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Short Stories, September 25, 1944
IN THE DEVIL’S WIGWAM
Bat Jennison and Pegleg Found Themselves Hard Put to It
To Carry Out Their Pledge to a Dead Man
EGLEG,” Bat Jennison nodded
comfortably, “so fur she
checks correct accordin’ to the
old man’s tellin’. Undoubted thar stands
the Devil’s Wigwam.”
Pegleg Wimberley made no immediate
reply. Rather he ran an appraising eye over
the freak of nature that had summoned
Jennison’s nod. A pillar of rock, wind
carved, it towered starkly a good fifty feet,
a mimic in stone of an Indian tepee even to
the smoke vent. That was aped cunningly
by a slab of bluish rock set edgewise in the
tepee’s top. Reasonably circular, the skirts
of the tepee were whitened rock. It was
complete even to an irregular wedgeshaped opening at the bottom as if the
door flaps had been hooked back
carelessly by an untidy hand. The cramped
floor space was carpeted with sand,
“P
SHORT STORIES 2
patterned and wimpled by the capricious
desert winds.
“It’s a sure enough wigwam,”
Wimberley conceded finally, “but why for
the Devil’s? The old man didn’t name it
so, not anyway in my hearing.”
“The name sticks out as glib as old
man Peddog’s nose,” Jennison chuckled.
“Hell cain’t be more’n a rod down and I
figger when the fuel gits low, old Scratch
hasta hike some place to git warm. Natural
he romps up here. It’s his country home,
so to speak.”
“Reckon so,” and Wimberley spat
feebly. “This sand is sure hot as the fiery
pit.”
“Yep,” Jennison amplified the thought
feelingly. “You and me, Pegleg, are sure
standin’ right now onto the stove lids of
Perdition.” Then he shifted, “I don’t see no
sign of a mine, but of course he didn’t git
time to tell us much. Anyway thar’s the
spring, and the meadow and the wigwam
jest as he said. Let’s unsaddle our hosses
and git supper. In the morning we’ll go
prospectin’.”
Bat Jennison and Pegleg Wimberley
were seasoned products of a west that
sometimes smiled, more often scowled.
Wimberley, older by twenty years, was
still a good man to have around when
trouble boomed up over the horizon.
Despite his peg. For his right leg was
missing from the knee down, lost in his
youth in a raging blizzard.
The two had done a bit of prospecting,
but as desert rats this was a unique
venture. It had come about by sheer
accident. Three days before, back in the
Chipmunk Mountains they had stumbled
upon the camp of an old prospector who
had spent long years in ceaseless endeavor
to tap the gold stream that in imagination
he saw flowing beneath the desert sands.
And had found it, his matchless samples
proved it beyond cavil. Yet its hard-won
riches were not for him. Not yet dead
when Jennison and Wimberley chanced
upon his camp, yet dying inexorably with
dissolution very near. They cared for him
without a thought of reward, indeed they
paid scant heed to his babblings until he
showed them the gold. It made no
difference.
They had not the slightest intention to
dare the desert. But the indomitable old
man persisted, finally wooing from them a
reluctant promise to follow up his find and
that now.
“I reckon,” Jennison admitted
regretfully when the worn body had been
insured sanctuary from prowling animals,
“that we’re hogtied by that foolish
promise.”
“I consider it foolish,” Wimberley
agreed, “but I consider also we’re bound
to keep it. But we’re damned low on grub,
and there ain’t nothing here.”
A fact,” Jennison echoed. “All he’s got
we can use is these two five-gallon water
kaigs. We’ll swing ‘em across our pack
mare. Well yes, thar’s this big canteen.
Holds a gallon I reckon. Guess we’d best
git ready to rack out.”
HE old prospector had calculated that
they could reach his strike in two days
and on this the second day they had
arrived. First, if cursory, inspection
completed, they unsaddled their horses,
watered them judiciously, then turned
them loose to graze at will.
Supper over, each carried his lozenge
of blankets to the crest of a flat sand dune
and made his bed—by the simple
expedient of unrolling it. Their boots
would serve as odorous pillows.
“She’s perfection,” Jennison
gruntingly inventoried their work. “Why
do people sleep in beds, I wonder?”
