Little Colonel In Arizona, Chapter 15: Lost On The Desert

THE LITTLE COLONEL IN ARIZONA
by Annie Fellows Johnston (1863-1931)

Illustrated by Etheldred B. Barry

Published July 1904

 

 

CHAPTER XV.

LOST ON THE DESERT

IF Washington had not lost a shoe on the way home from church, and if Joyce had not been seized with a violent headache that sent her to bed with a bandage over her eyes, the day would have ended far differently for Lloyd.

The afternoon went by quickly, for, lulled by the drowsy hum of the bees, she had fallen asleep in the hammock under the umbrella-tree, and slept a long time. Then supper was earlier than usual, as Jack wanted his before starting to the ranch. Chris, the Mexican, was taking a holiday, and had offered Jack a quarter to do the milking for him that evening. Holland strolled down the road with him, since the lost horseshoe prevented him taking the ride he had expected to enjoy.

Scarcely were they out of sight when an old buggy rattled up from the other direction, bringing a woman and her two little girls from a neighbouring ranch for an evening visit. Lloyd, who was on her way to the tent to see if she could do anything for Joyce's comfort, heard a voice which she recognized as Mrs. Shaw's, as the woman introduced herself to Mrs. Ware.

"I've been planning to get over here ever since you came," she began, " and specially since I got acquainted with your daughter over them bees, but 'pears like there's nothing in life on week-days but work; so this evening, when my little girls begged to come over and see your little girl, says I to myself, it's now or never, and I just hitched up and came."

"Oh, deah!" sighed Lloyd. "I don't want to spend the whole evening listening to that tiahsome woman. The boys are gone, and Joyce's head aches too bad for her to talk. I don't know what to do."

She stepped softly into the tent, insisting on rubbing Joyce's head, or doing something to make her more comfortable, but Joyce sent her away, saying that the pain was growing less, and that she didn't want her to stay shut up in the tent that smelled so strongly of the camphor she had spilled.

Lloyd turned away and wandered down to the pasture bars, where she stood looking over toward the west. The sun was dropping out of sight. For the first time since she had come to the Wigwam she felt lonesome. She was so full of life after her long sleep, so fresh and wide-awake, that she looked around her restlessly, wishing that something exciting would happen. She was in the mood to enjoy an adventure of some kind, no matter what.

While she stood there, her pony, who had often been coaxed up to the bars for sugar, now came up through curiosity, evidently wondering at her silence. "Come on, old boy," she said, reaching through the bars to grasp the rope that trailed from his neck. "You've settled it. We'll go off and have a ride togethah."

With some difficulty, she saddled him herself, and then because she did not want to disturb Joyce by going back to the tent to change her white dress for her divided skirt, she mounted as if the cross-saddle were a side-saddle, and rode slowly out of the yard bareheaded.

Mrs. Ware fluttered her handkerchief in response to the wave of Lloyd's hand, and looked after her as she took the road to the ranch. "She's going to see Mrs. Lee," she thought, and then turned her attention to her talkative visitor.

It was merely from force of habit that Lloyd had taken the ranch road. She was in sight of the camp before she became aware of where the pony was carrying her.

Then she turned abruptly, hardly knowing why she did so. Phil was at the ranch. She would not have him think that she had gone down with the hope of seeing him. She did not put the thought into words, but that is what influenced her to turn. In front of her Camelback Mountain loomed up, looking larger and more lifelike than usual, with the reflected light of the sunset lying rosy red on its summit. She knew that there is something extremely deceptive in the clear Arizona atmosphere, and had been told that the distance to the mountain was over five miles. But it was hard to believe. It looked so near that she was sure that she could reach it in a few minutes' brisk ride, that she could easily go that far and back before daylight was entirely gone.

An old game that she had played at the Cuckoos' Nest sent a verse floating idly through her memory:

How many miles to Barley-bright?"
"Three score and ten!"
"Can I get there by candle light?"
"Yes, if your leg, are long and light---
There and back again!
Look out! The witches will catch you!"

