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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesStarr, Of The Desert - Chapter 7. Moonlight, A Man And A Song
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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 7. Moonlight, A Man And A Song Post by :jellon Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :3662

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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 7. Moonlight, A Man And A Song


Just out from the entrance to a deep, broad-bottomed arroyo where an automobile had been, Starr came upon something that surprised him very much, and it was not at all easy to surprise Starr. Here, in the first glory of a flaming sunset that turned the desert to a sea of unearthly, opal-tinted beauty, he came upon Helen May, trudging painfully along with an old hoe-handle for a staff, and driving nine reluctant nanny goats that alternately trotted and stood still to stare at the girl with foolish, amber-colored eyes.

Starr was trained to long desert distances, but his training had made it second nature to consider a horse the logical means of covering those distances. To find Helen May away out here, eight miles and more from Sunlight Basin, and to find her walking, shocked Starr unspeakably; shocked him out of his shyness and into free speech with her, as though he had known her a long while.

"Y' _lost_?" was his first greeting, while he instinctively swung Rabbit to head off a goat that suddenly "broke back" from the others.

Helen May looked up at him with relief struggling through the apathy of utter weariness. "No, but I might as well be. I'll never be able to get home alive, anyhow." She shook the hoe-handle menacingly at a hesitating goat and quite suddenly collapsed upon the nearest rock, and began to cry; not sentimentally or weakly or in any other feminine manner known to Starr, but with an angry recklessness that was like opening a safety valve. Helen May herself did not understand why she should go along for half a day calmly enough, and then, the minute this man rode up and spoke to her sympathetically, she should want to sit down and cry.

"I just--I've been walking since one o'clock! If I had a gun, I'd shoot every one of them. I just--I think goats are simply _damnable things!"

Starr turned and looked at the animals disapprovingly. "They sure are," he assented comfortingly. "Where you trying to take 'em--or ain't you?" he asked, with the confidence-inviting tone that made him so valuable to those who paid for his services.

"Home, if you can call it that!" Helen May found her handkerchief and proceeded to wipe the tears and the dust off her cheeks. She looked at Starr more attentively than at first when he had been just a human being who seemed friendly. "Oh, you're the man that stopped at the spring. Well, you know where I live, then. I was hunting these; they wandered off and Vic couldn't find them yesterday, so I--it was just accident that I came across them. I followed some tracks, and it looked to me as if they'd been driven off. There were horse tracks. That's what made me keep going--I was so mad. And now they won't go home or anywhere else. They just want to run around every which way."

Starr looked up the arroyo, hesitating. On the edge of San Bonito he had picked up the track of Silvertown cord tires, and he had followed it to the mouth of this arroyo. From certain signs easy for an experienced man to read, he had known the track was fairly fresh, fresh enough to make it worth his while to follow. And now here was a girl all tired out and a long way from home.

"Here, you climb onto Rabbit. He's gentle when he knows it's all right, and I won't stand for him acting up." Starr swung off beside her. "I'll help get the goats home. Where's your dog?"

"I haven't any dog. The man we bought the goats from wanted to sell me one, to help herd them, he said. But he asked twenty-five dollars for it--I suppose he thought because I looked green I'd stand for that!--and I wouldn't be held up that way. Vic and I have nothing to do but watch them. You--you mustn't bother," she added half-heartedly. "I can get them home all right. I'm rested now, and there's a moon, you know. Really, I can't let you bother about it. I know the way."

"Put your foot in the stirrup and climb on. You, Rabbit, you stand still, or I'll beat the--"

"Really, you mustn't think, because I cried a little bit--"

"Pile on to him now, while I hold him still. Or shall I pick you up and _put you on?" Starr smiled while he said it, but there was a look in his eyes and around his mouth that made Helen May yield suddenly.

By her awkwardness Starr and Rabbit both knew that she had probably never before attempted to mount a horse. By the set of her lips Starr knew that she was afraid, but that she would break her neck before she would confess her fear. He liked her for that, and he was glad to see that Rabbit understood the case and drew upon his reserve of patience and good nature, standing like a rock until Helen May was settled in the saddle and Starr had turned the stirrups on their sides in the leather so that they would come nearer being the right length for her. Starr's hand sliding affectionately up Rabbit's neck and resting a moment on his jaw was all the assurance Rabbit needed that everything was all right.

