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- Philip Dru: Administrator - 3/33 -


He reached Fort Magruder at the close of an Autumn day. He thought he had never known such dry sweet air. Just as the sun was sinking, he strolled to the bluff around which flowed the turbid waters of the Rio Grande, and looked across at the gray hills of old Mexico.

CHAPTER III

LOST IN THE DESERT

Autumn drifted into winter, and then with the blossoms of an early spring, came Gloria.

The Fort was several miles from the station, and Jack and Philip were there to meet her. As they paced the little board platform, Jack was nervously happy over the thought of his sister's arrival, and talked of his plans for entertaining her. Philip on the other hand held himself well in reserve and gave no outward indication of the deep emotion which stirred within him. At last the train came and from one of the long string of Pullmans, Gloria alighted. She kissed her brother and greeted Philip cordially, and asked him in a tone of banter how he enjoyed army life. Dru smiled and said, "Much better, Gloria, than you predicted I would." The baggage was stored away in the buck-board, and Gloria got in front with Philip and they were off. It was early morning and the dew was still on the soft mesquite grass, and as the mustang ponies swiftly drew them over the prairie, it seemed to Gloria that she had awakened in fairyland.

At the crest of a hill, Philip held the horses for a moment, and Gloria caught her breath as she saw the valley below. It looked as if some translucent lake had mirrored the sky. It was the countless blossoms of the Texas blue-bonnet that lifted their slender stems towards the morning sun, and hid the earth.

Down into the valley they drove upon the most wonderfully woven carpet in all the world. Aladdin and his magic looms could never have woven a fabric such as this. A heavy, delicious perfume permeated the air, and with glistening eyes and parted lips, Gloria sat dumb in happy astonishment.

They dipped into the rocky bed of a wet weather stream, climbed out of the canyon and found themselves within the shadow of Fort Magruder.

Gloria soon saw that the social distractions of the place had little call for Philip. She learned, too, that he had already won the profound respect and liking of his brother officers. Jack spoke of him in terms even more superlative than ever. "He is a born leader of men," he declared, "and he knows more about engineering and tactics than the Colonel and all the rest of us put together." Hard student though he was, Gloria found him ever ready to devote himself to her, and their rides together over the boundless, flower studded prairies, were a never ending joy. "Isn't it beautiful--Isn't it wonderful," she would exclaim. And once she said, "But, Philip, happy as I am, I oftentimes think of the reeking poverty in the great cities, and wish, in some way, they could share this with me." Philip looked at her questioningly, but made no reply.

A visit that was meant for weeks transgressed upon the months, and still she lingered. One hot June morning found Gloria and Philip far in the hills on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. They had started at dawn with the intention of breakfasting with the courtly old haciendado, who frequently visited at the Post.

After the ceremonious Mexican breakfast, Gloria wanted to see beyond the rim of the little world that enclosed the hacienda, so they rode to the end of the valley, tied their horses and climbed to the crest of the ridge. She was eager to go still further. They went down the hill on the other side, through a draw and into another valley beyond.

Soldier though he was, Philip was no plainsman, and in retracing their steps, they missed the draw.

Philip knew that they were not going as they came, but with his months of experience in the hills, felt sure he could find his way back with less trouble by continuing as they were. The grass and the shrubs gradually disappeared as they walked, and soon he realized that they were on the edge of an alkali desert. Still he thought he could swing around into the valley from which they started, and they plunged steadily on, only to see in a few minutes that they were lost.

"What's the matter, Philip?" asked Gloria. "Are we lost?"

"I hope not, we only have to find that draw."

The girl said no more, but walked on side by side with the young soldier. Both pulled their hats far down over their eyes to shield them from the glare of the fierce rays of the sun, and did what they could to keep out the choking clouds of alkali dust that swirled around them at every step.

Philip, hardened by months of Southwestern service, stood the heat well, except that his eyes ached, but he saw that Gloria was giving out.

"Are you tired?" he asked.

"Yes, I am very tired," she answered, "but I can go on if you will let me rest a moment." Her voice was weak and uncertain and indicated approaching collapse. And then she said more faintly, "I am afraid, Philip, we are hopelessly lost."

