Informational Site NetworkInformational Site Network
Privacy
 
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


I Stake Again








From: Desert Dust

They were indistinguishable except as vocal sounds deadened by the
impeding fog; but human voices they certainly were. Throwing off her robe
she abruptly sat up, seeking, her features tensed with the strain. She
beckoned to me. I scuttled over, as anxious as she. The voices might be
far, they might be near; but it was an eerie situation, as if we were
neighboring with warlocks.

"I've been hearing them some little while," she whispered.

"The Captain Adams men may be trailing us?"

"I hope not! Oh, I hope not," she gasped, in sheer agony. "If we might
only know in time."

Suddenly the fog was shot with gold, as the sun flashed in. In obedience
to the command a slow and stately movement began, by all the troops of
mist. The myriad elements drifted in unison, marching and countermarching
and rearranging, until presently, while we crouched intent to fathom the
secrets of their late camp, a wondrously beautiful phenomenon offered.

The great army rose for flight, lifting like a blanket. Gradually the
earth appeared in glimpses beneath their floating array, so that whereas
our plot of higher ground was still invested, stooping low and scanning we
could see beyond us by the extent of a narrow thinning belt capped with
the heavier white.

"There!" she whispered, pointing. "Look! There they are!"

Feet, legs, moving of themselves, cut off at the knees by the fog layer,
distant not more than short rifle range: that was what had been revealed.
A peculiar, absurd spectacle of a score or two of amputated limbs now
resurrected and blindly in quest of bodies.

"The Mormons!" I faltered.

"No! Leggins! Moccasins! They are Indians. We must leave right away before
they see us."

With our stuff she ran, I ran, for the mules. We worked rapidly, bridling
and saddling while the fog rose with measured steadiness.

"Hurry!" she bade.

The whole desert was a golden haze when having packed we climbed
aboard--she more spry than I, so that she led again.

As we urged outward the legs, behind, had taken to themselves thighs. But
the mist briefly eddied down upon us; our mules' hoofs made no sound
appreciable, on the scantily moistened soil; we lost the legs, and the
voices, and pressing the pace I rode beside her.

"Where?" I inquired.

"As far as we can while the fog hangs. Then we must hide in the first good
place. If they don't strike our trail we'll be all right."

The fog lingered in patches. From patch to patch we threaded, with many a
glance over shoulder. But time was traveling faster. I marked her
searching about nervously. Blue had already appeared above, the sun found
us again and again, and the fog remnants went spinning and coiling, in
last ghostly dance like that of frenzied wraiths.

Now we came to a rough outcrop of red sandstone, looming ruddily on our
right. She quickly swerved for it.

"The best chance. I see nothing else," she muttered. "We can tie the mules
under cover, and wait. We'll surely be spied if we keep on."

"Couldn't we risk it?"

"No. We've not start enough."

In a moment we had gained the refuge. The sculptured rock masses, detached
one from another, several jutting ten feet up, received us. We tied the
mules short, in a nook at the rear; and we ourselves crawled on, farther
in, until we lay snug amidst the shadowing buttresses, with the desert
vista opening before us.

The fog wraiths were very few; the sun blazed more vehemently and wiped
them out, so that through the marvelously clear air the expanse of lone,
weird country stood forth clean cut. No moving object could escape notice
in this watchful void. And we had been just in time. The slight knoll had
been left not a mile to the southwest. I heard My Lady catch breath, felt
her hand find mine as we lay almost touching. Rounding the knoll there
appeared a file of mounted figures; by their robes and blankets, their
tufted lances and gaudy shields, yes, by the very way they sat their
painted ponies, Indians unmistakably.

"They must have been camped near us all night." And she shuddered. "Now if
they only don't cross our trail. We mustn't move."

They came on at a canter, riding bravely, glancing right and left--a score
of them headed by a scarlet-blanketed man upon a spotted horse. So
transparent was the air, washed by the fog and vivified by the sun, that I
could decipher the color pattern of his shield emblazonry: a checkerboard
of red and black.

"A war party. Sioux, I think," she said. "Don't they carry scalps on that
first lance? They've been raiding the stage line. Do you see any squaws?"

"No," I hazarded, with beating heart. "All warriors, I should guess."

"All warriors. But squaws would be worse."

On they cantered, until their paint stripes and daubs were hideously
plain; we might note every detail of their savage muster. They were
paralleling our outward course; indeed, seemed to be diverging from our
ambush and making more to the west. And I had hopes that, after all, we
were safe. Then her hand clutched mine firmly. A wolf had leaped from
covert in the path of the file; loped eastward across the desert, and
instantly, with a whoop that echoed upon us like the crack of doom, a
young fellow darted from the line in gay pursuit.

My Lady drew quick breath, with despairing exclamation.

