The dog ran yelping toward the hogans with Pink hard at its heels swinging his loop menacingly. When the dog, with a last hysterical yelp, suddenly flattened its body and wriggled under a corner of the shed, Pink turned and rode after the others, who had passed the corral and were heading for the upper and of a small patch of green stuff that looked like a half-hearted attempt at a vegetable garden. As he passed the shed an Indian in dirty overalls and gingham shirt craned his neck around the doorway and watched him malevolently; but Pink, sighting the green patch and remembering their dire need of water, was kicking his horse into a trot and never once thought to cast an eye over his shoulder.
In that arid land, where was green vegetation you may be sure there was water also. And presently the nine were distributed along a rod or two of irrigating ditch, thankfully watching the swallows of water go sliding hurriedly down the outstretched gullets of their horses that leaned forward with half-bent, trembling knees, fetlock deep in the wet sand of the ditch-banks.
"Drink, you sons-uh-guns, drink!" Weary exclaimed jubilantly, "you've sure got it coming—and mama, how I do hate to see a good horse suffering for a feed or water, or shelter from a storm!"
They pulled them away before they were satisfied, and led them back to where green grass was growing. There they pulled the saddles off and let the poor brutes feed while they unpacked food for themselves.
"It'll pay in the long run," said Luck, "to give them an hour here. I'll pay the Injuns for what grass they eat. Ramon must have stopped here yesterday. I'm going up and see if I can't pry a little information loose from those squaws and papooses. Come on, Applehead—you can talk a little Navvy; you come and tell 'em what I want."
Applehead hesitated, and with a very good reason. He might, for all he knew, be trespassing upon the allotment of a friend or relative of some of the Indians he had been compelled to "get" in the course of his duties as sheriff. And at any rate they all knew him—or at least knew of him.
"Aw, gwan, Applehead," Happy Jack urged facetiously, sure that Applehead had tried to scare him with tales of Indians whose pastoral pursuits proclaimed aloud their purity of souls. "Gwan! You ain't afraid of a couple of squaws, are yuh? Go on and talk to the ladies. Mebby yuh might win a wife if yuh just had a little nerve!"
Applehead turned and glowered. But Luck was already walking slowly toward the hogans and looking back frequently, so Applehead contented himself by saying, "You wait till this yere trip's over, 'fore ye git so dang funny in yore remarks, young man!" and stalked after Luck, hitching his six-shooter forward as he went.
At the shed, the Indian who had peered after Pink stood in the doorway and stared unwinkingly as they came up. Applehead glanced at him sharply from under his sorrel eyebrows and grunted. He knew him by sight well enough, and he took it for granted that the recognition was mutual. But he gave no sign of remembrance. Instead, he asked how much the Indian wanted for the grass the horses would eat in an hour.
The Indian looked at the two impassively and did not say anything at all; so Applehead flipped him a dollar.
"Now, what time did them fellows pass here yesterday?" Applehead asked, in the half Indian, half Mexican jargon which nearly all New Mexico Indians speak.
The Indian looked at the dollar and moved his head of bobbed hair vaguely from left to right.
"All right, dang ye, don't talk if ye don't feel like it," Applehead commented in wasted sarcasm, and looked at Luck for some hint of what was wanted next. Luck seemed uncertain, so Applehead turned toward the ditch, and the food his empty stomach craved.
"No use tryin' to make 'em talk if they ain't in the notion," he told Luck impatiently. "He's got his dollar, and we'll take what grass our hosses kin pack away in their bellies. That kinda winds up the transaction, fur's I kin see."
"I wonder if another dollar—"
But Applehead interrupted him. "Another dollar might git him warmed up so's he'd shake his danged head twicet instid uh once't," he asserted pessimistically, "but that's all you'd git outa him. That thar buck ain't TALKIN' today. Yuh better come an' eat 'n' rest yer laigs. If he talked, he'd lie. We're a heap better off jest doin' our own trailin' same as we been doin. That bunch come by here; the tracks show that. If they went on, the tracks'll show where they headed fur. 'N' my idee is that they'll take their time from now on. They don't know we're trailin' 'em up. I'll bet they never throwed back any scout t' watch the back trail, In' they're in Navvy country now—whar they're purty tol'ble safe if they stand in with the Injuns. 'N' I'm tellin' yuh right now, Luck, I wisht I could say as much fer us!" Applehead lifted his hat and rubbed his palm over his bald pate that was covered thickly with beads of perspiration, as if his head were a stone jar filled with cold water. "If we have to sep'rate, Luck, you take a fool's advice and keep yore dang eyes open. The boys, they think I been stringin' 'em along. Mebby you think so too, but I kin tell ye right now 't we gotta keep our dang eyes in our haids!"
"I'm taking your word for it, Applehead," Luck told him, lowering his voice a little because they were nearing the others. "Besides, I've heard a lot about these tricky boys with the Dutch-cut on their hair. I'm keeping it all in mind don't worry. But I sure am going to overhaul Ramon, if we have to follow him to salt water."
"Well, now, I ain't never turned back on a trail yit, fer want uh nerve to foller it," Applehead stated offendedly. "When I was shurf—"
The enlivened jumble of voices, each proclaiming the owner's hopes or desires or disbelief to ears that were not listening, quite submerged Applehead's remarks upon the subject of his wellknown prowess when he was "shurf." The Happy Family were sprawled in unwonted luxury on the shady side of an outcropping of rock from under which a little spring seeped and made a small oasis in the general barrenness. They had shade, they Had water and food, and through the thin aromatic smoke of their cigarettes they could watch their horses cropping avidly the green grass that meant so much to them. The knowledge that an hour later they would be traveling again in the blazing heat of midday but emphasized their present comfort. They were enjoying every minute to its full sixty seconds. Laughter came easily and the hardships of the trail were pushed into the background of their minds.
They were not particularly anxious over the success or failure of Luck's trip to the hogans. They were on Ramon's trail (or so they firmly believed) and sooner or later they would overhaul him and Bill Holmes. When that happened they believed that they would be fully equal to the occasion, and that Ramon and Bill and those who were with him would learn what it means to turn traitor to the hand that has fed them, and to fling upon that hand the mud of public suspicion. But just now they were not talking about these things; they were arguing very earnestly over a very trivial matter indeed, and they got as much satisfaction out of the contention as though it really amounted to something.
When Luck had eaten and smoked and had ground his cigarette stub under his heel in the moist earth beside the spring, and had looked at his watch and got upon his feet with a sigh to say: "Well, boys, let's go," the Happy Family (who by the way must now be understood as including Lite Avery) sighed also and pulled their reluctant feet toward them and got up also, with sundry hitchings-into-place as to gun-belts and sundry resettlings as to hats. They pulled their horses more reluctant even than their riders—away from the green grass; resaddled, recinched the packs on the four animals that carried the camp supplies, gave them a last drink at the little irrigating ditch and mounted and straggled out again upon the trail of the six whom they seemed never able to overtake.
They did not know that the silent Indian with the dingy overalls and the bobbed hair had watched every movement they made. Through all that hour of rest not even a papoose had been visible around the hogans—which, while there was nothing warlike in their keeping under cover, was not exactly a friendly attitude. Applehead had kept turning his keen, bright blue eyes that way while he ate and afterwards smoked an after-dinner pipe, but when they were actually started again upon the trail he appeared to lay aside his misgivings.
Not even Applehead suspected that the Indian had led a pony carefully down into a draw, keeping the buildings always between himself and the party of white men; nor that he watched them while they spread out beyond the cultivated patch of irrigated ground until they picked up the trail of the six horses, when they closed the gaps between them and followed the trail straight away into the parched mesa that was lined with deep washes and canons and crossed with stony ridges where the heat radiated up from the bare rocks as from a Heating stove when the fire is blazing within. When they rode away together, the Indian ran back into the draw, mounted his pony and lashed it into a heavy, sure-footed gallop.
CHAPTER XIII. SET AFOOT
The tracks of the six horses led down into a rock-bottomed arroyo so deep in most places that all view of the surrounding mesa was shut off completely, save where the ragged tops of a distant line of hills pushed up into the dazzling blue of the sky. The heat, down here among the rocks, was all but unbearable; and when they discovered that no tracks led out of the arroyo on the farther side, the Happy Family dismounted and walked to save their horses while they divided into two parties and hunted up and down the arroyo for the best trail.
It was just such vexatious delays as this which had kept them always a day's ride or more behind their quarry, and Luck's hand trembled with nervous irritability when he turned back and banded Applehead one of those small, shrill police whistles whose sound carries so far, and which are much used by motion-picture producers for the long-distance direction of scenes.
"I happened to have a couple in my pocket," he explained hurriedly. "You know the signals, don't you? One long, two short will mean you've picked up the trail. Three or more short, quick ones is an emergency call, for all hands to come running."
"Well, they's one thing you want to keep in mind, Luck," Applehead urged from his superior trail craft. "They might be sharp enough to ride in here a ways and come out the same side they rode in at. Yuh want to hunt both sides as yuh go up."
