Wildfire by Zane Grey
Slone lay wide awake under an open window, watching the stars glimmer through the rustling foliage of the cottonwoods. Somewhere a lonesome hound bayed. Very faintly came the silvery tinkle of running water.
For five days Slone had been a guest of Bostil's, and the whole five days had been torment.
On the morning of the day after the races Lucy had confronted him. Would he ever forget her eyes—her voice? "Bless you for saving my dad!" she had said. "It was brave.... But don't let dad fool you. Don't believe in his kindness. Above all, don't ride for him! He only wants Wildfire, and if he doesn't get him he'll hate you!"
That speech of Lucy's had made the succeeding days hard for Slone. Bostil loaded him with gifts and kindnesses, and never ceased importuning him to accept his offers. But for Lucy, Slone would have accepted. It was she who cast the first doubt of Bostil into his mind. Lucy averred that her father was splendid and good in every way except in what pertained to fast horses; there he was impossible.
The great stallion that Slone had nearly sacrificed his life to catch was like a thorn in the rider's flesh. Slone lay there in the darkness, restless, hot, rolling from side to side, or staring out at the star-studded sky—miserably unhappy all on account of that horse. Almost he hated him. What pride he had felt in Wildfire! How he had gloried in the gift of the stallion to Lucy! Then, on the morning of the race had come that unexpected, incomprehensible and wild act of which he had been guilty. Yet not to save his life, his soul, could he regret it! Was it he who had been responsible, or an unknown savage within him? He had kept his word to Lucy, when day after day he had burned with love until that fatal moment when the touch of her, as he lifted her to Wildfire's saddle, had made a madman out of him. He had swept her into his arms and held her breast to his, her face before him, and he had kissed the sweet, parting lips till he was blind.
Then he had learned what a little fury she was. Then he learned how he had fallen, what he had forfeited. In his amaze at himself, in his humility and shame, he had not been able to say a word in his own defense. She did not know yet that his act had been ungovernable and that he had not known what he was doing till too late. And she had finished with: "I'll ride Wildfire in the race—but I won't have him—and I won't have YOU! NO!"
She had the steel and hardness of her father.
For Slone, the watching of that race was a blend of rapture and despair. He lived over in mind all the time between the race and this hour when he lay there sleepless and full of remorse. His mind was like a racecourse with many races; and predominating in it was that swift, strange, stinging race of his memory of Lucy Bostil's looks and actions.
What an utter fool he was to believe she had meant those tender words when, out there under the looming monuments, she had accepted Wildfire! She had been an impulsive child. Her scorn and fury that morning of the race had left nothing for him except footless fancies. She had mistaken love of Wildfire for love of him. No, his case was hopeless with Lucy, and if it had not been so Bostil would have made it hopeless. Yet there were things Slone could not fathom—the wilful, contradictory, proud and cold and unaccountably sweet looks and actions of the girl. They haunted Slone. They made him conscious he had a mind and tortured him with his development. But he had no experience with girls to compare with what was happening now. It seemed that accepted fact and remembered scorn and cold certainty were somehow at variance with hitherto unknown intuitions and instincts. Lucy avoided him, if by chance she encountered him alone. When Bostil or Aunt Jane or any one else was present Lucy was kind, pleasant, agreeable. What made her flush red at sight of him and then, pale? Why did she often at table or in the big living-room softly brush against him when it seemed she could have avoided that? Many times he had felt some inconceivable drawing power, and looked up to find her eyes upon him, strange eyes full of mystery, that were suddenly averted. Was there any meaning attachable to the fact that his room was kept so tidy and neat, that every day something was added to its comfort or color, that he found fresh flowers whenever he returned, or a book, or fruit, or a dainty morsel to eat, and once a bunch of Indian paint-brush, wild flowers of the desert that Lucy knew he loved? Most of all, it was Lucy's eyes which haunted Slone—eyes that had changed, darkened, lost their audacious flash, and yet seemed all the sweeter. The glances he caught, which he fancied were stolen—and then derided his fancy—thrilled him to his heart. Thus Slone had spent waking hours by day and night, mad with love and remorse, tormented one hour by imagined grounds for hope and resigned to despair the next.
Upon the sixth morning of his stay at Bostil's Slone rose with something of his former will reasserting itself. He could not remain in Bostil's home any longer unless he accepted Bostil's offer, and this was not to be thought of. With a wrench Slone threw off the softening indecision and hurried out to find Bostil while the determination was hot.
Bostil was in the corral with Wildfire. This was the second time Slone had found him there. Wildfire appeared to regard Bostil with a much better favor than he did his master. As Slone noted this a little heat stole along his veins. That was gall to a rider.
"I like your hoss," said Bostil, with gruff frankness. But a tinge of red showed under his beard.
"Bostil, I'm sorry I can't take you up on the job," rejoined Slone, swiftly. "It's been hard for me to decide. You've been good to me. I'm grateful. But it's time I was tellin' you."
"Why can't you?" demanded Bostil, straightening up with a glint in his big eyes. It was the first time he had asked Slone that.
"I can't ride for you," replied Slone, briefly.
