KEITH OF THE BORDER
A TALE OF THE PLAINS
By Randall Parrish
Author of "My Lady of the North," "My Lady of the South." "When Wilderness Was King," etc.
I The Plainsman II The Scene of Tragedy III An Arrest IV An Old Acquaintance V The One Way VI The Escape VII In the Sand Desert VIII The Wilderness Cabin IX The Girl of the Cabin X Mr. Hawley Reveals Himself XI The Fight in the Dark XII Through the Night Shadows XIII The Ford of the Arkansas XIV The Landlady of the Occidental XV Again Christie Maclaire XVI Introducing Doctor Fairbain XVII In the Next Room XVIII Interviewing Willoughby XIX A Glimpse at Conspiracy XX Hope Goes to Sheridan XXI The Marshal of Sheridan XXII An Interrupted Interview XXIII An Unexpected Meeting XXIV A Mistake in Assassination XXV A Reappearance of the General XXVI A Chance Conversation XXVII Miss Hope Suggests XXVIII The Stage Door of the Trocadero XXIX By Force of Arms XXX In Christie's Room XXXI The Search for the Missing XXXII Fairbain and Christie XXXIII Following the Trail XXXIV Again at the Cabin XXXV The Cabin Taken XXXVI The Duel in the Desert XXXVII At the Water-Hole
KEITH OF THE BORDER
A TALE OF THE PLAINS
Chapter I. The Plainsman
The man was riding just below the summit of the ridge, occasionally uplifting his head so as to gaze across the crest, shading his eyes with one hand to thus better concentrate his vision. Both horse and rider plainly exhibited signs of weariness, but every movement of the latter showed ceaseless vigilance, his glance roaming the barren ridges, a brown Winchester lying cocked across the saddle pommel, his left hand taut on the rein. Yet the horse he bestrode scarcely required restraint, advancing slowly, with head hanging low, and only occasionally breaking into a brief trot under the impetus of the spur.
The rider was a man approaching thirty, somewhat slender and long of limb, but possessing broad, squared shoulders above a deep chest, sitting the saddle easily in plainsman fashion, yet with an erectness of carriage which suggested military training. The face under the wide brim of the weather-worn slouch hat was clean-shaven, browned by sun and wind, and strongly marked, the chin slightly prominent, the mouth firm, the gray eyes full of character and daring. His dress was that of rough service, plain leather "chaps," showing marks of hard usage, a gray woolen shirt turned low at the neck, with a kerchief knotted loosely about the sinewy bronzed throat. At one hip dangled the holster of a "forty-five," on the other hung a canvas-covered canteen. His was figure and face to be noted anywhere, a man from whom you would expect both thought and action, and one who seemed to exactly fit into his wild environment.
Where he rode was the very western extreme of the prairie country, billowed like the sea, and from off the crest of its higher ridges, the wide level sweep of the plains was visible, extending like a vast brown ocean to the foothills of the far-away mountains. Yet the actual commencement of that drear, barren expanse was fully ten miles distant, while all about where he rode the conformation was irregular, comprising narrow valleys and swelling mounds, with here and there a sharp ravine, riven from the rock, and invisible until one drew up startled at its very brink. The general trend of depression was undoubtedly southward, leading toward the valley of the Arkansas, yet irregular ridges occasionally cut across, adding to the confusion. The entire surrounding landscape presented the same aspect, with no special object upon which the eye could rest for guidance—no tree, no upheaval of rock, no peculiarity of summit, no snake-like trail,—all about extended the same dull, dead monotony of brown, sun-baked hills, with slightly greener depressions lying between, interspersed by patches of sand or the white gleam of alkali. It was a dreary, deserted land, parched under the hot summer sun, brightened by no vegetation, excepting sparse bunches of buffalo grass or an occasional stunted sage bush, and disclosing nowhere slightest sign of human habitation.
The rising sun reddened the crest of the hills, and the rider, halting his willing horse, sat motionless, gazing steadily into the southwest. Apparently he perceived nothing there unusual, for he slowly turned his body about in the saddle, sweeping his eyes, inch by inch, along the line of the horizon, until the entire circuit had been completed. Then his compressed lips smiled slightly, his hand unconsciously patting the horse's neck.
"I reckon we're still alone, old girl," he said quietly, a bit of Southern drawl in the voice. "We'll try for the trail, and take it easy."
He swung stiffly out of the saddle, and with reins dangling over his shoulder, began the slower advance on foot, the exhausted horse trailing behind. His was not a situation in which one could feel certain of safety, for any ridge might conceal the wary foemen he sought to avoid, yet he proceeded now with renewed confidence. It was the Summer of 1868, and the place the very heart of the Indian country, with every separate tribe ranging between the Yellowstone and the Brazos, either restless or openly on the war-path. Rumors of atrocities were being retold the length and breadth of the border, and every report drifting in to either fort or settlement only added to the alarm. For once at least the Plains Indians had discovered a common cause, tribal differences had been adjusted in war against the white invader, and Kiowas, Comanches, Arapahoes, Cheyennes, and Sioux, had become welded together in savage brotherhood. To oppose them were the scattered and unorganized settlers lining the more eastern streams, guarded by small detachments of regular troops posted here and there amid that broad wilderness, scarcely within touch of each other.
Everywhere beyond these lines of patrol wandered roaming war parties, attacking travellers on the trails, raiding exposed settlements, and occasionally venturing to try open battle with the small squads of armed men. In this stress of sudden emergency—every available soldier on active duty—civilians had been pressed into service, and hastily despatched to warn exposed settlers, guide wagon trains, or carry despatches between outposts. And thus our rider, Jack Keith, who knew every foot of the plains lying between the Republican and the Canadian Rivers, was one of these thus suddenly requisitioned, merely because he chanced to be discovered unemployed by the harassed commander of a cantonment just without the environs of Carson City. Twenty minutes later he was riding swiftly into the northwest, bearing important news to General Sheridan, commander of the Department, who happened at that moment to be at Fort Cairnes. To Keith this had been merely another page in a career of adventure; for him to take his life in his hands had long ago become an old story. He had quietly performed the special duty allotted him, watched a squadron of troopers trot forth down the valley of the Republican, received the hasty thanks of the peppery little general, and then, having nothing better to do, traded his horse in at the government corral for a fresh mount and started back again for Carson City. For the greater portion of two nights and a day he had been in the saddle, but he was accustomed to this, for he had driven more than one bunch of longhorns up the Texas trail; and as he had slept three hours at Cairnes, and as his nerves were like steel, the thought of danger gave him slight concern. He was thoroughly tired, and it rested him to get out of the saddle, while the freshness of the morning air was a tonic, the very breath of which made him forgetful of fatigue.
After all, this was indeed the very sort of experience which appealed to him, and always had—this life of peril in the open, under the stars and the sky. He had constantly experienced it for so long now, eight years, as to make it seem merely natural. While he ploughed steadily forward through the shifting sand of the coulee, his thought drifted idly back over those years, and sometimes he smiled, and occasionally frowned, as various incidents returned to memory. It had been a rough life, yet one not unusual to those of his generation. Born of excellent family in tidewater Virginia, his father a successful planter, his mother had died while he was still in early boyhood, and he had grown up cut off from all womanly influence. He had barely attained his majority, a senior at William and Mary's College, when the Civil War came; and one month after Virginia cast in her lot with the South, he became a sergeant in a cavalry regiment commanded by his father. He had enjoyed that life and won his spurs, yet it had cost. There was much not over pleasant to remember, and those strenuous years of almost ceaseless fighting, of long night marches, of swift, merciless raiding, of lonely scouting within the enemy's lines, of severe wounds, hardship, and suffering, had left their marks on both body and soul. His father had fallen on the field at Antietam, and left him utterly alone in the world, but he had fought on grimly to the end, until the last flag of the Confederacy had been furled. By that time, upon the collar of his tattered gray jacket appeared the tarnished insignia of a captain. The quick tears dimmed his eyes even now as he recalled anew that final parting following Appomattox, the battle-worn faces of his men, and his own painful journey homeward, defeated, wounded, and penniless. It was no home when he got there, only a heap of ashes and a few weed-grown acres. No familiar face greeted him; not even a slave was left.
He had honestly endeavored to remain there, to face the future and work it out alone; he persuaded himself to feel that this was his paramount duty to the State, to the memory of the dead. But those very years of army life made such a task impossible; the dull, dead monotony of routine, the loneliness, the slowness of results, became intolerable. As it came to thousands of his comrades, the call of the West came to him, and at last he yielded, and drifted toward the frontier. The life there fascinated him, drawing him deeper and deeper into its swirling vortex. He became freighter, mail carrier, hunter, government scout, cowboy foreman. Once he had drifted into the mountains, and took a chance in the mines, but the wide plains called him back once more to their desert loneliness. What an utter waste it all seemed, now that he looked back upon it. Eight years of fighting, hardship, and rough living, and what had they brought him? The reputation of a hard rider, a daring player at cards, a quick shot, a scorner of danger, and a bad man to fool with—that was the whole of a record hardly won. The man's eyes hardened, his lips set firmly, as this truth came crushing home. A pretty life story surely, one to be proud of, and with probably no better ending than an Indian bullet, or the flash of a revolver in some barroom fight.
