Taylor realized from the Benedict's greater knowledge that it was asking a great deal, but still not[Pg 252] too much. He assured Cairness that she should be cared for. His horse started. He had dug it with the rowels. Then he reined it in with a jerk that made it champ its curb. "Don't dwell on that all the time," he said angrily; "forget it." And then it flashed across him, the irreparable wrong he would be doing her if he taught her to consider the Apache blood a taint.
It was a little pocket, a natural fortress, high up on a commanding peak. Cairness crept forward flat along the rocks, raised his head cautiously and looked down. There in the sunrise light,—the gorgeous sunrise of the southern mountain peaks where the wind is fresh out of the universe and glitters and quivers with sparks of new life,—there was the encampment of the hostiles. It was a small Eden of green grass and water and trees high up in the Sierra—that strange mountain chain that seems as though it might have been the giant model of the Aztec builders, and that holds the mystery of a[Pg 229] mysterious people locked in its stone and metal breasts, as securely as it does that of the rich, lost mines whose fabled wonders no man can prove to-day.
Not a week before—and then the Agency had been officially at peace—a Mexican packer had been shot down by an arrow from some unseen bow, within a thousand yards of the post, in broad daylight. The Indians, caking their bodies with clay, and binding sage or grass upon their heads, could writhe unseen almost within arm's reach. But Felipa was not afraid. Straight for the river bottom she made, passing amid the [Pg 78]dump-heaps, where a fire of brush was still smouldering, filling the air with pungent smoke, where old cans and bottles shone in the starlight, and two polecats, pretty white and black little creatures, their bushy tails erect, sniffed with their sharp noses as they walked stupidly along. Their bite meant hydrophobia, but though one came blindly toward her, she barely moved aside. Her skirt brushed it, and it made a low, whining, mean sound.
The cook came running, six-shooter in hand, but Alchesay was driving them away and lowering the canvas flaps. Felipa told the cook that it was all right, and went on with her dressing. Although she had no gifts for guessing the moods and humors of her father's race, she understood her mother's considerably better,[Pg 93] and so she did not even call a "gracias" after Alchesay. She merely nodded amicably when she went out and found him sitting on the ground waiting for her. He returned the nod, a degree less graciously, if possible, and began to talk to her in bad Spanish, evidently putting small faith in her command of the White Mountain idiom, marvellous, to be sure, in a White-eye squaw, for such were of even greater uselessness than the average woman, but of no account whatever in a crisis. And such he plainly considered this to be.
He saw her, and without the hesitation of an instant raised his slouch hat and kept on. A government scout does not stop to pass the time of day with an officer's wife.
"I ain't put it in yet," he stammered feebly.
She set about cleaning the little revolver, self-cocking, with the thumb-piece of the hammer filed away, that her husband had given her before they were married. To-night she wanted no dinner. She was given to eating irregularly; a good deal at a time, and again nothing for a long stretch. That, too, was in the blood. So she sent the soldier cook away, and he went over to the deserted barracks.
"Cairness never was a squaw-man," corrected Crook.
On the next day they were in the flat, nearing the post. There was a dust storm. Earlier in the morning the air had grown suddenly more dry, more close and lifeless than ever, suffocating, and a yellow cloud had come in the western sky. Then a hot wind began to blow the horses' manes and tails, to snarl through the greasewood bushes, and to snap the loose ends of the men's handkerchiefs sharply. The cloud had thinned and spread, high up in the sky, and the light had become almost that of a sullen evening. Black bits floated and whirled high overhead, and birds beat about in the gale. Gradually the gale and the dust had dropped nearer to the earth, a sand mist had gone into every pore and choked and parched. And now the tepid, thick wind was moaning across the plain, meeting no point of resistance anywhere.
They rode on, along the trail, at a walk and by file, and directly they came upon the other side of the question. Landor's horse stopped, with its forefeet planted, and a snort of fright. Landor had been bent far back, looking up at a shaft of rock that rose straight from the bottom and pierced the heavens hundreds of feet above, and he was very nearly unseated. But he caught himself and held up his hand as a signal to halt.