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  • 1916
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Wagalexa Conka, she told herself miserably, was like a stone for her. And so her own heart must be hard. She would swear to Ramon, and she would keep the oath–and Wagalexa Conka would not even miss her or be sorry that she had gone.

“First you make swears like I tells you,” she said. “Then I make swears.”

“Muy bueno!” smiled Ramon then. “So I make oath I take you queek to one good friend me, the Padre Dominguez. Then yoh be my wife for sure. That good enough for yoh, perhaps? Queeck yoh make oath yoh leave these place Manana–tomorra. Yoh go by ol’ rancho where we talk so many time. I leave horse for yoh. Yoh ride pas’ that mountain, yoh come for Bernalillo. Yoh wait. I come queeck as can when she’s dark. Yoh do that, sweetheart?”

Annie-Many-Ponies stilled the ache in her heart with the thought of her proud place beside Ramon who had much land and many cattle and who loved her so much. She lifted her hand and swore she would go with him.

She slipped away then and crept into her tent in the little cluster beside the house–for the company ‘had forsaken Applehead’s adobe and slept under canvas as a matter of choice. With Indian cunning she bided her time and gave no sign of what was hidden in her heart. She rose with the others and brushed her glossy hair until it shone in the sunlight like the hair of a high-caste Chinese woman. She tied upon it the new bows of red ribbon which she had bought in the secret hope that they would be a part of her wedding finery. She put on her Indian gala dress of beaded buckskin with the colored porcupine quills–and then she smiled cunningly and drew a dress of red-and-blue striped calico over her head and settled the folds of it about her with little, smoothing pats, so that the two white women, Rosemary and Jean, should not notice any unusual bulkiness of her figure.

She did not know how she would manage to escape the keen eyes of Wagalexa Conka and to steal away from the ranch, especially if she had to work in the picture that day. But Luck unconsciously opened wide the trail for her. He announced at breakfast that they would work up in Bear Canon that day, and that he would not need Jean or Annie either; and that, as it would be hotter than the hinges of Gehenna up in that canon, they had better stay at home and enjoy themselves.

Annie-Many-Ponies did not betray by so much as a flicker of the lashes that she heard him much less that it was the best of good news to her. She went into her tent and packed all of her clothes into a bundle which she wrapped in her plaid shawl, and was proud because the bundle was so big, and because she had much fine beadwork and so many red ribbons, and a waist of bright blue silk which she would wear when she stood before the priest, if Ramon did not like the dress of beaded buckskin.

A ring with an immense red stone in it which Ramon had given her, she slipped upon her finger with her little, inscrutable smile. She was engaged to be married, now, just like white girls; and tomorrow she would have a wide ring of shiny gold for that finger, and should be the wife of Ramon.

Just then Shunka Chistala, lying outside her tent, flapped his tail on the ground and gave a little, eager whine. Annie-Many-Ponies thrust her head through the opening and looked out, and then stepped over the little black dog and stood before her tent to watch the Happy Family mount and ride away with Wagalexa Conka in their midst and with the mountain wagon rattling after them loaded with “props” and the camera and the noonday lunch and Pete Lowry and Tommy Johnson, the scenic artist. Applehead was going to drive the wagon, and she scowled when he yanked off the brake and cracked the whip over the team.

Luck, feeling perchance the intensity of her gaze, turned in the saddle and looked back. The eyes of Annie-Many-Ponies softened and saddened, because this was the last time she would see Wagalexa Conka riding away to make pictures–the last time she would see him. She lifted her hand, and made the Indian sign of farewell–the peace-go-with-you sign that is used for solemn occasions of parting.

Luck pulled up short and stared. What did she mean by that? He reined his horse around, half minded to ride back and ask her why she gave him that peace-sign. She had never done it before, except once or twice in scenes that he directed. But after all he did not go. They were late in getting started that morning, which irked his energetic soul; and women’s whims never did impress Luck Lindsay very deeply. Besides, just as he was turning to ride back, Annie stooped and went into her tent as though her gesture had carried no especial meaning.

Then in her tent he heard her singing the high, weird chant of the Omaha mourning song anad again he was half- minded to go back, though the wailing minor notes, long drawn and mournful, might mean much or they might mean merely a fit of the blues. The others rode on talking and laughing together, and Luck rode with them; but the chant of the Omaha was in his ears and tingling his nerves. And the vision of Annie-Many-Ponies standing straight before her tent and making the sign of peace and farewell haunted him that day.

Rosemary and Jean, standing in the porch, waved good-bye to their men folk until the last bobbing hatcrown had gone down out of sight in the long, low swale that creased the mesa in that direction. Whereupon they went into the house.

“What in the world is the matter with Annie?” Jean exploded, with a little shiver. “I’d rather hear a band of gray wolves tune up when you’re caught out in the breaks and have to ride in the dark. What is that caterwaul? Do you suppose she’s on the warpath or anything?”

“Oh, that’s just the squaw coming out in her!” Rosemary slammed the door shut so they could not hear so plainly. “She’s getting more Injuny every day of her life. I used to try and treat her like a white girl–but you just can’t do it, Jean.”

“Hiu-hiu-hi-i-ah-h! Hiu-hiu-hi-i-ah-h-h–hiaaa-h-h!”

Jean stood in the middle of the room and listened. “Br-r-r!” she shivered–and one could not blame her. I wonder if she’d be mad,” she drawled, “if I went out and told her to shut up. It sounds as if somebody was dead, or going to die or something. Like Lite says your dog will howl if anything –“

“Oh, for pity sake!” Rosemary pushed her into the living room with make-believe savageness. “I’ve heard her and Luck sing that last winter. And there’s a kind of a teetery dance that goes with it. It’s supposed to be a mourning song, as Luck explains it. But don’t pay any attention to her at all. She just does it to get on our nerves. It’d tickle her to death if she thought it made us nervous.”

“And now the dog is joining in on the chorus! I must say they’re a cheerful pair to have around the house. And I know one thing–if they keep that up much longer, I’ll either get out there with a gun, or saddle up and follow the boys.”

“They’d tease us to death, Jean, if we let Annie run us out.”

“It’s run or be run,” Jean retorted irritatedly. “I wanted to write poetry today–I thought of an awfully striking sentence about the–for heaven’s sake, where’s a shotgun?”

“Jean, you wouldn’t!” Rosemary, I may here explain, was very femininely afraid of guns. “She’d–why, there’s no telling WHAT she might do! Luck says she carries a knife.”

“What if she does? She ought to carry a few bird-shot, too. She’s got nothing to mourn about–nobody’s died, has there?

“Hiu-hiu-hia-a-a,ah! Hia-a-a-a-ah!” wailed Annie-Many-Ponies in her tent, because she would never again look upon the face of Wagalexa Conka–or if she did it would be to see his anger blaze and burn her heart to ashes. To her it was as though death sat beside her; the death of Wagalexa Conka’s friendship for her. She forgot his harshness because he thought her disobedient and wicked. She forgot that she loved Ramon Chavez, and that he was rich and would give her a fine home and much love. She forgot everything but that she had sworn an oath and that she must keep it though it killed faith and kindness and friendship as with a knife.

So she wailed, in high-keyed, minor chanting unearthly in its primitive inarticulateness of sorrow, the chant of the Omaha mourning song. So had her tribe wailed in the olden days when warriors returned to the villages and told of their dead. So had her mother wailed when the Great Spirit took away her first man-child. So had the squaws wailed in their tepees since the land was young. And the little black dog, sitting on his haunches before her door, pointed his moist nose into the sunlight and howled in mournful sympathy.

“Oh, my gracious!” Jean, usually so calm, flung a magazine against the wall. “This is just about as pleasant as a hanging! let’s saddle up and ride in after the mail, Rosemary. Maybe the squaw in her will be howled out by the time we get back.” And she added with a venomous sincerity that would have warmed the heart of old Applehead, “I’d shoot that dog, for half a cent! How do you suppose an animal of his size can produce all that noise?”

“Oh, I don’t know!” Rosemary spoke with the patience of utter weariness. “I’ve stood her and the dog for about eight months and I’m getting kind of hardened to it. But I never did hear them go on like that before. You’d think all her relations were being murdered, wouldn’t you?”

Jean was busy getting into her riding clothes and did -not say what she thought; but you may be sure that it was antipathetic to the grief of Annie- Many-Ponies, and that Jean’s attitude was caused by a complete lack of understanding. Which, if you will stop to think, is true of half the unsympathetic attitudes in the world. Because they did not understand, the two dressed hastily and tucked their purses safely inside their shirtwaists and saddled and rode away to town. And the last they heard as they put the ranch behind them was the wailing chant of Annie-Many-Ponies and the prodigious, long-drawn howling of the little black dog.

Annie-Many-Ponies, hearing the beat of hoofs ceased her chanting and looked out in time to see the girls just disappearing over the low brow of the hill. She stood for a moment and stared after them with frowning brows. Rosemary she did not like and never would like, after their hidden feud of months over such small matters as the cat and the dog, and unswept floors, and the like. A mountain of unwashed dishes stood between these two, as it were, and forbade anything like friendship.

But the parting that was at hand had brushed aside her jealousy of Jean as leading woman. intuitively she knew that with any encouragement Jean would have been her friend. Oddly, she remembered now that Jean had been the first to ask for her when she came to the ranch. So, although Jean would never know, Annie-Many-Ponies raised her hand and gave the peace-and-farewell sign of the plains Indians.

The way was open now, and she must go. She had sworn that she would meet Ramon –but oh, the heart of her was heavier than the bundle which she bound with her bright red sash and lifted to her shoulders with the sash drawn across her chest and shoulders. So had the women of her tribe borne burdens since the land was young; but none had ever borne a heavier load than did Annie-Many-Ponies when she went soft footed across the open space to the dry wash and down that to another, and so on and on until she crossed the low ridge and came down to the deserted old rancho with its crumbling adobe cabins and the well where she had waited so often for Ramon.

She was tired when she reached the well, for her back was not used to burden-bearing as had been her mother’s, and her steps had lagged because of the heaviness that was in her chest. It seemed to her that some bad spirit was driving her forth an exile. She could not understand. last night she had been glad at the thought of going, and if the thought of leaving Wagalexa Conka so treacherously had hurt like a knife-thrust, still, she had sworn willingly enough that she would go.

The horse was there, saddled and tied in a tumble-down shed just as Ramon had promised that it would be. Annie-Many-Ponies did not mount and ride on immediately, however. It was still early in the forenoon, and she was not so eager in reality as she had been in anticipation. She sat down beside the well and stared somberly away to the mountains, and wondered why she was go sad when she should be happy. She twisted the ring with the big red stone round and round her finger, but she got no pleasure from the crimson glow of it. The stone looked to her now like a great, frozen drop of blood. She wondered grimly whose blood it was, and stared at it strangely before her eyes went again worshipfully to the mountains which she loved and which she must leave and perhaps never see again as they looked from there, and from the ranch.

