Part 4 out of 7
Mexico, an' the stories they told would make your hair stand up.
They all packed guns, was fightin' mad at Greasers, an' sore on
the good old U. S. But shore glad to get over the line! Some
were waitin' for trains, which don't run reg'lar no more, an'
others were ready to hit the trails north."
"Laddy, what knocks me is Rojas holding Thorne prisoner, trying
to make him tell where Mercedes had been hidden," said Belding.
"Shore. It 'd knock anybody."
"The bandit's crazy over her. That's the Spanish of it," replied
Belding, his voice rolling. "Rojas is a peon. He's been a slave
to the proud Castilian. He loves Mercedes as he hates her. When
I was down in Durango I saw something of these peons' insane
passions. Rojas wants this girl only to have her, then kill her.
It's damn strange, boys, and even with Thorne here our troubles
have just begun."
"Tom, you spoke correct," said Jim Ladd, in his cool drawl.
"Shore I'm not sayin' what I think," added Ladd. But the look
of him was not indicative of a tranquil optimism.
Thorne was put to bed in Gale's room. He was very weak, yet he
would keep Mercedes's hand and gaze at her with unbelieving eyes.
Mercedes's failing hold on hope and strength seemed to have been
a fantasy; she was again vivid, magnetic, beautiful, shot through
and through with intense and throbbing life. She induced him to
take food and drink. Then, fighting sleep with what little strength
he had left, at last he succumbed.
For all Dick could ascertain his friend never stirred an eyelash nor
a finger for twenty-seven hours. When he awoke he was pale, weak,
but the old Thorne.
"Hello, Dick; I didn't dream it then," he said. "There you are, and
my darling with the proud, dark eyes--she's here?"
"Why, yes, you locoed cavalryman."
"Say, what's happened to you? It can't be those clothes and a
little bronze on your face....Dick, you're older--you've changed.
You're not so thickly built. By Gad, if you don't look fine!"
"Thanks. I'm sorry I can't return the compliment. You're about
the seediest, hungriest-looking fellow I ever saw....Say, old man,
you must have had a tough time."
A dark and somber fire burned out the happiness in Thorne's eyes.
"Dick, don't make me--don't let me think of that fiend Rojas!....I'm
here now. I'll be well in a day or two. Then!..."
Mercedes came in, radiant and soft-voiced. She fell upon her knees
beside Thorne's bed, and neither of them appeared to see Nell enter
with a tray. Then Gale and Nell made a good deal of unnecessary
bustle in moving a small table close to the bed. Mercedes had
forgotten for the moment that her lover had been a starving man.
If Thorne remembered it he did not care. They held hands and
looked at each other without speaking.
"Nell, I thought I had it bad," whispered Dick. "But I'm not--"
"Hush. It's beautiful," replied Nell, softly; and she tried to coax
Dick from the room.
Dick, however, thought he ought to remain at least long enough
to tell Thorne that a man in his condition could not exist solely
Mercedes sprang up blushing with pretty, penitent manner and
moving white hands eloquent of her condition.
"Oh, Mercedes--don't go!" cried Thorne, as she stepped to the door.
"Senor Dick will stay. He is not mucha malo for you--as I am."
Then she smiled and went out.
"Good Lord!" exclaimed Thorne. "How I love her. Dick, isn't she
the most beautiful, the loveliest, the finest--"
"George, I share your enthusiasm," said Dick, dryly, "but Mercedes
isn't the only girl on earth."
Manifestly this was a startling piece of information, and struck
Thorne in more than one way.
"George," went on Dick, "did you happen to observe the girl who
saved your life--who incidentally just fetched in your breakfast?"
"Nell Burton! Why, of course. She's brave, a wonderful girl, and
"You long, lean, hungry beggar! That was the young lady who might
answer the raving eulogy you just got out of your system....I--well,
you haven't cornered the love market!"
Thorne uttered some kind of a sound that his weakened condition
would not allow to be a whoop.
"Dick! Do you mean it?"
"I shore do, as Laddy says."
"I'm glad, Dick, with all my heart. I wondered at the changed
look you wear. Why, boy, you've got a different front....Call the
lady in, and you bet I'll look her over right. I can see better
"Eat your breakfast. There's plenty of time to dazzle you
Thorne fell to upon his breakfast and made it vanish with magic speed.
Meanwhile Dick told him something of a ranger's life along the border.
"You needn't waste your breath," said Thorne. "I guess I can see.
Belding and those rangers have made you the real thing--the real
Western goods....What I want to know is all about the girl."
"Well, Laddy swears she's got your girl roped in the corral for looks."
"That's not possible. I'll have to talk to Laddy....But she must be
a wonder, or Dick Gale would never have fallen for her....Isn't it
great, Dick? I'm here! Mercedes is well--safe! You've got a
girl! Oh!....But say, I haven't a dollar to my name. I had a lot
of money, Dick, and those robbers stole it, my watch--everything.
Damn that little black Greaser! He got Mercedes's letters. I wish
you could have seen him trying to read them. He's simply nutty
over her, Dick. I could have borne the loss of money and
valuables--but those beautiful, wonderful letters--they're gone!"
"Cheer up. You have the girl. Belding will make you a proposition
presently. The future smiles, old friend. If this rebel business
was only ended!"
"Dick, you're going to be my savior twice over....Well, now, listen
to me." His gay excitement changed to earnest gravity. "I want
to marry Mercedes at once. Is there a padre here?"
"Yes. But are you wise in letting any Mexican, even a priest,
know Mercedes is hidden in Forlorn River?"
"It couldn't be kept much longer."
Gale was compelled to acknowledge the truth of this statement.
"I'll marry her first, then I'll face my problem. Fetch the padre,
Dick. And ask our kind friends to be witnesses at the ceremony."
Much to Gale's surprise neither Belding nor Ladd objected to the
idea of bringing a padre into the household, and thereby making
known to at least one Mexican the whereabouts of Mercedes Castaneda.
Belding's caution was wearing out in wrath at the persistent unsettled
condition of the border, and Ladd grew only the cooler and more silent
as possibilities of trouble multiplied.
Gale fetched the padre, a little, weazened, timid man who was old
and without interest or penetration. Apparently he married Mercedes
and Thorne as he told his beads or mumbled a prayer. It was Mrs.
Belding who kept the occasion from being a merry one, and she
insisted on not exciting Thorne. Gale marked her unusual pallor
and the singular depth and sweetness of her voice.
"Mother, what's the use of making a funeral out of a marriage?"
protested Belding. "A chance for some fun doesn't often come to
Forlorn River. You're a fine doctor. Can't you see the girl is
what Thorne needed? He'll be well to-morrow, don't mistake me."
"George, when you're all right again we'll add something to present
congratulations," said Gale.
"We shore will," put in Ladd.
So with parting jests and smiles they left the couple to themselves.
Belding enjoyed a laugh at his good wife's expense, for Thorne
could not be kept in bed, and all in a day, it seemed, he grew
so well and so hungry that his friends were delighted, and Mercedes
was radiant. In a few days his weakness disappeared and he was
going the round of the fields and looking over the ground marked
out in Gale's plan of water development. Thorne was highly
enthusiastic, and at once staked out his claim for one hundred and
sixty acres of land adjoining that of Belding and the rangers.
These five tracts took in all the ground necessary for their
operations, but in case of the success of the irrigation project the
idea was to increase their squatter holdings by purchase of more
land down the valley. A hundred families had lately moved to
Forlorn River; more were coming all the time; and Belding vowed
he could see a vision of the whole Altar Valley green with farms.
Meanwhile everybody in Belding's household, except the quiet Ladd
and the watchful Yaqui, in the absence of disturbance of any kind
along the border, grew freer and more unrestrained, as if anxiety
was slowly fading in the peace of the present. Jim Lash made a
trip to the Sonoyta Oasis, and Ladd patrolled fifty miles of the
line eastward without incident or sight of raiders. Evidently all
the border hawks were in at the picking of Casita.
The February nights were cold, with a dry, icy, penetrating coldness
that made a warm fire most comfortable. Belding's household
usually congregated in the sitting-room, where burning mesquite
logs crackled in the open fireplace. Belding's one passion besides
horses was the game of checkers, and he was always wanting to
play. On this night he sat playing with Ladd, who never won a
game and never could give up trying. Mrs. Belding worked with
her needle, stopping from time to time to gaze with thoughtful
eyes into the fire. Jim Lash smoked his pipe by the hearth and
played with the cat on his knee. Thorne and Mercedes were at
the table with pencil and paper; and he was trying his best to keep
his attention from his wife's beautiful, animated face long enough
to read and write a little Spanish. Gale and Nell sat in a corner
watching the bright fire.
There came a low knock on the door. It may have been an ordinary
knock, for it did not disturb the women; but to Belding and his
rangers it had a subtle meaning.
"Who's that?" asked Belding, as he slowly pushed back his chair
and looked at Ladd.
"Yaqui," replied the ranger.
"Come in," called Belding.
The door opened, and the short, square, powerfully built Indian
entered. He had a magnificent head, strangely staring, somber
black eyes, and very darkly bronzed face. He carried a rifle
and strode with impressive dignity.
"Yaqui, what do you want?" asked Belding, and repeated his
question in Spanish.
"Senor Dick," replied the Indian.
Gale jumped up, stifling an exclamation, and he went outdoors
with Yaqui. He felt his arm gripped, and allowed himself to be
led away without asking a question. Yaqui's presence was always
one of gloom, and now his stern action boded catastrophe. Once
clear of trees he pointed to the level desert across the river,
where a row of campfires shone bright out of the darkness.
"Raiders!" ejaculated Gale.
Then he cautioned Yaqui to keep sharp lookout, and, hurriedly
returning to the house, he called the men out and told them there
were rebels or raiders camping just across the line.
Ladd did not say a word. Belding, with an oath, slammed down
"I knew it was too good to last....Dick, you and Jim stay here while
Laddy and I look around."
Dick returned to the sitting-room. The women were nervous and not
to be deceived. So Dick merely said Yaqui had sighted some lights
off in the desert, and they probably were campfires. Belding did
not soon return, and when he did he was alone, and, saying he
wanted to consult with the men, he sent Mrs. Belding and the girls
to their rooms. His gloomy anxiety had returned.
"Laddy's gone over to scout around and try to find out who the
outfit belongs to and how many are in it," said Belding.
"I reckon if they're raiders with bad intentions we wouldn't see
no fires," remarked Jim, calmly.
"It 'd be useless, I suppose, to send for the cavalry," said Gale.
"Whatever's coming off would be over before the soldiers could
be notified, let alone reach here."
