“I don’t reckon you’re the boss?” suggested the young man.
“Yep,” said Billings, “I reckon as how I am.”
“I don’t reckon as how you ain’t needin’ no hands?”
“What kin you do?”
“I kin ride some, and rope.”
“Ben sick?” asked Billings, noting the other’s pale face.
“Got lost. Pretty near cashed in. Reckon I would have ef a Siwash hadn’t come along an’ give me some water. He told me how to reach your ranch—that was nigh onto three weeks ago—then I run into a scoutin’ party of reg’lars from the post an’ they took me in with I ’em. I ben in the hospital ever since. Worse off’n I thought I was I reckon.”
“Three weeks ago?” mused Billings. “You was tarnation lucky that Siwash wasn’t no Cheeracow. Thet was jest about when they was goin’ out.”
“Thet’s what gets me,” said the youth, “he was a Cheeracow. He told me he was, an’ not only that, but he was painted up all right enough for the warpath.”
“I reckon you must hev had a touch of fever right then,” said Billings, skeptically.
The other laughed. “No,” he said, “I was all right in the head; but I’m here to tell you I was pretty near plumb sick when I stuck my ol’ head up over the top o’ that rise an’ seen this here hostile lookin’ me right in the eye with his ugly, painted mug. Say, I ken see him right now, a-sittin’ there on his ewe neck roan. I did a back flip down thet hill an’ pretty near kilt myself for sure.” He grinned broadly at the recollection.
“Three weeks ago—a ewe neck roan,” soliloquized Billings. “Did he have a blaze face?”
Wichita Billings could feel the flush that overspread her face and she was glad that she was standing a little to the rear of her father as she listened eagerly to the conversation.
“Yep,” affirmed the young man, “he had a blaze face.”
Billings half turned toward his daughter. “Now how in all tarnation did that Siwash git a-holt of that cayuse?” he demanded. “Musta took it out o’ the c’ral right under the noses o’ those there soldiers. I missed that critter the next mornin’ an’ I never ben able to see what in “all tarnation become of him. thet beats me!”
“Well, I reckon your hoss is down Sonora way somewheres by now,” said the youth.
“Fed?” inquired Billings.
“Dump your roll off at the bunk house and turn your hoss into the fust c’ral there,” Billings directed. “I’ll have the chink rustle you some grub. You ken go to work in the mornin’.”
“What I can’t understand,” said Billings, when he had come back from the kitchen, “is why that Siwash’ didn’t plug that kid.”
“Maybe they ain’t all bad, Dad,” said Wichita, who thought that she understood perfectly why Shoz-Dijiji had not killed the boy.
“No,” admitted her father, “the dead ones ain’t so bad.”
His vengeance accomplished, Shoz-Dijiji was as a lost soul wandering in Purgatory, facing a goalless eternity. He ranged northern Sonora, a solitary figure, grim, terrible. He avoided Indians as sedulously as he did Mexicans, for the greatest wrong that had ever been done him had been committed by the hand of an Indian. He felt that all men were his enemies and that henceforth he must travel alone. He could not know that the wound, so fresh, so raw, the first hurt that ever had touched his inmost soul, might be healed by the patient hand of Time; that though the scar remained the wound would cease to throb.
He lived by the chase, supplemented by an occasional raid when he required such luxuries as sugar or tobacco, or necessities such as salt, flour or ammunition. Upon these occasions he walked boldly and in the broad light of day into isolated ranch house or village store, taking what he would; where he met with interference he killed, striking swiftly, mercilessly, otherwise he ignored the natives. They were as the dirt beneath his feet, for was he not an Apache, a war chief?
Pride of caste gripped him inflexibly, so that he felt only contempt for those who were not Apaches. Even though the words of Juh were constantly in his mind he pretended that they were not. He thought of himself more jealously than ever as a pure-blooded Apache; the wicked words of Juh were a lie: “You are white!”
Weeks came and went until they numbered months. “The Apache Devil” was notorious across Sonora and into Chihuahua. Whole regiments of Mexican troops were in the field, searching for him; but they never saw him. Strange tales grew up about him. He possessed the power of invisibility. He could change himself at will into a coyote, a rattlesnake, a lion. Every depredation, every murder was attributed to him, until the crimes upon his soul were legion.
