E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE HEART OF THE DESERT
(Kut-Le of the Desert)
Author of "Still Jim"
With Frontispiece in Colors by V. Herbert Dunton
A. L. Burt Company, Publishers 114-120 East Twenty-third Street —— New York Published by Arrangement with Frederick A. Stokes Company
[Frontispiece: Side by side, they rode off into the desert sunset.]
I THE VALLEY OF THE PECOS II THE CAUCASIAN WAY III THE INDIAN AND CAUCASIAN IV THE INDIAN WAY V THE PURSUIT VI ENTERING THE DESERT KINDERGARTEN VII THE FIRST LESSON VIII A BROADENING HORIZON IX TOUCH AND GO X A LONG TRAIL XI THE TURN IN THE TRAIL XII THE CROSSING TRAILS XIII AN INTERLUDE XIV THE BEAUTY OF THE WORLD XV AN ESCAPE XVI ADRIFT IN THE DESERT XVII THE HEART'S OWN BITTERNESS XVIII THE FORGOTTEN CITY XIX THE TRAIL AGAIN XX THE RUINED MISSION XXI THE END OF THE TRAIL
The Heart of the Desert
THE VALLEY OF THE PECOS
Rhoda hobbled through the sand to the nearest rock. On this she sank with a groan, clasped her slender foot with both hands and looked about her helplessly.
She felt very small, very much alone. The infinite wastes of yellow desert danced in heat waves against the bronze-blue sky. The girl saw no sign of living thing save a buzzard that swept lazily across the zenith. She turned dizzily from contemplating the vast emptiness about her to a close scrutiny of her injured foot. She drew off her thin satin house slipper painfully and dropped it unheedingly into a bunch of yucca that crowded against the rock. Her silk stocking followed. Then she sat in helpless misery, eying her blue-veined foot.
In spite of her evident invalidism, one could but wonder why she made so little effort to help herself. She sat droopingly on the rock, gazing from her foot to the far lavender line of the mesas. A tiny, impotent atom of life, she sat as if the eternal why which the desert hurls at one overwhelmed her, deprived her of hope, almost of sensation. There was something of nobility in the steadiness with which she gazed at the melting distances, something of pathos in her evident resignation, to her own helplessness and weakness.
The girl was quite unconscious of the fact that a young man was tramping up the desert behind her. He, however, had spied the white gown long before Rhoda had sunk to the rock and had laid his course directly for her. He was a tall fellow, standing well over six feet and he swung through the heavy sand with an easy stride that covered distance with astonishing rapidity. As he drew near enough to perceive Rhoda's yellow head bent above her injured foot, he quickened his pace, swung round the yucca thicket and pulled off his soft felt hat.
"Good-morning!" he said. "What's the matter?"
Rhoda started, hastily covered her foot, and looked up at the tall khaki-clad figure. She never had seen the young man before, but the desert is not formal.
"A thing like a little crayfish bit my foot," she answered; "and you don't know how it hurts!"
"Ah, but I do!" exclaimed the young man. "A scorpion sting! Let me see it!"
"Oh, never mind that!" she said. "But if you will go to the Newman ranch-house for me and ask them to send the buckboard I'll be very grateful. I—I feel dizzy, you know."
"Gee whiz!" exclaimed the young man. "There's no time for me to run about the desert if you have a scorpion sting in your foot!"
"Is a scorpion sting dangerous?" asked Rhoda. Then she added, languidly, "Not that I mind if it is!"
The young man gave her a curious glance. Then he pulled a small case from his pocket, knelt in the sand and lifted Rhoda's foot in one slender, strong, brown hand. The instep already was badly swollen.
"Hold tight a minute!" said the young man.
And before Rhoda could protest he had punctured the red center of the swelling with a little scalpel, had held the cut open and had filled it with a white powder that bit. Then he pulled a clean handkerchief from his pocket and tore it in two. With one half he bound the ankle above the cut tightly. With the other he bandaged the cut itself.
"Are you a doctor?" asked Rhoda faintly.
"Far from it," replied the young man with a chuckle, tightening the upper bandage until Rhoda's foot was numb. "But I always carry this little outfit with me; rattlers and scorpions are so thick over on the ditch. Somebody's apt to be hurt anytime. I'm Charley Cartwell, Jack Newman's engineer."
"Oh!" said Rhoda understandingly. "I'm so dizzy I can't see you very well. This is very good of you. Perhaps now you'd go on and get the buckboard. Tell them it's for Rhoda, Rhoda Tuttle. I just went out for a walk and then—"
Her voice trailed into nothingness and she could only steady her swaying body with both hands against the rock.
"Huh!" grunted young Cartwell. "I go on to the house and leave you here in the boiling sun!"
"Would you mind hurrying?" asked Rhoda.
"Not at all," returned Cartwell.
He plucked the stocking and slipper from the yucca and dropped them into his pocket. Then he stooped and lifted Rhoda across his broad chest. This roused her.
"Why, you can't do this!" she cried, struggling to free herself.
Cartwell merely tightened his hold and swung out at a pace that was half run, half walk.
"Close your eyes so the sun won't hurt them," he said peremptorily.
Dizzily and confusedly, Rhoda dropped her head back on the broad shoulder and closed her eyes, with a feeling of security that later on was to appall her. Long after she was to recall the confidence of this moment with unbelief and horror. Nor did she dream how many weary days and hours she one day was to pass with this same brazen sky over her, this same broad shoulder under her head.
Cartwell looked down at the delicate face lying against his breast, at the soft yellow hair massed against his sleeve. Into his black eyes came a look that was passionately tender, and the strong brown hand that supported Rhoda's shoulders trembled.
In an incredibly short time he was entering the peach orchard that surrounded the ranch-house. A young man in white flannels jumped from a hammock in which he had been dozing.
"For heaven's sake!" he exclaimed. "What does this mean?"
Rhoda was too ill to reply. Cartwell did not slack his giant stride toward the house.
"It means," he answered grimly, "that you folks must be crazy to let Miss Tuttle take a walk in clothes like this! She's got a scorpion sting in her foot."
The man in flannels turned pale. He hurried along beside Cartwell, then broke into a run.
"I'll telephone to Gold Rock for the doctor and tell Mrs. Newman."
He started on ahead.
"Never mind the doctor!" called Cartwell. "I've attended to the sting. Tell Mrs. Jack to have hot water ready."
As Cartwell sprang up the porch steps, Mrs. Newman ran out to meet him. She was a pretty, rosy girl, with brown eyes and curly brown hair.
"Rhoda! Kut-le!" she cried. "Why didn't I warn her! Put her on the couch here in the hall, Kut-le. John, tell Li Chung to bring the hot-water bottles. Here, Rhoda dear, drink this!"
For half an hour the three, with Li Chung hovering in the background, worked over the girl. Then as they saw her stupor change to a natural sleep, Katherine gave a sigh that was almost a sob.
"She's all right!" she said. "O Kut-le, if you hadn't come at that moment!"
Cartwell shook his head.
"It might have gone hard with her, she's so delicate. Gee, I'm glad I ran out of tobacco this morning and thought a two-mile tramp across the desert for it worth while!"
The three were on the porch now. The young man in flannels, who had said little but had obeyed orders explicitly eyed Cartwell curiously.
"You're Newman's engineer, aren't you?" he asked. "My name's DeWitt. You've put us all under great obligations, this morning."
Cartwell took the extended hand.
"Well, you know," he said carefully, "a scorpion sting may or may not be serious. People have died of them. Mrs. Jack here makes no more of them than of a mosquito bite, while Jack goes about like a drunken sailor with one for a day, then forgets it. Miss Tuttle will be all right when she wakes up. I'm off till dinner time, Mrs. Jack. Jack will think I've reverted!"
DeWitt stood for a moment watching the tall, lithe figure move through the peach-trees. He was torn by a strange feeling, half of aversion, half of charm for the dark young stranger. Then:
"Hold on, Cartwell," he cried. "I'll drive you back in the buckboard."
Katherine Newman, looking after the two, raised her eyebrows, shook her head, then smiled and went back to Rhoda.
It was mid-afternoon when Rhoda woke. Katherine was sitting near by with her sewing.
"Well!" said Rhoda wonderingly. "I'm all right, after all!"
Katherine jumped up and took Rhoda's thin little hand joyfully.
"Indeed you are!" she cried. "Thanks to Kut-le!"
"Thanks to whom?" asked Rhoda. "It was a tall young man. He said his name was Charley Cartwell."
"Yup!" answered Katherine. "Charley Cartwell! His other name is Kut-le. He'll be in to dinner with Jack, tonight. Isn't he good-looking, though!"
"I don't know. I was so dizzy I couldn't see him. He seemed very dark. Is he a Spaniard?"
"Spaniard! No!" Katherine was watching Rhoda's languid eyes half mischievously. "He's part Mescallero, part Pueblo, part Mohave!"
Rhoda sat erect with flaming face.
"You mean that he's an Indian and I let him carry me! Katherine!"
The mischief in Katherine's brown eyes grew to laughter.
"I thought that would get a rise out of you, you blessed tenderfoot! What difference does that make? He rescued you from a serious predicament; and more than that he's a fine fellow and one of Jack's dearest friends."
Rhoda's delicate face still was flushed.
"An Indian! What did John DeWitt say?"
"Oh!" said Katherine, carelessly, "he offered to drive Kut-le back to the ditch, and he hasn't got home yet. They probably will be very congenial, John being a Harvard man and Kut-le a Yale!"
Rhoda's curved lips opened, then closed again. The look of interest died from her eyes.
"Well," she said in her usual weary voice, "I think I'll have a glass of milk, if I may. Then I'll go out on the porch. You see I'm being all the trouble to you, Katherine, that I said I would be."
"Trouble!" protested Katherine. "Why, Rhoda Tuttle, if I could just see you with the old light in your eyes I'd wait on you by inches on my knees. I would, honestly."
Rhoda rubbed a thin cheek against the warm hand that still held hers, and the mute thanks said more than words.
The veranda of the Newman ranch-house was deep and shaded by green vines. From the hammock where she lay, a delicate figure amid the vivid cushions, Rhoda looked upon a landscape that combined all the perfection of verdure of a northern park with a sense of illimitable breathing space that should have been fairly intoxicating to her. Two huge cottonwoods stood beside the porch. Beyond the lawn lay the peach orchard which vied with the bordering alfalfa fields in fragrance and color. The yellow-brown of tree-trunks and the white of grazing sheep against vegetation of richest green were astonishing colors for Rhoda to find in the desert to which she had been exiled, and in the few days since her arrival she had not ceased to wonder at them.
