The Circle of Death
THE red, solemn sun was rising clear of the prairie when he stumbled out from the wagon. He had settled her comfortably upon the bed, — the dead need but little! — and had tied down the canvas sides and back of the wagon. Now he fumbled his way through the sagebrush to where the brown horse was fastened by its trail rope to a cottonwood. He brought the horse to the wagon, saddled, and bridled it, then mounted and rode determinedly away. When he had climbed to the top of the first hill that rose above the hollow in which lay his camp, the wind struck him full in the face, blowing strongly but unsteadily from the north. He bent in his saddle and started against it at a good gallop, always looking this way and that in search of some sign of life.
After he had been traveling for upwards of an hour, his ear was suddenly struck by the sound of galloping behind him. He drew rein and faced about. Thump — thump ! thump — thump! the steps came pounding toward him. His horse threw up his head and whinnied. The man sat straight in his saddle, his hungry eyes turned in the direction of the sound. The wind roared behind him, blowing his horse’s mane out on both sides. Out of the desert help was coming, help and salvation ! Thump — thump! thump — thump! nearer, nearer ; then a horse rounded the base of the hill and came lumbering toward him. It was riderless ! As it drew nearer he saw that it was the other of his two horses, the white one, which he had left hobbled near the wagon. Helplessly he looked from it out across the windy prairie and up into the blue, bright sky, Then, without a word, he turned his horse about and started off again in the teeth of the wind.
As the sun rose higher the wind increased. Now he caught it from this side, now from that; now in front, now behind. In winding among the little hillocks he was obliged continually to change his direction. Also the wind veered frequently. He had forgotten to either eat or drink before he left the wagon, and, as he had slept but little through the night, he began to feel very heavy with exhaustion. His knees refused to hold to the saddle. Finally he crossed his arms on the saddlebow and rode heavily, sometimes peering to the left and right, sometimes sitting with his chin buried in his breast, forgetting where he was and what his errand. Now and again the gray horse startled him from his stupor by galloping heavily alongside its mate. And once or twice the fury of the gale nearly bore him from his seat. Far away over the prairie one could hear the storm roaring.
By the time the sun had climbed to the height of the heavens, his thirst had grown very bitter. He shaded his eyes with his hand and looked on every side for some sign of water. At last he thought he could distinguish in the distance a white glimmer. The horses seemed to see it, too. They pricked up their ears and began to whinny. He urged them forward in the direction of the little white strip of water. Unswervingly they made toward it, now quite losing it among the hills, now being forced by the twisting course to turn their backs upon it, but always finding it again on one side or another, beckoning them with its little white hand of hope. Just at this side of the pond lay a low hill. The horses clambered up its pebbly side and scampered down into the hollow, their noses pushed forward eagerly, but before they reached it they slackened their gait and began to sniff the air uneasily. The man looked, and turned sick in his saddle. The pond was nothing but a bed of dry alkali. On several sides lay the shriveled carcasses of beasts, horses, and cattle, which had come to drink, but instead had turned away to die. The horses clambered back over the hill, then stood together, their heads low.
“ Death ! death ! death ! only death ! ” said the man helplessly.
But little by little the wildness of the wind and of the prairie had been creeping into him and filling him with their madness. He clenched his fists and stretched out his arms in the wind. As long as there was breath in his body he would fight to his utmost! He got off his horse and took the hobble off the gray. It had not occurred to him to do so before. He stretched himself deliberately? settled his hat, looked to his girths, climbed heavily into the saddle, gathered up his reins, and then, with a great oath, he struck both spurs deep into his horse’s sides. With a leap the creature sprang away through the wind, the gray horse tearing after.
Where he went, from that hour to the time when the sun began to sink near the edge of the prairie, neither he nor the failing horse knew ; hither, thither ; up, down ; among the sagebrush, over gopher holes, tearing through greasewood bushes, stumbling among the cacti; burning with fever, bent over for want of food, alone, alone, seeking life in the wilderness and finding — death ! Suddenly a great cold fear seized him by the shoulders and pulled him straight in the saddle. The horses stopped with a jerk. In a flash it had come to him that he did not know his way back to the place where he had left her! In his mad longing for help he had forgotten to mark his path even in his memory. How to find his way back across the wastes of this trackless sea ? He saw her lying alone in the old white wagon, her sweet young face looking up through the light and through the dark ; unburied, waiting, forever waiting.
Mad with agony he began to strike his breast with both hands and to groan and to cry out, until at last the sound of his own voice struck terror to him ; so dreadful a thing is it to stand alone on the broad face of the earth and cry out against God ! After a while, worn out by fear and agony, he buried his face in his hands and began to weep piteously. He had fought his fight in the dark, and in the dark he had lost. The horse, meantime, feeling the reins loose on his neck, turned his back to the wind and started, walking with long strides, across the prairie. The gray followed close behind. The man sat a long time with his face in his hands, sobbing. After a while he looked up. At first his eyes wandered wearily over the vast, bright expanse of earth ; then suddenly a great light began to shine in his face. Far out ahead of him, on the gray-green stretch of the prairie, lighted up by the slanting last rays of the sun, he saw a prairie wagon ! White as an angel it looked to his eyes, and like an angel it stood and beckoned to him.
