CHAPTER VI. "I GO WHERE WAGALEXA CONKA SAY"
That afternoon Ramon joined them, suave as ever and seeming very much at peace with the world and his fellow-beings. He watched the new leading woman make a perilous ride down a steep, rocky point and dash up to camera and on past it where she set her horse back upon, its haunches with a fine disregard for her bones and a still finer instinct for putting just the right dash of the spectacular into her work without overdoing it.
"That senora, she's all right, you bet!" he praised the feat to those who stood near him; "me, I not be stuck on ron my caballo down that place. You bet she's fine rider. My sombrero, he's come off to that lady!"
Jean, hearing, glanced at him with that little quirk of the lips which was the beginning of a smile, and rode off to join her father and Lite Avery. "He made that sound terribly sincere, didn't he?" she commented. "It takes a Mexican to lift flattery up among the fine arts." Then she thought no more about it.
Annie-Many-Ponies was sitting apart, on a rock where her gay blanket made a picturesque splotch of color against the gray barrenness of the hill behind her. She, too, heard what Ramon said, and she, too, thought that he had made the praise sound terribly sincere. He had not spoken to her at all after the first careless nod of recognition when he rode up. And although her reason had approved of his caution, her sore heart ached for a little kindness from him. She turned her eyes toward him now with a certain wistfulness; but though Ramon chanced to be looking toward her she got no answering light in his eyes, no careful little signal that his heart was yearning for her. He seemed remote, as indifferent to her as were any of the others dulled by accustomedness to her constant presence among them. A premonitory chill, as from some great sorrow yet before her in the future, shook the heart of Annie-Many-Ponies.
"Me, I fine out how moch more yoh want me campa here for pictures," Ramon was saying now to Luck who was standing by Pete Lowry, scribbling something on his script. "My brother Tomas, he liking for us at ranch now, s'pose yoh finish poco tiempo."
Luck wrote another line before he gave any sign that he heard. Annie-Many-Ponies, watching from under her drooping lids, saw that Bill Holmes had edged closer to Ramon, while he made pretense of being much occupied with his own affairs.
"I don't need your camp at all after today." Luck shoved the script into his coat pocket and looked at his watch.
"This afternoon when the sun is just right I want to get one or two cut-back scenes and a dissolve out. After that you can break camp any time. But I want you, Ramon—you and Estancio Lopez and Luis Rojas. I'll need you for two or three days in town—want you to play the heavy in a bank-robbery and street fight. The makeup is the same as when you worked up there in the rocks the other day. You three fellows come over and go in to the ranch tomorrow if you like. Then I'll have you when I want you. You'll get five dollars a day while you work." Having made himself sufficiently clear, he turned away to set and rehearse the next scene, and did not see the careful glance which passed between Ramon and Bill Holmes.
"Annie," Luck said abruptly, swinging toward her, "can you come down off that point where Jean Douglas came? You'll have to ride horseback, remember, and I don't want you to do it unless you're sure of yourself. How about it?"
For the first time since breakfast her somber eyes lightened with a gleam of interest. She did not look at Ramon—Ramon who had told her many times how much he loved her, and yet could praise Jean Douglas for her riding. Ramon had declared that he would not care to come riding down that point as Jean had come; very well, then she would show Ramon something.
"It isn't necessary, exactly," Luck explained further. "I can show you at the top, looking down at the way Jean came; and then I can pick you up on an easier trail. But if you want to do it, it will save some cut-backs and put another little punch in here. Either way it's up to you."
The voice of Annie-Many-Ponies did not rise to a higher key when she spoke, but it had in it a clear incisiveness that carried her answer to Ramon and made him understand that she was speaking for his ears.
"I come down with big punch," she said.
"Where Jean came? You're riding bareback, remember."
"No matter. I come down jus' same." And she added with a haughty tilt of her chin, "That's easy place for me."
Luck eyed her steadfastly, a smile of approval on his face. "All right. I know you've got plenty of nerve, Annie. You mount and ride up that draw till you get to the ridge. Come up to where you can see camp over the brow of the hill—sabe?—and then wait till I whistle. One whistle, get ready to come down. Two whistles, you, come. Ride past camera, just the way Jean did. You know you're following the white girl and trying to catch up with her. You're a friend and you have a message for her, but she's scared and is running away—sabe? You want to come down slow first and pick your trail?"
"No." Annie-Many-Ponies started toward the pinto pony which was her mount in this picture. "I come down hill. I make big punch for you. Pete turn camera."
"You've got more nerve than I have, Annie," Jean told her good-naturedly as she went by. "I'd hate to run a horse down there bareback."
"I go where Wagalexa Conka say." From the corner of her eye she saw the quick frown of jealousy upon the face of Ramon, and her pulse gave an extra beat of triumph.
With an easy spring she mounted the pinto pony, took the reins of her squaw bridle that was her only riding gear, folded her gay blanket snugly around her uncorseted body and touched the pinto with her moccasined heels. She was ready—ready to the least little tensed nerve that tingled with eagerness under the calm surface.
She rode slowly past luck, got her few final instructions and a warning to be careful and to take no chances of an accident—which brought that inscrutable smile to her face; for Wagalexa Conka knew, and she knew also, that in the mere act of riding down that slope faster than a walk she was taking a chance of an accident. It was that risk that lightened her heart which had been so heavy all day. The greater the risk, the more eager was she to take it. She would show Ramon that she, too, could ride.
"Oh, do be careful, Annie!" Jean called anxiously when she was riding into the mouth of the draw. "Turn to the right, when you come to that big flat rock, and don't come down where I did. It's too steep. Really," she drawled to Rosemary and Lite, "my heart was in my mouth when I came straight down by that rock. It's a lot steeper than it looks from here."
"She won't go round it," Rosemary predicted pessimistically. "She's in one of her contrary moods today. She'll come down the worst way she can find just to scare the life out of us."
Up the steep draw that led to the top, Annie-Many-Ponies rode exultantly. She would show Ramon that she could ride wherever the white girl dared ride. She would shame Wagalexa Conka, too, for his injustice to her. She would put the too, for big punch in that scene or—she would ride no more, unless it were upon a white cloud, drifting across the moon at night and looking, down at this world and upon Ramon.
At the top of the ridge she rode out to the edge and made the peace-sign to Luck as a signal that she was ready to do his bidding. Incidentally, while she held her hand high over her head, her eyes swept keenly the bowlder-strewn bluff beneath her. A little to one side was a narrow backbone of smoother soil than the rest, and here were printed deep the marks of Jean's horse. Even there it was steep, and there was a bank, down there by the big flat rock which Jean had mentioned. Annie-Many-Ponies looked daringly to the left, where one would say the bluff was impassable. There she would come down, and no other place. She would show Ramon what she could do—he who had praised boldly another when she was by!
"All right, Annie!" Luck called to her through his megaphone. "Go back now and wait for whistle. Ride along the edge when you come, from bushes to where you stand. I want silhouette, you coming. You sabe?"
Annie-Many-Ponies raised her hand even with her breast, and swept it out and upward in the Indian sign-talk which meant "yes." Luck's eyes flashed appreciation of the gesture; he loved the sign-talk of the old plains tribes.
"Be careful, Annie," he cried impulsively. "I don't want you to be hurt." He dropped the megaphone as she swung her horse back from the edge and disappeared. "I'd cut the whole scene out if I didn't know what a rider she is," he added to the others, more uneasy than he cared to own. "But it would hurt her a heap more if I wouldn't let her ride where Jean rode. She's proud; awfully proud and sensitive."
"I'm glad you're letting her do it," Jean said sympathetically. "She'd hate me if you hadn't. But I'm going to watch her with my eyes shut, just the same. It's an awfully mean place in spots."
"She'll make it, all right," Luck declared. But his tone was not so confident as his words, and he was manifestly reluctant to place the whistle to his lips. He fussed with his script, and he squinted into the viewfinder, and he made certain for the second time just where the side-lines came, and thrust half an inch deeper in the sandy soil the slender stakes which would tell Annie-Many-Ponies where she must guide the pinto when she came tearing down to foreground. But he could delay the signal only so long, unless he cut out the scene altogether.
"Get back, over on that side, Bill," he commanded harshly. "Leave her plenty of room to pass that side of the camera. All ready, Pete?" Then, as if he wanted to have it over with as soon as possible, he whistled once, waited while he might have counted twenty, perhaps, and sent shrilling through the sunshine the signal that would bring her.
They watched, holding their breaths in fearful expectancy. Then they saw her flash into view and come galloping down along the edge of the ridge where the hill fell away so steeply that it might be called a cliff. Indian fashion, she was whipping the pinto down both sides with the end of her reins. Her slim legs hung straight, her moccasined toes pointing downward. One corner of her red-and-green striped blanket flapped out behind her. Haste—the haste of the pursuer—showed in every movement, every line of her figure.
She came to the descent, and the pinto, having no desire for applause but a very great hankering for whole bones in his body, planted his forefeet and slid to a stop upon the brink. His snort came clearly down to those below who watched.
"He won't tackle it," Pete Lowry predicted philosophically while he turned the camera crank steadily round and round and held himself ready to "panoram" the scene if the pinto bolted.
But the pinto, having Annie-Many-Ponies to reckon with, did not bolt. The braided rein-end of her squaw bridle lashed him stingingly; the moccasined heels dug without mercy into the tender part of his flanks. He came lunging down over the first rim of the bluff; then since he must, he gathered himself for the ordeal and came leaping down and down and down, gaining momentum with every jump. He could not have stopped then if he had tried—and Annie-Many-Ponies, still the incarnation of eager pursuit, would not let him try.
At the big flat rock of which Jean had warned her, the pinto would have swerved. But she yanked him into the straighter descent, down over the bank. He leaped, and he fell and slid twice his own length, his nose rooting the soil. Annie-Many-Ponies lurched, came hard against a boulder and somehow flung herself into place again on the horse. She lifted his head and called to him in short, harsh, Indian words. The pinto scrambled to his knees, got to his feet and felt again the sting of the rein-end in his flanks. Like a rabbit he came bounding down, down where the way was steepest and most treacherous. And at every jump the rein-end fell, first on one side and then along the other, as a skilled canoeman shifts the paddle to force his slight craft forward in a treacherous current.
