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The Orphan, Page 2

B. M. Bower



  The bleak foreground of gray soil, covered with drifts of alkali andsand, was studded with clumps of mesquite and cacti and occasional tuftsof sun-burned grass, dusty and somber, while a few sagebrush blended theirleaves to the predominating color. Back of this was a near horizon to thenorth and east, brought near by the skyline of a low, undulating rangeof sand hills rising from the desert to meet a faded sky. The morningglow brought this skyline into sharp definition as the dividing linebetween the darkness of the plain in the shadow of the range and the fastincreasing morning light. To the south and west the plain blended intothe sky, and there was no horizon.

  Two trails met and crossed near a sand-buffeted bowlder of lava stone,which was huge, grotesque and forbidding in its bulky indistinctness.The first of the trails ran north and south and was faint but plainlydiscernible, being beaten a trifle below the level of the desert andforming a depression which the winds alternately filled and emptied ofdust; and its arrow-like directness, swerving neither to the right norleft, bespoke of the haste which urged the unfortunate traveler tohave done with it as speedily as possible, since there was nothingalluring along its heat-cursed course to bid him tarry in his riding.There was yet another reason for haste, for the water holes were overfifty miles apart, and in that country water holes were more or lessuncertain and doubtful as to being free from mineral poisons. On theoccasions when the Apaches awoke to find that many of their young menwere missing, and a proved warrior or two, this trail become weightedwith possibilities, for this desert was the playground of war parties, anunlimited ante-room for the preliminaries to predatory pilgrimages; andthe northern trail then partook of the nature of a huge wire over whichplayed an alternating current, the potentials of which were the rangesat one end and the savagery and war spirit of the painted tribes at theother: and the voltage was frequently deadly.

  The other trail, crossing the first at right angles, led eastward to thefertile valleys of the Canadian and the Cimarron; westward it spread outlike the sticks of a fan to anywhere and nowhere, gradually resolvingitself into the fainter and still more faint individual paths whichfed it as single strands feed a rope. It lacked the directness of itsintersector because of the impenetrable chaparrals which forced it towander hither and yon. Neither was it as plain to the eye, for preference,except in cases of urgent necessity, foreswore its saving of miles andjourneyed by the more circuitous southern trail which wound beneathcottonwoods and mottes of live oak and frequently dipped beneath thewaters of sluggish streams, the banks of which were fringed with willows.

  As a lean coyote loped past the point of intersection a moving objectsuddenly topped the skyline of the southern end of the sandhills to theeast and sprang into sharp silhouette, paused for an instant on the edgeof the range and then, plunging down into the shadows at its base, roderapidly toward the bowlder.

  He was an Apache, and was magnificent in his proportions and the easyerectness of his poise. He glanced sharply about him, letting his gazefinally settle on the southern trail and then, leaning over, he placed anobject on the highest point of the rock. Wheeling abruptly, he gallopedback over his trail, the rising wind setting diligently at work to coverthe hoofprints of his pony. He had no sooner dropped from sight over thehills than another figure began to be defined in the dim light, this timefrom the north.

  The newcomer rode at an easy canter and found small pleasure in the cloudof alkali dust which the wind kept at pace with him. His hat, the firstvisible sign of his calling, proclaimed him to be a cowboy, and whenhe had stopped at the bowlder his every possession endorsed the silenttestimony of the hat.

  He was bronzed and self-reliant, some reason for the latter beingsuggested by the long-barreled rifle which swung from his right saddleskirt and the pair of Colt's which lay along his thighs. He wore theusual blue flannel shirt, open at the throat, the regular silk kerchiefabout his neck, and the indispensable chaps, which were of angoragoatskin. His boots were tight fitting, with high heels, and hugebrass spurs projected therefrom. A forty-foot coil of rawhide hung fromthe pommel of his "rocking-chair" saddle and a slicker was strappedbehind the cantle.

  He glanced behind him as he drew rein, wondering when the sheriff wouldshow himself, for he was being followed, of that he was certain. That waswhy he had ridden through so many chaparrals and doubled on his trail.He was now riding to describe a circle, the object being to get behindhis pursuer and to do some hunting on his own account. As he started tocontinue on his way his quick eyes espied something on the bowlderwhich made him suddenly draw rein again. Glancing to the ground he sawthe tracks made by the Apache, and he peered intently along the easterntrail with his hand shading his eyes. The eyes were of a grayish blue,hard and steely and cruel. They were calculating eyes, and never missedanything worth seeing. The fierce glare of the semi-tropical sun which formany years had daily assaulted them made it imperative that he squintfrom half-closed lids, and had given his face a malevolent look. And thecharacteristics promised by the eyes were endorsed by his jaw, which wassquare and firm set, underlying thin, straight lips. But about hislips were graven lines so cynical and yet so humorous as to baffle anobserver.

