The Desert’s Breath
TRAVEL AND DESCRIPTION
BY ROY NORTON IN APPLETON'S MAGAZINE
This pathetic story shows the sacrifices made by two men on behalf of a woman who is an entire stranger to them, une of them undeitakes to guide lier across the üesert to Hila Camp where she hopes to be reconciled to her husbauü. He is forced to socriiL e his life to save her from the Indians. The hero of the story finds her mj an exhausted condition and after the greatest sacrifices succeeds in bringing her to the desired destination.
IT wasn't on a whistling or singing trip that Sandy Smith, packer, found the woman; but rather at one of those times when terror and fear, in so far as he knew these emotions, sat heavily upon him. Geronimo was out again and that explained it.
Sandy wouldn't have made the attempt to cross from one station to another had there not been vital necessity for going, and throughout the journey he had avoided the usual ways of travel and sought those which were obscure. Now and again he ventured out into a main trail where the horizons were so clearly marked that his chances for seeing were as good as those of an enemy.
The finding of the woman was not without weirdness. She rose up out of the nowhere and was a well-defined object when first he saw her. The sun was heaping ray on ray of heat over the desert's face, and the desert, in retort, was throwing them back in shimmers that made the sagebrush wave and lent grotesque outlines to everything within the glare. And Sandy, startled, looked through the heat waves and expressed his surprise in a characteristic “ Well. I'll be damned!"
Even as he spoke she started toward him, waveringly, with outstretched hands, her whole attitude one of toute âppeal, staggered al-
most out into the trail, dropped to her hands and knees, and then, as if utterly worn out, collapsed and rested inertly
The manner of her fall was not new to Sandy. He had witessed it before on painful occasions, and the desert's ways were known to him. Without a moment's hesitation he unslung his canteen, threw the reins over his pony's head and sprang to the side of the prone figure. With celerity and total lack of ceremony he picked her up in his arms and swung her around until the sun's rays were shielded from her face. He forced the open mouth of the canteen between her parched and swollen lips, and at intervals let the stream trickle gently down her throat ; then as she sighed and opened her eyes he patted her as if she were a child and, not knowing what else to say, said : ‘ 1 Brace up ! Brace up! You're all right now."
The woman looked up into the homely face and believed. She closed her eyes with a sigh, while Sandy continued his ministrations. Then he scurried his pony and pack burros back into the hollows and away from the glare of the beaten way and carried her to his retreat as if she were a weary, sleepy child.
That was merely the beginning of it.
Back in the gully he made for hex
a shelter of a pack cover and, this work done, retired to a distance wheie he might search the surface of the inferno for other signs of animation. This because, as he ruminated, “There’s shore somethin’ wrong or there wouldn’t be no white woman afoot away out here fifty miles from nowhere and Injuns everywhere about.” But his glasses brought him no sign of life. Eve] y where was the silent desert, writhing, writhing monotonously beneath the sun.
If Indians there were, they were evond the sky line, or—and that seemed improbable—in hiding. ITe retreated to his camp and passed the afternoon watching over his charge. Regularly he stole to where she slept the sleep of complete exhaustion and gently gave her water, which she, unconscious of his care, drank without effort. With her welfare his motive, as night drew on he “took a chance on a fire” and kindled a tiny blaze sufficient to boil a kettle of water. He screened it around with a sagebrush clipped with laborious effort, wondering the while where Gerónimo and his band might be. Then, reasoning that they must be miles away, or that if near, it would do no good to worry, he devoted himself to petting his favorite burro that nosed his pockets and familiarly rubbed a gray muzzle over the back of his neck And in this reverie he was absorbed until the water boiled over.
With the little burro trotting at his heels, an interested spectator, he made his way to the sleeper, carrying in his hand a battered tin cup that wafted steaming fragrance as he wemt. He hesitated as to what
was the proper method of waking a sleeping woman This at least was a new experience. He stretched forth a hand and gently shook her, but she, despite his tenderness, started a scream that he brought to a close by firmly clapping a big red palm over her mouth.
