The Sheriff's Son/Chapter 27
BEULAH was too perfect of body, too sound of health, not to revel in such a dawn as swept across the flats next morning. The sun caressed her throat, her bare head, the uplifted face. As the tender light of daybreak was in the hills, so there was a lilt in her heart that found expression in her voice, her buoyant footsteps, and the shine of her eyes. She had slept soundly in Beaudry's blankets while he had lain down in his slicker on the other side of the fire. Already she was quite herself again. The hours of agony in the pit were obliterated. Life was a wholly joyous and beautiful adventure.
She turned back to the camp where Roy was making coffee.
"Am I not to do any of the work?"
At the sound of that deep, sweet voice with its hint of a drawl the young man looked up and smiled. "Not a bit. All you have to do is to drink my coffee and say I'm the best cook you know."
After they had drunk the coffee and finished the sandwiches, Roy saddled.
"They 're probably over to the left. Don't you think so?" Beaudry suggested.
There drifted to them the sound of two shots fired in rapid succession.
Roy fired twice in answer. They moved in the direction of the shooting. Again the breeze brought revolver shots. This time there were three of them.
Beaudry bad an odd feeling that this was a call for help from somebody in difficulties. He quickened their pace. The nature of the ground, a good deal of which was deep sand, made fast travel impossible.
"Look!" Beulah pointed forward and to the right.
At the same moment there came a shout. "Help! I'm in the quicksands."
They made out the figure of a man buried to his waist in the dry wash of a creek. A horse stood on the farther bank of the wash. Roy deflected toward the man, Beulah at his heels.
"He must be caught in Dead Man's Sink," the girl explained. "I 've never seen it, but I know it is somewhere near here. All my life I 've heard of it. Two Norwegians were caught here five years ago. Before help reached them, they were lost."
"Get me a rope—quick," the man in the sand called.
"Why, it's Brad," cried Beulah.
"Yep. Saw the smoke of yore fire and got caught trying to reach you. Can't make it alone. Thought I sure was a goner. You 'll have to hurry."
Already Roy was taking the riata from its place below the saddle-horn. From the edge of the wash he made a cast toward the man in the quicksands. The loop fell short.
"You 'll have to get into the bed of the stream," suggested Beulah.
Beaudry moved across the sand a few steps and tried again. The distance was still too great.
Already he was beginning to bog down. The soles of his shoes disappeared in the treacherous sand. When he moved it seemed to him that some monster was sucking at him from below. As he dragged his feet from the sand the sunken tracks filled with mud. He felt the quiver of the river-bed trembling at his weight.
Roy turned to Beulah, the old familiar cold chill traveling up his spine to the roots of his hair. "It won't bear me up. I'm going down," he quavered.
"Let me go, then. I'm lighter," she said eagerly.
She made the proposal in all good faith, with no thought of reflecting on his courage, but it stung her lover like a slap in the face.
"Hurry with that rope!" Charlton sang across. "I'm sinking fast."
"Is there any way for Miss Rutherford to get over to your horse?" asked Roy quickly.
"She can cross the wash two hundred yards below here. It's perfectly safe."
As Roy plunged forward, he gave Beulah orders without turning his head. "You hear, dear. Run down and get across. But go over very carefully. If you come to a bad place, go back at once. When you get over tie Charlton's rope to his saddle-horn and throw him the looped end. The horse will drag him out."
The young woman was off on the run before he had half finished.
Once more Roy coiled and threw the rope. Charlton caught the loop, slipped it over his head, and tightened it under his arms.
"All right. Pull!" he ordered.
Beaudry had no footing to brace himself. Already he was ankle-deep in the quicksand. It flashed across his mind that he could not fight his own way out without abandoning Charlton. For one panicky moment he was mad to get back to solid ground himself. The next he was tugging with all the strength of his arms at the rope.
"Keep on the job!" encouraged Charlton. "You 're pulling my body over a little so that the weight is on new sand. If Beulah gets here in time, I 'll make it."
Roy pulled till his muscles ached. His own feet were sliding slowly from under him. The water-bubbles that oozed out of the sand were now almost at his high boot-tops. It was too late to think of retreat. He must go through whether he wanted to or not.
He cast one look down the dry river-bed. Beulah was just picking her way across. She might get over in time to save Charlton, but before they made it back across to him, he would be lost.
He wanted to scream aloud to her his urgent need, to beg her, for Heaven's sake, to hurry. The futility of it he knew. She was already running with the knowledge to wing her feet that a man's life hung in the balance. Besides, Charlton was not shrieking his fears out. He was calling cheerful words of hope across the quaking morass of sand that separated them. There was no use in making a gibbering idiot of one's self. Beaudry clenched his jaws tight on the cries that rose like a thermometer of terror in his throat.
