Wildfire by Zane Grey
Two weeks slipped by on the wings of time and opportunity and achievement, all colored so wonderfully for Lucy, all spelling that adventure for which she had yearned.
Lucy was riding down into the sage toward the monuments with a whole day before her. Bostil kept more and more to himself, a circumstance that worried her, though she thought little about it. Van had taken up the training of the King; and Lucy had deliberately quarreled with him so that she would be free to ride where she listed. Farlane nagged her occasionally about her rides into the sage, insisting that she must not go so far and stay so long. And after Van's return to work he made her ride Sarchedon.
Things had happened at the Ford which would have concerned Lucy greatly had she not been over-excited about her own affairs. Some one had ambushed Bostil in the cottonwoods near his house and had shot at him, narrowly missing him. Bostil had sworn he recognized the shot as having come from a rifle, and that he knew to whom it belonged. The riders did not believe this, and said some boy, shooting at a rabbit or coyote, had been afraid to confess he had nearly hit Bostil. The riders all said Bostil was not wholly himself of late. The river was still low. The boat had not been repaired. And Creech's horses were still on the other side.
These things concerned Lucy, yet they only came and went swiftly through her mind. She was obsessed by things intimately concerning herself.
"Oh, I oughtn't to go," she said, aloud. But she did not even check Sarchedon's long swing, his rocking-chair lope. She had said a hundred times that she ought not go again out to the monuments. For Lin Slone had fallen despairingly, terribly in love with her.
It was not this, she averred, but the monuments and the beautiful Wildfire that had woven a spell round her she could not break. She had ridden Wildfire all through that strange region of monuments and now they claimed something of her. Just as wonderful was Wildfire's love for her. The great stallion hated Slone and loved Lucy. Of all the remarkable circumstances she had seen or heard about a horse, this fact was the most striking. She could do anything with him. All that savageness and wildness disappeared when she approached him. He came at her call. He whistled at sight of her. He sent out a ringing blast of disapproval when she rode away. Every day he tried to bite or kick Slone, but he was meek under Lucy's touch.
But this morning there came to Lucy the first vague doubt of herself. Once entering her mind, that doubt became clear. And then she vowed she liked Slone as she might a brother. And something within her accused her own conviction. The conviction was her real self, and the accusation was some other girl lately born in her. Lucy did not like this new person. She was afraid of her. She would not think of her unless she had to.
"I never cared for him—that way," she said, aloud. "I don't—I couldn't—ever—I—I—love Lin Slone!"
The spoken thought—the sound of the words played havoc with Lucy's self-conscious calmness. She burned. She trembled. She was in a rage with herself. She spurred Sarchedon into a run and tore through the sage, down into the valley, running him harder than she should have run him. Then she checked him, and, penitent, petted him out of all proportion to her thoughtlessness. The violent exercise only heated her blood and, if anything, increased this sudden and new torment. Why had she discarded her boy's rider outfit and chaps for a riding-habit made by her aunt, and one she had scorned to wear? Some awful, accusing voice thundered in Lucy's burning ears that she had done this because she was ashamed to face Lin Slone any more in that costume—she wanted to appear different in his eyes, to look like a girl. If that shameful suspicion was a fact why was it—-what did it mean? She could not tell, yet she was afraid of the truth.
All of a sudden Lin Slone stood out clearer in her mental vision—the finest type of a rider she had ever known—a strong, lithe, magnificent horseman, whose gentleness showed his love for horses, whose roughness showed his power—a strange, intense, lonely man in whom she had brought out pride, gratitude, kindness, passion, and despair. She felt her heart swell at the realization that she had changed him, made him kinder, made him divide his love as did her father, made him human, hopeful, longing for a future unfettered by the toils of desert allurement. She could not control her pride. She must like him very much. She confessed that, honestly, without a qualm. It was only bewildering moments of strange agitation and uncertainty that bothered her. She had refused to be concerned by them until they had finally impinged upon her peace of mind. Then they accused her; now she accused herself. She ought not go to meet Lin Slone any more.
"But then—the race!" she murmured. "I couldn't give that up.... And oh! I'm afraid the harm is done! What can I do?"
After the race—what then? To be sure, all of Bostil's Ford would know she had been meeting Slone out in the sage, training his horse. What would people say?
