"Not necessarily," I faltered. "There may be another way."
"There ain't, if you're a he critter on two legs," snapped Jenks. "Not in this country or any other white man's country; no, nor in red man's country neither. What you do back in the States, can't say. Trust in pray'r, mebbe."
Nevertheless I determined to make a last effort even at the risk of losing caste. In the reaction from the pressure of that recent encounter when I might have killed, but didn't, I again had a spell of fierce, sick protest against the role being foisted upon me—foisted, I could see, by her machinations as well as by his animosity. The position was too false to be borne. There was no joy in it, no zest, no adequate reward. Why, in God's name, should I be sentenced to have blood upon my hands and soul? Surely I might be permitted to stay clean.
Therefore this evening immediately after corral was formed I sought out Captain Adams, as master of the train; and disregarding the gazes that followed me and that received me I spoke frankly, here at his own wagon, without preliminary.
"Daniel and I appear to be at outs, sir," I said. "Why, I do not know, except that he seems to have had a dislike for me from the first day. If he'll let me alone I'll let him alone. I'm not one to look for trouble."
His heavy face, with those thick pursed lips and small china blue eyes, changed not a jot.
"Daniel will take care of himself."
"That is his privilege," I answered. "I am not here to question his rights, Captain, as long as he keeps within them; but I don't require of him to take care of me also. If he will hold to his own trail I'll hold to mine, and I assure you there'll be no trouble."
"Daniel will take care of himself, I say," he reiterated. "Yes, and look after all that belongs to him, stranger. There's no use threatening Daniel. What he does he does as servant of the Lord and he fears naught."
"Neither do I, sir," I retorted hotly. "One may wish to avoid trouble and still not fear it. I have not come to you with complaint. I merely wish to explain. You are captain of the train and responsible for its conduct. I give you notice that I shall defend myself against insult and annoyance."
I turned on my heel—sensed poised forms and inquiring faces; and his booming voice stayed me.
"A moment, stranger. Your talk is big. What have you to do with this woman Edna?"
"With Mrs. Montoyo? What I please, if it pleases her, sir. If she claims your protection, very good. Should she claim mine, she'll have it." And there, confound it, I had spoken. "But with this, Daniel has nothing to do. I believe that the lady you mention is simply your present guest and my former acquaintance."
"You err," he thundered, darkening. "You cannot be expected to see the light. But I say to you, keep away, keep away. I will have no gallivanting, no cozening and smiling and prating and distracting. She must be nothing to you. Never can be, never shall be. Her way is appointed, the instrument chosen, and as a sister in Zion she shall know you not. Now get you gone——" a favorite expression of his. "Get you gone, meddle not hereabouts, and I'll see to it that you are spared from harm."
Surprising myself, and perhaps him, I gazed full at him and laughed without reserve or irritation.
"Thank you, Captain," I heard myself saying. "I am perfectly capable of self-protection. And I expect to remain a friend of Mrs. Montoyo as long as she permits me. For your bluster and Daniel's I care not a sou. In fact, I consider you a pair of damned body-snatchers. Good-evening."
Then out I stormed, boiling within, reckless of opposition—even courting it; but met none, Daniel least of all (for he was elsewhere), until as I passed on along the lined-up wagons I heard my name uttered breathlessly.
It was not My Lady; her I had not glimpsed. The gentle English girl Rachael had intercepted me. She stood between two wagons, whither she had hastened.
"You will be careful?"
"How far, madam?"
"Of yourself, and for her. Oh, be careful. You can gain nothing."
Her face and tone entreated me. She was much in earnest, the roses of her round cheeks paled, her hands clasped.
"I shall only look out for myself," said I. "That seems necessary."
"You should keep away from our camp, and from Daniel. There is nothing you can do. You—if you could only understand." Her hands tightened upon each other. "Won't you be careful? More careful? For I know. You cannot interfere; there is no way. You but run great risk. Sister Edna will be happy."
"Did she send you, madam?" I asked.
"N-no; yes. Yes, she wishes it. Her place has been found. The Lord so wills. We all are happy in Zion, under the Lord. Surely you would not try to interfere, sir?"
"I have no desire to interfere with the future happiness of Mrs. Montoyo," I stiffly answered. "She is not the root of the business between Daniel and me, although he would have it appear so. And you yourself, a woman, are satisfied to have her forced into Mormonism?"
"She has been living in sin, sir. The truth is appointed only among the Latter Day Saints. We have the book and the word—the Gentile priests are not ordained of the Lord for laying on of hands. In Zion Edna shall be purged and set free; there she shall be brought to salvation. Our bishops, perhaps Brigham Young himself, will show her the way. But no woman in Zion is married without consent. The Lord directs through our prophets. Oh, sir, if you could only see!"
An angel could not have pleaded more sweetly. To have argued with her would have been sacrilege, for I verily believed that she was pure of heart.
"There is nothing for me to say, madam," I responded. "As far as I can do so with self-respect I will avoid Daniel. I certainly shall not intrude upon your party, or bother Mrs. Montoyo. But if Daniel brings trouble to me I will hand it back to him. That's flat. He shall not flout me out of face. It rests with him whether we travel on peacefully or not. And I thank you for your interest."
"I will pray for you," she said simply. "Good-bye, sir."
She withdrew, hastening again, sleek haired, round figured, modest in her shabby gown. I proceeded to the outfit with a new sense of disease. If she—if Mrs. Montoyo really had yielded, if she were out of the game—but she never had been in it; not to me. And still I conned the matter over and over, vainly convincing myself that the situation had cleared. Notwithstanding all my effort, I somehow felt that an incentive had vanished, leaving a gap. The affair now had simmered down to plain temper and tit for tat. I championed nothing, except myself.
Why, with her submissive, in a fracas I might be working hurt to her, beyond the harm to him. But she be hanged, as to that phase of it. I had been led on so far that there was no solution save as Daniel turned aside. Heaven knows that the matter would have been sordid enough had it focused upon a gambler's wife; and here it looked only prosaic. Thus viewing it I fought an odd disappointment in myself, coupled with a keener disappointment in her.
"You talked to Hyrum, I see," Jenks commented.
"'Bout Dan'l, mebbe?"
"I wanted to make plain that the business is none of my seeking. Hyrum is wagon master."
"Didn't get any satisfaction, I'll bet."
"No. On the contrary."
"I could have told you you'd be wastin' powder."
"At any rate," I informed, "Mrs. Montoyo is entirely out of the matter. She never was in it except as she was entitled to protection, but now she requires no further notice."
"That is her wish. She sent me word by Rachael."
"She did? Wall?" He eyed me. "You swaller that?"
"Willingly." And I swallowed my bitterness also.
"Means to marry him, does she?"
"Rachael did not say as to that. Rather, she gave me to understand that a way would be found to release Mrs. Montoyo from Benton connections, but that no woman in Utah is obliged to marry. Is that true?"
"Um-m." Jenks rubbed his beard. "Wall, they do say Brigham Young is ag'in promisc'yus swappin', and things got to be done straight, 'cordin' to the faith. But an unjined female in the church is a powerful lonely critter. Sticks out like a sore thumb. They read the Bible at her plenty. Um-m," mused he. "I don't put much stock in that yarn you bring me. There's a nigger in the wood-pile, but he ain't black. What you goin' to do about it?"
"Nothing. It's not my concern. Now if Daniel will mind his affairs I'll continue to mind mine."
"Wall, Zion's a long way off yet," quoth friend Jenks. "I don't look to see you or she get there—nor Dan'l either."
He being stubborn, I let him have the last word; did not seek to develop his views. But his contentious harping shadowed like an omen.
I DO THE DEED
We had camped well beyond a last bunch of the red-shirted graders, so that the thread of a trail wended before, lonely, sand-obscured, leading apparently nowhere, through this desert devoid of human life. Line stakes of the surveyors denoted the grade; but the surveyors' work was done, here. Rush orders from headquarters had sent them all westward still, to set their final stakes across other deserts and across the mountains, clear to Ogden at the north end of the Salt Lake itself.
Seemingly we had cut loose and were more than ever a world to ourselves. The country had grown sterile beneath ordinary, if possible; and our thoughts and talk would have been sterile also were it not for that one recurrent topic which kept them quick. In these journeyings men seize upon little things and magnify them; discuss and rediscuss a phase until launched maybe as an empty joke it returns freighted with tragedy.
However, now that once My Lady had eliminated herself from my field I did not see but that Daniel and I might taper off into at least an armed neutrality. If he continued to nag me, it would be wholly of his own free will. He had no grievance.
Then in case that I did kill him—if kill him I must (and that eventuality hung over me like the sword of Damocles) I should be not ashamed to tell even my mother. In this I took what small comfort I might.
I had not spoken at length with Mrs. Montoyo for several days. We had exchanged merely civil greetings. To-day I did not see her during the march; did not attempt to see her—did not so much as curiously glance her way, being content to let well enough alone, although aware that my care might be misinterpreted as a token of fear. But as to proving the case against me, Daniel was at liberty to experiment with the status in quo.
