The Heart of the Desert (Chapter 9, page 1 of 6)


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Chapter 9

The John DeWitt who helped break camp after finding Rhoda's scarf was a different man from the half-crazed person of the three days previous. He had begun to hope. Somehow that white scarf with Rhoda's perfume clinging to it was a living thing to him, a living, pulsing promise that Rhoda was helping him to find her. Now, while Jack and Billy were feverishly eager, he was cool and clear-headed, leaving the leadership to Billy still, yet doing more than his share of the work in preparing for the hard night ahead of them. The horses were well watered, their own canteens were filled and saturated and food so prepared that it could be eaten from the saddle.

"For," said Porter, "when we do hit the little girl's trail, starvation or thirst or high hell ain't goin' to stop us!"

It was mid-afternoon when they started down the mountainside. There was no trail and going was painful but the men moved with the care of desperation. Once in the cañon they moved slowly along the wall and some two miles from where the scarf had been found, they discovered a fault where climbing was possible. It was nearing sundown when they reached a wide ledge where the way was easy. Porter led the way back over this to the spot below which fluttered a white paper to mark the place where the scarf had been found. The ledge deepened here to make room for a tiny, bubbling spring. Giant boulders were scattered across the rocky floor.

The three men dismounted. The ledge gave no trace of human occupancy and yet Porter and Jack nodded at each other.

"Here was his camp, all right. Water, and no one could come within a mile of him without his being seen."

"He's still covering his traces carefully," said Jack.

"Not so very," answered Porter. "He's banking a whole lot on our stupidity, but Miss Tuttle beat him to it with her scarf."

The three men treated the ledge to a microscopic examination but they found no trace of previous occupation until Billy knelt and put his nose against a black outcropping of stone in the wall. Then he gave a satisfied grunt.

"Come here, Jack, and take a sniff."

Jack knelt obediently and cried excitedly: "It smells of smoke, by Jove! Don't it, John, old scout!"

"They knew smoke wouldn't show against a black outcrop, but they didn't bank on my nose!" said Billy complacently. "Come ahead, boys."

A short distance from the spring they found a trail which led back up the mountain, and as dusk came on they followed its dizzy turns until darkness forced them to halt and wait until the moon rose. By its light they moved up into a piñon forest.

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