With somewhat of the same eerie feeling that had affected her when she joined in the game with Betty and the little Appletons, she turned the pony into the narrow trail that led across the sand in and out among the sage-brush. Later, those same gray bushes might look startlingly like witches reaching up out of the gloaming.

"It's a good thing that yoah legs are long and light," she said to the pony, as he started off with a long, rabbit-like lope. "And it's a good thing that you seem as much at home heah as Br'er Rabbit was in the brush-pile when Br'er Fox threw him in for stealing his hurrah. I'm glad it isn't old Tar Baby that I'm on. He wouldn't be used to these gophah holes, and would stumble into the first one we came to. Oh, this is glorious!"

She shook back her hair as the soft, orange-perfumed breeze blew it about her face. Her full white sleeves fluttered out from her arms. Again she had that delightful sense of birdlike motion, of free, wild swinging through space. On and on they went, never noticing how far they had travelled or how dark it was growing, till suddenly she saw that she was not on any trail. A thick growth of stubby mesquit bushes made almost a thicket in front of her. An enormous cactus, thirty feet high, stood in her way like one of the Barley bright witches. From its thorny trunk stretched two great arms, thrown up as if to ward off her coming. Its resemblance to a human figure was uncanny, and she stood staring at it with a fascinated gaze.

"It's big enough to be the camel-drivah of the camel in the mountain," she said in a half-whisper to the pony. Then looking on toward the mountain, she realized that she had to strain her eyes to see it through the rapidly gathering gloom. Night had fallen suddenly, and the mountain seemed farther away than when she started.

"Oh, it will be black night befoah we get home," she thought, turning in nervous haste. Then a new trouble confronted her. She was facing a dim, trackless wilderness, and she did not know how to get home. She had kept the mountain steadily in view as she rode toward it, but now she realized that it was so large that she could easily do that, and still at the same time go far out of her course.

"You'll have to find the way home," she said, helplessly, to the pony, failing to remember that the Wigwam pasture had been his home for only a few weeks, and that, left to himself, he would go directly to his native ranch.

In a few minutes Lloyd found herself carried along a narrow road, not more than a wagon track. While she knew that she had never been over it before, it was some comfort to find that she was on a human thoroughfare, and not lost among the tracks of wandering coyotes and jackrabbits.

The pony, feeling that he was headed toward his own home, went willingly enough, and Lloyd began to enjoy her adventure.

"How exciting it will sound back in that tame little Valley,"  she thought, "lost in the desert! I'll give the girls such a thrilling description of it that they'll feel cold chills running up and down their spines. It's a wondah that the cold chills don't run up and down me! But I'm not one bit afraid now. This road is bound to lead to somebody's house, and everybody is so friendly out heah in the West that whoevah finds me will take me home."

The pony swung along a few rods farther, then, startled by an owl rising suddenly out of the wayside bushes with a heavy flopping of wings, jumped sideways with such a start that Lloyd was almost thrown from her seat. It was an insecure one at best, and she was about to throw her foot over into the other stirrup when a forward plunge sent the pony into a gopher hole, and Lloyd over his head.

When she picked herself up from the road and looked dizzily around, she gave a little gasp of horror. The pony, freed of his burden and spurred on by his fright, was clattering down the road as fast as his feet could carry him, and she was left helpless in what seemed to her the very heart of the great, desolate desert. She stood motionless till the last faint thud of the pony's hoofs died away down the road. Then she looked around her and shivered. The possibility of the pony's not going straight to the Wigwam had not yet occurred to her, but she felt that under any circumstances she was doomed to stay in the desert until morning They would be badly frightened at the Wigwam, and would rouse the ranch to send out a searching-party, but they might as well look for a needle in a haystack as to make an attempt to find her in the darkness. She did not know where she was herself. She was within a stone's throw of one of the buttes, but which one she could not tell. She stood peering around her through the twilight with eager, dilated eyes. A twig crackled near her, trampled underfoot by some little wild creature as startled as she. The desert had seemed so still before, but now it was full of strange whisperings and rustlings. Remembering what Jack had told her when he showed her the nest shared by snakes and owls, she dared not sit down for fear some snake should come crawling out of the hole from which the owl had flown. She felt that it would be useless to walk on, since every step might be carrying her farther away from the Wigwam.

