The Line of Least Resistance/Chapter 4

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IV

THE clean, resinous scent of new lumber was in the air. It came from every quarter—from paintless wooden buildings blistering in the unclouded sun; from woodwork of adobes; from canvas streets yet whitely unbeaten by any storm, redolent of rough boarded floors and walls, of pine frames and tables and bunks; from aromatic curls of fresh, sweet shavings, wind-lodged by bush and shrub and fence wall.

No grass yet grew over the newly laid pipe-line from the pumphouse at Muerto Spring. The water-tank was new, the railroad buildings were new, and newly painted to an opprobrious, economical hue that might almost be called a hue and cry—a nameless raw and offensive color, popularly held to be composed of iron-rust, brickdust and blood. The railroad itself was new; the ties—save where resin simmered and stewed at knot or gash—were bright and unfaded, the barrow pits bare and brown, the rails shimmering away to a blinding dazzle toward the sun.

The stages were gone—men of affairs were about; from beyond the powder-house came the incessant crackling of rifles, where transient Dundee beguiled the passing hour at target practice. On the broad, shady porch of the Dundee House, foregathered a group so habitual of late that Polk Armstrong, moved by some vague Wordsworthian memory, had twitched his elderly thumb at them and murmured: "We are seven."

Miss Mallory, Don and Hiram you know in part. First, of the remainder, four, note now Mr. Breese, promoter and ex-broker, of tubercular tendencies, uncle and guardian to Miss Lena Mallory—to Dundee and to us important in the latter capacity as explaining her sojournings. Of Mr. Breese, himself, it may be said that he came to cough and remained to prey; finding here a rich field for his breaking and promoting proclivities. In passing, be it added that he stood more than a chance of becoming the preyed upon in turn; the preyee, so to speak. For him, for any other like him, a danger lies constantly in wait, of gradually believing his own spontaneous and glowing eloquence.

Such insidious credulity was now creeping upon Breese; he was in a fair way to become his own next victim. In this infatuation he was abetted by horny-handed and otherwise scaly parties having mines vendible of which they desired to become dispossessed. It is not death alone that loves a shining mark.

He was an immaculate, smooth-faced, fragile little man, with silvery, silken hair, a pearly skin and birdlike claws of brittle appearance—all which lent themselves readily to the prevalent supposition that he was made of glass. Glacial of manner and brusque of speech, it was half by mistake that his name became Freeze upon the popular tongue.

To Miss Lena he was "Guardy," and to his wife he was simply "Father," as she was "Mother" to him. This wistful usage in a childless old couple was not without pathos, if only any had noticed it. But no one did; Lena being used to it, which comes to exactly the same thing. Unless, indeed, it were Don Kennedy, who noticed most things.

"Mother"—otherwise "Aunt Polly"—was a dear, dim-eyed old lady of vague chameleon mental characteristics and consolatory exterior, who played pinochle earnestly with "Father," oblivious to passing decades, and lent a desultory decorum to the diversions of Miss Mallory.

The last two of this group of seven were Dolly, his daughter, and the Professor himself—to adopt his own order of precedence. Dorothy was fifteen, blue-eyed, delicious and doubly spoiled for that her mother was dead and herself poor of health. The Professor—Lathrop Ormsby Otis—whatever his other virtues, was unquestionably a good father to his motherless girl. Because of her failing health he had, at forty-three, given up his chair in a well-known New York college and abandoned a career in which he had won no small distinction, notwithstanding his comparative youth, to seek a more genial clime and there devote himself to Dorothy's welfare.

An archæologist by avocation, this had brought him to New Mexico rather than elsewhere; coming last to Dundee en route for certain famous cliff-dwellings—or, rather, cave-dwellings—on the Gila. The cave-dwellings were still there; but having met Mr. Breese, as explained above, the Professor loitered in Dundee. We cannot blame him. It was a long and tiresome journey to the mines; the veranda was cool and pleasant; Don and Hiram were sufficiently prehistoric in their mental and ethical attitudes to quiet any twinges of the archæological conscience. Slim Dorothy, day by day, grew merry, sun-brown and strong; acquiring at the same time an amazing out-of-doors vocabulary and an outdoor manner verging on the hoydenish. She was learning to ride; the Professor accompanied her—and Miss Mallory—on thrilling voyages of discovery. Those cave-dwellers were all dead, anyhow, and the Professor felt suddenly very much alive; unearthing, in the attic lumber-room of memory, the dusty monograph of a famous literary doctor, who—at forty—had resolutely maintained that a man was at the prime and vigor of life between forty and forty-five; later revising this opinion to make fifty the meridional year. The Professor recalled this monograph with interest and pleasure, finding it logical, brilliant and convincing; more so, indeed, than it had seemed at first reading.

