Produced by Pat Pflieger. HTML version by Al Haines.
John Breckenridge Ellis
I THE TOUCH OF A CHILD
II BRICK MAKES A MOVE
IV AN UNWONTED PRAYER
V A NEW ROBINSON CRUSOE
VI A MYSTERIOUS GUEST
VII RED FEATHER
VIII GETTING CIVILIZED
IX A YOUNG MAN'S FANCY
X THE FLAG OF TRUCE
XI THE HALF-OPENED BUD
XII THE BIG WORLD
XIII A SURE-ENOUGH MAN
XIV WRITING HOME
XV THE DAY OF FENCES
XVI THE ONYX PIN
XVII BRICK MAKES A STAND
XVIII LIFE ON ONE CONDITION
XIX LIKE LOVERS
XXI THE NORTHER
XXII JOURNEY'S END
XXIII FACING THE MOB
XXIV MINE ENEMY
XXV GLEDWARE'S POSSESSIONS
XXVI JUST A HABIT
THE TOUCH OF A CHILD
"I have given my word of honor - my sacred oath - not to betray what I
have discovered here."
At these words from the prisoner, a shout arose in which oaths and
mocking laughter mingled like the growling and snapping of
"Then if I must die," Gledware cried, his voice, in its shrill
excitement, dominating the ferocious insults of the ruffians, "don't
kill the child - you see she is asleep - and she's so young - only five.
Even if she were awake, she wouldn't know how to tell about this cabin.
For God's sake, don't kill the little girl!"
Since the seizure of Gledware, the child had been lying on the rude
table in the midst of a greasy pack of cards - cards that had been
thrown down at the sound of his galloping horse. The table supported,
also, much of the booty captured from the wagon-train, while on the
dirt floor beside it were prizes of the freebooting expedition, too
large to find resting-place on the boards. Nor was this all. Mingled
with stolen garments, cans and boxes of provisions, purses and bags of
gold, were the Indian disguises in which the highwaymen from No-Man's
Land had descended on the prairie-schooners on their tedious journey
from Abilene, Kansas, toward the Southwest.
In the midst of this confusion of disguises, booty and playing-cards,
surrounded by cruel and sensual faces, the child slept soundly, her
lips slightly parted, her cheeks delicately flushed, her face eloquent
in its appeal of helplessness, innocence and beauty. One of the band,
a tall broad-shouldered man of middle-age, with an immense quantity of
whiskers perhaps worn as a visible sign of inward wildness, was,
despite his hardened nature, moved to remonstrance. Under cover of
lurid oaths and outrageous obscenity, he advanced his opinion that "the
kid" needn't be shot just because her father was a sneak-jug spy.
"Shut up!" roared a tremendous voice, not directly to the intercessor,
or to the prisoner, but to all present. Evidently it was a voice of
authority, for comparative silence followed the command. The speaker
stepped forward, thrust his fingers through his intensely red shock of
hair, and continued, with one leg thrust forward:
"You know I am something of an orator, or I guess you wouldn't of made
me your leader. Now, as long as I'm your leader, I'm going to lead;
but, I ain't never unreasonable, and when talk is needed, I'm copious
enough. I am called 'Red Kimball,' and my brother yonder, he is knowed
as 'Kansas Kimball.' What else is knowed of us is this: that we
wasn't never wont to turn loose a spy when once ketched. Here is a man
who says he is Henry Gledware - though God knows if that's so; he comes
galloping up to the door just as we are in the midst of a game. I
stakes all my share of the spoils on the game, and Brick Willock is in
a fair way to win it, that I admit, but in comes this here spy - "
The prisoner in a frenzied voice disclaimed any purpose of spying. That
morning, he had driven the last wagon of the train, containing his
invalid wife and his stepdaughter - for the child lying on the table was
his wife's daughter. At the alarm that the first wagon had been
attacked by Indians, he had turned about his horses and driven
furiously over the prairie, he knew not whither. All that day he had
fled, seeing no one, hearing no pursuing horse-beat. At night his
wife, unable, in her weak condition, to sustain the terrible jolting,
had expired. Taking nothing from the wagon but his saddle, he had
mounted one of the horses with the child before him, and had continued
his flight, the terrific wind at his back. Unaware that the wind had
changed, he had traversed horseback much of the distance traveled
during the day, and at about two in the morning - that is to say, about
all hour ago - seeing a light, he had ridden straight toward it, to find
shelter from the storm.
