“You and Wainright ride ahead, Hal,” directed Henders, “and Di and I will trail along behind.”
The foreman nodded silently and put spurs to his pony, and in silence Wainright loped at his side. The arrangement suited neither and each was busy concocting schemes whereby the other might be paired off with Elias Henders, though under ordinary circumstances either would have been highly elated at the prospect of spending a whole day in company with “the old man.”
“Glorious morning!” ejaculated Henders to his daughter. “God may have forgotten Arizona in some respects, but he certainly remembered to give her the most wonderful mornings in the world.”
“Don’t they fill one with the most exquisite sensations!” she exclaimed.
“Almost as intoxicating as wine,” he agreed, and then: “By the way, Bull’s been doing fine, hasn’t he? I don’t believe he’s touched a drop since that night at Gum’s.”
“He’s working hard, too,” said the girl.
“He always did that—he’s the best cow-hand I ever saw and a hog for work. There isn’t a man in seven counties that can commence to touch him when it comes to riding, roping, parting, calling brands, judging ages or weights, or handling cattle with judgment under any conditions, nor one that knows the range within a hundred miles like he does. Why, the day before yesterday he had to give a fellow from the Red Butte country some pointers about the fellow’s own range—Bull knew it better than he did.”
“He’s wonderful,” said Diana. “I love to see him in the saddle, and anywhere in the cow-country he fits into the picture. I’m always proud that Bull is one of our men. Oh, I hope he don’t ever drink again.”
Elias Henders shook his head. “I’m afraid he’ll never quit,” he said. “A man’s got to have something to quit for, and Bull has no incentive to stop—only just his job, and when did a little thing like a job keep a man from drinking, especially the best cow-hand in the territory? There isn’t an outfit anywhere that wouldn’t hire him, drunk or sober. He don’t seem to be hanging around you much lately, Di, and I’m glad of that. I’d hate to see you interested in a man like Bull. I don’t take much to garrulous people, but neither do I want ’em as tight-mouthed as Bull. I’m afraid he’s got something to hide that makes him afraid to talk for fear he’ll let it out.”
“What do you suppose happened last night, Dad?” asked Diana, suddenly.
“I don’t know, I’m sure—what?” he asked.
“Jefferson Wainright proposed to me.”
“No! What did you tell him?”
“What should I have told him?”
“That depends upon how much or little you think of him,” replied her father.
“Would you like him for a son-in-law?”
“If you choose him, I shall like him—I should like the Devil if you chose to marry him.”
“Well, he isn’t quite as bad as all that, is he?” she cried, laughing.
“I didn’t mean it that way. He seems to be a nice boy. He could give you everything and he could take you among the sort of people that you belong among, and you wouldn’t have to be ashamed of him; but I don’t like his father.”
“His father is something of an embarrassment,” she assented.
“Do you love the boy, Di?” he asked.
“I don’t know, and I told him so. He wants me to marry him before we go East, and all go together.”
“What a lovely idea—taking your fathers on a honeymoon! You can count me out, and anyway if some other man is going to take you East I won’t have to go at all.”
“Well, I haven’t gone with him, yet. I told him I’d give him his answer before we left.”
“That would be a good idea—if he is going—he might want a few minutes’ notice,” he bantered, “but how about Hal? I thought you leaned a little in that direction.”
“I do,” laughed the girl. “When I’m with one I like that one best, and when I’m with the other I like him.”
“And when they are both with you at the same time—possibly you can find your answer there.”
“I have thought of that, because then I always compare the two—and Hal always suffers by the comparison. That is when we are sitting talking—but when they are in the saddle it is the other way around.”
“People can’t spend their married lives in the saddle,” he reminded her.
She sighed. “I am terribly perplexed. Of only one thing am I sure and that is that I shall marry either Hal Colby or Jefferson Wainright.”
“Or someone else,” he suggested.
“No! no one else,” she stated emphatically.
It was past noon and they had turned back, gathering up the little bunches of cattle that they had driven down out of canyon and coulee onto the flat below. Elias Henders and Diana were riding quite apart from the foreman and Wainright when Henders turned back to ride to the summit of a low elevation for a final survey of the country for any straggling bunch that might have escaped their notice. Diana was a few yards in rear of him as he drew rein on top of the hillock. It was very quiet. The cattle were at a distance from them, moving slowly off down the valley. There was only the sound of her horse’s unshod hoofs in the soft dirt and the subdued noise of a well-worn saddle as she urged her mount toward the side of her father.
Suddenly there was the crack of a rifle and Elias Henders’ horse dropped in its tracks. Henders fell clear and whipped out his revolver.
“Get out of here, Di!” he called to the girl. “It’s Indians. You’ve got time if you keep behind this butte and ride like Hell.”
She turned and looked toward the two men a quarter of a mile away—Colby and Wainright. She saw them wheel their horses and look toward the point from which the shot had come and from their position she guessed that they could see the Indians, though she could not.
Then she saw Hal Colby put spurs and quirt to his mount until the wiry beast fairly flew over the ground toward her. Wainright hesitated, looked toward the Indians and then back down the valley in the direction of the camp fifteen miles away. Suddenly he wheeled his horse and dashed off.
