Captives of the Desert - Zane Grey - ebook

Captives of the Desert ebook

Zane Grey



Trying to save the life of an Indian child when he’s thrown from his horse, John Curry falls into the arms of a lonely married woman with a jealous, scheming husband. Unless Curry revives his mission of mercy, three people will die – and the first one will be Curry. Here is all the thrilling action, color, and romance of the Old West, exciting tales that make your blood tingle! Ruthless bandits in a lawless land: fearless men and the brave women they fought for. The roar of blazing guns, the awesome silence of prairie and canyon. „Captives of the Desert” has its social commentary on the sacredness of marriage, and its religious undertones – how the desert can take hold of a person and fashion them into its own image, or can exert a force, of an inexplicable kind, to bring peace and contentment over the soul – a communing with God.

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KATHARINE resented further disruption of her enjoyment of the color and beauty and loneliness of the Arizona desert. But again she was dragged back to reality by the irritating presence of her friend’s husband.

Wilbur Newton kicked a swirl of sand toward the offending automobile and glowered from the disconsolate driver to the ladies in the party: “That carburetor again! ... Now we’ll miss the Snake Dance. Exactly what I expected, though.”

Obviously it was unspeakable impudence for anyone or anything to interrupt the even tenor of Wilbur’s lordly life. His face, his tone, his strutting gait, now all revealed his pettish anger as he swung away from the unpleasant scene and the car that had betrayed him.

Mary Newton sighed audibly.

Sighs could not always be stifled, thought Katharine, pressing her friend’s hand. “Personally,” she said aloud, “I think it’s a lark to break down on the desert. It’s the unexpected that’s fun. Surely other motorists will make the Snake Dance by this trail. They’ll help us.”

There was no response from Mary. Katharine’s gaze followed hers to the boulder some two hundred feet away, where the object of the sigh had halted. The balancing rock against which he stood shaded the tall, lean figure, but the sun, splitting its rays over and under the rock, threw pools of light on his sombrero and spurs, making them exceptionally evident.

“A big hat and a pair of spurs,” murmured Katharine with startling audacity.

“Yes, a big hat and a pair of spurs–and nothing between. That’s what I married,” Mary replied. Her voice was as light and dry as the desert breeze.

“It ain’t so bad, Miss,” the driver explained. “But it’s expert help I need. Now if we could make thet Indian school at Leupp. Still and all, it’s fifteen miles off.”

“Is it likely that a car will pass this way before nightfall?” Katharine asked.

“Might be days before a car’d come by this spot.”

The man’s reply stirred Katharine strangely. She wanted to learn more.

“Then we might be left here to starve or die of thirst?” she asked excitedly. “And our bones to be bleached by the desert sun?”

“No, Marm. Leupp’s too near. Walkin’s good at night if it comes to thet.”

But the driver’s reassurance could not destroy the romance of their situation for the Eastern girl. “Why, we’d enjoy being marooned,” laughed Katharine. “Mrs. Newton and I will be just as dramatic as we please. We’ll find some high place on these boulders where we can watch and pray for help. See, Mary, won’t that make a jolly lookout?”

Mary entered into the spirit of Katharine’s play, and raced with her toward the slope she had indicated.

“Now–what–did–we want to do that for?” panted Mary as they reached their objective. “Running in this sun–when we have a climb–ahead.”

“To put distance between the world and us,” Katharine replied, with a sidelong glance toward Wilbur’s remote figure. How still the man stood, like a painted thing! Was he thinking? If so, what was he thinking about? No, he could not be thinking, for all his usual profound appearance. Mary was right. There was nothing between his hat and his spurs.

The girls climbed the trailless slope, zigzagging between boulders toward the red-rimmed rock of the domineering mound that rose above them. The higher they climbed, the more difficult became their breathing, and they were forced to pause sooner than they had anticipated.

Katharine dropped to a seat on a flat rock. “I’m actually–puffing!” she said.

Then, lost in a transport of joy, she caught her breath. The desert drew and held her eye–leagues and leagues of sand, pink-toned, shimmering, like an opal ocean in dead calm, the dim distant purple cloud banks resting on the rim of the horizon. It seemed that any moment they might lift and disappear.

“Oh, Mary, you were such a dear to include me in this trip!” Katharine declared ecstatically.

“I hope we can inspire you with a love for Arizona, dear. It may happen that you will have to live here always–for Alice’s sake.”

