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Arizona Nights by Stewart Edward White

Part 5 out of 5

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The Colt's forty-five barked once, and then again. The steer
staggered, fell to his knees, recovered, and finally stopped, the
blood streaming from his nostrils. In a moment he fell heavily
on his side--dead.

Senor Johnson at once dismounted and began methodically to skin
the animal. This was not easy for he had no way of suspending
the carcass nor of rolling it from side to side. However, he was
practised at it and did a neat job. Two or three times he even
caught himself taking extra pains that the thin flesh strips
should not adhere to the inside of the pelt. Then he smiled
grimly, and ripped it loose.

After the hide had been removed he cut from the edge, around and
around, a long, narrow strip. With this he bound the whole into
a compact bundle, strapped it on behind his saddle, and
remounted. He returned to the arroyo.

Estrella still lay with her eyes closed. Brent Palmer looked up
keenly. The bronco-buster saw the green hide. A puzzled
expression crept across his face.

Roughly Johnson loosed his enemy from the wheel and dragged him
to the woman. He passed the free end of the riata about them
both, tying them close together. The girl continued to moan, out
of her wits with terror.

"What are you going to do now, you devil?" demanded Palmer, but
received no reply.

Buck Johnson spread out the rawhide. Putting forth his huge
strength, he carried to it the pair, bound together like a bale
of goods, and laid them on its cool surface. He threw across
them the edges, and then deliberately began to wind around and
around the huge and unwieldy rawhide package the strip he had cut
from the edge of the pelt.

Nor was this altogether easy. At last Brent Palmer understood.
He writhed in the struggle of desperation, foaming blasphemies.
The uncouth bundle rolled here and there. But inexorably the
other, from the advantage of his position, drew the thongs
tighter.

And then, all at once, from vituperation the bronco-buster fell
to pleading, not for life, but for death.

"For God's sake, shoot me!" he cried from within the smothering
folds of the rawhide. "If you ever had a heart in you, shoot me!
Don't leave me here to be crushed in this vise. You wouldn't do
that to a yellow dog. An Injin wouldn't do that, Buck. It's a
joke, isn't it? Don't go away and leave me, Buck. I've done you
dirt. Cut my heart out, if you want to; I won't say a word, but
don't leave me here for the sun--"

His voice was drowned in a piercing scream, as Estrella came to
herself and understood. Always the rawhide had possessed for her
an occult fascination and repulsion. She had never been able to
touch it without a shudder, and yet she had always been drawn to
experiment with it. The terror of her doom had now added to it
for her all the vague and premonitory terrors which heretofore
she had not understood.

The richness of the dawn had flowed to the west. Day was at
hand. Breezes had begun to play across the desert; the wind
devils to raise their straight columns. A first long shaft of
sunlight shot through a pass in the Chiricahuas, trembled in the
dust-moted air, and laid its warmth on the rawhide. Senor
Johnson roused himself from his gloom to speak his first words of
the episode.

"There, damn you!" said he. "I guess you'll be close enough
together now!"

He turned away to look for his horse.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN
THE DESERT

Button was a trusty of Senor Johnson's private animals. He was
never known to leave his master in the lurch, and so was
habitually allowed certain privileges. Now, instead of remaining
exactly on the spot where he was "tied to the ground," he had
wandered out of the dry arroyo bed to the upper level of the
plains, where he knew certain bunch grasses might be found. Buck
Johnson climbed the steep wooded bank in search of him.

The pony stood not ten feet distant. At his master's abrupt
appearance he merely raised his head, a wisp of grass in the
corner of his mouth, without attempting to move away. Buck
Johnson walked confidently to him, fumbling in his side pocket
for the piece of sugar with which he habitually soothed Button's
sophisticated palate. His hand encountered Estrella's letter.
He drew it out and opened it.

