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thought.

These were desperate reflections, and the future seemed framed in
solitude, yet Brick Willock rode on with that odd smile about the grim
lips. The smile was unlike him - but, the whole affair was such an
experience as had never entered his most daring fancy. Never before in
his life had he held a child in his arms, still less had he felt the
sweet embrace of peaceful slumber. To another man it might have meant
nothing; but to this great rough fellow, the very sight of whom had
often struck terror to the heart, that experience seemed worth all the
privations he foresaw.

The sun had risen when the pony, after a few tottering steps, suddenly
sank to earth. Willock unfastened the halter from its neck, tied it
with the lariat about his waist, and without pause, set out afoot. If
the pony died from the terrible strain of that unremitting flight,
doubtless the roving Indians of the plains would find it and try to
follow his trail; if it survived he would be safer if not found near
it. In either case, swift flight was still imperative, and the
shifting sand, beaten out of shape by the constant wind, promised not
to retain his footprints.

Though stiff from long riding, the change of motion soon brought
renewed vigor. Willock had grown thirsty, and as the sun rose higher
and beat down on him from an unclouded sky, his eyes searched the
plains eagerly for some shelter that promised water. He did not look
in vain. Against the horizon rose the low blue shapes of the Wichita
Mountains, looking at first like flat sheets of cardboard, cut out by a
careless hand and set upright in the sand.

As he toiled toward this refuge, not a living form appeared to dispute
his sovereignty of the desert world. His feet sank deep in the sand,
then trod lightly over vast stretches of short sun-burned mesquit, then
again traversed hot shifting reaches of naked sand. The mountains
seemed to recede as he advanced, and at times stifling dust and
relentless heat threatened to overpower him. With dogged determination
he told himself that he might be forced to drop from utter exhaustion,
but it would not be yet - not yet - one more mile, or, at least, another
half-mile. So he advanced, growing weaker, breathing with more
difficulty, but still muttering, "Not yet - not just yet!"

The mountains had begun to spread apart. There were long ranges and
short. Here and there, a form that had seemed an integral part of some
range, defined itself as distinct from all others, lying like an island
of rock in a sea of unbroken desert. Willock was approaching the
Wichita Mountains from their southwestern extremity. As far as he could
see in one direction, the grotesque forms stretched in isolated chains
or single groups; but in the other, the end was reached, and beyond lay
the unbroken waste of the Panhandle.

Swaying on his great legs as with the weakness of an infant, he was now
very near the end of the system. A wall of granite, sparsely dotted
with green, rose above him to a height of about three hundred and fifty
feet. The length of this range was perhaps six miles, its thickness a
mile. Concealed among these ridges, he might be safe, but it was no
longer possible for him to stand erect; to climb the difficult ledges
would be impossible.

He sank to the ground, his eyes red and dimmed. For some time he
remained there inert, staring, his brain refusing to work. If yonder
stood a white object, between him and the mountain, a curious white
something with wheels, might it not be a covered wagon? No, it was a
mirage. But was it possible for a mirage to deceive him into the fancy
that a wagon stood only a few hundred feet away? Perhaps it was really
a wagon. He stared stupidly, not moving. There were no dream-horses to
this ghost-wagon. There was no sign of life. If captured by the
Indians, it would not have been left intact. But how came a wagon into
this barren world?

He stared up at the sun as if to assure himself that he was awake, then
laughed hoarsely, foolishly. The wagon did not melt away. He could
crawl that far, though in stretching forth his arm he might grasp but
empty air. He began to crawl forward, but the wagon did not move. As
it grew plainer in all its details, a new strength came to him. He
strove to rise, and after several efforts, succeeded. He staggered
forward till his hands grasped one of the wheels. The contact cleared
his brain as by a magic touch. It was no dream.

Supporting himself by the sideboard, he drew himself around to the
front, the only opening of the canvas room. He looked within. A first
look told him that the wagon was fitted up for a long journey, and that
its contents had not been disturbed by bandits or Indians. The second
look distinguished two objects that excluded from attention all others.
Upon a mattress at the rear of the wagon lay a woman, her face covered
by a cloth; and near the front seat stood a keg of water. It was
impossible to note the rigid form of the woman and the position of the
arms and hands without perceiving that she was dead.

