Wildfire by Zane Grey
Wildfire ran on down the valley far beyond the yelling crowd lined along the slope. Bostil was deaf to the throng; he watched the stallion till Lucy forced him to stop and turn.
Then Bostil whirled to see where Van was with the King. Most of the crowd surged down to surround the racers, and the yells gave way to the buzz of many voices. Some of the ranchers and riders remained near Bostil, all apparently talking at once. Bostil gathered that Holley's Whitefoot had ran second, and the Navajo's mustang third. It was Holley himself who verified what Bostil had heard. The old rider's hawk eyes were warm with delight.
"Boss, he run second!" Holley kept repeating.
Bostil had the heart to shake hands with Holley and say he was glad, when it was on his lips to blurt out there had been no race. Then Bostil's nerves tingled at sight of Van trotting the King up the course toward the slope. Bostil watched with searching eyes. Sage King did not appear to be injured. Van rode straight up the slope and leaped off. He was white and shaking.
The King's glossy hide was dirty with dust and bits of cactus and brush. He was not even hot. There did not appear to be a bruise or mark on him. He whinnied and rubbed his face against Bostil, and then, flinching, he swept up his head, ears high. Both fear and fire shone in his eyes.
"Wal, Van, get it out of your system," said Bostil, kindly. He was a harder loser before a race was run than after he had lost it.
"Thet red hoss run in on the King before the start an' scared the race out of him," replied Van, swiftly. "We had a hunch, you know, but at thet Lucy's hoss was a surprise. I'll say, sir, thet Lucy rode her wild hoss an' handled him. Twice she pulled him off the King. He meant to kill the King! ... Ask any of the boys.... We got started. I took the lead, sir. The King was in the lead. I never looked back till I heard Lucy scream. She couldn't pull Wildfire. He was rushin' the King—meant to kill him. An' Sage King wanted to fight. If I could only have kept him runnin'! Thet would have been a race! ... But Wildfire got in closer an' closer. He crowded us. He bit at the King's flank an' shoulder an' neck. Lucy pulled till I yelled she'd throw the hoss an' kill us both. Then Wildfire jumped for us. Runnin' an' strikin' with both feet at once! Bostil, thet hoss's hell! Then he hit us an' down we went. I had a bad spill. But the King's not hurt an' thet's a blessed wonder."
"No race, Van! It was hard luck. Take him home," said Bostil.
Van's story of the accident vindicated Bostil's doubts. A new horse had appeared on the scene, wild and swift and grand, but Sage King was still unbeaten in a fair race. There would come a reckoning, Bostil grimly muttered. Who owned this Wildfire?
Holley might as well have read his mind. "Reckon this feller ridin' up will take down the prize money," remarked Holley, and he pointed to a man who rode a huge, shaggy, black horse and was leading Lucy's pony.
"A-huh!" exclaimed Bostil. "A strange rider."
"An' here comes Lucy coaxin' the stallion back," added Holley.
"A wild stallion never clear broke!" ejaculated Cordts.
All the men looked and all had some remark of praise for Lucy and her mount.
Bostil gazed with a strange, irresistible attraction. Never had he expected to live to see a wild stallion like this one, to say nothing of his daughter mounted on him, with the record of having put Sage King out of the race!
A thousand pairs of eyes watched Wildfire. He pranced out there beyond the crowd of men and horses. He did not want to come closer. Yet he did not seem to fight his rider. Lucy hung low over his neck, apparently exhausted, and she was patting him and caressing him. There were horses and Indians on each side of the race track, and between these lines Lucy appeared reluctant to come.
Bostil strode down and, waving and yelling for everybody to move back to the slope, he cleared the way and then stood out in front alone.
"Ride up, now," he called to Lucy.
It was then Bostil discovered that Lucy did not wear a spur and she had neither quirt nor whip. She turned Wildfire and he came prancing on, head and mane and tail erect. His action was beautiful, springy, and every few steps, as Lucy touched him, he jumped with marvelous ease and swiftness.