"Hell, fellows! I don't look for an attack on Forlorn River,"
burst out Belding. "I can't believe that possible. These
rebel-raiders have a little sense. They wouldn't spoil their
game by pulling U. S. soldiers across the line from Yuma to
El Paso. But, as Jim says, if they wanted to steal a few horses
or cattle they wouldn't build fires. I'm afraid it's--"
Belding hesitated and looked with grim concern at the cavalryman.
"What?" queried Thorne.
"I'm afraid it's Rojas."
Thorne turned pale but did not lose his nerve.
"I thought of that at once. If true, it'll be terrible for Mercedes
and me. But Rojas will never get his hands on my wife. If I can't
kill him, I'll kill her!...Belding, this is tough on you--this risk
we put upon your family. I regret--"
"Cut that kind of talk," replied Belding, bluntly. "Well, if it is
Rojas he's acting damn strange for a raider. That's what worries
me. We can't do anything but wait. With Laddy and Yaqui out there
we won't be surprised. Let's take the best possible view of the
situation until we know more. That'll not likely be before
The women of the house might have gotten some sleep that night,
but it was certain the men did not get any. Morning broke cold
and gray, the 19th of February. Breakfast was prepared earlier
than usual, and an air of suppressed waiting excitement pervaded
the place. Otherwise the ordinary details of the morning's work
continued as on any other day. Ladd came in hungry and cold,
and said the Mexicans were not breaking camp. He reported a
good-sized force of rebels, and was taciturn as to his idea of
About an hour after sunrise Yaqui ran in with the information
that part of the rebels were crossing the river.
"That can't mean a fight yet," declared Belding. "But get in the
house, boys, and make ready anyway. I'll meet them."
"Drive them off the place same as if you had a company of soldiers
backin' you," said Ladd. "Don't give them an inch. We're in bad,
and the bigger bluff we put up the more likely our chance."
"Belding, you're an officer of the United States. Mexicans are
much impressed by show of authority. I've seen that often in camp,"
"Oh, I know the white-livered Greasers better than any of you, don't
mistake me," replied Belding. He was pale with rage, but kept
command over himself.
The rangers, with Yaqui and Thorne, stationed themselves at the
several windows of the sitting-room. Rifles and smaller arms and
boxes of shells littered the tables and window seats. No small
force of besiegers could overcome a resistance such as Belding
and his men were capable of making.
"Here they come, boys," called Gale, from his window.
"Rebel-raiders I should say, Laddy."
"Shore. An' a fine outfit of buzzards!"
"Reckon there's about a dozen in the bunch," observed the calm
Lash. "Some hosses they're ridin'. Where 'n the hell do they get
such hosses, anyhow?"
"Shore, Jim, they work hard an' buy 'em with real silver pesos,"
replied Ladd, sarcastically.
"Do any of you see Rojas?" whispered Thorne.
"Nix. No dandy bandit in that outfit."
"It's too far to see," said Gale.
The horsemen halted at the corrals. They were orderly and showed
no evidence of hostility. They were, however, fully armed. Belding
stalked out to meet them. Apparently a leader wanted to parley
with him, but Belding would hear nothing. He shook his head, waved
his arms, stamped to and fro, and his loud, angry voice could be
heard clear back at the house. Whereupon the detachment of rebels
retired to the bank of the river, beyond the white post that marked
the boundary line, and there they once more drew rein. Belding remained
by the corrals watching them, evidently still in threatening mood.
Presently a single rider left the troop and trotted his horse back
down the road. When he reached the corrals he was seen to halt
and pass something to Belding. Then he galloped away to join
Belding looked at whatever it was he held in his hand, shook his
burley head, and started swiftly for the house. He came striding
into the room holding a piece of soiled paper.
"Can't read it and don't know as I want to," he said, savagely.
"Beldin', shore we'd better read it," replied Ladd. "What we want
is a line on them Greasers. Whether they're Campo's men or
Salazar's, or just a wanderin' bunch of rebels--or Rojas's bandits.
Not one of the men was able to translate the garbled scrawl.
"Shore Mercedes can read it," said Ladd.
Thorne opened a door and called her. She came into the room
followed by Nell and Mrs. Belding. Evidently all three divined a
"My dear, we want you to read what's written on this paper,"
said Thorne, as he led her to the table. "It was sent in by rebels,
and--and we fear contains bad news for us."
Mercedes gave the writing one swift glance, then fainted in Thorne's
arms. He carried her to a couch, and with Nell and Mrs. Belding
began to work over her.
Belding looked at his rangers. It was characteristic of the man
that, now when catastrophe appeared inevitable, all the gloom
and care and angry agitation passed from him.
"Laddy, it's Rojas all right. How many men has he out there?"
"Mebbe twenty. Not more."
"We can lick twice that many Greasers."
Jim Lash removed his pipe long enough to speak.
"I reckon. But it ain't sense to start a fight when mebbe we can
"What's your idea?"
"Let's stave the Greaser off till dark. Then Laddy an' me an'
Thorne will take Mercedes an' hit the trail for Yuma."
"Camino del Diablo! That awful trail with a woman! Jim, do you
forget how many hundreds of men have perished on the Devil's
"I reckon I ain't forgettin' nothin'," replied Jim. "The waterholes
are full now. There's grass, an' we can do the job in six days."
"It's three hundred miles to Yuma."
"Beldin', Jim's idea hits me pretty reasonable," interposed Ladd.
"Lord knows that's about the only chance we've got except fightin'."
"But suppose we do stave Rojas off, and you get safely away with
Mercedes. Isn't Rojas going to find it out quick? Then what'll he
try to do to us who're left here?"
"I reckon he'd find out by daylight," replied Jim. "But, Tom, he
ain't agoin' to start a scrap then. He'd want time an' hosses an'
men to chase us out on the trail. You see, I'm figgerin' on the
crazy Greaser wantin' the girl. I reckon he'll try to clean up
here to get her. But he's too smart to fight you for nothin'.
Rojas may be nutty about women, but he's afraid of the U. S.
Take my word for it he'd discover the trail in the mornin' an'
light out on it. I reckon with ten hours' start we could travel
Belding paced up and down the room. Jim and Ladd whispered
together. Gale walked to the window and looked out at the distant
group of bandits, and then turned his gaze to rest upon Mercedes.
She was conscious now, and her eyes seemed all the larger and
blacker for the whiteness of her face. Thorne held her hands,
and the other women were trying to still her tremblings.
No one but Gale saw the Yaqui in the background looking down
upon the Spanish girl. All of Yaqui's looks were strange; but this
singularly so. Gale marked it, and felt he would never forget.
Mercedes's beauty had never before struck him as being so exquisite,
so alluring as now when she lay stricken. Gale wondered if the
Indian was affected by her loveliness, her helplessness, or her
terror. Yaqui had seen Mercedes only a few times, and upon each
of these he had appeared to be fascinated. Could the strange
Indian, because his hate for Mexicans was so great, be gloating
over her misery? Something about Yaqui--a noble austerity of
countenance--made Gale feel his suspicion unjust.
Presently Belding called his rangers to him, and then Thorne.
"Listen to this," he said, earnestly. "I'll go out and have a talk
with Rojas. I'll try to reason with him; tell him to think a long
time before he sheds blood on Uncle Sam's soil. That he's now
after an American's wife! I'll not commit myself, nor will I refuse
outright to consider his demands, nor will I show the least fear
of him. I'll play for time. If my bluff goes through...well and
good....After dark the four of you, Laddy, Jim, Dick, and Thorne,
will take Mercedes and my best white horses, and, with Yaqui as
guide, circle round through Altar Valley to the trail, and head
for Yuma....Wait now, Laddy. Let me finish. I want you to take
the white horses for two reasons--to save them and to save you.
Savvy? If Rojas should follow on my horses he'd be likely to
catch you. Also, you can pack a great deal more than on the
bronchs. Also, the big horses can travel faster and farther on
little grass and water. I want you to take the Indian, because
in a case of this kind he'll be a godsend. If you get headed or
lost or have to circle off the trail, think what it 'd mean to have
Yaqui with you. He knows Sonora as no Greaser knows it. He could
hide you, find water and grass, when you would absolutely
believe it impossible. The Indian is loyal. He has his debt to
pay, and he'll pay it, don't mistake me. When you're gone I'll
hide Nell so Rojas won't see her if he searches the place. Then
I think I could sit down and wait without any particular worry."
The rangers approved of Belding's plan, and Thorne choked in his
effort to express his gratitude.
"All right, we'll chance it," concluded Belding. "I'll go out now
and call Rojas and his outfit over...Say, it might be as well for
me to know just what he said in that paper."
Thorne went to the side of his wife.
"Mercedes, we've planned to outwit Rojas. Will you tell us just
what he wrote?"
The girl sat up, her eyes dilating, and with her hands clasping
Thorne's. She said:
"Rojas swore--by his saints and his virgin--that if I wasn't
given--to him--in twenty-four hours--he would set fire to the
village--kill the men--carry off the women--hang the children
on cactus thorns!"
A moment's silence followed her last halting whisper.
"By his saints an' his virgin!" echoed Ladd. He laughed--a cold,
cutting, deadly laugh--significant and terrible.
Then the Yaqui uttered a singular cry. Gale had heard this once
before, and now he remembered it was at the Papago Well.
"Look at the Indian," whispered Belding, hoarsely. "Damn if I
don't believe he understood every word Mercedes said. And,
gentlemen, don't mistake me, if he ever gets near Senor Rojas
there'll be some gory Aztec knife work."
Yaqui had moved close to Mercedes, and stood beside her as she
leaned against her husband. She seemed impelled to meet the
Indian's gaze, and evidently it was so powerful or hypnotic that
it wrought irresistibly upon her. But she must have seen or
divined what was beyond the others, for she offered him her
trembling hand. Yaqui took it and laid it against his body
in a strange motion, and bowed his head. Then he stepped back
into the shadow of the room.
Belding went outdoors while the rangers took up their former
position at the west window. Each had his own somber thoughts,
Gale imagined, and knew his own were dark enough. A slow fire
crept along his veins. He saw Belding halt at the corrals and wave
his hand. Then the rebels mounted and came briskly up the road,
this time to rein in abreast.
Wherever Rojas had kept himself upon the former advance was not
clear; but he certainly was prominently in sight now. He made a
gaudy, almost a dashing figure. Gale did not recognize the white
sombrero, the crimson scarf, the velvet jacket, nor any feature of
the dandy's costume; but their general effect, the whole ensemble,
recalled vividly to mind his first sight of the bandit. Rojas
dismounted and seemed to be listening. He betrayed none of the
excitement Gale had seen in him that night at the Del Sol.
Evidently this composure struck Ladd and Lash as unusual in a
Mexican supposed to be laboring under stress of feeling. Belding
made gestures, vehemently bobbed his big head, appeared to talk
with his body as much as with his tongue. Then Rojas was seen to
reply, and after that it was clear that the talk became painful and
difficult. It ended finally in what appeared to be mutual
understanding. Rojas mounted and rode away with his men, while
Belding came tramping back to the house.