"Now, just leave the reins loose, and let Rabbit come along to please himself," Starr instructed her quietly. "He'll follow me, and he'll pick his own trail. You don't have to do a thing but sit there and take it easy. He'll do the rest."

Helen May looked at him doubtfully, but she did not say anything. She braced herself in the stirrups, took a firm grip of the saddlehorn with one hand, and waited for what might befall. She had no fear of Starr, no further uneasiness over the coming night, the loneliness, the goats, or anything else. She felt as irresponsible, as safe, as any sheltered woman in her own home. I did not say she felt serene; she did not know yet how the horse would perform; but she seemed to lay that responsibility also on Starr's capable shoulders.

They moved off quietly enough, Starr afoot and driving the goats, Rabbit picking his way after him in leisurely fashion. So they crossed the arroyo mouth and climbed the ragged lip of its western side and traveled straight toward the flaming eye of the sun that seemed now to have winked itself nearly shut. The goats for some inexplicable reason showed no further disposition to go in nine different directions at once. Helen May relaxed from her stiff-muscled posture and began to experiment a little with the reins.

"Why, he steers easier than an automobile!" she exclaimed suddenly. "You just think which way you want to go, almost, and he does it. And you don't have to pull the lines the least bit, do you?"

Starr delayed his answer until he had made sure that she was not irritating Rabbit with a too-officious guidance. When he saw that she was holding the reins loosely as he had told her to do, and was merely laying the weight of a rein on one side of the neck and then on the other, he smiled.

"I guess you've rode before," he hazarded. "The way you neck-rein--"

"No, honest. But my chum's brother had a big six, and Sundays he used to let me fuss with it, away out where the road was clear. It steered just like this horse; just as easy, I mean. I--why, see! I just _wondered if he'd go to the right of that bush, and he turned that way just as if I'd told him to. Can you beat that?"

Starr did not say. Naturally, since she was a girl, and pretty, and since he was human, he was busy wondering what her chum's brother was like. He picked up a small rock and shied it at a goat that was not doing a thing that it shouldn't do, and felt better. He remembered then that at any rate her chum's brother was a long way off, and that he himself had nothing much to complain of right now. Then Helen May spoke again and shifted his thoughts to another subject.

"I believe I'd rather have a horse like this," she said, "than own that big, lovely take-me-to-glory car that was pathfinding around like a million dollars, a little while ago. I'll own up now that I was weeping partly because four great big porky men could ride around on cushions a foot thick, while a perfectly nice girl had to plough through the sand afoot. The way they skidded past me and buried me in a cloud of dust made me mad enough to throw rocks after them. Pigs! They never even stopped to ask if I wanted a ride or anything. They all glared at me through their goggles as if I hadn't any business walking on their desert."

"Did you know them?" Starr came and walked beside her, glancing frequently at her face.

"No, of course I didn't. I don't know anybody but the stage driver. I wouldn't have ridden with them, anyway. From what I saw of them they looked like Mexicans. But you'd think they might have shown some interest, wouldn't you?"

"I sure would," Starr stated with emphasis. "What kinda car was it, did you notice? Maybe I know who they are."

"Oh, it was a great big black car. They went by so fast and I was so tired and hot and--and pretty near swearing mad, I didn't notice the number at all. And they were glaring at me, and I was glaring at them, and then the driver stepped on the accelerator just at a little crook in the road, and the hind wheels skidded about a ton of sand into my face and they were gone, like they were running from a speed cop. I'd much rather have a nice little automatic pony like this one," she added feelingly. "You don't have to bundle yourself up in dusters and goggles and things when you take a ride, do you? It--it makes the bigness of the country, and the barrenness of it, somehow fit together and take you into the pattern, when you ride a horse over it, don't you think?"

"I guess so," Starr assented, with an odd little slurring accent on the last word which gave the trite sentence an individual touch that appealed to Helen May. "It don't seem natural, somehow, to walk in a country like this."

"Oh, and you've got to, while I ride your horse! Or, have you got to? Is it just movie stuff, where a man rides behind on a horse, and lets the girl ride in front? I mean, is it feasible, or just a stunt for pictures?"

"Depends on the horse," Starr evaded. "It's got the say-so, mostly, whether it'll pack one person or two. Rabbit will, and when I get tired walking, I'll ride."