"That is cruel, cruel! They might have ridden past; but now--look!"

The stripling warrior (he appeared to be scarcely more than a boy)
hammered in chase, stringing his bow and plucking arrow. The wolf cast eye
over plunging shoulder, and lengthened. Away they tore, while the file
slackened, to watch. Our trail of flight bore right athwart the wolf's
projected route. There was just the remote chance that the lad would
overrun it, in his eagerness; and for that intervening moment of grace we
stared, fascinated, hand clasping hand.

"He's found it! He's found it!" she announced, in a little wail.

In mid-career the boy had checked his pony so shortly that the four hoofs
ploughed the sand. He wheeled on a pivot and rode back for a few yards,
scanning the ground, letting the wolf go. The stillness that had settled
while we gazed and the file of warriors, reining, gazed, gripped and
fairly hurt. I cursed the youth. Would to God he had stayed at home--God
grant that mangy wolf died by trap or poison. Our one chance made the
sport of an accidental view-halloo, when all the wide desert was open.

The youth had halted again, leaning from his saddle pad. He raised, he
flung up glad hand and commenced to ride in circles, around and around and
around. The band galloped to him.

"Yes, he has found it," she said. "Now they will come."

"What shall we do?" I asked her.

And she answered, releasing my hand.

"I don't know. But we must wait. We can stand them off for a while, I
suppose----"

"I'll do my best, with the revolver," I promised.

"Yes," she murmured. "But after that----?"

I had no reply. This contingency--we two facing Indians--was outside my
calculations.

The Indians had grouped; several had dismounted, peering closely at our
trail, reading it, timing it, accurately estimating it. They had no
difficulty, for the hoof prints were hardly dried of the fog moisture. The
others sat idly, searching the horizons with their eyes, but at confident
ease. In the wide expanse this rock fortress of ours seemed to me to
summon imperatively, challenging them. They surely must know. Yet there
they delayed, torturing us, playing blind, emulating cat and mouse; but of
course they were reasoning and making certain.

Now the dismounted warriors vaulted ahorse; at a gesture from the chief
two men rode aside, farther to the east, seeking other sign. They found
none, and to his shrill hail they returned.

There was another command. The company had strung bows, stripped their
rifles of the buckskin sheaths, had dropped robe and blanket about their
loins; they spread out to right and left in close skirmish order; they
advanced three scouts, one on the trail, one on either flank; and in a
broadened front they followed with a discipline, an earnestness, a
precision of purpose and a deadly anticipation that drowned every fleeting
hope.

This was unbearable: to lie here awaiting an inevitable end.

"Shall we make a break for it?" I proposed. "Ride and fight? We might
reach the train, or a stage station. Quick!"

In my wild desire for action I half arose. Her hand restrained me.

"It would be madness, Mr. Beeson. We'd stand no show at all in the open;
not on these poor mules." She murmured to herself. "Yes, they're Sioux.
That's not so bad. Were they Cheyennes--dog-soldiers---- Let me think. I
must talk with them."

"But they're coming," I rasped. "They're getting in range. We've the gun,
and twenty cartridges. Maybe if I kill the chief----"

She spoke, positive, under breath.

"Don't shoot! Don't! They know we're here--know it perfectly well. I shall
talk with them."

"You? How? Why? Can you persuade them? Would they let us go?"

"I'll do what I can. I have a few words of Sioux; and there's the sign
language. See," she said. "They've discovered our mules. They know we're
only two."

The scouts on either flanks had galloped outward and onward, in swift
circle, peering at our defenses. Lying low they scoured at full speed;
with mutual whoop they crisscrossed beyond and turned back for the main
body halted two hundred yards out upon the flat plain.

There was a consultation; on a sudden a great chorus of exultant cries
rang, the force scattered, shaking fists and weapons, preparing for a
tentative charge; and ere I could stop her My Lady had sprung upright, to
mount upon a rock and all in view to hold open hand above her head. The
sunshine glinted upon her hair; a fugitive little breeze bound her shabby
gown closer about her slim figure.

They had seen her instantly. Another chorus burst, this time in
astonishment; a dozen guns were leveled, covering her and our nest while
every visage stared. But no shot belched; thank God, no shot, with me
powerless to prevent, just as I was powerless to intercept her. The chief
rode forward, at a walk, his hand likewise lifted.



"Keep down! Keep down, please," she directed to me, while she stood
motionless. "Let me try."

The chief neared until we might see his every lineament--every item of his
trappings, even to the black-tipped eagle feather erect at the part in his
braids. And he rode carelessly, fearlessly, to halt within easy speaking
distance; sat a moment, rifle across his leggined thighs and the folds of
his scarlet blanket--a splendid man, naked from the waist up, his coppery
chest pigment-daubed, his slender arms braceleted with metal, his eyes
devouring her so covetously that I felt the gloating thoughts behind
them.

