to let on that she guessed; but all the same, it was mighty nice of him to think of her, even if he did go about it in a queer way. And when Pat, who had seemed to be asleep, lifted his head and looked up into her eyes adoringly, Helen May laid her hand upon his smooth skull and smiled oddly.
No more romance, said Helen May--and here was Starr, a man of mystery, a man feared and distrusted by the sons of those passionate dons of whom she dreamed! Here was Starr, Secret Service man (there is ever a glamor in the very name of it), the very essence and forefront of such romance and such adventure as she had gasped over, when she had seen it pictured on the screen! She was living right in the middle of intrigue that was stirring the rulers of two nations; she was coming close to real adventure, and there she sat, with Pat lying on the hem of her skirt, and mourned that she was fifty or a hundred years too late for even a glimpse at romance! And fretted because she was helping Pat herd goats, and because life was dull and commonplace.
"Honestly," she told Pat, "I've got to the point where I catch myself, looking forward to the chance visits of a wandering cowboy who is perfectly commonplace. Why, he'd be absolutely lost on the screen; you wouldn't know he was in the picture unless his horse bucked or fell down or something! And I don't suppose he ever has a thought beyond his work and his little five-cent celebrations in San Bonito, maybe. Most likely he flirts with those grimy-necked Mexican girls, too. You can't tell--
"And think of me being so hard up for excitement that I've got to play he's some mysterious creature of the desert! Honest to goodness, Pat, it's got so bad that the mere sight of a real, live man is thrilling. When Holman Sommers comes and lifts that old Panama like a crown prince, and smiles at me and talks about all the different periods of the human race, and gems and tribal laws and all that highbrow dope, I just sit and drink it in and wish he'd keep on for hours! Can you beat that? And if by any chance a common, ordinary specimen of desert man should ride by, I might be desperate enough--"
Her gaze, wandering always out over the tremendous sweep of plateau which from that point looked illimitable as the ocean, settled upon a whirlwind that displayed method and a slow sedateness not at all in keeping with the erratic gyrations of those gone before. Watching it wistfully with a half-formed hope that it might not be just a dry-weather whirlwind, her droning voice trailed off into silence. A faint beating in her throat betrayed what it was she half hoped. She was so desperately lonesome!
Pat tilted his head and looked up at her and licked her hand until she drew it away impatiently.
"Good gracious, Pat! Do you want to plaster me with germs?" she reproved. And Pat dropped his head down upon his paws and eyed her furtively from under his brown lids, waiting for her to repent her harshness and smooth his head caressingly, as was her wont.
But Helen May was watching that slow-moving column of dust, just as she had watched the cloud which had heralded the coming into her life of Holman Sommers. It might be--but it couldn't, for this was away off the road. No one would be cutting straight across that hummocky flat, unless--
From the desert I come to thee, On my Arab shod with fire--
"Oh, I'm getting absolutely mushy!" she muttered angrily. "If I've reached the point where I can't see a spot of dust without getting heart-failure over it, why it's time I was shut up somewhere. What are you lolling around me for, Pat? Go on and tend to your goats, why don't you? And do get off my skirt!"
Pat sprang up as though she had struck him; gave her an injured glance that was perfectly maddening to Helen May, whose conscience was sufficient punishment, and went slinking off down the slope. Half-way to the band he stopped and sat down on his haunches in the hot sun, as dejected a dog as ever was made to suffer because his mistress was displeased with herself.
Helen May sat there scowling out across the wide spaces, while romance and adventure, and something more, rode steadily nearer, heralded by the small gray cloud. When she was sure that a horseman was coming, she perversely removed herself to another spot where she would not be seen. And there she sat, out of sight from below and thus fancying herself undiscovered, refusing so much as a sly glance around her granite shield.
For if there was anything which Helen May hated more than another it was the possibility of being thought cheaply sentimental, mushy, as the present generation vividly puts it. Also she was trying to break herself of humming that old desert love-song all the while. Vic was beginning to "kid" her unmercifully about it, for one thing. To think that she should sing it without thinking a word about it, just because she happened to see a little dust! She would not look. She would not!
Starr might have passed her by and gone on to the cabin if he had not, through a pair of powerful binoculars, been observing her when she sent Pat off, and when she got up and went over to the other ledge and sat down. Through the glasses he had seen her feet crossed, toes up, just past the nose of the rock, and he could see the spread of her skirt. Luckily, he could not read her mind. He therefore gave a yank at the lead-rope in his hand and addressed a few biting remarks to a white-lashed, blue-eyed pinto trailing reluctantly behind Rabbit; and rode forward with some eagerness toward the ridge.
"'Sleep?" he greeted cheerfully, when he had forced the two horses to scramble up to the shade of the ledge, and had received no attention whatever from the person just beyond. The tan boots were still crossed, and not so much as a toe of them moved to show that the owner heard him. Starr knew that he had made noise enough, so far as that went.
"Why, no, I'm not asleep. What is it?" came crisply, after a perceptible pause.
"It ain't anything at all," Starr retorted, and swung Rabbit into the shade which Helen May had left. He dismounted, sat himself down with his back against a rock, and proceeded to roll a cigarette. By no means would he intrude upon the privacy of a lady, though the quiet, crossed feet and the placid folds of the khaki skirt told him that she was sitting there quietly--pouting about something, most likely, he diagnosed her silence shrewdly. Well, it was early, and so long as he reached a certain point by full dark, he was not neglecting anything. As a matter of fact, he told himself philosophically, he really wanted to kill half a day in a perfectly plausible manner. There was no hurry, no hurry at all.
Pat looked back at him ingratiatingly, and Starr called. Pat came running in long leaps, nearly wagging himself in two because someone he liked was going to be nice to him. Starr petted him and talked to him and pulled his ears and slapped him on the ribs, and Pat in his joy persisted in trying to lick Starr's cheek.
"Quit it! Lay down and be a doormat, then. You've got welcome wrote all over you. And much as I like welcome, I hate to be licked."
Pat lay down, and Starr eyed the tan boot toes. They moved impatiently, but they did not uncross. Starr smiled to himself and proceeded to carry on a one-sided conversation with Pat, and to smoke his cigarette.
"Sick, over there?" he inquired casually after perhaps five minutes; either of them would have sworn it ten or fifteen.
"Why, no," chirped the crisp voice. "Why?"
"Seemed polite to ask, is all," Starr confessed. "I didn't think you was." He finished his smoke in the silence that followed. Then, because he himself owned a perverse streak, he took his binoculars from their case and began to study the low-lying ridge in the distance, in a pocket of which nestled the Medina ranch buildings. He was glad this ridge commanded all but the "draws" and hollows lying transversely between here and Medina's place. It was Medina whom he had been advised by his chief to watch particularly, when Starr had found a means of laying his clues before that astute gentleman. If he could sit within ten feet of Helen May while he kept an eye on that country over there, all the better.
He saw a horseman ride up out of a hollow and disappear almost immediately into another. The man seemed to be coming over in this direction, though Starr could not be sure. He watched for a reappearance of the rider on high ground, but he saw no more of the fellow. So after a little he took down the glasses to scan the country as a whole.
It was then that he glanced toward the other rock and saw that the tan boots had moved out of sight. He believed that he would have heard her if she moved away, and so he kept his eyes turned upon the corner of the rock where her feet had shown a few minutes before.
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