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Barney Doon, Braggart by Philip Verrill Mighels

 

The nine dusty citizens of Bitter Hole, having one and all proposed, unsuccessfully, for the hand of Miss Sally Wooster, had about concluded that Bitter Water Valley was a desert, after all, when they finally thought to turn their attention once again to Barney Doon, the cook.

Let it here be stated, nevertheless, there was one thing to prove that the valley was a desert, despite the presence of Barney, and that was the face of the country itself. One-half of that whole Nevada area was a great white blister, forty miles long and fifteen wide, acrid with alkali, flat, barren, and harsh as a sheet of zinc. The valley's remaining territory was covered with gray, dry scrub, four inches high, through which the dusty Overland stage-route was crookedly scratched.

Bitter Hole was the station for the stage. In it flourished the nine dusty citizens, a dusty dog, and a dusty chicken, in addition to Barney and the buxom Miss Sally, whose father was among the citizens enumerated. At the end of the street was a hole, or well, the waters of which, being not precisely fatal to men and horses, had occasioned the growth of the place, there being no other water for leagues along the road.

Here in this land, even when Sally had scorned them, each in turn, the men of the Hole were still agreed there could be no desolation where Barney Doon had residence. Purely and simply they loved the little cook for the fiery suddenness of his temper and the ingenuity of the insults of which he was never guiltless. The sulphurous little demon was, as the miners and teamsters estimated, “only two sizes bigger than a full-grown jack-rabbit.” What he lacked in size, however, he more than supplied in expression of countenance. His eyes were centres of incandescence, while the meagre supply of hair he grew bristled redly out from beside his ears like ill-ordered spears. Indeed, such a red-whiskered, bald-headed little parcel of fireworks as Barney was is rarely created.

Calmly considered, it is hardly a matter for marvel that Barney had, from time to time, accommodated every individual in the Hole with a quarrel. Moreover, he had challenged each to mortal combat. Indeed, he had never been known to do anything less. Barney was a challenger first and a cook incidentally. But, ancient and modern tradition through, there never was chronicle of actual encounter in which the fierce little cook cut figure.

And, as a matter of fact, the men esteemed him perhaps somewhat more for the skill and adroitness with which he invariably squirmed out of impending engagements, than they did for all the alacrity and pyrotechnics with which he was wont to surround himself with duelsome entanglements. The boys well knew that if blood were unlet till the bragging, hot little rogue of a Barney stained his record, they would all forget the color of a wound.

It was not without some elemental enthusiasm that the camp, one evening, extended its welcome to a mule-driver newly mustered to their company. The sobriquet by which the man was duly introduced was Slivers. He was swiftly appraised and as quickly assimilated, after which there was only one process required to complete his initiation, namely, that of preparing his mind for a “racket” with Barney Doon.

“Don't lose no time, but git right in at supper,” instructed John Tuttle, for the group. “Jest bang him with any old insult you can think of, and leave the rest to Barney. Trot out a plain, home-made slap at the fodder he's dishin' up, fer instance. And when he comes at you with a challenge, don't fergit your privilege of pickin' out the weapons—savvy?”

It chanced that the moment selected for the entertainment was most propitious, inasmuch as Barney had that day declared his devotion to Sally Wooster, and had duly desired her big red hand for his own, only to hear a wild peal of laughter in reply, and to find himself boosted bodily out of the window by the hearty young lady herself. He was not, therefore, exactly in a mood of milk and honey.

It never had failed, and it did not fail to-night, that Barney should conceive himself more than half insulted merely by the sight of a stranger appearing at the board and calmly requiring the wherewithal to satisfy a mountain appetite. Accordingly, when the miners and teamsters all came filing in, dusty, angular, raw-looking of countenance, Barney instantly detected the presence of Slivers among them, and his eyes “lit up shop” without delay.

Slivers, to speak the truth, was easily seen. He was framed like a sky-scraping building, with the girders all plainly suggested. Not without a certain insolence of deliberation, he stared about the room before assuming his seat, and provoked himself to a sneer of opera-bouffe proportions.

