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The Wild-goose Chase








From: The Heritage Of The Sioux

Because they had no human means of knowing anything about the black
automobile that bad whirled across the mesa to the southeast and left
its mysterious passengers in one of the arroyos that leads into the
Sandias Mountains near Coyote Springs, nine cowpuncher deputy-sheriffs
bored their way steadily through sun and wind and thirst, traveling due
northwest, keeping always on the trail of the six horses that traveled
steadily before them Always a day's march behind, always watching
hopefully for some sign of delay--for an encouraging freshness in the
tracks that would show a lessening distance between the two parties,
Luck and his Happy Family rode--from dawn till dusk, from another dawn
to another dusk. Their horses, full of little exuberant outbursts of
horse-foolishness when they had left town, settled clown to a dogged,
plodding half walk, half trot which is variously described upon the
range; Luck, for instance, calling it poco-poco; while the Happy Family
termed it running-walk, trail-trot, fox-trot--whatever came easiest to
their tongues at the time. Call it what they pleased, the horses came to
a point where they took the gait mechanically whenever the country was
decently level. They forgot to shy at strange objects, and they never
danced away from a foot lifted to the stirrup when the sky was flaunting
gorgeous bantiers to herald the coming of the sun. More than once they
were thankful to have the dust washed from their nostrils and to let
that pass for a drink. For water holes were few and far between when
they struck that wide, barren land ridged here and there with hills of
rock.

Twice the trail of the six horses was lost, because herds of cattle had
passed between those who rode in baste before, and those who followed in
haste a day's ride behind. They saw riders in the distance nearly
every day, but only occasionally did any Indians come within speaking
distance. These were mostly headed townward in wagons and rickety old
buggies, with the men riding dignifiedly on the spring seat and the
squaws and papooses sitting flat in the bottom behind. These family
parties became more and more inclined to turn and stare after the Happy
Family, as if they were puzzling over the errand that would take nine
men riding close-grouped across the desert, with four pack-horses to
proclaim the journey a long one.

When the trail swung sharply away from the dim wagon road and into the
northwest where the land lay parched and pitiless under the hot sun, the
Happy Family hitched their gun-belts into place, saw to it that their
canteens were brimming with the water that was so precious, and turned
doggedly that way, following the lead of Applehead, who knew the country
fairly well, and of Luck, who did not know the country, but who knew
that he meant to overhaul Ramon Chavez and Bill Holmes, go where they
would, and take them back to jail. If they could ride across this barren
stretch, said Luck to Applehead, he and his bunch could certainly follow
them.

"Well, this is kinda takin' chances," Applehead observed soberly,
"unless Ramon, he knows whar's the water-holes. If he does hit water
regular, I calc'late we kin purty nigh foller his lead. They's things
I don't like about the way this here trail is leading out this way, now
I'm tellin' yuh! Way we're goin', we'll be in the Seven Lakes country
'fore we know it. Looks to me like them greasers must stand in purty
well with the Navvies--'n' if they do, it'll be dang hard pullin' to git
'em away 'n! outa here. 'N' if they don't stand in, they'd oughta bore
more west than what they're doin'. Looks dang queer to me, now I'm
tellin' ye!"

"Well, all I want is to overtake them. We'll do it, too. The little
grain these horses get is showing its worth right now," Luck cheered
him. "They're keeping up better than I was afraid they would. We've
got that advantage--a Mexican don't as a rule grain his horses, and the
chances are that Ramon thought more about the gold than he did about
carrying horse-feed. We can hold on longer than he can, Applehead."

"We can't either," Applehead disputed, "because if Ramon takes a notion
he'll steal fresh horses from the Injuns."

"I thought you said he stood in with the Injuns," Weary spoke up from
the ambling group, behind. "You're kinda talkin' in circles, ain't you,
Applehead?"

