“And where?” she demanded.
“Back to your Kalkar friends,” I replied.
“It is because you are not a Kalkar that I did not fly,” she said.
“How do you know that I am no Kalkar,” I demanded, “and why, if I am not, should you not fly from me, who must be an enemy of your people?”
“You called him ‘Kalkar’ as you charged him,” she explained, “and one Kalkar does not call another Kalkar that. Neither am I a Kalkar.”
I thought then of what the Or-tis had told me of the thousand Americans who had wished to desert the Kalkars and join themselves with us. This girl must be of them, then.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“My name is Bethelda,” she replied. “And who are you?”
She looked me squarely in the eyes with a fearless frankness that was anything but Kalkarian. It was the first time that I had had a good look at her, and, by the Flag, she was not displeasing to look at! She had large, gray-green eyes and heavy lashes and a cheerful countenance that seemed even now to be upon the verge of laughter. There was something almost boyish about her, and yet she was all girl. I stood looking at her for so long a time without speaking that a frown of impatience clouded her brow.
“I asked you who you are,” she reminded me.
“I am Julian 20th, the Red Hawk,” I replied, and I thought for an instant that her eyes went a little wider and that she looked frightened; but I must have been mistaken, for I was to learn later that it took more than a name to frighten Bethelda.
“Tell me where you are going,” I said, “and I will ride with you, lest you be again attacked.”
“I do not know where to go,” she replied, “for wherever I go I meet enemies.”
“Where are your people?” I demanded.
“I fear that they are all slain,” she told me, a quiver in her voice.
“But where were you going? You must have been going somewhere.”
“I was looking for a place to hide,” she said. “The Nipons would let me stay with them, if I could find them. My people were always kind to them. They would be kind to me.”
“Your people were of the Kalkars, even though you say you are no Kalkar, and the Nipons hate them. They would not take you in.”
“My people were Americans. They lived among the Kalkars, but they were not Kalkars. We lived at the foot of these hills for nearly a hundred years, and we often met the Nipons. They did not hate us, though they hated the Kalkars about us.”
“Do you know Saku?” I asked.
“Since I was a little child I have known Saku the Chief,” she replied.
“Come, then,” I said; “I will take you to Saku.”
“You know him? He is near?”
She followed me down the trail up which I had so recently come, and although I begrudged the time that it delayed me, I was glad that I might have her off my hands so easily and so quickly; for of a certainty I could not leave her alone and unprotected, nor could I take her upon my long journey with me even could I have prevailed upon my people to accept her.
In less than an hour we came upon Saku’s new camp, and the little people were surprised indeed to see me, and overjoyed when they discovered Bethelda, more than assuring me by their actions that the girl had been far from stating the real measure of the esteem in which the Nipons held her. When I would have turned to ride away they insisted that I remain until morning, pointing out to me that the day was already far gone, and that being unfamiliar with the trails I might easily become lost and thus lose more time than I would gain.
The girl stood listening to our conversation, and when I at last insisted that I must go because, having no knowledge of the trails anyhow, I would be as well off by night as by day, she offered to guide me.
“I know the valley from end to end,” she said. “Tell me where you would go and I will lead you there as well by night as by day.”
“But how would you return?” I asked.
“If you are going to your people perhaps they would let me remain, for am I not an American, too?”
I shook my head. “I am afraid that they would not,” I told her. “We feel very bitterly toward all Americans that cast their lot with the Kalkars—even more bitterly than we feel toward the Kalkars themselves.”
“I did not cast my lot with the Kalkars,” she said proudly. “I have hated them always—since I was old enough to hate. If four hundred years ago my people chose to do a wicked thing, is it any fault of mine? I am as much an American as you, and I hate the Kalkars more because I know them better.”
“My people would not reason that way,” I said. “The women would set the hounds on you, and you would be torn to pieces.”
She shivered. “You are as terrible as the Kalkars,” she said bitterly.
“You forget the generations of humiliation and suffering that we have endured because of the renegade Americans who brought the Kalkar curse upon us,” I reminded her.
“We have suffered, too,” she said, “and we are as innocent as you,” and then suddenly she looked me squarely in the eyes. “How do you feel about it? Do you, too, hate me worse than if I were a Kalkar? You saved my life, perhaps, to-day. You could do that for one you hate?”
“You are a girl,” I reminded her, “and I am an Americana Julian,” I added.
“You saved me only because I am a girl?” she insisted.
“You are a strange people,” she said, “that you could be so brave and generous to one you hate, and yet refuse the simpler kindness of forgiveness—forgiveness of a sin that we did not commit.”
I recalled the Or-tis, who had spoken similarly, and I wondered if perhaps they might not be right; but we are a proud people and for generations before my day our pride had been ground beneath the heels of the victorious Kalkar.
Even yet the wound was still raw. And we are a stubborn people—stubborn in our loves and our hatreds.
Already I had regretted my friendliness with the Or-tis, and now I was having amicable dealings with another Kalkar—it was difficult for me to think of them as other than Kalkars. I should be hating this one—I should have hated the Or-tis—but for some reason I found it not so easy to hate them.
Saku had been listening to our conversation, a portion of which at least he must have understood.