"Oh, that makes it better. I wasn't feeling comfortable riding, but men are so queer about thinking they must give a woman all the choice bits of comfort, and a woman has to give in or row about it. If you'll climb up and ride when you feel like it, I'll just settle down and enjoy myself."

Settling down and enjoying herself seemed to consist of gazing out over the desert and the hills and up at the sky that was showing the deep purple of dusk. It was what Starr wanted most of all, just then, for it left him free to study what she had told him of the big black automobile with four coated and goggled men who had looked like Mexicans; four men who had glared at her and then had speeded up to get away from her possible scrutiny.

For the first time since she had seen it from the spring seat of a jolting wagon from the one livery stable in Malpais, Helen May discovered that this wild, strange land was beautiful. For the first time she gloried in its bigness and its wildness, and did not resent its barrenness. The little brown birds that fluttered close to the ground and cheeped wistfully to one another in the dusk gave her an odd, sweet thrill of companionship. Jack rabbits sitting up on their hind legs for a brief scrutiny before they scurried away made her laugh to herself. The reddened clouds that rimmed the purple were the radiant shores of a wonderful, bottomless sea, where the stars were the mast lights on ships hull down in the distance. She lifted her chest and drew in long breaths of clean, sweet air that is like no other air, and she remembered all at once that she had not coughed since daylight. She breathed again, deep and long, and felt that she was drawing some wonderful, healing ether into her lungs.

She looked at Starr, walking steadily along before her, swinging the hoe-handle lightly in his right hand, setting his feet down in the smoothest spots always and leaving nearly always a clear imprint of his foot in the sandy soil. There was a certain fascination in watching the lines of footprints he left behind him. She would know those footprints anywhere, she told herself. Small for a man, they were, and well-shaped, with the toes pointing out the least little bit, and with no blurring drag when he lifted his feet. She did not know that Starr wore riding boots made to his measure and costing close to twenty dollars a pair; if she had she would not have wondered at the fine shape of them, or at the individuality of the imprint they made. She conceived the belief that Rabbit knew those footprints also. She amused herself by watching how carefully the horse followed wherever they led. If Starr stepped to the right to avoid a rock, Rabbit stepped to the right to avoid that rock; never to the left, though the way might be as smooth and open. If Starr crossed a gully at a certain place, Rabbit followed scrupulously the tracks he made. Helen May considered that this little gray horse showed really human intelligence.

She realized the deepening dusk only when Starr's form grew vague and she could no longer see the prints his boots made. They were nearing the brown, lumpy ridge which hid Sunlight Basin from the plain, but Helen May was not particularly eager to reach it. For the first time she forgot the gnawing heart-hunger of homesickness, and was content with her present surroundings; content even with the goats that trotted submisively ahead of Starr.

When a soft radiance drifted into the darkness and made it a luminous, thin veil, Helen May gave a little cry and looked back. Since her hands moved with the swing of her shoulders, Rabbit turned sharply and faced the way she was looking, startled, displeased, but obedient. Starr stopped abruptly and turned back, coming close up beside her.

"What's wrong?" he asked in an undertone. "See anything?"

"The moon," Helen May gave a hushed little laugh. "I'd forgotten--forgotten I was alive, almost. I was just soaking in the beauty of it through every pore. And then it got dark so I couldn't see your footprints any more, and then such a queer, beautiful look came on everything. I turned to look, and this little automatic pony turned to look, too. But--isn't it wonderful? Everything, I mean. Just everything--the whole world and the stars and the sky--"

Starr lifted an arm and laid it over Rabbit's neck, fingering the silver-white mane absently. It brought him quite close to Helen May, so that she could have put her hand on his shoulder.

"Yes. It's wonderful--when it ain't terrible," he said, his voice low.

After a silent minute she answered him, in the hushed tone that seemed most in harmony with the tremendous sweep of sky and that great stretch of plain and bare mountain. "I see what you mean. It is terrible even when it's most wonderful. But one little human alone with it would be--"

"Sh-sh." he whispered. "Listen a minute. Did you ever _hear a big silence like this?"