Lighting their pipes, they sprawled on
their blankets to talk. A full moon was
T
IN THE DEVIL’S WIGWAM 3
riding the blue-black sky, and under its
mellow light the harsh unfriendliness of
the desert was wonderfully muted. Small
wonder that the two men spanned their sea
of sands with the arch of golden dreams.
It was cold dawn when Jennison
awoke, stretched hugely, then shucking
out of his blankets like a limp cocoon,
stood erect. The little valley was in view,
barring its extreme upper end, but he saw
nothing of their three horses. No doubt
they were there in that tiny obscured
corner, but he wished his faith confirmed
by his eyes. Waking Pegleg, they went
down to the spring and while Wimberley
started breakfast, Jennison walked on up
the valley. The flat was scarcely more than
fifty yards wide, possibly ten times as
long. The extreme northern end twisted
sharply behind a low shoulder of
disintegrating rock and here in this pocket
Jennison found the animals. Dead! No
second glance was needed to inform him
of that appalling fact. Rattlesnakes was his
first oath-garnished diagnosis. But that
blistering thought held only for a moment.
For he had noted the tiny pool of water
cuddled by the splayed base of the
shoulder of rock. And he knew the pool
for what it was, a seepage of arsenic
impregnated water. Jennison looked long
and sadly at their three faithful
companions.
“And your end ain’t no diffrunt from a
man’s!” he moralized. “Nature don’t play
no favorites. On the contrary. Comes the
time man or beast gits into the road of
nature and she lams him outen pity or
regrets.”
He turned back slowly toward their
camp. And he was thinking deeply as he
faced the appalling situation. For it was
appalling. There was no other word for it.
To be set down afoot in the heart of a
desert and Pegleg a cripple was
portentious food for thought. Traveling
over smooth ground even was a toilsome
process for the old man. In this inferno of
burning sand all but impossible.
Pyramided above these formidable
obstacles was their shortage of food and
their unfamiliarity with the desert. Yes,
they stood very near to the crossroads of
despair.
Pegleg looked up from his campfire
and read disaster in Jennison’s sober face.
“Horses?” he queried anxiously.
“Dead,” Jennison answered. “Tanked
up on pisen water. Thar’s a little pool up at
the fur end of this valley. Probably the old
timer didn’t know it. Likely broke out
since he left. Anyway it ‘pears to be
fresh.”
Now he looked with pity at his
comrade’s blanched and twitching face.
Wimberley was at grips with the terrifying
realization of his helplessness. Not for a
moment must it remain regnant in his
thinking.
“Lefty Steffins—” Jennison grinned
fraudfully, “you’ll remember I’ve tootled a
lot about him—usta say when the sleddin’
got particular rough, ‘Boys we’ve skated
more’n seldom onto mighty thin ice and
lived to hang up our skates: Well that’s the
gospel, truth about me and you. Two tough
old pelicans like us ain’t goin’ to be
grubbed by no buzzards. Hell, we could
roll outen this little patch of sand if we had
to do so.”
His flaunted contempt for desert perils
had a notable and instantly steadying
effect on his maimed comrade.
“Damned if we couldn’t, Bat,”
Wimberley chortled loudly, “you bet it ‘ill
take more than a yard or two of sand to
hold us down.”
Of primary importance was some
method of broadening the tread of
Wimberley’s peg And Jennison chuckled
forth the perfect answer. An empty peach
can, that was it! With the awl blade of his
SHORT STORIES 4
jackknife he bored a hole in the end of the
wooden leg, nailed the can in place,
bottom down, and crimped the upper end
tight about the peg.
“Lucky we always carry a few extry
horseshoe nails,” said Jennison admiring
his cobbling. “That ‘ill see you through,
Pegleg.”
“Yep,” Wimberley made qualified
approval, “less the old peg splits or
something. Sure wish it was that old oak
stick that got burned up at Sodom. Not a
seam in it. But this fir peg ain’t too good.
Them weather cracks don’t look
encouraging ‘specially if we’ve got to
drive it full of nails.”
“She’ll hold, Pegleg,” Jennison
assured him. “Don’t you fret about that.
And now,” he went on briskly, “cook up
what grub we’ve got whilst I store our
dunnage away. Reckon that wigwam ‘ill
be the proper spot.”