Bostil became all eyes. He did not see his daughter as she paraded the winner before the applauding throng. And Bostil recorded in his mind that which he would never forget—a wild stallion, with unbroken spirit; a giant of a horse, glistening red, with mane like dark-striped, wind-blown flame, all muscle, all grace, all power; a neck long and slender and arching to the small, savagely beautiful head; the jaws open, and the thin-skinned, pink-colored nostrils that proved the Arabian blood; the slanting shoulders and the deep, broad chest, the powerful legs and knees not too high nor too low, the symmetrical dark hoofs that rang on the little stones—all these marks so significant of speed and endurance. A stallion with a wonderful physical perfection that matched the savage, ruthless spirit of the desert killer of horses!
Lucy waved her hand, and the strange rider to whom Holley had called attention strode out of the crowd toward Wildfire.
Bostil's gaze took in the splendid build of this lithe rider, the clean-cut face, the dark eye. This fellow had a shiny, coiled lasso in hand. He advanced toward Wildfire. The stallion snorted and plunged. If ever Bostil saw hate expressed by a horse he saw it then. But he seemed to be tractable to the control of the girl. Bostil swiftly grasped the strange situation. Lucy had won the love of the savage stallion. That always had been the secret of her power. And she had hated Sage King because he alone had somehow taken a dislike to her. Horses were as queer as people, thought Bostil.
The rider walked straight up to the trembling Wildfire. When Wildfire plunged and reared up and up the rider leaped for the bridle and with an iron arm pulled the horse down. Wildfire tried again, almost lifting the rider, but a stinging cut from the lasso made him come to a stand. Plainly the rider held the mastery.
"Dad!" called Lucy, faintly.
Bostil went forward, close, while the rider held Wildfire. Lucy was as wan-faced as a flower by moonlight. Her eyes were dark with emotions, fear predominating. Then for Bostil the half of his heart that was human reasserted itself. Lucy was only a girl now, and weakening. Her fear, her pitiful little smile, as if she dared not hope for her father's approval yet could not help it, touched Bostil to the quick, and he opened his arms. Lucy slid down into them.
"Lucy, girl, you've won the King's race an' double-crossed your poor old dad!"
"Oh, Dad, I never knew—I never dreamed Wildfire—would jump the King," Lucy faltered. "I couldn't hold him. He was terrible.... It made me sick.... Daddy, tell me Van wasn't hurt—or the King!"
"The hoss's all right an' so's Van," replied Bostil. "Don't cry, Lucy. It was a fool trick you pulled off, but you did it great. By Gad! you sure was ridin' thet red devil.... An' say, it's all right with me!"
Lucy did not faint then, but she came near it. Bostil put her down and led her through the lines of admiring Indians and applauding riders, and left her with the women.
When he turned again he was in time to see the strange rider mount Wildfire. It was a swift and hazardous mount, the stallion being in the air. When he came down he tore the turf and sent it flying, and when he shot up again he was doubled in a red knot, bristling with fiery hair, a furious wild beast, mad to throw the rider. Bostil never heard as wild a scream uttered by a horse. Likewise he had never seen so incomparable a horseman as this stranger. Indians and riders alike thrilled at a sight which was after their own hearts. The rider had hooked his long spurs under the horse and now appeared a part of him. He could not be dislodged. This was not a bucking mustang, but a fierce, powerful, fighting stallion. No doubt, thought Bostil, this fight took place every time the rider mounted his horse. It was the sort of thing riders loved. Most of them would not own a horse that would not pitch. Bostil presently decided, however, that in the case of this red stallion no rider in his right senses would care for such a fight, simply because of the extraordinary strengths, activity, and ferocity of the stallion.
The riders were all betting the horse would throw the stranger. And Bostil, seeing the gathering might of Wildfire's momentum, agreed with them. No horseman could stick on that horse. Suddenly Wildfire tripped in the sage, and went sprawling in the dust, throwing his rider ahead. Both man and beast were quick to rise, but the rider had a foot in the stirrup before Wildfire was under way. Then the horse plunged, ran free, came circling back, and slowly gave way to the rider's control. Those few moments of frenzied activity had brought out the foam and the sweat—Wildfire was wet. The man pulled him in before Bostil and dismounted.
"Sometimes I ride him, then sometimes I don't," he said, with a smile.
Bostil held out his hand. He liked this rider. He would have liked the frank face, less hard than that of most riders, and the fine, dark eyes, straight and steady, even if their possessor had not come with the open sesame to Bostil's regard—a grand, wild horse, and the nerve to ride him.