With every ounce of strength that was in him he fought, meanwhile, for the life of the man at the other end of the rope. Before Beulah reached Charlton, Roy was in deeper than his knees. He shut his eyes and pulled like a machine. It seemed an eternity before Charlton called to him to let go the rope.
A new phase of his danger seared like a flame across the brain of Beaudry. He had dragged himself from a perpendicular position. As soon as he let loose of the rope he would begin to sink forward. This would reduce materially the time before his face would sink into the sand.
Why not hang on and let the horse drag him out, too? He had as much right to live as Charlton. Was there any law of justice that forced him to throw away the rope that was his only hope?
But he knew the tough little cowpony could not drag two heavy men from the quicksands at the same time. If he held tight, Charlton, too, would be sacrificed. His fingers opened.
Roy watched the struggle on the opposite side of the wash. Charlton was in almost to his arm-pits. The horse braced its feet and pulled. Beulah, astride the saddle, urged it to the task again and again. At first by imperceptible gains, then inch by inch, the man was dragged from the mire that fought with a thousand clinging tentacles for its prey.
Not till Charlton was safe on the bank did Beulah realize the peril of Beaudry. One glance across the river showed her that he was sliding face downward to a shifting grave. With an anguished little cry she released the rope from Charlton's body, flung herself to the saddle again, and dashed down the bank of the creek.
Roy lost count of time. His face was sliding down toward the sand. Soon his mouth and nostrils would be stopped. He believed that it was a question of minutes with him.
Came the swift pounding of hoofs and Beulah's clear, ringing voice.
"Hold your hands straight out, Roy."
His back was toward her, so that he did not see what she meant to do. But he obeyed blindly. With a wrench first one hand and then the other came free from the sand and wavered into the air heavily. A rope sang, dropped over his arms and head, tightened with a jerk around his waist.
Two monsters seemed to be trying to tear him in two. A savage wrench of pain went through him jaggedly. At short intervals this was repeated.
In spite of the suction of the muddy sand he felt its clutch giving way. It loosened a little here, a little there. His body began to move. After a long tug he came out at last with a rush. But he left his high cowpuncher's boots behind. They remained buried out of sight in the sand. He had literally been dragged out of them.
Roy felt himself pulled shoreward. From across the quicksands came Charlton's whoop of triumph. Presently Beulah was stooping over him with tender little cries of woe and joy.
He looked at her with a wan, tired smile. "I did n't think you'd make it in time." In a moment he added: "I was horribly afraid. God, it was awful!"
"Of course. Who would n't have been?" She dismissed his confession as of no importance. "But it's all over now. I want to hug you tight to make sure you're here, boy."
"There's no law against it," he said with feeble humor.
"No, but—" With a queer little laugh she glanced across the river toward her former lover. "I don't think I had better."
Charlton joined them a few minutes later. He went straight to Roy and offered his hand.
"The feud stuff is off, Mr. Beaudry. Beulah will tell you that I started in to make you trouble. Well, there's nothing doing in that line. I can't fight the man who saved my life at the risk of his own."
"Oh, well!" Roy blushed. "I just threw you a rope."
"You bogged down some," Charlton returned dryly. "I 've known men who would have thought several times before throwing that rope from where you did. They would have hated to lose their boots."
Beulah's eyes shone. "Oh, Brad, I'm so glad. I do want you two to be friends."
"Do you?" As he looked at her, the eyes of the young hillman softened. He guessed pretty accurately the state of her feelings. Beaudry had won and he had lost. Well, he was going to be a good loser this time. "What you want goes with me this time, Boots. The way you yanked me out of the sinks was painful, but thorough. I 'll be a friend to Mr. Beaudry if he is of the same opinion as you. And I 'll dance at his wedding when it comes off."
She cried out at that, but Charlton noticed that she made no denial. Neither did Roy. He confined his remarks to the previous question, and said that he would be very glad of Charlton's friendship.
"Good enough. Then I reckon we better light out for camp with the glad news that Beulah has been found. You can tell me all about it on the way," the hillman suggested.
Beulah dropped from her horse ten minutes later into the arms of Ned Rutherford. Quite unexpectedly to himself, that young man found himself filled with emotion. He caught his sister in his arms and held her as if he never intended to let the sobbing girl go. His own voice was not at all steady.
"Boots—Boots … Honey-bug … Where you-all been?" he asked, choking up suddenly.