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- LAHOMA - 1/42 -
by John Breckenridge Ellis
CHAPTER I THE TOUCH OF A CHILD
"I have given my word of honor--my sacred oath--not to betray what I have discovered here."
At these words from the prisoner, a shout arose in which oaths and mocking laughter mingled like the growling and snapping of hunger- maddened wolves.
"Then if I must die," Gledware cried, his voice, in its shrill excitement, dominating the ferocious insults of the ruffians, "don't kill the child--you see she is asleep--and she's so young--only five. Even if she were awake, she wouldn't know how to tell about this cabin. For God's sake, don't kill the little girl!"
Since the seizure of Gledware, the child had been lying on the rude table in the midst of a greasy pack of cards--cards that had been thrown down at the sound of his galloping horse. The table supported, also, much of the booty captured from the wagon-train, while on the dirt floor beside it were prizes of the freebooting expedition, too large to find resting-place on the boards. Nor was this all. Mingled with stolen garments, cans and boxes of provisions, purses and bags of gold, were the Indian disguises in which the highwaymen from No-Man's Land had descended on the prairie-schooners on their tedious journey from Abilene, Kansas, toward the Southwest.
In the midst of this confusion of disguises, booty and playing-cards, surrounded by cruel and sensual faces, the child slept soundly, her lips slightly parted, her cheeks delicately flushed, her face eloquent in its appeal of helplessness, innocence and beauty. One of the band, a tall broad-shouldered man of middle-age, with an immense quantity of whiskers perhaps worn as a visible sign of inward wildness, was, despite his hardened nature, moved to remonstrance. Under cover of lurid oaths and outrageous obscenity, he advanced his opinion that "the kid" needn't be shot just because her father was a sneak-jug spy.
"Shut up!" roared a tremendous voice, not directly to the intercessor, or to the prisoner, but to all present. Evidently it was a voice of authority, for comparative silence followed the command. The speaker stepped forward, thrust his fingers through his intensely red shock of hair, and continued, with one leg thrust forward:
"You know I am something of an orator, or I guess you wouldn't of made me your leader. Now, as long as I'm your leader, I'm going to lead; but, I ain't never unreasonable, and when talk is needed, I'm copious enough. I am called 'Red Kimball,' and my brother yonder, he is knowed as 'Kansas Kimball.' What else is knowed of us is this: that we wasn't never wont to turn loose a spy when once ketched. Here is a man who says he is Henry Gledware--though God knows if that's so; he comes galloping up to the door just as we are in the midst of a game. I stakes all my share of the spoils on the game, and Brick Willock is in a fair way to win it, that I admit, but in comes this here spy--"
The prisoner in a frenzied voice disclaimed any purpose of spying. That morning, he had driven the last wagon of the train, containing his invalid wife and his stepdaughter--for the child lying on the table was his wife's daughter. At the alarm that the first wagon had been attacked by Indians, he had turned about his horses and driven furiously over the prairie, he knew not whither. All that day he had fled, seeing no one, hearing no pursuing horse-beat. At night his wife, unable, in her weak condition, to sustain the terrible jolting, had expired. Taking nothing from the wagon but his saddle, he had mounted one of the horses with the child before him, and had continued his flight, the terrific wind at his back. Unaware that the wind had changed, he had traversed horseback much of the distance traveled during the day, and at about two in the morning--that is to say, about all hour ago--seeing a light, he had ridden straight toward it, to find shelter from the storm.
The prisoner narrated all this in nervous haste, though he had already given every particular, time and again. His form as well as his voice trembled with undisguised terror, and indeed, the red and cruel eyes fastened contemptuously on him might have caused a much braver man than Gledware to shudder visibly.
"Well, pard," said the leader of the band, waiting until he had finished, "you can't never claim that you ain't been given your say, for I do admire free speech. I want to address you reasonable, and make this plain and simple, as only a man that has been alleged to be something of an orator can accomplish. My men and me has had our conference, and it's decided that both of you has got to be shot, and immediate. The reasons is none but what a sensible man must admit, and such I take you to be. I am sorry this has happened, and so is my men, and we wish you well. It's a hard saying, pard, but whatever your intentions, a spy you have proved. For what do you find on busting open our door? Here we sit playing with our booty for stakes, and our Indian togs lying all about. You couldn't help knowing that we was the 'Indians' that gutted them wagons and put up the fight that left every man and woman dead on the field except that there last wagon you are telling us about. You might wish you didn't know the same, but once knowed, we ain't going to let you loose. As to that wagon you claim to have stole away from under our very noses--"
A skeptical laugh burst from the listeners.