Katharine had never pretended that it was anything but terrifying for her to face the decision to accompany her frail sister to live in Arizona. When the family doctor had declared that Alice might be able to combat the dread tubercular malady which had followed her siege of pneumonia out here, she was sure that she would never have capitulated if Mary’s letters had not been so full of optimism and her own example of courage so radiant. Katharine looked with admiration at the straight, slim figure by her side. There was something of Spartan strength in Mary’s fine features, in her gallant carriage, in the simple, severe way she wore her hair. And five years of a new life had developed Spartan qualities of soul as well. Neither disappointment nor defeat would ever make this brave woman bitter!

“Wilbur isn’t so sociable that he really wanted our company,” said Mary, breaking the silence. “The trip materialized only because Hanley wanted Wilbur to meet him there. Hanley pulls a string and Wilbur dances. What this dance is I don’t know. I reminded Wilbur that four years ago he promised we would make this trip, and therefore he should take me. You were dragged in by the heels.”

“Well, at least I’m being dragged willingly,” said Katharine.

“Oh, I wanted you, dear. But I had to scheme. It would be so nice for me to have company when he conferred with Hanley. You know–that sort of thing. All the while I wanted you just for your precious self, even more than I wanted the trip.”

“For what you could give my ‘precious self,’” Katharine corrected her.

Mary turned away with a lithe stride. “Come on, we’ve dawdled long enough. The higher we get, the more beautiful the prospect.”

Katharine labored bravely upward, half-envious of Mary’s ease in action. Manifestly her friend was desert-tried. As she climbed, her excited oh’s and ah’s were punctuated by little puffs of breath.

“Take it easy. You’re not used to it. Don’t mind me,” Mary called over her shoulder.

It was fully twenty minutes before the girls met on the summit of the red-rimmed rock. It had developed greater proportions as they climbed, as had the desert increased in its staggering magnitude. Now the world was a huge irregular bowl, sand-lined and of translucent pink, an uneven purple fresco painted on its broken rim.

“How gorgeous!” Katharine exclaimed, breathing hard.

“To me it is peace–infinite peace,” murmured Mary. She smiled dreamily. “Somehow having you here reminds me of when we were youngsters. Remember our secret places? Remember Desert Island–a huge rock in a meadow of daisies? It was there we confided all our secrets to each other.”

“And how vast that daisy field seemed. How tremendous our island rock!” replied Katharine.

“Our childish troubles, so insurmountable before we reached the rock, vanished like magic once we made it. That’s what happens when I climb a high place on the desert. Desert magic, I call it. And it is one of the things that hold me.”

During the three weeks in which the girls had renewed their friendship, a time when most girls would have enjoyed the delightful intimacy of talking about themselves, Mary conscientiously had avoided personal references. It was of other people she spoke, with an all-consuming interest in detail. It might have been that she was aware that the life she was living spoke for itself. Today was the first time–and for an instant only–that she had opened the door of her heart and let Katharine look in.

When a half-score of years ago Mary left New York to live with relatives in the South because her father feared conflict between his eighteen-year-old daughter and her temperamental stepmother, a girl scarcely five years his daughter’s senior, Katharine had felt that nothing good would come from so cruel a situation. The thought of proud, aloof Mary being thrust upon relatives whom she hardly knew because there was no place for her in her father’s home had seemed impossible to her. Had Mary been trained to economic independence there would have been a chance of escape. But, no, true to a life-long habit of selfishness, her father had chained her to him to satisfy his creature comforts when her mother’s usefulness had ended in death. Small wonder that Mary had met romance too quickly–that she became Mrs. Wilbur Newton before a year had passed. “I’m marrying a Texan,” she had written, “of a branch of one of the oldest Southern families, a man of sterling qualities, not above becoming a rancher to help retrieve the family fortune. It will be such a wonderful opportunity for service, to help him in the upward climb. I’m so wonderfully in love. I’ll never forget how thrilled I was when I met him for the first time. I heard a clink of spurs, and then I turned and a great big sombrero caught my eye, and underneath a face–really, I haven’t the power to describe him–such kindliness, such reserve, you know, the kind of reserve that suggests silent power. Not dashing, but infinitely daring!”