“You're his meat already,” whispered one of the men. “Set down.”

Comrade Slivers thereupon proceeded to comport himself with a studied indifference to the cook which was duly galling. In a grim silence that all who knew him comprehended, Barney went about the table glowering with ferocity. Edging closer and closer to Slivers, the little man seemed itching in his ears to catch some careless word that might, by dint of inventiveness, be construed as a personal affront.

“I can see you ain't got no cook in the camp,” said Slivers, loudly, to his neighbor, when Barney was directly behind his chair. “Has that pizened little boy I seen a while ago been playin' keep-house with the grub?”

“What's the matter with the grub, you scion of the wild-ass family?” demanded Barney, exploding like a fulminate.

Slivers looked around and scowled. “Git out, you yawping brat,” said he. “You must have been losin' hair for years—one hair a day—for everything you don't know about decent grub. Go look at yer head, and figure out your ignorance.”

Sensitive concerning the trackless Sahara which his pate presented, Barney clapped his hand upon it instantly. He could scarcely speak, for rage.

“You—dead lizard!” finally spurted from his safety-valve. “You mongrel viper! Low-bred ooze, disowned and outcast, I'll spoil a grave with your carcass for this! You jelly of cowardice, meet me to-morrow for satisfaction, or I'll swing you about by the tongue, and hurl you to pulp against the sty of a pig!”

Even Slivers somewhat gasped.

“Meet you?” he retorted, arising, to tower above his foeman like a mast. “Iron me, Johnny!—if I can crawl in the hole to find you where you're hidin' I'll make you wish for hair a mile long, to stand on your head in your pitiful scare!”

“Oh, fie! Oh, bah!” said the cook, scanning the teamster's length with ill-concealed awe. “Buzzard, you toy with languages. To-morrow I shall throw tomato-cans in scorn to build your monument.”

“All right,” answered Slivers. “To-morrow suits me, and we'll fight it out bareback on buckin' broncos, out in the small corral, each feller armed with a stockin' full of rocks for a weapon.”

Barney stared for a moment in consternation at the man before him. He had previously grown accustomed to the horrors suggested by pistols, knives, red-hot branding-irons, and even pitchforks, but rocks in a stocking—that smacked of barbarism. Moreover, to mount on the back of a bronco, wild or tame—the very meditation made the walls drop out of his stomach. However, he smiled.

“Child's play!” he answered, with fine disgust. “You warty infant! No matter, an odious child would become a more detestable reptile! Till to-morrow, don't speak to me—don't speak to me! Or I shall cheat myself of the morning's pastime.” And with that he strode haughtily away.

“Howlin' coyotes!” said Slivers, when he met the gaze of a dozen pair of gleaming eyes. “Take him dose for dose he's worse than pizen! By gar! just see if he burned any holes in my shirt.”

Nearly all night long, however, little Barney lay awake, wildly fashioning excuses to avoid that horrid duel in the morning. He had always escaped by a margin so narrow that no precedent of the past gave assurance of luck for the future. He was mortally afraid that at last he had challenged such a monster of brute courage, malignity, and strength that nothing terrestrial could avert his untimely demise.

Then in the morning the first sight that met his troubled gaze was that of Slivers rounding up a pair of unbroken ponies, as wild as meteors, in the field of honor, hard by the camp. Every cell in Barney's structure was in a panic. How he managed to walk to the water-bench to wash was more than he knew. After that there was no retreat. The citizens of Bitter Hole surrounded him, according to preconcerted arrangement, and began to coach him for his fight.

“Barney, you'd better have a jolt of whiskey in yer vitals,” suggested one. “Slivers is a regular expert with a stockin' of rocks.”

“If I was you, Barney,” said Tuttle, “I'd leave my bronco throw me right at him. Then. I'd turn in the air and soak my heels into Slivers's grub-basket and knock him into pieces small enough to smoke in a cigarette.”

“Barney,” counselled another, “you take my advice and fight standin' up on your hoss, so you can jump over onto Slivers's bronco and cram your stockin' of rocks down that there mule-driver's neck and choke him clean to death.”

