THIS was one of those years in the Territory when Apache smoke signals spiraled up from the stony mountain summits and many a ranch cabin lay as a square of blackened ashes on the ground and the departure of a stage from Tonto was the beginning of an adventure that had no certain happy ending....
The stage and its six horses wafted in front of Weilner’s store on the north side of Tonto’s square. Happy Stuart was on the box, the ribbons between his fingers and one foot teetering on the brake. John Strang rode shotgun guard and an escort of ten cavalrymen waited behind the coach, half asleep in their saddles.
At four-thirty in the morning this high air was quite cold, though the sun had begun to flush the sky eastward. A small crowd stood in the square, presenting their final messages to the passengers now entering the coach. There was a girl going down to marry an infantry officer, a whisky drummer from St. Louis, an Englishman all length and bony corners and bearing with him an enormous sporting rifle, a gambler, a solid-shouldered cattleman on his way to New Mexico and a blond young man upon whom both Happy Stuart and the shotgun guard placed a narrow-eyed interest.
This seemed all until the blond man drew back from the coach door; and then a girl known commonly throughout the Territory as Henriette came quietly from the crowd. She was small and quiet, with a touch of paleness in her cheeks and her quite dark eyes lifted at the blond man’s unexpected courtesy, showing surprise. There was this moment of delay and then the girl caught up her dress and stepped into the coach.
Men in the crowd were smiling but the blond one turned, his motion like the swift cut of a knife, and his attention covered that group until the smiling quit. He was tail, hollow-flanked, and definitely stamped by the guns slung low on his hips. But it wasn’t the guns alone; something in his face, so watchful and so smooth, also showed his trade. Afterwards he got into the coach and slammed the door.
Happy Stuart kicked off the brakes and yelled, “Hi!” Tonto’s people were calling out -their last farewells and the six horses broke into a trot and the stage lunged on its fore and aft springs and rolled from town with dust dripping off its wheels like water the cavalrymen trotting briskly behind. So they tipped down the long grade, bound on a journey no stage had attempted during the last forty-five days. Out below in the desert’s distance stood the relay stations they hoped to reach and pass. Between lay a country swept empty by the quick raids of Geronimo’s men.
The Englishman, the gambler and the blond man sat jammed together in the forward seat, riding backward to the course of the stage. The drummer and the cattleman occupied the uncomfortable middle bench; the two women shared the rear seat. The cattleman faced Henriette, his knees almost touching her. He had one arm hooked over the door’s window sill to steady himself. A huge gold nugget slid gently back and forth along the watch chain slung across his wide chest and a chunk of black hair lay below his hat. His eyes considered Henriette, reading something in the girl that caused him to show her a deliberate smile. Henriette dropped her glance to the gloved tips of her fingers, cheeks unstirred.
THEY were all strangers packed closely together, with nothing in common save a destination. Yet the cattleman’s smile and the boldness of his glance were something as audible as speech. noted by everyone except the Englishman, who sat bolt upright with his stony indifference. The army girl, tall and calmly pretty, threw a quick side glance at Henriette and afterwards looked away with a touch of color. The gambler saw this interchange of glances and showed the cattleman an irritated attention. The whisky drummer’s eyes narrowed a little and some inward cynicism made a faint change on his lips. He removed his hat to show a bald head already beginning to sweat; his cigar smoke turned the coach cloudy and ashes kept dropping on his vest.
The blond man had observed Henriette’s glance drop from the cattleman; he tipped his hat well over his face and watched her —not boldly but as though he were puzzled. Once her glance lifted and touched him. But he had been on guard against that and was quick to look away.
The army girl coughed gently behind her hand, whereupon the gambler tapped the whisky drummer on the shoulder. “Get “rid of that.” The drummer appeared startled. He grumbled, “Beg pardon,” and tossed the smoke through the window.
All this while the coach went rushing down the ceaseless turns of the mountain road, rocking on its fore and aft springs, its heavy wheels slamming through the road ruts and whining on the curves. Occasionally the strident yell of Happy Stuart washed back. “Hi, Nellie! By God—!” The whisky drummer braced himself against the door and closed his eyes.