Toward evening we climbed a second wide, flat divide. We were leaving the Red Basin, they said, and about to cross into the Bitter Creek Plains, which, according to the talk, were "a damned sight wuss!" Somewhere in the Bitter Creek Plains our course met the course of the Overland Stage road, trending up from the south for the passage of the Green River at the farther edge of the Plains.
I had only faint hope that Mrs. Montoyo would be delivered over to the stage there. It scarcely would be her wish. We were destined to travel on to Salt Lake City together—she, Daniel and I.
If the Red Basin had been bad and if the Bitter Creek Plains were to be worse, assuredly this plateau was limbo: a gray, bleak, wind-swept elevation fairly level and extending, in elevation perceptible mainly by the vista, as far as eye might see, northward and southward, separating basin from basin—one Hell, as Jenks declared, from the other.
Nevertheless there was a wild grandeur in the site, flooded all with crimson as the sun sank in the clear western sky beyond the Plains themselves, so that our plateau was still bathed in ruddy color when the Red Basin upon the one hand had deepened to purple and the white blotches of soda and alkali down in the Plains upon the other hand gleamed evilly in a tenuous gloaming.
We had corralled adjacent to another tainted pond, of which the animals refused to drink but which furnished a little rank forage for them and an oasis for a half dozen ducks. A pretty picture these made, too, as they lightly sat the open water, burnished to brass by the sunset so that the surface shimmered iridescent, its ripples from the floating bodies flowing molten in all directions.
After supper I took the notion to go over there, in the twilight, on idle exploration. Water of any kind had an appeal; a solitary pond always has; the ducks brought thoughts of home. Many a teal and widgeon and canvasback had fallen to my double-barreled Manton, back on the Atlantic coast—very long ago, before I had got entangled in this confounded web of misadventure and homicidal tendencies.
To the pond I went, mood subdued. It set slightly in a cup; and when I had emerged from a little swale or depression that I had followed, attracted by the laughter of children playing at the marge, whom should I see, approaching on line diagonal, but Mrs. Montoyo—her very hair and form—coming in likewise, perhaps with errand similar to mine: simple inclination.
And that (again perhaps) was a mutual surprise, indeed awkward to me, for we both were in plain sight from the camp. Certainly I could not turn off, nor turn back. Not now. It was make or break. Hesitate I did, with involuntary action of muscles; I thought that she momentarily hesitated; then I drove on, defiant, and so did she. The fates were resolved that there should be no dilly-dallying by the principals chosen for this drama that they had staged.
Our obstinate paths met at the base of a small point white with alkali, running shortly into the sedges. Had we timed by agreement beforehand we could not have acted with more precision. So here we halted, in narrow quarters, either willing but unable to yield to the other.
She smiled. I thought that she looked thinner.
"An unexpected pleasure, Mr. Beeson. At least, for me. It has been some days."
"I believe it has," I granted. "Shall I pass on?"
"You might have turned aside."
"And so," I reminded, "might you."
"But I didn't care to."
"Neither did I, madam. The pond is free to all."
I was conscious that a hush seemed to have gripped the whole camp, so that even the animals had ceased bawling. The children near us stared, eyes and mouths open.
"You have kept away from me purposely?" she asked. "I do not blame your discretion."
"I am not courting trouble. And as long as you are contented yonder——"
"I contented?" She drew up, paling. "Why do you say that, when you must know." She laughed weakly. "I am still for the Lion's den."
"You have become more reconciled—I've been requested not to interfere."
"You? Without doubt. By Daniel, by Captain Adams, likely by others. More than requested, I fancy. And you do perfectly right to avoid trouble if possible. In fact, you can leave me now and continue your walk, sir, with no reproaches. Believe me, I shall not drag you farther into my affairs."
"Daniel and Captain Adams have no weight with me, madam," I stammered. "But when you yourself requested——"
"That was merely for the time being. I asked you to leave me at the fire because I felt sure that Daniel would kill you."
"But yesterday evening—I refer to yesterday," I corrected. "You sent me word, following my talk with Hyrum."
"I did not."
"Not by Rachael?"
"I so understood. I thought that she intimated as much. She said that you were to be happy; were already content. And that I would only be making you trouble if I continued our acquaintance."
"Oh! Rachael." She smiled with sudden softness. "Rachael cannot understand, either. I'm sure she intended well, poor soul. Were they all like Rachael—— But I had no knowledge of her talk with you. Anyway, please leave me if you feel disposed. Whether I marry Daniel or not should be no concern of yours. I shall have to find my own trail out. Look! There go the ducks. I came down to watch them. Now neither of us has any excuse for staying. Good——"
The hush had tightened into a strange pent stillness like the poise of earth and sky and beast and bird just before the breaking of a great and lowering storm. The quick clatter of the ducks' wings somehow alarmed me—the staring of the children, their eyes directed past us, sharpened my senses for a new focus. And glancing, I witnessed Daniel nearing—striding rapidly, straight for the point, a figure portentous in the fading glow, bringing the storm with him.
She saw, too. Her eyes widened, startled, surveying not him, but me.
"Please go. At once! I'll keep him."
"It is too late now," I asserted, in voice not mine. "I am here first and I'll go when I get ready."
"You mean to face him?"
"I mean to hear what he has to say, and learn what he intends to do. I don't see any other way—unless you really wish me to go?"
"No, no!" cried My Lady. "I don't want you to be harmed; but oh, how I have suffered." All her countenance was suffused—with anger, with shame, and even with hope. She trembled, gazing at me, and fluctuant.
"So have I, madam," said I, grimly.
"I think," she remarked in quiet tone, "that in a show-down you will best him. I'm sure of it; yes, I know it. You will play the man. You act cool. Good! Watch him very close. He'll give you little grace, this time. But remember this: I'll never, never, never marry him. Rather than be bound to him I'll deal with him myself."
"It won't be necessary, madam," said I—a catch in my throat; for while I was all iciness and clamminess, my hands cold and my tongue dry, I felt that I was going to kill him at last. Something told me; the sheer horror of it struck through; the inevitable loomed grisly and near indeed.
A panoramic lifetime crowds the brain of a drowning man; that same crowded my brain during the few moments which swung in to us Daniel, scowling, masterful, his raw bulk and his long shambling stride never before so insolent.
From New York and home and peace I traveled clear here to desert, outlawry and blood—and thence on through a second life as a marked man; but while I knew very well where I should shoot him (right through the heart), I turned over and over the one doubtful pass: where would he shoot me? Shoot me he would—chest, shoulder, arm, head; I could not escape, did not hope to escape. Yet no matter where his ball ploughed (and I poignantly felt it enter and sear me) my final bullet would end the match. Also, I argued my rights in the business; argued them before my father and mother, before the camp, before the world.
These thoughts which precede a certain duel to the death are not inspiring thoughts; since then I have learned that other men, even practiced gun-men, have had the same trepidation to the instant of pulling weapon.
Daniel charged in for us. I did not touch revolver butt; he did not. My Lady lifted chin, to receive him. My eyes, fastened upon him, noted her, and noted, beyond us, the spying visages of the camp folk, all turned our way, transfixed and agog.
He barked first at her.
"Go whar yu belong, yu Jezebel! Then I'll tend to this——" The rabid epithet leveled at me I shall not repeat.
She straightened whitely.
"Be careful what you say, Daniel. No man on this earth can speak to me like that."
All his face flushed livid with a sneer, merging together yellow freckles and tanned skin.
"Can't, can't he? I kin an' I do. Why yu—yu—yu reckon yu kin shame me 'fore that hull train? Yu sneak out this-away, meetin' this spindle-shank, no-'count States greenie who hain't sense enough to swing a bull whip an' ain't man enough to draw a gun? I've told yu an' I'm done tellin' yu. Now yu git. I've stood yore fast an' loose plenty. I mean business. Git! Whar yu'll be safe. I'll not hold off much longer."
"You threaten me?"
Her blue eyes were blazing above a spot of color in either cheek—with a growl he took a step, so that she shrank from his clutching hand, its scarred, burly fingers outcurved. And the time, perhaps the very moment had arrived. I must, I must.
"No more of that, you brute," I uttered, while my pounding heart flooded me with a cold, tingling stream. "If you have anything to say, say it to me."
"Yu! Why, yu leetle piece o' nothin'—yu shut up!" By sudden reach he gripped her arm; to her sharp, short scream he thrust her about.
"Git! I'm boss hyar." And at me: "What yu goin' to do? She's promised to me. I'm takin' keer of her; she's rode on my wagon; an' naow yu think to toll her off? Yu meet her ag'in right under my nose arter I've warned yu? Git, yoreself, or I'll stomp on yu like on a louse."
Absolutely, hot tears of mortification, of bitter injury, showed in his glaring eyes. He was but a big boy, after all.