  Raising his canteen to his lips he counted seven swallows and then,letting it fall to his side, he picked up the object which had madehim pause. There was no surprise in his face, for he never was surprisedat anything.

  As he looked at the object he remembered the rumors of the Apache wardances and of fast-riding, paint-bedaubed "hunting parties." What had beenrumor he now knew to be a fact, and his face became even more cruel ashe realized that he was playing tag with the sheriff in the very heartof the Apache playground, where death might lurk in any of the thornycovers which surrounded him on all sides.

  "Apache war arrow," he grunted. "Now it shore beats the devil that me andthe sheriff can't have a free rein to settle up our accounts. Somebody isalways sticking their nose in my business," he grumbled. Then he frownedat the arrow in his hand. "That red on the head is blood," he murmured,noticing the salient points of the weapon, "and that yellow hair meansgood scalping. The thong of leather spells plunder, and it was pointingto the east. The buck that brought it went back again, so this is toshow his friends which way to ride. He was in a hurry, too, judging fromthe way he threw sand, and from them toe-prints."

  He hated Apaches vindictively, malevolently, with a single purpose andinstinct, because of a little score he owed them. Once when he had managedto rustle together a big herd of horses and was within a day's ride of aready market, a party of Apaches had ridden up in the night and made offwith not only the stolen animals, but also with his own horse. This hadlost him a neat sum and had forced him to carry a forty-pound saddle, abridle and a rifle for two days under a merciless sun before he reachedcivilization. He did not thank them for not killing him, which they forsome reason neglected to do. Apache stock was down very low with him, andhe now had an opportunity to even the score. Then he thought of thesheriff, and swore. Finally he decided that he would just shoot thatworthy as soon as he came within range, and so be free to play his lonehand against the race that had stolen his horses. His eyes twinkledat the game he was about to play, and he regarded the silent message andguide with a smile.

  "If it's all the same to you, I'll just polish you up a bit"--and whenhe replaced it on the bowlder its former owner would not have knownit to be the same weapon, for its head was not red, but as bright asthe friction of a handful of sand could make it. This destroyed itsmessage of plentiful slaughter and, he knew, would grieve his enemies.He touched it gently with his hand and it swung at right angles to itsformer position and now pointed northward and in the direction from whichhe expected the sheriff.

  "It was d----d nice of that Apache leaving me this, but I reckon I'llswitch them reinforcements--the sheriff will be some pleased to meetthem," he said, grinning at the novelty of the situation. "Nobodywill even suspect how a lone puncher"--for he regarded himself as acowman--"s
quaring up a couple of scores went and saved the easternvalleys from more devilment. If the war-whoops are out along the Cimarronand Canadian they are shore havin' fun enough to give me a little. ButI would like to see the sheriff's face when he bumps into the littleparty I'm sending his way. Wonder how many he will get before he goesunder?"

  Then he again took up the arrow and carefully removed the hair and thongof leather, chuckling at the tale of woe the denuded weapon would tell,after which he placed it as before, wishing he knew how to indicate thatthe Apaches had been wiped out.

  He rode to a chaparral which lay three hundred yards to the southeast ofhim and thence around it to the far side, where he dismounted and fastenedhis horse to the empty air by simply allowing the reins to hang down infront of the animal's eyes. The pony knew many things about ropes andstraps, and what it knew it knew well; nothing short of dynamite wouldhave moved it while the reins dangled before its eyes.

  Its master slowly returned to the bowlder, where he set to work to coverhis tracks with dust, for although the shifting sand was doing this forhim, it was not doing it fast enough to suit him. When he had assuredhimself that he had performed his task in a thoroughly workmanlike mannerhe returned to his horse, and finally found a snug place of concealmentfor it and himself. First bandaging its eyes so that it would not whinnyat the approach of other horses, he searched his pockets and finallybrought to light a pack of greasy playing cards, with which he amusedhimself at solitaire, diligently keeping his eyes on both ends of theheavier trail.

  His intermittent scrutiny was finally rewarded by a cloud of dust whichsteadily grew larger on the southern horizon and soon revealed thecharacter of the riders who made it. As they drew nearer to him hisimplacable hatred caused him to pick up his rifle, but he let it slidefrom him as he counted the number of the approaching party, beforewhich was being driven a herd of horses which were intended to be placedas relays for the main force.