They were “herding” the speechless Barney toward the corral, in which the two vicious ponies had now been confined. Slivers himself came forward.

“Leave me see how much the little scarecrow has shrunk in the night,” said he.

Barney's wrath was kindled by this. He opened his mouth to deliver a broadside of verbal grape and canister, when he was suddenly interrupted.

A shot and a yell, from down the road, startled every man in camp. Two, three, five more shots barked in swift succession. Miss Sally Wooster herself was drawn from the house by the fusillade.

With Comanche-like whoops, a horseman came dashing madly toward the men, brandishing two huge revolvers as he rode.

“Skete, and drunk in the morning,” said Tuttle.

A moment later the rider scattered the population as he rode his weltering pony through the group.

“You lubbers, celebrate!” he yelled, discharging a weapon three times in a second. “There's been a baby born at Red Shirt Canyon! We git in the census! We git on the map! Big Matt Sullivan's wife has got a little boy!”

“A boy!” said Sally Wooster. “Oh my!”

“Is that all?” inquired John Tuttle, on behalf of his somewhat indignant townsmen. “Red Shirt's thirty-seven miles away. We've got something more exciting than that right here in camp.”

“Red Shirt's in this same county,” protested the horseman, a trifle crestfallen. “I thought you fellers was patriotic.”

Barney Doon threw out his chest and swaggered forward.

“Patriotic?” he echoed. “Doggone us, we're the biggest patriots on the coast! No man is a gentleman who wouldn't be a gentleman on such an occasion as this. Skete, you've saved the life of yonder braggart,” and he pointed to Slivers. “I couldn't be a gentleman and slay him when a child's been born in this here county. Slivers, you can go your way, without alarm.”

“What!” demanded Tuttle. “No fight? All on account of a baby?”

“If I ever!” added Sally Wooster.

A third disgusted person queried, “What's a baby got to do with a duel, and the kid near forty miles away?”

To this one Barney turned with pitying scorn. “You don't know how easy it is to disturb a new-born baby,” said he. “There ain't a man but me in camp knows how to behave himself in a holy moment like this here, and I ain't a-goin' to kill no man when a sacred thing like that has went and happened.”

“Well, durn his slippery hide!” grumbled Tuttle. “He's gittin' too smart!”

The men were all grinning, including Slivers.

“I reckon Barney knows as much about a baby as a hop-toad knows about arithmetic,” said Wooster, winking prodigiously. “He's got us all square beat on kids.”

“I don't know about that,” replied a lanky individual who had sobered amazingly at the news from Red Shirt Canyon. “I've saw a kid or two myself.”

“That so, Moody?” said Slivers. “Well, say, maybe we could work up a bet between you and Barney, to see which knows the most about a youngster.”

Barney broke in abruptly. “I'll bet a million dollars I know more about children than all you cusses put together! There ain't a one of you knows how many teeth a baby's got when he's born.”

The challenge produced a solemn stillness.

“W-e-l-l, I know they don't git their eyes open for a week,” asserted Moody.

“You're clear off, first crack,” retorted Barney. “It's nine days, instead of a week.”

Again the men were awed to silence.

“Yes, that's right—Barney's correct,” presently admitted citizen Wooster.

“You old ninnies!” said his daughter Sally, and she turned away to go to the house.

“Well, anyway,” said Slivers, after a brisk bit of widespread conversation with Tuttle, “we've got a scheme. Barney wants to match himself against the whole shebang in knowin' about a kid, and we're goin' to fetch a young un to the Hole and leave him prove his claim.”

“Not Sullivan's?” gasped Barney, suddenly overwhelmed at the prospect of proving his erudition on an infant so tender, with a father so brawny.

“Never mind whose,” replied the teamster. “You sit quiet and look pretty, and we'll provide the kid.”

This they did. The following morning, at daylight, Tuttle and Slivers reappeared at camp, from a pilgrimage, and the mule-driver held in his arms a little red Indian papoose, as fat, dimpled, and pretty as a cherub, and as frightened as a captive baby rabbit.

