Outland describes the winter cabin as a cozy, clean little affair in a grove of pine trees about 30 yards from the Cruzados river facing the Blue Mesa, backed by a sandy hill and fronted by prairie grass.
The arrangement, Rapp says, is to have one man sleep in the cabin while the other stays with the herd up north. He admonishes Outland to keep a sharp eye on the cattle and make sure they don’t bolt into the Mesa, as is their wont. Upon hearing about Outland’s plan to summit the Mesa, he tells him it’s too dangerous and he’ll definitely be fired if he lives through the attempt.
Throughout the ensuing weeks, Outland and Blake live comfortably in and around the cabin. They admire the Mesa daily and plan to enter it through a deep canyon carved by the river into the south side.
One day, Outland discovers an old irrigation main, some pottery, arrowheads and a pickaxe, relics of an ancient pueblo Native American civilization like the Hopis or the Taos.
Outland studies the Mesa on his own, observes old, accessible watercourses that have marked the sides, but concludes that the only way in is through the river that carves the canyon out of the south side.
In this chapter, Cather deepens the mystery of the Mesa both for Outland and Blake and for her readers. The Mesa is now not only an outstanding landmark in a flat country, but it is a swallower-up of cattle, the lifeblood of the ranchers who tamed the Southwest. Rapp’s ultimatum to Outland about exploring the Mesa of course makes it all the more inevitable that Outland will explore it.
Cather’s romanticism of the Southwest, on display as much in this chapter as anywhere in “Tom Outland’s Story,” has been commented upon, lauded and criticized by scholars over the years. The Southwest became, for Cather, a sort of mystical, mythical place where Americans could go to reclaim and feel in touch with their national heritage.
The Western myth in general, with its cowboys, rugged landscapes, and remains of ancient cultures has always been important to the American national consciousness, and Cather plays on these nationalistic feelings in this novel to great effect.
Cather’s romanticization of the landscape and characters of the Southwest is perhaps so striking here because her descriptions appear in contrast to the stuffy dullness of St. Peter’s 52-year-old voice droning on about his past and the fatigue he feels as he enters what he seems to believe is old age. Outland’s voice, by contrast, is fresh, young and adventurous; what comes across in Cather’s writing is the idealism of youth rather than mere cloying romanticism.
That said, Cather is known for romanticizing prairie, plains, and Western life in her novels. She does not believe the American plains and West are perfect, but she does obviously believe they are closer to the American spirit than the older and more jaded Midwest and East.