Read CHAPTER III of Desert Conquest / Precious Waters, free online book, by A. M. Chisholm, on ReadCentral.com.

Considerably more than a year after her experience with the train robbers, Clyde Burnaby received a dinner invitation from the Wades. Kitty Wade was an old friend; her husband, Harrison Wade, was a lawyer just coming into prominence. They had an unpretentious home on the North Side, and such entertaining as they did was on a modest scale. Nevertheless, one met there people worth while, coming people, most of them, seldom those who had “arrived” in the French signification of the word young professional and business men, authors, playwrights, and politicians in embryo comparatively unknown as yet, but who, in a few months or a few years, might be famous.

Oh, Clyde, said Kitty Wade, as Clyde, having removed her wraps, was arranging her hair before the mirror, I had planned to have Van Cromer take you in to dinner, but at the last moment he couldnt come, and Stella Blake couldnt come either. I had a Mr. Casey Dunne for her. And so, if you dont mind

“Of course not,” said Clyde. “But post me a little, Kitty. What has Mr. Casey Dunne done, or what is he going to do? What does one talk about to him?”

“Crops,” replied Mrs. Wade.

Clyde sighed resignedly. “My dear, I don’t mind for once, but I never could understand the market. May wheat, September options, war and rumours of wars, and the effect on prices of the weather sent by divine Providence, probabilities of a large or short crop these be sealed mysteries to me.”

“But Mr. Dunne isn’t a broker,” said Mrs. Wade. “He’s a farmer.”

“A a farmer!” Clyde repeated, in much the same tone she would have used if her hostess had informed her that she was to be paired with a Zulu.

Mrs. Wade laughed. “Not the ‘Old Homestead’ kind, dear. It’s the fault of my Eastern bringing up. I should have said a ‘rancher.’ He comes from somewhere near the Rockies, and I believe he grows wheat and hay and cattle and oh, whatever else ranchers grow.”

“Oh!” said Clyde doubtfully. “And is he excessively Western? Does he exude the ‘God’s-own-country’ and ‘land-of-opportunity’ line of conversation? Will he try to sell me land? And how old is he?”

“I have never seen him,” Mrs. Wade replied. “He did Harrison a good turn once gave him some information about lands or something. Harry assures me that he doesn’t wear big revolvers or spurs, or eat with his knife in fact, he is quite presentable. But if you like I’ll give you some one else.”

“Oh, no,” said Clyde. “Mr. Dunne will do very well. I think I shall prefer him to a broker.”

“So good of you, dear,” smiled Kitty Wade. “Shall we go down? I think the others will be arriving.”

Clyde endeavoured to construct an advance portrait of Casey Dunne, but without much success. Unconsciously she was influenced by the characters of alleged Western drama, as flamboyant and nearly as accurate as the Southerners of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She was genuinely surprised when she found him to be a rather good-looking young man in irreproachable evening clothes.

At that moment dinner was announced. He offered his arm without hesitation. Clyde intercepted a glance from her hostess, brimming with laughter. She laughed back with relief. She had rather dreaded the experience of a dinner companion who would be guilty of all manner of solecisms. Clearly her fears had been groundless. Save in the matter of tan, which was rather becoming, Wade’s Western friend differed in no outward detail from the other men in the room.

When they were seated came the embarrassing moment when it became necessary to find a conversational topic of common acquaintance. But this passed easily. From the table decorations Clyde turned deftly to flowers in general, to trees, to outdoor things. Casey Dunne laughed gently.

“You are trying to talk of things I am expected to know about, aren’t you, Miss Burnaby?”

She evaded the charge, laughing also. “What shall we talk about, Mr. Dunne? You shall choose for both of us.”

“No, I won’t do that. Talk of whatever interests you. I’ll follow your lead if I can.”

She took him at his word, finding that his acquaintance with current literature and topics of the day was rather more intimate than her own. He seemed to have ideas and opinions formed by his own thought, not mere repetitions of reviews or newspaper comment.

