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THE STRONG SHALL LIVE
The land was fire beneath and the sky was brass above, but throughout the day's long riding the bound man sat erect in the saddle and cursed them for thieves and cowards. Their blows did not silence him, although the blood from his swollen and cracked lips had dried on his face and neck.
Only John Sutton knew where they rode and only he knew what he planned for Cavagan, and John Sutton sat thin and dry and tall on his long-limbed horse, leading the way.
Nine men in all, tempered to the hard ways of an unforgiving land, men strong in the strengths needed to survive in a land that held no place for the weak or indecisive. Eight men and a prisoner taken after a bitter chase from the pleasant coastal lands to the blazing desert along the Colorado River.
Cavagan had fought on when the others quit. They destroyed his crops, tore down his fences, and burned his home. They killed his hired hand and tried to kill him. When they burned his home he rebuilt it, and when they shot at him he shot back.
When they ambushed him and left him for dead, he crawled into the rocks like a wounded grizzly, treated his own wounds, and then caught a horse and rode down to Sutton's Ranch and shot out their lights during the victory celebration.
Two of Sutton's men quit in protest, for they admired a game man, and Cavagan was winning sympathy around the country.
Cavagan was a black Irishman from County Sligo. His mother died on the Atlantic crossing and his father was killed by Indians in Tennessee. At sixteen Cavagan fought in the Texas war for independence, trapped in the Rockies for two years, and in the war with Mexico he served with the Texas Rangers and learned the value of a Walker Colt.
At thirty he was a man honed by desert fires and edged by combat with fist, skull, and pistol. Back in County Sligo the name had been O'Cavagan and the family had a reputation won in battle.
Sutton's men surrounded his house a second time thinking to catch him asleep. They fired at the house and waited for him to come out. Cavagan had slept on the steep hillside behind the house and from there he opened fire, shooting a man from his saddle and cutting the lobe from Sutton's ear with a bullet intended to kill.
Now they had him, but he sat straight in the saddle and cursed them. Sutton he cursed but he saved a bit for Beef Hannon, the Sutton foreman.
"You're a big man, Beef," he taunted, "but untie my hands and I'll pound that thick skull of yours until the yellow runs out of your ears."
Their eyes squinted against the white glare and the blistering heat from off the dunes, and they tried to ignore him. Among the sand dunes there was no breeze, only the stifling heaviness of hot, motionless air. Wearily their horses plodded along the edge of a dune where the sand fell steeply off into a deep pit among the dunes. John Sutton drew rein. "Untie his feet," he said.
Juan Velasquez swung down and removed the rawhide thongs from Cavagan's feet, and then stood back, for he knew the manner of man that was Cavagan.
"Get down," Sutton told Cavagan.
Cavagan stared his contempt from the slits where his eyes peered through swollen, blackened flesh, then he swung his leg across the saddle, kicked his boot free of the stirrup and dropped to the ground.
Sutton regarded him for several minutes, savoring his triumph, then he put the flat of his boot against Cavagan's back and pushed. Cavagan staggered, fought for balance, but the sand crumbled beneath him and he fell, tumbling to the bottom of the hollow among the dunes.
With his hands tied and his body stiff from the beatings he had taken he needed several minutes to get to his feet. When he stood erect he stared up at Sutton. "It is what I would have expected from you," he said.
Sutton's features stiffened, and he grew white around the mouth. "You're said to be a tough man, Cavagan. I've heard it until I'm sick of it, so I've brought you here to see how much is tough and how much is shanty Irish bluff. I am curious to see how tough you will be without food or water. We're leaving you here."
Hannon started to protest. He had himself tried to kill Cavagan, but to leave a man to die in the blazing heat of the desert without food or water and with his hands bound . . . a glance at Sutton's face and the words died on his lips.
"It's sixty miles to water," he managed, at last.
John Sutton turned in his saddle and measured Hannon with a glance, then deliberately he faced front and started away. Reluctantly, the others followed.