"Wal, you rode him longer 'n any of us figgered," said Bostil, heartily shaking the man's hand. "I'm Bostil. Glad to meet you."
"My name's Slone—Lin Slone," replied the rider, frankly. "I'm a wild-horse hunter an' hail from Utah."
"Utah? How'd you ever get over? Wal, you've got a grand hoss—an' you put a grand rider up on him in the race.... My girl Lucy—"
Bostil hesitated. His mind was running swiftly. Back of his thoughts gathered the desire and the determination to get possession of this horse Wildfire. He had forgotten what he might have said to this stranger under different circumstances. He looked keenly into Slone's face and saw no fear, no subterfuge. The young man was honest.
"Bostil, I chased this wild horse days an' weeks an' months, hundreds of miles—across the canyon an' the river—"
"No!" interrupted Bostil, blankly.
"Yes. I'll tell you how later.... Out here somewhere I caught Wildfire, broke him as much as he'll ever be broken. He played me out an' got away. Your girl rode along—saved my horse—an' saved my life, too. I was in bad shape for days. But I got well—an'—an' then she wanted me to let her run Wildfire in the big race. I couldn't refuse.... An' it would have been a great race but for the unlucky accident to Sage King. I'm sorry, sir."
"Slone, it jarred me some, thet disappointment. But it's over," replied Bostil. "An' so thet's how Lucy found her hoss. She sure was mysterious.... Wal, wal." Bostil became aware of others behind him. "Holley, shake hands with Slone, hoss-wrangler out of Utah.... You, too, Cal Blinn.... An' Macomber—an' Wetherby, meet my friend here—young Slone.... An', Cordts, shake hands with a feller thet owns a grand hoss!"
Bostil laughed as he introduced the horse-thief to Slone. The others laughed, too, even Cordts joining in. There was much of the old rider daredevil spirit left in Bostil, and it interested and amused him to see Cordts and Slone meet. Assuredly Slone had heard of the noted stealer of horses. The advantage was certainly on Cordts's side, for he was good-natured and pleasant while Slone stiffened, paling slightly as he faced about to acknowledge the introduction.
"Howdy, Slone," drawled Cordts, with hand outstretched. "I sure am glad to meet yuh. I'd like to trade the Sage King for this red stallion!"
A roar of laughter greeted this sally, all but Bostil and Slone joining in. The joke was on Bostil, and he showed it. Slone did not even smile.
"Howdy, Cordts," he replied. "I'm glad to meet you—so I'll know you when I see you again."
"Wal, we're all good fellers to-day," interposed Bostil. "An' now let's ride home an' eat. Slone, you come with me."
The group slowly mounted the slope where the horses waited. Macomber, Wetherby, Burthwait, Blinn—all Bostil's friends proffered their felicitations to the young rider, and all were evidently prepossessed with him.
The sun was low in the west; purple shades were blotting out the gold lights down the valley; the day of the great races was almost done. Indians were still scattered here and there in groups; others were turning out the mustangs; and the majority were riding and walking with the crowd toward the village.
Bostil observed that Cordts had hurried ahead of the group and now appeared to be saying something emphatic to Dick Sears and Hutchinson. Bostil heard Cordts curse. Probably he was arraigning the sullen Sears. Cordts had acted first rate—had lived up to his word, as Bostil thought he would do. Cordts and Hutchinson mounted their horses and rode off, somewhat to the left of the scattered crowd. But Sears remained behind. Bostil thought this strange and put it down to the surliness of the fellow, who had lost on the races. Bostil, wishing Sears would get out of his sight, resolved never to make another blunder like inviting horse-thieves to a race.
All the horses except Wildfire stood in a bunch back on the bench. Sears appeared to be fussing with the straps on his saddle. And Bostil could not keep his glance from wandering back to gloat over Wildfire's savage grace and striking size.
Suddenly there came a halt in the conversation of the men, a curse in Holley's deep voice, a violent split in the group. Bostil wheeled to see Sears in a menacing position with two guns leveled low.
"Don't holler!" he called. "An' don't move!"
"What 'n the h—l now, Sears?" demanded Bostil.