"Our meeting here was entirely by accident," I answered. "Mrs. Montoyo had no expectation of seeing me, nor I of seeing her. You're making a fool of yourself."
He burst, red, quivering, insensate.
"Yu're a liar! Yu're a sneakin', thievin' liar, like all Gentiles. Yu're both o' yu liars. What's she?" And he spoke it, raving with insult. "But I'll tame her. She'll be snatched from yu an' yore kind. We'll settle naow. Yu're a liar, I say. Yu gonna draw on me? Draw, yu Gentile dog; for if I lay hands on yu once——"
"Look out!" she gasped tensely. But she had spoken late. That cold blood which had kept me in a tremor and a wonderment, awaiting his pistol muzzle, exploded into a seethe of heat almost blinding me. I forgot instructions, I disregarded every movement preliminary to the onset, I remembered only the criminations and recriminations culminating here at last. Bullets were too slow and easy. I did not see his revolver, I saw but the hulk of him and the intolerable sneer of him, and that his flesh was ready to my fingers. And quicker than his hand I was upon him, into him, climbing him, clinging to him, arms binding him, legs twining around his, each ounce of me greedy to crush him down and master him.
The shock drove him backward. Again My Lady screamed shortly; the children screamed. He proved very strong. Swelling and tugging and cursing he broke one grip, but I was fast to him, now with guard against his holstered gun. We swayed and staggered, grappling hither and thither. I had his arms pinioned once more, to bend him. He spat into my face; and shifting, set his teeth into my shoulder so that they champed like the teeth of a horse, through shirt and hide to the flesh. I raised him; his boots hammered at my shins, his knee struck me in the stomach and for an instant I sickened. Now I tripped him; we toppled together, came to the ground with a thump. Here we churned, while he flung me and still I stuck. The acrid dust of the alkali enveloped us. Again he spat, fetid—I sprawled upon him, smothering his flailing arms; gave him all my weight and strength; smelled the sweat of him, snarled into his snarling face, close beneath mine.
Once he partially freed himself and buffeted me in the mouth with his fist, but I caught him—while struggling, tossed and upheaved, dimly saw that as by a miracle we were surrounded by a ring of people, men and women, their countenances pale, alarmed, intent. Voices sounded in a dull roar.
Presently I had him crucified: his one outstretched arm under my knees, his other arm tethered by my two hands, my body across his chest, while his legs threshed vainly. I looked down into his bulging crooked eyes, glaring back presumably into my eyes, and might draw breath.
"'Nuf? Cry "Nuf,'" I bade.
"'Nuf! Say "Nuf,'" echoed the crowd.
He strained again, convulsive; and relaxed.
"'Nuf!" he panted through bared teeth. "Lemme up, Mister."
"This settles it?"
"I said "Nuf,'" he growled.
With quick movement I sprang clear of him, to my feet. He lay for a moment, baleful, and slowly scrambled up. On a sudden, as he faced me, his hand shot downward—I heard the surge and shout of men and women, to the stunning report of his revolver ducked aside, felt my left arm jerk and sting—felt my own gun explode in my hand (and how it came there I did not know)—beheld him spin around and collapse; an astonishing sight.
THE TRAIL FORKS
So there I stood, amidst silence, gaping foolishly, breathing hard, my revolver smoking in my fingers and my enemy in a shockingly prone posture at my feet, gradually reddening the white of the torn soil. He was upon his face, his revolver hand outflung. He was harmless. The moment had arrived and passed. I was standing here alive, I had killed him.
Then I heard myself babbling.
"Have I killed him? I didn't want to. I tell you, I didn't want to."
Figures rushed in between. Hands grasped me, impelled me away, through a haze; voices spoke in my ear while I feebly resisted, a warm salty taste in my throat.
"I killed him. I didn't want to kill him. He made me do it. He shot first."
"Yes, yes," they said, soothing gruffly. "Shore he did; shore you didn't. It's all right. Come along, come along."
"Pick him up. He's bad hurt, himself. See that blood? No, 'tain't his arm, is it? He's bleedin' internal. Whar's the hole? Wait! He's busted something."
They would have carried me.
"No," I cried, while their bearded faces swam. "He said "Nuf'—he shot me afterward. Not bad, is it? I can walk."
"Not bad. Creased you in the arm, if that's all. What you spittin' blood for?"
As they hustled me onward I wiped my swollen lips; the back of my hand seemed to be covered with thin blood.
"Where he struck me, once," I wheezed.
"Yes, mebbe so. But come along, come along. We'll tend to you."
The world had grown curiously darkened, so that we moved as through an obscuring veil; and I dumbly wondered whether this was night (had it been morning or evening when I started for the pond?) or whether I was dying myself. I peered and again made out the sober, stern faces hedging me, but they gave me no answer to my mutely anxious query. Across a great distance we stumbled by the wagons (the same wagons of a time agone), and halted at a fire.
"Set down. Fetch a blanket, somebody. Whar's the water? Set down till we look you over."
I let them sit me down.
"Wash your mouth out."
That was done, pinkish; and a second time, clearer.
"You're all right." Jenks apparently was ministering to me. "Swaller this."
The odor of whiskey fumed into my nostrils. I obediently swallowed, and gasped and choked. Jenks wiped my face with a sopping cloth. Hands were rummaging at my left arm; a bandage being wound about.
"Nothin' much," was the report. "Creased him, is all. Lucky he dodged. It was comin' straight for his heart."
"He's all right," Jenks again asserted.
Under the bidding of the liquor the faintness from the exertion and reaction was leaving me. The slight hemorrhage from the strain to my weak lungs had ceased. I would live, I would live. But he—Daniel?
"Did I kill him?" I besought. "Not that! I didn't aim—I don't know how I shot—but I had to. Didn't I?"
"You did. He'll not bother you ag'in. She's yourn."
"But it wasn't about her, it wasn't over Mrs. Montoyo. He bullied me—dared me. We were man to man, boys. He made me fight him."
"Yes, shore," they agreed—and they were not believing. They still linked me with a woman, whereas she had figured only as a transient occasion.
Then she herself, My Lady, appeared, running in breathless and appealing.
"Is Mr. Beeson hurt? Badly? Where is he? Let me help."
She knelt beside me, her hand grasped mine, she gazed wide-eyed and imploring.
"No, he's all right, ma'am."
"I'm all right, I assure you," I mumbled thickly, and helpless as a babe to the clinging of her cold fingers.
"How's the other man?" they abruptly asked.
"I don't know. He was carried away. But I think he's dead. I hope so—oh, I hope so. The coward, the beast!"
"There, there," they quieted. "That's all over with. What he got is his own business now. He hankered for it and was bound to have it. You'd best stay right hyar a spell. It's the place for you at present."
They grouped apart, on the edge of the flickering fire circle. The dusk had heightened apace (for nightfall this really was), the glow and flicker barely touched their blackly outlined forms, the murmur of their voices sounded ominous. In the circle we two sat, her hand upon mine, thrilling me comfortably yet abashing me. She surveyed me unwinkingly and grave—a triumph shining from her eyes albeit there were seamy shadows etched into her white face. It was as though she were welcoming me through the outposts of hell.
"You killed him. I knew you would—I knew you'd have to."
"I knew it, too," I miserably faltered. "But I didn't want to—I shot without thinking. I might have waited."
"Waited! How could you wait? 'Twas either you or he."
"Then I wish it had been I," I attempted.
"What nonsense," she flashed. "We all know you did your best to avoid it. But tell me: Do you think I dragged you into it? Do you hate me for it?"
"No. It happened when you were there. That's all. I'm sorry; only sorry. What's to be done next?"
"That will be decided, of course," she said. "You will be protected, if necessary. You acted in self-defense. They all will swear to that and back you up."
"But you?" I asked, arousing from this unmanly despair which played me for a weakling. "You must be protected also. You can't go to that other camp, can you?"
She laughed and withdrew her hand; laughed hardly, even scornfully.
"I? Above all things, don't concern yourself about me, please. I shall take care of myself. He is out of the way. You have freed me of that much, Mr. Beeson, whether intentionally or not. And you shall be free, yourself, to act as your friends advise. You must leave me out of your plans altogether. Yes, I know; you killed him. Why not? But he wasn't a man; he was a wild animal. And you'll find there are matters more serious than killing even a man, in this country."
"You! You!" I insisted. "You shall be looked out for. We are partners in this. He used your name; he made that an excuse. We shall have to make some new arrangements for you—put you on the stage as soon as we can. And meanwhile——"
"There is no partnership, and I shall require no looking after, sir," she interrupted. "If you are sorry that you killed him, I am not; but you are entirely free."
The group at the edge of the fire circle dissolved. Jenks came and seated himself upon his hams, beside us.
"Wall, how you feelin' now?" he questioned of me.
"I'm myself again," said I.
"Your arm won't trouble you. Jest a flesh wound. There's nothin' better than axle grease. And you, ma'am?"
