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   Chapter 35 THE DESERT

Oh, You Tex! By William MacLeod Raine Characters: 6947

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


It was only recently that Clint Wadley had become a man of wealth, and life in the Panhandle was even yet very primitive according to present-day standards. There was no railroad within one hundred and fifty miles of the A T O ranch. Once in two weeks one of the cowboys rode to Clarendon to get the mail and to buy small supplies. Otherwise contact with the world was limited to occasional visits to town.

As a little girl Ramona had lived in a one-room house built of round logs, with a stick-and-mud chimney, a door of clapboards daubed with mud at the chinks, and a dirt floor covered with puncheons. She had slept in a one-legged bedstead fitted into the wall, through the sides and ends of which bed, at intervals of eight inches, holes had been bored to admit of green rawhide strips for slats. She had sat on a home-made three-legged stool at a home-made table in homespun clothes and eaten a dish of cush[8] for her supper. She had watched her aunt make soap out of lye dripping from an ash-hopper. The only cooking utensils in the house had been a Dutch oven, a three-legged skillet, a dinner-pot, a tea-kettle, a big iron shovel, and a pair of pot-hooks suspended from an iron that hung above the open fire.

But those were memories of her childhood in southern Texas. With the coming of prosperity Clint had sent his children to Tennessee to school, and Ramona had been patiently trained to the feebleness of purpose civilization in those days demanded of women of her class and section. She had been taught to do fancy needlework and to play the piano as a parlor accomplishment. It had been made plain to her that her business in life was to marry and keep the home fires burning, and her schooling had been designed, not to prepare her as a mate for her future husband, but to fit her with the little graces that might entice him into choosing her for a wife.

Upon her return to the ranch Ramona had compromised between her training and her inheritance. She took again to horseback riding and to shooting, even though she read a good deal and paid due attention to her pink-and-white complexion.

So that when she looked up from the cavern in which she was buried and caught a gleam of a star in the slit of blue sky above, she was not so helpless as her schooling had been designed to make her. The girl was compact of supple strength. Endurance and a certain toughness of fiber had come to her from old Clint Wadley.

She began the climb, taking advantage of every bit of roughness, of every projection in the almost sheer wall. A knob of feldspar, a stunted shrub growing from a crevice, a fault in the rock structure, offered here and there toe-or hand-holds. She struggled upward, stopped more than once by the smooth surface against which her soft warm body was pressing. On such occasions she would lower herself again, turn to the right or the left, and work toward another objective.

Ramona knew that the least slip, the slightest failure of any one of her muscles, would send her plunging down to the bottom of the crevasse. The worst of it was that she could not put any dependence upon her injured leg. It might see her through or it might not.

It was within a few feet of the top, just below the arrowweed bush, that she came to an impasse. The cold wall offered no hand-hold by which she could gain the few inches that would bring her within reach of the bunched roots. She undid her belt, threw one end of it over the body of

the bush, and worked it carefully down until she could buckle it. By means of this she went up hand over hand till she could reach the arrowweed. Her knee found support in the loop of the belt, and in another moment she had zigzagged herself inch by inch over the edge to the flat surface above.

No sign of the Apaches was to be seen. 'Mona recovered her belt and began to move up the rock spur toward the summit of the hill. A sound stopped her in her tracks. It was the beating of a tom-tom.

She knew the Indians must be camped by the lake. They were probably having a feast and dances. In any case she could not strike direct for home. She must keep on this side of the hill, make a wide circuit, and come in from the west.

Already her leg was paining her a good deal. Since five o'clock in the morning she had eaten nothing. Her throat was parched with thirst. But these were details that must be forgotten. She had to tramp more than twenty miles through the desert regardless of her physical condition.

The girl went at it doggedly. She limped along, getting wearier every mile of the way. But it was not until she discovered that she was lost to all sense of direction that she broke down and wept. The land here was creased by swales, one so like another that in the darkness she had gone astray and did not know north from south.

After tears came renewed resolution. She tried to guide herself by the stars, but though she could hold a straight course there was no assurance in her mind that she was going toward the A T O. Each step might be taking her farther from home. A lime kiln burned in her throat. She was so worn out from lack of food and the tremendous strain under which she had been carrying on that her knees buckled under her weight as she stumbled through the sand. The bad ankle complained continuously.

In this vast solitude there was something weird and eerie that shook her courage. Nor was the danger all fantastic imaginings. The Indians might yet discover her. She might wander far from beaten trails of travel and die of thirst as so many newcomers had done. Possibilities of disaster trooped through her mind.

She was still a child, on the sunny side of seventeen. So it was natural that when she sat down to rest her ankle she presently began to sob again, and that in her exhaustion she cried herself to sleep.

When her eyes opened, the sun was peeping over the desert horizon. She could tell directions now. The A T O ranch must be far to the northeast of where she was. But scarcely a mile from her ran a line of straggling brush. It must be watered by a stream. She hobbled forward painfully to relieve the thirst that was already a torment to her.

She breasted the rise of a little hill and looked down a gentle slope toward the thicket. For a moment her heart lost a beat. A trickle of smoke was rising from a camp-fire and a man was bending over it. He was in the clothes of a white man. Simultaneously there came to her the sound of a shot.

From her parched throat there came a bleating little cry. She hurried forward, and as she went she called again and still again. She was pitifully anxious lest the campers ride away before they should discover her.

A man with a gun in his hand moved toward her from the creek. She gave a little sobbing cry and stumbled toward him.

Cush is made of old corn bread and biscuits in milk, beaten to a batter and fried in bacon grease with salt. [8]

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