THE INDIAN'S HAND
By Lorimer Stoddard
Copyright, 1892, by J. B. Lippincott & Co.
The men had driven away. Their carts and horses disappeared behind the roll of the low hills. They appeared now and then, like boats on the crest of a wave, further each time. And their laughter and singing and shouts grew fainter as the bushes hid them from sight.
The women and children remained, with two old men to protect them. They might have gone too, the hunters said. "What harm could come in the broad daylight?—the bears and panthers were far away. They'd be back by night, with only two carts to fill."
Then Jim, the crack shot of the settlement, said, "We'll drive home the bears in the carts."
The children shouted and danced as they thought of the sport to come, of the hunters' return with their game, of the bonfires they always built.
One pale woman clung to her husband's arm. "But the Indians!" she said.
That made the men all laugh. "Indians!" they cried; "why, there've been none here for twenty years! We drove them away, down there"—pointing across the plain—"to a hotter place than this, where the sand burns their feet and they ride for days for water."
The pale woman murmured, "Ah, but they returned."
"Yes," cried her big husband, whose brown beard covered his chest, "and burned two cabins. Small harm they did, the curs!"
"Hush," said the pale woman, pressing her husband's arm; and the men around were quiet, pretending to fix their saddles, as they glanced at another woman, dressed in black, who turned and went into her house.
"I forgot her boy," said the bearded man, as he gravely picked up his gun.
They started off in the morning cool, toward the mountains where the trees grew. And the long shadows lessened as the sun crept up the sky.
The woman in black stood silent by her door. No one bade her good-by. The other women went back to their houses to work. The children played in the dust; clouds rose as they shouted and ran. A day's freedom lay before them.
But the woman in black still stood by her door, like a spectre in the sunshine, her thin hands clasped together as she gazed away over the plain toward Mexico.
Her face was parched and drawn, as if the sun from the sand had burned into the bone. Her eyes alone seemed to live; they were hard and bright.
Her house was a little away from the rest, on the crest of a hill facing the desert plain.
She had heard the words of the bearded man: "Small harm the Indians did." Had he forgotten her boy? How could he forget, while she was there to remind them of the dead? Near her house was a small rock roughly marked. The rude letters "Will, gone, '69," she had cut on it with her own hands. It marked the last place where her boy had played. She remembered how she went away softly—so he should not cry to follow her—without a word, without a kiss.
Here her hands beat the side of the house.
"Oh, to have that kiss now and die!" But she had gone, unthinking, up the road where the pale woman lived, then a rosy-cheeked happy bride, not a widow like herself. They laughed and discussed the newcomers at the settlement. It was a holiday, for the men were away over the hills, cutting down trees to build their houses with.
As they talked there idly, they heard what they thought was the shrill bark of dogs running up the hill. Startled, they went to the window. Round the curve of the road came horses wildly galloping, and upon their backs—Here the pale woman shrieked and fled. They were Indians, beating their horses with their bare legs, their black hair streaming in the wind.
Like a flash, she had bolted the door and barred the shutters as they galloped up. She turned then. Through the open back door she saw the women run screaming up the hill, their children in their arms.
Their children! Where was hers? She stopped as if turned to stone, then undid the door.
They dragged her out by the wrists, by the hair. She fought with them stronger than ten men. But there were twenty; she was alone. The little street was empty. They strangled her, beat down her face, dragged her upon a horse, and, with her crosswise on the saddle, galloped up and down, as they fired the cabins and the sheds. Her hands were shackled, and her eyes blind with blood, but she thought only of her child. "Where could he be?"
There were gunshots. Down the hills like mad came the white men for their wives and children.
Then the Indians turned back toward the plain. They rode past her house.
There, where she had left him, stood the child, dazed with surprise. She held out her arms tied together and called to him to come.
"Fool! fool!" Here the woman in black struck her temples with her hands. "Fool!" Why had she not galloped by and never noticed him?
But she begged, caught at the horse's head, struggled to get to him; and the Indian stopped for a moment in his flight and caught up the child and went on.
Then the thought came to her of the end of that ride—what was to come—after. And she tried to drop the boy, to let him slide gently to the ground; but the Indian held them fast.
Behind, nearer, came the following men, louder the guns. The horse she was on snorted, staggered under the weight of the three, and as they reached the plain the child was torn from her, she was pushed away. But she rose and staggered after them amid the blinding dust. They must take her too. Sobbing, she called to them as she stumbled on. Many times she fell. Then she could go no more.