"Sure," said Luck, and hurried away up the arroyo with Pink, Big Medicine, Andy and the Native Son at his heels, leading the two pack-horses that belonged to their party. In the opposite direction went Applehead and the others, their eyes upon the ground watching for the faintest sign of hoofprints.
That blazing ball of torment, the sun, slid farther and farther down to the skyline, tempering its heat with the cool promise of dusk. Away up the arroyo, Luck stopped for breath after a sharp climb up through a narrow gash in the sheer wall of what was now a small canon, and saw that to search any farther in that direction would be useless. Across the arroyo—that had narrowed and deepened until it was a canon—Andy Green was mopping his face with his handkerchief and studying a bold hump of jumbled bowlders and ledges, evidently considering whether it was worth while toiling up to the top. A little below him, the Native Son was flinging rocks at a rattlesnake with the vicious precision of frank abhorrence. Down in the canon bottom Big Medicine and Pink were holding the horses on the shady side of the gorge, and the smoke of their cigarettes floated lazily upward with the jumbled monotone of their voices.
Andy, glancing across at Luck, waved his hand and sat down on a rock that was shaded by a high bowlder; reached mechanically for his "makings" and with his feet far apart and his elbows on his thighs, wearily rolled a cigarette.
"How about it, boss?" he asked, scarcely raising his voice above the ordinary conversational tone, though a hard fifteen-minutes' climb up and down separated the two; "they never came up the arroyo, if you ask ME. My side don't show a hoof track from where we left the boys down below."
"Mine either," Luck replied, by the power of suggestion seating himself and reaching for his own tobacco and papers. "We might as well work back down and connect with Applehead. Wish there was some sign of water in this darn gulch. By the time we get down where we started from, it'll be sundown." He glanced down at Bud and Pink. "Hey! You can start back any, time," he called. "Nothing up this way."
"Here's the grandfather of all rattlers," Miguel called across to Luck, and held up by the tail a great snake that had not ceased its muscular writhings. "Twelve rattles and a button. Have I got time to skin him? He tried to bite me on the leg—but I beard him and got outa reach."
"We've got to be moving," Luck answered. "It's a long ways back where we started from, and we've got to locate water, if we can." He rose with the deliberateness that indicated tired muscles, and started back; and to himself he muttered exasperatedly: "A good three hours all shot to pieces—and not a mile gained on that bunch!"
The Native Son, calmly pinching the rattles of the snake he had not time to skin, climbed down into the Canon and took his horse by the bridle reins. Behind him Andy Green came scrambling; but Luck, still faintly hoping for a clue, kept to the upper rim of the arroyo, scanning every bit of soft ground where it seemed possible for a horse to climb up from below. He had always recognized the native cunning of Ramon, but he had never dreamed him as cunning as this latest ruse would seem to prove him.
As for Bill Holmes, Luck dismissed him with a shrug of contempt. Bill Holmes had been stranded in Albuquerque when the cold weather was coming on; he had been hungry and shelterless and ill-clad—one of those bits of flotsam which drift into our towns and stand dejectedly upon our street-corners when they do not prowl down alleys to the back doors of our restaurants in the hope of being permitted to wash the soiled dishes of more fortunate men for the food which diners have left beside their plates. Luck had fed Bill Holmes, and he had given him work to do and the best food and shelter he could afford; and for thanks, Bill had—as Luck believed—made sly, dishonest love to Annie-Many-Ponies, for whose physical and moral welfare Luck would be held responsible. Bill had deliberately chosen to steal rather than work for honest wages, and had preferred the unstable friendship of Ramon Chavez to the cleaner life in Luck's company. He did not credit Bill Holmes with anything stronger than a weak-souled treachery. Ramon, he told himself while he made his way down the arroyo side, was at least working out a clever scheme of his own, and it rested with Luck and his posse to see that Ramon was cheated of success.
So deeply was he engrossed that before he realized it he was down where they had left Applehead's party. There was no sign of them anywhere, so Luck went down and mounted his horse and led the way down the arroyo.
Already the heat was lessening and the land was taking on those translucent opal tints which make of New Mexico a land of enchantment. The far hills enveloped themselves in a faint, purplish haze through which they seemed to blush unwittingly. The mesa, no longer showing itself an and waste of heat and untracked wilderness, lay soft under a thin veil of many ethereal tints. Away off to the northeast they heard the thin, vague clamor of a band of sheep and the staccato barking of a dog.
Luck rode for some distance, his uneasiness growing as the shadows deepened with the setting of the sun. They had gone too far to hear any whistled signal, but it seemed to him reasonable to suppose that Applehead would return to their starting point, whether he found the trail or not; or at least send a man back. Luck began to think more seriously of Applehead's numerous warnings about the Indians—and yet, there had been no sound of shooting, which is the first sign of trouble in this country. Rifle shots can be heard a long way in this clear air; so Luck presently dismissed that worry and gave his mind to the very real one which assailed them all; which was water for their horses.
The boys were riding along in silence, sitting over to one side with a foot dangling free of its stirrup; except Andy, who had hooked one leg over the saddle-horn and was riding sidewise, smoking a meditative cigarette and staring out between the ears of his horse. They were tired; horses and men, they were tired to the middle of their bones. But they went ahead without making any complaints whatever or rasping oneanother's tempers with ill-chosen remarks; and for that Luck's eyes brightened with appreciation.
Presently, when they had ridden at least a mile down the arroyo, a gray hat-crown came bobbing into sight over a low tongue of rocky ground that cut the channel almost in two. The horses threw up their heads and perked cars forward inquiringly, and in a moment Happy Tack came into view, his gloomy, sunburned face wearing a reluctant grin.
"Well, we got on the trail," he announced as soon as he was close enough. "And we follered it to water. Applehead says fer you to come on and make camp. Tracks are fresher around that' water-hole'n what they have been, an' Applehead, he's all enthused. I betche we land them fellers t'morrow."
Out of the arroyo in a place where the scant grassland lapped down over the edge, Happy Jack led the way and the rest followed eagerly. Too often had they made dry camp not to feel jubilant over the prospect even of a brackish water-hole. Even the horses seemed to know and to step out more briskly. Straight across the mesa with its deceptive lights that concealed distance behind a glamor of intimate nearness, they rode into the deepening dusk that had a glow all through it. After a while they dipped into a grassy draw so shallow that they hardly realized the descent until they dismounted at the bottom, where Applehead was already starting a fire and the others were laying out their beds and doing the hundred little things that make for comfort in camp.
A few bushes and a stunted tree or two marked the spring that seeped down and fed a shallow water-hole where the horses drank thirstily. Applehead grinned and pointed to the now familiar hoofprints which they had followed so far.
"I calc'late Ramon done a heap uh millin' around back there in that rocky arroyo," he observed, "'fore he struck off over here. Er else they was held up fer some reason, 'cause them tracks is fresher a hull lot than what them was that passed the Injun ranch. Musta laid over here las' night, by the looks. But I figgered that we'd best camp whilst we had water, 'n' take up the trail agin at daybreak. Ain't that about the way you see it, Luck?"
"Why, certainly," Luck assured him with as much heartiness as his utter weariness would permit. "Men and horses, we're about all in. If Ramon was just over the next ridge, I don't know but it would pay to take our rest before we overhaul them."
"They's grass here, yuh notice," Applehead pointed out. "I'll put the bell on Johnny, and if Pink'll bobble that buckskin that's allus wantin' to wander off by hisself, I calc'late we kin settle down an' rest our bones quite awhile b'fore anybody needs to go on guard. Them ponies ain't goin' to stray fur off if they don't have to, after the groun' they covered t'day—now I'm tellin' yuh! They'll save their steps."
There is a superstition about prophesying too boastfully that a certain thing will or will not happen; you will remember that there is also a provision that the rash prophet may avert disaster by knocking wood. Applehead should, if there is any grain of sense in the rite, have knocked wood with his fingers crossed as an extra precaution, against evil fortune.
For after they had eaten and methodically packed away the food, and while they were lying around the cheerful glow of their little campfire, misfortune stole up out of the darkness unaware. They talked desultorily as tired men will, their alertness dulled by the contented tinkle-tinkle of the little bell strapped around the neck of big, bay Johnny, Applehead's companion of many a desert wandering. That brilliant constellation which seems to hang just over one's head in the high altitude of our sagebrush states, held hypnotically the sleepy gaze of Pink, whose duty it was to go on guard when the others turned in for the night. He lay with his locked fingers under his head, staring up at one particularly bright group of stars, and listened to the droning voice of Applehead telling of a trip he had made out into this country five or six years before; and soaking in the peace and the comfort which was all the more precious because he knew that soon he must drag his weary body into the saddle and ride out to stand guard over the horses. Once he half rose, every movement showing his reluctance.
Whereupon Weary, who sprawled next to him, reached out a languid foot and gave him a poke. "Aw, lay down," he advised. "They're all right out there for another hour. Don't yuh hear the bell?"
They all listened for a minute. The intermittent tinkle of the cheap little sheep bell came plainly to them from farther down the draw as though Johnny was eating contentedly with his mates, thankful for the leisure and the short, sweet grass that was better than hay. Pink lay back with a sigh of relief, and Luck told him to sleep a little if he wanted to, because everything was all right and he would call him if the horses got to straying too far off.
