Malpais

A knight ther was, and that a worthy man, that fro the tyme that he first bigan

To riden out, he loved chivalrie, trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie. ~ (Geoffrey Chaucer).

The man on the chestnut horse was picking his way along the faint track that led into the canyon when he came without warning on a figure huddled against an outcropping. His pistol was in his hand and his thumb on the hammer before he realized it was a girl.

He was big and grim-faced and had two day's worth of beard and dirt on him, and she looked up at him warily through a tangle of yellow curls.

"He's gone," she said. "He lit out 'bout four hours ago."

One leg was stretched out in front of her, the skin swollen above the cheap strapped slipper. Blood had dried around a rip in her stocking.

"I think my ankle's broke."

He holstered the Colt and dropped from the saddle, unhooking his canteen. She held out her hands but he pushed them to one side and fed her in slow sips. She sucked the water down thirstily.

"You're Danny Locke's girl." It was a statement, not a question.

She nodded. "He's got both horses - you won't catch him."

Her foolish, pretty face was streaked with tears. He wondered how old she was; she didn't even look eighteen.

"He took your horse and he left you behind." His voice was hard. "I was supposed to find you here alone and hurt while he headed for Montana. That was the idea, wasn't it?"

"He said no decent man'd leave me, not so close to Ind'an territory. He said you would take me back to a doctor." She looked at him and hope stirred in her frightened eyes.

Women and what they will do for the men they love, he thought. Danny Locke was a wild one, young and shiftless and greedy. A lifetime of small scrapes with the law had ended with him shooting an elderly farmer and his wife, stealing their savings and setting fire to their house. A witness saw him riding away, and the manhunt began. It was too bad that by the time someone got around to telling the sheriff that Danny was sparking one of the girls at Kelly's saloon, she was gone too.

The small posse trailed the fugitive pair for two days as they fled north into the badlands. When the trail became too hard to follow, the hunters separated, each man taking a likely route.

Four hours, he thought, and he was tempted as the thought of the murdered couple rose in his mind. He could catch Danny yet, for he had a good horse, fit for the broken country ahead. Then, too, his quarry would be careless; sure that anyone following would stop to help the injured girl.

"I need to look at that ankle," he said, and rose to gather firewood. He didn't have anything with him to treat her wound, but hot water would help.

He had to cut her shoe and stocking off and she whimpered as he worked the flimsy silk loose from the dried blood. The wound was ugly, and the flesh around it was puffy and red. If he could get her to a doctor in time she might not lose her foot, he thought. But she was in a bad way.

He filled his coffeepot with water and set it on the fire, considering the possibilities. Six, maybe eight hours to catch up with Locke, he thought. Eight hours to come back for the girl, then another day, possibly longer, to get her out of the badlands, by which time there wouldn't be a chance for her leg, or her life. He shook his head. He wanted Locke but not at that price.

"Did you fall?"

She twisted her head and stared away from him. He repeated the question.

"Did you fall? How did it happen?"

"He hit me with a rock," she said in a very small voice.

"What's your name?" He asked after a moment.

"Angelina Dupree." It was a little too glib.

"What's your real name?"

She looked resentful, and then one corner of her mouth quirked up. "Martha. Martha Ann Raeburn. My folks call used t'call me Mittie."

"Well, Mittie, my name's Slim Sherman."

"I know who you are, mister," she said defiantly. "You got a ranch on the Laramie road. Why're you wearin' that?"

She tapped the metal star on his chest with a grimy finger.

"I was deputized - there's four of us out after your friend Danny. We split up after losing your trail. I guess I'm the lucky one."

"You got nothin' better to do than chase down a man for a few dollars?"

"Is that what he told you?'

"He showed me the money." She pouted at him. "Folks got it in for Danny. That's why he wants to make a new start up north. He asked me t'marry him."

He made no reply. She wouldn't believe him if he told her the truth. For the Mitties of this world, there was always a Danny Locke.

"You don't sound like no rancher. More like a schoolteacher," she jibed. "How come you talk so fancy?"

"I guess because my mother read to me," he said shortly. He tested the side of the coffeepot where it was balanced on the coals.

"Read to you? Like what?"

He thought for a moment of his sturdy little mother, her head bent over the volume in her lap as he lay at her feet drinking in every word. And his father, hands busy as always with some small task, listening with a smile on his face.

"Oh, Shakespeare. The Bible. Books by Mr. Dickens, when she could get them. And Sir Walter Scott's stories." He stood up and brought the coffee pot over to her side.