Three hours from Tonto the road, making a last round sweep, let them down upon the flat desert. Here the stage stopped and the men got out to stretch. The gambler spoke to the army girl, gently: “Perhaps you would find my seat more comfortable.” The army girl said “Thank you,” and changed over. The cavalry sergeant rode up to the stage, speaking to Happy Stuart. “We’ll be goin’ back now—and good luck to ye.” The men piled in, the gambler taking the place beside Henriette. The blond man drew his long legs together to give the army girl more room, and watched Henriette’s face with a soft, quiet care. A hard sun beat fully on the coach and dust began to whip up like fire smoke. Without escort they rolled across a flat earth broken only by cacti standing against a dazzling light. In the far distance, behind a blue heat haze, lay the faint suggestion of mountains.
The cattleman reached up and tugged at the ends of his mustache and smiled at Henriette. The army girl spoke to the blond man, “How far is it to the noon station?” The blond man said courteously: “Twenty miles.” The gambler watched the army girl with the strictness of his face relaxing, as though the run of her voice reminded him of things long forgotten.
THE miles fell behind and the smell of alkali dust got thicker. Henriette rested against, the comer of the coach, her eyes dropped to the tips of her gloves. She made an enigmatic, disinterested shape there; she seemed past stirring, beyond laughter. She was young, yet she had a knowledge that put the cattleman and the gambler and the drummer and the army girl in their exact places; and she knew why the gambler had offered the army girl his seat. The army girl was in one world and she was in another, as everyone in the coach understood. It had no effect on her for this was a distinction she had learned long ago. Only the blond man broke through her indifference. His name was Malpais Bill and she could see the wildness in the corners of his eyes and in the long crease of his lips; it was a stamp that would never come off. Yet something flowed out of him toward her that was different than the predatory curiosity of other men; something unobtrusively gallant, unexpectedly gentle.
Upon the box Happy Stuart pointed to the hazy outline two miles away. “Injuns ain’t burned that anyhow.” The sun was directly overhead, turning the light of the world a cruel brass-yellow. The crooked crack of a dry wash opened across the two deep ruts that made this road. Johnny Strang shifted the gun in his lap. “What’s Malpais Bill ridin’ with us for?”
“I guess I wouldn’t ask him,” returned Happy Stuart and studied the wash with a troubled eye. The road fell into it roughly and he got a tighter grip on his reins and yelled: “Hang on! Hi, Nellie! God damn you, hi"’ The six horses plunged down the rough side of the wash and for a moment the coach stood alone, high and lonely on the break, and then went reeling over the rim. It struck the gravel with a roar, the front wheels bouncing and the back wheels skewing around. The horses faltered but Happy Stuart cursed at his leaders and got them into a run again. The horses lunged up the far side of the wash two and two, their muscles bunching and the soft dirt flying in yellow clouds. The front wheels struck solidly and something cracked like a pistol shot; the stage rose out of the wash, teetered crosswise and then fell ponderously on its side, splintering the coach panels.
Johnny Strang jumped dear. Happy Stuart hung to the handrail with one hand and hauled on the reins with the other; and stood up while the passengers crawled through the upper door. All the men, except the whisky drummer, put their shoulders to the coach and heaved it upright again. The whisky drummer stood strangely in the bright sunlight shaking his head dumbly while the others climbed back in. Happy Stuart said, “Al! right, brother, git aboard.”
THE drummer climbed in slowly and the stage ran on. There was a low, gray dobe relay station squatted on the desert dead ahead with a scatter of corrals about it and a flag hanging limp on a crooked pole. Men came out of the dobe’s dark interior and stood in the shade of the porch gallery. Happy Stuart rolled up and stopped. He said lo a lanky man: “Hi, Mack. Where’s the God-damned Injuns?”
The passengers were filing into the dobe’s dining room. The lanky one drawled: “You’ll see ’em before tomorrow night.” Hostlers came up to change horses.
