WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders
30,000 on the Hoof
Zane Grey (1940) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
One early fall afternoon Logan returned from down the canyon with a pale cast of countenance and fire in his grey eyes. He did not vouchsafe any explanation, and Lucinda thought she had better not question him.
She knew something unusual had happened, but without betraying any curiosity, she managed to observe things that sent the slow, icy constriction to her veins. There was blood on Logan's hands and a bullet-hole in his shirt! He left almost at once, carrying his rifle, aid climbed the ridge into the woods instead of returning down the canyon. As she knew it was impossible to stop him, she felt a little less concern about his going that way rather than in the open.
"Logan has been shot!" she reasoned, with a sudden sensation of faintness that she thrust off with an effort. An intuition dark and ominous quickly flashed over her..."That Apache!...Matazel!"
She was as certain that it was the Indian as if she had witnessed the actual deed. Very probably Logan had not seen his assailant, but considering that he had no other enemy, would he not suspect Matazel? Lucinda spent uneasy, anxious hours until Logan returned, some time after dark.
After this incident Lucinda observed that Logan carried his rifle with him whenever he went out, even if only to milk the cows. He grew silent, sombre, watchful and preoccupied. Lucinda did not intrude her great fear upon him. Despite it, she had great confidence in her husband. He had been a scout in the Apache round-up years before; he was a woodsman and a hunter; he had been forewarned against peril and he had answered it with extreme caution.
The smoky, warm, languorous days passed. The leaves began to carpet the grass with gold and brown. Again the purple asters bloomed along the path to the brook. The wind moaned of the coming of winter. The sun sloped farther towards the south.
Lucinda lived in constant dread. Always when Logan was absent she had expected another visit from Matazel; she imagined she had heard his stealthy moccasined step on the path. But now added to this was the fear that Logan might not come back from one of his hunting trips.
"How is it you don't bring in any game?" she asked him.
"Too early. Not cold enough. But soon," he replied, gruffly.
He was indeed roaming the forest, canvassing the game trails, but he was not hunting any four-footed beast. One evening he returned with all his strain and tenseness gone. Lucinda saw drops of sweat on his dark brow. For once his appetite was poor. When she inquired anxiously if he were sick, he replied: "Kinda off my feed at that." But he smoked a pipe before the fire--something he had not indulged in a great deal formerly. Afterwards Logan was his old self, chopping wood with cheerful vigour, stamping in and out of the cabin, breaking his silence. Soon after that the snow whitened the ridges and he began to pack down game-meat for winter use. At last the drifting curtain of white trailed down into the canyon. Lucinda rejoiced, her fear somehow mysteriously abated. They were isolated now for months.
With two growing youngsters and a baby, Lucinda had her hands full, irrespective of cooking and baking and sewing. But when she did not think, she touched happiness again. What a difference the children made! George was getting big enough to teach. In fact, his father had already begun to interest the boy in guns, knives, tracks, and all pertaining to his wilderness home. Huett's sons would be hunters--Lucinda could not gainsay that, and at length she decided it was well. On her side, however, she made up her mind to give them a good education.
Late the following spring Lucinda took her children as far as Holbert's with the intention of leaving them there while she accompanied Logan on into Flagg.
Already Holbert had been south to Payson that spring, and he was full of news. Lucinda seldom gave heed to the conversation of the men, because it invariably had to do with range, cattle, grass, calves, and all pertaining to ranch life. At the very outset, however, Holbert sent a chill shock to her heart.
"Huett, you knew thet Apache runaway, didn't you?" he queried.
"Which one?" asked Logan, and Lucinda felt his wariness, if he did not show it to the others.
"Thet one said to be old Geronimo's son. He used to hang around Payson. His name was Matazel."
"Sure. I remember him. Helped round him up when I was scout for Crook...What about Matazel?"
"Wal, some Tonto Basin deer-hunters found him daid last fall. Down below your canyon somewhere. He'd been caught behind a pine too small to cover him an' he'd been shot to pieces. Put up a fight, though, they said. Empty shells layin' all around his body!"
"Well!...So that was the end of Matazel," ejaculated Huett.
"Folks down Payson way was plumb glad. Thet Apache had a bad name. He'd escaped from the reservation several times. Shore hated white people."