He called inquiringly: a greeting and a demand in one, it sounded. She
replied. And what they two said, in word and sign, I could not know, but
all the time I held my revolver upon him, until to my relief he abruptly
wheeled his horse and cantered back to his men, leaving me with wrist
aching and heart pounding madly.

She stepped lightly down; answered my querying look.

"It's all right. I'm going, and so are you," she said, with a faint smile,
oddly subtle--a tremulous smile in a white face.

About her there was a mystery which alarmed me; made me sit up, chilled,
to eye her and accuse.

"Where? We are free, you mean? What's the bargain?"

"I go to them. You go where you choose--to the stage road, of course. I
have his promise."

This brought me to my feet, rigid; more than scandalized, for no word can
express the shock.

"You go to them? And then where?"

She answered calmly, flushing a little, smiling a little, her eyes
sincere.

"It's the best way and the only way. We shall neither of us be harmed,
now. The chief will provide for me and you yourself are free. No, no," she
said, checking my first indignant cry. "Really I don't mind. The Indians
are about the only persons left to me. I'll be safe with them." She
laughed rather sadly, but brightened. "I don't know but that I prefer them
to the whites. I told you I had no place. And this saves you also, you
see. I got you into it--I've felt that you blamed me, almost hated me.
Things have been breaking badly for me ever since we met again in Benton.
So it's up to me to make good. You can go home, and I shall not be
unhappy, I think. Please believe that. The wife of a great chief is quite
a personage--he won't inquire into my past. But if we try to stay here you
will certainly be killed, and I shall suffer, and we shall gain nothing.
You must take my money. Please do. Then good-bye. I told him I would come
out, under his promise."

She and the rocks reeled together. That was my eyes, giddy with a rush of
blood, surging and hot.

"Never, never, never!" I was shouting, ignoring her hand. How she had
misjudged me! What a shame she had put upon me! I could not credit. "You
shall not--I tell you, you sha'n't. I won't have it--it's monstrous,
preposterous. You sha'n't go, I sha'n't go. But wherever we go we'll go
together. We'll stand them off. Then if they can take us, let 'em. You
make a coward of me--a dastard. You've no right to. I'd rather die."

"Listen," she chided, her hand grasping my sleeve. "They would take me
anyway--don't you see? After they had killed you. It would be the worse
for both of us. What can you do, with one arm, and a revolver, and an
unlucky woman? No, Mr. Beeson (she was firm and strangely formal); the
cards are faced up. I have closed a good bargain for both of us. When you
are out, you need say nothing. Perhaps some day I may be ransomed, should
I wish to be. But we can talk no further now. He is impatient. The
money--you will need the money, and I shall not. Please turn your back and
I'll get at my belt. Why," she laughed, "how well everything is coming.
You are disposed of, I am disposed of----"

"Money!" I roared. "God in Heaven! You disposed of? I disposed of? And my
honor, madam! What of that?"

"And what of mine, Mr. Beeson?" She stamped her foot, coloring. "Will you
turn your back, or----? Oh, we've talked too long. But the belt you shall
have. Here----" She fumbled within her gown. "And now, adios and good
luck. You shall not despise me."

The chief was advancing accompanied by a warrior. Behind him his men
waited expectant, gathered as an ugly blotch upon the dun desert. Her
honor? The word had double meaning. Should she sacrifice the one honor in
this crude essay to maintain the other which she had not lost, to my now
opened eyes? I could not deliver her tender body over to that painted
swaggerer--any more than I could have delivered it over to Daniel himself.
At last I knew, I knew. History had written me a fool, and a cad, but it
should not write me a dastard. We were together, and together we should
always be, come weal or woe, life or death.

The money belt had been dropped at my feet. She had turned--I leaped
before her, thrust her to rear, answered the hail of the pausing chief.

"No!" I squalled. And I added for emphasis: "You go to hell."

He understood. The phrase might have been familiar English to him. I saw
him stiffen in his saddle; he called loudly, and raised his rifle,
threatening; with a gasp--a choked "Good-bye"--she darted by me, running
on for the open and for him. She and he filled all my landscape. In a
stark blinding rage of fear, chagrin, rancorous jealousy, I leveled
revolver and pulled trigger, but not at her, though even that was not
beyond me in the crisis.

The bullet thwacked smartly; the chief uttered a terrible cry, his rifle
was tossed high, he bowed, swayed downward, his comrade grabbed him, and
they were racing back closely side by side and she was running back to me
and the warriors were shrieking and brandishing their weapons and bullets
spatted the rocks--all this while yet my hand shook to the recoil of the
revolver and the smoke was still wafting from the poised muzzle.

What had I done? But done it was.





Next: The Queen Wins

Previous: Voices In The Void



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 433