Gledware eagerly declared that if he had the remotest idea in what direction it had been left, he would be glad to lead them to the spot. He could describe it and its contents--
"You see, pard," Red Kimball interposed, "you are everlasting losing sight of the point. This here is 1880, which I may say is a recent date. Time was when a fellow could live in Cimarron, and come and go free and no questions asked--and none answered. But civilization is a-pressing us hard, and these days is not our fathers' days. We are pretty independent even yet in old Cimarron, but busybodies has got together trying to make it a regular United States territory, and they ain't going to stand for a real out-and-out band of highwaymen such as used to levy on stage-coaches and wagon-trains without exciting no more remarks than the buffaloes. You may be sorry times is changed; so am I; but if times IS fresh, we might as well look 'em in the face. Us fellows has been operating for some years, but whatever we do is blamed on the Indians. That there is a secret that would ruin our business, if it got out. Tomorrow, a gang of white men will be depredating in the Washita country to get revenge for today's massacre, and me and my men couldn't join in the fun with easy consciences if we knowed you was somewheres loose, to tell your story."
Again Gledware protested that he would never betray the band.
"Oh, cut this short," interposed Kansas Kimball, with an oath. "Daylight will catch us and nothing done, if we listen to that white-livered spy. We don't believe in that wagon he talks about, and as for this kid, he brought her along just to save his bacon."
"No, as God lives!" cried Gledware. "Can't you see she is dead for sleep? She was terrified out of her wits all day, and I've ridden with her all night. Don't kill her, men--" He turned impassioned eyes on the leader. "Look at her--so young--so unsuspecting-- you can't have the heart to murder a child like that in cold blood."
"Right you are!" exclaimed the man with the ferocious whiskers--he who had been spoken of as Brick Willock. "You'll have to go, pard, but I'm against killing infants."
The leader darted an angry glance at the man who, but for the untoward arrival of Gledware, would have won from him his share of the booty. But his voice was smooth and pleasant as he resumed: "Yes, pard, the kid must die. We couldn't do nothing with her, and if we left her on some door-step, she's sure old enough, and she looks full sharp enough, to tell sufficient to trammel us good and plenty. If we sets her loose in the prairie, she'd starve to death if not found--and if found, it would settle our case. And as Kansas says, this debate must close, or daylight will catch us."
Brick Willock, with terrible oaths, again expressed himself as strongly opposed to this decision.
"Well, Brick," said Red, with a sneer, "do YOU want to take the kid and raise her, yourself? We've either got to do away with her, or keep her hid. Do YOU want to be her nurse, and keep with her in some cave or other while we go foraging?"
Willock muttered deep in his throat, while his companions laughed disdainfully.
"We've had enough of this!" Red declared, his voice suddenly grown hard and cold. "Kansas, take the prisoner; Brick Willock, as you're so fond of the kid, you can carry HER." He opened the door and a rush of wind extinguished the candle. There was silence while it was being relighted. The flickering light, reddening to a steady glow, revealed no mercy on the scowling countenances about the table, and no shadow of presentiment on that of the still unconscious child.
Red went outside and waited till his brother had drawn forth the quivering man, and Brick Willock had carried out the girl. Then he looked back into the room. "You fellows can stay in here," he said authoritatively. "What we've got to do ain't any easier with a lot of men standing about, looking on."
The man who had relighted the candle, and who crouched to shield it with a hairy hand from the gust, nodded approval. His friends were already gathering together the cards to lose in the excitement of gambling consciousness of what was about to be done. Red closed the door on the scene, and turned to face the light.
The wind came in furious gusts, with brief intervals of calm. There were no clouds, however, and the moon, which had risen not long before, made the prairie almost as light as if morning had dawned. As far as the eye could reach in any direction, nothing was to be seen but the level ground, the unflecked sky, the cabin and the little group near the tethered ponies.
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