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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesStarr, Of The Desert - Chapter 8. Holman Sommeks, Scientist
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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 8. Holman Sommeks, Scientist Post by :jellon Category :Long Stories Author :B. M. Bower Date :May 2012 Read :2332

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Starr, Of The Desert - Chapter 8. Holman Sommeks, Scientist


Helen May, under a last year's parasol of pink silk from which the sun had drawn much of its pinkness and the wind and dust its freshness, sat beside the road with her back against the post that held the macaroni box, and waited for the stage. Her face did not need the pink light of the parasol, for it was red enough after that broiling walk of yesterday. The desert did not look so romantic by the garish light of midday, but she stared out over it and saw, as with eyes newly opened to appreciation, that there was a certain charm even in its garishness. She had lost a good deal of moodiness and a good deal of discontent, somewhere along the moonlight trail of last night, and she hummed a tune while she waited. No need to tell you that it was: "_Till the sun grows cold, till the stars are old_--" No need to tell you, either, of whom she was thinking while she sang.

But part of the time she was wondering what mail she would get. Her chum would write, of course; being a good, faithful chum, she would probably continue to write two or three letters a week for the next three months. After that she would drop to one long letter a month for awhile; and after that--well, she was a faithful chum, but life persists in bearing one past the eddy that holds friendship circling round and round in a pool of memories. The chum's brother had written twice, however; exuberant letters full of current comedy and full-blooded cheerfulness and safely vague sentiment which he had partly felt at the time he wrote. He had "joshed" Helen May a good deal about the goats, even to the extent of addressing her as "Dear Goat-Lady" in the last letter, with the word "Lady" underscored and scrawled the whole width of the page. Helen May had puzzled over the obscure meaning of that, and had decided that it would have sounded funny, perhaps, if he had said it that way, but that it "didn't get over" on paper.

She wondered if he would write again, or if his correspondence would prove as spasmodic, as easily interrupted as his attentions had been when they were both in the same town. Chum's brother was a nice, big, comfy kind of young man; the trouble was that he was too popular to give all his interest to one girl. You know how it is when a man stands six feet tall and has wavy hair and a misleading smile and a great, big, deep-cushioned roadster built for two. Helen May appreciated his writing two letters to her, he who hated so to write letters, but her faith in the future was small. Still, he might write. It seemed worth while to wait for the stage.

Just when she was telling herself that the stage was late, far over the ridge rose the dust signal. Her pulse quickened expectantly; so much had loneliness done for her. She watched it, and she tried not to admit to herself that it did not look like the cloud kicked up by the four trotting stage horses. She tried not to believe that the cloud was much too small to have been made by their clattering progress. It must be the stage. It was past time for it to arrive at the post. And it had not gone by, for she had sent for a can of baking powder and a dozen lemons and fifty cents worth of canned milk (the delicatessen habit of buying in small quantities still hampered her) and, even if the stage had passed earlier than usual, the stuff would have been left at the post for her, even though there was no mail. But it could not have passed. She would have seen the dust, that always hung low over the trail like the drooping tail of a comet, and when the day was still took half an hour at least to settle again for the next passer-by. And besides, she had come to know the tracks the stage left in the trail. It _could not have passed. And it had to come; it carried the government mail. And yet, that dust did not look like the stage dust. (Trivial worries, you say? Then try living forty miles from a post office, ten from the nearest neighbor, and fifteen hundred from your dearly beloved Home Town. Try living there, not because you want to but because you must; hating it, hungering for human companionship. Try it with heat and wind and sand and great, arid stretches of a land that is strange to you. Honestly, I think you would have been out there just after sunrise to wait for that stage, and if it were late you would have walked down the trail to meet it!)

Helen May remained by the post, but she got up and stood on a rock that protruded six inches or so above the sand. Of course she could not see over the ridge--she could not have done that if she had climbed a telegraph pole; only there was no pole to climb--but she felt a little closer to seeing. That dust did not look like stage dust!

You would be surprised to know how much Helen May had learned about dust clouds. She could tell an automobile ten miles away, just by the swift gathering of the gray cloud. She could tell where bands of sheep or herds of cattle were being driven across the plain. She even knew when a saddle horse was coming, or a freight team or--the stage.

She suddenly owned to herself that she was disappointed and rather worried. For behind this cloud that troubled her there was no second one building up over the skyline and growing more dense as the disturber approached. She could not imagine what had happened to that red-whiskered, tobacco-chewing stage driver. She looked at her wrist watch and saw that he was exactly twenty minutes later than his very latest arrival, and she felt personally slighted and aggrieved.