So while Pegleg cooked a few thin
flapjacks and fried their skimpy stock of
rancid bacon, Jennison carried their
saddles, blankets, rifles and meager
mining equipment over to the stone tepee.
The space within was ample and dry. And
then the goddess Fortuna unveiled a
golden smile. Jennison for no conscious
reason chose to sink the pick into that
carpet of sand instead of standing it
sedately against the wall. Six inches down
it struck something, not hard like granite,
yet at that something with body to it. Idly
curious, Jennison bent down, scraped
away the sand, looked carelessly, then
sharply, then avidly. His yell brought his
partner on a shuffling gallop.
What Jennison by a whimsy of chance
had uncovered, was a ledge of whitish
cement rock, crammed with nodules of
pure gold, as thickly seeded as raisins in a
Christmas pudding! Here in very deed was
the old prospector’s mine. For a few
delirium saturated forgetful moments they
trod the ultimate cloud fields of glory. And
then their ecstasy was muted. Harsh
realism had obtruded its stern and ugly
visage. Wimberley’s beaming eye had
lighted upon his tin-shod wooden peg.
“Bat,” he shook his head wretchedly,
“what’s the use?”
“Right,” and Jennison cut squarely
across his partner’s coming ode to defeat.
“Thar ain’t no use fur us to tarry. We’ve
struck it rich beyond the dreams even of
Creosote, the Egyptun king or mebby he
was a Dago, I’m kinda limber onto that.
But and anyway thar it is, and all ourn.
We’ll tuck away a few nuggets to keep us
in mind how rich we are and then we’ll
Klatawah. Soon as we git rested up we’ll
git ourselves a new outfit and flit back
here for some real diggin’. Hell though, it
ain’t achul mining. We can pick these
lumps of gold out with our fingers and not
even git a blood blister. Here, help me bed
it over with sand and then we’ll store the
rest of our plunder away. He’s a smart
devil. Sure fixed us up a dandy bank.”
So, purposefully, Jennison rattled on,
till haunting fear loosened its icy clutch
upon his companion’s heart.
“He sure did, Bat,” Wimberley
cackled. “All I’ve got to say is, he’s a
good enough devil for me. What are you
aiming to do with that water keg? It’ll
weigh fifty pounds full. All right for a
pack mare, but you cain’t tote it.”
“I figger it at say half full.” Jennison
told him. “We don’t need to hurry
ourselves if we’ve got plenty of water.”
Artful words!
Certain it was that they could not
hurry, and the water keg furnished an ironclad alibi for lack of speed. And now they
arranged their burdens. Wimberley carried
their meager food supply and their halfgallon canteen. Around his waist was
strapped his pistol. Jennison had the gallon
canteen, his pistols and their mackinaws,
IN THE DEVIL’S WIGWAM 5
both necessary he asserted stoutly, as
shoulder padding against the weight of the
water keg. They would follow the old
prospector’s advice to strike north, rather
than return the way they had come. It
would be shorter he had said and not so
steep. They indulged in more than mild
regrets that they had shown so little
curiosity as to waterholes on this northern
route.
Jennison adjusted his impedimenta,
glanced toward the graveyard of their
faithful animals and jerked out a bitter
curse. Vultures those ubiquitous
scavengers, had already arrived. Then he
glanced at Wimberley to say buoyantly,
“Pegleg, if you’re set let’s mosey.”
Wimberley contented himself with an
indomitable and breath-saving grunt,
“Let’s.”
OR half a mile the going was simple,
traveling as they did a flat bottomed
wash paralleling the one that held their
mine. Here, however, they faced a hazard
of sharply sloping sand. Jennison turned to
his comrade.
“Set down a minute,” he suggested,
“whilst I scale them heights and take a
looksee.”
There was more to it than mere desire
for exploration. Without ostentation
Jennison could scale the barrier, set down
his own burdens and after a superficial
scanning of monotonous scenery return to
aid his comrade climb the steep slope. It
was a kindly subterfuge practiced in a
variety of forms a dozen times in the
course of that first trying day. The fact that
it did not deceive Wimberley detracted
nothing from its merit.