How long she stood there in the road she could not tell, but presently it seemed to her that it was growing lighter. She could see the outlines of the butte more distinctly, and the sky behind it was growing gradually luminous. Then she remembered that the moon would be up in a little while, and her courage came back as she stood and waited. When its round, familiar face came peeping up over the horizon, she felt as if an old friend were smiling at her.

"I'm neahly as glad to see you as if you were one of the family," she said, aloud, with a little sob in her throat. The feeling that this was the same moon that had looked down on her through the locusts, all her life, and had even peeped through the windows and seen Mom Beck rocking her to sleep in her baby days, gave her a sense of companionship that was wonderfully comforting.

It was tiresome standing in the road, and, as she dared not sit down and risk finding snakes, she decided to climb up the side of the butte and look out over the country. Maybe she might see the light from some ranch house. At least on its rocky slope she would be freer from snakes than down among the bushes and the owls' nests.

Scrambling over a ledge of rock she stumbled upon a pile of tin cans and broken bottles, which told of many past picnic parties near that spot. A little higher up she clasped her hands with a cry of pleased recognition. She was at the beginning of the great hole that led through the rock. Only two nights before she had sat on that very boulder, and speared olives out of a bottle with a hat-pin. There were their own sardine cans, and the fragments of the teacup Hazel had dropped. A mound of ashes and some charred sticks marked the spot where the camp-fire had blazed.

She looked around, wondering if by some happy chance Jo could have left any matches. A brilliant idea had come to her of lighting a bonfire. She knew that it could be seen from the ranch, and would draw attention to her at once. A long search failed to show any stray matches, and she wondered if she could find flint among the rocks, or how long it would take to get fire by rubbing two sticks together.

Some of the gruesome tales of Apache warfare that had been told around the fire came back to her as she stood looking at the ashes, but she resolutely turned her thoughts away from them, to the Indian school she had seen the day before. It was wonderfully comforting to think of that little Indian girl at the piano, patiently practising her five-finger exercises, and of the Indian boy in the brass-buttoned uniform ploughing in the fields. It made them seem so civilized and tame. The time of tomahawks and tortures was long past, she assured herself, and there was not nearly so much to fear from the peaceful Pimas and Maricopas as there was sometimes from the negroes at home.

So, quieting herself with such assurances, she climbed up to a comfortable seat on a rock, where she could lean back against the cavelike wall, and sat looking out through the great hole, as the moon rose higher and higher in the heavens. Half an hour slipped by in intense silence. Then her heart gave a thump of terror, so loud that she heard the beating distinctly. There was a fierce, hot roaring in her ears.

Down at the foot of the butte, going swiftly along with moccasined tread, was a stalwart Indian. Not one of the peaceful Pimas she had been accustomed to seeing, but a cruet-mouthed, eagle-eyed Apache. At least he looked like the pictures she had seen of Apaches.

He had a lariat in his hand, and he stooped several times to examine the tracks ahead of him, as if following a trail. Instantly there flashed into Lloyd's mind what Mrs. Lee had told them about the Indians allowing their ponies to run loose on the desert. Sometimes the settlers children used to catch them, and keep them all day to ride. But woe be it, she said, if the owner tracked his pony to a settler's house before it was turned loose. He always took his revenge. Lloyd was sure that this was what the Indian was after, as she noticed the lariat, and the way his keen eyes followed the trail. She almost held her breath as she waited for him to pass on. But he did not pass.

Throwing up his head he looked all around, and then, leaving the trail, started swiftly up the butte toward her. Almost frozen with fear, Lloyd drew back into the shadow, and, rolling over the ledge, drew herself into as small a space as possible, crouching down to hide her white dress. Through a crevice between the rocks she watched his approach with wide, terrified gaze, sure that some savage instinct, like a bloodhound's sense of smell, had warned him of her presence.