“Wait until morning,” he said, “and then she can at least go with you as far as the top of the hills and point out the way for you; but you will be wise to take her with you. She knows every trail, and it will be better for her to go with you to your own people. She is not Kalkar, and if they catch her they will kill her.
“Were she Kalkar we would hate her and chase her away; but though she is welcome among us it would be hard for her to remain. We move camp often, and often our trails lead where one so large as she might have difficulty in following, nor would she have a man to hunt for her, and there are times when we have to go without food because we cannot find enough even for our own little people.”
“I will wait until morning,” I said; “but I cannot take her with me; my people would kill her.”
I had two motives in remaining over the night. One was to go forth early in the morning and kill game for the little Nipons in payment for their hospitality, and the other was to avail myself of the girl’s knowledge of the trails, which she could point out from some lofty hilltop. I had only a general idea of the direction in which to search for my people, and as I had seen from the summit that the valley beyond was entirely surrounded by hills I realized that I might gain time by waiting until morning, when the girl should be able to point out the route to the proper pass to my destination.
After the evening meal that night I kept up a fire for the girl, as the air was chill and she was not warmly clad. The little people had only their tents and a few skins for their own protection, nor was there room in the former for the girl, so already overcrowded were they. The Nipons retired to their rude shelters almost immediately after eating, leaving the girl and me alone. She huddled close to the fire and she looked very forlorn and alone.
“Your people are all gone?” I asked.
“My own people—my father, my mother, my three brothers—all are dead, I think,” she replied. “My mother and father I know are dead. She died when I was a little girl. Six months ago my father was killed by the Kalkars. My three brothers and I scattered, for we heard that they were coming to kill us also.
“I have heard that they captured my brothers; but I am not sure. They have been killing many in the valley lately, for here dwell nearly all the pure descendants of Americans, and those of us who were thought to favor the true Or-tis were marked for slaughter by the false Or-tis.
“I had been hiding in the home of a friend of my father, but I knew that if I were found there it would bring death to him and his family, and so I came away, hoping to find a place where I might be safe from them; but I guess there is no place for me—even my friends, the Nipons, though they would let me stay with them, admit that it would be a hardship to provide for me.”
“What will you do?” I asked. Somehow I felt very sorry for her.
“I shall find some nearly inaccessible place in the hills and build myself a shelter,” she replied.
“But you cannot live here in the hills alone,” I remonstrated.
She shrugged her shoulders. “Where may I live, then?”
“For a little while, perhaps,” I suggested, “until the Kalkars are driven into the sea.”
“Who will drive them into the sea?” she asked.
“We,” I replied proudly.
“And if you do, how much better off shall I be? Your people will set their hounds upon me—you have said so yourself. But you will not drive the Kalkars into the sea. You have no conception of their numbers. All up and down the coast, days’ journeys north and south, wherever there is a fertile valley, they have bred like flies. For days they have been coming from all directions, marching toward the Capitol. I do not know why they congregate now, nor why only the warriors come. Are they threatened, do you think?” A sudden thought seemed to burst upon her. “It cannot be,” she exclaimed, “that the Yanks have attacked them! Have your people come out of the desert again?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Yesterday we attacked their great camp; to-day my warriors must have eaten their evening meal in the stone tents of the Kalkars.”
“You mean the Capitol?”
“Your forces have reached the Capitol? It seems incredible! Never before have you come so far. You have a great army?”
“Twenty-five thousand warriors marched down out of the desert beneath the Flag,” I told her, “and we drove the Kalkars from the pass of the ancients back to the Capitol, as you call their great camp.”
“You have lost many warriors?”
“Many fell,” I replied; “thousands.”
“Then you are not twenty-five thousand now, and the Kalkars are like ants. Kill them, and more will come. They will wear you down until your few survivors will be lucky if they can escape back to their desert.”
“You do not know us,” I told her. “We have brought our women, our children, our flocks and herds down into the orange groves of the Kalkars, and there we shall remain. If we cannot drive the Kalkars into the sea to-day, we shall have to wait until to-morrow. It has taken us three hundred years to drive them this far, but in all that time we have never given back a step that we have once gained; we have never retreated from any position to which we have brought our families and our stock.”
“You have a large family?” she asked.
“I have no wife,” I replied as I arose to add fuel to the fire.
As I returned with a handful of sticks I saw that she hugged closer to the blaze and that she shivered with the cold. I removed my Kalkar robe and threw it across her shoulders.
“No,” she cried, rising. “I cannot take it. You will be cold.”
“Keep it,” I said. “The night will be cold, and you cannot go until morning without covering.”
She shook her head.
“No,” she repeated. “I cannot accept favors from an enemy who hates me.”
She stood there, holding the red robe out toward me. Her chin was high and her expression haughty.
I stepped forward and took the robe and as her hand dropped to her side I threw the woolen garment about her once more and held it there upon her slim figure. She tried to pull away from it, but my arm was about her, holding the robe in place, and as I guessed her intention I pressed the garment more closely around her, which drew her to me until we stood face to face, her body pressed against mine. As I looked down into her upturned face our eyes met, and for a moment we stood there as if turned to stone.
