“One more day will finish them, Leftenant.”
“We have been fifteen hours in the saddle. We have made about thirty-five miles. There are twenty-five miles more to the river. Do you think we can crawl through?”
“I should say, Leftenant, we could just do it.”
At daybreak the wretched animals resumed their hideous struggle. There was a plateau for them to climb at the start, and by the time this labor was accomplished they were staggering with weakness, so that a halt had to be ordered on the windy brink of the acclivity. Thurstane, according to his custom, scanned the landscape with his field-glass, and jotted down topographical notes in his journal. Suddenly he beckoned to Coronado, quietly put the glass in his hands, nodded toward the desert which lay to the rear, and whispered, “Look.”
Coronado looked, turned slightly more yellow than his wont, and murmured “Apaches!”
“How far off are they?”
“About ten miles,” judged Coronado, still gazing intently.
“So I should say. How do you know they are Apaches?”
“Who else would follow us?” asked the Mexican, remembering the son of Manga Colorada.
“It is another race for life,” calmly pronounced Thurstane, facing about toward the caravan and making a signal to mount.
Yes, it was a life and death race between the emigrants and the Apaches for the San Juan. Positions of defence were all along the road, but not one of them could be held for a day, all being destitute of grass and water.
“There is no need of telling the ladies at once,” said Thurstane to Coronado, as they rode side by side in rear of the caravan. “Let them be quiet as long as they can be. Their trouble will come soon enough.”
“How many were there, do you think?” was the reply of a man who was much occupied with his own chances. “Were there a hundred?”
“It’s hard to estimate a mere black line like that. Yes, there must be a hundred, besides stragglers. Their beasts have suffered, of course, as well as ours. They have come fast, and there must be a lot in the rear. Probably both bands are along.”
“The devils!” muttered Coronado. “I hope to God they will all perish of thirst and hunger. The stubborn, stupid devils! Why should they follow us here?” he demanded, looking furiously around upon the accursed landscape.
“Indian revenge. We killed too many of them.”
“Yes,” said Coronado, remembering anew the son of the chief. “Damn them! I wish we could have killed them all.”
“That is just what we must try to do,” returned Thurstane deliberately.
“The question is,” he resumed after a moment of business-like calculation of chances—“the question is mainly this, whether we can go twenty-five miles quicker than they can go thirty-five. We must be the first to reach the river.”