"Anythin' to do with Lucy?" queried Bostil.
"How so?" returned Slone, conscious of more heat.
"Wal, you was sweet on her an' she wouldn't have you," replied Bostil.
Slone felt the blood swell and boil in his veins. This Bostil could say as harsh and hard things as repute gave him credit for.
"Yes, I AM sweet on Lucy, an' she won't have me," said Slone, steadily. "I asked her to let me come to you an' tell you I wanted to marry her. But she wouldn't."
"Wal, it's just as good you didn't come, because I might...." Bostil broke off his speech and began again. "You don't lack nerve, Slone. What'd you have to offer Lucy?"
"Nothin' except—But that doesn't matter," replied Slone, cut to the quick by Bostil's scorn. "I'm glad you know, an' so much for that."
Bostil turned to look at Wildfire once more, and he looked long. When he faced around again he was another man. Slone felt the powerful driving passion of this old horse-trader.
"Slone, I'll give you pick of a hundred mustangs an' a thousand dollars for Wildfire!"
So he unmasked his power in the face of a beggarly rider! Though it struck Slone like a thunderbolt, he felt amused. But he did not show that. Bostil had only one possession, among all his uncounted wealth, that could win Wildfire from his owner.
"No," said Slone, briefly.
"I'll double it," returned Bostil, just as briefly.
"Save your breath, Bostil," flashed Slone. "You don't know me. But let me tell you—you CAN'T BUY my horse!"
The great veins swelled and churned in Bostil's bull neck; a thick and ugly contortion worked in his face; his eyes reflected a sick rage.
Slone saw that two passions shook Bostil—one, a bitter, terrible disappointment, and the other, the passion of a man who could not brook being crossed. It appeared to Slone that the best thing he could do was to get away quickly, and to this end he led Wildfire out of the corral to the stable courtyard, and there quickly saddled him. Then he went into another corral for his other horse, Nagger, and, bringing him out, returned to find Bostil had followed as far as the court. The old man's rage apparently had passed or had been smothered.
"See here," he began, in thick voice, "don't be a d—- fool an' ruin your chance in life. I'll—"
"Bostil, my one chance was ruined—an' you know who did it," replied Slone, as he gathered Nagger's rope and Wildfire's bridle together. "I've no hard feelin's.... But I can't sell you my horse. An' I can't ride for you—because—well, because it would breed trouble."
"An' what kind?" queried Bostil.
Holley and Farlane and Van, with several other riders, had come up and were standing open-mouthed. Slone gathered from their manner and expression that anything might happen with Bostil in such a mood.
"We'd be racin' the King an' Wildfire, wouldn't we?" replied Slone.
"An' supposin' we would?" returned Bostil, ominously. His huge frame vibrated with a slight start.
"Wildfire would run off with your favorite—an' you wouldn't like that," answered Slone. It was his rider's hot blood that prompted him to launch this taunt. He could not help it.
"You wild-hoss chaser," roared Bostil, "your Wildfire may be a bloody killer, but he can't beat the King in a race!"
"Excuse ME, Bostil, but Wildfire did beat the King!"
This was only adding fuel to the fire. Slone saw Holley making signs that must have meant silence would be best. But Slone's blood was up. Bostil had rubbed him the wrong way.
"You're a lair!" declared Bostil, with a tremendous stride forward. Slone saw then how dangerous the man really was. "It was no race. Your wild hoss knocked the King off the track."
"Sage King had the lead, didn't he? Why didn't he keep it?"
Bostil was like a furious, intractable child whose favorite precious treasure had been broken; and he burst out into a torrent of incoherent speech, apparently reasons why this and that were so. Slone did not make out what Bostil meant and he did not care. When Bostil got out of breath Slone said:
"We're both wastin' talk. An' I'm not wantin' you to call me a liar twice. ... Put your rider up on the King an' come on, right now. I'll—"
"Slone, shut up an' chase yourself," interrupted Holley
"You go to h—l!" returned Slone, coolly.
There was a moment's silence, in which Slone took Holley's measure. The hawk-eyed old rider may have been square, but he was then thinking only of Bostil.
"What am I up, against here?" demanded Slone. "Am I goin' to be shot because I'm takin' my own part? Holley, you an' the rest of your pards are all afraid of this old devil. But I'm not—an' you stay out of this."
"Wal, son, you needn't git riled," replied Holley, placatingly. "I was only tryin' to stave off talk you might be sorry for."
"Sorry for nothin'! I'm goin' to make this great horse-trader, this rich an' mighty rancher, this judge of grand horses, this BOSTIL! ... I'm goin' to make him race the King or take water!" Then Slone turned to Bostil. That worthy evidently had been stunned by the rider who dared call him to his face. "Come on! Fetch the King! Let your own riders judge the race!"
Bostil struggled both to control himself and to speak. "Naw! I ain't goin' to see thet red hoss-killer jump the King again!"
"Bah! you're afraid. You know there'd be no girl on his back. You know he can outrun the King an' that's why you want to buy him."
