Chapter III: Lost in the Desert
Autumn drifted into winter, and then with the blossoms of an early spring, came Gloria.
The Fort was several miles from the station, and Jack and Philip were there to meet her. As they paced the little board platform, Jack was nervously happy over the thought of his sister’s arrival, and talked of his plans for entertaining her. Philip on the other hand held himself well in reserve and gave no outward indication of the deep emotion which stirred within him. At last the train came and from one of the long string of Pullmans, Gloria alighted. She kissed her brother and greeted Philip cordially, and asked him in a tone of banter how he enjoyed army life. Dru smiled and said, “Much better, Gloria, than you predicted I would.” The baggage was stored away in the buck-board, and Gloria got in front with Philip and they were off. It was early morning and the dew was still on the soft mesquite grass, and as the mustang ponies swiftly drew them over the prairie, it seemed to Gloria that she had awakened in fairyland.
At the crest of a hill, Philip held the horses for a moment, and Gloria caught her breath as she saw the valley below. It looked as if some translucent lake had mirrored the sky. It was the countless blossoms of the Texas blue-bonnet that lifted their slender stems towards the morning sun, and hid the earth.
Down into the valley they drove upon the most wonderfully woven carpet in all the world. Aladdin and his magic looms could never have woven a fabric such as this. A heavy, delicious perfume permeated the air, and with glistening eyes and parted lips, Gloria sat dumb in happy astonishment.
They dipped into the rocky bed of a wet weather stream, climbed out of the canyon and found themselves within the shadow of Fort Magruder.
Gloria soon saw that the social distractions of the place had little call for Philip. She learned, too, that he had already won the profound respect and liking of his brother officers. Jack spoke of him in terms even more superlative than ever. “He is a born leader of men,” he declared, “and he knows more about engineering and tactics than the Colonel and all the rest of us put together.” Hard student though he was, Gloria found him ever ready to devote himself to her, and their rides together over the boundless, flower studded prairies, were a never ending joy. “Isn’t it beautiful--Isn’t it wonderful,” she would exclaim. And once she said, “But, Philip, happy as I am, I oftentimes think of the reeking poverty in the great cities, and wish, in some way, they could share this with me.” Philip looked at her questioningly, but made no reply.
A visit that was meant for weeks transgressed upon the months, and still she lingered. One hot June morning found Gloria and Philip far in the hills on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. They had started at dawn with the intention of breakfasting with the courtly old haciendado, who frequently visited at the Post.
After the ceremonious Mexican breakfast, Gloria wanted to see beyond the rim of the little world that enclosed the hacienda, so they rode to the end of the valley, tied their horses and climbed to the crest of the ridge. She was eager to go still further. They went down the hill on the other side, through a draw and into another valley beyond.
Soldier though he was, Philip was no plainsman, and in retracing their steps, they missed the draw.
Philip knew that they were not going as they came, but with his months of experience in the hills, felt sure he could find his way back with less trouble by continuing as they were. The grass and the shrubs gradually disappeared as they walked, and soon he realized that they were on the edge of an alkali desert. Still he thought he could swing around into the valley from which they started, and they plunged steadily on, only to see in a few minutes that they were lost.
“What’s the matter, Philip?” asked Gloria. “Are we lost?”
“I hope not, we only have to find that draw.”
The girl said no more, but walked on side by side with the young soldier. Both pulled their hats far down over their eyes to shield them from the glare of the fierce rays of the sun, and did what they could to keep out the choking clouds of alkali dust that swirled around them at every step.
Philip, hardened by months of Southwestern service, stood the heat well, except that his eyes ached, but he saw that Gloria was giving out.
“Are you tired?” he asked.
“Yes, I am very tired,” she answered, “but I can go on if you will let me rest a moment.” Her voice was weak and uncertain and indicated approaching collapse. And then she said more faintly, “I am afraid, Philip, we are hopelessly lost.”
“Do not be frightened, Gloria, we will soon be out of this if you will let me carry you.”
Just then, the girl staggered and would have fallen had he not caught her.
He was familiar with heat prostration, and saw that her condition was not serious, but he knew he must carry her, for to lay her in the blazing sun would be fatal.
His eyes, already overworked by long hours of study, were swollen and bloodshot. Sharp pains shot through his head. To stop he feared would be to court death, so taking Gloria in his arms, he staggered on.
