Cover

The Heart of the Desert

By

Honoré Willsie Morrow

Illustrated by

V. Herbert Dunton

Side by side, they rode off into the desert sunset.

CHAPTER I. THE VALLEY OF THE PECOS

Rhoda hobbled through the sand to the nearest rock. On this she sank with a groan, clasped her slender foot with both hands and looked about her helplessly.

She felt very small, very much alone. The infinite wastes of yellow desert danced in heat waves against the bronze-blue sky. The girl saw no sign of living thing save a buzzard that swept lazily across the zenith. She turned dizzily from contemplating the vast emptiness about her to a close scrutiny of her injured foot. She drew off her thin satin house slipper painfully and dropped it unheedingly into a bunch of yucca that crowded against the rock. Her silk stocking followed. Then she sat in helpless misery, eying her blue-veined foot.

In spite of her evident invalidism, one could but wonder why she made so little effort to help herself. She sat droopingly on the rock, gazing from her foot to the far lavender line of the mesas. A tiny, impotent atom of life, she sat as if the eternal why which the desert hurls at one overwhelmed her, deprived her of hope, almost of sensation. There was something of nobility in the steadiness with which she gazed at the melting distances, something of pathos in her evident resignation, to her own helplessness and weakness.

The girl was quite unconscious of the fact that a young man was tramping up the desert behind her. He, however, had spied the white gown long before Rhoda had sunk to the rock and had laid his course directly for her. He was a tall fellow, standing well over six feet and he swung through the heavy sand with an easy stride that covered distance with astonishing rapidity. As he drew near enough to perceive Rhoda's yellow head bent above her injured foot, he quickened his pace, swung round the yucca thicket and pulled off his soft felt hat.

"Good-morning!" he said. "What's the matter?"

Rhoda started, hastily covered her foot, and looked up at the tall khaki-clad figure. She never had seen the young man before, but the desert is not formal.

"A thing like a little crayfish bit my foot," she answered; "and you don't know how it hurts!"

"Ah, but I do!" exclaimed the young man. "A scorpion sting! Let me see it!"

Rhoda flushed.

"Oh, never mind that!" she said. "But if you will go to the Newman ranch-house for me and ask them to send the buckboard I'll be very grateful. I—I feel dizzy, you know."

"Gee whiz!" exclaimed the young man. "There's no time for me to run about the desert if you have a scorpion sting in your foot!"

"Is a scorpion sting dangerous?" asked Rhoda. Then she added, languidly, "Not that I mind if it is!"

The young man gave her a curious glance. Then he pulled a small case from his pocket, knelt in the sand and lifted Rhoda's foot in one slender, strong, brown hand. The instep already was badly swollen.

"Hold tight a minute!" said the young man.

And before Rhoda could protest he had punctured the red center of the swelling with a little scalpel, had held the cut open and had filled it with a white powder that bit. Then he pulled a clean handkerchief from his pocket and tore it in two. With one half he bound the ankle above the cut tightly. With the other he bandaged the cut itself.

"Are you a doctor?" asked Rhoda faintly.

"Far from it," replied the young man with a chuckle, tightening the upper bandage until Rhoda's foot was numb. "But I always carry this little outfit with me; rattlers and scorpions are so thick over on the ditch. Somebody's apt to be hurt anytime. I'm Charley Cartwell, Jack Newman's engineer."

"Oh!" said Rhoda understandingly. "I'm so dizzy I can't see you very well. This is very good of you. Perhaps now you'd go on and get the buckboard. Tell them it's for Rhoda, Rhoda Tuttle. I just went out for a walk and then—"

Her voice trailed into nothingness and she could only steady her swaying body with both hands against the rock.

"Huh!" grunted young Cartwell. "I go on to the house and leave you here in the boiling sun!"

"Would you mind hurrying?" asked Rhoda.

"Not at all," returned Cartwell.

He plucked the stocking and slipper from the yucca and dropped them into his pocket. Then he stooped and lifted Rhoda across his broad chest. This roused her.

"Why, you can't do this!" she cried, struggling to free herself.

Cartwell merely tightened his hold and swung out at a pace that was half run, half walk.