As he entered the door his eyes were shining, his big hands were
clenched, and he was breathing audibly.
"You can rope me if I'm not locoed!" he burst out. "I went out
to conciliate a red-handed little murderer, and damn me if I didn't
meet a--a--well, I've not suitable name handy. I started my bluff
and got along pretty well, but I forgot to mention that Mercedes
was Thorne's wife. And what do you think? Rojas swore he loved Mercedes--
swore he'd marry her right here in Forlorn River--swore he would give up
robbing and killing people, and take her away from Mexico. He has
gold--jewels. He swore if he didn't get her nothing mattered. He'd
die anyway without her....And here's the strange thing. I believe
him! He was cold as ice, and all hell inside. Never saw a Greaser
like him. Well, I pretended to be greatly impressed. We got to
talking friendly, I suppose, though I didn't understand half he
said, and I imagine he gathered less what I said. Anyway, without
my asking he said for me to think it over for a day and then we'd
"Shore we're born lucky!" ejaculated Ladd.
"I reckon Rojas'll be smart enough to string his outfit across the
few trails leadin' out of Forlorn River," remarked Jim.
"That needn't worry us. All we want is dark to come," replied
Belding. "Yaqui will slip through. If we thank any lucky stars
let it be for the Indian....Now, boys, put on your thinking caps.
You'll take eight horses, the pick of my bunch. You must pack
all that's needed for a possible long trip. Mind, Yaqui may lead
you down into some wild Sonora valley and give Rojas the slip.
You may get to Yuma in six days, and maybe in six weeks. Yet
you've got to pack light--a small pack in saddles--larger ones
on the two free horses. You may have a big fight. Laddy, take
the .405. Dick will pack his Remington. All of you go gunned
heavy. But the main thing is a pack that 'll be light enough for
swift travel, yet one that 'll keep you from starving on the
The rest of that day passed swiftly. Dick had scarcely a word with
Nell, and all the time, as he chose and deliberated and worked
over his little pack, there was a dull pain in his heart.
The sun set, twilight fell, then night closed down fortunately
a night slightly overcast. Gale saw the white horses pass
his door like silent ghosts. Even Blanco Diablo made no sound,
and that fact was indeed a tribute to the Yaqui. Gale went out
to put his saddle on Blanco Sol. The horse rubbed a soft nose
against his shoulder. Then Gale returned to the sitting-room.
There was nothing more to do but wait and say good-by. Mercedes
came clad in leather chaps and coat, a slim stripling of a cowboy,
her dark eyes flashing. Her beauty could not be hidden, and now
hope and courage had fired her blood.
Gale drew Nell off into the shadow of the room. She was trembling,
and as she leaned toward him she was very different from the coy
girl who had so long held him aloof. He took her into his arms.
"Dearest, I'm going--soon....And maybe I'll never--"
"Dick, do--don't say it," sobbed Nell, with her head on his breast.
"I might never come back," he went on, steadily. "I love you--I've
loved you ever since the first moment I saw you. Do you care for
"Dear Dick--de-dear Dick, my heart is breaking," faltered Nell, as
she clung to him.
"It might be breaking for Mercedes--for Laddy and Jim. I want to
hear something for myself. Something to have on long marches--round
lonely campfires. Something to keep my spirit alive. Oh, Nell, you
can't imagine that silence out there--that terrible world of sand
and stone!...Do you love me?"
"Yes, yes. Oh, I love you so! I never knew it till now. I love
you so. Dick, I'll be safe and I'll wait--and hope and pray for
"If I come back--no--when I come back, will you marry me?"
"I--I--oh yes!" she whispered, and returned his kiss.
Belding was in the room speaking softly.
"Nell, darling, I must go," said Dick.
"I'm a selfish little coward," cried Nell. "It's so splendid of you
all. I ought to glory in it, but I can't. ...Fight if you must,
Dick. Fight for that lovely persecuted girl. I'll love you--the
more....Oh! Good-by! Good-by!"
With a wrench that shook him Gale let her go. He heard
Belding's soft voice.
"Yaqui says the early hour's best. Trust him, Laddy. Remember
what I say--Yaqui's a godsend."
Then they were all outside in the pale gloom under the trees.
Yaqui mounted Blanco Diablo; Mercedes was lifted upon White
Woman; Thorne climbed astride Queen; Jim Lash was already
upon his horse, which was as white as the others but bore no
name; Ladd mounted the stallion Blanco Torres, and gathered
up the long halters of the two pack horses; Gale came last with
As he toed the stirrup, hand on mane and pommel, Gale took one
more look in at the door. Nell stood in the gleam of light, her
hair shining, face like ashes, her eyes dark, her lips parted, her
arms outstretched. That sweet and tragic picture etched its
cruel outlines into Gale's heart. He waved his hand and then
fiercely leaped into the saddle.
Blanco Sol stepped out.
Before Gale stretched a line of moving horses, white against dark
shadows. He could not see the head of that column; he scarcely
heard a soft hoofbeat. A single star shone out of a rift in thin
clouds. There was no wind. The air was cold. The dark space
of desert seemed to yawn. To the left across the river flickered a
few campfires. The chill night, silent and mystical, seemed to
close in upon Gale; and he faced the wide, quivering, black level
with keen eyes and grim intent, and an awakening of that wild
rapture which came like a spell to him in the open desert.
ACROSS CACTUS AND LAVA
BLANCO SOL showed no inclination to bend his head to the alfalfa
which swished softly about his legs. Gale felt the horse's
sensitive, almost human alertness. Sol knew as well as his master
the nature of that flight.
At the far corner of the field Yaqui halted, and slowly the line of
white horses merged into a compact mass. There was a trail here
leading down to the river. The campfires were so close that the
bright blazes could be seen in movement, and dark forms crossed
in front of them. Yaqui slipped out of his saddle. He ran his hand
over Diablo's nose and spoke low, and repeated this action for
each of the other horses. Gale had long ceased to question the
strange Indian's behavior. There was no explaining or understanding
many of his manoeuvers. But the results of them were always
thought-provoking. Gale had never seen horse stand so silently as
in this instance; no stamp--no champ of bit--no toss of head--no
shake of saddle or pack--no heave or snort! It seemed they had
become imbued with the spirit of the Indian.
Yaqui moved away into the shadows as noiselessly as if he were one
of them. The darkness swallowed him. He had taken a parallel with
the trail. Gale wondered if Yaqui meant to try to lead his string
of horses by the rebel sentinels. Ladd had his head bent low, his
ear toward the trail. Jim's long neck had the arch of a listening
deer. Gale listened, too, and as the slow, silent moments went
by his faculty of hearing grew more acute from strain. He heard
Blanco Sol breathe; he heard the pound of his own heart;
he heard the silken rustle of the alfalfa; he heard a faint,
far-off sound of voice, like a lost echo. Then his ear seemed
to register a movement of air, a disturbance so soft
as to be nameless. Then followed long, silent moments.
Yaqui appeared as he had vanished. He might have been part of
the shadows. But he was there. He started off down the trail
leading Diablo. Again the white line stretched slowly out. Gale
fell in behind. A bench of ground, covered with sparse greasewood,
sloped gently down to the deep, wide arroyo of Forlorn River.
Blanco Sol shied a few feet out of the trail. Peering low with keen
eyes, Gale made out three objects--a white sombrero, a blanket,
and a Mexican lying face down. The Yaqui had stolen upon this
sentinel like a silent wind of death. Just then a desert coyote
wailed, and the wild cry fitted the darkness and the Yaqui's deed.
Once under the dark lee of the river bank Yaqui caused another
halt, and he disappeared as before. It seemed to Gale that the
Indian started to cross the pale level sandbed of the river, where
stones stood out gray, and the darker line of opposite shore was
visible. But he vanished, and it was impossible to tell whether
he went one way or another. Moments passed. The horses held
heads up, looked toward the glimmering campfires and listened.
Gale thrilled with the meaning of it all--the night--the silence
--the flight--and the wonderful Indian stealing with the slow
inevitableness of doom upon another sentinel. An hour passed
and Gale seemed to have become deadened to all sense of hearing.
There were no more sounds in the world. The desert was as silent
as it was black. Yet again came that strange change in the tensity
of Gale's ear-strain, a check, a break, a vibration--and this time
the sound did not go nameless. It might have been moan of wind
or wail of far-distant wolf, but Gale imagined it was the strangling
death-cry of another guard, or that strange, involuntary utterance
of the Yaqui. Blanco Sol trembled in all his great frame, and then
Gale was certain the sound was not imagination.
That certainty, once for all, fixed in Gale's mind the mood of
his flight. The Yaqui dominated the horses and the rangers.
Thorne and Mercedes were as persons under a spell. The Indian's
strange silence, the feeling of mystery and power he seemed to
create, all that was incomprehensible about him were emphasized in
the light of his slow, sure, and ruthless action. If he dominated
the others, surely he did more for Gale--colored his
thoughts--presage the wild and terrible future of that flight. If
Rojas embodied all the hatred and passion of the peon--scourged
slave for a thousand years--then Yaqui embodied all the darkness,
the cruelty, the white, sun-heated blood, the ferocity, the tragedy
of the desert.
Suddenly the Indian stalked out of the gloom. He mounted Diablo
and headed across the river. Once more the line of moving white
shadows stretched out. The soft sand gave forth no sound at all.
The glimmering campfires sank behind the western bank. Yaqui
led the way into the willows, and there was faint swishing of
leaves; then into the mesquite, and there was faint rustling of
branches. The glimmering lights appeared again, and grotesque
forms of saguaros loomed darkly. Gale peered sharply along the
trail, and, presently, on the pale sand under a cactus, there lay
a blanketed form, prone, outstretched, a carbine clutched in one
hand, a cigarette, still burning, in the other.
The cavalcade of white horses passed within five hundred yards of
campfires, around which dark forms moved in plain sight. Soft pads
in sand, faint metallic tickings of steel on thorns, low, regular
breathing of horses--these were all the sounds the fugitives made,
and they could not have been heard at one-fifth the distance.
The lights disappeared from time to time, grew dimmer, more
flickering, and at last they vanished altogether. Belding's fleet
and tireless steeds were out in front; the desert opened ahead wide,
dark, vast. Rojas and his rebels were behind, eating, drinking, careless.
The somber shadow lifted from Gale's heart. He held now an unquenchable
faith in the Yaqui. Belding would be listening back there along the river.
He would know of the escape. He would tell Nell, and then hide her safely.
As Gale accepted a strange and fatalistic foreshadowing of toil, blood,
and agony in this desert journey, so he believed in Mercedes's ultimate
freedom and happiness, and his own return to the girl who had grown
dearer than life.