Slowly the wound was healing. He was surprised, almost hurt, to discover a growing longing for the companionship of his kind. His thoughts, now, were more and more often filled with pleasant memories of Sons-ee-ah-ray, memories of Geronimo, of the other Be-don-ko-he who were his own people. He wondered how they fared. And then one morning he turned his face northward toward Arizona.
Old Nakay-do-klunni, the trouble maker, was dead; the renegades had returned to the reservations or been driven in scattered bands across the boundary into Mexico. The troops were enjoying a well-earned rest. They were building roads, digging boulders out of parade grounds, erecting telegraph lines up and down over red-hot mountains and white-hot plains, until an entire troop would not have rendered out a teacupful of fat. Always there were detachments scouting, patrolling.
Lieutenant King commanded a detachment thus engaged. A parched, gaunt, service sergeant was, nominally, second in command. He had forgotten more about soldiering and Indian fighting than all the shave-tail second lieutenants in the army knew, and Lieutenant King, by way of becoming a good officer, realized this and utilized the sergeant for the very purpose for which the “old man” had sent him along—as mentor, guide, instructor. However, the sergeant agreed when Lieutenant King suggested that it might not be a bad plan to patrol a little in the direction of Billings ranch, for the sergeant had delicious memories of the prune pies of the Billing’s Chinese cook. Arizona nights can be quite the softest, loveliest nights in all the world, and Lieutenant King thought that this was such a one as he sat in the dark shade of a great cottonwood before the Billings ranch house where he could glimpse the half profile of the girl in the light filtering through a window from an oil lamp burning within the building. Beyond the girl, down beside the corrals, twinkled the camp fire of his men and, subdued, there floated to his ears the sound of voices, laughter, the music of a harmonica.
“There is something I want to ask you, Chita,” he said, presently. He had discovered that everyone called her Chita, that it embarrassed her and everyone wlthin earshot when he addressed her as Miss Billings.
“Shoot,” said Chita. He wished that she would not be so disconcerting. Sitting and looking at that profile that any goddess might well have envied put one in a mood—a delicious, exalted mood—but “shoot” and other conversational peculiarities tended to shatter illusions. He was silent, therefore, rearranging his thoughts to an altered mood.
“Well,” she inquired presently, “what’s eatin’ you?”
King shook his head and grinned. It was no use. “What is consuming me,” he said, “is curiosity.”
“That’s what killed the cat,” she returned, laughing. “It ain’t a good thing to encourage out this away.”
“So I’ve heard. If one asks personal questions, one is apt to get shot, eh?”
“Yes, or if two asks ’em.” she laughed.
“Well, please don’t shoot me until you have told me if you know an Apache called Shoz-Dijiji.”
“Yes, why?” He thought her tone suddenly constrained, and he noted how quickly she turned and looked him full in the eyes. Even in the dark he felt the intensity of her gaze. “We had a little brush with them just south of the border,” he explained. “This fellow captured me. He could easily have killed me. In fact he was about to when he seemed to recognize me. He let me go because I was a friend of yours. He even killed another buck who tried to shoot me. He said you had been kind to him.”
“Yes,” said the girl. “He saved me once from a tin-horn who was tryin’ to get fresh. After that I had a chance to help him once. I’m mighty glad I did.”
“So am I—it saved my life. He sent you a message.”
“He said that he could not return your pony because it was dead, but that he would send your friend back alive instead—he seemed to take it for granted that I am your friend.”
“I hope so, Chita.”
“’Twasn’t such a bad swap at that,” laughed the girl. “That ewe neck roan was a sort o’ ornery critter anyways; but Dad did seem to set a heap o’ store by it—anyways after it was gone. I never heered him do anything but cuss it before.”
“He’ll probably always think it worth more than a soldier,” said King.
“I wouldn’t say that, and I wouldn’t give him no chance to think about it at all. I reckon Dad wouldn’t be tickled more’n half to death if he knew I’d give a hoss to an Injun.”
“You must have had a good reason to do it.”
