Her eyes, untroubled, scarcely left my face; I feared to let mine leave hers. Of what she was thinking I might not know, and I did not seek to know—was oddly yielding and content, for our decisions had been made. And still it was unreal, impossible: we, in this guise; the Sioux, watching; the desert, waiting; death hovering—a sudden death, a violent death, the end of that which had barely begun; an end suspended in sight like the Dionysian sword, with the single hair already frayed by the greedy shears of the Fate. A snap, at our own signal; then presto, change!
It simply could not be true. Why, somewhere my father and mother busied, mindless; somewhere Benton roared, mindless; somewhere the wagon train toiled on, mindless; the stage road missed us not, nor wondered; the railroad graders shoveled and scraped and picked as blithely as if the same desert did not contain them, and us; cities throbbed, people worked and played, and we were of as little concern to them now as we would be a year hence.
Then it all pridefully resolved to this, like the warming tune of a fine battle chant: That I was here, with my woman, my partner woman, the much desirable woman whom I had won; which was more than Daniel, or Montoyo, or the Indian chief, or the wide world of other men could boast.
Soon she spoke, at times, musingly.
"I did make up to you, at first," she said. "In Omaha, and on the train."
"Did you?" I smiled. She was so childishly frank.
"But that was only passing. Then in Benton I knew you were different. I wondered what it was; but you were different from anybody that I had met before. There's always such a moment in a woman's life."
I soberly nodded. Nothing could be a platitude in such a place and such an hour.
"I wished to help you. Do you believe that now?"
"I believe you, dear heart," I assured.
"But it was partly because I thought you could help me," she said, like a confession. And she added: "I had nothing wrong in mind. You were to be a friend, not a lover. I had no need of lovers; no, no."
We were silent for an interval. Again she spoke.
"Do you care anything about my family? I suppose not. That doesn't matter, here. But you wouldn't be ashamed of them. I ran away with Montoyo. I thought he was something else. How could I go home after that? I tried to be true to him, we had plenty of money, he was kind to me at first, but he dragged me down and my father and mother don't know even yet. Yes, I tried to help him, too. I stayed. It's a life that gets into one's blood. I feared him terribly, in time. He was a breed, and a devil—a gentleman devil." She referred in the past tense, as to some fact definitely bygone. "I had to play fair with him, or—— And when I had done that, hoping, why, what else could I do or where could I go? So many people knew me." She smiled. "Suddenly I tied to you, sir. I seemed to feel—I took the chance."
"Thank God you did," I encouraged.
"But I would not have wronged myself, or you, or him," she eagerly pursued. "I never did wrong him." She flushed. "No man can convict me. You hurt me when you refused me, dear; it told me that you didn't understand. Then I was desperate. I had been shamed before you, and by you. You were going, and not understanding, and I couldn't let you. So I did follow you to the wagon train. You were my star. I wonder why. I did feel that you'd get me out—you see, I was so madly selfish, like a drowning person. I clutched at you; might have put you under while climbing up, myself."
"We have climbed together," said I. "You have made me into a man."
"But I forced myself on you. I played you against Daniel. I foresaw that you might have to kill him, to rid me of him. You were my weapon. And I used you. Do you blame me that I used you?"
"Daniel and I were destined to meet, just as you and I were destined to meet," said I. "I had to prove myself on him. It would have happened anyway. Had I not stood up to him you would not have loved me."
"That was not the price," she sighed. "Maybe you don't understand yet. I'm so afraid you don't understand," she pleaded. "At the last I had resigned you, I would have left you free, I saw how you felt; but, oh, it happened just the same—we were fated, and you showed that you hated me."
"I never hated you. I was perplexed. That was a part of love," said I.
"You mean it? You are holding nothing back?" she asked, anxious.
"I am holding nothing back," I answered. "As you will know, I think, in time to come."
Again we reclined, silent, at peace: a strange peace of mind and body, to which the demonstrations by the waiting Sioux were alien things.
"Are we very guilty, do you think?"
"In what, dearest?"
"In this, here. I am already married, you know."
"That is another life," I reasoned. "It is long ago and under different law."
"But if we went back into it—if we escaped?"
"Then we should—but don't let's talk of that."
"Then you should forget and I should return to Benton," she said. "I have decided. I should return to Benton, where Montoyo is, and maybe find another way. But I should not live with him; never, never! I should ask him to release me."
"I, with you," I informed. "We should go together, and do what was best."
"You would? You wouldn't be ashamed, or afraid?"
"Ashamed or afraid of what?"
She cried out happily, and shivered.
"I hope we don't have to. He might kill you. Yes, I hope we don't have to. Do you mind?"
I shook my head, smiling my response. There were tears in her eyes, repaying me.
Our conversation became more fitful. Time sped, I don't know how, except that we were in a kind of lethargy, taking no note of time and hanging fast to this our respite from the tempestuous past.