"Who'd he fight with?"
"Nobody knows. But it was hinted thet the Horner boys might have an idee. Their sister fought off an Indian once, when she was alone at home. An' they had a hunch he was the Apache."
"Good riddance, I'd say," replied Huett, forcibly.
"Yes. Thar's varmints enough around without renegade Indians...How'd you come off with the lofers?"
"Wolves, you mean?--They didn't kill any of my stock last winter."
"Wish I could say thet. Our old friend Gray shore did us dirt. He's got a pack now, an' they shore left a bloody trail across this range."
"I got most of the cougars cleaned out down at Sycamore. All the same, I can't raise calves."
"Man alive! If you cain't, you'll never be a cattle-raiser."
"I'm not licked yet," said Huett, doggedly.
Lucinda, in bed and wakeful, was now sure of two tremendous facts. Logan had killed the Apache. The other was that she seemed to have been freed from an awful burden; a haunting uncertainty that she had never named to her consciousness but which was now dissolved for ever before the dawn of another and a happier day.
On the way to Flagg they passed several wagons that bore semblance to the old prairie-schooner. What a thrill they gave Lucinda!
"Settlers going south," explained Logan exuberantly. "Holbert told me there was a lot more travel on the road this spring. Some Mormons and a few Texans. That's good. We need settlers."
That visit to town was one for Lucinda to store up and remember for many a month. She felt so happy again, excited at being near people, at the stores displaying their spring goods, that she spent half of her long-saved money before she realized what she was doing. But she could not regret it. Most of, her purchases were for the children. She treated herself to one luxury--a long-wished-for lamp, which would enable her to sew at night, and to a necessity almost as greatly needed--a case of jars to put up preserves.
Back at Sycamore Canyon once more, Lucinda saw the lonely, log-walled home with clarifying eyes.
Logan's toil claimed half the days, and there were not hours enough left, even after dark, for her own. Yet her healthy, precocious children would have been compensation and joy for any toiling mother. The habit of work grew so strong, so necessary and satisfying that Lucinda would not have been without it. Years had been required to mould her into a pioneer wife, but she had' achieved that height.
Lucinda loved her children, but in time she seemed to realize that the dark-haired, grey-eyed Abraham was her favourite. She had suffered most carrying and giving him birth; she had kept him at her breast far too long, Mrs. Holbert said; and he was the handsome one of the trio.
"Dandy bunch of boys, wife," said Logan, one night, as he played with the blond baby. "Wherever did Grant get that fair hair? Well, I don't wish he was a girl, but I wish we had a girl...But, Luce, three is enough. God has sure been good to me."
The hot summer, with its sudden black storms, the still autumn with its blue haze and lingering sadness, the grey days and then the white months--these passed as if time were not. Then again spring, summer, autumn rolled around.
The ragged, sun-browned urchins were at once the despair and the joy of Lucinda's full days. It was utterly impossible for her to keep track of them. George had a propensity for falling into the brook, but though some of the pools were quite deep, he seemed to bear a charmed life. Abe was fond of slipping out of his garb, which was scant enough, to hide naked among the sunflowers or the willow-patches. Grant did not appear to have any annoying traits, except to imitate his elder brothers when they were mischievous. However, at that time he was only two years old.
One trying fall day, when things simply would not go right for Lucinda, she quite forgot the children--a matter of self-preservation. However, she had never before neglected them for hours on end; when she finally remembered them and they did not return at her call, she went out to look for them.
The spots where they usually played were vacant. Logan had gone off with the dog somewhere down the canyon. Lucinda called frantically: "Abe!...George! Come here this minute!", wholly unconscious of the fact of calling Abraham first. She stifled alarm and hurried down across the brook, following the little barefoot tracks in the dust. Among the many pioneer accomplishments she had mastered was the art of trailing. She read a record of their play along the sandy brook, around the corrals and in the sheds, and at last up the road towards the gate. Before this time they had never appeared so big, although they certainly were enterprising enough to leave the canyon. However, it appeared that now they had grown sufficiently large to try such an adventure. Still Lucinda did not become thoroughly alarmed until she tracked them to the spot where they had crawled under the gate and gone on. Then she gave way to her fears.