Down the draw—where there were no horses feeding—an Indian in dirty overalls and gingham shirt and moccasins, and with his hair bobbed to his collar, stood up and peered toward the vague figures grouped in the fire-glow. He lifted his hand and moved it slightly, so that the bell he was holding tinkled exactly as it had done when it was strapped around Johnny's neck; Johnny, who was at that moment trailing disgustedly over a ridge half a mile away with his mates, driven by two horsemen who rode very carefully, so as to make no noise.
The figures settled back reassured, and the Indian grinned sourly and tinkled the little bell painstakingly, with the matchless patience of the Indian. It was an hour before he dimly saw Pink get up from the dying coals and mount his horse. Then, still tinkling the bell as a feeding horse would have made it ring, he moved slowly down the draw; slowly, so that Pink did not at first suspect that the bell sounded farther off than before; slowly yet surely, leading Pink farther and farther in the hope of speedily overtaking the horses that he cursed for their wandering.
Pink wondered, after a little, what was the matter with the darned things, wandering off like that by themselves, and with no possible excuse that he could see. For some time he was not uneasy; he expected to overtake them within the next five or ten minutes. They would stop to feed, surely, or to look back and listen—in a strange country like this it was against horse-nature that they should wander far away at night unless they were thirsty and on the scent of water. These horses had drunk their fill at the little pool below the spring. They should be feeding now, or they should lie down and sleep, or stand up and sleep—anything but travel like this, deliberately away from camp.
Pink tried loping, but the ground was too treacherous and his horse too leg-weary to handle its feet properly in the dark. It stumbled several times, so he pulled down again to a fast walk. For a few minutes he did not hear the bell at all, and when he did it was not where he had expected to hear it, but away off to one side. So he had gained nothing save in anger and uneasiness.
There was no use going back to camp and rousing the boys, for he was now a mile or so away; and they would be afoot, since their custom was to keep but one horse saddled. When he went in to call the next guard he would be expected to bring that man's horse back with him, and would turn his own loose before he went to sleep. Certainly there was nothing to be gained by rousing the camp.
He did not suspect the trick being played upon him, though he did wonder if someone was leading the horses away. Still, in that case whoever did it would surely have sense enough to muffle the bell. Besides, it sounded exactly like a horse feeding and moving away at random—which, to those familiar with the sound, can never be mistaken for the tinkle of an animal traveling steadily to some definite point.
It was an extremely puzzled young man who rode and rode that night in pursuit of that evasive, nagging, altogether maddening tinkle. Always just over the next little rise he would hear it, or down in the next little draw; never close enough for him to discover the trick; never far enough away for him to give up the chase. The stars he had been watching in camp swam through the purple immensity above him and slid behind the skyline. Other stars as brilliant appeared and began their slow, swimming journey. Pink rode, and stopped to listen, and rode on again until it seemed to him that he must be dreaming some terribly realistic nightmare.
He was sitting on his horse on a lava-crusted ridge, straining bloodshot eyes into the mesa that stretched dimly before him, when dawn came streaking the sky with blood orange and purple and crimson. The stars were quenched in that flood of light; and Pink, looking now with clearer vision, saw that there was no living thing in sight save a coyote trotting home from his night's hunting. He turned short around and, getting his bearings from his memory of certain stars and from the sun that was peering at him from the top of a bare peak, and from that sense of direction which becomes second nature to a man who had lived long on the range, started for camp with his ill news.
CHAPTER XIV. ONE PUT OVER ON THE BUNCH
"Sounds to me," volunteered the irrepressible Big Medicine after a heavy silence, "like as if you'd gone to sleep on your hawse, Little One, and dreamed that there tinkle-tinkle stuff. By cripes, I'd like to see the bell-hawse that could walk away from ME 'nless I was asleep an' dreamin' about it. Sounds like—"
"Sounds like Navvy work," Applehead put in, eyeing the surrounding rim of sun-gilded mesa, where little brown birds fluttered in short, swift flights and chirped with exasperating cheerfulness.
"If it was anybody, it was Ramon Chavez," Luck declared with the positiveness of his firm conviction. "By the tracks here, we're crowding up on him. And no man that's guilty of a crime, Applehead, is going to ride day after day without wanting to take a look over his shoulder to see if be's followed. He's probably seen us from some of these ridges—yesterday, most likely. And do you think he wouldn't know this bunch as far as he could see us, even without glasses? The chances are he has them, though. He'd be a fool if he didn't stake himself to a pair."
"Say, by gracious," Andy observed somewhat irrelevantly, his eyes going over the group, "this would sure make great picture dope, wouldn't it? Why didn't we bring Pete along, darn it? Us all standing around here, plumb helpless because we're afoot—"
"Aw, shut up!" snapped Pink, upon whom the burden of responsibility lay heavy. "I oughta be hung for laying around the fire here instead of being out there on guard! I oughta—"
"It ain't your fault," Weary championed him warmly. "We all heard the bell—"
"Yes—and damn it,I heard the bell from then on till daylight!" Pink's lips quivered perceptibly with the mortification that burned within him. "If I'd been on guard—"
"Well, I calc'late you'd a been laid out now with a knife-cut in yuh som'ers," Applehead stopped twisting his sunburnt mustache to say bluntly. "'S a dang lucky thing fer you, young man, 't you WASN'T on guard, 'n' the only thing't looks queer to me is that you wasn't potted las' night when yuh got out away from here. Musta been only one of 'em stayed behind, an' he had t' keep out in front uh yuh t' tinkle that dang bell. Figgered on wearin' out yer hoss, I reckon, 'n' didn't skurcely dare t' take the risk uh killin' you off 'nless they was a bunch around t' handle us." His bright blue eyes with their range squint went from one to another with a certain speculative pride in the glance. "'N' they shore want t' bring a crowd along when they tie into this yere outfit, now I'm tellin' yuh!"
Lite Avery, who had gone prowling down the draw by himself, came back to camp, tilting stiff-leggedly along in his high-heeled boots and betraying, in every step he took, just how handicapped a cowpuncher is when set afoot upon the range and forced to walk where he has always been accustomed to ride. He stopped to give Pink's exhausted horse a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, and came on, grinning a little with the comers of his mouth tipped down.
"Here's what's left of the hobbles the buckskin wore," he said, holding up the cut loops of a figure-eight rope hobble. "Kinda speaks for itself, don't it?"
They crowded around to inspect this plain evidence of stealing. Afterwards they stood hard-eyed and with a flush on their cheek-bones, considering what was the best and wisest way to meet this emergency. As to hunting afoot for their horses, the chance of success was almost too small to be considered at all, Pink's horse was not fit for further travel until he had rested. There was one pair of field glasses—and there were nine irate men to whom inaction was intolerable.
"One thing we can do, if we have to," Luck said at last, with the fighting look in his face which moving-picture people had cause to remember. "We can help ourselves to any horses we run across. Applehead, how's the best way to go about it?"
Applehead, thus pushed into leadership, chewed his mustache and eyed the mesa sourly. "Well, seein' they've set us afoot, I calc'late we're jest about entitled to any dang thing we run across that's ridable," he acceded. "'N' the way I'd do, would be to git on high groun' with them glasses 'n' look fer hosses. 'N' then head fer 'em 'n' round 'em up afoot 'n' rope out what we want. They's enough of us t' mebby git a mount apiece, but it shore ain't goin' t' be no snap, now I'm tellin' ye. 'N' if yuh do that," he added, "yuh want t' leave a man er two in camp—'n' they want to keep their dang eyes peeled, lemme tell yuh! Ef we was t' find ourselves afoot an' our grub 'n' outfit stole—"
"We won't give them that chance at us." Luck was searching with his eyes for the nearest high point that was yet not too far from camp. "I think I'll just take Andy up on that pinnacle there, and camp down by that pile of boulders. The rest of you stay around camp and rest yourselves while you've got the chance. In a couple of hours, Applehead, you and Lite come up and take our place; then Miguel and Bud, and after that Weary and Happy. Pink, you go and bed down in the shade somewhere and go to sleep—and quit worrying over last night. Nobody could have done any better than you did. It was just one put over on the bunch, and you happened to be the particular goat, that's all.
"Now, if one of us waves his hat over his head, all of you but Happy and Bud and Pink come up with your rifles and your ropes, because we'll have some horses sighted. If we wave from side to side, like this, about even with our belts, you boys want to look out for trouble. So one of you keep an eye on us all the time we're up there. We'll be up outa reach of any trouble ourselves, if I remember that little pinnacle right." He hung the strap that held the leather case of the glasses over one shoulder, picked up his rifle and his rope and started off, with Andy similarly equipped coming close behind him.
The mesa, when they reached the pinnacle and looked down over the wide expanse of it, glimmered like clear, running water with the heat waves that rose from the sand. Away to the southward a scattered band of sheep showed in a mirage that made them look long-legged as camels and half convinced them both that they were seeing the lost horses, until the vision changed and shrunk the moving objects to mere dots upon the mesa.