The man recognized this truth but it made only a dim impression; that
keg of water meant life - and life was a thousandfold more to him than
death. He drew himself upon the seat, snatched at the tin cup beside
the keg, and drew out the cloth-covered corn-cob that stopped the flow.
Having slaked his thirst, there was mingled with his sense of ineffable
content, an overwhelming desire for sleep. He dropped on the second
mattress, on which bedclothes were carelessly strewn; his head found
the empty pillow that lay indented as it had been left by some vanished
sleeper. As his eyelids closed, he fell sound asleep. But for the
rising and falling of his powerful breast, he was as motionless as the
body of the woman.

Without, the afternoon sun slowly sank behind the mountains casting
long shadows over the plains; the wind swirled the sand in tireless
eddies, sometimes lifting it high in great sheets, forming sudden
dunes; coyotes prowled among the foot-hills and out on the open levels,
squatting with eyes fixed on the wagon, uttering sharp quick barks of
interrogation. A herd of deer lifted their horns against the horizon,
then suddenly bounded away, racing like shadows toward the lowlands of
Red River. On the domelike summit of Mount Welsh, a mile away, a
mountain-lion showed his sinuous form against the sky seven hundred
feet in air. And from the mountainside near at hand stared from among
the thick greenery of a cedar, the face of an Indian whose black hair
was adorned by a single red feather.

Within the wagon, unconscious of all, in strange fellowship, lay the
living and the dead.



CHAPTER IV

AN UNWONTED PRAYER

When Willock started up from the mattress in the covered wagon, the sun
had set. Every object, however, was clearly defined in the first glow
of the long August twilight, and it needed but a glance to recall the
events that had brought him to seek shelter and slumber beside the dead
woman. He sat up suddenly, staring from under his long black hair as
it fell about his eyes. Accustomed as he was to deeds of violence, even
to the sight of men weltering in their life's blood, he was strangely
moved by that rigid form with the thin arms folded over the breast, by
that white cloth concealing face and hair. A long keen examination of
the prairie assured him that no human being was between him and the
horizon. He turned again toward the woman. He felt an overpowering
desire to look on her face.

For years there had been no women in his world but the abandoned
creatures who sought shelter in the resorts of Beer City in No-Man's
Land - these, and the squaws of the reservations, and occasionally a
white terrified face among the wagon-trains. As a boy, before running
away from home in the Middle West, he had known a different order of
beings, and some instinct told him that this woman belonged to the
class of his childhood's association. There was imperative need of his
hurrying to the mountain, lest, at any moment, a roving band of Indians
discover the abandoned wagon; besides this, he was very hungry since
his rest, and the wagon was stocked with provisions; nevertheless, to
look on the face of the dead was his absorbing desire.

But it was not easy for him to yield to his curiosity, despite his life
of crime. Something about the majestic repose of that form seemed to
add awe to the mystery of sex; and he crouched staring at the cloth
which no breath stirred save the breath of evening.

He believed, now, the story that Henry Gledware had reiterated in
accents of abject terror. Surely this was the "last wagon" in that
train which Red Kimball had attacked the morning before. Impossible as
it had seemed to the highwaymen, Gledware must have been warned of the
attack in time to turn about and lash his horses out of danger of
discovery. At this spot, Gledware had cut loose the horses, mounted one
with his stepdaughter, leaving the other to go at will. This, then,
was the mother of that child whose arm had lain in warm confidence
about his neck. On hands and knees, Willock crept to the other mattress
and lifted the margin of the large white cloth.

His hand moved stealthily, slowly. Catching sight of something that
faintly gleamed at the collar of the dress, he hesitated; his
determination to examine the countenance was as firm as ever, but his
impulse to put it off as long as possible was even stronger. He bent
down to look closer at the ornament; it was a round breastpin of onyx
and pearl set in a heavy rim of gold. The warm wind, tempered by
approaching night to a grateful balminess, stirred the cloth between
his fingers. He stared as if lost in profound meditation. That pin
resembled one his mother used to wear; and, somehow, the soothing touch
of the wind reminded him of her hand on his forehead. He might have
gone back home, if she had not died long ago. Now, in spite of the
many years that had passed over her grave, the memory of her came as
strong, as sweet, as instinct with the fullness of life, as, if he were
suddenly wafted back into boyhood.

