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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesStarr, Of The Desert - Chapter 6. "Darn Such A Country!"
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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 6. 'Darn Such A Country!' Post by :jellon Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :1121

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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 6. "Darn Such A Country!"


Helen May stood on the knobby, brown rock pinnacle that formed the head of Sunlight Basin and stared resentfully out over the baked desert and the forbidding hills and the occasional grassy hollows that stretched away and away to the skyline. So clear was the air that every slope, every hollow, every acarpous hilltop lay pitilessly revealed to her unfriendly eyes, until the sheer immensity of distance veiled its barrenness in a haze of tender violet. The sky was blue; deeply, intensely blue, with little clouds like flakes of bleached cotton floating aimlessly here and there. In a big, wild, unearthly way it was beautiful beyond any words which human beings have coined.

Helen May felt its bigness, its wildness, perhaps also its beauty, though the beauties of the desert land do not always appeal to alien eyes. She felt its bigness and its wildness; and she who had lived the cramped life of the town resented both, because she had no previous experience by which to measure any part of it. Also, she summed up all her resentment and her complete sense of bafflement at its bigness in one vehement sentence that lacked only one word of being a curse.

"Darn such a country!" is what she said, gritting the words between her teeth.

"See anything of 'em?" bellowed Vic from the spring below, where he was engaged in dipping up water with a tomato can and pouring it over his head, shivering ecstatically as the cold trickles ran down his neck.

Helen May glanced down at him with no softening of her eyes. Vic had lost nine goats out of the flock he had been set to herd, and he failed to manifest any great concern over the loss. On the contrary, he had told Helen May that he wished he could lose the whole bunch, and that he hoped coyotes had eaten them up, if they didn't have sense enough to stay with the rest. There had been a heated argument, and Helen May had not felt sure of coming out of it a victor.

"No, I didn't, and you'd better get back to work or the rest will be gone, too," she called down to him petulantly. "It's bad enough to lose nine, without letting the rest go."

"Aw, 's matter with yuh, anyway?" Vic retorted in a tone he thought would not reach her ears. "By gosh, you don't want a feller to cool off, even! By gosh, you'd make a feller _sleep with them darned goats if you could get away with it! Bu-lieve _me_, anybody can have my job that wants it. 'S hot enough to fry eggs in the shade, and she thinks, by hen, that I oughta stay out there--"

"Yes, I do. And if you want anything to eat to-night, Vic Stevenson, you get right back there with those goats! They're going over the hill this minute. Hurry, Vic! For heaven's sake, are you trying to take a _bath in that can? Climb up that ridge and cut across and head them off! That old Billy's headed for town again--hurry!"

"Aw for gosh sake!" grumbled Vic, stooping reluctantly to pick up the old hoe-handle he used for a staff. "What ridge?" He paused to thunder up at her, his voice unexpectedly changing to a shrill falsetto on the last word, as frequently happens to rob a mancub of his dignity just when he needs it most.

"That ridge before your face, chump," Helen May informed him crossly. "If it comes to choosing between goats and a boy, I'll take the goats! And if there's any spot on the face of the earth worse than this, I'd like to know where it is. The idea of expecting people to live in such a country! It looks for all the world like magnified pictures of the moon's surface. And," she added with a dreary kind of vindictiveness, "it's here, and I'm here. I can't get away from it--that's the dickens of it." Then, because Helen May had a certain impish sense of humor, she sat down and laughed at the incongruity of it all. "Me--me, here in the desert trying to raise goats! Can you beat that?"

She watched Vic toiling up the ridge, using the hoe-handle with a slavish dependence upon its support that tickled Helen May again. "You'd think," she told the scenery for want of other companionship, "you'd think Vic was seventy-nine years old at the very least. Makes a difference whether he's after a bunch of tame goats or hiking with a bunch of boy scouts to the top of Mount Wilson! I don't believe that kid ever did wear his legs out having fun, and it's a sure thing he'll never wear them out working! Say goats to him and he actually gets round-shouldered and limps."

Vic disappeared over the ridge beyond the spring. Lower down, where the ridge merged into the Basin itself, the big curly-horned Billy that had cost Helen May more than any half dozen of his followers stepped out briskly at the head of the band. Helen May wondered what new depravity was in his mind, and whether Vic would cross the gully he was in and confront Billy in time to change the one idea that seemed always to possess that animal.