The firm of Yoast and Kennedy might well have been otherwise engaged. There was much to be done "fixing up" their ranch with windmill, watering troughs and corrals; even—should the whim so seize them—with a house. They had, indeed, taken out their windmill and pump in the fourth day of the new era as recorded in Hiram's calendar, but, in a sudden access of incompetence, had decided to get an experienced man to put it up, and had returned to the veranda two weeks since, where they patiently waited for an experienced man to broach to them the subject of windmills.

The dim, unheeded panorama of the far-off, jostling world passed on and left them to the deep life of the hour, lotus-eaters in "a land where all things always seemed the same"; smiling days, languorous, dreamy, delicious; nights of moon-magic, witchery of throbbing song, the luminous arch of stars.

It will occur to you that the situation called for a chaperonage less theoretical than Aunt Polly's. The privileges of that time and place will fully cover appearances. For the reality, Miss Lena was an eminently capable person, of foresight, prudence and skill. With unfailing vigilance she vigorously put down attempts to overstep the strict lines of friendliness by either the Professor or Kennedy. But she was a kind and thoroughly good-hearted girl, and so only suppressed them alternately. Being herself mature and twenty she was less severe with Hiram, who was barely twenty-two, and whom she, therefore, regarded merely as an amusing boy—a thing equally dissatisfactory to Hiram and to his elders.

"Will some one please tell me why these apparently otherwise intelligent people find such unfailing delight in rifle practice, to the exclusion of all other interests?" asked Miss Mallory. "One would think it would pall in time."

"Why, that's dead easy!" said Hiram. "They were born in captivity, and gettin' out o' their cages has gone to their heads."

"Exactly! In their more civilized communities," said Don, "their activities in this line have been so restricted by step-paternal legislation that when a gentleman observed a skunk in his henhouse he had to call in legal advice. Then, if no especial act of the legislature was required, and if the skunk remained on the premises beyond the expiration of the closed season, the henman, having first duly served notice of trespass on the offender, and having affixed proper revenue stamps to his gun and to each cartridge, displaying his license so folded that the notarial seal shall be plainly visible, calls upon the skunk, in the presence of a properly appointed inspector or commissioner, or his deputy, demanding that he, the said skunk, do now show his license to kill fowl, ducks, geese and other feathered domestic poultry. And if said skunk cannot show such license, or refuses to show such license, the featherless biped shall call upon him, the said skunk, to desist; and if said skunk does not then desist he may then be shot in accordance with the provisions of this act, entitled an act to amend an act entitled an act——"

The Professor was a bit of a poet. All this while his eyes were dreamily following the contours of Moongate Pass, studying the deep-shadowed wrinkles distinct against the morning sun, and shaping in imagination the hinted misty valleys beyond; so negligent of his duty. For while their conversational procedure was informal, it was tacitly under stood that when either Otis or Kennedy declared himself upon any proposition the other would forthwith uphold the contrary with life, fortune and sacred honor.

Up rose Dolly, his daughter, then and stood before Kennedy with minatory finger and flashing eyes. "Now you're making fun of my daddy again! You make me feel bad!"

"Dolly!" groaned the Professor. "Do you wish us to understand that your sense of touch is imperfect or that you are conscious of being morally depraved? 'Daddy,' too! What would your Uncle Thomas say?"

"Oh, you know very well what I mean!" cried this unrepentant and degenerate damsel. Evidently the opinions of Uncle Thomas carried no weight. "You know very well what El Señor Don means too. Why don't you squash him?" She stamped a vehement little foot for emphasis and winked shamelessly at Miss Mallory. Dolly, as she herself coarsely put it, "egged on" the combatants with cheerful impartiality. When, as now, either was too indolent to take up the challenge it was her part, as a sort of intellectual toreador, to "poke 'em up." Such was her own reprehensible phrase.

