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

At the end of a week Farwell told Keeler that he was going to ride over to Talapus. He added unnecessarily that he wanted to see how his horse was getting on. Whereat his assistant, who had very good ears, grinned internally, though outwardly he kept a decorous face. He did not expect his chief back till late.

But Farwell returned early, and spent a busy half hour in blowing up everybody from Keeler down. On this occasion he had not seen Sheila at all. She and Casey Dunne, so Mrs. McCrae informed him, were at the latter’s ranch. Mr. Dunne, it appeared, was buying some house furnishings, and wanted Sheila’s advice. Farwell took an abrupt departure, declining a hospitable invitation. He barely looked at the lame horse.

For another week he sulked in a poisonous temper. He was done with Talapus. He thought that McCrae girl had some sense, but if she was going traipsing all over the country with Dunne, why, that let him out. Maybe she was going to marry Dunne. It looked like it. Anyway, it was none of his business. But the end of it was that he went to Talapus again.

This time he found Sheila alone. The elder McCraes were gone to Coldstream in the buckboard. Young Alec was somewhere on the ditch. Sheila, flanked by clothesbasket and workbasket, sat on the veranda mending his shirts. The occupation was thoroughly unromantic, little calculated to appeal to the imagination. Nevertheless, it appealed to Farwell.

Largely because it is the perverse nature of man to believe that the Fates have set him in the wrong groove, Farwell, like many others whose lives have been spent in exclusively masculine surroundings, believed his tastes to be domestic. Not that he had ever pushed this belief beyond the theoretical stage; nor would he have exchanged places with any of his confreres who had taken wives. But he railed inwardly at the intense masculinity of his life, for the same reason that the sailorman curses the sea and the plainsman the plains. Just as the tragedian is certain in his inmost soul that his proper rôle is light comedy, while the popular comedian is equally positive that he should be starring in the legitimate; so Farwell, harsh, dominant, impatient, brutal on occasion, a typical lone male of his species, knowing little of and caring less for the softer side of life, cherished a firm belief that his proper place was the exact centre of a family circle.

Although he had never seen a home that he cared beans about including the one of his childhood the singing of “Home, Sweet Home” invariably left him pensive for half an hour. Theoretically heretofore always strictly theoretically he possessed a strong dulce domum impulse. And so the spectacle of Sheila mending her brother’s shirts was one of which he thoroughly approved. It gave him a feeling of intimacy, as though he had been admitted to the performance of a domestic rite.

Sheila picked up a second shirt, inspected it critically, and frowned. “Now, isn’t that a wreck?” she observed. “Sandy’s awfully hard on his shirts.” She nipped a thread recklessly between her teeth, shot the end deftly through the needle’s eye, and sighed. “Oh, well, I suppose I must just do the best I can with the thing.”

“Your brother is lucky,” said Farwell. “My things get thrown away. No one to look after them when they begin to go.”

“That’s very wasteful,” she reproved him. “Why don’t you send them somewhere?”

“Where, for instance?”

“Oh, anywhere. I don’t know. There must be women in every town who would like to earn a little money.”

“Well, I haven’t time to hunt for them. If you know any one around here who would undertake the job, I could give her quite a bit of work. So could the others.”

“You don’t mean me, do you?” laughed Sheila. “Sandy gives me all I can handle.”

“Of course I never thought of such a thing,” said Farwell seriously. “Did it sound like that?”

“No, I am joking. I think you take things seriously, Mr. Farwell.”

“I suppose so,” he admitted. “Yes, I guess I do. I can’t help it. I’m no joker; no time for that. Jokers don’t get anywhere. Never saw one that did. It’s the fellow who keeps thinking about his job and banging away at it who gets there.”

“The inference being that I won’t get anywhere.”

Farwell, puzzled momentarily, endeavoured to remember what he had said.

“I guess I made another break. I wasn’t thinking of you. Women don’t have to get anywhere. Men do that is, men who count. I’ve seen a lot of fellows in my own profession smart, clever chaps but, instead of buckling down to work, they were eternally running about having a good time. And what did any of them ever amount to? Not that!” He snapped his fingers contemptuously.