For that reason she sat under her pink silk parasol and stared crossly under her eyebrows at the horse and man and the dust-grimed rattle-wheeled buggy that eventually emerged from the gray cloud. The horse was a pudgy bay that set his feet stolidly down in the trail, and dragged his toes through it as though he delighted in kicking up all the dust he could. By that trick he had puzzled Helen May a little, just at first, though he had not been able to simulate the passing of four horses. The buggy was such as improvident farmers used to drive (before they bought Fords) near harvest time; scaly as to paint, warped and loose-spoked as to wheels, making more noise than progress along the country roads.

The man held the lines so loosely that they sagged under the wire-mended traces of sunburned leather. He leaned a little forward, as though it was not worth while sitting straight on so hot a day. He wore an old Panama hat that had cost him a good deal when it was new and had saved him a good deal since in straw hats which he had not been compelled to buy so long as this one held together. It was pulled down in front so that it shaded his face--a face lean and lined and dark, with thin lips that could be tender and humorous in certain moods. His eyes were hazel, like the eyes of Starr, yet one never thought of them as being at all like Starr's eyes. They burned always with some inner fire of life; they laughed at life, and yet they did not seem to express mirth. They seemed to say that life was a joke, a damnable joke on mankind; that they saw the joke and resented it even while they laughed at it. For the rest, the man was more than fifty years old, but his hair was thick and black as a crow, and his eyebrows were inclined to bushiness, inclined also to slant upward. A strong face; an unusual face, but a likeable one, it was. And that is a fair description of Holman Sommers as Helen May first saw him.

He drove up to where she sat, and she tilted her pink silk parasol between them as though to keep the dust from settling thick upon her stained khaki skirt and her desert-dingy high-laced boots. She was not interested in him, and her manner of expressing indifference could not have misled a horned toad. She was too fresh from city life to have fallen into the habit of speaking to strangers easily and as a matter of country courtesy. Even when the buggy stopped beside her, she did not show any eagerness to move the pink screen so that they might look at each other.

"How do you do?" said he, quite as though he were greeting her in her own home. "You are Miss Stevenson, I feel sure. I am Holman Sommers, at your service. I am under the impression that I have with me a few articles which may be of some interest to you, Miss Stevenson. I chanced to come upon the stage several miles farther down the road. A wheel had given away, and there was every indication that the delay would prove serious, so when the driver mentioned the fact that he had mail and merchandise for you, I volunteered to act as his substitute and deliver them safely into your hands. I hope therefore that the service will in some slight measure atone for my presumption in forcing my acquaintance upon you."

At the second sentence the pink parasol became violently agitated. At the third Helen May was staring at him, mentally if not actually open-mouthed. At the last she was standing up and reaching for her mail, and she had not yet decided in her mind whether he was joking or whether he expected to be taken seriously. Even when he laughed, with that odd, dancing light in his eyes, she could not be sure. But because his voice was warm with human sympathy and the cordiality of a man who is very sure of himself and can afford to be cordial, she smiled back at him.

"That's awfully good of you, Mr. Sommers," she said, shuffling her handful of letters eagerly to see who had written them; more particularly to see if Chum's brother had written one of them. "I hope you didn't drive out of your way to bring them" (there _was one; a big, fat one that had taken two stamps! And one from Chum herself, and--but she went back gloatingly to the thick, heavy envelope with the bold, black handwriting that needed the whole face of the envelope for her name and address), "because I know that miles are awfully long in this country."

"Yes? You have discovered that incontrovertible fact, have you? Then I hope you will permit me to drive you home, especially since these packages are much too numerous and too weighty for you to carry in your arms. As a matter of fact, I have been hoping for an opportunity to meet our new neighbors. Neighbors are precious in our sight, I assure you, Miss Stevenson, and only the misfortune of illness in the household has prevented my sister from looking you up long ago. How long have you been here? Three weeks, or four?" His tone added: "You poor child," or something equally sympathetic, and he smiled while he cramped the old buggy so that she could get into it without rubbing her skirt against the dustladen wheel.

Helen May certainly had never seen any one just like Holman Sommers, though she had met hundreds of men in a business way. She had met men who ran to polysyllables and pompousness, but she had never known the polysyllables to accompany so simple a manner. She had seen men slouching around in old straw hats-and shoddy gray trousers and negligee shirts with the tie askew, and the clothes had spelled poverty or shiftlessness. Whereas they made Holman Sommers look like a great man indulging himself in the luxury of old clothes on a holiday.

He seemed absolutely unconscious that he and his rattly buggy and the harness on the horse were all very shabby, and that the horse was fat and pudgy and scrawny of mane; and for that she admired him.

Before they reached the low adobe cabin, she felt that she was much better acquainted with Holman Sommers than with Starr, whose name she still did not know, although he had stayed an hour talking to Vic and praising her cooking the night before. She did not, for all the time she had spent with him, know anything definite about Starr, whereas she presently knew a great deal about Holman Sommers, and approved of all she knew.

