John Breckenridge Ellis
I THE TOUCH OF A CHILD II BRICK MAKES A MOVE III FLIGHT IV AN UNWONTED PRAYER V A NEW ROBINSON CRUSOE VI A MYSTERIOUS GUEST VII RED FEATHER VIII GETTING CIVILIZED IX A YOUNG MAN'S FANCY X THE FLAG OF TRUCE XI THE HALF-OPENED BUD XII THE BIG WORLD XIII A SURE-ENOUGH MAN XIV WRITING HOME XV THE DAY OF FENCES XVI THE ONYX PIN XVII BRICK MAKES A STAND XVIII LIFE ON ONE CONDITION XIX LIKE LOVERS XX TOGETHER XXI THE NORTHER XXII JOURNEY'S END XXIII FACING THE MOB XXIV MINE ENEMY XXV GLEDWARE'S POSSESSIONS XXVI JUST A HABIT
THE TOUCH OF A CHILD
"I have given my word of honor—my sacred oath—not to betray what I have discovered here."
At these words from the prisoner, a shout arose in which oaths and mocking laughter mingled like the growling and snapping of hunger-maddened wolves.
"Then if I must die," Gledware cried, his voice, in its shrill excitement, dominating the ferocious insults of the ruffians, "don't kill the child—you see she is asleep—and she's so young—only five. Even if she were awake, she wouldn't know how to tell about this cabin. For God's sake, don't kill the little girl!"
Since the seizure of Gledware, the child had been lying on the rude table in the midst of a greasy pack of cards—cards that had been thrown down at the sound of his galloping horse. The table supported, also, much of the booty captured from the wagon-train, while on the dirt floor beside it were prizes of the freebooting expedition, too large to find resting-place on the boards. Nor was this all. Mingled with stolen garments, cans and boxes of provisions, purses and bags of gold, were the Indian disguises in which the highwaymen from No-Man's Land had descended on the prairie-schooners on their tedious journey from Abilene, Kansas, toward the Southwest.
In the midst of this confusion of disguises, booty and playing-cards, surrounded by cruel and sensual faces, the child slept soundly, her lips slightly parted, her cheeks delicately flushed, her face eloquent in its appeal of helplessness, innocence and beauty. One of the band, a tall broad-shouldered man of middle-age, with an immense quantity of whiskers perhaps worn as a visible sign of inward wildness, was, despite his hardened nature, moved to remonstrance. Under cover of lurid oaths and outrageous obscenity, he advanced his opinion that "the kid" needn't be shot just because her father was a sneak-jug spy.
"Shut up!" roared a tremendous voice, not directly to the intercessor, or to the prisoner, but to all present. Evidently it was a voice of authority, for comparative silence followed the command. The speaker stepped forward, thrust his fingers through his intensely red shock of hair, and continued, with one leg thrust forward:
"You know I am something of an orator, or I guess you wouldn't of made me your leader. Now, as long as I'm your leader, I'm going to lead; but, I ain't never unreasonable, and when talk is needed, I'm copious enough. I am called 'Red Kimball,' and my brother yonder, he is knowed as 'Kansas Kimball.' What else is knowed of us is this: that we wasn't never wont to turn loose a spy when once ketched. Here is a man who says he is Henry Gledware—though God knows if that's so; he comes galloping up to the door just as we are in the midst of a game. I stakes all my share of the spoils on the game, and Brick Willock is in a fair way to win it, that I admit, but in comes this here spy—"
The prisoner in a frenzied voice disclaimed any purpose of spying. That morning, he had driven the last wagon of the train, containing his invalid wife and his stepdaughter—for the child lying on the table was his wife's daughter. At the alarm that the first wagon had been attacked by Indians, he had turned about his horses and driven furiously over the prairie, he knew not whither. All that day he had fled, seeing no one, hearing no pursuing horse-beat. At night his wife, unable, in her weak condition, to sustain the terrible jolting, had expired. Taking nothing from the wagon but his saddle, he had mounted one of the horses with the child before him, and had continued his flight, the terrific wind at his back. Unaware that the wind had changed, he had traversed horseback much of the distance traveled during the day, and at about two in the morning—that is to say, about all hour ago—seeing a light, he had ridden straight toward it, to find shelter from the storm.
The prisoner narrated all this in nervous haste, though he had already given every particular, time and again. His form as well as his voice trembled with undisguised terror, and indeed, the red and cruel eyes fastened contemptuously on him might have caused a much braver man than Gledware to shudder visibly.
"Well, pard," said the leader of the band, waiting until he had finished, "you can't never claim that you ain't been given your say, for I do admire free speech. I want to address you reasonable, and make this plain and simple, as only a man that has been alleged to be something of an orator can accomplish. My men and me has had our conference, and it's decided that both of you has got to be shot, and immediate. The reasons is none but what a sensible man must admit, and such I take you to be. I am sorry this has happened, and so is my men, and we wish you well. It's a hard saying, pard, but whatever your intentions, a spy you have proved. For what do you find on busting open our door? Here we sit playing with our booty for stakes, and our Indian togs lying all about. You couldn't help knowing that we was the 'Indians' that gutted them wagons and put up the fight that left every man and woman dead on the field except that there last wagon you are telling us about. You might wish you didn't know the same, but once knowed, we ain't going to let you loose. As to that wagon you claim to have stole away from under our very noses—"
A skeptical laugh burst from the listeners.
Gledware eagerly declared that if he had the remotest idea in what direction it had been left, he would be glad to lead them to the spot. He could describe it and its contents—
"You see, pard," Red Kimball interposed, "you are everlasting losing sight of the point. This here is 1880, which I may say is a recent date. Time was when a fellow could live in Cimarron, and come and go free and no questions asked—and none answered. But civilization is a-pressing us hard, and these days is not our fathers' days. We are pretty independent even yet in old Cimarron, but busybodies has got together trying to make it a regular United States territory, and they ain't going to stand for a real out-and-out band of highwaymen such as used to levy on stage-coaches and wagon-trains without exciting no more remarks than the buffaloes. You may be sorry times is changed; so am I; but if times IS fresh, we might as well look 'em in the face. Us fellows has been operating for some years, but whatever we do is blamed on the Indians. That there is a secret that would ruin our business, if it got out. Tomorrow, a gang of white men will be depredating in the Washita country to get revenge for today's massacre, and me and my men couldn't join in the fun with easy consciences if we knowed you was somewheres loose, to tell your story."
Again Gledware protested that he would never betray the band.
"Oh, cut this short," interposed Kansas Kimball, with an oath. "Daylight will catch us and nothing done, if we listen to that white-livered spy. We don't believe in that wagon he talks about, and as for this kid, he brought her along just to save his bacon."
"No, as God lives!" cried Gledware. "Can't you see she is dead for sleep? She was terrified out of her wits all day, and I've ridden with her all night. Don't kill her, men—" He turned impassioned eyes on the leader. "Look at her—so young—so unsuspecting—you can't have the heart to murder a child like that in cold blood."
"Right you are!" exclaimed the man with the ferocious whiskers—he who had been spoken of as Brick Willock. "You'll have to go, pard, but I'm against killing infants."
The leader darted an angry glance at the man who, but for the untoward arrival of Gledware, would have won from him his share of the booty. But his voice was smooth and pleasant as he resumed: "Yes, pard, the kid must die. We couldn't do nothing with her, and if we left her on some door-step, she's sure old enough, and she looks full sharp enough, to tell sufficient to trammel us good and plenty. If we sets her loose in the prairie, she'd starve to death if not found—and if found, it would settle our case. And as Kansas says, this debate must close, or daylight will catch us."
Brick Willock, with terrible oaths, again expressed himself as strongly opposed to this decision.
"Well, Brick," said Red, with a sneer, "do YOU want to take the kid and raise her, yourself? We've either got to do away with her, or keep her hid. Do YOU want to be her nurse, and keep with her in some cave or other while we go foraging?"
Willock muttered deep in his throat, while his companions laughed disdainfully.
"We've had enough of this!" Red declared, his voice suddenly grown hard and cold. "Kansas, take the prisoner; Brick Willock, as you're so fond of the kid, you can carry HER." He opened the door and a rush of wind extinguished the candle. There was silence while it was being relighted. The flickering light, reddening to a steady glow, revealed no mercy on the scowling countenances about the table, and no shadow of presentiment on that of the still unconscious child.
Red went outside and waited till his brother had drawn forth the quivering man, and Brick Willock had carried out the girl. Then he looked back into the room. "You fellows can stay in here," he said authoritatively. "What we've got to do ain't any easier with a lot of men standing about, looking on."
The man who had relighted the candle, and who crouched to shield it with a hairy hand from the gust, nodded approval. His friends were already gathering together the cards to lose in the excitement of gambling consciousness of what was about to be done. Red closed the door on the scene, and turned to face the light.