The little dining room was cool after the coach, cool and still. A fat Mexican woman ran in and out with the food platters. Happy Stuart said: “Ten minutes,” and brushed the alkali dust from his mouth and fell to eating.
The long-jawed Mack said: “Catlin’s ranch burned last night. Was a troop of cavalry around here yesterday. Came and went. You’ll git to the Gap tonight all right but I do’ know about the mountains beyond. A little trouble?”
“A little,” said Happy, briefly, and rose. This was the end of rest. The passengers followed, with the whisky drummer straggling at the rear, reaching deeply for wind. The coach rolled away again, Mack’s voice pursuing them. “Hit it a lick, Happy, if you see any dust rollin’ out of the east.”
Heat had condensed in the coach and the little wind fanned up by the run of the horses was stifling to the lungs; the desert floor projected its white glitter endlessly away until lost in the smoky haze. The cattleman’s knees bumped Henriette gently and he kept watching her, a celluloid toothpick drooped between his lips. Happy Stuart’s voice ran back, profane and urgent, keeping the speed of the coach constant through the ruts. The whisky drummer’s eyes were round and strained and his mouth was open and all the color had gone out of his face. The gambler observed this without expression and without care; and once the cattleman, feeling the sag of the whisky drummer’s shoulder, shoved him away. The Englishman sat bolt upright, staring emotionlessly at the passing desert. The army girl spoke to Malpais Bill: “What is the next stop?” “Gap Creek.” “Will we meet soldiers there?”
He said: “I expect we’ll have an escort over the hills into Lordsburg.”
And at four o’clock of this furnace-hot afternoon the whisky drummer made a feeble gesture with one hand and fell forward into the gambler’s lap.
The cattleman shrugged his shoulders and put a head through the window, calling up to Happy Stuart: “Wait a minute.” When the stage stopped everybody climbed out and the blond man helped the gambler lay the whisky drummer in the sweltering patch of shade created by the coach. Neither Happy Stuart nor the shotgun guard bothered to get down. The whisky drummer’s lips moved a little but nobody said anything and nobody knew what to do—until Henriette stepped forward.
She dropped to the ground, lifting the whisky drummer’s shoulders and head against her breasts. He opened his eyes and there was something in them that they could all see, like relief and ease, like gratefulness. She murmured: “You are all right,” and her smile was soft and pleasant, turning her lips maternal. There was this wisdom in her, this knowledge of the fears that men concealed behind their manners, the deep hungers that rode them so savagely, and the loneliness that drove them to women of her kind. She repeated, “You are all right,” and watched this whisky drummer’s eyes lose the wildness of what he knew.
The army girl’s face showed shock. The gambler and the cattleman looked down at the whisky drummer quite impersonally. The blond man watched Henriette through lids half closed, but the flare of a powerful interest broke the severe lines of his cheeks. He held a cigarette between his fingers; he had forgotten it. Happy Stuart said: “We can’t stay here.” The gambler bent down to catch the whisky drummer under the arms. Henriette rose and said, “Bring him to me,” and got into the coach. The blond man and the gambler lifted the drummer through the door so that he was lying along the back seat, cushioned on Henriette’s lap. They all got in and the coach rolled on. The drummer groaned a little, whispering: “Thanks—thanks,” and the blond man, searching Henriette’s face for every shred of expression, drew a gusty breath.
They went on like this, the big wheels pounding the ruts of the road while a lowering sun blazed through the coach windows. The mountain bulwarks began to march nearer, more definite in the blue fog. The cattleman’s eyes were small and brilliant and touched Henriette personally, but the gambler bent toward Henriette to say: “If you are tired—” “No,” she said. “No. He’s dead.” The army girl stifled a small cry. The gambler bent nearer the whisky drummer, and then they were all looking at Henriette; even the Englishman stared at her for a moment, faint curiosity in his eyes. She was remotely smiling, her lips broad and soft. She held the drummer’s head with both her hands and continued to hold him like that until, at the swift fall of dusk, they rolled across the last of the desert floor and drew up before Gap Station.