Six months later there came word that Mr. Wilbur Newton had failed in the ranch enterprise, though Mary had struggled to keep up her end. Of course, so proud a man as he had to flee from his disgrace, so they migrated to southern Arizona. Two years later his farming project in some remote Arizona valley was abandoned–for what reason Katharine never knew–and they transferred their meager possessions to Taho, on the Navaho Indian Reservation, where the man of infinite daring prospered on a salary as assistant to a trader. He was the kind of person who would prosper under any condition, where his wife could scrape and sweat. Katharine had seen. Indignation burned within her. Once Katharine had written from the East, admonishing Mary not to wait too long with news of a little Wilbur Junior. Such news never came, nor any comment on Katharine’s suggestion. The time had come when Katharine was profoundly grateful: neither dogs nor children liked Wilbur.

“The desert is thought-provoking, isn’t it?” Mary’s even words broke through her stormy meditation.

Katharine flushed and hastily replied that it was. But Mary’s eyes, quick and roving, had left her.

“Look!” the older girl cried. “There’s Leupp. See that windmill? See those specks? They’re the government buildings.”

“But that isn’t fifteen miles away!” Katharine protested.

“Oh, yes, good long desert miles. Distances are deceiving, and so is the general topography of this country. Notice that brownish line like a thread dropped carelessly–about halfway between here and Leupp? That’s Canyon Diablo, a great deep canyon. We must cross it to make Leupp.”

“Canyon Diablo? Devil’s Canyon, I presume. Oh, how thrilling! Who’d ever guess this desert below us was anything but a perfectly level floor? ... Now I know I’ll be broken-hearted if we aren’t rescued soon!”

“It’s a strange thing to consider,” Mary explained, “that Indians at Leupp doubtless know this very minute that a party of four people, two men and two women, are stalled on the desert near–well, whatever they call this particular landmark.... More of what I call desert magic. I never yet traveled anywhere on the desert that news of my coming did not precede me.”

“Oh, how spooky!” Katharine cried, thrilled to the marrow. “We are being watched, you mean. While we sit here thinking we are the only souls for miles around, Indian eyes are peering at us and riders are carrying word of our coming.”

Mary laughed, a low, pleasing musical laugh. “There’s not an Indian behind every greasewood bush and cactus patch,” she corrected. “But rest assured, the eyes of the desert are on you.”

“Would the Indians be likely to send back help from Leupp?” queried Katharine.

“No, unless some white friend were expecting a party of our description. That doesn’t happen to be our luck.”

“Anyway, it’s a lark, whatever comes.” Katharine’s words were profoundly sincere. She was seeing so much, living so much, learning so much. “Tell me some more about your fascinating Indians,” she begged.

And as they sat there, looking out over the wasteland, Mary related much that she had learned about the desert dwellers, explaining graphically the dissimilar customs of the gypsy-like, nomadic Navahos and the civic-spirited Hopis who were planning for the solemn snake dance rituals. As Katharine listened she watched the gray tide of cloud shadow slowly advance before a lowering sun. Now the desert appeared more defined through dissolving haze. The distant irregular purple frieze grew bold in profile. Shadow lay upon it like folds pressed in velvet.

“You have only to watch evening come to the desert to understand what stirs these Indians to such religious fervor,” concluded Mary.

“Can we stay here till the sun goes down?” Katharine asked.

“Heavens, no!” returned Mary, swinging to her feet with a start. “There are things to do.”

“Things to do? Surely the only thing to do is wait, watch and enjoy.”

“Yes. Campfire to make–supper to get. The driver will rustle some wood. I’ll handle the rest.”

“And Wilbur, poor dear, what will he do? ... Ah, think, no doubt!” Katharine mimicked the slow, even drawl of the man she ridiculed, then added tartly, “Someday he’ll die from what the observer might call overthoughtfulness, but at the post-mortem it will be discovered that his brains are only cotton wool!”

“Katharine!” begged Mary, with just the least sign of reproach in her searching gray eyes. “I’m sure Wilbur’s a good camper when he’s alone on the trail, or with men. But when I’m along....”

“Oh, yes, dear. I understand, and I’m sorry. But I feel like the bubble in that fairy story my mother used to tell us–the bubble who wanted to burst and couldn’t. You remember: ‘One day the poor bubble got giddy and gay.’ Well, look out!”

“But the consequences were dire,” remarked Mary thoughtfully. “The bubble found that things could never be the same again.”

The full weight of the remark escaped Katharine. Far off in the direction from which they had ridden, she espied a slow-moving object. Could it be a car?

“Look!” she cried.

“That’s a car,” Mary declared. “It’s moving faster than it appears to be. Still pretty far away; but I think it will get to us before dark. Come along now.”