"Perfectly well, thank you."
"You're the coolest of the lot, and no mistake," he praised admiringly. "Wall, there'll be no more fracas to-night. Anyhow, the boys'll be on guard ag'in it; they're out now. You two can eat and rest a bit, whilst gettin' good and ready; and if you set out 'fore moon-up you can easy get cl'ar, with what help we give you. We'll furnish mounts, grub, anything you need. I'll make shift without Frank."
"Mounts!" I blurted, with a start that waked my arm to throbbing. "'Set out,' you say? Why? And where?"
"Anywhar. The stage road south'ard is your best bet. You didn't think to stay, did you? Not after that—after you'd plugged a Mormon, the son of the old man, besides! We reckoned you two had it arranged, by this time."
"No! Never!" I protested. "You're crazy, man. I've never dreamed of any such thing; nor Mrs. Montoyo, either. You mean that I—we—should run away? I'll not leave the train and neither shall she, until the proper time. Or do I understand that you disown us; turn your backs upon us; deliver us over?"
"Hold on," Jenks bade. "You're barkin' up the wrong tree. 'Tain't a question of disownin' you. Hell, we'd fight for you and proud to do it, for you're white. But I tell you, you've killed one o' that party ahead, you've killed the wagon boss's son; and Hyrum, he's consider'ble of a man himself. He stands well up, in the church. But lettin' that alone, he's captain of this train, he's got a dozen and more men back of him; and when he comes in the mornin' demandin' of you for trial by his Mormons, what can we do? Might fight him off; yes. Not forever, though. He's nearest to the water, sech as it is, and our casks are half empty, critters dry. We sha'n't surrender you; if we break with him we break ourselves and likely lose our scalps into the bargain. Why, we hadn't any idee but that you and her were all primed to light out, with our help. For if you stay you won't be safe anywhere betwixt here and Salt Lake; and over in Utah they'll vigilant you, shore as kingdom. As for you, ma'am," he bluntly addressed, "we'd protect you to the best of ability, o' course; but you can see for yourself that Hyrum won't feel none too kindly toward you, and that if you'll pull out along with Beeson as soon as convenient you'll avoid a heap of unpleasantness. We'll take the chance on sneakin' you both away, and facin' the old man."
"Mr. Beeson should go," she said. "But I shall return to the Adams camp. I am not afraid, sir."
"Tut, tut!" he rapped. "I know you're not afraid; nevertheless we won't let you do it."
"They wouldn't lay hands on me."
"Um-m," he mused. "Mebbe not. No, reckon they wouldn't. I'll say that much. But by thunder they'd make you wish they did. They'd claim you trapped Dan'l. You'd suffer for that, and in place of this boy, and a-plenty. Better foller your new man, lady, and let him stow you in safety. Better go back to Benton."
"Never to Benton," she declared. "And he's not my 'new man.' I apologize to him for that, from you, sir."
"If you stay, I stay, then," said I. "But I think we'd best go. It's the only way." And it was. We were twain in menace to the outfit and to each other but inseparable. We were yoked. The fact appalled. It gripped me coldly. I seemed to have bargained for her with word and fist and bullet, and won her; now I should appear to carry her off as my booty: a wife and a gambler's wife. Yet such must be.
"You shall go without me."
"I shall not."
With a little sob she buried her face in her hands.
"If you don't hate me now you soon will," she uttered. "The cards don't fall right—they don't, they don't. They've been against me from the first. I'm always forcing the play."
Whereupon I knew that go together we should, or I was no man.
"Pshaw, pshaw," Jenks soothed. "Matters ain't so bad. We'll fix ye out and cover your trail. Moon'll be up in a couple o' hours. I'd advise you to take an hour's start of it, so as to get away easier. If you travel straight south'ard you'll strike the stage road sometime in the mornin'. When you reach a station you'll have ch'ice either way."
"I have money," she said; and sat erect.
VOICES IN THE VOID
The directions had been plain. With the North Star and the moon as our guides we scarcely could fail to strike the stage road where it bore off from the mountains northward into the desert.
For the first half mile we rode without a word from either of us to violate the truce that swathed us like the night. What her thoughts were I might not know, but they sat heavy upon her, closing her throat with the torture of vain self-reproach. That much I sensed. But I could not reassure her; could not volunteer to her that I welcomed her company, that she was blameless, that I had only defended my honor, that affairs would have reduced to pistol work without impulse from her—that, in short, the responsibility had been wholly Daniel's. My own thoughts were so grievous as to crush me with aching woe that forebade civil utterance.
This, then, was I: somebody who had just killed a man, had broken from the open trail and was riding, he knew not where, through darkness worse than night, himself an outlaw with an outlawed woman—at the best a chance woman, an adventuring woman, and as everybody could know, a claimed woman, product of dance hall and gaming resort, wife of a half-breed gambler, and now spoil of fist and revolver.
But that which burned me almost to madness, like hot lava underneath the deadening crust, was the thought that I had done a deed and a defensible deed, and was fleeing from it the same as a criminal. Such a contingency never had occurred to me or I might have taken a different course, still with decency; although what course I could not figure.
We rode, our mules picking their way, occasionally stumbling on rocks and shrubs. At last she spoke in low, even tones.
"What do you expect to do with me, please?"
"We shall have to do whatever is best for yourself," I managed to answer. "That will be determined when we reach the stage line, I suppose."
"Thank you. Once at the stage line and I shall contrive. You must have no thought of me. I understand very well that we should not travel far in company—and you may not wish to go in my direction. You have plans of your own?"
"None of any great moment. Everything has failed me, to date. There is only the one place left: New York State, where I came from. I probably can work my way back—at least, until I can recoup by telegraph message and the mails."
"You have one more place than I," she replied. She hesitated. "Will you let me lend you some money?"
"I've been paid my wages due," said I. "But," I added, "you have a place, you have a home: Benton."
"Oh, Benton!" She laughed under breath. "Never Benton. I shall make shift without Benton."
"You will tell me, though?" I urged. "I must have your address, to know that you reach safety."
"You are strictly business. I believe that I accused you before of being a Yankee." And I read sarcasm in her words.
Her voice had a quality of definite estimation which nettled, humbled, and isolated me, as if I lacked in some essential to a standard set.
"So you are going home, are you?" she resumed. "With the clothes on your back, or will you stop at Benton for your trunk?"
"With the clothes on my back," I asserted bitterly. "I've no desire to see Benton. The trunk can be shipped to me."
She said on, in her cool impersonal tone.
"That is the easiest way. You will live warm and comfortably. You will need to wear no belt weapon. The police will protect you. If a man injures you, you can summon him at law and wash your hands of him. Instead of staking on your luck among new people, you can enter into business among your friends and win from them. You can marry the girl next door—or even take the chance of the one across the street, her parentage being comme il faut. You can tell stories of your trip into the Far West; your children will love to hear of the rough mule-whacker trail—yes, you will have great tales but you will not mention that you killed a man who tried to kill you and then rode for a night with a strange woman alone at your stirrup. Perhaps you will venture to revisit these parts by steam train, and from the windows of your coach point out the places where you suffered those hardships and adventures from which you escaped by leaving them altogether. Your course is the safe course. By all means take it, Mr. Beeson, and have your trunk follow you."
"That I shall do, madam," I retorted. "The West and I have not agreed; and, I fear, never shall."
"By honest confession, it has bested you; and in short order."
"In short order, since you put it that way. Only a fool doesn't know when to quit."
"The greatest fool is the one who fools himself, in the quitting as in other matters. But you will have no regrets—except about Daniel, possibly."
"None whatever, save the regret that I ever tried this country. I wish to God I had never seen it—I did not conceive that I should have to take a human life—should be forced to that—become like an outlaw in the night, riding for refuge——" And I choked passionately.
"You deserve much sympathy," she remarked, in that even tone.
I lapsed into a turbulence of voiceless rage at myself, at her, at Daniel's treachery, at all the train, at Benton, and again at this damning predicament wherein I had landed. When I was bound to wrest free after having done my utmost, she appeared to be twitting me because I would not submit to farther use by her. I certainly had the right to extricate myself in the only way left.
So I conned over and over, and my heart gnawed, and the acid of vexation boiled in my throat, and despite the axle grease my arm nagged; while we rode unspeaking, like some guilty pair through purgatory.
My lip had subsided; the pistol wound was superficial. Under different circumstances the way would have been full of beauty. The high desert stretched vastly, far, far, far before, behind, on either side, the parched gauntness of its daytime aspect assuaged and evanescent. For the moon, now risen, although on the wane, shed a light sufficient, whitening the rocks and the scattered low shrubs, painting the land with sharp black shadows, and enclosing us about with the mystery of great softly illumined spaces into which silent forms vanished as if tempting us aside. Of these—rabbits, wolves, animals only to be guessed—there were many, like potential phantoms quickened by the touch of the moonbeams. Mule-back, we twain towered, the sole intruders visible between the two elysians of glorified earth and beatific sky.