A cold, gray dawn was fleeing before a rosy sun when Yaqui halted
the march at Papago Well. The horses were taken to water, then
led down the arroyo into the grass. Here packs were slipped,
saddles removed. Mercedes was cold, lame, tired, but happy. It
warmed Gale's blood to look at her. The shadow of fear still lay
in her eyes, but it was passing. Hope and courage shone there,
and affection for her ranger protectors and the Yaqui, and
unutterable love for the cavalryman. Jim Lash remarked how
cleverly they had fooled the rebels.
"Shore they'll be comin' along," replied Ladd.
They built a fire, cooked and ate. The Yaqui spoke only one
word: "Sleep." Blankets were spread. Mercedes dropped into a
deep slumber, her head on Thorne's shoulder. Excitement kept
Throne awake. The two rangers dozed beside the fire. Gale
shared the Yaqui's watch. The sun began to climb and the icy
edge of dawn to wear away. Rabbits bobbed their cotton tails
under the mesquite. Gale climbed a rocky wall above the arroyo
bank, and there, with command over the miles of the back-trail, he
It was a sweeping, rolling, wrinkled, and streaked range of desert
that he saw, ruddy in the morning sunlight, with patches of cactus
and mesquite rough-etched in shimmering gloom. No Name Mountains
split the eastern sky, towering high, gloomy, grand, with purple veils
upon their slopes. They were forty miles away and looked five.
Gale thought of the girl who was there under their shadow.
Yaqui kept the horses bunched, and he led them from one little
park of galleta grass to another. At the end of three hours he took
them to water. Upon his return Gale clambered down from his
outlook, the rangers grew active. Mercedes was awakened; and soon
the party faced westward, their long shadows moving before them.
Yaqui led with Blanco Diablo in a long, easy lope. The arroyo
washed itself out into flat desert, and the greens began to shade
into gray, and then the gray into red. Only sparse cactus and
weathered ledges dotted the great low roll of a rising escarpment.
Yaqui suited the gait of his horse to the lay of the land, and his
followers accepted his pace. There were canter and trot, and
swift walk and slow climb, and long swing--miles up and down
and forward. The sun soared hot. The heated air lifted, and
incoming currents from the west swept low and hard over the
barren earth. In the distance, all around the horizon,
accumulations of dust seemed like ranging, mushrooming yellow
Yaqui was the only one of the fugitives who never looked back.
Mercedes did it the most. Gale felt what compelled her, he could
not resist it himself. But it was a vain search. For a thousand
puffs of white and yellow dust rose from that backward sweep
of desert, and any one of them might have been blown from under
horses' hoofs. Gale had a conviction that when Yaqui gazed back
toward the well and the shining plain beyond, there would be reason
for it. But when the sun lost its heat and the wind died down Yaqui
took long and careful surveys westward from the high points on the
trail. Sunset was not far off, and there in a bare, spotted valley
lay Coyote Tanks, the only waterhole between Papago Well and
the Sonoyta Oasis. Gale used his glass, told Yaqui there was no
smoke, no sign of life; still the Indian fixed his falcon eyes
on distant spots looked long. It was as if his vision
could not detect what reason or cunning or intuition, perhaps
an instinct, told him was there. Presently in a sheltered spot,
where blown sand had not obliterated the trail, Yaqui found the
tracks of horses. The curve of the iron shoes pointed westward.
An intersecting trail from the north came in here. Gale thought the
tracks either one or two days old. Ladd said they were one day.
The Indian shook his head.
No farther advance was undertaken. The Yaqui headed south and
traveled slowly, climbing to the brow of a bold height of weathered
mesa. There he sat his horse and waited. No one questioned him.
The rangers dismounted to stretch their legs, and Mercedes was
lifted to a rock, where she rested. Thorne had gradually yielded
to the desert's influence for silence. He spoke once or twice to
Gale, and occasionally whispered to Mercedes. Gale fancied his
friend would soon learn that necessary speech in desert travel meant
a few greetings, a few words to make real the fact of human
companionship, a few short, terse terms for the business of day or
night, and perhaps a stern order or a soft call to a horse.
The sun went down, and the golden, rosy veils turned to blue and
shaded darker till twilight was there in the valley. Only the spurs
of mountains, spiring the near and far horizon, retained their clear
outline. Darkness approached, and the clear peaks faded. The
horses stamped to be on the move.
"Malo!" exclaimed the Yaqui.
He did not point with arm, but his falcon head was outstretched,
and his piercing eyes gazed at the blurring spot which marked
the location of Coyote Tanks.
"Jim, can you see anything?" asked Ladd.
"Nope, but I reckon he can."
Darkness increased momentarily till night shaded the deepest part
of the valley.
Then Ladd suddenly straightened up, turned to his horse, and
muttered low under his breath.
"I reckon so," said Lash, and for once his easy, good-natured tone
was not in evidence. His voice was harsh.
Gale's eyes, keen as they were, were last of the rangers to see
tiny, needle-points of light just faintly perceptible in the
"Laddy! Campfires?" he asked, quickly.
"Shore's you're born, my boy."
Ladd did not reply; but Yaqui held up his hand, his fingers wide.
Five campfires! A strong force of rebels or raiders or some other
desert troop was camping at Coyote Tanks.
Yaqui sat his horse for a moment, motionless as stone, his dark
face immutable and impassive. Then he stretched wide his right arm
in the direction of No Name Mountains, now losing their last faint
traces of the afterglow, and he shook his head. He made the same
impressive gesture toward the Sonoyta Oasis with the same somber
Thereupon he turned Diablo's head to the south and started down
the slope. His manner had been decisive, even stern. Lash did not
question it, nor did Ladd. Both rangers hesitated, however, and
showed a strange, almost sullen reluctance which Gale had never
seen in them before. Raiders were one thing, Rojas was another;
Camino del Diablo still another; but that vast and desolate and
unwatered waste of cactus and lava, the Sonora Desert, might
appall the stoutest heart. Gale felt his own sink--felt himself
"Oh, where is he going?" cried Mercedes. Her poignant voice seemed
to break a spell.
"Shore, lady, Yaqui's goin' home," replied Ladd, gently. "An'
considerin' our troubles I reckon we ought to thank God he knows
They mounted and rode down the slope toward the darkening south.
Not until night travel was obstructed by a wall of cactus did the
Indian halt to make a dry camp. Water and grass for the horses
and fire to cook by were not to be had. Mercedes bore up
surprisingly; but she fell asleep almost the instant her thirst had
been allayed. Thorne laid her upon a blanket and covered her.
The men ate and drank. Diablo was the only horse that showed
impatience; but he was angry, and not in distress. Blanco Sol
licked Gale's hand and stood patiently. Many a time had he taken
his rest at night without a drink. Yaqui again bade the men sleep.
Ladd said he would take the early watch; but from the way the
Indian shook his head and settled himself against a stone, it
appeared if Ladd remained awake he would have company. Gale
lay down weary of limb and eye. He heard the soft thump of hoofs,
the sough of wind in the cactus--then no more.
When he awoke there was bustle and stir about him. Day had not
yet dawned, and the air was freezing cold. Yaqui had found a scant
bundle of greasewood which served to warm them and to cook
breakfast. Mercedes was not aroused till the last moment.
Day dawned with the fugitives in the saddle. A picketed wall of
cactus hedged them in, yet the Yaqui made a tortuous path, that,
zigzag as it might, in the main always headed south. It was
wonderful how he slipped Diablo through the narrow aisles of thorns,
saving the horse and saving himself. The others were torn and
clutched and held and stung. The way was a flat, sandy pass between
low mountain ranges. There were open spots and aisles and squares
of sand; and hedging rows of prickly pear and the huge spider-legged
ocatillo and hummocky masses of clustered bisnagi. The day grew dry
and hot. A fragrant wind blew through the pass. Cactus flowers
bloomed, red and yellow and magenta. The sweet, pale Ajo lily
gleamed in shady corners.
Ten miles of travel covered the length of the pass. It opened wide
upon a wonderful scene, an arboreal desert, dominated by its pure
light green, yet lined by many merging colors. And it rose slowly
to a low dim and dark-red zone of lava, spurred, peaked, domed
by volcano cones, a wild and ragged region, illimitable as the
The Yaqui, if not at fault, was yet uncertain. His falcon eyes
searched and roved, and became fixed at length at the southwest,
and toward this he turned his horse. The great, fluted saguaros,
fifty, sixty feet high, raised columnal forms, and their branching
limbs and curving lines added a grace to the desert. It was the
low-bushed cactus that made the toil and pain of travel. Yet
these thorny forms were beautiful.
In the basins between the ridges, to right and left along the floor
of low plains the mirage glistened, wavered, faded, vanished--lakes
and trees and clouds. Inverted mountains hung suspended in the
lilac air and faint tracery of white-walled cities.
At noon Yaqui halted the cavalcade. He had selected a field of
bisnagi cactus for the place of rest. Presently his reason became
obvious. With long, heavy knife he cut off the tops of these
barrel-shaped plants. He scooped out soft pulp, and with stone and
hand then began to pound the deeper pulp into a juicy mass. When
he threw this out there was a little water left, sweet, cool water
which man and horse shared eagerly. Thus he made even the desert's
fiercest growths minister to their needs.
But he did not halt long. Miles of gray-green spiked walls lay
between him and that line of ragged, red lava which manifestly he
must reach before dark. The travel became faster, straighter.
And the glistening thorns clutched and clung to leather and cloth
and flesh. The horses reared, snorted, balked, leaped--but they
were sent on. Only Blanco Sol, the patient, the plodding, the
indomitable, needed no goad or spur. Waves and scarfs
and wreaths of heat smoked up from the sand. Mercedes reeled
in her saddle. Thorne bade her drink, bathed her face, supported
her, and then gave way to Ladd, who took the girl with him on
Torre's broad back. Yaqui's unflagging purpose and iron arm were
bitter and hateful to the proud and haughty spirit of Blanco Diablo.
For once Belding's great white devil had met his master. He fought
rider, bit, bridle, cactus, sand--and yet he went on and on,
zigzagging, turning, winding, crashing through the barbed growths.
The middle of the afternoon saw Thorne reeling in his saddle, and
then, wherever possible, Gale's powerful arm lent him strength to
hold his seat.
The giant cactus came to be only so in name. These saguaros were
thinning out, growing stunted, and most of them were single columns.
Gradually other cactus forms showed a harder struggle for existence,
and the spaces of sand between were wider. But now the dreaded,
glistening choya began to show pale and gray and white upon the
rising slope. Round-topped hills, sunset-colored above, blue-black
below, intervened to hide the distant spurs and peaks. Mile and
mile long tongues of red lava streamed out between the hills and
wound down to stop abruptly upon the slope.
