Hopalong cassidy, p.39
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       Hopalong Cassidy, p.39
 

           Honoré Morrow

  CHAPTER XXXIX

  THIRST

  The stars grow dim and a streak of color paints the eastern sky,sweeping through the upper reaches of the darkness and tingeing theearth's curtain until the dim gray light outlines spectral yuccas andtwisted, grotesque cacti leaning in the hushed air like drunkensentries of some monstrous army. The dark carpet which stretched awayon all sides begins to show its characteristics and soon develops intogreasewood brush. As if curtains were drawn aside objects which amoment before were lost to sight in the darkness emerge out of thelight like ghosts, bulky, indistinct, grotesque, and array themselvesto complete the scene.

  The silence seems to deepen and become strained, as if in fear of whatis to come; the dark ground is now gray and tawny in places and thevegetation is plain to the eye. Then out of the east comes a flash anda red, coppery sun flares above the horizon, molten, quivering,blinding; the cool of the night swiftly departs and a caldron-likeheat bursts upon the plain. The silence seems almost to shrink andbecome portentous with evil, the air is hushed, the plants standwithout the movement of a leaf, and nowhere is seen any livingcreature. The whole is unreal, a panorama, with vegetation of wax anda painted, faded blue sky, the only movement being the shorteningshadows and the rising sun.

  Across the sand is an erratic trail of shoe prints, coming from theeast. For a dozen yards it runs evenly and straight, then a few closeprints straggle to and fro, zig-zagging hither and yon for a distance,finally going on straight again. But the erratic prints grow morefrequent and become more pronounced as they go on, circling andweaving, crossing, re-crossing and doubling back as their makerstaggered hopelessly on his way, urged only by the instinct of thirst,to find water, if it were only a mouthful. The trail is here blurred,for he fell, and the prints of his hands and knees and shoe-tips tellhow he went on for some distance. He gained his feet here and threwaway his Colt, and later his holster and belt.

  The sun is overhead now and the sand shimmers, the heated airquivering and glistening, and the desolate void takes on an air ofmystery and fear, and death. No living thing moves across theheat-cursed sand, but here is a tangled mass of sand and clay andgreasewood twigs, in the heart of which mice sleep and wait for night,and over there is a hillock sheltering lizards. Stay! Under thatgreasewood bush a foolish gray wolf is waiting for night--but he haslittle to fear, for he can cover forty miles between dark and dawn,and his instinct is infallible; no wandering trail will mark hispassing, but one as straight as the flight of a bullet. The shadowsshrink close to the stems of the plants and the thin air dances withheat.

  Behind that clump of greasewood, back beyond those crippled cacti, aman staggers on and on. His hair is matted, his fingers bleeding fromdigging frantically in the sand for water; his lips, cracked andbleeding and swollen, hide the shrivelled, stiff tongue which clicksagainst his teeth at every painful step. His eyelids are stiff and thestaring, unblinking eyes are set and swollen. He clutches at histhroat time and time again,--a drowning sensation is there. Ha! Hedrops to his knees and digs frantically again, for the sand is moist!A few days ago a water hole lay there. He throws off his shirt andfinally staggers on again.

  His tongue begins to swell and forces itself beyond the swollen,festering lips; the eyelids split and the protruding eyeballs weeptears of blood. His skin cracks and curls up, the clefts goingconstantly deeper into the flesh, and the exuding blood quickly driesand leaves a tough coating over the wounds. Wherever the exudationtouches it stings and burns, and the cracks and clefts, irritated moreand more each minute, deepen and widen and lengthen, smarting andnerve-racking with their pain.

  There! A grove of beautiful green trees is before him, and in it afountain splashes with musical babbling. He yells and dances and then,casting aside the rest of his clothes, staggers towards it. Water,water, at last! Water and shade! It grows indistinct, wavers--and isgone! But it must be there. It was there only a moment ago--and on andon he runs, hands tearing at his choking, drowning throat. Here iswater--close at hand--a purling, cold brook, whispering and tinklingover its rocky bed--he jumps into it--it moved! It's over there, tenpaces to his right. On and on he staggers, the stream just ahead. Hefalls more frequently and wavers now. Oh, for just a canteen of water,just a swallow, just a drop! The gold of the world would not buy itfrom him--just a drop of water!

  He is dying from within, from the inside out. The liquids of his bodyexude through the clefts and evaporate. His brain burns and bands ofwhite-hot steel crush his throbbing head and his burning lungs. Noamount of water will save him now--only death, merciful death can endhis sufferings.

  Water at last! Real water, a noisome pool of stagnant liquid lies atthe bottom of a slight depression, the dregs of a larger poolconcentrated by evaporation. Around it are the prints of many kinds offeet. It is water, water!--he plunges forward into it and liesmotionless, half submerged. A grayback lizard darts out of thegreasewood near at hand, blinks rapidly and darts back again, glad toescape the intolerable heat.

  Cavalry had escaped.

 
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