The narrow valley along which he was travelling suddenly changed its direction, compelling him to climb the rise of the ridge. Slightly below the summit he halted. In front extended the wide expanse of the Arkansas valley, a scene of splendor under the golden rays of the sun, with vivid contrast of colors, the gray of rocks, the yellow of sand, the brown of distant hills, the green of vegetation, and the silver sheen of the stream half hidden behind the fringe of cottonwoods lining its banks. This was a sight Keith had often looked upon, but always with appreciation, and for the moment his eyes swept across from bluff to bluff without thought except for its wild beauty. Then he perceived something which instantly startled him into attention—yonder, close beside the river, just beyond that ragged bunch of cottonwoods, slender spirals of blue smoke were visible. That would hardly be a camp of freighters at this hour of the day, and besides, the Santa Fe trail along here ran close in against the bluff, coming down to the river at the ford two miles further west. No party of plainsmen would ever venture to build a fire in so exposed a spot, and no small company would take the chances of the trail. But surely that appeared to be the flap of a canvas wagon top a little to the right of the smoke, yet all was so far away he could not be certain. He stared in that direction a long while, shading his eyes with both hands, unable to decide. There were three or four moving black dots higher up the river, but so far away he could not distinguish whether men or animals. Only as outlined against the yellow sand dunes could he tell they were advancing westward toward the ford.
Decidedly puzzled by all this, yet determined to solve the mystery and unwilling to remain hidden there until night, Keith led his horse along the slant of the ridge, until he attained a sharp break through the bluff leading down into the valley. It was a rugged gash, nearly impassable, but a half hour of toil won them the lower prairie, the winding path preventing the slightest view of what might be meanwhile transpiring below. Once safely out in the valley the river could no longer be seen, while barely a hundred yards away, winding along like a great serpent, ran the deeply rutted trail to Santa Fe. In neither direction appeared any sign of human life. As near as he could determine from those distant cottonwoods outlined against the sky, for the smoke spirals were too thin by then to be observed, the spot sought must be considerably to the right of where he had emerged. With this idea in mind he advanced cautiously, his every sense alert, searching anxiously for fresh signs of passage or evidence of a wagon train having deserted the beaten track, and turned south. The trail itself, dustless and packed hard, revealed nothing, but some five hundred yards beyond the ravine he discovered what he sought—here two wagons had turned sharply to the left, their wheels cutting deeply enough into the prairie sod to show them heavily laden. With the experience of the border he was able to determine that these wagons were drawn by mules, two span to each, their small hoofs clearly defined on the turf, and that they were being driven rapidly, on a sharp trot as they turned, and then, a hundred feet further, at a slashing gallop. Just outside their trail appeared the marks of a galloping horse. A few rods farther along Keith came to a confused blur of pony tracks sweeping in from the east, and the whole story of the chase was revealed as though he had witnessed it with his own eyes. They must have been crazy, or else impelled by some grave necessity, to venture along this trail in so small a party. And they were travelling west—west! Keith drew a deep breath, and swore to himself, "Of all the blame fools!"
He perceived the picture in all its grewsome details—the two mule-drawn wagons moving slowly along the trail in the early morning; the band of hostile Indians suddenly swooping out from some obscure hiding place in the bluffs; the discovery of their presence; the desperate effort at escape; the swerving from the open trail in vain hope of reaching the river and finding protection underneath its banks; the frightened mules galloping wildly, lashed into frenzy by the man on horseback; the pounding of the ponies' hoofs, punctuated by the exultant yells of the pursuers. Again he swore:
"Of all the blame fools!"
Chapter II. The Scene of Tragedy
Whatever might be the nature of the tragedy it would be over with long before this, and those moving black spots away yonder to the west, that he had discerned from the bluff, were undoubtedly the departing raiders. There was nothing left for Keith to do except determine the fate of the unfortunates, and give their bodies decent burial. That any had escaped, or yet lived, was altogether unlikely, unless, perchance, women had been in the party, in which case they would have been borne away prisoners.
Confident that no hostiles would be left behind to observe his movements, Keith pressed steadily forward, leading his horse. He had thus traversed fully half a mile before coming upon any evidence of a fight—here the pursuers had apparently come up with the wagons, and circled out upon either side. From their ponies' tracks there must have been a dozen in the band. Perhaps a hundred yards further along lay two dead ponies. Keith examined them closely—both had been ridden with saddles, the marks of the cinches plainly visible. Evidently one of the wagon mules had also dropped in the traces here, and had been dragged along by his mates. Just beyond came a sudden depression in the prairie down which the wagons had plunged so heavily as to break one of the axles; the wheel lay a few yards away, and, somewhat to the right, there lay the wreck of the wagon itself, two dead mules still in the traces, the vehicle stripped of contents and charred by fire. A hundred feet farther along was the other wagon, its tongue broken, the canvas top ripped open, while between the two were scattered odds and ends of wearing apparel and provisions, with a pile of boxes smoking grimly. The remaining mules were gone, and no semblance of life remained anywhere. Keith dropped his reins over his horse's head, and, with Winchester cocked and ready, advanced cautiously.
Death from violence had long since become almost a commonplace occurrence to Keith, yet now he shrank for an instant as his eyes perceived the figure of a man lying motionless across the broken wagon tongue. The grizzled hair and beard were streaked with blood, the face almost unrecognizable, while the hands yet grasped a bent and shattered rifle. Evidently the man had died fighting, beaten down by overwhelming numbers after expending his last shot. Then those fiends had scalped and left him where he fell. Fifty feet beyond, shot in the back, lay a younger man, doubled up in a heap, also scalped and dead. That was all; Keith scouted over a wide circle, even scanning the stretch of gravel under the river bank, before he could fully satisfy himself there were no others in the party. It seemed impossible that these two travelling alone would have ventured upon such a trip in the face of known Indian hostility. Yet they must have done so, and once again his lips muttered:
"Of all the blame fools!"
Suddenly he halted, staring about over the prairie, obsessed by a new thought, an aroused suspicion. There had appeared merely the hoof-prints of the one horse alongside of the fleeing wagons when they first turned out from the trail, and that horse had been newly shod. But there were two dead ponies lying back yonder; neither shod, yet both had borne saddles. More than this, they had been spurred, the blood marks still plainly visible, and one of them was branded; he remembered it now, a star and arrow. What could all this portend? Was it possible this attack was no Indian affair after all? Was the disfiguring of bodies, the scalping, merely done to make it appear the act of savages? Driven to investigation by this suspicion, he passed again over the trampled ground, marking this time every separate indentation, every faintest imprint of hoof or foot. There was no impression of a moccasin anywhere; every mark remaining was of booted feet. The inference was sufficiently plain—this had been the deed of white men, not of red; foul murder, and not savage war.
The knowledge seemed to seer Keith's brain with fire, and he sprang to his feet, hands clinched and eyes blazing. He could have believed this of Indians, it was according to their nature, their method of warfare; but the cowardliness of it, the atrocity of the act, as perpetrated by men of his own race, instantly aroused within him a desire for vengeance. He wanted to run the fellows down, to discover their identity. Without thinking of personal danger, he ran forward on their trail, which led directly westward, along the line of cottonwoods. These served to conceal his own movements, yet for the moment, burning with passion, he was utterly without caution, without slightest sense of peril. He must know who was guilty of such a crime; he felt capable of killing them even as he would venomous snakes. It was a perfectly plain trail to follow, for the fugitives, apparently convinced of safety, and confident their cowardly deed would be charged to Indian raiders, had made no particular effort at concealment, but had ridden away at a gallop, their horses' hoofs digging deeply into the soft turf. On this retreat they had followed closely along the river bank, aiming for the ford, and almost before he realized it Keith was himself at the water's edge where the trail abruptly ended, staring vaguely across toward the opposite shore. Even as he stood there, realizing the futility of further pursuit amid the maze of sand dunes opposite, the sharp reports of two rifles reached him, spurts of smoke rose from the farther bank, and a bullet chugged into the ground at his feet, while another sang shrilly overhead.
These shots, although neither came sufficiently near to be alarming, served to send Keith to cover. Cool-headed and alert now, his first mad rage dissipated, he scanned the opposite bank cautiously, but could nowhere discover any evidence of life. Little by little he comprehended the situation, and decided upon his own action. The fugitives were aware of his presence, and would prevent his crossing the stream, yet they were not at all liable to return to this side and thus reveal their identity. To attempt any further advance would be madness, but he felt perfectly secure from molestation so long as he remained quietly on the north shore. Those shots were merely a warning to keep back; the very fact that the men firing kept concealed was proof positive that they simply wished to be left alone. They were not afraid of what he knew now, only desirous of not being seen. Confident as to this, he retreated openly, without making the slightest effort to conceal his movements, until he had regained the scene of murder. In evidence of the truth of his theory no further shots were fired, and although he watched that opposite sand bank carefully, not the slightest movement revealed the presence of others. That every motion he made was being observed by keen eyes he had no doubt, but this knowledge did not disconcert him, now that he felt convinced fear of revealment would keep his watchers at a safe distance. Whoever they might be they were evidently more anxious to escape discovery than he was fearful of attack, and possessed no desire to take his life, unless it became necessary to prevent recognition. They still had every reason to believe their attack on the wagons would be credited to hostile Indians, and would consider it far safer to remain concealed, and thus harbor this supposition. They could not suspect that Keith had already stumbled upon the truth, and was determined to verify it.