Down the last slope he came thundering. On his back Annie-Many-Ponies lashed him steadily, straining her eyes in the direction which Jean had taken past the camera. She knew that they were watching her—she knew also that the camera crank in Pete Lowry's hands was turning, turning, recording every move of hers, every little changing expression. She swept down upon them so close that Pete grabbed the tripod with one hand, ready to lift it and dodge away from the coming collision. Still leaning, still lashing and straining every nerve in pursuit, she dashed past, pivoted the pinto upon his hind feet, darted back toward the staring group and jumped off while he was yet running.
Now that she had done it; now that she had proven that she also had nerve and much skill in riding, black loneliness settled upon her again. She came slowly back, and as she came she heard them praise the ride she had made. She heard them saying how frightened they had been when the pinto fell, and she heard Wagalexa Conka call to her that she had made a strong scene for him. She did not answer. She sat down upon a rock, a little apart from them, and looking as remote as the Sandias Mountains, miles away to the north, folded her blanket around her and spoke no word to anyone.
Soon Ramon mounted his horse to return to his camp. He came riding down to her—for his trail lay that way—and as he rode he called to the others a good natured "Hasta luego!" which is the Mexican equivalent of "See you later." He did not seem to notice Annie-Many-Ponies at all as he rode past her. He was gazing off down the arroyo and riding with all his weight on one stirrup and the other foot swinging free, as is the nonchalant way of accustomed riders who would ease their muscles now and then. But as he passed the rock where she was sitting he murmured, "Tonight by the rock I wait for you, querida mia." Though she gave no sign that she had heard, the heart of Annie-Many-Ponies gave a throb of gladness that was almost pain.
CHAPTER VII. ADVENTURE COMES SMILING
Luck, in the course of his enthusiastic picture making, reached the point where he must find a bank that was willing to be robbed—in broad daylight and for screen purposes only. If you know anything at all about our financial storehouses, you know that they are sensitive about being robbed, or even having it appear that they are being subjected to so humiliating a procedure. What Luck needed was a bank that was not only willing, but one that faced the sun as well. He was lucky, as usual. The Bernalillo County Bank stands on a corner facing east and south. It is an unpretentious little bank of the older style of architecture, and might well be located in the centre of any small range town and hold the shipping receipts of a cattleman who was growing rich as he grew old.
Luck stopped across the street and looked the bank over, and saw how the sun would shine in at the door and through the wide windows during the greater part of the afternoon, and hoped that the cashier was a human being and would not object to a fake robbery. Not liking suspense, he stepped off the pavement and dodged a jitney, and hurried over to interview the cashier.
You never know what secret ambitions hide behind the impassive courtesy of the average business man. This cashier, for instance, wore a green eyeshade whenever his hat was not on his, head. His hair was thin and his complexion pasty and his shoulders were too stooped for a man of his age. You never would have suspected, just to look at him through the fancy grating of his window, how he thirsted for that kind of adventure which fiction writers call red-blooded. He had never had an adventure in his life; but at night, after he had gone to bed and adjusted the electric light at his head, and his green eyeshade, and had put two pillows under the back of his neck, he read—you will scarcely believe it, but it is true—he read about the James boys and Kit. Carson and Pawnee Bill, and he could tell you—only he wouldn't mention it, of course—just how many Texans were killed in the Alamo. He loved gun catalogues, and he frequently went out of his way to pass a store that displayed real, business-looking stock-saddles and quirts and spurs and things. He longed to be down in Mexico in the thick of the scrap there, and he knew every prominent Federal leader and every revolutionist that got into the papers; knew them by spelling at least, even if he couldn't pronounce the names correctly.
He had come to Albuquerque for his lungs' sake a few years ago, and he still thrilled at the sight of bright-shawled Pueblo Indians padding along the pavements in their moccasins and queer leggings that looked like joints of whitewashed stove-pipe; while to ride in an automobile out to Isleta, which is a terribly realistic Indian village of adobe huts, made the blood beat in his temples and his fingers tremble upon his knees. Even Martinez Town with its squatty houses and narrow streets held for him a peculiar fascination.
You can imagine, maybe, how his weak eyes snapped with excitement under that misleading green shade when Luck Lindsay walked in and smiled at him through the wicket, and explained who he was and what was the favor he had come to ask of the bank. You can, perhaps, imagine how he stood and made little marks on a blotter with his pencil while Luck explained just what he would want; and how he clung to the noncommittal manner which is a cashier's professional shield, while Luck smiled his smile to cover his own feeling of doubt and stated that he merely wanted two Mexicans to enter, presumably overpower the cashier, and depart with a bag or two of gold.
The cashier made a few more pencil marks and said that it might be arranged, if Luck could find it convenient to make the picture just after the bank's closing time. Obviously the cashier could not permit the bank's patrons to be disturbed in any way—but what he really wanted was to have the thrill of the adventure all to himself.
With the two of them anxious to have the pictured robbery take place, of course they arranged it after a polite sparring on the part of the cashier, whose craving for adventure was carefully guarded as a guilty secret.
At three o'clock the next day, then—although Luck would have greatly preferred an earlier hour—the cashier had the bank cleared of patrons and superfluous clerks, and was watching, with his nerves all atingle and the sun shining in upon him through a side window, while Pete Lowry and Bill Holmes fussed outside with the camera, getting ready for the arrival of those realistic bandits, Ramon Chavez and Luis Rojas. On the street corner opposite, the Happy Family foregathered clannishly, waiting until they were called into the street-fight scene which Luck meant to make later.
The cashier's cheeks were quite pink with excitement when finally Ramon and the Rojas villain walked past the window and looked in at him before going on to the door. He was disappointed because they were not masked, and because they did not wear bright sashes with fringe and striped serapes draped across their shoulders, and the hilts of wicked knives showing somewhere. They did not look like bandits at all—thanks to Luck's sure knowledge and fine sense of realism. Still, they answered the purpose, and when they opened the door and came in the cashier got quite a start from the greedy look in their eyes when they saw the gold he had stacked in profusion on the counter before him.
They made the scene twice—the walking past the window and coming in at the door; and the second time Luck swore at them because they stopped too abruptly at the window and lingered too long there, looking in at the cashier and his gold, and exchanging meaning glances before they went to the door.
Later, there was an interior scene with reflectors almost blinding the cashier while he struggled self-consciously and ineffectually with Ramon Chavez. The gold that Ramon scraped from the cashier's keeping into his own was not, of course, the real gold which the bandits had seen through the window. Luck, careful of his responsibilities, had waited while the cashier locked the bank's money in the vault, and had replaced it with brass coins that looked real—to the camera.
The cashier lived then the biggest moments of his life. He was forced upon his back across a desk that had been carefully cleared of the bank's papers and as carefully strewn with worthless ones which Luck had brought. A realistically uncomfortable gag had been forced into the mouth of the cashier—where it brought twinges from some fresh dental work, by the way—and the bandits had taken everything in sight that they fancied.
Ramon and Luis Rojas had proven themselves artists in this particular line of work, and the cashier, when it was all over and the camera and company were busily at work elsewhere, lived it in his imagination and felt that he was at least tasting the full flavor of red-blooded adventure without having to pay the usual price of bitterness and bodily suffering. He was mistaken, of course—as I am going to explain. What the cashier had taken part in was not the adventure itself but merely a rehearsal and general preparation for the real performance.
This had been on Wednesday, just after three o'clock in the afternoon. On Saturday forenoon the cashier was called upon the phone and asked if a part of that robbery stuff could be retaken that day. The cashier thrilled instantly at the thought of it. Certainly, they could retake as much as they pleased. Lucks voice—or a voice very like Luck's—thanked him and said that they would not need to retake the interior stuff. What he wanted was to get the approach to the bank the entrance and going back to the cashier. That part of the negative was under-timed, said the voice. And would the cashier make a display of gold behind the wicket, so that the camera could register it through the window? The cashier thought that he could. "Just stack it up good and high," directed the voice. "The more the better. And clear the bank—have the clerks out, and every thing as near as possible to what it was the other day. And you take up the same position. The scene ends where Ramon comes back and grabs you."
"And listen! You did so well the other day that I'm going to leave this to you, to see that they get it the same. I can't be there myself—I've got to catch some atmosphere stuff down here in Old Town. I'm just sending my assistant camera man and the two heavies and my scenic artist for this retake. It won't be much—but be sure you have the bank cleared, old man—because it would ruin the following scenes to have extra people registered in this; see? You did such dandy work in that struggle that I want it to stand. Boy, your work's sure going to stand out on the screen!"
Can you blame the cashier for drinking in every word of that, and for emptying the vault of gold and stacking it up in beautiful, high piles where the sun shone on it through the window—and where it would be within easy reach, by the way!—so that the camera could "register" it?
At ten minutes past twelve he had gotten rid of patrons and clerks, and he had the gold out and his green eyeshade adjusted as becomingly as a green eyeshade may be adjusted. He looked out and saw that the street was practically empty, because of the hour and the heat that was almost intolerable where the sun shone full. He saw a big red machine drive up to the corner and stop, and he saw a man climb out with camera already screwed, to the tripod. He saw the bandits throw away their cigarettes and follow the camera man, and then he hurried back and took up his station beside the stacks of gold, and waited in a twitter of excitement for this unhoped-for encore of last Wednesday's glorious performance. Through the window he watched the camera being set up, and he watched also, from under his eyeshade, the approach of the two bandits.
From there on a gap occurs in the cashier's memory of that day.
Ramon and Luis went into the bank, and in a few minutes they came out again burdened with bags of specie and pulled the door shut with the spring lock set and the blinds down that proclaimed the bank was closed. They climbed into the red automobile, the camera and its operator followed, and the machine went away down the street to the post-office, turned and went purring into the Mexican quarter which spreads itself out toward the lower bridge that spans the Rio Grande. This much a dozen persons could tell you. Beyond that no man seemed to know what became of the outfit.
In the bank, the cashier lay back across a desk with a gag in his mouth and his hands and feet tied, and with a welt on the side of his head that swelled and bled sluggishly for a while and then stopped and became an angry purple. Where the gold had been stacked high in the sunshine the marble glistened whitely, with not so much as a five-dollar piece to give it a touch of color. The window blinds were drawn down—the bank was closed. And people passed the windows and never guessed that within there lay a sickly young man who had craved adventure and found it, and would presently awake to taste its bitter flavor.