‘ ‘ Son y, but its agin the law, when Gerónimo’s out, to make anoise,” he drawled.
The terror died from her eyes at his apology, and she drank the tea in silence. Sandy and the little burro waited for her to speak, but to their dish ess she broke into tears. The big packer crushed down an inclination to take her in his arms and rock lier as he would a little girl.
“Don’t cry,” he said consolingly, “ reckin you don’t know me. Why, I’m old Sandy Smith, and I never hurt nothin’. You’re as safe now as you would be in—in—well, most anywhere. ’ ’
There was something in the quiet assuiance of the voice that was comforting, and something in his calm manner of serving her a camp lunch that gave her confidence and peace. Starved as she was, the savory strips of bacon and pilot bread tasted like an epicurean dish, and strength and hope came back. And when the moon had crept over the desert, she told him of her coming, while he nodded his head in sympathy and interjected now and then a question. But what had led her to take such an admittedly dangerous trip? Why must she reach Hila camp? What had become of her escort? Once more 'the terror of the preceding day was on her, and she rocked to and fro and twisted
her fingers in anguish as she recited her story. She had induced a packer to take her through ; there had been an Indian onslaught from which she was protected by previous flight and secretion, and from her hiding she had witnessed the last fight, the murder and mutiliation of her defender. Then the savages, in ignorance of her having been a part of the expedition, and barbarously exultant over their success, had gone.
“Good Lord,” Sandy said over and over again. “So they finally got poor old Joe, eh? Finally got poor old Joe.”
‘ ‘ And all my fault,7 7 came the tearful assertion of fhe woman. “He wouldn’t have attempted the tiip, had I not begged him to. And they when they came he lay there behind his dead ponies and fought— and fought and fought, while I, hidden in the brush, could do nothing to help—even at the last when they rushed down upon him and—and — ” Her voice broke in sobs, and for a little while there was silence.
Sandy»asured her that “it was all in the game.” and that: Joe would probably have made the trip and would have died just as gamely had she not been with him. She sat in silence, and, when calm, reverted to the cause of her expedition. It wasn’t so easy to tell to a big lank Stranger, sitting near her on a sand hummock in the desert night., It came hesitatingly and with allusions some of which were unintelligible to Sandy.
There had been a quarrel with Bob. and Bob had lost his temper and gone away leaving a broken-hearted
woman behind him. And now the broken-hearted woman had learned that Bob was ’to be in Hila camp, and, hung] y for a reconciliation and for his love, had faced the terrors of the pitiless savages to reach him ; and in the facing had narrowly saved her life thus far, and, as nearly as Sandy could calculate, would perhaps lose it in the end.
There wTas nothing to do, Sandy meditated, but to make a bluff at reassurance, so he drawlingly comfoi fled her with assertions that they would get through all right, and there was no need of worrying; but deep down in his heart anxiety turned and fwisted and tore at his sense of truth.
Indians, perhaps, on both sides now, and that too after he had believed himself almost beyond the danger line ! Why, only for the Indians behind him he would have turned back, because of that accident to the water cask which robbed him. of nearly all his precious store and left him with less than half ration for himself and animals, and with many miles of desert ,dry, cruel, and alkaline, ahead of him, where the sand floated up and bit into the nostrils, eyes, and mouth, and brought an insistent demand for water, more wafer. Death kul a hundred chances to one if hè attempted to return, and there liad been no alternative but to go ahead. Now there was another demand for water, and ¡the water almost gone. The terrible days to come were before him in pitiless panorama. He foresaw the necessity for keeping to the by-trails—the slow progress, the constant watch, the sleepless nights, and
frequent hours of hot imprisonment, should they be driven to hiding, in sage-clad hollows.
But to-night she coqld not travel ! He must think it out. So it was that while the moon shifted 'the shadows of the night from side to side in its stately passing, a woman slept the undisturbed sleep of security beneath a pack cover, while outside an ungainly figure turned and tossed in an agony of apprehension, forgetful always of himself, but filled with pity for her and for the trusting animals who had been his servants, companions, friends.