"Dear Buck," it read, "I am going away. I tried to be good, but
I can't. It's too lonesome for me. I'm afraid of the horses and
the cattle and the men and the desert. I hate it all. I tried
to make you see how I felt about it, but you couldn't seem to
see. I know you'll never forgive me, but I'd go crazy here. I'm
almost crazy now. I suppose you think I'm a bad woman, but I am
not. You won't believe that. Its' true though. The desert
would make anyone bad. I don't see how you stand it. You've
been good to me, and I've really tried, but it's no use. The
country is awful. I never ought to have come. I'm sorry you are
going to think me a bad woman, for I like you and admire you, but
nothing, NOTHING could make me stay here any longer." She
signed herself simply Estrella Sands, her maiden name.

Buck Johnson stood staring at the paper for a much longer time
than was necessary merely to absorb the meaning of the words.
His senses, sharpened by the stress of the last sixteen hours,
were trying mightily to cut to the mystery of a change going on
within himself. The phrases of the letter were bald enough, yet
they conveyed something vital to his inner being. He could not
understand what it was.

Then abruptly he raised his eyes.

Before him lay the desert, but a desert suddenly and miraculously
changed, a desert he had never seen before. Mile after mile it
swept away before him, hot, dry, suffocating, lifeless. The
sparse vegetation was grey with the alkali dust. The heat hung
choking in the air like a curtain. Lizards sprawled in the sun,
repulsive. A rattlesnake dragged its loathsome length from under
a mesquite. The dried carcass of a steer, whose parchment skin
drew tight across its bones, rattled in the breeze. Here and
there rock ridges showed with the obscenity of so many skeletons,
exposing to the hard, cruel sky the earth's nakedness. Thirst,
delirium, death, hovered palpable in the wind; dreadful,
unconquerable, ghastly.

The desert showed her teeth and lay in wait like a fierce beast.
The little soul of man shrank in terror before it.

Buck Johnson stared, recalling the phrases of the letter,
recalling the words of his foreman, Jed Parker. "It's too
lonesome for me," "I'm afraid," "I hate it all," "I'd go crazy
here," "The desert would make anyone bad," "The country is
awful." And the musing voice of the old cattleman, "I wonder if
she'll like the country!" They reiterated themselves over and
over; and always as refrain his own confident reply, "Like the
country? Sure! Why SHOULDN'T she?"

And then he recalled the summer just passing, and the woman
who had made no fuss. Chance remarks of hers came back to him,
remarks whose meaning he had not at the time grasped, but which
now he saw were desperate appeals to his understanding. He had
known his desert. He had never known hers.

With an exclamation Buck Johnson turned abruptly back to the
arroyo. Button followed him, mildly curious, certain that his
master's reappearance meant a summons for himself.

Down the miniature cliff the man slid, confidently, without
hesitation, sure of himself. His shoulders held squarely, his
step elastic, his eye bright, he walked to the fearful, shapeless
bundle now lying motionless on the flat surface of the alkali.

Brent Palmer had fallen into a grim silence, but Estrella still
moaned. The cattleman drew his knife and ripped loose the bonds.
Immediately the flaps of the wet rawhide fell apart, exposing to
the new daylight the two bound together. Buck Johnson leaned
over to touch the woman's shoulder.

"Estrella," said he gently.

Her eyes came open with a snap, and stared into his, wild with
the surprise of his return.

"Estrella," he repeated, "how old are you?"

She gulped down a sob, unable to comprehend the purport of his
question.

"How old are you, Estrella?" he repeated again.

"Twenty-one," she gasped finally.

"Ah!" said he.

He stood for a moment in deep thought, then began methodically,
without haste, to cut loose the thongs that bound the two
together.

When the man and the woman were quite freed, he stood for a
moment, the knife in his hand, looking down on them. Then he
swung himself into the saddle and rode away, straight down the
narrow arroyo, out beyond its lower widening, into the vast
plains the hither side of the Chiricahuas. The alkali dust was
snatched by the wind from beneath his horse's feet. Smaller and
smaller he dwindled, rising and falling, rising and falling in
the monotonous cow-pony's lope. The heat shimmer veiled him for
a moment, but he reappeared. A mirage concealed him, but he
emerged on the other side of it. Then suddenly he was gone. The
desert had swallowed him up.

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