Often before they had watched the fantastic air-pictures of the desert mirage, and they knew well enough that what they saw might be one mile away or twenty. But unless the atmospheric conditions happened to be just right, what was pictured in the air could not be depended upon to portray truthfully what was reflected. They sat there and saw the animals suddenly grow clearly defined and very close, and discovered at last that they were sheep, and that a man was walking beside the flock; and even while they watched it and wondered if the sheep were really as close as they seemed, the vision slowly faded into blank, wavery distance and the mesa lay empty and quivering under the sun.
"Fine chance we've got of locating anything," Andy grumbled, "if it's going to be miragy all day. We could run our fool heads off trying to get up to a bunch that would puff out into nothing. Makes a fellow think of the stories they tell about old prospectors going crazy trying to find mirage water-holes. I'm glad we didn't get hung up at a dry camp, Luck. Yuh realize what that would be like?"
"Oh, I may have some faint idea," Luck drawled whimsically. "Look over there, Andy over toward Albuquerque. Is that a mirage again, or do you see something moving?"
Andy, having the glasses, swung them slowly to the southeast. After a minute or two he shook his head and gave the glasses to Luck. "There was one square look I got, and I'd been willing to swear it was our saddle-bunch," he said. "And then they got to wobbling and I couldn't make out what they are. They might be field mice, or they might be giraffes—I'm darned if I know which."
Luck focussed the glasses, but whatever the objects had been, they were no longer to be seen. So the two hours passed and they saw Applehead and Lite come slowly up the hill from camp bearing their rifles and their ropes and a canteen of fresh water, as the three things they might find most use for.
These two settled themselves to watch for horses—their own range horses. When they were relieved they reported nothing save a continued inclination on the part of the atmosphere to be what Andy called miragy. So, the day passed, chafing their spirits worse than any amount of active trouble would have done. Pink slept and brooded by turns, still blaming himself for the misfortune. The others moped, or took their turns on the pinnacle to strain their eyes unavailingly into the four corners of the earth—or as much as they could in those directions.
With the going of the sun Applehead and Lite, sitting out their second guard on the pinnacle, discussed seriously the desperate idea of going in the night to the nearest Navajo ranch and helping themselves to what horses they could find about the place. The biggest obstacle was their absolute ignorance of where the nearest ranch lay. Not, surely, that half-day's ride back towards Albuquerque, where they had seen but one pony and that a poor specimen of horseflesh. Another obstacle would be the dogs, which could be quieted only with bullets.
"We might git hold of something to ride," Applehead stated glumly, "an' then agin the chances is we wouldn't git nothin' more'n a scrap on our hands. 'N' I'm tellin' yuh right now, Lite, I ain't hankerin' fer no fuss till I git a hoss under me."
"Me either," Lite testified succinctly. "Say, is that something coming, away up that draw the camp's in? Seems to me I saw something pass that line of lava, about half a mile over."
Applehead stood up and peered into the half darkness. In a couple of minutes he said: "Ye better git down an' tell the boys t' be on the watch, Lite. They can't see no hat-wavin' this time uh day. They's somethin' movin' up to-wards camp, but what er who they be I can't make out in the dark. Tell Luck—"
"What's the matter with us both going?" Lite asked, cupping his hands around his eyes that he might see better. "It's getting too dark to do any good up here—"
"Well, I calc'late mebby yore right," Applehead admitted, and began to pick his way down over the rocks. "Ef them's Injuns, the bigger we stack up in camp the better. If it's Ramon 'n' his bunch, I want t' git m' hands on 'im."
He must have turned the matter over pretty thoroughly in his mind, for when the two reached camp he had his ideas fixed and his plans all perfected. He told Luck that somebody was working down the draw in the dark, and that it looked like a Navvy trick; and that they had better be ready for them, because they weren't coming just to pass the time of day—"now I'm tellin' ye!"
The nerves of the Happy Family were raw enough by now to welcome anything that promised action; even an Indian fight would not be so much a disaster as a novel way of breaking the monotony. Applehead, with the experience gathered in the old days when he was a young fellow with a freighting outfit and old Geronimo was terrorizing all this country, sent them back in compact half circle just within the shelter of the trees and several rods away from their campfire and the waterhole. There, lying crouched behind their saddles with their rifles across the seat-sides and with ammunition belts full of cartridges, they waited for whatever might be coming in the dark.
"It's horses," Pink exclaimed under his breath, as faint sounds came down the draw. "Maybe—"
"Horses—and an Injun laying along the back of every one, most likely," Applehead returned grimly. "An old Navvy trick, that is—don't let 'em fool ye, boys! You jest wait, 'n' I'll tell ye 'when t' shoot, er whether t' shoot at all. They can't fool ME—now I'm tellin' yuh!"
After that they were silent, listening strainedly to the growing sounds of approach. There was the dull, unmistakable click of a hoof striking against a rock, the softer sound of treading on yielding soil. Then a blur of dark objects became visible, moving slowly and steadily toward the camp.
"Aw, it's just horses," Happy Jack muttered disgustedly.
Applehead stretched a lean leg in his direction and gave Happy Jack a kick. "They're cunnin'," he hissed warningly. "Don't yuh be fooled—"
"That's Johnny in the lead," Pink whispered excitedly. "I'd know the way he walks—"
"'N' you THOUGHT yuh knowed how he jingled his dang bell," Applehead retorted unkindly. "Sh-sh-sh—"
Reminded by the taunt of the clever trick that had been played upon them the night before, the Happy Family stiffened again into strained, waiting silence, their rifles aimed straight at the advancing objects. These, still vague in the first real darkness of early night, moved steadily in a scattered group behind a leader that was undoubtedly Johnny of the erstwhile tinkling bell. He circled the campfire just without its radius of light, so that they could not tell whether an Indian lay along his back, and beaded straight for the water-hole. The others followed him, and not one came into the firelight—a detail which sharpened the suspicions of the men crouched there in the edge of the bushes, and tingled their nerves with the sense of something sinister in the very unconcernedness of the animals.
They splashed into the water-hole and drank thirstily and long. They stood there as though they were luxuriating in the feel of more water than they could drink, and one horse blew the moisture from his nostrils with a sound that made Happy Jack jump.
After a few minutes that seemed an hour to those who waited with fingers crooked upon gun-triggers, the horse that looked vaguely like Johnny turned away from the water-hole and sneezed while he appeared to be wondering what to do next. He moved slowly toward the packs that were thrown down just where they had been taken from the horses, and began nosing tentatively about.
The others loitered still at the water-hole, save one—the buckskin, by his lighter look in the dark—that came over to Johnny. The two horses nosed the packs. A dull sound of clashing metal came to the ears of the Happy Family.
"Hey! Get outa that grain, doggone your fool hide," Pink called out impulsively, crawling over his saddle and catching his foot in the stirrup leather so that he came near going headlong.
Applehead yelled something, but Pink had recovered his balance and was running to save the precious horsefeed from waste, and Johnny from foundering. There might have been two Indiana on every horse in sight, but Pink was not thinking of that possibility just then.
Johnny whirled guiltily away from the grain bag, licking his lips and blowing dust from his nostrils. Pink went up to him and slipped a rope around his neck. "Where's that bell?" he called out in his soft treble. "Or do you think we better tie the old son-of-a-gun up and be sure of him?"
"Aw," said Happy Jack disgustedly a few minutes later, when the Happy Family had crawled out of their ambush and were feeling particularly foolish. "Nex' time old granny Furrman says Injuns t' this bunch, somebody oughta gag him."
"I notice you waited till he'd gone outa hearing before you said that," Luck told him drily. "We're going to put out extra guards tonight, just the same. And I guess you can stand the first shift, Happy, up there on the ridge—you're so sure of things!"
CHAPTER XV. "NOW, DANG IT, RIDE!"
Indians are Indians, though they wear the green sweater and overalls of civilization and set upon their black hair the hat made famous by John B. Stetson. You may meet them in town and think them tamed to stupidity. You may travel out upon their reservations and find them shearing sheep or hoeing corn or plodding along the furrow, plowing their fields; or you may watch them dancing grotesquely in their festivals, and still think that civilization is fast erasing the savage instincts from their natures. You will be partly right—but you will also be partly mistaken. An Indian is always an Indian, and a Navajo Indian carries a thinner crust of civilization than do some others; as I am going to illustrate.
As you have suspected, the Happy Family was not following the trail of Ramon Chavez and his band. Ramon was a good many miles away in another direction; unwittingly the Happy Family was keeping doggedly upon the trail of a party of renegade Navajos who had been out on a thieving expedition among those Mexicans who live upon the Rio Grande bottomland. Having plenty of reasons for hurrying back to their stronghold, and having plenty of lawlessness to account for, when they realized that they were being followed by nine white men who had four packed horses with them to provide for their needs on a long journey, it was no more than natural that the Indians should take it for granted that they were being pursued, and that if they were caught they would be taken back to town and shut up in that evil place which the white men called their jail.
When it was known that the nine men who followed had twice recovered the trail after sheep and cattle had trampled it out, the renegades became sufficiently alarmed to call upon their tribesmen for help. And that was perfectly natural and sensible from their point of view.
