She was astonished in her turn. "Killed him! Why, of course I might have killed him," she said blankly, frowning, in a kind of hopeless perplexity over his want of understanding. "I came very near it, I tell you. The ball made shivers of his shoulder. But he was brave," she grew enthusiastic now, "he let the doctor probe and pick, and never moved a muscle. Of course he was half drunk with tizwin, even then."
Cairness himself had speculated upon that subject a good deal, and had noticed with a slight uneasiness the ugly looks of some of the ranch hands. "They are more likely to have trouble in that quarter than with the Indians," he said to himself. For he had seen much, in the ranks, of the ways of the disgruntled, free-born American.
He knew while he was yet afar off which was the American. She stood, big and gaunt, with her feet planted wide and her fists on her hips, looking over toward the general's tent. And when Cairness came nearer, strolling along with his hands in his pockets, observing the beauties of Nature and the entire vileness of man, she turned her head and gave him a defiant stare. He took his hands from his pockets and went forward, raising his disreputable campaign hat. "Good morning, Mrs. Lawton," he said, not that he quite lived up to the excellent standard of Miss Winstanley, but that he understood the compelling force of civility, not to say the bewilderment. If you turn its bright light full in the face of one whose eyes are accustomed to the obscurity wherein walk the underbred, your chances for dazzling him until he shall fall into any pit you may have dug in his pathway are excellent.
In less than an hour the troop was ready, the men flannel-shirted and gauntleted, their soft felt hats pulled over their eyes, standing reins in hand, foot in stirrup, beside the fine, big horses that Crook had substituted for the broncos of the plains cavalry of former years. Down by the corrals the pack-mules were ready, too, grunting under their aparejos and packs. A thick, hot wind, fraught with sand, was beginning, presaging one of the fearful dust storms of the southwest. The air dried the very blood in the veins. The flies, sticky and insistent, clung and buzzed about the horses' eyes and nostrils. Bunches of tumbleweed and hay went whirling across the parade. He hesitated, then blurted it out, in spite of the[Pg 151] inward warning that it would be unwise. "I could let you free yourself."
Cairness nodded. He thought it very likely.