Secure in this conception of the situation, yet still keeping a wary eye about to guard against any treachery, the plainsman, discovering a spade in the nearest wagon, hastily dug a hole in the sand, wrapped the dead bodies in blankets, and deposited them therein, piling above the mound the charred remains of boxes as some slight protection against prowling wolves. He searched the clothing of the men, but found little to reward the effort, a few letters which were slipped into his pockets to be read later, some ordinary trinkets hardly worth preserving except that they might assist in identifying the victims, and, about the neck of the elder man, a rather peculiar locket, containing a portrait painted on ivory. Keith was a long time opening this, the spring being very ingeniously concealed, but upon finally succeeding, he looked upon the features of a woman of middle age, a strong mature face of marked refinement, exceedingly attractive still, with smiling dark eyes, and a perfect wealth of reddish brown hair. He held the locket open in his hands for several minutes, wondering who she could be, and what possible connection she could have held with the dead. Something about that face smiling up into his own held peculiar fascination for him, gripping him with a strange feeling of familiarity, touching some dim memory which failed to respond. Surely he had never seen the original, for she was not one to be easily forgotten, and yet eyes, hair, expression, combined to remind him of some one whom he had seen but could not bring definitely to mind. There were no names on the locket, no marks of identification of any kind, yet realizing the sacredness of it, Keith slipped the fragile gold chain about his neck, and securely hid the trinket beneath his shirt.
It was noon by this time, the sun high overhead, and his horse, with dangling rein, still nibbling daintily at the short grass. There was no reason for his lingering longer. He swept his gaze the length and breadth of the desolate valley, and across the river over the sand hills. All alike appeared deserted, not a moving thing being visible between the bluffs and the stream. Still he had the unpleasant feeling of being watched, and it made him restless and eager to be away. The earlier gust of anger, the spirit of revenge, had left him, but it had merely changed into a dogged resolution to discover the perpetrators of this outrage and bring them to justice for the crime. The face in the locket seemed to ask it of him, and his nature urged response. But he could hope to accomplish nothing more here, and the plainsman swung himself into the saddle. He turned his horse's head eastward, and rode away. From the deeply rutted trail he looked back to where the fire still smoked in the midst of that desolate silence.
Chapter III. An Arrest
The Santa Fe trail was far too exposed to be safely travelled alone and in broad daylight, but Keith considered it better to put sufficient space between himself and those whom he felt confident were still watching his movements from across the river. How much they might already suspicion his discoveries he possessed no means of knowing, yet, conscious of their own guilt, they might easily feel safer if he were also put out of the way. He had no anticipation of open attack, but must guard against treachery. As he rode, his eyes never left those far-away sand dunes, although he perceived no movement, no black dot even which he could conceive to be a possible enemy. Now that he possessed ample time for thought, the situation became more puzzling. This tragedy which he had accidentally stumbled upon must have had a cause other than blind chance. It was the culmination of a plot, with some reason behind more important than ordinary robbery. Apparently the wagons contained nothing of value, merely the clothing, provisions, and ordinary utensils of an emigrant party. Nor had the victims' pockets been carefully searched. Only the mules had been taken by the raiders, and they would be small booty for such a crime.
The trail, continually skirting the high bluff and bearing farther away from the river, turned sharply into a narrow ravine. There was a considerable break in the rocky barrier here, leading back for perhaps a hundred yards, and the plainsman turned his horse that way, dismounting when out of sight among the bowlders. He could rest here until night with little danger of discovery. He lay down on the rocks, pillowing his head on the saddle, but his brain was too active to permit sleeping. Finally he drew the letters from out his pocket, and began examining them. They yielded very little information, those taken from the older man having no envelopes to show to whom they had been addressed. The single document found in the pocket of the other was a memorandum of account at the Pioneer Store at Topeka, charged to John Sibley, and marked paid. This then must have been the younger man's name, as the letters to the other began occasionally "Dear Will." They were missives such as a wife might write to a husband long absent, yet upon a mission of deep interest to both. Keith could not fully determine what this mission might be, as the persons evidently understood each other so thoroughly that mere allusion took the place of detail. Twice the name Phyllis was mentioned, and once a "Fred" was also referred to, but in neither instance clearly enough to reveal the relationship, although the latter appeared to be pleaded for. Certain references caused the belief that these letters had been mailed from some small Missouri town, but no name was mentioned. They were invariably signed "Mary." The only other paper Keith discovered was a brief itinerary of the Santa Fe trail extending as far west as the Raton Mountains, giving the usual camping spots and places where water was accessible. He slipped the papers back into his pocket with a distinct feeling of disappointment, and lay back staring up at the little strip of blue sky. The silence was profound, even his horse standing motionless, and finally he fell asleep.
The sun had disappeared, and even the gray of twilight was fading out of the sky, when Keith returned again to consciousness, aroused by his horse rolling on the soft turf. He awoke thoroughly refreshed, and eager to get away on his long night's ride. A cold lunch, hastily eaten, for a fire would have been dangerous, and he saddled up and was off, trotting out of the narrow ravine and into the broad trail, which could be followed without difficulty under the dull gleam of the stars. Horse and rider were soon at their best, the animal swinging unurged into the long, easy lope of prairie travel, the fresh air fanning the man's face as he leaned forward. Once they halted to drink from a narrow stream, and then pushed on, hour after hour, through the deserted night. Keith had little fear of Indian raiders in that darkness, and every stride of his horse brought him closer to the settlements and further removed from danger. Yet eyes and ears were alert to every shadow and sound. Once, it must have been after midnight, he drew his pony sharply back into a rock shadow at the noise of something approaching from the east. The stage to Santa Fe rattled past, the four mules trotting swiftly, a squad of troopers riding hard behind. It was merely a lumping shadow sweeping swiftly past; he could perceive the dim outlines of driver and guard, the soldiers swaying in their saddles, heard the pounding of hoofs, the creak of axles, and then the apparition disappeared into the black void. He had not called out—what was the use? Those people would never pause to hunt down prairie outlaws, and their guard was sufficient to prevent attack. They acknowledged but one duty—to get the mail through on time.
The dust of their passing still in the air, Keith rode on, the noise dying away in his rear. As the hours passed, his horse wearied and had to be spurred into the swifter stride, but the man seemed tireless. The sun was an hour high when they climbed the long hill, and loped into Carson City. The cantonment was to the right, but Keith, having no report to make, rode directly ahead down the one long street to a livery corral, leaving his horse there, and sought the nearest restaurant.
Exhausted by a night of high play and deep drinking the border town was sleeping off its debauch, saloons and gambling dens silent, the streets almost deserted. To Keith, whose former acquaintance with the place had been entirely after nightfall, the view of it now was almost a shock—the miserable shacks, the gaudy saloon fronts, the littered streets, the dingy, unpainted hotel, the dirty flap of canvas, the unoccupied road, the dull prairie sweeping away to the horizon, all composed a hideous picture beneath the sun glare. He could scarcely find a man to attend his horse, and at the restaurant a drowsy Chinaman had to be shaken awake, and frightened into serving him. He sat down to the miserable meal oppressed with disgust—never before had his life seemed so mean, useless, utterly without excuse.
He possessed the appetite of the open, of the normal man in perfect physical health, and he ate heartily his eyes wandering out of the open window down the long, dismal street. A drunken man lay in front of the "Red Light" Saloon sleeping undisturbed; two cur dogs were snarling at each other just beyond over a bone; a movers' wagon was slowly coming in across the open through a cloud of yellow dust. That was all within the radius of vision. For the first time in years the East called him—the old life of cleanliness and respectability. He swore to himself as he tossed the Chinaman pay for his breakfast, and strode out onto the steps. Two men were coming up the street together from the opposite direction—one lean, dark-skinned, with black goatee, the other heavily set with closely trimmed gray beard. Keith knew the latter, and waited, leaning against the door, one hand on his hip.
"Hullo, Bob," he said genially; "they must have routed you out pretty early to-day."
"They shore did, Jack," was the response. He came up the steps somewhat heavily, his companion stopping below. "The boys raise hell all night, an' then come ter me ter straighten it out in the mawnin'. When did ye git in?"
"An hour ago; had to wake the 'chink' up to get any chuck. Town looks dead."
"Tain't over lively at this time o' day," permitting his blue eyes to wander up the silent street, but instantly bringing them back to Keith's face, "but I reckon it'll wake up later on."