“Now, then,” said the man, placing his charge on the floor, in the midst of a circle of wondering citizens, “there's your kid. Never mind where we got him—there he is. Barney takes charge of him every other day, and the rest of us by turns in between—all that cares to enter the race.”

The news having spread, Miss Sally Wooster was among the astonished spectators who beheld the tiny, half-naked, frightened little chieftain-to-be, gazing timidly about him as he sat on the planks, gripping his own little shirt as his one and only acquaintance.

“Lauk!” she said, and laughing immoderately, sped for the door.

“Sally, you ain't to help neither Barney nor us!” called Tuttle.

“Don't you worry,” she answered. “It ain't no pie of mine.”

The men continued to look at their “young un” in no small quandary of helplessness.

“He's a pretty little cuss,” said one of the miners, after a moment. “I wouldn't guess him for more than a yearlin'.”

Moody coughed nervously. “One of the first things to do for a child,” he ventured, “is to git a thimble to rub on his teeth.”

“That's right,” said a friend. “My mother used to do that regular.”

“What's the matter with putting pants on him fairly early in the fight?” inquired the next man of wisdom.

“First thing my mother always done for us was to make us a bib,” drawled one fidgety fellow, tentatively.

“He'd orter be told never to drink, ner chew, ner smoke, ner swear, ner gamble, 'fore it gits too late,” added a miner who carefully eschewed all and sundry of these virtues.

“Stub-tailed idiots!” said Barney, in huge disgust.

All eyes focussed on the fiery little cook.

“Well, then,” demanded Tuttle, “what is the first thing to do for a little kid like him?”

“The first thing?” answered Barney. “The first thing is—Do you think I'm going to tell you lop-eared galoots all I know about a baby? What I want to know is if he's had a bite to eat?”

“What did you think we'd feed him?” asked Slivers. “Do we look like his mother?”

“Git away, you venomous scum, and let me have him!” demanded Barney.

“Hold on,” interrupted Tuttle. “The first day he goes to the feller he picks out himself, only you come last, bein' the challenger. We'll arrange things alphabetical. Adams, you git first shot, to find out if you're popular with the little skeesicks.”

Adams turned redder than usual, which is saying much.

“Ah—I don't know nuthin' about kids,” he confessed. “Catherwood—see what he can do.”

Catherwood also proved to be modest. After him Farnham and Lane waived their alphabetical privilege.

Moody, as nervous as a girl, approached the dumb little man on the floor, and twisting the corner of his coat, inquired in a trembling voice, “Does Bunny love old Goo-goo?”

The child looked up with a frightened little query in his eyes.

“I'd hate to scare him,” Moody added. “I don't mind seein' how he takes to Barney.”

“Yes, give Barney a show,” said Wooster.

Something had been happening to the cook. The tenseness had gone from his usually wiry little body; his eyes were milder; a curve was softening his mouth. Kneeling before the child, he held forth his arms.

“Baby want to go by-by?” he said, and tenderly lifting the little man, he bore him away, while the men looked on in silence.

Half an hour later the man who peeked through the keyhole reported that Barney was singing the youngster to sleep. The words of the song are not readily conveyed, but they sounded like—

  “Allonsum sum-sum bill-din,
   Allonsum sum-sum bill-din,
   Allonsum sum-sum bill-din,”

repeated times without number. Barney called it an Indian lullaby. As sung it was equally good Cherokee, Chinese, or Russian, being Barney's clearest recollection and interpretation of a song which his mother once had droned.

On the third day following, Slivers, Tuttle, and others held a council of war.

“Barney's goin' to clean up the whole works of us,” said the mule-driver, “unless we can manage to work some better combination.”

“What can we do?” inquired Tuttle. “The kid sure likes him best.”

“That wasn't the point. It's a game of how much we all know about a young un as against little Barney. Now, Moody, on the square, do you think you know as much as him?”

“He knows more than you'd think,” confessed Moody. “The—the only little kid I ever had—she died—ten months old.”

“Oh.”

