The Navajo Turquoise Ring by Will C. Barnes

"I tell you, Miss Nell, it's not safe for you to ride over the range so much all alone. That Navajo's plumb crazy about you now, and he's liable to do you some mischief."

The speaker, a handsome, blue-eyed young fellow, clad in the rough garb of a cowboy, with broad sombrero, "chaparejos," his buckskin gloves thrust through his cartridge belt, stood leaning against the door-post of a typical Arizona ranch house. In one hand he held the end of a long hair rope, the other end being fast to his pony, which, all saddled, stood pawing and restless, eager to be away on the range. Slung on the near side of the saddle was a Winchester carbine, for, between white and red thieves, the cowboys had to be ready for all sorts of emergencies, and besides, the big gray wolves were beginning to show up on the range, and a wolf scalp was worth twenty dollars at the county seat.

The person to whom these remarks were addressed stood idly switching her riding-habit with her "quirt," a handsome piece of cowboy work, over which one of her many admirers had spent hours by the light of a campfire plaiting and decorating it with "Turk's heads" and other fancy knots known to cowboy quirt-makers. She was all ready for a ride and waiting only for her pony to be brought up from the corral, where Juan, the Mexican, was saddling him.

There was a pleading, pathetic tone in the man's voice that spoke the lover, even had his eyes shown no sign of passion; but his words seemed to rouse all the perversity of her sex. Her red lips curled and her brown eyes snapped. "Oh, pshaw, Mr. Cameron, you're always worrying about some imaginary danger. Please return me my ring—that is, if you have finished examining it."

A red wave swept over Cameron's face, like the shadow of a cloud across the prairie on a bright day, and he stood for a full minute idly turning the ring in question upon the very tip of the little finger of his own sun-browned hand. It was a splendid specimen of the Navajo silversmith's art. Now, the Navajo Indians' blankets have made them famous, but they deserve quite as much fame for their cunning as workers in silver.

This ring was indeed a gem. It was wide, as most of their rings are, cut in two on the inner side so that it could be made larger or smaller by "springing" it to fit any finger, and in the top was set a turquoise as blue as a summer sky—a stone precious to the Navajos—that among the tribe would have bought twenty ponies, a hundred sheep, and squaws galore. Around the ring ran the most intricate and delicate carving, and the whole effect was at once unique and barbaric.

The girl's hand was outstretched for the ring, and almost mechanically the man turned and dropped it into the upturned palm. "Well, Miss Nell, I've warned you, and I'm sure if Mr. Hull were here that he'd feel just as I do." His voice grew tense. "I can't go with you today, for I've got to go over the other side of the mountain to see if I can find those lost horses, and won't be back till dark."

The girl, scarcely heeding his words, took the ring, and in a mock-heroic sort of way kissed and slipped it on to her engagement finger, a gleam of mischief in her eyes, at which action Cameron, stung almost to madness, smothered a groan, and strode across the porch, his spurs clanking on the floor, gathering up his hair rope as he went. With one hand on the pommel of the saddle and the other on the pony's mane, he leaped lightly into his seat without aid of stirrup and, bringing the coil of rope down on the animal's flank, went off down the line of wire fence on a dead run, and soon turned out of sight around a low hill in the valley.

The girl watched him in silence until he was lost to view, and then, with a gay laugh, turned into the room, saying, "Poor Cam, what fun it is to tease him!"

A moment later, when Juan appeared at the door with her horse, she pulled on her pretty buckskin gloves, and with a "Goodbye, Mary, I'll be home by noon," to the heavy-faced cook, who stood watching her from the door of the log kitchen, she rode off almost as fast as Cameron, but in a different direction.

Three months before these happenings George Hull had gone down to the little railroad station, some thirty miles from the ranch, to meet his wife's only sister, who was coming to spend the summer with them in Arizona, and from her first day she had taken to the life like a duck to water. She was a fearless horsewoman, and never so happy as when out on the range riding with the cowboys, if they were there, or alone if they were not. Nell Steele was a warm-hearted, impulsive girl, but she could no more help making a slave of every man she met than she could stop breathing.

It was an easy task for her, too, and it mattered not whether it was some high-bred, educated gentleman, or a rough Texas "puncher" who had never in all his life spoken a dozen words to a woman of her class. And naturally with such surroundings, with men unused to women's wiles, she soon had the whole country at her feet.

Of them all, however, young Cameron had by far the worst case of it, and the girl, while in her heart greatly pleased with his attentions, seemed to delight in keeping him in a state of absolute misery by alternately raising him to the very highest pinnacle of happiness, and again dropping him into the bottomless pit of despair. Deep in her heart she knew he was her ideal, but she could not resist the temptation to coquette with and tease him.

Cameron had come west for his health some years before. Too hard application at college had seriously impaired his strength, and he had been ordered to live in the open air for several years. Letters of introduction to George Hull had brought him to this ranch in the high mountain country of northern Arizona, and he had taken to the cowboy life from the very first, until now he was looked upon as one of the most trusted and satisfactory "boys" on the place.