Slone caught his breath then. He realized suddenly, at Bostil's paling face, that perhaps he had dared too much. Yet, maybe the truth flung into this hard old rider's teeth was what he needed more than anything else. Slone divined, rather than saw, that he had done an unprecedented thing.
"I'll go now, Bostil."
Slone nodded a good-by to the riders, and, turning away, he led the two horses down the lane toward the house. It scarcely needed sight of Lucy under the cottonwoods to still his anger and rouse his regret. Lucy saw him coming, and, as usual, started to avoid meeting him, when sight of the horses, or something else, caused her to come toward him instead.
Slone halted. Both Wildfire and Nagger whinnied at sight of the girl. Lucy took one flashing glance at them, at Slone, and then she evidently guessed what was amiss.
"Lucy, I've done it now—played hob, sure," said Slone.
"What?" she cried.
"I called your dad—called him good an' hard—an' he—he—"
"Lin! Oh, don't say Dad." Lucy's face whitened and she put a swift hand upon his arm—a touch that thrilled him. "Lin! there's blood—on your face. Don't—don't tell me Dad hit you?"
"I should say not," declared Slone, quickly lifting his hand to his face. "Must be from my cut, that blood. I barked my hand holdin' Wildfire."
"Oh! I—I was sick with—with—" Lucy faltered and broke off, and then drew back quickly, as if suddenly conscious of her actions and words.
Then Slone began to relate everything that had been said, and before he concluded his story his heart gave a wild throb at the telltale face and eyes of the girl.
"You said that to Dad!" she cried, in amaze and fear and admiration. "Oh, Dad richly deserved it! But I wish you hadn't. Oh, I wish you hadn't!"
"Why?" asked Slone.
But she did not answer that. "Where are you going?" she questioned.
"Come to think of that, I don't know," replied Slone, blankly. "I started back to fetch my things out of my room. That's as far as my muddled thoughts got."
"Your things? ... Oh!" Suddenly she grew intensely white. The little freckles that had been so indistinct stood out markedly, and it was as if she had never had any tan. One brown hand went to her breast, the other fluttered to his arm again. "You mean to—to go away—for good."
"Sure. What else can I do?"
"Lin! ... Oh, there comes Dad! He mustn't see me. I must run.... Lin, don't leave Bostil's Ford—don't go—DON'T!"
Then she flew round the corner of the house, to disappear. Slone stood there transfixed and thrilling. Even Bostil's heavy tread did not break the trance, and a meeting would have been unavoidable had not Bostil turned down the path that led to the back of the house. Slone, with a start collecting his thoughts, hurried into the little room that had been his and gathered up his few belongings. He was careful to leave behind the gifts of guns, blankets, gloves, and other rider's belongings which Bostil had presented to him. Thus laden, he went outside and, tingling with emotions utterly sweet and bewildering, he led the horses down into the village.
Slone went down to Brackton's, and put the horses into a large, high-fenced pasture adjoining Brackton's house. Slone felt reasonably sure his horses would be safe there, but he meant to keep a mighty close watch on them. And old Brackton, as if he read Slone's mind, said this: "Keep your eye on thet daffy boy, Joel Creech. He hangs round my place, sleeps out somewheres, an' he's crazy about hosses."
Slone did not need any warning like that, nor any information to make him curious regarding young Creech. Lucy had seen to that, and, in fact, Slone was anxious to meet this half-witted fellow who had so grievously offended and threatened Lucy. That morning, however, Creech did not put in an appearance. The village had nearly returned to its normal state now, and the sleepy tenor of its way. The Indians, had been the last to go, but now none remained. The days were hot while the sun stayed high, and only the riders braved its heat.
The morning, however, did not pass without an interesting incident. Brackton approached Slone with an offer that he take charge of the freighting between the Ford and Durango. "What would I do with Wildfire?" was Slone's questioning reply, and Brackton held up his hands. A later incident earned more of Slone's attention. He had observed a man in Brackton's store, and it chanced that this man heard Slone's reply to Brackton's offer, and he said: "You'll sure need to corral thet red stallion. Grandest hoss I ever seen!"
That praise won Slone, and he engaged in conversation with the man, who said his name was Vorhees. It developed soon that Vorhees owned a little house, a corral, and a patch of ground on a likely site up under the bluff, and he was anxious to sell cheap because he had a fine opportunity at Durango, where his people lived. What interested Slone most was the man's remark that he had a corral which could not be broken into. The price he asked was ridiculously low if the property was worth anything. An idea flashed across Slone's mind. He went up to Vorhees's place and was much pleased with everything, especially the corral, which had been built by a man who feared horse-thieves as much as Bostil. The view from the door of the little cabin was magnificent beyond compare. Slone remembered Lucy's last words. They rang like bells in his ears. "Don't go—don't!" They were enough to chain him to Bostil's Ford until the crack of doom. He dared not dream of what they meant. He only listened to their music as they pealed over and over in his ears.
"Vorhees, are you serious?" he asked. "The money you ask is little enough."
"It's enough an' to spare," replied the man. "An' I'd take it as a favor of you."
"Well, I'll go you," said Slone, and he laughed a little irrationally. "Only you needn't tell right away that I bought you out."