"Well, I calc'late yuh jest about got to talk in circles to git
anywheres near Ramon," Applehead retorted, looking back at the others.
"They's so, dang many things he MIGHT be aimin' to do, that I ain't been
right easy in my mind the last day or two, and I'm tellin' ye so. 'S
like a storm--I kin smell trouble two days off; that's mebby why I'm
still alive an' able to fork a boss. An' I'm tellin' you right now, I
kin smell trouble stronger'n a polecat under the chicken-house!"

"Well, by cripes, let 'er come!" Big Medicine roared cheerfully,
inspecting a battered plug of "chewin'" to see where was the most
inviting corner in which to set his teeth. "Me'n' trouble has locked
horns more'n once, 'n' I'd feel right lonesome if I thought our trails'd
never cross agin. Why, down in Coconino County--" He went off into a
long recital of certain extremely bloody chapters in the history of
that famed county as chronicled by one Bud Welch, otherwise known as Big
Medicine--and not because of his modesty, you may be sure.

Noon of that day found them plodding across a high, barren mesa under a
burning sun. Since red dawn they had been riding, and the horses showed
their need of water. They lagged often into a heavy-footed walk and
their ears drooped dispiritedly. Even Big Medicine found nothing
cheerful to say. Luck went out of his way to gain the top of every
little rise, and to scan the surrounding country through his field
glasses. The last time he came sliding down to the others his face
was not so heavy with anxiety and his voice when he spoke had a new
briskness.

"There's a ranch of some kind straight ahead about two miles," he
announced. "I could see a green patch, so there must be water around
there somewhere. We'll make noon camp there, and maybe we can dig up a
little information. Ramon must have stopped there for water, and we'll
find out just how far we are behind."

The ranch, when they finally neared it, proved to be a huddle of
low, octagon-shaped huts (called hogans) made of short cedar logs and
plastered over with adobe, with a hole in the center of the lid-like
roof to let the smoke out and a little light in; and dogs, that ran out
and barked and yelped and trailed into mourning rumbles and then barked
again; and half-naked papooses that scurried like rabbits for shelter
when they rode up; and two dingy, shapeless squaws that disappeared
within a hogan and peered out at one side of the blanket door.

Luck started to dismount and make some attempt at a polite request for
water, and for information as well, but Applehead objected and finally
had his way.

If the squaws could speak English, he argued, they would lie unless they
refused to talk at all. As to the water, if there was any around the
place the bunch could find it and help themselves. "These yer Navvies
ain't yore Buffalo-Bill Sioux," he pointed out to Luck. "Yuh can't treat
'em the same. The best we kin look fer is to be left alone--an' I'm
tellin' ye straight."

Luck gave the squalid huts a long stare and turned away toward the
corral and a low shed that served as a stable. A rusty old mower and a
toothless rake and a rickety buckboard stood baking in the sun, and a
few stunted hens fluttered away from their approach. In the corral a
mangy pony blinked in dejected slumber; and all the while, the three
dogs followed them and barked and yapped and growled, until Pink turned
in the saddle with the plain intention of stopping the clamor with a
bullet or two.

"Ye better let 'em alone!" Applehead warned sharply, and Pink put up his
gun unfired and took down his rope.

"The darned things are getting on my nerves!" he complained, and wheeled
suddenly in pursuit of the meanest-looking dog of the three. "I can
stand a decent dog barking at me, but so help me Josephine, I draw the
line at Injun curs!"

The dog ran yelping toward the hogans with Pink hard at its heels
swinging his loop menacingly. When the dog, with a last hysterical yelp,
suddenly flattened its body and wriggled under a corner of the shed,
Pink turned and rode after the others, who had passed the corral and
were heading for the upper and of a small patch of green stuff that
looked like a half-hearted attempt at a vegetable garden. As he passed
the shed an Indian in dirty overalls and gingham shirt craned his neck
around the doorway and watched him malevolently; but Pink, sighting the
green patch and remembering their dire need of water, was kicking
his horse into a trot and never once thought to cast an eye over his
shoulder.

