She had ridden down from Thomas on the previous day with a Signal Corps detachment that was repairing the line of government telegraph, for a day’s visit with the wife of the rancher. Tomorrow they would be back and she would return to the post with them.
Hearing her hostess already in the kitchen the girl dressed quickly and joined her. It was very early, yet already the rancher and his men were busy with the feeding and the chores. The daily life of the ranch had commenced, as it always did, in the cool of the morning, for one soon learns to take advantage of any respite from the intense heat of Arizona’s middays.
Molly Fringe hummed a gay song as she fed sticks of cottonwood to the hungry range while Chita stirred the buckwheat batter. The odor of coffee and frying bacon was in the air. The women chatted as they worked. There was a great chirping of birds among the foliage of the two trees that shaded the front of the house.
Later in the day would come heat and silence. From behind the brow of a low ridge north of the ranch house a band of painted warriors surveyed the scene. They were Chi-e-a-hen and Tats-ah-das-ay-go, the Quick Killer, led them, for Tats-ah-das-ay-go was a war chief of the Chi-e-a-hen. With him today was Shoz-Dijiji, a war chief of the Be-don-ko-he; but Shoz-Dijiji rode as a warrior, since his tribe had refused to join the Chi-e-a-hen and Cho-kon-tn upon the war trail. Just below them they saw a few white men moving about the corrals and sheds; they saw smoke pouring from the chimney of the ranch house—there the women would be.
Heber Pringe raised a forkful of hay to toss it over into the corral where several saddle ponies stood. As he did so he faced the ridge a few hundred yards away and instantly the fork stopped in mid-air, for at that moment a dozen savage warriors had urged their wiry mounts over the top and were already quirting them into a run down the hill.
“Apaches!” yelled Pringe and started for the house on a run. Simultaneously, realizing that they had been seen, the warriors broke into the fierce Apache war whoop and, firing as they advanced, charged at a mad run down the hill in an effort to intercept the men before they reached the house, toward which all of them were now running amidst the shriek and whine of bullets, the yells of the savages spurring them on.
Pringe, who was in the lead, fell at the threshold of his home as a quartet of savages cut off the balance of the white men, who then turned toward the bunk house where they might make a better stand than in the open. With such swiftness had the hostiles struck that the women in the kitchen had scarcely more than grasped the significance of the attack when a burly brave shouldered into their presence. For an instant he stood in the doorway, his cruel face hideous with bands of green and blue and the red blood of a fresh killed rabbit. From behind him three other pairs of fierce eyes glared savagely across his shoulders out of faces streaked with war paint. Molly Pringe and Wichita Billings, trapped, unarmed, stood there helpless, momentarily frozen into inactivity by surprise and terror.
The older woman, standing before the stove, was the first to react to the menace of those sinister intruders. Seizing a hot frying pan filled with bubbling fat she hurled it at the head of the leading savage, at Tats-ah-das-ay-go, war chief of the Chi-e-a-hen. He fended the missile with a swart forearm, but much of the boiling contents spattered upon his haked body, eliciting a roar of rage and pain, spurring him to action.
Springing across the kitchen he seized Molly Fringe by the hair and forced her back upon the red-hot stove as he wielded his great butcher knife before the horrified eyes of Wichita Billings, then he turned upon her as, with clothing afire, the body of her friend slipped to the floor. Wichita Billings neither screamed nor fainted as death stared her in the face. In her heart she breathed a prayer, not for life, but for death quick and merciful, such as had been meted to Molly Fringe.
She saw the rage-distorted face of the Apache relax as his eyes fell upon her; she saw him pause in his advance; she saw the sudden change that marked a new thought in that demoniacal brain; she saw and shuddered. She would make him kill her! She raised the mixing bowl to hurl it in his face just as another warrior leaped into the room and seized the wrist of Tats-ah-das-ay-go. The girl stood with the bowl poised above her head, but she did not hurl it. Slowly her hands dropped before her as she recognized Shoz-Dijiji.
“Do not kill,” said Shoz-Dijiji to Tats-ah-das-ay-go. “She is my friend.”