Now, the Navajos are peaceable enough if you leave them strictly alone and do not come snooping upon their reservation trying to arrest somebody. But they don't like jails, and if you persist in trailing their lawbreakers you are going to have trouble on your hands. The Happy Family, with Luck and Applehead, had no intention whatever of molesting the Navajos; but the Navajos did not know that, and they acted according to their lights and their ideas of honorable warfare.
Roused to resistance in behalf of their fellows, they straightway forsook their looms, where they wove rugs for tourists, and the silver which they fashioned into odd bracelets and rings; and the flocks of sheep whose wool they used in the rugs and they went upon a quiet, crafty warpath against these persistent white men.
They stole their horses and started them well on the trail back to Albuquerque—since it is just as well to keep within the white men's law, if it may be done without suffering any great inconvenience. They would have preferred to keep the horses, but they decided to start them home and let them go. You could not call that stealing, and no one need go to jail for it. They failed to realize that these horses might be so thoroughly broken to camp ways that they would prefer the camp of the Happy Family to a long trail that held only a memory of discomfort; they did not know that every night these horses were given grain by the camp-fire, and that they would remember it when feeding time came again. So the horses, led by wise old Johnny, swung in a large circle when their Indian drivers left them, and went back to their men.
Then the Navajos, finding that simple maneuver a failure—and too late to prevent its failing without risk of being discovered and forced into an open fight—got together and tried something else; something more characteristically Indian and therefore more actively hostile. They rode in haste that night to a point well out upon the fresh trail of their fleeing tribesmen, where the tracks came out of a barren, lava-encrusted hollow to softer soil beyond. They summoned their squaws and their half-grown papooses armed with branches that had stiff twigs and answered the purpose of brooms. With great care about leaving any betraying tracks of their own until they were quite ready to leave a trail, a party was formed to represent the six whom the Happy Family bad been following. These divided and made off in different directions, leaving a plain trail behind them to lure the white men into the traps which would be prepared for them farther on.
When dawn made it possible to do so effectively, the squaws began to whip out the trail of the six renegade Indians, and the chance footprints of those who bad gone ahead to leave the false trail for the white men to follow. Very painstakingly the squaws worked, and the young ones who could be trusted. Brushing the sand smoothly across a hoofprint here, and another one there; walking backward, their bodies bent, their sharp eyes scanning every little depression, every faint trace of the passing of their tribesmen; brushing, replacing pebbles kicked aside by a hoof, wiping out completely that trail which the Happy Family bad followed with such persistence, the squaws did their part, while their men went on to prepare the trap.
Years ago—yet not so many after all—the mothers of these squaws, and their grandmothers, had walked backward and stooped with little branches in their hands to wipe out the trail of their warriors and themselves to circumvent the cunning of the enemy who pursued. So had they brushed out the trail when their men had raided the ranchos of the first daring settlers, and had driven off horses and cattle into the remoter wilderness.
And these, mind you, were the squaws and bucks whom you might meet any day on the streets in Albuquerque, padding along the pavement and staring in at the shop windows, admiring silken gowns with marked-down price tags, and exclaiming over flaxen-haired dolls and bright ribbon streamers; squaws and bucks who brought rugs and blankets to sell, and who would bargain with you in broken English and smile and nod in friendly fashion if you spoke to them in Spanish or paid without bickering the price they asked for a rug. You might see them in the fifteen-cent store, buying cheap candy and staring in mute admiration at all the gay things piled high on the tables. Remember that, when I tell you what more they did out here in the wilderness. Remember that and do not imagine that I am trying to take you back into the untamed days of the pioneers.
Luck and the Happy Family—so well had the squaws done their work—passed unsuspectingly over the wiped-out trail, circled at fault on the far side of the rocky gulch for an hour or so and then found the false trail just as the Indian decoys had intended that they should do. And from a farther flat topped ridge a group of Indians with Dutch hair-cuts and Stetson hats and moccasins (the two hall-marks of two races) watched them take the false trail, and looked at one another and grinned sourly.
The false trail forked, showing that the six had separated into two parties of three riders, each aiming to pass—so the hoofprints would lead one to believe—around the two ends of a lone hill that sat squarely down on the mesa like a stone treasure chest dropped there by the gods when the world was young.
The Happy Family drew rein and eyed the parting of the ways dubiously.
"Wonder what they did that for?" Andy Green grumbled, mopping his red face irritatedly. "We've got trouble enough without having them split up on us."
"From the looks, I should say we're overhauling the bunch," Luck hazarded. "They maybe met on the other side of this butte somewhere. And the tracks were made early this morning, I should say. How about it, Applehead?"
"Well, they look fresher 'n what we bin follerin' before," Applehead admitted. "But I don't like this here move uh theirn, and I'm tellin' yuh so. The way—"
"I don't like anything about 'em," snapped Luck, standing in his stirrups as though that extra three inches would let him see over the hill. "And I don't like this tagging along behind, either. You take your boys and follow those tracks to the right, Applehead. I and my bunch will go this other way. And RIDE! We can't be so awfully much behind. If they meet, we'll meet where they do. If they scatter, we'll have to scatter too, I reckon. But get'em is the word, boys!"
"And where," asked Applehead with heavy irony, while he pulled at his mustache, "do yuh calc'late we'll git t'gether agin if we go scatterin' out?"
Luck looked at him and smiled his smile. "We aren't any of us tenderfeet, exactly," he said calmly. "We'll meet at the jail when we bring in our men, if we don't meet anywhere else this side. But if you land your men, come back to that camp where we lost the horses. That's one, place we KNOW has got grass and water both. If you come and don't see any sign of us, wait a day before you start back to town. We'll do the same. And leave a note anchored in the crack of that big bowlder by the spring, telling the news. We'll do the same if we get there first and don't wait for you." He hesitated, betraying that even in his eagerness he too dreaded the parting of the ways. "Well, so long, boys—take care of yourselves."
"Well, now, I ain't so dang shore—" Applehead began querulously.
But Luck only grinned and waved his hand as he led the way to the south on the trail that obviously had skirted the side of the square butte. The four who went with him looked back and waved non-committal adieu; and Big Medicine, once he was fairly away, shouted back to them to look out for Navvies, and then laughed with a mirthless uproar that deceived no one into thinking he was amused. Pink and Weary raised their voices sufficiently to tell him where he could go, and settled themselves dejectedly in their saddles again.
"Well, I ain't so darned sure, either," Lite Avery tardily echoed Applehead's vague statement, in the dry way he had of speaking detached sentiments from the mental activities that went on behind his calm, mask-like face and his quiet eyes. "Something feels snaky around here today."
Applehead looked at him with a glimmer of relief in his eyes, but he did not reply to the foreboding directly. "Boys, git yore rifles where you kin use 'em quick," he advised them grimly. "I kin smell shootin' along this dang trail."
Pink's dimples showed languidly for a moment, and he looked a question at Weary. Weary grinned answer and pulled his rifle from the "boot" where it was slung under his right leg, and jerked the lever forward until a cartridge slid with a click up into the chamber; let the hammer gently down with his thumb and laid the gun across his thighs.
"She's ready for bear," he observed placidly.
"Well, now, you boys show some kinda sense," Applehead told them when Pink had followed Weary's example. "Fellers like Happy and Bud, they shore do show their ign'rance uh this here, dang country, when they up 'n' laff at the idee uh trouble—now I'm tellin' yuh!"
From the ridge which was no more than a high claw of the square butte, four Indians in greasy, gray Stetsons with flat crowns nodded with grim satisfaction, and then made baste to point the toes of their moccasins down to where their unkempt ponies stood waiting. They were too far away to, see the shifting of rifles to the laps of the riders, or perhaps they would not have felt quite so satisfied with the steady advance of the four who had taken the right-hand fork of the trail. They could not even tell just which four men made up the party. They did not greatly care, so long as the force of the white men was divided. They galloped away upon urgent business of their own, elated because their ruse had worked out as they had planned and hoped.
Applehead took a restrained pull at the canteen, cocked his eyes back at the butte they had just passed, squinted ahead over the flat waste that shimmered with heat to the very skyline that was notched and gashed crudely with more barren hills, and then, screwing the top absent-mindedly on the canteen-mouth, leaned and peered long at the hoofprints they were following. Beside him Lite Avery, tall and lean to the point of being skinny, followed his movements with quiet attention and himself took to studying more closely the hoofprints in the sandy soil.
Applehead looked up, gauged the probable direction the trail was taking, and gave a grunt.
"You kin call me a fool," he said with a certain challenge in his tone, "but this yere trail don't look good to me, somehow. These yere tracks, they don't size up the same as they done all the way out here. 'N' another thing, they ain't aimed t' meet up with the bunch that Luck's trailin'. We're headed straight out away from whar Luck's headed. 'N' any way yuh look at it, we're headed into country whar there ain't no more water'n what the rich man got in hell. What would any uh Ramon's outfit want to come away off in here fur? They ain't nothin' up in here to call 'em."
"These," said Lite suddenly, "are different horse-tracks. They're smaller, for one thing. The bunch we followed out from the red machine rode bigger horses."