The prisoner narrated all this in nervous haste, though he had already
given every particular, time and again. His form as well as his voice
trembled with undisguised terror, and indeed, the red and cruel eyes
fastened contemptuously on him might have caused a much braver man than
Gledware to shudder visibly.
"Well, pard," said the leader of the band, waiting until he had
finished, "you can't never claim that you ain't been given your say,
for I do admire free speech. I want to address you reasonable, and
make this plain and simple, as only a man that has been alleged to be
something of an orator can accomplish. My men and me has had our
conference, and it's decided that both of you has got to be shot, and
immediate. The reasons is none but what a sensible man must admit, and
such I take you to be. I am sorry this has happened, and so is my men,
and we wish you well. It's a hard saying, pard, but whatever your
intentions, a spy you have proved. For what do you find on busting
open our door? Here we sit playing with our booty for stakes, and our
Indian togs lying all about. You couldn't help knowing that we was the
'Indians' that gutted them wagons and put up the fight that left every
man and woman dead on the field except that there last wagon you are
telling us about. You might wish you didn't know the same, but once
knowed, we ain't going to let you loose. As to that wagon you claim to
have stole away from under our very noses - "
A skeptical laugh burst from the listeners.
Gledware eagerly declared that if he had the remotest idea in what
direction it had been left, he would be glad to lead them to the spot.
He could describe it and its contents -
"You see, pard," Red Kimball interposed, "you are everlasting losing
sight of the point. This here is 1880, which I may say is a recent
date. Time was when a fellow could live in Cimarron, and come and go
free and no questions asked - and none answered. But civilization is
a-pressing us hard, and these days is not our fathers' days. We are
pretty independent even yet in old Cimarron, but busybodies has got
together trying to make it a regular United States territory, and they
ain't going to stand for a real out-and-out band of highwaymen such as
used to levy on stage-coaches and wagon-trains without exciting no more
remarks than the buffaloes. You may be sorry times is changed; so am
I; but if times IS fresh, we might as well look 'em in the face. Us
fellows has been operating for some years, but whatever we do is blamed
on the Indians. That there is a secret that would ruin our business,
if it got out. Tomorrow, a gang of white men will be depredating in
the Washita country to get revenge for today's massacre, and me and my
men couldn't join in the fun with easy consciences if we knowed you was
somewheres loose, to tell your story."
Again Gledware protested that he would never betray the band.
"Oh, cut this short," interposed Kansas Kimball, with an oath.
"Daylight will catch us and nothing done, if we listen to that
white-livered spy. We don't believe in that wagon he talks about, and
as for this kid, he brought her along just to save his bacon."
"No, as God lives!" cried Gledware. "Can't you see she is dead for
sleep? She was terrified out of her wits all day, and I've ridden with
her all night. Don't kill her, men - " He turned impassioned eyes on
the leader. "Look at her - so young - so unsuspecting - you can't have
the heart to murder a child like that in cold blood."
"Right you are!" exclaimed the man with the ferocious whiskers - he who
had been spoken of as Brick Willock. "You'll have to go, pard, but I'm
against killing infants."
The leader darted an angry glance at the man who, but for the untoward
arrival of Gledware, would have won from him his share of the booty.
But his voice was smooth and pleasant as he resumed: "Yes, pard, the
kid must die. We couldn't do nothing with her, and if we left her on
some door-step, she's sure old enough, and she looks full sharp enough,
to tell sufficient to trammel us good and plenty. If we sets her loose
in the prairie, she'd starve to death if not found - and if found, it
would settle our case. And as Kansas says, this debate must close, or
daylight will catch us."
Brick Willock, with terrible oaths, again expressed himself as strongly
opposed to this decision.
"Well, Brick," said Red, with a sneer, "do YOU want to take the kid and
raise her, yourself? We've either got to do away with her, or keep her
hid. Do YOU want to be her nurse, and keep with her in some cave or
other while we go foraging?"