He stood squarely on both feet, and one hand rested on the butt of a revolver. Keith noticed this, wondering vaguely.
"I reckon yer know, Jack, as how I ginerally git what I goes after," said the slow, drawling voice, "an' that I draw 'bout as quick as any o' the boys. They tell me yo're a gun-fighter, but it won't do ye no good ter make a play yere, fer one o' us is sure to git yer—do yer sabe?"
"Get me?" Keith's voice and face expressed astonishment, but not a muscle of his body moved. "What do you mean, Bob—are you fellows after me?"
"Sure thing; got the warrant here," and he tapped the breast of his shirt with his left hand.
The color mounted into the cheeks of the other, his lips grew set and white, and his gray eyes darkened.
"Let it all out, Marshal," he said sternly, "you've got me roped and tied. Now what's the charge?"
Neither man moved, but the one below swung about so as to face them, one hand thrust out of sight beneath the tail of his long coat.
"Make him throw up his hands, Bob," he said sharply.
"Oh, I reckon thar ain't goin' ter be no trouble," returned the marshal genially, yet with no relaxation of attention. "Keith knows me, an' expects a fair deal. Still, maybe I better ask yer to unhitch yer belt, Jack."
A moment Keith seemed to hesitate, plainly puzzled by the situation and endeavoring to see some way of escape; then his lips smiled, and he silently unhooked the belt, handing it over.
"Sure, I know you're square, Hicks," he said, coolly. "And now I've unlimbered, kindly inform me what this is all about."
"I reckon yer don't know."
"No more than an unborn babe. I have been here but an hour."
"That's it: if yer had been longer thar wouldn't be no trouble. Yo're wanted for killin' a couple o' men out at Cimmaron Crossin' early yesterday mornin'."
Keith stared at him too completely astounded for the instant to even speak. Then he gasped.
"For God's sake, Hicks, do you believe that?"
"I'm damned if I know," returned the marshal, doubtfully. "Don't seem like ye'd do it, but the evidence is straight 'nough, an' thar ain't nothin' fer me ter do but take ye in. I ain't no jedge an' jury."
"No, but you ought to have ordinary sense, an' you've known me for three years."
"Sure I have, Jack, but if yer've gone wrong, you won't be the first good man I've seen do it. Anyhow, the evidence is dead agin you, an' I'd arrest my own grand-dad if they give me a warrant agin him."
"What evidence is there?"
"Five men swear they saw ye haulin' the bodies about, and lootin' the pockets."
Then Keith understood, his heart beating rapidly, his teeth clenched to keep back an outburst of passion. So that was their game, was it?—some act of his had awakened the cowardly suspicions of those watching him across the river. They were afraid that he knew them as white men. And they had found a way to safely muzzle him. They must have ridden hard over those sand dunes to have reached Carson City and sworn out this warrant. It was a good trick, likely enough to hang him, if the fellows only stuck to their story. All this flashed through his brain, yet somehow he could not clearly comprehend the full meaning, his mind confused and dazed by this sudden realization of danger. His eyes wandered from the steady gaze of the marshal, who had half drawn his gun fearing resistance, to the man at the bottom of the steps. Suddenly it dawned upon him where he had seen that dark-skinned face, with the black goatee, before—at the faro table of the "Red Light." He gripped his hands together, instantly connecting that sneering, sinister face with the plot.
"Who swore out that warrant?"
"I did, if you need to know," a sarcastic smile revealing a gleam of white teeth, "on the affidavit of others, friends of mine."
"Who are you?"
"I'm mostly called 'Black Bart.'"
That was it; he had the name now—"Black Bart." He straightened up so quickly, his eyes blazing, that the marshal jerked his gun clear.
"See here, Jack," shortly, "are yer goin' to raise a row, or come along quiet?"
As though the words had aroused him from a bad dream, Keith turned to front the stern, bearded face.
"There'll be no row, Bob," he said, quietly. "I'll go with you."
Chapter IV. An Old Acquaintance
The Carson City lock-up was an improvised affair, although a decidedly popular resort. It was originally a two-room cabin with gable to the street, the front apartment at one time a low groggery, the keeper sleeping in the rear room. Whether sudden death, or financial reverses, had been the cause, the community had in some manner become possessed of the property, and had at once dedicated it to the commonweal. For the purpose thus selected it was rather well adapted, being strongly built, easily guarded, and on the outskirts of the town. With iron grating over the windows, the back door heavily spiked, and the front secured by iron bars, any prisoner once locked within could probably be found when wanted. On the occasion of Keith's arrival, the portion abutting upon the street was occupied by a rather miscellaneous assembly—the drunk and disorderly element conspicuous—who were awaiting their several calls to appear before a local justice and make answer for various misdeeds. Some were pacing the floor, others sat moodily on benches ranged against the wall, while a few were still peacefully slumbering upon the floor. It was a frowsy, disreputable crowd, evincing but mild curiosity at the arrival of a new prisoner. Keith had barely time to glance about, recognizing no familiarity of face amid the mass peering at him, as he was hustled briskly forward and thrust into the rear room, the heavy door closing behind him with the snap of a spring lock.
He was alone, with only the faintest murmur of voices coming to him through the thick partition. It was a room some twelve feet square, open to the roof, with bare walls, and containing no furniture except a rude bench. Still dazed by the suddenness of his arrest, he sank down upon the seat, leaned his head on his hands, and endeavored to think. It was difficult to get the facts marshalled into any order or to comprehend clearly the situation, yet little by little his brain grasped the main details, and he awoke to a full realization of his condition, of the forces he must war against. The actual murderers of those two men on the trail had had their suspicions aroused by his actions; they believed he guessed something of their foul deed, and had determined to clear themselves by charging the crime directly against him. It was a shrewd trick, and if they only stuck to their story, ought to succeed. He had no evidence, other than his own word, and the marshal had already taken from his pockets the papers belonging to the slain man. He had not found the locket hidden under his shirt, yet a more thorough search would doubtless reveal that also.
Even should the case come to trial, how would it be possible for him to establish innocence, and—would it ever come to trial? Keith knew the character of the frontier, and of Carson City. The inclination of its citizens in such cases was to act first, and reflect later. The law had but slender hold, being respected only when backed by the strong hand, and primitive instincts were always in the ascendency, requiring merely a leader to break forth into open violence. And in this case would there be any lack of leadership? Like a flash his mind reverted to "Black Bart." There was the man capable of inciting a mob. If, for some unknown reason, he had sufficient interest to swear out the warrant and assist in the arrest, he would have equal cause to serve those fellows behind him in other ways. Naturally, they would dread a trial, with its possibility of exposure, and eagerly grasp any opportunity for wiping the slate clean. Their real security from discovery undoubtedly lay in his death, and with the "Red Light" crowd behind them they would experience no trouble in getting a following desperate enough for any purpose.
The longer Keith thought the less he doubted the result. It was not then a problem of defence, but of escape, for he believed now that no opportunity to defend himself would ever be allowed. The arrest was merely part of the plot intended to leave him helpless in the hands of the mob. In this Hicks was in no way blamable—he had merely performed his sworn duty, and would still die, if need be, in defence of his prisoner. He was no tool, but only an instrument they had found means of using.
Keith was essentially a man of action, a fighter by instinct, and so long accustomed to danger that the excitement of it merely put new fire into his veins. Now that he understood exactly what threatened, all numbing feeling of hesitancy and doubt vanished, and he became instantly alive. He would not lie there in that hole waiting for the formation of a mob; nor would he trust in the ability of the marshal to defend him.
He had some friends without—not many, for he was but an occasional visitor at Carson—who would rally to Hicks's assistance, but there would not be enough on the side of law and order to overcome the "Red Light" outfit, if once they scented blood. If he was to be saved from their clutches, he must save himself; if his innocence was ever established it would be by his own exertions—and he could accomplish this only out yonder, free under the arch of sky.
He lifted his head, every nerve tingling with desperate determination. The low growl of voices was audible through the partition, but there was no other sound. Carson City was still resting, and there would be no crowd nor excitement until much later. Not until nightfall would any attack be attempted; he had six or eight hours yet in which to perfect his plans. He ran his eyes about the room searching for some spot of weakness. It was dark back of the bench, and he turned in that direction. Leaning over, he looked down on the figure of a man curled up, sound asleep on the floor. The fellow's limbs twitched as if in a dream, otherwise he might have deemed him dead, as his face was buried in his arms. A moment Keith hesitated; then he reached down and shook the sleeper, until he aroused sufficiently to look up. It was the face of a coal-black negro. An instant the fellow stared at the man towering over him, his thick lips parted, his eyes full of sudden terror. Then he sat up, with hands held before him as though warding off a blow.
"Fo' de Lawd's sake," he managed to articulate finally, "am dis sho' yo', Massa Jack?"
Keith, to whom all colored people were much alike, laughed at the expression on the negro's face.
"I reckon yer guessed the name, all right, boy. Were you the cook of the Diamond L?"
