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Chapter XXVI. A Dust-Storm

It had been a beautiful day of sunshine when Lee left Live-Oaks to ride to the Ninety-Four Ranch. Not a breath of wind stirred. The desert slept in a warm, golden bath. It was peaceful as old age.

But as the sun slipped past the meridian, gusts swept across the sands and whipped into the air inverted cones that whirled like vast tops in a wild race to nowhere. The air waves became more frequent and more furious. When Lee passed the buckboard driver, the whole desert seemed alive with stinging sand.

He called something to her that was lost in the wind. The girl waved at him a gauntleted hand. She had been out in dust-storms before and was not in the least alarmed. Across the lower part of her face she had tied a silk handkerchief to protect her mouth and nostrils from the sand.

The mail carrier had scarcely disappeared before the fury of the wind increased. It lashed the ground with heavy whips, raging and screaming in shrill, whistling frenzy, until the desert rose in terror and began to shift.

Lee bent her head to escape the sand that filled her eyes and nostrils and beat upon her cheeks so unmercifully. She thought perhaps the tempest would abate soon and she slipped from the saddle to crouch close to the body of the horse for protection. Instead of decreasing, the gale rose to a hurricane. It was as if the whole sand plain was in continuous, whirling motion.

The horse grew frightened and restless. It was a young three-year-old Jim Clanton had broken for her. Somehow--Lee did not know quite the way it happened--the bridle rein slipped from her fingers and the colt was gone.

She ran after the pony--called to it frantically--fought in pursuit against the shrieking blasts. The animal disappeared, swallowed in the whirl-wind that encompassed her and it. Lee sank down, sheltering her face with her arms against the pelting sand sleet.

But years in the outdoor West had given Lee the primal virtue, courage. She scorned a quitter, one who lay down or cried out under punishment. Now she got to her feet and faced the storm. The closeness of her horizon--her outstretched arms could almost touch the limit of it--confused the mind of the girl. She no longer knew east from west, north from south. With a sudden sinking of the heart she realized that she was lost in this gray desert blizzard.

Blindly she chose a direction and plunged forward. At times the wind hit her like a moving wall and flung her to the ground. She would lie there panting for a few moments, struggle to her knees, and creep on till in a lull she could again find her feet.

How much of this buffeting, she wondered, could one endure and live? The air was so filled with dust that it was almost impossible to get a breath. Her muscles ached with the flogging they were receiving. She was so exhausted, her forces so spent, that the hinges of her knees buckled under her.

One of her feet struck against a rise in the ground and she stumbled. She lay there motionless for what seemed a long time before it penetrated her consciousness that one of her palms pained from a jagged cut the fall had caused. Her body lay on sharp-pointed rocks. As far as they could reach, the groping fingers of the girl found nothing but hard, rough stone. Then, in a flash, the truth came to her. She had reached the Mal-Pais.

She crept across the lava in an effort to escape the strangling wind. Its rage followed her, drove the girl deeper into the bad lands. A renewal of hope urged her on. In its rough terrain she might find shelter from the tornado. In short stages, with rests between, she pushed into the vitreous lake, dragged herself up from the terrace, fought forward doggedly for what seemed to her an age.

A crevice barred the way. The fissure was too wide to step across and was perhaps ten feet deep. Lee slid into it, slipped, and fell the last step or two of the descent. She lay where she had fallen, too worn out to move.

It must have been almost at once that she fell asleep.

The stars were out when she awakened, her muscles stiff and aching from the pressure of her weight upon the rock. The girl lay for a minute wondering where she was. Above was a narrow bar of starlit sky. The walls of her pit of refuge were within touch of her finger tips. Then memory of the storm and her escape from it flashed back to her.

She climbed easily the rough side of the cavern and looked around. The wind had died so that not even a murmur of it remained. As far as the eye could see the lava flow extended without a break. But she knew the cavern in which she had slept lay at a right angle to the line of her advance. All site had to do was to face forward and keep going till she reached the plain. The reasoning was sound, but it was based on a wrong premise. Lee had clambered out of the fissure on the opposite side from that by which she had entered. Every step she took now carried her farther into the bad lands.

Morning broke to find her completely at sea. Even the boasted weather of the Southwest played false. A drizzle of rain was in the air. Not until late in the afternoon did the sun show at all and by that time the wanderer was so deep in the Mal-Pais that when night closed down again she was still its prisoner.

She was hungry and fagged. The soles of her boots were worn out and her feet were badly blistered. Again she took refuge in a deep crevice for the night.

The loneliness appalled her. No living creature was to be seen. In all this awful desolation she was alone. Her friends at Live-Oaks would think she was at the Ninety-Four Ranch. Even if they searched for her she would never be found. After horrible suffering she would die of hunger and thirst. She broke down at last and wept herself to sleep.

William MacLeod Raine