As she glanced at his profile from time to time she became aware of an odd familiarity. He resembled some one she had seen before, but the identity eluded her. Their conversation gradually took a more personal form. Dunne told a story, and told it well. He spoke casually of the West, but instituted no comparisons.

“You are really an exception,” Clyde told him. “The average Westerner is such a superior mortal. He looks down on the East, and when he comes among Easterners he condescends.”

Its a relief to have some one admit that Chicago is in the East, he laughed. No, I dont brag about the West. Its a good country, and it will be better when we have approximated more to Eastern conditions. We are undeveloped as yet. In twenty years

“Ah, there it is!” she interrupted. “Scratch a Russian, and find a Tartar. And I took you for an exception!”

He laughed. “I plead guilty. The microbe is in the air. We all have it. Can you blame us? Do you know the West?”

“Only what I have seen from the train. I have told you of every one here. In return tell me about yourself. Mrs. Wade says that you are a rancher.”

“Yes, I have a good little ranch in the dry belt, within sight of the mountains.”

“The dry belt?” she queried.

“Yes. We call that part of the country which has little or no rain the ‘dry belt.’ Formerly, for that reason, it was supposed to be useless. But since irrigation has been discovered you see, it’s really a recent discovery with us in America, whatever it is with other peoples we dry-belt ranchers are in a better position than any others. For we are able to give the land moisture whenever it needs it. Whereas others have to depend on the uncertainties of rainfall. About once in five years their crops are ruined by drought. But we are able to water our fields as the city man waters his lawn.”

“So that you are certain of a good crop every year.”

“No, not certain. We have merely eliminated one cause of failure. We are still at the tender mercies of hot winds, hail, and frosts late and early.”

These things were but names to her. They called up no concrete visions of the baking, siroccolike winds that curdled the grain in the milk, the hail that threshed it and beat it flat, of the late frosts that nipped the tender green shoots in spring, and the early ones in fall that soured the kernels before the complete ripening. But she saw that to him they typified enemies, real, deadly, ever threatening, impossible, so far, to guard against.

Dimly she began to perceive that while certain forces of nature made always for growth, still others, equally powerful, made for destruction. Between the warring forces stood the Man of the Soil, puny, insignificant, matching his own hardly won and his forefather’s harder-won knowledge against the elements; bending some to his advantage, minimizing the effects of others, openly defying those he could neither control nor avoid. And she partly realized his triumph in having vanquished one of these inimical forces, one of his most dreaded enemies, Drought.

“You like the life?”

“Yes, I like it. It’s idyllic, compared with some phases of existence that I have experienced.”

“You have had varied experiences?”

“‘Varied!’ Yes, I suppose you may call them that.”

“Won’t you tell me about them?”

“There isn’t much to tell, and that little not very entertaining. You see, Miss Burnaby, if my youthful mouth was ever acquainted with a silver spoon it was snatched away at a tender age.”

“I beg your pardon,” said Clyde quickly. “I’m afraid my request was impertinent.”

“Not at all. I went West when I was a kid, and I’ve seen quite a bit of country. Then, when I had money enough, I put it into land, and went to ranching. That’s all there is to it.”

She was quite certain, somehow, that there was a great deal more to it. She fell to studying his hands. The fingers were long and slender, but flat, sinewy, and powerful. They seemed to express tenacity of purpose, a grip of whatever they undertook. Once more she looked at his profile, and again she was struck by an elusive familiarity.

“You remind me of somebody of something,” she said. “I can’t place it.”

“Indeed!” he responded. “Now, I hope the unplaced recollection is not unpleasant.”

“It’s not definite enough. But it is there. It’s not so much when you face me it’s the side view. I’ve never met you before, of course.”

“Of course not,” he agreed, but his eyes laughed at her.

“Have I?” she exclaimed. “Surely not! I’m not forgetful, as a rule.”

“I was wondering,” he said, “if you would remember me. I knew you at once, but I can’t claim the honour of having been presented before to-night. Our acquaintance, if I may call it that, was very informal.”