"Dad will simply be radiant, IF he can buy Wildfire—and a fiend if he can't," she muttered.
Lucy saw that her own impulsiveness had amounted to daring. She had gone too far. She excused that—for she had a rider's blood—she was Bostil's girl. But she had, in her wildness and joy and spirit, spent many hours alone with a rider, to his undoing. She could not excuse that. She was ashamed. What would he say when she told him she could see him no more? The thought made her weak. He would accept and go his way—back to that lonely desert, with only a horse.
"Wildfire doesn't love him!" she said.
And the scarlet fired her neck and cheek and temple. That leap of blood seemed to release a riot of emotions. What had been a torment became a torture. She turned Sarchedon homeward, but scarcely had faced that way when she wheeled him again. She rode slowly and she rode swiftly. The former was hateful because it held her back—from what she no longer dared think; the latter was fearful because it hurried her on swiftly, irresistibly to her fate.
Lin Slone had changed his camp and had chosen a pass high up where the great walls had began to break into sections. Here there was intimacy with the sheer cliffs of red and yellow. Wide avenues between the walls opened on all points of the compass, and that one to the north appeared to be a gateway down into the valley of monuments. The monuments trooped down into the valley to spread out and grow isolated in the distance. Slone's camp was in a clump of cedars surrounding a spring. There was grass and white sage where rabbits darted in and out.
Lucy did not approach this camp from that roundabout trail which she had made upon the first occasion of her visiting Slone. He had found an opening in the wall, and by riding this way into the pass Lucy cut off miles. In fact, the camp was not over fifteen miles from Bostil's Ford. It was so close that Lucy was worried lest some horse-tracker should stumble on the trail and follow her up into the pass.
This morning she espied Slone at his outlook on a high rock that had fallen from the great walls. She always looked to see if he was there, and she always saw him. The days she had not come, which were few, he had spent watching for her there. His tasks were not many, and he said he had nothing to do but wait for her. Lucy had a persistent and remorseful, yet sweet memory of Slone at his lonely lookout. Here was a fine, strong, splendid young man who had nothing to do but watch for her—a waste of precious hours!
She waved her hand from afar, and he waved in reply. Then as she reached the cedared part of the pass Slone was no longer visible. She put Sarchedon to a run up the hard, wind-swept sand, and reached the camp before Slone had climbed down from his perch.
Lucy dismounted reluctantly. What would he say about the riding-habit that she wore? She felt very curious to learn, and shyer than ever before, and altogether different. The skirt made her more of a girl, it seemed.
"Hello, Lin!" she called. There was nothing in her usual greeting to betray the state of her mind.
"Good mornin'—Lucy," he replied, very slowly. He was looking at her, she thought, with different eyes. And he seemed changed, too, though he had long been well, and his tall, lithe rider's form, his lean, strong face, and his dark eyes were admirable in her sight. Only this morning, all because she had worn a girl's riding-skirt instead of boy's chaps, everything seemed different. Perhaps her aunt had been right, after all, and now things were natural.
Slone gazed so long at her that Lucy could not keep silent. She laughed.
"How do you like—me—in this?"
"I like you much better," Slone said, bluntly.
"Auntie made this—and she's been trying to get me to ride in it."
"It changes you, Lucy.... But can you ride as well?"
"I'm afraid not.... What's Wildfire going to think of me?"
"He'll like you better, too.... Lucy, how's the King comin' on?"
"Lin, I'll tell you, if I wasn't as crazy about Wildfire as you are, I'd say he'll have to kill himself to beat the King," replied Lucy, with gravity.
"Sometimes I doubt, too," said Slone. "But I only have to look at Wildfire to get back my nerve.... Lucy, that will be the grandest race ever run!"
"Yes," sighed Lucy.
"What's wrong? Don't you want Wildfire to win?"
"Yes and no. But I'm going to beat the King, anyway.... Bring on your Wildfire!"
Lucy unsaddled Sarchedon and turned him loose to graze while Slone went out after Wildfire. And presently it appeared that Lucy might have some little time to wait. Wildfire had lately been trusted to hobbles, which fact made it likely that he had strayed.
