Wildfire by Zane Grey
All through May there was an idea, dark and sinister, growing in Bostil's mind. Fiercely at first he had rejected it as utterly unworthy of the man he was. But it returned. It would not be denied. It was fostered by singular and unforeseen circumstances. The meetings with Creech, the strange, sneaking actions of young Joel Creech, and especially the gossip of riders about the improvement in Creech's swift horse—these things appeared to loom larger and larger and to augment in Bostil's mind the monstrous idea which he could not shake off. So he became brooding and gloomy.
It appeared to be an indication of his intense preoccupation of mind that he seemed unaware of Lucy's long trips down into the sage. But Bostil had observed them long before Holley and other riders had approached him with the information.
"Let her alone," he growled to his men. "I gave her orders to train the King. An' after Van got well mebbe Lucy just had a habit of ridin' down there. She can take care of herself."
To himself, when alone, Bostil muttered: "Wonder what the kid has looked up now? Some mischief, I'll bet!"
Nevertheless, he did not speak to her on the subject. Deep in his heart he knew he feared his keen-eyed daughter, and during these days he was glad she was not in evidence at the hours when he could not very well keep entirely to himself. Bostil was afraid Lucy might divine what he had on his mind. There was no one else he cared for. Holley, that old hawk-eyed rider, might see through him, but Bostil knew Holley would be loyal, whatever he saw.
Toward the end of the month, when Somers returned from horse-hunting, Bostil put him and Shugrue to work upon the big flatboat down at the crossing. Bostil himself went down, and he walked—a fact apt to be considered unusual if it had been noticed.
"Put in new planks," was his order to the men. "An' pour hot tar in the cracks. Then when the tar dries shove her in ... but I'll tell you when."
Every morning young Creech rowed over to see if the boat was ready to take the trip across to bring his father's horses back. The third morning of work on the boat Bostil met Joel down there. Joel seemed eager to speak to Bostil. He certainly was a wild-looking youth.
"Bostil, my ole man is losin' sleep waitin' to git the hosses over," he said, frankly. "Feed's almost gone."
"That'll be all right, Joel," replied Bostil. "You see, the river ain't begun to raise yet.... How're the hosses comin' on?"
"Grand, sir—grand!" exclaimed the simple Joel. "Peg is runnin' faster than last year, but Blue Roan is leavin' her a mile. Dad's goin' to bet all he has. The roan can't lose this year."
Bostil felt like a bull bayed at by a hound. Blue Roan was a young horse, and every season he had grown bigger and faster. The King had reached the limit of his speed. That was great, Bostil knew, and enough to win over any horse in the uplands, providing the luck of the race fell even. Luck, however, was a fickle thing.
"I was advisin' Dad to swim the hosses over," declared Joel, deliberately.
"A-huh! You was? ... An' why?" rejoined Bostil.
Joel's simplicity and frankness vanished, and with them his rationality. He looked queer. His contrasting eyes shot little malignant gleams. He muttered incoherently, and moved back toward the skiff, making violent gestures, and his muttering grew to shouting, though still incoherent. He got in the boat and started to row back over the river.
"Sure he's got a screw loose," observed Somers. Shugrue tapped his grizzled head significantly.
Bostil made no comment. He strode away from his men down to the river shore, and, finding a seat on a stone, he studied the slow eddying red current of the river and he listened. If any man knew the strange and remorseless Colorado, that man was Bostil. He never made any mistakes in anticipating what the river was going to do.
And now he listened, as if indeed the sullen, low roar, the murmuring hollow gurgle, the sudden strange splash, were spoken words meant for his ears alone. The river was low. It seemed tired out. It was a dirty red in color, and it swirled and flowed along lingeringly. At times the current was almost imperceptible; and then again it moved at varying speed. It seemed a petulant, waiting, yet inevitable stream, with some remorseless end before it. It had a thousand voices, but not the one Bostil listened to hear.
He plodded gloomily up the trail, resting in the quiet, dark places of the canyon, loath to climb out into the clear light of day. And once in the village, Bostil shook himself as if to cast off an evil, ever-present, pressing spell.
The races were now only a few days off. Piutes and Navajos were camped out on the sage, and hourly the number grew as more came in. They were building cedar sunshades. Columns of blue smoke curled up here and there. Mustangs and ponies grazed everywhere, and a line of Indians extended along the racecourse, where trials were being held. The village was full of riders, horse-traders and hunters, and ranchers. Work on the ranges had practically stopped for the time being, and in another day or so every inhabitant of the country would be in Bostil's Ford.
