This is one of a crop of early westerns with civil engineers
as main characters. As in some other examples, the action of the story involves
the development of an irrigation project designed to convert arid land into a
“fruited plain.” The novel’s central conceit is the parallel it wants to draw
between the reclamation of both land and a man’s worth as a productive member
Plot. Bennet’s main
character is a man who rises from the depths of a wasted life to become the
doer of heroic deeds. Lafeyette Ashton is a self-indulgent, lazy bum, who has
grown up in the lap of luxury and received the finest education. Lacking any
kind of work ethic, he has been disowned by his father, his regular remittances
reduced to zero. Left to fend for himself, he’s on his own in the West, a
His foil in the novel is the brilliant young engineer,
Thomas Blake, whose daring achievements have made him renowned. Blake is everything
Ashton is not. In him, not an ounce of energy goes to waste. Generous and
good-humored, he not only throws himself into the most challenging engineering
projects; he is a loving husband and devoted father.
|A map of the watershed|
Their paths cross in western Colorado on the ranch of
cattleman Knowles. Blake comes at the invitation of Knowles’ daughter, Isobel,
to determine whether her father’s rangeland can be irrigated. Blake goes to
work, with Ashton as a reluctant assistant.
It turns out that the two men have a history. While a
student of engineering himself, Ashton had once stolen an idea for the design
of a bridge from Blake, who had then exposed the theft. While Blake has long
dismissed the incident, Ashton is still eaten up by professional jealousy.
They set to surveying the surrounding watershed, which
includes a stream that runs at the bottom of a very deep, narrow canyon. And
the two men climb down almost sheer cliffs to take measurements. Not only does
Blake’s irrigation scheme turn out to be feasible, but he discovers a seam of
gold-bearing quartz. Wealth abounds for all concerned.
matters is that Ashton has fallen in love with the rancher’s daughter. She may
or may not like him much in return. Sympathetic when she learns of his
predicaments, she expresses “motherly tenderness” for his suffering. But it is
hard to tell from her bantering conversation the actual depth of her feelings
Meanwhile, she so obviously worships Blake that Ashton’s
jealousy drives him mad. He suspects something irregular between them and
becomes concerned about preserving her reputation. In the descent into the
canyon, he thus plots to make Blake the victim of a fatal accident. When Blake
breaks a leg all on his own, Ashton learns that the man he so despises is
actually the long-lost brother of Isobel.
Experiencing a wave of guilt for his murderous thoughts, he
has a sudden change of heart. He makes a perilous climb back to the canyon’s
rim and directs a rescue that has only a slim hope of success. While help and a
doctor are sent for, he descends again in the middle of the night by the light
of a lantern to take food and first aid to the fallen man.
Convinced now that he is no better than worthless scum,
Ashton wants only to see that Blake is returned to safety. That accomplished,
he hopes to simply disappear from the face of the earth. But Isobel confesses
her love for him, and Blake has only gratitude for his bravery and his heroic
efforts. He offers Ashton a job and a future as resident engineer owning a
share of an ambitious irrigation project.