She must ride and ride until she was around on the other side of that last one that had the funny, pointed cone top like a big stone tepee. On the other side was Ramon, and the priest, and the strange new life of which she was beginning to feel afraid. There would be no more riding up to camera, laughing or sighing or frowning as Wagalexa Conka commanded her to do. There would be no more shy greetings of the slim young woman in riding skirt–the friendship scenes and the black-browed anger, while Pete Lowry turned the camera and Luck stood beside him telling her just what she must do, and smiling at her when she did it well.

There would be Ramon, and the priest and the wide ring of shiny gold -what more? The mountains, all pink and violet and smiling green and soft gray -the mountains hid the new life from her. And she must ride around that last, sharp-pointed one, and come into the new life that was on the other side–and what if it should be bitter? What if Ramon’s love did not live beyond the wide ring of shiny gold? She had seen it so, with other men and other maids.

No matter. She had sworn the oath that she would go. But first, there at the old well where Ramon had taught her the Spanish love words, there where she had listened shyly and happily to his voice that was so soft and so steeped in love, Annie-Many-Ponies stood up with her face to the mountains and sorrow in her eyes, and chanted again the wailing, Omaha mourning-song. And just behind her the little black dog, that had followed close to her heels all the way, sat upon his haunches and pointed his nose to the sky and howled.

For a long time she wailed. Then to the mountains that she loved she made the sign of peace-and-farewell, and turned herself stoically to the keeping of her oath. Her bundle that was so big and heavy she placed in the saddle and fastened with the saddle-string and with the red sash that had bound it across her chest and shoulders. Then, as her great grandmother had plodded across the bleak plains of the Dakotas at her master’s behest, Annie-Many-Ponies took the bridle reins and led the horse out of the ruin, and started upon her plodding, patient journey to what lay beyond the mountains. Behind her the black horse walked with drooping head, half asleep in the warm sunlight. At the heels of the horse followed the little black dog.

CHAPTER IX. RIDERS IN THE BACKGROUND

Luck, as explained elsewhere, was sweating and swearing at the heat in Bear Canon. The sun had crept around so that it shone full into a certain bowlder-strewn defile, and up this sunbaked gash old Applehead was toiling, leading the scrawniest burro which Luck had been able to find in the country. The burro was packed with a prospector’s outfit startlingly real in its pathetic meagerness. Old Applehead was picking his way among rocks so hot that he could hardly bear to lay his bare hand upon them, tough as that hand was with years of exposure to heat and cold alike. Beads of perspiration were standing on his face, which was a deep, apoplectic crimson, and little trickles of sweat were dropping off his lower jaw.

He was muttering as he climbed, but the camera fortunately failed to record the language that he used. Now and then he turned and yanked savagely at the lead rope; whereupon the burro would sit down upon its haunches and allow Applehead to stretch its neck as far as bone and tough hide and tougher sinew would permit Someone among the group roosting in the shade across the defile and well out of camera range would laugh, and Luck, standing on a ledge just behind and above the camera, would shout directions or criticism of the “business.”

“Come on back, Applehead,” Luck yelled when the “prospectorp” had turned a corner of rock and disappeared from sight of the camera. “We’ll do that scene over once more before the sun gets too far around.”

“Do it over, will ye?” Applehead snarled as he came toiling obediently back down the gulch. “Well, now, I ain’t so danged shore about that there doin’ over–‘nless yuh want to wait and do it after sundown. Ain’t nobody but a danged fool It would go trailin’ up that there gulch this kinda’ day. Them rocks up there is hot enough to brile a lizard–now, I’m tellin’ ye!”

Luck covered a smile with his moist palm. He could not afford to be merciful at the expense of good “picture-stuff,” however, so he called down grimly:

“Now you’re just about fagged enough for that close-up I want of you, Applehead. You went up that gulch a shade too brisk for a fellow that’s all in from traveling, and starved into the bargain. Come back down here by this sand bank, and start up towards camera. Back up a little, Pete, so you can ‘pam’ his approach. I want to get him pulling his burro up past that bank–sabe? And the close-up of his face with all those sweat-streaks will prove how far he’s come–and then I want the detail of that burro and his pack which you’ll get as they go by. You see what I mean. Let’s see. Will it swing you too far into the sun, Pete, if you pick him up down there in that dry channel?”

“Not if you let me make it right away,” Pete replied after a squint or two through the viewfinder. “Sun’s getting pretty far over–“

“Ought to leave a feller time to git his wind,” Applehead complained, looking up at Luck with eyes bloodshot from the heat. “I calc’late mebby you think it’s FUN to drag that there burro up over them rocks?”

“Sure, it isn’t fun. We didn’t come out here for fun. Go down and wait behind that bank, and come out into the channel when I give the word. I want you coming up all-in, just as you look right now. Sorry, but I can’t let you wait to cool off, Applehead.”

“Well now,” Applehead began with shortwinded sarcasm, “I’m s’posed to be outa grub. Why didn’t yuh up In’ starve me fer a week or two, so’st I’d be gaunted up realistic? Why didn’t yuh break a laig fer me, sos’t I kin show some five-cent bunch in a pitcher-show how bad I’m off? Danged if I ain’t jest about gettin’ my hide full uh this here danged fool REELISM you’re hollerin’ fur all the time. ‘F you send me down there to come haulin’ that there burro back up here so’s the camery kin watch me sweat ‘n’ puff my danged daylights out–before I git a drink uh water, I’ll murder ye in cold blood, now I’m tellin’ ye!”

“You go on down there and shut up!” Luck yelled inexorably. “You can drink a barrel when I’m through with this scene–and not before. Get that? My Lord! If you can’t lead a burro a hundred yards without setting down and fanning yourself to sleep, you must be losing your grip for fair. I’ll stake you to a rocking-chair and let you do old grandpa parts, if you aren’t able to–“

“Dang you, Luck, if you wasn’t such a little runt I’d come up there and jest about lick the pants off you! Talk that way to ME, will ye? I’ll have ye know I kin lead burros with you or any other dang man, heat er no heat Ef yuh ain’t got no more heart’n to AST it of me, I’ll haul this here burro up ‘n’ down this dang gulch till there ain’t nothin’ left of ‘im but the lead-rope, and the rocks is all wore down to cobble-stone! Ole grandpa parts, hey? You’ll swaller them words when I git to ye, young feller–and you’ll swaller ’em mighty dang quick, now I’m tellin’ ye!”

He went off down the gulch to the sand bank. The Happy Family, sprawled at ease in the shade, took cigarettes from their lips that they might chortle their amusement at the two. Like father and son were Applehead and Luck, but their bickerings certainly would never lead one to suspect their affection.

“Get that darned burro outa sight, will you? Luck bawled impatiently when Applehead paused to send a murderous glance back toward camera. “What’s the matter–yuh PARALYZED down there? Haul him in behind that bank! The moon’ll be up before you get turned around, at that rate!”

“You shet yore haid!” Applehead retorted at the full capacity of his lungs and with an absolute disregard for Luck’s position as director of the company. “Who’s leadin’ this here burro–you er me? Fer two cents I’d come back and knock the tar outa you, Luck! Stand up there on a rock and flop your wings and crow like a danged banty rooster–‘n’ I was leadin’ burros ‘fore you was born! I’d like to know who yuh think you BE?”

Pete Lowry, standing feet-apart and imperturbably focussing the camera while the two yelled insults at each other, looked up at Luck.

“Riders in the background,” he announced laconically, and returned to his squinting and fussing. “Maybe you can make ’em hear with the megaphone,” he hinted, looking again at Luck. “They’re riding straight up the canon, in the middle distance. They’ll register in the scene, if you can’t turn ’em.”

“Applehead!” Luck called through the megaphone to his irritated prospector. “Get those riders outa the canon–they’re in the scene!”

Applehead promptly appeared, glaring up at luck. “Well, now, if I’ve got to haul this here dang jackass up this dang gulch, I cal’clate that’ll be about job enough for one man,” he yelled. “How yuh expect me t’ go two ways ‘t once? Hey? Yuh figured that out yit?” He turned then for a look at the interrupting strangers, and immediately they saw his manner change. He straightened up, and his right hand crept back significantly toward his hip. Applehead, I may here explain, was an ex-sheriff, and what range men call a “go-getter.” He had notches on the ivory handle of his gun–three of them. In fair fights and in upholding the law he had killed, and he would kill again if the need ever arose, as those who knew him never doubted.

Luck, seeing that backward movement of the hand, unconsciously hitched his own gun into position on his hip and came down off his rock ledge with one leap. Just as instinctively the Happy Family scrambled out of the shade and followed luck down the gulch to where Applehead stood facing down the canon, watchfulness in every tense line of his lank figure. Tommy Johnson, who never seemed to be greatly interested in anything save his work, got up from where he lay close beside the camera tripod and went over to the other side of the gulch where he could see plainer.

Like a hunter poising his shotgun and making ready when his trained bird-dog points, Luck walked guardedly down the gulch to where Applehead stood watching the horsemen who had for the moment passed out of sight of those above.

“Now, what’s that danged shurf want, prowlin’ up HERE with a couple uh depittys?” Applehead grumbled when he heard Luck’s footsteps crunching behind him. “Uh course,” he added grimly, “he MIGHT be viewin’ the scenery–but it’s dang pore weather fur pleasure-ridin’, now I’m tellin’ ye! Them a comin’ up here don’t look good to ME, Luck–‘n’ if they ain’t–“

“How do you know it’s the sheriff?” Luck for no reason whatever felt a sudden heaviness of spirit.

“Hey? Think my eyes is failin’ me?” Applehead gave him a sidelong glance of hasty indignation. “I’d know ole Hank Miller a mile off with m’ eyes shet.”

By then the three riders rode out into plain view. Perhaps the sight of Luck and Applehead standing there awaiting their arrival, with the whole Happy Family and Big Aleck Douglas and Lite Avery moving down in a close-bunched, expectant group behind the two, was construed as hostility rather than curiosity. At any rate the sheriff and his deputies shifted meaningly in their saddles and came up sour-faced and grim, and with their guns out and pointing at the group.

“Don’t go making any foolish play, boys,” the sheriff warned. “We don’t want trouble–we aren’t looking for any. But we ain’t taking any chances.”

“Well now, you’re takin’ a dang long chance, Hank Miller, when yuh come ridin’ up on us fellers like yuh was cornerin’ a bunch uh outlaws,” Applehead exploded. But Luck pushed him aside and stepped to the front.