"What…what kind of stories?" Sweat was beading on her forehead.

"All kinds. My favorite was Ivanhoe." Slim was sweating too. He soaked a square cut from his shirttail with the steaming water and gingerly laid it across the ankle.

She winced and clenched her fists. "Funny thing t'call…a book. What was it about?"

"Ivanhoe was the name of the hero. He was a knight."

"A what?" Her eyes were closed and her face was chalk-white.

"A kind of a cavalryman. He was gone to the wars so long that when he finally got home, no one recognized him." He kept his voice low and steady. "He learned that the girl he was in love with, the Lady Rowena, had been promised to another."

"So…so then what?" she gasped.

"He was badly wounded fighting for her and his enemies were going to capture him and put him in prison."

"An' I guess this Rowena, she saved his life?"

"Well, no. It was another girl, one named Rebecca. She helped Ivanhoe get away and nursed him."

"Hunh. What did Rowena do?"

"Come to think of it, she didn't do anything." Slim smiled at himself - it was the delicately beautiful Rowena and not the brave and resourceful Rebecca that had always featured in his adolescent dreams. He felt a little guilty, not standing up for his lady fair.

"And he married her, didn't he?"

"Eventually."

"Figures." Her voice sounded wistful.

He kept wetting the shirt and laying it over the ankle for as long as he thought she could stand it; and then he refilled the pot and set it back on the fire to boil for coffee while he splinted her ankle with two sticks of greasewood and more strips cut from his shirt. The sun was already dropping down over the mountains to the west.

"We'll stay here tonight," he told her, and dug cold biscuits and bacon from his saddlebags.

She ate her share, greedily. "Good coffee. Almost as good as mine."

He scooped out a sleeping trench and lined it with his blanket, and helped her settle in to it.

"You know that leg needs more tending than I can give it," he said bluntly. "It's going to hurt you like … like blazes, but we'll have to ride on in the morning."

"Ride on? Ain't you takin' me back?" He saw the panic in her eyes.

"We'll head for Casper. It's about forty miles from here but there's a relay station once we get out of the badlands. The station owner can send for a doctor, and it's a lot closer than trying to go back to Laramie."

"Thanks." It came grudgingly. "You're bein' awful good t'me."

He glanced across the fire and saw that her eyelids were beginning to droop.

"I'll bet that Rebecca c'd make coffee," she said sleepily, and her eyes closed.

He could guess her story without being told. Raised on a farm, most likely, tired of the scrimping and the pinching and the endless work, she would have run away to what seemed to be an easier life. If she ever made it back to Kelly's, her looks would be gone in five years and she'd be dead in ten, of drink or at the hands of one of her customers.

He sighed and settled his shoulders against the rock. Morning would come too soon. It would be rough going, very rough, and he had nothing to give her for the pain.

He was up at daybreak and started a fire, fixing the last of his coffee. He heard her stirring and brought her a cup.

She gave up trying to comb her hair with her fingers and smiled shyly at him. "Thanks. My ankle feels a lot better - you're a pretty good doc."

He looked at it and it seemed a little less swollen, but red streaks were beginning to make their way up her leg. He used half of the water he had left to repeat the soaking process, and then bound the splints back on.

He brought up his horse and lifted her into the saddle, climbing up behind. Riding double would slow them even more, but he had no confidence she would be able to hang on by herself.

"It's going to hurt to ride. Can you stand it?"

"Reckon I'll have to," she said tartly, but her face was slick with sweat again.

The day got hot quickly as they rode east. He stopped at noon to allow her and the horse some rest, but they hadn't made good time, probably fewer than ten miles. Her face was flushed and feverish but she made no protest when they rode on.

The sun was beginning to slant down the rocks when he pulled up, quickly. From off to the north he heard gunfire and the faint pounding of hoof beats.

"Ind'ans?" She asked.

"Yes. They're after someone. We're going to have to move fast." He spurred the horse into a run and she gave a smothered cry of anguish.

There was a notch up ahead, one of several crazy rock formations carved by wind and time, with a cave behind it that ran back into the stone. It was as good a place as any for a stand, if it came to that. The shooting grew closer.

He ran the horse into the cave and dismounted, carrying the girl over to a seat against one wall, and looped the reins over a split rock on the opposite side. He tugged his rifle from the saddle boot and moved quickly up to the cave mouth, dropping to his knees.

"Mittie!" He called softly. "What kind of horse is Danny riding?"

"Prob'ly his pinto. I had a bay, a bay mare."