Lucy gazed about her at the great looming red walls and out through the avenues to the gray desert beyond. This adventure of hers would soon have an end, for the day of the races was not far distant, and after that it was obvious she would not have occasion to meet Slone. To think of never coming to the pass again gave Lucy a pang. Unconsciously she meant that she would never ride up here again, because Slone would not be here. A wind always blew through the pass, and that was why the sand was so clean and hard. To-day it was a pleasant wind, not hot, nor laden with dust, and somehow musical in the cedars. The blue smoke from Slone's fire curled away and floated out of sight. It was lonely, with the haunting presence of the broken walls ever manifest. But the loneliness seemed full of content. She no longer wondered at Slone's desert life. That might be well for a young man, during those years when adventure and daring called him, but she doubted that it would be well for all of a man's life. And only a little of it ought to be known by a woman. She saw how the wildness and loneliness and brooding of such a life would prevent a woman's development. Yet she loved it all and wanted to live near it, so that when the need pressed her she could ride out into the great open stretches and see the dark monuments grow nearer and nearer, till she was under them, in the silent and colored shadows.
Slone returned presently with Wildfire. The stallion shone like a flame in the sunlight. His fear and hatred of Slone showed in the way he obeyed. Slone had mastered him, and must always keep the upper hand of him. It had from the first been a fight between man and beast, and Lucy believed it would always be so.
But Wildfire was a different horse when he saw Lucy. Day by day evidently Slone loved him more and tried harder to win a little of what Wildfire showed at sight of Lucy. Still Slone was proud of Lucy's control over the stallion. He was just as much heart and soul bent on winning the great race as Lucy was. She had ridden Wildfire bareback at first, and then they had broken him to the saddle.
It was serious business, that training of Wildfire, and Slone had peculiar ideas regarding it. Lucy rode him up and down the pass until he was warm. Then Slone got on Sarchedon. Wildfire always snorted and showed fight at sight of Sage King or Nagger, and the stallion Sarchedon infuriated him because Sarchedon showed fight, too. Slone started out ahead of Lucy, and then they raced down the long pass. The course was hard-packed sand. Fast as Sarchedon was, and matchless as a horseman as was Slone, the race was over almost as soon as it began. Wildfire ran indeed like fire before the wind. He wanted to run, and the other horse made him fierce. Like a burr Lucy stuck low over his neck, a part of the horse, and so light he would not have known he was carrying her but for the repeated calls in his ears. Lucy never spurred him. She absolutely refused to use spurs on him. This day she ran away from Slone, and, turning at the end of the two-mile course they had marked out, she loped Wildfire back. Slone turned with her, and they were soon in camp. Lucy did not jump off. She was in a transport. Every race kindled a mounting fire in her. She was scarlet of face, out of breath, her hair flying. And she lay on Wildfire's neck and hugged him and caressed him and talked to him in low tones of love.
Slone dismounted and got Sarchedon out of the way, then crossed to where Lucy still fondled Wildfire. He paused a moment to look at her, but when she saw him he started again, and came close up to her as she sat the saddle.
"You went past me like a bullet," he said.
"Oh, can't he run!" murmured Lucy.
"Could he beat the King to-day?"
Slone had asked that question every day, more than once.
"Yes, he could—to-day. I know it," replied Lucy. "Oh—I get so—so excited. I—I make a fool of myself—over him. But to ride him—going like that—Lin! it's just glorious!"
"You sure can ride him," replied Slone. "I can't see a fault anywhere—in him—or in your handling him. He never breaks. He goes hard, but he saves something. He gets mad—fierce—all the time, yet he WANTS to go your way. Lucy, I never saw the like of it. Somehow you an' Wildfire make a combination. You can't be beat."
"Do I ride him—well?" she asked, softly.
"I could never ride him so well."
"Oh, Lin—you just want to please me. Why, Van couldn't ride with you."
"I don't care, Lucy," replied Slone, stoutly. "You rode this horse perfect. I've found fault with you on the King, on your mustangs, an' on this black horse Sarch. But on Wildfire! You grow there."
"What will Dad say, and Farlane, and Holley, and Van? Oh, I'll crow over Van," said Lucy. "I'm crazy to ride Wildfire out before all the Indians and ranchers and riders, before the races, just to show him off, to make them stare."
"No, Lucy. The best plan is to surprise them all. Enter your horse for the race, but don't show up till all the riders are at the start."
"Yes, that'll be best.... And, Lin, only five days more—five days!"
