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Set Afoot








From: The Heritage Of The Sioux

The tracks of the six horses led down into a rock-bottomed arroyo so
deep in most places that all view of the surrounding mesa was shut off
completely, save where the ragged tops of a distant line of hills pushed
up into the dazzling blue of the sky. The heat, down here among the
rocks, was all but unbearable; and when they discovered that no tracks
led out of the arroyo on the farther side, the Happy Family dismounted
and walked to save their horses while they divided into two parties and
hunted up and down the arroyo for the best trail.

It was just such vexatious delays as this which had kept them always a
day's ride or more behind their quarry, and Luck's hand trembled with
nervous irritability when he turned back and banded Applehead one of
those small, shrill police whistles whose sound carries so far, and
which are much used by motion-picture producers for the long-distance
direction of scenes.

"I happened to have a couple in my pocket," he explained hurriedly. "You
know the signals, don't you? One long, two short will mean you've picked
up the trail. Three or more short, quick ones is an emergency call, for
all hands to come running."

"Well, they's one thing you want to keep in mind, Luck," Applehead urged
from his superior trail craft. "They might be sharp enough to ride in
here a ways and come out the same side they rode in at. Yuh want to hunt
both sides as yuh go up."

"Sure," said Luck, and hurried away up the arroyo with Pink, Big
Medicine, Andy and the Native Son at his heels, leading the two
pack-horses that belonged to their party. In the opposite direction went
Applehead and the others, their eyes upon the ground watching for the
faintest sign of hoofprints.

That blazing ball of torment, the sun, slid farther and farther down to
the skyline, tempering its heat with the cool promise of dusk. Away up
the arroyo, Luck stopped for breath after a sharp climb up through a
narrow gash in the sheer wall of what was now a small canon, and saw
that to search any farther in that direction would be useless. Across
the arroyo--that had narrowed and deepened until it was a canon--Andy
Green was mopping his face with his handkerchief and studying a bold
hump of jumbled bowlders and ledges, evidently considering whether it
was worth while toiling up to the top. A little below him, the Native
Son was flinging rocks at a rattlesnake with the vicious precision of
frank abhorrence. Down in the canon bottom Big Medicine and Pink were
holding the horses on the shady side of the gorge, and the smoke of
their cigarettes floated lazily upward with the jumbled monotone of
their voices.

Andy, glancing across at Luck, waved his hand and sat down on a
rock that was shaded by a high bowlder; reached mechanically for his
"makings" and with his feet far apart and his elbows on his thighs,
wearily rolled a cigarette.

"How about it, boss?" he asked, scarcely raising his voice above the
ordinary conversational tone, though a hard fifteen-minutes' climb up
and down separated the two; "they never came up the arroyo, if you ask
ME. My side don't show a hoof track from where we left the boys down
below."

"Mine either," Luck replied, by the power of suggestion seating himself
and reaching for his own tobacco and papers. "We might as well work back
down and connect with Applehead. Wish there was some sign of water in
this darn gulch. By the time we get down where we started from, it'll be
sundown." He glanced down at Bud and Pink. "Hey! You can start back any,
time," he called. "Nothing up this way."

"Here's the grandfather of all rattlers," Miguel called across to Luck,
and held up by the tail a great snake that had not ceased its muscular
writhings. "Twelve rattles and a button. Have I got time to skin him? He
tried to bite me on the leg--but I beard him and got outa reach."

"We've got to be moving," Luck answered. "It's a long ways back where
we started from, and we've got to locate water, if we can." He rose with
the deliberateness that indicated tired muscles, and started back; and
to himself he muttered exasperatedly: "A good three hours all shot to
pieces--and not a mile gained on that bunch!"

The Native Son, calmly pinching the rattles of the snake he had not time
to skin, climbed down into the Canon and took his horse by the bridle
reins. Behind him Andy Green came scrambling; but Luck, still faintly
hoping for a clue, kept to the upper rim of the arroyo, scanning every
bit of soft ground where it seemed possible for a horse to climb up from
below. He had always recognized the native cunning of Ramon, but he had
never dreamed him as cunning as this latest ruse would seem to prove
him.

As for Bill Holmes, Luck dismissed him with a shrug of contempt. Bill
Holmes had been stranded in Albuquerque when the cold weather was coming
on; he had been hungry and shelterless and ill-clad--one of those bits
of flotsam which drift into our towns and stand dejectedly upon our
street-corners when they do not prowl down alleys to the back doors of
our restaurants in the hope of being permitted to wash the soiled dishes
of more fortunate men for the food which diners have left beside their
plates. Luck had fed Bill Holmes, and he had given him work to do and
the best food and shelter he could afford; and for thanks, Bill had--as
Luck believed--made sly, dishonest love to Annie-Many-Ponies, for whose
physical and moral welfare Luck would be held responsible. Bill had
deliberately chosen to steal rather than work for honest wages, and had
preferred the unstable friendship of Ramon Chavez to the cleaner life
in Luck's company. He did not credit Bill Holmes with anything stronger
than a weak-souled treachery. Ramon, he told himself while he made his
way down the arroyo side, was at least working out a clever scheme of
his own, and it rested with Luck and his posse to see that Ramon was
cheated of success.