That was all. Her story ended there, with the thundering of horses' hoofs and the taste of dust in her mouth. They found her there unconscious. Her friends tended her. When she came back to life she asked no questions but left her neighbor's house and came to her door, where she was standing now, and gazed away over the sand where he had gone, down toward Mexico.
The years went by, and she was still alone in the house where two should have been. And now far off she saw the dust blowing in a long, rolling, pinkish line. But the dust blew so often, and nothing came of it—not even the Indians.
The boy she knew was dead, but they—his murderers—remained, somewhere.
If she could have one now in her power!
The woman in black pondered, as she had so many times, how she should torture him. No pain could be too horrible. She looked at the fire in the stove, and piled on the logs—the logs that were brought with such trouble from the mountains where the trees grew. She could not make it hot enough. She dropped on her knees and watched the iron grow red. And the letters of the maker's name stamped on it grew distinct, and the word "Congress," half defaced, and the figures "64." Ah, those letters! she could have kissed the spot, for her child had touched it Charmed by the glow, when left alone, he laid his baby hand flat on it, and burned deep into the palm were those letters, "S S, 64."
She would know him among a million by that mark.
But he was dead. The Indians remained.
The woman in black stood up. Why should she not go to them? There were pools in the plain where she could drink. That would be enough.
The men were away; the women were at work. Who could stop her?
She put on her bonnet and started off down the hill through the green bushes. The air was still crisp, though the sun was hot.
The desert must have an end. She would keep on to Mexico. She walked quickly, and her dress grew gray with dust, and the air scorching, as she reached the plain. But she kept on, and only looked back once at the house on the hill, and at the window where the pale woman sat.
The dust choked her, and she stumbled, and the sole of one shoe came half off, and slapped, and banged, and delayed her as she walked. She tore it off and went on, but the sand cut and burned her so that she sat down and wept, and wanted to go back for her other pair, the ones she wore on Sundays. The hill, though, looked so distant that she wearily got up and went on, on, till she could go no more, and crept under the shadow of a rock. There was no water near. Her throat was parched, and her temples beat wildly. She must go back and start again, strengthened, fortified. She would start tomorrow, or at night, when the cool would let her get too far to return.
By slow degrees she dragged herself up the hill. The pale woman came out of her house, and nodded, but the woman in black did not smile in return. She closed her door, and went up to her bed, and fell on it, and slept, amid the buzzing of the flies and the fitful flapping of the window-shade in the breeze.
The pale woman sighed and glanced across the plain. The roll of blowing dust was larger, and more regular, and nearer. The woman shuddered as she watched it creep slowly along behind the sand mounds. "It always blows," she said to herself, "but not like that, so steadily, so even." She strained her eyes, but there was only dust to be seen. Then she thought of a telescope that belonged to the minister's wife, who came from a seaport town, and ran to fetch it. The two women came out with it together, the minister's wife laughing at her friend, she was such a timid thing! But the pale woman was paler than ever, and trembled so she could not steady it. The laughing one looked through it, and laughed no more.
"I see a head over the mound there," she said.
The pale woman shrieked.
"They are miles away. We may have time."
"To get away."
"They may be friends—"
"They are Indians! White men would not live through that sand. We must go to the woods. Help me. Warn the women. Gather the children. Come."
She rushed into her house. The other still stood and looked.
The dust cloud was a little nearer. In a moment all was wild confusion, names were called, but not loudly, girls sobbed, some carried their little treasures, mothers held their children. All gathered together, hidden from the plain by a house.
The pale woman led out her father, then ran to her neighbor's door. She opened it, and called clearly, but softly, "Mary, Mary." There was no answer. The woman in black, on her bed, slept on. Her neighbor hesitated, then hurried after the others, as they ran up the low hills toward the mountains, where their men had gone.
The dust cloud grew nearer. Now and then a head could be seen. But all was as still as the grave. The woman in black slept heavily and dreamed that revenge had come at last—that in her hand she held an Indian's head.
The window-shade flapped loudly, and she woke with an apprehension crushing her. She went to the window and looked out. There was no blowing dust upon the plains, and the street was empty. The doors of the houses stood open; a shawl lay in the middle of the road. The woman leaned out and looked toward the woods.
She saw on the crest of a hill the white skirts of the flying women, and then, below, down the road, her ears sharpened, her heart tightening, she heard the soft, regular thumping of horses' feet.
Then she knew.
She sat on the edge of the bed. This was what she had waited for! Was it her turn now?—or theirs again?
She could kill one.
Where was her gun?
She had loaned it to the men.
But her axe—that was below.
As she started for it, there was a burst of war cries.