“Who are you, Be-don-ko-he, to give orders to Tats-ah-das-ay-go, war chief of the Chi-e-a-hen?” demanded the other, wrenching his wrist from the grasp of Shoz-Dijiji.
“She is mine. I take her.” He took a step forward toward the girl, and as he did so the Be-don-ko-he stepped between them and with a terrific shove sent Tats-ah-das-ay-go reeling across the room. Recovering himself, loud Apache curses upon his lips, the Chi-e-a-hen sprang for Shoz-Dijiji with up-raised knife; but the Be-don-ko-he was too quick, his Colt spoke from his hip and Tats-ah-das-ay-go crumpled to the floor of the kitchen beside the last victim of his ferocity.
“Come! Quick!” snapped Shoz-Dijiji, seizing the girl by the wrist; but there were two more Chi-e-a-hen in the doorway to dispute the ethics of his action with the Be-don-ko-he.
It is not difficult to foment strife between the members of different Apache tribes, and in this case there was little background of friendly intercourse to interpose its mediating influence between Shoz-Dijiji and these two warriors who had just seen him slay one of their great men; nor did Shoz-Dijiji expect anything other than opposition as he swung toward the doorway.
Nor was he waiting for opposition to develop. As he wheeled, he fired, and as one of the braves lurched forward upon his face the other turned and ran from the house. Behind him came Shoz-Dijiji, dragging Wichita Billings with him. In the yard stood many ponies, among them a pinto stallion and toward him the Be-don-ko-he ran swiftly, while the fleeing Chi-e-a-hen sped, shouting, in the direction of the warriors surrounding the bunk house.
Shoz-Dijiji leaped to the back of Nejeunee and leaning down offered a flexed arm to the girl. Grasping it, she sprang upward as Shoz-Dijiji straightened, lifting her, swinging her to the pony’s rump behind him.
The Chi-e-a-hen had attracted the attention of some of his fellows and was leading them back at a run as Shoz-Dijiji reined Nejeunee toward the south and gave him his head with a whispered word in his pointed ear. Straight toward the Gila he rode, and as he reached the bank a backward glance revealed four Chi-e-a-hen braves quirting in pursuit. Down the steep bank into the muddy Gila slid Nejeunee, across the turgid stream he splashed, and up the bank beyond. Behind them came the yelling, avenging four. Out across level land toward the mountains sped the pinto stallion while a bewildered girl clung to the naked shoulders of the copper giant before her. His black hair, wind blown, tossed before her eyes; his bow and arrow-filled quiver touched her cheek; at his hip was the Colt that had won them escape, and in his right hand he waved a cavalry carbine as he shouted defiance and insults at the Chi-e-a-hen trailing behind. Her rescue, if it was rescue, had occurred so unexpectedly and had developed with such swiftness, amid action fierce and bloody, that Wichita Billings had had no time to consider what it might portend. Was she being rescued, or had there merely been a change of captors? She wondered, now that she could find an instant in which to think at all. She had recognized Shoz-Dijiji the instant that he had interfered with her assailant. Unquestionably he had been one of the raiding party that had attacked the ranch, a hostile on the warpath. She knew how fierce and terrible they became under the spell of the weird rites of their medicine men, the savagely inciting oratory of their chiefs, the taunts and urgings of their squaws. She knew that these forces often transformed friendly, peaceable Indians into fiends of the most brutish ferocity; and slowly a new fear entered her heart, but even this was temporarily driven out a moment later as the Chi-e-a-hen warriors began firing at them. It is true that the bullets went wide, as a running pony makes a difficult seat for a marksman, but there was always the chance that a bullet might find them.
Over his shoulder Shoz-Dijiji spoke to her. “Take my six-shooter,” he said, “and fire it at them. Mebbyso they no come so fast.”
Wrenching the heavy weapon from its holster the girl turned about as far as she could and fired back at the leading pursuer. The bullet must have come close to him, for he reined in a little, increasing the distance between them. A moment later she fired again, and one of the Chi-e-a-hen threw up both hands arid toppled from his pony. With renewed yells the remaining three opened fire more rapidly, but they kept a greater distance.