So deeply was he engrossed that before he realized it he was down where
they had left Applehead's party. There was no sign of them anywhere, so
Luck went down and mounted his horse and led the way down the arroyo.

Already the heat was lessening and the land was taking on those
translucent opal tints which make of New Mexico a land of enchantment.
The far hills enveloped themselves in a faint, purplish haze through
which they seemed to blush unwittingly. The mesa, no longer showing
itself an and waste of heat and untracked wilderness, lay soft under a
thin veil of many ethereal tints. Away off to the northeast they heard
the thin, vague clamor of a band of sheep and the staccato barking of a
dog.

Luck rode for some distance, his uneasiness growing as the shadows
deepened with the setting of the sun. They had gone too far to hear
any whistled signal, but it seemed to him reasonable to suppose that
Applehead would return to their starting point, whether he found the
trail or not; or at least send a man back. Luck began to think more
seriously of Applehead's numerous warnings about the Indians--and yet,
there had been no sound of shooting, which is the first sign of trouble
in this country. Rifle shots can be heard a long way in this clear air;
so Luck presently dismissed that worry and gave his mind to the very
real one which assailed them all; which was water for their horses.

The boys were riding along in silence, sitting over to one side with a
foot dangling free of its stirrup; except Andy, who had hooked one
leg over the saddle-horn and was riding sidewise, smoking a meditative
cigarette and staring out between the ears of his horse. They were
tired; horses and men, they were tired to the middle of their bones.
But they went ahead without making any complaints whatever or rasping
oneanother's tempers with ill-chosen remarks; and for that Luck's eyes
brightened with appreciation.

Presently, when they had ridden at least a mile down the arroyo, a gray
hat-crown came bobbing into sight over a low tongue of rocky ground
that cut the channel almost in two. The horses threw up their heads and
perked cars forward inquiringly, and in a moment Happy Tack came into
view, his gloomy, sunburned face wearing a reluctant grin.

"Well, we got on the trail," he announced as soon as he was close
enough. "And we follered it to water. Applehead says fer you to come on
and make camp. Tracks are fresher around that' water-hole'n what they
have been, an' Applehead, he's all enthused. I betche we land them
fellers t'morrow."

Out of the arroyo in a place where the scant grassland lapped down over
the edge, Happy Jack led the way and the rest followed eagerly. Too
often had they made dry camp not to feel jubilant over the prospect even
of a brackish water-hole. Even the horses seemed to know and to step out
more briskly. Straight across the mesa with its deceptive lights that
concealed distance behind a glamor of intimate nearness, they rode into
the deepening dusk that had a glow all through it. After a while they
dipped into a grassy draw so shallow that they hardly realized the
descent until they dismounted at the bottom, where Applehead was already
starting a fire and the others were laying out their beds and doing the
hundred little things that make for comfort in camp.

A few bushes and a stunted tree or two marked the spring that seeped
down and fed a shallow water-hole where the horses drank thirstily.
Applehead grinned and pointed to the now familiar hoofprints which they
had followed so far.

"I calc'late Ramon done a heap uh millin' around back there in that
rocky arroyo," he observed, "'fore he struck off over here. Er else they
was held up fer some reason, 'cause them tracks is fresher a hull lot
than what them was that passed the Injun ranch. Musta laid over here
las' night, by the looks. But I figgered that we'd best camp whilst we
had water, 'n' take up the trail agin at daybreak. Ain't that about the
way you see it, Luck?"

"Why, certainly," Luck assured him with as much heartiness as his utter
weariness would permit. "Men and horses, we're about all in. If Ramon
was just over the next ridge, I don't know but it would pay to take our
rest before we overhaul them."

"They's grass here, yuh notice," Applehead pointed out. "I'll put the
bell on Johnny, and if Pink'll bobble that buckskin that's allus wantin'
to wander off by hisself, I calc'late we kin settle down an' rest our
bones quite awhile b'fore anybody needs to go on guard. Them ponies
ain't goin' to stray fur off if they don't have to, after the groun'
they covered t'day--now I'm tellin' yuh! They'll save their steps."

There is a superstition about prophesying too boastfully that a certain
thing will or will not happen; you will remember that there is also a
provision that the rash prophet may avert disaster by knocking wood.
Applehead should, if there is any grain of sense in the rite, have
knocked wood with his fingers crossed as an extra precaution, against
evil fortune.