For Father and Mother Breese, their communication was confined, with rare exceptions, to ejaculatory remarks of "Dis!" "Pinochle!" "Kings eighty!" and the like. But they lent a listening ear, except at critical moments of the game, and rewarded a neat stroke with laughter and applause. Lena and Hiram, lightly skirmishing, kept for most part aloof from the main affray, but occasionally swooped down, some times on opposing sides, sometimes as allies, to rescue the discomfited or to add to his discomfiture, exactly as pleased their whim. It was also Lena's care to see that the buttons were kept on the foils, and to strike them up if one were lost in the warm play.

The Professor reluctantly abandoned the Moongate. "Very well, I'll meet you on the bloody sands," he said to Kennedy. His eyes were twinkling; he had a wholesome sense of humor that went far to soften and ameliorate his many virtues. "Our game laws frequently overstep the mark. Admitted. But is that not far better than your extreme1? The frontiersman openly violates what few and liberal game laws he has, with the natural consequence that all game will soon be exterminated."

"You wouldn't let a deer actually butt you, would you Professor?" queried Hiram in grieved astonishment.

"There's your frontiersman! To him, breaking the law varies between a downright duty and a good joke!" The Professor was aroused; his refined, scholarly face glowed with animation.

Don sprang to the defense: "Of all the fantastic sentimentality the world has ever known, this howl about the vanished game of a continent is the silliest and sloppiest. To hear them mourn you'd think 'twas a national calamity that good farms had replaced the buffalo, and pitiful beyond belief that Ohio and Kentucky were not still the undisturbed haunt of black bear and deer and turkey. They are fighting evolution. I expect to hear next of an act protecting angleworms from the depredations of the plow."

"And that brings up my pet story," said Lena. "In Nebraska, politics is a contest between the Missouri River cities and the rest of the state. Once Omaha, being in power, passed stringently protective game laws that bore heavily on the farmers, leaving them helpless to protect their crops——"

"If they obeyed the silly law," suggested Hiram.

"If they obeyed the silly law—which they didn't. In retaliation the farmers banded together and posted their farms with trespass notices to keep off the city sportsmen during the open season. Then they elected a majority in the next legislature, and to put on a finishing touch they passed a bill to forbid hunting on the roadside. But they worded it carelessly, with this disastrous result:

"'Hereafter it shall he unlawful to shoot or fire off any gun upon any public road or highway in the State of Nebraska except for the purpose of killing some wild and dangerous beast or an officer in discharge of his duty'!"

"Such a bill has features that should make it popular here," observed the Professor grimly, as the laughter died. Then he returned to the assault with renewed vigor. "My dear Mr. Kennedy, we are so far apart on this matter that I do not think we are talking about the same thing. Laws are often ill-advised, but a good citizen will obey a law even while hoping and working for its repeal."

"I thought you were a Daughter of the American Revolution," said Hiram spitefully, when the Professor stopped talking.

"Then they were poor citizens who fought at Lexington and Concord?" seconded Lena.

Thus hard beset by three, the Professor fell back. "A great war for a great principle is not the same thing as reckless regard of any law that does not meet your approval, leading inevitably to contempt for all laws," he protested. "And we were speaking of specific law or laws regulating the slaughter of game."

"What is wrong for the individual is wrong for any aggregation of individuals; and what is right for many is right for one," said Don oracularly. "But let us come back to the specific law, by all means. Our grandads in convention found a principle at stake in those very laws. So much so that when they looked over the Constitution to see what bets they'd missed, the second oversight corrected was this: 'The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed'."

"There you go again, at the old trick of mutilating the text," said the Professor indignantly. "'A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state'—you took pains to leave that out."

"Yes, I know that many learned jurists construe the passage to mean that the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall be infringed, but the right of the people to keep and bear gold lace shall not be infringed. But such is not my reading of the amendment. I make it: 'The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.' Only that and nothing more. As for the clause which you charge me with willfully omitting, I didn't remember it. It was merely explanatory; it told why they did what they did; but what they did is entirely in the part I gave. If you don't believe it, try your clause alone and see what sort of an amendment it makes. 'A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state——' Incomplete, isn't it? The sense is all in the other part of it."