To her mind flashed the impassioned words that he had poured into her ears only the night before: “I worship you. There is no sacrifice that I would not willingly and gladly make for you or yours. I would die for you, dear girl, and thank God for the chance!”
Her lip curled and her eyes shot a single scornful glance in the direction of the retreating figure of Jefferson Wainright before she turned them back toward Colby. How magnificent he was! He had drawn one of his six-guns and was riding, not for the hill, but straight for the Indians, and just as he passed out of her sight behind the hillock he opened fire. She could hear the crack of his gun mingling with those of the Indians, and then her father, pausing in his fire, turned to her again.
“My God, Di, haven’t you gone?” he cried. “Hurry! There is time yet. Hal has got ’em on the run now, but they’ll be back again. There must be a dozen of them. Ride back to camp for help.”
“Mr. Wainright has already gone, Dad,” she told him. “We have always been together, all my life, Dad, and it don’t take two to get help. We need all the guns here we can get until the boys come,” and she dismounted and crawled to his side, despite his protests.
Over the crest of the hill she could see Colby galloping toward them, while the Indians, a quarter of a mile beyond him, were just circling back in pursuit. In the foreground a dead Indian lay sprawled in the open. To the right a riderless pony was loping away to join its fellows.
Diana lay a few feet from her father, both in readiness to cover Colby’s retreat when the Indians came within revolver range.
“Wish we had a couple of rifles,” remarked Elias Henders. “If I had a thirty-thirty I could hold ’em off alone until the boys get here.”
“We ought to be able to hold out for an hour, Dad. The boys should be here in that time.”
“We’ll do the best we can, but, Di—” he paused, a little catch in his voice—“don’t let them get you, dear. The boys might not get here in time.
“Wainright is not much of a rider—he won’t make the time that one of our boys would. They’d kill the horse, but they’d get there. And then there may not be anyone in camp but the cook that time of day—that’s what I’m really most afraid of.
“We’ll do the best we can. Likely as not we’ll pull through; but if we don’t, why, remember what I said, don’t let ’em get you—save one shot. You understand?”
“I understand, Dad.”
Colby, his horse stretched to quirt and spur, swung around to their side of the hill, threw his horse to its haunches as he reined in close to them and leaped from the saddle. Without a word he dragged the blowing, half-winded animal directly in front of them, raised his six-shooter to its forehead and shot it between the eyes.
Diana Henders voiced a little gasp of dismay, and then she saw the man turn toward her own pony; but she only covered her eyes with her palms and bit her lip to stifle a sob. A moment later there was a shot and the sound of a falling body.
“Crawl behind that cayuse of mine, Di,” said Colby. He was tugging at the body of the girl’s pony to drag it closer to the others, in order to form a rude triangle with the other two dead horses. Henders rose to his knees and gave Colby a hand, while Di opened fire upon the approaching braves.
“Reckon we orter hold out here till the boys come,” remarked the foreman.
He was cool and self-possessed—just as cool and self-possessed as Jefferson Wainright would have been in a Boston drawing-room. Even as she took careful aim at a half-naked, yelling buck, and missed him, Diana Henders’ mind was considering this fact. She fired again and this time the buck ceased to yell, grasped his stomach with both hands and toppled headlong to the ground. Hal Colby might learn to be cool and self-possessed in a Boston drawing-room, but could Jefferson Wainright ever learn to be cool and self-possessed inside a yelling circle of painted savages thirsting for his life’s blood?
The Indians were now riding a wide circle entirely about the hillock, firing as they rode. Naturally their aim was execrable, and the three were in danger only of a chance hit. After the warrior fell to Diana’s bullet the circle widened to still greater proportions and a few minutes later the Indians withdrew out of effective revolver range and gathered in a compact group where the three on the hillock could see them gesticulating and talking excitedly.
“They’re up to some new devilment,” said Renders.
“I hope they don’t charge from different directions before the boys git here,” remarked Colby. “If they do we might as well kiss ourselves good-bye. I wish you wasn’t here, Di.
“Damn that white-livered dude’s hide. Ef he hadn’t turned tail you could have gone. You could ride rings about that slab-sided maverick, an’ besides you’d have been safe. Look! They’re separatin’ now.”
“Yes, they’re riding to surround us again,” said Diana.
“If they charge, Hal,—” said Henders, “wait until they get close and then stand up and let them have it. Di, you lie as close to the ground as you can. Don’t move. Just watch us, and when you see we’re both down you’ll know it’s all up and—you must do what I told you to.”
Hal Colby looked at the beautiful girl at his side, and scowled, for he guessed without being told, what her father meant. “Damn that dude!” he muttered.
“Mebby I hadn’t orter shot all the hosses,” he said presently. “Mebby Di could have got away.”
“No,” Henders assured him. “You did just right, Hal. Di wouldn’t go. I told her to, but she wouldn’t. It was too late then anyway.”
“I figgered it was too late,” said Colby; “but mebby it wasn’t. I wish I had thet damn dude here.”
“They’re coming!” cried Diana.
From four sides the Indians were racing toward them, their savage cries breaking hideously the silence of the sun-parched valley. The three crouched, waiting. No word was spoken until the nearest of the red-skins was no more than twenty-five yards away.