To paint a complete picture, to etch in
every painful line, to record each panting
breath, to detail every stumbling step, to
memorialize the withering heat, to set
down in cold print the agonizing thirst, is
not the wish of this chronicler. It is enough
to draw in outline, that imagination may
round in the completed tale. Enough then
to say that within the course of some hours
their feverish thirst had marvelously
reduced the weight of the water keg. At
long last something more than occasional
halts became imperative, and a wind
sculptured mass of clay and rock beckoned
them to its torrid sanctuary.
“It’s hot, Bat,” Wimberley wheezed
dolorously, as he crept into the minute
shade.
“Yes,” Jennison nodded, “she’s hotter
than the seven brass hinges of hell. Wish
we dared to snake our boots off, but we’d
probable never git ‘em on again. Anyway,
mebby I can root down to cool sand. This
ain’t so worse, Pegleg. Try this burrow
and see how it fits you. I’ll tunnel me
another. Whilst we’re restin’ let’s try fur a
nap.”
HREE hours later Jennison awoke.
Wimberley still slumbered riotously
on and leaving him to his gurgling
diversions, Jennison scrambled out of his
nest. One corner of the rock offered easy
footing and presently he stood on its flat
top. Out of red-rimmed inflamed eyes he
peered northward. Immediately before him
stretched a flat plain shimmering white
with borax. This for what he guessed was
a half dozen miles, then the treacherous
sand resumed its reign. Far away he
glimpsed a mountain peak or knob of
cloud, phantom or reality, he did not
know. But they could cross this borax
plain at night he concluded, doubly so as
there was a moon at the full. Armored with
this decision he scrambled down just as
Wimberley awoke.
Flapjacks dry and insipid reinforced
scrimpily with bacon furnished a meager
meal for the ravenously hungry men. The
warm fetid rinsings drained from the keg
F
T
SHORT STORIES 6
was meager answer to a clamoring thirst.
Yet they did not tap their reserve supply,
the two canteens. Jennison stowed the
empty keg in the undercut lee of the pillar
of rock, then they slogged away.
It would be a joy indeed to depict their
trek that night as glamorous stroll under a
burnished moon. But truth demands that
proper accounting be made of biting dust
swirled up at every labored step, of thirst,
of hunger, of bitter weariness when leaden
feet stumbled over obstructions hardly
more palpable than shadows. Daybreak
brought them to the edge of the borax
plain and to a high banked dry wash that
barred their way. Jennison peered down
wearily into the sandy bottom. That
smooth surface seemed discolored. It
might be a shadow, a film of mineral
pigment, but, it might mask a water
seepage!
Yet he steadied his voice when he
spoke.
“Let’s climb down, Pegleg,” he
suggested casually. “That sand looks like
it was made to bed down on. Here, lemme
give you a hand. Fine. Well here we are
right-side up an a-grinnin’. Set down.”
But now Wimberley had noted the
brownish smear.
“Bat,” he croaked excitedly, “that
looks like—”
“Don’t say it, Pegleg,” Jennison
advised sensibly. “Let’s side trail any joy
helps till we know.”
Down on his knees now Jennison ran
an exploratory hand over the smooth
surface. Cool he found it, yet his mind
scarcely dared to register the fact that it
was damp. In tentative way his fingers
spaded in to the knuckles, then lingered a
long moment. Then he was digging, the
increasingly damp sand cascading wildly.
A foot down and he could ball the sand
into a cohesive lump. Two feet down a
thin emulsion of sand and near water
trickled out of his clenched fist. Pegleg
Wimberley bent above the hot trail panting
with expectancy. And then Jennison’s
clawing fingers clutched dry sand!
A long silence followed. Still without a
word Jennison moved down gulch a few
feet and renewed his hand drilling. Defeat
even more speedy than the first met him.
Up the gully next, to rise convinced. An
infrequent summer shower had left its
passing trace and that was all.
“She’s probable jest a fooler dropped
by a jokin’ thunder head,” he diagnosed.
“Anyway,” he continued, “she’s cool to
rest onto. Also we’ve got one full canteen
left, which ‘ill be plenty, on account it
cain’t be fur now. Let’s eat.”