"I'll bore you if you move—thet's what!" replied Sears. His eyes, bold, steely, with a glint that Bostil knew, vibrated as he held in sight all points before him. A vicious little sand-rattlesnake about to strike!
"Holley, turn yer back!" ordered Sears.
The old rider, who stood foremost of the group' instantly obeyed, with hands up. He took no chances here, for he alone packed a gun. With swift steps Sears moved, pulled Holley's gun, flung it aside into the sage.
"Sears, it ain't a hold-up!" expostulated Bostil. The act seemed too bold, too wild even for Dick Sears.
"Ain't it?" scoffed Sears, malignantly. "Bostil, I was after the King. But I reckon I'll git the hoss thet beat him!"
Bostil's face turned dark-blood color and his neck swelled. "By Gawd, Sears! You ain't a-goin' to steal this boy's hoss!"
"Shut up!" hissed the horse-thief. He pushed a gun close to Bostil. "I've always laid fer you! I'm achin' to bore you now. I would but fer scarin' this hoss. If you yap again I'll KILL YOU, anyhow, an' take a chance!"
All the terrible hate and evil and cruelty and deadliness of his kind burned in his eyes and stung in his voice.
"Sears, if it's my horse you want you needn't kill Bostil," spoke up Slone. The contrast of his cool, quiet voice eased the terrible strain.
"Lead him round hyar!" snapped Sears.
Wildfire appeared more shy of the horses back of him than of the men. Slone was able to lead him, however, to within several paces of Sears. Then Slone dropped the reins. He still held a lasso which was loosely coiled, and the loop dropped in front of him as he backed away.
Sears sheathed the left-hand gun. Keeping the group covered with the other, he moved backward, reaching for the hanging reins. Wildfire snorted, appeared about to jump. But Sears got the reins. Bostil, standing like a stone, his companions also motionless, could not help but admire the daring of this upland horse-thief. How was he to mount that wild stallion? Sears was noted for two qualities—his nerve before men and his skill with horses. Assuredly he would not risk an ordinary mount. Wildfire began to suspect Sears—to look at him instead of the other horses. Then quick as a cat Sears vaulted into the saddle. Wildfire snorted and lifted his forefeet in a lunge that meant he would bolt.
Sears in vaulting up had swung the gun aloft. He swept it down, but waveringly, for Wildfire had begun to rear.
Bostil saw how fatal that single instant would have been for Sears if he or Holley had a gun.
Something whistled. Bostil saw the leap of Slone's lasso—the curling, snaky dart of the noose which flew up to snap around Sears. The rope sung taut. Sears was swept bodily clean from the saddle, to hit the ground in sodden impact.
Almost swifter than Bostil's sight was the action of Slone—flashing by—in the air—himself on the plunging horse. Sears shot once, twice. Then Wildfire bolted as his rider whipped the lasso round the horn. Sears, half rising, was jerked ten feet. An awful shriek was throttled in his throat.
A streak of dust on the slope—a tearing, parting line in the sage!
Bostil stood amazed. The red stallion made short plunges. Slone reached low for the tripping reins. When he straightened up in the saddle Wildfire broke wildly into a run.
It was characteristic of Holley that at this thrilling, tragic instant he walked over into the sage to pick up his gun.
"Throwed a gun on me, got the drop, an' pitched mine away!" muttered Holley, in disgust. The way he spoke meant that he was disgraced.
"My Gawd! I was scared thet Sears would get the hoss!" rolled out Bostil.
Holley thought of his gun; Bostil thought of the splendid horse. The thoughts were characteristic of these riders. The other men, however, recovering from a horror-broken silence, burst out in acclaim of Slone's feat.
"Dick Sears's finish! Roped by a boy rider!" exclaimed Cal Blinn, fervidly.
"Bostil, that rider is worthy of his horse," said Wetherby. "I think Sears would have bored you. I saw his finger pressing—pressing on the trigger. Men like Sears can't help but pull at that stage."
"Thet was the quickest trick I ever seen," declared Macomber.
They watched Wildfire run down the slope, out into the valley, with a streak of rising dust out behind. They all saw when there ceased to be that peculiar rising of dust. Wildfire appeared to shoot ahead at greater speed. Then he slowed up. The rider turned him and faced back toward the group, coming at a stiff gallop. Soon Wildfire breasted the slope, and halted, snorting, shaking before the men. The lasso was still trailing out behind, limp and sagging. There was no weight upon it now.