“Nobody’s making any foolish play but you,” he answered the sheriff calmly. “You may not know it, but you’re blocking my scene and the light’s going. If you’ve got any business with me or my company, get it over and then get out so we aim make this scene. What d’yuh want?”

“You,” snapped the sheriff. “You and your bunch.”

“Me?” Luck took a step forward. “What for?”

“For pulling off that robbery at the bank today.” The sheriff could be pretty blunt, and he shot the charge straight, without any quibbling.

Luck looked a little blank; and old Applehead, shaking with a very real anger now, shoved Luck away and stepped up where he could shake his fist under the sheriff’s nose.

“We don’t know, and we don’t give a cuss, what you’re aimin’ at,” he thundered. “We been out here workin’ in this brilin’ sun sense nine o’clock this mornin’. Luck ain’t robbed no bank, ner he ain’t the kind that DOES rob banks, and I’m here to see you swaller them words ‘fore I haul ye off’n that horse and plumb wear ye out! Yuh wanta think twicet ‘fore ye come ridin’ up where I kin hear yuh call Luck Lindsay a thief, now I’m tellin’ ye! If a bank was robbed, ye better be gittin’ out after them that done it, and git outa the way uh that camery sos’t we can git t’ work! Git!”

The sheriff did not “git” exactly, but he did look considerably embarrassed. His eyes went to Luck apologetically.

“Cashier come to and said you’d called him up on the phone about eleven, claimin’ you wanted to make a movin’ pitcher of the bank being robbed,” he explained–though he was careful not to lower his gun. “He swore it was your men that done the work and took the gold you told him to pile out on the–“

“_I_ told him?” Luck’s voice had the sharpened quality that caused laggard actors to jump. “Be a little more exact in the words you use.”

“Well-l–somebody on the phone ‘t he THOUGHT was you,” the sheriff amended obediently. “Your men–and they sure WAS your men, because three or four fellers besides the cashier seen ’em goin’ in and comin’ out–they gagged the cashier and took his keys away from him and cleaned the safe, besides taking what gold he’d piled on the counter for y–for ’em.

“So,” he finished vigorously, “I an’ my men hit the trail fer the ranch and was told by the women that you was out here. And here we are, and you might just as well come along peaceable as to make a fuss–“

“That thar is shore enough outa YOU, Hank Miller!” Applehead exploded again. “I calc’late you kin count ME in, when you go mixin’ up with Luck, here. I’m one of his men–and if he was to pull off a bank robbery I calc’late I’d be in on that there performance too, I’m tellin’ you! Luck don’t go no whars ner do nothin’ that I AIN’T in on.

“I’ve had some considerable experience as shurf myself, if you’ll take the trouble to recolleck; and I calc’late my word’Il go about as fur as the next. When I tell ye thar ain’t goin’ to be no arrest made in Bear Canon, and that you ain’t goin’ to take luck in fer no bank robbery, you kin be dang shore I mean every word uh that thar!” He moved a step or two nearer the sheriff, and the sheriff backed his horse away from him.

“Ef you kin cut out this here accusin’ Luck, and talk like a white man,” Applehead continued heatedly, “we’d like to hear the straight uh this here robbery. I would, ‘n’ I know Luck would, seein’ they’ve gone t’ work and mixed him into it. His bunch is all here, as you kin see fer yourself. Now we’re listenin’ ‘s long’s you talk polite–‘n’ you kin tell us what men them was that was seen goin’ in and comin’ out–and all about the hul] dang business.”

The sheriff had not ridden to Bear Canon expecting to be bullied into civil speech and lengthy explanations; but he knew Applehead Furrman, and he had sufficient intelligence to read correctly the character of the group of men that stood behind Applehead. Honest men or thieves, they were to, be reckoned with if any attempt were made to place Luck under arrest; any fool could see that–and Hank Miller was not a fool.

He proceeded therefore to explain his errand and the robbery as the cashier had described it to the clerks who returned after lunch to finish their Saturday’s work at the bank.

“Fifteen thousand they claim is what the fellers got. And one of your men that runs the camera was keeping up a bluff of taking a pitcher of it all the time- -that’s why they got away with it. Nobody suspicioned it was anything more’n moving-pitcher acting till they found the cashier and brought him toy along about one o’clock. It was that Chavez feller that you had working for yuh, and Luis Rojas that done it–them and a couple fellers stalling outside with the camera.”

“I wonder,” hazarded Pete Lowry, who had come down and joined the group, “if that wasn’t Bill Holmes with the camera? He was a lot more friendly with Ramon than he tried to let on.”

“The point is,” Luck broke in, “that they took advantage of my holdup scene to pull off the robbery. I can see how the cashier would fall for a retake like that, especially since he don’t know much about picture-making. Gather up the props, boys, and let’s go home. I’m going to get the rights of this thing.”

“You’ve got it now,” the sheriff informed him huffily. “Think I been loading you up with hot air? I was sent out to round you up–“

“Forget all that!” snapped luck. “I don’t know as I enjoy having you fellows jump at the notion I’m a bank-robber–or that if I had robbed a bank I would have come right back here and gone to work. What kind of a simp do you think I am, for gosh sake? Can you see where anyone but a lunatic would go like that in broad daylight and pull off a robbery as raw as that one must have been, and not even make an attempt at a gateway? I’ll gamble Applehead, here, wouldn’t have fallen for a play as coarse as that was if he was sheriff yet. He’d have seen right away that the camera part was just the coarsest kind of a blind.

“My Lord! Think of grown men–officers of the law at that–being simple-minded enough to come fogging out here to me, instead of getting on the trail of the men that were seen on the spot! You say they came in a machine to the bank and you never so much as tried to trace it, or to get the license number even, I’ll bet a month’s salary you didn’t! It was a moving-picture stall, and so you come blundering out here to the only picture company in the country, thinking, by gravy, that it was all straight goods–oh, can you beat that for a boob?” He shook back his heavy mane of gray hair and turned to his boys disgustedly.

“Pete and Tommy, you can drive the wagon back all right, can’t you? We’ll go on ahead and see what there is at the bottom of this yarn.”

CHAPTER X. DEPUTIES ALL

At the ranch, whither they rode in haste, Luck meant to leave his boys and go on with the sheriff to town. But the Happy Family flatly refused to be left behind. Even old Aleck Douglas–whom years and trouble had enfeebled until his very presence here with Jean and Lite was a health-seekiing mission in the wonderful air of New Mexico–even old Aleck Douglas stamped his foot at Jean and declared that he was going, along to see that “the boy” got a square deal. There wouldn’t be any railroading Luck to the pew for something he didn’t do, he asserted with a tragic meaning that wrung the heart of Jean. It took Lite’s arguments and Luck’s optimism and, finally, the assurance of the sheriff that Luck was not under arrest and was in no danger of it, to keep the old man at the ranch. Also, they promised to return with all speed and not to keep supper waiting, before the two women were satisfied to let them go.

“Oh, Luck Lindsay,” Rosemary bethought her to announce just as they were leaving, “you better keep an eye out for Annie, while you’re in town. She’s gone–and the dog and all her clothes and everything. Maybe she took the train back to the reservation. I just wanted you to know, so if you feel you ought to bother–“

“Annie gone?” Even in his preoccupation the mews came with a stab. “When did she go?”

“We don’t know. She set up an awful yowling when you boys went to work. And the dog commenced howling, till it was simply awful. So we rode in to town after the mail, and when we came back she was gone, bag and baggage. We didn’t see anything of her on the trail, but she could dodge us if she wanted to– she’s Injun enough for that.”

So Luck carried a double load of anxiety with him to town, and the first thing he did when he reached it was to seek, not the beaten cashier who had accused him, but the ticket agent at the depot, and the baggage men–anyone who would be apt to remember Annie-Many-Ponies if she took a train out of town.

You might think that, with so many Indians coming and going at the depot, selling their wares and making picturesque setting for the curios which are purveyed there, that Luck stood a very slight chance of gaining any information whatever. But a Sioux squaw in Albuquerque would be as noticeable as a Hindoo. Pueblos, Navajos–they may come and go unnoticed because of their numbers. But an Indian of another tribe and style of dress would be conspicuous enough to be remembered. So, when no one remembered seeing Annie-Many-Ponies, Luck dismissed the conjecture that she had taken the train, and turned his attention to picking up the trail of the bank- robbers.

Here the Happy Family, with Applehead and Lite Avery, had managed to accomplish a good deal in a very short time. The Native Son, for instance, had ridden straight out from the bank into the Mexican quarter, as soon as he learned that the red automobile had gone up Silver Street and turned south on Fourth. By the time Luck reached the bank Miguel came loping back with the news that the red machine had crossed the lower bridge and had turned up toward Atrisco, that little Mexican hamlet which lies between the river and the bluffs where the white sand of the desert spills over into the nearest corrals and little pastures.

The others had learned definitely that Bill Holmes had manipulated the fake camera while the bank was being robbed, and that the man with him, who bad also driven the machine, was a certain chauffeur of colorless personality and an unsavory reputation among other drivers; and that the number of the automobile was a matter of conjecture, since three different men who were positive they remembered it gave three different numbers.

In company with the sheriff they called upon the cashier, who was in bed with his head bandaged and his nerves very much unstrung. He was much calmer, however, than when he had hysterically accused Luck of betraying him into putting the money out to be stolen. He admitted now that he was not at all sure of the voice which talked with him over the phone; indeed, now when he heard luck speak, he felt extremely doubtful of the similarity of that other voice. He protested against being blamed for being too confiding. He had never dreamed, he said, that anyone could be so bold as to plan a thing like that. It all sounded straight, about the spoiled negative and so forth. He was very sorry that he had caused Luck Lindsay any inconvenience or annoyance, and he begged Luck’s pardon several times in the course of his explanation of the details.

They left him still protesting and apologizing and explaining and touching his bandaged head with self-pitying tenderness. In the street Luck turned to the sheriff as though his mind was made up to something which argument could not alter in the slightest degree.

“I realize that in a way I’m partly responsible for this,” he said crisply. “The scenes I took the other day made this play possible for Ramon and his bunch. What you’d better do right now is to swear Applehead and me in as deputies–and any of the boys that want to come along and help round up that bunch. We’ll do it, if it’s to be done at all. I feel I kind of owe it to that poor simp in there to get the money back–sabe? And I owe it to myself to bring in Ramon and Bill Holmes, and whoever else is with ’em on this; young Rojas we know is for one.”

“Where do you aim to look for ’em, if you don’t mind telling?” Hank Miller was staring doubtfully down at Luck.

“Where? Miguel here says they went toward Atrisco. That means they’re hitting for the Navajo reservation. There’s three hundred miles of country straight west, and not so much as a telegraph pole! Mighty few service stations for the machine, too, when you think of it–and rough country to travel over. If they try to go by automobile, we’ll overhaul them, most likely, before they get far. Also, we can trace ’em easy enough.”