In that arid land, where was green vegetation you may be sure there was
water also. And presently the nine were distributed along a rod or
two of irrigating ditch, thankfully watching the swallows of water go
sliding hurriedly down the outstretched gullets of their horses that
leaned forward with half-bent, trembling knees, fetlock deep in the wet
sand of the ditch-banks.

"Drink, you sons-uh-guns, drink!" Weary exclaimed jubilantly, "you've
sure got it coming--and mama, how I do hate to see a good horse
suffering for a feed or water, or shelter from a storm!"

They pulled them away before they were satisfied, and led them back to
where green grass was growing. There they pulled the saddles off and let
the poor brutes feed while they unpacked food for themselves.

"It'll pay in the long run," said Luck, "to give them an hour here. I'll
pay the Injuns for what grass they eat. Ramon must have stopped here
yesterday. I'm going up and see if I can't pry a little information
loose from those squaws and papooses. Come on, Applehead--you can talk a
little Navvy; you come and tell 'em what I want."

Applehead hesitated, and with a very good reason. He might, for all he
knew, be trespassing upon the allotment of a friend or relative of
some of the Indians he had been compelled to "get" in the course of his
duties as sheriff. And at any rate they all knew him--or at least knew
of him.

"Aw, gwan, Applehead," Happy Jack urged facetiously, sure that Applehead
had tried to scare him with tales of Indians whose pastoral pursuits
proclaimed aloud their purity of souls. "Gwan! You ain't afraid of a
couple of squaws, are yuh? Go on and talk to the ladies. Mebby yuh might
win a wife if yuh just had a little nerve!"

Applehead turned and glowered. But Luck was already walking slowly
toward the hogans and looking back frequently, so Applehead contented
himself by saying, "You wait till this yere trip's over, 'fore ye git so
dang funny in yore remarks, young man!" and stalked after Luck, hitching
his six-shooter forward as he went.

At the shed, the Indian who had peered after Pink stood in the doorway
and stared unwinkingly as they came up. Applehead glanced at him sharply
from under his sorrel eyebrows and grunted. He knew him by sight well
enough, and he took it for granted that the recognition was mutual. But
he gave no sign of remembrance. Instead, he asked how much the Indian
wanted for the grass the horses would eat in an hour.

The Indian looked at the two impassively and did not say anything at
all; so Applehead flipped him a dollar.

"Now, what time did them fellows pass here yesterday?" Applehead asked,
in the half Indian, half Mexican jargon which nearly all New Mexico
Indians speak.

The Indian looked at the dollar and moved his head of bobbed hair
vaguely from left to right.

"All right, dang ye, don't talk if ye don't feel like it," Applehead
commented in wasted sarcasm, and looked at Luck for some hint of what
was wanted next. Luck seemed uncertain, so Applehead turned toward the
ditch, and the food his empty stomach craved.

"No use tryin' to make 'em talk if they ain't in the notion," he told
Luck impatiently. "He's got his dollar, and we'll take what grass
our hosses kin pack away in their bellies. That kinda winds up the
transaction, fur's I kin see."

"I wonder if another dollar--"

But Applehead interrupted him. "Another dollar might git him warmed up
so's he'd shake his danged head twicet instid uh once't," he asserted
pessimistically, "but that's all you'd git outa him. That thar buck
ain't TALKIN' today. Yuh better come an' eat 'n' rest yer laigs. If he
talked, he'd lie. We're a heap better off jest doin' our own trailin'
same as we been doin. That bunch come by here; the tracks show that. If
they went on, the tracks'll show where they headed fur. 'N' my idee is
that they'll take their time from now on. They don't know we're trailin'
'em up. I'll bet they never throwed back any scout t' watch the back
trail, In' they're in Navvy country now--whar they're purty tol'ble safe
if they stand in with the Injuns. 'N' I'm tellin' yuh right now, Luck,
I wisht I could say as much fer us!" Applehead lifted his hat and rubbed
his palm over his bald pate that was covered thickly with beads of
perspiration, as if his head were a stone jar filled with cold water.
"If we have to sep'rate, Luck, you take a fool's advice and keep yore
dang eyes open. The boys, they think I been stringin' 'em along. Mebby
you think so too, but I kin tell ye right now 't we gotta keep our dang
eyes in our haids!"