Bostil strode slowly ahead. He sympathized with the tension that held Slone; he knew why the rider's face was gray, why his lips only moved mutely, why there was horror in the dark, strained eyes, why the lean, strong hands, slowly taking up the lasso, now shook like leaves in the wind.
There was only dust on the lasso. But Bostil knew—they all knew that none the less it had dealt a terrible death to the horse-thief.
Somehow Bostil could not find words for what he wanted to say. He put a hand on the red stallion—patted his shoulder. Then he gripped Slone close and hard. He was thinking how he would have gloried in a son like this young, wild rider. Then he again faced his comrades.
"Fellers, do you think Cordts was in on thet trick?" he queried.
"Nope. Cordts was on the square," replied Holley. "But he must have seen it comin' an' left Sears to his fate. It sure was a fittin' last ride for a hoss-thief."
Bostil sent Holley and Farlane on ahead to find Cordts and Hutchinson, with their comrades, to tell them the fate of Sears, and to warn them to leave before the news got to the riders.
The sun was setting golden and red over the broken battlements of the canyons to the west. The heat of the day blew away on a breeze that bent the tips of the sage-brush. A wild song drifted back from the riders to the fore. And the procession of Indians moved along, their gay trappings and bright colors beautiful in the fading sunset light.
When Bostil and, his guests arrived at the corrals, Holley, with Farlane and other riders, were waiting.
"Boss," said Holley, "Cordts an' his outfit never rid in. They was last seen by some Navajos headin' for the canyon."
"Thet's good!" ejaculated Bostil, in relief. "Wal boys, look after the hosses. ... Slone, just turn Wildfire over to the boys with instructions, an' feel safe."
Farlane scratched his head and looked dubious. "I'm wonderin' how safe it'll be fer us."
"I'll look after him," said Slone.
Bostil nodded as if he had expected Slone to refuse to let any rider put the stallion away for the night. Wildfire would not go into the barn, and Slone led him into one of the high-barred corrals. Bostil waited, talking with his friends, until Slone returned, and then they went toward the house.
"I reckon we couldn't get inside Brack's place now," remarked Bostil. "But in a case like this I can scare up a drink." Lights from the windows shone bright through the darkness under the cottonwoods. Bostil halted at the door, as if suddenly remembering, and he whispered, huskily: "Let's keep the women from learnin' about Sears—to-night, anyway."
Then he led the way through the big door into the huge living-room. There were hanging-lights on the walls and blazing sticks on the hearth. Lucy came running in to meet them. It did not escape Bostil's keen eyes that she was dressed in her best white dress. He had never seen her look so sweet and pretty, and, for that matter, so strange. The flush, the darkness of her eyes, the added something in her face, tender, thoughtful, strong—these were new. Bostil pondered while she welcomed his guests. Slone, who had hung back, was last in turn. Lucy greeted him as she had the others. Slone met her with awkward constraint. The gray had not left his face. Lucy looked up at him again, and differently.
"What—what has happened?" she asked.
It annoyed Bostil that Slone and all the men suddenly looked blank.
"Why, nothin'," replied Slone, slowly, "'cept I'm fagged out."
Lucy, or any other girl, could have seen that he, was evading the truth. She flashed a look from Slone to her father.
"Until to-day we never had a big race that something dreadful didn't happen," said Lucy. "This was my day—my race. And, oh! I wanted it to pass without—without—"
"Wal, Lucy dear," replied Bostil, as she faltered. "Nothin' came off thet'd make you feel bad. Young Slone had a scare about his hoss. Wildfire's safe out there in the corral, an' he'll be guarded like the King an' Sarch. Slone needs a drink an' somethin' to eat, same as all of us."
Lucy's color returned and her smile, but Bostil noted that, while she was serving them and brightly responsive to compliments, she gave more than one steady glance at Slone. She was deep, thought Bostil, and it angered him a little that she showed interest in what concerned this strange rider.