The fugitives were entering a desolate, burned-out world. It rose
above them in limitless, gradual ascent and spread wide to east
and west. Then the waste of sand began to yield to cinders. The
horses sank to their fetlocks as they toiled on. A fine, choking
dust blew back from the leaders, and men coughed and horses
snorted. The huge, round hills rose smooth, symmetrical, colored
as if the setting sun was shining on bare, blue-black surfaces.
But the sun was now behind the hills. In between ran the streams
of lava. The horsemen skirted the edge between slope of hill and
perpendicular ragged wall. This red lava seemed to have flowed
and hardened there only yesterday. It was broken sharp,
dull rust color, full of cracks and caves and crevices, and
everywhere upon its jagged surface grew the white-thorned choya.
Again twilight encompassed the travelers. But there was still
light enough for Gale to see the constricted passage open into a
wide, deep space where the dull color was relieved by the gray
of gnarled and dwarfed mesquite. Blanco Sol, keenest of scent,
whistled his welcome herald of water. The other horses answered,
quickened their gait. Gale smelled it, too, sweet, cool, damp on
the dry air.
Yaqui turned the corner of a pocket in the lava wall. The file
of white horses rounded the corner after him. And Gale, coming
last, saw the pale, glancing gleam of a pool of water beautiful in
Next day the Yaqui's relentless driving demand on the horses was
no longer in evidence. He lost no time, but he did not hasten. His
course wound between low cinder dunes which limited their view of
the surrounding country. These dunes finally sank down to a black
floor as hard as flint with tongues of lava to the left, and to the
right the slow descent into the cactus plain. Yaqui was now
traveling due west. It was Gale's idea that the Indian was skirting
the first sharp-toothed slope of a vast volcanic plateau which
formed the western half of the Sonora Desert and extended to the
Gulf of California. Travel was slow, but not exhausting for rider
or beast. A little sand and meager grass gave a grayish tinge to
the strip of black ground between lava and plain.
That day, as the manner rather than the purpose of the Yaqui
changed, so there seemed to be subtle differences in the others
of the party. Gale himself lost a certain sickening dread, which
had not been for himself, but for Mercedes and Nell, and Thorne
and the rangers. Jim, good-natured again, might have been
patrolling the boundary line. Ladd lost his taciturnity and his
gloom changed to a cool, careless air. A mood that was almost defiance
began to be manifested in Thorne. It was in Mercedes, however, that Gale
marked the most significant change. Her collapse the preceding
day might never have been. She was lame and sore; she rode
her saddle sidewise, and often she had to be rested and helped;
but she had found a reserve fund of strength, and her mental
condition was not the same that it had been. Her burden of fear
had been lifted. Gale saw in her the difference he always felt in
himself after a few days in the desert. Already Mercedes and he,
and all of them, had begun to respond to the desert spirit.
Moreover, Yaqui's strange influence must have been a call to the
Thirty miles of easy stages brought the fugitives to another
waterhole, a little round pocket under the heaved-up edge of lava.
There was spare, short, bleached grass for the horses, but no wood
for a fire. This night there was question and reply, conjecture,
doubt, opinion, and conviction expressed by the men of the party.
But the Indian, who alone could have told where they were, where
they were going, what chance they had to escape, maintained his
stoical silence. Gale took the early watch, Ladd the midnight one,
and Lash that of the morning.
They day broke rosy, glorious, cold as ice. Action was necessary
to make useful benumbed hands and feet. Mercedes was fed while
yet wrapped in blankets. Then, while the packs were being put on
and horses saddled, she walked up and down, slapping her hands,
warming her ears. The rose color of the dawn was in her cheeks,
and the wonderful clearness of desert light in her eyes. Thorne's
eyes sought her constantly. The rangers watched her. The Yaqui
bent his glance upon her only seldom; but when he did look it seemed
that his strange, fixed, and inscrutable face was about to break
into a smile. Yet that never happened. Gale himself was surprised
to find how often his own glance found the slender, dark, beautiful
Spaniard. Was this because of her beauty? he wondered. He thought
not altogether. Mercedes was a woman. She represented something
in life that men of all races for thousands of years had loved to
see and own, to revere and debase, to fight and die for.
It was a significant index to the day's travel that Yaqui should
keep a blanket from the pack and tear it into strips to bind the
legs of the horses. It meant the dreaded choya and the knife-edged
lava. That Yaqui did not mount Diablo was still more significant.
Mercedes must ride; but the others must walk.
The Indian led off into one of the gray notches between the tumbled
streams of lava. These streams were about thirty feet high, a
rotting mass of splintered lava, rougher than any other kind of
roughness in the world. At the apex of the notch, where two streams
met, a narrow gully wound and ascended. Gale caught sight of the
dim, pale shadow of a one-time trail. Near at hand it was
invisible; he had to look far ahead to catch the faint tracery.
Yaqui led Diablo into it, and then began the most laborious and
vexatious and painful of all slow travel.
Once up on top of that lava bed, Gale saw stretching away, breaking
into millions of crests and ruts, a vast, red-black field sweeping
onward and upward, with ragged, low ridges and mounds and spurs
leading higher and higher to a great, split escarpment wall, above
which dim peaks shone hazily blue in the distance.
He looked no more in that direction. To keep his foothold, to save
his horse, cost him all energy and attention. The course was marked
out for him in the tracks of the other horses. He had only to
follow. But nothing could have been more difficult. The
disintegrating surface of a lava bed was at once the roughest, the
hardest, the meanest, the cruelest, the most deceitful kind of
ground to travel.
It was rotten, yet it had corners as hard and sharp as pikes.
It was rough, yet as slippery as ice. If there was a foot
of level surface, that space would be one to break through
under a horse's hoofs. It was seamed, lined, cracked, ridged,
knotted iron. This lava bed resembled a tremendously magnified
clinker. It had been a running sea of molten flint, boiling,
bubbling, spouting, and it had burst its surface into a million
sharp facets as it hardened. The color was dull, dark, angry
red, like no other red, inflaming to the eye. The millions of
minute crevices were dominated by deep fissures and holes,
ragged and rough beyond all comparison.
The fugitives made slow progress. They picked a cautious, winding
way to and fro in little steps here and there along the many twists
of the trail, up and down the unavoidable depressions, round and
round the holes. At noon, so winding back upon itself had been
their course, they appeared to have come only a short distance up
the lava slope.
It was rough work for them; it was terrible work for the horses.
Blanco Diablo refused to answer to the power of the Yaqui. He
balked, he plunged, he bit and kicked. He had to be pulled and
beaten over many places. Mercedes's horse almost threw her,
and she was put upon Blanco Sol. The white charger snorted
a protest, then, obedient to Gale's stern call, patiently lowered
his noble head and pawed the lava for a footing that would hold.
The lava caused Gale toil and worry and pain, but he hated the
choyas. As the travel progressed this species of cactus increased
in number of plants and in size. Everywhere the red lava was
spotted with little round patches of glistening frosty white. And
under every bunch of choya, along and in the trail, were the
discarded joints, like little frosty pine cones covered with spines.
It was utterly impossible always to be on the lookout for these,
and when Gale stepped on one, often as not the steel-like thorns
pierced leather and flesh. Gale came almost to believe what he had
heard claimed by desert travelers--that the choya was alive and
leaped at man or beast. Certain it was when Gale passed one,
if he did not put all attention to avoiding it, he was hooked
through his chaps and held by barbed thorns. The pain was
almost unendurable. It was like no other. It burned, stung,
beat--almost seemed to freeze. It made useless arm or leg.
It made him bite his tongue to keep from crying out.
It made the sweat roll off him. It made him sick.
Moreover, bad as the choya was for man, it was infinitely worse
for beast. A jagged stab from this poisoned cactus was the only
thing Blanco Sol could not stand. Many times that day, before he
carried Mercedes, he had wildly snorted, and then stood trembling
while Gale picked broken thorns from the muscular legs. But after
Mercedes had been put upon Sol Gale made sure no choya touched him.
The afternoon passed like the morning, in ceaseless winding and
twisting and climbing along this abandoned trail. Gale saw many
waterholes, mostly dry, some containing water, all of them
catch-basins, full only after rainy season. Little ugly bunched
bushes, that Gale scarcely recognized as mesquites, grew near
these holes; also stunted greasewood and prickly pear. There
was no grass, and the choya alone flourished in that hard soil.
Darkness overtook the party as they unpacked beside a pool of water
deep under an overhanging shelf of lava. It had been a hard day.
The horses drank their fill, and then stood patiently with drooping
heads. Hunger and thirst appeased, and a warm fire cheered the
weary and foot-sore fugitives. Yaqui said, "Sleep." And so another
Upon the following morning, ten miles or more up the slow-ascending
lava slope, Gale's attention was called from his somber search for
the less rough places in the trail.
"Dick, why does Yaqui look back?" asked Mercedes.
Gale was startled.
"Every little while," replied Mercedes.
Gale was in the rear of all the other horses, so as to take, for
Mercedes's sake, the advantage of the broken trail. Yaqui was
leading Diablo, winding around a break. His head was bent as he
stepped slowly and unevenly upon the lava. Gale turned to look
back, the first time in several days. The mighty hollow of the
desert below seemed wide strip of red--wide strip of green--wide
strip of gray--streaking to purple peaks. It was all too vast, too
mighty to grasp any little details. He thought, of course, of Rojas
in certain pursuit; but it seemed absurded to look for him.
Yaqui led on, and Gale often glanced up from his task to watch the
Indian. Presently he saw him stop, turn, and look back. Ladd did
likewise, and then Jim and Thorne. Gale found the desire
irresistible. Thereafter he often rested Blanco Sol, and looked
back the while. He had his field-glass, but did not choose to use
"Rojas will follow," said Mercedes.
Gale regarded her in amaze. The tone of her voice had been
indefinable. If there were fear then he failed to detect it. She
was gazing back down the colored slope, and something about
her, perhaps the steady, falcon gaze of her magnificent eyes,
reminded him of Yaqui.
Many times during the ensuing hour the Indian faced about, and
always his followers did likewise. It was high noon, with the sun
beating hot and the lava radiating heat, when Yaqui halted for a
rest. The place selected was a ridge of lava, almost a promontory,
considering its outlook. The horses bunched here and drooped their
heads. The rangers were about to slip the packs and remove
saddles when Yaqui restrained them.
He fixed a changeless, gleaming gaze on the slow descent; but did
not seem to look afar.
Suddenly he uttered his strange cry--the one Gale considered
involuntary, or else significant of some tribal trait or feeling.
It was incomprehensible, but no one could have doubted its
potency. Yaqui pointed down the lava slope, pointed with finger
and arm and neck and head--his whole body was instinct with
direction. His whole being seemed to have been animated and
then frozen. His posture could not have been misunderstood,
yet his expression had not altered. Gale had never seen the
Indian's face change its hard, red-bronze calm. It was the color
and the flintiness and the character of the lava at his feet.