I do not know what happened. Her eyes, wide and half frightened, looked up into mine, her lips were parted, and she caught her breath once in what was almost a sob. Just for an instant we stood thus, and then her eyes dropped and she bent her head and turned it half away and at the same time her muscles relaxed and she went almost limp in my arms.
Very gently I lowered her to her seat beside the fire and adjusted the robe about her. Something had happened to me. I did not know what it was, but of a sudden nothing seemed to matter so much in all the world as the comfort and safety of Bethelda.
In silence I sat down opposite her and looked at her as though I never before had laid eyes upon her, and well might it have been that I had never; for, by the Flag, I had not seen her before, or else, like some of the tiny lizards of the desert, she had the power to change her appearance as they change their colors, for this was not the same girl to whom I had been talking a moment since; this was a new and wonderful creature of a loveliness beyond all compare.
No, I did not know what had happened, nor did I care. I just sat there and devoured her with my eyes. And then she looked up and spoke four words that froze my heart in my bosom.
She looked up and her eyes were dull and filled with pain. Something had happened to her, too—I could see it.
“I am an Or-tis,” she said, and dropped her head again.
I could not speak. I just sat there staring at the slender little figure of my blood enemy, sitting, dejected, in the firelight. After a long time she lay down beside the fire and slept, and I suppose that I must have slept, too, for once, when I opened my eyes, the fire was out, I was almost frozen, and the light of a new day was breaking over rugged hilltops to the east. I arose and rekindled the fire. After that I would get Red Lightning and ride away before she awakened; but when I had found him, feeding a short distance from the camp, I did not mount and ride away, but came back to the camp again. Why, I do not know. I did not want to see her again ever, yet something drew me to her.
She was awake and standing looking all about, up and down the cañon, when I first saw her, and I was sure that there was an expression of relief in her eyes when she discovered me.
She smiled wistfully, and I could not be hard, as I should have been to a blood enemy.
I was friendly with her brother, I thought—why should I not be friendly with her? Of course, I shall go away and not see her again; but at least I may be pleasant to her while I remain. Thus I argued, and thus I acted.
“Good morning,” I said as I approached. “How are you?”
“Splendid,” she replied. “And how are you?”
Her tones were rich and mellow and her eyes intoxicated me like old wine. Oh, why was she an enemy?
The Nipons came from their little tents. The naked children scampered around, playing with the dogs in an attempt to get warm. The women built the fires, around which the men huddled while their mates prepared the morning meal.
After we had eaten I took Red Lightning and started off down the cañon to hunt, and although I was dubious as to what results I should achieve with the heavy Kalkar bow, I did better than I had expected, for I got two bucks although the chase carried me much farther from camp than I had intended going.
The morning must have been half spent as Red Lightning toiled up the cañon trail beneath the weight of the two carcasses and myself to the camp. I noticed that he seemed nervous as we approached, keeping his ears pricked forward and occasionally snorting, but I had no idea of the cause of his perturbation and was only the more on the alert myself, as I always am when warned by Red Lightning’s actions that something may be amiss.
And when I came to the camp site I did not wonder that he had been aroused, for his keen nostrils had scented tragedy long before my dull senses could become aware of it. The happy, peaceful camp was no more. The little tents lay flat upon the ground and near them the corpses of two of my tiny friends—two little naked warriors. That was all. Silence and desolation brooded where there had been life and happiness a few short hours before. Only the dead remained.
Bethelda! What had become of her? What had happened? Who had done this cruel thing? There was but a single answer—the Kalkars must have discovered this little camp and rushed it. The Nipons that had not been killed doubtless escaped, and the Kalkars had carried Bethelda away a captive.
Suddenly I saw red. Casting the carcasses of the bucks to the ground, I put spurs to Red Lightning and set out up the trail where the fresh imprint of horses hoof’s pointed the direction in which the murderers had gone. There was the spoor of several horses in the trail, and among them one huge imprint fully twice the size of the dainty imprint of Red Lightning’s shoe. While the feet of all the Kalkar horses are large, this was the largest I had ever seen.
From the signs of the trail, I judged that not less than twenty horses were in the party, and while at first I had ridden impetuously in pursuit, presently my better judgment warned me that I could best serve Bethelda through strategy, if at all, since it was obvious that one man could not, single-handed, overthrow a score of warriors by force alone.
And now, therefore, I went more warily, though had I been of a mind to do so I doubt that I could have much abated my speed, for there was a force that drove me on, and if I let my mind dwell long on the possibility of the dangers confronting Bethelda I forgot strategy and cunning and all else save brute force and blood.
Vengeance! It is of my very marrow, bred into me through generations that have followed its emblem, the Flag, westward along its bloody trail toward the sea. Vengeance and the Flag and the Julian—they are one. And here was I, Lord of Vengeance, Great Chief of the Julians, Protector of the Flag, riding hot-foot to save or avenge a daughter of the Or-tis! I should have flushed for shame, but I did not. Never had my blood surged so hot even to the call of the Flag. Could it be, then, that there was something greater than the Flag? No, that I could not admit; but I had found something that imparted to the Flag a greater meaning to me.