Juan Velasquez looked down into the pit at Cavagan. He carried a raw wound in his side from a Cavagan bullet, but that pit was seventy feet deep. Slowly, thinking as he did it, Juan unfastened his canteen and was about to toss it to Cavagan when he caught Sutton's eyes on him.
"Throw it," Sutton suggested, "but if you do you will follow it."
Juan balanced the canteen on his palm, tempted beyond measure. Sixty miles? With the temperature at one hundred and twenty degrees? Reluctantly, he retied the canteen to his saddle horn. Sutton watched him, smiling his thin smile.
"I'll remember that, Juan," Cavagan said. "It was a good thought."
John Sutton turned his square thin shoulders and rode away, the others following. Hannon's shoulders were hunched as if expecting a blow.
When the last of them had disappeared from sight, Cavagan stood alone at the bottom of the sand pit.
This was 1850 and even the Indians avoided the sand hills. There was no law west of Santa Fe or east of the coast mountains. Cavagan had settled on land that Sutton considered his, although he had no legal claim to it. Other would-be settlers had been driven off, but Cavagan would not be driven. To make matters worse he courted the girl Sutton had marked for himself.
Cavagan stood in the bottom of the sand pit, his eyes closed against the glare of the sun on the white sand. He told himself, slowly, harshly, that he would not, he must not die. Aloud he said, "I shall live! I shall see him die!"
There was a burning fury within him but a caution born of experience. Shade would come first to the west side of the pit, so with his boot he scraped a small pit in the sand. There, several inches below the surface, it was a little cooler. He sat down, his back to the sun, and waited.
More than seven hours of sunlight remained. To attempt climbing from the pit or even to fight the thongs on his wrists would cause him to perspire profusely and lessen his chances of ultimate survival. From this moment he must be patient, he must think.
Sweat dripped from his chin, his throat was parched and the sun on his back and shoulders was like the heat from a furnace. An hour passed, and then another. When at last he looked up there was an inch of shadow under the western lip of the pit.
He studied the way his wrists were bound. His hands had been tied to the pommel, so they were in front of him. He lifted his wrists to his teeth and began ever so gently to work at the rawhide knots. It took nearly an hour, but by the time his wrists were free the shade had reached the bottom of the pit. He coiled the rawhide and slipped it into his pocket.
The east slope was somewhat less steep, with each step he slid back, but with each he gained a little. Finally he climbed out and stood in the full glare of the setting sun.
He knew where the nearest water hole lay but knew Sutton would have it guarded. His problem was simple. He had to find water, get out of the desert, then find a horse and weapons. He intended to destroy Sutton as he would destroy a rabid wolf.
Shadows stretched out from the mountains. To the north the myriad pinnacles of the Chocolate Mountains crowned themselves with gold from the setting sun. He started to walk.
It was not sixty miles to the nearest water, for Cavagan knew the desert better than Sutton. West of him, but in a direction he dare not chance, lay Sunset Spring. Brackish water, and off the line for him.
Twenty-five miles to the northwest among the pinnacles of the Chocolates were rock tanks that might contain water. A Cahuilla Indian had told him of the natural reservoir, and upon this feeble chance he rested his life.
He walked northwest, his chances a thousand to one. He must walk only in the early hours of the morning and after sundown. During the day he must lie in the shade, if he found any, and wait. To walk in the sun without water was to die.
The sand was heavy and at each step he sank to his ankles. Choosing a distant peak in the Chocolates he pointed himself toward it. When the stars came out he would choose a star above it for a guide. At night landmarks have a way of losing themselves and what was familiar by day becomes strange and unfamiliar in the darkness.
To reach the vicinity of the rock tanks was one thing, to find them quite another. Near such tanks in the Tinajas Altas men had died of thirst within a few feet of water, unaware of its presence. Such tanks were natural receptacles catching the runoff from infrequent rains, and so shaded, that evaporation was slow. As there was no seepage there was no vegetation to indicate the presence of water.