Willock muttered deep in his throat, while his companions laughed
"We've had enough of this!" Red declared, his voice suddenly grown hard
and cold. "Kansas, take the prisoner; Brick Willock, as you're so fond
of the kid, you can carry HER." He opened the door and a rush of wind
extinguished the candle. There was silence while it was being
relighted. The flickering light, reddening to a steady glow, revealed
no mercy on the scowling countenances about the table, and no shadow of
presentiment on that of the still unconscious child.
Red went outside and waited till his brother had drawn forth the
quivering man, and Brick Willock had carried out the girl. Then he
looked back into the room. "You fellows can stay in here," he said
authoritatively. "What we've got to do ain't any easier with a lot of
men standing about, looking on."
The man who had relighted the candle, and who crouched to shield it
with a hairy hand from the gust, nodded approval. His friends were
already gathering together the cards to lose in the excitement of
gambling consciousness of what was about to be done. Red closed the
door on the scene, and turned to face the light.
The wind came in furious gusts, with brief intervals of calm. There
were no clouds, however, and the moon, which had risen not long before,
made the prairie almost as light as if morning had dawned. As far as
the eye could reach in any direction, nothing was to be seen but the
level ground, the unflecked sky, the cabin and the little group near
the tethered ponies.
Gledware had already been stationed with his face toward the moon, and
Kansas Kimball was calmly examining his pistol. Between them and the
horses, Brick Willock had come to a halt, the little girl still
sleeping in his powerful arms. Red's eagle eye noted that she had
unconsciously slipped an arm about the highwayman's neck, as if by some
instinct she would cling the closer to the only one in the band of ten
who had spoken for her life.
Red scowled heavily. He had not forgiven Willock for beating him at
cards, still less for his persistent opposition to his wishes; and he
now resolved that it should be Willock's hand to deal the fatal blow.
He had been troubled before tonight by insubordination on the part of
this man of bristling whiskers, this knave whose voice was ever for
mercy, if mercy were possible. Why should Willock have joined men who
were without scruple and without shame? As the leader stared at him
sullenly, he reflected that it was just such natures that fail at the
last extremity of hardihood, that desert comrades in crime, that turn
state's evidence. Yes - Willock would deal the blow, even if Red found
it necessary to call all his men from the cabin to enforce the order.
The captain's fears were not groundless. He would have been much more
alarmed, could he have known the wonderful thoughts that surged through
Willock's brain, and the wonderful emotions that thrilled his heart, at
the warm confiding pressure of the arm about his neck.
BRICK MAKES A MOVE
As Kansas Kimball raised his weapon to fire, the man before him uttered
a cry of terror and began to entreat for his life. In the full light
of the dazzling moon, his face showed all the pallor, all the
contortions of a coward who, though believing himself lost, has not the
resolution to mask his fear. He poured forth incoherent promises of
secrecy, ejaculations of despair and frenzied assurances of innocence.
"Hold on, Kansas!" interposed Red. "There's not a one of the bunch
believes that story about the last wagon getting away, and the dying
wife. We know this Gledware is a spy, whatever he says, and that he
brought the kid along for protection. He knew if we got back to
No-Man's Land we couldn't be touched, not being under no jurisdiction,
and he wanted to find us with our paint and feathers off. He's a
sneaking dog, and a bullet's too good for him. But - with an
oath - blessed if he don't hate to die worse than any man ever I saw! I
don't mind to spare him a few minutes if he's agreeable. I put it to
him - would he rather the kid be put out of the way first, and him
afterwards, or does he want the first call?"
"For God's sake, put it off as long as you will!" quavered the
prisoner. "I swear I'm no spy. I swear - "
"This is unpleasant," the captain of the highwaymen interposed. "Just
you say another word, and I'll put daylight into you with my own hand.
Stand there and keep mum, and I'll give you a little breathing space."
Kansas, not without a sigh of relief, lowered his weapon and looked
questioningly at his brother. The shadow of the log cabin was upon
him, making more sinister his uncouth attire, and his lean vindictive
face under the huge Mexican hat. Gledware, not daring to move, kept
his eyes fixed on that deep gloom out of which at any moment might
spurt forth the red flash of death. From within the cabin came loud
oaths inspired by cards or drink, as if the inmates would drown any
calls for mercy or sounds of execution that might be abroad in the
"Now, Brick Willock," the leader spoke grimly, "take your turn first.