Then they had dinner, with twelve at table. The wives of Bostil's three friends had been helping Aunt Jane prepare the feast, and they added to the merriment. Bostil was not much given to social intercourse—he would have preferred to be with his horses and riders—but this night he outdid himself as host, amazed his sister Jane, who evidently thought he drank too much, and delighted Lucy. Bostil's outward appearance and his speech and action never reflected all the workings of his mind. No one would ever know the depth of his bitter disappointment at the outcome of the race. With Creech's Blue Roan out of the way, another horse, swifter and more dangerous, had come along to spoil the King's chance. Bostil felt a subtly increasing covetousness in regard to Wildfire, and this colored all his talk and action. The upland country, vast and rangy, was for Bostil too small to hold Sage King and Wildfire unless they both belonged to him. And when old Cal Blinn gave a ringing toast to Lucy, hoping to live to see her up on Wildfire in the grand race that must be run with the King, Bostil felt stir in him the birth of a subtle, bitter fear. At first he mocked it. He—Bostil—afraid to race! It was a lie of the excited mind. He repudiated it. Insidiously it returned. He drowned it down—smothered it with passion. Then the ghost of it remained, hauntingly.
After dinner Bostil with the men went down to Brackton's, where Slone and the winners of the day received their prizes.
"Why, it's more money than I ever had in my whole life!" exclaimed Slone, gazing incredulously at the gold.
Bostil was amused and pleased, and back of both amusement and pleasure was the old inventive, driving passion to gain his own ends.
Bostil was abnormally generous in many ways; monstrously selfish in one way.
"Slone, I seen you didn't drink none," he said, curiously.
"No; I don't like liquor."
"Do you gamble?"
"I like a little bet—on a race," replied Slone, frankly.
"Wal, thet ain't gamblin'. These fool riders of mine will bet on the switchin' of a hoss's tail." He drew Slone a little aside from the others, who were interested in Brackton's delivery of the different prizes. "Slone, how'd you like to ride for me?"
Slone appeared surprised. "Why, I never rode for any one," he replied, slowly. "I can't stand to be tied down. I'm a horse-hunter, you know."
Bostil eyed the young man, wondering what he knew about the difficulties of the job offered. It was no news to Bostil that he was at once the best and the worst man to ride for in all the uplands.
"Sure, I know. But thet doesn't make no difference," went on Bostil, persuasively. "If we got along—wal, you'd save some of thet yellow coin you're jinglin'. A roamin' rider never builds no corral!"
"Thank you, Bostil," replied Slone, earnestly. "I'll think it over. It would seem kind of tame now to go back to wild-horse wranglin', after I've caught Wildfire. I'll think it over. Maybe I'll do it, if you're sure I'm good enough with rope an' horse."
"Wal, by Gawd!" blurted out Bostil. "Holley says he'd rather you throwed a gun on him than a rope! So would I. An' as for your handlin' a hoss, I never seen no better."
Slone appeared embarrassed and kept studying the gold coins in his palm. Some one touched Bostil, who, turning, saw Brackton at his elbow. The other men were now bantering with the Indians.
"Come now while I've got a minnit," said Brackton, taking up a lantern. "I've somethin' to show you."
Bostil followed Brackton, and Slone came along. The old man opened a door into a small room, half full of stores and track. The lantern only dimly lighted the place.
"Look thar!" And Brackton flashed the light upon a man lying prostrate.
Bostil recognized the pale face of Joel Creech. "Brack! ... What's this? Is he dead?" Bostil sustained a strange, incomprehensible shock. Sight of a dead man had never before shocked him.
"Nope, he ain't dead, which if he was might be good for this community," replied Brackton. "He's only fallen in a fit. Fust off I reckoned he was drunk. But it ain't thet."
"Wal, what do you want to show him to me for?" demanded Bostil, gruffly.
"I reckoned you oughter see him."
"An' why, Brackton?"