Once she dreamily murmured, apropos of nothing, yet apropos of much:
"We must be about the same age. I am not old, not really very old."
"I am twenty-five," I answered.
"So I thought," she mused.
Then, later, in manner of having revolved this idea also, more distinctly apropos and voiced with a certain triumph:
"I'm glad we drank water when we might; aren't you?"
"You were so wise," I praised; and I felt sorry for her cracked lips. It is astonishing with what swiftness, even upon the dry desert, amid the dry air, under the dry burning sun, thirst quickens into a consuming fire scorching from within outward to the skin.
We lapsed into that remarkable patience, playing the game with the Sioux and steadily viewing each other; and she asked, casually:
"Where will you shoot me, Frank?"
This bared the secret heart of me.
"No! No!" I begged. "Don't speak of that. It will be bad enough at the best. How can I? I don't know how I can do it!"
"You will, though," she soothed. "I'd rather have it from you. You must be brave, for yourself and for me; and kind, and quick. I think it should be through the temple. That's sure. But you won't wait to look, will you? You'll spare yourself that?"
This made me groan, craven, and wipe my hand across my forehead to brush away the frenzy. The fingers came free, damp with cold sticky sweat—a prodigy of a parchment skin which puzzled me.
We had not exchanged a caress, save by voice; had not again touched each other. Sometimes I glanced at the Sioux, but not for long; I dreaded to lose sight of her by so much as a moment. The Sioux remained virtually as from the beginning of their vigil. They sat secure, drank, probably ate, with time their ally: sat judicial and persistent, as though depending upon the progress of a slow fuse, or upon the workings of poison, which indeed was the case.
Thirst and heat tortured unceasingly. The sun had passed the zenith—this sun of a culminating summer throughout which he had thrived regal and lustful. It seemed ignoble of him that he now should stoop to torment only us, and one of us a small woman. There was all his boundless domain for him.
But stoop he did, burning nearer and nearer. She broke with sudden passion of hoarse appeal.
"Why do we wait? Why not now?"
"We ought to wait," I stammered, miserable and pitying.
"Yes," she whispered, submissive, "I suppose we ought. One always does. But I am so tired. I think," she said, "that I will let my hair down. I shall go with my hair down. I have a right to, at the last."
Whereupon she fell to loosening her hair and braiding it with hurried fingers.
Then after a time I said:
"We'll not be much longer, dear."
"I hope not," said she, panting, her lips stiff, her eyes bright and feverish. "They'll rush us at sundown; maybe before."
"I believe," said I, blurring the words, for my tongue was getting unmanageable, "they're making ready now."
She exclaimed and struggled and sat up, and we both gazed. Out there the Sioux, in that world of their own, had aroused to energy. I fancied that they had palled of the inaction. At any rate they were upon their feet, several were upon their horses, others mounted hastily, squad joined squad as though by summons, and here came their outpost scout, galloping in, his blanket streaming from one hand like a banner of an Islam prophet.
They delayed an instant, gesticulating.
"It will be soon," she whispered, touching my arm. "When they are half-way, don't fail. I trust you. Will you kiss me? That is only the once."
I kissed her; dry cracked lips met dry cracked lips. She laid herself down and closed her eyes, and smiled.
"I'm all right," she said. "And tired. I've worked so hard, for only this. You mustn't look."
"And you must wait for me, somewhere," I entreated. "Just a moment."
"Of course," she sighed.
The Sioux charged, shrieking, hammering, lashing, all of one purpose: that, us; she, I; my life, her body; and quickly kneeling beside her (I was cool and firm and collected) I felt her hand guide the revolver barrel. But I did not look. She had forbidden, and I kept my eyes upon them, until they were half-way, and in exultation I pulled the trigger, my hand already tensed to snatch and cock and deliver myself under their very grasp. That was a sweetness.
The hammer clicked. There had been no jar, no report. The hammer had only clicked, I tell you, shocking me to the core. A missed cartridge? An empty chamber? Which? No matter. I should achieve for her, first; then, myself. I heard her gasp, they were very near, how they shouted, how the bullets and arrows spatted and hissed, and I had convulsively cocked the gun, she had clutched it—when looking through them, agonized and blinded as I was—looking through them as if they were phantasms I sensed another sound and with sight sharpened I saw.
Then I wrested the revolver from her. I fired pointblank, I fired again (the Colt's did not fail); they swept by, hooting, jostling; they thudded on; and rising I screeched and waved, as bizarre, no doubt, as any animated scarecrow.
It had been a trumpet note, and a cavalry guidon and a rank of bobbing figures had come galloping, galloping over an imperceptible swell.
She cried to me, from my feet.
"You didn't do it! You didn't do it!"
"We're saved," I blatted. "Hurrah! We're saved! The soldiers are here."
Again the trumpet pealed, lilting silvery. She tottered up, clinging to me. She stared. She released me, and to my gladly questing gaze her face was very white, her eyes struggling for comprehension, like those of one awakened from a dream.