"No, sah, I nebber cooked no di'onds. I'se ol' Neb, sah."
"Yes, sah, I'se de boy dat libbed wid ol' Missus Caton durin' de wah. I ain't seen yo', Massa Jack, sence de day we buried yo' daddy, ol' Massa Keith. But I knowed yo' de berry minute I woke up. Sho', yo' 'members Neb, sah?"
It came to Keith now in sudden rush of memory—the drizzling rain in the little cemetery, the few neighbors standing about, a narrow fringe of slaves back of them, the lowering of the coffin, and the hollow sound of earth falling on the box; and Neb, his Aunt Caton's house servant, a black imp of good humor, who begged so hard to be taken back with him to the war. Why, the boy had held his stirrup the next morning when he rode away. The sudden rush of recollection seemed to bridge the years, and that black face became familiar, a memory of home.
"Of course, I remember, Neb," he exclaimed, eagerly, "but that's all years ago and I never expected to see you again. What brought you West and got you into this hole?"
The negro hitched up onto the bench, the whites of his eyes conspicuous as he stared uneasily about—he had a short, squatty figure, with excessively broad shoulders, and a face of intense good humor.
"I reck'n dat am consider'ble ob a story, Massa Jack, de circumlocution ob which would take a heap ob time tellin'," he began soberly. "But it happened 'bout dis away. When de Yankees come snoopin' long de East Sho'—I reck'n maybe it des a yeah after dat time when we done buried de ol' Co'nel—dey burned Missus Caton's house clah to de groun'; de ol' Missus was in Richmond den, an' de few niggers left jest natchally took to de woods. I went into Richmond huntin' de ol' Missus, but, Lawd, Massa Jack, I nebber foun' nuthin' ob her in dat crowd. Den an' officer man done got me, an' put me diggin' in de trenches. Ef dat's what wah am, I sho' don' want no mo' wah. Den after dat I jest natchally drifted. I reckon I libbed 'bout eberywhar yo' ebber heard ob, fo' dar want no use ob me goin' back to de East Sho'. Somebody said dat de West am de right place fo' a nigger, an' so I done headed west."
He dropped his face in his black hands, and was silent for some minutes, but Keith said nothing, and finally the thick voice continued:
"I tell yo', Massa Jack, it was mighty lonely fo' Neb dem days. I didn't know whar any ob yo' all was, an' it wan't no fun fo' dis nigger bein' free dat away. I got out ter Independence, Missouri, an' was roustaboutin' on de ribber, when a coupple ob men come along what wanted a cook to trabbel wid 'em. I took de job, an' dat's what fetched me here ter Carson City."
"But what caused your arrest?"
"A conjunction ob circumstances, Massa Jack; yes, sah, a conjunction ob circumstances. I got playin' pokah ober in dat 'Red Light,' an' I was doin' fine. I reckon I'd cleaned up mo'n a hundred dollars when I got sleepy, an' started fo' camp. I'd most got dar w'en a bunch ob low white trash jumped me. It made me mad, it did fo' a fact, an' I reckon I carved some ob 'em up befo' I got away. Ennyhow, de marshal come down, took me out ob de tent, an' fetched me here, an' I ben here ebber sence. I wan't goin' ter let no low down white trash git all dat money."
"What became of the men you were working for?"
"I reckon dey went on, sah. Dey had 'portent business, an' wouldn't likely wait 'roun' here jest ter help a nigger. Ain't ennybody ben here ter see me, no-how, an' I 'spects I'se eradicated from dey mem'ry—I 'spects I is."
Chapter V. The One Way
Keith said nothing for some moments, staring up at the light stealing in through the window grating, his mind once again active. The eyes of the black man had the patient look of a dog as they watched; evidently he had cast aside all responsibility, now that this other had come. Finally Keith spoke slowly:
"We are in much the same position, Neb, and the fate of one is liable to be the fate of both. This is my story"—and briefly as possible, he ran over the circumstances which had brought him there, putting the situation clear enough for the negro's understanding, without wasting any time upon detail. Neb followed his recital with bulging eyes, and an occasional exclamation. At the end he burst forth:
"Yo' say dar was two ob dem white men murdered—one an ol' man wid a gray beard, an' de odder 'bout thirty? Am dat it, Massa Jack, an' dey had fo' span ob mules, an' a runnin' hoss?"
"An' how far out was it?"
"About sixty miles."
"Oh, de good Lawd!" and the negro threw up his hands dramatically. "Dat sutt'nly am my outfit! Dat am Massa Waite an' John Sibley."
"You mean the same men with whom you came here from Independence?"
Neb nodded, overcome by the discovery.
"But what caused them to run such a risk?" Keith insisted. "Didn't they know the Indians were on the war path?"
"Sho'; I heard 'em talkin' 'bout dat, but Massa Waite was jest boun' foh to git movin'. He didn't 'pear to be 'fraid ob no Injuns; reck'ned dey'd nebber stop him, dat he knowed ebbery chief on de plains. I reck'n dat he did, too."
"But what was he so anxious to get away for?"
"I dunno, Massa, I done heerd 'em talk some 'bout dey plans, an' 'bout some gal dey wanted ter fin', but I didn't git no right sense to it. De Gin'ral, he was a mighty still man."
"The General? Whom do you mean? Not Waite?"
"John Sibley done called him dat."
Then Keith remembered—just a dim, misty thread at first, changing slowly into a clear recollection. He was riding with despatches from Longstreet to Stonewall Jackson, and had been shot through the side. The first of Jackson's troops he reached was a brigade of North Carolinians, commanded by General Waite—General Willis Waite. He had fallen from his horse at the outposts, was brought helpless to the General's tent, and another sent on with the papers. And Mrs. Waite had dressed and bandaged his wound. That was where he had seen that woman's face before, with its haunting familiarity. He drew the locket from beneath his shirt, and gazed at the countenance revealed, with new intelligence. There could be no doubt—it was the face of her who had cared for him so tenderly in that tent at Manassas before the fever came and he had lost consciousness. And that, then, was Willis Waite lying in that shallow grave near the Cimmaron Crossing, and for whose death he had been arrested. 'T was a strange world, and a small one. What a miserable ending to a life like his—a division commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, a Lieutenant-Governor of his State. What strange combination of circumstances could ever have brought such a man to this place, and sent him forth across those Indian-scouted plains? Surely nothing ordinary. And why should those border desperadoes have followed, through sixty miles of desolation, to trike him down? It was not robbery, at least in the ordinary sense. What then? And how was "Black Bart" involved? Why should he be sufficiently interested to swear out a warrant, and then assist in his arrest? There must be something to all this not apparent upon the surface—some object, some purpose shrouded in mystery. No mere quarrel, no ordinary feud, no accident of meeting, no theory of commonplace robbery, would account for the deed, or for the desperate efforts now being made to conceal it.
Some way, these questions, thus surging upon him, became a call to live, to fight, to unravel their mystery. The memory of that sweet-faced woman who had bent above him when the fever began its mastery, appealed to him now with the opportunity of service. He might be able to clear this, bring to her the truth, save her from despair, and hand over to justice the murderers of her husband. It was up to him alone to accomplish this—no one else knew what he knew, suspected what he suspected. And there was but one way—through escape. To remain there in weak surrender to fate could have but one ending, and that swift and sudden. He had no doubt as to "Black Bart's" purpose, or of his ability to use the "Red Light" outfit as desired. The whole plan was clearly evident, and there would be no delay in execution—all they were waiting for was night, and a lax guard. He glanced about at the walls of the room, his eyes grown hard, his teeth clenched.
"Neb," he said shortly, "I guess that was your outfit all right, but they were not killed by Indians. They were run down by a gang from this town—the same fellows who have put you and me in here. I don't know what they were after—that's to be found out later,—but the fight you put up at the camp spoiled their game for once, and led to your arrest. They failed to get what was wanted in Carson, and so they trailed the party to the Cimmaron Crossing. Then I got on their track, and fearing the result, they've landed me also. Now they 'll get rid of us both as best they can. These fellows won't want any trial—that would be liable to give the whole trick away—but they have got to put us where we won't talk. There is an easy way to do this, and that is by a lynching bee. Do you get my drift, Neb?"
The whites of the negro's eyes were very much in evidence, his hands gripping at the bench on which he sat.
"Fo' de Lawd, yes, Massa Jack, I sho' does. I corroborates de whole thing."
"Then you are willing to take a chance with me?"
"Willin'! Why, Massa Jack, I'se overjoyed; I ain't gwine leave yer no mo'. I'se sho' gwine ter be yo' nigger. What yo' gwine ter do?"
Keith ran his eyes over the walls, carefully noting every peculiarity.
"We'll remain here quietly just as long as it is daylight, Neb," he replied finally, "but we'll try every board and every log to discover some way out. Just the moment it grows dark enough to slip away without being seen we've got to hit the prairie. Once south of the Arkansas we're safe, but not until then. Have you made any effort to get out?"