The descent was easy and swift, and they covered the ground between the slope and the stalled car with buoyant steps. The driver was asleep curled over his wheel. Wilbur was nowhere in sight.

“Fine!” thought Katharine. Aloud she said, “Don’t wake the driver. I’ll find wood. These clumps of dead greasewood will do, won’t they?”

Katharine’s fire was not much of a success at first, but was saved under Mary’s instructions.

“Anyone as stubbornly persistent as you will learn,” laughed Mary.

She had laid a small rug at a comfortable distance from the fire and spread camp tableware and a tempting picnic lunch. Katharine sauntered over, feeling very important now that her fire was burning.

“What’s that black iron-pot affair?” she asked curiously.

“Dutch oven,” Mary replied.

“Dutch oven?” Katharine echoed.

“The joy of a cowboy’s existence,” added Mary.

She was busy with flour and water and baking powder, and Katharine watched her quick fingers prepare a biscuit dough.

“One uses different proportions of ingredients in this altitude,” Mary explained. “I could have bombarded a town with the first biscuits I made here by the rule I used back East.... Now you can help by poking out some hot cinders from the bed of your fire. Make a nice little nest of them alongside. That’s for the Dutch oven.”

Katharine applied herself thoughtfully to the task. Poking hot coals from a fire was terrifying. The burning wood above had a way of collapsing and sending out showers of sparks when part of its support was dug away. She was concentrating so intently that when a voice sounded at her elbow she gave a violent start.

“I ain’t being much help to you.” It was the driver, looking decidedly sheepish.

“Oh, I’m enjoying this!”

Her sally was cut with an exclamation of approval from Mary who was coming toward them, the oven swinging from one hand, its lid in the other.

“Splendid work. It isn’t every cook who has an assistant like you.... Look here!”

She swung the oven toward Katharine. Neat little mounds of dough lay compact on the bottom of the pot. Mary set the pot on the bed of cinders, then, laying the lid on a stone conveniently near the fire, she raked out more coals and with a swiftness that excited Katharine’s admiration transferred them to the iron lid. A protecting edge an inch high held the coals safe. Refusing the driver’s protest to let him do that, she thrust a stout stick through the handle of the lid, and balancing it carefully, lifted and fastened it over the pot. Not a coal moved.

“That supplies heat from above!” declared Katharine, with as much pride as if she had invented the ingenious oven herself.

“When the biscuits are done, I’ll put some bacon in,” Mary returned. “It cooks in no time. I really prefer to sizzle mine on a stick. But Wilbur likes everything ready when he sits down.”

The mention of Wilbur jarred on Katharine. She glanced about furtively, wondering what had become of the man. There he was, not far away, a blot against a patch of greasewood. He had a stick in his hand and was moving slowly toward the fire, jogging little jets of dust before him. Vivid light on the rock behind him made Katharine look toward the direction from which it came. The sun was setting between fleecy clouds low over the horizon, chiffon clouds of pink and gold; and the lonely desert was bathed in rosy light showered from purple mesa to purple mesa, through the silent legions of miles.

“And we were getting supper while all this was happening!” thought Katharine, flinging a resentful glance toward the man who walked with his eyes to the ground. She knew he would not speak unless he were addressed, so she called to him as gaily as she could, “Wilbur, isn’t that sunset exquisite?”

He looked up slowly. Ah, that studied grandiose expression of dignity! She hated it. Did it never irritate Mary?

“Hadn’t noticed.... Yeah, it’s pretty fine, I guess. You’ll get used to them,” he drawled.

“Did you sight that car?” Mary greeted Wilbur with the quickness of speech she customarily used when addressing him, perhaps to lay subtle suggestion or to strike a balance, or–and this had not occurred to Katharine before–perhaps from sheer nervousness.

“Mmm. Aboot twenty minutes ago.”

The car was not in sight now. There was a perceptible rise in the desert floor approaching their location, though, as Katharine had noted from above, the whole valley appeared to be level.

“Better hustle through supper,” suggested Wilbur languidly.

“I was trying to delay it until that car came,” Mary explained. “It may carry some hungry people. I’ve made lots of biscuits and lots of coffee. We can be spare with the other things.”

Wilbur’s eyes narrowed and flashed steely blue. “We’re not setting up a desert barbecue. There may be seven or eight people in thet car.”

How evenly he talked! His irritation showed only in his eyes. Mary glanced apprehensively at the driver. Katharine, feeling her friend’s discomfort, wanted to assure her that the stranger had missed Wilbur’s words.