In that vast world of alkali and adobe there was no living thing but these two. No air was astir, and a pitiless sun beat upon them unmercifully. Philip’s lips were cracked, his tongue was swollen, and the burning dust almost choked him. He began to see less clearly, and visions of things he knew to be unreal came to him. With Spartan courage and indomitable will, he never faltered, but went on. Mirages came and went, and he could not know whether he saw true or not. Then here and there he thought he began to see tufts of curly mesquite grass, and in the distance surely there were cacti. He knew that if he could hold out a little longer, he could lay his burden in some sort of shade.
With halting steps, with eyes inflamed and strength all but gone, he finally laid Gloria in the shadow of a giant prickly pear bush, and fell beside her. He fumbled for his knife and clumsily scraped the needles from a leaf of the cactus and sliced it in two. The heavy sticky liquid ran over his hand as he placed the cut side of the leaf to Gloria’s lips. The juice of the plant together with the shade, partially revived her. Philip, too, sucked the leaf until his parched tongue and throat became a little more pliable.
“What happened?” demanded Gloria. “Oh! yes, now I remember. I am sorry I gave out, Philip. I am not acclimated yet. What time is it?”
After pillowing her head more comfortably upon his riding coat, Philip looked at his watch. “I--I can’t just make it out, Gloria,” he said. “My eyes seem blurred. This awful glare seems to have affected them. They’ll be all right in a little while.”
Gloria looked at the dial and found that the hands pointed to four o’clock. They had been lost for six hours, but after their experiences, it seemed more like as many days. They rested a little while longer talking but little.
“You carried me,” said Gloria once. “I’m ashamed of myself for letting the heat get the best of me. You shouldn’t have carried me, Philip, but you know I understand and appreciate. How are your eyes now?”
“Oh, they’ll be all right,” he reiterated, but when he took his hand from them to look at her, and the light beat upon the inflamed lids, he winced.
After eating some of the fruit of the prickly pear, which they found too hot and sweet to be palatable, Philip suggested at half after five that they should move on. They arose, and the young officer started to lead the way, peeping from beneath his hand. First he stumbled over a mesquite bush directly in his path, and next he collided with a giant cactus standing full in front of him.
“It’s no use, Gloria,” he said at last. “I can’t see the way. You must lead.”
“All right, Philip, I will do the best I can.”
For answer, he merely took her hand, and together they started to retrace their steps. Over the trackless waste of alkali and sagebrush they trudged. They spoke but little but when they did, their husky, dust-parched voices made a mockery of their hopeful words.
Though the horizon seemed bounded by a low range of hills, the girl instinctively turned her steps westward, and entered a draw. She rounded one of the hills, and just as the sun was sinking, came upon the valley in which their horses were peacefully grazing.
They mounted and followed the dim trail along which they had ridden that morning, reaching the hacienda about dark. With many shakings of the hand, voluble protestations of joy at their delivery from the desert, and callings on God to witness that the girl had performed a miracle, the haciendado gave them food and cooling drinks, and with gentle insistence, had his servants, wife and daughters show them to their rooms. A poultice of Mexican herbs was laid across Philip’s eyes, but exhausted as he was he could not sleep because of the pain they caused him.
In the morning, Gloria was almost her usual self, but Philip could see but faintly. As early as was possible they started for Fort Magruder. His eyes were bandaged, and Gloria held the bridle of his horse and led him along the dusty trail. A vaquero from the ranch went with them to show the way.
Then came days of anxiety, for the surgeon at the Post saw serious trouble ahead for Philip. He would make no definite statement, but admitted that the brilliant young officer’s eyesight was seriously menaced.
Gloria read to him and wrote for him, and in many ways was his hands and eyes. He in turn talked to her of the things that filled his mind. The betterment of man was an ever-present theme with them. It pleased him to trace for her the world’s history from its early beginning when all was misty tradition, down through the uncertain centuries of early civilization to the present time.
He talked with her of the untrustworthiness of the so-called history of to-day, although we had every facility for recording facts, and he pointed out how utterly unreliable it was when tradition was the only means of transmission. Mediocrity, he felt sure, had oftentimes been exalted into genius, and brilliant and patriotic exclamations attributed to great men, were never uttered by them, neither was it easy he thought, to get a true historic picture of the human intellectual giant. As a rule they were quite human, but people insisted upon idealizing them, consequently they became not themselves but what the popular mind wanted them to be.