DeWitt crossed the orchard, quickening his pace when he saw Rhoda. He was a tall fellow, blond and well built, though not so tall and lithe as Cartwell. His dark blue eyes were disconcertingly clear and direct.
"Well, Rhoda dear!" he exclaimed as he hurried up the steps. "If you didn't scare this family! How are you feeling now?"
"I'm all right," Rhoda answered languidly. "It was good of you all to bother so about me. What have you been doing all day?"
"Over at the ditch with Jack and Cartwell. Say, Rhoda, the young fellow who rescued you is an Indian!"
DeWitt dropped into a big chair by the hammock. He watched the girl hopefully. It was such a long, long time since she had been interested in anything! But there was no responsive light in the deep gray eyes.
"Katherine told me," she replied. Then, after a pause, as if she felt it her duty to make conversation, "Did you like him?"
DeWitt spoke slowly, as if he had been considering the matter.
"I've a lot of race prejudice in me, Rhoda. I don't like niggers or Chinamen or Indians when they get over to the white man's side of the fence. They are well enough on their own side. However, this Cartwell chap seems all right. And he rescued you from a beastly serious situation!"
"I don't know that I'm as grateful for that as I ought to be," murmured Rhoda, half to herself. "It would have been an easy solution."
Her words stung DeWitt. He started forward and seized the small thin hands in both his own.
"Rhoda, don't!" he pleaded huskily. "Don't give up! Don't lose hope! If I could only give you some of my strength! Don't talk so! It just about breaks my heart to hear you."
For a time, Rhoda did not answer. She lay wearily watching the eager, pleading face so close to her own. Even in her illness, Rhoda was very lovely. The burnished yellow hair softened the thinness of the face that was like delicately chiseled marble. The finely cut nose, the exquisite drooping mouth, the little square chin with its cleft, and the great gray eyes lost none of their beauty through her weakness.
"John," she said at last, "why won't you look the truth in the face? I never shall get well. I shall die here instead of in New York, that's all. Why did you follow me down here? It only tortures you. And, truly it's not so bad for me. You all have lost your realness to me, somehow. I shan't mind going, much."
DeWitt's strong face worked but his voice was steady.
"I never shall leave you," he said simply. "You are the one woman in the world for me. I'd marry you tomorrow if you'd let me."
Rhoda shook her head.
"You ought to go away, John, and forget me. You ought to go marry some fine girl and have a home and a family. I'm just a sick wreck."
"Rhoda," and DeWitt's earnest voice was convincing, "Rhoda, I'd pass up the healthiest, finest girl on earth for you, just sick you. Why, can't you see that your helplessness and dependence only deepen your hold on me? Who wants a thing as fragile and as lovely as you are to make a home! You pay your way in life just by living! Beauty and sweetness like yours is enough for a woman to give. I don't want you to do a thing in the world. Just give yourself to me and let me take care of you. Rhoda, dear, dear heart!"
"I can't marry unless I'm well," insisted Rhoda, "and I never shall be well again. I know that you all thought it was for the best, bringing me down to the desert, but just as soon as I can manage it without hurting Katherine's and Jack's feelings too much, I'm going back to New York. If you only knew how the big emptiness of this desert country adds to my depression!"
"If you go back to New York," persisted DeWitt, "you are going back as my wife. I'm sick of seeing you dependent on hired care. Why, Rhoda dear, is it nothing to you that, when you haven't a near relative in the world, I would gladly die for you?"
"Oh!" cried the girl, tears of weakness and pity in her eyes, "you know that it means everything to me! But I can't marry any one. All I want is just to crawl away and die in peace. I wish that that Indian hadn't come upon me so promptly. I'd just have gone to sleep and never wakened."
"Don't! Don't!" cried DeWitt. "I shall pick you up and hold you against all the world, if you say that!"
"Hush!" whispered Rhoda, but her smile was very tender. "Some one is coming through the orchard."
DeWitt reluctantly released the slender hands and leaned back in his chair. The sun had crossed the peach orchard slowly, breathlessly. It cast long, slanting shadows along the beautiful alfalfa fields and turned the willows by the irrigating ditch to a rosy gray. As the sun sank, song-birds piped and lizards scuttled along the porch rail. The loveliest part of the New Mexican day had come.
The two young Northerners watched the man who was swinging through the orchard. It was Cartwell. Despite his breadth of shoulder, the young Indian looked slender, though it was evident that only panther strength could produce such panther grace. He crossed the lawn and stood at the foot of the steps; one hand crushed his soft hat against his hip, and the sun turned his close-cropped black hair to blue bronze. For an instant none of the three spoke. It was as if each felt the import of this meeting which was to be continued through such strange vicissitudes. Cartwell, however, was not looking at DeWitt but at Rhoda, and she returned his gaze, surprised at the beauty of his face, with its large, long-lashed, Mohave eyes that were set well apart and set deeply as are the eyes of those whose ancestors have lived much in the open glare of the sun; with the straight, thin-nostriled nose; with the stern, cleanly modeled mouth and the square chin, below. And looking into the young Indian's deep black eyes, Rhoda felt within herself a vague stirring that for a second wiped the languor from her eyes.
Cartwell spoke first, easily, in the quiet, well-modulated voice of the Indian.
"Hello! All safe, I see! Mr. Newman will be here shortly." He seated himself on the upper step with his back against a pillar and fanned himself with his hat. "Jack's working too hard. I want him to go to the coast for a while and let me run the ditch. But he won't. He's as pig-headed as a Mohave."
"Are the Mohaves so pig-headed then?" asked DeWitt, smiling.
Cartwell returned the smile with a flash of white teeth.
"You bet they are! My mother was part Mohave and she used to say that only the Pueblo in her kept her from being as stiff-necked as yucca. You're all over the dizziness, Miss Tuttle?"
"Yes," said Rhoda. "You were very good to me."
Cartwell shook his head.
"I'm afraid I can't take special credit for that. Will you two ride to the ditch with me tomorrow? I think Miss Tuttle will be interested in Jack's irrigation dream, don't you, Mr. DeWitt?"
DeWitt answered a little stiffly.
"It's out of the question for Miss Tuttle to attempt such a trip, thank you."
But to her own as well as DeWitt's astonishment Rhoda spoke protestingly.
"You must let me refuse my own invitations, John. Perhaps the ditch would interest me."
DeWitt replied hastily, "Good gracious, Rhoda! If anything will interest you, don't let me interfere."
There was protest in his voice against Rhoda's being interested in an Indian's suggestion. Both Rhoda and Cartwell felt this and there was an awkward pause. This was broken by a faint halloo from the corral and DeWitt rose abruptly.
"I'll go down and meet Jack," he said.
"We'll do a lot of stunts if you're willing," Cartwell said serenely, his eyes following DeWitt's broad back inscrutably. "The desert is like a story-book if one learns to read it. If you would be interested to learn, I would be keen to teach you."
Rhoda's gray eyes lifted to the young man's somberly.
"I'm too dull these days to learn anything," she said. "But I—I didn't used to be! Truly I didn't! I used to be so alive, so strong! I believed in everything, myself most of all! Truly I did!" She paused, wondering at her lack of reticence.
Cartwell, however, was looking at her with something in his gaze so quietly understanding that Rhoda smiled. It was a slow smile that lifted and deepened the corners of Rhoda's lips, that darkened her gray eyes to black, an unforgetable smile to the loveliness of which Rhoda's friends never could accustom themselves. At the sight of it, Cartwell drew a deep breath, then leaned toward her and spoke with curious earnestness.
"You make me feel the same way that starlight on the desert makes me feel."
Rhoda replied in astonishment, "Why, you mustn't speak that way to me! It's not—not—"
"Not conventional?" suggested Cartwell. "What difference does that make, between you and me?"
Again came the strange stirring in Rhoda in response to Cartwell's gaze. He was looking at her with something of tragedy in the dark young eyes, something of sternness and determination in the clean-cut lips. Rhoda wondered, afterward, what would have been said if Katherine had not chosen this moment to come out on the porch.
"Rhoda," she asked, "do you feel like dressing for dinner? Hello, Kut-le, it's time you moved toward soap and water, seems to me!"
"Yessum!" replied Cartwell meekly. He rose and helped Rhoda from the hammock, then held the door open for her. DeWitt and Newman emerged from the orchard as he crossed to Katherine's chair.
"Is she very sick, Mrs. Jack?" he asked.
Katherine nodded soberly.
"Desperately sick. Her father and mother were killed in a railroad wreck a year ago. Rhoda wasn't seriously hurt but she has never gotten over the shock. She has been failing ever since. The doctor feared consumption and sent her down here. But she's just dying by inches. Oh, it's too awful! I can't believe it! I can't realize it!"
Cartwell stood in silence for a moment, his lips compressed, his eyes inscrutable.
Then, "I've met her at last," he said. "It makes me believe in Fate."
Katherine's pretty lips parted in amazement.
"Goodness! Are you often taken this way!" she gasped.
"Never before!" replied Cartwell serenely. "Jack said she'd broken her engagement to DeWitt because of her illness, so it's a fair war!"
"Kut-le!" exclaimed Katherine. "Don't talk like a yellow-backed novel! It's not a life or death affair."
"You can't tell as to that," answered Cartwell with a curious little smile. "You mustn't forget that I'm an Indian."
And he turned to greet the two men who were mounting the steps.
THE CAUCASIAN WAY
When Rhoda entered the dining-room some of her pallor seemed to have left her. She was dressed in a gown of an elusive pink that gave a rose flush to the marble fineness of her face.
Katherine was chatting with a wiry, middle-aged man whom she introduced to Rhoda as Mr. Porter, an Arizona mining man. Porter stood as if stunned for a moment by Rhoda's delicate loveliness. Then, as was the custom of every man who met Rhoda, he looked vaguely about for something to do for her. Jack Newman forestalled him by taking Rhoda's hand and leading her to the table. Jack's curly blond hair looked almost white in contrast with his tanned face. He was not as tall as either Cartwell or DeWitt but he was strong and clean-cut and had a boyish look despite the heavy responsibilities of his five-thousand-acre ranch.
"There," he said, placing Rhoda beside Porter; "just attach Porter's scalp to your belt with the rest of your collection. It'll be a new experience to him. Don't be afraid, Porter."
Billy Porter was not in the least embarrassed.
"I've come too near to losing my scalp to the Apaches to be scared by Miss Tuttle. Anyhow I gave her my scalp without a yelp the minute I laid eyes on her."
"Here! That's not fair!" cried John DeWitt. "The rest of us had to work to get her to take ours!"
"Our what?" asked Cartwell, entering the room at the last word. He was looking very cool and well groomed in white flannels.
