Rarely, indeed, did Nancy Scovil have more than one thought; the present always swallowed both the past and the future. So even now, as he crawled this night, wrapped in his blankets, he completely forgot both the exciting robbery and the cruel and selfish indifference of his father and the downright ruthlessness of Jerry Aiken.
He forgot all about the lumps of rock under the blankets. At first you hardly noticed them, but after a few minutes their hardness began to be felt through the blankets, as if each stone had been pushed by some separate, malevolent force.
With great difficulty, he twisted onto his side, hoping to be more comfortable in the new position, but immediately another calcification hernia was pressed against his ribs. He squirmed a little higher, and then he was comparatively well. But it didn’t last long. Her knees, hips, shoulders began to be troubled by hard lumps. It required him to change his position in unison.
At last the unrelenting effort brought to mind the image of Jerry Aiken, grinning happily. There was a silent sting in her, and then a vague urge to wipe that cocky smile from her mind. But Jerry’s image soon faded. Nancy turned on her back, and her face was enveloped in the dim coolness bounded by all the vast starry sky.
Another of the mules clattered; his father’s familiar snoring began intermittently and then turned into a deep-pitched ringing. He knew from his terrible experiences that it was terrible if the listener was not asleep before the snoring started. But soon he found himself looking at the stars again. They clustered into strange metrological patterns, wider than one could imagine, triangles whose vertices were tens of trillions of kilometers apart; and a cool peace crept into his soul.
He forgot his father’s snoring; the cool air of the night bit his cheeks sharply; his neck was cold. The water lapped soothingly nearby, and then he fell into a deep sleep in the starlit darkness.
But only for a moment, it seemed to him, before his slumber was interrupted by an echoing voice:
“Hey! All to the feet! All to the feet! Hey!”
His eyes opened; the sky arching above him was like a translucent crystal, with fine shades of pale and rose red. He sat up on his blankets.
»All to the feet! All to the feet!» repeated the voice.
Then he saw Jerry coming; the man strode briskly up the slope from the stream; the collar of his shirt was open, and he was diligently rubbing his disheveled hair with a towel. A cold bath, and on a morning like this!
Suddenly, Nancy was shaken, and she felt a chilly tingle from head to toe. A cold bath! That thought really pissed him off. Then he noticed that his whole body was burning and tingling. His shoulders, hips and knees bulged as if he had been beaten.
“You there—Nancy!” came the cry of the tempter. »Get off the blankets!»
With his hair fluffy, Nancy’s father sat on his bed, pulling on his boots. Red Mack and Dwarf Pete were already taking care of their horses and mules. Confused, Nancy sat up and shook the blankets around her. The faces of the others were sullen: in keeping with his feelings, except for Jerry Aiken, who soon broke into song. I sing! It felt like a slap in the face.
»Is that so!» continued the diabolically hilarious voice. »Run to the stream to wash! Then march right back here! Breakfast in five minutes.»
Breakfast! He felt a gnawing hunger, and with the water in his mouth, he waded into the stream with a washcloth in his hand. He bent down to look into the clear pool of water, expecting a pale ghost staring back at him, eyes swollen, but instead he saw shriveled cheeks and almost-clear eyes. Quite strange.
His hands were numb as he washed in the ice-cold water, but as he combed his hair into some sort of order, the blood began to circulate hotly in his veins. Her nostrils wafted the sweetest scent she had ever smelled in her life—it came from the campfire, where the coffee was already steaming, and Nancy Scovil almost ran to it.
He was strong indeed, but his stiff limbs were already beginning to sweat, and every moment he drew the fresh morning air deep into his lungs. His father had taken an ax in his hand and was heading towards a dry stump standing a short distance away.
»Hold on!» commanded Aiken. »Give that ax to the girl! Let him chop firewood. A man about as old as you and still groping for your daughter! Not at this time, Scovil! Hey, you guys, take an ax and knock us a bunch of wood! In a moment!”
The father looked at Nancy with a smile on his face, brighter than the rising sun, and he threw the ax so that it scattered the sand at the girl’s feet.
“Good idea, Jerry,” he praised. »In that way, Nan. Chop the wood before the fire goes out!»
Nancy glanced at the crude ax handle, glanced at her fine pink palm, stared dumbly at her father. What the hell did this mean? Work?
»I don’t have the slightest idea how to chop trees,« he grumbled. “You should know that, father.”
“Quite true,” agreed John Scovil. »I’ll show you how it works.»
»Not even there!» challenged the tyrant to deny. »If he doesn’t know how to cut trees, he doesn’t know how to eat either. Without work there is also no food in this camp!»