"No," she breathed eagerly. "Sh-sh--"

At first there was nothing save the whisper of a breeze that stirred the greasewood and then was still. Full in their faces the moon swung clear of the mountains behind San Bonito and hung there, a luminous yellow ball in the deep, star-sprinkled purple. Across the desert it flung a faint, straight pathway in the sand. Rabbit gave a long sigh, turned his head to look back at his master, and then stood motionless again. Far on a hilltop a coyote pointed his nose to the moon and yap-yap-yapped, with a shrill, long-drawn tremolo wail that made the girl catch her breath. Behind them the nine goats moved closer together and huddled afraid beside a clump of bushes. The little breeze whispered again. A night bird called in a hurried, frightened way, and upon the last notes came the eerie cry of a little night owl.

The girl's face was uplifted, delicately lighted by the moon. Her eyes shone dark with those fluttering, sweet wraiths of thoughts which we may not prison in speech, which words only deaden and crush into vapid sentimentalism. Life, held in a great unutterable calm, seemed to lie out there in the radiant, vague distance, asleep and smiling cryptically while it slept.

Her eyes turned to Starr, whose name she did not know; who had twice come riding out of the distance to do her some slight service before he rode on into the distance that seemed so vast. Who was he? What petty round of duties and pleasures made up his daily, intimate life? She did not know. She did not feel the need of knowing.

Standing there with his thin face turned to the moon so that she saw, clean-cut against the night, his strong profile; with one arm thrown across the neck of his horse and his big hat tilted back so that she could see the heavy, brown hair that framed his fine forehead; with the look of a dreamer in his eyes and the wistfulness of the lonely on his lips, all at once he seemed to be a part of the desert and its mysteries.

She could picture him living alone somewhere in its wild fastness, aloof from the little things of life. He seemed to epitomize vividly the meaning of a song she had often sung unmeaningly:

"From the desert I come to thee,
On my Arab shod with fire;
And the winds are left behind
In the speed of my desire."

While she looked--while the words of that old _Bedouin Love Song thrummed through her memory, quite suddenly Starr began to sing, taking up the song where her memory had brought her:

"Till the sun grows cold,
And the stars are old,
And the leaves of the Judgment Book unfold!"

Softly he sang, as though he had forgotten that she was there. Softly, but with a resonant, vibrating quality that made the words alive and quivering with meaning.

Helen May caught her breath. How did he know she was thinking that song? How did he chance to take it up just at the point where her memory had carried it? Had he read her mind? She stared at him, her lips parted; wondering, a little awed, but listening and thrilling to the human sweetness of his tones. And when he had sung the last yearning note of primitive desire, Starr turned his head and looked into her eyes.

Helen May felt as though he had taken her in his arms and kissed her lingeringly. Yet he had not moved except to turn his face toward her. She could not look away, could not even try to pull her eyes from his. It was as though she yielded. She felt suffocated, though her breath came quickly, a little unevenly.

Starr looked away, across the desert where the moon lighted it whitely. It was as though he had released her. She felt flustered, disconcerted. She could not understand herself or him, or the primary forces that had moved them both. And why had he sung that _Bedouin Love Song just as she was thinking it as something that explained him and identified him? It was mysterious as the desert itself lying there so quiet under the moon. It was weird as the cry of the coyote. It was uncanny as spirit rappings. But she could not feel any resentment; only a thrill that was part pleasure and part pain. She wondered if he had felt the same; if he knew. But she could not bring herself to face even the thought of asking him. It was like the night silence around them: speech would dwarf and cheapen and distort.

Rabbit lifted his head again, perking his ears forward toward a new sound that had nothing weird or mysterious about it; a sound that was essentially earthly, material, modern, the distant purr of a high-powered automobile on the trail away to their right. Starr turned his face that way, listening as the horse listened. It seemed to Helen May as though he had become again earthy and material and modern, with the desert love song but the fading memory of a dream. He listened, and she received the impression that something more than idle curiosity held him intent upon the sound.

The purring persisted, lessened, grew louder again. Starr still looked that way, listening intently. The machine swept nearer, so that the clear night air carried the sounds distinctly to where they stood. Starr even caught the humming of the rear gears and knew that only now and then does a machine have that peculiar, droning hum; Starr studied it, tried to impress the sound upon his memory.