They ate the remaining shreds of super
dried flapjacks and bacon and jested as to
the meaty possibilities of a somnambulant
lizard. Then Jennison persuaded his worn
companion to stretch out in the sand while
he looked about. The sky was now
obscured by sand stirred to still life by the
lightest of breezes. So when he had
climbed to a towering sand dune and
turned his face northward he found that he
could not have seen Mount Hood even if it
had been set down in the sand a thousand
rods away. It might be fifty miles to the
break in the desert, it might not be a half
dozen. Below him lay the dry wash and
now he looked upstream if such liberty of
expression is permissible under the
common meaning of words. Here he noted
another discoloration in its bed darker and
more pronounced than the spot that had
marked his recent futile efforts. He
decided that he would again prospect for
liquid gold.
It was a quest that met quickly with
qualified success. The sides of the shallow
hole oozed inward to fill the excavation
about as rapidly as he dug it.
“I names you sandwater,” he
christened the dubious fluid aloud. “And I
IN THE DEVIL’S WIGWAM 7
sure wish I had a fistful of moss.”
He knew the Indian trick of bedding
the end of a tube in a moss filter, but he
might as well look for a water lily as for
moss in this wilderness of sand. Rocking
there on his knees before his mud pool, his
mind ranged on from the unobtainable
moss to tubes. The ghosts of everything
hollow from reeds to tin whistles raced
through his mind, a wild ungovernable
horde. Then desperation whispered the
magic word. Wimberley smoked a corn
cob pipe fitted with a cane stem. Moss?
Hell, he had far better! In his mackinaw
pocket was a handful of wool garnered
from a rip in their pack saddle, and thrust
into his pocket in a thrifty and unthinking
moment. Madly he galloped back to his
companion, eager to setup his filtering
plant.
It worked. And that muddy gruel
flavored with plug cut tobacco incensed
with soiled wool and tinctured with
nicotine seemed to these desert-hobbled
men authentic nectar of the gods no less.
By even turns they strained and gulped
until nausea threatened. Now they worked
their comfortable bodies into the sand and
fatigue betrayed them to blissful sleep. Yet
only a few feet from their miracle water. A
dozen yards would have been too distant.
OWARD mid-afternoon they awoke
less water logged and greatly
refreshed. Deciding to push on, they first
filled their empty canteen by methods
heroic yet highly effective. A pale yellow
disk that was the sun in its swaddling
clothes of dust, was their only guidepost.
Yet with its fury muted and with plenty of
water their spirits were high as they
trudged away. It was an evanescent phase
doomed to speedy extinction.
At heavy dusk, they halted. They had
come again upon a borax plain whose
surface seemed fairly smooth but the
extent of which was anybody’s guess. And
without a compass or even the guidance of
a moon now fully obscured, to advance
was to take a useless hazard. The air might
clear later for the light breeze had finally
whispered itself to sleep. Then they would
march. Meanwhile they would don their
makinaws and snuggle down to sleep.
“I figger,” Jennison said cheerfully,
“that tomorrow ends it.”
“I figger the same,” said Wimberley.
“You ain’t the only one to harbor
hunches.”
Something in his tone brought
Jennison up straight in his sand burrow.
“What do you mean, Pegleg,” he queried
anxiously, “by ‘hunch?’ No hunch is
worth a damn. We’ve mebby drove too
fast a pace. We’ll slow up. Hell, we don’t
hafta hurry frum now on.” His laugh was
high grade counterfeit, warranted to
deceive the uninitiated, But Wimberley
was of the elect.
“You believe in hunches, Bat,” he
answered by the book. “It’s too late to try
to hoot ‘em down now. All I know from
my hunch is that tomorrow spells danger,
in big letters too.”
“She cain’t spell out nothin’ me and
you cain’t lick, Pegleg,” Jennison asserted
buoyantly. “So let’s try the effigy of sleep.
It’s like to slick up purty soon, so as we
can traipse on by moonlight. I’ll call you
then.”
T
SHORT STORIES 8
But it was Wimberley—not
Jennison—who did the summoning. At
three o’clock he nudged Jennison awake.
“Clear enough for us to travel, Bat,” he
stated. Then he appended as an alibi for
sleeplessness, “The cold waked me up.”
“I’m cold also!” Jennison falsified in
true comradely fashion. “Sure a good thing
you waked up. I’m such a damned sleepy
head I’d roosted here till I froze stiff.