The wind came in furious gusts, with brief intervals of calm. There were no clouds, however, and the moon, which had risen not long before, made the prairie almost as light as if morning had dawned. As far as the eye could reach in any direction, nothing was to be seen but the level ground, the unflecked sky, the cabin and the little group near the tethered ponies.
Gledware had already been stationed with his face toward the moon, and Kansas Kimball was calmly examining his pistol. Between them and the horses, Brick Willock had come to a halt, the little girl still sleeping in his powerful arms. Red's eagle eye noted that she had unconsciously slipped an arm about the highwayman's neck, as if by some instinct she would cling the closer to the only one in the band of ten who had spoken for her life.
Red scowled heavily. He had not forgiven Willock for beating him at cards, still less for his persistent opposition to his wishes; and he now resolved that it should be Willock's hand to deal the fatal blow. He had been troubled before tonight by insubordination on the part of this man of bristling whiskers, this knave whose voice was ever for mercy, if mercy were possible. Why should Willock have joined men who were without scruple and without shame? As the leader stared at him sullenly, he reflected that it was just such natures that fail at the last extremity of hardihood, that desert comrades in crime, that turn state's evidence. Yes—Willock would deal the blow, even if Red found it necessary to call all his men from the cabin to enforce the order.
The captain's fears were not groundless. He would have been much more alarmed, could he have known the wonderful thoughts that surged through Willock's brain, and the wonderful emotions that thrilled his heart, at the warm confiding pressure of the arm about his neck.
BRICK MAKES A MOVE
As Kansas Kimball raised his weapon to fire, the man before him uttered a cry of terror and began to entreat for his life. In the full light of the dazzling moon, his face showed all the pallor, all the contortions of a coward who, though believing himself lost, has not the resolution to mask his fear. He poured forth incoherent promises of secrecy, ejaculations of despair and frenzied assurances of innocence.
"Hold on, Kansas!" interposed Red. "There's not a one of the bunch believes that story about the last wagon getting away, and the dying wife. We know this Gledware is a spy, whatever he says, and that he brought the kid along for protection. He knew if we got back to No-Man's Land we couldn't be touched, not being under no jurisdiction, and he wanted to find us with our paint and feathers off. He's a sneaking dog, and a bullet's too good for him. But—with an oath—blessed if he don't hate to die worse than any man ever I saw! I don't mind to spare him a few minutes if he's agreeable. I put it to him—would he rather the kid be put out of the way first, and him afterwards, or does he want the first call?"
"For God's sake, put it off as long as you will!" quavered the prisoner. "I swear I'm no spy. I swear—"
"This is unpleasant," the captain of the highwaymen interposed. "Just you say another word, and I'll put daylight into you with my own hand. Stand there and keep mum, and I'll give you a little breathing space."
Kansas, not without a sigh of relief, lowered his weapon and looked questioningly at his brother. The shadow of the log cabin was upon him, making more sinister his uncouth attire, and his lean vindictive face under the huge Mexican hat. Gledware, not daring to move, kept his eyes fixed on that deep gloom out of which at any moment might spurt forth the red flash of death. From within the cabin came loud oaths inspired by cards or drink, as if the inmates would drown any calls for mercy or sounds of execution that might be abroad in the night.
"Now, Brick Willock," the leader spoke grimly, "take your turn first. That kid's got to die, and you are to do the trick, and do it without any foolishness."
"I can't," Willock declared doggedly.
"Oh, yes; yes, you can, Brick. You see, we can't 'tend to no infant class, and I ain't hard-hearted enough to leave a five-year-old girl to die of hunger on the prairie; nor do I mean to take her to no town or stage-station as a card for to be tracked by. Oh, yes, you can, Brick, and now's the time."
"Red," exclaimed Willock desperately, "I tell you fair, and I tell you foul, that this little one lives as long as I do."
"And what do you aim to do with her, eh, Brick?"
Willock made no reply. He had formed no plans for his future, or for that of the child; but his left arm closed more tightly about her.
"Now, Brick," said Red slowly, "this ain't the first time you have proved yourself no man for our business, and I call Kansas to witness you've brought this on yourself—"
Without finishing his sentence, Red swiftly raised his arm and fired pointblank at Willock's head as it was defined above the sleeping form. Though famed as an orator, Red understood very well that, at times, action is everything, and there is death in long speaking. He was noted as a man who never missed his mark; and in the Cimarron country, which belonged to no state and therefore to no court, extensive and deadly had been his practise, without fear of retribution.
Now, however, his bullet had gone astray. The few words to which he had treated himself as an introduction to the intended deed had proved his undoing. They had been enough to warn Willock of what was coming; and just before Kansas had been called on "to witness," that is an instant before Red fired, Willock had sent a bullet through the threatening wrist. The two detonations were almost simultaneous, and Red's roar of pain, as he dropped his weapon, rang out as an accompaniment to the crash of firearms.
The next instant, Willock, with a second shot from his six-shooter, stretched Kansas on the ground; then, rushing forward with reversed weapon, he brought the butt down on Red's head with such force as to deprive him of consciousness. So swift and deadly were his movements, so wild his appearance as, with long locks streaming in the wind and huge black whiskers hiding all but glittering eyes, aquiline nose and a brief space of tough red skin—so much more like a demon than a man, it was no wonder that the child, awakened by the firing, screamed with terror at finding her head pressed to his bosom.
"Come!" Willock called breathlessly to the prisoner who still stood with his back to the moon, as if horror at what he had just witnessed rendered him as helpless as he had been from sheer terror. Still holding the screaming child, he darted to the ponies that were tied to the projecting logs of the cabin and hastily unfastened two of the fleetest.
Henry Gledware, awakened as from a trance, bounded to his side. Willock helped him to mount, then placed the child the saddle in front of him.
"Ride!" he urged hoarsely, "ride for your life! They ain't no other chance for you and the kid and they ain't no other chance for me."
He leaped upon the second pony.
"Which way?" faltered Gledware, settling in the saddle and grasping the bridle, but without the other's practised ease.
"Follow the moon—I'll ride against the wind—more chance for one of us if we ain't together. Start when I do, for when they hear the horses they'll be out of that door like so many devils turned loose on us. Ride, pardner, ride, and save the kid for God's sake! Now—off we go!"
He gave Gledware's pony a vicious cut with his lariat, and drove the spurs into his own broncho. The thunder of hoofs as they plunged in different directions, caused a sudden commotion within the isolated cabin. The door was flung open, and in the light that streamed forth, Willock, looking back, saw dark forms rush out, gather about the prostrate forms of the two brothers, move here and there in indecision, then, by a common impulse, burst into a swinging run for the horses.
As for Gledware, he never once turned his face. Urging on his horse at utmost speed, and clasping the child to his breast, he raced toward the light. The shadow of horse, man and child, at first long and black, lessened to a mere speck, then vanished with the rider beyond the circle of the level world.
Brick Willock, galloping toward the Southeast, frequently looked back. He saw the desperadoes leap upon their horses, wheel about in short circles that brought the animals upright, then spring forward in pursuit. He heard the shouting which, though far away, sounded the unmistakable accent of ungovernable fury. In the glaring moonlight, he distinguished plainly the cloud of dust and sand raised by the horses, which the wind lifted in white shapes against the deep blue of the sky. And looking beyond his pursuers toward the rude cabin where the highwaymen had so long held their rendezvous, he knew, because no animate forms appeared against the horizon, that the Kimball brothers lay where he had stretched them—one, senseless from the crashing blow on his head, the other, lifeless from the bullet in his breast.
The little girl and her stepfather had vanished from the smooth open page of the Texas Panhandle—and Brick Willock rejoiced, with a joy new to him, that these escaped prisoners had not been pursued. It was himself that the band meant to subject to their savage vengeance, and himself alone. The murder of the child was abhorrent to their hearts which had not attained the hardened insensibility of their leader's conscience, and they were willing for the supposed spy to escape, since it spared them the embarrassment of disposing of the little girl.
But Brick Willock had been one of them and he had killed their leader, and their leader's brother, or at least had brought them to the verge of death. If Red Kimball revived, he would doubtless right his own wrongs, should Willock live to be punished. In the meantime, it was for them to treat with the traitor—this giant of a Texan, huge-whiskered, slow of speech, who had ever been first to throw himself into the thick of danger but who had always hung back from deeds of cruelty. He had plundered coaches and wagon-trains with them, he had fought with them against strong bodies of emigrants, he had killed and burned—in the eyes of the world his deeds made him one of them, and his aspect marked him as the most dangerous of the band. But they had always felt the difference—and now they meant to kill him not only because he had overpowered their leader but because of this difference.
As their bullets pursued him, Willock lay along the body of the broncho, feeling his steed very small, and himself very large—and yet, despite the rain of lead, his pleasure over the escape of the child warmed his heart. The sand was plowed up by his side from the peppering of bullets—but he seemed to feel that innocent unconscious arm about his great neck; the yells of rage were in his ears, but he heard the soft breathing of the little one fast asleep in the midst of her dangers.