The trail looped around the head of a sandy draw and wound over the crest of a low ridge before it straightened out for a three-mile level run in the direction of San Bonito, miles away. In walking, Starr had cut straight across that gully and the loop, so that they had crossed the trail twice in their journey thus far, and were still within half a mile of the head of the loop. They should have been able to see the lights, or at least the reflection of them on the ridge when they came to the draw. But there was no bright path on sky or earth.

They heard the car ease down the hill, heard the grind of the gears as the driver shifted to the intermediate for the climb that came after. They heard the chug of the engine taking the steep grade. Then they should have caught the white glare of the headlights as the car topped the ridge. Starr knew that nothing obstructed the view, that in daylight they could have seen the yellow-brown ribbon of trail where it curved over the ridge. The machine was coming directly toward them for a short distance, but there was no light whatever. Starr knew then that whoever they were, they were running without lights.

"Well, I guess we'd better be ambling along," he said casually, when the automobile had purred its way beyond hearing. "It's three or four miles yet, and you're tired."

"Not so much." Helen May's voice was a little lower than usual, but that was the only sign she gave of any recent deep emotion. "I'd as soon walk awhile and let you ride." She shrank now from the thought of both riding.

"When you've ridden as far as I have," said Starr, "you'll know it's a rest to get down and travel afoot for a few miles." He might have added that it would have been a rest had he not been hampered by those high-heeled riding boots, but consideration for her mental ease did not permit him to mention it. He said no more, but started the goats ahead of him and kept them moving in a straight line for Sunlight Basin. As before, Rabbit followed slavishly in his footsteps, nose dropped to the angle of placid acceptance, ears twitching forward and back so that he would lose no slightest sound.

Helen May fell again under the spell of the desert and the moon. Starr, walking steadily through the white-lighted barrenness with his shadow always moving like a ghost before him, fitted once more into the desert. Again she repeated mentally the words of the song:

Let the night-winds touch thy brow
With the breath of my burning sigh,
And melt thee to hear the vow
Of a love that shall not die!

Till the sun grows cold,
And the stars are old,
And the leaves of the Judgment Book unfold!

And now the lines sung themselves through her brain with the memory of Starr's voice. But Starr did not sing again, though Helen May, curious to know if her thoughts held any power over him, gazed intently at his back and willed him to sing. He did not look back at her, even when she finally descended weakly to the more direct influence of humming the air softly--but not too softly for him to hear.

Starr paid no attention whatever. He seemed to be thinking deeply--but he did not seem to be thinking of Helen May, nor of desert love songs. Helen May continued to watch him, but she was piqued at his calm indifference. Why, she told herself petulantly, he paid more attention to those goats than he did to her--and one would think, after that song and that look.... But there she stopped, precipitately retreating from the thought of that look.

He was a queer fellow, she told herself with careful tolerance and a little condescension. A true product of the desert; as changeable and as sphynxlike and as impossible from any personal, human standpoint. Look how beautiful the desert could be, how terribly uplifting and calm and--and big. Yet to-morrow it might be either a burning waste of heat and sand and bare rock, or it might be a howling waste of wind and sand (if one of those sand storms came up). To herself she called him the Man of the Desert, and she added the word mysterious, and she also added two lines of the song because they fitted exactly her conception of him as she knew him. The lines were these:

From the desert I come to thee,
On my Arab shod with fire.

This, in spite of the fact that Rabbit had none of the fiery traits of an Arabian steed; nor could he by any stretch of the imagination be accused of being shod with fire, he who planted his hoofs so sedately! Shod with velvet would have come nearer describing him.

So Helen May, who was something of a dreamer when Life let her alone long enough, rode home through the moonlight and wove cloth-of-gold from the magic of the night, and with the fairy fabric she clothed Starr--who was, as we know, just an ordinary human being--so that he walked before her, not as a plain, ungrammatical, sometimes profane young man who was helping her home with her goats, but a mysterious, romantic figure evolved somehow out of the vastness in which she lived; who would presently recede again into the mysterious wild whence he had come.

It was foolish. She knew that it was foolish. But she had been living rather harshly and rather materially for some time, and she hungered for the romance of youth. Starr was the only person who had come to her untagged by the sordid, everyday petty details of life. It did not hurt him to be idealized, but it might have hurt Helen May a little to know that he was pondering so earthly a subject as a big, black automobile careering without lights across the desert and carrying four men who looked like Mexicans.

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