Copyright
J. Breckenridge Ellis.

Lahoma online

. (page 3 of 17)
Online LibraryJ. Breckenridge EllisLahoma → online text (page 3 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


when he had obtained enough for a load, he made that toilsome journey
to his retreat. He took the four wheels at one time, rolling them one
by one, lifting them singly from ledge to ledge.

The last of his work was made easier because the darkness had begun to
lift. Suddenly a glow appeared at the rim of the world, to be
followed, as it seemed, almost immediately by the dazzling edge of an
immense silver shield. The moon rolled over the desert waste and
rested like a solid wheel of fire on the sand. Instantly for miles and
miles there was not a shadow on the earth. The level shafts of light
bathed with grotesque luminous distinction the countless prairie-dogs
which, squatting before the mouths of their retreats, barked at the
quick betrayal. Coyotes, as if taken by surprise, swung swiftly toward
remote mountain fastnesses, their backs to the light.

When Willock made his last and slowest trip to the ridge, his feet
dragging like lead, there was nothing to show that a covered wagon had
stood at the edge of the prairie; the splinters of the final demolition
had already mingled indistinguishably with the wind-driven sand.
Arrived at the second ridge, which was still in darkness, he took pains
that no telltale sign should be left on the smooth expanse of granite
to indicate the near presence of a man. Swinging to the lariat that was
now tied to a short plank, he lowered himself into the midst of the
debris with which that part of his floor was strewn. Poised on top of
the heap of boards that had formed the sides of the wagon, he pushed
upward with a longer plank and dislodged the one from which the rope
dangled. It fell at his feet.

Provided with nails, a hammer and plenty of lumber, it would not be
difficult to construct a ladder for egress. At present, he was too
tired to provide for the future. He left the spoils just as they had
fallen, except for the old wagon-tongue and a board or two with which
he built a barricade against the unknown depths at the farthest margin
of the floor. Then drawing the mattress to one side, and clearing it
of its contents, he fell upon it with a sigh of comfort, and was again
plunged into slumber - slumber prolonged far into the following day.



CHAPTER VI

A MYSTERIOUS GUEST

When he awoke, a bar of sunshine which at first he mistook for an
outcropping of Spanish gold, glowed against the granite wall of his
mountain-top retreat. He rose in leisurely fashion - henceforth there
would be plenty of time, years of it, running to waste with useless
days. After eating and partaking sparingly of the brackish water of
the keg, he nailed together two long sideboards of the dismembered
wagon; and having secured these end to end, he fastened in parallel
strips to the surface short sticks as steps to his ladder. This
finished, he made a rope-ladder. The ladder of boards was for use in
leaving the cave; the rope-ladder, which he meant to hide under some
boulder near the crevice, could be used in making the descent.

The formless mass of inchoate debris, the result of his toilsome
journeys of the night before, was left as it had fallen - there would be
time enough to sort all that, a hundred times. At present, he would
venture forth with the sole object of examining his surroundings.
"This suits me exactly," he muttered, with a good-humored chuckle;
"just doing one thing at a time, and being everlasting slow about doing
that."

Fastening the rope-ladder about his waist, he scaled the boards, and on
reaching the top, cast them down. First, he looked all about, but no
living creature was in sight. "This is just to my hand," he said
aloud, seeking a suitable hiding-place for the rope-ladder; "I always
did despise company."

Stowing away the rope-ladder in a secure fissure between two giant
blocks of granite, each the size of a large two-story house, he crossed
to the first ridge, and looked out over the prairie, to triumph over
the vacant spot where the covered wagon had stood fifteen hours before.
"No telling what a man can do," he exclaimed admiringly, "that is to
say, if his name is Brick Willock."

His eyes wandered to the mound of stones built over the woman's grave.
His prayer recurred to his mind. "Well, God," he said, looking up at
the cloudless sky, "I guess you're doing it!" After this expression of
faith, he turned about and set forth to traverse the mountain range.
Passing the ridge which he already looked upon as home, he crossed
other ridges of varying height, and at the end of a mile reached the
southern limit of the mountain. Like the northern side the southern
elevation was nearly four hundred feet, as if the granite sea had
dashed upward in fiercest waves, in a last futile attempt to inundate
the plain. The southern wall was precipitous, and Willock, looking
down the cedar-studded declivity, could gaze directly on the verdant
levels that came to the very foot.