Billy Porter stared at the newcomer and dropped his soup-spoon with a splash. "What in thunder!" Rhoda heard him mutter.
Jack Newman spoke hastily.
"This is Mr. Cartwell, our irrigation engineer, Mr. Porter."
Porter responded to the young Indian's courteous bow with a surly nod, and proceeded with his soup.
"I'd as soon eat with a nigger as an Injun," he said to Rhoda under cover of some laughing remark of Katherine's to Cartwell.
"He seems to be nice," said Rhoda vaguely. "Maybe, though, Katherine is a little liberal, making him one of the family."
"Is there any hunting at all in this open desert country?" asked DeWitt. "I certainly hate to go back to New York with nothing but sunburn to show for my trip!"
"Coyotes, wildcats, rabbits and partridges," volunteered Cartwell. "I know where there is a nest of wildcats up on the first mesa. And I know an Indian who will tan the pelts for you, like velvet. A jack-rabbit pelt well tanned is an exquisite thing too, by the way. I will go on a hunt with you whenever the ditch can be left."
"And while they are chasing round after jacks, Miss Tuttle," cut in Billy Porter neatly, "I will take you anywhere you want to go. I'll show you things these kids never dreamed of! I knew this country in the days of Apache raids and the pony express."
"That will be fine!" replied Rhoda. "But I'd rather hear the stories than take any trips. Did you spend your boyhood in New Mexico? Did you see real Indian fights? Did you—?" She paused with an involuntary glance at Cartwell.
Porter, too, looked at the dark young face across the table and something in its inscrutable calm seemed to madden him.
"My boyhood here? Yes, and a happy boyhood it was! I came home from the range one day and found my little fifteen-year-old sister and a little neighbor friend of hers hung up by the back of their necks on butcher hooks. They had been tortured to death by Apaches. I don't like Indians!"
There was an awkward pause at the dinner table. Li Chung removed the soup-plates noiselessly. Cartwell's brown fingers tapped the tablecloth. But he was not looking at Porter's scowling face. He was watching Rhoda's gray eyes which were fastened on him with a look half of pity, half of aversion. When he spoke it was as if he cared little for the opinions of the others but would set himself right with her alone.
"My father," he said, "came home from the hunt, one day, to find his mother and three sisters lying in their own blood. The whites had gotten them. They all had been scalped and were dead except the baby, three years old. She—she—my father killed her."
A gasp of horror went round the table.
"I think such stories are inexcusable here!" exclaimed Katherine indignantly.
"So do I, Mrs. Jack," replied Cartwell. "I won't do it again."
Porter's face stained a deep mahogany and he bowed stiffly to Katherine.
"I beg your pardon, Mrs. Newman!"
"I feel as if I were visiting a group of anarchists," said Rhoda plaintively, "and had innocently passed round a bomb on which to make conversation!"
Jack Newman laughed, the tension relaxed, and in a moment the dinner was proceeding merrily, though Porter and Cartwell carefully avoided speaking to each other. Most of the conversation centered around Rhoda. Katherine always had been devoted to her friend. And though men always had paid homage to Rhoda, since her illness had enhanced her delicacy, and had made her so appealingly helpless, they were drawn to her as surely as bee to flower. Old and young, dignified and happy-go-lucky, all were moved irresistibly to do something for her, to coddle her, to undertake impossible missions, self-imposed.
Porter from his place of vantage beside her kept her plate heaped with delicacies, calmly removed the breast of chicken from his own plate to hers, all but fed her with a spoon when she refused to more than nibble at her meal.
DeWitt's special night-mare was that drafts were blowing on her. He kept excusing himself from the table to open and close windows and doors, to hang over her chair so as to feel for himself if the wind touched her.
Katherine and Jack kept Li Chung trotting to the kitchen for different dainties with which to tempt her. Only Cartwell did nothing. He kept up what seemed to be his usual fire of amiable conversation and watched Rhoda constantly through inscrutable black eyes. But he made no attempt to serve her.
Rhoda was scarcely conscious of the deference showed her, partly because she had received it so long, partly because that detached frame of mind of the hopeless invalid made the life about her seem shadowy and unreal. Nothing really mattered much. She lay back in her chair with the little wistful smile, the somber light in her eyes that had become habitual to her.
After dinner was finished Katherine led the way to the living-room. To his unspeakable pride, Rhoda took Billy Porter's arm and he guided her listless footsteps carefully, casting pitying glances on his less favored friends. Jack wheeled a Morris chair before the fireplace—desert nights are cool—and John DeWitt hurried for a shawl, while Katherine gave every one orders that no one heeded in the least.
Cartwell followed after the others, slowly lighted a cigarette, then seated himself at the piano. For the rest of the evening he made no attempt to join in the fragmentary conversation. Instead he sang softly, as if to himself, touching the keys so gently that their notes seemed only the echo of his mellow voice. He sang bits of Spanish love-songs, of Mexican lullabies. But for the most part he kept to Indian melodies—wistful love-songs and chants that touched the listener with strange poignancy.
There was little talk among the group around the fire. The three men smoked peacefully. Katherine and Jack sat close to each other, on the davenport, content to be together. DeWitt lounged where he could watch Rhoda, as did Billy Porter, the latter hanging on every word and movement of this lovely, fragile being, as if he would carry forever in his heart the memory of her charm.
Rhoda herself watched the fire. She was tired, tired to the inmost fiber of her being. The only real desire left her was that she might crawl off somewhere and die in peace. But these good friends of hers had set their faces against the inevitable and it was only decency to humor them. Once, quite unconscious that the others were watching her, she lifted her hands and eyed them idly. They were almost transparent and shook a little. The group about the fire stirred pityingly. John and Katherine and Jack remembered those shadowy hands when they had been rosy and full of warmth and tenderness. Billy Porter leaned across and with his hard brown palms pressed the trembling fingers down into Rhoda's lap. She looked up in astonishment.
"Don't hold 'em so!" said Billy hoarsely. "I can't stand to see 'em!"
"They are pretty bad," said Rhoda, smiling. It was her rare, slow, unforgetable smile. Porter swallowed audibly. Cartwell at the piano drifted from a Mohave lament to La Paloma.
"The day that I left my home for the rolling sea, I said, 'Mother dear, O pray to thy God for me!' But e'er I set sail I went a fond leave to take Of Nina, who wept as if her poor heart would break!"
The mellow, haunting melody caught Rhoda's fancy at once, as Cartwell knew it would. She turned to the sinewy figure at the piano. DeWitt was wholesome and strong, but this young Indian seemed vitality itself.
"Nina, if I should die and o'er ocean's foam Softly at dusk a fair dove should come, Open thy window, Nina, for it would be My faithful soul come back to thee——"
Something in Cartwell's voice stirred Rhoda as had his eyes. For the first time in months Rhoda felt poignantly that it would be hard to be cut down with all her life unlived. The mellow voice ceased and Cartwell, rising, lighted a fresh cigarette.
"I am going to get up with the rabbits, tomorrow," he said, "so I'll trot to bed now."
DeWitt, impelled by that curious sense of liking for the young Indian that fought down his aversion, said, "The music was bully, Cartwell!" but Cartwell only smiled as if at the hint of patronage in the voice and strolled to his own room.
Rhoda slept late the following morning. She had not, in her three nights in the desert country, become accustomed to the silence that is not the least of the desert's splendors. It seemed to her that the nameless unknown Mystery toward which her life was drifting was embodied in this infinite silence. So sleep would not come to her until dawn. Then the stir of the wind in the trees, the bleat of sheep, the trill of mocking-birds lulled her to sleep.
As the brilliancy of the light in her room increased there drifted across her uneasy dreams the lilting notes of a whistled call. Pure and liquidly sweet they persisted until there came to Rhoda that faint stir of hope and longing that she had experienced the day before. She opened her eyes and finally, as the call continued, she crept languidly from her bed and peered from behind the window-shade. Cartwell, in his khaki suit, his handsome head bared to the hot sun, leaned against a peach-tree while he watched Rhoda's window.
"I wonder what he wakened me for?" she thought half resentfully. "I can't go to sleep again, so I may as well dress and have breakfast."
Hardly had she seated herself at her solitary meal when Cartwell appeared.
"Dear me!" he exclaimed. "The birds and Mr. DeWitt have been up this long time."
"What is John doing?" asked Rhoda carelessly.
"He's gone up on the first mesa for the wildcats I spoke of last night. I thought perhaps you might care to take a drive before it got too hot. You didn't sleep well last night, did you?"
Rhoda answered whimsically.
"It's the silence. It thunders at me so! I will get used to it soon. Perhaps I ought to drive. I suppose I ought to try everything."
Not at all discouraged, apparently, by this lack of enthusiasm, Cartwell said:
"I won't let you overdo. I'll have the top-buggy for you and we'll go slowly and carefully."
"No," said Rhoda, suddenly recalling that, after all, Cartwell was an Indian, "I don't think I will go. Katherine will have all sorts of objections."
The Indian smiled sardonically.
"I already have Mrs. Jack's permission. Billy Porter will be in, in a moment. If you would rather have a white man than an Indian, as escort, I'm quite willing to retreat."
Rhoda flushed delicately.
"Your frankness is almost—almost impertinent, Mr. Cartwell."
"I don't mean it that way at all!" protested the Indian. "It's just that I saw so plainly what was going on in your mind and it piqued me. If it will be one bit pleasanter for you with Billy, I'll go right out and hunt him up for you now."
The young man's naivete completely disarmed Rhoda.
"Don't be silly!" she said. "Go get your famous top-buggy and I'll be ready in a minute."
In a short time Rhoda and Cartwell, followed by many injunctions from Katherine, started off toward the irrigating ditch. At a slow pace they drove through the peach orchard into the desert. As they reached the open trail, thrush and to-hee fluttered from the cholla. Chipmunk and cottontail scurried before them. Overhead a hawk dipped in its reeling flight. Cartwell watched the girl keenly. Her pale face was very lovely in the brilliant morning light, though the somberness of her wide, gray eyes was deepened. That same muteness and patience in her trouble which so touched other men touched Cartwell, but he only said:
"There never was anything bigger and finer than this open desert, was there?"
Rhoda turned from staring at the distant mesas and eyed the young Indian wonderingly.
"Why!" she exclaimed, "I hate it! You know that sick fear that gets you when you try to picture eternity to yourself? That's the way this barrenness and awful distance affects me. I hate it!"
"But you won't hate it!" cried Cartwell. "You must let me show you its bigness. It's as healing as the hand of God."
"Don't talk about it, please! I'll try to think of something else."