Helen May did not know how vitally important it is to have a good dog at such work. She did not know that Billy and his band felt exactly like boys who have successfully eluded a too lax teacher, and that they would have yielded without argument to the bark of a trained sheep dog. She had set Vic a harder task than she realized; a task from which any experienced herder would have shrunk. In her ignorance she blamed Vic, and called him lazy and careless and a few other sisterly epithets which he did not altogether deserve.

She watched now, impatient because he was so long in crossing the gully; telling herself that he was trying to see how slow he could be, and that he did it just to be disagreeable and to irritate her--as if she were there of her own desire, and had bought those two hundred miserable goats to spite him. Harmony, as you must see, did not always dwell in Sunlight Basin.

Eventually Vic toiled up the far side of the gully, which was deep and as hot as an oven, and followed it down within rock-throwing distance of the goats. A well-aimed pebble struck Billy on the curve of one horn and halted him, the band huddling vacant-eyed behind him. Vic aimed and threw another, and Billy, turning his whiskered face upward, stared with resentful head-tossings and a defiant blat or two before he swerved back into the Basin, his band and Vic plodding after.

"Well, for a wonder!" Helen May ejaculated ungraciously, grudging Vic the small tribute of praise that was due him. But she was immediately ashamed of that, and told herself that it was pretty hard on the poor kid, and that after all he must hate the country worse than she did, even, which would certainly mean a good deal; and that she supposed he missed his boy chums just as much as she missed her friends, and found it just as hard to fit himself comfortably into a life for which he had no liking. Besides, it wasn't his health that had shunted them both out here into the desert, and she ought to be ashamed of herself for treating him the way she did.

After that she decided that it was her business to find the nine goats that were lost. Vic certainly could not do both at once; and deep down in her heart Helen May knew that she was terribly afraid of Billy and would rather trudge the desert for hours under the hot sun than stay in the Basin watching the main flock. She wished that she could afford to hire a herder, but she shrunk from the expense. It seemed to her that she and Vic should be able to herd that one band, especially since there was nothing else for them to do out there except cook food and eat it.

Speaking of food, it seemed to take an enormous quantity to satisfy the hunger of two persons. Helen May was appalled at the insatiable appetite of Vic, who seemed never to have enough in his stomach. As for herself--well, she recalled the meal she had just eaten, and wondered how it could be possible for hunger to seize upon her so soon again. But even so, food could not occupy all of their time, and a two-room cabin does not take much keeping in order. They would simply be throwing away money if they hired a herder, and yet, how they both did loathe those goats!

She climbed back down the pinnacle, watching nervously for snakes and lizards and horned toads and such denizens of the desert. With a certain instinct for preparing against the worst, she took a two-quart canteen, such as soldiers carry, to the spring, and filled it and slung it over her shoulder. She went to the cabin and made a couple of sandwiches, and because she was not altogether inhuman she cut two thick slices of bread, spread them lavishly with jam, and carried them to Vic as a peace offering.

"I'm going to hunt those nasty brutes, Vic," she cried from a safe distance. "Come here and get this jam sandwich, and lend me that stick you've got. And if I don't get back by five, you start a fire."

"Where you going to look? If you couldn't see 'em from up there, I don't see the use of hunting." Vic was taking long steps towards the sandwich, and he stretched his sunburned face in that grin which might have made him famous in comedy had fate not set him down before his present ignoble task. "Yuh don't want to go far," he advised her perfunctorily. "We ought to have a couple of saddle horses. Why don't yuh--"

"What would we feed them on? Besides we've got to save what money we've got, Vic. We can walk till these insects grow wool enough to pay for something to ride on."

"Hair, you mean. I can get a gentle horse from that Mexican kid, Luis. He good as offered us the one--that I borrowed--" Vic was giving too much attention to the jam sandwich to argue very coherently.

"There's that old Billy starting off again; you watch him, Vic. Don't let him get a start, or goodness knows where he'll head for next. We can't keep a horse, I tell you. We need all this grass for the goats."

"Oh, darn the goats!"

In her heart Helen May quite agreed with the sentiment, but she could not consistently betray that fact to Vic. She therefore turned her back upon him, walking down the trail that led out of the Basin to the main trail a mile away, the trail which was the link connecting them with civilization of a sort.