For after they had eaten and methodically packed away the food, and
while they were lying around the cheerful glow of their little campfire,
misfortune stole up out of the darkness unaware. They talked desultorily
as tired men will, their alertness dulled by the contented tinkle-tinkle
of the little bell strapped around the neck of big, bay Johnny,
Applehead's companion of many a desert wandering. That brilliant
constellation which seems to hang just over one's head in the high
altitude of our sagebrush states, held hypnotically the sleepy gaze of
Pink, whose duty it was to go on guard when the others turned in for the
night. He lay with his locked fingers under his head, staring up at one
particularly bright group of stars, and listened to the droning voice
of Applehead telling of a trip he had made out into this country five or
six years before; and soaking in the peace and the comfort which was all
the more precious because he knew that soon he must drag his weary body
into the saddle and ride out to stand guard over the horses. Once he
half rose, every movement showing his reluctance.

Whereupon Weary, who sprawled next to him, reached out a languid foot
and gave him a poke. "Aw, lay down," he advised. "They're all right out
there for another hour. Don't yuh hear the bell?"

They all listened for a minute. The intermittent tinkle of the cheap
little sheep bell came plainly to them from farther down the draw as
though Johnny was eating contentedly with his mates, thankful for the
leisure and the short, sweet grass that was better than hay. Pink lay
back with a sigh of relief, and Luck told him to sleep a little if he
wanted to, because everything was all right and he would call him if the
horses got to straying too far off.

Down the draw--where there were no horses feeding--an Indian in dirty
overalls and gingham shirt and moccasins, and with his hair bobbed to
his collar, stood up and peered toward the vague figures grouped in the
fire-glow. He lifted his hand and moved it slightly, so that the bell he
was holding tinkled exactly as it had done when it was strapped around
Johnny's neck; Johnny, who was at that moment trailing disgustedly over
a ridge half a mile away with his mates, driven by two horsemen who rode
very carefully, so as to make no noise.

The figures settled back reassured, and the Indian grinned sourly and
tinkled the little bell painstakingly, with the matchless patience of
the Indian. It was an hour before he dimly saw Pink get up from the
dying coals and mount his horse. Then, still tinkling the bell as a
feeding horse would have made it ring, he moved slowly down the draw;
slowly, so that Pink did not at first suspect that the bell sounded
farther off than before; slowly yet surely, leading Pink farther and
farther in the hope of speedily overtaking the horses that he cursed for
their wandering.

Pink wondered, after a little, what was the matter with the darned
things, wandering off like that by themselves, and with no possible
excuse that he could see. For some time he was not uneasy; he expected
to overtake them within the next five or ten minutes. They would stop to
feed, surely, or to look back and listen--in a strange country like this
it was against horse-nature that they should wander far away at night
unless they were thirsty and on the scent of water. These horses had
drunk their fill at the little pool below the spring. They should
be feeding now, or they should lie down and sleep, or stand up and
sleep--anything but travel like this, deliberately away from camp.

Pink tried loping, but the ground was too treacherous and his horse too
leg-weary to handle its feet properly in the dark. It stumbled several
times, so he pulled down again to a fast walk. For a few minutes he
did not hear the bell at all, and when he did it was not where he had
expected to hear it, but away off to one side. So he had gained nothing
save in anger and uneasiness.

There was no use going back to camp and rousing the boys, for he was now
a mile or so away; and they would be afoot, since their custom was to
keep but one horse saddled. When he went in to call the next guard he
would be expected to bring that man's horse back with him, and would
turn his own loose before he went to sleep. Certainly there was nothing
to be gained by rousing the camp.

He did not suspect the trick being played upon him, though he did wonder
if someone was leading the horses away. Still, in that case whoever
did it would surely have sense enough to muffle the bell. Besides, it
sounded exactly like a horse feeding and moving away at random--which,
to those familiar with the sound, can never be mistaken for the tinkle
of an animal traveling steadily to some definite point.

It was an extremely puzzled young man who rode and rode that night in
pursuit of that evasive, nagging, altogether maddening tinkle. Always
just over the next little rise he would hear it, or down in the next
little draw; never close enough for him to discover the trick; never far
enough away for him to give up the chase. The stars he had been watching
in camp swam through the purple immensity above him and slid behind
the skyline. Other stars as brilliant appeared and began their slow,
swimming journey. Pink rode, and stopped to listen, and rode on again
until it seemed to him that he must be dreaming some terribly realistic
nightmare.

He was sitting on his horse on a lava-crusted ridge, straining bloodshot
eyes into the mesa that stretched dimly before him, when dawn came
streaking the sky with blood orange and purple and crimson. The stars
were quenched in that flood of light; and Pink, looking now with clearer
vision, saw that there was no living thing in sight save a coyote
trotting home from his night's hunting. He turned short around and,
getting his bearings from his memory of certain stars and from the sun
that was peering at him from the top of a bare peak, and from that sense
of direction which becomes second nature to a man who had lived long on
the range, started for camp with his ill news.





Next: One Put Over On The Bunch

Previous: The Wild-goose Chase



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