“But wasn’t that the fault of the men themselves? I mean that, apart from their liking for a good time, perhaps they hadn’t the other qualities to make them successful.”

“Yes, they had,” said Farwell positively. “Didn’t I say they were clever? It wasn’t lack of that it was their confounded fooling around. Almost every man gets one chance to make good. If he’s ready for it when it comes, he’s made. If he isn’t well, he isn’t. That was the way with these fellows. When they should have been digging into the ground-work of their profession they weren’t. And so, when good things were given them, they fell down hard. They lost money for other people, and that doesn’t do. Now they’re down and out lucky to get a job with a level and one rodman to boss. There’s no sympathy coming to them. It was their own fault.”

He spoke positively, with finality, beating the heel of his clenched fist against his knee to emphasize his words. Evidently he spoke out of the faith that was in him. Not a line of his face suggested humour or whimsicality. Not a twinkle of the eye relieved its hardness. He was grave, dour, purposeful, matter-of-fact. He took himself, his life, and the things of life with exceeding seriousness.

Sheila regarded him thoughtfully. Somehow she was reminded of her father. There was the same gravity, marching hand in hand with tenacity of purpose, fixity of ideas; the same grim scorn of the tonic wine of jest and laughter. But in the elder man these were mellowed and softened. In Farwell, in the strength of his prime, they were in full tide, accentuated.

“Every man should have a good chance, and be ready for it,” she replied; “but some men never get it.”

“Yes, they do; yes, they do,” he asseverated. “They get it, all right. Only some of them don’t know it when it comes; and others are ashamed to own up that they’ve missed it. We all get it, I tell you, sooner or later.”

“It may come too late to some.”

“No, no, it comes in time if a man is wide awake. It’s about the only square deal creation gives him. And it’s about all creation owes him. It’s right up to them then. If he’s asleep, it’s his own fault. I don’t say it doesn’t happen more than once; but it does happen once.”

Plainly he was in deep earnest. He had no tolerance of failure, no excuse for it. According to his theory, every man at some time was master of his fate.

“Have you had your chance?” she asked.

“Not the big chance that I want. I’ve done some good work, here and there. But the big thing is coming to me. I feel it. And I’m in shape to handle it, too. When I do that, I’ll quit working for other people. I’ll work for myself. Yes, by George! they can come to me.”

Sheila laughed at him. His absolute cocksureness was too ridiculous. But in spite of herself she was impressed by the sincerity of his belief in himself. And she realized that opportunity was apt to knock at the door of a man who believed in his own capacity for success and let others know it.

“I probably make you tired,” said Farwell. “You asked me, and I told you. I’m not worrying about my future. Now, let’s talk about yours. You were away when I was here last week.”

“Yes, I was over at Chakchak.”

“That’s Dunne’s ranch. Your mother said you were helping him choose some things from a mail-order catalogue.”

“Furniture, linen, dishes, and a lot of other things.” There was no embarrassment in her tone.

“Oh!” said Farwell; and as he uttered the word it resembled a growl. “Well, when is it to be?”

“When is what to be?”

“Why, the wedding, of course.”

“What wedding?” She laid down her work and stared at him. Then she laughed, though the colour surged to her cheeks. “Oh, I see. You think I was choosing these things for Mr. Dunne’s prospective bride?”

“Of course.”

“Not a bit of course unless Casey has deceived me shamefully. Can’t a man furnish his house better without having a wedding in view?”

“He can, but usually he doesn’t. That’s my experience.”

“I wasn’t aware that you were married.”

Married? cried Farwell. Me? Im not. Im glad of it. I have enough to worry me now. I ” He came to an abrupt stop. “Oh, well, laugh away,” he added. “I’ll tell you what I thought. I thought you were going to marry Dunne.”

Sheila’s laughter closed suddenly. “You haven’t the least right to think that or say it,” she said coldly. “It’s strange if I can’t help a friend choose a few house furnishings without impertinent comment.”

“Oh, come!” said Farwell. “I didn’t mean to be impertinent, Miss McCrae. I know I’m too outspoken. I’m always putting my foot in it.”