The deal was consummated, leaving Slone still with half of the money that had been his prize in the race. He felt elated. He was rich. He owned two horses—one the grandest in all the uplands, the other the faithfulest—and he owned a neat little cabin where it was a joy to sit and look out, and a corral which would let him sleep at night, and he had money to put into supplies and furnishings, and a garden. After he drank out of the spring that bubbled from under the bluff he told himself it alone was worth the money.
"Looks right down on Bostil's place," Slone soliloquized, with glee. "Won't he just be mad! An' Lucy! ... Whatever's she goin' to think?"
The more Slone looked around and thought, the more he became convinced that good fortune had knocked at his door at last. And when he returned to Brackton's he was in an exultant mood. The old storekeeper gave him a nudge and pointed underhand to a young man of ragged aspect sitting gloomily on a box. Slone recognized Joel Creech. The fellow surely made a pathetic sight, and Slone pitied him. He looked needy and hungry.
"Say," said Slone, impulsively, "want to help me carry some grub an' stuff?"
"Howdy!" replied Creech, raising his head. "Sure do."
Slone sustained the queerest shock of his life when he met the gaze of those contrasting eyes. Yet he did not believe that his strange feeling came from sight of different-colored eyes. There was an instinct or portent in that meeting.
He purchased a bill of goods from Brackton, and, with Creech helping, carried it up to the cabin under the bluff. Three trips were needed to pack up all the supplies, and meanwhile Creech had but few words to say, and these of no moment. Slone offered him money, which he refused.
"I'll help you fix up, an' eat a bite," he said. "Nice up hyar."
He seemed rational enough and certainly responded to kindness. Slone found that Vorhees had left the cabin so clean there was little cleaning to do. An open fireplace of stone required some repair and there was wood to cut.
"Joel, you start a fire while I go down after my horses," said Slone.
Young Creech nodded and Slone left him there. It was not easy to catch Wildfire, nor any easier to get him into the new corral; but at last Slone saw him safely there. And the bars and locks on the gate might have defied any effort to open or break them quickly. Creech was standing in the doorway, watching the horses, and somehow Slone saw, or imagined he saw, that Creech wore a different aspect.
"Grand wild hoss! He did what Blue was a-goin' to do—beat thet there d—d Bostil's King!"
Creech wagged his head. He was gloomy and strange. His eyes were unpleasant to look into. His face changed. And he mumbled. Slone pitied him the more, but wished to see the last of him. Creech stayed on, however, and grew stranger and more talkative during the meal. He repeated things often—talked disconnectedly, and gave other indications that he was not wholly right in his mind. Yet Slone suspected that Creech's want of balance consisted only in what concerned horses and the Bostils. And Slone, wanting to learn all he could, encouraged Creech to talk about his father and the racers and the river and boat, and finally Bostil.
Slone became convinced that, whether young Creech was half crazy or not, he knew his father's horses were doomed, and that the boat at the ferry had been cut adrift. Slone could not understand why he was convinced, but he was. Finally Creech told how he had gone down to the river only a day before; how he had found the flood still raging, but much lower; how he had worked round the cliffs and had pulled up the rope cables to find they had been cut.
"You see, Bostil cut them when he didn't need to," continued Creech, shrewdly. "But he didn't know the flood was comin' down so quick. He was afeared we'd come across an' git the boat thet night. An' he meant to take away them cut cables. But he hadn't no time."
"Bostil?" queried Slone, as he gazed hard at Creech. The fellow had told that rationally enough. Slone wondered if Bostil could have been so base. No! and yet—when it came to horses Bostil was scarcely human.
Slone's query served to send Creech off on another tangent which wound up in dark, mysterious threats. Then Slone caught the name of Lucy. It abruptly killed his sympathy for Creech.
"What's the girl got to do with it?" he demanded, angrily. "If you want to talk to me don't use her name."
"I'll use her name when I want," shouted Creech.
"Not to me!"
"Yes, to you, mister. I ain't carin' a d—n fer you!"
"You crazy loon!" exclaimed Slone, with impatience and disgust added to anger. "What's the use of being decent to you?"
Creech crouched low, his hands digging like claws into the table, as if he were making ready to spring. At that instant he was hideous.
"Crazy, am I?" he yelled. "Mebbe not d—n crazy! I kin tell you're gone on Lucy Bostil! I seen you with her out there in the rocks the mornin' of the race. I seen what you did to her. An' I'm a-goin' to tell it! ... An' I'm a-goin' to ketch Lucy Bostil an' strip her naked, an' when I git through with her I'll tie her on a hoss an' fire the grass! By Gawd! I am!" Livid and wild, he breathed hard as he got up, facing Slone malignantly.
"Crazy or not, here goes!" muttered Slone, grimly; and, leaping up, with one blow he knocked Creech half out of the door, and then kicked him the rest of the way. "Go on and have a fit!" cried Slone. "I'm liable to kill you if you don't have one!"
Creech got up and ran down the path, turning twice on the way. Then he disappeared among the trees.