"I must go back to Benton," she faltered. "I shall never get away from Benton."
We stood mute while the blue-coats raced on with hearty cheers and brave clank of saber and canteen. We were sitting composedly when the lieutenant scrambled to us, among our rocks; the troopers followed, curiously scanning.
His stubbled red face, dust-smeared, queried us keenly; so did his curt voice.
"Just in time?"
"In time," I croaked. "Water! For her—for me."
There was a canteen apiece. We sucked.
"You are the two from the Mormon wagon train?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. You know?" I uttered.
"We came on as fast as we could. The Sioux are raiding again. By God, you had a narrow squeak, sir," he reproved. "You were crazy to try it—you and a woman, alone. We'll take you along as soon as my Pawnees get in from chasing those beggars."
Distant whoops from a pursuit drifted in to us, out of the desert.
"Captain Adams sent you?" I inquired.
"I will go back," I agreed. "I will go back, but there's no need of Mrs. Montoyo. If you could see her safely landed at a stage station, and for Benton——?"
"We'll land you both. I have to report at Bridger. The train is all right. It has an escort to Bitter Creek."
"I can overtake it, or join it," said I. "But the lady goes to Benton."
"Yes, yes," he snapped. "That's nothing to me, of course. But you'll do better to wait for the train at Bridger, Mr. ——? I don't believe I have your name?"
"Beeson," I informed, astonished.
"And the lady's? Your sister? Wife?"
"Mrs. Montoyo," I informed. And I repeated, that there should be no misunderstanding. "Mrs. Montoyo, from Benton. No relative, sir."
He passed it over, as a gentleman should.
"Well, Mr. Beeson, you have business with the train?"
"I have business with Captain Adams, and he with me," I replied. "As probably you know. Since he sent you, I shall consider myself under arrest; but I will return of my own free will as soon as Mrs. Montoyo is safe."
"Under arrest? For what?" He blankly eyed me.
"For killing that man, sir. Captain Adams' son. But I was forced to it—I did it in self-defense. I should not have left, and I am ready to face the matter whenever possible."
"Oh!" said he, with a shrug, tossing the idea aside. "If that's all! I did hear something about that, from some of my men, but nothing from Adams. You didn't kill him, I understand; merely laid him out. I saw him, myself, but I didn't ask questions. So you can rest easy on that score. His old man seemed to have no grudge against you for it. Fact is, he scarcely allowed me time to warn him of the Sioux before he told me you and a woman were out and were liable to lose your scalps, if nothing worse. I think," the lieutenant added, narrowing upon me, "that you'll find those Mormons are as just as any other set, in a show down. The lad, I gathered from the talk, drew on you after he'd cried quits." He turned hastily. "You spoke, madam? Anything wanted?"
The trumpeter orderly plucked me by the sleeve. He was a squat, sun-scorched little man, and his red-rimmed blue eyes squinted at me with painful interest. He whispered harshly from covert of bronzed hand.
"Beg your pardon, sorr. Mrs. Montoyo, be it—that lady?"
"From Benton City, sorr, ye say?"
"From Benton City."
"Sure, I know the name. It's the same of a gambler the vigilantes strung up last week; for I was there to see."
I heard a gusty sigh, an exclamation from the lieutenant. My Lady had fainted again.
"The reaction, sir," I apologized, to the lieutenant, as we worked.
"Naturally," answered he. "You'll both go back to Benton?"
"Certainly," said I.
It was six weeks later, with My Lady all recovered and I long since healed, and Fort Bridger pleasant in our memories, when we two rode into Benton once more, by horse from the nearest stage point. And here we sat our saddles, silent, wondering; for of Benton there was little significant of the past, very little tangible of the present, naught promising of its future.
Roaring Benton City had vanished, you might say, utterly. The iron tendrils of the Pacific Railway glistened, stretching westward into the sunset, and Benton had followed the lure, to Rawlins (as had been told us), to Green River, to Bryan—likely now still onward, for the track was traveling fast, charging the mountain slopes of Utah. The restless dust had settled. The Queen Hotel, the Big Tent, the rows of canvas, plank, tin, sheet metal, what-not stores, saloons, gambling dens, dance halls, human habitations—the blatant street and the station itself had subsided into this: a skeleton company of hacked and weazened posts, a fantastic outcrop of coldly blackened clay chimneys, a sprinkling of battered cans. The fevered populace who had ridden high upon the tide of rapid life had remained only as ghosts haunting a potter's field, and the turmoil of frenzied pleasure had dwindled to a coyote's yelp mocking the twilight.
"It all, all is wiped out, like he is," she said. "But I wished to see."
"All, all is wiped out, dear heart," said I. "All of that. But here are you and I."
Through star shine we cantered side by side eastward down the old, empty freighting road, for the railway station at Fort Steele.