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A Desert Rider

From: 'drag' Harlan

From out of the shimmering haze that veiled the mystic eastern space came
a big black horse bearing a rider. Swinging wide, to avoid the feathery
dust that lay at the base of a huge sand dune, the black horse loped,
making no sound, and seeming to glide forward without effort. Like a
somber, gigantic ghost the animal moved, heroic of mold, embodying the
spirit of the country, seeming to bear the sinister message of the
desert, the whispered promise of death, the lingering threat, the grim
mockery of life, and the conviction of futility.

The black horse had come far. The glossy coat of him was thickly
sprinkled with alkali dust, sifted upon him by the wind of his passage
through the desert; his black muzzle was gray with it; ropes of it matted
his mane, his forelock had become a gray-tinged wisp which he fretfully
tossed; the dust had rimmed his eyes, causing them to loom large and
wild; and as his rider pulled him to a halt on the western side of the
sand dune--where both horse and rider would not be visible on the sky
line--he drew a deep breath, shook his head vigorously, and blew a thin
stream of dust from his nostrils.

With head and ears erect, his eyes flaming his undying courage and his
contempt for distance and the burning heat that the midday sun poured
upon him, he gazed westward, snorting long breaths into his eager lungs.

The rider sat motionless upon him--rigid and alert. His gaze also went
into the west; and he blinked against the white glare of sun and
distance, squinting his eyes and scanning the featureless waste with
appraising glances.

In the breathless, dead calm of the desert there was no sound or
movement. On all sides the vast gray waste stretched, a yawning inferno
of dead, dry sand overhung with a brassy, cloudless sky in which swam the
huge ball of molten silver that for ages had ruled that baked and
shriveled land.

A score of miles westward--twoscore, perhaps--the shadowy peaks of some
mountains loomed upward into the mystic haze, with purple bases melting
into the horizon; southward were other mountains, equally distant and
mysterious; northward--so far away that they blurred in the vision--were
still other mountains. Intervening on all sides was the stretching,
soundless, aching void of desolation, carrying to the rider its lurking
threat of death, the promise of evil to come.

The man, however, seemed unperturbed. In his narrowed, squinting eyes as
he watched the desert was a gleam of comprehension, of knowledge intimate
and sympathetic. They glowed with the serene calm of confidence; and far
back in them lurked a glint of grim mockery. It was as though they
visualized the threatened dangers upon which they looked, answering the
threat with contempt.

The man was tall. His slim waist was girded by a cartridge belt which was
studded with leaden missiles for the rifle that reposed in the saddle
holster, and for the two heavy pistols that sagged at his hips. A gray
woolen shirt adorned his broad shoulders; a scarlet neckerchief at his
throat which had covered his mouth as he rode was now drooping on his
chest; and the big, wide-brimmed felt hat he wore was jammed far down
over his forehead. The well-worn leather chaps that covered his legs
could not conceal their sinewy strength, nor could the gauntleted leather
gloves on his hands hide the capable size of them.

He was a fixture of this great waste of world in whose center he sat. He
belonged to the country; he was as much a part of it as the somber
mountains, the sun-baked sand, the dead lava, and the hardy, evil-looking
cacti growth that raised its spined and mocking green above the arid
stretch. He symbolized the spirit of the country--from the slicker that
bulged at the cantle of the saddle behind him, to the capable gloved
hands that were now resting on the pommel of the saddle--he represented
the force which was destined to conquer the waste places.

For two days he had been fighting the desert; and in the serene calm of
his eyes was the identical indomitability that had been in them when he
had set forth. As he peered westward the strong lines around his mouth
relaxed, his lips opened a trifle, and a mirthless smile wreathed them.
He patted the shoulder of the black horse, and the dead dust ballooned
from the animal's coat and floated heavily downward.

"We're about halfway, Purgatory," he said aloud, his voice coming flat
and expressionless in the dead, vacuum-like silence. He did not cease to
peer westward nor to throw sharp glances north and south. He drew off a
glove and pushed his hat back, using a pocket handkerchief to brush the
dust from his face and running the fingers of the hand through his
hair--thereby producing another ballooning dust cloud which splayed
heavily downward.

"What's botherin' me is that shootin'," he went on, still speaking to the
black horse. "We sure enough heard it--didn't we?" He laughed, again
patting the black's shoulder. "An' you heard it first--as usual--with me
trailin' along about half a second behind. But we sure heard 'em, eh?"

The black horse whinnied lowly, whereupon the rider dismounted, and
stretched himself.

From a water-bag at the cantle of the saddle he poured water into his big
hat, watching sympathetically while the big horse drank. Some few drops
that still remained in the hat after the horse had finished he playfully
shook on the animal's head, smiling widely at the whinny of delight that
greeted the action. He merely wet his own lips from the water-bag. Then
for an instant, after replacing the bag, he stood at the black's
shoulder, his face serious.

"We'll hit the Kelso water-hole about sundown, I reckon, Purgatory," he
said. "That's certain. There's only one thing can stop us--that shootin'.
If it's Apaches, why, I reckon there's a long dry spell ahead of us; but
if it's only Greasers----"

He grinned with grim eloquence, patted the black again, and climbed into
the saddle. Again, as before, he sat silent upon his mount, scanning the
sun-scorched waste; and then he rode forward.