The sheriff pulled at his stubby mustache and looked the bunch over. “You know that country?” he asked, still doubtfully. “Them Navvies are plumb snaky, lemme tell yuh. Ain’t like the Pueblos–you’re taking a risk when yuh ride into the Navvy country. They’ll get yuh if they get a chancet; run off your horses, head yuh away from water–they’re plumb MEAN!”

“Well, now, I calc’late I know them Navvies putty tol’ble well,” Applehead cut in. “I’ve fit ’em comin’ and goin’. Why, my shucks! Ef I notched my gun for the Navvies I’ve got off an’ on in the course uh my travels, she’d shore look like a saw-blade, now I’m tellin’ yuh!”

“Yes, an’ yuh got a couple too many fer to go monkeyin’ around on their groun’ agin,” the sheriff informed him bluntly. “They ain’t forgot the trip you made over there after Jose Martinez. Best fer you to keep off’n that reservation, Applehead–and I’m speakin’ as a friend.”

“As a friend you kin shet up,” Applehead retorted pettishly. “Ef Luck hits fer the Navvy country after them skunks, I calc’late ole Applehead’Il be somers close handy by–“

“Hurry up and swear us in,” Luck interrupted. “We’ve got to get to the ranch and back with an outfit, yet tonight, so we can hit the trail as soon as possible. No use for you to take the oath, Andy–what you better do is to stay at the ranch with the women folks.”

“Aleck will be there, and Pete and Tommy and the cook,” Andy rebelled instantly. His hand went up to take the oath with the others.

There on the corner of the street where the shadows lay under a gently whispering box-elder tree, Hank Miller faced the group that stood with right hands uplifted and swore them as he had sworn–with the oath that made deputy sheriffs of them all. He told them that while he did not believe the thieves had gone to the reservation, and would look for them elsewhere, the idea was worth acting upon–seeing they wanted to do it anyway; and that the sheriff’s office stood ready to assist them in any way possible. He wished them luck and hurried away, evidently much relieved to get away and out of an uncomfortable position.

In the next two hours Luck managed to accomplish a good deal, which was one of the reasons why he was manager and director of the Flying U Feature Films. Just for example, he went to a friend who was also something of a detective, and put him on the job of find Annie-Many-Ponies–a bigger task than it looked to Luck, as we have occasion to know. He sent some of the boys back to the ranch in a machine, and told them just what to bring back with them in the way of rifles, bedding rolls, extra horses and so on. The horses they had ridden into town he had housed in a livery stable. He took the Native Son and a Mexican driver and went over to Atrisco, routed perfectly polite and terribly sleepy individuals out of their beds and learned beyond all question that a red automobile with several men in it had passed through the dusty lanes and had labored up the hill to the desert mesa beyond and that no one had seen it return.

He sent a hundred-and-fifty-word message to Dewitt of the Great Western Company in Los Angeles, explaining with perfect frankness the situation and his determination to get out after the robbers, and made it plain also that he would not expect salary for the time he spent in the chase. He ended by saying tersely, “My reputation and standing of company here at stake,” and signed his name in a hasty scrawl that made the operator scratch his ear reflectively with his pencil when he had counted the words down to the signature. After that, Luck gave every ounce of his energy and every bit of his brain to the outfitting of the expedition.

So well did he accomplish the task that by one O’clock that night a low-voiced company of men rode away from a livery stable in the heart of the, town, leading four pack-horses and heading as straight as might be for the bridge. They met no one; they saw scarcely a light in any of the windows that they passed. A chill wind crept up the river so that they buttoned their coats when the hoofbeats of the horses sounded hollow on the bridge. Out through the lane that leads to Atrisco, which slept in the stolid blackness of low adobe houses with flat roofs and tiny windows, they rode at a trot. Dogs barked, ran but to the road and barked again, ran back to the adobe huts and kept on barking. In one field some loose horses, seeing so many of their kind in the lane, galloped up to the fence and stood there snorting. These were still in their colthood, however, and the saddle-horses merely flicked ears in their direction and gave them no more heed.

“I’m glad you’re sure of the country, up here on top,” Luck said to Applehead when they had climbed, by the twisting, sandy trail, to the sand dunes that lay on the edge of the mesa and stretched vaguely away under the stars. To the rim-rook line that separated this first mesa from the higher one beyond, Luck himself knew the sand- hills well. But beyond the broken line of hills off to the northwest he had never gone–and there lay the territory that belongs to the Navajos, who are a tricky tribe and do not love the white people who buy their rugs and blankets and, so claim the Navajos, steal their cattle and their horses as well.

At the rim of lava rock they made a dry camp and lay down in what comfort they could achieve, to doze and wait for daylight so that they could pick up the trail of the red automobile.

CHAPTER XI. ALL THIS WAR-TALK ABOUT INJUNS

Over his second cup of coffee the pale eyes of Big Medicine goggled thoughtfully at the forbidding wall of lava rock that stretched before them as far as he could see to left or right. There were places here and there where be believed that a man could climb to the top with the aid of his hands as well as his feet, but for the horses he was extremely skeptical; and as for a certain big red automobile. . . . His eyes swung from the brown rampart and rested grievedly upon the impassive face of Luck, who was just then reaching forward to spear another slice of bacon from the frying pan.

“Kinda looks to me, by cripes, as if we’d come to the end uh the trail, he observed in his usual full-lunged bellow, as though he had all his life been accustomed to pitching his voice above some unending clamor. “Yuh got any idee of how an autyMObile clumb that there rim-rock?”

Old Applehead, squatting on his heels across the little camp-fire, leaned and picked a coal out of the ashes for his pipe and afterwards cocked his eyes toward Big Medicine.

“What yuh calc’late yuh tryin’ to do?” he inquired pettishly. “Start up an argyment uh some kind? Cause if ye air, lemme tell yuh I got the yer-ache from listenin’ to you las’ night.”

Big Medicine looked at him as though he was going to spring upon him in deadly combat–but that was only a peculiar facial trick of his. What he did do was to pour that last swallow of hot, black coffee down his throat and then laugh his big haw-haw-haw that could be heard half a mile off.

“Y’ oughta kep Applehead to home with the wimmin folks, Luck,” he bawled unabashed. “Night air’s bad fer ‘im, and the trail ain’t goin’ to be smooth goin’,–not if we gotta ride our hawses straight up, by cripes!”

“We haven’t got to.” Luck balanced his slice of bacon upon the unscorched side of a bannock and glanced indifferently at the rim of rock that was worrying the other. “I swung down here to make camp off the trail But it’s only a half mile or so over this rise that looks level to you, to where the lava ledge peters out so we can ride over it easier than we rode up off the river-flat in that loose sand. That ease your mind any?”

“Helps some,” Big Medicine admitted, his eyes going speculatively to the rise that looked perfectly level. “I’m willin’ to take your word fer it, boss. But what’s gittin’ to worry me, by cripes, is all this here war-talk about Injuns. Honest to grandma, I feel like as if I’d been readin’–“

“Aw, it’s jest a josh, Bud!” Happy Jack asserted boredly. “I betche there ain’t been a Injun on the fight here sence hell was a tradin’ post!”

“You think there hasn’t?” Luck looked up quickly to ask. But old Applehead rose up and shook an indignant finger at Happy Jack.

“There ain’t, hey? Well, I calc’late that fer a josh, them thar Navvies has got a right keen sense uh humor, and I’ve knowed men to laff theirselves to death on their danged resavation–now I’m tellin’ yuh I It was all a josh mebby, when they riz up a year or two back ’cause one uh their tribe was goin’ t’ be arrested er some darn thing! Ole General Scott, he didn’t call it no joke when he, went in thar to settle ’em down, did he? I calc’late, mebby it was jest fer a josh them troops waited on the aidge, ready to go in if he didn’t git back a certain time! ‘N’ that wasn’t so fur back, shorely, -only two years. Why dang your fool heart, I’ve laid out there in them hills myself and fit off the Navvies -‘n’ _I_ didn’t see nothin’ much to laugh at, now I’m tellin’ yuh! Time I went there after Jose Martinez–“

“Better get under way, boys,” Luck interrupted, having heard many times the details of that fight and capture. “We’ll throw out a circle and pick up the trail of that machine, or whatever they made their getaway in. My idea is that they must have stached some horses out here somewhere. I don’t believe they’d take the risk of trying to get away in a machine; that would hold them to the main trails, mostly. I know it wouldn’t be my way of getting outa reach. I’d want horses so I could get into rough country, and I’ve doped it out that Ramon is too trail-wise to bank very high on an automobile once he got out away from town. Applehead, you and Lite and Pink and Weary form one party if it comes to where we want to divide forces. Pack a complete camp outfit on the sorrel and the black–you notice that’s the way I had ’em packed first. Keep their packs just as we started out, then you’ll be ready to strike out by yourselves whenever it seems best. Get me?”

“We get you, boss,” Weary sang out cheerfully, and went to work gathering up the breakfast things and putting them into two little piles for the packs. Pink led up the black and the sorrel, and helped to pack them with bedding and supplies for four, as Luck had ordered, while Lite and Applehead saddled their horses and then came up to help throw the diamond hitches on the packs.

A couple of rods nearer the rock wall Happy Jack was grumbling, across the canvas pack of a little bay, at Big Medicine, who was warning him against leaving his hair so long as a direct temptation to scalp-lifting. Luck bad already mounted and ridden out a little way, where he could view the country behind them with his field glasses, to make sure that in the darkness they had not passed by anything that deserved a closer inspection. He came back at a lope and motioned to Andy and the Native Son.

“That red automobile is standing back about half a mile,” he announced hurriedly. “Empty and deserted, looks like. We’ll go back and take a look at it. The rest of you can finish packing and wait here till we come back. No use making extra travel for your horses. They’ll get all they need, the chances are.”

The red automobile was empty of everything but the upholstering and a jack in the toolbox. The state license number was gone, and the serial number on the engine had been hammered into illegibility. What tracks there were had been blown nearly full of the white sand of that particular locality There was nothing to be learned there, except the very patent fact that the machine bad been abandoned for some reason. Luck took a look at the engine and saw nothing wrong with it. There was oil and there was “gas”–a whole tank full. Andy and Miguel, riding an ever-widening circle around the machine while Luck was looking for evidence of a breakdown, ran across a lot of hoofprints that seemed to head straight away past the rim-rock and on to the hills.

They picked up the trail of the hoofprints and followed it. When they returned to the others they found the boys all mounted and waiting impatiently like hounds on the leash eager to get away on the chase. Six horses there were, and even old Applehead, who was in a bad humor that morning and seemed to hate agreeing with anyone, admitted that probably the four who had committed the robbery and left town in the machine had been met out here by a man who brought horses for them and one extra pack horse. This explained the number in the most plausible manner, and satisfied everyone that they were on the right trail.