The shadows grew long and only a faint afterglow remained in the sky. On his right and before him lay the valley dividing the dunes from the Chocolate Mountains. Now the air was cool and here and there a star appeared. Desert air is thin and does not retain the heat, hence it soon becomes cool, and in the middle of the night, actually cold. These were the hours Cavagan must use.
If he could not find the tanks, or if there was no water in them, he would die. Cavagan was a man without illusion. His great strength had been sapped by brutal treatment, and he must conserve what strength remained. Locating his peak and a star above it, he walked on. A long time later, descending from the last of the dunes, he took a diagonal course across the valley. Twice he paused to rest, soaking up the coolness. He put a small pebble in his mouth to start the saliva flowing. For a time it helped.
Walking in heavy sand he had made but two miles an hour, but on the valley floor he moved faster. If he reached the tinajas and they held water he would have achieved one goal. However, he had no way of carrying water and the next water hole was far. Not that one can place reliance on any desert water hole. Often they were used up or had gone dry.
His battered face throbbed with every step and his head ached. The pinnacles of the Chocolates loomed nearer, but he was not deceived. They were miles away.
An hour before dawn he entered a wash that came down from the Chocolates. He was dead tired, and his feet moved awkwardly. In eleven hours he had probably traveled no more than twenty-three or -four miles and should be near the tanks. He found a ledge that offered shade and stretched out. He was soon asleep.
The heat awakened him. His mouth was dry as parchment and he had difficulty in moving his tongue, which seemed awkward and swollen. A glance at the sun told him it was noon or nearly so. According to the Cahuilla he should be within a few yards of water, certainly within a mile or so. In that maze of cliffs, boulders, rock slabs, and arroyos, cluttered with canelike clumps of ocotillo, he would be fortunate to find anything.
Animals would come to water but many desert creatures lived without it, getting what moisture they needed from succulent plants or cacti. Some insects sought water, and he had noticed bees flying past taking the straight line that usually led to hive or water.
His throat was raw and his mind wandered. Far off, over the desert he had recently crossed, lay a lovely blue lake, shimmering among the heat waves . . . a mirage.
Lying down again he waited for dusk. He was sweating no longer and movement was an effort. He had been almost thirty hours without water and in intense heat.
It was almost dark when he awakened again. Staggering to his feet he started to climb. The coolness refreshed him and gave him new strength. He pushed on, climbing higher. His vision was uncertain and his skull throbbed painfully, but at times he felt an almost delirious gaiety, and then he would scramble up rocks with zest and abandon. Suddenly he sat down. With a shock of piercing clarity he realized he could die.
He rarely thought of dying, although he knew it was expected of him as of all men, yet it was always somebody else who was dying. Suddenly he realized he had no special dispensation against death and he could die now, within the hour.
It was faintly gray in the east when he started again. Amazingly, he found the tanks.
A sheep track directed him. It was a half-sheltered rock tank, but it was dry. Only a faint dusting of sand lay in the bottom.
A few minutes later, and a little higher up, he found a second tank. It was bone-dry.
Soon the sun would rise and the heat would return. Cavagan stared at the empty tanks and tried to swallow, but could not. His throat was raw, and where it was not raw it felt like old rubber. His legs started to tremble, but he refused to sit down. He knew if he sat now he might never get up. There was a queerness in him, a strange lightness as if he no longer possessed weight. Through the semi-delirium induced by heat, thirst, and exhaustion there remained a hard core of resolution, the firmness of a course resolved upon and incomplete. If he quit now John Sutton would have won. If he quit now the desert would have defeated him, and the desert was a friendly place to those who knew how to live with it.
Cunning came to him. To those who knew how to live with it, not against it. No man could fight the desert and live. A man must move with it, give with it, live by its rules. He had done that, so what remained?
From the Paperback edition.