The Heart of the Desert (Chapter 6, page 1 of 7)


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Chapter 6

"We'll start now," said Kut-le.

Alchise led out the horses. The squaws each threw an emancipated, sinewy leg across a pony's back and followed Alchise's fluttering shirt up the mountain. Kut-le stood holding the bridle of a sedate little horse on which he had fastened a comfortable high-backed saddle.

"Come, Rhoda," he said. "I'll shorten the stirrups after you are mounted."

Rhoda stood with her back to the wall, her blue-veined hands clutching the rough out-croppings on either side, horror and fear in her eyes.

"I can't ride cross-saddle!" she exclaimed. "I used to be a good horsewoman in the side-saddle. But I'm so weak that even keeping in the side-saddle is out of the question."

"Anything except cross-saddle is utterly out of the question," replied the Indian, "on the sort of trails we have to take. You might as well begin to control your nerves now as later. I'm going to have an expert rider in you by the time you have regained your strength. Come, Rhoda."

The girl turned her face to the afterglow. Remote and pitiless lay the distant crimson ranges. She shuddered and turned back to the young Indian who stood watching her. For the moment all the agony of her situation was concentrated in horror of another night in the saddle.

"Kut-le, I can't!"

"Shall I pick you up and carry you over here?" asked Kut-le patiently.

In her weakness and misery, Rhoda's cleft chin quivered. There was only merciless determination in the Indian's face. Slowly the girl walked to his side. He swung her to the saddle, adjusted the stirrups carefully, then fastened her securely to the saddle with a strap about her waist. Rhoda watched him in the silence of utter fear. Having settled the girl to his satisfaction, he mounted his own horse, and Rhoda's pony followed him tractably up the trail.

The trail rose steeply. After the first few dizzy moments, Rhoda, clinging to the saddle with hands and knees, was thankful for the security of her new seat. The scenery was uncanny to her terrorized eyes. To the left were great overhanging walls with cactus growing from every crevice; to the right, depth of caƱon toward which she dared not look but only trusted herself prayerfully to her steady little horse.

As the trail led higher and darkness settled, the cold grew intense and Rhoda cowered and shivered. Yet through her fear and discomfort was creeping surprise that her strength had endured even this long. In a spot where the trail widened Kut-le dropped back beside her and she felt the warm folds of a Navajo blanket about her shoulders. Neither she nor the Indian spoke. The madness of the night before, the fear and disgust of the afternoon gave way, slowly, to a lethargy of exhaustion. All thought of her frightful predicament, of her friends' anxiety, of Kut-le's treachery, was dulled by a weariness so great that she could only cling to the saddle and pray for the trail to end.

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