Away off across the mesa, sweltering among the rocks in Bear Canon, Luck Lindsay panted and sweated and cussed the heat and painstakingly directed his scenes, and never dreamed that a likeness of his voice had beguiled the cashier of the Bernalillo County Bank into consenting to be robbed and beaten into oblivion of his betrayal.
And—although some heartless teller of tales might keep you in the dark about this—the red automobile, having dodged hurriedly into a high-boarded enclosure behind a Mexican saloon, emerged presently and went boldly off across the bridge and up through Atrisco to the sand hills which is the beginning of the desert off that way. But another automobile, bigger and more powerful and black, slipped out of this same enclosure upon another street, and turned eastward instead of west. This machine made for the mesa by a somewhat roundabout course, and emerged, by way of a rough trail up a certain draw in the edge of the tableland, to the main road where it turns the corner of the cemetery. From there the driver drove as fast as he dared until he reached the hill that borders Tijeras Arroyo. There being no sign of pursuit to this point, he crossed the Arroyo at a more leisurely pace. Then he went speeding away into the edge of the mountains until they reached one of those deep, deserted dry washes that cut the foothills here and there near Coyote Springs. There his passengers left him and disappeared up the dry wash.
Before the wound on the cashier's head had stopped bleeding, the black automobile was returning innocently to town and no man guessed what business had called it out upon the mesa.
CHAPTER VIII. THE SONG OF THE OMAHA
"Me, I theenk yoh not lov' me so moch as a pin," Ramon complained in soft reproach, down in the dry wash where Applehead had looked in vain for baling wire. "Sometimes I show yoh what is like the Spanish lov'. Like stars, like fire—sometimes I seeng the jota for you that tell how moch I lov' yoh. 'Te quiero, Baturra, te quiero,'" he began humming softly while he looked at her with eyes that shone soft in the starlight. "Sometimes me, I learn yoh dat song—and moch more I learn yoh—"
Annie-Many-Ponies stood before him, straight and slim and with that air of aloofness which so fired Ramon's desire for her. She lifted a hand to check him, and Ramon stopped instantly and waited. So far had her power over him grown.
"All time you tell me you heap love," she said in her crooning soft voice. "Why you not talk of priest to make us marry? You say words for love—you say no word for wife. Why you no say—"
"Esposa!" Ramon's teeth gleamed white as a wolf's in the dusk. "When the padre marry us I maybe teach you many ways to say wife!" He laughed under his breath. "How I calls yoh wife when I not gets one kees, me? Now I calls yoh la sweetheart—good enough when I no gets so moch as touches hand weeth yoh."
"I go way with you, you gets priest for make us marry?" Annie-Many-Ponies edged closer so that she might read what was in his face.
"Why yoh no trus' Ramon? Sure, I gets padre! W'at yoh theenk for speak lies, me? Sure, I gets padre, foolish one! Me, I not like for yoh no trus' Ramon. Looks like not moch yoh lov' Ramon."
"I good girl," Annie-Many-Ponies stated simply. "I love my husband when priest says that's right thing to do. You no gets priest, I no go with you. I think mens not much cares for marry all time. Womens not care, they go to hell. That's what priest tells. Girls got to care. That's truth." Simple as two-plus-two was the rule of life as Annie-Many-Ponies laid it down in words before him. No fine distinctions between virtue and superwomanhood there, if you please! No slurring of wrong so that it may look like an exalted right. "Womens got to care," said Annie-Many-Ponies with a calm certainty that would brook no argument.
"Sure theeng," Ramon agreed easily. "Yoh theenk I lov' yoh so moch if yoh not good?"
"You gets priest?" Annie-Many-Ponies persisted.
"Sure, I gets padre. You theenk Ramon lies for soch theeng?"
"You swear, then, all same white mans in picture makes oath." There was a new quality of inflexibility under the soft music of her voice. "You lift up hand and says, 'Help me by God I makes you for-sure my wife!'" She had pondered long upon this oath, and she spoke it now with an easy certainty that it was absolutely binding, and that no man would dare break it. "You makes that swear now," she urged gently.
"Foolish one! Yoh theenk I mus' swear I do what my hearts she's want? I tell yoh many times we go on one ranch my brother Tomas says she's be mine. We lives there in fine house weeth mooch flowers, yoh not so moch as lif' one finger for work, querida mia. Yoh theenk I not be trus', me, Ramon what loves yoh?"
"No hurt for swears what I tells," Annie-Many-Ponies stepped back from him a pace, distrust creeping into her voice.
"All right." Ramon moved nearer. "So I make oath, perhaps you make oath also! Me, I theenk yoh perhaps not like for leave Luck Leensay—I theenk perhaps yoh loves heem, yoh so all time watch for ways to please! So I swear, then yoh mus' swear also that yoh come for-sure. That square deal for both—si?"
Annie-Many-Ponies hesitated, a dull ache in her breast when Ramon spoke of Luck. But if her heart was sore at thought of him, it was because he no longer looked upon her with the smile in his eyes. It was because he was not so kind; because he believed that she had secret meetings with Bill Holmes whom she hated. And in spite of the fact that Bill Holmes had left the company the other day and was going away, Wagalexa Conka still looked upon her with cold eyes and listened to the things that Applehead said against her. The heart of Wagalexa Conka, she told herself miserably, was like a stone for her. And so her own heart must be hard. She would swear to Ramon, and she would keep the oath—and Wagalexa Conka would not even miss her or be sorry that she had gone.
"First you make swears like I tells you," she said. "Then I make swears."
"Muy bueno!" smiled Ramon then. "So I make oath I take you queek to one good friend me, the Padre Dominguez. Then yoh be my wife for sure. That good enough for yoh, perhaps? Queeck yoh make oath yoh leave these place Manana—tomorra. Yoh go by ol' rancho where we talk so many time. I leave horse for yoh. Yoh ride pas' that mountain, yoh come for Bernalillo. Yoh wait. I come queeck as can when she's dark. Yoh do that, sweetheart?"
Annie-Many-Ponies stilled the ache in her heart with the thought of her proud place beside Ramon who had much land and many cattle and who loved her so much. She lifted her hand and swore she would go with him.
She slipped away then and crept into her tent in the little cluster beside the house—for the company 'had forsaken Applehead's adobe and slept under canvas as a matter of choice. With Indian cunning she bided her time and gave no sign of what was hidden in her heart. She rose with the others and brushed her glossy hair until it shone in the sunlight like the hair of a high-caste Chinese woman. She tied upon it the new bows of red ribbon which she had bought in the secret hope that they would be a part of her wedding finery. She put on her Indian gala dress of beaded buckskin with the colored porcupine quills—and then she smiled cunningly and drew a dress of red-and-blue striped calico over her head and settled the folds of it about her with little, smoothing pats, so that the two white women, Rosemary and Jean, should not notice any unusual bulkiness of her figure.
She did not know how she would manage to escape the keen eyes of Wagalexa Conka and to steal away from the ranch, especially if she had to work in the picture that day. But Luck unconsciously opened wide the trail for her. He announced at breakfast that they would work up in Bear Canon that day, and that he would not need Jean or Annie either; and that, as it would be hotter than the hinges of Gehenna up in that canon, they had better stay at home and enjoy themselves.
Annie-Many-Ponies did not betray by so much as a flicker of the lashes that she heard him much less that it was the best of good news to her. She went into her tent and packed all of her clothes into a bundle which she wrapped in her plaid shawl, and was proud because the bundle was so big, and because she had much fine beadwork and so many red ribbons, and a waist of bright blue silk which she would wear when she stood before the priest, if Ramon did not like the dress of beaded buckskin.
A ring with an immense red stone in it which Ramon had given her, she slipped upon her finger with her little, inscrutable smile. She was engaged to be married, now, just like white girls; and tomorrow she would have a wide ring of shiny gold for that finger, and should be the wife of Ramon.
Just then Shunka Chistala, lying outside her tent, flapped his tail on the ground and gave a little, eager whine. Annie-Many-Ponies thrust her head through the opening and looked out, and then stepped over the little black dog and stood before her tent to watch the Happy Family mount and ride away with Wagalexa Conka in their midst and with the mountain wagon rattling after them loaded with "props" and the camera and the noonday lunch and Pete Lowry and Tommy Johnson, the scenic artist. Applehead was going to drive the wagon, and she scowled when he yanked off the brake and cracked the whip over the team.
Luck, feeling perchance the intensity of her gaze, turned in the saddle and looked back. The eyes of Annie-Many-Ponies softened and saddened, because this was the last time she would see Wagalexa Conka riding away to make pictures—the last time she would see him. She lifted her hand, and made the Indian sign of farewell—the peace-go-with-you sign that is used for solemn occasions of parting.
Luck pulled up short and stared. What did she mean by that? He reined his horse around, half minded to ride back and ask her why she gave him that peace-sign. She had never done it before, except once or twice in scenes that he directed. But after all he did not go. They were late in getting started that morning, which irked his energetic soul; and women's whims never did impress Luck Lindsay very deeply. Besides, just as he was turning to ride back, Annie stooped and went into her tent as though her gesture had carried no especial meaning.
Then in her tent he heard her singing the high, weird chant of the Omaha mourning song and again he was half-minded to go back, though the wailing minor notes, long drawn and mournful, might mean much or they might mean merely a fit of the blues. The others rode on talking and laughing together, and Luck rode with them; but the chant of the Omaha was in his ears and tingling his nerves. And the vision of Annie-Many-Ponies standing straight before her tent and making the sign of peace and farewell haunted him that day.
Rosemary and Jean, standing in the porch, waved good-bye to their men folk until the last bobbing hatcrown had gone down out of sight in the long, low swale that creased the mesa in that direction. Whereupon they went into the house.
"What in the world is the matter with Annie?" Jean exploded, with a little shiver. "I'd rather hear a band of gray wolves tune up when you're caught out in the breaks and have to ride in the dark. What is that caterwaul? Do you suppose she's on the warpath or anything?"
"Oh, that's just the squaw coming out in her!" Rosemary slammed the door shut so they could not hear so plainly. "She's getting more Injuny every day of her life. I used to try and treat her like a white girl—but you just can't do it, Jean."