Slone sat down. "Lost my temper again!" he said. "This has been a day. Guess I'd better cool off right now an' stay here.... That poor devil! Maybe he's not so crazy. But he's wilder than an Indian. I must warn Lucy.... Lord! I wonder if Bostil could have held back repairin' that boat, an' then cut it loose? I wonder? Yesterday I'd have sworn never. To-day—"
Slone drove the conclusion of that thought out of his consciousness before he wholly admitted it. Then he set to work cutting the long grass from the wet and shady nooks under the bluff where the spring made the ground rich. He carried an armful down to the corral. Nagger was roaming around outside, picking grass for himself. Wildfire snorted as always when he saw Slone, and Slone as always, when time permitted, tried to coax the stallion to him. He had never succeeded, nor did he this time. When he left the bundle of grass on the ground and went outside Wildfire readily came for it.
"You're that tame, anyhow, you hungry red devil," said Slone, jealously. Wildfire would take a bunch of grass from Lucy Bostil's hand. Slone's feelings had undergone some reaction, though he still loved the horse. But it was love mixed with bitterness. More than ever he made up his mind that Lucy should have Wildfire. Then he walked around his place, planning the work he meant to start at once.
Several days slipped by with Slone scarcely realizing how they flew. Unaccustomed labor tired him so that he went to bed early and slept like a log. If it had not been for the ever-present worry and suspense and longing, in regard to Lucy, he would have been happier than ever he could remember. Almost at once he had become attached to his little home, and the more he labored to make it productive and comfortable the stronger grew his attachment. Practical toil was not conducive to daydreaming, so Slone felt a loss of something vague and sweet. Many times he caught himself watching with eager eyes for a glimpse of Lucy Bostil down there among the cottonwoods. Still, he never saw her, and, in fact, he saw so few villagers that the place began to have a loneliness which endeared it to him the more. Then the view down the gray valley to the purple monuments was always thrillingly memorable to Slone. It was out there Lucy had saved his horse and his life. His keen desert gaze could make out even at that distance the great, dark monument, gold-crowned, in the shadow of which he had heard Lucy speak words that had transformed life for him. He would ride out there some day. The spell of those looming grand shafts of colored rock was still strong upon him.
One morning Slone had a visitor—old Brackton. Slone's cordiality died on his lips before it was half uttered. Brackton's former friendliness was not in evidence. Indeed, he looked at Slone with curiosity and disfavor.
"Howdy, Slone! I jest wanted to see what you was doin' up hyar," he said.
Slone spread his hands and explained in few words.
"So you took over the place, hey? We all figgered thet. But Vorhees was mum. Fact is, he was sure mysterious." Brackton sat down and eyed Slone with interest. "Folks are talkin' a lot about you," he said, bluntly.
"Is that so?"
"You 'pear to be a pretty mysterious kind of a feller, Slone. I kind of took a shine to you at first, an' thet's why I come up hyar to tell you it'd be wise fer you to vamoose."
"What!" exclaimed Slone.
Brackton repeated substantially what he had said, then, pausing an instant, continued: "I've no call to give you a hunch, but I'll do it jest because I did like you fust off."
The old man seemed fussy and nervous and patronizing and disparaging all at once.
"What'd you beat up thet poor Joel Creech fer?" demanded Brackton.
"He got what he deserved," replied Slone, and the memory, coming on the head of this strange attitude of Brackton's, roused Slone's temper.
"Wal, Joel tells some queer things about you—fer instance, how you took advantage of little Lucy Bostil, grabbin' her an' maulin' her the way Joel seen you."
"D—n the loon!" muttered Slone, rising to pace the path.
"Wal, Joel's a bit off, but he's not loony all the time. He's seen you an' he's tellin' it. When Bostil hears it you'd better be acrost the canyon!"
Slone felt the hot, sick rush of blood to his face, and humiliation and rage overtook him.
"Joel's down at my house. He had fits after you beat him, an' he 'ain't got over them yet. But he could blab to the riders. Van Sickle's lookin' fer you. An' to-day when I was alone with Joel he told me some more queer things about you. I shut him up quick. But I ain't guaranteein' I can keep him shut up."
"I'll bet you I shut him up," declared Slone. "What more did the fool say?"
"Slone, hev you been round these hyar parts—-down among the monuments—fer any considerable time?" queried Brackton.
"Yes, I have—several weeks out there, an' about ten days or so around the Ford."
"Where was you the night of the flood?"
The shrewd scrutiny of the old man, the suspicion, angered Slone.
"If it's any of your mix, I was out on the slope among the rocks. I heard that flood comin' down long before it got here," replied Slone, deliberately.
Brackton averted his gaze, and abruptly rose as if the occasion was ended. "Wal, take my hunch an' leave!" he said, turning away.
"Brackton, if you mean well, I'm much obliged," returned Slone, slowly, ponderingly. "But I'll not take the hunch."
"Suit yourself," added Brackton, coldly, and he went away.
Slone watched him go down the path and disappear in the lane of cottonwoods.
"I'll be darned!" muttered Slone. "Funny old man. Maybe Creech's not the only loony one hereabouts."