He had a past which, she sensed vaguely, had been rather brilliant. He must have been a war correspondent, because he compared the present great war with the Japanese-Russian War and with the South African War, and he seemed to have been right in the middle of both, or he could not have spoken so intimately of them. He seemed to know all about the real, underlying causes of them and knew just where it would all end, and what nations would be drawn into it before they were through. He did not say that he knew all about the war, but after he had spoken a few casual sentences upon the subject Helen May felt that he knew a great deal more than he said.

He also knew all about raising goats. He slid very easily, too, from the war to goat-raising. He had about four hundred, and he gave her a lot of valuable advice about the most profitable way in which to handle them.

When he saw Vic legging it along the slope behind the Basin to head off Billy and his slavish nannies, he shook his head commiseratingly. "There is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind," he told her gently, "that a trained dog would be of immeasurable benefit to you. I fear you made a grave mistake, Miss Stevenson, when you failed to possess yourself of a good dog. I might go so far as to say that a dog is absolutely indispensable to the successful handling of goats, or, for that matter, of sheep, either." (He pronounced the last word eyether.)

"That's what my desert man told me," said Helen May demurely, "only he didn't tell me that way, exactly."

"Yes? Then I have no hesitation whatever in assuring you that your desert man was unqualifiedly accurate in his statement of your need."

Helen May bit her lip. "Then I'll tell him," she said, still more demurely.

Secretly she hoped that he would rise to the bait, but he apparently accepted her words in good faith and went on telling her just how to range goats far afield in good weather so that the grazing in the Basin itself would be held in reserve for storms. It was a very grave error, said Holman Sommers, to exhaust the pasturage immediately contiguous to the home corral. It might almost be defined as downright improvidence. Then he forestalled any resentment she might feel by apologizing for his seeming presumption. But he apprehended the fact that she and her brother were both inexperienced, and he would be sorry indeed to see them suffer any loss because of that inexperience. His practical knowledge of the business was at her service, he said, and he should feel that he was culpably negligent of his duty as a neighbor if he failed to point out to her any glaring fault in their method.

Helen May had felt just a little resentful of the words downright improvidence. Had she not walked rather than spend money and grass on a horse? Had she not daily denied herself things which she considered necessities, that she might husband the precious balance of Peter's insurance money? But she swallowed her resentment and thanked him quite humbly for his kindness in telling her how to manage. She owned to her inexperience, and she said that she would greatly appreciate any advice which he might care to give.

Her Man of the Desert, she remembered, had not given her advice, though he must have seen how badly she needed it. He had asked her where her dog was, taking it for granted, apparently, that she would have one. But when she had told him about not buying the dog, he had not said another word about it. And he had not said anything about their letting the goats eat up all the grass in the Basin, first thing, instead of saving it for bad weather. This Holman Sommers, she decided, was awfully kind, even if he did talk like a professor or something; kinder than her desert man. No, not kinder, but perhaps more truly helpful.

At the house he told her just how to fix a "coolereupboard" under the lone mesquite tree which stood at one end of the adobe cabin. It was really very simple, as he explained it, and he assured her, in his scientific terminology, that it would be cool. He went to the spring and showed her where she could have Vic dig out the bank and fit in a rock shelf for butter. He assured her that she was fortunate in having a living spring so near the house. It was, he said, of incalculable importance in that country to have cold, pure water always at hand.

When he discovered that she was a stenographer, and that she had her typewriter with her, he was immensely pleased, so pleased that his eyes shone with delight.

"Ah! now I see why the fates drove me forth upon the highway this morning," said he. "Do you know that I have a large volume of work for an expert typist, and that I have thus far felt that my present isolation in the desert wastes was an almost unsurmountable obstacle to having the work done in a satisfactory manner? I have been engaged upon a certain work on sociological problems and how they have developed with the growth of civilization. You will readily apprehend that great care must be exercised in making the copy practically letter perfect. Furthermore, I find myself constantly revising the manuscript. I should want to supervise the work rather closely, and for that reason I have not as yet arranged for the final typing.

"Now if you care to assume the task, I can assure you that I shall feel tremendously grateful, besides making adequate remuneration for the labor involved."

That is the way he put it, and that is how it happened that Helen May let herself in for the hardest piece of work she had ever attempted since she sold gloves at Bullocks' all day and attended night school all the evening, learning shorthand and typewriting and bookkeeping, and permitting the white plague to fasten itself upon her while she bent to her studies.

She let herself in for it because she believed she had plenty of time, and because Holman Sommers was in no hurry for the manuscript, which he did not expect to see completed for a year or so, since a work so erudite required much time and thought, being altogether different from current fiction, which requires none at all.

Helen May was secretly aghast at the pile of scrawled writing interlined and crossed out, with marginal notes and footnotes and references and what not; but she let herself in for the job of typing his book for him--which is enough for the present.

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