Jean stood in the middle of the room and listened. "Br-r-r!" she shivered—and one could not blame her. "I wonder if she'd be mad," she drawled, "if I went out and told her to shut up. It sounds as if somebody was dead, or going to die or something. Like Lite says your dog will howl if anything—"
"Oh, for pity sake!" Rosemary pushed her into the living room with make-believe savageness. "I've heard her and Luck sing that last winter. And there's a kind of a teetery dance that goes with it. It's supposed to be a mourning song, as Luck explains it. But don't pay any attention to her at all. She just does it to get on our nerves. It'd tickle her to death if she thought it made us nervous."
"And now the dog is joining in on the chorus! I must say they're a cheerful pair to have around the house. And I know one thing—if they keep that up much longer, I'll either get out there with a gun, or saddle up and follow the boys."
"They'd tease us to death, Jean, if we let Annie run us out."
"It's run or be run," Jean retorted irritatedly. "I wanted to write poetry today—I thought of an awfully striking sentence about the—for heaven's sake, where's a shotgun?"
"Jean, you wouldn't!" Rosemary, I may here explain, was very femininely afraid of guns. "She'd—why, there's no telling WHAT she might do! Luck says she carries a knife."
"What if she does? She ought to carry a few bird-shot, too. She's got nothing to mourn about—nobody's died, has there?
"Hiu-hiu-hia-a-a,ah! Hia-a-a-a-ah!" wailed Annie-Many-Ponies in her tent, because she would never again look upon the face of Wagalexa Conka—or if she did it would be to see his anger blaze and burn her heart to ashes. To her it was as though death sat beside her; the death of Wagalexa Conka's friendship for her. She forgot his harshness because he thought her disobedient and wicked. She forgot that she loved Ramon Chavez, and that he was rich and would give her a fine home and much love. She forgot everything but that she had sworn an oath and that she must keep it though it killed faith and kindness and friendship as with a knife.
So she wailed, in high-keyed, minor chanting unearthly in its primitive inarticulateness of sorrow, the chant of the Omaha mourning song. So had her tribe wailed in the olden days when warriors returned to the villages and told of their dead. So had her mother wailed when the Great Spirit took away her first man-child. So had the squaws wailed in their tepees since the land was young. And the little black dog, sitting on his haunches before her door, pointed his moist nose into the sunlight and howled in mournful sympathy.
"Oh, my gracious!" Jean, usually so calm, flung a magazine against the wall. "This is just about as pleasant as a hanging! let's saddle up and ride in after the mail, Rosemary. Maybe the squaw in her will be howled out by the time we get back." And she added with a venomous sincerity that would have warmed the heart of old Applehead, "I'd shoot that dog, for half a cent! How do you suppose an animal of his size can produce all that noise?"
"Oh, I don't know!" Rosemary spoke with the patience of utter weariness. "I've stood her and the dog for about eight months and I'm getting kind of hardened to it. But I never did hear them go on like that before. You'd think all her relations were being murdered, wouldn't you?"
Jean was busy getting into her riding clothes and did not say what she thought; but you may be sure that it was antipathetic to the grief of Annie-Many-Ponies, and that Jean's attitude was caused by a complete lack of understanding. Which, if you will stop to think, is true of half the unsympathetic attitudes in the world. Because they did not understand, the two dressed hastily and tucked their purses safely inside their shirtwaists and saddled and rode away to town. And the last they heard as they put the ranch behind them was the wailing chant of Annie-Many-Ponies and the prodigious, long-drawn howling of the little black dog.
Annie-Many-Ponies, hearing the beat of hoofs ceased her chanting and looked out in time to see the girls just disappearing over the low brow of the hill. She stood for a moment and stared after them with frowning brows. Rosemary she did not like and never would like, after their hidden feud of months over such small matters as the cat and the dog, and unswept floors, and the like. A mountain of unwashed dishes stood between these two, as it were, and forbade anything like friendship.
But the parting that was at hand had brushed aside her jealousy of Jean as leading woman. Intuitively she knew that with any encouragement Jean would have been her friend. Oddly, she remembered now that Jean had been the first to ask for her when she came to the ranch. So, although Jean would never know, Annie-Many-Ponies raised her hand and gave the peace-and-farewell sign of the plains Indians.
The way was open now, and she must go. She had sworn that she would meet Ramon—but oh, the heart of her was heavier than the bundle which she bound with her bright red sash and lifted to her shoulders with the sash drawn across her chest and shoulders. So had the women of her tribe borne burdens since the land was young; but none had ever borne a heavier load than did Annie-Many-Ponies when she went soft footed across the open space to the dry wash and down that to another, and so on and on until she crossed the low ridge and came down to the deserted old rancho with its crumbling adobe cabins and the well where she had waited so often for Ramon.
She was tired when she reached the well, for her back was not used to burden-bearing as had been her mother's, and her steps had lagged because of the heaviness that was in her chest. It seemed to her that some bad spirit was driving her forth an exile. She could not understand, last night she had been glad at the thought of going, and if the thought of leaving Wagalexa Conka so treacherously had hurt like a knife-thrust, still, she had sworn willingly enough that she would go.
The horse was there, saddled and tied in a tumble-down shed just as Ramon had promised that it would be. Annie-Many-Ponies did not mount and ride on immediately, however. It was still early in the forenoon, and she was not so eager in reality as she had been in anticipation. She sat down beside the well and stared somberly away to the mountains, and wondered why she was go sad when she should be happy. She twisted the ring with the big red stone round and round her finger, but she got no pleasure from the crimson glow of it. The stone looked to her now like a great, frozen drop of blood. She wondered grimly whose blood it was, and stared at it strangely before her eyes went again worshipfully to the mountains which she loved and which she must leave and perhaps never see again as they looked from there, and from the ranch.
She must ride and ride until she was around on the other side of that last one that had the funny, pointed cone top like a big stone tepee. On the other side was Ramon, and the priest, and the strange new life of which she was beginning to feel afraid. There would be no more riding up to camera, laughing or sighing or frowning as Wagalexa Conka commanded her to do. There would be no more shy greetings of the slim young woman in riding skirt—the friendship scenes and the black-browed anger, while Pete Lowry turned the camera and Luck stood beside him telling her just what she must do, and smiling at her when she did it well.
There would be Ramon, and the priest and the wide ring of shiny gold—what more? The mountains, all pink and violet and smiling green and soft gray—the mountains hid the new life from her. And she must ride around that last, sharp-pointed one, and come into the new life that was on the other side—and what if it should be bitter? What if Ramon's love did not live beyond the wide ring of shiny gold? She had seen it so, with other men and other maids.
No matter. She had sworn the oath that she would go. But first, there at the old well where Ramon had taught her the Spanish love words, there where she had listened shyly and happily to his voice that was so soft and so steeped in love, Annie-Many-Ponies stood up with her face to the mountains and sorrow in her eyes, and chanted again the wailing, Omaha mourning-song. And just behind her the little black dog, that had followed close to her heels all the way, sat upon his haunches and pointed his nose to the sky and howled.
For a long time she wailed. Then to the mountains that she loved she made the sign of peace-and-farewell, and turned herself stoically to the keeping of her oath. Her bundle that was so big and heavy she placed in the saddle and fastened with the saddle-string and with the red sash that had bound it across her chest and shoulders. Then, as her great grandmother had plodded across the bleak plains of the Dakotas at her master's behest, Annie-Many-Ponies took the bridle reins and led the horse out of the ruin, and started upon her plodding, patient journey to what lay beyond the mountains. Behind her the black horse walked with drooping head, half asleep in the warm sunlight. At the heels of the horse followed the little black dog.
CHAPTER IX. RIDERS IN THE BACKGROUND
Luck, as explained elsewhere, was sweating and swearing at the heat in Bear Canon. The sun had crept around so that it shone full into a certain bowlder-strewn defile, and up this sunbaked gash old Applehead was toiling, leading the scrawniest burro which Luck had been able to find in the country. The burro was packed with a prospector's outfit startlingly real in its pathetic meagerness. Old Applehead was picking his way among rocks so hot that he could hardly bear to lay his bare hand upon them, tough as that hand was with years of exposure to heat and cold alike. Beads of perspiration were standing on his face, which was a deep, apoplectic crimson, and little trickles of sweat were dropping off his lower jaw.
He was muttering as he climbed, but the camera fortunately failed to record the language that he used. Now and then he turned and yanked savagely at the lead rope; whereupon the burro would sit down upon its haunches and allow Applehead to stretch its neck as far as bone and tough hide and tougher sinew would permit Someone among the group roosting in the shade across the defile and well out of camera range would laugh, and Luck, standing on a ledge just behind and above the camera, would shout directions or criticism of the "business."
"Come on back, Applehead," Luck yelled when the "prospectorp" had turned a corner of rock and disappeared from sight of the camera. "We'll do that scene over once more before the sun gets too far around."
"Do it over, will ye?" Applehead snarled as he came toiling obediently back down the gulch. "Well, now, I ain't so danged shore about that there doin' over—'nless yuh want to wait and do it after sundown. Ain't nobody but a danged fool It would go trailin' up that there gulch this kinda' day. Them rocks up there is hot enough to brile a lizard—now, I'm tellin' ye!"
Luck covered a smile with his moist palm. He could not afford to be merciful at the expense of good "picture-stuff," however, so he called down grimly:
"Now you're just about fagged enough for that close-up I want of you, Applehead. You went up that gulch a shade too brisk for a fellow that's all in from traveling, and starved into the bargain. Come back down here by this sand bank, and start up towards camera. Back up a little, Pete, so you can 'pam' his approach. I want to get him pulling his burro up past that bank—sabe? And the close-up of his face with all those sweat-streaks will prove how far he's come—and then I want the detail of that burro and his pack which you'll get as they go by. You see what I mean. Let's see. Will it swing you too far into the sun, Pete, if you pick him up down there in that dry channel?"
"Not if you let me make it right away," Pete replied after a squint or two through the viewfinder. "Sun's getting pretty far over—"
"Ought to leave a feller time to git his wind," Applehead complained, looking up at Luck with eyes bloodshot from the heat. "I calc'late mebby you think it's FUN to drag that there burro up over them rocks?"