"And carried honey on one side and fresh meat on the other; and one horse was blind in the right eye," enlarged Pink banteringly, remembering the story of the Careful Observer in an old schoolreader of his childhood days.
"Yes, how do you make that out, Lite? I never noticed any difference in the tracks."
"The stride is a little shorter today for one thing." Lite looked around and grinned at Pink, as though he too remembered the dromedary loaded with honey and meat. "Ain't it, Applehead?"
"It shore is," Applehead testified, his face bent toward the hot ground. "Ain't ary one uh the three that travels like they bin a travelin'—'n' that shore means something, now I'm tellin' yuh!" He straightened and stared worriedly ahead of them again. "Uh course, they might a picked up fresh horses," he admitted. "I calc'late they needed 'em bad enough, if they ain't been grainin' their own on the trip."
"We didn't see any signs of their horses being turned loose anywhere along," Lite pointed out with a calm confidence that he was right.
Still, they followed the footprints even though they were beginning to admit with perfect frankness their uneasiness. They were swinging gradually toward one of those isolated bumps of red rockridges which you will find scattered at random through certain parts of the southwest. Perhaps they held some faint hope that what lay on the other side of the ridge would be more promising, just as we all find ourselves building air-castles upon what lies just over the horizon which divides present facts from future possibilities. Besides, these flat-faced ledges frequently formed a sharp dividing line between barren land and fertile, and the hoofprints led that way; so it was with a tacit understanding that they would see what lay beyond the ridge that they rode forward.
Suddenly Applehead, eyeing the rocks speculatively, turned his head suddenly to look behind and to either side like one who seeks a way of escape from sudden peril.
"Don't make no quick moves, boys," he said, waving one gloved band nonchalantly toward the flat land from which they were turning, "but foller my lead 'n' angle down into that draw off here. Mebbe it's deep enough to put us outa sight, 'n' mebbe it ain't. But we'll try it."
"What's up? What did yuh see?" Pink and Weary spoke in a duet, urging their horses a little closer.
"You fellers keep back thar 'n' don't act excited!" Applehead eyed them sternly over his shoulder. "I calc'late we're just about t' walk into a trap." He bent—on the side away from the ridge—low over his horse's shoulder and spoke while he appeared to be scanning the ground. "I seen gun-shine up among them rocks, er I'm a goat. 'N' if it's Navvies, you kin bet they got guns as good as ours, and kin shoot mighty nigh as straight as the best of us—except Lite, uh course, that's a expert." He pointed aimlessly at the ground and edged toward the draw.
"Ef they think we're jest follerin' a stray track, they'll likely hold off till we git back in the trail 'n' start comin' on agin," he explained craftily, still pointing at the ground ahead of him and still urging his horse to the draw. "Ef they suspicion 't we're shyin' off from the ridge, they'll draw a fine bead 'n' cut loose. I knowed it," he added with a lugubrious complacency. "I told ye all day that I could smell trouble a-comin'; I knowed dang well 't we'd stir up a mess uh fightin' over here. I never come onto this dang res'vation yit, that I didn't have t' kill off a mess uh Navvies before I got offen it agin.
"Now," he said when they reached the edge of the sandy depression that had been gouged deeper by freshets and offered some shelter in case of attack, "you boys jest fool around here on the aidge 'n' foller me down here like you was jest curiouslike over what I'm locatin'. That'll keep them babies up there guessin' till we're all outa sight MEBBY!" He pulled down the corners of his mouth till his mustache-ends dropped a full inch, and lifted himself off his horse with a bored deliberation that was masterly in its convincingness. He stood looking at the ground for a moment and then began to descend leisurely into the draw, leading his horse behind him.
"You go next, Pink," Weary said shortly, and with his horse began edging him closer to the bank until Pink, unless he made some unwise demonstration of unwillingness, was almost forced to ride down the steep little slope.
"Don't look towards the ridge, boys," Applehead warned from below. "Weary, you come on down here next. Lite kin might' nigh shoot the dang triggers offen their guns 'fore they kin pull, if they go t' work 'n' start anything."
So Weary, leaving Lite up there grinning sheepishly over the compliment, rode down because he was told to do so by the man in command. "You seem to forget that Lite's got a wife on his hands," he reproved as he went.
"Lite's a-comin' right now," Applehead retorted, peering at the ridge a couple of hundred yards distant. "Git back down the draw 's fur's yuh kin b'fore yuh take out into the open agin. I'll wait a minute 'n' see—"
"Ping-NG-NG!" a bullet, striking a rock on the edge of the draw fifty feet short of the mark, glanced and went humming over the hot waste.
"Well, now, that shows they got a lookout up high, 't seen me watchin' that way. But it's hard t' git the range shootin' down, like that," Applehead remarked, pulling his horse behind a higher part of the bank.
Close beside him Lite's rifle spoke, its little steelshod message flying straight as a homing honeybee for the spitting flash he had glimpsed up there among the rocks. Whether he did any damage or not, a dozen rifles answered venomously and flicked up tiny spurts of sand in the close neighborhood of the four.
"If they keep on trying," Lite commented drily, "they might make a killing, soon as they learn how to shoot straight."
"'S jest like them dang Injuns!" Applehead grumbled, shooing the three before him down the draw. "Four t' our one—it takes jest about that big a majority 'fore they feel comftable about buildin' up a fight. Lead yore bosses down till we're outa easy shootin' distance, boys, 'n' then we'll head out fer where Luck ought t' be. If they fixed a trap fer us, they've fixed another fer him, chances is, 'n! the sooner us fellers git t'gether the better show we'll all of us have. You kin see, the way they worked it to split the bunch, that they ain't so dang anxious t' tie into us when we're t'gether—'n' that's why we can't git t' Luck a dang bit too soon, now I'm tellin' yuh!"
Weary and Pink were finding things to say, also, but old Applehead went on with his monologue just as though they were listening. Lite showed a disposition to stop and take issue with the shooters who kept up a spiteful firing from the ridge. But Applehead stopped him as he was leveling his rifle.
"If yuh shoot," he pointed out, "they'll know jest where we air and how fast we're gittin' outa here. If yuh don't, unless their lookout kin see us movin' out, they got t' do a heap uh guessin' in the next few minutes. They only got one chancet in three uh guessin' right, 'cause we might be camped in one spot, 'n' then agin we might be crawlin' up closer, fer all they kin tell."
If they were guessing, they must have guessed right; for presently the four heard faint yells from behind them, and Applehead crawled up the bank to where he could look out across the level. What he saw made him slide hastily to the bottom again.
"They've clumb down and straddled their ponies," he announced grimly. "An' about a dozen is comin' down this way, keepin' under cover all they kin. I calc'late mebby we better crawl our bosses 'n' do some ridin' ourselves, boys." And he added grimly, "They ain't in good shootin' distance yit, 'n' they dassent show theirselves neither. We'll keep in this draw long as we kin. They're bound t' come careful till they git us located."
The footing was none the best, but the horses they rode had been running over untracked mesa-land since they were bandy-legged colts. They loped along easily, picking automatically the safest places whereon to set their feet, and leaving their riders free to attend to other important matters which proved their true value as horses that knew their business.
Soon the draw shallowed until they found themselves out in the open, with the square-topped mountain five miles or so ahead and a little to the left; a high, untraversable sandstone ledge to their right, and what looked like plain sailing straight ahead past the mountain.
Applehead twisted his body in the saddle and gave a grunt. "Throw some lead back at them hombres, Lite," he snapped. "And make a killin' if yuh kin. It'll make 'em mad, but it'll hold 'em back fer a spell."
Lite, the crack rifle-shot of Luck's company and the man who had taught Jean Douglas to shoot with such wonderful precision, wheeled his horse short around and pulled him to a stand, lined up his rifle sights and crooked his finger on the trigger. And away back there among the Indians a pony reared, and then pitched forward.
"I sure do bate to shoot down a horse," Lite explained shamefacedly, "but I never did kill a man—"
"We-ell, I calc'late mebby yuh will, 'fore you're let out from this yere meetin'," Applehead prophesied drily. "Now, dang it, RIDE!"
CHAPTER XVI. ANNIE-MANY-PONIES WAITS
In the magic light of many unnamable soft shades which the sun leaves in New Mexico as a love token for his dark mistress night, Annie-Many-Ponies sat with her back against a high, flat rock at the place where Ramon had said she must wait for him, and stared somber-eyed at what she could see of the new land that bad held her future behind the Sandias; waiting for Ramon; and she wondered if Wagalexa Conka had come home from his picture-making in Bear Canon and was angry because she had gone; and shrank from the thought, and tried to picture what life with Ramon would be like, and whether his love would last beyond the wide ring of shiny gold that was to make her a wife.
At her feet the little black dog lay licking his sore paws that had padded patiently after her all day. Beside the rock the black horse stood nibbling at some weeds awkwardly, because of the Spanish bit in his mouth. The horse was hungry, and the little black dog was hungry; Annie-Many-Ponies was hungry also, but she did not feel her, hunger so much, because of the heaviness that was in her heart.
