Down the Long Hills
When Hardy Collins woke up, Big Red was gone. Hardy had picketed the stallion himself, and with sudden guilt he remembered that in his hurry to return to the supper fire he had struck the picket-pin only a couple of sharp blows.
He knew the horse was gone because from where he lay he could have seen its outline against the sky. He lay still for a minute or two, his heart pounding, frightened by what had happened.
Red embers remained of the cooking fire . . . A coyote talked to the moon. In the wagon above him Mrs. Andy stirred in her sleep.
It was his fault that Big Red was gone. Mr. Andy was forever telling Hardy that he was old enough to accept responsibility; and aside from seeing his pa at the end of the trip there was nothing Hardy wanted more than to be considered responsible by Mr. Andy.
When folks crossed the plains together everybody had to do his or her part. Even Betty Sue, who was just past three, collected buffalo chips with her ma.
Careful to make no sound, Hardy eased from under the blankets and tugged on his boots. He knew by the stars that day was not far off, but he might find the stallion and get it back before anybody realized he was gone. And Hardy had a good idea where to look.
He was especially quiet because of Betty Sue, who tagged after him wherever he went. If she woke up now she would ask questions. That was the trouble with women, Hardy decided; they just asked too many darned fool questions.
First, he got his canteen. Mr. Andy had warned him that a western man should never be without a canteen of water; and out where his pa lived water was a scarce thing, so it was better to learn that lesson now.
His hunting knife he always carried with him, because that mountain man who had stopped by for supper and a yarning time had said that if you gave an Indian or a mountain man a knife he'd make out anywhere, no matter what.
The circle of wagons was on a low hill with good visibility in all directions, and it was only a little more than a mile to the place where Hardy expected to find Big Red.
There was a seep there with green grass all around, the best grass they'd seen in days, and when the wagons made camp for the night they had picketed the stock on that grass. When Hardy had gone out to bring him in, Big Red was of no mind to leave, and it would be like him to go back.
Out away from the wagons it did not seem so dark. He had walked almost a third of the way when he heard a rustle behind him and, scared, he turned sharply around. It was Betty Sue.
"You turn right around and go back," Hardy said. "What would your ma say if she knew you were out this time of night?"
"She wouldn't mind if I was with you."
"You go on back," he repeated. "I've got to find Big Red."
"I want to go with you."
She would surely get lost, Hardy reflected, if he made her go back now. Or she might even try to circle around and get ahead of him. It wouldn't be the first time she'd done that. "All right," he said. "But you'll have to be still. There might be Indians around."
She trudged along beside him, and after a while he admitted to himself that he was glad of her company. Not that he was scared--he had said that about Indians just to keep Betty Sue quiet. Mr. Andy and the men all agreed there were no Indians around this time of year.
There was a faint suggestion of gray in the eastern sky when they reached the coulee and found the big chestnut cropping grass. He looked at them, ears pricked, and then started toward them, dragging his picket-pin behind him. But when he was almost to them he stopped and his head and ears went up, his nostrils flaring as he listened into the night.
"You're sure spooky, Red," Hardy said. He picked up the picket-rope. "And you sure caused a sight of trouble, walkin' off like that. Suppose we'd gone off and left you? Then what would you do?"
Big Red was a stallion, but he was also a pet. Hardy had sat on his back when he was just four and the stallion was a frisky two-year-old. He was skittish around strangers and at times he could be mean. Especially, he hated anybody fussing around with his tail. He would kick like a mule even if Mr. Andy tried to take the cockle-burrs out of it.
Hardy had cared for Big Red since he was a colt, and it was Hardy who fed him carrots and turnips, and took him to water. Big Red knew who his friend was, and had known it all his born days.
The trouble now was that Hardy was too short to climb to his back without help, for Big Red stood a shade over seventeen hands. Hardy could boost Betty Sue up, but he couldn't make it himself. Otherwise they could have ridden back to camp.
"Hardy . . . there's plums!" Betty Sue exclaimed.
Exasperated, Hardy looked around at her. "Plums! Everything is plums to you! Those aren't plums, they're blackberries."
Betty Sue was picking them and cramming them into her mouth with a cheerful disregard for names. In the distance there was a popping sound like a far-off breaking of branches, and Hardy glanced at the sky.