It was a good quarter of a mile from the gate up to the level. Lucinda pushed on, calling out whenever she gained enough breath. Sunset was not far away. Visions of her children lost in the dark woods tormented the distracted mother.
"Abe--the little savage--he's to blame--for this!" panted Lucinda. "Won't he catch it!"
Ahead of Lucinda the road curved out of the scattered pines on to the open grassy ground. Suddenly she espied the youngsters scattered around, and on top of the very log upon which she had once sat years before waiting in despair for Logan. But what had that despair been to this pang she had just sustained? Overjoyed at finding them safe, she quite forgot the punishment she had intended to mete out to Abraham. Suddenly she halted to rub her eyes. Could she be seeing aright? There were four children!
Lucinda hurried on. "Boys, what are you up to? And who's this?" she demanded. The fourth member of that quartet, to her utter astonishment, was a little flaxen-haired girl about the same age as Grant. Her dress was ragged and dirty, but of a fine texture. She wore shoes, also, which further removed her in garb from her companions.
"George, where did you find this little girl?" asked Lucinda, attempting to suppress her excitement.
"I dunno. Abe found her."
"Abe, you tell me," ordered Lucinda, sternly.
"She was by the road--cryin'," replied Abraham, his hazel-grey eyes solemnly uplifted.
Lucinda was profoundly struck by something she did not understand.
"But isn't there a wagon somewhere?" she queried, and stepping up on the log, assayed a better view of the road and the long, green open. There was neither wagon nor camp in sight.
"I saw wheel-tracks," said Abe blandly.
"Didn't you see anybody?"
"Nobody 'cept her."
Lucinda hurried out to the road. She found fresh horse and wagon tracks in the dust pointed south. She could see a mile down in that direction, but there was no sign of cart, horse, nor man! The sun had gone down behind the forest.
"Strange," she muttered. "There must be a wagon near, of course. Perhaps driven back off the road to camp...The child must have strayed."
Lucinda returned to the log, and sitting down on it she said: "Come here, little girl." The child turned beautiful violet eyes. She was very pretty and well-nourished. After a moment of hesitation she came shyly to Lucinda.
"Little girl, what's your name?" asked Lucinda, softly, taking the child's hand.
"Barb'ra," she lisped.
Lucinda could not extract another word from her. Seeing that the child began to appear frightened, Lucinda desisted from further inquiry, still pondering as to what to do with her.
Meanwhile the last gold of sunset faded off the pine crests and dusk came trooping out of the forest. The stillness of the hour was such that Lucinda could have heard a voice, the thud of a hoof, or especially an axe a very long way off; but she heard only a melancholy bird note and the wail of a distant coyote.
Soon the boys began to get hungry, and were not backward about voicing it. At last Lucinda took the little girl's hand and, sending the boys ahead, walked slowly homeward. The canyon had become dark, but she could see the road without difficulty. Once again Lucinda questioned the little girl as to her identity and where she had left her mother, but received no answer.
A light in the cabin assured her of Logan's return. The boys ran in ahead, clamouring. Logan whooped at them. When Lucinda appeared he said: "Where you been? Milking late?...Supper's most...But say...Who's that?"
Lucinda told of her hunt for the boys and the result. Logan was amazed.
"Sure there was no wagon close?"
"No wagon, nor, camp anywhere near. I went out to the road, looked up and down. Then I sat on that log for a while. It was very quiet. I could have heard voices or camp sounds for a mile."
"Well, I'll be damned...but that's funny. If there was any one looking for her he'd never get down here after dark...Abe, come here...where'd you find this kid?"
"By the road, Paw."
"What you mean, by the road? Talk sense now, boy. This is important."
"She wuz sittin' in the grass, cryin'. I heard her first."
"Where? How far from our road?"
"Ahuh. Up or down the road?"
"You do know. Tell me or I'll lick you."
"Up by that windfall where you chased the rabbit for me."
"Way up there! Luce, I reckoned as much. The youngsters went a mile from our road...Don't worry any more. I'll find her folks in the morning."
"Oughtn't you to go to-night? Think how distressed I was that night till you found Abe the first time he ran off."
"Well, so I should. Rustle supper while I milk the cows...Say, isn't she a pretty, shy little thing?"
"Indeed she is. Says her name's 'Barb'ra.' I couldn't get another word out of her."