Then: “Now!” said Henders, leaping to his feet. Colby was up simultaneously, firing as he rose. Diana Henders, far from lying close to the ground as she had been directed, was on her feet almost as quickly as the men.
“Get down, Di!” commanded her father, but her only reply was a shot that brought down a warrior’s pony twenty paces from them.
Colby and Henders had each shot an Indian and there was another pony down in front of Colby. The renegades were close now and presented splendid targets for the three whites, all of whom were excellent revolver shots. At each report of their weapons a hit was scored.
Now a pony screamed and wheeled away, bearing its rider in headlong flight down the gentle declivity of the hillside; another stumbled and crumpled to the ground, sprawling its painted master in the dust; a warrior, wounded, veered to one side and raced off to safety; or, again, one slumped silently to earth, never to charge again.
Two of the unhorsed warriors sprang into close quarters, clubbing their empty rifles. One was leaping toward Diana, the other for Colby. At the same instant Elias Henders lifted both hands above his head, his gun slipped from nerveless fingers, and he lunged forward across the body of his dead horse.
Colby put a shot through the stomach of the buck leaping upon him, then turned toward Diana. He saw the painted face of a tall chief just beyond Diana’s; he saw the rifle swinging to brain her as she pulled the trigger of her Colt with the muzzle almost against the sweat-streaked body; there was no answering report, and then Colby, leaping between them, seized the upraised rifle and tore it from the hand of the red man.
The two clinched, the Indian reaching for his knife, while the white, who had emptied both guns and had no time to reload, strove to brain his antagonist with one of them. Struggling, they fell.
Diana Henders, reloading her own weapon, looked hurriedly about. The other warriors, momentarily dispersed, had rallied and were returning with wild, triumphant yells, for they saw that the battle was already theirs.
Elias Henders raised himself weakly on one elbow and looked about. Instantly his gaze took in the situation.
“Di!” he cried, “my little girl. Quick! Don’t wait! Shoot yourself before they get you.”
“Not yet!” she cried, and turned toward the two men, the red and the white, battling at her feet. Stooping, she held the muzzle of her weapon close to the rolling, tossing men, waiting an opportunity to put a bullet in the chief when she could do so without endangering Colby.
From behind her the returning braves were approaching rapidly, the racing hoofs of their ponies pounding a dull tattoo on the powdery earth. They were almost upon her when Colby’s fingers found the chief’s throat and the latter’s head was pushed momentarily away from that of the white man. It was the instant that Diana had awaited. She stepped in closer, there was the sound of a shot, and the renegade collapsed limply in Colby’s grasp.
Simultaneously a wild yell arose from below them in the valley. The remaining Indians, almost upon them, were riding in a close mass from the opposite side. What could it be—more Indians?
Colby had hurled the dead chief aside and was on his feet beside the girl. They both looked in the direction of the new sound to see two horsemen racing madly toward them.
“It’s Bull! It’s Bull!” cried Diana Henders. “Bull and Texas Pete.”
The ponies of the oncoming men were racing neck and neck. The riders were howling like demons. The Indians heard, paused in their charge and wheeled to one side—there were five of them left. The reinforcements were too much for them, and with a parting volley they galloped off.
But Bull and Texas Pete were of no mind to let them go so easily. For a mile or more they pursued them, until they realized that their already almost spent horses could not outdistance the mounts of the Indians. Then they turned and loped slowly back toward the three upon the hillock.
Instantly the immediate necessity of defense had passed Diana Henders kneeled beside her father and lifted his head in her arms. Colby stepped to the opposite side of the prostrate man to help her. Suddenly she looked up into his yes, an expression of horror in hers.
“Oh, Hal! Hal! he’s gone!” she cried, and burying her face in her arms, burst into tears.
The man, unaccustomed to a woman’s tears, or a sorrow such as this, was at a loss for words, yet almost mechanically his arms went about her and drew her close to him, so that she stood with her face buried in the hollow of his shoulder as Bull and Texas Pete rode up the hill and dismounted beside them. They took in the pitiful scene at a glance, but they saw more in it than the death of “the old man,” whom they both loved—at least Bull did.
In the attitude of Diana and Colby he read the death knell of whatever faint hope he might have entertained of ultimate happiness. It was a hurt and bitter man that lifted the dead body of his employer in strong arms and laid it across the saddle of his horse.
“You ride Pete’s horse, Miss,” he said gently. “Colby, you walk ahead with her. Pete an’ I’ll come along with the old man.”
They all did as he bid without question. There was something about the man that demanded obedience even if he was no longer foreman. It was always that way with Bull. Wherever he was he was the leader. Even though men mistrusted, or disliked him, and many did, they involuntarily obeyed him. Possibly because he was a strong man who thought quickly and accurately and was almost invariably right in his decision—it was certainly not because a large proportion of them loved him, for they did not. There was that something lacking in Bull—that quality which attracted the love of his fellows.
After Diana and Colby had gone ahead Bull and Pete roped the body of Elias Henders securely to the saddle and presently the sorrowful little cortege took its slow way back toward camp.