“I sure did—I wanted to; but there was really a better reason than that. This was the whitest Injun I ever see and I owed him something for what he’d done for me. I couldn’t let a Injun be whiter than me, could I? Listen—I’ll tell you all about It.”
When she had finished she waited, looking up at King for an expression of his verdict upon her action.
“I think you did right, Chita,” he said, “but I also think that the less said about it the better. Don’t you?”
“I aint been publishin’ the matter in no newspapers,” she returned. “You pumped it out of me.”
They sat in silence for a long time then, and as King watched her face, the easy, graceful motions of her lithe body, her slender fingers, her dainty ankles, he was drawn to her as he had never been drawn to a woman before. He knew her heart and soul must be as wonderful as her face and form; he had caught a fleeting glimpse of them as she spoke of Shoz-Dijiji and the loyalty that she owed him. What a wonderful creature she would have made had she been born to such an environment of culture and refinement as had surrounded him from childhood. He wanted to reach out and touch her, to draw her toward him, to ask her if he might hope. He was hopelessly, helplessly under the spell of her charms.
“I reckon, mister, I’ll be hittin’ the hay,” she said, rising.
“Chita!” he cried. “Why do you do it?”
“Do what—go to bed?”
“No, not that. Listen to me, Chita. I may offend you—I certainly don’t want to, but I can’t sit here and look at you and then listen to you and not speak.”
“You got me chokin’ leather,” she admitted, “and I’m two jumps behind at that.”
“I suppose you know that you are a very beautiful girl,” he said. “Beside your beauty you have character, intelligence, a wonderful heart. But—” he hesitated. It was going to be hard to say and he was already regretting that he had started it.
“Well,” she said, “but what? I ain’t committed no murders.”
“I haven’t any right to say what I started to say to you, Chita; except that I—well, Chita, I think you’re the most wonderful girl I ever met and I want you to be right in every way.”
“I reckon I know what you mean,” she said. “We don’t talk alike. I know it. You ain’t a-goin’ to hurt my feelings, because I know you ain’t makin’ fun of me—and I wouldn’t even care if you did, if you’d help me. I was born on a farm in Kansas and what school they was was too fer off to go to only a few weeks in the fall and spring. I didn’t learn much of nothin’ there. Maw died when I was little. Dad learned me all he knew—how to read and write a little and figger. If I only had somethin’ decent to read, or educated folks to talk to me. I know I got it in me to be—to be different. If there was only some way.”
“There is a way,” said King, who had been thinking very hard for the past several minutes.
“There is a way.” “What?”
“There are some very wonderful women at the post—refined, cultured, educated women, the wife of my troop commander, for instance. One of them would be glad to have you come there. Anyone of them would help you. Would you come, Chita?”
“As the guest of one of these ladies?”
“I don’t know none of ’em. I don’t think they’d want me.”
“Yes they would. The Captain’s wife is an old friend of my mother’s. She’s been wonderful to me since I joined and I know she’d love to have you. These women get terribly lonesome way out here, especially when their husbands are in the field. You would be a Godsend to Mrs. Cullis.”
And that is how it happened that Wichita Billings came to Fort Thomas as the guest and ward of Margaret Cullis. Her beauty, her eagerness to learn disarmed all criticism, forestalled all ridicule—the one thing that Wichita Billings could not have survived, the thing that she had feared most. Yet she made so much fun of her own crude diction that those who might have otherwise found in her a target for witty thrusts were the first to defend her.
Up out of Sonora came Shoz-Dijiji searching for his people. With him he brought a dozen ponies and some mules, toll that he had collected from the enemy in northern Sonora and southern Arizona. Behind him he left a few smoking piles of embers where homes had been or wagons, a few new corpses, killed without torture, left without mutilation.
The Be-don-ko-he welcomed him without enthusiasm. He took his place among them as though he had not been away. The mules he gave for a great feast and he had presents for Geronimo, Gian-nah-tah and Sons-ee-ah-ray. Ish-kay-nay they did not mention, nor did he. Sorrow, parting, death are but a part of the pathetic tragedy that marks the passing of the Indian; they had taken no greater toll of Shoz-Dijiji than of many another of his tribe. Why then should he flaunt his sorrow in the faces of those whose burdens were as great as his?