He had selected for himself, and for Gledware, ponies that had often been run against each other, and which no others of all Red Kimball's corral could surpass in speed. Gledware and the child were on the pony that Kimball had once staked against the swiftest animal the Indians could produce—and Willock rode the pride of the Indian band, which had almost won the prize. The ponies had been staked on the issue of that encounter—and the highwaymen had retained, by right of craft and force, what the government would not permit its wards to barter or sell.
The race was long but always unequal. The ruffians who had dashed from the scene of the cabin almost in an even line, scattered and straggled unevenly; now only two were able to send bullets whistling about Willock's head; now only one found it possible to cover the distance. At last even he fell out of range. The Indian pony, apparently tireless, shot on like an arrow driven into the teeth of the wind, sending up behind a cloud of dust that stretched backward toward the baffled pursuers, a long wavering ribbon like a clew left to guide the band into the mysterious depths of the Great American Desert.
When the last of the pursuers found further effort useless, he checked his horse. Willock now sat erect on the broncho's bare back, lightly clasping the halter. Looking behind, he saw seven horsemen in varying degrees of remoteness, motionless, doubtless fixing their wolfish eyes on his fleeing form. As long as he could distinguish these specks against the sky, they remained stationary. To his excited imagination they represented a living wall drawn up between him and the abode of men. Should he ever venture back to that world, he fancied those seven avengers would be waiting to receive him with taunts and drawn weapons.
And his conscience told him that the taunts would be merited, for he had turned traitor, he had failed in the only virtue on which his fellow criminals prided themselves. Yes, he was a traitor; and by the only justice he acknowledged, he deserved to die. But the child who had lain so trustingly upon his wild bosom, who had clung to him as to a father—she was safe! An unwonted smile crept under the bristling beard of the fugitive, as he urged the pony forward in unrelaxing speed. Should he seek refuge among civilized communities, his crimes would hang over his head—if not discovered, the fear of discovery would be his, day and night. To venture into his old haunts in No-Man's Land would be to expose his back to the assassin's knife, or his breast to ambushed murderers. He dared not seek asylum among the Indians, for while bands of white men were safe enough in the Territory, single white men were at the mercy of the moment's caprice—and certainly, if found astride that Indian pony which the agent had ordered restored to its owner, his life would not be worth a thought.
These were desperate reflections, and the future seemed framed in solitude, yet Brick Willock rode on with that odd smile about the grim lips. The smile was unlike him—but, the whole affair was such an experience as had never entered his most daring fancy. Never before in his life had he held a child in his arms, still less had he felt the sweet embrace of peaceful slumber. To another man it might have meant nothing; but to this great rough fellow, the very sight of whom had often struck terror to the heart, that experience seemed worth all the privations he foresaw.
The sun had risen when the pony, after a few tottering steps, suddenly sank to earth. Willock unfastened the halter from its neck, tied it with the lariat about his waist, and without pause, set out afoot. If the pony died from the terrible strain of that unremitting flight, doubtless the roving Indians of the plains would find it and try to follow his trail; if it survived he would be safer if not found near it. In either case, swift flight was still imperative, and the shifting sand, beaten out of shape by the constant wind, promised not to retain his footprints.
Though stiff from long riding, the change of motion soon brought renewed vigor. Willock had grown thirsty, and as the sun rose higher and beat down on him from an unclouded sky, his eyes searched the plains eagerly for some shelter that promised water. He did not look in vain. Against the horizon rose the low blue shapes of the Wichita Mountains, looking at first like flat sheets of cardboard, cut out by a careless hand and set upright in the sand.
As he toiled toward this refuge, not a living form appeared to dispute his sovereignty of the desert world. His feet sank deep in the sand, then trod lightly over vast stretches of short sun-burned mesquit, then again traversed hot shifting reaches of naked sand. The mountains seemed to recede as he advanced, and at times stifling dust and relentless heat threatened to overpower him. With dogged determination he told himself that he might be forced to drop from utter exhaustion, but it would not be yet—not yet—one more mile, or, at least, another half-mile. So he advanced, growing weaker, breathing with more difficulty, but still muttering, "Not yet—not just yet!"
The mountains had begun to spread apart. There were long ranges and short. Here and there, a form that had seemed an integral part of some range, defined itself as distinct from all others, lying like an island of rock in a sea of unbroken desert. Willock was approaching the Wichita Mountains from their southwestern extremity. As far as he could see in one direction, the grotesque forms stretched in isolated chains or single groups; but in the other, the end was reached, and beyond lay the unbroken waste of the Panhandle.
Swaying on his great legs as with the weakness of an infant, he was now very near the end of the system. A wall of granite, sparsely dotted with green, rose above him to a height of about three hundred and fifty feet. The length of this range was perhaps six miles, its thickness a mile. Concealed among these ridges, he might be safe, but it was no longer possible for him to stand erect; to climb the difficult ledges would be impossible.
He sank to the ground, his eyes red and dimmed. For some time he remained there inert, staring, his brain refusing to work. If yonder stood a white object, between him and the mountain, a curious white something with wheels, might it not be a covered wagon? No, it was a mirage. But was it possible for a mirage to deceive him into the fancy that a wagon stood only a few hundred feet away? Perhaps it was really a wagon. He stared stupidly, not moving. There were no dream-horses to this ghost-wagon. There was no sign of life. If captured by the Indians, it would not have been left intact. But how came a wagon into this barren world?
He stared up at the sun as if to assure himself that he was awake, then laughed hoarsely, foolishly. The wagon did not melt away. He could crawl that far, though in stretching forth his arm he might grasp but empty air. He began to crawl forward, but the wagon did not move. As it grew plainer in all its details, a new strength came to him. He strove to rise, and after several efforts, succeeded. He staggered forward till his hands grasped one of the wheels. The contact cleared his brain as by a magic touch. It was no dream.
Supporting himself by the sideboard, he drew himself around to the front, the only opening of the canvas room. He looked within. A first look told him that the wagon was fitted up for a long journey, and that its contents had not been disturbed by bandits or Indians. The second look distinguished two objects that excluded from attention all others. Upon a mattress at the rear of the wagon lay a woman, her face covered by a cloth; and near the front seat stood a keg of water. It was impossible to note the rigid form of the woman and the position of the arms and hands without perceiving that she was dead.
The man recognized this truth but it made only a dim impression; that keg of water meant life—and life was a thousandfold more to him than death. He drew himself upon the seat, snatched at the tin cup beside the keg, and drew out the cloth-covered corn-cob that stopped the flow. Having slaked his thirst, there was mingled with his sense of ineffable content, an overwhelming desire for sleep. He dropped on the second mattress, on which bedclothes were carelessly strewn; his head found the empty pillow that lay indented as it had been left by some vanished sleeper. As his eyelids closed, he fell sound asleep. But for the rising and falling of his powerful breast, he was as motionless as the body of the woman.
Without, the afternoon sun slowly sank behind the mountains casting long shadows over the plains; the wind swirled the sand in tireless eddies, sometimes lifting it high in great sheets, forming sudden dunes; coyotes prowled among the foot-hills and out on the open levels, squatting with eyes fixed on the wagon, uttering sharp quick barks of interrogation. A herd of deer lifted their horns against the horizon, then suddenly bounded away, racing like shadows toward the lowlands of Red River. On the domelike summit of Mount Welsh, a mile away, a mountain-lion showed his sinuous form against the sky seven hundred feet in air. And from the mountainside near at hand stared from among the thick greenery of a cedar, the face of an Indian whose black hair was adorned by a single red feather.
Within the wagon, unconscious of all, in strange fellowship, lay the living and the dead.
AN UNWONTED PRAYER
When Willock started up from the mattress in the covered wagon, the sun had set. Every object, however, was clearly defined in the first glow of the long August twilight, and it needed but a glance to recall the events that had brought him to seek shelter and slumber beside the dead woman. He sat up suddenly, staring from under his long black hair as it fell about his eyes. Accustomed as he was to deeds of violence, even to the sight of men weltering in their life's blood, he was strangely moved by that rigid form with the thin arms folded over the breast, by that white cloth concealing face and hair. A long keen examination of the prairie assured him that no human being was between him and the horizon. He turned again toward the woman. He felt an overpowering desire to look on her face.
For years there had been no women in his world but the abandoned creatures who sought shelter in the resorts of Beer City in No-Man's Land—these, and the squaws of the reservations, and occasionally a white terrified face among the wagon-trains. As a boy, before running away from home in the Middle West, he had known a different order of beings, and some instinct told him that this woman belonged to the class of his childhood's association. There was imperative need of his hurrying to the mountain, lest, at any moment, a roving band of Indians discover the abandoned wagon; besides this, he was very hungry since his rest, and the wagon was stocked with provisions; nevertheless, to look on the face of the dead was his absorbing desire.