"He's on the pinto." There was a cold knot in his stomach. "They didn't see us - they'll chase him right past."

"Will they…will they catch him?"

"Most likely." He sighed. The boy deserved everything he had coming to him, but…he leaned up against a boulder and sighted down the rifle barrel. There were three Cheyenne on the heels of the rider on the badly winded pinto. He drew a bead on the lead Indian and fired, then swung the rifle slightly to the right and pumped five shots at the other two.

The pursuer sprawled into the dirt and the others swerved away. Danny began quirting his horse up the rise towards the notch. The animal barely made it to the top before it began to stagger and Danny threw himself off.

"Man, they had me for sure!" He yelled. "I been runnin' since -" his voice died away as he saw the badge and the rifle that was pointing at him.

"Drop your gunbelt, Locke," Slim ordered. "Slow and easy."

Danny went white and then red with rage. "Damn you," he snarled. "We got to fight them off!"

"Two Cheyenne?" Slim asked. "They're not stupid enough to try anything, not when we're in cover and they don't know how many of us are up here. They're long gone."

"Danny?" It was the girl.

"Mittie!" Danny's face twisted in surprise and then cunning took over. "Are you all right? Didn't I tell you he'd stop and take care of you?"

"You're a liar and a murderer, Locke," Slim said calmly. "Gunning down two old people for less than a hundred dollars. And then leaving a girl to die. You're a real prize, you are."

"Danny? You didn't - "

"He's lyin', Mittie. I never shot nobody, I just took their money, I told you that." Danny's voice was strained, desperate. "Who're you goin' to believe, me or him?"

Slim bent forward to pick up the gunbelt and Danny moved faster than he would have thought possible, sweeping up a fistful of sand and flinging it into Slim's face. He staggered back, clawing at his eyes, and when his vision cleared the boy had his pistol in his hand.

"Drop that Winchester!" Danny snarled. "Drop it! I got you covered, mister. Or…" He jerked his head towards where Mittie crouched. "I could just shoot her, instead."

Slim let his rifle fall to the ground and Danny grinned. "That's just fine. I figger your horse will get me out of here faster than that worthless nag of mine could."

"Take her with you, Locke," Slim told him. "Leave her at the relay station and ride on. You'll be able to get away, easy - it'll take me two days to follow you on foot."

"Who you givin' orders to, deputy? I got a notion to leave you here, permanent, you and her both." He laughed and lifted the pistol, aiming it at Slim's chest. "Why risk somebody findin' you?"

Then Mittie threw the rock.

It was fist sized and she threw it hard and true. It hit Danny square in the face before he could dodge and the gun in his hand went off, filling the cave with flame and the smell of burning powder.

Slim jumped, grabbing his wrist and twisting it to one side as another bullet sang past him. He wrenched Danny's arm with savage strength, and Danny yelled and dropped the weapon. Slim booted it to one side and threw one arm around the back of the boy's neck while his other one slammed into his throat. Danny kicked out and overbalanced, and the two of them fell, Slim landing hard on top as they crashed into the rocks. He heard and felt a snap as the boy went limp.

Between Slim's forearms, Danny's head was bent at an unnatural angle. He let go and stood up, a little sick. He'd been in gunfights, he'd been in the war, but he'd never killed a man with his bare hands. He turned away and saw the girl.

She was leaning back against the wall, a dark stain spreading across her bright satin bodice. One of Danny's shots had hit her under the collarbone.

"Mittie!"

The sound of her breathing was harsh in the smoky air. He ripped up what was left of his shirt, using it to staunch the bleeding.

"It hurts. Oh Lordy…it hurts." Blood bubbled up through her lips and he gently wiped it away. "Is he dead?"

"Yes."

She began to cry, weakly. He slid one arm beneath her and eased her down until she was cradled against his chest. Her skin was hot and her eyes were bright with pain. She moved her head, just enough so that she could look up at him.

"I didn't know, mister," she whispered. "He never told me he'd kilt those people."

"Shhhh. It's all right."

"It's the truth, I swear."

He smoothed the hair back from her face. "I know. I know."

She died just before midnight. Slim wrapped her carefully in his blanket and walked back into the cave until he found a crevasse. He lowered her into it and then went out into the moonlight to gather as many rocks as he could, wedging them tightly into the opening above her body to keep the wild animals from disturbing her. It was, he reflected, all he could do for her now.

When the sun came up he tied Danny Locke belly-down over his saddle and rode back to Laramie.