Riding together -since they were on a plain trail and there was nothing to be gained by separating–they climbed to the higher mesa, crossed the ridge of the three barren hills that none of them but Applehead had ever passed, and went on and on and on as the hoofprints led them, straight toward the reservation.

They discussed the robbery from every angle–they could think of, and once or twice someone hazarded a guess at Annie-Many-Ponies’ reason for leaving and her probable destination. They wondered how old Dave Wiswell, the dried little cattleman of The Phantom Herd, was making out in Denver, where he had gone to consult a specialist about some kidney trouble that had interfered with his riding all spring. Weary suggested that maybe Annie-Many-Ponies had taken a notion to go and visit old Dave, since the two were old friends.

It was here that Applehead unwittingly put into words the vague suspicion which Luck had been trying to stifle and had not yet faced as a definite idea.

“I calc’late we’ll likely find that thar squaw putty tol’ble close to whar we find Bill Holmes,” Applehead remarked sourly. “Her goin’ off same, day they stuck up that bank don’t look to me like no happenstance–now I’m tellin’ yuh! ‘N’ if I was shurf, and was ast to locate that squaw, I’d keep right on the trail uh Bill Holmes, jest as we’re doin’ now.”

“That isn’t like Annie,” Luck said sharply to, still the conviction in his own mind. “Whatever faults she may have, she’s been loyal to me, and honest. Look how she stuck last winter, when she didn’t have anything at stake, wasn’t getting any salary, and yet worked like a dog to help make the picture a success. Look how she got up in the night when the blizzard struck, and fed our horses and cooked breakfast of her own accord, just so I could get out early and get my scenes. I’ve known her since she was a dirty-faced papoose, and I never knew her to lie or steal. She wasn’t in on that robbery–I’ll bank on that, and she wouldn’t go off with a thief. It isn’t like Annie.”

“Well,” said Big Medicine, thinking of his own past, “the best uh women goes wrong when some knot-headed man gits to lovemakin’. They’ll do things fer the wrong kinda man, by cripes, that they wouldn’t do fer no other human on earth. I’ve knowed a good woman to lie and steal–fer a man that wasn’t fit, by cripes, to tip his hat to ‘er in the street! Women,” he added pessimistically, “is something yuh can’t bank on, as safe as yuh can on a locoed horse!” He kicked his mount unnecessarily by way of easing the resentment which one woman had managed to instil against the sex in general.

“That’s where you’re darned right, Bud,” Pink attested with a sudden bitterness which memory brought. “I wouldn’t trust the best woman that ever lived outa my sight, when you come right down to cases.”

“Aw, here!” Andy Green, thinking loyally of his Rosemary, swung his horse indignantly toward the two. “Cut that out, both of you! Just because you two got stung, is no reason why you’ve got to run down all the rest of the women. I happen to know one–“

“Aw, nobody was talking about Rosemary,” Big Medicine apologized gruffly. “She’s different; any fool knows that.”

“Well, I’ve got a six-gun here that’ll talk for another one,” silent Lite Avery spoke up suddenly. “One that would tip the scales on the woman’s side for goodness if the rest of the whole sex was bad.”

“Oh, thunder!” Pink cried, somewhat redder than the climbing sun alone would warrant. “I’ll take it back. I didn’t mean THEM–you know darned well I didn’t mean them–nor lots of other women I know. What I meant was–“

“What you meant was Annie,” Luck broke in uncompromisingly. “And I’m not condemning her just because things look black. You don’t know Indians the way I know them. There’s some things an Indian will do, and then again there’s some things they won’t do. You boys don’t know it–but yesterday morning when we left the ranch, Annie-Many-Ponies made me the peace-sign. And after that she went into her tent and began to sing the Omaha. It didn’t mean anything to you–Old Dave is the only one that would have sabed, and he wasn’t there. But it meant enough to me that I came pretty near riding back to have a pow-wow with Annie, even if we were late. I wish I had. I’d have less on my conscience right now.”

“Fur’s I kin see,” Applehead dissented impatiently, “you ain’t got no call to have nothin’ on your conscience where that thar squaw is concerned. You treated her a hull lot whiter’n what she deserved–now I’m tellin’ ye! ‘N’ her traipsin’ around at nights ‘n’–“

“I tell you, you don’t know Indians!” Luck swung round in the saddle so that he could face Applehead. “You don’t know the Sioux, anyway. She wouldn’t have made me that peace-sign if she’d been double-crossing me, I tell you. And she wouldn’t have sung the Omaha if she was going to throw in with a thief that was trying to lay me wide open to suspicion. I’ve been studying things over in my mind, and there’s something in this affair I can’t sabe. And until you’ve got some proof, the less you say about Annie-Many-Ponies the better I’ll be pleased.”

That, coming from Luck in just that tone and with just that look in his eyes, was tantamount to an ultimatum, and it was received as one. Old Applehead grunted and chewed upon a wisp of his sunburned mustache that looked like dried cornsilk after a frost. The Happy Family exchanged careful glances and rode meekly along in silence. There was not a man of them but believed that Applehead was nearer right than Luck, but they were not so foolish as to express that belief.

After a while Big Medicine began bellowing tunelessly that old ditty, once popular but now half forgotten:

“Nava, Nava, My Navaho-o I have a love for you that will grow-ow!”

Which stirred old Applehead to an irritated monologue upon the theme of certain persons whose ignorance is not blissful, but trouble-inviting. Applehead, it would seem from his speech upon the subject, would be a much surprised ex-sheriff–now a deputy–if they were not all captured and scalped, if not worse, the minute their feet touched the forbidden soil of these demons in human form, the Navajo Indians.

“If they were not too busy weaving blankets for Fred Harvey,” Luck qualified with his soft Texan drawl and the smile that went with it. “You talk as if these boys were tourists.”

“Yes,” added Andy Green maliciously, “here comes a war-party now, boys. Duck behind a rock, Applehead, they’re liable to charge yuh fer them blankets!”

The Happy Family laughed uproariously, to the evident bewilderment of the two Indians who, swathed in blankets and with their hair knotted and tied with a green ribbon and a yellow, drove leisurely toward the group in an old wagon that had a bright new seat and was drawn by a weazened span of mangy-looking bay ponies. In the back of the wagon sat a young squaw and two papooses, and beside them were stacked three or four of the gay, handwoven rugs for which the white people will pay many dollars.

“Buenas dias,” said the driver of the wagon, who was an oldish Indian with a true picturepostal face. And: “Hello,” said the other, who was young and wore a bright blue coat, such as young Mexicans affect.

“Hello, folks,” cried the Happy Family genially, and lifted their hats to the good-looking young squaw in the wagon-bed, who tittered in bashful appreciation of the attention.

“Mama! They sure are wild and warlike,” Weary commented drily as he turned to stare after the wagon.

“Us little deputies had better run home,” Pink added with mock alarm.

“By cripes, I know now what went with Applehead’s hair!” bawled Big Medicine. “Chances is, it’s weaved into that red blanket the old buck is wearin’– Haw-haw-haw!”

“Laff, dang ye, laff!” Applehead cried furiously. “But do your laffing where I can’t hear ye, fer I’m tellin’ ye right now I’ve had enough of yore dang foolishness. And the next feller that makes a crack is goin’ to wisht he hadn’t now I’m tellin’ ye!”

This was not so much an ultimatum as a declaration of war–and the Happy Family suddenly found themselves all out of the notion of laughing at anything at all.

CHAPTER XII. THE WILD-GOOSE CHASE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wonder if another dollar–“

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

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

“Well, now, I ain’t never turned back on a trail yit, fer want uh nerve to foller it,” AppleHead stated offendedly. “When I was shurf–“

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

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER XIII. SET AFOOT

The tracks of the six horses led down into a rock-bottomed arroyo so deep in most places that all view of the surrounding mesa was shut off completely, save where the ragged tops of a distant line of hills pushed up into the dazzling blue of the sky. The heat, down here among the rocks, was all but unbearable; and when they discovered that no tracks led out of the arroyo on the farther side, the Happy Family dismounted and walked to save their horses while they divided into two parties and hunted up and down the arroyo for the best trail.

It was just such vexatious delays as this which had kept them always a day’s ride or more behind their quarry, and Luck’s hand trembled with nervous irritability when he turned back and banded Applehead one of those small, shrill police whistles whose sound carries so far, and which are much used by motion-picture producers for the long-distance direction of scenes.

“I happened to have a couple in my pocket,” he explained hurriedly. “You know the signals, don’t you? One long, two short will mean you’ve picked up the trail. Three or more short, quick ones is an emergency call, for all hands to come running.”

“Well, they’s one thing you want to keep in mind, Luck,” Applehead urged from his superior trail craft. “They might be sharp enough to ride in here a ways and come out the same side they rode in at. Yuh want to hunt both sides as yuh go up.”

“Sure,” said Luck, and hurried away up the arroyo with Pink, Big Medicine, Andy and the Native Son at his heels, leading the two pack-horses that belonged to their party. In the opposite direction went Applehead and the others, their eyes upon the ground watching for the faintest sign of hoofprints.

That blazing ball of torment, the sun, slid farther and farther down to the skyline, tempering its heat with the cool promise of dusk. Away up the arroyo, Luck stopped for breath after a sharp climb up through a narrow gash in the sheer wall of what was now a small canon, and saw that to search any farther in that direction would be useless. Across the arroyo–that had narrowed and deepened until it was a canon–Andy Green was mopping his face with his handkerchief and studying a bold hump of jumbled bowlders and ledges, evidently considering whether it was worth while toiling up to the top. A little below him, the Native Son was flinging rocks at a rattlesnake with the vicious precision of frank abhorrence. Down in the canon bottom Big Medicine and Pink were holding the horses on the shady side of the gorge, and the smoke of their cigarettes floated lazily upward with the jumbled monotone of their voices.

Andy, glancing across at Luck, waved his hand and sat down on a rock that was shaded by a high bowlder; reached mechanically for his “makings” and with his feet far apart and his elbows on his thighs, wearily rolled a cigarette.

“How about it, boss?” he asked, scarcely raising his voice above the ordinary conversational tone, though a hard fifteen-minutes’ climb up and down separated the two; “they never came up the arroyo, if you ask ME. My side don’t show a hoof track from where we left the boys down below.”

“Mine either,” Luck replied, by the power of suggestion seating himself and reaching for his own tobacco and papers. “We might as well work back down and connect with Applehead. Wish there was some sign of water in this darn gulch. By the time we get down where we started from, it’ll be sundown.” He glanced down at Bud and Pink. “Hey! You can start back any, time,” he called. “Nothing up this way.”

