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- The Desert Valley - 20/46 -
hands lax at his sides.
'You poor devil!' muttered Howard.
He came to the prostrate figure. Now he noted that from the string-belt there hung at one hip a little buckskin bag; it might have held a handful of dried meat. Tied at the other hip was a bundle of feathers that made gay colour against the grey monotony, feathers of the bluebird, the redbird, blackbird and dove. Scabbardless, tied with a bit of thong close to the feathers, was a knife with a long blade.
The Indian's chest heaved spasmodically; his breath came in dry gasps. Howard stooped over him and called to him softly. The eyes flew open and, after a heavy gathering of the brows bespeaking the effort made, focussed upon Howard's.
'_Agua_,' pleaded the swollen lips.
Howard took up a sardine tin, the contents of which he had eaten while he rested, and, very careful not to spill a drop of the priceless fluid, poured it half full from his canteen. Then he knelt and put an arm about the gaunt body, lifting it a little, offering the water to the broken lips. Now he noted that the cloth about the black head of hair was stained with blood.
He had expected the man to drink thirstily. Instead, manifesting a display of will power such as the white man had never seen, the Indian took the water slowly, held it a moment in his mouth, swallowed it drop by drop.
'More,' he said when the tin was emptied.
Again Howard filled it. Now the Indian sat upright alone and drank. Afterwards he looked at Howard with a long, piercing regard. A second time he said 'More.'
Howard with his finger indicated how low his water was.
'Not much water, _companero_,' he said quietly. 'Pretty soon all gone.'
'No more?' queried the Indian sharply.
Howard poured out the third small tin; altogether he was giving the poor devil only about a cupful when a quart would have been all inadequate. Again the keen black eyes that seemed clearer now and like a bird's probed at him. Again and as before, the Indian drank.
'Me Kish Taka,' he announced slowly and with a certain dignity. 'Come far, head hurt, much sick, much blood. Pretty soon, no water, die. Now, pretty good.'
Howard grunted. That a man in this fellow's shape should declare himself as being 'pretty good' was worth any man's snort. He looked as though he would be dead in ten minutes as he lay back and shut his eyes. With his eyes still shut, the Indian spoke again:
'You _sabe_ other water-hole?'
'No. I found it dry.'
'Kish Taka _sabe_ water-hole. Sleep now, damn tired, damn hot, head sick. Sun go down, get cold, Kish Taka go there, you come, get water.'
'Where?' demanded Howard quickly. 'How far?' For he was half inclined to believe that if Kish Taka went to sleep now he would never wake.
The long, thin arm pointed out to the south-west.
'Not too far,' he said. 'Two big high mountain, some tree, water there. Maybe twenty-five mile.'
'Good God!' exclaimed Howard. 'Twenty-five miles! Might as well be a thousand!'
The Indian did not answer. He was breathing regularly, his lips were closed. For five minutes Howard stood looking down upon him and then he tiptoed a few yards away; Kish Taka was evidently asleep. Howard set his canteen down in the shade of a bush, found another bush for himself, and lay as the Indian was lying, on his back, relaxing his body. He did not regret having shared his water with an Indian, but he wondered why his destiny at this time of need had sent to him another thirsty mouth. Further, he allowed himself to wonder soberly if he would ever see his green fields again. He measured his chances with a steady mind, and in the end his mouth grew sterner.
'If I've got to cash in this way,' he muttered as his own sort of prayer, 'I hope I can be as game about it as Kish Taka.'
It struck him that in one thing the Indian was wise. It was as well to rest now until after sunset and then to start on again in what coolness the evening might afford. Further, it was not in him now to get up and sling his canteen on his back and go on, leaving the fellow wayfarer whom his fate had given him. He would try to sleep a little, though he had little enough hope of coaxing the blissful condition of rest and unconsciousness to him. But, physically tired, lulled by the great stillness, it was but a few minutes when he, too, slept heavily.
He woke and sat up. The day had gone, the stars were out, the air was cool against his cheek. He got to his feet and went to the spot where he had left the Indian, half expecting to find the man dead. Instead he found no man at all. He looked about him; there was light enough to see objects at a considerable distance. The desert seemed, as it had seemed all day, empty. He called and got no answer. It was obvious enough that Kish Taka had rested, waked, gone on.
'Got thirsty,' grunted Howard, 'and just trotted over to a spring only twenty-five miles off for a drink! That's the Indian for you.'