Bostil walked into the village, grimly conscious that the presence of the Indians and riders and horses, the action and color and bustle, the near approach of the great race-day—these things that in former years had brought him keen delight and speculation—had somehow lost their tang. He had changed. Something was wrong in him. But he must go among these visitors and welcome them as of old; he who had always been the life of these racing-days must be outwardly the same. And the task was all the harder because of the pleasure shown by old friends among the Indians and the riders at meeting him. Bostil knew he had been a cunning horse-trader, but he had likewise been a good friend. Many were the riders and Indians who owed much to him. So everywhere he was hailed and besieged, until finally the old excitement of betting and bantering took hold of him and he forgot his brooding.
Brackton's place, as always, was a headquarters for all visitors. Macomber had just come in full of enthusiasm and pride over the horse he had entered, and he had money to wager. Two Navajo chiefs, called by white men Old Horse and Silver, were there for the first time in years. They were ready to gamble horse against horse. Cal Blinn and his riders of Durango had arrived; likewise Colson, Sticks, and Burthwait, old friends and rivals of Bostil's.
For a while Brackton's was merry. There was some drinking and much betting. It was characteristic of Bostil that he would give any odds asked on the King in a race; and, furthermore, he would take any end of wagers on other horses. As far as his own horses were concerned he bet shrewdly, but in races where his horses did not figure he seemed to find fun in the betting, whether or not he won.
The fact remained, however, that there were only two wagers against the King, and both were put up by Indians. Macomber was betting on second or third place for his horse in the big race. No odds of Bostil's tempted him.
"Say, where's Wetherby?" rolled out Bostil. "He'll back his hoss."
"Wetherby's ridin' over to-morrow," replied Macomber. "But you gotta bet him two to one."
"See hyar, Bostil," spoke up old Cal Blinn, "you jest wait till I git an eye on the King's runnin'. Mebbe I'll go you even money."
"An' as fer me, Bostil," said Colson, "I ain't set up yit which hoss I'll race."
Burthwait, an old rider, came forward to Brackton's desk and entered a wager against the field that made all the men gasp.
"By George! pard, you ain't a-limpin' along!" ejaculated Bostil, admiringly, and he put a hand on the other's shoulder.
"Bostil, I've a grand hoss," replied Burthwait. "He's four years old, I guess, fer he was born wild, an' you never seen him."
"Wild hoss? ... Huh!" growled Bostil. "You must think he can run."
"Why, Bostil, a streak of lightnin' ain't anywheres with him."
"Wal, I'm glad to hear it," said Bostil, gruffly. "Brack, how many hosses entered now for the big race?"
The lean, gray Brackton bent earnestly over his soiled ledger, while the riders and horsemen round him grew silent to listen.
"Thar's the Sage King by Bostil," replied Brackton. "Blue Roan an' Peg, by Creech; Whitefoot, by Macomber; Rocks, by Holley; Hoss-shoes, by Blinn; Bay Charley, by Burthwait. Then thar's the two mustangs entered by Old Hoss an' Silver—an' last—Wildfire, by Lucy Bostil."
"What's thet last?" queried Bostil.
"Wildfire, by Lucy Bostil," repeated Brackton.
"Has the girl gone an' entered a hoss?"
"She sure has. She came in to-day, regular an' business-like, writ her name an' her hoss's—here 'tis—an' put up the entrance money."
"Wal, I'll be d—d!" exclaimed Bostil. He was astonished and pleased. "She said she'd do it. But I didn't take no stock in her talk.... An' the hoss's name?"
"Huh! ... Wildfire. Mebbe thet girl can't think of names for hosses! What's this hoss she calls Wildfire?"
"She sure didn't say," replied Brackton. "Holley an' Van an' some more of the boys was here. They joked her a little. You oughter seen the look Lucy give them. But fer once she seemed mum. She jest walked away mysterious like."
"Lucy's got a pony off some Indian, I reckon," returned Bostil, and he laughed. "Then thet makes ten hosses entered so far?"
"Right. An' there's sure to be one more. I guess the track's wide enough for twelve."
"Wal, Brack, there'll likely be one hoss out in front an' some stretched out behind," replied Bostil, dryly. "The track's sure wide enough."
"Won't thet be a grand race!" exclaimed an enthusiastic rider. "Wisht I had about a million to bet!"