“Here’s the grandfather of all rattlers,” Miguel called across to Luck, and held up by the tail a great snake that had not ceased its muscular writhings. “Twelve rattles and a button. Have I got time to skin him? He tried to bite me on the leg–but I beard him and got outa reach.”

“We’ve got to be moving,” Luck answered. “It’s a long ways back where we started from, and we’ve got to locate water, if we can.” He rose with the deliberateness that indicated tired muscles, and started back; and to himself be muttered exasperatedly: “A good three hours all shot to pieces–and not a mile gained on that bunch!”

The Native Son, calmly pinching the rattles of the snake he had not time to skin, climbed down into the Canon and took his horse by the bridle reins. Behind him Andy Green came scrambling; but Luck, still faintly hoping for a clue, kept to the upper rim of the arroyo, scanning every bit of soft ground where it seemed possible for a horse to climb up from below. He had always recognized the native cunning of Ramon, but he had never dreamed him as cunning as this latest ruse would seem to prove him.

As for Bill Holmes, Luck dismissed him with a shrug of contempt. Bill Holmes had been stranded in Albuquerque when the cold weather was coming on; he had been hungry and shelterless and ill-clad–one of those bits of flotsam which drift into our towns and stand dejectedly upon our street-corners when they do not prowl down alleys to the back doors of our restaurants in the hope of being permitted to wash the soiled dishes of more fortunate men for the food which diners have left beside their plates. Luck had fed Bill Holmes, and he had given him work to do and the best food and shelter he could afford; and for thanks, Bill had- as Luck believed-made sly, dishonest love to Annie-Many-Ponies, for whose physical and moral welfare Luck would be held responsible. Bill had deliberately chosen to steal rather than work for honest wages, and had preferred the unstable friendship of Ramon Chavez to the cleaner life in Luck’s company. He did not credit Bill Holmes with anything stronger than a weak-souled treachery. Ramon, he told himself while he made his way down the arroyo side, was at least working out a clever scheme of his own, and it rested with Luck and his posse to see that Ramon was cheated of success.

So deeply was he engrossed that before he realized it he was down where they had left Applehead’s party. There was no sign of them anywhere, so Luck went down and mounted his horse and led the way down the arroyo.

Already the heat was lessening and the land was taking on those translucent opal tints which make of New Mexico a land of enchantment. The far hills enveloped themselves in a faint, purplish haze through which they seemed to blush unwittingly. The mesa, no longer showing itself an and waste of heat and untracked wilderness, lay soft under a thin veil of many ethereal tints. Away off to the northeast they heard the thin, vague clamor of a band of sheep and the staccato barking of a dog.

Luck rode for some distance, his uneasiness growing as the shadows deepened with the setting of the sun. They had gone too far to hear any whistled signal, but it seemed to him reasonable to suppose that Applehead would return to their starting point, whether he found the trail or not; or at least send a man back. Luck began to think more seriously of Applehead’s numerous warnings about the Indians–and yet, there had been no sound of shooting, which is the first sign of trouble in this country. Rifle shots can be heard a long way in this clear air; so Luck presently dismissed that worry and gave his mind to the very real one which assailed them all; which was water for their horses.

The boys were riding along in silence, sitting over to one side with a foot dangling free of its stirrup; except Andy, who had hooked one leg over the saddle-horn and was riding sidewise, smoking a meditative cigarette and staring out between the ears of his horse. They were tired; horses and men, they were tired to the middle of their bones. But they went ahead without making any complaints whatever or rasping oneanother’s tempers with ill-chosen remarks; and for that Luck’s eyes brightened with appreciation.

Presently, when they had ridden at least a mile down the arroyo, a gray hat-crown came bobbing into sight over a low tongue of rocky ground that cut the channel almost in two. The horses threw up their heads and perked cars forward inquiringly, and in a moment Happy Tack came into view, his gloomy, sunburned face wearing a reluctant grin.

“Well, we got on the trail,” he announced as soon as he was close enough. “And we follered it to water. Applehead says fer you to come on and make camp. Tracks are fresher around that’ water-hole’n what they have been, an’ Applehead, he’s all enthused. I betche we land them fellers t’morrow.”

Out of the arroyo in a place where the scant grassland lapped down over the edge, Happy Jack led the way and the rest followed eagerly. Too often had they made dry camp not to feel jubilant over the prospect even of a brackish water-hole. Even the horses seemed to know and to step out more briskly. Straight across the mesa with its deceptive lights that concealed distance behind a glamor of intimate nearness, they rode into the deepening dusk that had a glow all through it. After a while they dipped into a grassy draw so shallow that they hardly realized the descent until they dismounted at the bottom, where Applehead was already starting a fire and the others were laying out their beds and doing the hundred little things that make for comfort in camp.

A few bushes and a stunted tree or two marked the spring that seeped down and fed a shallow water-hole where the horses drank thirstily. Applehead grinned and pointed to the now familiar hoofprints which they had followed so far.

“I calc’late Ramon done a heap uh millin’ around back there in that rocky arroyo,” he observed, “‘fore he struck off over here. Er else they was held up fer some reason, ’cause them tracks is fresher a hull lot than what them was that passed the Injun ranch. Musta laid over here las’ night, by the looks. But I figgered that we’d best camp whilst we had water, ‘n’ take up the trail agin at daybreak. Ain’t that about the way you see it, Luck?”

“Why, certainly,” Luck assured him with as much heartiness as his utter weariness would permit. “Men and horses, we’re about all in. If Ramon was just over the next ridge, I don’t know but it would pay to take our rest before we overhaul them.”

“They’s grass here, yuh notice,” Applehead pointed out. “I’ll put the bell on Johnny, and if Pink’ll bobble that buckskin that’s allus wantin’ to wander off by hisself, I calc’late we kin settle down an’ rest our bones quite awhile b’fore anybody needs to go on guard. Them ponies ain’t goin’ to stray fur off if they don’t have to, after the groun’ they covered t’day–now I’m tellin’ yuh! They’ll save their steps.”

There is a superstition about prophesying too boastfully that a certain thing will or will not happen; you will remember that there is also a provision that the rash prophet may avert disaster by knocking wood. Applehead should, if there is any grain of sense in the rite, have knocked wood with his fingers crossed as an extra precaution, against evil fortune.

For after they had eaten and methodically packed away the food, and while they were lying around the cheerful glow of their little campfire, misfortune stole up out of the darkness unaware. They talked desultorily as tired men will, their alertness dulled by the contented tinkle-tinkle of the little bell strapped around the neck of big, bay Johnny, Applehead’s companion of many a desert wandering. That brilliant constellation which seems to hang just over one’s head in the high altitude of our sagebrush states, held hypnotically the sleepy gaze of Pink, whose duty it was to go on guard when the others turned in for the night. He lay with his locked fingers under his head, staring up at one particularly bright group of stars, and listened to the droning voice of Applehead telling of a trip he had made out into this country five or six years before; and soaking in the peace and the comfort which was all the more precious because he knew that soon he must drag his weary body into the saddle and ride out to stand guard over the horses. Once he half rose, every movement showing his reluctance.

Whereupon Weary, who sprawled next to him, reached out a languid foot and gave him a poke. “Aw, lay down,” he advised. “They’re all right out there for another hour. Don’t yuh hear the bell?”

They all listened for a minute. The intermittent tinkle of the cheap little sheep bell came plainly to them from farther down the draw as though Johnny was eating contentedly with his mates, thankful for the leisure and the short, sweet grass that was better than hay. Pink lay back with a sigh of relief, and Luck told him to sleep a little if he wanted to, because everything was all right and he would call him if the horses got to straying too far off.

Down the draw–where there were no horses feeding–an Indian in dirty overalls and gingham shirt and moccasins, and with his hair bobbed to his collar, stood up and peered toward the vague figures grouped in the fire-glow. He lifted his hand and moved it slightly, so that the bell he was holding tinkled exactly as it had done when it was strapped around Johnny’s neck; Johnny, who was at that moment trailing disgustedly over a ridge half a mile away with his mates, driven by two horsemen who rode very carefully, so as to make no noise.

The figures settled back reassured, and the Indian grinned sourly and tinkled the little bell painstakingly, with the matchless patience of the Indian. It was an hour before he dimly saw Pink get up from the dying coals and mount his horse. Then, still tinkling the bell as a feeding horse would have made it ring, he moved slowly down the draw; slowly, so that Pink did not at first suspect that the bell sounded farther off than before; slowly yet surely, leading Pink farther and farther in the hope of speedily overtaking the horses that he cursed for their wandering.

Pink wondered, after a little, what was the matter with the darned things, wandering off like that by themselves, and with no possible excuse that he could see. For some time he was not uneasy; he expected to overtake them within the next five or ten minutes. They would stop to feed, surely, or to look back and listen–in a strange country like this it was against horse-nature that they should wander far away at night unless they were thirsty and on the scent of water. These horses had drunk their fill at the little pool below the spring. They should be feeding now, or they should lie down and sleep, or stand up and sleep–anything but travel like this, deliberately away from camp.

Pink tried loping, but the ground was too treacherous and his horse too leg-weary to handle its feet properly in the dark. It stumbled several times, so he pulled down again to a fast walk. For a few minutes he did not hear the bell at all, and when be did it was not where he had expected to hear it, but away off to one side. So he had gained nothing save in anger and uneasiness.

There was no use going back to camp and rousing the boys, for he was now a mile or so away; and they would be afoot, since their custom was to keep but one horse saddled. When he went in to call the next guard he would be expected to bring that man’s horse back with him, and would turn his own loose before he went to sleep. Certainly there was nothing to be gained by rousing the camp.

He did not suspect the trick being played upon him, though he did wonder if someone was leading the horses away. Still, in that case whoever did it would surely have sense enough to muffle the bell. Besides, it sounded exactly like a horse feeding and moving away at random–which, to those familiar with the sound, can never be mistaken for the tinkle of an animal traveling steadily to some definite point.

It was an extremely puzzled young man who rode and rode that night in pursuit of that evasive, nagging, altogether maddening tinkle. Always just over the next little rise he would hear it, or down in the next little draw; never close enough for him to discover the trick; never far enough away for him to give up the chase. The stars he had been watching in camp swam through the purple immensity above him and slid behind the skyline. Other stars as brilliant appeared and began their slow, swimming journey. Pink rode, and stopped to listen, and rode on again until it seemed to him that he must be dreaming some terribly realistic nightmare.

He was sitting on his horse on a lava-crusted ridge, straining bloodshot eyes into the mesa that stretched dimly before him, when dawn came streaking the sky with blood orange and purple and crimson. The stars were quenched in that flood of light; and Pink, looking now with clearer vision, saw that there was no living thing in sight save a coyote trotting home from his night’s hunting. He turned short around and, getting his bearings from his memory of certain stars and from the sun that was peering at him from the top of a bare peak, and from that sense of direction which becomes second nature to a man who had lived long on the range, started for camp with his ill news.