Nancy looked at Jerry oddly. He picked up the ax from the ground, but realizing how humiliating his position was, he slammed it back into the sand.
He calmly crocheted to the team leader:
»Mr. Aiken, by brute force you have been able to rob us and bring us here; but you do not have such power that you would be able to force me to work — like an ordinary reng!”
»Listen!» said the Dwarf to Jerry menacingly. “This is -”
“Do you hear that?” interrupted Jerry in a mournful voice, shaking his head solemnly. »Do you realize what you have raised your daughter to be, Scovil? Proud and lazy! What is he capable of? I’m asking you that! To waste another person’s money. Look at him! He doesn’t even agree to work for his breakfast — even a cheap tramp is more reasonable. Let it go, Scovil, just go chop wood, but your daughter can have no food until noon.»
Nancy proudly turned away and went to the water’s edge, where she sat down on a rock, trying to enjoy the colors of dawn reflected in front of her. There was no way the others would allow Aiken to carry out his inhuman threat. Until noon without food? Without food for a thousand years, the man would have just as well said, because the expanding hollow felt in his stomach would prove disastrous much earlier. But it was just bluster and threats. In no time, Aiken would send someone to get him back.
Then, with Jörö’s anger boiling in his mind, he voluntarily decided to refuse to touch the food, even if it was pushed to him. That’s right — hunger strike! You wouldn’t dare to murder him, and to avoid it, you would have to rush him to some city. And he imagined how he, thin-cheeked and hollow-eyed, would be carried away to some village in the language of death. So he would, if for no other reason than to defy that insufferable Jerry.
But no; his father would intervene on his behalf. It was obvious. At least his father would secretly bring him food, but he didn’t know how to work and wouldn’t do it! The power of his new decision spread a pleasant warmth throughout his being.
And then — at first he didn’t really want to believe it — a song came from the campfire. He listened—he shook his head and put his hand to his ear to make sure. Without the slightest doubt it was his father’s voice. He sang while his daughter starved right before his eyes.
* * * * *
“It’s no use, Jerry.” John Scovil, after breakfast, was standing by his horse as the cavalry started out. »He is as stubborn as evil. That is his only power. You cannot break his will. He will sit there on the edge of the stream until he dies, and he won’t ask you for even a crust of bread.»
“Really?”. Jerry plodded along nonchalantly, tightening his horse’s straps.
“Besides,” continued Scovil, “Mack and Pete are starting to eye you very menacingly.” I don’t think they’ll stand it if you treat him too roughly.”
»Hm!» said Jerry.
»And after all», Scovil said grimly, »everything has its limits, and you have gone too far».
»That’s what you said last night too», answered Jerry.
“In heaven’s name,” cried the other, “I mean it, man!” I can’t allow a child to starve!”
»You may last more than this before the trip is over,« said Jerry brightly. “Each one has some steel in it, and I’m going to hammer that girl until I get pain out of her.”
Scovil hesitated for a moment.
“If you keep an eye on both of your assistants, you might get hit with a pain that will burn you to ashes,” he pointed out. »But that’s your business.»
»That’s right,« replied Jerry shortly. He raised his voice. »Hey, you,
Nancy! Are you going with me or are you going to stay here?”
»This is not a commonly used road,« he continued. »There won’t be another group that will take you with them. But stay here and starve if you want!”
»All clear, boys, let’s go!»
“Damn it!” grumbled the Dwarf to Mack. »That snarling dog seems really serious about riding away from here and leaving the girl to die!»
»Let him try,« suggested Mack, his lips pulling back wolfishly, exposing his teeth. “And if he does indeed ride away from the girl — well, that will be his last ride!”
And instinctively his right hand groped for the knob of the revolver.
The procession was organized and set off at a slow walk.
The girl was no longer called, but the clinking of the saddle straps was louder than any human would have been able to handle.
He looked around. In front of him spread a hideous desert, and at its edge rose bare, bluish mountains dozens of kilometers away. The sun was still low and shone comparatively weakly, but its scorching heat was increasing every moment, threatening to turn into a heat reminiscent of a melting furnace, which in the midday regions would scorch the earth. And not even a bush under whose shade he could creep to avoid it. It would be similar to burning at the stake, but more horrible, slower. But—they could not leave him here!
The screeching of saddle straps grew louder, louder, and then began to recede. He stood up and glanced around once.
»Wait! Wait!” he shouted. “I am coming!”
But the leisurely walk turned into a jog that was hardly the least bit more vigorous; Nancy broke into a run.