He stood at the center of an enormous horseshoe formed on the southwest
by the range curving farther toward the south, and on his left hand, by
the same range sweeping in a quarter-circle toward the southeast. The
mouth of this granite half-circle was opened to the south, at least a
quarter-mile in width; but on his left, a jutting spur almost at right
angles to the main range, and some hundreds of yards closer to his
position, shot across the space within the horseshoe bend, in such
fashion that an observer, standing on the plain, would have half his
view of the inner concave expanse shut off, except that part of the
high north wall that towered above the spur.

Nor was this all. Behind the perpendicular arm, or spur, that ran out
into the sea of mesquit, rose a low hill that was itself in the nature
of an inner spur although, since it failed to reach the mountain, it
might be regarded as a long flat island, surrounded by the calm green
tide. This innermost arm, or island, was so near the mountain, that
the entrance to it opened into a curved inner world of green, was
narrow and strongly protected. The cove thus formed presented a level
floor of ten or twelve acres, and it was directly down into this cove
that Willock gazed. It looked so peaceful and secure, and its openness
to the sunshine was so alluring, that Willock resolved to descend the
steep wall. To do so at that point was impractical, but the ridge was
unequal and not far to the right, sank to a low divide, while to the
left, a deep gully thickly set with cedars, elms, scrub-oaks and thorn
trees invited him with its steep but not difficult channel, to the
ground.

"Here's a choice," observed Willock, as he turned toward the divide;
"guess I'll go by the front, and save the back stairs for an
emergency." The gully was his back stairs. He was beginning to feel
himself rich in architectural possibilities. When he reached the plain
he was outside of a line of hummocks that effectually hid the cove from
sight, more effectually because of a dense grove of pecans that stood
on either side of the grass-grown dunes. Instead of crossing the
barrier, he started due south for the outer prairie, and when at last
he stood midway between the wide jaws of the mountain horseshoe, he
turned and looked intently toward the cove.

It was invisible, and his highest hopes were realized. From this
extended mouth he could clearly see where the first spur shot out into
the sand, and beyond that, he could see how, at a distance, the sheer
wall of granite rose to the sky; but there was nothing to suggest that
behind that scarred arm another projection parallel to it might be
discovered. He walked toward the spur, always watching for a possible
glimpse of the cove. When he stood on the inner side, his spirits rose
higher. The long flat island that he had discerned from the
mountain-top was here not to be defined because, on account of its
lowness and of the abrupt wall beyond, it was mingled indistinguishably
with the perspective of the range. Concealment was made easier from the
fact that the ground of the cove was lower than all the surrounding
land.

Willock now advanced on the cove and found himself presently in a snug
retreat that would have filled with delight the heart of the most
desperate highwayman, or the most timid settler. On the north was, of
course, the towering mountain-wall, broken by the gully in the
protection of whose trees one might creep up or down without detection.
On the east, the same mountain-wall curved in high protection. In
front was the wide irregular island, low, indeed, but happily high
enough to shut out a view of the outside world. At the end of this
barricade there was a gap, no wider than a wagon-road, along the side
of which ran the dry channel of a mountain stream - the continuation of
the gully that cut the mountain-wall from top to base - but even this
gap was high enough to prevent observation from the plain.

No horsemen could enter the cove save by means of that low trench, cut
as by the hand of man in the granite hill, and as Indian horsemen were
the only enemies to be dreaded, his watchfulness need be concentrated
only on that one point. "Nothing like variety," observed Willock
cheerfully.

"This will do capital for my summer home! I'm going to live like a
lord - while I'm living."

He examined the ground and found that it was rich and could be
penetrated easily, even to the very foot of the mountain. "I'll just
get my spade," he remarked, "as I ain't got nothing else to do." In
deliberate slowness he returned up the divide, and got the spade from
his retreat, then brought it to the cove. Selecting a spot near the
channel of the dried-up torrent, he began to dig, relieved to find that
he did not strike rock.

"I guess," he said, stopping to lean on his spade as he stared at the
mountain, "the earth just got too full of granite and biled over, but
was keerful to spew it upwards, so's to save as much ground as it
could, while relieving its feelings."