"Close your eyes so the sun won't hurt them," he said peremptorily.

Dizzily and confusedly, Rhoda dropped her head back on the broad shoulder and closed her eyes, with a feeling of security that later on was to appall her. Long after she was to recall the confidence of this moment with unbelief and horror. Nor did she dream how many weary days and hours she one day was to pass with this same brazen sky over her, this same broad shoulder under her head.

Cartwell looked down at the delicate face lying against his breast, at the soft yellow hair massed against his sleeve. Into his black eyes came a look that was passionately tender, and the strong brown hand that supported Rhoda's shoulders trembled.

In an incredibly short time he was entering the peach orchard that surrounded the ranch-house. A young man in white flannels jumped from a hammock in which he had been dozing.

"For heaven's sake!" he exclaimed. "What does this mean?"

Rhoda was too ill to reply. Cartwell did not slack his giant stride toward the house.

"It means," he answered grimly, "that you folks must be crazy to let Miss Tuttle take a walk in clothes like this! She's got a scorpion sting in her foot."

The man in flannels turned pale. He hurried along beside Cartwell, then broke into a run.

"I'll telephone to Gold Rock for the doctor and tell Mrs. Newman."

He started on ahead.

"Never mind the doctor!" called Cartwell. "I've attended to the sting. Tell Mrs. Jack to have hot water ready."

As Cartwell sprang up the porch steps, Mrs. Newman ran out to meet him. She was a pretty, rosy girl, with brown eyes and curly brown hair.

"Rhoda! Kut-le!" she cried. "Why didn't I warn her! Put her on the couch here in the hall, Kut-le. John, tell Li Chung to bring the hot-water bottles. Here, Rhoda dear, drink this!"

For half an hour the three, with Li Chung hovering in the background, worked over the girl. Then as they saw her stupor change to a natural sleep, Katherine gave a sigh that was almost a sob.

"She's all right!" she said. "O Kut-le, if you hadn't come at that moment!"

Cartwell shook his head.

"It might have gone hard with her, she's so delicate. Gee, I'm glad I ran out of tobacco this morning and thought a two-mile tramp across the desert for it worth while!"

The three were on the porch now. The young man in flannels, who had said little but had obeyed orders explicitly eyed Cartwell curiously.

"You're Newman's engineer, aren't you?" he asked. "My name's DeWitt. You've put us all under great obligations, this morning."

Cartwell took the extended hand.

"Well, you know," he said carefully, "a scorpion sting may or may not be serious. People have died of them. Mrs. Jack here makes no more of them than of a mosquito bite, while Jack goes about like a drunken sailor with one for a day, then forgets it. Miss Tuttle will be all right when she wakes up. I'm off till dinner time, Mrs. Jack. Jack will think I've reverted!"

DeWitt stood for a moment watching the tall, lithe figure move through the peach-trees. He was torn by a strange feeling, half of aversion, half of charm for the dark young stranger. Then:

"Hold on, Cartwell," he cried. "I'll drive you back in the buckboard."

Katherine Newman, looking after the two, raised her eyebrows, shook her head, then smiled and went back to Rhoda.

It was mid-afternoon when Rhoda woke. Katherine was sitting near by with her sewing.

"Well!" said Rhoda wonderingly. "I'm all right, after all!"

Katherine jumped up and took Rhoda's thin little hand joyfully.

"Indeed you are!" she cried. "Thanks to Kut-le!"

"Thanks to whom?" asked Rhoda. "It was a tall young man. He said his name was Charley Cartwell."

"Yup!" answered Katherine. "Charley Cartwell! His other name is Kut-le. He'll be in to dinner with Jack, tonight. Isn't he good-looking, though!"

"I don't know. I was so dizzy I couldn't see him. He seemed very dark. Is he a Spaniard?"

"Spaniard! No!" Katherine was watching Rhoda's languid eyes half mischievously. "He's part Mescallero, part Pueblo, part Mohave!"

Rhoda sat erect with flaming face.

"You mean that he's an Indian and I let him carry me! Katherine!"

The mischief in Katherine's brown eyes grew to laughter.