Her words made Slone thoughtful, and Lucy, seeing that, straightway grew thoughtful, too.
"Sure—only five days more," repeated Slone, slowly.
His tone convinced Lucy that he meant to speak again as he had spoken once before, precipitating the only quarrel they had ever had.
"Does ANY ONE at Bostil's Ford know you meet me out here?" he asked, suddenly.
"Only Auntie. I told her the other day. She had been watching me. She thought things. So I told her."
"What did she say?" went on Slone, curiously.
"She was mad," replied Lucy. "She scolded me. She said.... But, anyway, I coaxed her not to tell on me."
"I want to know what she said," spoke up the rider, deliberately.
Lucy blushed, and it was a consciousness of confusion as well as Slone's tone that made her half-angry.
"She said when I was found out there'd be a—a great fuss at the Ford. There would be talk. Auntie said I'm now a grown-up girl.... Oh, she carried on! ... Bostil would likely shoot you. And if he didn't some of the riders would.... Oh, Lin, it was perfectly ridiculous the way Auntie talked."
"I reckon not," replied Slone. "I'm afraid I've done wrong to let you come out here.... But I never thought. I'm not used to girls. I'll—I'll deserve what I get for lettin' you came."
"It's my own business," declared Lucy, spiritedly. "And I guess they'd better let you alone."
Slone shook his head mournfully. He was getting one of those gloomy spells that Lucy hated. Nevertheless, she felt a stir of her pulses.
"Lucy, there won't be any doubt about my stand—when I meet Bostil," said Slone. Some thought had animated him.
"What do you mean?" Lucy trembled a little.
There was a sternness about Slone, a dignity that seemed new. "I'll ask him to—to let you marry me."
Lucy stared aghast. Slone appeared in dead earnest.
"Nonsense!" she exclaimed, shortly.
"I reckon the possibility is—that," replied Slone, bitterly, "but my motive isn't."
"It is. Why, you've known me only a few days.... Dad would be mad. Like as not he'd knock you down.... I tell you, Lin, my dad is—is pretty rough. And just at this time of the races.... And if Wildfire beats the King! ... Whew!"
"WHEN Wildfire beats the King, not IF," corrected Slone.
"Dad will be dangerous," warned Lucy. "Please don't—-don't ask him that. Then everybody would know I—I—you—-you—"
"That's it. I want everybody at your home to know."
"But it's a little place," flashed Lucy. "Every one knows me. I'm the only girl. There have been—other fellows who.... And oh! I don't want you made fun of!"
"Why?" he asked.
Lucy turned away her head without answering. Something deep within her was softening her anger. She must fight to keep angry; and that was easy enough, she thought, if she could only keep in mind Slone's opposition to her. Strangely, she discovered that it had been sweet to find him always governed by her desire or will.
"Maybe you misunderstand," he began, presently. And his voice was not steady. "I don't forget I'm only—a beggarly rider. I couldn't have gone into the Ford at all—I was such a ragamuffin—"
"Don't talk like that!" interrupted Lucy, impatiently.
"Listen," he replied. "My askin' Bostil for you doesn't mean I've any hope. ... It's just I want him an' everybody to know that I asked."
"But Dad—everybody will think that YOU think there's reason—why—I—why, you OUGHT to ask," burst out Lucy, with scarlet face.
"Sure, that's it," he replied.
"But there's no reason. None! Not a reason under the sun," retorted Lucy, hotly. "I found you out here. I did you a—a little service. We planned to race Wildfire. And I came out to ride him.... That's all."
Slone's dark, steady gaze disconcerted Lucy. "But, no one knows me, and we've been alone in secret."
"It's not altogether—that. I—I told Auntie," faltered Lucy.
"Yes, just lately."
"Lin Slone, I'll never forgive you if you ask Dad that," declared Lucy, with startling force.
"I reckon that's not so important."
"Oh!—so you don't care." Lucy felt herself indeed in a mood not comprehensible to her. Her blood raced. She wanted to be furious with Slone, but somehow she could not wholly be so. There was something about him that made her feel small and thoughtless and selfish. Slone had hurt her pride. But the thing that she feared and resented and could not understand was the strange gladness Slone's declaration roused in her. She tried to control her temper so she could think. Two emotions contended within her—one of intense annoyance at the thought of embarrassment surely to follow Slone's action, and the other a vague, disturbing element, all sweet and furious and inexplicable. She must try to dissuade him from approaching her father.