CHAPTER XIV. ONE PUT OVER ON THE BUNCH

“Sounds to me,” volunteered the irrepressible Big Medicine after a heavy silence, “like as if you’d gone to sleep on your hawse, Little One, and dreamed that there tinkle-tinkle stuff. By cripes, I’d like to see the bell-hawse that could walk away from ME ‘nless I was asleep an’ dreamin’ about it. Sounds like–“

“Sounds like Navvy work,” Applehead put in, eyeing the surrounding rim of sun-gilded mesa, where little brown birds fluttered in short, swift flights and chirped with exasperating cheerfulness.

“If it was anybody, it was Ramon Chavez,” Luck declared with the positiveness of his firm conviction. “By the tracks here, we’re crowding up on him. And no man that’s guilty of a crime, Applehead, is going to ride day after day without wanting to take a look over his shoulder to see if be’s followed. He’s probably seen us from some of these ridges–yesterday, most likely. And do you think he wouldn’t know this bunch as far as he could see us, even without glasses? The chances are he has them, though. He’d be a fool if he didn’t stake himself to a pair.”

“Say, by gracious,” Andy observed somewhat irrelevantly, his eyes going over the group, “this would sure make great picture dope, wouldn’t it? Why didn’t we bring Pete along, darn it? Us all standing around here, plumb helpless because we’re afoot–“

“Aw, shut up!” snapped Pink, upon whom the burden of responsibility lay heavy. “I oughta be hung for laying around the fire here instead of being out there on guard! I oughta–“

“It ain’t your fault,” Weary championed him warmly. “We all heard the bell–“

“Yes–and damn it,_I_ heard the bell from then on till daylight!” Pink’s lips quivered perceptibly with the mortification that burned within him. “If I’d been on guard–“

“Well, I calc’late you’d a been laid out now with a knife-cut in yuh som’ers,” Applehead stopped twisting his sunburnt mustache to say bluntly. “‘S a dang lucky thing fer you, young man, ‘t you WASN’T on guard, ‘n’ the only thing’t looks queer to me is that you wasn’t potted las’ night when yuh got out away from here. Musta been only one of ’em stayed behind, an’ he had t’ keep out in front uh yuh t’ tinkle that dang bell. Figgered on wearin’ out yer hoss, I reckon, ‘n’ didn’t skurcely dare t’ take the risk uh killin’ you off ‘nless they was a bunch around t’ handle us.” His bright blue eyes with their range squint went from one to another with a certain speculative pride in the glance. “‘N’ they shore want t’ bring a crowd along when they tie into this yere outfit, now I’m tellin’ yuh!”

Lite Avery, who had gone prowling down the draw by himself, came back to camp, tilting stiff-leggedly along in his high-heeled boots and betraying, in every step he took, just how handicapped a cowpuncher is when set afoot upon the range and forced to walk where he has always been accustomed to ride. He stopped to give Pink’s exhausted horse a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, and came on, grinning a little with the comers of his mouth tipped down.

“Here’s what’s left of the hobbles the buckskin wore,” he said, holding up the cut loops of a figure-eight rope hobble. “Kinda speaks for itself, don’t it?”

They crowded around to inspect this plain evidence of stealing. Afterwards they stood hard-eyed and with a flush on their cheek-bones, considering what was the best and wisest way to meet this emergency. As to hunting afoot for their horses, the chance of success was almost too small to be considered at all, Pink’s horse was not fit for further travel until he had rested. There was one pair of field glasses -and there were nine irate men to whom inaction was intolerable.

“One thing we can do, if we have to,” Luck said at last, with the fighting look in his face which moving-picture people had cause to remember. “We can help ourselves to any horses we run across. Applehead, how’s the best way to go about it?”

Applehead, thus pushed into leadership, chewed his mustache and eyed the mesa sourly. “Well, seein’ they’ve set us afoot, I calc’late we’re jest about entitled to any dang thing we run across that’s ridable,” he acceded. “‘N’ the way I’d do, would be to git on high groun’ with them glasses ‘n’ look fer hosses. ‘N’ then head fer ’em ‘n’ round ’em up afoot ‘n’ rope out what we want. They’s enough of us t’ mebby git a mount apiece, but it shore ain’t goin’ t’ be no snap, now I’m tellin’ ye. ‘N’ if yuh do that,” he added, “yuh want t’ leave a man er two in camp–‘n’ they want to keep their dang eyes peeled, lemme tell yuh! Ef we was t’ find ourselves afoot an’ our grub ‘n’ outfit stole–“

“We won’t give them that chance at us.” Luck was searching with his eyes for the nearest high point that was yet not too far from camp. “I think I’ll just take Andy up on that pinnacle there, and camp down by that pile of boulders. The rest of you stay around camp and rest yourselves while you’ve got the chance. In a couple of hours, Applehead, you and Lite come up and take our place; then Miguel and Bud, and after that Weary and Happy. Pink, you go and bed down in the shade somewhere and go to sleep–and quit worrying over last night. Nobody could have done any better than you did. It was just one put over on the bunch, and you happened to be the particular goat, that’s all.

“Now, if one of us waves his hat over his head, all of you but Happy and Bud and Pink come up with your rifles and your ropes, because we’ll have some horses sighted. If we wave from side to side, like this, about even with our belts, you boys want to look out for trouble. So one of you keep an eye on us all the time we’re up there. We’ll be up outa reach of any trouble ourselves, if I remember that little pinnacle right.” He hung the strap that held the leather case of the glasses over one shoulder, picked up his rifle and his rope and started off, with Andy similarly equipped coming close behind him.

The mesa, when they reached the pinnacle and looked down over the wide expanse of it, glimmered like clear, running water with the heat waves that rose from the sand. Away to the southward a scattered band of sheep showed in a mirage that made them look long-legged as camels and half convinced them both that they were seeing the lost horses, until the vision changed and shrunk the moving objects to mere dots upon the mesa.

Often before they had watched the fantastic airpictures of the desert mirage, and they knew well enough that what they saw might be one mile away or twenty. But unless the atmospheric conditions happened to be just right, what was pictured in the air could not be depended upon to portray truthfully what was reflected. They sat there and saw the animals suddenly grow clearly defined and very close, and discovered at last that they were sheep, and that a man was walking beside the flock; and even while they watched it and wondered if the sheep were really as close as they seemed, the vision slowly faded into blank, wavery distance and the mesa lay empty and quivering under the sun.

“Fine chance we’ve got of locating anything,” Andy grumbled, “if it’s going to be miragy all day. We could run our fool heads off trying to get up to a bunch that would puff out into nothing. Makes a fellow think of the stories they tell about old prospectors going crazy trying to find mirage water-holes. I’m glad we didn’t get hung up at a dry camp, Luck. Yuh realize what that would be like?”

“Oh, I may have some faint idea,” Luck drawled whimsically. “Look over there, Andy over toward Albuquerque. Is that a mirage again, or do you see something moving?”

Andy, having the glasses, swung them slowly to the southeast. After a minute or two he shook his head and gave the glasses to Luck. “There was one square look I got, and I’d been willing to swear it was our saddle-bunch,” he said. “And then they got to wobbling and I couldn’t make out what they are. They might be field mice, or they might be giraffes–I’m darned if I know which.”

Luck focussed the glasses, but whatever the objects had been, they were no longer to he seen. So the two hours passed and they saw Applehead and Lite come slowly up the hill from camp bearing their rifles and their ropes and a canteen of fresh water, as the three things they might find most use for.

These two settled themselves to watch for horses–their own range horses. When they were relieved they reported nothing save a continued inclination on the part of the atmosphere to be what Andy called miragy. So, the day passed, chafing their spirits worse than any amount of active trouble would have done. Pink slept and brooded by turns, still blaming himself for the misfortune. The others moped, or took their turns on the pinnacle to strain their eyes unavailingly into the four corners of the earth–or as much as they could in those directions.

With the going of the sun Applehead and Lite, sitting out their second guard on the pinnacle, discussed seriously the desperate idea of going in the night to the nearest Navajo ranch and helping themselves to what horses they could find about the place. The biggest obstacle was their absolute ignorance of where the nearest ranch lay. Not, surely, that half-day’s ride back towards Albuquerque, where they bad seen but one pony and that a poor specimen of horseflesh. Another obstacle would be the dogs, which could be quieted only with bullets.

“We might git hold of something to ride,” Applehead stated glumly, “an’ then agin the chances is we wouldn’t git nothin’ more’n a scrap on our hands. ‘N’ I’m tellin’ yuh right now, Lite, I ain’t hankerin’ fer no fuss till I git a hoss under me.”

“Me either,” Lite testified succinctly. “Say, is that something coming, away up that draw the camp’s in? Seems to me I saw something pass that line of lava, about half a mile over.”

Applehead stood up and peered into the half darkness. In a couple of minutes he said: “Ye better git down an’ tell the boys t’ be on the watch, Lite. They can’t see no hat-wavin’ this time uh day. They’s somethin’ movin’ up to-wards camp, but what er who they be I can’t make out in the dark. Tell Luck–“

“What’s the matter with us both going?” Lite asked, cupping his hands around his eyes that he might see better. “It’s getting too dark to do any good up here–“

“Well, I calc’late mebby yore right,” Applehead admitted, and began to pick his way down over the rocks. “Ef them’s Injuns, the bigger we stack up in camp the better. If it’s Ramon ‘n’ his bunch, I want t’ git m’ hands on ‘im.”

He must have turned the matter over pretty thoroughly in his mind, for when the two reached camp he had his ideas fixed and his plans all perfected. He told Luck that somebody was working down the draw in the dark, and that it looked like a Navvy trick; and that they had better be ready for them, because they weren’t coming just to pass the time of day–“now I’m tellin’ ye!”

The nerves of the Happy Family were raw enough by now to welcome anything that promised action; even an Indian fight would not be so much a disaster as a novel way of breaking the monotony. Applehead, with the experience gathered in the old days when he was a young fellow with a freighting outfit and old Geronimo was terrorizing all this country, sent them back in compact half circle just within the shelter of the trees and several rods .away from their campfire and the waterhole. There, lying crouched behind their saddles with their rifles across the seat-sides and with ammunition belts full of cartridges, they waited for whatever might be coming in the dark.

“It’s horses,” Pink exclaimed under his breath, as faint sounds came down the draw. “Maybe–“

“Horses–and an Injun laying along the back of every one, most likely,” Applehead returned grimly. “An old Navvy trick, that is–don’t let ’em fool ye, boys! You jest wait, ‘n’ I’ll tell ye ‘when t’ shoot, er whether t’ shoot at all. They can’t fool ME–now I’m tellin’ yuh!