The course was southward. After a time it seemed to me that we were descending from the plateau; craunching gradually down a flank until, in a mile or so, we were again upon the level, cutting through another basin formed by the dried bed of an ancient lake whose waters had evaporated into deposits of salt and soda.
At first the mules had plodded with ears pricked forward, and with sundry snorts and stares as if they were seeing portents in the moonshine. Eventually their imaginings dulled, so that they now moved careless of where or why, their heads drooped, their minds devoted to achieving what rest they might in the merely mechanical setting of hoof before hoof.
I could not but be aware of my companion. Her hair glinted paly, for she rode bareheaded; her gown, tightened under her as she sat astride, revealed the lines of her boyish limbs. She was a woman, in any guise; and I being a man, protect her I should, as far as necessary. I found myself wishing that we could upturn something pleasant to talk about; it was ungracious, even wicked, to ride thus side by side through peace and beauty, with lips closed and war in the heart, and final parting as the main desire.
But her firm pose and face steadily to the fore invited with no sign; and after covertly stealing a glance or two at her clear unresponsive profile I still could manage no theme that would loosen my tongue. Thereby let her think me a dolt. Thank Heaven, after another twenty-four hours at most it might not matter what she thought.
The drooning round of my own thoughts revolved over and over, and the scuffing gait of the mules upon way interminable began to numb me. Lassitude seemed to be enfolding us both; I observed that she rode laxly, with hand upon the horn and a weary yielding to motion. Words might have stirred us, but no words came. Presently I caught myself dozing in the saddle, aroused only by the twitching of my wounded arm. Then again I dozed, and kept dozing, fairly dead for sleep, until speak she did, her voice drifting as from afar but fetching me awake and blinking.
"Hadn't we better stop?" she repeated.
That was a curious sensation. When I stared about, uncomprehending, my view was shut off by a whiteness veiling the moon above and the earth below except immediately underneath my mule's hoofs. She herself was a specter; the weeds that we brushed were spectral; every sound that we made was muffled, and in the intangible, opaquely lucent shroud which had enveloped us like the spirit of a sea there was no life nor movement.
"What's the matter?" I propounded.
"The fog. I don't know where we are."
"Oh! I hadn't noticed."
"No," she said calmly. "You've been asleep."
"Not lately. But I don't think there's any use in riding on. We've lost our bearings."
She was ahead; evidently had taken the lead while I slept. That realization straightened me, shamed, in my saddle. The fog, fleecy, not so wet as impenetrable—when had it engulfed us?
"How long have we been in it?" I asked, thoroughly vexed.
"An hour, maybe. We rode right into it. I thought we might leave it, but we don't. It's as thick as ever. We ought to stop."
"I suppose we ought," said I.
And at the moment we entered into a sudden clearing amidst the fog enclosure: a tract of a quarter of an acre, like a hollow center, with the white walls held apart and the stars and moon faintly glimmering down through the mist roof overhead.
She drew rein and half turned in the saddle. I could see her face. It was dank and wan and heavy-eyed; her hair, somewhat robbed of its sheen, crowned with a pallid golden aureole.
"Will this do? If we go on we'll only be riding into the fog again."
I was conscious of the thin, apparently distant piping of frogs.
"There seems to be a marsh beyond," she uttered.
"Yes, we'd better stop where we are," I agreed. "Then in the morning we can take stock."
"In the morning, surely. We may not be far astray." She swung off before I had awkwardly dismounted to help her. Her limbs failed—my own were clamped by stiffness—and she staggered and collapsed with a little laugh.
"I'm tired," she confessed. "Wait just a moment."
"You stay where you are," I ordered, staggering also as I hastily landed. "I'll make camp."
But she would have none of that; pleaded my one-handedness and insisted upon cooperating at the mules. We seemed to be marooned upon a small rise of gravel and coarsely matted dried grasses. The animals were staked out, fell to nibbling. I sought a spot for our beds; laid down a buffalo robe for her and placed her saddle as her pillow. She sank with a sigh, tucking her skirt under her, and I folded the robe over.
Her face gazed up at me; she extended her hand.
"You are very kind, sir," she said, in a smile that pathetically curved her lips. There, at my knees, she looked so worn, so slight, so childish, so in need of encouragement that all was well and that she had a friend to serve her, that with a rush of sudden sympathy I would—indeed I could have kissed her, upon the forehead if not upon the lips themselves. It was an impulse well-nigh overmastering; an impulse that must have dazed me so that she saw or felt, for a tinge of pink swept into her skin; she withdrew her hand and settled composedly.
"Good-night. Please sleep. In the morning we'll reach the stage road and your troubles will be near the end."
Under my own robe I lay for a long time reviewing past and present and discussing with myself the future. Strangely enough the present occupied me the most; it incorporated with that future beyond the fog, and when I put her out back she came as if she were part and parcel of my life. There was a sense of balance; we had been associates, fellow tenants—in fact, she was entwined with the warp and woof of all my memories dating far back to my entrance, fresh and hopeful, into the new West. It rather flabbergasted me to find myself thinking that the future was going to be very tame; perhaps, as she had suggested, regretful. I had not apprehended that the end should be so drastic.
And whether the regrets would center upon my slinking home defeated, or in having definitely cast her away, puzzled me as sorely as it did to discover that I was well content to be here, with her, in our little clearing amidst the desert fog, listening to her soft breathing and debating over what she might have done had I actually kissed her to comfort her and assure her that I was not unmindful of her really brave spirit.
Daniel had been disposed of, Montoyo did not deserve her; I had won her, she could inspire and guide me if I stayed; and I saw myself staying, and I saw myself going home, and I already regretted a host of things, as a man will when at the forking of the trails.
The fog gently closed in during the night. When I awakened we were again enshrouded by the fleece of it, denser than when we had ridden through it, but now whiter with the dawn. As I gazed sleepily about I could just make out the forms of the two mules, standing motionless and huddled; I could see her more clearly, at shorter distance—her buffalo robe moist with the semblance of dew that had beaded also upon her massy hair.
Evidently she had not stirred all night; might be still asleep. No; her eyes were open, and when I stiffly shifted posture she looked across at me.
"Sh!" she warned, with quick shake of head. The same warning bade me listen. In a moment I heard voices.
I STAKE AGAIN
They were indistinguishable except as vocal sounds deadened by the impeding fog; but human voices they certainly were. Throwing off her robe she abruptly sat up, seeking, her features tensed with the strain. She beckoned to me. I scuttled over, as anxious as she. The voices might be far, they might be near; but it was an eerie situation, as if we were neighboring with warlocks.
"I've been hearing them some little while," she whispered.
"The Captain Adams men may be trailing us?"
"I hope not! Oh, I hope not," she gasped, in sheer agony. "If we might only know in time."
Suddenly the fog was shot with gold, as the sun flashed in. In obedience to the command a slow and stately movement began, by all the troops of mist. The myriad elements drifted in unison, marching and countermarching and rearranging, until presently, while we crouched intent to fathom the secrets of their late camp, a wondrously beautiful phenomenon offered.
The great army rose for flight, lifting like a blanket. Gradually the earth appeared in glimpses beneath their floating array, so that whereas our plot of higher ground was still invested, stooping low and scanning we could see beyond us by the extent of a narrow thinning belt capped with the heavier white.
"There!" she whispered, pointing. "Look! There they are!"
Feet, legs, moving of themselves, cut off at the knees by the fog layer, distant not more than short rifle range: that was what had been revealed. A peculiar, absurd spectacle of a score or two of amputated limbs now resurrected and blindly in quest of bodies.
"The Mormons!" I faltered.
"No! Leggins! Moccasins! They are Indians. We must leave right away before they see us."
With our stuff she ran, I ran, for the mules. We worked rapidly, bridling and saddling while the fog rose with measured steadiness.
"Hurry!" she bade.
The whole desert was a golden haze when having packed we climbed aboard—she more spry than I, so that she led again.
As we urged outward the legs, behind, had taken to themselves thighs. But the mist briefly eddied down upon us; our mules' hoofs made no sound appreciable, on the scantily moistened soil; we lost the legs, and the voices, and pressing the pace I rode beside her.
"Where?" I inquired.
"As far as we can while the fog hangs. Then we must hide in the first good place. If they don't strike our trail we'll be all right."
The fog lingered in patches. From patch to patch we threaded, with many a glance over shoulder. But time was traveling faster. I marked her searching about nervously. Blue had already appeared above, the sun found us again and again, and the fog remnants went spinning and coiling, in last ghostly dance like that of frenzied wraiths.
Now we came to a rough outcrop of red sandstone, looming ruddily on our right. She quickly swerved for it.
"The best chance. I see nothing else," she muttered. "We can tie the mules under cover, and wait. We'll surely be spied if we keep on."
"Couldn't we risk it?"