"Please don't go to Dad." She put a hand on Slone's arm as he stood close up to Wildfire.
"I reckon I will," he said.
"Lin!" In that word there was the subtle, nameless charm of an intimacy she had never granted him until that moment. He seemed drawn as if by invisible wires. He put a shaking hand on hers and crushed her gauntleted fingers. And Lucy, in the current now of her woman's need to be placated if not obeyed, pressed her small hand to his. How strange to what lengths a little submission to her feeling had carried her! Every spoken word, every movement, seemed to exact more from her. She did not know herself.
"Lin! ... Promise not to—speak to Dad!"
"No." His voice rang.
"Don't give me away—don't tell my Dad!"
"What?" he queried, incredulously.
Lucy did not understand what. But his amazed voice, his wide-open eyes of bewilderment, seemed to aid her into piercing the maze of her own mind. A hundred thoughts whirled together, and all around them was wrapped the warm, strong feeling of his hand on hers. What did she mean that he would tell her father? There seemed to be a deep, hidden self in her. Up out of these depths came a whisper, like a ray of light, and it said to her that there was more hope for Lin Slone than he had ever had in one of his wildest dreams.
"Lin, if you tell Dad—then he'll know—and there WON'T be any hope for you!" cried Lucy, honestly.
If Slone caught the significance of her words he did not believe it.
"I'm goin' to Bostil after the race an' ask him. That's settled," declared Slone, stubbornly.
At this Lucy utterly lost her temper. "Oh! you—you fool!" she cried.
Slone drew back suddenly as if struck, and a spot of dark blood leaped to his lean face. "No! It seems to me the right way."
"Right or wrong there's no sense in it—because—because. Oh! can't you see?"
"I see more than I used to," he replied. "I was a fool over a horse. An' now I'm a fool over a girl.... I wish you'd never found me that day!"
Lucy whirled in the saddle and made Wildfire jump. She quieted him, and, leaping off, threw the bridle to Slone. "I won't ride your horse in the race!" she declared with sudden passion. She felt herself shaking all over.
"Lucy Bostil, I wish I was as sure of Heaven as I am you'll be up on Wildfire in that race," he said.
"I won't ride your horse."
"MY horse. Oh, I see.... But you'll ride Wildfire."
Slone suddenly turned white, and his eyes flashed dark fire. "You won't be able to help ridin' him any more than I could help it."
"A lot you know about me, Lin Slone!" returned Lucy, with scorn. "I can be as—as bull-headed as you, any day."
Slone evidently controlled his temper, though his face remained white. He even smiled at her.
"You are Bostil's daughter," he said.
"You are blood an' bone, heart an' soul a rider, if any girl ever was. You're a wonder with a horse—as good as any man I ever saw. You love Wildfire. An' look—how strange! That wild stallion—that killer of horses, why he follows you, he whistles for you, he runs like lightnin' for you; he LOVES you."
Slone had attacked Lucy in her one weak point. She felt a force rending her. She dared not look at Wildfire. Yes—all, that was true Slone had said. How desperately hard to think of forfeiting the great race she knew she could win!
"Never! I'll never ride your Wildfire AGAIN!" she said, very, low.
"MINE! ... So that's the trouble. Well, Wildfire won't be mine when you ride the race."
"What do you mean?" demanded Lucy. "You'll sell him to Bostil.... Bah! you couldn't ..."
"Sell Wildfire!—after what it cost me to catch an' break him? ... Not for all your father's lands an' horses an' money!"
Slone's voice rolled out with deep, ringing scorn. And Lucy, her temper quelled, began to feel the rider's strength, his mastery of the situation, and something vague, yet splendid about him that hurt her.
Slone strode toward her. Lucy backed against the cedar-tree and could go no farther. How white he was now! Lucy's heart gave a great, fearful leap, for she imagined Slone intended to take her in his arms. But he did not.
"When you ride—Wildfire in that—race he'll be—YOURS!" said Slone, huskily.
"How can that be?" questioned Lucy, in astonishment.
"I give him to you."
"You—give—Wildfire—to me?" gasped Lucy.
"Yes. Right now."
The rider's white face and dark eyes showed the strain of great and passionate sacrifice.