"I thought that would get a rise out of you, you blessed tenderfoot! What difference does that make? He rescued you from a serious predicament; and more than that he's a fine fellow and one of Jack's dearest friends."

Rhoda's delicate face still was flushed.

"An Indian! What did John DeWitt say?"

"Oh!" said Katherine, carelessly, "he offered to drive Kut-le back to the ditch, and he hasn't got home yet. They probably will be very congenial, John being a Harvard man and Kut-le a Yale!"

Rhoda's curved lips opened, then closed again. The look of interest died from her eyes.

"Well," she said in her usual weary voice, "I think I'll have a glass of milk, if I may. Then I'll go out on the porch. You see I'm being all the trouble to you, Katherine, that I said I would be."

"Trouble!" protested Katherine. "Why, Rhoda Tuttle, if I could just see you with the old light in your eyes I'd wait on you by inches on my knees. I would, honestly."

Rhoda rubbed a thin cheek against the warm hand that still held hers, and the mute thanks said more than words.

The veranda of the Newman ranch-house was deep and shaded by green vines. From the hammock where she lay, a delicate figure amid the vivid cushions, Rhoda looked upon a landscape that combined all the perfection of verdure of a northern park with a sense of illimitable breathing space that should have been fairly intoxicating to her. Two huge cottonwoods stood beside the porch. Beyond the lawn lay the peach orchard which vied with the bordering alfalfa fields in fragrance and color. The yellow-brown of tree-trunks and the white of grazing sheep against vegetation of richest green were astonishing colors for Rhoda to find in the desert to which she had been exiled, and in the few days since her arrival she had not ceased to wonder at them.

DeWitt crossed the orchard, quickening his pace when he saw Rhoda. He was a tall fellow, blond and well built, though not so tall and lithe as Cartwell. His dark blue eyes were disconcertingly clear and direct.

"Well, Rhoda dear!" he exclaimed as he hurried up the steps. "If you didn't scare this family! How are you feeling now?"

"I'm all right," Rhoda answered languidly. "It was good of you all to bother so about me. What have you been doing all day?"

"Over at the ditch with Jack and Cartwell. Say, Rhoda, the young fellow who rescued you is an Indian!"

DeWitt dropped into a big chair by the hammock. He watched the girl hopefully. It was such a long, long time since she had been interested in anything! But there was no responsive light in the deep gray eyes.

"Katherine told me," she replied. Then, after a pause, as if she felt it her duty to make conversation, "Did you like him?"

DeWitt spoke slowly, as if he had been considering the matter.

"I've a lot of race prejudice in me, Rhoda. I don't like niggers or Chinamen or Indians when they get over to the white man's side of the fence. They are well enough on their own side. However, this Cartwell chap seems all right. And he rescued you from a beastly serious situation!"

"I don't know that I'm as grateful for that as I ought to be," murmured Rhoda, half to herself. "It would have been an easy solution."

Her words stung DeWitt. He started forward and seized the small thin hands in both his own.

"Rhoda, don't!" he pleaded huskily. "Don't give up! Don't lose hope! If I could only give you some of my strength! Don't talk so! It just about breaks my heart to hear you."

For a time, Rhoda did not answer. She lay wearily watching the eager, pleading face so close to her own. Even in her illness, Rhoda was very lovely. The burnished yellow hair softened the thinness of the face that was like delicately chiseled marble. The finely cut nose, the exquisite drooping mouth, the little square chin with its cleft, and the great gray eyes lost none of their beauty through her weakness.

"John," she said at last, "why won't you look the truth in the face? I never shall get well. I shall die here instead of in New York, that's all. Why did you follow me down here? It only tortures you. And, truly it's not so bad for me. You all have lost your realness to me, somehow. I shan't mind going, much."

DeWitt's strong face worked but his voice was steady.

"I never shall leave you," he said simply. "You are the one woman in the world for me. I'd marry you tomorrow if you'd let me."

Rhoda shook her head.

"You ought to go away, John, and forget me. You ought to go marry some fine girl and have a home and a family. I'm just a sick wreck."