But it was not easy for him to yield to his curiosity, despite his life of crime. Something about the majestic repose of that form seemed to add awe to the mystery of sex; and he crouched staring at the cloth which no breath stirred save the breath of evening.
He believed, now, the story that Henry Gledware had reiterated in accents of abject terror. Surely this was the "last wagon" in that train which Red Kimball had attacked the morning before. Impossible as it had seemed to the highwaymen, Gledware must have been warned of the attack in time to turn about and lash his horses out of danger of discovery. At this spot, Gledware had cut loose the horses, mounted one with his stepdaughter, leaving the other to go at will. This, then, was the mother of that child whose arm had lain in warm confidence about his neck. On hands and knees, Willock crept to the other mattress and lifted the margin of the large white cloth.
His hand moved stealthily, slowly. Catching sight of something that faintly gleamed at the collar of the dress, he hesitated; his determination to examine the countenance was as firm as ever, but his impulse to put it off as long as possible was even stronger. He bent down to look closer at the ornament; it was a round breastpin of onyx and pearl set in a heavy rim of gold. The warm wind, tempered by approaching night to a grateful balminess, stirred the cloth between his fingers. He stared as if lost in profound meditation. That pin resembled one his mother used to wear; and, somehow, the soothing touch of the wind reminded him of her hand on his forehead. He might have gone back home, if she had not died long ago. Now, in spite of the many years that had passed over her grave, the memory of her came as strong, as sweet, as instinct with the fullness of life, as, if he were suddenly wafted back into boyhood.
He did not lift the cloth, after all, but having replaced it gently, he searched the wagon for a spade. It was found in the box fastened to the end of the wagon, and with the spade, in the gathering darkness, he dug a grave near the mountainside. Between the strokes of the blade he sent searching glances over the prairie and along the sloping ridges of the overlooking range, but there were no witnesses of his work save the coyotes that prowled like gray shadows across the sands. When the grave was ready he carried thither in his giant's arms the body of the woman on the mattress, and laid it thus to rest. When the sand was smoothed over the place, he carried thither quantities of heavy stones, and broken blocks of granite, to preserve the body from wild beasts.
It was dark when the heap of stones had been arranged in the form of a low pyramid, but though he had not tasted food for twenty-four hours, he lingered beside the grave, his head bent as if still struggling with those unwonted memories of the long ago. At last, as if forced by a mysterious power against which he could no longer resist, he sank upon his knees.
"O God," he prayed aloud, "take care of the little girl."
He waited, but no more words would come—no other thought. He rose, feeling strangely elated, as if some great good fortune had suddenly come into his possession. It had been like this when the sleeping child lay in his arms; he could almost feel her little cheek against his bosom, and hear the soft music of her breathing.
He went back to the wagon and sat on the tongue, still oblivious to any possible danger of surprise. He spoke aloud, for company:
"She wouldn't have wanted me to look at her—she couldn't have looked natural. Glad I didn't. Great Scott! but that was a first-rate prayer! Wouldn't have thought after thirty years I could have done so well. And it was all there, everything was in them words! If she knew what I was doing, she couldn't have asked nothing more, for I reckon she wouldn't expect a man like ME to ask no favors for that white-livered cowardly second-husband of hers. I put in all my plea for the little girl. Dinged if I understand how I come to be so intelligent and handy at what's all new business to me! I just says, 'O God, take care of the little girl,'—just them words." He rose with an air of great content and went around to the front in search of provisions. Presently he spoke aloud:
"And as I ain't asked nothing for myself since I run off from home I guess God won't mind putting the little girl on my expense-account."
A NEW ROBINSON CRUSOE
It came over him with disconcerting suddenness that he had lost a great deal of time, and that every moment spent in the covered wagon was fraught with imminent danger. It was not in his mind that the hand of highwaymen might discover his hiding-place. Knowing them as he did, he was sure they would not come so far from their haunts or from the Sante Fe train in pursuit of him. But the Indians roamed the Panhandle, as much at home there as in their reservations—and here they were much more dangerous. Had no savage eye discerned that wagon during the brilliant August day? Might it be that even while he slept at the feet of the dead woman, a feathered head had slipped under the canvas side, a red face had bent over him?
It was a disquieting fancy. Willock told himself that, had such been the case, his scalp-lock would not still adorn his own person; for all that, he was eager to be gone. Instead of eating in the wagon, he wrapped up some food in a bread-cloth, placed this with a few other articles in a tarpaulin—among them, powder and shot—and, having lifted the keg of water to one shoulder, and the rope-bound tarpaulin to the other, he left the wagon with a loaded gun in his hand.
Twilight had faded to starlight and the mountain range stood blackly defined against the glittering stars. It was easy to find his way, for on the level sands there were no impediments, and when the mountain was reached, a low divide offered him easy passage up the ascent. For the most part the slopes were gradual and in steeper places, ledges of granite, somewhat like giant stairs, assisted him to the highest ridge. From this vantage-point he could see the level plain stretching away on the farther side; he could count the ridges running parallel to the one on which he had paused, and note the troughs between, which never descended to the level ground to deserve the name of valleys. Looking down upon this tortured mass of granite, he seemed gazing over a petrified sea that, in the fury of a storm, had been caught at the highest dashing of its waves, and fixed in threatening motion which throughout the ages would remain as calm and secure as the level waste that stretched from the abrupt walls in every direction.
On that first ridge he paused but a moment, lest his figure be outlined against the night for the keen gaze of some hidden foe. Steadying the keg with one hand and holding his gun alert, he descended into the first trough and climbed to the next ridge, meaning to traverse the mile of broken surface, thus setting a granite wall between him and the telltale wagon. The second ridge was not so high as the outer wall, and he paused here, feeling more secure. The ground was fairly level for perhaps fifty yards before its descent to the next rolling depression where the shadows lay in unrelieved gloom. On the crest, about him, the dim light defined broken boulders and great blocks of granite in grotesque forms, some suggesting fantastic monsters, others, in sharp-cut or rounded forms seemingly dressed by Cyclopean chisels.
The fugitive was not interested in the dimly defined shapes about him; his attention had been attracted by a crevice in the smooth rock ledge at his feet. This ledge, barren of vegetation, and as level as a slab of rough marble, showed a long black line like a crack in a stone pavement. At the man's feet the crevice was perhaps two feet wide, but as it stretched toward the west it narrowed gradually, and disappeared under a mass of disorganized stones, as a mere slit in the surface.
Presently he set the keg and the tarpaulin-ball on the ground, not to rest his shoulders, but in order to sink on his knees beside the crevice. He put his face down over it, listening, peering, but making no discovery. Then he unwound the lariat from about his waist, tied it to the rope that had been a halter, and having fastened a stone to one end, lowered it into the black space. The length of the lariat slipped through his fingers and the rope was following when suddenly the rock found lodgment at the bottom. On making this discovery he drew up the lariat, opened the cloth containing the food, and began to eat rapidly and with evident excitement. He did not fail to watch on all sides as he enjoyed his long delayed meal, and while he ate and thus watched, he thought rapidly. When the first cravings of appetite were partly satisfied, he left his baker's bread and bacon on a stone, tied up the rest of the food in its cloth, rolled this in the tarpaulin, and lowered it by means of the lariat into the crevice. Then, having tied the end of the rope to the gun-barrel, he placed the gun across the crevice and swung himself down into the gloom.
The walls of the crevice were so close together that he was able to steady his knees against them, but as he neared the bottom they widened perceptibly. His first act on setting foot to the stone flooring was to open the tarpaulin, draw forth a candle and a box of matches, and strike a light. The chamber of granite in which he stood was indeed narrow, but full of interest and romance. The floor was about the same width in all its length, wide enough for Willock, tall as he was, to stretch across the passage. It extended perhaps a hundred feet into the heart of the rock, showing the same smooth walls on either side. The ceiling, however, was varied, as the outward examination had promised. Overhead the stars were seen at ease through the two feet of space at the top; but as he carried his candle forward, this opening decreased, to be succeeded presently by a roof, at first of jumbled stones crushed together by outward weight, then of a smooth red surface extending to the end.
The floor was the same everywhere save at its extremities. At the point of Willock's descent, it dipped away in a narrow line that would not have admitted a man's body. At the other end, where he now stood, it suddenly gave way to empty space. It came to an end so abruptly that there was no means of discovering how deep was the narrow abyss beyond. Possibly it descended a sheer three hundred feet, the depth of the ridge at that place. On the smooth floor which melted to nothingness with such sinister and startling suddenness, the candlelight revealed the skeleton of a man lying at the margin of the unknown depths. Mingled with the bones that had fallen apart with the passing of centuries, was a drawn sword of blackened hilt and rusted blade—a sword of old Spanish make—and in the dust of a rotted purse lay a small heap of gold coins of strange design.