When Ramon came he would bring food, or he would tell her where she might buy. The horse, too, would be fed—when Ramon came. And he would take her to the priest who was his friend, and together they would kneel before the priest. But first, if Ramon would wait, she wanted to confess her sins, so that she need not go into the new life bearing the sins of the old. The priest could pray away the ache that was in her heart; and then, with her heart light as air, she would be married with Ramon. It was long since she had confessed—not since the priest came to the agency when she was there, before she ran away to work in pictures for Wagalexa Conka.
Before her the glow deepened and darkened. A rabbit hopped out of a thick clump of stunted bushes, sniffed the air that blew the wrong way to warn him, and began feeding. Shunka Chistala gathered his soft paws under him, scratched softly for a firm foothold in the ground, and when the rabbit, his back turned and the evening wind blowing full in his face, fed unsuspectingly upon some young bark that he liked, the little black dog launched himself suddenly across the space that divided them. There was a squeak and a thin, whimpering crying—and the little black dog, at least, was sure of his supper.
Annie-Many-Ponies, roused from her brooding, shivered a little when the rabbit cried. She started forward to save it—she who had taught the little black dog to hunt gophers and prairie-dogs!—and when she was too late she scolded the dog in the language of the Sioux. She tore the rabbit away from him while he eyed her reproachfully; but when she saw that it was quite dead, she flung the warm body back to him and went and sat down again with her back to the rock.
A train whistled for the little station of Bernalillo, and soon she saw its headlight paint the squat houses that had before been hidden behind the creeping dusk. Ramon was late in coming and for one breath she caught herself hoping that he would not come at all. But immediately she remembered the love words he had taught her, and smiled her inscrutable little smile that had now a tinge of sadness. Perhaps, she thought wishfully, Ramon had come on the train from Albuquerque. Perhaps he had a horse in the town, and would ride out and meet her here where he had told her to wait.
The train shrieked and painted swiftly hill and embankment and little adobe huts and a corral full of huddled sheep, and went churning away to the northeast. Annie-Many-Ponies followed its course absently with her eyes until the last winking light from its windows and the last wisp of smoke was hidden behind hills and trees. The little black dog finished the rabbit, nosed its tracks back to where it had hopped out of the brush, and came back and curled up at the feet of his mistress, licking his lips and again his travel-sore paws. In a moment, feeling in his dumb way her loneliness, perhaps, he reached up and laid his pink tongue caressingly upon her brown hand.
Dark came softly and with it a noisy wind that whistled and murmured and at last, growing more boisterous as the night deepened, whooped over her bead and tossed wildly the branches of a clump of trees that grew near. Annie-Many-Ponies listened to the wind and thought it a brother, perhaps, of the night wind that came to the Dakota prairies and caroused there until dawn bade it be still. Too red the blood of her people ran in her veins for her to be afraid of the night, even though she peopled it with dim shapes of her fancy.
After a long while the wind grew chill. Annie-Many-Ponies shivered, and then rose and went to the horse and, reaching into the bundle which was still bound to the saddle, she worked a plaid shawl loose from the other things and pulled it out and wrapped it close around her and pulled it over her head like a cowl. Then she went back and sat down against the bowlder, waiting, with the sublime patience of her kind, for Ramon.
Until the wind hushed, listening for the dawn, she sat there and waited. At her feet the little black dog slept with his nose folded between his front paws over which he whimpered sometimes in his dreams. At every little sound all through—the night Annie-Many-Ponies had listened, thinking that at last here came Ramon to take her to the priest, but for the first time since she had stolen out on the mesa to meet him, Ramon did not keep the tryst—and this was to be their marriage meeting! Annie-Many-Ponies grew very still and voiceless in her heart, as if her very soul waited. She did not even speculate upon what the future would be like if Ramon never came. She was waiting.
Then, just before the sky lightened, someone stepped cautiously along a little path that led through rocks and bushes back into the hills. Annie-Many Ponies turned her face that way and listened. But the steps were not the steps of Ramon; Annie-Many-Ponies had too much of the Indian keenness to be fooled by the hasty footsteps of this man. And since it was not Ramon—her slim fingers closed upon the keen-edged knife she carried always in its sinew-sewed buckskin sheath near her heart.
The little black dog lifted his head suddenly and growled, and the footsteps came to a sudden stop quite near the rock.
"It is you?" asked a cautious voice with the unmistakable Mexican tone and soft, slurring accent, "speak me what yoh name."
"Ramon comes?" Annie asked him quietly, and the footsteps came swiftly nearer until his form was silhouetted by the rock.
"Sh-sh—yoh not spik dat name," he whispered. "Luis Rojas me. I come for breeng yoh. No can come, yoh man. No spik name—som'bodys maybe hears."
Annie-Many-Ponies rose and stood peering at him through the dark. "What's wrong?" she asked abruptly, borrowing the curt phrase from Luck Lindsay. "Why I not speak name? Why—some body—?" she laid ironical stress upon the word—"not come? What business you got, Luis Rojas?"
"No—don' spik names, me!" The figure was seen to throw out an imploring hand. "Moch troubles, yoh bet! Yoh come now—somebodys she wait in dam-hurry!"
Annie-Many-Ponies, with her fingers still closed upon the bone handle of her sharp-edged knife, thought swiftly. Wariness had been born into her blood—therefore she could understand and meet halfway the wariness of another. Perhaps Wagalexa Conka had suspected that she was going with Ramon; Wagalexa Conka was very keen, and his anger blazed hot as pitch-pine flame. Perhaps Ramon feared Wagalexa Conka—as she, too, feared him. She was not afraid—she would go to Ramon.
She stepped away from the rock and took the black horse by its dropped bridle-reins and followed Luis Rojas up the dim path that wound through trees and rocks until it dropped into a little ravine that was chocked with brush, so that Annie-Many-Ponies had to put the stiff branches aside with her hand lest they scratch her face as she passed.
Luis went swiftly along the path, as though his haste was great; but he went stealthily as well, and she knew that he had some unknown cause for secrecy. She wondered a little at this. Had Wagalexa Conka discovered where she and Ramon were to meet? But how could he discover that which had been spoken but once, and then in the quiet loneliness of that place far back on the mesa? Wagalexa Conka bad not been within three miles of that place, as Annie-Many-Ponies knew well. How then did he know? For he must have followed, since Ramon dared not come to the place he had named for their meeting.
Dawn came while they were still following the little, brush-choked ravine with its faint pathway up the middle of it, made by cattle or sheep or goats, perhaps all three. Luis hurried along, stopping now and then and holding up a hand for silence so that he might listen. Fast as he went, Annie-Many-Ponies kept within two long steps of his heels, her plaid shawl drawn smoothly over her black head and folded together under her chin. Her mouth was set in a straight line, and her chin had the square firmness of the Indian. Luis, looking back at her curiously, could not even guess at her thoughts, but he thought her too calm and cold for his effervescent nature—though he would have liked to tell her that she was beautiful. He did not, because he was afraid of Ramon.
"Poco tiempo, come to his camp, Ramon," he said when the sun was peering over the high shoulder of a ridge; and he spoke in a hushed tone, as if he feared that someone might overhear him.
"You 'fraid Wagalexa Conka, he come?" Annie-Many-Ponies asked abruptly, looking at him full.
Luis did not understand her, so he lifted his shoulders in the Mexican gesture which may mean much or nothing. "Quien sabe?" he muttered vaguely and went on. Annie-Many-Ponies did not know what he meant, but she guessed that he did not want to be questioned upon the subject; so she readjusted the shawl that had slipped from her head and went on silently, two long steps behind him.
In a little he turned from the ravine, which was becoming more open and not quite so deep. They scrambled over boulders which the horse must negotiate carefully to avoid a broken leg, and then they were in another little ravine, walled round with rocks and high, brushy slopes. Luis went a little way, stopped beside a huge, jutting boulder and gave a little exclamation of dismay.
"No more here, Ramon," he said, staring down at the faintly smoking embers of a little fire. "She's go som' place, I don't know, me."
The slim right hand of Annie-Many-Ponies went instinctively to her bosom and to what lay hidden there. But she waited, looking from the little campfire that was now almost dead, to Luis whom she suspected of treachery. Luis glanced up at her apologetically, caught something of menace in that unwinking, glittering stare, and began hastily searching here and there for some sign that would enlighten him further.
"She's here when I go, Ramon," he explained deprecatingly. "I don' un'stan', me. She's tell me go breeng yoh thees place. She's say I mus' huree w'ile dark she's las'. I'm sure s'prised, me!" Luis was a slender young man with a thin, patrician face that had certain picture values for Luck, but which greatly belied his lawless nature. Until he stood by the rock where she had waited for Ramon, Annie-Many-Ponies had never spoken to him. She did not know him, therefore she did not trust him—and she looked her distrust.
Luis turned from her after another hasty glance, and began searching for some sign of Ramon. Presently, in a tiny cleft near the top of the boulder, his black eyes spied a folded paper—two folded papers, as he discovered when he reached up eagerly and pulled them out.
"She's write letter, Ramon," he cried with a certain furtive excitement. "Thees for yoh." And he smiled while he gave her a folded note with "Ana" scrawled hastily across the face of it.