"Rhoda," and DeWitt's earnest voice was convincing, "Rhoda, I'd pass up the healthiest, finest girl on earth for you, just sick you. Why, can't you see that your helplessness and dependence only deepen your hold on me? Who wants a thing as fragile and as lovely as you are to make a home! You pay your way in life just by living! Beauty and sweetness like yours is enough for a woman to give. I don't want you to do a thing in the world. Just give yourself to me and let me take care of you. Rhoda, dear, dear heart!"

"I can't marry unless I'm well," insisted Rhoda, "and I never shall be well again. I know that you all thought it was for the best, bringing me down to the desert, but just as soon as I can manage it without hurting Katherine's and Jack's feelings too much, I'm going back to New York. If you only knew how the big emptiness of this desert country adds to my depression!"

"If you go back to New York," persisted DeWitt, "you are going back as my wife. I'm sick of seeing you dependent on hired care. Why, Rhoda dear, is it nothing to you that, when you haven't a near relative in the world, I would gladly die for you?"

"Oh!" cried the girl, tears of weakness and pity in her eyes, "you know that it means everything to me! But I can't marry any one. All I want is just to crawl away and die in peace. I wish that that Indian hadn't come upon me so promptly. I'd just have gone to sleep and never wakened."

"Don't! Don't!" cried DeWitt. "I shall pick you up and hold you against all the world, if you say that!"

"Hush!" whispered Rhoda, but her smile was very tender. "Some one is coming through the orchard."

DeWitt reluctantly released the slender hands and leaned back in his chair. The sun had crossed the peach orchard slowly, breathlessly. It cast long, slanting shadows along the beautiful alfalfa fields and turned the willows by the irrigating ditch to a rosy gray. As the sun sank, song-birds piped and lizards scuttled along the porch rail. The loveliest part of the New Mexican day had come.

The two young Northerners watched the man who was swinging through the orchard. It was Cartwell. Despite his breadth of shoulder, the young Indian looked slender, though it was evident that only panther strength could produce such panther grace. He crossed the lawn and stood at the foot of the steps; one hand crushed his soft hat against his hip, and the sun turned his close-cropped black hair to blue bronze. For an instant none of the three spoke. It was as if each felt the import of this meeting which was to be continued through such strange vicissitudes. Cartwell, however, was not looking at DeWitt but at Rhoda, and she returned his gaze, surprised at the beauty of his face, with its large, long-lashed, Mohave eyes that were set well apart and set deeply as are the eyes of those whose ancestors have lived much in the open glare of the sun; with the straight, thin-nostriled nose; with the stern, cleanly modeled mouth and the square chin, below. And looking into the young Indian's deep black eyes, Rhoda felt within herself a vague stirring that for a second wiped the languor from her eyes.

Cartwell spoke first, easily, in the quiet, well-modulated voice of the Indian.

"Hello! All safe, I see! Mr. Newman will be here shortly." He seated himself on the upper step with his back against a pillar and fanned himself with his hat. "Jack's working too hard. I want him to go to the coast for a while and let me run the ditch. But he won't. He's as pig-headed as a Mohave."

"Are the Mohaves so pig-headed then?" asked DeWitt, smiling.

Cartwell returned the smile with a flash of white teeth.

"You bet they are! My mother was part Mohave and she used to say that only the Pueblo in her kept her from being as stiff-necked as yucca. You're all over the dizziness, Miss Tuttle?"

"Yes," said Rhoda. "You were very good to me."

Cartwell shook his head.

"I'm afraid I can't take special credit for that. Will you two ride to the ditch with me tomorrow? I think Miss Tuttle will be interested in Jack's irrigation dream, don't you, Mr. DeWitt?"

DeWitt answered a little stiffly.

"It's out of the question for Miss Tuttle to attempt such a trip, thank you."

But to her own as well as DeWitt's astonishment Rhoda spoke protestingly.

"You must let me refuse my own invitations, John. Perhaps the ditch would interest me."

DeWitt replied hastily, "Good gracious, Rhoda! If anything will interest you, don't let me interfere."