"Well, pard," said Brick Willock grimly, "you come here first and much obliged to you. You've told me two things: that once in here, no getting out—unless you bring along your ladder; and what's better still, nobody has been here since you come, or that wouldn't be my money! And now having told me all you got to say, my cavalier, I guess we'd better part." He raked the bones into a heap, and dashed them into the black gulf. He did not hear them when they struck bottom, and the sinister silence gave him an odd thrill. He shook his head. "If I ever roll out of bed here," he said, "me and you will spend the rest of the time together, pardner."
He did not linger for idle speculation, but drew himself up his dangling rope, and in a short time was once more outside the place of refuge. Always on the lookout for possible watchers, he snatched up his bread and meat, and ate as he hastened over the outer ridge and down the rugged side toward the wagon. Here he filled a box with canned provisions and a side of bacon, and on top of this he secured a sack of flour. It made a heavy burden, but his long sleep had restored him to his wonted strength, and he could not be sure but this trip to the wagon would be his last. With some difficulty he hoisted the box to his herculean shoulder, and grasping a spade and an ax in his disengaged hand, toiled upward to his asylum.
When the crevice in the mountain-top was reached, he threw the contents of the box down into the tarpaulin which he had spread out to receive it, and having broken up the box with the ax, cast the boards down that they might fall to one side of the provisions. This done, he returned to the wagon, from above invisible, but which, when he stood on the plain, loomed dim and shapeless against the night.
There were great stores of comforts and even some luxuries in the wagon, and it was hard for him to decide what to take next; evidently Henry Gledware and his wife had expected to live in their wagon after reaching their destination, for there was a stove under the seat, and a stovepipe fastened to one side of the wagon.
"If the Indians don't catch me at this business," said Willock, looking at the stove, "I'll get you too!" He believed it could be lowered between the stone lips of his cave-mouth, for it was the smallest stove he had ever seen, surely less than two feet in width. "I'll get you in," said the plunderer decidedly, "or something will be broke!"
For the present, however, he took objects more appropriate to summer: the mattress upon which he had passed the afternoon, a bucket in which he packed boxes of matches, a quantity of candles, soap, and the like. This bucket he put in the middle of the mattress and flanked it with towels and pillows, between which were inserted plates, cups and saucers. "I'll just take 'em all," he muttered, groping for more dishes, "I might have company!"
The mattress once doubled over its ill-assorted contents, he was obliged to rope both ends before he could carry it in safety. This load, heavier than the last, he succeeded in getting to the crevice, and as he poised it over the brink a few yards from where the tarpaulin lay, he apostrophized it with—"Break if you want to; pieces is good enough for your Uncle Brick!"
When he left the wagon with his next burden, he was obliged to bend low under buckets, tools, cans and larger objects. As he moved slowly to preserve equilibrium, he began to chuckle. "Reckon if the Injuns saw me now," he said aloud, "they'd take me for an elephant with the circus-lady riding my back!" At the crevice, he flung in all that would pass the narrow opening intact, and smashed up what was too large, that their fragments might also be hidden.
"Pshaw!" grunted Willock, as he started back toward the wagon, mopping his brow on his shirt-sleeve, "Robinson Crusoe wasn't in it! Wonder why he done all that complaining when he had a nice easy sea to wash him and his plunder ashore?"
He was beginning to feel the weariness of the morning return, and the load that cleaned out the wagon-bed left him so exhausted that he fell down on the ground beside the crevice, having thrown in his booty. Here, with his gull at his side and a pistol in his hand, he fell fast asleep.
He lay there like a man of stone until some inner consciousness began beating at the door of his senses, warning him that in no great time the moon would rise. He started up in a state of dazed bewilderment, staring at the solemn stars, the vague outlines of giant rocks about him and the limitless sea of darkness that flowed away from the mountain-top indicating, but not defining, the surrounding prairie.
"Get up from here!" Willock commanded himself. He obeyed rather stiffly, but when he was on his feet, ax in hand, he made the trip to the wagon nimbly enough. As he drew near, he saw gray shadows slipping away—they were wolves. He shouted at them disdainfully, and without pause began removing the canvas from over the wagon. When that was done, his terrific blows resolved the wagon-bed to separated boards, somewhat splintered but practically intact. By means of the wrench he removed the wheels and separated the parts of the wagon-frame. Always, when he had obtained enough for a load, he made that toilsome journey to his retreat. He took the four wheels at one time, rolling them one by one, lifting them singly from ledge to ledge.
The last of his work was made easier because the darkness had begun to lift. Suddenly a glow appeared at the rim of the world, to be followed, as it seemed, almost immediately by the dazzling edge of an immense silver shield. The moon rolled over the desert waste and rested like a solid wheel of fire on the sand. Instantly for miles and miles there was not a shadow on the earth. The level shafts of light bathed with grotesque luminous distinction the countless prairie-dogs which, squatting before the mouths of their retreats, barked at the quick betrayal. Coyotes, as if taken by surprise, swung swiftly toward remote mountain fastnesses, their backs to the light.
When Willock made his last and slowest trip to the ridge, his feet dragging like lead, there was nothing to show that a covered wagon had stood at the edge of the prairie; the splinters of the final demolition had already mingled indistinguishably with the wind-driven sand. Arrived at the second ridge, which was still in darkness, he took pains that no telltale sign should be left on the smooth expanse of granite to indicate the near presence of a man. Swinging to the lariat that was now tied to a short plank, he lowered himself into the midst of the debris with which that part of his floor was strewn. Poised on top of the heap of boards that had formed the sides of the wagon, he pushed upward with a longer plank and dislodged the one from which the rope dangled. It fell at his feet.
Provided with nails, a hammer and plenty of lumber, it would not be difficult to construct a ladder for egress. At present, he was too tired to provide for the future. He left the spoils just as they had fallen, except for the old wagon-tongue and a board or two with which he built a barricade against the unknown depths at the farthest margin of the floor. Then drawing the mattress to one side, and clearing it of its contents, he fell upon it with a sigh of comfort, and was again plunged into slumber—slumber prolonged far into the following day.
A MYSTERIOUS GUEST
When he awoke, a bar of sunshine which at first he mistook for an outcropping of Spanish gold, glowed against the granite wall of his mountain-top retreat. He rose in leisurely fashion—henceforth there would be plenty of time, years of it, running to waste with useless days. After eating and partaking sparingly of the brackish water of the keg, he nailed together two long sideboards of the dismembered wagon; and having secured these end to end, he fastened in parallel strips to the surface short sticks as steps to his ladder. This finished, he made a rope-ladder. The ladder of boards was for use in leaving the cave; the rope-ladder, which he meant to hide under some boulder near the crevice, could be used in making the descent.
The formless mass of inchoate debris, the result of his toilsome journeys of the night before, was left as it had fallen—there would be time enough to sort all that, a hundred times. At present, he would venture forth with the sole object of examining his surroundings. "This suits me exactly," he muttered, with a good-humored chuckle; "just doing one thing at a time, and being everlasting slow about doing that."
Fastening the rope-ladder about his waist, he scaled the boards, and on reaching the top, cast them down. First, he looked all about, but no living creature was in sight. "This is just to my hand," he said aloud, seeking a suitable hiding-place for the rope-ladder; "I always did despise company."
Stowing away the rope-ladder in a secure fissure between two giant blocks of granite, each the size of a large two-story house, he crossed to the first ridge, and looked out over the prairie, to triumph over the vacant spot where the covered wagon had stood fifteen hours before. "No telling what a man can do," he exclaimed admiringly, "that is to say, if his name is Brick Willock."
His eyes wandered to the mound of stones built over the woman's grave. His prayer recurred to his mind. "Well, God," he said, looking up at the cloudless sky, "I guess you're doing it!" After this expression of faith, he turned about and set forth to traverse the mountain range. Passing the ridge which he already looked upon as home, he crossed other ridges of varying height, and at the end of a mile reached the southern limit of the mountain. Like the northern side the southern elevation was nearly four hundred feet, as if the granite sea had dashed upward in fiercest waves, in a last futile attempt to inundate the plain. The southern wall was precipitous, and Willock, looking down the cedar-studded declivity, could gaze directly on the verdant levels that came to the very foot.
He stood at the center of an enormous horseshoe formed on the southwest by the range curving farther toward the south, and on his left hand, by the same range sweeping in a quarter-circle toward the southeast. The mouth of this granite half-circle was opened to the south, at least a quarter-mile in width; but on his left, a jutting spur almost at right angles to the main range, and some hundreds of yards closer to his position, shot across the space within the horseshoe bend, in such fashion that an observer, standing on the plain, would have half his view of the inner concave expanse shut off, except that part of the high north wall that towered above the spur.