And it was these animals that, on the following day, wondered in dumb mise: y why it was that so little water was given them and why, despite the penalty, they were urged ' forward over tortuous paths.. Perhaps, too, they wondered at the many halts while the master, who was usually so careless, crept cautiously up to the brows of the hills at intervals and peered anxiously out into the long distances. There was one other stop, too, where gruesome things were found, and where Sandy delved as best he might to hide the marks of tragedy.
“You see," lie said to the woman, “we ain't no business losin' an hour's time, but it just did seem a shame to leave poor old Joe out there that-a-way. ' ’
And again they went their way, but from that pitiful wreckage they carried no replenishment of water ; the Indians had opened the casks. There was nothing for it now but to abandon the packs. Their loss meant much to Sandy, but of what
moment were fhey in this game of life and death? Lightness meant speed, and already one of the burros lagged with weariness and retarded their going. And as the day wore on, its footsteps became slower and more painful.
It was this that bore heavily upon the gaunt one that night after his meagre camp had been made and the woman had retired to her tiny shelter, weary but unperturbed. Now was the hour for sacrifile; but how bitterly it hurt! How bitterly it hurt ! How many virtues that little mule possessed! How many times in all his faithful work he had shown little endearments and how great was his intelligence!
So it was that the big, desolafel hills, their grayness tinted with warmtli in the night light, looked down on a rough man who led a weary little gray burro into an isolated gully, blindfolded the wondering eyes, threw an arm over the shaggy neck, and talked to and caressed the animal before he fired a shot at such close range that the sound was muffled. And worse yet, the ordeal was repeated as another secrifice was made. Two mouths less to demand water, and two animals the less to suffer! And — kind God! — two friends murdered through pitiful necessity.
“I cain't see where them pesky mules has wandered to," said Sandy, in assumed cheerfulness, as she appeared for her breakfast. “But we ain't got no time to look for 'em," he added as she expressed solicitude.
Only one burro and one pony to take the tail that day, and, worse
yet, a water cask that was light as it was swung to the burro’s back, to give forth hollow swashings of mockery. Sandy furtively tested its weight and made calculations on its contents. He sighed mightily. About a swallow a day for himself and the burro—just a gulp—and quarter rations for the woman and the pony. Yes, the pony must be included and must have the most, because if the pony kept his feet he would take h -i to safety somewhere—perhaps !
Plainly the pony must be the favored one.
Again the sun was merciless in enmity and focused pitiless rays upon them, adding to their thirst. And it was the woman who expressed surprise when Sandy advised her, with many apologies, to “go a leetle mite slow on that water.,” The halfempty canteen came away from her lips as she said. “Is that all we have ? ”
“Oh, we got plenty,” came the cheeiful reply, “if we only go slow. Jest a leetle slow.”
To show his freedom from worry Sandy chirped up a tune, but. somehow it was a failure, as his lips were too parched for artistic success.
Two days more Î Two days more ! And she and the pony must have it all, though men died thirst-stricken in a day in this terrible heat. Well, it couldn’t be helped, and there was no use in alarming her. She must keep her nerve, otherwise there was no hope.
The nigh! came again and went, and the sun returned and was just as heartless and unkind. Now there were no assumptions of cheerfulness
—only silence and caution, and che urging forward of jaded beasts. Once they lost hours of time in concealment, while a small party of Apaches, hideously gaudy in war paint and carrying gruesome trophies of their savagery, rode past them on the trail below. The woman cowered in her rocky refuge, fearing a repetition of the former horror and unrelieved by Sandy’s plausible assurances of their safety. These, he said, were probably the last they would see. As they took the trail again he made a carefully prepared speech.