"Shore he sees somethin'," said Ladd. "But my eyes are not good."
"I reckon I ain't sure of mine," replied Jim. "I'm bothered by a
dim movin' streak down there."
Thorne gazed eagerly down as he stood beside Mercedes, who
sat motionless facing the slope. Gale looked and looked till he
hurt his eyes. Then he took his glass out of its case on Sol's
There appeared to be nothing upon the lava but the innumerable
dots of choya shining in the sun. Gale swept his glass slowly
forward and back. Then into a nearer field of vision crept a
long white-and-black line of horses and men. Without a word
he handed the glass to Ladd. The ranger used it, muttering to
"They're on the lava fifteen miles down in an air line," he said,
presently. "Jim, shore they're twice that an' more accordin' to
Jim had his look and replied: "I reckon we're a day an' a night
in the lead."
"Is it Rojas?" burst out Thorne, with set jaw.
"Yes, Thorne. It's Rojas and a dozen men or more," replied Gale,
and he looked up at Mercedes.
She was transformed. She might have been a medieval princess
embodying all the Spanish power and passion of that time, breathing
revenge, hate, unquenchable spirit of fire. If her beauty had been
wonderful in her helpless and appealing moments, now, when she looked
back white-faced and flame-eyed, it was transcendant.
Gale drew a long, deep breath. The mood which had presaged pursuit,
strife, blood on this somber desert, returned to him tenfold. He
saw Thorne's face corded by black veins, and his teeth exposed like
those of a snarling wolf. These rangers, who had coolly risked
death many times, and had dealt it often, were white as no fear
or pain could have made them. Then, on the moment, Yaqui raised
his hand, not clenched or doubled tight, but curled rigid like an
eagle's claw; and he shook it in a strange, slow gesture which
was menacing and terrible.
It was the woman that called to the depths of these men. And
their passion to kill and to save was surpassed only by the wild
hate which was yet love, the unfathomable emotion of a peon
slave. Gale marveled at it, while he felt his whole being cold
and tense, as he turned once more to follow in the tracks of his
leaders. The fight predicted by Belding was at hand. What a fight
that must be! Rojas was traveling light and fast. He was gaining.
He had bought his men with gold, with extravagant promises,
perhaps with offers of the body and blood of an aristocrat hateful
to their kind. Lastly, there was the wild, desolate environment,
a tortured wilderness of jagged lava and poisoned choya, a lonely,
fierce, and repellant world, a red stage most somberly and fittingly
colored for a supreme struggle between men.
Yaqui looked back no more. Mercedes looked back no more. But
the others looked, and the time came when Gale saw the creeping
line of pursuers with naked eyes.
A level line above marked the rim of the plateau. Sand began to
show in the little lava pits. On and upward toiled the cavalcade,
still very slowly advancing. At last Yaqui reached the rim. He
stood with his hand on Blanco Diablo; and both were silhouetted
against the sky. That was the outlook for a Yaqui. And his great
horse, dazzlingly white in the sunlight, with head wildly and
proudly erect, mane and tail flying in the wind, made a magnificent
picture. The others toiled on and upward, and at last Gale led
Blanco Sol over the rim. Then all looked down the red slope.
But shadows were gathering there and no moving line could be seen.
Yaqui mounted and wheeled Diablo away. The others followed.
Gale saw that the plateau was no more than a vast field of low,
ragged circles, levels, mounds, cones, and whirls of lava. The lava
was of a darker red than that down upon the slope, and it was harder
than flint. In places fine sand and cinders covered the uneven
floor. Strange varieties of cactus vied with the omnipresent choya.
Yaqui, however, found ground that his horse covered at a swift walk.
But there was only an hour, perhaps, of this comparatively easy
going. Then the Yaqui led them into a zone of craters. The top of
the earth seemed to have been blown out in holes from a few rods
in width to large craters, some shallow, others deep, and all red
as fire. Yaqui circled close to abysses which yawned sheer from
a level surface, and he appeared always to be turning upon his
course to avoid them.
The plateau had now a considerable dip to the west. Gale marked
the slow heave and ripple of the ocean of lava to the south, where
high, rounded peaks marked the center of this volcanic region. The
uneven nature of the slope westward prevented any extended view,
until suddenly the fugitives emerged from a rugged break to come
upon a sublime and awe-inspiring spectacle.
They were upon a high point of the western slope of the plateau.
It was a slope, but so many leagues long in its descent that only
from a height could any slant have been perceptible. Yaqui and
his white horse stood upon the brink of a crater miles in
circumference, a thousand feet deep, with its red walls patched
in frost-colored spots by the silvery choya. The giant tracery of
lava streams waved down the slope to disappear in undulating sand dunes.
And these bordered a seemingly endless arm of blue sea. This
was the Gulf of California. Beyond the Gulf rose dim, bold
mountains, and above them hung the setting sun, dusky red, flooding
all that barren empire with a sinister light.
It was strange to Gale then, and perhaps to the others, to see
their guide lead Diablo into a smooth and well-worn trail along
the rim of the awful crater. Gale looked down into that red chasm.
It resembled an inferno. The dark cliffs upon the opposite side
were veiled in blue haze that seemed like smoke. Here Yaqui was
at home. He moved and looked about him as a man coming at last
into his own. Gale saw him stop and gaze out over that red-ribbed
void to the Gulf.
Gale devined that somewhere along this crater of hell the Yaqui
would make his final stand; and one look into his strange,
inscrutable eyes made imagination picture a fitting doom for the
THE CRATER OF HELL
THE trail led along a gigantic fissure in the side of the crater,
and then down and down into a red-walled, blue hazed labyrinth.
Presently Gale, upon turning a sharp corner, was utterly amazed to
see that the split in the lava sloped out and widened into an
arroyo. It was so green and soft and beautiful in all the angry,
contorted red surrounding that Gale could scarcely credit his sight.
Blanco Sol whistled his welcome to the scent of water. Then Gale
saw a great hole, a pit in the shiny lava, a dark, cool, shady well.
There was evidence of the fact that at flood seasons the water
had an outlet into the arroyo. The soil appeared to be a fine sand,
in which a reddish tinge predominated; and it was abundantly
covered with a long grass, still partly green. Mesquites and palo
verdes dotted the arroyo and gradually closed in thickets that
obstructed the view.
"Shore it all beats me," exclaimed Ladd. "What a place to hole-up
in! We could have hid here for a long time. Boys, I saw mountain
sheep, the real old genuine Rocky Mountain bighorn. What do you
think of that?"
"I reckon it's a Yaqui hunting-ground," replied Lash. "That trail
we hit must be hundreds of years old. It's worn deep and smooth
in iron lava."
"Well, all I got to say is--Beldin' was shore right about the
Indian. An' I can see Rojas's finish somewhere up along that
Camp was made on a level spot. Yaqui took the horses to water,
and then turned them loose in the arroyo. It was a tired and
somber group that sat down to eat. The strain of suspense
equaled the wearing effects of the long ride. Mercedes was calm,
but her great dark eyes burned in her white face. Yaqui watched
her. The others looked at her with unspoken pride. Presently
Thorne wrapped her in his blankets, and she seemed to fall asleep
at once. Twilight deepened. The campfire blazed brighter. A
cool wind played with Mercedes's black hair, waving strands across
Little of Yaqui's purpose or plan could be elicited from him. But
the look of him was enough to satisfy even Thorne. He leaned
against a pile of wood, which he had collected, and his gloomy
gaze pierced the campfire, and at long intervals strayed over the
motionless form of the Spanish girl.
The rangers and Thorne, however, talked in low tones. It was
absolutely impossible for Rojas and his men to reach the waterhole
before noon of the next day. And long before that time the
fugitives would have decided on a plan of defense. What that
defense would be, and where it would be made, were matters over
which the men considered gravely. Ladd averred the Yaqui would put
them into an impregnable position, that at the same time would prove
a death-trap for their pursuers. They exhausted every possibility,
and then, tired as they were, still kept on talking.
"What stuns me is that Rojas stuck to our trail," said Thorne, his
lined and haggard face expressive of dark passion. "He has followed
us into this fearful desert. He'll lose men, horses, perhaps his
life. He's only a bandit, and he stands to win no gold. If he
ever gets out of here it 'll be by herculean labor and by terrible
hardship. All for a poor little helpless woman--just a woman!
My God, I can't understand it."
"Shore--just a woman," replied Ladd, solemnly nodding his head.
Then there was a long silence during which the men gazed into the
fire. Each, perhaps, had some vague conception of the enormity
of Rojas's love or hate--some faint and amazing glimpse of the
gulf of human passion. Those were cold, hard, grim faces upon
which the light flickered.
"Sleep," said the Yaqui.
Thorne rolled in his blanket close beside Mercedes. Then one by
one the rangers stretched out, feet to the fire. Gale found that
he could not sleep. His eyes were weary, but they would not stay
shut; his body ached for rest, yet he could not lie still. The
night was so somber, so gloomy, and the lava-encompassed arroyo full
of shadows. The dark velvet sky, fretted with white fire, seemed to
be close. There was an absolute silence, as of death. Nothing
moved--nothing outside of Gale's body appeared to live. The
Yaqui sat like an image carved out of lava. The others lay prone
and quiet. Would another night see any of them lie that way,
quiet forever? Gale felt a ripple pass over him that was at once
a shudder and a contraction of muscles. Used as he was to the
desert and its oppression, why should he feel to-night as if the
weight of its lava and the burden of its mystery were bearing
He sat up after a while and again watched the fire. Nell's sweet
face floated like a wraith in the pale smoke--glowed and flushed
and smiled in the embers. Other faces shone there--his sister's
--that of his mother. Gale shook off the tender memories. This
desolate wilderness with its forbidding silence and its dark
promise of hell on the morrow--this was not the place to unnerve
oneself with thoughts of love and home. But the torturing paradox
of the thing was that this was just the place and just the night
for a man to be haunted.
By and by Gale rose and walked down a shadowy aisle
between the mesquites. On his way back the Yaqui joined him.
Gale was not surprised. He had become used to the Indian's
strange guardianship. But now, perhaps because of Gale's poignancy
of thought, the contending tides of love and regret, the deep,
burning premonition of deadly strife, he was moved to keener
scrutiny of the Yaqui. That, of course, was futile. The Indian
was impenetrable, silent, strange. But suddenly, inexplicably,
Gale felt Yaqui's human quality. It was aloof, as was everything
about this Indian; but it was there. This savage walked silently
beside him, without glance or touch or word. His thought was
as inscrutable as if mind had never awakened in his race. Yet
Gale was conscious of greatness, and, somehow, he was reminded
of the Indian's story. His home had been desolated, his people
carried off to slavery, his wife and children separated from him
to die. What had life meant to the Yaqui? What had been in his
heart? What was now in his mind? Gale could not answer these
questions. But the difference between himself and Yaqui, which
he had vaguely felt as that between savage and civilized men,
faded out of his mind forever. Yaqui might have considered he
owed Gale a debt, and, with a Yaqui's austere and noble fidelity
to honor, he meant to pay it. Nevertheless, this was not the thing
Gale found in the Indian's silent presence. Accepting the desert
with its subtle and inconceivable influence, Gale felt that the
savage and the white man had been bound in a tie which was
no less brotherly because it could not be comprehended.