"Sure, it isn't fun. We didn't come out here for fun. Go down and wait behind that bank, and come out into the channel when I give the word. I want you coming up all-in, just as you look right now. Sorry, but I can't let you wait to cool off, Applehead."
"Well now," Applehead began with shortwinded sarcasm, "I'm s'posed to be outa grub. Why didn't yuh up In' starve me fer a week or two, so'st I'd be gaunted up realistic? Why didn't yuh break a laig fer me, sos't I kin show some five-cent bunch in a pitcher-show how bad I'm off? Danged if I ain't jest about gettin' my hide full uh this here danged fool REELISM you're hollerin' fur all the time. 'F you send me down there to come haulin' that there burro back up here so's the camery kin watch me sweat 'n' puff my danged daylights out—before I git a drink uh water, I'll murder ye in cold blood, now I'm tellin' ye!"
"You go on down there and shut up!" Luck yelled inexorably. "You can drink a barrel when I'm through with this scene—and not before. Get that? My Lord! If you can't lead a burro a hundred yards without setting down and fanning yourself to sleep, you must be losing your grip for fair. I'll stake you to a rocking-chair and let you do old grandpa parts, if you aren't able to—"
"Dang you, Luck, if you wasn't such a little runt I'd come up there and jest about lick the pants off you! Talk that way to ME, will ye? I'll have ye know I kin lead burros with you or any other dang man, heat er no heat Ef yuh ain't got no more heart'n to AST it of me, I'll haul this here burro up 'n' down this dang gulch till there ain't nothin' left of 'im but the lead-rope, and the rocks is all wore down to cobble-stone! Ole grandpa parts, hey? You'll swaller them words when I git to ye, young feller—and you'll swaller 'em mighty dang quick, now I'm tellin' ye!"
He went off down the gulch to the sand bank. The Happy Family, sprawled at ease in the shade, took cigarettes from their lips that they might chortle their amusement at the two. Like father and son were Applehead and Luck, but their bickerings certainly would never lead one to suspect their affection.
"Get that darned burro outa sight, will you?" Luck bawled impatiently when Applehead paused to send a murderous glance back toward camera. "What's the matter—yuh PARALYZED down there? Haul him in behind that bank! The moon'll be up before you get turned around, at that rate!"
"You shet yore haid!" Applehead retorted at the full capacity of his lungs and with an absolute disregard for Luck's position as director of the company. "Who's leadin' this here burro—you er me? Fer two cents I'd come back and knock the tar outa you, Luck! Stand up there on a rock and flop your wings and crow like a danged banty rooster—'n' I was leadin' burros 'fore you was born! I'd like to know who yuh think you BE?"
Pete Lowry, standing feet-apart and imperturbably focussing the camera while the two yelled insults at each other, looked up at Luck.
"Riders in the background," he announced laconically, and returned to his squinting and fussing. "Maybe you can make 'em hear with the megaphone," he hinted, looking again at Luck. "They're riding straight up the canon, in the middle distance. They'll register in the scene, if you can't turn 'em."
"Applehead!" Luck called through the megaphone to his irritated prospector. "Get those riders outa the canon—they're in the scene!"
Applehead promptly appeared, glaring up at luck. "Well, now, if I've got to haul this here dang jackass up this dang gulch, I cal'clate that'll be about job enough for one man," he yelled. "How yuh expect me t' go two ways 't once? Hey? Yuh figured that out yit?" He turned then for a look at the interrupting strangers, and immediately they saw his manner change. He straightened up, and his right hand crept back significantly toward his hip. Applehead, I may here explain, was an ex-sheriff, and what range men call a "go-getter." He had notches on the ivory handle of his gun—three of them. In fair fights and in upholding the law he had killed, and he would kill again if the need ever arose, as those who knew him never doubted.
Luck, seeing that backward movement of the hand, unconsciously hitched his own gun into position on his hip and came down off his rock ledge with one leap. Just as instinctively the Happy Family scrambled out of the shade and followed luck down the gulch to where Applehead stood facing down the canon, watchfulness in every tense line of his lank figure. Tommy Johnson, who never seemed to be greatly interested in anything save his work, got up from where he lay close beside the camera tripod and went over to the other side of the gulch where he could see plainer.
Like a hunter poising his shotgun and making ready when his trained bird-dog points, Luck walked guardedly down the gulch to where Applehead stood watching the horsemen who had for the moment passed out of sight of those above.
"Now, what's that danged shurf want, prowlin' up HERE with a couple uh depittys?" Applehead grumbled when he heard Luck's footsteps crunching behind him. "Uh course," he added grimly, "he MIGHT be viewin' the scenery—but it's dang pore weather fur pleasure-ridin', now I'm tellin' ye! Them a comin' up here don't look good to ME, Luck—'n' if they ain't—"
"How do you know it's the sheriff?" Luck for no reason whatever felt a sudden heaviness of spirit.
"Hey? Think my eyes is failin' me?" Applehead gave him a sidelong glance of hasty indignation. "I'd know ole Hank Miller a mile off with m' eyes shet."
By then the three riders rode out into plain view. Perhaps the sight of Luck and Applehead standing there awaiting their arrival, with the whole Happy Family and Big Aleck Douglas and Lite Avery moving down in a close-bunched, expectant group behind the two, was construed as hostility rather than curiosity. At any rate the sheriff and his deputies shifted meaningly in their saddles and came up sour-faced and grim, and with their guns out and pointing at the group.
"Don't go making any foolish play, boys," the sheriff warned. "We don't want trouble—we aren't looking for any. But we ain't taking any chances."
"Well now, you're takin' a dang long chance, Hank Miller, when yuh come ridin' up on us fellers like yuh was cornerin' a bunch uh outlaws," Applehead exploded. But Luck pushed him aside and stepped to the front.
"Nobody's making any foolish play but you," he answered the sheriff calmly. "You may not know it, but you're blocking my scene and the light's going. If you've got any business with me or my company, get it over and then get out so we aim make this scene. What d'yuh want?"
"You," snapped the sheriff. "You and your bunch."
"Me?" Luck took a step forward. "What for?"
"For pulling off that robbery at the bank today." The sheriff could be pretty blunt, and he shot the charge straight, without any quibbling.
Luck looked a little blank; and old Applehead, shaking with a very real anger now, shoved Luck away and stepped up where he could shake his fist under the sheriff's nose.
"We don't know, and we don't give a cuss, what you're aimin' at," he thundered. "We been out here workin' in this brilin' sun sense nine o'clock this mornin'. Luck ain't robbed no bank, ner he ain't the kind that DOES rob banks, and I'm here to see you swaller them words 'fore I haul ye off'n that horse and plumb wear ye out! Yuh wanta think twicet 'fore ye come ridin' up where I kin hear yuh call Luck Lindsay a thief, now I'm tellin' ye! If a bank was robbed, ye better be gittin' out after them that done it, and git outa the way uh that camery sos't we can git t' work! Git!"
The sheriff did not "git" exactly, but he did look considerably embarrassed. His eyes went to Luck apologetically.
"Cashier come to and said you'd called him up on the phone about eleven, claimin' you wanted to make a movin' pitcher of the bank being robbed," he explained—though he was careful not to lower his gun. "He swore it was your men that done the work and took the gold you told him to pile out on the—"
"I told him?" Luck's voice had the sharpened quality that caused laggard actors to jump. "Be a little more exact in the words you use."
"Well-l—somebody on the phone 't he THOUGHT was you," the sheriff amended obediently. "Your men—and they sure WAS your men, because three or four fellers besides the cashier seen 'em goin' in and comin' out—they gagged the cashier and took his keys away from him and cleaned the safe, besides taking what gold he'd piled on the counter for y—for 'em.
"So," he finished vigorously, "I an' my men hit the trail fer the ranch and was told by the women that you was out here. And here we are, and you might just as well come along peaceable as to make a fuss—"
"That thar is shore enough outa YOU, Hank Miller!" Applehead exploded again. "I calc'late you kin count ME in, when you go mixin' up with Luck, here. I'm one of his men—and if he was to pull off a bank robbery I calc'late I'd be in on that there performance too, I'm tellin' you! Luck don't go no whars ner do nothin' that I AIN'T in on.
"I've had some considerable experience as shurf myself, if you'll take the trouble to recolleck; and I calc'late my word'll go about as fur as the next. When I tell ye thar ain't goin' to be no arrest made in Bear Canon, and that you ain't goin' to take luck in fer no bank robbery, you kin be dang shore I mean every word uh that thar!" He moved a step or two nearer the sheriff, and the sheriff backed his horse away from him.
"Ef you kin cut out this here accusin' Luck, and talk like a white man," Applehead continued heatedly, "we'd like to hear the straight uh this here robbery. I would, 'n' I know Luck would, seein' they've gone t' work and mixed him into it. His bunch is all here, as you kin see fer yourself. Now we're listenin' 's long's you talk polite—'n' you kin tell us what men them was that was seen goin' in and comin' out—and all about the hull dang business."
The sheriff had not ridden to Bear Canon expecting to be bullied into civil speech and lengthy explanations; but he knew Applehead Furrman, and he had sufficient intelligence to read correctly the character of the group of men that stood behind Applehead. Honest men or thieves, they were to, be reckoned with if any attempt were made to place Luck under arrest; any fool could see that—and Hank Miller was not a fool.
He proceeded therefore to explain his errand and the robbery as the cashier had described it to the clerks who returned after lunch to finish their Saturday's work at the bank.
"Fifteen thousand they claim is what the fellers got. And one of your men that runs the camera was keeping up a bluff of taking a pitcher of it all the time—that's why they got away with it. Nobody suspicioned it was anything more'n moving-pitcher acting till they found the cashier and brought him toy along about one o'clock. It was that Chavez feller that you had working for yuh, and Luis Rojas that done it—them and a couple fellers stalling outside with the camera."
"I wonder," hazarded Pete Lowry, who had come down and joined the group, "if that wasn't Bill Holmes with the camera? He was a lot more friendly with Ramon than he tried to let on."
"The point is," Luck broke in, "that they took advantage of my holdup scene to pull off the robbery. I can see how the cashier would fall for a retake like that, especially since he don't know much about picture-making. Gather up the props, boys, and let's go home. I'm going to get the rights of this thing."