"Little girl lost!--Seems strange, but it's simple enough. Wagons go by often now," replied Logan, and, banging his pails, he stamped out.
Lucinda ordered George and Abe to wash themselves. She performed this task for Grant and the newcomer. When the tear-stains and dirt had been removed from Barbara's face she turned out to be the loveliest little girl Lucinda had ever seen. Lucinda left them to their play while she hurried supper. By the time she had it ready Logan returned, his buckets full of foamy milk. Logan bolted his own supper, and, taking his rifle and a lantern, and calling the dog, went out to try to locate the camp.
Grant fought sleep valiantly, but it overcame him. George and Abe had to be driven to bed. Barbara fell asleep on Lucinda's lap. Fashioning a little bed beside the boys' in the corner of the cabin, Lucinda tenderly laid the little girl in it, and then went thoughtfully about her tasks, listening for Logan's footsteps.
He was gone more than two hours. When he returned, treading softly, his eyes flashed keen and bright in the firelight. Lucinda sensed before he spoke that he had found nothing. He laid his Winchester across the elk antlers on the wall and extinguished tie lantern.
"Luce, this has a queer look," he announced, shaking his shaggy head.
"Queer?" echoed Lucinda.
"It sure has. I went down the road a mile, then back up, clear to the end of the open. Not a sign! No wagon or camp. Then I took to the road to see what I could make out of tracks. Dust just right for tracking. Two wagons, one hauled by horses, passed here some time after midday...You say it was way in the afternoon when you missed the kids?"
"Yes. They might have been gone a couple of hours. Less than that out of the canyon, because I saw where they had played all around and inside the corrals."
"Then Abe run across the kid late in the day, that's certain...Well, I trailed Abe up the road to the windfall. Then he sheered off. A good ways beyond that windfall, where he said he went, I hit upon signs of the little girl...Don't miss the significance of what I say--you know tracks are like printed words to a hunter...She had fallen down in the dust, right on the wheel-tracks of the second wagon. She must have lain there a bit, probably exhausted, because she crawled off into the grass. No more tracks down the road. Those leading up from where she fell were running tracks. The kid had run after that wagon!"
"Why, Logan! Of all things!" cried Lucinda.
"She must have run several hundred yards before she fell. I forgot to tell you that the horses were trotting. Little downgrade there, you know. A kid could not keep up long with a trotting team...I found the tracks where she had been let down off the wagon, on to her feet. She didn't fall or climb off. She was dropped off by someone holding her. Two little standing footprints in the dust! That's all. From these she broke into a run. After the wagon!"
"Logan, what in the world do you make of all this?"
"Someone wanted to get rid of the kid. He saw Abe and maybe our other kids. Figured there was a settler near by. Lonesome country. Just the place!"
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Lucinda, aghast. "Who'd ever want to get rid of such a lovely child?"
"Human nature has a queer look sometimes," replied Logan, grimly. "Probably I'm wrong. But that's what the tracks say to-night. I'll try again to-morrow in the daylight...You put her to bed with the boys?"
"Right next to them. See." Lucinda lifted the lamp and carried it over to disperse the gloom of the cabin corner. Four curly heads all in a row! Abe's dark and striking, against the fair hair and pale face of little Barbara. They scarcely took up four feet of the cabin. But what a precious treasure! They were for her the difference between happiness and misery, between death and life; for Logan they meant the balance separating achievement and frustration, between something to work for and endless vain oblation. No man could realize failure looking upon such children.
"I wonder!" he ejaculated, his eyes bright. "We wanted a girl. There she is...Luce, all we've gone through is nothing."
"Not quite, for me, darling. But they are wonderful recompense...Isn't the little girl lovely?...Oh, if we could keep her! But we are silly, Logan. You'll find her mother to-morrow, I hope and pray."
Logan saddled his horse at dawn and did not return until night. Not only had he worked out the problem of the little footprints even more plausibly than on the evening before, but he had followed the wheel tracks clear down over the Rim to Payson. Two wagons lad passed through Payson in the dead of night--an unprecedented occurrence, according to Logan's informants. It was this news which caused Logan to keep silent as to his motive. Let him who owned the child return and trail her as he had!
However, Lucinda took exception to this, and they had their first argument, almost approaching a quarrel.