"No. We've not start enough."
In a moment we had gained the refuge. The sculptured rock masses, detached one from another, several jutting ten feet up, received us. We tied the mules short, in a nook at the rear; and we ourselves crawled on, farther in, until we lay snug amidst the shadowing buttresses, with the desert vista opening before us.
The fog wraiths were very few; the sun blazed more vehemently and wiped them out, so that through the marvelously clear air the expanse of lone, weird country stood forth clean cut. No moving object could escape notice in this watchful void. And we had been just in time. The slight knoll had been left not a mile to the southwest. I heard My Lady catch breath, felt her hand find mine as we lay almost touching. Rounding the knoll there appeared a file of mounted figures; by their robes and blankets, their tufted lances and gaudy shields, yes, by the very way they sat their painted ponies, Indians unmistakably.
"They must have been camped near us all night." And she shuddered. "Now if they only don't cross our trail. We mustn't move."
They came on at a canter, riding bravely, glancing right and left—a score of them headed by a scarlet-blanketed man upon a spotted horse. So transparent was the air, washed by the fog and vivified by the sun, that I could decipher the color pattern of his shield emblazonry: a checkerboard of red and black.
"A war party. Sioux, I think," she said. "Don't they carry scalps on that first lance? They've been raiding the stage line. Do you see any squaws?"
"No," I hazarded, with beating heart. "All warriors, I should guess."
"All warriors. But squaws would be worse."
On they cantered, until their paint stripes and daubs were hideously plain; we might note every detail of their savage muster. They were paralleling our outward course; indeed, seemed to be diverging from our ambush and making more to the west. And I had hopes that, after all, we were safe. Then her hand clutched mine firmly. A wolf had leaped from covert in the path of the file; loped eastward across the desert, and instantly, with a whoop that echoed upon us like the crack of doom, a young fellow darted from the line in gay pursuit.
My Lady drew quick breath, with despairing exclamation.
"That is cruel, cruel! They might have ridden past; but now—look!"
The stripling warrior (he appeared to be scarcely more than a boy) hammered in chase, stringing his bow and plucking arrow. The wolf cast eye over plunging shoulder, and lengthened. Away they tore, while the file slackened, to watch. Our trail of flight bore right athwart the wolf's projected route. There was just the remote chance that the lad would overrun it, in his eagerness; and for that intervening moment of grace we stared, fascinated, hand clasping hand.
"He's found it! He's found it!" she announced, in a little wail.
In mid-career the boy had checked his pony so shortly that the four hoofs ploughed the sand. He wheeled on a pivot and rode back for a few yards, scanning the ground, letting the wolf go. The stillness that had settled while we gazed and the file of warriors, reining, gazed, gripped and fairly hurt. I cursed the youth. Would to God he had stayed at home—God grant that mangy wolf died by trap or poison. Our one chance made the sport of an accidental view-halloo, when all the wide desert was open.
The youth had halted again, leaning from his saddle pad. He raised, he flung up glad hand and commenced to ride in circles, around and around and around. The band galloped to him.
"Yes, he has found it," she said. "Now they will come."
"What shall we do?" I asked her.
And she answered, releasing my hand.
"I don't know. But we must wait. We can stand them off for a while, I suppose——"
"I'll do my best, with the revolver," I promised.
"Yes," she murmured. "But after that——?"
I had no reply. This contingency—we two facing Indians—was outside my calculations.
The Indians had grouped; several had dismounted, peering closely at our trail, reading it, timing it, accurately estimating it. They had no difficulty, for the hoof prints were hardly dried of the fog moisture. The others sat idly, searching the horizons with their eyes, but at confident ease. In the wide expanse this rock fortress of ours seemed to me to summon imperatively, challenging them. They surely must know. Yet there they delayed, torturing us, playing blind, emulating cat and mouse; but of course they were reasoning and making certain.
Now the dismounted warriors vaulted ahorse; at a gesture from the chief two men rode aside, farther to the east, seeking other sign. They found none, and to his shrill hail they returned.
There was another command. The company had strung bows, stripped their rifles of the buckskin sheaths, had dropped robe and blanket about their loins; they spread out to right and left in close skirmish order; they advanced three scouts, one on the trail, one on either flank; and in a broadened front they followed with a discipline, an earnestness, a precision of purpose and a deadly anticipation that drowned every fleeting hope.
This was unbearable: to lie here awaiting an inevitable end.
"Shall we make a break for it?" I proposed. "Ride and fight? We might reach the train, or a stage station. Quick!"
In my wild desire for action I half arose. Her hand restrained me.
"It would be madness, Mr. Beeson. We'd stand no show at all in the open; not on these poor mules." She murmured to herself. "Yes, they're Sioux. That's not so bad. Were they Cheyennes—dog-soldiers—— Let me think. I must talk with them."
"But they're coming," I rasped. "They're getting in range. We've the gun, and twenty cartridges. Maybe if I kill the chief——"
She spoke, positive, under breath.
"Don't shoot! Don't! They know we're here—know it perfectly well. I shall talk with them."
"You? How? Why? Can you persuade them? Would they let us go?"
"I'll do what I can. I have a few words of Sioux; and there's the sign language. See," she said. "They've discovered our mules. They know we're only two."
The scouts on either flanks had galloped outward and onward, in swift circle, peering at our defenses. Lying low they scoured at full speed; with mutual whoop they crisscrossed beyond and turned back for the main body halted two hundred yards out upon the flat plain.
There was a consultation; on a sudden a great chorus of exultant cries rang, the force scattered, shaking fists and weapons, preparing for a tentative charge; and ere I could stop her My Lady had sprung upright, to mount upon a rock and all in view to hold open hand above her head. The sunshine glinted upon her hair; a fugitive little breeze bound her shabby gown closer about her slim figure.
They had seen her instantly. Another chorus burst, this time in astonishment; a dozen guns were leveled, covering her and our nest while every visage stared. But no shot belched; thank God, no shot, with me powerless to prevent, just as I was powerless to intercept her. The chief rode forward, at a walk, his hand likewise lifted.
"Keep down! Keep down, please," she directed to me, while she stood motionless. "Let me try."
The chief neared until we might see his every lineament—every item of his trappings, even to the black-tipped eagle feather erect at the part in his braids. And he rode carelessly, fearlessly, to halt within easy speaking distance; sat a moment, rifle across his leggined thighs and the folds of his scarlet blanket—a splendid man, naked from the waist up, his coppery chest pigment-daubed, his slender arms braceleted with metal, his eyes devouring her so covetously that I felt the gloating thoughts behind them.
He called inquiringly: a greeting and a demand in one, it sounded. She replied. And what they two said, in word and sign, I could not know, but all the time I held my revolver upon him, until to my relief he abruptly wheeled his horse and cantered back to his men, leaving me with wrist aching and heart pounding madly.
She stepped lightly down; answered my querying look.
"It's all right. I'm going, and so are you," she said, with a faint smile, oddly subtle—a tremulous smile in a white face.
About her there was a mystery which alarmed me; made me sit up, chilled, to eye her and accuse.
"Where? We are free, you mean? What's the bargain?"
"I go to them. You go where you choose—to the stage road, of course. I have his promise."
This brought me to my feet, rigid; more than scandalized, for no word can express the shock.
"You go to them? And then where?"
She answered calmly, flushing a little, smiling a little, her eyes sincere.
"It's the best way and the only way. We shall neither of us be harmed, now. The chief will provide for me and you yourself are free. No, no," she said, checking my first indignant cry. "Really I don't mind. The Indians are about the only persons left to me. I'll be safe with them." She laughed rather sadly, but brightened. "I don't know but that I prefer them to the whites. I told you I had no place. And this saves you also, you see. I got you into it—I've felt that you blamed me, almost hated me. Things have been breaking badly for me ever since we met again in Benton. So it's up to me to make good. You can go home, and I shall not be unhappy, I think. Please believe that. The wife of a great chief is quite a personage—he won't inquire into my past. But if we try to stay here you will certainly be killed, and I shall suffer, and we shall gain nothing. You must take my money. Please do. Then good-bye. I told him I would come out, under his promise."
She and the rocks reeled together. That was my eyes, giddy with a rush of blood, surging and hot.
"Never, never, never!" I was shouting, ignoring her hand. How she had misjudged me! What a shame she had put upon me! I could not credit. "You shall not—I tell you, you sha'n't. I won't have it—it's monstrous, preposterous. You sha'n't go, I sha'n't go. But wherever we go we'll go together. We'll stand them off. Then if they can take us, let 'em. You make a coward of me—a dastard. You've no right to. I'd rather die."