“I got one,” she said to Shoz-Dijiji.
The brave little pinto, straining every nerve, fought courageously on under his double burden, but as the gradual ascent toward the mountains became a more pronounced upward gradient the pace told on him, and Shoz-Dijiji knew that though he might run until his brave heart burst he could not escape even inferior ponies that carried but a single rider.
Ahead was a low outcropping of uptilted sedimentary rock, and toward this the Be-don-ko-he reined his war pony while behind the three clung like pursuing wolves, occasionally firing a shot which was often returned by the girl. Through a gap in the rocky escarpment rode Shoz-Dijiji. He wheeled quickly to one side and brought Nejeunee to his haunches, at the same instant throwing a leg over the pony’s withers, and as he touched the ground dragging Wichita down beside him.
“Lie down!” he commanded, pointing toward the natural breastwork, and then he turned toward Nejeunee and spoke an Apache word in his ear. Instantly the animal went down upon his knees and rolled over on his side; the three were effectually hidden from the fire of the enemy.
Throwing himself down beside the girl Shoz-Dijiji raised his carbine above the top of the ledge and took careful aim at the fore-most of the Chi-e-a-hen. At the shot the fellow dropped. Again Shoz-Dijiji fired and the mount of another stumbled and fell. That was enough for the Chi-e-a-hen. Running toward his remaining companion, the warrior who had been dismounted leaped to a seat behind him and the two wheeled and scurried away while the bullets of the Be-don-ko-he whistled about their ears. For a while Shoz-Dijiji watched the retreating enemy in silence, or scanned the country closely in all directions. Presently he turned toward the girl.
“They come back,” he said.
“What makes you think so?”
“I know. They come back with many braves. They want kill Shoz-Dijiji. They want you.”
“When they are out of sight I can ride for the post,” she suggested; but she wondered if he would let her, after all.
“No,” he replied. “Apaches everywhere.” He waved his hand broadly from west to east and back again. “Apaches on the war trail. You no reach post. Shoz-Dijiji no reach post, mebby. Shoz-Dijiji take you to his own people—to the Be-don-ko-he. You be safe there with Sons-ee-ah-ray and Geronimo.”
To Shoz-Dijiji no promise could have seemed more reassuring, no name so fraught with assurance of protection than that of the kind old man who had always defended him, the powerful chief whose very name was a bulwark of safety for any friend. To Wichita Billings the suggestion awakened naught but fear and the name only horror. Geronimo! The fiend, the red devil, murderer, torturer, scourge of two nations! She trembled at the mere thought of him.
“No!” she cried. “Let me go back to the post,—to my own people.”
“You would never reach them. Tomorrow we can be with the Be-don-ko-he. They are not upon the war trail. When the fighting is over I will take you back to your people.” “I am afraid,” she said. “Afraid of what?”
“Afraid of Geronimo.”
He looked at her in surprise. “You will be safe with him,” he said. “Geronimo is my father.”
She looked up at him aghast. God have mercy upon her—alone with the son of Geronimo!
“Come!” said Shoz-Dijiji. “Pretty soon they come back. No find us here. Mebbyso they follow. We go now they no catch. We stay, they catch, Come!”
He had mounted Nejeunee and was waiting for her. Tall and straight he sat his war pony. The war band about his brow confined his black hair; across his face, from ear to ear, spread a wide band of vermilion; a single necklace of silver and turquoise encircled his neck and lay upon his deep chest; beaded war moccasins encased his feet and legs.
From the painted face two steady eyes regarded her intently, searchingly, conveying the impression that they saw beneath the surface, deep into the secret recesses of her mind. They were not savage eyes now, not the eyes that she had seen flash upon Tats-ah-das-ay-go, but, rather, steadfast, friendly eyes that were, at the same time, commanding eyes. They waited, but there was no inquiry in them as to whether she would obey; that, they took for granted.