The cattleman kicked open the door and stepped out, grunting as his stiff legs touched the ground. The gambler pulled the drummer up so that Henriette could leave. They all came out, their bones tired from the shaking. Happy Stuart climbed from the box, his face a gray mask of alkali and his eyes bloodshot. He said: “Who’s dead?” and looked into the coach. People sauntered from the station yard, walking with the indolence of twilight. Happy Stuart said, “Well, he won’t worry about tomorrow,” and turned away.
A SHORT man with a tremendous stomach shuffled through the dusk. He said: “Wasn’t sure you’d try to git through yet, Happy.” “Where’s the soldiers for tomorrow?” “Other side of the mountains. Everybody’s chased out. What ain’t forted up here was sent into Lordsburg. You men will bunk in the barn. I’ll make out for the ladies somehow.” He looked at the army girl and he appraised Henriette instantly. His eyes slid on to Malpais Bill standing in the background and recognition stirred him then and made his voice careful. “Hello, Bill. What brings you this way?”
Malpais Bill’s cigarette glowed in the gathering dusk and Henriette caught the brief image of his face, serene and watchful. Malpais Bill’s tone was easy, it was soft. “Just the trip.”
They were moving on toward the frame house whose corners seemed to extend indefinitely into a series of attached sheds. Lights glimmered in the windows and men moved around the place, idly talking. The unhitched horses went away at a trot. The tall girl walked into the station’s big room, to face a soldier In a disheveled uniform.
He said: “Miss Robertson? Lieutenant Hauser was to have met you here. He is at Lordsburg. He was wounded in a brush with the Apaches last night.” The tall army girl stood very still. She said: “Badly?”
“Well,” said the soldier, “yes.”
The fat man came in, drawing deeply for wind. “Too bad—too bad. Ladies, I’ll show you the rooms, such as I got.”
Henriette’s dove-colored dress blended with the background shadows. She was watching the tall army girl’s face whiten. But there was a strength in the army girl, a fortitude that made her think of the soldier. For she said quietly, “You must have had a bad trip.”
“Nothing—nothing at all,” said the soldier and left the room. The gambler was here, his thin face turning to the army girl with a strained expression, as though he were remembering painful things. Malpais Bill had halted in the doorway, studying the softness and the humility of Henriette’s cheeks, Afterwards both women followed the fat host of Gap Station along a narrow hall to their quarters.
MALPAIS BILL wheeled out and stood indolently against the wall of this desert station, his glance quick and watchful in the way it touched all! the men loitering along the yard, his ears weighing all the night-softened voices. Heat died from the earth and a definite chill rolled down the mountain hulking so high behind the house. The soldier was in his saddle, murmuring drowsily to Happy Stuart.
“Well, Lordsburg is a long ways off and the damn’ mountains are squirmin’ with Apaches. You won’t have any cavalry escort tomorrow. The troops are all in the field.”
Malpais Bill listened to the hoofbeats of the soldier’s horse fade out, remembering the loneliness of a man in those dark mountain passes, and went back to the saloon at the end of the station. This was a low-ceilinged shed with a dirt floor and whitewashed walls that once had been part of a stable. Three men stood under a lantern in the middle of this little place, the light of the lantern palely shining in the rounds of their eyes as they watched him. At the far end of the bar the cattleman and the gambler drank in taciturn silence. Malpais Bill took his whisky when the bottle came, and noted the barkeep’s obscure glance. Gap’s host put in his head and wheezed, “Second table,” and the other men in here began to move out. The barkeep’s words rubbed together, one tone above a whisper. “Better not ride into Lordsburg. Plummer and Shanley are there.”
Malpais Bill’s lips were stretched to the long edge of laughter and there was a shine like wildness in his eyes. He said, “Thanks, friend,” and went into the dining room.
When he came back to the yard night lay wild and deep across the desert and the moonlight was a frozen silver that touched but could not dissolve the world’s incredible blackness. The girl Henriette walked along the Tonto road, swaying gently in the vague shadows. He went thatway, the click of his heels on the hard earth bringing her around.