"You've got it now," the sheriff informed him huffily. "Think I been loading you up with hot air? I was sent out to round you up—"
"Forget all that!" snapped luck. "I don't know as I enjoy having you fellows jump at the notion I'm a bank-robber—or that if I had robbed a bank I would have come right back here and gone to work. What kind of a simp do you think I am, for gosh sake? Can you see where anyone but a lunatic would go like that in broad daylight and pull off a robbery as raw as that one must have been, and not even make an attempt at a gateway? I'll gamble Applehead, here, wouldn't have fallen for a play as coarse as that was if he was sheriff yet. He'd have seen right away that the camera part was just the coarsest kind of a blind.
"My Lord! Think of grown men—officers of the law at that—being simple-minded enough to come fogging out here to me, instead of getting on the trail of the men that were seen on the spot! You say they came in a machine to the bank and you never so much as tried to trace it, or to get the license number even, I'll bet a month's salary you didn't! It was a moving-picture stall, and so you come blundering out here to the only picture company in the country, thinking, by gravy, that it was all straight goods—oh, can you beat that for a boob?" He shook back his heavy mane of gray hair and turned to his boys disgustedly.
"Pete and Tommy, you can drive the wagon back all right, can't you? We'll go on ahead and see what there is at the bottom of this yarn."
CHAPTER X. DEPUTIES ALL
At the ranch, whither they rode in haste, Luck meant to leave his boys and go on with the sheriff to town. But the Happy Family flatly refused to be left behind. Even old Aleck Douglas—whom years and trouble had enfeebled until his very presence here with Jean and Lite was a health-seeking mission in the wonderful air of New Mexico—even old Aleck Douglas stamped his foot at Jean and declared that he was going, along to see that "the boy" got a square deal. There wouldn't be any railroading Luck to the pew for something he didn't do, he asserted with a tragic meaning that wrung the heart of Jean. It took Lite's arguments and Luck's optimism and, finally, the assurance of the sheriff that Luck was not under arrest and was in no danger of it, to keep the old man at the ranch. Also, they promised to return with all speed and not to keep supper waiting, before the two women were satisfied to let them go.
"Oh, Luck Lindsay," Rosemary bethought her to announce just as they were leaving, "you better keep an eye out for Annie, while you're in town. She's gone—and the dog and all her clothes and everything. Maybe she took the train back to the reservation. I just wanted you to know, so if you feel you ought to bother—"
"Annie gone?" Even in his preoccupation the mews came with a stab. "When did she go?"
"We don't know. She set up an awful yowling when you boys went to work. And the dog commenced howling, till it was simply awful. So we rode in to town after the mail, and when we came back she was gone, bag and baggage. We didn't see anything of her on the trail, but she could dodge us if she wanted to—she's Injun enough for that."
So Luck carried a double load of anxiety with him to town, and the first thing he did when he reached it was to seek, not the beaten cashier who had accused him, but the ticket agent at the depot, and the baggage men—anyone who would be apt to remember Annie-Many-Ponies if she took a train out of town.
You might think that, with so many Indians coming and going at the depot, selling their wares and making picturesque setting for the curios which are purveyed there, that Luck stood a very slight chance of gaining any information whatever. But a Sioux squaw in Albuquerque would be as noticeable as a Hindoo. Pueblos, Navajos—they may come and go unnoticed because of their numbers. But an Indian of another tribe and style of dress would be conspicuous enough to be remembered. So, when no one remembered seeing Annie-Many-Ponies, Luck dismissed the conjecture that she had taken the train, and turned his attention to picking up the trail of the bank-robbers.
Here the Happy Family, with Applehead and Lite Avery, had managed to accomplish a good deal in a very short time. The Native Son, for instance, had ridden straight out from the bank into the Mexican quarter, as soon as he learned that the red automobile had gone up Silver Street and turned south on Fourth. By the time Luck reached the bank Miguel came loping back with the news that the red machine had crossed the lower bridge and had turned up toward Atrisco, that little Mexican hamlet which lies between the river and the bluffs where the white sand of the desert spills over into the nearest corrals and little pastures.
The others had learned definitely that Bill Holmes had manipulated the fake camera while the bank was being robbed, and that the man with him, who bad also driven the machine, was a certain chauffeur of colorless personality and an unsavory reputation among other drivers; and that the number of the automobile was a matter of conjecture, since three different men who were positive they remembered it gave three different numbers.
In company with the sheriff they called upon the cashier, who was in bed with his head bandaged and his nerves very much unstrung. He was much calmer, however, than when he had hysterically accused Luck of betraying him into putting the money out to be stolen. He admitted now that he was not at all sure of the voice which talked with him over the phone; indeed, now when he heard luck speak, he felt extremely doubtful of the similarity of that other voice. He protested against being blamed for being too confiding. He had never dreamed, he said, that anyone could be so bold as to plan a thing like that. It all sounded straight, about the spoiled negative and so forth. He was very sorry that he had caused Luck Lindsay any inconvenience or annoyance, and he begged Luck's pardon several times in the course of his explanation of the details.
They left him still protesting and apologizing and explaining and touching his bandaged head with self-pitying tenderness. In the street Luck turned to the sheriff as though his mind was made up to something which argument could not alter in the slightest degree.
"I realize that in a way I'm partly responsible for this," he said crisply. "The scenes I took the other day made this play possible for Ramon and his bunch. What you'd better do right now is to swear Applehead and me in as deputies—and any of the boys that want to come along and help round up that bunch. We'll do it, if it's to be done at all. I feel I kind of owe it to that poor simp in there to get the money back—sabe? And I owe it to myself to bring in Ramon and Bill Holmes, and whoever else is with 'em on this; young Rojas we know is for one."
"Where do you aim to look for 'em, if you don't mind telling?" Hank Miller was staring doubtfully down at Luck.
"Where? Miguel here says they went toward Atrisco. That means they're hitting for the Navajo reservation. There's three hundred miles of country straight west, and not so much as a telegraph pole! Mighty few service stations for the machine, too, when you think of it—and rough country to travel over. If they try to go by automobile, we'll overhaul them, most likely, before they get far. Also, we can trace 'em easy enough."
The sheriff pulled at his stubby mustache and looked the bunch over. "You know that country?" he asked, still doubtfully. "Them Navvies are plumb snaky, lemme tell yuh. Ain't like the Pueblos—you're taking a risk when yuh ride into the Navvy country. They'll get yuh if they get a chancet; run off your horses, head yuh away from water—they're plumb MEAN!"
"Well, now, I calc'late I know them Navvies putty tol'ble well," Applehead cut in. "I've fit 'em comin' and goin'. Why, my shucks! Ef I notched my gun for the Navvies I've got off an' on in the course uh my travels, she'd shore look like a saw-blade, now I'm tellin' yuh!"
"Yes, an' yuh got a couple too many fer to go monkeyin' around on their groun' agin," the sheriff informed him bluntly. "They ain't forgot the trip you made over there after Jose Martinez. Best fer you to keep off'n that reservation, Applehead—and I'm speakin' as a friend."
"As a friend you kin shet up," Applehead retorted pettishly. "Ef Luck hits fer the Navvy country after them skunks, I calc'late ole Applehead'll be somers close handy by—"
"Hurry up and swear us in," Luck interrupted. "We've got to get to the ranch and back with an outfit, yet tonight, so we can hit the trail as soon as possible. No use for you to take the oath, Andy—what you better do is to stay at the ranch with the women folks."
"Aleck will be there, and Pete and Tommy and the cook," Andy rebelled instantly. His hand went up to take the oath with the others.
There on the corner of the street where the shadows lay under a gently whispering box-elder tree, Hank Miller faced the group that stood with right hands uplifted and swore them as he had sworn—with the oath that made deputy sheriffs of them all. He told them that while he did not believe the thieves had gone to the reservation, and would look for them elsewhere, the idea was worth acting upon—seeing they wanted to do it anyway; and that the sheriff's office stood ready to assist them in any way possible. He wished them luck and hurried away, evidently much relieved to get away and out of an uncomfortable position.
In the next two hours Luck managed to accomplish a good deal, which was one of the reasons why he was manager and director of the Flying U Feature Films. Just for example, he went to a friend who was also something of a detective, and put him on the job of find Annie-Many-Ponies—a bigger task than it looked to Luck, as we have occasion to know. He sent some of the boys back to the ranch in a machine, and told them just what to bring back with them in the way of rifles, bedding rolls, extra horses and so on. The horses they had ridden into town he had housed in a livery stable. He took the Native Son and a Mexican driver and went over to Atrisco, routed perfectly polite and terribly sleepy individuals out of their beds and learned beyond all question that a red automobile with several men in it had passed through the dusty lanes and had labored up the hill to the desert mesa beyond and that no one had seen it return.
He sent a hundred-and-fifty-word message to Dewitt of the Great Western Company in Los Angeles, explaining with perfect frankness the situation and his determination to get out after the robbers, and made it plain also that he would not expect salary for the time he spent in the chase. He ended by saying tersely, "My reputation and standing of company here at stake," and signed his name in a hasty scrawl that made the operator scratch his ear reflectively with his pencil when he had counted the words down to the signature. After that, Luck gave every ounce of his energy and every bit of his brain to the outfitting of the expedition.
So well did he accomplish the task that by one O'clock that night a low-voiced company of men rode away from a livery stable in the heart of the town, leading four pack-horses and heading as straight as might be for the bridge. They met no one; they saw scarcely a light in any of the windows that they passed. A chill wind crept up the river so that they buttoned their coats when the hoofbeats of the horses sounded hollow on the bridge. Out through the lane that leads to Atrisco, which slept in the stolid blackness of low adobe houses with flat roofs and tiny windows, they rode at a trot. Dogs barked, ran but to the road and barked again, ran back to the adobe huts and kept on barking. In one field some loose horses, seeing so many of their kind in the lane, galloped up to the fence and stood there snorting. These were still in their colthood, however, and the saddle-horses merely flicked ears in their direction and gave them no more heed.