She ran down the narrow stairs, and took the axe from its place on the wall.
They were passing her door. The room grew lighter. She turned. One stood in the open doorway, black against the sunshine. She set her teeth hard, hid the axe behind her skirts, watched him motionless.
He stretched out his hand clawlike, and laughed, his eyes gleaming, as catlike he moved nearer, A terror seized her: with a hoarse cry, she sprang up the stairs, flinging down a chair as he followed panting.
Quickly she climbed up the ladder to the loft, threw down the trapdoor, fell on it, bolted it, waited. All was still. Outside she heard the distant yells. She stooped noiselessly and put her ear upon the floor. There was soft breathing underneath, and through a crack in the floor she saw an eye peering up at her.
She stood a long time, motionless, axe in hand, ready.
Her back was to the bolt, but suddenly she felt that there was something there. She turned softly. A slim brown hand was almost through a crevice in the floor.
She raised her axe. The slender fingers touched the bolt and gently drew it back.
Then with the force of all her hatred fell the axe upon the wrist. The hand sprang up at her. With a howl of agony the creature fell bumping beneath.
Then all again was still.
Her face was wet and warm with the spattered blood.
Outside she heard the crackling of a burning house, then gunshots far away, and distant shouts. On tiptoe she went to the garret window, and peeped round its edge. Over the hills, quite near, she saw the men returning. One house was blazing—the minister's. The Indians were retreating. Near her door, grazing, stood a riderless horse. She knew its owner. As they rode past, they caught at it, but were stopped by a shout from her door. An Indian rushed out, handsome, young, holding aloft a bare right arm without a hand. In his language he shrieked to them for revenge, pointing up with his red wrist to the attic where she stood.
The eyes of the woman shot fire. She leaned far out and shook her fist from the garret window.
"One Indian at least!"
She hurled the axe at them. It fell far short. They fired as they passed, but none hit her. Nearer came the men.
The wounded man leaped to his horse and with a curse rode on. The woman laughed as he passed beneath, then sat down in the dusky loft with a red pool at her feet.
Shortly the men returned. Some went by down the hill, after the Indians. Others put out the fire. All was confusion, bustle, shouts.
Then the women and the children came and added to the din, and the men who had followed returned. But the woman in black sat alone in the loft, till she heard the crowd at her door below, and the voice of the pale woman say:
"Where is Mary?"
She rose and lifted the trap-door—it was unbolted—and went down.
The pale woman came to her, but she pushed her aside, and wiped her face with her sleeve.
"Are they killed? any of them?" she said. Her friend answered, "No, Mary, not one." "No harm this time," said the bearded man. "Except my house, it is burned," said the minister's wife. "We'll soon have another."
"I don't mean you!" cried the woman in black. "I mean them—red devils. Have you got any?—killed any? You"—this to Jim, who never missed a shot—"you"—this to the bearded man—"have you killed any?"
And the men answered, "No."
And one man said, "Their horses were faster than ours."
"Not one!" The woman in black drew herself up proudly. "Yes, one; better than killed. Wait." The women shrunk from her as she darted up the stair. They looked at each other wonderingly. The woman returned with something in her grasp. She flung it on the table. "It is an Indian's hand. His arm will shrivel to the bone. They will leave him some day to die in the sand." The women shuddered and drew back; the men crowded round, but they did not touch the hand.
"Are you afraid?" said the woman in black. "Afraid of that thing!"
She bent back the fingers and looked in it with a smile of contempt. Her face took an ashen hue: the hand struck the table edge and fell upon the floor. She seemed to be trying to think for a second, then she gave one awful cry, and leaned her face against the wall, with her hands hanging at her side.
The pale woman tried to go to her, but her husband drew her back, and, with a silent crowd around, slowly picked up the hand.
For a second he hesitated, then did as she had done, but gently. He bent back the fingers of the severed hand and read its history written there, "S S, 64," in white letters on the palm.
He remembered then how, twenty years ago, when she brought the child to him, he had tied its little hand in cooling salve.
It was larger now.
The whisper went around, "It is her boy's hand," and they crept toward the door.
The pale woman took a flower from her dress, one she had put there hours before, and placed it in the brown fingers on the table and went out.
The woman did not stir from the wall. "Leave the hand," she said.
"It is there," and the bearded man closed the door gently behind him.
The woman in black turned. Her hard eyes were dim now.. She took the hand from the table and undid her dress and placed it in her breast, and went to the window, and watched, far off, a cloud of dust made golden by the sun, as it rolled away across the plain, down toward Mexico.