Nor was this all. Behind the perpendicular arm, or spur, that ran out into the sea of mesquit, rose a low hill that was itself in the nature of an inner spur although, since it failed to reach the mountain, it might be regarded as a long flat island, surrounded by the calm green tide. This innermost arm, or island, was so near the mountain, that the entrance to it opened into a curved inner world of green, was narrow and strongly protected. The cove thus formed presented a level floor of ten or twelve acres, and it was directly down into this cove that Willock gazed. It looked so peaceful and secure, and its openness to the sunshine was so alluring, that Willock resolved to descend the steep wall. To do so at that point was impractical, but the ridge was unequal and not far to the right, sank to a low divide, while to the left, a deep gully thickly set with cedars, elms, scrub-oaks and thorn trees invited him with its steep but not difficult channel, to the ground.
"Here's a choice," observed Willock, as he turned toward the divide; "guess I'll go by the front, and save the back stairs for an emergency." The gully was his back stairs. He was beginning to feel himself rich in architectural possibilities. When he reached the plain he was outside of a line of hummocks that effectually hid the cove from sight, more effectually because of a dense grove of pecans that stood on either side of the grass-grown dunes. Instead of crossing the barrier, he started due south for the outer prairie, and when at last he stood midway between the wide jaws of the mountain horseshoe, he turned and looked intently toward the cove.
It was invisible, and his highest hopes were realized. From this extended mouth he could clearly see where the first spur shot out into the sand, and beyond that, he could see how, at a distance, the sheer wall of granite rose to the sky; but there was nothing to suggest that behind that scarred arm another projection parallel to it might be discovered. He walked toward the spur, always watching for a possible glimpse of the cove. When he stood on the inner side, his spirits rose higher. The long flat island that he had discerned from the mountain-top was here not to be defined because, on account of its lowness and of the abrupt wall beyond, it was mingled indistinguishably with the perspective of the range. Concealment was made easier from the fact that the ground of the cove was lower than all the surrounding land.
Willock now advanced on the cove and found himself presently in a snug retreat that would have filled with delight the heart of the most desperate highwayman, or the most timid settler. On the north was, of course, the towering mountain-wall, broken by the gully in the protection of whose trees one might creep up or down without detection. On the east, the same mountain-wall curved in high protection. In front was the wide irregular island, low, indeed, but happily high enough to shut out a view of the outside world. At the end of this barricade there was a gap, no wider than a wagon-road, along the side of which ran the dry channel of a mountain stream—the continuation of the gully that cut the mountain-wall from top to base—but even this gap was high enough to prevent observation from the plain.
No horsemen could enter the cove save by means of that low trench, cut as by the hand of man in the granite hill, and as Indian horsemen were the only enemies to be dreaded, his watchfulness need be concentrated only on that one point. "Nothing like variety," observed Willock cheerfully.
"This will do capital for my summer home! I'm going to live like a lord—while I'm living."
He examined the ground and found that it was rich and could be penetrated easily, even to the very foot of the mountain. "I'll just get my spade," he remarked, "as I ain't got nothing else to do." In deliberate slowness he returned up the divide, and got the spade from his retreat, then brought it to the cove. Selecting a spot near the channel of the dried-up torrent, he began to dig, relieved to find that he did not strike rock.
"I guess," he said, stopping to lean on his spade as he stared at the mountain, "the earth just got too full of granite and biled over, but was keerful to spew it upwards, so's to save as much ground as it could, while relieving its feelings."
Presently the earth on his blade began to cling from dampness. "When I digs a well," he remarked boastingly, "what I want is water, and that's what I gets. As soon as it's deep enough I'll wall her up with rocks and take the longest drink that man ever pulled off, that is to say, when it was nothing but common water. They ain't nothing about water to incite you to keep swallowing when you have enough. Of a sudden you just naturally leggo and could drown in it without wanting another drop. That's because it's nature. Art is different. I reckon a nice clean drinking-joint and a full-stocked bar is about the highest art that can stimulate a man. But in nature, you know when you've got enough."
After further digging he added, "And I got about enough of THIS! I mean the mountains and the plains and the sand and the wind and the cave and the cove—" he wiped away the dripping sweat and looked at the sun. "Yes, and of you, too!" He dropped the spade, and sat down on the heap of dirt. "Oh, Lord, but I'm lonesome! I got plenty to say, but nobody to listen at me."
He clasped his great hands about his knee, and stared sullenly at the surrounding ramparts of red and brown granite, dully noting the fantastic layers, the huge round stones that for ages had been about to roll down into the valley but had never started, and others cut in odd shapes placed one upon another in columns along the perpendicular wall. The sun beat on the long matted hair of his bared head, but the ceaseless wind brought relief from its pelting rays. He, however, was conscious neither of the heat nor of the refreshing touch.
At last he rose slowly to his towering legs and picked up the spade. "You're a fool, Brick Willock," he said harshly. "Ain't you got that well to dig? And then can't you go for your kaig and bring it here, and carry it back full of fresh water? Dinged if there ain't enough doings in your world to furnish out a daily newspaper!" He began to dig, adding in an altered tone: "And Brick, HE says—'Nothing ain't come to the worst, as long as you're living,' says Brick!"
He was proud of the well when it was completed; the water was cold and soft as it oozed up through clean sand, and the walls of mud-mortised rocks promised permanency. One did not have to penetrate far into the bottom-lands of that cove to find water which for unnumbered years had rushed down the mountainside in time of rain-storms to lie, a vast underground reservoir, for the coming of man. Willock could reach the surface of the well by lying on his stomach and scooping with his long arm. He duly carried out his program, and when the keg was filled with fresh water, it was time for dinner.
After a cold luncheon of sliced boiled ham and baker's bread, he returned to the cove, where he idled away the afternoon under the shade of tall cedar trees whose branches came down to the ground, forming impenetrable pyramids of green.
Stretched out on the short buffalo-grass he watched the white flecks follow one another across the sky; he observed the shadows lengthening from the base of the western arm of the horseshoe till they threatened to swallow up him and his bright speck of world; he looked languidly after the flights of birds, and grinned as he saw the hawks dart into round holes in the granite wall not much larger than their bodies—those mysterious holes perforating the precipice, seemingly bored there by a giant auger.
"Go to bed, pards," he called to the hawks. "I reckon it's time for me, too!" He got up—the sun had disappeared behind the mountain. He stretched himself, lifting his arms high above his head and slowly drawing his fists to his shoulder, his elbows luxuriously crooked. "One thing I got," he observed, "is room, plenty! Well—" he started toward the divide for his upward climb, "I've lived a reasonable long life; I am forty-five; but I do think that since I laid down under that tree, I have thought of everything I ever done or said since I was a kid. Guess I'll save the future for another afternoon—and after that, the Lord knows what I'm going to do with my brain, it's that busy."
The next day he began assorting the contents of his granite home, moving to the task with conscientious slowness, stopping a dozen times to make excursions into the outside world. By diligent economy of his working moments, he succeeded in covering almost two weeks in the labor of putting his house into order. His bedroom was next to the barricade that separated the long stone excavation from the bottomless abyss. Divided from the bedroom by an imaginary line, was the store-room of provisions. The cans and boxes were arranged along the floor with methodical exactitude. Different varieties of fruit and preserves were interspersed in such fashion that none was repeated until every variety had been passed.
"I begins with this can of peaches," said Willock, laying his finger upon the beginning of the row—"then comes apples, pears, plums; then peaches, apples, pears, plums; then peaches, apples, pears, plums; then peaches—blest if I don't feel myself getting sick of 'em already.... And now my meats: bacon, ham. My breadstuffs: loaves, crackers. My fillers: sardines, more sardines, more sardines, likewise canned tomatoes. Let me see—is it too much to say that I eats a can of preserves in two days? Maybe three. That is, till I sickens. I begins with peach-day. This is Monday. Say Thursday begins my apple-days. I judge I can worm myself down through the list by this time next month. One thing I am sot on: not to save nothing if I can bring my stomach to carry the burden with a willing hand. I'll eat mild and calm, but steadfast. Brick Willock he says, 'Better starve all at once, when there's nothing left, than starve a little every day,' says Brick. 'When it's a matter of agony,' says he, 'take the short cut.'"
In arranging his retreat, he had left undisturbed the wagon-tongue, since removing it from the end of the floor for a more secure barricade; it had stood with several of the sideboards against the wall, as if Brick meditated using them for a special purpose. Such was indeed his plan, and it added some zest to his present employment to think of what he meant to do next; this was nothing less than to make a dugout in the cove.
To this enterprise he was prompted not only by a desire to vary his monotonous days, but to insure safety from possible foes. Should a skulking savage, or, what would be worse, a stray member of the robber band catch sight of him among the hills, the spy would spread the news among his fellows. A relentless search would be instituted, and even if Willock succeeded in escaping, the band would not rest till it had discovered his hiding-place. If they came on the dugout, their search would terminate, and his home in the crevice would escape investigation; but if there was no dugout to satisfy curiosity, the crevice would most probably be explored.