There was protest in his voice against Rhoda's being interested in an Indian's suggestion. Both Rhoda and Cartwell felt this and there was an awkward pause. This was broken by a faint halloo from the corral and DeWitt rose abruptly.

"I'll go down and meet Jack," he said.

"We'll do a lot of stunts if you're willing," Cartwell said serenely, his eyes following DeWitt's broad back inscrutably. "The desert is like a story-book if one learns to read it. If you would be interested to learn, I would be keen to teach you."

Rhoda's gray eyes lifted to the young man's somberly.

"I'm too dull these days to learn anything," she said. "But I—I didn't used to be! Truly I didn't! I used to be so alive, so strong! I believed in everything, myself most of all! Truly I did!" She paused, wondering at her lack of reticence.

Cartwell, however, was looking at her with something in his gaze so quietly understanding that Rhoda smiled. It was a slow smile that lifted and deepened the corners of Rhoda's lips, that darkened her gray eyes to black, an unforgetable smile to the loveliness of which Rhoda's friends never could accustom themselves. At the sight of it, Cartwell drew a deep breath, then leaned toward her and spoke with curious earnestness.

"You make me feel the same way that starlight on the desert makes me feel."

Rhoda replied in astonishment, "Why, you mustn't speak that way to me! It's not—not—"

"Not conventional?" suggested Cartwell. "What difference does that make, between you and me?"

Again came the strange stirring in Rhoda in response to Cartwell's gaze. He was looking at her with something of tragedy in the dark young eyes, something of sternness and determination in the clean-cut lips. Rhoda wondered, afterward, what would have been said if Katherine had not chosen this moment to come out on the porch.

"Rhoda," she asked, "do you feel like dressing for dinner? Hello, Kut-le, it's time you moved toward soap and water, seems to me!"

"Yessum!" replied Cartwell meekly. He rose and helped Rhoda from the hammock, then held the door open for her. DeWitt and Newman emerged from the orchard as he crossed to Katherine's chair.

"Is she very sick, Mrs. Jack?" he asked.

Katherine nodded soberly.

"Desperately sick. Her father and mother were killed in a railroad wreck a year ago. Rhoda wasn't seriously hurt but she has never gotten over the shock. She has been failing ever since. The doctor feared consumption and sent her down here. But she's just dying by inches. Oh, it's too awful! I can't believe it! I can't realize it!"

Cartwell stood in silence for a moment, his lips compressed, his eyes inscrutable.

Then, "I've met her at last," he said. "It makes me believe in Fate."

Katherine's pretty lips parted in amazement.

"Goodness! Are you often taken this way!" she gasped.

"Never before!" replied Cartwell serenely. "Jack said she'd broken her engagement to DeWitt because of her illness, so it's a fair war!"

"Kut-le!" exclaimed Katherine. "Don't talk like a yellow-backed novel! It's not a life or death affair."

"You can't tell as to that," answered Cartwell with a curious little smile. "You mustn't forget that I'm an Indian."

And he turned to greet the two men who were mounting the steps.

CHAPTER II. THE CAUCASIAN WAY

When Rhoda entered the dining-room some of her pallor seemed to have left her. She was dressed in a gown of an elusive pink that gave a rose flush to the marble fineness of her face.

Katherine was chatting with a wiry, middle-aged man whom she introduced to Rhoda as Mr. Porter, an Arizona mining man. Porter stood as if stunned for a moment by Rhoda's delicate loveliness. Then, as was the custom of every man who met Rhoda, he looked vaguely about for something to do for her. Jack Newman forestalled him by taking Rhoda's hand and leading her to the table. Jack's curly blond hair looked almost white in contrast with his tanned face. He was not as tall as either Cartwell or DeWitt but he was strong and clean-cut and had a boyish look despite the heavy responsibilities of his five-thousand-acre ranch.

"There," he said, placing Rhoda beside Porter; "just attach Porter's scalp to your belt with the rest of your collection. It'll be a new experience to him. Don't be afraid, Porter."

Billy Porter was not in the least embarrassed.

"I've come too near to losing my scalp to the Apaches to be scared by Miss Tuttle. Anyhow I gave her my scalp without a yelp the minute I laid eyes on her."