He did not lift the cloth, after all, but having replaced it gently, he
searched the wagon for a spade. It was found in the box fastened to the
end of the wagon, and with the spade, in the gathering darkness, he dug
a grave near the mountainside. Between the strokes of the blade he sent
searching glances over the prairie and along the sloping ridges of the
overlooking range, but there were no witnesses of his work save the
coyotes that prowled like gray shadows across the sands. When the
grave was ready he carried thither in his giant's arms the body of the
woman on the mattress, and laid it thus to rest. When the sand was
smoothed over the place, he carried thither quantities of heavy stones,
and broken blocks of granite, to preserve the body from wild beasts.

It was dark when the heap of stones had been arranged in the form of a
low pyramid, but though he had not tasted food for twenty-four hours,
he lingered beside the grave, his head bent as if still struggling with
those unwonted memories of the long ago. At last, as if forced by a
mysterious power against which he could no longer resist, he sank upon
his knees.

"O God," he prayed aloud, "take care of the little girl."

He waited, but no more words would come - no other thought. He rose,
feeling strangely elated, as if some great good fortune had suddenly
come into his possession. It had been like this when the sleeping
child lay in his arms; he could almost feel her little cheek against
his bosom, and hear the soft music of her breathing.

He went back to the wagon and sat on the tongue, still oblivious to any
possible danger of surprise. He spoke aloud, for company:

"She wouldn't have wanted me to look at her - she couldn't have looked
natural. Glad I didn't. Great Scott! but that was a first-rate
prayer! Wouldn't have thought after thirty years I could have done so
well. And it was all there, everything was in them words! If she knew
what I was doing, she couldn't have asked nothing more, for I reckon
she wouldn't expect a man like ME to ask no favors for that
white-livered cowardly second-husband of hers. I put in all my plea for
the little girl. Dinged if I understand how I come to be so
intelligent and handy at what's all new business to me! I just says,
'O God, take care of the little girl,' - just them words." He rose with
an air of great content and went around to the front in search of
provisions. Presently he spoke aloud:

"And as I ain't asked nothing for myself since I run off from home I
guess God won't mind putting the little girl on my expense-account."



CHAPTER V

A NEW ROBINSON CRUSOE

It came over him with disconcerting suddenness that he had lost a great
deal of time, and that every moment spent in the covered wagon was
fraught with imminent danger. It was not in his mind that the hand of
highwaymen might discover his hiding-place. Knowing them as he did, he
was sure they would not come so far from their haunts or from the Sante
Fe train in pursuit of him. But the Indians roamed the Panhandle, as
much at home there as in their reservations - and here they were much
more dangerous. Had no savage eye discerned that wagon during the
brilliant August day? Might it be that even while he slept at the feet
of the dead woman, a feathered head had slipped under the canvas side,
a red face had bent over him?

It was a disquieting fancy. Willock told himself that, had such been
the case, his scalp-lock would not still adorn his own person; for all
that, he was eager to be gone. Instead of eating in the wagon, he
wrapped up some food in a bread-cloth, placed this with a few other
articles in a tarpaulin - among them, powder and shot - and, having
lifted the keg of water to one shoulder, and the rope-bound tarpaulin
to the other, he left the wagon with a loaded gun in his hand.

Twilight had faded to starlight and the mountain range stood blackly
defined against the glittering stars. It was easy to find his way, for
on the level sands there were no impediments, and when the mountain was
reached, a low divide offered him easy passage up the ascent. For the
most part the slopes were gradual and in steeper places, ledges of
granite, somewhat like giant stairs, assisted him to the highest ridge.
From this vantage-point he could see the level plain stretching away on
the farther side; he could count the ridges running parallel to the one
on which he had paused, and note the troughs between, which never
descended to the level ground to deserve the name of valleys. Looking
down upon this tortured mass of granite, he seemed gazing over a
petrified sea that, in the fury of a storm, had been caught at the
highest dashing of its waves, and fixed in threatening motion which
throughout the ages would remain as calm and secure as the level waste
that stretched from the abrupt walls in every direction.

