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Fruit of the Desert

Chapter 1: Kill or Cure

IN AN ARBOUR BEHIND a bungalow on Gold Hill, a pale young man lay in an invalid chair observing through a magnifying glass the activity of an army of ants establishing a new home at the base of a cosmos plant. Suddenly the right wing of the army stopped. One of the ants, apparently either ill or crippled, had fallen. Without the slightest hesitation the other ants attacked, killed, and buried the unfit one. Thus, it appeared, these admirable insects disposed of their unfortunates.

The young man—Ranor Gaul—dropped his magnifying glass with a faint revulsion of feeling and reclined in his chair, which, presently, he propelled with his hands out of the arbour, around the bungalow, and on to the front lawn. There, in the full afternoon sun, he gradually regained his composure. Yet he could not help asking himself if the ants did not possess, in one respect at least, a wisdom superior to that of human beings. Was it not better for the whole swarm quickly to rid itself of any member lacking the vigour for the essential struggle of life? Was it not also more merciful to the stricken one quickly to end what might be prolonged weariness and pain? While the sun revivified him these thoughts set up within his mind a sombre glow.

Ranor looked out over the lovely city which stretched away at his feet below the little plateau of Gold Hill. It was Monrovia, “The Gem of the Foothill,” fortunate possessor, according to the eminent specialist in New York who had sent him there, of the most equable and salubrious climate in North America. Ranor, who had spent periods of time in the suburbs of Sao Paulo, in Brazil; who had wintered in a villa near Nice; who knew the littoral of the Sea of Marmora, and the choice northern inlets on the Island of Java, these being the various scenes in his pilgrimages in search of health during the past three years, had found it to be true that, climatically, Monrovia is perfect, with a year-around sameness of balmy air. From this plateau of Gold Hill he could look in one direction into the snow-capped fringes of old Baldy, while in the other he could see the blue waves of the Pacific and the bathers splashing there.

Ranor had barely recovered from the perturbation at witnessing the sudden death of the ant when he was startled into a graver apprehension by the voices of two nurses conversing on the porch of the bungalow. They had not heard his chair as it rolled up noiselessly just below them.

“A victim of the colleges,” said one. “He was the head of his class in mechanical engineering at the Boston Tech but he also wanted to win the half-mile run. The authorities should have prevented him. For three years he has been trying to regain his strength though he is going steadily downhill”

“Doctor Lyman says it is a hopeless case,” responded the other nurse. “Why do they choose Monrovia as a last resort? If they would only send them here first we might do something for them.”


An hour later Ranor still was looking silently across the Monrovia fields, where the sun was now fast setting on the orange orchards and tracing a filigree of purple light over the apricot bloom. For the first time he actually had heard the words of his doom which in his soul, he had long felt the physician had uttered. Within him there had occurred a desperate conflict from which he was emerging and he hardly knew if he were dead or alive. The radiant power and beauty of the sun alone seemed to assure him that it was life he faced. As he looked out over that collection of homes and orchards and charming cultivated gardens, it suddenly seemed as though a voice within him cried aloud that he could not and would not die. Life was too fair and too precious to fade away as he was fading. A terrible resentment at his own futility surged up within him and he asked himself with cruel insistence of what value was all the money which his father had so toilfully amassed. He, Ranor Gaul, could command anything in the world save only that most precious thing of all—life itself.

Yet, was it true that man was no better, no wiser, no stronger than the ant? Indeed, perhaps, was man below the ant in wisdom and in courage?

The nature of Ranor Gaul was not one to permit such thoughts passively to express themselves and to die without answer. Slowly in his consciousness evolved determination, and then a plan. If the society of human beings of which he had been born a member persisted, first, in fanning his aspiring spirit into an activity which his fragile physique could not endure, and then in nursing and coddling him with such luxury and care that he was about to be smothered, had not life uttered to him, individually, a challenge?

That was it—a challenge! All those around him had failed. Those who loved him, as well as those whom his father’s money had purchased to attempt the cure of his ailment, had failed. Now the spirit within him, the last flickering spark, desperately, with its back to the wall, as it were, fighting to the end, with only an inch of existence left, must somehow rise superior over all these deterrents and accept the final challenge.

Others had heretofore borne the responsibility. The known resources of the world had been exhausted, the most eminent physicians, the most perfectly equipped sanatoria, the choice health resets, had failed to accomplish their boasted ends. The revolting eagle that was Ranor Gaul spumed their failure. Had not the famous captains of the world in all ages and in all activities been obliged, at the supreme moments of their lives, to rely solely and only on themselves? And what greater stakes had any man ever fought for than that which now seemed so hopeless tor him—life?


When the nurse the following morning carried a breakfast of orange juice and the white of an egg to Ranor’s room, she was startled to find it empty. A quick search revealed that the patient was gone. An alarm was sounded and inquiries were rapidly made throughout the neighbouring bungalows. A huge sanatorium a block away with its hundreds of patients was rapidly canvassed; but to no avail. Two male nurses were sent down into the town to inquire from house to house and then into the stores on Myrtle Avenue; still without result. Finally they inserted an advertisement in the afternoon edition of the daily paper. Thus all the homes in Monrovia that evening knew that one of the richest and frailest patients in the exclusive bungalows on Gold Hill was missing. By nightfall the whole town was aroused and the chief of police had organized searching parties to proceed up Saw Pit Canyon and into the trails around the base of Mount Wilson. All felt that the delicate young man had wandered off and had fallen in some obscure spot where the common imagination pictured him lying exhausted and perhaps dying.