Here, let me give you a hand up and we’ll
ramble.”
Why his companion had been awake at
this unseasonable hour was sunlight clear
to Bat Jennison. The yeast of worry, that
troubling hunch, that was it. So he
chattered, there is no other word for it, as
they trudged along on aching and swollen
feet, to ease the terror in his comrade’s
mind. Even limping fabrication
contributed its feeble tale. He halted
suddenly, canted his head, then cupped a
well sanded hand behind his unlaundered
ear for mythical amplifier.
“Hark!” he said dramatically. “I heerd
a coyote yippin’! That means we’re at the
edge of the desert mebby.”
“I don’t hear it,” and Wimberley shook
his head. “Besides coyotes do their
yipping evenings as an almost solid rule.
Also when the moon’s shining bright,
which it sure ain’t now. I’d like to set
down a minute.”
It was daylight, screened doubtfully
through an emulsion of sand and air when
they cleared the borax flat. New terrain
greeted them here; rocky, yet not
particularly difficult. It was much as if
they were walking an ancient stream floor,
ground down to primitive bedrock. The
simile was a just one even to pot holes not
large but too deep. Wimberley’s peg
plunged into one as he stepped, the
leverage of his advance completed the
tragedy. Snapped off squarely in the
middle, its splintering-rending fracture had
in it the wailing whimper of a lost soul.
Jennison a few steps in advance
pivoted around swiftly at the sound.
Instantly he realized that the accident was
indeed catastrophic, and for a clipped
second he paused, too numbed for words
or action. Then his indomitable spirit
shook the reins over his laggard will. No
time for faltering now, nor fumbling.
Instead of haste, leisureliness, placidity not
emotion, words few if any. And he all but
overplayed. Came within touching
distance of committing an irrevocable
error. Another infinitesimal moment of
delay and he would have been alone in the
desert with a dead comrade. He had just
time to pounce, and with gentle force
retrieve the pistol from Wimberley’s
closing fingers. As Jennison stood up and
mechanically dropped the pistol into his
side pocket Wimberley spoke to him.
“You done wrong, Bat.” He set it out
calmly and without heat. “Dying don’t
make any difference to me, whether now
or ten years. But I’ve got the right to pick
my way out. My way woulda been swift,
for I know where to hold a gun. The way
you’ve picked for me I’ll die slow,
choking for water. Bat, you ain’t got the
right to choose my way for me. Hand me
back my pistol and turn your back. It’ll be
for your good as well as mine. For I know
you’ll stick by me till you cain’t make it
out either. There’s no sense in that.
You’ve got a lot of things to do yet. My
time’s run out, that’s all. Gimme my
pistol, Bat.”
Jennison was shaken to the depths of
his loyal soul. Against the reasoned and
dispassionate argument of his intrepid
comrade he had no handy rebuttal. The
seeming utter futility of escape, the
apparent certainty of a loathsome,
lingering death, even Wimberley’s cogent
insistence that he had the right to choose
the method and time of his own exit, found
IN THE DEVIL’S WIGWAM 9
Jennison’s mind seined clear of even
plausible demurrer. Iron-clad fatalist
himself, he could easily have been impaled
on the sheep horns of that dilemma. Yet
Wimberley had not averted to it, though
closely skirting its sheer edge. And now
the dark and agonizing moment was
transmuted into radiance and joy. Jennison
had found the one impregnable answer, the
one possible solution, the one way of
escape.
“Pegleg,” he asked sunnily, “did you
ever run in a three-legged race?”
The question apparently so irrelevant
measured in harsh present realities, caught
Wimberley with his guard down. So
completely so that his mind responded in
unthinking way as he thumbed back over
dim memory pages laden with half
forgotten yet precious lore. And found and
turned down the exact page:
“In Chillicothe, Ohio,” he rehearsed
the ancient triumph pridefully, “in—
lemme see—1847. Fourth of July it was
and me and my pard won.”
Then the light faded in his eyes. They
had fallen on that shattered, useless peg.
He looked at Jennison reproachfully.
“Bat,” he said slowly, “that’s an awful
pore joke for a time like this.”
“It ain’t no joke,” Jennison corrected
firmly. “That’s jest what me and you are
goin’ to do only ‘stead ‘of runnin’ we’re
walkin’ a three-legged race.”