Still the girl hesitated. What was she to do? As deeply rooted within her as is man’s natural repugnance for snakes was her fear and distrust of all Apaches, yet Shoz-Dijiji seemed different. Three times he had had her in his power and had offered her no harm; twice he had saved her from harm at the hands of others, this last time at the cost of the lives of four of his fellows, subjecting himself to what future dangers she could only too well conjecture, aware as she was of the Indian’s penchant for vengeance. Had it been a matter only of trusting herself to him alone, perhaps she would not have hesitated; but there were the other members of his tribe—the squaws. She had heard stories of the cruelties of the squaws toward white women—and Geronimo! She recalled every hideous atrocity that had ever been laid at the door of this terrible old man, and she shrank from the thought of permitting herself to be taken to his hidden den and delivered into his cruel and, bloody hands. Shoz-Dijiji had ridden close to her side. “You come!” he said, and reaching down he swept her up into his arms and headed Nejeunee into the hills. Thus was the decision made for her.
He held her so easily, as though she had been a little child. He was so strong, and his voice so commanding, without harshness, that she felt almost reassured even with the coincident realization that she was being carried off by force.
“I know why you afraid,” said Shoz-Dijiji presently. “You hear bad stories about Apaches. You hear much talk, bad talk; but always from mouth of enemies of Apache. You wait. You see how Apache treat friend. You no be afraid. You savvy?”
Wichita Billings had thought that she knew this part of Arizona rather well, but the Apache took her to a place, far back in what seemed utterly arid mountains, that she had never dreamed of. It was a tiny, well-hidden canyon; but it boasted that most precious of treasures, water; and there were a few trees and a little grass for Nejeunee. The water seeped out from between rocks, wet the ground for a few feet from its source and disappeared again into the sand and gravel of a little wash; but after Shoz-Dijiji scooped out a hole with his hands it quickly filled and there was ample water for them all, even thirsty Nejeunee, though it was a long time before he got his fill.
After they had drunk Shoz-Dijiji hobbled Nejeunee, lest he stray too far, then he removed his cartridge belt and revolver and laid them beside the girl, together with his carbine. “You stay here,” he said. “Mebbyso Shoz-Dijiji catchem rabbit. Go see,” and unslinging his bow he walked away. He went up the little canyon and soon disappeared.
Wichita Billings glanced down at the weapons beside her and up at the hobbled pony grazing a few yards from her. How easy it would be, she thought. She gathered up the cartridge belt with the holster and revolver attached and rose to her feet. How easily she could outdistance pursuit upon that swift pony. It seemed strange that the Apache should have left her alone with his weapons and his pony; he might have known that she could escape. She wondered why he had done it and then the answer came to her—he trusted her.
She stood there for several minutes with the belt dangling in her hand. He trusted her! And what return was she about to make his confidence and his sacrifices? Did he deserve this at her hands—to be left afoot and primitively armed in a country swarming with enemy soldiers and equally hostile Indians?
Wichita let the cartridge belt slip from her fingers to the ground and sat down again to wait, her mind relieved with the acceptance of a definite determination to put her trust implicitly in the honor of Shoz-Dijiji. She tried to remember only his generous acts, his friendly attitude, his noble mien, and the great strength and courage that proclaimed him a safe refuge and a natural protector. She wanted to forget that he was a renegade, a savage Cheeracow Apache. And then he returned, as silently as he had departed; and she saw his almost naked body and the war paint on his face, and it took all the courage of her brave little heart to smile up at him in greeting as he stopped before her, tall, straight, magnificent, and laid a rabbit and brace of quail at her feet.
Then it was that Shoz-Dijiji did something the significance of which passed above the head of the white girl, something that would have told: her more plainly than words the unique position that she held in the regard of the red man. There, with a woman present, the Apache warrior prepared the game, built the fire and cooked the meal. Wichita Billings took it as a matter of course. Shoz-Dijiji excused it, mentally, upon the ground that women were helpless fools, that one of them would not know how to build a fire without matches and with very little fuel, how to prepare properly the quail and the rabbit.