  "Two, five, eight, eleven, sixteen, twenty, twenty-four, twenty-seven,"he muttered, carefully settling himself more comfortably. He coulddistinguish the war paint on the reddish-brown colored bodies, and hesmiled at what was in store for them.

  "I reckon I won't get gay with no twenty-seven Apaches," he muttered. "Ican wait, all right."

  Upon reaching the rock the leaders of the band glanced at the arrow,excitedly exchanged monosyllables and set off to the north at a hardgallop, being followed by the others. As he expected, they were Apaches,which meant that of all red raiders they were the most proficient. Theywere human hyenas with rare intelligence for war and a most aggravatingway of not being where one would expect them to be, as army officers willtestify. Besides, an Apache war party did not appear to have stomachs,and so traveled faster and farther than the cavalry which so oftenpursued them.

  The watcher chuckled softly at the success of his stratagem and, suddenlyarising, went carefully around the chaparral until he could see thefast-vanishing braves. Waiting until they had disappeared over thenorthern end of the crescent-shaped range of hills, he hurried to thebowlder and again picked up the arrow.

  "Huh! Didn't take it with them, eh?" he soliloquized. "Well, thatmeans that there's more coming, so I'll just send the next batch plumbwest--they'll be some pleased to explore this God-forsaken desert someextensive."

  Grinning joyously, he replaced the weapon with its head pointing westwardand then looked anxiously at the tracks of the party which had justpassed. Deciding that the wind would effectually cover them in an hourat most, he returned to his hiding place, taking care to cover his owntracks. Taking a chance on the second contingent going north was allright, but he didn't care to run the risk of having them ride to him forexplanations. Picking up the cards again he shuffled them and suffereddefeat after defeat, and finally announced his displeasure at the luckhe was having.

  "I never saw nothing like it!" he grumbled petulantly. "Reckon I'llhit up the Old Thirteen a few," beginning a new game. He had whiledaway an hour and a half, and as he stretched himself his uneasy eyesdiscovered another cloud on the southern horizon, which was smaller thanthe first. He placed the six of hearts on the five of hearts, ruffledthe pack and then put the cards down and took up his rifle, watching thecloud closely. He was soon able to count seven warriors who were drivinganother "cavvieyeh" of horses.

  "Huh! Only seven!" he grunted, shifting his rifle for action. The fightinglust swept over him, but he choked it down and idly fingered the hammer ofthe gun. "Nope, I reckon not--seven husky Apaches are too much for oneman to go out of his way to fight. Now, if the sheriff was only with me,"and he grinned at the humor of it, "we might cut loose and heave lead.But since he ain't, this is where I don't chip in--I'll wait a while,for they'll shore come back."

  The seven warriors went through almost the same actions which theirpredecessors had gone through and great excitement prevailed among them.The leaders pointed to the very faint tracks which led northward anddebated vehemently. But the two small stones which held the arrow securelyin its position against the possibility of the wind shifting it couldnot be doubted, and after a few minutes had passed they rode as bidden,leaving one of their number on guard at the bowlder. Soon the othersix were lost to sight among the chaparrals to the west and the guard satstolidly under the blazing sun.

  The dispatcher noted the position of a shadow thrown on the sand by acactus and laughed silently as he fingered his rifle. He could not thinkout the game. Try as he would, he could find no really good excuse forthe placing of the guard, although many presented themselves, to befinally cast aside. But the fact was enough, and when the moving shadowgave assurance that nearly an hour had passed since the departure ofthe guard's companions, the man with the grudge cautiously arose on oneknee.

  After examining the contents of his rifle, he brought it slowly tohis shoulder. A quick, calculating glance told him that the range wasslightly over three hundred yards, and he altered the elevation of therear sights accordingly. After a pause, during which he gauged thestrength and velocity of the northern wind, he dropped his cheek againstthe walnut stock of the weapon. The echoless report rang out flatlyand a sudden gust of hot wind whipped the ragged, gray smoke cloud intothe chaparral, where it lay close to the ground and spread out like aminiature fog. As the smoke cleared away a second cartridge, inserteddeftly and quickly, sent another cloud of smoke into the chaparraland the marksman arose to his feet, mechanically reloading his gun. Thesecond shot was for the guard's horse, for it would be unnecessarilyperilous to risk its rejoining the departed braves, which it very probablywould do if allowed to escape.