The ranch to which George Hull brought his pretty sister-in-law was located near the line of the Navajo Indian Reservation, and, as the Navajos are great roamers, it was nothing unusual to have them hanging round. One day a party of them came, bringing in some horses the boys had missed for some time. It was Miss Steele's first sight of the Navajo, and she came down to the corral, where they were all gathered, to see them. Among them was a young chief named Chatto, who had attended an Indian school at Albuquerque, and could therefore speak fairly good English. He was a picture of savage finery. Around his waist was buckled a costly belt made of great plates of solid silver; in his ears hung huge silver rings; each arm was clasped by bracelets of the same precious metal; around his neck were yards of the precious silver, turquoise and shell beads so dear to the Navajo heart; and his moccasins and leggings were thickly studded with buttons fashioned from dimes, quarters, and half-dollars. Across his shoulders hung a gaudy Navajo blanket, and his horse's bridle was fairly weighted down with glittering trophies of the Indian silversmith's skill.

It was but a few moments before Miss Steele was bartering with him for a bracelet; but it was of no avail, he would not sell it at any price. However, when the other Indians left, he stayed behind, until, as the dinner-hour was nearing, the boys asked him to eat with them. It was soon evident that he had eyes only for Miss Steele; and after dinner she spent an hour talking to him of his school experience and trying to learn a few words of the Navajo tongue.

The next day he returned, and the next, until it was plainly to be seen that the gay laugh and brown eyes of the girl had completely bewitched him.

One day he came bearing the ring I have described, and shyly offered it to her, insisting that she must place it on her engagement finger, which she did, never dreaming that the boys, keenly watching from the bunk-house, had put him up to it, telling him that that was the way white lovers did, and that once she put on his ring she was his by all the laws and customs of the white man.

When Cameron, who was away at the time, heard of it, he was furious, and went straight to Miss Steele and urged her to return the ring and banish the Indian from the ranch. But she, seeing that back of his lover's eagerness for her safety was a lover's jealousy as well, affected not to believe him, and declared her intention of keeping and wearing the ring. It was this ring that she had kissed so tragically and replaced on her hand.

On leaving the ranch, the girl gave her pony an almost free rein for the first two or three miles. It was a glorious morning in September, when the sun had lost its greatest power, and the air was fairly intoxicating in its freshness. The range never looked finer than it did now, after the summer rains had covered it with a wonderful growth of grass dotted with millions of daisies, black-eyed Susans, purple lupines, and dozens of other varieties of prairie flowers, which, in places, fairly made the air heavy with their perfume. The trail led her over a wide mesa, and at its highest point she stopped her pony and drank in the wondrous scene. Away off to the north the great tablelands, or mesas, where live the snake-loving Moqui Indians, hung in an almost indescribable grandeur, blue and misty against the sky, more like a mirage than a reality. A couple of saucy prairie dogs barked shrilly at her from their adjacent village; a coyote, disturbed by her coming, skulked hastily away from where he had been trying to surprise a little calf, left lying under a sagebush while its mother went on down the trail to water. Above her, high in the heavens, idly circled half a dozen heavy-winged turkey-buzzards, those scavengers of the prairies, a sure sign that somewhere below them an animal lay dead and they were gathering for a feast. As far as the eye could reach were rolling hills, with here and there parks of cedars, while scattered over the prairie were hundreds of cattle and horses, for George Hull was one of the heaviest cattle-owners in northern Arizona, and this was the heart of his range.

Across the valley below her she could see the figure of a solitary horseman, which, after a few moments she decided to be Cameron, although she had thought him miles away from there by this time. Her pony having recovered his wind, she started down the mesa toward the approaching figure, glad to see some human being in all that waste of loneliness around her. As she drew nearer, she saw that it was no white man, but an Indian, the red sash tied around his head being plainly visible at quite a distance, but undaunted, she kept on her course, presuming him to be the Indian mail-carrier who came in from the agency twice a week with the mail-sack tied behind his saddle.

As the distance between them lessened, she saw with great uneasiness that it was her admirer, Chatto, and, with a sort of guilty fear in her heart, she turned off the trailand pushed her pony into a lope toward a bunch of horses grazing near, as if she wanted to look at them closer. A glance over her shoulder showed her that the Indian had also turned and was following her, and the girl, now thoroughly alarmed, urged her pony to his fullest speed. The Indian called to her to stop, but she only rode the harder. Chatto, however, was well mounted and slowly gained on the flying figure; her cowboy hat had blown from her head, but was held by the string around her neck as she urged her pony with voice and quirt.

"Stop, I shoot!" called the Navajo, but she rode the faster, expecting every instant to hear the crack of his Winchester. At last he was within thirty feet of her, and she felt that her pony had done his utmost and there was no escape. Another look over her shoulder showed her that the Indian had taken down his long rawhide reata and was swinging it round and round his head preparatory for a throw at her. She remembered hearing Hull tell of Mexican and cowboy fights, where the victim was roped and pulled off his horse and across the prairie, until every semblance of human shape was dragged out of it, and her heart sank within her, for she knew by some woman's instinct that he had realized she had been fooling him, and was thirsting for revenge.