They drove in silence for some moments. Rhoda, her thin hands clasped in her lap, resolutely stared at the young Indian's profile. In the unreal world in which she drifted, she needed some thought of strength, some hope beyond her own, to which to cling. She was lonely—lonely as some outcast watching with sick eyes the joy of the world to which he is denied. As she stared at the stern young profile beside her, into her heart crept the now familiar thrill.
Suddenly Cartwell turned and looked at her quizzically.
"Well, what are your conclusions?"
Rhoda shook her head.
"I don't know, except that it's hard to realize that you are an Indian."
Cartwell's voice was ironical.
"The only good Indian is a dead Indian, you know. I'm liable to break loose any time, believe me!"
Rhoda's eyes were on the far lavender line where the mesa melted into the mountains.
"Yes, and then what?" she asked.
Cartwell's eyes narrowed, but Rhoda did not see.
"Then I'm liable to follow Indian tradition and take whatever I want, by whatever means!"
"My! My!" said Rhoda, "that sounds bludgy! And what are you liable to want?"
"Oh, I want the same thing that a great many white men want. I'm going to have it myself, though!" His handsome face glowed curiously as he looked at Rhoda.
But the girl was giving his words small heed. Her eyes still were turned toward the desert, as though she had forgotten her companion. Sand whirls crossed the distant levels, ceaselessly. Huge and menacing, they swirled out from the mesa's edge, crossed the desert triumphantly, then, at contact with rock or cholla thicket, collapsed and disappeared. Endless, merciless, hopeless the yellow desert quivered against the bronze blue sky. For the first time dazed hopelessness gave way in Rhoda to fear. The young Indian, watching the girl's face, beheld in it what even DeWitt never had seen there—beheld deadly fear. He was silent for a moment, then he leaned toward her and put a strong brown hand over her trembling little fists. His voice was deep and soft.
"Don't," he said, "don't!"
Perhaps it was the subtle, not-to-be-fathomed influence of the desert which fights all sham; perhaps it was that Rhoda merely had reached the limit of her heroic self-containment and that, had DeWitt or Newman been with her, she would have given way in the same manner; perhaps it was that the young Indian's presence had in it a quality that roused new life in her. Whatever the cause; the listless melancholy suddenly left Rhoda's gray eyes and they were wild and black with fear.
"I can't die!" she panted. "I can't leave my life unlived! I can't crawl on much longer like a sick animal without a soul. I want to live! To live!"
"Look at me!" said Cartwell. "Look at me, not at the desert!" Then as she turned to him, "Listen, Rhoda! You shall not die! I will make you well! You shall not die!"
For a long minute the two gazed deep into each other's eyes, and the sense of quickening blood touched Rhoda's heart. Then they both woke to the sound of hoof-beats behind them and John DeWitt, with a wildcat thrown across his saddle, rode up.
"Hello! I've shouted one lung out! I thought you people were petrified!" He looked curiously from Rhoda's white face to Cartwell's inscrutable one. "Do you think you ought to have attempted this trip, Rhoda?" he asked gently.
"Oh, we've taken it very slowly," answered the Indian. "And we are going to turn back now."
"I don't think I've overdone," said Rhoda. "But perhaps we have had enough."
"All right," said Cartwell. "If Mr. DeWitt will change places with me, I'll ride on to the ditch and he can drive you back."
DeWitt assented eagerly and, the change made, Cartwell lifted his hat and was gone. Rhoda and John returned in a silence that lasted until DeWitt lifted Rhoda from the buggy to the veranda. Then he said:
"Rhoda, I don't like to have you go off alone with Cartwell. I wish you wouldn't."
"John, don't be silly! He goes about with Katherine all the time."
John only shook his head and changed the subject. That afternoon, however, Billy Porter buttonholed DeWitt in the corral where the New Yorker was watching the Arizonian saddle his fractious horse. When the horse was ready at the post, "Look here, DeWitt," said Billy, an embarrassed look in his honest brown eyes, "I don't want you to think I'm buttin' in, but some one ought to watch that young Injun. Anybody with one eye can see he's crazy about Miss Rhoda."
John was too startled to be resentful.
"What do you mean?" he exclaimed. "Cartwell is a great friend of the Newmans'."
"That's why I came to you. They're plumb locoed about the fellow, like the rest of the Easterners around here."
"Do you know anything against him?" insisted DeWitt.
"Why, man, he's an Injun, and half Apache at that! That's enough to know against him!"
"What makes you think he's interested in Miss Tuttle?" asked John.
Porter flushed through his tan.
"Well," he said sheepishly, "I seen him come down the hall at dawn this morning. Us Westerners are early risers, you know, and when he reached Miss Turtle's door, he pulled a little slipper out of his pocket and kissed it and put it in front of the sill."
DeWitt scowled, then he laughed.
"He's no worse than the rest of us that way! I'll watch, him, though perhaps it's only your prejudice against Indians and not really a matter to worry about."
Porter sighed helplessly.
"All right! All right! Just remember, DeWitt, I warned you!"
He mounted, then held in his horse while the worried look gave place to one so sad, yet so manly, that John never forgot it.
"I hope you appreciate that girl, DeWitt. She—she's a thoroughbred! My God! When you think of a sweet thing like that dying and these Injun squaws living! I hope you'll watch her, DeWitt. If anything happens to her through you not watching her, I'll come back on you for it! I ain't got any rights except the rights that any living man has got to take care of any white thing like her. They get me hard when they're dainty like that. And she's the daintiest I ever seen!"
He rode away, shaking his head ominously.
INDIAN AND CAUCASIAN
DeWitt debated with himself for some time as to whether or not he ought to speak to Jack of Porter's warning. Finally he decided that Porter's suspicions would only anger Jack, who was intensely loyal to his friends. He determined to keep silence until he had something more tangible on which to found his complaint than Billy's bitter prejudice against all Indians. He had implicit faith in Rhoda's love for himself. If any vague interest in life could come to her through the young Indian, he felt that he could endure his presence. In the meantime he would guard Rhoda without cessation.
In the days that followed, Rhoda grew perceptibly weaker, and her friends went about with aching hearts under an assumed cheerfulness of manner that deceived Rhoda least of any one. Rhoda herself did not complain and this of itself added a hundredfold to the pathos of the situation. Her unfailing sweetness and patience touched the healthy, hardy young people who were so devoted to her more than the most justifiable impatience on her part.
Time and again Katherine saw DeWitt and Jack leave the girl's side with tears in their eyes. But Cartwell watched the girl with inscrutable gaze.
Rhoda still hated the desert. The very unchanging loveliness of the days wearied her. Morning succeeded morning and noon followed noon, with always the same soft breeze stirring the orchard, always the clear yellow sunlight burning and dazzling her eyes, always the unvarying monotony of bleating sheep and lowing herds and at evening the hoot of owls. The brooding tenderness of the sky she did not see. The throbbing of the great, quiet southern stars stirred her only with a sense of helpless loneliness that was all but unendurable. And still, from who knows what source, she found strength to meet the days and her friends with that unfailing sweetness that was as poignant as the clinging fingers of a sick child.
Jack, Katherine, DeWitt, Cartwell, all were unwearying in their effort to amuse her. And yet for some reason. Cartwell alone was able to rouse her listless eyes to interest. Even DeWitt found himself eagerly watching the young Indian, less to guard Rhoda than to discover what in the Apache so piqued his curiosity. He had to admit, however reluctantly, that Kut-le, as he and Rhoda now called him with the others, was a charming companion.
Neither DeWitt nor Rhoda ever before had known an Indian. Most of their ideas of the race were founded on childhood reading of Cooper. Kut-le was quite as cultured, quite as well-mannered and quite as intelligent as any of their Eastern friends. But in many other qualities he differed from them. He possessed a frank pride in himself and his blood that might have belonged to some medieval prince who would not take the trouble outwardly to underestimate himself. Closely allied to this was his habit of truthfulness. This was not a blatant bluntness that irritated the hearer but a habit of valuing persons and things at their intrinsic worth, a habit of mental honesty as bizarre to Rhoda and John as was the young Indian's frank pride.
His attitude toward Rhoda piqued her while it amused her. Since her childhood, men had treated her with deference, had paid almost abject tribute to her loveliness and bright charm. Cartwell was delightfully considerate of her. He was uniformly courteous to her. But it was the courtesy of noblesse oblige, without a trace of deference in it.
One afternoon Kut-le sat alone on the veranda with Rhoda.
"Do you know," he said, rumpling his black hair, "that I think DeWitt has decided that I will bear watching!"
"Well," answered Rhoda idly, "and won't you?"
"Would you prefer that I show the lurking savage beneath this false shell of good manners?"
Rhoda smiled back at him.
"Of course you are an Indian, after all. It's rather too bad of you not to live up to any of our ideals. Your manners are as nice as John DeWitt's. I'd be quite frantic about you if you would drop them and go on the war-path."
Kut-le threw back his head and laughed.
"Oh, you ignorant young thing! It's lucky for you—and for me—that you have come West to grow up and complete your education! But DeWitt needn't worry. I don't need watching yet! First, I'm going to make you well. I know how and he doesn't. After that is done, he'd better watch!"
Rhoda's eyebrows began to go up. Kut-le never had recalled by word or look her outburst in the desert the morning of their first ride together, though they had taken several since. Rhoda seldom mentioned her illness now and her friends respected her feeling. But now Kut-le smiled at her disapproving brows.
"I've waited for the others to get busy," he said, "but they act foolish. Half the trouble with you is mental. You need a boss. Now, you don't eat enough, in spite of the eggs and beef and fruit that that dear Mrs. Jack sets before you. See how your hands shake this minute!"
Rhoda could think of no reply sufficiently crushing for this forward young Indian. While she was turning several over in her mind, Kut-le went into the house and returned with a glass of milk.
"I wish you'd drink this," he said.
Rhoda's brows still were arched haughtily.
"No, thank you," she said frigidly; "I don't wish you to undertake the care of my health."
Kut-le made no reply but held the glass steadily before her. Involuntarily, Rhoda looked up. The young Indian was watching her with eyes so clear, so tender, with that strange look of tragedy belying their youth, with that something so compelling in their quiet depths, that once more her tired pulses quickened. Rhoda looked from Kut-le out to the twisting sand-whirls, then she took the glass of milk and drank it. She would not have done this for any of the others and both she and Kut-le knew it. Thereafter, he deliberately set himself to watching her and it seemed as if he must exhaust his ingenuity devising means for her comfort. Slowly Rhoda acquired a definite interest in the young Indian.
"Are you really civilized, Kut-le?" she asked one afternoon when the young man had brought a little white desert owl to her hammock for her inspection.