"Two homes ain't too many for a character like me, nohow," remarked Brick, as he set the wagon-tongue and long boards on end to be drawn up through the crevice. "Cold weather will be coming on in due time—say three or four months—and what's that to me? a mere handful of time! Well, I don't never expect to make a fire in my cave, I'll set my smoke out in the open where it can be traced without danger to my pantry shelves."
He was even slower about building the dugout than he had been in arranging the miscellaneous objects in the cavern on top of the mountain. Transporting the timbers across a mile of ridges and granite troughs was no light work; and when his tools and material were in the cove, the digging of the dugout was protracted because of the closeness of water to the surface. At last he succeeded in excavating the cellar at a spot within a few yards of the mountain, without penetrating moistened sand. He leveled down the walls till he had a chamber about twelve feet square. Over this he placed the wagon-tongue, converting it into the ridge-pole, which he set upon forks cut from the near-by cedars. Having trimmed branches of the trees in the grove, he laid them as close together as possible, slanting from the ridge-pole to the ground, and over these laid the bushy cedar branches. This substantial roof he next covered with dirt, heaping it up till no glimpse of wood was visible tinder the hard-packed dome. The end of the dugout was closed up in the same way except for a hole near the top fitted closely to the stovepipe and packed with mud.
Of the sideboards he fashioned a rude frame, then a door to stand in it, fitted into grooves that it might be pushed and held into place without hinges. "Of course I got to take down my door every time I comes in or out," remarked Willock, regarding his structure with much complacency, "but they's nothing else to do, and I got to be occupied."
When he had transported the stove to the cove, he set it up with a tingle of expectant pleasure. It was to be his day of housewarming, not because the weather had grown cold, but that he might celebrate.
"This here," he said, "is to be a red-letter day, a day plumb up in X, Y and Z. I got to take my gun and forage for some game; then I'll dress my fresh meat and have a cooking. I'll bring over some grub to keep it company. Let's see—this is plum-day, ain't it?" He stood meditating, stroking his wild whiskers with a grimy hand. "Oh, Lord, yes, I believe it IS plum-day! 'Well, they ain't nothing the way you would have made it yourself,' says Brick, 'not even though it's you as made it.' This here is plum-day, and that there can of plums will shore be opened. And having my first fire gives me a chance to open up my sack of flour; won't I hold carnival! What I feels sorry about myself is knowing how I'm going to feel after I've et all them victuals. I believe I'll take a bath, too, in that pool over yonder in the grove. Ain't I ever going to use that there soap?... But I don't say as I will. Don't seem wuth while. They ain't nobody to see me, and I feels clean insides. As I takes it, you do your washing for them as neighbors with you. If I had a neighbor!—just a dog, a little yaller dog—or some chickens to crow and cackle—"
He broke off, to lean despondently on his gun. He remained thus motionless for a long time, his earth-stained garments, unkempt hair, hard dark hands and gloomy eye marking him as the only object in the bright sunshine standing forth unresponsive to nature's smile.
He started into life with a shrug of his powerful shoulders. "It's just like you, Brick, to spoil a festibul-day with your low idees! Why don't you keep them idees for a rainy day? Just lay up them regrets and hankerings for the first rainy day, and then be of a piece with the heavens and earth. 'If you can't stay cheerful while the sun's shining,' says Brick, 'God's wasting a mighty nice big sun on YOU!'"
Thus admonishing himself, and striving desperately for contentment, he strode forth from the only exit of the cove, and skirted the southern wall of the range, looking for game. It was late in the afternoon when he returned with the best portions of a deer swung over his shoulder. By this time he was desperately hungry, and the prospect of the first venison since his exile stirred his pulses, and gave to the bright scene a cheerful beauty it had not before worn to his homesick heart. He trudged up to the narrow door of the dugout which was closed, just as he had left it, and having carried a noble haunch of venison to the pool to be washed, he descended the dirt steps and set the door to one side. Without at first understanding why, he became instantly aware that some one had been there during his absence.
Of course, as soon as his eyes could penetrate the semi-gloom sufficiently to distinguish small objects, he saw the proof; but even before that, the air seemed tingling with some strange personality. He stood like a statue, gazing fixedly. His alert eyes, always on guard, had assured him that the cove was deserted—there was no use to look behind him. Whoever had been there must have scaled the mountain, and had either crossed to the plain on the north, or was hiding behind the rocks. What held his eyes to the stove was a heap of tobacco, and a clay pipe beside it. Among the stores removed from the wagon, tobacco had been found in generous quantity, but during the month now elapsed, bad been sadly reduced. Willock, however, was not pleased to find the new supply; on the contrary his emotions were confused and alarmed. Had the tobacco been ten times as much, it could not have solaced him for the knowledge that the dugout had been visited.
After a few minutes of immobility, he entered, placed the meat on a box, and departed softly, closing the door behind him. Casting apprehensive glances along the mountainside, he stole toward it, and made his way up the gully, completely hidden by the straggling line of trees and underbrush, till he stood on the summit. He approached each ridge with extreme caution, as if about to storm the barricade of an enemy; thus he traveled over the range without coming on the traces of his mysterious visitor. Not pausing at the crevice, he went on to the outer northern ridge of the range, and lying flat among some high rocks, looked down.
He counted seventeen men near the spot from which he had removed the wagon. Fifteen were on horseback and two riderless horses explained the presence of the two on foot. All of them had drawn up in a circle about the heap of stones that covered the woman's burial-place. Of the seventeen, sixteen were Indians, painted and adorned for the war-path. The remaining man, he who stood at the heap of stones beside the chief, was a white man, and at the first glance, Willock recognized him; he was the dead woman's husband, Henry Gledware.
Brick's mind was perplexed with vain questionings: Was it Gledware who had visited his dugout, or the Indians? Did the pipe and tobacco indicate a peace-offering? What was the relationship between Gledware and these Indians? Was he their prisoner, and were they about to burn him upon the heap of stones? He did not seem alarmed. Had he made friends with the chief by promising to conduct him to the deserted wagon? If so, what would they think in regard to the wagon's disappearance? Had the dugout persuaded them that there was no other retreat in the mountains?
While Brick watched in agitated suspense, several Indians leaped to the ground at a signal from the chief and advanced toward the white man. The chief turned his back upon the company, and started toward the mountain, his face turned toward Brick's place of observation. He began climbing upward, the red feather in his hair gleaming against the green of the cedars. Brick had but to remain where he was, to reach forth his hand presently and seize the warrior—but in that case, those on the plain would come swarming up the ascent for vengeance.
Brick darted from his post, swept like a dipping swallow across the ravine, and snatching up the rope-ladder from its nook under the boulder, scurried down into the granite chamber. Having removed the ladder, he crept to the extremity of the excavation, and with his back against the wall and his gun held in readiness, awaited the coming of the chief. After the lapse of many minutes he grew reassured; the Indian, thinking the dugout his only home, had passed the crevice without the slightest suspicion.
However, lest in thrusting forth his head, he call attention to his home in the rock, he kept in retreat the rest of that day, nor did he venture forth that night. After all, the housewarming did not take place. The stove remained cold, the tobacco and pipe upon it were undisturbed, and the evening meal consisted notably of plums.
One bright warm afternoon in October two years later, Brick Willock sat smoking his pipe before the open door of his dugout, taking advantage of the mountain-shadow that had just reached that spot. In repose, he always sat, when in the cove, with his face toward the natural roadway leading over the flat hill-island into the farther reach of the horseshoe. It was thus he hoped to prevent surprise from inimical horsemen, and it was thus that, on this particular afternoon, he detected a shadow creeping over the reddish-brown stone passage before its producing cause rode suddenly against the background of the blue sky.
At first glimpse of that shadow of a feathered head, Willock flung himself down the dirt steps leading to the open door; now, lying flat, he directed the barrel of his gun over the edge of the level ground, covering an approaching horseman. As only one Indian came into view, and as this Indian was armed in a manner as astounding as it was irresistible, Willock rose to his height of six-foot-three, lowered his weapon, and advanced to meet him.
When he was near, the Indian—the same chief from whom Willock had fled on the day of his intended housewarming—this Indian sprang lightly to the ground, and lifted from the horse that defense which he had borne in front of him on penetrating the cove; it was the child for whose sake Willock had separated himself from his kind.
At first, Willock thought he was dreaming one of those dreams that had solaced his half-waking hours, for he had often imagined how it would be if that child were in the mountains to bear him company. But however doubtful he might he regarding her, he took no chances about the Indian, but kept his alert gaze fixed on him to forestall any design of treachery.
The Indian made a sign to the little girl to remain with the horse; then he glided forward, holding somewhat ostentatiously, a filled pipe in his extended hand. He had evidently come to knit his soul to that of his white brother while the smoke from their pipes mingled on the quiet air, forming a frail and uncertain monument to the spirit of peace.
"Was it you that left a pipe and tobacco on my stove two years ago?" Willock asked abruptly.
"Yes. You got it? We will smoke." He seated himself gravely on the ground.