“But when where? she demanded. I dont recall

Well, its not surprising, he admitted. I was dressed differently. Naturally you wouldnt expect to see me in these. He glanced down at his evening clothes. The fact is, I sat across the aisle from you in the car when

“Oh!” she cried. “Now I know. When the train was held up. Why, of course it was you. I’m so glad to meet you again. I’ve always wanted to thank you for relieving me of the attentions of that that

“That fresh guy,” he supplied gravely.

“Thank you! That ‘fresh guy,’” she smiled. “But for you I should have lost my watch. And then you lent me ten dollars.”

“Well, you see, they got all your cash.”

I dont know whatever made me take it. I have it still. I didnt need it. I had a book of travellers checks and credits at the coast. I intended to give it back to you at once. I hope it didnt inconvenience

She stopped, conscious that her estimate of the finances of the man in the train had probably been mistaken.

“Not a bit,” he replied. “I had a small roll stowed away.”

“But what became of you?” she asked. “You didn’t come back. I asked the conductor and the porters everybody. What happened?”

“Why, the explanation is very simple, though I’m not proud of it. When I heard the shooting up in front I thought it was up to me to help the train boys, and I went out with the best intentions. The holdups were backing off, burning a lot of powder but doing no harm, and I guessed that their horses were in a bluff about five hundred yards from the track. Of course, once they got in the saddle they would make a get-away, so far as we were concerned, and I thought if I could beat them to the horses and turn the animals loose we would practically have them rounded up. That’s what I tried to do. But as I was running I tripped, and went headfirst into a stump or a stone. Anyway, it knocked me out, and when I emerged from dreamland the train was moving, and I couldn’t catch it. So I just tramped the ties to the next station. And there I had a job explaining that I wasn’t a holdup myself. It didn’t strike those boneheads that no sane holdup would come walking along the track a few hours after a robbery.”

Clyde was disappointed at the baldness of his narration. Almost any man would have made some effort at description. Dunne had made none whatever. He had confined himself to the barest of bare facts.

“You make a poor raconteur, Mr. Dunne.”

“Really, that’s all there was to it,” he replied. “’We fit and they fit; and they ran and we ran’ or at least I did till I tripped.”

Mrs. Wade rose.

“After you have had your cigar we will continue our conversation, if you care to,” said Clyde.

“Just what I was going to ask. I hope Wade’s cigars are small.”

When the ladies had gone, Harrison Wade drew his chair beside Dunne’s.

“I’ve been thinking over that matter of yours, Casey, and the more I think it over the less I like it. That charter, backed by Airline money and influence, will be a hard thing to get over. I hate to discourage you, but the best advice I can give to you and your neighbours is to put a fair price on your holdings, and offer them to the railway en bloc.”

“But we don’t want to sell, Wade. Couldn’t you get an injunction or something, and tie up their operations?”

“No, I’m afraid not. You can’t bring an action until you have something to found it on that is to say, some wrong to complain of some actual interference with your rights to water. And you can’t get an injunction unless you can show that your rights are beyond question. It’s a toss-up whether that charter takes precedence or not. I’m speaking frankly to you. With an ordinary client I’d throw a professional front of profound knowledge, but as it is I own up that it’s a complicated question, depending almost entirely on the court. And courts are just as uncertain as other human institutions.”

Casey Dunne frowned through the spreading fog of cigar smoke. “I’m quite aware of it, Wade. But here it is: We don’t want to sell. Even if they gave us a fair present price, we would be losers, for land out there is going to double in value in the next couple of years. And what they intend to do is simply to freeze us out and force us to sell at dry-land prices. Therefore, we’ve got to fight. Go ahead and try for an injunction. If that is refused, bring an action as soon as you can. And meanwhile we’ll hang on to our water somehow.”

“Don’t do anything to prejudice your case in the courts,” Wade warned.

“According to you York will do that, anyway,” said Dunne. “No, Wade, that’s flat, final, whatever. We won’t let go till we have to. We won’t be skinned out of the profit we are entitled to by foresight and hard work. Speaking for myself, I’ve put my whole stack on this bet, and with a straight deal it’s a sure winner. And if the deal’s going to be crooked I’ll break up the game any way that comes handy.”