Brackton set down the lantern and, pushing Slone outside, said: "Jest a minnit, son," and then he closed the door. "Joel's been on my hands since the flood cut him off from home," said Brackton. "An' he's been some trial. But nobody else would have done nothin' for him, so I had to. I reckon I felt sorry for him. He cried like a baby thet had lost its mother. Then he gets wild-lookin' an' raved around. When I wasn't busy I kept an eye on him. But some of the time I couldn't, an' he stole drinks, which made him wuss. An' when I seen he was tryin' to sneak one of my guns, I up an' gets suspicious. Once he said, 'My dad's hosses are goin' to starve, an' I'm goin' to kill somebody!' He was out of his head an' dangerous. Wal, I was worried some, but all I could do was lock up my guns. Last night I caught him confabin' with some men out in the dark, behind the store. They all skedaddled except Joel, but I recognized Cordts. I didn't like this, nuther. Joel was surly an' ugly. An' when one of the riders called him he said: 'Thet boat NEVER DRIFTED OFF. Fer the night of the flood I went down there myself an' tied the ropes. They never come untied. Somebody cut them—jest before the flood—to make sure my dad's hosses couldn't be crossed. Somebody figgered the river an' the flood. An' if my dad's hosses starve I'm goin' to kill somebody!'"
Brackton took up the lantern and placed a hand on the door ready to go out.
"Then a rider punched Joel—I never seen who—an' Joel had a fit. I dragged him in here. An' as you see, he ain't come to yet."
"Wal, Brackton, the boy's crazy," said Bostil.
"So I reckon. An' I'm afeared he'll burn us out—he's crazy on fires, anyway—or do somethin' like."
"He's sure a problem. Wal, we'll see," replied Bostil, soberly.
And they went out to find Slone waiting. Then Bostil called his guests, and with Slone also accompanying him, went home.
Bostil threw off the recurring gloom, and he was good-natured when Lucy came to his room to say good night. He knew she had come to say more than that.
"Hello, daughter!" he said. "Aren't you ashamed to come facin' your poor old dad?"
Lucy eyed him dubiously. "No, I'm not ashamed. But I'm still a little—afraid."
"I'm harmless, child. I'm a broken man. When you put Sage King out of the race you broke me."
"Dad, that isn't funny. You make me an—angry when you hint I did something underhand."
"Wal, you didn't consult ME."
"I thought it would be fun to surprise you all. Why, you're always delighted with a surprise in a race, unless it beats you.... Then, it was my great and only chance to get out in front of the King. Oh, how grand it'd have been! Dad, I'd have run away from him the same as the others!"
"No, you wouldn't," declared Bostil.
"Dad, Wildfire can beat the King!"
"Never, girl! Knockin' a good-tempered hoss off his pins ain't beatin' him in a runnin'-race."
Then father and daughter fought over the old score, the one doggedly, imperturbably, the other spiritedly, with flashing eyes. It was different this time, however, for it ended in Lucy saying Bostil would never risk another race. That stung Bostil, and it cost him an effort to control his temper.
"Let thet go now. Tell me all about how you saved Wildfire, an' Slone, too."
Lucy readily began the narrative, and she had scarcely started before Bostil found himself intensely interested. Soon he became absorbed. That was the most thrilling and moving kind of romance to him, like his rider's dreams.
"Lucy, you're sure a game kid," he said, fervidly, when she had ended. "I reckon I don't blame Slone for fallin' in love with you."
"Who said THAT!" inquired Lucy.
"Nobody. But it's true—ain't it?"
She looked up with eyes as true as ever they were, yet a little sad, he thought, a little wistful and wondering, as if a strange and grave thing confronted her.
"Yes, Dad—it's—it's true," she answered, haltingly.
"Wal, you didn't need to tell me, but I'm glad you did."
Bostil meant to ask her then if she in any sense returned the rider's love, but unaccountably he could not put the question. The girl was as true as ever—as good as gold. Bostil feared a secret that might hurt him. Just as sure as life was there and death but a step away, some rider, sooner or later, would win this girl's love. Bostil knew that, hated it, feared it. Yet he would never give his girl to a beggarly rider. Such a man as Wetherby ought to win Lucy's hand. And Bostil did not want to know too much at present; he did not want his swift-mounting animosity roused so soon. Still he was curious, and, wanting to get the drift of Lucy's mind, he took to his old habit of teasing.
"Another moonstruck rider!" he said. "Your eyes are sure full moons, Lucy. I'd be ashamed to trifle with these poor fellers."
"You're a heartless flirt—same as your mother was before she met ME."
"I'm not. And I don't believe mother was, either," replied Lucy. It was easy to strike fire from her.
"Wal, you did dead wrong to ride out there day after day meetin' Slone, because—young woman—if he ever has the nerve to ask me for you I'll beat him up bad."