Of his warlike deeds, he spoke sparingly, though he was too much the Apache brave to ignore them entirely; but there had come word of his doings out of Mexico and his rating became second to none among all the six tribes. Geronimo was very proud of him.
Restless, Shoz-Dijiji wandered much, and often Gian-nah-tah accompanied him. They hunted together, they visited other tribes. Where there was a great dance or a feast there was Shoz-Dijiji. One night he came to the camp of the Cho-kon-en as the warriors were gathering around the council fire, and Na-chi-ta welcomed him and made a place for him at his side.
“The son of Geronimo has come at a good time,” said the chief of the Cho-kon-en. “The young men are restless. They want to go out upon the war trail against the pindah lickoyee. Some of them have been punished by the soldiers for things which were done by no Apache. Always the Apaches are blamed for whatever wrong is done in our land. If there were no white-eyes here we could live in peace. The young men want to fight.”
A warrior arose and spoke when the chief had signified that he had finished. For a long time he narrated the wrongs to which the Indians had been subjected, telling the same old story that they all knew so well but which never failed to find an eager and sympathetic audience. He urged the warriors to prepare for battle.
A very old man spoke next. He spoke of the great numbers of the white-eyes, of their power and wealth. He advised against taking the war trail against them.
Thus were several hours consumed and when a vote was taken the majority spoke for war.
“Take this word to Geronimo and the warriors of the Be-don-ko-he,” said Na-chi-ta to Shoz-Dijiji, “and ask them if they will join the Cho-kon-en upon the war trail. We will send runners to the other tribes and when the war drum sounds we will gather here again for a great dance that the izze-nantans may make strong medicine and the warriors of the six tribes go forth to battle protected against the weapons of the enemy.”
When Shoz-Dijiji returned again to the camp of the Be-don-ko-he he laid Na-chi-ta’s proposition before Geronimo, but the old chief shook his head.
“My son,” he said, “I am an old man. Many times have I been upon the war trail. Many times have I fought the pindah lickoyee, and always, as the years go by, the pindah lickoyee increase in numbers and grow stronger and the Shis-Inday became fewer in numbers and grow weaker. It has been long time since we defeated the pindah lickoyee in battle; and when we did it made no difference, they came again with more soldiers. If we could not drive them out of our country when we were many and they were few, how could we hope to drive them out now that they are many and we are few?”
“Geronimo is war chief of all the Apaches. Geronimo loves his people. He loves his land. He hates the pindah lickoyee. But Gerohimo is old and he has the wisdom of the old, he knows when there is no longer hope. My son, for the Apaches there is no hope. Geronimo will never again fight against the pindah lickoyee. Geronimo has spoken.”
“Geronimo is right,” replied Shoz-Dijiji. “There is no hope. They have taken our land from us; they have taken the game we hunted that we might live; but one thing they cannot take from us—the right to die and to choose the manner of our dying. I, Shoz-Dijiji, choose to die fighting the pindah lickoyee. I shall go cut upon the war trail with Na-chi-ta and the Cho-kon-en. I have spoken.”
“You have spoken well, my son. You are a young man. Young men should fight. Geronimo is old and tired and very sad. He would rather lay down his weapons and rest.”
Great was the activity in the camp of the Cho-kon-en when Shoz-Dijiji returned accompanied by Gian-nah-tah and several of the other younger braves of the Be-don-ko-he. Chief Co-si-to was there with a band of his Chi-e-a-hen warriors; but there was disappointment in the voice of Na-chi-ta when he told that the other tribes had refused to join them.
Nan-ta-do-tash headed the izze-nantans who were preparing big medicine for use against the enemy, and with his own hands he prepared a phylactery for Shoz-Dijiji, calling down many blessings upon it.
The feast and the war dance aroused the braves to the highest pitch of excitement, to which the women added by their savage denunciation of the enemy and their demands upon their braves to go forth like men and slay the hated white-eyes; and when the dance was over the squaws accompanied the war party for several miles out of camp toward the point the chiefs had chosen for attack upon the morrow.