Her face was clear and strange and incurious in the night, as though she waited for something to come, and knew what it would be. But he said: “You’re too far from the house. Apaches like to crawl down next to a settlement and wait for strays.”
SHE was indifferent, unafraid. Her voice was cool and he could hear the faint loneliness in it, the fatalism that made her words so even. “There’s a wind coming up, so soft and good.”
He took off his hat, long legs braced, and his eyes were both attentive and puzzled. His blond hair glowed in the fugitive light.
She said in a deep breath: “Why do you do that?” His lips were restless and the sing and rush of strong feeling was like a current of quick wind around him. “You have folks in Lordsburg?”
She spoke in a direct, patient way as though explaining something he should have known without asking. “I run a house in Lordsburg.”
“No,” he said, “it wasn’t what I asked.” “My folks are dead—I think. There was a massacre in the Superstition Mountains when I was young.”
He stood with his head bowed, his mind reaching back to fill in that gap of her life. There was a hardness and a rawness to this land and little sympathy for the weak. She had survived and had paid for her survival, and looked at him now in a silent way that offered no explanations or apologies for whatever had been; she was still a pretty girl with the dead patience of all the past years in her eyes, in the expressiveness of her lips.
He said: “Over in the Tonto Basin is a pretty land. I’ve got a piece of a ranch there—with a house half built.”
“If that’s your country why are you here?” His lips laughed and the rashness in him glowed hot again and he seemed to grow taller in the moonlight. “A debt to collect,”
“That’s why you’re going to Lordsburg? You will never get through collecting those kind of debts. Everybody in the Territory knows you. Once you were just a rancher. Then you tried to wipe out a grudge and then there was a bigger one to wipe out—and the debt kept growing and more men are waiting to kill you. Someday a man will. You’d better run away from the debts.”
His bright smile kept constant, and presently she lifted her shoulders with resignation. “No,” she murmured, “you won’t run.” He could see the sweetness of her lips and the way her eyes were sad for him; he could see in them the patience he had never learned.
He said, “We’d better go back,” and turned her with his arm. They went across the yard in silence, hearing the undertone of men’s drawling talk roll out of the shadows, seeing the glow of men’s pipes in the dark corners. Malpais Bill stopped and watched her go through the station door; she turned lo look at him once more, her eyes all dark and her lips softly sober, and then passed down the narrow corridor to her own quarters. Beyond her window, in the yard, a man was murmuring to another man: “Plummer and Shanley are in Lordsburg. Malpais Bill knows it.” Through the thin partition of the adjoining room she heard the army girl crying with a suppressed, uncontrollable regularity, Henriette stared at the dark wail, her shoulders and head bowed; and afterwards returned to the halt and knocked on the army girl’s door and went in.
SIX fresh horses fiddled in front of the coach and the fat host of Gap Station came across the yard swinging a lantern against the dead, bitter black. All the passengers filed steep-dulled and miserable from the house. Johnny Strang slammed the express box in the boot and Happy Stuart gruffly said: “All right, folks.”
The passengers climbed in. The cattleman came up and Malpais Bill drawled: “Take the comer spot, mister,” and got in, closing the door. The Gap host grumbled: “If they don’t jump you on the long grade you’ll be all right. You’re safe when you get to Al Schrieber’s ranch.” Happy’s bronze voice shocked the black stillness and the coach lurched forward, its leather springs squealing.
They rode for an hour in this complete darkness, chilled and uncomfortable and half asleep, feeling the coach drag on a heavy-climbing grade. Gray dawn cracked through, followed by a sunless light rushing all across the flat desert now far below, The road looped from one barren shoulder to another and at sunup they had reached the first bench and were slamming full speed along a boulder-strewn flat. The cattleman sat in the forward corner, the left comer of his mouth swollen and crushed, and when Henriette saw that her glance slid to Maipais Bill’s knuckles. The army girl had her eyes closed, her shoulders pressing against the Englishman, who remained bolt upright with the sporting gun between his knees. Beside Henriette the gambler seemed to sleep, and on the middle bench Malpais Bill watched the land go by with a thin vigilance.