That kid's got to die, and you are to do the trick, and do it without
"I can't," Willock declared doggedly.
"Oh, yes; yes, you can, Brick. You see, we can't 'tend to no infant
class, and I ain't hard-hearted enough to leave a five-year-old girl to
die of hunger on the prairie; nor do I mean to take her to no town or
stage-station as a card for to be tracked by. Oh, yes, you can, Brick,
and now's the time."
"Red," exclaimed Willock desperately, "I tell you fair, and I tell you
foul, that this little one lives as long as I do."
"And what do you aim to do with her, eh, Brick?"
Willock made no reply. He had formed no plans for his future, or for
that of the child; but his left arm closed more tightly about her.
"Now, Brick," said Red slowly, "this ain't the first time you have
proved yourself no man for our business, and I call Kansas to witness
you've brought this on yourself - "
Without finishing his sentence, Red swiftly raised his arm and fired
pointblank at Willock's head as it was defined above the sleeping form.
Though famed as an orator, Red understood very well that, at times,
action is everything, and there is death in long speaking. He was noted
as a man who never missed his mark; and in the Cimarron country, which
belonged to no state and therefore to no court, extensive and deadly
had been his practise, without fear of retribution.
Now, however, his bullet had gone astray. The few words to which he
had treated himself as an introduction to the intended deed had proved
his undoing. They had been enough to warn Willock of what was coming;
and just before Kansas had been called on "to witness," that is an
instant before Red fired, Willock had sent a bullet through the
threatening wrist. The two detonations were almost simultaneous, and
Red's roar of pain, as he dropped his weapon, rang out as an
accompaniment to the crash of firearms.
The next instant, Willock, with a second shot from his six-shooter,
stretched Kansas on the ground; then, rushing forward with reversed
weapon, he brought the butt down on Red's head with such force as to
deprive him of consciousness. So swift and deadly were his movements,
so wild his appearance as, with long locks streaming in the wind and
huge black whiskers hiding all but glittering eyes, aquiline nose and a
brief space of tough red skin - so much more like a demon than a man, it
was no wonder that the child, awakened by the firing, screamed with
terror at finding her head pressed to his bosom.
"Come!" Willock called breathlessly to the prisoner who still stood
with his back to the moon, as if horror at what he had just witnessed
rendered him as helpless as he had been from sheer terror. Still
holding the screaming child, he darted to the ponies that were tied to
the projecting logs of the cabin and hastily unfastened two of the
Henry Gledware, awakened as from a trance, bounded to his side. Willock
helped him to mount, then placed the child the saddle in front of him.
"Ride!" he urged hoarsely, "ride for your life! They ain't no other
chance for you and the kid and they ain't no other chance for me."
He leaped upon the second pony.
"Which way?" faltered Gledware, settling in the saddle and grasping the
bridle, but without the other's practised ease.
"Follow the moon - I'll ride against the wind - more chance for one of us
if we ain't together. Start when I do, for when they hear the horses
they'll be out of that door like so many devils turned loose on us.
Ride, pardner, ride, and save the kid for God's sake! Now - off we go!"
He gave Gledware's pony a vicious cut with his lariat, and drove the
spurs into his own broncho. The thunder of hoofs as they plunged in
different directions, caused a sudden commotion within the isolated
cabin. The door was flung open, and in the light that streamed forth,
Willock, looking back, saw dark forms rush out, gather about the
prostrate forms of the two brothers, move here and there in indecision,
then, by a common impulse, burst into a swinging run for the horses.
As for Gledware, he never once turned his face. Urging on his horse at
utmost speed, and clasping the child to his breast, he raced toward the
light. The shadow of horse, man and child, at first long and black,
lessened to a mere speck, then vanished with the rider beyond the
circle of the level world.
Brick Willock, galloping toward the Southeast, frequently looked back.
He saw the desperadoes leap upon their horses, wheel about in short
circles that brought the animals upright, then spring forward in
pursuit. He heard the shouting which, though far away, sounded the
unmistakable accent of ungovernable fury. In the glaring moonlight, he
distinguished plainly the cloud of dust and sand raised by the horses,
which the wind lifted in white shapes against the deep blue of the sky.