Presently the earth on his blade began to cling from dampness. "When I
digs a well," he remarked boastingly, "what I want is water, and that's
what I gets. As soon as it's deep enough I'll wall her up with rocks
and take the longest drink that man ever pulled off, that is to say,
when it was nothing but common water. They ain't nothing about water
to incite you to keep swallowing when you have enough. Of a sudden you
just naturally leggo and could drown in it without wanting another
drop. That's because it's nature. Art is different. I reckon a nice
clean drinking-joint and a full-stocked bar is about the highest art
that can stimulate a man. But in nature, you know when you've got
enough."

After further digging he added, "And I got about enough of THIS! I mean
the mountains and the plains and the sand and the wind and the cave and
the cove - " he wiped away the dripping sweat and looked at the sun.
"Yes, and of you, too!" He dropped the spade, and sat down on the heap
of dirt. "Oh, Lord, but I'm lonesome! I got plenty to say, but nobody
to listen at me."

He clasped his great hands about his knee, and stared sullenly at the
surrounding ramparts of red and brown granite, dully noting the
fantastic layers, the huge round stones that for ages had been about to
roll down into the valley but had never started, and others cut in odd
shapes placed one upon another in columns along the perpendicular wall.
The sun beat on the long matted hair of his bared head, but the
ceaseless wind brought relief from its pelting rays. He, however, was
conscious neither of the heat nor of the refreshing touch.

At last he rose slowly to his towering legs and picked up the spade.
"You're a fool, Brick Willock," he said harshly. "Ain't you got that
well to dig? And then can't you go for your kaig and bring it here,
and carry it back full of fresh water? Dinged if there ain't enough
doings in your world to furnish out a daily newspaper!" He began to
dig, adding in an altered tone: "And Brick, HE says - 'Nothing ain't
come to the worst, as long as you're living,' says Brick!"

He was proud of the well when it was completed; the water was cold and
soft as it oozed up through clean sand, and the walls of mud-mortised
rocks promised permanency. One did not have to penetrate far into the
bottom-lands of that cove to find water which for unnumbered years had
rushed down the mountainside in time of rain-storms to lie, a vast
underground reservoir, for the coming of man. Willock could reach the
surface of the well by lying on his stomach and scooping with his long
arm. He duly carried out his program, and when the keg was filled with
fresh water, it was time for dinner.

After a cold luncheon of sliced boiled ham and baker's bread, he
returned to the cove, where he idled away the afternoon under the shade
of tall cedar trees whose branches came down to the ground, forming
impenetrable pyramids of green.

Stretched out on the short buffalo-grass he watched the white flecks
follow one another across the sky; he observed the shadows lengthening
from the base of the western arm of the horseshoe till they threatened
to swallow up him and his bright speck of world; he looked languidly
after the flights of birds, and grinned as he saw the hawks dart into
round holes in the granite wall not much larger than their
bodies - those mysterious holes perforating the precipice, seemingly
bored there by a giant auger.

"Go to bed, pards," he called to the hawks. "I reckon it's time for
me, too!" He got up - the sun had disappeared behind the mountain. He
stretched himself, lifting his arms high above his head and slowly
drawing his fists to his shoulder, his elbows luxuriously crooked.
"One thing I got," he observed, "is room, plenty! Well - " he started
toward the divide for his upward climb, "I've lived a reasonable long
life; I am forty-five; but I do think that since I laid down under that
tree, I have thought of everything I ever done or said since I was a
kid. Guess I'll save the future for another afternoon - and after that,
the Lord knows what I'm going to do with my brain, it's that busy."

The next day he began assorting the contents of his granite home,
moving to the task with conscientious slowness, stopping a dozen times
to make excursions into the outside world. By diligent economy of his
working moments, he succeeded in covering almost two weeks in the labor
of putting his house into order. His bedroom was next to the barricade
that separated the long stone excavation from the bottomless abyss.
Divided from the bedroom by an imaginary line, was the store-room of
provisions. The cans and boxes were arranged along the floor with
methodical exactitude. Different varieties of fruit and preserves were
interspersed in such fashion that none was repeated until every variety
had been passed.