At ten they were rising again, with juniper and scrub pine showing on the slopes and the desert below them filling with the powdered haze of another hot day. By noon they reached the summit of the range and swung to follow its narrow rock-ribbed meadows. The gambler, long motionless, shifted his feet and caught the army girl’s eyes.
“Schrieber’s is directly ahead. We are past the worst of it.”
THE blond man looked around at the gambler, making no comment; and it was then that Henriette caught the smell of smoke in the windless air. Happy Stuart was cursing once more and the brake blocks began to cry. Looking through the angled vista of the window panel Henriette saw a clay and rock chimney standing up like a gaunt skeleton against the day’s light. The house that had been there was a black patch on the ground, smoke still rising from pieces that had not been completely burnt.
The stage stopped and all the men were instantly out. An iron stove squatted on the earth, with one section of pipe stuck upright to it. Fire licked lazily along the collapsed fragments of what had been a trunk. Beyond the location of the house, at the foot of a corral, lay two nude figures grotesquely bald, with deliberate knife slashes marking their bodies. Happy Stuart went over there and had his look; and came back.
Malpais Bill said: “This morning about daylight.” He looked at the gambler, at the cattleman, at the Englishman who showed no emotion. “Get back in the coach.” He climbed to the coach’s top, flattening himself full length there. Happy Stuart and Strang took their places again. The horses broke into a run.
The gambler said lo the army girl: “You’re pretty safe between those two fellows” and hauled a .44 from a back pocket and laid it over his lap. He considered Henriette more carefully than before, his taciturnity breaking. He said: “How old are you?”
Her shoulders rose and fell, which was the only answer. But the gambler said gently, “Young enough to be my daughter. It is a rotten world. When I call to you, lie down on the floor.”
The Englishman had pulled the rifle from between his knees and laid it across the sill of the window on his side. The cattleman swept back the skirt of his coat to clear the holster of his gun.
The little flinty summit meadows grew narrower, with shoulders of gray rock closing in upon the road. The coach wheels slammed against the stony ruts and bounced high and fell again with a jar the springs could not soften. Happy Stuart’s howl ran steadily above this rattle and rush. Fine dust turned all things gray.
Henriette sat with her eyes pinned to the gloved tips of her fingers, remembering the tall shape of Malpais Bill cut against the moonlight of Gap Station. He had smiled at her as a man might smile at any desirable woman, with the sweep and swing of laughter in his voice; and his eyes had been gentle. The gambler spoke very quietly and she didn’t hear him until his fingers gripped her arm. He said again, not raising his voice: “Get down.”
HENRIETTE dropped to her knees, hearing gunfire blast through the rush and run of the coach. Happy Stuart ceased to yell and the army girl’s eyes were round and dark. The walls of the canyon had tapered off, Looking upward through the window on the gambler’s side, Henriette saw the weaving figure of an Apache warrior reel nakedly on a calico pony and rush by with a rifle raised and pointed in his bony elbows. The gambler took a cool aim; the stockman fired and aimed again. The Englishman’s sporting rifle blasted heavy echoes through the coach, hurting her ears, and the smell of powder got rank and bitter. The blond man’s boots scraped the coach top and round small holes began to dimple the paneling as the Apache bullets struck. An Indian came boldly abreast the coach and made a target that couldn’t be missed. The cattleman dropped him with one shot. The wheels screamed as they slowed around the sharp ruts and the whole heavy superstructure of the coach bounced high into the air. Then they were rushing downgrade.
The gambler said quietly, “You had better take this,” handing Henriette his gun. He leaned against the door with his small hands gripping the sill. Pallor loosened his cheeks. He said to the army girl: “Be sure and keep between those gentlemen,” and looked at her with a way that was desperate and forlorn and dropped his head to the window’s sill.