“Well—that was hell, sure.”

Some of the men puckered their lips as if to whistle, but made no sound.

“If only we could paint Barney's face an Irish green, or do something so's the kid would be scared to see him, we might win out yet, perhaps,” resumed Slivers, presently. “Got any ideas?”

“I don't think Barney could scare him if he tried,” answered Wooster. “Anyhow the pore little scamp ain't cried since he come.”

“He ain't laughed any, either,” added Moody.

There was neither a cry nor a smile that day, though Barney yearned to hear either one of these baby sounds. The little brown captive clung as always to his tiny shirt, and watched Barney's face with big, brown, questioning eyes. The cook had forgotten his boast. To hold the wee bit of babyhood against his heart, to coax him to eat, to yearn over him, love him, fondle him—these were his passions. A fierce parental jealousy grew in Barney's nature.

But the hour arrived when jealousy changed to a deeper emotion—to worry. All Barney actually knew of a child came through the intuitions of a natural father's heart, but little as this amounted to, Barney was aware that a tiny scamp like this should eat and sleep and creep about and crow. And the little brown “Bunny” had done not one of the pretty baby tricks.

The fiery little cook's new concern was at first concealed. With growing reluctance every time, he resigned the little man to Moody's care as the “contest” required. One night, however, when the dumb, sad bit of an Indian was with Moody, the man was aroused from his dreams by some one's presence. It was Barney, too worried to sleep, surreptitiously come to the tiny captive's fruit-box cradle, and gently urging the wee bronze man to eat of some gruel prepared at that silent hour of the darkness. He was willing that Moody should have the credit of taking good care of the motherless baby, if only the child could be made a little more happy. Thereafter, by night and day, the cook was hovering about the uncomplaining little chieftain; and Moody understood.

By some of the mystic workings of nature, Barney's love and worry extended to Sally. Hiding her feelings from all the men, even from Barney himself, she could not quell the upgush of emotion in her bosom, as she snatched the little Indian once, in secret, to her heart. Without the courage, as yet, to hear the men ridicule her weakness, she nevertheless contrived to place a hundred little comforting things in Barney's path, as he went his rounds of mothering his sad little wild thing from the hills. Her heart began to ache, as it swelled to take in the child and Barney Doon.

The men had lost all spirit of fun in the contest, even to Slivers, who strove, however, to see it through in a bluff, rough-hearted way.

Unexpectedly all of it came to a crisis. It was early in the morning. After a sleepless night Barney had gone in desperate parent-care to receive his foundling back from Moody. In one keen glance he had finally perceived what all their folly was leading to, at last.

With the dumb little chap on his arm he hastened to the dining-shed, where all the men, save Tuttle, were awaiting breakfast.

“You brutes had no right to steal this child!” he cried out, passionately. “He's starving! He's pining away! Look at his thin little legs! Look at his poor little eyes—getting hollow!” Tears were streaming from his own tired eyes as he spoke. “Slivers, you did this!” he charged, angrily. “You tell me where you got him, or I'll shoot you down like a dog!” He had hastened up to the teamster, against whose very breast he thrust a pistol a foot in length.

“By God! he'd do it!” said Slivers, unmoved by the push of the loaded weapon. “Uncock it, Barney. You'd ought to know I wouldn't harm the kid, any quicker than you. I'd do as much as any man if we had to save his life.”

“He may not live through the day!” cried Barney. “I'm going to take him home—back to his mother! And if you don't tell me where she is—”

“Hold on, now; I call,” interrupted Slivers. “We'll see if you've got any sand. The Injun camp is over across the desert, in Thimbleberry Cove.... Do you reckon you've got the nerve to pack him across?”

A peculiar silence followed this announcement. Barney stood like an animal at bay. His face became deathly white. He fully comprehended the awfulness of that great white dead-land just outside.

Wooster broke the silence. “It looks as if the wind is going to blow harder to-day,” he said. “It's stirring up the desert some already. A man could never get two miles out from here, unless the breeze goes down.”

Barney, with a crazed, wild look on his face, hastened away to the kitchen.