Kut-le tossed the damp hair from his forehead and looked at the sweet wistful face against the crimson pillows. For a moment Rhoda felt as if his young strength enveloped her like the desert sun.
"Why?" he asked at last. "You said the other day that I was too much civilized."
"I know, but—" Rhoda hesitated for words, "I'm too much civilized myself to understand, but sometimes there's a look in your eyes that something, I suppose it's a forgotten instinct, tells me means that you are wild to let all this go—" she waved a thin hand toward cultivated fields and corral—"and take to the open desert."
Kut-le said nothing for a moment, though his face lighted with joy at her understanding. Then he turned toward the desert and Rhoda saw the look of joy change to one so full of unutterable longing that her heart was stirred to sudden pity. However, an instant later, he turned to her with the old impassive expression.
"Right beneath my skin," he said, "is the Apache. Tell me, Miss Rhoda, what's the use of it all?"
"Use?" asked Rhoda, staring at the blue sky above the peach-trees. "I am a fit person to ask what is the use of anything! Of course, civilization is the only thing that lives. I can't get your point of view at all."
"Huh!" sniffed Kut-le. "It's too bad Indians don't write books! If my people had been putting their internal mechanism on paper for a thousand years, you'd have no more trouble getting my point of view than I do yours."
Rhoda's face as she eyed the stern young profile was very sympathetic. Kut-le, turning to her, surprised upon her face that rare, tender smile for which all who knew her watched. His face flushed and his fine hands clasped and unclasped.
"Tell me about it, Kut-le, if you can."
"I can't tell you. The desert would show you its own power if you would give it a chance. No one can describe the call to you. I suppose if I answered it and went back, you would call it retrogression?"
"What would you call it?" asked Rhoda.
"I don't know. It would depend on my mood. I only know that the ache is there." His eyes grew somber and beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. "The ache to be there—free in the desert! To feel the hot sun in my face as I work the trail! To sleep with the naked stars in my face! To be— Oh, I can't make you understand, and I'd rather you understood than any one in the world! You could understand, if only you were desert-taught. When you are well and strong—"
"But why don't you go back?" interrupted Rhoda.
"Because," replied Kut-le slowly, "the Indian is dying. I hope that by living as a white, I may live. Up till recently I have worked blindly and hopelessly, but now I see light."
"Do you?" asked Rhoda with interest. "What have you found?"
"It isn't mine yet." Kut-le looked at the girl exultantly and there was a triumphant note in his voice. "But it shall be mine! I will make it mine! And it is worth the sacrifice of my race."
A vague look of surprise crossed Rhoda's face but she spoke calmly:
"To sacrifice one's race is a serious thing. I can't think of anything that would make that worth while. Here comes Mr. DeWitt. It must be dinner time. John, come up and see a little desert owl at close range. Kut-le has all the desert at his beck and call!"
Kut-le persuaded Rhoda to change the morning rides, which seemed only to exhaust her, to the shortest of evening strolls. Nearly always DeWitt accompanied them. Sometimes they went alone, though John was never very far distant.
One moonlit night Kut-le and Rhoda stood alone at the corral bars. The whole world was radiant silver moonlight on the desert, on the undulating alfalfa; moonlight filtering through the peach-trees and shimmering on Rhoda's drooping head as she leaned against the bars in the weary attitude habitual to her. Kut-le stood before her, erect and strong in his white flannels. His handsome head was thrown back a little, as was his custom when speaking earnestly. His arms were folded across his deep chest and he stood so still that Rhoda could see his arms rise and fall with his breath.
"It really is great work!" he was saying eagerly. "It seems to me that a civil engineer has tremendous opportunities to do really big things. Some of Kipling's stories of them are bully."
"Aren't they!" answered Rhoda sympathetically.
"There is a big thing in my favor too. The whites make no discrimination against an Indian in the professions. In fact every one gives him a boost in passing!"
"Why shouldn't they? You have as good a brain and are as attractive as any man of my acquaintance!"
The young man drew a quick breath.
"Do you really mean that?"
"Of course! Why shouldn't I? Isn't the moonlight uncanny on the desert?"
But Kut-le did not heed her attempt to change the subject.
"There are unlimited opportunities for me to make good, now that the government is putting up so many dams. I believe that I can go to the top with any man, don't you, Miss Rhoda?"
"I do, indeed!" replied Rhoda sincerely.
"Well, then, Miss Rhoda, will you marry me?"
Rhoda raised her head in speechless amazement.
Kut-le's glowing eyes contracted.
"You are not surprised!" he exclaimed a little fiercely, "You must have seen how it has been with me ever since you came. And you have been so—so bully to me!"
Rhoda looked helplessly into the young man's face. She was so fragile that she seemed but an evanescent part of the moonlight.
"But," she said slowly, "you must know that this is impossible. I couldn't think of marrying you, Kut-le!"
There was a moment's silence. An owl called from the desert. The night wind swept from the fragrant orchard. When he spoke again, Kut-le's voice was husky.
"Is it because I am an Indian?"
"Yes," answered Rhoda, "partly. But I don't love you, anyhow."
"But," eagerly, "if you did love me, would my being an Indian make any difference? Isn't my blood pure? Isn't it old?"
Rhoda stood still. The pain in Kut-le's voice was piercing through to the shadow world in which she lived. Her voice was troubled.
"But I don't love you, so what's the use of considering the rest? If I ever marry any one it will be John DeWitt."
"But couldn't you," insisted the tragically deep voice, "couldn't you ever love me?"
Rhoda answered wearily. One could not, it seemed, even die in peace!
"I can't think of love or marriage any more. I am a dying woman. Let me go into the mist, Kut-le, without a pang for our friendship, with just the pleasant memory of your goodness to me. Surely you cannot love me as I am!"
"I love you for the wonderful possibilities I see in you. I love you in spite of your illness. I will make you well before I marry you. The Indian in me has strength to make you well. And I will cherish you as white men cherish their wives."
Rhoda raised her hand commandingly and in her voice was that boundless vanity of the white, which is as old as the race.
"No! No! Don't speak of this again! You are an Indian but one removed from savagery. I am a white! I couldn't think of marrying you!" Then her tender heart failed her and her voice trembled. "But still I am your friend, Kut-le. Truly I am your friend."
The Indian was silent so long that Rhoda was a little frightened. Then he spoke slowly.
"Yes, you are white and I am red. But before all that, you are a woman of exquisite possibilities and I am a man who by all of nature's laws would make a fitting mate for you. You can love me, when you are well, as you could love no other man. And I—dear one, I love you passionately! I love you tenderly! I love you enough to give up my race for you. I am an Indian, Rhoda, but first of all I am a man. Rhoda, will you marry me?"
A thrill, poignant, heart-stirring, beat through Rhoda's veins. For one unspeakable moment there swept through her spirit a vision of strength, of beauty, of gladness, too wild and sweet for words. Then came the old sense of race distaste and she looked steadily into the young man's face.
"I cannot marry you, Kut-le," she said.
Kut-le said nothing more. He stood staring at the far desert, his fine face somber and with a look of determination in the contracted eyes and firm-set lips that made Rhoda shiver, even while her heart throbbed with pity. Tall, slender, inscrutable, as alien to her understanding as the call of the desert wind or the moon-drenched desert haze, she turned away and left him standing there alone.
She made her slow way to the ranch-house. Kut-le did not follow. Rhoda went to bed at once. Yet she could not sleep, for through the silence Kut-le's deep voice beat on her ears.
"I love you passionately! I love you tenderly! I am an Indian, but first of all I am a man!"
The next day and for the three or four days following, Kut-le was missing. The Newmans were worried. The ditch needed its engineer and never before had Kut-le been known to neglect his work. Once a year he went on a long hunt with chosen friends of his tribe, but never until his work was finished.
Rhoda confided in no one regarding her last interview with the Indian. She missed Kut-le, but DeWitt was frankly relieved. For the first time since Porter's warning he relaxed his vigilance. On the fifth evening after Kut-le's disappearance, Jack and DeWitt rode over to a neighboring ranch. Katherine was lazy with a headache. So Rhoda took her evening stroll alone. For once, she left the orchard and wandered out into the open desert, moved by an uncanny desire to let the full horror of the desert mystery sweep over her.
How long she sat on a rock, gazing into infinity, she did not know. It seemed to her that her whole shivering, protesting body was being absorbed into the strange radiance of the afterglow. At last she rose. As she did so, a tall figure loomed silently before her. Rhoda was too startled to scream. The figure was that of an Indian, naked save for high moccasins and a magnificently decorated loin-cloth. The man looked down at her with the smile of good fellowship that she knew so well. It was Kut-le, standing like a young bronze god against the faint pink of the afterglow.
"Hello!" he said nonchalantly. "I've been watching for you."
"What do you want!" gasped Rhoda. "What do you mean by coming before me in—in—"
"You mean when I'm dressed as a chief on the warpath? Well, you said you'd be keen about me this way; so here I am. I tried all the white methods I knew to win you and failed. Now the only thing left is the Indian method."
Rhoda moved uneasily.
Kut-le went on:
"As a white man I can no longer pester you. As an Indian I can steal you and marry you."
Rhoda struggled to make him and his words seem real to her.
"You aren't going to be so absurd as to try to steal me, I hope!" she tried to laugh.
"That's just what I'm going to do!" answered Kut-le. "If I steal as a white would steal, I would be caught at once. If I use Apache methods, no white on earth can catch me."
Rhoda gasped as the Indian's evident sincerity sank in on her.
"But," she pleaded, fighting for time, "you can't want to marry me by force! Don't you know that I shall grow to loathe you?"
"No! No!" answered the Indian earnestly. "Not after I've shown you life as I have seen it."
"Nonsense!" cried Rhoda. "Don't you realize that the whole county will be after you by morning?"
Kut-le laughed, deliberately walked up to the girl and lifted her in his arms as he had on the morning of their meeting. Rhoda gave one scream and struggled frantically. He slid a hand over her lips and tightened his hold. For a moment Rhoda lay motionless in abject fear, then, with a muffled cry of utter helplessness, a cry that would have driven a white man mad with pity, she slipped into unconsciousness. Kut-le walked on for a short distance to a horse. He put Rhoda in the saddle and fastened her there with a blanket. He slipped off the twisted bandana that bound his short black hair, fillet wise, and tied it carefully over Rhoda's mouth. Then with one hand steadying the quiet shoulders, he started the horse on through the dusk.
THE INDIAN WAY
It was some time before the call of a coyote close beside her penetrated Rhoda's senses. At its third or fourth repetition, she sighed and opened her eyes. Night had come, the luminous lavender night of the desert. Her first discovery was that she was seated on a horse, held firmly by a strong arm across her shoulders. Next she found that her uneasy breathing was due to the cloth tied round her mouth. With this came realization of her predicament and she tossed her arms in a wild attempt to free herself.