"Here! That's not fair!" cried John DeWitt. "The rest of us had to work to get her to take ours!"

"Our what?" asked Cartwell, entering the room at the last word. He was looking very cool and well groomed in white flannels.

Billy Porter stared at the newcomer and dropped his soup-spoon with a splash. "What in thunder!" Rhoda heard him mutter.

Jack Newman spoke hastily.

"This is Mr. Cartwell, our irrigation engineer, Mr. Porter."

Porter responded to the young Indian's courteous bow with a surly nod, and proceeded with his soup.

"I'd as soon eat with a nigger as an Injun," he said to Rhoda under cover of some laughing remark of Katherine's to Cartwell.

"He seems to be nice," said Rhoda vaguely. "Maybe, though, Katherine is a little liberal, making him one of the family."

"Is there any hunting at all in this open desert country?" asked DeWitt. "I certainly hate to go back to New York with nothing but sunburn to show for my trip!"

"Coyotes, wildcats, rabbits and partridges," volunteered Cartwell. "I know where there is a nest of wildcats up on the first mesa. And I know an Indian who will tan the pelts for you, like velvet. A jack-rabbit pelt well tanned is an exquisite thing too, by the way. I will go on a hunt with you whenever the ditch can be left."

"And while they are chasing round after jacks, Miss Tuttle," cut in Billy Porter neatly, "I will take you anywhere you want to go. I'll show you things these kids never dreamed of! I knew this country in the days of Apache raids and the pony express."

"That will be fine!" replied Rhoda. "But I'd rather hear the stories than take any trips. Did you spend your boyhood in New Mexico? Did you see real Indian fights? Did you—?" She paused with an involuntary glance at Cartwell.

Porter, too, looked at the dark young face across the table and something in its inscrutable calm seemed to madden him.

"My boyhood here? Yes, and a happy boyhood it was! I came home from the range one day and found my little fifteen-year-old sister and a little neighbor friend of hers hung up by the back of their necks on butcher hooks. They had been tortured to death by Apaches. I don't like Indians!"

There was an awkward pause at the dinner table. Li Chung removed the soup-plates noiselessly. Cartwell's brown fingers tapped the tablecloth. But he was not looking at Porter's scowling face. He was watching Rhoda's gray eyes which were fastened on him with a look half of pity, half of aversion. When he spoke it was as if he cared little for the opinions of the others but would set himself right with her alone.

"My father," he said, "came home from the hunt, one day, to find his mother and three sisters lying in their own blood. The whites had gotten them. They all had been scalped and were dead except the baby, three years old. She—she—my father killed her."

A gasp of horror went round the table.

"I think such stories are inexcusable here!" exclaimed Katherine indignantly.

"So do I, Mrs. Jack," replied Cartwell. "I won't do it again."

Porter's face stained a deep mahogany and he bowed stiffly to Katherine.

"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Newman!"

"I feel as if I were visiting a group of anarchists," said Rhoda plaintively, "and had innocently passed round a bomb on which to make conversation!"

Jack Newman laughed, the tension relaxed, and in a moment the dinner was proceeding merrily, though Porter and Cartwell carefully avoided speaking to each other. Most of the conversation centered around Rhoda. Katherine always had been devoted to her friend. And though men always had paid homage to Rhoda, since her illness had enhanced her delicacy, and had made her so appealingly helpless, they were drawn to her as surely as bee to flower. Old and young, dignified and happy-go-lucky, all were moved irresistibly to do something for her, to coddle her, to undertake impossible missions, self-imposed.

Porter from his place of vantage beside her kept her plate heaped with delicacies, calmly removed the breast of chicken from his own plate to hers, all but fed her with a spoon when she refused to more than nibble at her meal.

DeWitt's special night-mare was that drafts were blowing on her. He kept excusing himself from the table to open and close windows and doors, to hang over her chair so as to feel for himself if the wind touched her.

Katherine and Jack kept Li Chung trotting to the kitchen for different dainties with which to tempt her. Only Cartwell did nothing. He kept up what seemed to be his usual fire of amiable conversation and watched Rhoda constantly through inscrutable black eyes. But he made no attempt to serve her.