Slone tried to laugh off the effect of the interview, but it persisted and worried him all day. After supper he decided to walk down into the village, and would have done so but for the fact that he saw a man climbing his path. When he recognized the rider Holley he sensed trouble, and straightway he became gloomy. Bostil's right-hand man could not call on him for any friendly reason. Holley came up slowly, awkwardly, after the manner of a rider unused to walking. Slone had built a little porch on the front of his cabin and a bench, which he had covered with goatskins. It struck him a little strangely that he should bend over to rearrange these skins just as Holley approached the porch.
"Howdy, son!" was the rider's drawled remark. "Sure makes—me—puff to climb—up this mountain."
Slone turned instantly, surprised at the friendly tone, doubting his own ears, and wanting to verify them. He was the more surprised to see Holley unmistakably amiable.
"Hello, Holley! How are you?" he replied. "Have a seat."
"Wal, I'm right spry fer an old bird. But I can't climb wuth a d—n .... Say, this here beats Bostil's view."
"Yes, it's fine," replied Slone, rather awkwardly, as he sat down on the porch step. What could Holley want with him? This old rider was above curiosity or gossip.
"Slone, you ain't holdin' it ag'in me—thet I tried to shut you up the other day?" he drawled, with dry frankness.
"Why, no, Holley, I'm not. I saw your point. You were right. But Bostil made me mad."
"Sure! He'd make anybody mad. I've seen riders bite themselves, they was so mad at Bostil. You called him, an' you sure tickled all the boys. But you hurt yourself, fer Bostil owns an' runs this here Ford."
"So I've discovered," replied Slone.
"You got yourself in bad right off, fer Bostil has turned the riders ag'in you, an' this here punchin' of Creech has turned the village folks ag'in you. What'd pitch into him fer?"
Slone caught the kindly interest and intent of the rider, and it warmed him as Brackton's disapproval had alienated him.
"Wal, I reckon I'd better tell you," drawled Holley, as Slone hesitated, "thet Lucy wants to know IF you beat up Joel an' WHY you did."
"Holley! Did she ask you to find out?"
"She sure did. The girl's worried these days, Slone.... You see, you haven't been around, an' you don't know what's comin' off."
"Brackton was here to-day an' he told me a good deal. I'm worried, too," said Slone, dejectedly.
"Thet hoss of yours, Wildfire, he's enough to make you hated in Bostil's camp, even if you hadn't made a fool of yourself, which you sure have."
Slone dropped his head as admission.
"What Creech swears he seen you do to Miss Lucy, out there among the rocks, where you was hid with Wildfire—is there any truth in thet?" asked Holley, earnestly. "Tell me, Slone. Folks believe it. An' it's hurt you at the Ford. Bostil hasn't heard it yet, an' Lucy she doesn't know. But I'm figgerin' thet you punched Joel because he throwed it in your face."
"He did, an' I lambasted him," replied Slone, with force.
"You did right. But what I want to know, is it true what Joel seen?"
"It's true, Holley. But what I did isn't so bad—so bad as he'd make it look."
"Wal, I knowed thet. I knowed fer a long time how Lucy cares fer you," returned the old rider, kindly.
Slone raised his head swiftly, incredulously. "Holley! You can't be serious."
"Wal, I am. I've been sort of a big brother to Lucy Bostil for eighteen years. I carried her in these here hands when she weighed no more 'n my spurs. I taught her how to ride—what she knows about hosses. An' she knows more 'n her dad. I taught her to shoot. I know her better 'n anybody. An' lately she's been different. She's worried an' unhappy."
"But Holley, all that—it doesn't seem—"
"I reckon not," went on Holley, as Slone halted. "I think she cares fer you. An' I'm your friend, Slone. You're goin' to buck up ag'in some hell round here sooner or later. An' you'll need a friend."
"Thanks—Holley," replied Slone, unsteadily. He thrilled under the iron grasp of the rider's hard hand.
"You've got another friend you can gamble on," said Holley, significantly.
"Lucy Bostil. An' don't you fergit thet. I'll bet she'll raise more trouble than Bostil when she hears what Joel Creech is tellin'. Fer she's bound to hear it. Van Sickle swears he's a-goin' to tell her an' then beat you up with a quirt."
"He is, is he?" snapped Slone, darkly.
"I've a hunch Lucy's guessed why you punched Joel. But she wants to know fer sure. Now, Slone, I'll tell her why."
"Oh, don't!" said Slone, involuntarily.
"Wal, it'll be better comin' from you an' me. Take my word fer thet. I'll prepare Lucy. An' she's as good a scrapper as Bostil, any day."
"It all scares me," replied Slone. He did feel panicky, and that was from thoughts of what shame might befall Lucy. The cold sweat oozed out of every pore. What might not Bostil do? "Holley, I love the girl. So I—I didn't insult her. Bostil will never understand. An' what's he goin' to do when he finds out?"
"Wal, let's hope you won't git any wuss'n you give Joel."
"Let Bostil beat me!" ejaculated Slone. "I think I'm willin—now—the—way I feel. But I've a temper, and Bostil rubs me the wrong way."