"I begins with this can of peaches," said Willock, laying his finger
upon the beginning of the row - "then comes apples, pears, plums; then
peaches, apples, pears, plums; then peaches, apples, pears, plums; then
peaches - blest if I don't feel myself getting sick of 'em already....
And now my meats: bacon, ham. My breadstuffs: loaves, crackers. My
fillers: sardines, more sardines, more sardines, likewise canned
tomatoes. Let me see - is it too much to say that I eats a can of
preserves in two days? Maybe three. That is, till I sickens. I
begins with peach-day. This is Monday. Say Thursday begins my
apple-days. I judge I can worm myself down through the list by this
time next month. One thing I am sot on: not to save nothing if I can
bring my stomach to carry the burden with a willing hand. I'll eat
mild and calm, but steadfast. Brick Willock he says, 'Better starve
all at once, when there's nothing left, than starve a little every
day,' says Brick. 'When it's a matter of agony,' says he, 'take the
short cut.'"

In arranging his retreat, he had left undisturbed the wagon-tongue,
since removing it from the end of the floor for a more secure
barricade; it had stood with several of the sideboards against the
wall, as if Brick meditated using them for a special purpose. Such was
indeed his plan, and it added some zest to his present employment to
think of what he meant to do next; this was nothing less than to make a
dugout in the cove.

To this enterprise he was prompted not only by a desire to vary his
monotonous days, but to insure safety from possible foes. Should a
skulking savage, or, what would be worse, a stray member of the robber
band catch sight of him among the hills, the spy would spread the news
among his fellows. A relentless search would be instituted, and even
if Willock succeeded in escaping, the band would not rest till it had
discovered his hiding-place. If they came on the dugout, their search
would terminate, and his home in the crevice would escape
investigation; but if there was no dugout to satisfy curiosity, the
crevice would most probably be explored.

"Two homes ain't too many for a character like me, nohow," remarked
Brick, as he set the wagon-tongue and long boards on end to be drawn up
through the crevice. "Cold weather will be coming on in due time - say
three or four months - and what's that to me? a mere handful of time!
Well, I don't never expect to make a fire in my cave, I'll set my smoke
out in the open where it can be traced without danger to my pantry
shelves."

He was even slower about building the dugout than he had been in
arranging the miscellaneous objects in the cavern on top of the
mountain. Transporting the timbers across a mile of ridges and granite
troughs was no light work; and when his tools and material were in the
cove, the digging of the dugout was protracted because of the closeness
of water to the surface. At last he succeeded in excavating the cellar
at a spot within a few yards of the mountain, without penetrating
moistened sand. He leveled down the walls till he had a chamber about
twelve feet square. Over this he placed the wagon-tongue, converting
it into the ridge-pole, which he set upon forks cut from the near-by
cedars. Having trimmed branches of the trees in the grove, he laid
them as close together as possible, slanting from the ridge-pole to the
ground, and over these laid the bushy cedar branches. This substantial
roof he next covered with dirt, heaping it up till no glimpse of wood
was visible tinder the hard-packed dome. The end of the dugout was
closed up in the same way except for a hole near the top fitted closely
to the stovepipe and packed with mud.

Of the sideboards he fashioned a rude frame, then a door to stand in
it, fitted into grooves that it might be pushed and held into place
without hinges. "Of course I got to take down my door every time I
comes in or out," remarked Willock, regarding his structure with much
complacency, "but they's nothing else to do, and I got to be occupied."

When he had transported the stove to the cove, he set it up with a
tingle of expectant pleasure. It was to be his day of housewarming,
not because the weather had grown cold, but that he might celebrate.

"This here," he said, "is to be a red-letter day, a day plumb up in X,
Y and Z. I got to take my gun and forage for some game; then I'll
dress my fresh meat and have a cooking. I'll bring over some grub to
keep it company. Let's see - this is plum-day, ain't it?" He stood
meditating, stroking his wild whiskers with a grimy hand. "Oh, Lord,
yes, I believe it IS plum-day! 'Well, they ain't nothing the way you
would have made it yourself,' says Brick, 'not even though it's you as
made it.' This here is plum-day, and that there can of plums will
shore be opened. And having my first fire gives me a chance to open up
my sack of flour; won't I hold carnival! What I feels sorry about
myself is knowing how I'm going to feel after I've et all them
victuals. I believe I'll take a bath, too, in that pool over yonder in
the grove. Ain't I ever going to use that there soap?... But I don't
say as I will. Don't seem wuth while. They ain't nobody to see me,
and I feels clean insides. As I takes it, you do your washing for them
as neighbors with you. If I had a neighbor! - just a dog, a little
yaller dog - or some chickens to crow and cackle - "