For an instant, as he reached the remains of the camp-fire, he stood motionless, looking out across the country, silhouetted darkly against the sky, like the head on the leather cushion she was taking home to her grandfather, she thought, or rather that she had intended to take. Maybe she would never live to see her home again.

She crouched still closer against the rock, rigid, tense, scarcely breathing. With a grunt the Indian stooped, and began poking around among the scraps left by the picnickers. He turned the blackened brands with his foot, then moved farther along, attracted by the gleam of a bit of broken bottle. Evidently the coyotes had been there before him, for not a scrap was left of sandwiches or chicken bones; but, like the coyotes, he knew from past experiences that it was profitable to prowl where picnics were almost weekly occurrences.

The gleam of something steely and bright caught his eye. Lloyd saw the object flash in the moonlight as he picked it up. It was the carving-knife Jo had dropped in his excitement, when he found the "lucky cuts" on his forefingers. With another grunt he turned it this way and that, examined the handle and tried the edge, and then looked stealthily around. Lloyd closed her eyes lest the very intensity of their gaze should draw him to her hiding-place. She knew that another step or two would bring him to higher ground, where he could look over the ledge and see her.

How she ever lived through the moments that followed, she never knew. It seemed to her that her heart had stopped beating, and she was growing clammy and faint. It could not have been more than a few minutes, but it seemed hours to her, when, the suspense growing unbearable, she opened her eyes, and peered fearfully through the crack again.

He had disappeared. Trembling so that she could scarcely stand, she ventured, little by little, to raise herself until she could look over the rock. Then she saw him moving leisurely down the path at the foot of the butte. In a moment more he had reached the road, and, striding along, he grew smaller and smaller to her sight till he disappeared among the dark patches of sage-brush.

Lloyd sank limply down among the rocks again, so exhausted by the nervous strain that the tears began to come. The night was passing like a hideous dream. Half an hour went by. She could hear the distant barking of coyotes, and a nervous dread took possession of her, a fear that their long, gaunt forms might come sneaking up the path after awhile in search of other picnic leavings. She eyed the swaying shadows apprehensively.

Presently, as she sat and watched, tense and alert, she saw some one coming along the wagon track far below. He was on horseback, and riding slowly, as if enjoying the calm beauty of the night. She could hear him whistling. As he reached the foot of the butte the whistling changed to singing. The full, strong voice that rang out on the deathlike stillness was wonderfully rich and sweet:

"From the desert I come to thee!"

It was the Bedouin song. Lloyd listened wonderingly, her lips half-open. Was this part of the dream? she asked herself. Part of the strange, unreal night? That was certainly Phil's voice, and yet it was past belief that he should be riding by this out-of-the-way place at such an hour of the night. But there was no mistaking the voice, nor the song that had been haunting her memory for the last two days:

"Till the sun grows cold,
 And the stars are old."

Lloyd hesitated no longer. Scrambling up from the rocks, she went running down the steep path, calling at the top of her voice, "Phil! Oh, Phil! Wait!"

It was Phil's turn to think he was dreaming. Flying down the path with her white dress fluttering behind her in the moonlight, and her long, fair hair streaming loosely over her shoulder, Lloyd looked more wraithlike than human, and to be confronted by such a figure in the heart of a lonely desert was such a surprise that Phil could scarcely believe that he saw aright.

A moment more, and with both her cold, trembling little hands in his big warm ones, Lloyd was sobbing out the story of her fright. The reaction was so great when she found herself in his protecting presence, that she could not keep back the tears.

He swung her up into his saddle in the same brotherly way he had lifted Mary into the cart, the day he found her running home from school, and proceeded to comfort her in the same joking fashion.

"This is the second time that I have been called on to play the bold rescuer act. I'll begin to think soon that my mission in life is to snatch fair maidens from the bloody scalpers of the plains." Then more gently, as he saw how hard it was for her to control herself, he spoke as he often spoke to Mary:

"There, never mind, Lloyd. Don't cry. It's all right, little girl. We'll soon be home. It's only a few miles from here. It isn't as late as you think --- only half-past eight."