"I'm glad you're sure of the country, up here on top," Luck said to Applehead when they had climbed, by the twisting, sandy trail, to the sand dunes that lay on the edge of the mesa and stretched vaguely away under the stars. To the rim-rook line that separated this first mesa from the higher one beyond, Luck himself knew the sand-hills well. But beyond the broken line of hills off to the northwest he had never gone—and there lay the territory that belongs to the Navajos, who are a tricky tribe and do not love the white people who buy their rugs and blankets and, so claim the Navajos, steal their cattle and their horses as well.
At the rim of lava rock they made a dry camp and lay down in what comfort they could achieve, to doze and wait for daylight so that they could pick up the trail of the red automobile.
CHAPTER XI. ALL THIS WAR-TALK ABOUT INJUNS
Over his second cup of coffee the pale eyes of Big Medicine goggled thoughtfully at the forbidding wall of lava rock that stretched before them as far as he could see to left or right. There were places here and there where he believed that a man could climb to the top with the aid of his hands as well as his feet, but for the horses he was extremely skeptical; and as for a certain big red automobile.... His eyes swung from the brown rampart and rested grievedly upon the impassive face of Luck, who was just then reaching forward to spear another slice of bacon from the frying pan.
"Kinda looks to me, by cripes, as if we'd come to the end uh the trail," he observed in his usual full-lunged bellow, as though he had all his life been accustomed to pitching his voice above some unending clamor. "Yuh got any idee of how an autyMObile clumb that there rim-rock?"
Old Applehead, squatting on his heels across the little camp-fire, leaned and picked a coal out of the ashes for his pipe and afterwards cocked his eyes toward Big Medicine.
"What yuh calc'late yuh tryin' to do?" he inquired pettishly. "Start up an argyment uh some kind? Cause if ye air, lemme tell yuh I got the yer-ache from listenin' to you las' night."
Big Medicine looked at him as though he was going to spring upon him in deadly combat—but that was only a peculiar facial trick of his. What he did do was to pour that last swallow of hot, black coffee down his throat and then laugh his big haw-haw-haw that could be heard half a mile off.
"Y' oughta kep Applehead to home with the wimmin folks, Luck," he bawled unabashed. "Night air's bad fer 'im, and the trail ain't goin' to be smooth goin',—not if we gotta ride our hawses straight up, by cripes!"
"We haven't got to." Luck balanced his slice of bacon upon the unscorched side of a bannock and glanced indifferently at the rim of rock that was worrying the other. "I swung down here to make camp off the trail But it's only a half mile or so over this rise that looks level to you, to where the lava ledge peters out so we can ride over it easier than we rode up off the river-flat in that loose sand. That ease your mind any?"
"Helps some," Big Medicine admitted, his eyes going speculatively to the rise that looked perfectly level. "I'm willin' to take your word fer it, boss. But what's gittin' to worry me, by cripes, is all this here war-talk about Injuns. Honest to grandma, I feel like as if I'd been readin'—"
"Aw, it's jest a josh, Bud!" Happy Jack asserted boredly. "I betche there ain't been a Injun on the fight here sence hell was a tradin' post!"
"You think there hasn't?" Luck looked up quickly to ask. But old Applehead rose up and shook an indignant finger at Happy Jack.
"There ain't, hey? Well, I calc'late that fer a josh, them thar Navvies has got a right keen sense uh humor, and I've knowed men to laff theirselves to death on their danged resavation—now I'm tellin' yuh I It was all a josh mebby, when they riz up a year or two back 'cause one uh their tribe was goin' t' be arrested er some darn thing! Ole General Scott, he didn't call it no joke when he, went in thar to settle 'em down, did he? I calc'late, mebby it was jest fer a josh them troops waited on the aidge, ready to go in if he didn't git back a certain time! 'N' that wasn't so fur back, shorely,—only two years. Why dang your fool heart, I've laid out there in them hills myself and fit off the Navvies—'n' I didn't see nothin' much to laugh at, now I'm tellin' yuh! Time I went there after Jose Martinez—"
"Better get under way, boys," Luck interrupted, having heard many times the details of that fight and capture. "We'll throw out a circle and pick up the trail of that machine, or whatever they made their getaway in. My idea is that they must have stached some horses out here somewhere. I don't believe they'd take the risk of trying to get away in a machine; that would hold them to the main trails, mostly. I know it wouldn't be my way of getting outa reach. I'd want horses so I could get into rough country, and I've doped it out that Ramon is too trail-wise to bank very high on an automobile once he got out away from town. Applehead, you and Lite and Pink and Weary form one party if it comes to where we want to divide forces. Pack a complete camp outfit on the sorrel and the black—you notice that's the way I had 'em packed first. Keep their packs just as we started out, then you'll be ready to strike out by yourselves whenever it seems best. Get me?"
"We get you, boss," Weary sang out cheerfully, and went to work gathering up the breakfast things and putting them into two little piles for the packs. Pink led up the black and the sorrel, and helped to pack them with bedding and supplies for four, as Luck had ordered, while Lite and Applehead saddled their horses and then came up to help throw the diamond hitches on the packs.
A couple of rods nearer the rock wall Happy Jack was grumbling, across the canvas pack of a little bay, at Big Medicine, who was warning him against leaving his hair so long as a direct temptation to scalp-lifting. Luck bad already mounted and ridden out a little way, where he could view the country behind them with his field glasses, to make sure that in the darkness they had not passed by anything that deserved a closer inspection. He came back at a lope and motioned to Andy and the Native Son.
"That red automobile is standing back about half a mile," he announced hurriedly. "Empty and deserted, looks like. We'll go back and take a look at it. The rest of you can finish packing and wait here till we come back. No use making extra travel for your horses. They'll get all they need, the chances are."
The red automobile was empty of everything but the upholstering and a jack in the toolbox. The state license number was gone, and the serial number on the engine had been hammered into illegibility. What tracks there were had been blown nearly full of the white sand of that particular locality There was nothing to be learned there, except the very patent fact that the machine bad been abandoned for some reason. Luck took a look at the engine and saw nothing wrong with it. There was oil and there was "gas"—a whole tank full. Andy and Miguel, riding an ever-widening circle around the machine while Luck was looking for evidence of a breakdown, ran across a lot of hoofprints that seemed to head straight away past the rim-rock and on to the hills.
They picked up the trail of the hoofprints and followed it. When they returned to the others they found the boys all mounted and waiting impatiently like hounds on the leash eager to get away on the chase. Six horses there were, and even old Applehead, who was in a bad humor that morning and seemed to hate agreeing with anyone, admitted that probably the four who had committed the robbery and left town in the machine had been met out here by a man who brought horses for them and one extra pack horse. This explained the number in the most plausible manner, and satisfied everyone that they were on the right trail.
Riding together—since they were on a plain trail and there was nothing to be gained by separating—they climbed to the higher mesa, crossed the ridge of the three barren hills that none of them but Applehead had ever passed, and went on and on and on as the hoofprints led them, straight toward the reservation.
They discussed the robbery from every angle—they could think of, and once or twice someone hazarded a guess at Annie-Many-Ponies' reason for leaving and her probable destination. They wondered how old Dave Wiswell, the dried little cattleman of The Phantom Herd, was making out in Denver, where he had gone to consult a specialist about some kidney trouble that had interfered with his riding all spring. Weary suggested that maybe Annie-Many-Ponies had taken a notion to go and visit old Dave, since the two were old friends.
It was here that Applehead unwittingly put into words the vague suspicion which Luck had been trying to stifle and had not yet faced as a definite idea.
"I calc'late we'll likely find that thar squaw putty tol'ble close to whar we find Bill Holmes," Applehead remarked sourly. "Her goin' off same, day they stuck up that bank don't look to me like no happenstance—now I'm tellin' yuh! 'N' if I was shurf, and was ast to locate that squaw, I'd keep right on the trail uh Bill Holmes, jest as we're doin' now."
"That isn't like Annie," Luck said sharply to, still the conviction in his own mind. "Whatever faults she may have, she's been loyal to me, and honest. Look how she stuck last winter, when she didn't have anything at stake, wasn't getting any salary, and yet worked like a dog to help make the picture a success. Look how she got up in the night when the blizzard struck, and fed our horses and cooked breakfast of her own accord, just so I could get out early and get my scenes. I've known her since she was a dirty-faced papoose, and I never knew her to lie or steal. She wasn't in on that robbery—I'll bank on that, and she wouldn't go off with a thief. It isn't like Annie."
"Well," said Big Medicine, thinking of his own past, "the best uh women goes wrong when some knot-headed man gits to lovemakin'. They'll do things fer the wrong kinda man, by cripes, that they wouldn't do fer no other human on earth. I've knowed a good woman to lie and steal—fer a man that wasn't fit, by cripes, to tip his hat to 'er in the street! Women," he added pessimistically, "is something yuh can't bank on, as safe as yuh can on a locoed horse!" He kicked his mount unnecessarily by way of easing the resentment which one woman had managed to instil against the sex in general.
"That's where you're darned right, Bud," Pink attested with a sudden bitterness which memory brought. "I wouldn't trust the best woman that ever lived outa my sight, when you come right down to cases."
"Aw, here!" Andy Green, thinking loyally of his Rosemary, swung his horse indignantly toward the two. "Cut that out, both of you! Just because you two got stung, is no reason why you've got to run down all the rest of the women. I happen to know one—"
"Aw, nobody was talking about Rosemary," Big Medicine apologized gruffly. "She's different; any fool knows that."
"Well, I've got a six-gun here that'll talk for another one," silent Lite Avery spoke up suddenly. "One that would tip the scales on the woman's side for goodness if the rest of the whole sex was bad."
"Oh, thunder!" Pink cried, somewhat redder than the climbing sun alone would warrant. "I'll take it back. I didn't mean THEM—you know darned well I didn't mean them—nor lots of other women I know. What I meant was—"
"What you meant was Annie," Luck broke in uncompromisingly. "And I'm not condemning her just because things look black. You don't know Indians the way I know them. There's some things an Indian will do, and then again there's some things they won't do. You boys don't know it—but yesterday morning when we left the ranch, Annie-Many-Ponies made me the peace-sign. And after that she went into her tent and began to sing the Omaha. It didn't mean anything to you—Old Dave is the only one that would have sabed, and he wasn't there. But it meant enough to me that I came pretty near riding back to have a pow-wow with Annie, even if we were late. I wish I had. I'd have less on my conscience right now."