The negro came over to him, and bent down.
"I was layin' on a board what I'd worked loose at one end," he whispered hoarsely, "back ob de bench, but I couldn't jerk it out wid'out somethin' ter pry it up wid."
"Where is it?"
"Right yere, Massa Jack."
It was a heavy twelve-inch plank, part of the flooring, and the second from the side-wall. Keith managed to get a grip next to the black fingers, and the two pressed it up far enough for the white man to run one arm through the opening up to his shoulder and grope about below.
"There's a two-foot space there," he reported, as they let the board settle silently down into position. "The back part of this building must be set up on piles. I reckon we could pry that plank up with the bench, Neb, but it's liable to make considerable racket. Let's hunt about first for some other weak spot."
They crept across the floor, testing each separate board, but without discovering a place where they could exert a leverage. The thick planks were tightly spiked down. Nor did the walls offer any better encouragement. Keith lifted himself to the grated window, getting a glimpse of the world without, but finding the iron immovable, the screws solidly imbedded in the outside wood. He dropped to the floor, feeling baffled and discouraged.
"It will have to be the plank back of the bench, Neb," he announced briefly, wiping the perspiration from his face. "Get down there, and work it as loose as you can without making any noise, while I keep my ear to the door and listen for any interruption."
They took turns at this labor, discovering a loose nail which gave an opening purchase at the crack, thus enabling the insertion of a small wooden block, and insuring space for a good finger grip when the right time came. A sleepy Mexican brought in their dinner, and set it down on the bench without a word, but on his return with supper, the marshal accompanied him, and remained while they ate, talking to Keith, and staring about the room. Fortunately, the single window was to the west, and the last rays of the sun struck the opposite wall, leaving the space behind the bench in deep shadow. Whatever might be the plans of "Black Bart" and his cronies, Keith was soon convinced they were unknown to Hicks, who had evidently been deceived into thinking that this last arrest had created no excitement.
"That's why we picked yer up so early," he explained, genially. "Bart said if we got to yer afore the boys woke up they'd never hear nuthin' 'bout it, an' so thar wouldn't be no row. He didn't even think thar'd be enny need o' keepin' a special guard ter-night, but I reckon I won't take no such chance as that, an' I'll have a couple o' deputies prowlin' 'round fer luck. When Carson does wake up, she's hell."
He left them tobacco and pipes, and went away evidently convinced that he had performed his full duty. The two prisoners, puffing smoke-rings into the air, heard the heavy clang of the iron bar falling into place across the door, and sat looking into one another's faces through the deepening twilight. In the mind of both blaik and white reposed the same thought. The negro was first to break the silence.
"'Pears ter me, Massa Jack, like dis yere Bart pusson am mighty anxious ter hab no suspicions raised."
"Anybody but Hicks would see that," acknowledged the other, the rings of smoke circling his head, "but he hasn't any brains. It was pure nerve that got him the job. Well, this is one time that 'Bart pusson' is going to find an empty coop. We'll get out, Neb, just as soon as it gets dark enough. Hicks isn't likely to put on his extra guard for an hour yet, and the 'Red Light' bunch won't be fit for business much before midnight. By that time we'll be in the sand hills, heading south, able to give them a run for their money—we'll have horses, too, if we can find them."
The negro's eyes shone white.
"Fo' de Lawd's sake, Massa," he protested, "dat'd sho' be a hangin' job if ebber dey cotched us."
Keith laughed, knocking out the ashes from his pipe.
"With an hour's start that will be the least of my troubles," he said, quietly.
Chapter VI. The Escape
It was dark enough for their purpose in half an hour, the only gleam of remaining color being the red glow of the negro's pipe, even the openings in the iron grating being blotted from sight. Keith, staring in that direction, failed to perceive any distant glimmer of star, and decided the night must be cloudy, and that time for action had come. Guided by Neb's pipe bowl, he touched the boy on the shoulder.
"Knock out your ashes, and shuffle about lively with your feet, while I pry up the board."
In spite of his slenderness, Keith possessed unusual strength, yet no exertion on his part served to start the loosened plank sufficiently for their purpose. Ripping a strip from the bench he managed to pry the hole somewhat larger, arranging the bench itself so as to afford the necessary leverage, but even then his entire weight failed to either start the spikes, or crack the plank. Some altercation began in the other room, the sound of angry voices and shuffling feet being plainly audible. It was clear to Keith that they must take the chance of a noise, and no better time than this could be chosen.
"Here, Neb, take hold with me, and bear down—put your whole weight on it, boy."
The two flung themselves upon the end of the bench leaping up and down so as to add weight to power. Something had to give, either the stout wood of their improvised lever or else the holding of the plank. For an instant it seemed likely to be the former; then, with a shrill screech, the long spikes yielded and the board suddenly gave. With shoulders inserted beneath, the two men heaved it still higher, ramming the bench below so as to leave the opening clear. This was now sufficiently ample for the passage of a man's body, and Keith, lowering himself, discovered the earth to be fully four feet below. The negro instantly joined him, and they began creeping about in the darkness, seeking some way out. A rudely laid foundation of limestone alone obstructed their path to the open air. This had been laid in mortar, but of inferior quality, so that little difficulty was experienced in detaching sufficient to obtain hand hold. Working silently, not knowing what watchers might be already stationed without, they succeeded in loosening enough of the rock to allow them to crawl through, lying breathless in the open. Accustomed as they were to the darkness, they could yet see little. They were upon the opposite side from the town, with no gleam of lights visible, prairie and sky blending together into spectral dimness, with no sound audible but the continued quarrel in the front room of the jail. Keith crept along to the end of the building from where he could perceive the lights of the town twinkling dimly through the intense blackness. Evidently the regular evening saturnalia had not yet begun, although there was already semblance of life about the numerous saloons, and an occasional shout punctuated the stillness. A dog howled in the distance, and the pounding of swift hoofs along the trail told of fresh arrivals. An hour later and the single street of Carson City would be alive with humanity, eager for any excitement, ready for any wild orgy, if only once turned loose. That it would be turned loose, and also directed, the man lying on his face in the grass felt fully assured. He smiled grimly, wishing he might behold "Black Bart's" face when he should discover the flight of his intended victims. But there was no time to lose; every moment gained, added to their chance of safety.
"Are those horses tied there by the blacksmith's shop?" he asked, pointing.
The negro stared in the direction indicated, confused by the shadows thrown by the dim lights.
"I reck'n dey am, Massa Jack; I done make out fo'."
"Then two of them must belong to us; come on, boy."
He ran forward, crouching behind every chance cover, and keeping well back behind the line of shacks. A slight depression in the prairie helped conceal their movements, and neither spoke until they were crouching together beside the wall of the shop. Then Neb, teeth chattering, managed to blurt forth:
"Fo' de Lawd's sake, yer don't actually mean ter steal dem hosses?"
Keith glanced about at the other's dim, black shadow.
"Sure not; just borrow 'em."
"But dat's a hangin' job in dis yere country, Massa Jack."
"Sure it is if they catch us. But we'd be strung up anyway, and we can't be hung twice. Besides there is a chance for us with the ponies, and none at all without. An hour's start in the saddle, Neb, and this bunch back here will never even find our trail; I pledge you that. Come, boy, stay close with me."
It was the quiet, confident voice of assured command, of one satisfied with his plans, and the obedient negro, breathing hard, never dreamed of opposition; all instincts of slavery held him to the dominion of this white master. Keith leaned forward, staring at the string of deserted ponies tied to the rail. Success depended on his choice, and he could judge very little in that darkness. Men were straggling in along the street to their right, on foot and horseback, and the saloon on the corner was being well patronized. A glow of light streamed forth from its windows, and there was the sound of many voices. But this narrow alley was deserted, and black. The fugitive stepped boldly forward, afraid that otherwise he might startle the ponies and thus create an alarm. Guided by a horseman's instinct he swiftly ran his hands over the animals, and made quick selection.
"Here, Neb, take this fellow; lead him quietly down the bank," and he thrust the loosened rein into the black's hand.
An instant later he had chosen his own mount, and was silently moving in the same direction, although the night there was so black that the obedient negro had already entirely vanished. The slope of the land not only helped cover their movements, but also rendered it easy for them to find one another. Fully a hundred yards westward they met, where a gully led directly down toward the river. There was no longer need for remaining on foot, as they were a sufficient distance away from the little town to feel no fear of being discovered, unless by some drunken straggler. At Keith's command the negro climbed into his saddle. Both ponies were restive, but not vicious, and after a plunge or two, to test their new masters, came easily under control. Keith led the way, moving straight down the gully, which gradually deepened, burying them in its black heart, until it finally debouched onto the river sands. The riotous noises of the drunken town died slowly away behind, the night silent and dark. The two riders could scarcely distinguish one another as they drew rein at the edge of the water. To the southward there gleamed a cluster of lights, marking the position of the camp of regulars. Keith drove his horse deeper into the stream, and headed northward, the negro following like a shadow.