“Go to it, my friend,” said the lawyer. “It’s your affair. I’ve told you what I think, and I’ll not add to it. I hope you have water when I come out this summer to make you that long-promised visitation.” He changed the subject abruptly. “You and Clyde Burnaby seemed to be getting on swimmingly.”

“Clyde is that her name?” said Dunne. “Seems like a nice girl.”

“She’s all of that. You know who she is, of course?”

“Not a bit. Just her name.”

“Niece of old Jim Hess, with a fortune of her own.”

“Pretty_ lucky_,” Dunne commented.

“Pretty and lucky,” said his host. “Old York hates Hess like poison, a sentiment which Hess returns, according to rumour. I don’t suppose you’ve told Clyde Burnaby your troubles?”

Dunne stared at him. “Of course not! What do you take me for?”

“That’s all right, my son; don’t swell up so. Why don’t you tell her?”

“Why the deuce should I? Do you think I go yawping my business affairs to every female I meet?”

“Well, Clyde Burnaby’s good stuff,” said Wade. “She has a level head. If it comes up that way, Casey, tell her all about it. She’ll sympathize with you.”

“I’m not looking for sympathy.”

“And she might give you some good advice.”

“Rats!” Casey Dunne commented, inelegantly but forcibly, and Wade said no more.

Dunne was glad when the cigars were ended. He found Clyde Burnaby at the piano, barely touching the keys. A faint melody seemed to flow from her finger’s tips.

“Do you sing, Mr. Dunne?”

“Only very confidentially. When I was riding for a cow outfit I used to sing at night, when the cattle were bedded down. Sort of tradition of the business that it kept ’em quiet. They didn’t seem to mind my voice. And that’s really the most encouragement I ever got.”

Mrs. Wade asked Clyde to play. She complied at once, without hesitation. They applauded her. Afterward one of the men sang, to her accompaniment. Then she and Dunne drifted together once more.

“I liked your playing,” he said, “but not what you played. It had no tune.”

“It was Beethoven!”

“All the same, it had no tune. I like the old songs the ones I can follow in my mind with the words I know.”

“Why, so do I,” she admitted; “but, my Philistine friend, I was expected to play the other kind.”

“I understand that. But I like to hear what is low grade enough for me to appreciate. I don’t get much music at home.”

“Tell me about your ranch. I’d like to know what you do and how you live. To begin with, beggin’ yer honour’s pardon in advance, is there a Mrs. Dunne?”

“No such luck,” he replied. He sketched the ranch routine briefly. She was interested, asking many questions. The evening wore away. The guests began to depart. But Clyde had arranged to stay the night with the Wades.

“By the way,” she said, “I still have your ten-dollar bill. I will send it to you.”

“Don’t do that. Keep it.”

“I couldn’t.”

“Of course you can. You may pay me interest if you like.”

“At what per cent?”

“Current rates in my country eight.”

“Very well,” she laughed. “It’s a bargain. But where is your security?”

He considered gravely. “Certainly I should have something. I will be satisfied with that rose you are wearing.”

Clyde coloured slightly, glancing at him swiftly.

“Kitty,” she called to Mrs. Wade, “I want you as a witness. Mr. Dunne has made me a loan. His security is this rose and nothing more. Please witness that I give it to him.”

And later that night Kitty Wade said to her lord:

“For a rancher, Harry, your Casey Dunne has class. I never knew Clyde Burnaby to give a flower to any man before.”

“And you see a case of love at first sight,” said Wade, scornfully and sleepily. “Pshaw, Kitty, you’re barking at a knot. Casey’s a fine chap, but Lord! she’s got too much money for him. Suppose she did give him a rose! Didn’t she call you over to chaperon the transaction? That puts the sentimental theory out of business.”

“And that’s all a lawyer knows!” said his wife. “Why, you old silly, don’t you see that she couldn’t have given it to him any other way with all those people in the room? Clyde Burnaby can think about as fast as anybody I know.”