"Then you'd be a brute!" retorted Lucy.
"Wal, mebbe," returned Bostil, secretly delighted and surprised at Lucy's failure to see through him. But she was looking inward. He wondered what hid there deep in her. "But I can't stand for the nerve of thet."
"He—he means to—to ask you."
"The h——.... A-huh!"
Lucy did not catch the slip of tongue. She was flushing now. "He said he'd never have let me meet him out there alone—unless—he—he loved me—and as our neighbors and the riders would learn of it—and talk—he wanted you and them to know he'd asked to—to marry me."
"Wal, he's a square young man!" ejaculated Bostil, involuntarily. It was hard for Bostil to hide his sincerity and impulsiveness; much harder than to hide unworthy attributes. Then he got back on the other track. "That'll make me treat him decent, so when he rides up to ask for you I'll let him off with, 'No!"
Lucy dropped her head. Bostil would have given all he had, except his horses, to feel sure she did not care for Slone.
"Dad—I said—'No'—for myself," she murmured.
This time Bostil did not withhold the profane word of surprise. "... So he's asked you, then? Wal, wal! When?"
"To-day—out there in the rocks where he waited with Wildfire for me. He—he—"
Lucy slipped into her father's arms, and her slender form shook. Bostil instinctively felt what she then needed was her mother. Her mother was dead, and he was only a rough, old, hard rider. He did not know what to do—to say. His heart softened and he clasped her close. It hurt him keenly to realize that he might have been a better, kinder father if it were not for the fear that she would find him out. But that proved he loved her, craved her respect and affection.
"Wal, little girl, tell me," he said.
"He—he broke his word to me."
"A-huh! Thet's too bad. An' how did he?"
"He—he—" Lucy seemed to catch her tongue.
Bostil was positive she had meant to tell him something and suddenly changed her mind. Subtly the child vanished—a woman remained. Lucy sat up self-possessed once more. Some powerfully impelling thought had transformed her. Bostil's keen sense gathered that what she would not tell was not hers to reveal. For herself, she was the soul of simplicity and frankness.
"Days ago I told him I cared for him," she went on. "But I forbade him to speak of it to me. He promised. I wanted to wait till after the race—till after I had found courage to confess to you. He broke his word.... Today when he put me up on Wildfire he—he suddenly lost his head."
The slow scarlet welled into Lucy's face and her eyes grew shamed, but bravely she kept facing her father.
"He—he pulled me off—he hugged me—he k-kissed me.... Oh, it was dreadful—shameful! ... Then I gave him back—some—something he had given me. And I told him I—I hated him—and I told him, 'No!'"
"But you rode his hoss in the race," said Bostil.
Lucy bowed her head at that. "I—I couldn't resist!"
Bostil stroked the bright head. What a quandary for a thick-skulled old horseman! "Wal, it seems to me Slone didn't act so bad, considerin'. You'd told him you cared for him. If it wasn't for thet! ... I remember I did much the same to your mother. She raised the devil, but I never seen as she cared any less for me."
"I'll never forgive him," Lucy cried, passionately. "I hate him. A man who breaks his word in one thing will do it in another."
Bostil sadly realized that his little girl had reached womanhood and love, and with them the sweet, bitter pangs of life. He realized also that here was a crisis when a word—an unjust or lying word from him would forever ruin any hope that might still exist for Slone. Bostil realized this acutely, but the realization was not even a temptation.
"Wal, listen. I'm bound to confess your new rider is sure swift. An', Lucy, to-day if he hadn't been as swift with a rope as he is in love—wal, your old daddy might be dead!"
She grew as white as her dress. "Oh, Dad! I KNEW something had happened," she cried, reaching for him.
Then Bostil told her how Dick Sears had menaced him—how Slone had foiled the horse-thief. He told the story bluntly, but eloquently, with all a rider's praise. Lucy rose with hands pressed against her breast. When had Bostil seen eyes like those—dark, shining, wonderful? Ah! he remembered her mother's once—only once, as a girl.
Then Lucy kissed him and without a word fled from the room.
Bostil stared after her. "D—n me!" he swore, as he threw a boot against the wall. "I reckon I'll never let her marry Slone, but I just had to tell her what I think of him!"