The arm about her tightened, the horse stopped, and the voice went on repeating the coyote call, clearly, mournfully. Rhoda ceased her struggling for a moment and looked at the face so close to her own. In the starlight only the eyes and the dim outline of the features were visible, and the eyes were as dark and menacing to her as the desert night that shut her in.
Mad with fear, Rhoda strained at the rigid arm. Kut-le dropped the reins and held her struggling hands, ceased his calling and waited. Off to the left came an answering call and Kut-le started the pony rapidly toward the sound. In a few moments Rhoda saw a pair of horsemen. Utterly exhausted, she sat in terror awaiting her fate. Kut-le gave a low-voiced order. One of the riders immediately rode forward, leading another horse. Kut-le slipped another blanket from this and finished binding Rhoda to her saddle so securely that she scarcely could move a finger. Then he mounted his horse, and he and one of the Indians started off, leading Rhoda's horse between them and leaving the third Indian standing silently behind them.
Rhoda was astride of the pony, half sitting, half lying along his neck. The Indians put the horses to a trot and immediately the discomfort of her position was made agony by the rough motion. But the pain cleared her mind.
Her first thought was that she never would recover from the disgrace of this episode. Following this thought came fury at the man who was so outraging her. It only he would free her hands for a moment she would choke him! Her anger would give her strength for that! Then she fought against her fastenings. They held her all but motionless and the sense of her helplessness brought back the fear panic. Utterly helpless, she thought! Flying through darkness to an end worse than death! In the power of a naked savage! Her fear almost robbed her of her reason.
After what seemed to her endless hours, the horses were stopped suddenly. She felt her fastenings removed. Then Kut-le lifted her to the ground where she tumbled, helpless, at his feet. He stooped and took the gag from her mouth. Immediately with what fragment of strength remained to her, she screamed again and again. The two Indians stood stolidly watching her for a time, then Kut-le knelt in the sand beside her huddled form and laid his hand on her arm.
"There, Rhoda," he said, "no one can hear you. You will only make yourself sick."
Rhoda struck his hand feebly.
"Don't touch me!" she cried hoarsely. "Don't touch me, you beast! I loathe you! I am afraid of you! Don't you dare to touch me!"
At this Kut-le imprisoned both her cold hands in one of his warm palms and held them despite her struggles, while with the other hand he smoothed her tumbled hair from her eyes.
"Poor frightened little girl," he said, in his rich voice. "I wish I might have done otherwise. But there was no other way. I don't know that I believe much in your God but I guess you do. So I tell you, Rhoda, that by your faith in Him, you are absolutely safe in my hands!"
Rhoda caught her breath in a childlike sob while she sstill struggled to recover her hands.
"I loathe you!" she panted. "I loathe you! I loathe you!"
But Kut-le would not free the cold little hands.
"But do you fear me, too? Answer me! Do you fear me?"
The moon had risen and Rhoda looked into the face that bent above hers. This was a naked savage with hawk-like face. Yet the eyes were the ones that she had come to know so well, half tragic, somber, but clear and, toward her, tender, very, very tender. With a shuddering sigh, Rhoda looked away. But against her own volition she found herself saying:
"I'm not afraid now! But I loathe you, you Apache Indian!"
Something very like a smile touched the grim mouth of the Apache.
"I don't hate you, you Caucasian!" he answered quietly.
He chafed the cold hands for a moment, in silence. Then he lifted her to her saddle. But Rhoda was beyond struggle, beyond even clinging to the saddle. Kut-le caught her as she reeled.
"Don't tie me!" she panted. "Don't tie me! I won't fight! I won't even scream, if you won't tie me!"
"But you can't sit your saddle alone," replied Kut-le. "I'll have to tie you."
Once more he lifted her to the horse. Once more with the help of his silent companion he fastened her with blankets. Once more the journey was begun. For a little while, distraught and uncertain what course to pursue, Rhoda endured the misery of position and motion in silence. Then the pain was too much and she cried out in protest. Kut-le brought the horses to a walk.
"You certainly have about as much spunk as a chicken with the pip!" he said contemptuously. "I should think your loathing would brace you up a little!"
Stung by the insult to a sudden access of strength, as the Indian had intended her to be, Rhoda answered, "You beast!" but as the horses swung into the trot she made no protest for a long hour. Then once more her strength failed her and she fell to crying with deep-drawn sobs that shook her entire body. After a few moments of this, Kut-le drew close to her.
"Don't!" he said huskily. "Don't!" And again he laid his hand on her shoulder.
Rhoda shuddered but could not cease her sobs. Kut-le seemed to hesitate for a few moments. Then he reached over, undid Rhoda's fastenings and lifted her limp body to the saddle before him, holding her against his broad chest as if he were coddling a child. Then he started the horses on. Too exhausted to struggle, Rhoda lay sobbing while the young Indian sat with his tragic eyes fastened steadily on the mysterious distances of the trail. Finally Rhoda sank into a stupor and, seeing this, Kut-le doubled the speed of the horses.
It was daylight when Rhoda opened her eyes. For a time she lay at ease listening to the trill of birds and the trickle of water. Then, with a start, she raised her head. She was lying on a heap of blankets on a stone ledge. Above her was the boundless sapphire of the sky. Close beside her a little spring bubbled from the blank wall of the mountain. Rhoda lay in helpless silence, looking about her, while the appalling nature of her predicament sank into her consciousness.
Against the wall squatted two Indian women. They were dressed in rough short skirts, tight-fitting calico waists and high leather moccasins. Their black hair was parted in the middle and hung free. Their swarthy features were well cut but both of the women were dirty and ill kept. The younger, heavier squaw had a kindly face, with good eyes, but her hair was matted with clay and her fingers showed traces of recent tortilla making. The older woman was lean and wiry, with a strange gleam of maliciousness and ferocity in her eyes. Her forehead was elaborately tattooed with symbols and her toothless old jaws were covered with blue tribal lines.
Kut-le and his friend of the night lounged on a heap of rock at the edge of the ledge. The strange Indian was well past middle age, tall and dignified. He was darker than Kut-le. His face was thin and aquiline. His long hair hung in elf locks over his shoulders. His toilet was elaborate compared with that of Kut-le, for he wore a pair of overalls and a dilapidated flannel shirt, unbelted and fluttering its ends in the morning breeze. As if conscious of her gaze, Kut-le turned and looked at Rhoda. His magnificent height and proportions dwarfed the tall Indian beside him.
"Good-morning, Rhoda!" he said gravely.
The girl looked at the beautiful naked body and reddened.
"You beast!" she said clearly.
Kut-le looked at her with slightly contracted eyes. Then he spoke to the fat squaw. She rose hastily and lifted a pot from the little fire beside the spring. She dipped a steaming cup of broth from this and brought it to Rhoda's side. The girl struck it away. Kut-le walked slowly over, picked up the empty cup at which the squaw stood staring stupidly and filled it once more at the kettle. Then he held it out to Rhoda. His nearness roused the girl to frenzy. With difficulty she brought her stiffened body to a sitting position. Her beautiful gray eyes were black with her sense of outrage.
"Take it away, beast!" she panted.
Kut-le held her gaze.
"Drink it, Rhoda!" he said quietly.
The girl returned his look for a moment then, hating herself for her weakness, she took the cup and drained it. Kut-le tossed the cup to the squaw, pushed Rhoda back to her blankets and covered her very gently. Then he went back to his boulder. The girl lay staring up at the sky. Utterly merciless it gleamed above her. But before she could more than groan she was asleep.
She slept as she had not slept for months. The slanting rays of the westering sun wakened her. She sat up stiffly. The squaws were unpacking a burlap bag. They were greasy and dirty but they were women and their nearness gave Rhoda a vague sense of protection. They in turn gazed at the tangled glory of her hair, at the hopeless beauty of her eyes, at the pathos of the drooping mouth, with unfeigned curiosity.
Kut-le still was watching the desert. The madness of the night before had lifted a little, leaving Rhoda with some of her old poise. After several attempts she rose and made her staggering way to Kut-le's side.
"Kut-le," she said, "perhaps you will tell me what you mean by this outrage?"
The young Indian, turned to her. White and exhausted, heavy hair in confusion, Rhoda still was lovely.
"You seem to have more interest in life," he said, "than you have had since I have known you. I thought the experiment would have that effect!"
"You brute!" cried Rhoda. "Can't you see how silly you are? You will be caught and lynched before the day is passed."
"Pshaw! Three Apaches can outwit a hundred white men on the trail!"
Rhoda caught her breath.
"Oh, Kut-le, how could you do this thing! How could you! I am disgraced forever! Let me go, Kut-le! Let me go! I'll not even ask you for a horse. Just let me go by myself!"
"You are better off with me. You will acknowledge that, yourself, before I am through with you."
"Better off!" Rhoda's appalled eyes cut the Indian deeper than words. "Better off! Why, Kut-le, I am a dying woman! You will just have to leave me dead beside the trail somewhere. Look at me! Look at my hands! See how emaciated I am! See how I tremble! I am a sick wreck, Kut-le. You cannot want me! Let me go! Try, try to remember all that you learned of pity from the whites! O Kut-le, let me go!"
"I haven't forgotten what I learned from the whites," replied the young man. He looked off at the desert with a quiet smile. "Now I want the whites to learn from me.
"But can't you see what a futile game you are playing? John DeWitt and Jack must be on your trail now!"
There was a cruel gleam in the Apache's eyes.
"Don't be too sure! They are going to spend a few days looking for the foolish Eastern girl who took a stroll and lost her way in the desert. How can they dream that you are stolen?"
Rhoda wrung her hands.
"What shall I do! What shall I do! What an awful, awful thing to come to me! As if life had not been hard enough! This catastrophe! This disgrace!"
Kut-le eyed her speculatively.
"It's all race prejudice, you know. I have the education of the white with the intelligence and physical perfection of the Indian; DeWitt is nowhere near my equal."
Rhoda's eyes blazed.
"Don't speak of DeWitt! You're not fit to!"
"Yet," very quietly, "you said the other night that I had as good a brain and was as attractive as any man of your acquaintance!"
"I was a fool!" exclaimed Rhoda.
Kut-le rose and took a stride or two up and down the ledge. Then he folded his arms across his chest and stopped before Rhoda, who leaned weakly against the boulder.
"I am going to tell you what my ideas are," he said. "You are intelligent and will understand me no matter how bitter my words may make you at first. Now look here. Lots of white men are in love with you. Even Billy Porter went off his head. But I guess DeWitt is a pretty fair sample of the type of men you drew, well educated, strong, well-bred and Eastern to the backbone. And they love you as you are, delicate, helpless, appealing, thoroughbred, but utterly useless!