He broke off, to lean despondently on his gun. He remained thus
motionless for a long time, his earth-stained garments, unkempt hair,
hard dark hands and gloomy eye marking him as the only object in the
bright sunshine standing forth unresponsive to nature's smile.

He started into life with a shrug of his powerful shoulders. "It's
just like you, Brick, to spoil a festibul-day with your low idees! Why
don't you keep them idees for a rainy day? Just lay up them regrets
and hankerings for the first rainy day, and then be of a piece with the
heavens and earth. 'If you can't stay cheerful while the sun's
shining,' says Brick, 'God's wasting a mighty nice big sun on YOU!'"

Thus admonishing himself, and striving desperately for contentment, he
strode forth from the only exit of the cove, and skirted the southern
wall of the range, looking for game. It was late in the afternoon when
he returned with the best portions of a deer swung over his shoulder.
By this time he was desperately hungry, and the prospect of the first
venison since his exile stirred his pulses, and gave to the bright
scene a cheerful beauty it had not before worn to his homesick heart.
He trudged up to the narrow door of the dugout which was closed, just
as he had left it, and having carried a noble haunch of venison to the
pool to be washed, he descended the dirt steps and set the door to one
side. Without at first understanding why, he became instantly aware
that some one had been there during his absence.

Of course, as soon as his eyes could penetrate the semi-gloom
sufficiently to distinguish small objects, he saw the proof; but even
before that, the air seemed tingling with some strange personality. He
stood like a statue, gazing fixedly. His alert eyes, always on guard,
had assured him that the cove was deserted - there was no use to look
behind him. Whoever had been there must have scaled the mountain, and
had either crossed to the plain on the north, or was hiding behind the
rocks. What held his eyes to the stove was a heap of tobacco, and a
clay pipe beside it. Among the stores removed from the wagon, tobacco
had been found in generous quantity, but during the month now elapsed,
bad been sadly reduced. Willock, however, was not pleased to find the
new supply; on the contrary his emotions were confused and alarmed.
Had the tobacco been ten times as much, it could not have solaced him
for the knowledge that the dugout had been visited.

After a few minutes of immobility, he entered, placed the meat on a
box, and departed softly, closing the door behind him. Casting
apprehensive glances along the mountainside, he stole toward it, and
made his way up the gully, completely hidden by the straggling line of
trees and underbrush, till he stood on the summit. He approached each
ridge with extreme caution, as if about to storm the barricade of an
enemy; thus he traveled over the range without coming on the traces of
his mysterious visitor. Not pausing at the crevice, he went on to the
outer northern ridge of the range, and lying flat among some high
rocks, looked down.

He counted seventeen men near the spot from which he had removed the
wagon. Fifteen were on horseback and two riderless horses explained
the presence of the two on foot. All of them had drawn up in a circle
about the heap of stones that covered the woman's burial-place. Of the
seventeen, sixteen were Indians, painted and adorned for the war-path.
The remaining man, he who stood at the heap of stones beside the chief,
was a white man, and at the first glance, Willock recognized him; he
was the dead woman's husband, Henry Gledware.

Brick's mind was perplexed with vain questionings: Was it Gledware who
had visited his dugout, or the Indians? Did the pipe and tobacco
indicate a peace-offering? What was the relationship between Gledware
and these Indians? Was he their prisoner, and were they about to burn
him upon the heap of stones? He did not seem alarmed. Had he made
friends with the chief by promising to conduct him to the deserted
wagon? If so, what would they think in regard to the wagon's
disappearance? Had the dugout persuaded them that there was no other
retreat in the mountains?

While Brick watched in agitated suspense, several Indians leaped to the
ground at a signal from the chief and advanced toward the white man.


1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryJ. Breckenridge EllisLahoma → online text (page 3 of 17)