"Luce, you're thinking of her mother," declared Logan, with finality. "I say she hasn't got any mother. She hasn't had one for so long she can't remember. Well, let's accept gratefully what God puts in our way."
"Logan, I thought that to-night, when the child went to sleep on my lap...Poor little dear!--I just can't get over it, nor the conviction that someone will come after her. But if no one does...we shall keep her."
No one came. In a few days Barbara was a happy, provocative little sister to the boys. The summer passed. Logan put the boys to work with him and Lucinda at the harvest of beans and potatoes, of which he had a large yield. It was all Grant could do to carry some of the largest potatoes. The boys, except Abe, treated the work as play. Abe was willing and obedient, but his heart was not in such pastimes. He watched the birds, the hawks, the crows, the chipmunks; and Lucinda noted more strongly than ever Abe's leaning towards the woods and wild creatures. Barbara had her share in the general work, of her own free will.
When fall arrived, George and Abe had their first hunt in the woods with their father. That night George was much excited, proudly showing where the gun had kicked a black-and-blue spot on his arm and gleefully exclaiming how it had knocked him flat. Abe was quiet, but his great eyes were luminous and haunted. He could not sleep that night.
"Might as well start them early," said Logan through Lucinda's complaint. "You know this'll be our life here till these boys are grown men. Lucinda, I want them to be hunters, woodsmen like their father. They'll make all the better cowboys. We've got to live off the land and fight, Luce, fight!...You teach them to read and write--to be fine--to love and obey their parents--to respect women--to believe in God. Leave the rest to me!"
Lucinda surely felt she could trust him with that. When the snow came again, and the homestead was shut in for another half year, Lucinda began her teaching of the two eldest boys. George was quick, intelligent; Abe slow to take up anything mental. But he was sweet, patient, plodding, and he would do anything for his mother. Grant and Barbara played the long winter away on the floor of the cabin.
"But the groundhog saw his shadow and we'll have six more weeks of winter," remarked Logan pessimistically, late in the season.
"Logan, that old folk adage may do for Missouri or back East, where they have groundhogs," replied Lucinda. "But we've got gophers, skunks, and a lot of other varmints that have holes. I can show them to you. We're not through with winter."
Convinced of this aphorism, the homesteader kept his young stock in the corrals, feeding them the fodder he had saved from earlier months. Then one night in early March, true to his prediction, the storm-king roared down through the forest. When dawn came a blinding blizzard was raging. It snowed all that day and the next night, then cleared off to zero weather, freezing a crust over the deep snow. Logan had to shovel paths to the cowsheds and corrals.
"Heard wolves baying last night," announced Logan, noncommittally, when he came stamping in, white-booted, to pull off his woollen mitts and spread his hands to the hot fire. "Bet they've been on the rampage with my cattle. Soon as I eat a bite I'll go see."
"Paw, you gonna take your gun?" asked George, eagerly. "'Cause if you are I wanta go."
"Course, you ninny!" ejaculated Abe scornfully. "Paw, you take me. I'll track them."
"Not this time, my brave buckaroos. Snow's over your heads," replied Huett.
"But it's froze. It'd hold me up," added Abe.
"Luce, don't worry if I'm not back soon. Slow job. But I reckon I'll find easy going under the wall."
The short, belated winter day soon passed. A cold white moon followed the sunset. Several times Lucinda looked out to see if Logan was coming--the stock had to be fed and the cows milked. Finally she bundled George and Abe in their warm woollens, to their great glee, and quitted the cabin with them, jangling the buckets. She had to drive Grant and Barbara back and scold them for leaving the door open.
The cold moon had just tipped the black-fringed wall to flood the canyon with silver light. Weird shadows gloomed under the cliffs. Never had the solitude and isolation of Sycamore Canyon seemed more encompassing and terrible. The black pines sheered up to the cold, blinking, pitiless stars; a moan breathed through their branches. The air held a bitter, ripping tang.
"Boys, you carry fodder while I milk," said Lucinda, taking the buckets.
"Listen, Maw," spoke up Abe, tensely.
"What do you hear, Abe?" she asked, quickly, suddenly fearful.
"Sounds like Mr. Holbert's hounds bellarin'. Paw says thet's the way wolves howl," replied the lad, his wondering eyes shining as he pointed down the moon-blanched canyon. "They're way down."
