Through the mesquite a horse moved deviously, following the crooked trail of least resistance. A man was in the saddle and in front of him a little boy nodding with sleep. The arm of the rider cradled the youngster against the lurches of the pony’s gait.
The owner of the arm looked down at the tired little bundle it was supporting. A wistful tenderness was in the leathery face. To the rest of the world he was a man of iron. To this wee bit of humanity he was a nurse, a playmate, a slave.
“We’re ’most to the creek now, son. Onc’t we get there, we’ll throw off and camp. You can eat a snack and tumble right off to bye-low land,” he promised.
The five-year-old smiled faintly and snuggled closer. His long lashes drooped again to the soft cheeks. With the innocent selfishness of a child he accepted the love that sheltered him from all troubles.
A valley opened below the mesa, the trail falling abruptly almost from the hoofs of the horse. Beaudry drew up and looked down. From rim to rim the meadow was perhaps half a mile across. Seen from above, the bed of it was like an emerald lake through which wound a ribbon of silver. This ribbon was Big Creek. To the right it emerged from a draw in the foothills where green reaches of forest rose tier after tier toward the purple mountains. Far up among these peaks Big Creek had its source in Lost Lake, which lay at the foot of a glacier near the top of the world.
The saw-toothed range lifted its crest into a sky of violet haze. Half an hour since the sun had set in a blaze of splendor behind a crotch of the hills, but dusk had softened the vivid tints of orange and crimson and scarlet to a faint pink glow. Already the mountain silhouette had lost its sharp edge and the outlines were blurring. Soon night would sift down over the roof of the continent.
The eyes of the man searched warily the valley below. They rested closely on the willows by the ford, the cottonwood grove to the left, and the big rocks beyond the creek. From its case beneath his leg he took the sawed-off shotgun loaded with buckshot. It rested on the pommel of the saddle while his long and careful scrutiny swept the panorama. The spot was an ideal one for an ambush.
His unease communicated itself to the boy, who began to whimper softly. Beaudry, distressed, tried to comfort him.
“Now, don’t you, son—don’t you. Dad ain’t going to let anything hurt you-all.”