His own thirst sprang out upon him, clutching him by the throat. He stepped to the bush where he had left his canteen and groped for it. When he did not find it, he looked elsewhere, supposing that he had made a mistake in the bush. When the truth dawned upon him his whole body grew rigid, he stood motionless, even for a little his lungs suspended their function. His hands clenched; for some reason and apparently without any act of his will, they were lifted slowly until they were above his head. Then they came down slowly until they were at his sides, still clenched hard. It was his only gesture. He did not speak aloud. Again he stood still. But through his heart and soul and brain, sweeping upward and upward, came such a flood of rage as he had never known. And with it, born of it, came rushing the frenzied craving to kill. At last came his dry whisper:
'I am going to last long enough to kill you, Kish Taka, and may God damn your soul!'
One hand took up his little bundle of food; the, other dropped to the butt of his revolver. He went swiftly to the spot where he had left the Indian whom he had thought half dead. He estimated again and with great care the direction which the lean leathery hand had indicated as the direction of water. Then, walking swiftly, he struck out into the desert. Here was not the way to Desert Valley, not the way to Quigley. But here was the path for one man to follow when he sought another man who had wronged him. The fact that his chances of coming up with the Indian were few did not deter the cattleman; the obscurity of night on the desert did not give him halt or hesitation. The name of his wrath burned high and hot in his brain and in its lurid light he saw his desire fulfilled. Had one tried at the moment to reason with him, Howard would have cursed him and gone on. His anger had spurted up in a brain already mad with the torture of thirst.
And yet that brain was clear enough to guide him in the way he would go. He studied the stars, found the north and set his course painstakingly. Presently he began to walk less hurriedly, bent savagely upon reserving his strength. When there was some object ahead set visibly against the skyline, a hillock or a clump of bushes, he laid his course by it, checking again and again by the stars. When he had walked an hour he stopped and rested, lighting a match to look at his watch. He allowed himself exactly five minutes and floundered up and went on again. Doggedly he sought to shut his mind to the pain stabbing through his weary feet, to the constriction of his throat, to the ache of his body so sorely and so long punished. When, had matters been different, he might have cried out: 'God, for a drink!' he now muttered dully, 'God, put him into my two hands !'
The fine, delicate machinery of a human brain, like any man-made mechanism of great nicety, may readily be thrown into confusion, its exquisite balance disturbed, its functioning confounded. Thirst, near-exhaustion, severe bodily distress and, on top of all, blood-lust anger made Alan Howard over into another man. He was possessed, obsessed. As the night wore on endlessly he created for himself visions; he came a thousand times upon the Indian; he sank his fingers and thumbs into a corded throat; he beat with his fists at the pulp of a face. He grew accustomed to his own voice, muttering ceaselessly. He heard himself praying as another man; the burden of his prayers was always the same: 'Deliver him, O Lord, into mine hands.' He was half mad for water and he cursed Kish Taka; he drove his body on when the agonized muscles rebelled and, driving mercilessly, he cursed Kish Taka.
Somehow the night passed and through it he staggered on. He fell as he had seen the Indian fall; he recalled that the Indian had arisen and he rose. Each time that he failed in something that he tried to do it was as though an imp jeered and taunted him, calling to him: 'Ho! The Indian is a better man. He is off there in the darkness, laughing at you!'
There came a time when he stumbled at every step, when he pitched forward frequently and lay inert and had to gather his strength to get up; when he wondered if he was going mad or if already he had gone mad; when his thirst was a killing agony and he knew that it was in truth killing him; when he crawled on his hands and knees up slight slopes; when the stars danced and he frowned at them stupidly, seeking the North Star, seeking to know which way led to Kish Taka. When the first faint glint of dawn sweetened the air he was lying on his back; he felt, rather than saw, that a new day was blossoming. He collected his wandering faculties, fought with the lassitude which stole upon him whenever his senses were not on the alert and sat up. And he would have cried out aloud at what he saw were not his throat and mouth and lips so dry that he was beyond calling out. For yonder, a blurred moving shape came toward him. The shape was a man's, and he knew that it was Kish Taka.
Somehow he got to his feet, somehow he dragged his revolver out of its holster, somehow he took a dozen tottering steps forward. He saw that Kish Taka had seen him and had stopped; that the Indian carried his canteen; that he was moving again. Howard lifted his gun, holding it in both hands. He was afraid that even now his quarry would escape him, that Kish Taka would run and that he could not follow. His fingers found the trigger and pressed it as he sought to hold the wavering muzzle steady. There was a loud report that seemed to tear
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