  Dropping his rifle into the hollow of his arm he walked swiftly towardthe fallen Indian, hoping that there would be no more war parties, forhe had now made signs which the most stupid Apache could not fail to noteand understand. The dead guard could be hidden, and by the use of his ownhorse and rope he could drag the carcass of the animal into the chaparraland out of sight. But the trail which would be left in the loose sandwould be too deep and wide to be covered. He had crossed the Rubicon, andmust stand or fall by the step.

  The Indian had fallen forward against the bowlder and had slid down itsside, landing on his head and shoulders, in which grotesque position therock supported him. One glance assured the "cowman" that his aim hadbeen good, and another told him that he had to fear the arrival of nomore war parties, for the arrow was gone. He was not satisfied, however,until he had made a good search for it, thinking that it might havebeen displaced by the fall of the Apache. He lifted the body of thedead warrior in his arms and flung it across the apex of the bowlder,face up and balanced nicely, the head pointing to the north. Then helooked for the arrow on the sand where the body had rested, but it wasnot to be found. A sardonic grin flitted across his face as he securedthe weapons of the late guard, which were a heavy Colt's revolver and alate pattern Winchester repeater. Taking the cartridges from his body, hestood up triumphant. He now had what he needed to meet the smaller bodyof Indians on their return, ten shots in one rifle and a spare

  "One for my cavvieyeh!" he muttered savagely as he thought of the loss ofhis horse herd. "There'll be more, too, before I get through, or myname's not"-- he paused abruptly, hearing hoofbeats made by a gallopinghorse over a stretch of hard soil which lay to the east of him. Leapingquickly behind the bowlder, he leveled his own rifle across the body ofthe guard and peered intently toward the east, wondering if the advancinghorseman would be the sheriff or another Apache. The hoofbeats camerapidly nearer and another courier turned the corner of the chaparraland went no further. Again a second shot took care of the horse and themarksman strode to his second victim, from whose body and horse he tookanother Winchester and Colt.

  "Now I am in for it!" he muttered as he looked down at the warrior. "Thisis shore getting warm and it'll be a d----n sight warmer if his friendsget anxious about him and hunt him up."

  Glancing around the horizon and seeing no signs of an interruption, heslung the body across his shoulders and staggered with it to the bowlder,where he heaved and pushed it across the body of the first Apache.

  "Might as well make a good showing and make them mad, for I can't verywell hide you and the cayuses--I ain't no graveyard," he said, steppingback to look at his work. He felt no remorse, for that was a sensationnot yet awakened in his consciousness. He was elated at his success,joyous in catering to his love for fighting, for he would rather diefighting than live the round of years heavily monotonous with peace,and his only regret was having won by ambush. But in this, he toldhimself, there was need, for his hatred ordered him to kill as many ashe could, and in any way possible. Knowing that he was, single-handed,attempting to outwit wily chiefs and that he had before him a carnival offighting, he would not have hesitated to make use of traps if they wereat hand and could be used. Perhaps it was old Geronimo whose plans hewas defeating and, if so, no precautions nor means were unjustifiable andtoo mean to make use of, for Geronimo was half-brother to the devil and agenius for warfare and slaughter, with a ferocity and cruelty cold-bloodedand consummate.

  He had yet time to escape from his perilous position and meet the sheriff,if that worthy had eluded the first war party. But his elation had theupper hand and his brute courage was now blind to caution. He savagelydecided that his matter with the sheriff could wait and that he wouldtake care of the war parties first, since there was more honor in fightingagainst odds. The two Winchesters and his own Sharps, not to considerthe four Colt's, gave him many shots without having to waste time inreloading, and he drew assurance from the past that he placed his shotsquickly and with precision. He could put up a magnificent fight in thechaparral, shifting his position after each shot, and he could hug theground where the trunks of the vegetation were thickest and would provean effective barrier against random shots. His wits were keen, his legsnimble, his eyesight and accuracy above doubt, and he had no cause tobelieve that his strategy was inferior to that of his foes. There would beno moon for two nights, and he could escape in the darkness if hungerand thirst should drive him out. Here he had struck, and here he wouldstrike again and again, and, if he fell, he would leave behind him sucha tale of fighting as had seldom been known before; and it pleased hisvanity to think of the amazement the story would call forth as it wasrecounted around the campfires and across the bars of a country largerthan Europe. He did not realize that such a tale would die if he died andwould never be known. His was the joy of a master of the game, a virile,fearless fighting machine, a man who had never failed in the playing ofthe many hands he had held in desperate games with death. He was notgoing to die; he was going to win and leave dying for others.