"Except that they hate to see you suffer, they wouldn't want you to change. Now I love you for the possibilities that I see in you. I wouldn't think of marrying you as you are. It would be an insult to my good blood. Your beauty is marred by your illness. You have absolutely no sense of responsibility toward life. You think that life owes everything to you, that you pay your way with your beauty. If you didn't die, but married DeWitt, you would go on through life petted and babied, bridge-playing and going out to lectures, childless, incompetent, self-satisfied—and an utter failure!
"Now I think that humans owe everything to life and that women owe the most of all because they make the race. The more nature has done for them, the more they owe. I believe that you are a thousand times worth saving. I am going to keep you out here in the desert until you wake to your responsibility to yourself and to life. I am going to strip your veneering of culture from you and make you see yourself as you are and life as it is—life, big and clean and glorious, with its one big tenet: keep body and soul right and reproduce your kind. I am going to make you see bigger things in this big country than you ever dreamed of."
He stopped and Rhoda sat appalled, the Indian watching her. To relieve herself from his eyes Rhoda turned toward the desert. The sun had all but touched the far horizon. Crimson and gold, purple and black, desert and sky merged in one unspeakable glory. But Rhoda saw only emptiness, only life's cruelty and futility and loneliness. And once more she wrung her feeble hands.
Kut-le spoke to Molly, the fat squaw. She again brought Rhoda a cup of broth. This time Rhoda drank it mechanically, then sat in abject wretchedness awaiting the next move of her tormentor. She had not long to wait. Kut-le took a bundle from his saddle and began to unfasten it before Rhoda.
"You must get into some suitable clothes," he said. "Put these on."
Rhoda stared at the clothing Kut-le was shaking out. Then she gave him a look of disgust. There was a pair of little buckskin breeches, exquisitely tanned, a little blue flannel shirt, a pair of high-laced hunting boots and a sombrero. She made no motion toward taking the clothes.
"Can't you see," Kut-le went on, "that, at the least, you will be in my power for a day or two, that you must ride and that the clothes you have on are simply silly? Why not be as comfortable as possible, under the circumstances?"
The girl, with the conventions of ages speaking in her disgusted face, the savage with his perfect physique bespeaking ages of undistorted nature, eyed each other narrowly.
"I shall keep on my own clothes," said Rhoda distinctly. "Believe me, you alone give the party the primitive air you admire!"
Kut-le's jaw hardened.
"Rhoda Tuttle, unless you put these clothes on at once I shall call the squaws and have them put on you by force."
Into Rhoda's face came a look of despair. Slowly she put out a shaking hand and took the clothes.
"I can't argue against a brute," she said. "The men I have known have been gentlemen. Tell one of your filthy squaws to come and help me."
"Molly! Pronto!" Like a brown lizard the fat squaw scuttled to Rhoda's side.
In a little dressing-room formed by fallen rock, Rhoda put on the boy's clothing. Molly helped the girl very gently. When she was done she smoothed the blue-shirted shoulder complacently.
"Heap nice!" she said. "Make 'em sick squaw heap warm. You no 'fraid! Kut-le say cut off nose, kill 'em with cactus torture, if Injuns not good to white squaw."
The touch was the touch of a woman and Molly, though a squaw, had a woman's understanding. Rhoda gave a little sob.
"Kut-le, he good!" Molly went on. "He a big chief's son. He strong, rich. You no be afraid. You look heap pretty."
Involuntarily Rhoda glanced at herself. The new clothes were very comfortable. With the loveliness and breeding that neither clothing nor circumstance could mar, Rhoda was a fascinating figure. She was tall for a woman, but now she looked a mere lad. The buckskin clung like velvet. The high-laced boots came to her knees. The sombrero concealed all of the golden hair save for short curling locks in front. She would have charmed a painter, Kut-le thought, as she stepped from her dressing-room; but he kept his voice coolly impersonal.
"All right, you're in shape to travel, now. Where are your other clothes? Molly, bring them all here!"
Rhoda, followed the squaw and together they folded the cast-off clothing. Rhoda saw that her scarf had blown near the canon edge. A quick thought came to her. Molly was fully occupied with muttering adoration of the dainty underwear. Rhoda tied a pebble into the scarf and dropped it far out into the depths below. Then she returned to Molly.
As twilight deepened, Katherine lay in the hammock thankful for the soothing effect of the darkness on her aching eyes. She felt a little troubled about Kut-le. She was very fond of the young Indian. She understood him as did no one else, perhaps, and had the utmost faith in his honor and loyalty. She suspected that Rhoda had had much to do with the young Indian's sudden departure and she felt irritated with the girl, though at the same time she acknowledged that Rhoda had done only what she, Katherine, had advised—had treated Kut-le as if he had been a white man!
She watched the trail for Rhoda's return but darkness came and there was no sign of the frail figure. A little disturbed, she walked to the corral bars and looked down to the lights of the cowboys' quarters. If only John DeWitt and Jack would return! But she did not expect them before midnight. She returned to the house and telephoned to the ranch foreman.
"Don't you worry, ma'am," he answered cheerily. "No harm could come to her! She just walked till it got dark and is just starting for home now, I bet! She can't have got out of sight of the ranch lights."
"But she may have! You can't tell what she's done, she's such a tenderfoot," insisted Katherine nervously. "She may have been hurt!"
It was well that Katherine could not see the foreman's face during the conversation. It had a decided scowl of apprehension, but he managed a cheerful laugh.
"Well, you have got nervous, Mrs. Newman! I'll just send three or four of the boys out to meet her. Eh?"
"Oh, yes, do!" cried Katherine. "I shall feel easier. Good-by!"
Dick Freeman dropped the receiver and hurried into the neighboring bunk-house.
"Boys," he said quietly, "Mrs. Newman just 'phoned me that Miss Tuttle went to walk at sunset, to be gone half an hour. She ain't got back yet. She is alone. Will some of you come with me?"
Every hand of cards was dropped before Dick was half through his statement. In less than twenty minutes twenty cowboys were circling slowly out into the desert. For two hours Katherine paced from the living-room to the veranda, from the veranda to the corral. She changed her light evening gown to her khaki riding habit. Her nervousness grew to panic. She sent Li Chung to bed, then she paced the lawn, listening, listening.
At last she heard the thud of hoofs and Dick Freeman dismounted in the light that streamed from the open door.
"We haven't found her, Mrs. Newman. Has Mr. Newman got back? I think we must get up an organized search."
Katherine could feel her heart thump heavily.
"No, he hasn't. Have you found her trail?"
"No; it's awful hard to trail in the dark, and the desert for miles around the ranch is all cut up with footprints and hoof-marks, you know."
Katherine wrung her hands.
"Oh, poor little Rhoda!" she cried. "What shall we do!"
"No harm can come to her," insisted Dick. "She will know enough to sit tight till daylight, then we will have her before the heat gets up."
"Oh, if she only will!" moaned Katherine. "Do whatever you think best, Dick, and I'll send Jack and John DeWitt to you as soon as they return."
Dick swung himself to the saddle again.
"Better go in and read something, Mrs. Newman. You mustn't worry yourself sick until you are sure you have something to worry about."
How she passed the rest of the night, Katherine never knew. A little after midnight, Jack came in, his face tense and anxious. Katherine paled as she saw his expression. She knew he had met some of the searchers. When Jack saw the color leave his wife's pretty cheeks, he kissed her very tenderly and for a moment they clung to each other silently, thinking of the delicate girl adrift on the desert.
"Where is John DeWitt?" asked Katherine after a moment.
"He's almost crazy. He's with Dick Freeman. Only stopped for a fresh horse."
"They have no trace?" questioned Katherine.
Jack shook his head.
"You know what a proposition it is to hunt for as small an object as a human, in the desert. Give me your smelling salts and the little Navajo blanket. One—one can't tell whether she's hurt or not."
Katherine began to sob as she obeyed.
"You are all angel good not to blame me, but I know it's my fault. I shouldn't have let her go. But she is so sensible, usually."
"Dear heart!" said Jack, rolling up the Navajo. "Any one that knows dear old Rhoda knows that what she will, she will, and you are not to blame. Go to bed and sleep if you can."
"Oh, Jack, I can't! Let me go with you, do!"
But Jack shook his head.
"You aren't strong enough to do any good and some one must stay here to run things."
So again Katherine was left to pace the veranda. All night the search went on. Jack sent messages to the neighboring ranches and the following morning fifty men were in the saddle seeking Rhoda's trail. Jack also sent into the Pueblo country for Kut-le, feeling that his aid would be invaluable. It would take some time to get a reply from the Indians and in the meantime the search went on rigorously, with no trace of the trail to be found.
John DeWitt did not return to the ranch until the afternoon after Rhoda's disappearance. Then, disheveled, with bloodshot eyes, cracked lips and blistered face, he dropped exhausted on the veranda steps. Katherine and Jack greeted him with quiet sympathy.
"I came in to get fixed up for a long cruise," said John. "My pony went lame, and I want a flannel shirt instead of this silk thing I had on last night. I wish to God Kut-le would come! I suppose he could read what we are blind to."
"You bet!" cried Jack. "I expect an answer from his friends this afternoon. I just had a telegram from Porter, in answer to one I sent him this morning. I caught him at Brown's and he will be here this afternoon. He knows almost as much as an Indian about following a trail."
They all spoke in the hushed tones one employs in the sick-room. Jack tried to persuade DeWitt to eat and sleep but he refused, his forced calm giving way to a hoarse, "For heaven's sake, can I rest when she is dying out there!"
John had not finished his feverish preparations when Billy Porter stalked into the living-room. As he entered, the telephone rang and Jack answered it. Then he returned to the eager group.
"Kut-le has gone on a long hunt with some of his people. They don't know where he went and refuse to look for him."
Billy Porter gave a hard, mirthless laugh.
"Why certainly! Jack, you ought to have a hole bored into your head to let in a little light. Kut-le gone. Can't find Rhoda's trail. Kut-le in love with Rhoda. Kut-le an Indian. Rhoda refuses him—he goes off—gets some of his chums and when he catches Rhoda alone he steals her. He will keep a man behind, covering his trail. Oh, you easy Easterners make me sick!"
The Newmans and DeWitt stood staring at Porter with horror in their eyes. The clock ticked for an instant then DeWitt gave a groan and bowed his head against the mantelpiece. Katherine ran to him and tried to pull his head to her little shoulder.
"O John, don't! Don't! Maybe Billy is right. I'm afraid he is! But one thing I do know. Rhoda is as safe in Kut-le's hands as she would be in Jack's. I know it, John!"