It was too late now to get back undiscovered. But if they took back a hatful of blackberries Mr. Andy might be less likely to be angry.
Hardy thought he heard an animal cry, or a baby. He listened but heard nothing more, so he went back to picking berries, eating about every third one himself.
When his hat was full they started back, with Betty Sue sitting up on the horse, hand and mouth stained with berry juice. One thing you could say for Betty Sue. She would do what she was told, without making a big argument.
They climbed out of the coulee to within a couple of hundred yards of the wagons. He could see the smoke of the cook fires . . . that was an awful lot of smoke!
All of a sudden he was scared. That was a lot more smoke than he had ever seen, even that time when somebody dropped some hot coals and started a grass fire inside the wagon circle. He thought he heard a sound of running horses, but when they topped out on the next rise there was only the smoke and what might have been dust.
The first thing he noticed was that the white wagon-covers were missing. Of course, not many of them were white any more, but out on the prairie they looked white, and you could see them from miles off, like a string of clouds floating close to the ground. And there was no moving around and hooking up, as there should have been at this hour. When he had first seen the smoke he had dropped back by Big Red and taken Betty Sue's hand. Now his grip unconsciously tightened and Betty Sue cried out in protest. Quickly, Hardy reached up and took Betty Sue from the saddle. Night after night before starting west he had listened to stories of Indian attacks and what had to be done about them.
Hardy had listened to too much such talk not to realize now what had happened. He drove the picket-pin into the ground and took Betty Sue by the shoulders. "You sit down," he told her. "I've got to go up there. You move one inch and I won't take you anywhere ever again."
She looked at him soberly. "I want mama," she said.
"You just set there. Set right there."
He trudged off alone, making slow time up the long slope of the hill. His heart was pounding heavily, and there was a lump in his throat he could not swallow.
There had been only twelve wagons in the train, but starting late in the season they believed they could make it through without trouble. The war party that had attacked them and had been a small one, outnumbered almost two to one by the men of the wagon train, and the attack had been a surprise to both parties.
The Comanches, ranging far north of their usual haunts, were riding fast for home. They came upon the wagons unexpectedly in the first light of dawn. The guard had been stoking the fire for breakfast when the arrow struck him. Two others died in their sleep from arrows, and then the Indians swept through the small camp, knifing and killing.
There had been a brief flurry of shots when Mr. Andy reached his rifle and made a desperate attempt to defend his wife. They died together, unaware that Hardy and Betty Sue were not with them.
Hardy stopped outside the ring of burned and half-burned wagons, gripped by a feeling he had never known before. He had never seen death, and now it was all around him, in this strange guise. The stripped, scalped body of Mr. Andy did not look at all like the man . . . nor did any of the others look like the people Hardy had known. The wagons had been hastily looted and set afire, the bodies stripped and left as they had fallen.
Avoiding them, and embarrassed by their nakedness, Hardy searched quickly through the camp. He would need weapons and food. There were no weapons, of course--the Indians would have taken those first. He did find some cans with the labels burned off. Evidently the Indians had no acquaintance with canned goods. He gathered up the cans in an old burlap sack.
Hurriedly, he left the wagons and went back down the hill to Betty Sue and Big Red.
Hardy Collins was seven years old, and he had never been alone before . . . not like this. He knew where the North Star was, and he knew the sun came up in the east and went down in the west. At home he had done chores around the farm, had run and played in the wooded hills with other boys, and for the last two winters he had kept a trap-line down along the creek. He did not know much more about the world except that pa was out west.
He did not know how to tell Betty Sue about what had happened, or whether she would understand if he told her.
He dropped on his knees beside her. "We have to go on alone," he said. "Indians came, and our folks all had to go west. We have to go meet them."
It was a lie, and he did not want to lie, but he did not know what to tell Betty Sue, and he did not want her to cry. Nor did he believe that she knew what "dead" meant. The only thing he could think of was to go ahead now, and quickly. The Indians might come back, or the smoke might attract other Indians.
"Betty Sue," he repeated, "we've got to go."
She looked at him doubtfully. "I want my mama."
"We have to sneak away. Everybody ran from the Indians."
"Are we going to run away too."
"Uh-huh. We have to hide from the Indians."
