The following morning, Sarah awoke to an empty campsite. The fire had been extinguished long ago, making her wonder how long she had slept without it the night before.
The desert sun was already making its steady climb into the sky, but seemed just as hot as if it were glaring down right on top of her. Sarah stiffly rose from her makeshift bed and squinted around at the barren wasteland. She could just faintly see the towering figures of mountain outcrops in the distance, but they were still very far from them. She had only heard of Devil’s Rock in passing. Her father had told her that it was a treacherous landscape filled with jagged rocks and steep inclines. She couldn’t imagine how they would even begin to find Clarence’s hidden hideout amongst the numerous caves
Sarah frantically looked about her for any sign of Ben, but she couldn’t see a single living soul for miles in any direction. She could see her horse just a short distance off, standing still and vigilant over the campsite, its brown eyes fixed on something beyond Sarah.
“Pack up your stuff, we’re moving out.”
Sarah jumped at the sudden sound of Ben’s voice. She looked behind her to see him standing there, his thumbs hooked casually in his pant loops. His golden eyes conveyed no distinct emotion, but she somehow sensed frustration in him that she didn’t want to make worse.
She scrambled to her feet and hastily gathered up her blanket, shaking out the dirt and dust. Sarah noticed that he was still without his duster coat. She slipped it off and handed it to Ben at full arms length.
He took it back and shrugged it on before turning away to start walking out of camp. Sarah hurried to stuff her blanket back into her saddlebag and mount herself onto her horse to follow him.
Ben already seemed to be far ahead of her, so much that she had to quicken her horse into a full gallop to catch up. This was far too early for her to be moving so quickly in the morning. She craved a hot pot of coffee the way her father used to make it.
When she finally caught up with Ben, she was surprised to discover that he was walking at a very fast pace rather than running like she had thought he was. How could he move so fast?
They traveled for what seemed like hours across the dry sands until Sarah thought she could see a faint like of green upon the horizon. She recognized it at grass and urged her horse on faster. Where there was grass, there was surely water and she knew her canteen was nearly empty.
Ben continued to keep up speed with her, running not too far off from her horse’s side. Sarah was surprised that the animal was able to focus and run straight with Ben so close.
Sarah breathed a sigh of contentment when she saw the rich emerald grass ahead of them and a small creek flowing not very far off ahead of them. The sharp rapping of her horse’s hooves dissolved into dull thuds with every swift stride and she could almost feel the tension from her horse fade as well.
However, they didn’t slow their speed for anything. Ben curved his path a bit to avoid charging headlong into the creek and they began to travel with it upstream.
“Can we stop for a break for water?” Sarah asked, feeling her lips crack from the parched air.
“In just a moment. I’m looking for something,” he called out over his shoulder.
Sarah looked over her and noticed that the sun was high in the sky now. It was indeed time for a noonday meal, but from where, she didn’t know.
They continued to ride for a while until she noticed that Ben was slowing his pace. She tugged on the reins to slow her horse down with him until he finally stopped. Her horse skipped a few feet head of him and Sarah looked back to see he was sniffing the air, his golden eyes searching his surroundings. He reminded her of an animal the way that he let his nose turn up to better take in the scents of the prairie.
Then, he pointed his head across the creek and sped towards it. Sarah quickly steered her horse to follow and tried to keep up, but Ben was so far ahead of her already that she could barely see him disappear over a steep hill just beyond the creek. She was beginning to not believe that he was not some demon. No mere mortal could travel so fast.
“Slow down!” she called as her horse leapt and splashed through the shallow creek to read the grassy knoll on the other side. Her horse charged over the hill and Sarah looked about for any sign of Ben.
She spotted him a good distance away and crouched down next to something large and pinkish, baking in the sun. Sarah slowed her horse’s pace to a trot and made her way to Ben, confident that he wouldn’t bolt off again.
When she came closer, the odor of rotting flesh assaulted her nostrils and she realized that Ben was stooped down next to the stripped carcass of a dead buffalo. She covered her wrinkled nose with her sleeve and fought back the urge to wretch at the horrible smell. Many frontier men traveled the plains in search of the buffalo hides. It was common for the buffalo to be shot, skinned and the rest left to the mercies of nature to take care of. She had never seen this personally, but her father had told her all about it once.