"Wall leave your gun home, an' fight Bostil. You're pretty husky. Sure he'll lick you, but mebbe you could give the old cuss a black eye." Holley laughed as if the idea gave him infinite pleasure.
"Fight Bostil? ... Lucy would hate me!" cried Slone.
"Nix! You don't know thet kid. If the old man goes after you Lucy'll care more fer you. She's jest like him in some ways." Holley pulled out a stubby black pipe and, filling and lighting it, he appeared to grow more thoughtful. "It wasn't only Lucy thet sent me up here to see you. Bostil had been pesterin' me fer days. But I kept fightin' shy of it till Lucy got hold of me."
"Bostil sent you? Why?"
"Reckon you can guess. He can't sleep, thinkin' about your red hoss. None of us ever seen Bostil have sich a bad case. He raised Sage King. But he's always been crazy fer a great wild stallion. An' here you come along—an' your hoss jumps the King—an' there's trouble generally."
"Holley, do you think Wildfire can beat Sage King?" asked Slone, eagerly.
"Reckon I do. Lucy says so, an' I'll back her any day. But, son, I ain't paradin' what I think. I'd git in bad myself. Farlane an' the other boys, they're with Bostil. Van he's to blame fer thet. He's takin' a dislike to you, right off. An' what he tells Bostil an' the boys about thet race don't agree with what Lucy tells me. Lucy says Wildfire ran fiery an' cranky at the start. He wanted to run round an' kill the King instead of racin'. So he was three lengths behind when Macomber dropped the flag. Lucy says the King got into his stride. She knows. An' there Wildfire comes from behind an' climbs all over the King! ... Van tells a different story."
"It came off just as Lucy told you," declared Slone. "I saw every move."
"Wal, thet's neither here nor there. What you're up ag'in is this. Bostil is sore since you called him. But he holds himself in because he hasn't given up hope of gittin' Wildfire. An', Slone, you're sure wise, ain't you, thet if Bostil doesn't buy him you can't stay on here?"
"I'm wise. But I won't sell Wildfire," replied Slone, doggedly.
"Wal, I'd never wasted my breath tellin' you all this if I hadn't figgered about Lucy. You've got her to think of."
Slone turned on Holley passionately. "You keep hintin' there's a hope for me, when I know there's none!"
"You're only a boy," replied Holley. "Son, where there's life there's hope. I ain't a-goin' to tell you agin thet I know Lucy Bostil."
Slone could not stand nor walk nor keep still. He was shaking from head to foot.
"Wildfire's not mine to sell. He's Lucy's!" confessed Slone.
"The devil you say!" ejaculated Holley, and he nearly dropped his pipe.
"I gave Wildfire to her. She accepted him. It was DONE. Then—then I lost my head an' made her mad.... An'—she said she'd ride him in the race, but wouldn't keep him. But he IS hers."
"Oho! I see. Slone, I was goin' to advise you to sell Wildfire—all on account of Lucy. You're young an' you'd have a big start in life if you would. But Lucy's your girl an' you give her the hoss.... Thet settles thet!"
"If I go away from here an' leave Wildfire for Lucy—do you think she could keep him? Wouldn't Bostil take him from her?"
"Wal, son, if he tried thet on Lucy she'd jump Wildfire an' hit your trail an' hang on to it till she found you."
"What'll you tell Bostil?" asked Slone, half beside himself.
"I'm consarned if I know," replied Holley. "Mebbe I'll think of some idee. I'll go back now. An' say, son, I reckon you'd better hang close to home. If you meet Bostil down in the village you two'd clash sure. I'll come up soon, but it'll be after dark."
"Holley, all this is—is good of you," said Slone. "I—I'll—"
"Shut up, son," interrupted the rider, dryly. "Thet's your only weakness, so far as I can see. You say too much."
Holley started down then, his long, clinking spurs digging into the steep path. He left Slone a prey to deep thoughts at once anxious and dreamy.
Next day Slone worked hard all day, looking forward to nightfall, expecting that Holley would come up. He tried to resist the sweet and tantalizing anticipation of a message from Lucy, but in vain. The rider had immeasurably uplifted Slone's hope that Lucy, at least, cared for him. Not for a moment all day could Slone drive away the hope. At twilight he was too eager to eat—too obsessed to see the magnificent sunset. But Holley did not come, and Slone went to bed late, half sick with disappointment.
The next day was worse. Slone found work irksome, yet he held to it. On the third day he rested and dreamed, and grew doubtful again, and then moody. On the fourth day Slone found he needed supplies that he must obtain from the store. He did not forget Holley's warning, but he disregarded it, thinking there would scarcely be a chance of meeting Bostil at midday.
There were horses standing, bridles down, before Brackton's place, and riders lounging at the rail and step. Some of these men had been pleasant to Slone on earlier occasions. This day they seemed not to see him. Slone was tingling all over when he went into the store. Some deviltry was afoot! He had an angry thought that these riders could not have minds of their own. Just inside the door Slone encountered Wetherby, the young rancher from Durango. Slone spoke, but Wetherby only replied with an insolent stare. Slone did not glance at the man to whom Wetherby was talking. Only a few people were inside the store, and Brackton was waiting upon them. Slone stood back a little in the shadow. Brackton had observed his entrance, but did not greet him. Then Slone absolutely knew that for him the good will of Bostil's Ford was a thing of the past.