On that first ridge he paused but a moment, lest his figure be outlined
against the night for the keen gaze of some hidden foe. Steadying the
keg with one hand and holding his gun alert, he descended into the
first trough and climbed to the next ridge, meaning to traverse the
mile of broken surface, thus setting a granite wall between him and the
telltale wagon. The second ridge was not so high as the outer wall,
and he paused here, feeling more secure. The ground was fairly level
for perhaps fifty yards before its descent to the next rolling
depression where the shadows lay in unrelieved gloom. On the crest,
about him, the dim light defined broken boulders and great blocks of
granite in grotesque forms, some suggesting fantastic monsters, others,
in sharp-cut or rounded forms seemingly dressed by Cyclopean chisels.

The fugitive was not interested in the dimly defined shapes about him;
his attention had been attracted by a crevice in the smooth rock ledge
at his feet. This ledge, barren of vegetation, and as level as a slab
of rough marble, showed a long black line like a crack in a stone
pavement. At the man's feet the crevice was perhaps two feet wide, but
as it stretched toward the west it narrowed gradually, and disappeared
under a mass of disorganized stones, as a mere slit in the surface.

Presently he set the keg and the tarpaulin-ball on the ground, not to
rest his shoulders, but in order to sink on his knees beside the
crevice. He put his face down over it, listening, peering, but making
no discovery. Then he unwound the lariat from about his waist, tied it
to the rope that had been a halter, and having fastened a stone to one
end, lowered it into the black space. The length of the lariat slipped
through his fingers and the rope was following when suddenly the rock
found lodgment at the bottom. On making this discovery he drew up the
lariat, opened the cloth containing the food, and began to eat rapidly
and with evident excitement. He did not fail to watch on all sides as
he enjoyed his long delayed meal, and while he ate and thus watched, he
thought rapidly. When the first cravings of appetite were partly
satisfied, he left his baker's bread and bacon on a stone, tied up the
rest of the food in its cloth, rolled this in the tarpaulin, and
lowered it by means of the lariat into the crevice. Then, having tied
the end of the rope to the gun-barrel, he placed the gun across the
crevice and swung himself down into the gloom.

The walls of the crevice were so close together that he was able to
steady his knees against them, but as he neared the bottom they widened
perceptibly. His first act on setting foot to the stone flooring was
to open the tarpaulin, draw forth a candle and a box of matches, and
strike a light. The chamber of granite in which he stood was indeed
narrow, but full of interest and romance. The floor was about the same
width in all its length, wide enough for Willock, tall as he was, to
stretch across the passage. It extended perhaps a hundred feet into
the heart of the rock, showing the same smooth walls on either side.
The ceiling, however, was varied, as the outward examination had
promised. Overhead the stars were seen at ease through the two feet of
space at the top; but as he carried his candle forward, this opening
decreased, to be succeeded presently by a roof, at first of jumbled
stones crushed together by outward weight, then of a smooth red surface
extending to the end.

The floor was the same everywhere save at its extremities. At the
point of Willock's descent, it dipped away in a narrow line that would
not have admitted a man's body. At the other end, where he now stood,
it suddenly gave way to empty space. It came to an end so abruptly
that there was no means of discovering how deep was the narrow abyss
beyond. Possibly it descended a sheer three hundred feet, the depth of
the ridge at that place. On the smooth floor which melted to
nothingness with such sinister and startling suddenness, the
candlelight revealed the skeleton of a man lying at the margin of the
unknown depths. Mingled with the bones that had fallen apart with the
passing of centuries, was a drawn sword of blackened hilt and rusted
blade - a sword of old Spanish make - and in the dust of a rotted purse
lay a small heap of gold coins of strange design.

"Well, pard," said Brick Willock grimly, "you come here first and much
obliged to you. You've told me two things: that once in here, no
getting out - unless you bring along your ladder; and what's better
still, nobody has been here since you come, or that wouldn't be my
money! And now having told me all you got to say, my cavalier, I guess
we'd better part." He raked the bones into a heap, and dashed them
into the black gulf. He did not hear them when they struck bottom, and
the sinister silence gave him an odd thrill. He shook his head. "If I
ever roll out of bed here," he said, "me and you will spend the rest of
the time together, pardner."