"Do not be frightened, Gloria, we will soon be out of this if you will let me carry you."

Just then, the girl staggered and would have fallen had he not caught her.

He was familiar with heat prostration, and saw that her condition was not serious, but he knew he must carry her, for to lay her in the blazing sun would be fatal.

His eyes, already overworked by long hours of study, were swollen and bloodshot. Sharp pains shot through his head. To stop he feared would be to court death, so taking Gloria in his arms, he staggered on.

In that vast world of alkali and adobe there was no living thing but these two. No air was astir, and a pitiless sun beat upon them unmercifully. Philip's lips were cracked, his tongue was swollen, and the burning dust almost choked him. He began to see less clearly, and visions of things he knew to be unreal came to him. With Spartan courage and indomitable will, he never faltered, but went on. Mirages came and went, and he could not know whether he saw true or not. Then here and there he thought he began to see tufts of curly mesquite grass, and in the distance surely there were cacti. He knew that if he could hold out a little longer, he could lay his burden in some sort of shade.

With halting steps, with eyes inflamed and strength all but gone, he finally laid Gloria in the shadow of a giant prickly pear bush, and fell beside her. He fumbled for his knife and clumsily scraped the needles from a leaf of the cactus and sliced it in two. The heavy sticky liquid ran over his hand as he placed the cut side of the leaf to Gloria's lips. The juice of the plant together with the shade, partially revived her. Philip, too, sucked the leaf until his parched tongue and throat became a little more pliable.

"What happened?" demanded Gloria. "Oh! yes, now I remember. I am sorry I gave out, Philip. I am not acclimated yet. What time is it?"

After pillowing her head more comfortably upon his riding coat, Philip looked at his watch. "I--I can't just make it out, Gloria," he said. "My eyes seem blurred. This awful glare seems to have affected them. They'll be all right in a little while."

Gloria looked at the dial and found that the hands pointed to four o'clock. They had been lost for six hours, but after their experiences, it seemed more like as many days. They rested a little while longer talking but little.

"You carried me," said Gloria once. "I'm ashamed of myself for letting the heat get the best of me. You shouldn't have carried me, Philip, but you know I understand and appreciate. How are your eyes now?"

"Oh, they'll be all right," he reiterated, but when he took his hand from them to look at her, and the light beat upon the inflamed lids, he winced.

After eating some of the fruit of the prickly pear, which they found too hot and sweet to be palatable, Philip suggested at half after five that they should move on. They arose, and the young officer started to lead the way, peeping from beneath his hand. First he stumbled over a mesquite bush directly in his path, and next he collided with a giant cactus standing full in front of him.

"It's no use, Gloria," he said at last. "I can't see the way. You must lead."

"All right, Philip, I will do the best I can."

For answer, he merely took her hand, and together they started to retrace their steps. Over the trackless waste of alkali and sagebrush they trudged. They spoke but little but when they did, their husky, dust-parched voices made a mockery of their hopeful words.

Though the horizon seemed bounded by a low range of hills, the girl instinctively turned her steps westward, and entered a draw. She rounded one of the hills, and just as the sun was sinking, came upon the valley in which their horses were peacefully grazing.

They mounted and followed the dim trail along which they had ridden that morning, reaching the hacienda about dark. With many shakings of the hand, voluble protestations of joy at their delivery from the desert, and callings on God to witness that the girl had performed a miracle, the haciendado gave them food and cooling drinks, and with gentle insistence, had his servants, wife and daughters show them to their rooms. A poultice of Mexican herbs was laid across Philip's eyes, but exhausted as he was he could not sleep because of the pain they caused him.

In the morning, Gloria was almost her usual self, but Philip could see but faintly. As early as was possible they started for Fort Magruder. His eyes were bandaged, and Gloria held the bridle of his horse and led him along the dusty trail. A vaquero from the ranch went with them to show the way.

Then came days of anxiety, for the surgeon at the Post saw serious trouble ahead for Philip. He would make no definite statement, but admitted that the brilliant young officer's eyesight was seriously menaced.


Philip Dru: Administrator - 3/33

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