"They meant that training of militia companies should never be prohibited," said the Professor doggedly. "Not that bearing of arms by individuals should not be regulated."

"They meant that history had taught them that disarmament had always been a preliminary to oppression. They meant liberty and not license," retorted Don. "They were quite right. Tell us honestly—how would you like the job of oppressing New Mexico?"

The Professor laughed, passing his hand through his lightly frosted hair."I shouldn't care to undertake to oppress it or to repress it, either. Kindly remember that President Hayes was obliged to declare martial law here during your Lincoln County War."

"Martial law! Just for a little disturbance between cowmen and cattlemen! That was a short-sighted policy, anyway," said Don with some arrogance. "It was seriously proposed to leave a strip six miles wide between Lincoln County and Donna Ana for a No Man's Land where gentlemen of diverging views might adjust their differences with no expense to the taxpayers. Had this long-headed arrangement been carried out there would have been no need for martial law, and the war might have been going on yet!"

But the Professor would not be laughed aside. "Think of the carnival of bloodshed the territory has just gone through! Think how many murders are committed by men who are good citizens in the main, simply because they bear arms ready to hand in the moment of anger! How you can be so obtuse as to defend the practice of carrying deadly weapons, in the face of such glaring evidence, is beyond me. Mr. Kennedy, it grieves me to have a man of your unusual intelligence express such views."

"On the contrary, how a man of your usual intelligence can be so singularly obtuse is beyond me!" said Don, sighing mournfully. "Kindly remember that the necessity for martial law existed before it was declared. So citizens, good in the main, when they buckle on their forty-some-odds, declare a little martial law on their own account. We carry the law of the land at the saddle-horn, as the saying goes. The bad citizen packs a gun anyway and the good one ought to have an even break. It won't work, Professor. There are many good reasons to urge on your side—notably the appeal to arms just because they're handy. But there's no argument for or against a man carrying a gun that won't apply with equal force to a nation building a navy. A navy does other things besides fighting. A nation with a navy may be more likely to go to war than if it had none, but it is also less likely to be wronged or to be the subject of attempted wrong. There are crimes besides violence; and the violent man or the warlike nation does not submit to them. I might agree that it would be better if a man didn't pack a gun and a nation didn't tote a navy, but I'll never believe one is right and the other wrong."

"On the other hand——"

"Let me interrupt you, Professor. I will freely admit the undeniable truth of much that you urge. But in that little phrase 'on the other hand' you have admitted all I care for—that there is something to be said on both sides. That is precisely what most of your people never do. They hear one side of all these subjects reiterated, uncontradicted, till they repeat their views in a reverent chant, as if they were axioms, self-evident, needing only authoritative statement to put down all opposition. So when you admit that there is really some thing well founded in our views there is no more to be said. We knew that your views were worth while."

"But the preponderance of opinion—observe that I say opinion, not fact—is against you."

"I think not," said Don. "This is only a detail of the two general tendencies, to be law-ridden or lawless—in which tug-of-war you and I are pulling opposite ways. That we are pretty evenly matched is amply proved, since we neither have tyranny on the one hand nor Rob Roy's simple little plan on the other."

"I dare say you are right. The truth always lies somewhere between the two extremes," agreed Otis amicably. "But it will be hard to cite an instance of our erroneous legality to offset the recent glaring excesses here in the Southwest."

"Easiest thing there is! Only, I shouldn't have 'named it'—as Hiram says—without this invitation," rejoined Kennedy. "There's the Salem Witchcraft——"

But this was a subject on which the Professor was sensitive. His finely-chiseled features hardened to a frown. "That was generations ago," he said. "The world has progressed since then. You have to go back some time to match your out rages."

"You miss my point, Professor. You repudiate all that as a shameful crime. But you don't look at it as I do. My indignation is for the law-abiding state of mind of the men who let these things be done, unresisted, to their nearest and dearest. Think of it, Hiram! They meekly let Martha and Priscilla be done to death on this monstrous accusation without ever pulling trigger! Witches deserved death—some one told them so—'twas the law! That don't go here. John is that lawless and violent that if the whole United States Navy should come bounding and skipping o'er the lily-white lea on any such pious errand he'd go down after his hardware and give 'em a small touch of high life, law or no law." Don could use English on occasion, having been expelled from the University of Virginia; but to conceal his emotions he generally fell back on flippant colloquialism.