"Lin Slone! ... I can't—understand you."
"You've got to ride Wildfire in that race. You've got to beat the King.... So I give Wildfire to you. An' now you can't help but ride him."
"Why—why do you give him—to me?" faltered Lucy.
All her pride and temper had vanished, and she seemed lost in blankness.
"Because you love Wildfire. An' Wildfire loves you.... If that isn't reason enough—then ... because I love him—as no rider ever loved a horse.... An' I love you as no man ever loved a girl!"
Slone had never before spoken words of love to Lucy. She dropped her head. She knew of his infatuation. But he had always been shy except once when he had been bold, and that had caused a quarrel. With a strange pain at her breast Lucy wondered why Slone had not spoken that way before? It made as great a change in her as if she had been born again. It released something. A bolt shot back in her heart. She knew she was quivering like a leaf, with no power to control her muscles. She knew if she looked up then Slone might see the depths of her soul. Even with her hands shutting out the light she thought the desert around had changed and become all mellow gold and blue and white, radiant as the moonlight of dreams—and that the monuments soared above them grandly, and were beautiful and noble, like the revelations of love and joy to her. And suddenly she found herself sitting at the foot of the cedar, weeping, with tear-wet hands over her face.
"There's nothin' to—-to cry about," Slone was saying. "But I'm sorry if I hurt you."
"Will—you—please—fetch Sarch?" asked Lucy, tremulously.
While Slone went for the horse and saddled him Lucy composed herself outwardly. And she had two very strong desires—one to tell Slone something, and the other to run. She decided she would do both together.
Slone brought Sarchedon. Lucy put on her gauntlets, and, mounting the horse, she took a moment to arrange her skirts before she looked down at Slone. He was now pale, rather than white, and instead of fire in his eyes there was sadness. Lucy felt the swelling and pounding of her heart—and a long, delicious shuddering thrill that ran over her.
"Lin, I won't take Wildfire," she said.
"Yes, you will. You can't refuse. Remember he's grown to look to you. It wouldn't be right by the horse."
"But he's all you have in the world," she protested. Yet she knew any protestations would be in vain.
"No. I have good old faithful Nagger."
"Would you go try to hunt another wild stallion—like Wildfire?" asked Lucy, curiously. She was playing with the wonderful sweet consciousness of her power to render happiness when she chose.
"No more horse-huntin' for me," declared Slone. "An' as for findin' one like Wildfire—that'd never be."
"Suppose I won't accept him?"
"How could you refuse? Not for me but for Wildfire's sake! ... But if you could be mean an' refuse, why, Wildfire can go back to the desert."
"No!" exclaimed Lucy.
"I reckon so."
Lucy paused a moment. How dry her tongue seemed! And her breathing was labored! An unreal shimmering gleam shone on all about her. Even the red stallion appeared enveloped in a glow. And the looming monuments looked down upon her, paternal, old, and wise, bright with the color of happiness.
"Wildfire ought to have several more days' training—then a day of rest—and then the race," said Lucy, turning again to look at Slone.
A smile was beginning to change the hardness of his face. "Yes, Lucy," he said.
"And I'll HAVE to ride him?"
"You sure will—if he's ever to beat the King."
Lucy's eyes flashed blue. She saw the crowd—the curious, friendly Indians—the eager riders—the spirited horses—the face of her father—and last the race itself, such a race as had never been ran, so swift, so fierce, so wonderful.
"Then Lin," began Lucy, with a slowly heaving breast, "if I accept Wildfire will you keep him for me—until ... and if I accept him, and tell you why, will you promise to say—"
"Don't ask me again!" interrupted Slone, hastily. "I WILL speak to Bostil."
"Wait, will you ... promise not to say a word—a single word to ME—till after the race?"
"A word—to you! What about?" he queried, wonderingly. Something in his eyes made Lucy think of the dawn.
"About—the—Because—Why, I'm—I'll accept your horse."
"Yes," he replied, swiftly.
Lucy settled herself in the saddle and, shortening the bridle, she got ready to spur Sarchedon into a bolt.
"Lin, I'll accept Wildfire because I love you."
Sarchedon leaped forward. Lucy did not see Slone's face nor hear him speak. Then she was tearing through the sage, out past the whistling Wildfire, with the wind sweet in her face. She did not look back.