There was a ford directly opposite the cantonment, and another, more dangerous, and known to only a few, three miles farther up stream. Keeping well within the water's edge, so as to thus completely obscure their trail, yet not daring to venture deep for fear of striking quicksand, the plainsman sent his pony struggling forward, until the dim outline of the bank at his right rendered him confident that they had attained the proper point for crossing. He had been that way only once before, and realized the danger of attempting passage in such darkness, but urgent need drove him forward.
"Follow me just as close as you can, boy," he said sternly, "and keep both your feet out of the stirrups. If your horse goes down hang to is tail, and let him swim out."
There was little enough to guide by, merely a single faint star peering out from a rift of the clouds, but Keith's remembrance was that the ford led straight out to the centre of the stream, and then veered slightly toward the right. He knew the sand ridge was only used by horsemen, not being wide enough for the safe passage of wagons, but the depth of the water on either side was entirely problematical. He was taking a big chance, yet dare not wait for daylight. Summoning all his nerve and alertness, he urged his horse slowly forward, the intelligent animal seemingly comprehending the situation, and feeling carefully for footing. The actions of the animal gave the rider greater confidence, and he loosened his grip on the rein, leaving the pony's instinct to control. The latter fairly crept forward, testing the sand before resting any weight upon the hoof, the negro's mount following closely. The water was unusually high, and as they advanced it bore down against them in considerable volume; then, as they veered to the right, they were compelled to push directly against its weight in struggling toward shore. The men could see nothing but this solid sheet of water rushing down toward them from out the black void, and then vanishing below. Once Keith's horse half fell, plunging nose under, yet gaining foothold again before the rider had deserted his saddle. A dim blackness ahead already revealed the nearness of the southern bank, when Neb's pony went down suddenly, swept fairly off its legs by some fierce eddy in the stream. Keith heard the negro's guttural cry, and caught a glimpse of him as the two were sent whirling down. The coiled rope of the lariat, grasped in his right hand, was hurled forth like a shot, but came back empty. Not another sound reached him; his own horse went steadily on, feeling his way, until he was nose against the bank, with water merely rippling about his ankles. Keith driving feet again into the stirrups headed him down stream, wading close in toward the shore, leaning forward over the pommel striving to see through the gloom.
He had no doubt about Neb's pony making land, unless struck by some driftwood, or borne to the centre of the stream by the shifting force of the current. But if Neb had failed to retain his grip he might have been sucked under by the surge of waters. A hundred yards below he found them, dripping and weak from the struggle, yet otherwise unhurt. There were no words spoken, but black and white hands clasped silently, and then Neb crept back into the saddle, shivering in his wet clothes as the cool night wind swept against him. Keeping close in toward shore, yet far enough out so that the water would hide their trail, the fugitives toiled steadily up stream, guided only by the black outline of the low bank upon their left.
Chapter VII. In the Sand Desert
Suddenly Keith halted, bringing his pony's head sharply about, so that the two faced one another. The wind was rising, hurling clouds of sand into their eyes, and the plainsman held one hand before his face.
"There's no need of keeping up a water trail any longer," he said quietly. "By all the signs we're in for a sand storm by daylight, and that will cover our tracks so the devil himself couldn't follow them. Got a water bag on your saddle?"
"I reck'n dis am one, sah."
Keith felt of the object Neb held forth.
"Yes, and a big one, too; fill it and strap it on tight; we've got a long, dry ride ahead."
"Whar' yo' propose goin', Massa Jack?"
"To the 'Bar X' on the Canadian. I've worked with that outfit. They'll give us whatever we need, and ask no questions; I don't know of anything in between. It's going to be a hard ride, boy, and mighty little to eat except what I saved from supper."
"How far am it to dis yere 'Bar X'?"
"A hundred and fifty miles as the crow flies, and sand all the way, except for the valley of Salt Fork. Come on now, and keep close, for it's easy to get lost in these sand hills."
Keith had ridden that hundred and fifty miles of sandy desolation before, but had never been called upon to make such a journey as this proved to be. He knew there was little to fear from human enemies, for they were riding far enough east of the Santa Fe trail to be out of the path of raiding parties, while this desert country was shunned by Indian hunters. It consisted of sand hill after sand hill, a drear waterless waste where nothing grew, and amid the dread sameness of which a traveller could only find passage by the guidance of stars at night or the blazing sun by day. To the eye mile after mile appeared exactly alike, with nothing whatever to distinguish either distance or direction—the same drifting ridges of sand stretching forth in every direction, no summit higher than another, no semblance of green shrubbery, or silver sheen of running water anywhere to break the dull monotony—a vast sandy plain, devoid of life, extending to the horizon, overhung by a barren sky.
They had covered ten miles of it by daybreak, their ponies travelling heavily, fetlock deep, but could advance no further. With the first tint of rose in the east the brooding storm burst upon them in wild desert fury, the fierce wind buffeting them back, lashing their faces with sharp grit until they were unable to bear the pain. The flying sand smote them in clouds, driven with the speed of bullets. In vain they lay flat, urging their ponies forward; the beasts, maddened and blinded by the merciless lashing of the sand, refused to face the storm. Keith, all sense of direction long since lost, rolled wearily from the saddle, burrowed under the partial shelter of a sand dune, and called upon Neb to follow him. With their hands and feet they made a slight wind-break, dragging the struggling ponies into its protection, and burrowed themselves there, the clouds of sand skurrying over them so thick as to obscure the sky, and rapidly burying them altogether as though in a grave. Within an hour they were compelled to dig themselves out, yet it proved partial escape from the pitiless lashing. The wind howled like unloosed demons, and the air grew cold, adding to the sting of the grit, when some sudden eddy hurled it into their hiding place. To endeavor further travel would mean certain death, for no one could have guided a course for a hundred feet through the tempest, which seemed to suck the very breath away. To the fugitives came this comfort—if they could not advance, then no one else could follow, and the storm was completely blotting out their trail.
It was three o'clock before it died sufficiently down for them to venture out. Even then the air remained full of sand, while constantly shifting ridges made travel difficult. Only grim necessity—the suffering of the ponies for water, and their own need for soon reaching the habitation of man and acquiring food—drove them to the early venture. They must attain the valley of the Salt Fork that night, or else perish in the desert—there remained no other choice. Tying neckerchiefs over their horses' eyes, and lying flat themselves, they succeeded in pressing slowly forward, winding in and out among the shifting dunes, with only the wind to guide them. It was an awful trail, the hoofs sinking deep in drifting sand, the struggling ponies becoming so exhausted that their riders finally dismounted, and staggered forward on foot, leading them stumbling blindly after. Once the negro's horse dropped, and had to be lashed to its feet again; once Keith's pony stumbled and fell on him, hurling him face down into the sand, and he would have died there, lacking sufficient strength to lift the dead weight, but for Neb's assistance. As it was he went staggering blindly forward, bruised, and faint from hunger and fatigue. Neither man spoke; they had no breath nor energy left to waste; every ounce of strength needed to be conserved for the battle against nature. They were fighting for life; fighting grimly, almost hopelessly, and alone.
About them night finally closed in, black and starless, yet fortunately with a gradual dying away of the storm. For an hour past they had been struggling on, doubting their direction, wondering dully if they were not lost and merely drifting about in a circle. They had debated this fiercely once, the ponies standing dejectedly, tails to the storm, Neb arguing that the wind still blew from the south, and Keith contending it had shifted into the westward. The white man won his way, and they staggered on uncertain, the negro grasping the first pony's tail to keep from being separated from his companion. Some instinct of the plains must have guided them, for at last they dragged themselves out from the desert, the crunching sand under foot changing into rock, and then to short brittle grass, at which the ponies nibbled eagerly. The slope led gradually downward, the animals scenting water, and struggling to break away. Swaying in their saddles, the riders let them go, and they never stopped until belly deep in the stream, their noses buried. The men shivered in their saddles, until, at last satisfied, the ponies consented to be forced back up the bank, where they nibbled at the short tufts of herbage, but in a manner expressive of weariness. Keith flung himself on the ground, every muscle of his body aching, his exposed flesh still smarting from the hail of sand through which they had passed.
He had not the slightest conception as to where they were, except he knew this must be the Salt Fork. Utterly confused by the maze of shifting dunes, through whose intricacies they had somehow found passage, the blackness of the night yielded no clue as to their point of emergence. The volume of water in the stream alone suggested that in their wanderings they must have drifted to the eastward, and come out much lower down than had been originally intended. If so, then they might be almost directly south of Carson City, and in a section with which he was totally unacquainted. One thing was, however, certain—they would be compelled to wait for daylight to ascertain the truth, and decide upon their future movements. There was another barren, sandy stretch of desolation lying between this isolated valley and that of the Canadian, and their horses would never stand to be pushed forward without both rest and food. As to themselves—they had eaten their last crumb long since, but this was not the first time both had known starvation.