No sooner had they gathered round the campfire in response to Mary’s call than the roar of a motor sounded.

“They’ve been steppin’ on it, thet outfit, like they wanted to get somewhere,” Wilbur commented. “I suppose they’ll be a bunch of cranks who won’t want to tow us. Anyway, they can get word to Leupp and send back a government truck.... Don’t you mention supper, Mary. The quicker they get to Leupp, the quicker we’ll get help.”

The car was in sight now, approaching fast. Two points of light flashed across the sand. Another minute later, with a grind of brakes, it came to a stop along the trail.

“Halloo!” called a cheery voice. “That you, Newton? Trouble, eh? Heard you passed through Tolcheco this morning.”

The people in the car were gray figures in the gray light. Katharine discerned three passengers in the back. The man who spoke rode alone in front. Taking a sudden leap, he cleared the door of the car without opening it and the violent movement sent him half running toward them. As he stepped into the circle of light Katharine experienced a pleasant thrill. She seemed to know this man, as one recognizes a composite of pleasing personalities. He was tall and broad-shouldered yet possessed an athletic slimness, and the fine swing of his gait was the mark of perfect control and muscular co-ordination. What rugged strength of features! He wore no hat. Katharine looked quickly from dark eyes under bushy brows to a stubborn crown of brown hair, then for a second time the flashing white smile and easy presence captivated her attention. Wilbur, addressing him as “Curry,” explained that they had trouble with their carburetor and could not go on.

“Meet the ladies,” Wilbur drawled. “My wife ... oh, beg pardon, you know her, don’t you? ... This is Miss Winfield, Miss Katharine Winfield, from New York.”

Katharine’s fingers were paralyzed by the vicelike grip of Curry’s hand.

“I’m right glad to meet you, Miss Winfield. You’re a long way from home, but you’re in good company.”

Katharine glanced at Mary. Her face was flushed. Greeting people never seemed to excite her. Was she afraid of what her husband might say? That likely was the trouble.

“We do want to make the Snake Dance, if possible,” Mary offered. “More for Miss Winfield’s sake than our own.”

“You’re making it right now!” Curry declared. “I’ll see you through. You bet! Wish I had my own car. I’d tow you. This car I’m driving is borrowed. The folks from the post have mine. I had to come around by way of Flaggerston and pick up my party there this morning–nice middle-aged people. Couldn’t waste my seven-passenger on a party of three. Now I can’t risk another fellow’s car by towing your load.” He ran his fingers through his hair with a jerking pull at the unruly locks, as if by so doing he could assemble ideas more quickly in his mind.

“Here’s how! I’ll take you ladies and send back a truck for the car and men. We’re planning on a bed at Leupp for tonight. I can tinker with your car when it gets there. In the morning all hands will be ready to ford the Little Colorado. We’ll make Oraibi early in the afternoon. Nice to have the Snake Dance at Oraibi for a change.”

Wilbur cleared his throat. “Couldn’t get me in somehow on this load?” A frown accompanied his question.

“Not very well. Running board packed with bedding, and valises stacked in back. We’ll be riding three to the front seat as it is, and that narrow back seat is none too comfortable now. Got to consider my party some. They’re paying for this. And crossing Canyon Diablo with an overloaded car is pretty bad business.”

“You’re shore to send someone back?” drawled Wilbur.

“Sure as a decent man’s word,” Curry retorted.

Katharine was aware that a man like Curry could not take Wilbur’s insolence easily. Suddenly a daring idea stimulated her. “Oh, Mr. Curry,” she said in her most affable manner. “Mr. Newton was suggesting before that we had plenty of supper for an additional small party. I’m sure you folks are hungry.”

“Now, that’s sure fine of you, Newton. Like to sit down with you, but my party’s counting on a big layout at Leupp. They ate lunch late–not powerful hungry yet. You ladies go and get it. My engine needs a little cooling off. Meanwhile I’ll look at that carburetor.”

Wilbur was silent through the hurried meal. He had specific silences for specific occasions. This one bore like a heavy hand. Later, Wilbur’s too emphatic words, supposed to be for Mary’s ears alone, carried to Katharine where she stood brushing crumbs from her skirt.

“Mind me! You let Katharine sit next to thet man. I won’t have you squeezin’ close to him. Better leave the conversation to her, too. She’s got enough tongue to do for two women.”

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