Willock went into the cabin, and brought out the clay pipe. They smoked. Willock cast covert glances toward the girl. She stood slim and straight, her face rigid, her eyes fixed on the horse whose halter she held. Her limbs were bare and a blanket that descended to her knees seemed her only garment. The face of the sleeping child of five was the same, however, as this of the seven-year-old maid, except that it had grown more beautiful; the wealth of glowing brown hair made amends for all poverty of attire.
Willock was wonderfully moved; so much so that his manner was harsh, his voice gruff in the extreme. "What are you going to do with that girl?" he demanded.
"You take her?" inquired the chief passively.
"Yes—I take her."
"Good!" The Indian smoked serenely.
"Where'd you find her?"
"Not been lost. Her safe all time. Sometime in one village—here, then there, two, three—move her about. Safe all time. I never forget. There she is. You take her?"
"I said so, didn't I? Where's her daddy?"
The Indian said nothing, only smoked, his eyes fixed on space.
Willock raised his voice. "Must I ask HER where he is?"
"Her not know. Her not seen him one, two year. She say him dead."
"Oh, he's dead, is he?"
"Him safe, too." He looked at the sun. "Long trail before me. Then I leave her. I go, now."
"Not much you don't go! Not THIS minute. Where is that girl's daddy?"
"If he's safe, why hasn't she been with him all this time?"
"Me big chief."
"Oh, yes, I judge you are. But that's nothing to me. I'm big chief, too. I own this corner of the universe—and I want to know about that girl's daddy."
"Him great man."
"Well—go ahead; tell the rest of it."
"Him settle among my tribe; him never leave our country. 'Big country, fat country, very rich. Him change name—everything; him one of us. Marry my daughter. THAT girl not his daughter—daughter of dead woman. Keep her away from him all time, so him never see white man, white woman, white child, forget white people, be good Indian. The girl make him think of dead woman. When a man marry again, not good to remember dead woman. Him think girl dead, but no care, no worry, no sad. SHE never his daughter—dead woman's daughter. All his path is white, no more blue. Him very glad, every day—my daughter his wife. She keep scalp-knife from his head. My braves capture—they dance about fire, she say 'No.' She marry him. Their path is white; the sky over them is white."
He rose, straight as an arrow, and turned his grim face toward the horse.
"I see. And you don't want to tell me where he is, because you want him to forget he is a white man?"
"Him always live with my people; him marry my daughter."
"Tell me this; is he far away?"
"Very far. Many days. You never find him. You stay here, keep girl, and me and my people your friends. You come after him—not your friends!"
"Why, bless your heart, I never want to see that man again; your daughter is welcome to him, but I'm afraid she's got a bad bargain. This girl's just as I'd have her—unencumbered. I'm AWFUL glad you come, pardner! Whenever you happen to be down in this part of Texas, drop in and make us a visit!"
With every passing moment, Willock was realizing more keenly what this amazing sequel to the past meant to him. He would not only have company in his dreary solitude, but, of all company, the very one he yearned for to comfort his heart. "Give us your paw, old man—shake. You bet I'll take her!"
He strode forward and addressed the girl: "Are you willing to stay with me, little one?"
She shrank back from the wild figure. During his two years of hiding in the mountains, Willock had cared nothing for his personal appearance. His garments, on disintegrating had been replaced by skins, thus giving an aspect of assorted colors and materials rather remarkable. Only when driven by necessity had he ventured on long journeys to the nearest food-station, carrying the skins obtained by trapping, and bringing back fresh stores of provisions and tobacco on the pony purchased by the Spanish gold.
Willock was greatly disconcerted by her attitude. He said regretfully, "I guess I've been so much with myself that I ain't noticed my outside as a man ought. Won't you make your home with me, child?" He held out his rough hand appealingly.
She retreated farther, saying with disapproval, "Much hair!"
Willock laid his hand on his breast, returning, "Much heart!"
"Him white," said the Indian, swinging himself upon his horse. "Him save your life. Sometime me come visit, come eat, come stay with you."
As he wheeled about, she held out her arms toward him, crying wildly, "Don't go! Don't leave me! Him much hair!"
The Indian dashed away without turning his head.
"Good lord, honey," exclaimed Willock, at his wits' ends, "don't cry! I can't do nothing if you CRY. Won't you come look at your new home?" He waved eagerly toward the dugout.
"Hole in the ground!" cried the girl desperately. "I want my tepee. Am I a prairie-dog?"
"No, honey, you ain't. You and me is both white, and we ought to live together; it ain't right for you to live with red people that kills and burns your own kith and kin."
She looked at him repellently through her streaming tears. "Big hair!" she cried. "Big hair!"
"And must I cut it off? I'll make my head as smooth as yonder bald-headed mountain-peak if it'll keep you from crying. Course you ain't seen nobody with whiskers amongst them Indians, but THEY ain't your people. Your people is white, they are like me, they grows hair. But I'll shave and paint myself red, and hunt for feathers, if that's what you want."
Her sobbing grew less violent. Despite his ferocious aspect, no fear could remain in her heart at sight of that distressed countenance, at sound of those conciliatory tones. Willock, observing that the tempest was abating, continued in his most appealing manner:
"I'm going to do whatever you say, honey, and you're going to be the queen of the cove. Ain't you never been lonesome amongst all them red devils? Ain't you missed your poor mammy as died crossing the plains? It was me that buried her. Ain't you never knowed how it felt to want to lay your head on somebody's shoulder and slip your little arms about his neck, and go to sleep like an angel whatever was happening around? I guess SO! Well, that's me, too. Here I've been for two long year, never seeing nothing but wild animals or prowling savages till the last few months when a settler comes to them mountains seven mile to the southwest. Looked like I'd die, sometimes, just having myself to entertain."
"You lonesome, too?" said the girl, looking up incredulously. She drew a step nearer, a wistful light in her dark eyes.
The man stretched out his arms and dropped them to his side, heavily. "Like that," he cried—"just emptiness!"
"I stay," she said simply. "All time, want my own people; all time, Red Feather say some day take me to white people—want to go, all time. But Red Feather never tell me 'BIG HAIR.' Didn't know what it was I was looking for—never thought it would be something like you."
"But you ain't afraid now, are you, little one?"
She shook her head, and drawing nearer, seated herself on the ground before the dugout. "You LOOK Big Hair," she explained sedately, "but your speech is talk of weak squaw."
Somewhat disconcerted by these words, Willock sat down opposite her, and resumed his pipe as if to assert his sex. "I seem weak to you," he explained, "because I love you, child, and want to make friends with you. But let me meet a big man—well, you'd see, then!" He looked so ferocious as he uttered these words, that she started up like a frightened quail, grasping her blanket about her.
"No, no, honey," he cooed abjectly, "I wouldn't hurt a fly. Me, I was always a byword amongst my pards. They'd say, 'There goes Brick Willock, what never harmed nobody.' When they kept me in at school I never clumb out the window, and it was me got all the prize cards at Sunday-school. How comes it, honey, that you ain't forgot to talk like civilized beings?"
"Red Feather, him always put me with squaw that know English—that been to school on the reservation. Never let me learn talk like the Indians. Him always say some day take me to my own people. But never said 'BIG HAIR.'"
"Did he tell you your mother died two years ago?"
"Yes—father, him dead, too. Both died in the plains. Father was shot by robbers. Mother was left in big wagon—you bury her near this mountain."
"Oh, ho! So your father was killed at the same time your mother was, eh?"
"Well—all right. And now you got nobody but me to look after you—but you don't need no more; as long as I'm able to be up and about, nothing is going to hurt you. Just you tell me what you want, and it'll be did."
"Want to be ALL like white people; want to be just like mother."
"Well, I'll teach you as fur up as I've been myself. Your style of talk ain't correct, but it was the best Red Feather could do by you. Him and you lay down your words like stepping-stones for your thoughts to step over; but just listen at me, how smooth and fine-textured my language is, with no breaks or crevices from the beginning of my periods to where my voice steps down to start on a lower ledge. That's the way white people talks, not that they got more to say than Injuns, but they fills in, and embodies everything, like filling up cabin-walls with mud. I'll take you by the hand right from where Red Feather left you, and carry you up the heights."
She examined him dubiously: "You know how?"
"I ain't no bell-wether in the paths of learning, honey, but Red Feather is some miles behind me. What's your name?"
"Born that way, or Injunized?"
"Father before he died, him all time want to go settle in the Oklahoma country—settle on a claim with mother. They go there two times—three—but soldiers all time make them go back to Kansas. So me, I was born and they named me Oklahoma—but all time they call me Lahoma. That I must be called, Lahoma because that father and mother all time call me. Lahoma, that my name." She inquired anxiously, "You call me Lahoma?" She leaned forward, hands upon knees, in breathless anxiety.
"You bet your life I will, Lahoma!"
"Then me stay all time with you—all time. And you teach me talk right, and dress right, and be like mother and my white people? You teach me all that?"