Keith arose reluctantly, and removed the saddles from the animals, hobbling them so they could graze at will. Neb was propped up beneath an out-cropping of the bank, which partly protected him from the wind, a mere hulk of a shadow. Keith could not tell whether he slept or not, but made no effort to disturb him. A moment he stared vacantly about into the black silence, and then lay down, pillowing his head upon a saddle. He found it impossible to sleep, the chill of the wind causing him to turn and twist, in vain search after comfort, while unappeased hunger gnawed incessantly. His eyes ranged about over the dull gloom of the skies until they fell again to the earth level, and then he suddenly sat up, half believing himself in a dream—down the stream, how far away he could not judge, there gleamed a steady, yellowish light. It was no flicker of a camp fire, yet remained stationary. Surely no star could be so low and large; nor did he recall any with that peculiarity of color. If such a miracle was possible in the heart of that sandy desert he would have sworn it was a lamp shining through a window. But he had never heard of any settler on the Salt Fork, and almost laughed at the thought, believing for the instant his brain played him some elfish trick. Yet that light was no illusion; he rubbed his eyes, only to see it more clearly, convinced now of its reality. He strode hastily across, and shook Neb into semi-consciousness, dragging him bodily up the bank and pointing down stream.
"Do you see that?" he inquired anxiously. "There, straight ahead of you?"
The negro stared, shaking with cold, and scarcely able to stand alone.
"Maybe it am de moon, Massa Jack," he muttered thickly, "or a goblin's lantern. Lawd, I don't jest like de looks ob dat ting."
"Well, I do," and Keith laughed uneasily at the negro's fears. "All I wanted to know was if you saw what I saw. That's a lamp shining through a window, Neb. What in heaven's name it can be doing here I am unable to guess, but I'm going to find out. It means shelter and food, boy, even if we have to fight for it. Come on, the horses are safe, and we'll discover what is behind that light yonder."
Chapter VIII. The Wilderness Cabin
The light was considerably farther away than they had at first supposed, and as they advanced steadily toward it, the nature of the ground rapidly changed, becoming irregular, and littered with low growing shrubs. In the darkness they stumbled over outcroppings of rock, and after a fall or two, were compelled to move forward with extreme caution. But the mysterious yellow glow continually beckoned, and with new hope animating the hearts of both men, they staggered on, nerving themselves to the effort, and following closely along the bank of the stream.
At last they arrived where they could perceive dimly something of the nature of this unexpected desert oasis.
The light shone forth, piercing the night, through the uncurtained window of a log cabin, which would otherwise have been completely concealed from view by a group of low growing cottonwoods. This was all the black, enshrouding night revealed, and even this was merely made apparent by the yellow illumination of the window. The cabin stood upon an island, a strip of sand, partially covered by water, separating it from the north shore on which they stood. There was no sign of life about the hut, other than the burning lamp, but that alone was sufficient evidence of occupancy. In spite of hunger, and urgent need, Keith hesitated, uncertain as to what they might be called upon to face. Who could be living in this out-of-the-way spot, in the heart of this inhospitable desert? It would be no cattle outpost surely, for there was no surrounding grazing land, while surely no professional hunter would choose such a barren spot for headquarters. Either a hermit, anxious to escape all intercourse with humanity, or some outlaw hiding from arrest, would be likely to select so isolated a place in which to live. To them it would be ideal. Away from all trails, where not even widely roving cattlemen would penetrate, in midst of a desert avoided by Indians because of lack of game,—a man might hide here year after year without danger of discovery. Yet such a one would not be likely to welcome their coming, and they were without arms. But Keith was not a man to hesitate long because of possible danger, and he stepped down into the shallow water.
"Come on, Neb," he commanded, "and we 'll find out who lives here."
The window faced the west, and he came up the low bank to where the door fronted the north in intense darkness. Under the shadow of the cottonwoods he could see nothing, groping his way, with hands extended. His foot struck a flat stone, and he plunged forward, striking the unlatched door so heavily as to swing it open, and fell partially forward into the room. As he struggled to his knees, Neb's black face peering past him into the lighted interior, he seemed to perceive in one swift, comprehensive glance, every revealed detail. A lamp burned on a rudely constructed set of drawers near the window, and a wood fire blazed redly in a stone fireplace opposite, the yellow and red lights blending in a peculiar glow of color. Under this radiance were revealed the rough log walls, plastered with yellow clay, and hung about with the skins of wild animals, a roughly made table, bare except for a book lying upon it, and a few ordinary appearing boxes, evidently utilized as seats, together with a barrel cut so as to make a comfortable chair. In the back wall was a door, partially open, apparently leading into a second room. That was all, except the woman.
Keith must have perceived all these in that first hurried glance, for they were ever after closely associated together in his mind, yet at the moment he possessed no clear thought of anything except her. She stood directly behind the table, where she must have sprung hastily at the first sound of their approach, clutching at the rude mantel above the fireplace, and staring toward him, her face white, her breath coming in sobs. At first he thought the vision a dream, a delirium born from his long struggle; he could not conceive the possibility of such a presence in this lonely place, and staggering to his feet, gazed wildly, dumbly at the slender, gray clad figure, the almost girlish face under the shadowing dark hair, expecting the marvellous vision to vanish. Surely this could not be real! A woman, and such a woman as this here, and alone, of all places! He staggered from weakness, almost terror, and grasped the table to hold himself erect. The rising wind came swirling in through the open door, causing the fire to send forth spirals of smoke, and he turned, dragging the dazed negro within, and snapping the latch behind him. When he glanced around again he fully believed the vision confronting him would have vanished. But no! there she yet remained, those wide-open, frightened brown eyes, with long lashes half hiding their depths, looking directly into his own; only now she had slightly changed her posture, leaning toward him across the table. Like a flash he comprehended that this was reality—flesh and blood—and, with the swift instinct of a gentleman, his numbed, nerveless fingers jerked off his hat, and he bowed bareheaded before her.
"Pardon me," he said, finding his voice with difficulty. "I fell over the step, but—but I didn't expect to find a woman here."
He heard her quick breathing, marked a slight change in the expression of the dark eyes, and caught the glitter of the firelight on a revolver in her lowered hand.
"What did you expect to find?"
"I hardly knew," he explained lamely; "we stumbled on this hut by accident. I didn't know there was a cabin in all this valley."
"Then you are not here for any purpose? to meet with any one?"
"No; we were lost, and had gone into camp up above, when we discovered your light."
"Where do you come from?"
Keith hesitated just an instant, yet falsehood was never easy for him, and he saw no occasion for any deceit now.
"What brought you here?"
"We started for the 'Bar X' Ranch down below, on the Canadian; got caught in a sand-storm, and then just drifted. I do not know within twenty miles of where we are."
She drew a deep breath of unconcealed relief.
"Are you alone?"
"The negro and I—yes; and you haven't the slightest reason to be afraid of us—we're square."
She looked at him searchingly, and something in Keith's clean-cut face seemed to bring reassurance, confidence in the man.
"I am not afraid," she answered, coming toward him around the short table. "Only it is so lonely here, and you startled me, bursting in without warning. But you look all right, and I am going to believe your story. What is your name?"
"A little of everything, I reckon," a touch of returning bitterness in the tone. "A plainsman, who has punched cattle, but my last job was government scout."
"You look as though you might be more than that," she said slowly.
The man flushed, his lips pressing tightly together. "Well, I—I may have been," he confessed unwillingly. "I started out all right, but somehow I reckon I just went adrift. It's a habit in this country."
Apparently those first words of comment had left her lips unthinkingly, for she made no attempt to reply; merely stood there directly facing him, her clear eyes gazing frankly into his own. He seemed to actually see her now for the first time, fairly—a supple, slender figure, simply dressed, with wonderfully excessive brown eyes, a perfect wealth of dark hair, a clear complexion with slight olive tinge to it, a strong, intelligent face, not strictly beautiful, yet strangely attractive, the forehead low and broad, the nose straight, the lips full and inclined to smile. Suddenly a vague remembrance brought recognition.
"Why, I know you now."
"Indeed!" the single word a note of undisguised surprise.
"Yes; I thought you looked oddly familiar all the time, but couldn't for the life of me connect up. You're Christie Maclaire."
"Am I?" her eyes filled with curiosity.
"Of course you are. You needn't be afraid of me if you want it kept secret, but I know you just the same. Saw you at the 'Gaiety' in Independence, maybe two months ago. I went three times, mostly on your account. You've got a great act, and you can sing too."
She stood in silence, still looking fixedly at him, her bosom rising and falling, her lips parted as if to speak. Apparently she did not know what to do, how to act, and was thinking swiftly.
"Mr. Keith," she said, at last in decision, "I am going to ask you to blot that all out—to forget that you even suspect me of being Christie Maclaire, of the Gaiety."
"Why, certainly; but would you explain?"
"There is little enough to explain. It is sufficient that I am here alone with you. Whether I wish to or not, I am compelled to trust myself to your protection. You may call me Christie Maclaire, or anything else you please; you may even think me unworthy respect, but you possess the face of a gentleman, and as such I am going to trust you—I must trust you. Will you accept my confidence on these terms?"