Toward dawn Gale managed to get some sleep. Then the morning broke
with the sun hidden back of the uplift of the plateau. The horses
trooped up the arroyo and snorted for water. After a hurried
breakfast the packs were hidden in holes in the lava. The saddles
were left where they were, and the horses allowed to graze and wander
at will. Canteens were filled, a small bag of food was packed, and
blankets made into a bundle. Then Yaqui faced the steep ascent of
the lava slope.
The trail he followed led up on the right side of the fissure,
opposite to the one he had come down. It was a steep climb, and
encumbered as the men were they made but slow progress. Mercedes
had to be lifted up smooth steps and across crevices. They passed
places where the rims of the fissure were but a few yards apart.
At length the rims widened out and the red, smoky crater yawned
beneath. Yaqui left the trail and began clambering down over
the rough and twisted convolutions of lava which formed the rim.
Sometimes he hung sheer over the precipice. It was with extreme
difficulty that the party followed him. Mercedes had to be held
on narrow, foot-wide ledges. The choya was there to hinder passage.
Finally the Indian halted upon a narrow bench of flat, smooth lava,
and his followers worked with exceeding care and effort down to
At the back of this bench, between bunches of choya, was a niche,
a shallow cave with floor lined apparently with mold. Ladd said
the place was a refuge which had been inhabited by mountain sheep
for many years. Yaqui spread blankets inside, left the canteen and
the sack of food, and with a gesture at once humble, yet that of a
chief, he invited Mercedes to enter. A few more gestures and fewer
words disclosed his plan. In this inaccessible nook Mercedes was
to be hidden. The men were to go around upon the opposite rim, and
block the trail leading down to the waterhole.
Gale marked the nature of this eyrie. It was the wildest and most
rugged place he had ever stepped upon. Only a sheep could have
climbed up the wall above or along the slanting shelf of lava
beyond. Below glistened a whole bank of choya, frosty in the
sunlight, and it overhung an apparently bottomless abyss.
Ladd chose the smallest gun in the party and gave it to Mercedes.
"Shore it's best to go the limit on bein' ready," he said, simply.
"The chances are you'll never need it. But if you do--"
He left off there, and his break was significant. Mercedes answered
him with a fearless and indomitable flash of eyes. Thorne was the
only one who showed any shaken nerve. His leave-taking of his wife
was affecting and hurried. Then he and the rangers carefully
stepped in the tracks of the Yaqui.
They climbed up to the level of the rim and went along the edge.
When they reached the fissure and came upon its narrowest point,
Yaqui showed in his actions that he meant to leap it. Ladd
restrained the Indian. They then continued along the rim till they
reached several bridges of lava which crossed it. The fissures
was deep in some parts, choked in others. Evidently the crater had
no direct outlet into the arroyo below. Its bottom, however, must
have been far beneath the level of the waterhole.
After the fissure was crossed the trail was soon found. Here it ran
back from the rim. Yaqui waved his hand to the right, where along
the corrugated slope of the crater there were holes and crevices
and coverts for a hundred men. Yaqui strode on up the trail toward
a higher point, where presently his dark figure stood motionless
against the sky. The rangers and Thorne selected a deep depression,
out of which led several ruts deep enough for cover. According to
Ladd it was as good a place as any, perhaps not so hidden as others,
but freer from the dreaded choya. Here the men laid down rifles
and guns, and, removing their heavy cartridge belts, settled down
Their location was close to the rim wall and probably five hundred
yards from the opposite rim, which was now seen to be considerably
below them. The glaring red cliff presented a deceitful and
baffling appearance. It had a thousand ledges and holes in its
surfaces, and one moment it looked perpendicular and the next
there seemed to be a long slant. Thorne pointed out where
he thought Mercedes was hidden; Ladd selected another place,
and Lash still another. Gale searched for the bank of choya
he had seen under the bench where Mercedes's retreat lay,
and when he found it the others disputed his opinion.
Then Gale brought his field glass into requisition, proving that
he was right. Once located and fixed in sight, the white patch
of choya, the bench, and the sheep eyrie stood out from the other
features of that rugged wall. But all the men were agreed that
Yaqui had hidden Mercedes where only the eyes of a vulture could
have found her.
Jim Lash crawled into a little strip of shade and bided the time
tranquilly. Ladd was restless and impatient and watchful, every
little while rising to look up the far-reaching slope, and then to
the right, where Yaqui's dark figure stood out from a high point
of the rim. Thorne grew silent, and seemed consumed by a slow,
sullen rage. Gale was neither calm nor free of a gnawing suspense
nor of a waiting wrath. But as best he could he put the pending
action out of mind.
It came over him all of a sudden that he had not grasped the
stupendous nature of this desert setting. There was the measureless
red slope, its lower ridges finally sinking into white sand dunes
toward the blue sea. The cold, sparkling light, the white sun,
the deep azure of sky, the feeling of boundless expanse all around
him--these meant high altitude. Southward the barren red simply
merged into distance. The field of craters rose in high, dark
wheels toward the dominating peaks. When Gale withdrew his gaze
from the magnitude of these spaces and heights the crater beneath
him seemed dwarfed. Yet while he gazed it spread and deepened
and multiplied its ragged lines. No, he could not grasp the meaning
of size or distance here. There was too much to stun the sight.
But the mood in which nature had created this convulsed world
of lava seized hold upon him.
Meanwhile the hours passed. As the sun climbed the clear, steely
lights vanished, the blue hazes deepened, and slowly the glistening
surfaces of lava turned redder. Ladd was concerned to discover that
Yaqui was missing from his outlook upon the high point. Jim Lash
came out of the shady crevice, and stood up to buckle on his
cartridge belt. His narrow, gray glance slowly roved from the
height of lava down along the slope, paused in doubt, and then
swept on to resurvey the whole vast eastern dip of the plateau.
"I reckon my eyes are pore," he said. "Mebbe it's this damn red
glare. Anyway, what's them creepin' spots up there?"
"Shore I seen them. Mountain sheep," replied Ladd.
"Guess again, Laddy. Dick, I reckon you'd better flash the glass
up the slope."
Gale adjusted the field glass and began to search the lava,
beginning close at hand and working away from him. Presently
the glass became stationary.
"I see half a dozen small animals, brown in color. They look like
sheep. But I couldn't distinguish mountain sheep from antelope."
"Shore they're bighorn," said Laddy.
"I reckon if you'll pull around to the east an' search under that
long wall of lava--there--you'll see what I see," added Jim.
The glass climbed and circled, wavered an instant, then fixed
steady as a rock. There was a breathless silence.
"Fourteen horses--two packed--some mounted--others without
riders, and lame," said Gale, slowly.
Yaqui appeared far up the trail, coming swiftly. Presently he saw
the rangers and halted to wave his arms and point. Then he vanished
as if the lava had opened beneath him.
"Lemme that glass," suddenly said Jim Lash. "I'm seein' red, I tell
you....Well, pore as my eyes are they had it right. Rojas an' his
outfit have left the trail."
"Jim, you ain't meanin' they've taken to that awful slope?" queried Ladd.
"I sure do. There they are--still comin', but goin' down, too."
"Mebbe Rojas is crazy, but it begins to look like he--"
"Laddy, I'll be danged if the Greaser bunch hasn't vamoosed. Gone
out of sight! Right there not a half mile away, the whole
"Shore they're behind a crust or have gone down into a rut,"
suggested Ladd. "They'll show again in a minute. Look sharp,
boys, for I'm figgerin' Rojas 'll spread his men."
Minutes passed, but nothing moved upon the slope. Each man crawled
up to a vantage point along the crest of rotting lava. The watchers
were careful to peer through little notches or from behind a spur,
and the constricted nature of their hiding-place kept them close
together. Ladd's muttering grew into a growl, then lapsed into the
silence that marked his companions. From time to time the rangers
looked inquiringly at Gale. The field glass, however, like the
naked sight, could not catch the slightest moving object out there
upon the lava. A long hour of slow, mounting suspense wore on.
"Shore it's all goin' to be as queer as the Yaqui," said Ladd.
Indeed, the strange mien, the silent action, the somber character
of the Indian had not been without effect upon the minds of the
men. Then the weird, desolate, tragic scene added to the vague
sense of mystery. And now the disappearance of Rojas's band,
the long wait in the silence, the boding certainty of invisible
foes crawling, circling closer and closer, lent to the situation
a final touch that made it unreal.
"I'm reckonin' there's a mind behind them Greasers," replied Jim.
"Or mebbe we ain't done Rojas credit...If somethin' would only
That Lash, the coolest, most provokingly nonchalant
of men in times of peril, should begin to show a nervous strain
was all the more indicative of a suble pervading unreality.
"Boys, look sharp!" suddenly called Lash. "Low down to the left
--mebbe three hundred yards. See, along by them seams of lava
--behind the choyas. First off I thought it was a sheep. But it's
the Yaqui!...Crawlin' swift as a lizard! Can't you see him?"
It was a full moment before Jim's companions could locate the
Indian. Flat as a snake Yaqui wound himself along with incredible
rapidity. His advance was all the more remarkable for the fact that
he appeared to pass directly under the dreaded choyas. Sometimes
he paused to lift his head and look. He was directly in line with a
huge whorl of lava that rose higher than any point on the slope.
This spur was a quarter of a mile from the position of the rangers.
"Shore he's headin' for that high place," said Ladd. "He's goin'
slow now. There, he's stopped behind some choyas. He's gettin'
up--no, he's kneelin'....Now what the hell!"
"Laddy, take a peek at the side of that lava ridge," sharply called
Jim. "I guess mebbe somethin' ain't comin' off. See! There's
Rojas an' his outfit climbin'. Don't make out no hosses....Dick,
use your glass an' tell us what's doin'. I'll watch Yaqui an' tell
you what his move means."
Clearly and distinctly, almost as if he could have touched them,
Gale had Rojas and his followers in sight. They were toiling up
the rough lava on foot. They were heavily armed. Spurs, chaps,
jackets, scarfs were not in evidence. Gale saw the lean, swarthy
faces, the black, straggly hair, the ragged, soiled garments which
had once been white.
"They're almost up now," Gale was saying. "There! They halt on
top. I see Rojas. He looks wild. By----! fellows, an Indian!