After that they were silent, listening strainedly to the growing sounds of approach. There was the dull, unmistakable click of a hoof striking against a rock, the softer sound of treading on yielding soil. Then a blur of dark objects became visible, moving slowly and steadily toward the camp.

“Aw, it’s just horses,” Happy Jack muttered disgustedly.

Applehead stretched a lean leg in his direction and gave Happy Jack a kick. “They’re cunnin’,” he hissed warningly. “Don’t yuh be fooled–“

“That’s Johnny in the lead,” Pink whispered excitedly. “I’d know the way he walks–“

“‘N’ you THOUGHT yuh knowed how he jingled his dang bell,” Applehead retorted unkindly. “Sh-sh-sh–“

Reminded by the taunt of the clever trick that had been played upon them the night before, the Happy Family stiffened again into strained, waiting silence, their rifles aimed straight at the advancing objects. These, still vague in the first real darkness of early night, moved steadily in a scattered group behind a leader that was undoubtedly Johnny of the erstwhile tinkling bell. He circled the campfire just without its radius of light, so that they could not tell whether an Indian lay along his back, and beaded straight for the water-hole. The others followed him, and not one came into the firelight–a detail which sharpened the suspicions of the men crouched there in the edge of the bushes, and tingled their nerves with the sense of something sinister in the very unconcernedness of the animals.

They splashed into the water-hole and drank thirstily and long. They stood there as though they were luxuriating in the feel of more water than they could drink, and one horse blew the moisture from his nostrils with a sound that made Happy Jack jump.

After a few minutes that seemed an hour to those who waited with fingers crooked upon gun-triggers, the horse that looked vaguely like Johnny turned away from the water-hole and sneezed while he appeared to be wondering what to do next. He moved slowly toward the packs that were thrown down just where they had been taken from the horses, and began nosing tentatively about.

The others loitered still at the water-hole, save one–the buckskin, by his lighter look in the dark–that came over to Johnny. The two horses nosed the packs. A dull sound of clashing metal came to the ears of the Happy Family.

“Hey! Get outa that grain, doggone your fool hide,” Pink called out impulsively, crawling over his saddle and catching his foot in the stirrup leather so that he came near going headlong.

Applehead yelled something, but Pink had recovered his balance and was running to save the precious horsefeed from waste, and Johnny from foundering. There might have been two Indiana on every horse in sight, but Pink was not thinking of that possibility just then.

Johnny whirled guiltily away from the grain bag, licking his lips and blowing dust from his nostrils. Pink went up to him and slipped a rope around his neck. “Where’s that bell?” he called out in his soft treble. “Or do you think we better tie the old son-of-a-gun up and be sure of him?”

“Aw,” said Happy Jack disgustedly a few minutes later, when the Happy Family had crawled out of their ambush and were feeling particularly foolish. “Nex’ time old granny Furrman says Injuns t’ this bunch, somebody oughta gag him “

“I notice you waited till he’d gone outa hearing before you said that,” Luck told him drily. “We’re going to put out extra guards tonight, just the same. And I guess you can stand the first shift, Happy, up there on the ridge–you’re so sure of things!”

CHAPTER XV. “NOW, DANG IT, RIDE!”

Indians are Indians, though they wear the green sweater and overalls of civilization and set upon their black hair the hat made famous by John B. Stetson. You may meet them in town and think them tamed to stupidity. You may travel out upon their reservations and find them shearing sheep or hoeing corn or plodding along the furrow, plowing their fields; or you may watch them dancing grotesquely in their festivals, and still think that civilization is fast erasing the savage instincts from their natures. You will be partly right –but you will also be partly mistaken. An Indian is always an Indian, and a Navajo Indian carries a thinner crust of civilization than do some others; as I am going to illustrate.

As you have suspected, the Happy Family was not following the trail of Ramon Chavez and his band. Ramon was a good many miles away in another direction; unwittingly the Happy Family was keeping doggedly upon the trail of a party of renegade Navajos who had been out on a thieving expedition among those Mexicans who live upon the Rio Grande bottomland. Having plenty of reasons for hurrying back to their stronghold, and having plenty of lawlessness to account for, when they realized that they were being followed by nine white men who had four packed horses with them to provide for their needs on a long journey, it was no more than natural that the Indians should take it for granted that they were being pursued, and that if they were caught they would be taken back to town and shut up in that evil place which the white men called their jail.

When it was known that the nine men who followed had twice recovered the trail after sheep and cattle had trampled it out, the renegades became sufficiently alarmed to call upon their tribesmen for help. And that was perfectly natural and sensible from their point of view.

Now, the Navajos are peaceable enough if you leave them strictly alone and do not come snooping upon their reservation trying to arrest somebody. But they don’t like jails, and if you persist in trailing their lawbreakers you are going to have trouble on your hands. The Happy Family, with Luck and Applehead, had no intention whatever of molesting the Navajos; but the Navajos did not know that, and they acted according to their lights and their ideas of honorable warfare.

Roused to resistance in behalf of their fellows, they straightway forsook their looms, where they wove rugs for tourists, and the silver which they fashioned into odd bracelets and rings; and the flocks of sheep whose wool they used in the rugs and they went upon a quiet, crafty warpath against these persistent white men.

They stole their horses and started them well on the trail back to Albuquerque–since it is just as well to keep within the white men’s law, if it may be done without suffering any great incon venience. They would have preferred to keep the horses, but they decided to start them home and let them go. You could not call that stealing, and no one need go to jail for it. They failed to realize that these horses might be so thoroughly broken to camp ways that they would prefer the camp of the Happy Family to a long trail that held only a memory of discomfort; they did not know that every night these horses were given grain by the camp-fire, and that they would remember it when feeding time came again. So the horses, led by wise old Johnny, swung in a large circle when their Indian drivers left them, and went back to their men.

Then the Navajos, finding that simple maneuver a failure–and too late to prevent its failing without risk of being discovered and forced into an open fight -got together and tried something else; something more characteristically Indian and therefore more actively hostile. They rode in haste that night to a point well out upon the fresh trail of their fleeing tribesmen, where the tracks came out of a barren, lava-encrusted hollow to softer soil beyond. They summoned their squaws and their half-grown papooses armed with branches that had stiff twigs and answered the purpose of brooms. With great care about leaving any betraying tracks of their own until they were quite ready to leave a trail, a party was formed to represent the six whom the Happy Family bad been following. These divided and made off in different directions, leaving a plain trail behind them to lure the white men into the traps which would be prepared for them farther on.

When dawn made it possible to do so effectively, the squaws began to whip out the trail of the six renegade Indians, and the chance footprints of those who bad gone ahead to leave the false trail for the white men to follow. Very painstakingly the squaws worked, and the young ones who could be trusted. Brushing the sand smoothly across a hoofprint here, and another one there; walking backward, their bodies bent, their sharp eyes scanning every little depression, every faint trace of the passing of their tribesmen; brushing, replacing pebbles kicked aside by a hoof, wiping out completely that trail which the Happy Family bad followed with such persistence, the squaws did their part, while their men went on to prepare the trap.

Years ago–yet not so many after all–the mothers of these squaws, and their grandmothers, had walked backward and stooped with little branches in their hands to wipe out the trail of their warriors and themselves to circumvent the cunning of the enemy who pursued. So had they brushed out the trail when their men had raided the ranchos of the first daring settlers, and had driven off horses and cattle into the remoter wilderness.

And these, mind you, were the squaws and bucks whom you might meet any day on the streets in Albuquerque, padding along the pavement and staring in at the shop windows, admiring silken gowns with marked-down price tags, and exclaiming over flaxen-haired dolls and bright ribbon streamers; squaws and bucks who brought rugs and blankets to sell, and who would bargain with you in broken English and smile and nod in friendly fashion if you spoke to them in Spanish or paid without bickering the price they asked for a rug. You might see them in the fifteen-cent store, buying cheap candy and staring in mute admiration at all the gay things piled high on the tables. Remember that, when I tell you what more they did out here in the wilderness. Remember that and do not imagine that I am trying to take you back into the untamed days of the pioneers.

Luck and the Happy Family–so well had the squaws done their work–passed unsuspectingly over the wiped-out trail, circled at fault on the far side of the rocky gulch for an hour or so and then found the false trail just as the Indian decoys had intended that they should do. And from a farther flat topped ridge a group of Indians with Dutch hair-cuts and Stetson hats and moccasins (the two hall-marks of two races) watched them take the false trail, and looked at one another and grinned sourly.

The false trail forked, showing that the six had separated into two parties of three riders, each aiming to pass–so the hoofprints would lead one to believe–around the two ends of a lone hill that sat squarely down on the mesa like a stone treasure chest dropped there by the gods when the world was young.

The Happy Family drew rein and eyed the parting of the ways dubiously.

“Wonder what they did that for?” Andy Green grumbled, mopping his red face irritatedly. “We’ve got trouble enough without having them split up on us.”

“From the looks, I should say we’re overhauling the bunch,” Luck hazarded. “They maybe met on the other side of this butte somewhere. And the tracks were made early this morning, I should say. How about it, Applehead?”

“Well, they look fresher ‘n what we bin follerin’ before,” Applehead admitted. “But I don’t like this here move uh theirn, and I’m tellin’ yuh so. The way–“

“I don’t like anything about ’em,” snapped Luck, standing in his stirrups as though that extra three inches would let him see over the hill. “And I don’t like this tagging along behind, either. You take your boys and follow those tracks to the right, Applehead. I and my bunch will go this other way. And RIDE! We can’t be so awfully much behind. If they meet, we’ll meet where they do. If they scatter, we’ll have to scatter too, I reckon. But get’em is the word, boys!”

“And where,” asked Applehead with heavy irony, while he pulled at his mustache, “do yuh calc’late we’ll git t’gether agin if we go scatterin’ out?”

Luck looked at him and smiled his smile. “We aren’t any of us tenderfeet, exactly,” he said calmly. “We’ll meet at the jail when we bring in our men, if we don’t meet anywhere else this side. But if you land your men, come back to that camp where we lost the horses. That’s one, place we KNOW has got grass and water both. If you come and don’t see any sign of us, wait a day before you start back to town. We’ll do the same. And leave a note anchored in the crack of that big bowlder by the spring, telling the news. We’ll do the same if we get there first and don’t wait for you.” He hesitated, betraying that even in his eagerness he too dreaded the parting of the ways. “Well, so long, boys–take care of yourselves.”

“Well, now, I ain’t so dang shore–” Applehead began querulously.

But Luck only grinned and waved his hand as he led the way to the south on the trail that obviously had skirted the side of the square butte. The four who went with him looked back and waved non-committal adieu; and Big Medicine, once he was fairly away, shouted back to them to look out for Navvies, and