Faster and faster they rode, and nearer and nearer he drew, till she could hear the "swish" of the rope through the air; she crouched low over the saddle to offer as small a mark as possible, meantime praying for deliverance, which in her heart she little thought would come.

Cameron found his horses but a few miles out from the ranch, and, quickly rounding them up, started the bunch toward home on a sharp run, arriving there not long after Miss Steele had left. Questioning Mary as to the direction she had taken, he struck off again on the range in a course that he shrewdly judged would enable him, as if by accident, to meet Miss Steele on her homeward way.

Some three or four miles from the ranch the mesa he was crossing ended abruptly in a cliff some two hundred feet high, which extended for several miles in an unbroken line with but one or two places where an animal could get up or down. The view from the edge of this cliff or "rim rock," as it was more commonly called, over the wide valley spread out below it for miles and miles was unexcelled, and Cameron, knowing that Miss Steele must come up this cliff at one of two places, headed for the one he felt she would be most likely to take. As he drew near the edge of the mesa he left the trail and rode over to the cliff; and thinking perhaps to surprise a bunch of antelope feeding quietly in the valley below him, as well as to prevent Miss Steele from first seeing him, should she chance to be below, he left his pony under a cedar and, taking his Winchester in his hand, carefully walked up to the edge of the cliff.

The road leading down to the valley ran close under the cliff and was lost to sight around a point of the mesa but a short distance to his right. Carefully scanning the prairie, he could see no one, but, from the way three or four bunches of wild horses were tearing across the valley below him, he felt satisfied, that either she or some one else had started them, and concluded to wait a few moments.

Suddenly, from far below, came a sound that for an instant sent his heart to his throat, for it seemed as if he heard a woman's voice, borne upward from around the point to his right, and yet it was far more likely to be the almost human cry of a mountain lion, or even the childish yell of some lone coyote, either of which could readily be mistaken for a female voice in distress. As Cameron stood there, fairly holding his breath in his eagerness to catch the faintest sound from below, one moment assuring himself that his ears were at fault and the next so certain that it was a woman's voice that he could scarcely wait for its repetition in order that he could be sure which way to go, once again there came faintly and yet more definitely than before the cry of distress. The voice was Miss Steele's, and before he was really sure from which quarter it came, there burst into sight around the point of the mesa, not a quarter of a mile away from him but down in the valley, the figure of a girl on horseback leaning low over her pony's neck, and urging him to his utmost speed on the road leading up to the cliff, while some forty or fifty feet behind her, riding as hard as she was the Navajo Chatto, his red head-band gone, his long black hair streaming out in the wind, and whirling over his head in a great loop his rawhide reata.

It took Cameron but an instant to grasp the situation and see that the Indian had tried to overtake the girl, and failing, meant to rope and drag her from her horse. He quickly saw also that busied with his reata, and not having a chance to use the quirt, his pony was falling slightly behind, for the Navajos seldom wear spurs, and the girl was not sparing her pony's flanks, but was using her quirt at every jump. Cameron's first impulse was to spring down the cliff, and run to her aid, but with a groan he realized that it would take him too long to do this, for it was only by careful climbing that one could get down the first forty or fifty feet of the wall, and then the rest would be slow traveling at the very best. The race below him was in plain view now, and in a few rods more they would pass out of his sight in the little side caņon through which the road led up to the top of the cliff. To ride back to that place would take too long, also, and the man quickly realized that it was no time to delay.

To kill a Navajo meant trouble for everybody around, for the whole tribe would take it up, and wreak vengeance upon any white settlers they could find, hence that was not to be thought of except in the last extremity. But Cameron knew that he could kill the Navajo's pony and save the girl. Throwing his Winchester over a rock for a rest, with a mental estimate of five hundred yards' distance to his mark, he took careful aim at the shoulder of the Indian's pony and sent a shot which sped fair and true to its mark, the animal rolling headlong in the dirt, and the rider sprawling fully twenty feet away, but unharmed.

For an instant the Indian was stunned, then, evidently thinking his pony had fallen by accident, arose and started toward him. Cameron, however, was ready for this move. Presuming the Navajo would try to get his rifle, which was slung in its holster underneath the dead horse, he sent a second shot, before Chatto could get half way to the body, striking the ground close enough to him to convince him as to the cause of the pony's fall. With true Indian instinct he turned and, to disconcert Cameron's aim, ran in a zig-zag way to a deep ditch, or wash, near the road, into which he threw himself and crawled and wormed his way down to where the sides were high enough to shelter his body.

Meantime Cameron, not daring to leave his place until he knew the girl was safely up the cliff, forced the Navajo to keep to cover by firing an occasional shot in his direction, until, with a sigh of relief, he saw the girl "raise the hill" at his left, and stood up and waved his hat to her. Up to this time she had scarcely known to what cause she owed her deliverance. All she knew was that a shot had been fired, and she heard no more thunder of horse's hoofs behind her, but not being too sure of what it all meant, she never drew rein nor spared her pony until she saw Cameron's figure on the cliff and knew that she was safe.

A few moments later an hysterical, sobbing girl threw herself from her saddle straight into the arms of the man who loved her, and whom, she now knew, she loved.