“I'm glad he didn't take you up on that,” said Moody, gazing forth from a window. “Get on to the way the whirlwinds are kickin' up the smoke already.”

“I reckon it won't blow no worse than yesterday,” replied Slivers. “But I knowed he wouldn't tackle it anyhow. He'll be back here in a minute, to squirm out of the game.”

They drummed on the table for fifteen minutes, as they waited. A brisk wind was blowing; the desert began to deliver up its cohorts of dust-clouds, where powdered alkali billowed and eddied and swept across the valley in ever-increasing volumes.

“Peek in the kitchen and see what Barney's up to now,” prompted Slivers, nudging Adams as he spoke.

“Oh, he'll be back directly,” said Adams.

“Here's somebody comin' now,” added Catherwood, presently. “Maybe it's—”

“Sally,” muttered Slivers, who meditated proposing for the hand of the buxom Miss Wooster.

She came toward them almost fiercely. Her face was white. She too had detected the change come upon the tiny Indian captive. All night she had accused herself of neglect and heartlessness.

“Where's Barney? Where's the baby?” she demanded.

“Barney's maybe striking off for Thimbleberry Cove,” answered Slivers, smilingly. “He was running a bluff on taking the kid to its mother.”

“But Tuttle told me the mother's up at Red Shirt Canyon,” said the girl.

“Of course,” agreed Slivers, uneasily. “We—told him about the Cove to test his sand.”

Sally gazed at him wildly. “Then—it must have been a man—Barney!—I saw—on the desert!” she cried, disjointedly. “They'll die! Oh no, he wouldn't—” She ran outside to scan the fearful expanse of alkali, with its gathering blizzard of dust.

The men, suddenly grown nervous, followed her out of the house. Apparently there was nothing, far or wide, on the desert, save the sweeping clouds of white, like drifting snow.

“My God! he wouldn't tackle that!” said Slivers.

“I hear some one out in the kitchen now,” said Tate. “It must be him.”

Sally ran to see. It was only the dog. She darted forth once more.

“Not there!” she said. “But surely Barney wouldn't—There! There!”

Her cry rang out so shrilly that even Slivers started. She was pointing stiffly. The men all stared at the storm of dust. For one brief second the swirling clouds were reft, revealing, far out eastward, in the dead-land of white, a small dark object—the form of a man.

One poignant sob was the only sound that Sally made, as she ran toward the stable.

“Good Lord! it's him!” said Adams. “Was he heading back this way?”

“I think he was,” answered Catherwood.

“He couldn't—do anything—else,” stammered Slivers.

For a moment no one spoke.

“I reckon I'll just mosey over to the desert,” drawled the fidgety man. “I'd hate to have anything go wrong with Barney.”

“Guess I'll go along myself,” said Adams.

“Boys!” said Slivers, hoarsely, “I'm going to saddle up and git him back! I didn't mean no harm when I told him wrong. I didn't think he'd go. I'd ride through hell for Barney—or the little Injun, either. You fellers know I didn't mean no harm.”

He started at once to get his horse. Before he had covered half the distance to the stable, Sally suddenly rode forth, bareback, on a buckskin pony, and heading for the desert, spurred her bronco to a gallop, crying to him wildly as she went.

“Sally!—Sally—I'll go!” yelled Slivers.

She seemed not to hear, but ran her pony out upon the white expanse, where the wreathing dust seemed to swallow both herself and the animal immediately.

Her horse, fleeing swiftly before the wind, carried Sally a mile or two out from the camp before she reined him in. Believing Barney could have come no farther than this, she began to search and to call.

At every turn of her head her eyes were blinded by the acrid dust. The stuff choked her breathing; already her throat was dry. Dust and powder and snow-of-alkali came from everywhere. It was blowing up her sleeves. It filtered into and through her clothing. Her ears were quickly coated; her hair was heavy.

She turned her head from side to side for a breath. The air was thicker than smoke with dust as heavy as flour.