Annie-Many-Ponies extended her left hand for it, and backed the few steps away from him which would insure her safety against a sudden attack, before she opened the paper and read:
"Querida mia, you go with Luis. Hes all rite you trus him. He bring you where i am. i lov you. Ramon"
She read it twice and placed the note in her bosom—next the knife—and looked at Luis, the glitter gone from her eyes. She smiled a little. "I awful hongry," she said in her soft voice, and it was the second sentence she had spoken since they left the rock where she had waited.
Luis smiled back, relief showing in the uplift of his lips and the lightening of his eyes. "She's cache grob, Ramon," he said. "She's go som' place and we go also. She's wait for us. Dam-long way—tree days, I theenk me."
"You find that grub," said Annie-Many-Ponies, letting her hand drop away from the knife. "I awful hongry. We eat, then we go."
"No—no go till dark comes! We walk in night—so somebody don' see!"
Annie-Many-Ponies looked at him sharply, saw that he was very much in earnest, and turned away to gather some dry twigs for the fire. Up the canon a horse whinnied inquiringly, and Luis, hastening furtively that way, found the horse he had ridden into this place with Ramon. With the problem of finding provender for the two animals, he had enough to occupy him until Annie-Many-Ponies, from the coarse food he brought her, cooked a crude breakfast.
Truly, this was not what she had dreamed the morning would be like—she who had been worried over the question of whether Ramon would let her confess to the priest before they were married! Here was no priest and no Ramon, even; but a keen-eyed young Mexican whom she scarcely knew at all; and a mysterious hiding-out in closed-in canons until dark before they might follow Ramon who loved her. Annie-Many-Ponies did not understand why all this stealthiness should be necessary, for she knew that proof of her honorable marriage would end Luck's pursuit—supposing he did pursue—even though his anger might live always for her. She did not understand; and when an Indian confronts a situation which puzzles him, you may be very sure that same Indian is going to be very, very cautious. Annie-Many-Ponies was Indian to the middle of her bone.
CHAPTER XVII. APPLEHEAD SHOWS THE STUFF HE IS MADE OF
Lite Avery, turning to look back as they galloped up a long slope so gradual in its rise that it seemed almost level, counted just fourteen Indians spreading out fanwise in pursuit. He turned to Applehead with the quiet deference in his manner that had won the old man's firm friendship.
"What's this new move signify, boss?" he asked, tilting his head backward. "What they spreading out like that for, when they're outa easy rifle range?"
Applehead looked behind him, studied the new formation of their enemy, and scowled in puzzlement. He looked ahead, where he knew the land lay practically level before them, all sand and rabbit weed, with a little grass here and there; to the left, where the square butte stood up bold-faced and grim; to the right where a ragged sandstone ledge blocked the way.
"'S some dang new trap uh theirn," he decided, his voice signifying disgust for such methods. "Take an Injun 'n' he don't calc'late he's fightin' 'nless he's figgurin' on gittin' yuh cornered. Mebby they got some more cached ahead som'ers. Keep yer eye peeled, boys, 'n' shoot at any dang thing yuh see that yuh ain't dead sure 's a rabbit weed. Don't go bankin' on rocks bein' harmless—'cause every dang one's liable to have an Injun layin' on his belly behind it. Must be another bunch ahead som'ers, 'cause I know it's smooth goin' fer five miles yit. After that they's a drop down into a rocky kinda pocket that's hard t' git out of except the way yuh go in, account of there bein' one uh them dang rim-rocks runnin' clean 'round it. Some calls it the Devil's Fryin'-pan. No water ner grass ner nothin' else 'ceptin' snakes. 'N' Navvies kinda ownin' rattlers as bein' their breed uh cats, they don't kill 'em off, so they's a heap 'n' plenty of 'em in that basin.
"But I ain't aimin' t' git caught down in there, now I'm tellin' yuh! I aim t' keep along clost t' that there butte, 'n' out on the other side where we kin pick up luck's trail. I shore would do some rarin' around if that boy rode off into a mess uh trouble, 'n' I'm tellin' yuh straight!"
"He's got some good boy at his back," Weary reminded him, loyal to his Flying U comrade.
"You're dang right he has! I ain't sayin' he ain't, am I? Throw some more lead back at them skunks behind us, will ye, Lite? 'N' the rest of yuh save yore shells fer close-ups!" He grinned a little at the incongruity of a motion-picture phrase in such a situation as this. "'N' don't be so dang skeered uh hurtin' somebody!" he adjured Lite, drawing rein a little so as not to forge ahead of the other. "You'll have to kill off a few anyway 'fore you're through with 'em."
Lite aimed at the man riding in the center of the half-circle, and the bullet he sent that way created excitement of some sort; but whether the Indian was badly hit, or only missed by a narrow margin, the four did not wait to discover. They had held their horses down to a pace that merely kept them well ahead of the Indians; and though the horses were sweating, they were holding their own easily enough—with a reserve fund of speed if their riders needed to call upon it.
Applehead, glancing often behind him, scowled over the puzzle of that fanlike formation of riders. They would hardly begin so soon to herd him and his men into that evil little rock basin with the sinister name, and there was no other reason he could think of which would justify those tactics, unless another party waited ahead of them. He squinted ahead uneasily, but the mesa lay parched and empty under the sky—
And then, peering straight into the glare of the sun, he saw, down the slope which they had climbed without realizing that it would have a crest, it was so low—Applehead saw the answer to the puzzle; saw and gave his funny little grunt of astonishment and dismay. Straight as a chalk line from the sandstone ledge on their right to the straight-walled butte on their left stretched that boundary line between the untamed wilderness and the tamed—a barbed wire fence; a four-wire fence at that, with stout cedar posts whereon the wire was stretched taut and true. From the look of the posts, it was not new—four or five years old, perhaps; not six years, certainly, for Applehead had ridden this way six years before and there had been not so much as a post-hole to herald the harnessing of the mesa.
Here, then, was the explanation of the fanlike spreading out of the line of Indians. They knew that the white men would be trapped by the fence, and they were cutting off the retreat—and keeping out of the hottest danger-zone of the white men's guns. Even while the four were grasping the full significance of the trap that they had ridden into unaware, the Indians topped the ridge behind them, yip-yip-yipping gleefully their coyotelike yells of triumph. The sound so stirred the slow wrath of Lite Avery that, without waiting for the word from Applehead he twisted half around in his saddle, glanced at the nearest Indian along his rifle-sights, bent his forefinger with swift deliberation upon the trigger, and emptied the saddle of one yelling renegade, who made haste to crawl behind a clump of rabbit weed.
"They howl like a mess uh coyotes," Lite observed in justification of the shot, "and I'm getting sick of hearing 'em."
"Mama!" Weary, exclaimed annoyedly, "that darn fence is on an up-slope, so it's going to be next to impossible to jump it! I guess here's where we do about an eight-hundred-foot scene of Indian Warfare, or Fighting For Their Lives. How yuh feel, Cadwalloper?"
"Me?" Pink's eyes were purple with sheer, fighting rage. "I feel like cleaning out that bunch back there. They'll have something to howl about when I get through!"
"Stay back uh me, boys!" Applehead's voice had a masterful sharpness that made the three tighten reins involuntarily. "You foller me and don't crowd up on me, neither. Send back a shot or two if them Injuns gits too ambitious."
The three fell in behind him without cavil or question. He was in charge of the outfit, and that settled it. Pink, released from irksome inaction by the permission to shoot, turned and fired back at the first Indian his sights rested upon. He saw a spurt of sand ten jumps in advance of his target, and he swore and fired again without waiting to steady his aim. The sorrel pack-horse, loping along fifty yards or so behind with a rhythmic clump-clump of frying-pan against coffee-pot at every leap he took, swerved sharply, shook his head as though a bee had stung him, and came on with a few stiff-legged "crow hops" to register his violent objection to being shot through the ear.
Pink, with an increased respect for the shooting skill of Lite Avery, glanced guiltily at the others to see if they had observed where his second bullet hit. But the others were eyeing Applehead uneasily and paid no attention to Pink or his attempts to hit an Indian on the run. And presently Pink forgot it also while he watched Applehead, who was apparently determined to commit suicide in a violently original form.
"You fellers keep behind, now—-and hold the Injuns back fer a minute er two," Applehead yelled while he set himself squarely in the saddle, gathered up his reins as though he were about to "top a bronk" and jabbed the spurs with a sudden savageness into Johnny's flanks.
"GIT outa here!" he yelled, and Johnny with an astonished lunge, "got."
Straight toward the fence they raced, Johnny with his ears laid back tight against his skull and his nose pointed straight out before him, with old Applehead leaning forward and yelling to Johnny with a cracked hoarseness that alone betrayed how far youth was behind him.
They thought at first that he meant to jump the fence, and they knew he could not make it. When they saw that he meant to ride through it, Weary and Pink groaned involuntarily at the certainty of a fall and sickening entanglement in the wires. Only Lite, cool as though he were rounding up milch cows, rode half-turned in the saddle and sent shot after shot back at the line of Navajos, with such swift precision that the Indians swerved and fell back a little, leaving another pony wallowing in the sand and taking with them one fellow who limped until he had climbed up behind one who waited for him.