...It's a Papago. Belding's old herder!...The Indian points--
this way--then down. He's showing Rojas the lay of the trail."
"Boys, Yaqui's in range of that bunch," said Jim, swiftly. "He's
raisin' his rifle slow--Lord, how slow he is!...He's covered some
one. Which one I can't say. But I think he'll pick Rojas."
"The Yaqui can shoot. He'll pick Rojas," added Gale, grimly.
"Rojas--yes--yes!" cried Thorne, in passion of suspense.
"Not on your life!" Ladd's voice cut in with scorn. "Gentlemen,
you can gamble Yaqui 'll kill the Papago. That traitor Indian
knows these sheep haunts. He's tellin' Rojas--"
A sharp rifle shot rang out.
"Laddy's right," called Gale. "The Papago's hit--his arm
falls--There, he tumbles!"
More shots rang out. Yaqui was seen standing erect firing rapidly
at the darting Mexicans. For all Gale could make out no second
bullet took effect. Rojas and his men vanished behind the bulge
of lava. Then Yaqui deliberately backed away from his postion.
He made no effort to run or hide. Evidently he watched cautiously
for signs of pursuers in the ruts and behind the choyas. Presently
he turned and came straight toward the position of the rangers,
sheered off perhaps a hundred paces below it, and disappeared
in a crevice. Plainly his intention was to draw pursuers within
"Shore, Jim, you had your wish. Somethin' come off," said Ladd.
"An' I'm sayin' thank God for the Yaqui! That Papago 'd have
ruined us. Even so, mebbe he's told Rojas more'n enough to make
us sweat blood."
"He had a chance to kill Rojas," cried out the drawn-faced,
passionate Thorne. "He didn't take it!...He didn't take it!"
Only Ladd appeared to be able to answer the cavalryman's
"Listen, son," he said, and his voice rang. "We-all know how
you feel. An' if I'd had that one shot never in the world could
I have picked the Papago guide. I'd have had to kill Rojas. That's
the white man of it. But Yaqui was right. Only an Indian could
have done it. You can gamble the Papago alive meant slim chance
for us. Because he'd led straight to where Mercedes is hidden, an'
then we'd have left cover to fight it out...When you come to think
of the Yaqui's hate for Greasers, when you just seen him pass up
a shot at one--well, I don't know how to say what I mean, but
damn me, my som-brer-ro is off to the Indian!"
"I reckon so, an' I reckon the ball's opened," rejoined Lash, and
now that former nervous impatience so unnatural to him was as
if it had never been. He was smilingly cool, and his voice had
almost a caressing note. He tapped the breech of his Winchester
with a sinewy brown hand, and he did not appear to be addressing
any one in particular. "Yaqui's opened the ball. Look up your
pardners there, gents, an' get ready to dance."
Another wait set in then, and judging by the more direct rays of the
sun and a receding of the little shadows cast by the choyas, Gale
was of the opinion that it was a long wait. But it seemed short.
The four men were lying under the bank of a half circular hole in
the lava. It was notched and cracked, and its rim was fringed by
choyas. It sloped down and opened to an unobstructed view of
the crater. Gale had the upper position, fartherest to the right,
and therefore was best shielded from possible fire from the higher
ridges of the rim, some three hundred yards distant. Jim came
next, well hidden in a crack. The positions of Thorne and Ladd
were most exposed. They kept sharp lookout over the uneven
rampart of their hiding-place.
The sun passed the zenith, began to slope westward, and to grow
hotter as it sloped. The men waited and waited. Gale saw no
impatience even in Thorne. The sultry air seemed to be laden
with some burden or quality that was at once composed of heat,
menace, color, and silence. Even the light glancing up from the
lava seemed red and the silence had substance. Sometimes Gale
felt that it was unbearable. Yet he made no effort to break it.
Suddenly this dead stillness was rent by a shot, clear and stinging,
close at hand. It was from a rifle, not a carbine. With startling
quickness a cry followed--a cry that pierced Gale--it was so thin,
so high-keyed, so different from all other cries. It was the
involuntary human shriek at death.
"Yaqui's called out another pardner," said Jim Lash, laconically.
Carbines began to crack. The reports were quick, light, like sharp
spats without any ring. Gale peered from behind the edge of his
covert. Above the ragged wave of lava floated faint whitish clouds,
all that was visible of smokeless powder. Then Gale made out round
spots, dark against the background of red, and in front of them
leaped out small tongues of fire. Ladd's .405 began to "spang" with
its beautiful sound of power. Thorne was firing, somewhat wildly
Gale thought. Then Jim Lash pushed his Winchester over the rim
under a choya, and between shots Gale could hear him singing:
"Turn the lady, turn--turn the lady, turn!...Alaman left!...Swing
your pardners!...Forward an' back!...Turn the lady, turn!" Gale
got into the fight himself, not so sure that he hit any of the
round, bobbing objects he aimed at, but growing sure of himself
as action liberated something forced and congested within his
Then over the position of the rangers came a hail of steel bullets.
Those that struck the lava hissed away into the crater; those that
came biting through the choyas made a sound which resembled a
sharp ripping of silk. Bits of cactus stung Gale's face, and he
dreaded the flying thorns more than he did the flying bullets.
"Hold on, boys," called Ladd, as he crouched down to reload his
rifle. "Save your shells. The greasers are spreadin' on us, some
goin' down below Yaqui, others movin' up for that high ridge. When
they get up there I'm damned if it won't be hot for us. There ain't
room for all of us to hide here."
Ladd raised himself to peep over the rim. Shots were now
scattering, and all appeared to come from below. Emboldened by
this he rose higher. A shot from in front, a rip of bullet through
the choya, a spat of something hitting Ladd's face, a steel missle
hissing onward--these inseparably blended sounds were all registered
by Gale's sensitive ear.
With a curse Ladd tumbled down into the hole. His face showed a
great gray blotch, and starting blood. Gale felt a sickening
assurance of desperate injury to the ranger. He ran to him calling:
"Shore I ain't plugged. It's a damn choya burr. The bullet knocked
it in my face. Pull it out!"
The oval, long-spiked cone was firmly imbedded in Ladd's cheek.
Blood streamed down his face and neck. Carefully, yet with no
thought of pain to himself, Gale tried to pull the cactus joint
away. It was as firm as if it had been nailed there. That was
the damnable feature of the barbed thorns: once set, they held
on as that strange plant held to its desert life. Ladd began to
writhe, and sweat mingled with the blood on his face. He cursed
and raved, and his movements made it almost impossible for Gale
to do anything.
"Put your knife-blade under an' tear it out!" shouted Ladd,
Thus ordered, Gale slipped a long blade in between the imbedded
thorns, and with a powerful jerk literally tore the choya out of
Ladd's quivering flesh. Then, where the ranger's face was not
red and raw, it certainly was white.
A volley of shots from a different angle was followed by
the quick ring of steel bullets striking the lava all around Gale.
His first idea, as he heard the projectiles sing and hum and whine
away into the air, was that they were coming from above him. He
looked up to see a number of low, white and dark knobs upon the
high point of lava. They had not been there before. Then he saw
little, pale, leaping tongues of fire. As he dodged down he
distinctly heard a bullet strike Ladd. At the same instant he
seemed to hear Thorne cry out and fall, and Lash's boots scrape
Ladd fell backward still holding the .405. Gale dragged him into the
shelter of his own position, and dreading to look at him, took up the
heavy weapon. It was with a kind of savage strength that he gripped
the rifle; and it was with a cold and deadly intent that he aimed and
fired. The first Greaser huddled low, let his carbine go clattering
down, and then crawled behind the rim. The second and third jerked
back. The fourth seemed to flop up over the crest of lava. A dark
arm reached for him, clutched his leg, tried to drag him up. It was
in vain. Wildly grasping at the air the bandit fell, slid down a
steep shelf, rolled over the rim, to go hurtling down out of sight.
Fingering the hot rifle with close-pressed hands, Gale watched
the sky line along the high point of lava. It remained unbroken.
As his passion left him he feared to look back at his companions,
and the cold chill returned to his breast.
"Shore--I'm damn glad--them Greasers ain't usin' soft-nose bullets,"
drawled a calm voice.
Swift as lightning Gale whirled.
"Laddy! I thought you were done for," cried Gale, with a break in
"I ain't a-mindin' the bullet much. But that choya joint took my
nerve, an' you can gamble on it. Dick, this hole's pretty high up,
The ranger's blouse was open at the neck, and on his right shoulder
under the collar bone was a small hole just beginning to bleed.
"Sure it's high, Laddy," replied Gale, gladly. "Went clear through,
clean as a whistle!"
He tore a handkerchief into two parts, made wads, and pressing them
close over the wounds he bound them there with Ladd's scarf.
"Shore it's funny how a bullet can floor a man an' then not do any
damage," said Ladd. "I felt a zip of wind an' somethin' like a pat
on my chest an' down I went. Well, so much for the small caliber
with their steel bullets. Supposin' I'd connected with a .405!"
"Laddy, I--I'm afraid Thorne's done for," whispered Gale. "He's
lying over there in that crack. I can see part of him. He doesn't
"I was wonderin' if I'd have to tell you that. Dick, he went down
hard hit, fallin', you know, limp an' soggy. It was a moral cinch
one of us would get it in this fight; but God! I'm sorry Thorne had
to be the man."
"Laddy, maybe he's not dead," replied Gale. He called aloud to his
friend. There was no answer.
Ladd got up, and, after peering keenly at the height of lava, he
strode swiftly across the space. It was only a dozen steps to the
crack in the lava whereThorne had fallen head first. Ladd bent
over, went to his knees, so that Gale saw only his head. Then
he appeared rising with arms round the cavalryman. He dragged
him across the hole to the sheltered corner that alone afforded
protection. He had scarcely reached it when a carbine cracked
and a bullet struck the flinty lava, striking sparks, then singing
away into the air.
Thorne was either dead or unconscious, and Gale, with a contracting
throat and numb heart, decided for the former. Not so Ladd, who
probed the bloody gash on Thorne's temple, and then felt his breast.
"He's alive an' not bad hurt. That bullet hit him glancin'. Shore them
steel bullets are some lucky for us. Dick, you needn't look so glum.
I tell you he ain't bad hurt. I felt his skull with my finger.
There's no hole in it. Wash him off an' tie-- Wow! did you get
the wind of that one? An' mebbe it didn't sing off the lava!...
Dick, look after Thorne now while I--"
The completion of his speech was the stirring ring of the .405, and
then he uttered a laugh that was unpleasant.
"Shore, Greaser, there's a man's size bullet for you. No slim,
sharp-pointed, steel-jacket nail! I'm takin' it on me to believe
you're appreciatin' of the .405, seein' as you don't make no fuss."