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   Chapter 21 TEX TAKES A LONG WALK

Oh, You Tex! By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 10284

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Except for desultory firing the Kiowas left the islanders alone for the rest of the day. The fever of the wounded man mounted. Most of the time he was out of his head, and in tossing to and fro was continually disturbing the cold-water bandages applied by the Texan.

As soon as night had fallen, Roberts put a proposition to his companion. "One of us has got to go for help. Take yore choice, Ridley. Will you go or stay?"

The Easterner felt as though his heart had been drenched in ice-water. "Can't we wait until some one comes?" he asked timidly.

"Who's likely to come? You got any friends on the way? I haven't. There's another thing: the stage will be along to-morrow. We've got to get warnin' to it that the Kiowas are on the warpath. If we don't-well, you know what happened to the freight outfit."

"If one of us goes, how can he get away?"

"I've thought of that. It will be dark for an hour before the moon gets up. The one that goes will have to drop off the bank an' swim down with the current for a quarter of a mile or so, then get to the shore, crawl across the prairie till he's clear of the sentries, an' make a bee-line for Tascosa."

"I couldn't find my way in the dark," faltered Arthur.

Jack nodded. "I doubt if you could. I'm elected, then."

"Why-why can't we both go?"

"We couldn't take Dinsmore fifty yards. He's too sick a man."

"He's going to die anyhow. If I stay, we'll both die-horribly. It's every man for himself now."

Jack shook his head. "If you feel that way, you go an' I'll stay."

"I-I can't go alone." He pushed his plea one step farther. "He's a criminal-a murderer. He'd kill you if he could, and he's already betrayed me. There's no call for us to wait for certain death on his account."

The Ranger spoke gently. "None for you, but he's in my hands. I'll see it out. Mebbe you can get through the lines. Crawl through the grass. Keep yore nerve an' lie low if you hear 'em comin'. Once you're through, you'll be all right."

"I tell you I can't go alone. If it has to be that one goes and one stays, then I'll stay."

"That's how it has to be. It's about an even break, I reckon. They're liable to get me if I go. They're liable to get you if you stay. Then again, they're liable to get neither of us if I can get through."

"What if they rush me?"

"Don't lose yore head. You can stand 'em off. They'll never make as strong an attack as they did this mo'nin'. If they make any real rush, it will likely be just before daybreak. Indians don't do business at night."

Jack made his preparations swiftly. He took off his boots and tied them to his belt. His hat he left behind.

"How will I know whether you get through the sentries?" asked Ridley.

"If you hear any shootin', you'll know I probably didn't. But I'm sure figurin' on gettin' through. Don't you forget for a minute that every hour brings help nearer. So long, old man. Best of luck!"

The Ranger grinned cheerfully at the other boy as he crept into the brush at the edge of the water. Presently Arthur heard a faint plop and knew that the Texan had begun his journey.

The swift current carried the swimmer downstream rapidly. He used his arms just enough to keep himself up, and let the power of the water do the rest. As a small boy he had lived on the Brazos. He knew the tricks of the expert, so that he was able now to swim with only his nose showing. For it was certain that the Indians had set watchers on the river to guard against an escape.

The island vanished behind him. Now and then he caught from one bank or the other the glow of camp-fires. Once he was sure he heard the beating of a tom-tom.

And once he gave himself up for lost. The rapid current had swept him close to the right bank. Across his vision flashed a picture of a brave armed with bow and arrow standing above him on the shore. He dived instantly. When he came up for air, only a bit of his red topknot showed. The swimmer heard the twang of an arrow and dived a second time. He was in the deep shadows of overhanging brush when he shook the water out of his eyes next time. For a dozen seconds he drew his breath in fear. But there came no shout of warning to other watchers, no shot or outcry to shatter the stillness. He guessed that the Kiowa had taken him for a log drifting downstream and had aimed wantonly to test his accuracy.

Several hundred yards below the island Jack caught at a bush projecting into the water. He swung close to the bank and very cautiously drew himself out of the river.

He listened. Except for the sound of the rushing water the night was still. Very carefully he wormed his way forward into the prairie. His progress was slow, for he had to make sure of each foot of his advance. Under cover of a mesquite-bush he put on his water-soaked boots. He crept fifty yards-one hundred. To his right a camp-fire was burning. It seemed to him once or twice that he heard voices.