As she neared the site, she could hear the furious buzzing of flies about the carcass and see the blood drenched ground beneath the animal. She could hardly recognize its deformed shape, but guessed that it must have been killed within the last few hours. She was surprised that no vultures had descended upon the animal yet.
Ben was facing away from her, so she could only see his backside, but amongst the chaotic noise of the flies, she could hear something else. It was faint, but she thought she could hear the slimy slurping of flesh rubbing against flesh and the sinking of fangs into such flesh.
Sarah maneuvered her horse around the carcass so she could see Ben’s face. When she was able to get a good look, all she was able to catch was Ben wiping the juices from his mouth onto his duster sleeve. She saw a chunk of the buffalo meat still clenched in his other hand and she gasped. Ben was eating the raw buffalo meat.
She was terrified by the sight and horribly disgusted. If not even the buzzards wanted this meat, how could a man stand to ingest it?
Ben lifted his eyes and eyed her as if she were to be his next meal. She couldn’t take this anymore. She couldn’t travel with this man, no matter how desperate she was to find Clarence.
Sarah steered her horse away and was about to urge her into the fastest run she could manage until she heard something else approaching from in front of them. They sounded like coyote yips mixed with a shrill howling that sent shivers up her spine.
She turned to see riders descending the knoll. There had to be over a dozen of them, painted in bright hues that contrasted sharply with their dark skin and half clothed in buckskins with dark ebony hair braided in long strands down their chests. They waved spears and staffs topped with eagle feathers that matched their hair ornaments. Their horses wore no saddle and were painted just as colorfully as their riders.
The hallooing and war cries grew louder and louder as they came galloping towards them at such speeds that Sarah hardly had time to pick a direction to flee. Ben stood up and dropped the meat that he had in his hand, but he didn’t run either.
The savage war party soon converged upon them and encircled the carcass and two white people. They all fell silent as Ben and Sarah raised their hands in surrender.
A leader padded forward, still mounted on his steed and pointed a spear at Ben accusingly. He spoke harshly in some unknown language to Ben, but he only shook his head.
“I don’t understand you,” he said slowly.
Sarah found it difficult to compose her trembling hands as the stayed lifted in submission to the warriors. Ben lowered his chin to his chest, hiding his face from the natives so they wouldn’t be overly startled by his eyes.
The chief rattled off his phrase again, except louder and even more aggressively. Ben repeated again that he didn’t understand. “I don’t speak your language,” he pleaded.
The chief shouted in anger and raised his spear to stab Ben through the chest. Sarah screeched and covered her eyes, unwilling to see his death.
One of the others in the circle cried out and pointed his staff to the west. The chief looked up and froze, the spear tip still trained upon Ben’s heart. His brown eyes went wide with fear and he gave out a holler to his band. The other natives looked just as frightened as they all turned their horses and fled to the east.
Sarah looked and saw a lone man stride a black stallion cresting over the hill. He was traveling at a meager, but steady pace and did not look threatening in the least. He looked to be dressed humbly in a pair of trousers, plaid shirt and wide brimmed hat. She could see long sandy hair pulled back at the nap of his neck and his face was covered in a thin layer of the same blonde hair, but it was tinged with bits of dark brown and black. His eyes shone a brilliant blue that looked upon the two with friendly intent. He looked to be middle aged, but not old enough to have greying hair just yet. His skin weathered from years of riding in the sun.
Ben lifted his eyes and he donned a look of surprise and confusion. He staggered a few steps back as if debating to run from him just like the native warriors did.
When the stranger approached, Sarah forced herself to smile. “Were they running from you?” she asked.
“It would appear so. That tribe still doesn’t take kindly to me after all these years.” His voice was deep and rolled pleasingly off of his tongue in an accent that Sarah had never heard before in her life. It was neither Yankee, southern or western, but something akin to an accent from abroad.
“Who are you?” Ben asked.
“My name is Geoffrey. And who are you?” he asked with a gently smile, eyeing Ben up and down as if fascinated. Sarah was surprised that he showed neither fear nor suspicion at the sight of Ben’s golden stare.