“ Help ! help, at last.”
He called to his horses and urged them into a gallop, this time without the spurs. Heavily, together, they stretched away over the prairie. The fever was in his eyes, and tears, ah, so many! Sometimes he could hardly see the vision, yet there on the bright, broad stretch of the earth it stood, ever before him.
In the wagon they must have seen him, for they seemed to be waving to him. He tried to call out to them, but most of the breath was shaken out of him by the rough gallop. Steadily faster the tired horses labored on, until, not twenty paces from the wagon, they stopped short beside a little brook that had dragged itself thus far over the long wastes, and, burying their muzzles, they gulped down the half-warm water in long, famished gasps. With difficulty the man got from the saddle. He crossed the brook without stopping so much as to taste, though his tongue clave to his dry mouth. He stumbled blindly through the sagebrush to the wagon. The canvas sides flapped noisily, the door curtain was thrown wide open. He mounted the steps at the back and looked inside. From the low bed, in the glow of the sunset, the sweet, pale face of his wife lay upturned to him!
Outside, the wind shrieked and danced about the wagon. The torn canvas flapped and twisted tumultuously. The man sank down upon the bed beside his wife and slept until dawn. He was awakened by the howling of a coyote among the near hillocks. The wind had fallen, and through the still air the coyote’s voice came in short dry yelps like sobs. Heavily and with pain he got up from the bed on the floor, At his feet lay his alien dead. He leant against the side of the wagon looking at her. He would have cried, but there were no more tears left in him. Wearily he turned about at last, and opened a box from which he took some food. Then he went out to the creek and drank long and deeply. He was so stiff and sore that every movement gave him pain, and the fever had left his head empty and dizzy. How his body ached! far into his bones, a dull, weary weight of pain. He opened a box that was fastened under the wagon and took out a spade. He stood with it in his hands, looking this way and that, to choose the spot. At last the top of a little hill close at hand seemed to him to be the best place. He shouldered the spade and began to toil up the slight ascent. Before he reached the top it occurred to him that after he had dug the grave he should have to carry her up the hill. He stopped, hesitated, then turned about and came down the hill. Without further thought he began to kick away the cactus leaves and to pull up the sagebrush not five steps from the back of the wagon. He struck his spade into the dry earth.
The air was sweet and sunshiny, and all the prairie lay radiant in the early morning light. The gale of yesterday had passed without leaving a trace. While he was digging he repassed helplessly in his mind the long, mad, fruitless ride of yesterday, the following of the white horse, the finding of the alkali pond, and the great misery at the end. Sometimes he stopped and sat down because the weakness and pain grew too heavy to bear. Then he got up and toiled on. Once he turned his head and looked into the wagon where his wife rested peacefully. Something like envy welled up in him at the sight. After a while he finished the grave. He went to the brook to wash his hands and drink. He came back to the wagon, took a blanket from it and laid it in the bottom of the grave. Then he lifted his wife. She lay very strange and stiff in his arms. He carried her awkwardly down the two little steps at the back of the wagon. How his body ached ! At last he laid her safely in the grave. It was shallow enough God knew! He put another blanket over her and tucked it in scrupulously. Just as he lifted the spade to throw over her the first shovelful of earth, he remembered that he had forgotten to kiss her. He pulled away the blanket from her face and bent over her a long time. The coyote was still howling among the hills.
After be had covered all the earth over her he went out to find the horses. He saw them a good way off, and after walking a long time he overtook and caught the brown one. It was still saddled and bridled. He brought both horses back to the camp, watered them, then harnessed them to the wagon. He picked up the few things that lay scattered about and threw them into the wagon. As the afternoon wore on, the fever came back to him, so that he felt very unsteady. When he was quite ready to start he went over to the stream to drink again. Then he came back, passing around the dry mound of earth, and climbed up on to the seat of the wagon. He gathered up the reins, then he lifted his head and looked out over the smiling prairie.
“ Where am I going ? ” he said suddenly. “ In God’s name where am I going? ” He could think of no answer. He repeated the question half a doiten times out loud. All the time his eyes wandered over the prairie. Suddenly his face went very white and his eyes stretched wide open. He sat and stared straight ahead of him over the prairie, the reins slipping from his hands. He lifted his face in the sunlight. “ I will stay here,” he said hoarsely; “ God knows I was mad to think of going ! ” Then he climbed down from the seat of the wagon and began unfastening the straps he had but just buckled. He pulled the harness off the horses and turned the beasts loose. They shook themselves, thrust out their noses, and began sniffing the light, dry air as though it were new to them. Then the gray kicked out his heels and galloped away, the brown, rather stiff, followed after. The man stepped across the scattered harness to the grave. He sat down beside it and buried his face in his hands.
At sunset the coyote began howling again. Soon another joined him. The man looked up. Bright and smiling lay the prairie, serene and blue stretched the sky. Slowly his eyes traveled over the wide scene; after a while he began fumbling in his pocket for his pistol.
G. D. Wetherbee.