She stared at him, round eyed. "Is it like a game?"
"It's like hide-and-seek," he said, "only we have to run a long way before we can hide."
"All right," she said.
They were all alone. Ahead of them and all around them there was nothing but prairie and sky. There were no clouds this morning, and there was no dust.
When they had gone on for what seemed a long time, and when the sun was high in the sky, Betty Sue began to whimper, so Hardy helped her down and they sat together on the ground and ate the rest of the blackberries. Then each of them took a careful drink from the canteen.
Betty Sue's eyes seemed to have grown larger and rounder. "Hardy," she asked, "will mama be very far off?"
"We won't see her today," he said.
At last they came to a high place, and the long brown land lay before them in all its endless distance, miles upon miles of vast prairie, with nothing to be seen on it anywhere. And then, searching the land again, he did see something--between distant hills a smudge of blue, edged by green.
They started on, and Hardy no longer thought of the wagon train nor of the people who lay dead back there. Always before wherever he had walked, there had been the lights of home or at least a campfire waiting for him. Now there was nothing like that; only somewhere far off, pa was expecting him, and in the meantime he was responsible for Betty Sue and for Big Red.
The sun was gone and the wind of evening was stirring the grass when they came at last to the slough in its shallow valley. At the water's edge the cattails were six feet tall and more. They found a place among a thick clump of willows where a trickle of water ran from some rocks down to the slough, and there they drank. The grass was good, and Hardy picketed Big Red carefully, talking to the horse all the while. Betty Sue was very quiet.
He gathered cattails and dead grass and made a bed for them. After that he opened one of the cans with his hunting knife just as Mr. Andy used to do, and they both ate. It was some kind of meat, and it tasted good.
"Now you've got to wash your hands and face before you go to sleep," he said.
"All right," the little girl said meekly.
At the water's edge they both washed, and the water was cold and felt good on their skin after the long day of traveling. When they came back Betty Sue lay down on the cattails and Hardy covered her with his coat.
The light faded and the stars came out.
Vaguely, he recalled Mr. Andy saying it would take about a month to reach Fort Bridger where his father was to meet them, but that was with good luck and the wagons. How long would it take Betty Sue and himself?
It grew cold, and he was very tired. He lay down close to Betty Sue and wished the coat were big enough to cover them both. The stars looked like lamps in far-off houses.
A long time after he had fallen asleep he woke with a start. He heard the stallion breathing heavily, and he lay still, listening. Somewhere not far off he heard water splash and the sound of an animal as it drank. Lifting himself cautiously to one elbow, he peered through the branches toward the water's edge. A great black bulk showed there, and he waited, half-frightened. Then the big head lifted, drops trickled from its muzzle, and he saw it was a bull buffalo, and a large one.
It drank again, then moved away downwind of them, and when Big Red resumed eating Hardy lay back and went to sleep again.
When day broke gray over the hills, a gray shot with vivid streaks of widening crimson, he wanted a fire, but he feared it might bring Indians upon them. So he lay still, looking up at the sky, and thinking. They had been going west, and there was nothing for it but to keep on. With every step they were coming closer to pa.
He was used to walking on the farm and in the woods, and with the wagon train all of them had walked up the long hills to make it easier on the wagon stock. Of course, the wagons had always been there to crawl into when he was tired, but now there were no wagons, and he couldn't even get up on old Red.
Sooner or later he would find a big rock or a bank of earth from which he could scramble to Red's back, and after that he would always try to find places to stop where he could get up on the stallion's back again.
The sun was already high when they moved out. The country was less flat now, stretching away in a series of long, graceful rolls of gentle hills. He knew he should keep to low ground because of Indians, but he wanted to keep a lookout for another wagon train, or something.
The day grew hot, and the brown hills were dusty. Betty Sue whimpered a little, and he was afraid she might cry, but she did not. He plodded on, putting one foot ahead of the other at an even pace, trying to forget how far he must go, and how short a distance they had come.
Once, far off, he glimpsed a heard of antelope, but they disappeared among the dancing heat waves. Again, and not so far away, he saw three buffalo moving; they paused when they saw the big red horse and the two children.
He studied the country, watched the movements of animals and the flight of birds. These could maybe tell you if somebody was near, or if there was danger of other kinds.