And looking beyond his pursuers toward the rude cabin where the
highwaymen had so long held their rendezvous, he knew, because no
animate forms appeared against the horizon, that the Kimball brothers
lay where he had stretched them - one, senseless from the crashing blow
on his head, the other, lifeless from the bullet in his breast.
The little girl and her stepfather had vanished from the smooth open
page of the Texas Panhandle - and Brick Willock rejoiced, with a joy new
to him, that these escaped prisoners had not been pursued. It was
himself that the band meant to subject to their savage vengeance, and
himself alone. The murder of the child was abhorrent to their hearts
which had not attained the hardened insensibility of their leader's
conscience, and they were willing for the supposed spy to escape, since
it spared them the embarrassment of disposing of the little girl.
But Brick Willock had been one of them and he had killed their leader,
and their leader's brother, or at least had brought them to the verge
of death. If Red Kimball revived, he would doubtless right his own
wrongs, should Willock live to be punished. In the meantime, it was
for them to treat with the traitor - this giant of a Texan,
huge-whiskered, slow of speech, who had ever been first to throw
himself into the thick of danger but who had always hung back from
deeds of cruelty. He had plundered coaches and wagon-trains with them,
he had fought with them against strong bodies of emigrants, he had
killed and burned - in the eyes of the world his deeds made him one of
them, and his aspect marked him as the most dangerous of the band. But
they had always felt the difference - and now they meant to kill him not
only because he had overpowered their leader but because of this
As their bullets pursued him, Willock lay along the body of the
broncho, feeling his steed very small, and himself very large - and yet,
despite the rain of lead, his pleasure over the escape of the child
warmed his heart. The sand was plowed up by his side from the
peppering of bullets - but he seemed to feel that innocent unconscious
arm about his great neck; the yells of rage were in his ears, but he
heard the soft breathing of the little one fast asleep in the midst of
He had selected for himself, and for Gledware, ponies that had often
been run against each other, and which no others of all Red Kimball's
corral could surpass in speed. Gledware and the child were on the pony
that Kimball had once staked against the swiftest animal the Indians
could produce - and Willock rode the pride of the Indian band, which had
almost won the prize. The ponies had been staked on the issue of that
encounter - and the highwaymen had retained, by right of craft and
force, what the government would not permit its wards to barter or sell.
The race was long but always unequal. The ruffians who had dashed from
the scene of the cabin almost in an even line, scattered and straggled
unevenly; now only two were able to send bullets whistling about
Willock's head; now only one found it possible to cover the distance.
At last even he fell out of range. The Indian pony, apparently
tireless, shot on like an arrow driven into the teeth of the wind,
sending up behind a cloud of dust that stretched backward toward the
baffled pursuers, a long wavering ribbon like a clew left to guide the
band into the mysterious depths of the Great American Desert.
When the last of the pursuers found further effort useless, he checked
his horse. Willock now sat erect on the broncho's bare back, lightly
clasping the halter. Looking behind, he saw seven horsemen in varying
degrees of remoteness, motionless, doubtless fixing their wolfish eyes
on his fleeing form. As long as he could distinguish these specks
against the sky, they remained stationary. To his excited imagination
they represented a living wall drawn up between him and the abode of
men. Should he ever venture back to that world, he fancied those seven
avengers would be waiting to receive him with taunts and drawn weapons.
And his conscience told him that the taunts would be merited, for he
had turned traitor, he had failed in the only virtue on which his
fellow criminals prided themselves. Yes, he was a traitor; and by the
only justice he acknowledged, he deserved to die. But the child who
had lain so trustingly upon his wild bosom, who had clung to him as to
a father - she was safe! An unwonted smile crept under the bristling
beard of the fugitive, as he urged the pony forward in unrelaxing
speed. Should he seek refuge among civilized communities, his crimes
would hang over his head - if not discovered, the fear of discovery
would be his, day and night. To venture into his old haunts in
No-Man's Land would be to expose his back to the assassin's knife, or
his breast to ambushed murderers. He dared not seek asylum among the
Indians, for while bands of white men were safe enough in the
Territory, single white men were at the mercy of the moment's
caprice - and certainly, if found astride that Indian pony which the
agent had ordered restored to its owner, his life would not be worth a