John did not move, but at Katherine's words the color came back into Jack Newman's face.
"That's right!" he said stoutly. "It's a devilish thing for Kut-le to do. But she's safe, John, old boy, I'm sure she is."
Billy Porter, conscience-stricken at the effect of his words, clapped John on the shoulder.
"Aw shucks! I let my Injun hate get the best of my tongue. Of course she's safe enough; only the darn devil's got to be caught before he gets to Mexico and makes some padre marry 'em. So it's us to the saddle a whole heap."
"We'd better get an Indian to help trail," said Jack.
"You'll have a sweet time getting an Injun to trail Kut-le!" said Porter. "The Injuns half worship him. They think he's got some kind of strong medicine; you know that. You get one and he'll keep you off the trail instead of on. I can follow the trail as soon as he quits covering it. Get the canteens and come on. We don't need a million cowboys running round promiscuous over the sand. Numbers don't help in trailing an Injun. It's experience and patience. It may take us two weeks and we'll outfit for that. But we'll get him in the end. Crook always did."
There was that in Billy Porter's voice which put heart into his listeners. John DeWitt lifted his head, and while his blue eyes returned the gaze of the others miserably, he squared his shoulders doggedly.
"I'm ready," he said briefly.
"Oh, let me come!" cried Katherine. "I can't bear this waiting!"
"Why, Mrs. Jack, you'd be dried up and blowed away before the first day was over."
"But Rhoda is enduring it!" protested Katherine, with quivering lips.
"God!" John DeWitt muttered and flung himself from the house to the corral. The other two followed him at once.
It was mid-afternoon when the three rode into the quivering yellow haze of the desert followed by a little string of pack horses. It was now nearing twenty-four hours since Rhoda had disappeared and in that time there had been little sand blowing. This meant that the trail could be easily followed were it found. The men rode single file, Billy Porter leading. All wore blue flannel shirts and khaki trousers. John DeWitt rode Eastern park fashion, with short stirrup, rising from the saddle with the trot. Jack and Billy rode Western fashion, long stirrup, an inseparable part of their horses, a fashion that John DeWitt was to be forced to learn in the fearful days to come.
Billy Porter declaimed in a loud voice from the head of the procession.
"Of course, Kut-le has taken to the mountains. He'll steer clear of ranches and cowboys for a while. Our chance lies in his giving up covering his trail after he gets well into the ranges. We will get his trail and hang on till we can outwit him. If he was alone, we'd never get him, barring accident. But he will be a lot hampered by Miss Rhoda and I trust to her to hamper him a whole lot after she gets her hand in."
All the rest of the burning afternoon they moved toward the mountains. It was quite dusk when they entered the foothills. The way, not good at best, grew difficult and dangerous to follow. Billy led on, however, until darkness closed down on them in a little cactus-grown canon. Here he halted and ordered camp for a few hours.
"Lord!" exclaimed DeWitt. "You're not going to camp! I thought you were really going to do something!"
Billy finished lighting the fire and by its light he gave an impatient glance at the tenderfoot. But the look of the burned, sand-grimed face, the bloodshot eyes, blazing with anxiety, caused him to speak patiently.
"Can't kill the horses, DeWitt. You must make up your mind that this is going to be a hard hunt. You got to call out all the strength you've been storing up all your life, and then some. We've got to use common sense. Lord, I want to get ahead, don't I! I seen Miss Rhoda. I know what she's like. This ain't any joy ride for me, either. I got a lot of feeling in it."
John DeWitt extended his sun-blistered right hand and Billy Porter clasped it with his brown paw.
Jack Newman cleared his throat.
"Did you give your horse enough rope, John? There is a good lot of grass close to the canon wall. Quick as you finish your coffee, old man, roll in your blanket. We will rest till midnight when the moon comes up, eh, Billy?"
DeWitt, finally convinced of the good sense and earnestness of his friends, obeyed. The canon was still in darkness when Jack shook him into wakefulness but the mountain peak above was a glorious silver. Camp was broken quickly and in a short time Billy was leading the way up the wretched trail. DeWitt's four hours of sleep had helped him. He could, to some degree, control the feverish anxiety that was consuming him and he tried to turn his mind from picturing Rhoda's agonies to castigating himself for leaving her unguarded even though Kut-le had left the ranch. Before leaving the ranch that afternoon he had telegraphed and written Rhoda's only living relative, her Aunt Mary. He had been thankful as he wrote that Rhoda had no mother. He had so liked the young Indian; there had been such good feeling between them that he could not yet believe that Porter's surmise was wholly correct.
"Supposing," he said aloud, "that you are wrong, Porter? Supposing that she's—she's dying of thirst down there in the desert? You have no proof of Kut-le's doing it. It's only founded on your Indian hate, you say yourself."
"That's right," said Newman. "Are you sure we aren't wasting time, Billy?"
Billy turned in the saddle to face them.
"Well, boys," he said, "you've got half the county scratching the desert with a fine-tooth comb. I don't see how we three can help very much there. On the other hand we might do some good up here. Now I'll make a bargain with you. If by midnight tonight we ain't struck any trace of her, you folks can quit."
"And what will you do?" asked Jack.
"Me?" Billy shrugged his shoulders. "Why, I'll keep on this trail till my legs is wore off above my boots!" and he turned to guide his pony up a little branch trail at the top of which stood a tent with the telltale windlass and forge close by.
Before the tent they drew rein. In response to Billy's call a rough-bearded fellow lifted the tent flap and stood suppressing a yawn, as if visitors to his lonely claim were of daily occurrence.
"Say, friend," said Billy, "do you know Newman's ranch?"
"Sure," returned the prospector.
"Well, this is Mr. Newman. A young lady has been visiting him and his wife. She disappeared night before last. We suspicion that Cartwell, that educated Injun, has stole her. We're trying to find his trail. Can you give us a hunch?"
The sleepy look left the prospector's eyes. He crossed the rocks to put a hand on Billy's pommel.
"Gee! Ain't that ungodly!" he exclaimed. "I ain't seen a soul. But night before last I heard a screaming in my sleep. It woke me up but when I got out here I couldn't hear a thing. It was faint and far away and I decided it was a wildcat. Do you suppose it was her?"
DeWitt ground his teeth together and his hands shook but he made no sound. Jack breathed heavily.
"You think it was a woman?" asked Billy hoarsely.
The prospector spoke hesitatingly.
"If I'd been shore, I'd a gone on a hunt. But it was all kind of in my sleep. It was from way back in the mountain there."
"Thanks," said Billy, "we'll be on our way."
"It's four o'clock. Better stop and have some grub with me, then I'll join in and help you."
"No!" cried DeWitt, breaking his silence. "No!"
"That's the young lady's financier," said Billy, nodding toward John.
"Sho!" said the prospector sympathetically.
Billy lifted his reins.
"Thanks, we'll be getting along, I guess. Just as much obliged to you. We'll water here in your spring."
They moved on in the direction whither the prospector had pointed. They rode in silence. Dawn came slowly, clearly. The peaks lifted magnificently, range after range against the rosy sky. There was no trail. They followed the possible way. The patient little cow ponies clambered over rocks and slid down inclines of a frightful angle as cleverly as mountain goats. At ten o'clock, they stopped for breakfast and a three hours' sleep. It was some time before DeWitt could be persuaded to lie down but at last, perceiving that he was keeping the others from their rest, he took his blanket to the edge of the ledge and lay down.
His sleepless eyes roved up and down the adjoining canon. Far to the south, near the desert floor, he saw a fluttering bit of white. Now a fluttering bit of white, far from human byways, means something! Tenderfoot though he was, DeWitt realized this and sleep left his eyes. He sat erect. For a moment he was tempted to call the others but he restrained himself. He would let them rest while he kept watch over the little white beacon, for so, unaccountably, it seemed to him. He eyed it hungrily, and then a vague comfort and hopefulness came to him and he fell asleep.
Jack's lusty call to coffee woke him. DeWitt jumped to his feet and with a new light in his eyes he pointed out his discovery. The meal was disposed of very hurriedly and, leaving Jack to watch the camp, John and Billy crossed the canon southward. After heavy scrambling they reached the foot of the canon wall. Twenty feet above them dangled a white cloth. Catching any sort of hand and foot hold, John clambered upward. Then he gave a great shout of joy. Rhoda's neck scarf with the pebble pinned in one end was in his hands! DeWitt slid to the ground and he and Billy examined the scarf tenderly, eagerly.
"I told you! I told you!" exulted Billy hoarsely. "See that weight fastened to it? Wasn't that smart of her? Bless her heart! Now we got to get above, somehow, and find where she dropped it from!"
ENTERING THE DESERT KINDERGARTEN
"We'll start now," said Kut-le.
Alchise led out the horses. The squaws each threw an emancipated, sinewy leg across a pony's back and followed Alchise's fluttering shirt up the mountain. Kut-le stood holding the bridle of a sedate little horse on which he had fastened a comfortable high-backed saddle.
"Come, Rhoda," he said. "I'll shorten the stirrups after you are mounted."
Rhoda stood with her back to the wall, her blue-veined hands clutching the rough out-croppings on either side, horror and fear in her eyes.
"I can't ride cross-saddle!" she exclaimed. "I used to be a good horsewoman in the side-saddle. But I'm so weak that even keeping in the side-saddle is out of the question."
"Anything except cross-saddle is utterly out of the question," replied the Indian, "on the sort of trails we have to take. You might as well begin to control your nerves now as later. I'm going to have an expert rider in you by the time you have regained your strength. Come, Rhoda."
The girl turned her face to the afterglow. Remote and pitiless lay the distant crimson ranges. She shuddered and turned back to the young Indian who stood watching her. For the moment all the agony of her situation was concentrated in horror of another night in the saddle.
"Kut-le, I can't!"
"Shall I pick you up and carry you over here?" asked Kut-le patiently.
In her weakness and misery, Rhoda's cleft chin quivered. There was only merciless determination in the Indian's face. Slowly the girl walked to his side. He swung her to the saddle, adjusted the stirrups carefully, then fastened her securely to the saddle with a strap about her waist. Rhoda watched him in the silence of utter fear. Having settled the girl to his satisfaction, he mounted his own horse, and Rhoda's pony followed him tractably up the trail.
The trail rose steeply. After the first few dizzy moments, Rhoda, clinging to the saddle with hands and knees, was thankful for the security of her new seat. The scenery was uncanny to her terrorized eyes. To the left were great overhanging walls with cactus growing from every crevice; to the right, depth of canon toward which she dared not look but only trusted herself prayerfully to her steady little horse.