"Listen," she chided, her hand grasping my sleeve. "They would take me anyway—don't you see? After they had killed you. It would be the worse for both of us. What can you do, with one arm, and a revolver, and an unlucky woman? No, Mr. Beeson (she was firm and strangely formal); the cards are faced up. I have closed a good bargain for both of us. When you are out, you need say nothing. Perhaps some day I may be ransomed, should I wish to be. But we can talk no further now. He is impatient. The money—you will need the money, and I shall not. Please turn your back and I'll get at my belt. Why," she laughed, "how well everything is coming. You are disposed of, I am disposed of——"
"Money!" I roared. "God in Heaven! You disposed of? I disposed of? And my honor, madam! What of that?"
"And what of mine, Mr. Beeson?" She stamped her foot, coloring. "Will you turn your back, or——? Oh, we've talked too long. But the belt you shall have. Here——" She fumbled within her gown. "And now, adios and good luck. You shall not despise me."
The chief was advancing accompanied by a warrior. Behind him his men waited expectant, gathered as an ugly blotch upon the dun desert. Her honor? The word had double meaning. Should she sacrifice the one honor in this crude essay to maintain the other which she had not lost, to my now opened eyes? I could not deliver her tender body over to that painted swaggerer—any more than I could have delivered it over to Daniel himself. At last I knew, I knew. History had written me a fool, and a cad, but it should not write me a dastard. We were together, and together we should always be, come weal or woe, life or death.
The money belt had been dropped at my feet. She had turned—I leaped before her, thrust her to rear, answered the hail of the pausing chief.
"No!" I squalled. And I added for emphasis: "You go to hell."
He understood. The phrase might have been familiar English to him. I saw him stiffen in his saddle; he called loudly, and raised his rifle, threatening; with a gasp—a choked "Good-bye"—she darted by me, running on for the open and for him. She and he filled all my landscape. In a stark blinding rage of fear, chagrin, rancorous jealousy, I leveled revolver and pulled trigger, but not at her, though even that was not beyond me in the crisis.
The bullet thwacked smartly; the chief uttered a terrible cry, his rifle was tossed high, he bowed, swayed downward, his comrade grabbed him, and they were racing back closely side by side and she was running back to me and the warriors were shrieking and brandishing their weapons and bullets spatted the rocks—all this while yet my hand shook to the recoil of the revolver and the smoke was still wafting from the poised muzzle.
What had I done? But done it was.
THE QUEEN WINS
She arrived breathless, distraught, instantly to drag me down beside her, from where I stood stupidly defiant.
"Keep out of sight," she panted. And—"Oh, why did you do it? Why did you? I think you killed him—they'll never forgive. They'll call it treachery. You're lost, lost."
"But he sha'n't have you," I gabbled. "Let them kill me if they can. Till then you're mine. Mine! Don't you understand? I want you."
"I don't understand," she faltered. She turned frightened face upon me. "You should have let me go. Nothing can save you now; not even I. You've ruined the one chance you had. I wonder why. It was my own choice—you had no hand in it, and it was my own chance, too." Her voice broke, her eyes welled piteously. "But you fired on him."
"That was the only answer left me," I entreated. "You misjudged me, you shamed me. I tell you——"
Her lips slightly curled.
"Misjudged you? Shamed you? Was that all? You've misjudged and shamed me for so long——" A burst of savage hoots renewed interrupted. "They're coming!" She knelt up, to peer; I peered. The Indians had deployed, leaving the chief lying upon the ground, their fierce countenances glaring at our asylum. How clear their figures were, in the sunshine, limned against the lazy yellowish sand, under the peaceful blue! "They'll surround us. I might parley for myself, but I can do nothing for you."
"Parley, then," I bade. "Save yourself, any way you can."
She drew in, whitening as if I had struck her.
"And you accuse me of having misjudged you! I save myself—merely myself? What do you intend to do? Fight?"
"As long as you are with me; and after. They'll never take me alive; and take you they shall not if I can prevent it. Damn them, if they get you I mean to make them pay for you. You're all I have."
"You'd rather I'd stay? You need me? Could I help?"
"Need you!" I groaned. "I'm just finding out, too late."
"And help? How? Quick! Could I?"
"By staying; by not surrendering yourself—your honor, my honor. By saying that you'd rather stay with me, for life, for death, here, anywhere—after I've said that I'm not deaf, blind, dumb, ungrateful. I love you; I'd rather die for you than live without you."
Such a glory glowed in her haggard face and shone from her brimming eyes.
"We will fight, we will fight!" she chanted. "Now I shall not leave you. Oh, my man! Had you kissed me last night we would have known this longer. We have so little time." She turned from my lips. "Not now. They're coming. Fight first; and at the end, then kiss me, please, and we'll go together."
The furious yells from that world outside vibrated among our rocks. The Sioux all were in motion, except the prostrate figure of the chief. Straight onward they charged, at headlong gallop, to ride over us like a grotesquely tinted wave, and the dull drumming of their ponies' hoofs beat a diapason to the shrill clamor of their voices. It was enough to cow, but she spoke steadily.
"You must fire," she said. "Hurry! Fire once, maybe twice, to split them. I don't think they'll rush us, yet."
So I rose farther on my knees and fired once—and again, pointblank at them with the heavy Colt's. It worked a miracle. Every mother's son of them fell flat upon his pony; they all swooped to right and to left as if the bullets had cleaved them apart in the center; and while I gaped, wondering, they swept past at long range, half on either flank, pelting in bullet and near-spent arrow.
She forced me down.
"Low, low," she warned. "They'll circle. They hold their scalps dearly. We can only wait. That was three. You have fifteen shots left, for them; then, one for me, one for you. You understand?"
"I understand," I replied. "And if I'm disabled——?"
She answered quietly.
"It will be the same. One for you, one for me."
The circle had been formed: a double circle, to move in two directions, scudding ring reversed within scudding ring, the bowmen outermost. Around and 'round and 'round they galloped, yelling, gibing, taunting, shooting so malignantly that the air was in a constant hum and swish. The lead whined and smacked, the shafts streaked and clattered——
"Are you sorry I shot the chief?" I asked. Amid the confusion my blood was coursing evenly, and I was not afraid. Of what avail was fear?
"I'm glad, glad," she proclaimed. But with sudden movement she was gone, bending low, then crawling, then whisking from sight. Had she abandoned me, after all? Had she—no! God be thanked, here she came back, flushed and triumphant, a canteen in her hand.
"The mules might break," she explained, short of breath. "This canteen is full. We'll need it. The other mule is frantic. I couldn't touch her."
At the moment I thought how wise and brave and beautiful she was! Mine for the hour, here—and after? Montoyo should never have her; not in life nor in death.
"You must stop some of those fiends from sneaking closer," she counseled. "See? They're trying us out."
More and more frequently some one of the scurrying enemy veered sharply, tore in toward us, hanging upon the farther side of his horse; boldly jerked erect and shot, and with demi-volt of his mount was away, whooping.
I had been desperately saving the ammunition, to eke out this hour of mine with her. Every note from the revolver summoned the end a little nearer. But we had our game to play; and after all, the end was certain. So under her prompting (she being partner, commander, everything), when the next painted ruffian—a burly fellow in drapery of flannel-fringed cotton shirt, with flaunting crimson tassels on his pony's mane—bore down, I guessed shrewdly, arose and let him have it.
She cried out, clapping her hands.
The pony was sprawling and kicking; the rider had hurtled free, and went jumping and dodging like a jack-rabbit.
"To the right! Watch!"
Again I needs must fire, driving the rascals aside with the report of the Colt's. That was five. Not sparing my wounded arm I hastily reloaded, for by custom of the country the hammer had rested over an empty chamber. I filled the cylinder.
"They're killing the mules," she said. "But we can't help it."
The two mules were snorting and plunging; their hoofs rang against the rocks. Sioux to rear had dismounted and were shooting carefully. There was exultant shout—one mule had broken loose. She galloped out, reddened, stirrups swinging, canteen bouncing, right into the waiting line; and down she lunged, abristle with feathered points launched into her by sheer spiteful joy.
The firing was resumed. We heard the other mule scream with note indescribable; we heard him flounder and kick; and again the savages yelled.
Now they all charged recklessly from the four sides; and I had to stand and fire, right, left, before, behind, emptying the gun once more ere they scattered and fled. I sensed her fingers twitching at my belt, extracting fresh cartridges. We sank, breathing hard. Her eyes were wide, and bluer than any deepest summer sea; her face aflame; her hair of purest gold—and upon her shoulder a challenging oriflamme of scarlet, staining a rent in the faded calico.
"You're hurt!" I blurted, aghast.
"Not much. A scratch. Don't mind it. And you?"
"I'm not touched."
"Load, sir. But I think we'll have a little space. How many left? Nine." She had been counting. "Seven for them."
"Seven for them," I acknowledged. I tucked home the loads; the six-shooter was ready.
"Now let them come," she murmured.
"Let them come," I echoed. We looked one upon the other, and we smiled. It was not so bad, this place, our minds having been made up to it. In fact, there was something sweet. Our present was assured; we faced a future together, at least; we were in accord.