“I ought to tell you,” he said, with a slow drawn, “that if anything did happen to me, your best way would be to keep to the main trail. Watch, as you have seen me do—arid ride hard. Yrou’d get there some time sure. ’Tain’t far now. If that there cayuse you’re on was feelin’ fust rate, and didn’t have to side step the trail so often, I ’speet he’d make it from here in twenty hours. You needn’t worry., though.” he cheerfully lied, seeing the alarm in her haggard face, “cause there ain’t nothin’ goin’ to happen to me. Nothin’ ever does happen to me.” He grinned through his cracked lips in conclusion.
Again night fell, but this time
there was no pause. The woman moaned with weariness and wondered at this omittance as well as ait the energy with which Sandy urged the poor, weakly traveling beasts forward. The three hours’ rest in the dawn seemed so brief and the way so long. And she was thirsty, so terribly thirsty! It was like that other time, and she sobbed hysteri-
caliy as the pictuie, of Joe’s death and the recollection of her own tor' tures of thirst recurred to her. This was very like that, and worst of all, this tall, gaunt man with the flaring head was cruel, because he now carried the canteen and wouldn’t let her have a drink; just gave her a swallow once in a while and used such heartless care to jerk it away before she could quench her thirst. Why, lie was kinder to ‘the pony.
And yet—and yet—he himself never seemed to drink. Why didn’t he6/ Perhaps he wanted one as muci« as she did. She asked him, and with a grin that would have been heartbreaking could she have read through the g'imy alkaline dust that coated his face, he answered: “I ain’t a particle thirsty, because I’m so used to traveling over these here trails that I’m just like one of them onerylookin’ camels I used to see in circuses when T was back in Missoury.” Slip—slip! Then a dry, noiseless fall on the sand. The little burro dropped, made one or two efforts to rise, and then stretched himself slowly out at length, immovable. The empty water cask which Sandy had neglected to take from his back slanked hollowly upon the wooden pack trees and with him rested uselessly on the face of things.
While the woman watched in dazed wonder, Sandy, simple-hearted and tender, knelt and took the shaggy head in his arms and with low babblings talked into the ungainly ear “Make another tiy, Jack.” he pleaded, and then, as the animal lay inert, “just one more try, ole man.
It ain’t far an’ I cain’t leave you here to suffer.”
An interval of silence, but no motion from the prostate one.
“I’m sorry, pal,” Sandy voieed huskily, “but I ain’t got no water for you and none for myself. We’ve got to get this little girl back to Bob. He wants her an’ she wants him. You an’ nm ain’t no good nohow except to pack things, an’ women like that kin make lots of folks happy. I ain’t never done nothin’ to hurt you before, an’ I reckon it won’t hurt now as much as it would' to leave you away out here to suffer. Good-bye, Jack—”
The woman vaguely understood in her fevered mind why Sandy shot and the burro lay so quietly. But it seemed strange that the cool gray eyes that he lifted to hers as they resumed their way were filled to the brim with tears which trickled unheeded down his face and made tracings by the side of his long mustache. She, too, found relief in crying, Sandy observed. He must be cheerful :
“Come all ye Texas rangers,
Of high and low degree;
I’ll tell you of some troubles That happened unto me.”
His cracked and parched voice, in pathetic assumption of cheerfulness, rasped its way over the burning s,r as he trudged by the pony’s side, then, as if from sheer lack of further energy, died away in dry whisperings. And this attempt at song was followed by long hours of silence, unbroken save by the “piff-piff” of his and the horse’s feet upon the
trail into which they had emerged-
And she in the meantime dreamed of water! Now she begged for it and sucked at the sterile mouth of the blistering empty canteen to which she clung and at which an intervals she hugged to her fevered breast.
8andy began broken comments, which were as the raven’s croakings in hoarseness. No longer was she a stranger to him, and he began to wonder vaguely why it was that he had never before recognized her as his brother. He would drag back from the hold on the pommel thong of her saddle into which he had twisted his hand for support, and look up at her. Then, as the pony advanced, he would be jerked forward until he dreamed again.
