The Heart of the Desert (Chapter 8, page 1 of 8)

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Chapter 8

Rhoda lay stiffly, her heart beating wildly. Kut-le and the squaws, each a muffled, blanketed figure, lay sleeping some distance away. Old Alchise stood on solitary guard at the edge of the camp with his back to her.

"Make as if you wanted to shift your blankets toward the cat's-claw bush behind you!" went on the whispered voice.

Obediently, Rhoda sat erect. Alchise turned slowly to light a cigarette out of the wind. Rhoda yawned, rose sleepily, looked under her blanket and shook her, head irritably, then dragged her blankets toward the neighboring cat's-claw. Again she settled herself to sleep. Alchise turned back to his view of the desert.

"I'm behind the bush here," whispered the voice. "I'm a prospector. Saw you make camp. I don't know where any of the search parties are but if you can crawl round to me I'll guarantee to get you to 'em somehow. Slip out of your blankets and leave 'em, rounded up as if you was still under 'em. Quick now and careful!"

Rhoda, her eyes never leaving Alchise's impassive back, drew herself silently and swiftly from her blankets and with a clever touch or two rounded them. Then she crept around the cat's-claw, where a man squatted, his eyes blazing with excitement. He put up a sinewy, hand to pull her from sight when, without warning, Rhoda sneezed.

Instantly there was the click of a rifle and Alchise shouted: "Stop!"

"Confound it!" growled the man, rising to full view, "why didn't you swallow it!"

"I couldn't!" replied Rhoda indignantly. "You don't suppose I wanted to!"

She turned toward the camp. Alchise was standing stolidly covering them with his rifle. Kut-le was walking coolly toward them, while the squaws sat gaping.

"Well!" exclaimed Kut-le. "What can we do for you, Jim?"

The stranger, a rough tramp-like fellow in tattered overalls, wiped his face, on which was a week's stubble.

"I'd always thought you was about white, Cartwell," he said, "but I see you're no better than the rest of them. What are you going to do with me?"

Kut-le eyed his unbidden guest speculatively.

"Well, we'll have something to eat first. I don't like to think on an empty stomach. Come over to my blanket and sit down, Jim."

Ignoring Rhoda, who was watching him closely, Kut-le seated himself on his blanket beside Jim and offered him a cigarette, which was refused.

"I don't want no favors from you, Cartwell." His voice was surly. There was something more than his rough appearance that Rhoda disliked about the man but she didn't know just what it was. Kut-le's eyes narrowed, but he lighted his own cigarette without replying. "You're up to a rotten trick and you know it, Cartwell," went on Jim. "You take my advice and let me take the girl back to her friends and you make tracks down into Mexico as fast as the Lord'll let you."

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