Here passed the depressed, dust-covered stage three times a week. Here, in a macaroni box mounted on a post, they received and posted their mail. Helen May had indulged herself in a subscription to the Los Angeles daily paper that had always been left at their door every morning, the paper which Peter had read hastily over his morning mush. Every paper brought a pang of homesickness for the flower-decked city of her birth, but she felt as though she could not have kept her sanity without it. The full-page bargain ads she read hungrily. The weekly announcements of the movie shows, the news, the want columns--these were at once her solace and her torment; and if you have ever been exiled, you know what that means.

Here, too, she left her shopping list and money for the stage driver, who bought what she needed and left the goods at the foot of the post, and what money remained in a buckskin bag in the macaroni box.

An obliging stage driver was he, a tobacco chewing, red-faced, red-whiskered stage driver who nagged at his four horses incessantly and never was known to beat one of them; a garrulous, soft-hearted stage driver who understood very well how lonely these two young folks must be, and who therefore had some moth-eaten joke ready for whoever might be waiting for him at the macaroni box. Whenever Helen May apologized for the favor she must ask of him--which was every time she handed him a list--the stage driver invariably a nasal kind of snort, spat far out over the wheel, and declared pettishly:

"It ain't a mite uh trouble in the world. That's what I'm _fur_--to help folks out along my rowt. Don't you worry a mite about that." Often as he said it, he yet gave it the tone of sincerity and of convincing freshness, as though he had never before given the matter a thought. Helen May did not know what she would have done without that stage driver to bridge the gulf between Sunlight Basin and the world.

But this was not stage day. That is to say, the stage had passed to the far side of its orbit, and would not return until to-morrow. From San Bonito it swung in a day-long journey across the desert to Malpais, thence by a different route to San Bonito again, so that Helen May never saw it returning whence it had come.

A cloud of desert dust always heralded its approach from the east. Sometimes after the first dust signal, it took him nearly an hour to top the low ridge which was really one rim of the Basin. Then Helen May would know that he carried passengers or freight that straightened the backs of the straining four horses in the long stretch of sand beyond the ridge and made their progress slow.

But to-day there was no dust signal, and the macaroni box was but a dismal reminder of her exile. The world was very far away, behind the violet rim of mountains, and she was just a speck in the desert. Her high laced boots were heavy, and the dust settled in the creases around her slim ankles, that could be perfectly fascinating in silken hose and dainty slippers. Her khaki skirt, of the divided kind much affected by tourists, had lost two big, pearl buttons, and she had no others to replace them. Her shirt-waist had its collar turned inside for coolness, and the hollow of her neck was sun-blistered and beginning to peel. Also her nose and her neck at the sides were showing a disposition to grow new skin for old. So much had the desert sun done for her.

But there was something else which the desert had done, something which Helen May did not fully realize. It had put a clear, steady look into her eyes in place of the glassy shine of fever. It was beginning to fill out that hollow in her neck, so that it no longer showed the angular ends of her collar bones. It had put a resilient quality into her walk, firmness into the poise of her head. It had made it physically possible, for instance, for Helen May to trudge out into the wild to hunt nine goats that had strayed from the main band.

Though she did not know it, a certain dream of Peter's had very nearly come true. For here were the vast plains, unpeopled, pure, immutable in their magnificent calm. At night the stars seemed to come down and hang just over Helen May's head. There was the little cottage of which Peter had dreamed--only Helen May called it a miserable little shack--hunched against a hill; sometimes a light winked through the window at the stars; sometimes Helen May was startled at the nearness and the shrill insistence of the coyotes. Here as Peter had dreamed so longingly and so hopelessly, were distance and quiet and calm. And here was Helen May coming through the sunlight--Peter never dreamed how hot it would be!--with her deep-gold hair tousled in the wind and with the little red spots gone from her cheeks and with health in her eyes that were the color of ripe chestnuts. When her skin had adjusted itself to the rigors of the climate, she would no doubt have freckles on her nose, just as Peter had dreamed she might have. And if she were walking, instead of riding the gentle-eyed pony which Peter had pictured, that was not Peter's fault, nor the fault of the dream. There was no laugh on her lips, however. Dreams are always pulling a veil of idealism over the face of reality, and so Helen May's face was not happy, as Peter had dreamed it might be, but petulant and grimly determined; her ripe-red lips were moving in anathemas directed at nine detested goats.

Peter could never have dreamed just that, but all the same it is a pity that, in order to make the dream a reality, Peter had been forced to deny himself the joy of seeing Helen May growing strong in "Arizona, New Mexico, or Colorado." It would have made the price he paid seem less terrible, less tragic.

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