"Bostil, I 'most forgot," went on Brackton, "Cordts sent word by the Piutes who come to-day thet he'd be here sure."
Bostil's face subtly changed. The light seemed to leave it. He did not reply to Brackton—did not show that he heard the comment on all sides. Public opinion was against Bostil's permission to allow Cordts and his horse-thieves to attend the races. Bostil appeared grave, regretful. Yet it was known by all that in the strangeness and perversity of his rider's nature he wanted Cordts to see the King win that race. It was his rider's vanity and defiance in the teeth of a great horse-thief. But no good would come of Cordts's presence—that much was manifest.
There was a moment of silence. All these men, if they did not fear Bostil, were sometimes uneasy when near him. Some who were more reckless than discreet liked to irritate him. That, too, was a rider's weakness.
"When's Creech's hosses comin' over?" asked Colson, with sudden interest.
"Wal, I reckon—soon," replied Bostil, constrainedly, and he turned away.
By the time he got home all the excitement of the past hour had left him and gloom again abided in his mind. He avoided his daughter and forgot the fact of her entering a horse in the race. He ate supper alone, without speaking to his sister. Then in the dusk he went out to the corrals and called the King to the fence. There was love between master and horse. Bostil talked low, like a woman, to Sage King. And the hard old rider's heart was full and a lump swelled in his throat, for contact with the King reminded him that other men loved other horses.
Bostil returned to the house and went to his room, where he sat thinking in the dark. By and by all was quiet. Then seemingly with a wrench he bestirred himself and did what for him was a strange action. Removing his boots, he put on a pair of moccasins. He slipped out of the house; he kept to the flagstone of the walk; he took to the sage till out of the village, and then he sheered round to the river trail. With the step and sureness and the eyes of an Indian he went down through that pitch-black canyon to the river and the ford.
The river seemed absolutely the same as during the day. He peered through the dark opaqueness of gloom. It moved there, the river he knew, shadowy, mysterious, murmuring. Bostil went down to the edge of the water, and, sitting there, he listened. Yes—the voices of the stream were the same. But after a long time he imagined there was among them an infinitely low voice, as if from a great distance. He imagined this; he doubted; he made sure; and then all seemed fancy again. His mind held only one idea and was riveted round it. He strained his hearing, so long, so intently, that at last he knew he had heard what he was longing for. Then in the gloom he took to the trail, and returned home as he had left, stealthily, like an Indian.
But Bostil did not sleep nor rest.
Next morning early he rode down to the river. Somers and Shugrue had finished the boat and were waiting. Other men were there, curious and eager. Joel Creech, barefooted and ragged, with hollow eyes and strange actions, paced the sands.
The boat was lying bottom up. Bostil examined the new planking and the seams. Then he straightened his form.
"Turn her over," he ordered. "Shove her in. An' let her soak up to-day."
The men seemed glad and relieved. Joel Creech heard and he came near to Bostil.
"You'll—you'll fetch Dad's hosses over?" he queried.
"Sure. To-morrow," replied Bostil, cheerily.
Joel smiled, and that smile showed what might have been possible for him under kinder conditions of life. "Now, Bostil, I'm sorry fer what I said," blurted Joel.
"Shut up. Go tell your old man."
Joel ran down to his skiff and, leaping in, began to row vigorously across. Bostil watched while the workmen turned the boat over and slid it off the sand-bar and tied it securely to the mooring. Bostil observed that not a man there saw anything unusual about the river. But, for that matter, there was nothing to see. The river was the same.
That night when all was quiet in and around the village Bostil emerged from his house and took to his stealthy stalk down toward the river.
The moment he got out into the night oppression left him. How interminable the hours had been! Suspense, doubt, anxiety, fear no longer burdened him. The night was dark, with only a few stars, and the air was cool. A soft wind blew across his heated face. A neighbor's dog, baying dismally, startled Bostil. He halted to listen, then stole on under the cottonwoods, through the sage, down the trail, into the jet-black canyon. Yet he found his way as if it had been light. In the darkness of his room he had been a slave to his indecision; now in the darkness of the looming cliffs he was free, resolved, immutable.
The distance seemed short. He passed out of the narrow canyon, skirted the gorge over the river, and hurried down into the shadowy amphitheater under the looming walls.