He did not linger for idle speculation, but drew himself up his
dangling rope, and in a short time was once more outside the place of
refuge. Always on the lookout for possible watchers, he snatched up
his bread and meat, and ate as he hastened over the outer ridge and
down the rugged side toward the wagon. Here he filled a box with
canned provisions and a side of bacon, and on top of this he secured a
sack of flour. It made a heavy burden, but his long sleep had restored
him to his wonted strength, and he could not be sure but this trip to
the wagon would be his last. With some difficulty he hoisted the box
to his herculean shoulder, and grasping a spade and an ax in his
disengaged hand, toiled upward to his asylum.

When the crevice in the mountain-top was reached, he threw the contents
of the box down into the tarpaulin which he had spread out to receive
it, and having broken up the box with the ax, cast the boards down that
they might fall to one side of the provisions. This done, he returned
to the wagon, from above invisible, but which, when he stood on the
plain, loomed dim and shapeless against the night.

There were great stores of comforts and even some luxuries in the
wagon, and it was hard for him to decide what to take next; evidently
Henry Gledware and his wife had expected to live in their wagon after
reaching their destination, for there was a stove under the seat, and a
stovepipe fastened to one side of the wagon.

"If the Indians don't catch me at this business," said Willock, looking
at the stove, "I'll get you too!" He believed it could be lowered
between the stone lips of his cave-mouth, for it was the smallest stove
he had ever seen, surely less than two feet in width. "I'll get you
in," said the plunderer decidedly, "or something will be broke!"

For the present, however, he took objects more appropriate to summer:
the mattress upon which he had passed the afternoon, a bucket in which
he packed boxes of matches, a quantity of candles, soap, and the like.
This bucket he put in the middle of the mattress and flanked it with
towels and pillows, between which were inserted plates, cups and
saucers. "I'll just take 'em all," he muttered, groping for more
dishes, "I might have company!"

The mattress once doubled over its ill-assorted contents, he was
obliged to rope both ends before he could carry it in safety. This
load, heavier than the last, he succeeded in getting to the crevice,
and as he poised it over the brink a few yards from where the tarpaulin
lay, he apostrophized it with - "Break if you want to; pieces is good
enough for your Uncle Brick!"

When he left the wagon with his next burden, he was obliged to bend low
under buckets, tools, cans and larger objects. As he moved slowly to
preserve equilibrium, he began to chuckle. "Reckon if the Injuns saw
me now," he said aloud, "they'd take me for an elephant with the
circus-lady riding my back!" At the crevice, he flung in all that
would pass the narrow opening intact, and smashed up what was too
large, that their fragments might also be hidden.

"Pshaw!" grunted Willock, as he started back toward the wagon, mopping
his brow on his shirt-sleeve, "Robinson Crusoe wasn't in it! Wonder
why he done all that complaining when he had a nice easy sea to wash
him and his plunder ashore?"

He was beginning to feel the weariness of the morning return, and the
load that cleaned out the wagon-bed left him so exhausted that he fell
down on the ground beside the crevice, having thrown in his booty.
Here, with his gull at his side and a pistol in his hand, he fell fast
asleep.

He lay there like a man of stone until some inner consciousness began
beating at the door of his senses, warning him that in no great time
the moon would rise. He started up in a state of dazed bewilderment,
staring at the solemn stars, the vague outlines of giant rocks about
him and the limitless sea of darkness that flowed away from the
mountain-top indicating, but not defining, the surrounding prairie.

"Get up from here!" Willock commanded himself. He obeyed rather
stiffly, but when he was on his feet, ax in hand, he made the trip to
the wagon nimbly enough. As he drew near, he saw gray shadows slipping
away - they were wolves. He shouted at them disdainfully, and without
pause began removing the canvas from over the wagon. When that was
done, his terrific blows resolved the wagon-bed to separated boards,
somewhat splintered but practically intact. By means of the wrench he
removed the wheels and separated the parts of the wagon-frame. Always,


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Online LibraryJ. Breckenridge EllisLahoma → online text (page 2 of 17)