“Very well,” said Sheila. “I think you said you wanted to speak to me of my future?”

“Yes. I spoke to your father about selling the ranch. He refused point-blank. What can we do about it?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “‘We?’ If he told you he won’t sell, he won’t. I didn’t know you had spoken to him.”

“Couldn’t you persuade him?”

“I wouldn’t try. I don’t want Talapus sold. What right have you to hold us up? That’s what it amounts to.”

“There’s a woman for you!” cried Farwell to the world at large. “Hold you up? Great Scott, that’s just what I’m not doing! I offered him the value he put on the ranch himself, not a holdup price. I mean I offered to get it for him. I want you to put it up to him, and get your mother to help you. You ought to have some say in this. He ought to think of you a little.”

“It’s his ranch,” Sheila returned loyally. “He knows what he’s doing. When a man has made up his mind, women shouldn’t make things harder for him by whining.”

“That’s right enough, too,” said Farwell, whose masculinity was in thorough accord with the last sentiment. “But he is just the same as throwing away a hundred thousand dollars. I don’t want to see it. I know what he’s up against. I want him to get out while he can break even.”

“What about the rest of the ranchers?”

“I don’t care a hang for the rest of the ranchers.”

“And why do you make a distinction in our favour?”

Farwell was not prepared with an answer, even to himself. Her bluntness was disconcerting. “I don’t know,” he replied. “It doesn’t matter. The main thing is to make your father get out of the way of the tree, for it’s going to fall right where he’s standing. He can’t dodge once it starts. And what hits him hits you.”

“Then I won’t dodge, either,” she declared bravely. “He’s right not to sell. I wouldn’t if I were in his place.”

Farwell slid back in his chair and bit his cigar savagely.

“I never saw such a family!” he exclaimed. “You’ve got nerve a-plenty, but mighty poor judgment. Get it clear now, what’s going to happen. You’ll have enough water for domestic purposes and stock, but none for the ranch. Then it won’t be worth a dollar an acre. Same way with the rest. And now let me tell you another thing: Just as soon as the water is turned off, every rancher will fall all over himself to sell. That’s what your father doesn’t believe. He’ll see when it’s too late. It’s rank folly.”

“It’s our own folly, Mr. Farwell!”

“You mean it’s none of my business. Well, I make it my business. I butt in on this. I’ll put it right up to him. I’ll shove the money right under his nose. If he turns it down I’m done. I’ll quit. And if you don’t do your best to make him take it, you won’t be dealing fairly with him, your mother, or yourself.”

Sheila stared at him, quite unused to such a tone. He, an utter stranger, was arrogating to himself the position of friend to the family, presuming to criticise her father’s wisdom, to tell her what she should do and should not do. But withal she was impressed by his earnestness. His advice, she could not believe, was entirely disinterested. At the same time, inconsistently, she was angry.

“Well,” she said. “I must say you are ‘butting in.’ You you oh, you don’t lack nerve, Mr. Farwell!”

“Don’t worry about my nerve,” he retorted grimly. “You’ll have other troubles. For Heaven’s sake have some sense. Will you do as I tell you, or won’t you?” He leaned forward, tapping the arm of her chair with tense fingers.

“No,” she answered positively, “I won’t.”

Young McCrae came around the corner of the house. He was hatless, coatless, muddy from his work in the ditches. A pair of faded blue overalls were belted to his lean middle by a buckskin thong, and his feet were incased in wet moccasins. He came noiselessly but swiftly, not of purpose, but from habit, with a soft, springy step; and he was level with them before they were aware of him. He came to an abrupt halt, his eyes on Farwell, every muscle tensing. For an instant he resembled a young tiger about to spring.

“Oh, Sandy,” cried his sister, “what a mess! For goodness sake don’t come up here with those muddy moccasins.”

“Just as you say,” drawled young McCrae. “I thought you might want me. Anything I can do for you, sis? Want anything carried in or thrown out?” He accented the last words.

Farwell, who had read danger signals in men’s eyes before, saw the flare of enmity in the young man’s, and raised his shoulders in a faint shrug. He smiled to himself in amusement.