Rhoda was scarcely conscious of the deference showed her, partly because she had received it so long, partly because that detached frame of mind of the hopeless invalid made the life about her seem shadowy and unreal. Nothing really mattered much. She lay back in her chair with the little wistful smile, the somber light in her eyes that had become habitual to her.

After dinner was finished Katherine led the way to the living-room. To his unspeakable pride, Rhoda took Billy Porter's arm and he guided her listless footsteps carefully, casting pitying glances on his less favored friends. Jack wheeled a Morris chair before the fireplace—desert nights are cool—and John DeWitt hurried for a shawl, while Katherine gave every one orders that no one heeded in the least.

Cartwell followed after the others, slowly lighted a cigarette, then seated himself at the piano. For the rest of the evening he made no attempt to join in the fragmentary conversation. Instead he sang softly, as if to himself, touching the keys so gently that their notes seemed only the echo of his mellow voice. He sang bits of Spanish love-songs, of Mexican lullabies. But for the most part he kept to Indian melodies—wistful love-songs and chants that touched the listener with strange poignancy.

There was little talk among the group around the fire. The three men smoked peacefully. Katherine and Jack sat close to each other, on the davenport, content to be together. DeWitt lounged where he could watch Rhoda, as did Billy Porter, the latter hanging on every word and movement of this lovely, fragile being, as if he would carry forever in his heart the memory of her charm.

Rhoda herself watched the fire. She was tired, tired to the inmost fiber of her being. The only real desire left her was that she might crawl off somewhere and die in peace. But these good friends of hers had set their faces against the inevitable and it was only decency to humor them. Once, quite unconscious that the others were watching her, she lifted her hands and eyed them idly. They were almost transparent and shook a little. The group about the fire stirred pityingly. John and Katherine and Jack remembered those shadowy hands when they had been rosy and full of warmth and tenderness. Billy Porter leaned across and with his hard brown palms pressed the trembling fingers down into Rhoda's lap. She looked up in astonishment.

"Don't hold 'em so!" said Billy hoarsely. "I can't stand to see 'em!"

"They are pretty bad," said Rhoda, smiling. It was her rare, slow, unforgetable smile. Porter swallowed audibly. Cartwell at the piano drifted from a Mohave lament to La Paloma.

"The day that I left my home for the rolling sea, I said, 'Mother dear, O pray to thy God for me!' But e'er I set sail I went a fond leave to take of Nina, who wept as if her poor heart would break!"

The mellow, haunting melody caught Rhoda's fancy at once, as Cartwell knew it would. She turned to the sinewy figure at the piano. DeWitt was wholesome and strong, but this young Indian seemed vitality itself.

"Nina, if I should die and o'er ocean's foam softly at dusk a fair dove should come, open thy window, Nina, for it would be my faithful soul come back to thee——"

Something in Cartwell's voice stirred Rhoda as had his eyes. For the first time in months Rhoda felt poignantly that it would be hard to be cut down with all her life unlived. The mellow voice ceased and Cartwell, rising, lighted a fresh cigarette.

"I am going to get up with the rabbits, tomorrow," he said, "so I'll trot to bed now."

DeWitt, impelled by that curious sense of liking for the young Indian that fought down his aversion, said, "The music was bully, Cartwell!" but Cartwell only smiled as if at the hint of patronage in the voice and strolled to his own room.

Rhoda slept late the following morning. She had not, in her three nights in the desert country, become accustomed to the silence that is not the least of the desert's splendors. It seemed to her that the nameless unknown Mystery toward which her life was drifting was embodied in this infinite silence. So sleep would not come to her until dawn. Then the stir of the wind in the trees, the bleat of sheep, the trill of mocking-birds lulled her to sleep.

As the brilliancy of the light in her room increased there drifted across her uneasy dreams the lilting notes of a whistled call. Pure and liquidly sweet they persisted until there came to Rhoda that faint stir of hope and longing that she had experienced the day before. She opened her eyes and finally, as the call continued, she crept languidly from her bed and peered from behind the window-shade. Cartwell, in his khaki suit, his handsome head bared to the hot sun, leaned against a peach-tree while he watched Rhoda's window.

