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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 back 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 scaredhe 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 still skittish around strangers, and at times he could be mean. Especially, he hated anybody fussing around 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, hands 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. A sight better than most grown-up women . . . always arguing a man. Even Mrs. Andy. She couldn't do anything without making a lot of talk about it. Fussed more than a jaybird over a garden snake.
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.
Big Red stopped abruptly. His eyes looked wild, and he was smelling something he didn't like. 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. Squires, the mountain man who had stopped at their supper fire to eat and talk, had warned them, too.
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 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 coursethe Indians would have taken those first. He did find some scattered cans of fruit and meat, and 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.
Some flour was there, but he had no idea how to use it, and left it behind. 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.
He boosted her to the stallion's back. It was all he could do to get her up there, but he pushed and she scrambled and the big horse stood patiently.
There was no way for him to get up on the horse. There were no rocks close by for him to stand on, no places where he might get the horse lower down than himself, and so scramble into the saddle. Taking the picket-rope, he led the horse and they started westward.
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. Neither was there a tree, a shrub, or anything taller than the stiff brown grass on which they walked.
The prairie was flat or gently rolling, with occasional long brown hills, tawny as the flank of a sleeping lion. There was almost no indication of distance, for there were no landmarks.
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.
When they started on Betty Sue walked beside him, as she had many times when he had gone to the fields to carry a lunch to Mr. Andy. When she grew tired he lifted her again to Big Red's back.
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 somethingbetween 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. There had been a good meal, and a bed at last. 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.