“No, there’s nothing, thanks,” said Sheila, quite unconscious of the hidden meaning of his words. “Better get cleaned up for supper.”

McCrae swung on silently, with his rapid, noiseless step. Farwell turned to Sheila.

“Do this for me, Miss McCrae,” he pleaded. “Give me a fair chance with your father if you won’t help me with him. Don’t tell your brother of what I’m trying to do. If you do that, his influence will be the other way.”

“If my father has made up his mind, none of us can change it,” said Sheila. “But I’ll give you a fair field. I won’t tell Sandy.”

Farwell, in spite of previous virtuous resolutions, remained for supper. The elder McCraes had not returned. The young people had the meal to themselves; and Sheila and Farwell had the conversation to themselves, for Sandy paid strict and confined attention to his food, and did not utter half a dozen words. Immediately afterward he vanished; but, when Farwell went to the stable for his horse, he found the young man saddling a rangy, speedy-looking black.

“Guess I’ll ride with you a piece,” he announced.

“All right,” Farwell replied carelessly. He did not desire company; but if it was forced on him he could not help it.

The light was failing as they rode from the ranch house. The green fields lay sombre in the creeping dusk. Nighthawks in search of food darted in erratic flight, uttering their peculiar booming notes. Running water murmured coolly in the ditch that flanked the road. Cattle, full of repletion, stood in contented lethargy by the watering place, ruminating, switching listlessly at the evening flies which scarcely annoyed them. The vivid opalescent lights of the western sky grew fainter, faded. Simultaneously the zenith shaded from turquoise to sapphire. In the northeast, low over the plains, gleaming silver against the dark velvet background of the heavens, lay the first star.

But Farwell paid no attention to these things. Instead, he was thinking of Sheila McCrae reconstructing her pose as she bade him good-bye, the direct, level gaze of her dark eyes, the contour of her face, the cloudy masses of her brown hair. He was unconsciously engaged in the perilous, artistic work of drawing for his sole and exclusive use a mental “portrait of a lady”; and, after the manner of man attracted by woman, he idealized the picture of his creation. By virtue of this absorbing occupation, he quite forgot the presence of the brother of the woman. But a mile beyond the ranch young McCrae pulled up.

“I turn off here,” he said.

“That so? Good night,” said Farwell.

“There’s something I came to tell you,” McCrae pursued. “I’m not making any grand-stand play about it; but you’d better be a lot more careful when you’re talking to my sister. Understand?”

“No, I don’t,” said Farwell. “I never said anything to Miss McCrae that her father and mother mightn’t hear.”

“Oh, that!” said young Sandy, and spat in disgust. “No, I guess you didn’t and you hadn’t better. But you told her to do something fairly ordered her. I heard you, and I heard her tell you she wouldn’t. Perhaps you’ll tell me what it was?”

“Perhaps I won’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t want to, mostly,” said Farwell impatiently. “Also because it’s none of your business. Your sister and I understand each other. Our conversation didn’t concern you directly, anyway.”

“I’ll let it go at that on your say-so,” Sandy returned, with surprising calmness. “I’m not crowding trouble with you, but get this clear: You know why you’re hanging around the ranch, and I don’t. All the same, if you are up to any monkey business, you’ll settle it with me.”

Farwell’s temper, never reliable, rose at once.

“Quite a Wild West kid, aren’t you?” he observed, with sarcasm. “You make me tired. It’s a good thing for you your people are decent.” He crowded his horse close to the other. “Now, look here, young fellow, I won’t stand for any fool boy’s talk. You’re old enough to know better. Cut it out with me after this, do you hear?”

“Where are you coming with that cayuse?” demanded young McCrae, and suddenly raked a rowelled heel behind the animal’s shoulder.

Ensued five strenuous minutes for Farwell, wherein he sought to soothe his mount’s wounded feelings. When at last the quadruped condescended to allow his four hoofs to remain on the ground simultaneously for more than a fraction of a second, young McCrae was gone; and Farwell, somewhat shaken, and profane with what breath was left him, had nothing for it but to resume his homeward way.