An old trail worn nearly a foot deep by buffaloes served his need. In this trench he was partly hidden and could make better progress. He traveled on all fours, still alert in every sens

e for danger.

Suddenly he sank full length into the trench. On the other side of a cactus-bush two Indians were squatting. They sat and talked.

The heart of the Ranger sank. At any moment they might discover his presence, or they might sit there the whole night and hold him prisoner in his ditch.

For an hour he lay there, wondering each moment whether the ticking of his watch might not betray him. Then, in a leisurely way, the sentries got up and sauntered toward the river. The moon was up now, and he could see their naked bodies shining in the light.

The two Kiowas stopped a moment on the bank and talked before they separated. One moved up the river; the other turned and came back directly toward Roberts. The Ranger lay in the buffalo-trail hoping that in the darkness he might escape observation. He was helpless. Even if he had brought a gun with him he dared not shoot, for if the alarm were given he would be driven out of cover in a few minutes.

The brave came forward to the very edge of the wallow. His moccasin touched the body of the prostrate man. Some slight shift of his attitude precipitated the crisis. He turned to listen to some sound, and his foot pressed upon the leg of the Ranger.

There was an instant volcanic upheaval. The Indian, startled, leaped back. Jack was upon him like a wildcat. They struggled, their bodies so close that the Kiowa could not use his rifle. The Texan had a double advantage, that of surprise and of a more muscular body. Moreover, the redskin made the mistake of trying to cling to his gun. He was flung down to the ground hard, the white man on top of him.

Jack became aware that the Indian was going to shout, and knew that if he did all was lost. His strong, brown fingers closed on the throat of the brave. There was a wild thrashing of limbs in a struggle to escape. The grip tightened, cut off a gurgle of escaping air. The naked arms and legs jerked more feebly....

When Roberts crept away into the darkness he carried with him the knife of the Kiowa. The rifle would only have hampered him, since he had to travel fast and light.

With every yard gained now he was nearer safety. He knew he was leaving the camp behind. Presently he rose to his feet and traveled faster. For the safety of the two on the island depended upon the speed with which he covered the distance between him and Tascosa.

The plainsman seldom walks. His high-heeled boots would be torture on a long tramp. When he wants to reach a place, he rides on horseback. Jack had not walked five miles at a time within a dozen years. Now his long legs reached for the ground in a steady stride that ate up the leagues. He guided his course by the stars until he struck the river far above the camp. Once he stopped for a drink, but the thought of Ridley on the island drove his tired limbs on. Heel and toe, heel and toe, the steady march continued, till the Ranger, lithe and strong though the wind and sun and outdoor life had made him, was ready to drop with fatigue. His feet, pushed forward in the boots by the height of the heels, burned as with fire from the pain of outraged flesh rubbing against stiff leather.

But it was not in him to quit. He set his teeth in his exhaustion and ploughed on up the trail. At last he saw the far, faint lights of Tascosa. The last mile or two were interminable, but he walked into the Bird Cage just as the clock on the wall was striking three.

The music had started for a dance. A girl in a spangled dress ran up to him.

"Come on. Let's dance," she cried; then stopped and looked at him in surprise: "What's the matter with you?"

The Ranger climbed up on the bar and beat upon it with the heel of his boot. The dancers stopped in their tracks as the music died.

"The Kiowas are on the warpath. They've got two white men trapped on the big island below the bend. Gather all the horses, guns, and men you can. We start in twenty minutes."

Cowboys left their partners standing in the middle of the floor. The musicians dropped their bows and fiddles. Bar-tenders left unfilled the orders they had just taken. For Indians in their war-paint were a fact always very near to the frontiersman, and whatever faults the Southwest may have had in those days, its warm heart answered instantly the call for help.

The dancers scattered in all directions to get ready. A gong, beaten by the owner of the Bird Cage, rang out stridently into the quiet night to rally sleeping citizens. Children, wakened by the clamor, began to wail. Dogs barked. Excited men flung out questions and hurried away without waiting for answers.

But out of the confusion came swift action. Each man looked to his own ammunition, weapons, horse. Women hurriedly put up lunches and packed saddlebags with supplies. In an incredibly short time a company of fifty riders had gathered in front of the Bird Cage.

With the Ranger at their head, they went out of town at a fast trot. If there had been anybody there to notice it, he would have seen that the clock on the wall at the Bird Cage registered the time as twenty-seven minutes past three.

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