Henriette saw the bluff rise up and close in like a yellow wall. They were rolling down the mountain without brake. Gunfire fell off and the crying of the Indians faded back. Coming up from her knees then she saw the desert’s flat surface far below, with the angular pattern of Lordsburg vaguely on the far borders of the heat fog. There was no more firing and Happy Stuart’s voice lifted again and the brakes were screaming on the wheels, and going off, and screaming again. The Englishman stared out of the window sullenly; the army girl seemed in a deep desperate dream; the cattleman’s face was shining with a strange sweat. Henriette reached over to pull the gambler up, but he had an unnatural weight to him and slid into the far corner. She saw that he was dead.
At five o’clock that long afternoon the stage threaded Lordsburg’s narrow streels of dobe and frame houses, came upon the center square and stopped before a crowd of people gathered In the smoky heat. The passengers crawled out stiffly. A Mexican boy ran up to see the dead gambler and began to yell his news in shrill Mexican. Malpais Bill climbed off the top, but Happy Stuart sat back on his seat and stared taciturnly at the crowd. Henriette noticed then that the shotgun messenger was gone.
A gray man in a sleazy white suit called up to Happy. “Well, you got through.”
Happy Stuart said: “Yeah. We got through.” An officer stepped through the crowd, smiling at the army girl.
He took her arm and said. “Miss Robertson, I believe. Lieutenant Hauser is quite all right. I will get your luggage——”
The army girl was crying lhen, definitely. They were all standing around, bone-weary and shaken. Malpais Bill remained by the wheel of the coach, his cheeks hard against the sunlight and his eyes riveted on a pair of men standing under the hoard awning of an adjoining store. Henriette observed the manner of their waiting and knew why they were here. The blond man’s eyes, she noticed, were very blue and flame burned brilliantly in them. The army girl turned to Henriette, tears in her eyes. She murmured: “If there is anything I can ever do for you——”
But Henriette stepped back, shaking her head. This was Lordsburg and everybody knew her place except the army girl. Henriette said formally, “Good-by,” noting how still and expectant the two men under the awning remained. She swung toward the blond man and said, “Would you carry my valise?”
Malpais Bill looked at her, laughter remote in his eyes, and reached into the luggage pile and got her battered valise. He was still smiling as he went beside her, through the crowd and past the two waiting men. But when they turned into an anonymous and dusty little side street of the town, where the houses all sat shoulder to shoulder without grace or dignity, he had turned sober. He said: “I am obliged to you. But I’ll have to go back there.”
They were in front of a house no different from its neighbors: they had stopped at its door. She could see his eyes travel this street and comprehend its meaning and lhe kind of traffic it bore. But he was saying in that gentle, melody-making tone:
“I have watched you for two days.” He stopped, searching his mind to find the thing he wanted to say. It came out swiftly, “God made you a woman. The Tonto is a pretty country.”
Her answer was quite barren of feeling. “No. I am known all through the Territory. But I can remember that you asked me.”
He said: “No other reason?” She didn’t answer but something in her eyes pulled his face together. He took off his hat and it seemed to her he was looking through this hot day to that far-off country snd seeing it fresh and desirable. He murmured: “A man can escape nothing. I have got to do this. But I will be back.”
HE WENT along the narrow street, made a quick turn at the end of it, and disappeared. Heat rolled like a heavy wave over Lordsburg’s housetops and the smell of dust was very sharp. She lifted her valise, and dropped It and stood like that, mute and grave before the door of her dismal house. She was remembering how tall he had been against the moonlight at Gap Station.
There were four swift shots beating furiously along the sultry quiet, and a shout, and afterwards a longer and longer silence. She put one hand against the door to steady herself, and knew that those shots marked the end of a man, and the end of a hops. He would never come back; he would never stand over her in the moonlight with the long gentle smile on his lips and with the swing of life in his casual tone. She was thinking of all that humbly and with the patience life had beaten into her. . . .
She was thinking of all that when she heard the strike of boots on the street’s packed earth; and turned to see him, high and square in the muddy sunlight, coming toward her with his smile.
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