“Why, Dick,” he said, “you don’t look none like you used to, but itV funny I didn’t know ’twas you. We’re going to where there’s water, Dick, big rivers of it—all cool an ’ runnin’ swift. Fish in the pool down by the mill an’ the big trees a-shadin’ ’em, an’—an’—lovin’ the water an’ havin’ sprays of it on their nice green leaves. Remember, Dick, how I uster whistle an’ git them birds to come down an’ eat out of my hand? There by the water—water—water— What? Nope! Thar ain’t no lake over thar that I kin remember.”
Then he would grip his wandering senses back to partial sanity, with the underlying knowledge that to dream of lakes where was naught but desert sands was only *1116 beginning of the end. And in those sane moments he would mutter, “O God! don’t let us git off the trail. Keep us on the trail, God. ’cause if
I cain’t hold ’em on the trail she ain’t agoin’ to git there. You shore ain’t agoin’ to let her die out here on the sand, God; You what looks after the wolves and coyottes and sparrers—You shore ain’t goin’ back on a woman! Water! Water! Lord, ain’t it cool and sweet?”
His great bloodshot eyes looked around hollowly on the glaring rim of the horizon; a smile of delirium twitched his cracked lips.
“ ‘And in the night an angel came down and troubled the waters’,” he said with a raucous laugh. “ The waters! the waters! Lord, who’d a’thought they could splash and sparkle and whirl around that-a-way, Dick? See ’em, eh? Ain’t they beautiful ?
“Tattle drops er water,
Little grains er sand,
Make ther might ocean Am’ ther--
Oceans is all water, Dick—all water! water! water!”
The cracked voice snapped suddenly and the dry lips writhed without a sound ; but his hand never lost its twisted grip on the pommel thong, and the noise of water—laughing, leaping, worrying water—never faded from his dinning ears. And together thus. theAman and the woman and the pony forged on over the blistering carpet of the desert in the steady, Insistent glare of the pitiless sun.
They came out to meet them at Hila Camp, their wmird appearance being observed from afar. The insensible woman lashed (to the saddle by a gaunt red-headed man who afterwards carried no memory of the
act, and who sprawled forward and dropped on his face as they sighted him. And with them they brought water—water that carried with it life and sanity and drowned from the fevered bodies of the wanderers the raging fires of dissolution and the hot flame of the desert’s breath.
As they slashed the lashings from the woman’s form, she fell inertly into the arms of the man she had fared forth to find—the man who, conscious at last of his error and of the loyalty of his wife, gathered her up close to his breast and roughly pressed his lips to hers in a passion of remorseful kisses. In the wrathful glare of the half-sunk sun—defeated, and flaming out its rage in torrid streaks of red and orange and stormy purple—the others grouped themselves about the crumpled figure on the desert’s face and drew away the
pony that, faithful to the end, had halted, and with dumb questioning in its pathetic eyes, was nosing its masters blistered cheek.
‘ ‘ Sandy—by God ! ’ ’ said the man who turned the packer over and held a canteen to the blackened, bleeding lips.
With bedimmed eyes, from which the teai s of delirium had not yet cleared, the red-headed one looked quesitioningly around. His arm. feebly stretched forth, his lean, red fingers pathetically opened, and he hoarsely quoted from childhood’s recollections, “There cometh a woman of Samaria to the well to draw water—water, and Jesus said unto her, ‘Give me to drink.’ ”
And from him who cradled the woman in his arms came the hushed reply. “God’s given us all to drink, pard, he’s given us all to drink.”
The active mind and body do not soon tire, and the energies they consume are quickly renewed.
You will probably have noticed that if you lounge about, doing nothing, a desire for sleep soon overtakes you ; whereas, if you are engaged in some engrossing occupation—work or play—you have no sensation for fatigue.
This is nature’s lesson regarding the importance of activity.
Slie requires that every faculty shall be exercised. If it is neglected it gradually falls into a state weakness, and when this is the case all round old age and decay set in.
This is why when men retire from business they either die soon afterwards or become feeble and decrepit.
Keep active and you will keep young.