However, when Mr. Clifford Syce, attorney, entered his office in Los Angeles at ten o’clock that morning, he discovered in his private sanctum the son of his most important client, old Aaron Gaul of Philadelphia. Startled at the unusual brilliance in Ranor’s eyes and at the hectic flush in his cheeks, Mr. Syce was all sympathy and attention. Despite the fact that at first he appeared sceptical and antagonistic, he listened to the plan which Ranor proposed and, like a wise attorney, offered no immediate opposition, but rather counselled delay.

“Have luncheon with me at the California Club and we’ll talk it over,” he said. “This afternoon I’ll drive you back to Monrovia in my limousine and then I’ll place the matter before your father, fully, as you’ve outlined.”

“You are pettifogging with time,” countered Ranor, warmly. “You with your robust health, eating and drinking and smoking anything you like. Do you not realize that I have not a day to spare, not an hour, not a minute? The sands in my glass are low. If you do not act instantly, they will run out while you sit there gaping at me like a good-natured cow.”

Whatever further arguments Ranor used must have been extraordinarily convincing, because the final answer of Mr. Syce was to ring for his head clerk and to hand him a check with orders to proceed immediately to the bank and to return.

Shortly there was placed in Ranor’s hands a good-sized roll of yellow-backed bills. He rose to leave the office and swayed as he reached the door. Mr. Syce seized his hat and stick and, placing an arm through Ranor’s, accompanied him out, though it was the middle of the forenoon and there was a case waiting in court for him to try.

There ensued a strange shopping expedition in which the robust attorney acted as guide, agent, and friend to the hectic-faced youth. They visited the Mexican quarter and in an old stable located the first thing that Ranor desired, a light, covered wagon. Around the corner, in the old horse market, near the adobe church, they found a long-eared mule. The Chinaman, a truck farmer, who owned the animal, parted with him for an oversupply of the yellow backs. In his inscrutable yellow face was indicated genuine surprise at this odd investment by the two fastidiously dressed uptown white men. The mule was harnessed to the cart and the Chinaman was employed to drive it down to a wholesale grocery house. There it was half filled with tins and sacks and other paraphernalia that included an alcohol stove, an electric pocket light, and methylated spirits.

Thence they proceeded to an outfitter’s. After half an hour there Ranor emerged minus his well-cut New York clothes, wearing a red flannel shirt, khaki trousers, puttees, light sandals, and a pith helmet. Among the provisions were plenty of condensed milk and desiccated eggs. In the front of the wagon were stored two huge kegs of water.

Before noon all was ready. Mr. Syce insisted that the Chinaman be employed to drive Ranor through the Cohueñga Pass which lay on the outskirts of Hollywood, a dozen miles or so away. He, himself, accompanied the strange outfit as far as Echo Park.

“I’m doing a thing for which your father is likely never to forgive me,” said the attorney when the time came for them to part. “Personally, I have never had any use for these mollycoddling health resorts and I believe you are pursuing the only path that may lead to recovery, but you have placed a grave responsibility on me. If anything happens to you, I will have a terrible accounting with your father. You have made me see there is no time to waste, that I cannot write or even telegraph, and I feel as if you had hypnotized me into taking this rash step. But something in you convinces me, even against my better judgment, that you will find life, not death where you are going. Good-bye and good luck.”

At the last moment Mr. Syce pressed a revolver and a box of cartridges into Ranor’s hands but the young man firmly refused them.

“No, thank you,” said he. “No one will rob me, as I have nothing that I can lose except my life and that hangs by so thin a thread that it could not tempt any thief.”

“In thirty days,” continued Mr. Syce, “if I have not heard from you, I will come with my motor car to see how you are getting on and to bring a fresh supply of provisions. Ta-ta!”

The attorney turned toward the city, while the Chinaman snapped the reins across the back of the mule and the little wagon clattered on toward Hollywood and the Cohueñga Pass.

That night Ranor camped at the farther end of the San Fernando Valley and bade good-bye to the Chinaman, who, as he left, presented Ranor with a little package of punk and a tiny brass figure.

“Good luck,” he explained. “Light the stick and burn away bad sick spirit.”

The second morning the mule dragged the covered wagon on to the edge of the Mojave Desert. The last house had been left several miles behind. A lassitude had come over Ranor and he felt as though he were dying. Wearily he climbed down from his seat and dropped on to the hot sands, where he spread himself at full length, and pulled the pith helmet over his face to shield himself from the sun. For hours he lay there while the mule dutifully waited. As his body sank into the sand and the sun rose in the heavens, his lassitude very slowly began to disappear, and in its place came a more definite sensation; it seemed almost as if his flesh were burning.

After a while the heat became intolerable and he crawled under the shade of the wagon. The mule, which he had now tethered to a spoke of the front wheel, seeing him there, lay down and rolled under the wagon, also seeking shade. Ranor snuggled up to the mule and using his back as a pillow, went to sleep.

He had accepted the challenge and had won the first round of the contest that was to be to a finish.