"I wonder what he wakened me for?" she thought half resentfully. "I can't go to sleep again, so I may as well dress and have breakfast."

Hardly had she seated herself at her solitary meal when Cartwell appeared.

"Dear me!" he exclaimed. "The birds and Mr. DeWitt have been up this long time."

"What is John doing?" asked Rhoda carelessly.

"He's gone up on the first mesa for the wildcats I spoke of last night. I thought perhaps you might care to take a drive before it got too hot. You didn't sleep well last night, did you?"

Rhoda answered whimsically.

"It's the silence. It thunders at me so! I will get used to it soon. Perhaps I ought to drive. I suppose I ought to try everything."

Not at all discouraged, apparently, by this lack of enthusiasm, Cartwell said:

"I won't let you overdo. I'll have the top-buggy for you and we'll go slowly and carefully."

"No," said Rhoda, suddenly recalling that, after all, Cartwell was an Indian, "I don't think I will go. Katherine will have all sorts of objections."

The Indian smiled sardonically.

"I already have Mrs. Jack's permission. Billy Porter will be in, in a moment. If you would rather have a white man than an Indian, as escort, I'm quite willing to retreat."

Rhoda flushed delicately.

"Your frankness is almost—almost impertinent, Mr. Cartwell."

"I don't mean it that way at all!" protested the Indian. "It's just that I saw so plainly what was going on in your mind and it piqued me. If it will be one bit pleasanter for you with Billy, I'll go right out and hunt him up for you now."

The young man's naïveté completely disarmed Rhoda.

"Don't be silly!" she said. "Go get your famous top-buggy and I'll be ready in a minute."

In a short time Rhoda and Cartwell, followed by many injunctions from Katherine, started off toward the irrigating ditch. At a slow pace they drove through the peach orchard into the desert. As they reached the open trail, thrush and to-hee fluttered from the cholla. Chipmunk and cottontail scurried before them. Overhead a hawk dipped in its reeling flight. Cartwell watched the girl keenly. Her pale face was very lovely in the brilliant morning light, though the somberness of her wide, gray eyes was deepened. That same muteness and patience in her trouble which so touched other men touched Cartwell, but he only said:

"There never was anything bigger and finer than this open desert, was there?"

Rhoda turned from staring at the distant mesas and eyed the young Indian wonderingly.

"Why!" she exclaimed, "I hate it! You know that sick fear that gets you when you try to picture eternity to yourself? That's the way this barrenness and awful distance affects me. I hate it!"

"But you won't hate it!" cried Cartwell. "You must let me show you its bigness. It's as healing as the hand of God."

Rhoda shuddered.

"Don't talk about it, please! I'll try to think of something else."

They drove in silence for some moments. Rhoda, her thin hands clasped in her lap, resolutely stared at the young Indian's profile. In the unreal world in which she drifted, she needed some thought of strength, some hope beyond her own, to which to cling. She was lonely—lonely as some outcast watching with sick eyes the joy of the world to which he is denied. As she stared at the stern young profile beside her, into her heart crept the now familiar thrill.

Suddenly Cartwell turned and looked at her quizzically.

"Well, what are your conclusions?"

Rhoda shook her head.

"I don't know, except that it's hard to realize that you are an Indian."

Cartwell's voice was ironical.

"The only good Indian is a dead Indian, you know. I'm liable to break loose any time, believe me!"

Rhoda's eyes were on the far lavender line where the mesa melted into the mountains.

"Yes, and then what?" she asked.

Cartwell's eyes narrowed, but Rhoda did not see.

"Then I'm liable to follow Indian tradition and take whatever I want, by whatever means!"

"My! My!" said Rhoda, "that sounds bludgy! And what are you liable to want?"

"Oh, I want the same thing that a great many white men want. I'm going to have it myself, though!" His handsome face glowed curiously as he looked at Rhoda.

But the

Imprint

Publisher: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG

Publication Date: 05-03-2014
ISBN: 978-3-7368-0741-9

All Rights Reserved

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