The Sioux had retired, mainly to sit dismounted in close circle, for a confab. Occasionally a young brave, a vidette, exuberantly galloped for us, dared us, shook hand and weapon at us, no doubt spat at us, and gained nothing by his brag.
"What will they do next?" I asked.
"I don't know," said she. "We shall see, though."
So we lay, gazing, not speaking. The sun streamed down, flattening the desert with his fervent beams until the uplifts cringed low and in the horizons the mountain peaks floated languidly upon the waves of heat. And in all this dispassionate land, from horizon to horizon, there were only My Lady and I, and the beleaguering Sioux. It seemed unreal, a fantasy; but the rocks began to smell scorched, a sudden thirst nagged and my wounded arm pained with weariness as if to remind that I was here, in the body. Yes, and here she was, also, in the flesh, as much as I, for she stirred, glanced at me, and smiled. I heard her, saw her, felt her presence. I placed my hand over hers.
"What is it?" she queried.
"Nothing. I wanted to make sure."
"Of you, me—of everything."
"There can be no doubt," she said. "I wish there might, for your sake."
"No," I thickly answered. "If you were only out of it—if we could find some way."
"I'd rather be in here, with you," said she.
"And I, with you, then," I replied honestly. The thought of water obsessed. She must have read, for she inquired:
"Aren't you thirsty?"
"Yes. Why don't we drink?"
"Why not? We might as well be as comfortable as we can." She reached for the canteen lying in a fast dwindling strip of rock shade. We drank sparingly. She let me dribble a few drops upon her shoulder. Thenceforth by silent agreement we moistened our tongues, scrupulously turn about, wringing the most from each brief sip as if testing the bouquet of exquisite wine. Came a time when we regretted this frugalness; but just now there persisted within us, I suppose, that germ of hope which seems to be nourished by the soul.
The Sioux had counciled and decided. They faced us, in manner determined. We waited, tense and watchful. Without even a premonitory shout a pony bolted for us, from their huddle. He bore two riders, naked to the sun, save for breech clouts. They charged straight in, and at her mystified, alarmed murmur I was holding on them as best I could, finger crooked against trigger, coaxing it, praying for luck, when the rear rider dropped to the ground, bounded briefly and dived headlong, worming into a little hollow of the sand.
He lay half concealed; the pony had wheeled to a shrill, jubilant chorus; his remaining rider lashed him in retreat, leaving the first digging lustily with hand and knife.
That was the system, then: an approach by rushes.
"We mustn't permit it," she breathed. "We must rout him out—we must keep them all out or they'll get where they can pick you off. Can you reach him?"
"I'll try," said I.
The tawny figure, prone upon the tawny sand, was just visible, lean and snakish, slightly oscillating as it worked. And I took careful aim, and fired, and saw the spurt from the bullet.
"A little lower—oh, just a little lower," she pleaded.
The same courier was in leash, posted to bring another fellow; all the Sioux were gazing, statuesque, to analyze my marksmanship. And I fired again—"Too low," she muttered—and quickly, with a curse, again.
She cried out joyfully. The snake had flopped from its hollow, plunged at full length aside; had started to crawl, writhing, dragging its hinder parts. But with a swoop the pony arrived before we were noting; the recruit plumped into the hollow; and bending over in his swift circle the courier snatched the snake from the ground; sped back with him.
The Sioux seized upon the moment of stress. They cavorted, scouring hither and thither, yelling, shooting, and once more our battered haven seethed with the hum and hiss and rebound of lead and shaft. That, and my eagerness, told. The fellow in the foreground burrowed cleverly; he submerged farther and farther, by rapid inches. I fired twice—we could not see that I had even inconvenienced him. My Lady clutched my revolver arm.
"No! Wait!" The tone rang dismayed.
Trembling, blinded with heat and powder smoke, and heart sick, I paused, to fumble and to reload the almost emptied cylinder.
"I can't reach him," said I. "He's too far in."
Her voice answered gently.
"No matter, dear. You're firing too hastily. Don't forget. Please rest a minute, and drink. You can bathe your eyes. It's hard, shooting across the hot sand. They'll bring others. We've no need to save water, you know."
"I know," I admitted.
We niggardly drank. I dabbled my burning eyes, cleared my sight. Of the fellow in the rifle pit there was no living token. The Sioux had ceased their gambols. They sat steadfast, again anticipative. A stillness, menaceful and brooding, weighted the landscape.
The pregnant truce oppressed. What was hatching out, now? I cautiously shifted posture, to stretch and scan; instinctively groped for the canteen, to wet my lips again; a puff of smoke burst from the hollow, the canteen clinked, flew from my hand and went clattering among the rocks.
"Oh!" she cried, aghast. "But you're not hurt?" Then—"I saw him. He'll come up again, in a moment. Be ready."
The Sioux in the background were shrieking. They had accounted for our mules; by chance shot they had nipped our water. Yet neither event affected us as they seemed to think it should. Mules, water—these were inconsequentials in the long-run that was due to be short, at most. We husbanded other relief in our keeping.
Suddenly, as I craned, the fellow fired again; he was a good shot, had discovered a niche in our rampart, for the ball fanned my cheek with the wings of a vicious wasp. On the instant I replied, snapping quick answer.
"I don't think you hit him," she said. "Let me try. It may change the luck. You're tired. I'll hold on the spot—he'll come up in the same place, head and shoulders. You'll have to tempt him. Are you afraid, sir?" She smiled upon me as she took the revolver.
"But if he kills me——?" I faltered.
"What of that?"
"I?" Her face filled. "I should not be long."
She adjusted the revolver to a crevice a little removed from me—"They will be hunting you, not me," she said—and crouched behind it, peering earnestly out, intent upon the hollow. And I edged farther, and farther, as if seeking for a mark, but with all my flesh a-prickle and my breath fast, like any man, I assert, who forces himself to invite the striking capabilities of a rattlesnake.
Abruptly it came—the strike, so venomous that it stung my face and scalded my eyes with the spatter of sandstone and hot lead; at the moment her Colt's bellowed into my ears, thunderous because even unexpected. I could not see; I only heard an utterance that was cheer and sob in one.
"I got him! Are you hurt? Are you hurt?"
The air rocked with the shouts of the Sioux; shouts never before so welcome in their tidings, for they were shouts of rage and disappointment. They flooded my eyes with vigor, wiped away the daze of the bullet impact; the hollow leaped to the fore—upon its low parapet a dull shade where no shade should naturally be, and garnished with crimson.
He had doubled forward, reflexing to the blow. He was dead, stone dead; his crafty spirit issued upon the red trail of ball through his brain.
"Thank God," I rejoiced.
She had sunk back wearily.
"That is the last."
"Won't they try again, you think?"
"The last spare shot, I mean. We have only our two left. We must save those." She gravely surveyed me.
"Yes, we must save those," I assented. The realization broke unbelievable across a momentary hiatus; brought me down from the false heights, to face it with her.
A dizzy space had opened before me. I knew that she moved aside. She exclaimed.
It was the canteen, drained dry by a jagged gash from the sharpshooter's lead.
"No matter, dear," she said.
"No matter," said I.
The subject was not worth pursuing.
"We have discouraged their game, again. And in case they rush us——"
This from her.
"In case they rush us——" I repeated. "We can wait a little, and see."
WE WAIT THE SUMMONS
The Sioux had quieted. They let the hollow alone, tenanted as it was with death; there was for us a satisfaction in that tribute to our defense. Quite methodically, and with cruel show of leisure they distributed themselves by knots, in a half-encircling string around our asylum; they posted a sentry, ahorse, as a lookout; and lolling upon the bare ground in the sun glare they chatted, laughed, rested, but never for an instant were we dismissed from their eyes and thoughts.
"They will wait, too. They can afford it," she murmured. "It is cheaper for them than losing lives."
"If they knew we had only the two cartridges——?"
"They don't, yet."
"And they will find out too late," I hazarded.
"Yes, too late. We shall have time." Her voice did not waver; it heartened with its vengeful, determined mien.
Occasionally a warrior invoked us by brandishing arm or weapon in surety of hate and in promise of fancied reprisal. What fools they were! Now and again a warrior galloped upon the back trail; returned gleefully, perhaps to flourish an army canteen at us.
"There probably is water where we heard the frogs last night," she remarked.
"I'm glad we didn't try to reach it, for camp," said I.
"So am I," said she. "We might have run right into them. We are better here. At least, I am."
"And I," I confirmed.
Strangely enough we seemed to have little to say, now in this precious doldrums where we were becalmed, between the distant past and the unlogged future. We had not a particle of shade, not a trace of coolness: the sun was high, all our rocky recess was a furnace, fairly reverberant with the heat; the flies (and I vaguely pondered upon how they had existed, previously, and whence they had gathered) buzzed briskly, attracted by the dead mule, unseen, and captiously diverted to us also. We lay tolerably bolstered, without much movement; and as the Sioux were not firing upon us, we might wax careless of their espionage.