The boat lay at the mooring, one end resting lightly the sand-bar. With strong, nervous clutch Bostil felt the knots of the cables. Then he peered into the opaque gloom of that strange and huge V-shaped split between the great canyon walls. Bostil's mind had begun to relax from the single idea. Was he alone? Except for the low murmur of the river there was dead silence—a silence like no other—a silence which seemed held under imprisoning walls. Yet Bostil peered long into the shadows. Then he looked up. The ragged ramparts far above frowned bold and black at a few cold stars, and the blue of its sky was without the usual velvety brightness. How far it was up to that corrugated rim! All of a sudden Bostil hated this vast ebony pit.
He strode down to the water and, sitting upon the stone he had occupied so often, he listened. He turned his ear up-stream, then down-stream, and to the side, and again up-stream and listened.
The river seemed the same.
It was slow, heavy, listless, eddying, lingering, moving—the same apparently as for days past. It splashed very softly and murmured low and gurgled faintly. It gave forth fitful little swishes and musical tinkles and lapping sounds. It was flowing water, yet the proof was there of tardiness. Now it was almost still, and then again it moved on. It was a river of mystery telling a lie with its low music. As Bostil listened all those soft, watery sounds merged into what seemed a moaning, and that moaning held a roar so low as to be only distinguishable to the ear trained by years.
No—the river was not the same. For the voice of its soft moaning showed to Bostil its meaning. It called from the far north—the north of great ice-clad peaks beginning to glisten under the nearing sun; of vast snow-filled canyons dripping and melting; of the crystal brooks suddenly colored and roiled and filled bank-full along the mountain meadows; of many brooks plunging down and down, rolling the rocks, to pour their volume into the growing turbid streams on the slopes. It was the voice of all that widely separated water spilled suddenly with magical power into the desert river to make it a mighty, thundering torrent, red and defiled, terrible in its increasing onslaught into the canyon, deep, ponderous, but swift—the Colorado in flood.
And as Bostil heard that voice he trembled. What was the thing he meant to do? A thousand thoughts assailed him in answer and none were clear. A chill passed over him. Suddenly he felt that the cold stole up from his feet. They were both in the water. He pulled them out and, bending down, watched the dim, dark line of water. It moved up and up, inch by inch, swiftly. The river was on the rise!
Bostil leaped up. He seemed possessed of devils. A rippling hot gash of blood fired his every vein and tremor after tremor shook him.
"By G—-d! I had it right—she's risin'!" he exclaimed, hoarsely.
He stared in fascinated certainty at the river. All about it and pertaining to it had changed. The murmur and moan changed to a low, sullen roar. The music was gone. The current chafed at its rock-bound confines. Here was an uneasy, tormented, driven river! The light from the stars shone on dark, glancing, restless waters, uneven and strange. And while Bostil watched, whether it was a short time or long, the remorseless, destructive nature of the river showed itself.
Bostil began to pace the sands. He thought of those beautiful race-horses across the river.
"It's not too late!" he muttered. "I can get the boat over an' back—yet!"
He knew that on the morrow the Colorado in flood would bar those horses, imprison them in a barren canyon, shut them in to starve.
"It'd be hellish! ... Bostil, you can't do it. You ain't thet kind of a man.... Bostil poison a water-hole where hosses loved to drink, or burn over grass! ... What would Lucy think of you? ... No, Bostil, you've let spite rule bad. Hurry now and save them hosses!"
He strode down to the boat. It swung clear now, and there was water between it and the shore. Bostil laid hold of the cables. As he did so he thought of Creech and a blackness enfolded him. He forgot Creech's horses. Something gripped him, burned him—some hard and bitter feeling which he thought was hate of Creech. Again the wave of fire ran over him, and his huge hands strained on the cables. The fiend of that fiendish river had entered his soul. He meant ruin to a man. He meant more than ruin. He meant to destroy what his enemy, his rival loved. The darkness all about him, the gloom and sinister shadow of the canyon, the sullen increasing roar of the' river—these lent their influence to the deed, encouraged him, drove him onward, fought and strangled the resistance in his heart. As he brooded all the motives for the deed grew like that remorseless river. Had not his enemy's son shot at him from ambush? Was not his very life at stake? A terrible blow must be dealt Creech, one that would crush him or else lend him manhood enough to come forth with a gun. Bostil, in his torment, divined that Creech would know who had ruined him. They would meet then, as Bostil had tried more than once to bring about a meeting. Bostil saw into his soul, and it was a gulf like this canyon pit where the dark and sullen river raged. He shrank at what he saw, but the furies of passion held him fast. His hands tore at the cables. Then he fell to pacing to and fro in the gloom. Every moment the river changed its voice. In an hour flood would be down. Too late, then! Bostil again remembered the sleek, slim, racy thoroughbreds—Blue Roan, a wild horse he had longed to own, and Peg, a mare that had no equal in the uplands. Where did Bostil's hate of a man stand in comparison with love of a horse? He began to sweat and the sweat burned him.