“Barney!” she called, from time to time, but the alkali coated her tongue. On either side she could see for a distance of twenty feet, or less. It seemed far less, in all that terrible drift of white.

She rode across the wind, doggedly, crying Barney's name. A nameless hopelessness began to grow upon her. Now this way, now that, she urged her horse. How far could Barney hear her calling? How far could he wander? How far would she ride? There were forty miles in length and fifteen in width of this reek of wind-driven alkali. God keep them if ever they got more than two miles away from the Hole!

It was aimless riding, presently, but she still persisted. A sickening conviction that Barney and the little captive would both be dead before she could find them made her desperation unendurable. With eyes starting hotly, with every breath seeming like a struggle for existence, in the dust, she galloped, calling, calling, till at last she could call no more.

Dazed, she halted her horse at last, and sat staring blindly at nothing. The pony turned about, unheeded, and began to fight his way against the storm, his head down between his legs.

Sally's head also came down, by instinct more than by design. She felt past thinking. For a time she rode thus, heedlessly. Then abruptly she clutched at the reins and drew the horse to a halt. The animal pricked up his ears peculiarly.

Weirdly out of the wind and dust came a sound—not a moan, not a croon, but like them both, yet a song, uncertain, apparently coming from no definitive point. She even caught the words:

 “All on some lonesome bill-din
    The swallow makes her nest;

  All on some—lonesome bill-din
    The—swallow makes—her nest.”

Sally tried to call out. She made but a croaking noise. Slipping from her horse's back, she groped her way forward, leading the pony, and trying to shout.

For a rod or more she battled against the driving dust, then halted as before. Not another sound would the desert render up—only the strange dry swishing by of the particles of stuff rasping the desert's surface as they passed and rose.

“Barney!” she called, by a mighty effort. There was no response.

Crying now, in her anguish and plight, she led the pony this way and that, up and down, listening, trying to force a shout through her swollen lips. At length, in despair, she knew she could search no more. A lifelessness of feeling was creeping upon her. Mechanically she walked beside her pony, and it was the animal that was leading.

It seemed as if she had plodded onward thus for hours, when at length she stumbled upon a gray little mound in the drifting alkali.

“Barney!” she said, in a voice scarcely more than a whisper. Crooning and sobbing, she lifted him up—unconscious, but clinging to the still, little form that was hugged to the shelter of his breast.

“Hang on—oh, hang on to the horse, dear, please,” she coaxed, in all the tender strength of a new-born love. “Barney—try—try, dear, please. I'll be your wife—I'll do anything—if only you'll try.”

She had raised him bodily to the pony's back. Stiffly as a man that freezes he straddled the animal. He made no answer, no movement. She feared he must be dead. She dared not look at the little papoose. Barney's weight rested partially upon her shoulder. She tossed away the reins.

“Go on, Sancho—go on home,” she croaked to the horse, passionately.

The pony seemed to comprehend. With some faint fragrance of the waters of Bitter Hole in his nostrils, the willing creature fought slowly, steadily forward, against the terrible drift.

       * * * * *

John Tuttle and Henry Wooster descried a group, like a sculpture in whitened stone endowed with life, creep strangely out from the blizzard of alkali. A blinded horse, with head bent low, bearing on its back a motionless man, and led by a stumbling, blinded girl, against whose shoulder the helpless rider leaned, came with ghostlike slowness and silence toward them.

And all day long, one by one, more men came forth, like ghosts, from the dead-land. But the twilight had come and the wind had died away before teamster Slivers limped from the desert. He came afoot. He had ridden his horse to death, in his desperate quest. He could barely see—and his hair was white, even below the coating of the dust.

Moody ran to meet him.

“Barney?—Sally?—the kid?” the teamster demanded, raucously.

“Back—and goin' to live,” said Moody. “The Injuns up to Red Shirt heard where the little feller was and was goin' on the war-trail, sudden, but the mother came down on the stage to-day,—and got her pretty little kid.”

“Oh, God! I didn't deserve it!” said Slivers, and letting himself fall limply to the earth, he lay with his face in the curve of his arm and shook with emotion.

 
 
 

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