"Heavens, I hope your father is safe," exclaimed Lucinda, anxiously turning her face in order to listen.
"Aw, he's safe, you bet. Paw can lick all the lofers in Arizona."
"Abe--I hear them!" cried Lucinda, with a cold chill knifing her. The sounds were indeed like the baying of hounds, but deeper, wilder, more prolonged and blood-curdling. Then they ceased, to her immense relief. She admonished the boys to hurry with the fodder and she hastened to her task of milking. She tried desperately not to listen while she milked, attempted also to entertain Abe's opinion of his father's prowess. When she had filled one bucket and had begun the other, Abe, white-faced, came running into the shed.
"Maw, come! Them wolves--all around!" he shrieked fearfully, tugging at her.
"Oh, my God--no I Abe, you're..." She was stricken mute by the sound of a rush of swiftly pattering feet outside the shed. Leaping to her feet, she seized a pitchfork and, with one hand grasping Abe, ran for the corral. The calves and heifers began to bawl and thud about against the fence. She heard George screeching with terror. At that instant, she became a lioness.
"Where are you?" she screamed wildly.
"George's up there," yelled Abe.
Lucinda saw the boy then, straddling the high pole fence, his chubby face grey with horror. She reached the open gate a moment before the rush of soft-thudding feet rounded the corral. Abe darted inside, Lucinda after him. Frantically she shoved the gate. It swung--scraped in the snow--caught, leaving an aperture a foot wide. At that instant grey, furry beasts padded up, swiftly scattering the snow. They resembled dirty white dogs, bounding, leaping, like silent ghosts.
"Shut it, Abe!...Shove!"
A gaunt beast with green-fire eyes leaped at the opening, breaking half-way through before Lucinda thrust the pitchfork into him. With a vicious snarl and a grind of teeth on the implement he fell backwards. The shock of his onslaught almost upset Lucinda, but she righted and braced herself when another beast leaped. She gave this one a powerful stab which caused him to let out a mad howl. But Abe was not strong enough to close the gate. Lucinda, leaned her shoulder against it, still holding the pitchfork low, and shoved with all her might. The gate jarred shut except for the handle of the pitchfork. Then a bigger brute, furry grey with a black collar, leaped up, snapping at George. The boy screamed and fell off into the corral. At that moment Lucinda withdrew her weapon and barred the gate.
On the instant, as she sagged there, she panted audibly: "Thank God--Logan built--this fence!"
Grey forms sped to and fro, bounding with incredible agility, circled the corral, but farther away, and presently thronged into a pack to run up the canyon.
"Maw, they're gone," cried Abe. "You sure stuck a couple of 'em."
"Oh!--are you--sure?" gasped Lucinda, ready to collapse if the peril was over.
Abe peeped between the poles. "Maw!--they're across the brook!...Runnin' round the cabin." The lad must have had eyes as sharp as the wolves'. "Shore Grant left the door open!"
"Oh, my God!...Grant! Barbara!" screamed Lucinda, dragging the gate open.
"Wait, Maw--they're runnin' by--up the hill...up that break where Paw slides down our wood."
"George, are you hurt?" queried Lucinda, relaxing for an instant, as the other boy came to her.
"I dunno. I felt his teeth--on my foot."
"Listen, Maw," called Abe, shrilly.
From the black-and-silver ridge floated down the wild, mournful bay of a hungry wolf. It was answered by a deeper one, prolonged, haunting--a weird beast-sound that fitted the wilderness canyon.
"They might come back," said Lucinda, fearfully. "Boys, let's run for the cabin. Hurry!"
They dashed ahead of her, without looking back. Thought of Grant and Barbara lent wings to Lucinda's feet. She ran as never before. To her horror the cabin door stood wide open; the bright fire blazed in the fireplace. Lucinda staggered transfixed in the doorway with Abe and George clinging to her skirt. Playthings were scattered before the hearth. A chair lay overturned. Dirty wet tracks on the floor! With awful suspension of heart, Lucinda's terrible glance swept the cabin. Empty! Those grey demons had carried the children away!
"Hey, Maw," piped up Grant's treble voice, from the loft, "Barb'ra an' me run back an' clumb up here!"