Slipping his watch back into his pocket, he began to explain how he happened to be passing. He had stayed to supper at the camp where he had gone to call on his new acquaintance, and had purposely waited for the moon to come up before starting home.

He had put the rein into her hands at first, but now, taking it himself, he walked along beside her, leading the horse slowly homeward. With the greatest tact, feeling that Lloyd would gain her self-possession sooner if he did not talk to her, he began to sing again, half to himself, as if unmindful of her presence, and of the little dabs she was making at her eyes with a wet handkerchief.

"Maid Elsie roams by lane and lea." It was the song that his old English nurse had sung:

"Kling! lang! ling!
She hears her bonny bride-bells ring."

When he had sung it through, Lloyd's handkerchief was no longer making hasty passes at her eyes.

"I wonder what my little sister Elsie is doing to-night," he said. " That song always makes me think of her."

"Tell me about her," said Lloyd, who wanted a little more time to regain her composure. He understood why she asked, and began to talk, simply to divert her mind from her recent fright. But presently her eager questions showed that she was interested, and he talked on, feeling that it was good to have such an appreciative listener. He began to enjoy the reminiscences himself, and as he talked, the old days seemed to draw very near, till they gave him a homesick feeling for the old place that would never welcome him again. It had gone to strangers, he told her, and Aunt Patricia was dead.

"Poor old Aunt Patricia," he added, after laughing over one of the pranks they had played on her. "She never did understand boys. We tried her patience terribly. She did the best she could for us, but I've often thought how different it would have been if my mother had lived. I had a letter from Daddy to-day, in answer to the one I wrote about leaving school. It broke me all up. Made me think of the time when I was a little fellow, and he rocked me to sleep one night when I had been naughty, and explained why I ought to be a good boy. It almost made me wish I could be a little kid again, and curl up in his arms, and tell him I was sorry, and would turn over a new leaf."

Lloyd liked the affectionate, almost wistful way in which he spoke of his father as Daddy. Whatever indignation she had felt toward him was wiped away by those confidences. And when he apologized presently, in his most winning way, for not keeping his engagement, and told her frankly what had prevented, she liked him better than she had done before. She wondered how it could be so, but she felt now that she knew him as well as Malcolm or Rob, and that their friendship was not the growth of a few weeks, but that it reached back to the very beginning of things.

"You cant imagine what a fascination there is in seeing that roulette wheel whirl around," he said, "but I'm done with that now. Daddy's letter settled the question. And even if that hadn't come, I would have stopped. I don't want to lose my precious turquoises --- my friendship stones," he added, meaningly. "I know how you and Joyce feel about it. Look at old Alaka's eyes, twinkling up there over Camelback. They seem to know that I have heeded their warning."

Presently, as they went along, he glanced up at her with a smile. "Do you know," he said, "you look just as you did the first time I saw you, as you rode up to the gate at Locust, all in white, and on a black horse. Maybe having your hair hanging loose as you did then makes me think so. I never imagined then that I'd ever see you again, much less find you away out here on the desert."

"It is queah," answered Lloyd. "I thought I must be dreaming when I heard you sing 'From the desert I come to thee.'"

"And I certainly thought I was dreaming," answered Phil, "when, in answer to my call, you appeared all in white. You could have knocked me down with a feather, for an instant, I was startled. Then I thanked my lucky stars that led me your way."

He began again humming the Bedouin song. Lloyd, looking out across the wide, moonlighted desert and up at the twinkling stars, wondered if it was fate that had brought him to her rescue; if it could be possible that through him was to come the happiness written for her in the stars.

"There's the Wigwam light," said Phil, presently, pausing in his song to point it out to her. "We're almost there. I'll never forget this adventure --- till --- He took up the refrain again, smiling into her eyes as he hummed it. The refrain that was to ring through Lloyd's memory for many a year to come, whenever she thought of this ride across the moonlighted desert:

"Till the sun grows cold, 
And the stars are old, 
And the leaves of the Judgment 
Book unfold!"

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