"Fur's I kin see," Applehead dissented impatiently, "you ain't got no call to have nothin' on your conscience where that thar squaw is concerned. You treated her a hull lot whiter'n what she deserved—now I'm tellin' ye! 'N' her traipsin' around at nights 'n'—"
"I tell you, you don't know Indians!" Luck swung round in the saddle so that he could face Applehead. "You don't know the Sioux, anyway. She wouldn't have made me that peace-sign if she'd been double-crossing me, I tell you. And she wouldn't have sung the Omaha if she was going to throw in with a thief that was trying to lay me wide open to suspicion. I've been studying things over in my mind, and there's something in this affair I can't sabe. And until you've got some proof, the less you say about Annie-Many-Ponies the better I'll be pleased."
That, coming from Luck in just that tone and with just that look in his eyes, was tantamount to an ultimatum, and it was received as one. Old Applehead grunted and chewed upon a wisp of his sunburned mustache that looked like dried cornsilk after a frost. The Happy Family exchanged careful glances and rode meekly along in silence. There was not a man of them but believed that Applehead was nearer right than Luck, but they were not so foolish as to express that belief.
After a while Big Medicine began bellowing tunelessly that old ditty, once popular but now half forgotten:
"Nava, Nava, My Navaho-o I have a love for you that will grow-ow!"
Which stirred old Applehead to an irritated monologue upon the theme of certain persons whose ignorance is not blissful, but trouble-inviting. Applehead, it would seem from his speech upon the subject, would be a much surprised ex-sheriff—now a deputy—if they were not all captured and scalped, if not worse, the minute their feet touched the forbidden soil of these demons in human form, the Navajo Indians.
"If they were not too busy weaving blankets for Fred Harvey," Luck qualified with his soft Texan drawl and the smile that went with it. "You talk as if these boys were tourists."
"Yes," added Andy Green maliciously, "here comes a war-party now, boys. Duck behind a rock, Applehead, they're liable to charge yuh fer them blankets!"
The Happy Family laughed uproariously, to the evident bewilderment of the two Indians who, swathed in blankets and with their hair knotted and tied with a green ribbon and a yellow, drove leisurely toward the group in an old wagon that had a bright new seat and was drawn by a weazened span of mangy-looking bay ponies. In the back of the wagon sat a young squaw and two papooses, and beside them were stacked three or four of the gay, handwoven rugs for which the white people will pay many dollars.
"Buenas dias," said the driver of the wagon, who was an oldish Indian with a true picture-postal face. And: "Hello," said the other, who was young and wore a bright blue coat, such as young Mexicans affect.
"Hello, folks," cried the Happy Family genially, and lifted their hats to the good-looking young squaw in the wagon-bed, who tittered in bashful appreciation of the attention.
"Mama! They sure are wild and warlike," Weary commented drily as he turned to stare after the wagon.
"Us little deputies had better run home," Pink added with mock alarm.
"By cripes, I know now what went with Applehead's hair!" bawled Big Medicine. "Chances is, it's weaved into that red blanket the old buck is wearin'—Haw-haw-haw!"
"Laff, dang ye, laff!" Applehead cried furiously. "But do your laffing where I can't hear ye, fer I'm tellin' ye right now I've had enough of yore dang foolishness. And the next feller that makes a crack is goin' to wisht he hadn't now I'm tellin' ye!"
This was not so much an ultimatum as a declaration of war—and the Happy Family suddenly found themselves all out of the notion of laughing at anything at all.
CHAPTER XII. THE WILD-GOOSE CHASE
Because they had no human means of knowing anything about the black automobile that bad whirled across the mesa to the southeast and left its mysterious passengers in one of the arroyos that leads into the Sandias Mountains near Coyote Springs, nine cowpuncher deputy-sheriffs bored their way steadily through sun and wind and thirst, traveling due northwest, keeping always on the trail of the six horses that traveled steadily before them Always a day's march behind, always watching hopefully for some sign of delay—for an encouraging freshness in the tracks that would show a lessening distance between the two parties, Luck and his Happy Family rode—from dawn till dusk, from another dawn to another dusk. Their horses, full of little exuberant outbursts of horse-foolishness when they had left town, settled clown to a dogged, plodding half walk, half trot which is variously described upon the range; Luck, for instance, calling it poco-poco; while the Happy Family termed it running-walk, trail-trot, fox-trot—whatever came easiest to their tongues at the time. Call it what they pleased, the horses came to a point where they took the gait mechanically whenever the country was decently level. They forgot to shy at strange objects, and they never danced away from a foot lifted to the stirrup when the sky was flaunting gorgeous bantiers to herald the coming of the sun. More than once they were thankful to have the dust washed from their nostrils and to let that pass for a drink. For water holes were few and far between when they struck that wide, barren land ridged here and there with hills of rock.
Twice the trail of the six horses was lost, because herds of cattle had passed between those who rode in baste before, and those who followed in haste a day's ride behind. They saw riders in the distance nearly every day, but only occasionally did any Indians come within speaking distance. These were mostly headed townward in wagons and rickety old buggies, with the men riding dignifiedly on the spring seat and the squaws and papooses sitting flat in the bottom behind. These family parties became more and more inclined to turn and stare after the Happy Family, as if they were puzzling over the errand that would take nine men riding close-grouped across the desert, with four pack-horses to proclaim the journey a long one.
When the trail swung sharply away from the dim wagon road and into the northwest where the land lay parched and pitiless under the hot sun, the Happy Family hitched their gun-belts into place, saw to it that their canteens were brimming with the water that was so precious, and turned doggedly that way, following the lead of Applehead, who knew the country fairly well, and of Luck, who did not know the country, but who knew that he meant to overhaul Ramon Chavez and Bill Holmes, go where they would, and take them back to jail. If they could ride across this barren stretch, said Luck to Applehead, he and his bunch could certainly follow them.
"Well, this is kinda takin' chances," Applehead observed soberly, "unless Ramon, he knows whar's the water-holes. If he does hit water regular, I calc'late we kin purty nigh foller his lead. They's things I don't like about the way this here trail is leading out this way, now I'm tellin' yuh! Way we're goin', we'll be in the Seven Lakes country 'fore we know it. Looks to me like them greasers must stand in purty well with the Navvies—'n' if they do, it'll be dang hard pullin' to git 'em away 'n! outa here. 'N' if they don't stand in, they'd oughta bore more west than what they're doin'. Looks dang queer to me, now I'm tellin' ye!"
"Well, all I want is to overtake them. We'll do it, too. The little grain these horses get is showing its worth right now," Luck cheered him. "They're keeping up better than I was afraid they would. We've got that advantage—a Mexican don't as a rule grain his horses, and the chances are that Ramon thought more about the gold than he did about carrying horse-feed. We can hold on longer than he can, Applehead."
"We can't either," Applehead disputed, "because if Ramon takes a notion he'll steal fresh horses from the Injuns."
"I thought you said he stood in with the Injuns," Weary spoke up from the ambling group, behind. "You're kinda talkin' in circles, ain't you, Applehead?"
"Well, I calc'late yuh jest about got to talk in circles to git anywheres near Ramon," Applehead retorted, looking back at the others. "They's so, dang many things he MIGHT be aimin' to do, that I ain't been right easy in my mind the last day or two, and I'm tellin' ye so. 'S like a storm—I kin smell trouble two days off; that's mebby why I'm still alive an' able to fork a boss. An' I'm tellin' you right now, I kin smell trouble stronger'n a polecat under the chicken-house!"
"Well, by cripes, let 'er come!" Big Medicine roared cheerfully, inspecting a battered plug of "chewin'" to see where was the most inviting corner in which to set his teeth. "Me'n' trouble has locked horns more'n once, 'n' I'd feel right lonesome if I thought our trails'd never cross agin. Why, down in Coconino County—" He went off into a long recital of certain extremely bloody chapters in the history of that famed county as chronicled by one Bud Welch, otherwise known as Big Medicine—and not because of his modesty, you may be sure.
Noon of that day found them plodding across a high, barren mesa under a burning sun. Since red dawn they had been riding, and the horses showed their need of water. They lagged often into a heavy-footed walk and their ears drooped dispiritedly. Even Big Medicine found nothing cheerful to say. Luck went out of his way to gain the top of every little rise, and to scan the surrounding country through his field glasses. The last time he came sliding down to the others his face was not so heavy with anxiety and his voice when he spoke had a new briskness.
"There's a ranch of some kind straight ahead about two miles," he announced. "I could see a green patch, so there must be water around there somewhere. We'll make noon camp there, and maybe we can dig up a little information. Ramon must have stopped there for water, and we'll find out just how far we are behind."
The ranch, when they finally neared it, proved to be a huddle of low, octagon-shaped huts (called hogans) made of short cedar logs and plastered over with adobe, with a hole in the center of the lid-like roof to let the smoke out and a little light in; and dogs, that ran out and barked and yelped and trailed into mourning rumbles and then barked again; and half-naked papooses that scurried like rabbits for shelter when they rode up; and two dingy, shapeless squaws that disappeared within a hogan and peered out at one side of the blanket door.
Luck started to dismount and make some attempt at a polite request for water, and for information as well, but Applehead objected and finally had his way.
If the squaws could speak English, he argued, they would lie unless they refused to talk at all. As to the water, if there was any around the place the bunch could find it and help themselves. "These yer Navvies ain't yore Buffalo-Bill Sioux," he pointed out to Luck. "Yuh can't treat 'em the same. The best we kin look fer is to be left alone—an' I'm tellin' ye straight."
Luck gave the squalid huts a long stare and turned away toward the corral and a low shed that served as a stable. A rusty old mower and a toothless rake and a rickety buckboard stood baking in the sun, and a few stunted hens fluttered away from their approach. In the corral a mangy pony blinked in dejected slumber; and all the while, the three dogs followed them and barked and yapped and growled, until Pink turned in the saddle with the plain intention of stopping the clamor with a bullet or two.
"Ye better let 'em alone!" Applehead warned sharply, and Pink put up his gun unfired and took down his rope.
"The darned things are getting on my nerves!" he complained, and wheeled suddenly in pursuit of the meanest-looking dog of the three. "I can stand a decent dog barking at me, but so help me Josephine, I draw the line at Injun curs!"