“Lookit, Pegleg,” he rattled on, “me
and you are the same height, weight too
fur that matter, and whilst we never
measured I betcha our laigs are the same
length. Don’t you see it now? Sure you do.
Well, we’ll strap your right laig stump to
my left laig, and thar we’ve got it. Your
left laig and my right laig ‘ill be our own
but the middle ‘ill be partnership laigage.
After we git geared together at our middles
we’ll hafta practice some, but hell, in no
time we’ll be movin’ faster a damned sight
too than formerly.”
“By God, Bat,” he okayed fervently,
“it will work.”
ND it did. Through an apprenticeship
buttressed on trial and error pedal
coordination emerged. This established as
a workable formula, Jennison shouldered
the two empty canteens, added the fork
end of Wimberley’s peg, this for the straps
and padding, without a word passed
Wimberley’s pistol back into the old
man’s hands and they were ready to
march. Jennison inventoried the gruel-like
air with jaundiced and disparaging eye.
“Should the Columbia River be
tootling along out thar,” he stated, “we’d
be swimmin’ therein before we’d even see
it. Let’s hit the trail. One, two, one, two.
We’ve got the swing, Pegleg.”
Their roadway presently was along the
bottom of a dry wash, its ten-foot banks
edged with a fretwork of greasewood,
chaparral, sagebrush and an occasional
clump of rye grass. Because they guessed
that it led in the right direction they
followed its sometime sinuosities without
complaining, this for the better part of an
hour. Very tired from the strain incident to
the unnatural “hook-up,” they had just
decided to rest, when fatigue and
discomfort fled into thin air. Two, four, six
birds, flushed from their covert atop the
bank, at their left, took wing and zoomed
away, displaying in their flight a tattling
wedge of white tail feathers.
“Prairie chickens.” So exploded the
doubled barreled recognition of a famous
Western game bird. And to them it told a
wonder tale. Edge of the desert. Nothing
less.
“We’ve made it, Pegleg,” Jennison
exulted. “Them blessed prairie chickens
don’t fool around no desert.”
A
SHORT STORIES 10
“We have,” Wimberley nodded
solemnly. Then he added wistfully, “Bat, I
could relish some grub. Mebby if we was
unhooked—”
Jennison agreed with plenty of
enthusiasm. “Also you can treat yourself
to a little rest whilst I rustle up that said
grub.”
Some of the thongs had snarled into
snug little knots, but Jennison’s agile
lingers soon unscrambled them.
Wimberley sighed down into his sand
cushion; and with his aching back braced
caressingly by the soft gully wall watched
Jennison’s foraging tactics with eager
eyes. And now as a by-product of his
beneficent moment of leisure he noted
something of as yet unexplored
significance. Beyond the voyaging hunter,
the sky was wondrously clear. Then his
eyes dropped again to Jennison for he was
very very hungry.
Jennison had padded swiftly down the
dry wash for fifty yards or so seeking an
easy way to scale the ten-foot wall. Here
he found one made to order, a narrow land
slip in the side wall affording a steep yet
passable ramp up to the top of the dry
wash itself. Now Jennison drew a Colt’s
forty-live, cocked it with supple thumb,
then holding it at an instant ready crept up
the sandy causeway. Keeping mimic step
with his comrade’s movements,
Wimberley too crouched while his linger
was arched alertly about a phantom
trigger. They both fired, reality and myth,
then Jennison scurried up over the top,
straightened up, took two hesitant steps,
then whirled about, whooping:
“Trees, Pegleg, miles of ‘em.
Hallelulah! And thar’s millions of sage
hens, more or less. Anyway I jest shot one
big as a young turkey.”
Ten minutes later the two men stood
atop the dry wash and gazed northward
with shining eyes. Not far away, a scant
half mile at the farthest an impressive
phalanx of trees cut their line of march,
their bases banked with bushes, these, in
turn coyly wriggling their brown toes in
the verge of a thick grass carpet of
greenest green. Behind them the desert, its
horrors already a dimming memory. Yet
not forgotten. For back there waiting for
their certain return guarded by the
treacherous sands lay their mine housed
cunningly within the bleak walls of the
Devil’s Wigwam.

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