Otis ran his hand through his hair in some perplexity. "It was an unhappy madness on both the people and magistrates for which they should not be judged too harshly."

"One stiff-necked desperado with a bell-mouthed blunder buss and a half a pint o' slugs would 'a' sent 'em home sane and happy," rejoined Kennedy, answering the mental attitude behind the words. "I've voted for 'magistrates' myself before now. I always remember who made him a magistrate—I myself, that excellent man. And to sum it all up, I—nor yet any possible number of Is—cannot delegate to our deputy any power we do not have ourselves. This helps me to keep my reverence for their infallibility within bounds, even when they are sanest. And the spectacle of a magistrate barking mad and frothing at the mouth does not excite me to unreflecting obedience—especially where Mattie's concerned. No, sir! Just one pig-headed, upstanding he-man who revered the workings of his own contumacious mind more than he did the voice of authority would have stopped the whole black business cheap—for maybe a magistrate or so."

The Professor was privately impressed, but not in the least convinced. And he did not at all relish this unexpected turn of the ox-goring. "It is small wonder that Mr. Kennedy and I seldom agree," he said rather stiffly. "We stand on different viewpoints with our eyes rigidly fixed in opposite directions. The sectional feeling here is so strong——"

"Sectional feeling! Oh, shade of Great-Uncle Paul Revere!" cried Don wrathfully. "The measure of our antagonism is the superiority you affect—no, no, that isn't the word. The superiority you feel. I would cast no doubt on your sincerity. Of course we resent it. If we didn't resent it that would be proof that we deserved it. But how about your sectionalism? Look once: New York bickers at Boston, and both pick on Philadelphia, and all three consider themselves hardy explorers when they venture past a line drawn in any direction from Washington! Think of the treatment you gave Edgar Allan Poe, and consider how you'd have sainted him and burned incense and punk before his image if he'd only dwelt together in peace and unity at Concord! Why, that isn't even sectionalism—that's quarter-sectionalism. You people come out here and go hurrahing industriously about, ruthlessly plucking beams from our eyes like a steam stump-puller on a new farm, and if we so much as twist the corner of a silk handkerchief to go after one tweenty-weenty little mote in your northeast eye, you have the infernal impudence to accuse us of sectionalism!"

The Professor led the roar of laughter that restored the usual good humor.

"But, Mr. Kennedy, you people out here really are different in every way," said Breese. "And you'll own that it's only natural for us to think the ways to which we are accustomed are right."

"There are fewer vital differences than you suppose," said Don. "Perhaps the most important is that your people, when not rich, are poor and needy, while we're only poor. We're not even that while this mining foolishness keeps up. But it can't last. Then your rigorous climate makes providence, foresight and industry compulsory, while we never allow business to interfere with our pleasure. They call this 'the mañana country.' It's a misnomer. More than in any other corner of the nation, we live in and for today. We have learned nothing from the past and we care nothing for the future. I'm inclined to think that, aside from these two points—in both of which I grant that the distinction is in your favor—we are very much of a muchness. Those two points alone make you immeasurably our superiors in material progress except in the matter of public buildings. There we are your superiors—we have no poorhouses! You beat us on another count: our manners lack the pose of Vere de Vere. But, morally, I believe men are divided, there as here, along the same lines—brute, bully, bounder, blackguard, knave, fool, cad, snob, prig, bore, sham, dupe and true man."

"Well" gasped Lena. "I must say! What chance has a poor woman of picking the true man from that lot? That's even worse than the old classification of rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief!"

"Poor woman, you completely misunderstand me. I didn't say men were classified that way. I said they were divided that way. The proportions differ—that's all. And, pardon me—there is a venerable myth to the effect that the poor men are supposed to do the guessing." (As you will observe, Don was not free from the masculine weakness for satirizing the effeminacy of woman.) He turned to Otis. "My belief is that we show a higher percentage of the brute and bully than you do, and that you run correspondingly more to sham and dupe. Otherwise the assay is about the same."

What scathing retort the Professor might have made to this blasphemy was checked by an interruption.