An hour later, during which he loped the black horse slowly, he again
drew the animal to a halt and gazed around him, frowning, his eyes
gleaming with a savage intolerance.

The shooting he had heard some time previous to his appearance at the
base of the big sand dune had not been done by Indians. He was almost
convinced of that now. Or, if Indians had done the shooting, they had not
yet observed him. The fact that he had seen no smoke signals proved that.

Still, there was the deep silence on every hand to bring doubt into his
mind; and he knew that Indians--especially Apaches--were tricky,
sometimes foregoing the smoke signals to lie in ambush. And very
likely--if they had seen him coming--they were doing that very thing:
waiting for him to ride into the trap they had prepared. He had not been
able to locate the point from which the reports had come. It had seemed
to him that they had come from a point directly westward; but he could
not be sure, for he had seen no smoke.

He talked no more to the horse, sitting rigidly in the saddle, erect, his
head bent a little forward, his chin thrusting, his lips curving with a
bitterly savage snarl. He felt the presence of living things with him in
the desert; a presentiment had gripped him--a conviction that living men
were close and hostile.

Reaching downward, he drew the rifle from the saddle holster and examined
its mechanism. Placing it across his knee, he drew out his heavy pistols,
one after another, slowly twirling the cylinders. He replaced the
pistols, making sure that the holster flaps were out of the way so that
they would not catch or drag at the weapons when he wanted to use
them--and with the rifle resting across his legs near the saddle horn, he
rode slowly forward.

He swung wide of even the small sand dunes as he passed them, and he kept
a vigilant eye upon the dead rocks that dotted the level at infrequent
intervals. Even the cactus clumps received flattering attention; and the
little stretches of greasewood that came within range of his vision were
examined closely.

At the end of half an hour he had seen nothing unusual. Here and there he
had noticed a rattler lurking in the shade of a rock or partly concealed
under the thorny blade of a sprawling cactus; and he had seen a sage hen
nestling in the hot sand. But these were fixtures--as was also the
Mexican eagle that winged its slow way in mile-wide circles in the
glaring, heat-pulsing sky.

The rider again halted the black horse. The presentiment of evil had
grown upon him, and he twisted around in the saddle, sweeping the
desolate vast level with cold, alert, puzzled eyes.

There was no object near him behind which an enemy might lie concealed;
the gray floor of the desert within many hundred miles of him was smooth
and flat and obstructionless. Far away, half a mile, perhaps, he saw a
thrusting knob of rock, with some cactus fringing it. From where he sat
in the saddle it seemed that the rock might be the peak of a mountain
reaching upward out of the sea of sand and desert waste--but it was
barren on sides and top, and would afford no concealment for an enemy,
except at its base. And even the base was not large enough to conceal
more than a few men.

The rider gazed long at the rock, but could detect no sign of movement
near it. He had turned from it, to look again into the western distance,
when Purgatory whinnied lowly.

Flashing around in the saddle, the rider again faced the rock. And he saw
movement there now. The distance was great, but the clarity of the
atmosphere brought a moving object distinctly into his vision. The object
was a man, and, like a huge fly, he was crawling rapidly up the sloping
side of the rock, toward its peak, which flattened abruptly at the

The man bore a rifle. The rider could see it dragging from the man's
hand; and in a flash the rider was out of the saddle, throwing himself
flat behind a low ridge of sand, his own rifle coming to a rest on a
small boulder as he trained its muzzle upon the man, who by this time had
reached the summit of the rocks in the distance. The rider waited,
nursing the stock of the rifle, his eyes blazing, while Purgatory,
seemingly aware of an impending tragedy, moved slowly away as though
understanding that he must not expose himself.

The rider waited, anticipating the bullet that would presently whine
toward him. And then he heard the report of the man's rifle, saw that the
smoke streak had been directed downward, as though the man on the summit
of the rock were shooting at something below him.

The rider had been pressing the trigger of his own weapon when he saw the
smoke streak. He withheld his fire when he divined that the man was not
shooting at him; and when he saw the man on the rock shoot again--downward
once more--the rider frowned with embarrassment.

"Don't even know I'm here!" he mused. "An' me gettin' ready to salivate

He got to his knees and watched, curiosity gleaming in his eyes. He saw
the man on the rock fire again--downward--and he noted a smoke spurt
answer the shot, coming upward from the base of the rock. The rider got
to his feet and peered intently at the rock. And now he saw another man
crouching near its base. This man, however, was not the one the man on
the summit of the rock was shooting at, for smoke streaks were issuing
from a weapon in that man's hand also, but they were horizontal streaks.

Therefore the rider divined that the two men must be shooting at another
who was on the far side of the rock; and he ran to Purgatory, speaking no
word until he had vaulted into the saddle. Then he spoke shortly.

"They're white men, Purgatory, an' they're havin' a private rukus, looks
like. But we're doin' some investigatin' just to see if the game's on the

Next: A Man's Reputation

Previous: Star Shine

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