"I'm taking your word for it, Applehead," Luck told him, lowering his
voice a little because they were nearing the others. "Besides, I've
heard a lot about these tricky boys with the Dutch-cut on their hair.
I'm keeping it all in mind don't worry. But I sure am going to overhaul
Ramon, if we have to follow him to salt water."

"Well, now, I ain't never turned back on a trail yit, fer want uh nerve
to foller it," Applehead stated offendedly. "When I was shurf--"

The enlivened jumble of voices, each proclaiming the owner's hopes or
desires or disbelief to ears that were not listening, quite submerged
Applehead's remarks upon the subject of his wellknown prowess when he
was "shurf." The Happy Family were sprawled in unwonted luxury on the
shady side of an outcropping of rock from under which a little spring
seeped and made a small oasis in the general barrenness. They had shade,
they Had water and food, and through the thin aromatic smoke of their
cigarettes they could watch their horses cropping avidly the green grass
that meant so much to them. The knowledge that an hour later they would
be traveling again in the blazing heat of midday but emphasized their
present comfort. They were enjoying every minute to its full sixty
seconds. Laughter came easily and the hardships of the trail were pushed
into the background of their minds.

They were not particularly anxious over the success or failure of
Luck's trip to the hogans. They were on Ramon's trail (or so they firmly
believed) and sooner or later they would overhaul him and Bill Holmes.
When that happened they believed that they would be fully equal to the
occasion, and that Ramon and Bill and those who were with him would
learn what it means to turn traitor to the hand that has fed them, and
to fling upon that hand the mud of public suspicion. But just now they
were not talking about these things; they were arguing very earnestly
over a very trivial matter indeed, and they got as much satisfaction out
of the contention as though it really amounted to something.

When Luck had eaten and smoked and had ground his cigarette stub under
his heel in the moist earth beside the spring, and had looked at his
watch and got upon his feet with a sigh to say: "Well, boys, let's go,"
the Happy Family (who by the way must now be understood as including
Lite Avery) sighed also and pulled their reluctant feet toward them and
got up also, with sundry hitchings-into-place as to gun-belts and sundry
resettlings as to hats. They pulled their horses more reluctant even
than their riders--away from the green grass; resaddled, recinched the
packs on the four animals that carried the camp supplies, gave them a
last drink at the little irrigating ditch and mounted and straggled out
again upon the trail of the six whom they seemed never able to overtake.

They did not know that the silent Indian with the dingy overalls and the
bobbed hair had watched every movement they made. Through all that hour
of rest not even a papoose had been visible around the hogans--which,
while there was nothing warlike in their keeping under cover, was not
exactly a friendly attitude. Applehead had kept turning his keen, bright
blue eyes that way while he ate and afterwards smoked an after-dinner
pipe, but when they were actually started again upon the trail he
appeared to lay aside his misgivings.

Not even Applehead suspected that the Indian had led a pony carefully
down into a draw, keeping the buildings always between himself and
the party of white men; nor that he watched them while they spread out
beyond the cultivated patch of irrigated ground until they picked up
the trail of the six horses, when they closed the gaps between them and
followed the trail straight away into the parched mesa that was lined
with deep washes and canons and crossed with stony ridges where the heat
radiated up from the bare rocks as from a Heating stove when the fire is
blazing within. When they rode away together, the Indian ran back into
the draw, mounted his pony and lashed it into a heavy, sure-footed
gallop.





Next: Set Afoot

Previous: All This War-talk About Injuns



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