It was almost dusk when they had finished their frugal meal. There were no dishes wash, but Shoz-Dijiji carefully buried all signs of their fire and the remnants of their repast. By dark they were moving south again upon the back of the rested Nejeunee. Down the mountains, out onto a plain they rode, and by midnight entered another range farther south. Here Shoz-Dijiji halted again, built a rude shelter for Wichita and told her to sleep, while he threw himself down upon the ground a few yards away. All the following day they rode, through a rough, trailless, mountain country, the brave finding food where there was none to be seen and water where the girl would have sworn no water could exist.
Wichita was tired almost to exhaustion, yet the man seemed not to notice that they had been undergoing any hardships whatsoever. To her he seemed a man of iron, and almost as silent; and as the hours passed slowly, monotonously, painfully, there grew within her a sense of trustfulness, of security that she could imagine harboring for no other man she had ever known. He seemed a very well of resourcefulness; a sanctuary as granitic, as eternal as the everlasting bed rock they sometimes crossed—a demi-god moving surely through a world of his own creation where there were no secrets that might be hid from his omniscience.
And thus at last they came to the camp of the Be-don-ko-he, but. Wichita Billings was no longer afraid; where Shoz-Dijiji was, there was safety. As they rode into the camp, there was a tendency to crowd about them and there were looks in the eyes of some of the squaws that would have filled her with apprehension had not the great shoulders of Shoz-Dijiji loomed so reassuringly close; but after he had spoken to them, in words she could not understand, their attitude changed. Scowling squaws smiled up at her and one or two stroked her skirt in a friendly way, for Shoz-Dijiji had told them that she was his friend—a friend of all the Be-don-ko-he.
They dismounted before a rude tepee where squatted a wrinkled man and two women. “This is Geronimo, my father,” said Shoz-Dijiji.
The girl looked, almost fearfully, into the face of the old archdemon. She saw stern features there, and a wide mouth with almost bloodless lips, and blue eyes, so uncharacteristic of the Apache. Contorted with rage, she could sense that it might be a face of utter cruelty; but today, as he listened to the words of his son, it was just the face of a benevolent, tired, old man.
“Shoz-Dijiji brings a captive from the war trail?” Geronimo had asked when the two first stood before him.
“No,” replied Shoz-Dijiji, “a friend.”
“Shoz-Dijiji has taken a white-eyed one for his woman?” demanded the old chief.
Again the younger man shook his head. “She was a friend to Shoz-Dijiji,” he ex-plained. “She gave him food and water and a pony when the soldiers of the pindah lickoyee were hunting him.
“When Shoz-Dijiji was upon the war trail with the Chi-e-a-hen they were about to kill her. They would not stop when Shoz-Dijiji asked them to. Shoz-Dijiji killed the Chi-e-a-hen, and because the country was filled with Apaches upon the war trail and Shoz-Dijiji knew that many soldiers would come, he brought her here to his own people, where she will be safe until the trouble is over; then he will return her to her people.”
Geronimo turned his eyes upon Wichita. “Ink-tah,” he said.
“Geronimo says, ‘sit down,’” translated Shoz-Dijiji and the girl did as she was bid. Geronimo patted her hand and smiled.
“You will be safe with the Be-don-ko-he,” he said. “We are your friends.”
When Shoz-Dijiji had repeated the words in English, Wichita knew that they were true, yet at the same time it seemed beyond belief that she could be sitting at the side of the notorious Geronimo in the remote fastness of his hidden camp and yet be as innocent of fear as though safe within the protecting walls of her father’s ranch house. The thought came to her that perhaps she was safer here, since at least she was not menaced by the threat of hostile Apaches.
That night she slept in the tepee of the mother-in-law of Geronimo and as she dozed off to sleep she smiled as she thought of the terrors that that name had always conjured to her mind and of the surprise and incredibility that were certain to mark the reception of her story by her father and her friends when she was restored to them—sleeping in the tepee of the mother-in-law of Geronimo, not twenty paces from the war chief of all the Apaches.