"How soon'll Creech hear the river an' know what's comin'?" muttered Bostil, darkly. And that question showed him how he was lost. All this strife of doubt and fear and horror were of no use. He meant to doom Creech's horses. The thing had been unalterable from the inception of the insidious, hateful idea. It was irresistible. He grew strong, hard, fierce, and implacable. He found himself. He strode back to the cables. The knots, having dragged in the water, were soaking wet and swollen. He could not untie them. Then he cut one strand after another. The boat swung out beyond his reach.
Instinctively Bostil reached to pull it back.
"My God! ... It's goin'!" he whispered. "What have I done?"
He—Bostil—who had made this Crossing of the Fathers more famous as Bostil's Ford—he—to cut the boat adrift! The thing was inconceivable.
The roar of the river rose weird and mournful and incessant, with few breaks, and these were marked by strange ripping and splashing sounds made as the bulges of water broke on the surface. Twenty feet out the boat floated, turning a little as it drifted. It seemed loath to leave. It held on the shore eddy. Hungrily, spitefully the little, heavy waves lapped it. Bostil watched it with dilating eyes. There! the current caught one end and the water rose in a hollow splash over the corner. An invisible hand, like a mighty giant's, seemed to swing the boat out. It had been dark; now it was opaque, now shadowy, now dim. How swift this cursed river! Was there any way in which Bostil could recover his boat? The river answered him with hollow, deep mockery. Despair seized upon him. And the vague shape of the boat, spectral and instinct with meaning, passed from Bostil's strained gaze.
"So help me God, I've done it!" he groaned, hoarsely. And he staggered back and sat down. Mind and heart and soul were suddenly and exquisitely acute to the shame of his act. Remorse seized upon his vitals. He suffered physical agony, as if a wolf gnawed him internally.
"To hell with Creech an' his hosses, but where do I come in as a man?" he whispered. And he sat there, arms tight around his knees, locked both mentally and physically into inaction.
The rising water broke the spell and drove him back. The river was creeping no longer. It swelled. And the roar likewise swelled. Bostil hurried across the flat to get to the rocky trail before he was cut off, and the last few rods he waded in water up to his knees.
"I'll leave no trail there," he muttered, with a hard laugh. It sounded ghastly to him, like the laugh of the river.
And there at the foot of the rocky trail he halted to watch and listen. The old memorable boom came to his ears. The flood was coming. For twenty-three years he had heard the vanguard boom of the Colorado in flood. But never like this, for in the sound he heard the strife and passion of his blood, and realized himself a human counterpart of that remorseless river. The moments passed and each one saw a swelling of the volume of sound. The sullen roar just below him was gradually lost in a distant roar. A steady wind now blew through the canyon. The great walls seemed to gape wider to prepare for the torrent. Bostil backed slowly up the trail as foot by foot the water rose. The floor of the amphitheater was now a lake of choppy, angry waves. The willows bent and seethed in the edge of the current. Beyond ran an uneven, bulging mass that resembled some gray, heavy moving monster. In the gloom Bostil could see how the river turned a corner of wall and slanted away from it toward the center, where it rose higher. Black objects that must have been driftwood appeared on this crest. They showed an instant, then flashed out of sight. The boom grew steadier, closer, louder, and the reverberations, like low detonations of thunder, were less noticeable because all sounds were being swallowed up.
A harder breeze puffed into Bostil's face. It brought a tremendous thunder, as if all the colossal walls were falling in avalanche. Bostil knew the crest of the flood had turned the corner above and would soon reach him. He watched. He listened, but sound had ceased. His ears seemed ringing and they hurt. All his body felt cold, and he backed up and up, with dead feet.
The shadows of the canyon lightened. A river-wide froth, like a curtain, moved down, spreading mushroom-wise before it, a rolling, heaving maelstrom. Bostil ran to escape the great wave that surged into the amphitheater, up and up the rocky trail. When he turned again he seemed to look down into hell. Murky depths, streaked by pale gleams, and black, sinister, changing forms yawned beneath them. He watched with fixed eyes until once more the feeling of filled ears left him and an awful thundering boom assured him of actualities. It was only the Colorado in flood.