The sun slid toward the horizon and Hardy saw no place to stop. He plodded on, desperate in his weariness and the sense of responsibility that hung over him. When the last red was fading from the sky, Big Red began to tug at the lead rope, pulling off toward the south. Knowing the stallion might smell water, Hardy walked in that direction, with the stallion almost leading him. And then he saw the trees.
At first it appeared to be only a long shadow in the bottom of a shallow valley, but as they drew nearer the shadow became willows and cottonwoods, and there was the bed of a winding stream. No more than a dozen feet wide and scarcely that many inches deep, the water was cold and clear, and there was grass for Big Red and a place to hide.
He helped Betty Sue down and led the horse to water. There at the stream's edge his heart almost stopped. In the sand right at the water's edge was a moccasin track.
Filling the canteen with water without stepping off the rock, he hurried back and hid the stallion in a small clearing deep among the willows. The area was not large, but it gave the horse a bit of grazing and room to roll if he wished . . . and he wished.
Having made a bed for Betty Sue, Hardy then opened another can. They were eating it when he saw something growing among the brush, something dark and about as thick as a stubby banana. Gleefully, he plucked it from the branch. "Paw-paws!" he exclaimed. "There's pawpaws!"
"I don't like paw-paws," Betty Sue said quietly.
"I didn't either, one time. Now I like them. You try one."
The fruit was almost four inches long and an inch and a half thick, greenish-yellow when he saw it close up. Searching the bushes, he found half a dozen more. Suddenly they tasted good, better than he remembered. Betty Sue ate hers quickly, then took another.
Excited as he was at finding the paw-paws, he kept remembering that moccasin track. He was not much of a judge of the age of tracks, but this one must be fresh. The edges of the track had not crumbled the least bit, and there were no marks of insects crossing it. That track had certainly been made that day, and probably within the last hour or two.
Though the moccasin track stayed in his mind, another thought was that he wanted a fire. A fire would have been a comfort now, especially for Betty Sue, but when he looked over at her she was already fast asleep on the grass, a half-eaten paw-paw in her hand. He covered her with his coat and curled up close to her, and looked up at the stars.
Where was pa now? How long would it be before he knew what had happened to the wagons?
It would be a month before the wagons were due. Why, he and Betty Sue might even get there before pa realized the wagons were not coming! Suddenly Hardy hoped so . . . no use pa to worry more. He had been hard hurt when ma died.
After ma died they had gone west, as far as Wisconsin, but even there pa was still restless. He wanted a larger place, in more open country where he could raise horses.
Pa had been listening to stories about California; but it had not been the gold that took him off across the plains, but the attraction of a good climate and a place to ranch horses. He had been gone for a year when he sent for Mr. Andy to come west and bring Hardy.
Suddenly Hardy found himself awake, scarcely aware he had slept. The sky was faintly gray. Easing away from Betty Sue's side, he got Big Red and led him to water, then went back to camp and picketed the big horse again.
Among the trees and brush he found some straight shafts for arrows, and a good piece for the bow. His father had taught him how the Indians made their bows and arrows, and he had often hunted rabbits and squirrels with them.
He was just finishing the bow when he heard the horses coming. Big Red heard them first and his ears went up and his nostrils fluttered as if he was going to whinny. Hardy caught the lead rope and whispered, "No! No!" Big Red was silent, but he was very curious.
Watching under the willows, Hardy saw three Indians with feathers in their hair. All were naked to the waist, and one had a quarter of an antelope on his saddle. They drew up about thirty yards downstream, and Hardy could hear the low murmur of their voices. He noticed that they were not painted, and they carried no scalps.
One of the Indians dropped from his pony and lay down to drink. As he started to rise he hesitated, then stood up. When he came to his full height he looked upstream, and for a long moment seemed to be looking right into Hardy's eyes. The boy knew he could not be seen, but he held very still and prayed that neither Betty Sue nor Big Red would make a sound. After a long, long minute, the Indian looked away.
Soon all three rode off together, with the others, but even as they left, the one Indian turned and looked back. Hardy held very still until they had gone, and then he woke up Betty Sue.
He knew that they had to get away from there. They must leave right away. For that Big Indian, he felt sure, was going to come back.