He also dwelt on the part the demagogue and the incompetents play in retarding the advancement of the human race. Some leaders were honest, some were wise and some were selfish, but it was seldom that the people would be led by wise, honest and unselfish men.
“There is always the demagogue to poison the mind of the people against such a man,” he said, “and it is easily done because wisdom means moderation and honesty means truth. To be moderate and to tell the truth at all times and about all matters seldom pleases the masses.”
Many a long day was spent thus in purely impersonal discussions of affairs, and though he himself did not realize it, Gloria saw that Philip was ever at his best when viewing the large questions of State, rather than the narrower ones within the scope of the military power.
The weeks passed swiftly, for the girl knew well how to ease the young Officer’s chafing at uncertainty and inaction. At times, as they droned away the long hot summer afternoons under the heavily leafed fig trees in the little garden of the Strawn bungalow, he would become impatient at his enforced idleness. Finally one day, after making a pitiful attempt to read, Philip broke out, “I have been patient under this as long as I can. The restraint is too much. Something must be done.”
Somewhat to his surprise, Gloria did not try to take his mind off the situation this time, but suggested asking the surgeon for a definite report on his condition.
The interview with the surgeon was unsatisfactory, but his report to his superior officers bore fruit, for in a short time Philip was told that he should apply for an indefinite leave of absence, as it would be months, perhaps years, before his eyes would allow him to carry on his duties.
He seemed dazed at the news, and for a long time would not talk of it even with Gloria. After a long silence one afternoon she softly asked, “What are you going to do, Philip?”
Jack Strawn, who was sitting near by, broke out--“Do! why there’s no question about what he is going to do. Once an Army man always an Army man. He’s going to live on the best the U.S.A. provides until his eyes are right. In the meantime Philip is going to take indefinite sick leave.”
The girl only smiled at her brother’s military point of view, and asked another question. “How will you occupy your time, Philip?”
Philip sat as if he had not heard them.
“Occupy his time!” exclaimed Jack, “getting well of course. Without having to obey orders or do anything but draw his checks, he can have the time of his life, there will be nothing to worry about.”
“That’s just it,” slowly said Philip. “No work, nothing to think about.”
“Exactly,” said Gloria.
“What are you driving at, Sister. You talk as if it was something to be deplored. I call it a lark. Cheer the fellow up a bit, can’t you?”
“No, never mind,” replied Philip. “There’s nothing to cheer me up about. The question is simply this: Can I stand a period of several years’ enforced inactivity as a mere pensioner?”
“Yes!” quickly said Gloria, “as a pensioner, and then, if all goes well, you return to this.”
“What do you mean, Gloria? Don’t you like Army Post life?” asked Jack.
“I like it as well as you do, Jack. You just haven’t come to realize that Philip is cut out for a bigger sphere than--that.” She pointed out across the parade ground where a drill was going on. “You know as well as I do that this is not the age for a military career.”
Jack was so disgusted with this, that with an exclamation of impatience, he abruptly strode off to the parade ground.
“You are right, Gloria,” said Philip. “I cannot live on a pension indefinitely. I cannot bring myself to believe that it is honest to become a mendicant upon the bounty of the country. If I had been injured in the performance of duty, I would have no scruples in accepting support during an enforced idleness, but this disability arose from no fault of the Government, and the thought of accepting aid under such circumstances is too repugnant.”
“Of course,” said Gloria.
“The Government means no more to me than an individual,” continued Philip, “and it is to be as fairly dealt with. I never could understand how men with self-respect could accept undeserving pensions from the Nation. To do so is not alone dishonest, but is unfair to those who need help and have a righteous claim to support. If the unworthy were refused, the deserving would be able to obtain that to which they are entitled.”
Their talk went on thus for hours, the girl ever trying more particularly to make him see a military career as she did, and he more concerned with the ethical side of the situation.
“Do not worry over it, Philip,” cried Gloria, “I feel sure that your place is in the larger world of affairs, and you will some day be glad that this misfortune came to you, and that you were forced to go into another field of endeavor.
“With my ignorance and idle curiosity, I led you on and on, over first one hill and then another, until you lost your way in that awful desert over there, but yet perhaps there was a destiny in that. When I was leading you out of the desert, a blind man, it may be that I was leading you out of the barrenness of military life, into the fruitful field of labor for humanity.”
After a long silence, Philip Dru arose and took Gloria’s hand.
“Yes! I will resign. You have already reconciled me to my fate.”