Presently Brackton was at leisure, but he showed no disposition to attend to Slone's wants. Then Slone walked up to the counter and asked for supplies.
"Have you got the money?" asked Brackton, as if addressing one he would not trust.
"Yes," replied Slone, growing red under an insult that he knew Wetherby had heard.
Brackton handed out the supplies and received the money, without a word. He held his head down. It was a singular action for a man used to dealing fairly with every one. Slone felt outraged. He hurried out of the place, with shame burning him, with his own eyes downcast, and in his hurry he bumped square into a burly form. Slone recoiled—looked up. Bostil! The old rider was eying him with cool speculation.
"Wal, are you drunk?" he queried, without any particular expression.
Yet the query was to Slone like a blow. It brought his head up with a jerk, his glance steady and keen on Bostil's.
"Bostil, you know I don't drink," he said.
"A-huh! I know a lot about you, Slone.... I heard you bought Vorhees's place, up on the bench."
"Did he tell you it was mortgaged to me for more'n it's worth?"
"No, he didn't."
"Did he make over any papers to you?"
"Wal, if it interests you I'll show you papers thet proves the property's mine."
Slone suffered a pang. The little home had grown dearer and dearer to him.
"All right, Bostil. If it's yours—it's yours," he said, calmly enough.
"I reckon I'd drove you out before this if I hadn't felt we could make a deal."
"We can't agree on any deal, Bostil," replied Slone, steadily. It was not what Bostil said, but the way he said it, the subtle meaning and power behind it, that gave Slone a sense of menace and peril. These he had been used to for years; he could meet them. But he was handicapped here because it seemed that, though he could meet Bostil face to face, he could not fight him. For he was Lucy's father. Slone's position, the impotence of it, rendered him less able to control his temper.
"Why can't we?" demanded Bostil. "If you wasn't so touchy we could. An' let me say, young feller, thet there's more reason now thet you DO make a deal with me."
"Deal? What about?"
"About your red hoss."
"Wildfire! ... No deals, Bostil," returned Slone, and made as if to pass him.
The big hand that forced Slone back was far from gentle, and again he felt the quick rush of blood.
"Mebbe I can tell you somethin' thet'll make you sell Wildfire," said Bostil.
"Not if you talked yourself dumb!" flashed Slone. There was no use to try to keep cool with this Bostil, if he talked horses. "I'll race Wildfire against the King. But no more."
"Race! Wal, we don't run races around here without stakes," replied Bostil, with deep scorn. "An' what can you bet? Thet little dab of prize money is gone, an' wouldn't be enough to meet me. You're a strange one in these parts. I've pride an' reputation to uphold. You brag of racin' with me—an' you a beggarly rider! ... You wouldn't have them clothes an' boots if my girl hadn't fetched them to you."
The riders behind Bostil laughed. Wetherby's face was there in the door, not amused, but hard with scorn and something else. Slone felt a sickening, terrible gust of passion. It fairly shook him. And as the wave subsided the quick cooling of skin and body pained him like a burn made with ice.
"Yes, Bostil, I'm what you say," responded Slone, and his voice seemed to fill his ears. "But you're dead wrong when you say I've nothin' to bet on a race."
"An' what'll you bet?"
"My life an' my horse!"
The riders suddenly grew silent and intense. Bostil vibrated to that. He turned white. He more than any rider on the uplands must have felt the nature of that offer.
"Ag'in what?" he demanded, hoarsely.
"YOUR DAUGHTER LUCY!"
One instant the surprise held Bostil mute and motionless. Then he seemed to expand. His huge bulk jerked into motion and he bellowed like a mad bull.
Slone saw the blow coming, made no move to avoid it. The big fist took him square on the mouth and chin and laid him flat on the ground. Sight failed Slone for a little, and likewise ability to move. But he did not lose consciousness. His head seemed to have been burst into rays and red mist that blurred his eyes. Then these cleared away, leaving intense pain. He started to get up, his brain in a whirl. Where was his gun? He had left it at home. But for that he would have killed Bostil. He had already killed one man. The thing was a burning flash—then all over! He could do it again. But Bostil was Lucy's father!
Slone gathered up the packages of supplies, and without looking at the men he hurried away. He seemed possessed of a fury to turn and run back. Some force, like an invisible hand, withheld him. When he reached the cabin he shut himself in, and lay on his bunk, forgetting that the place did not belong to him, alive only to the mystery of his trouble, smarting with the shame of the assault upon him. It was dark before he composed himself and went out, and then he had not the desire to eat. He made no move to open the supplies of food, did not even make a light. But he went out to take grass and water to the horses. When he returned to the cabin a man was standing at the porch. Slone recognized Holley's shape and then his voice.
"Son, you raised the devil to-day."
"Holley, don't you go back on me!" cried Slone. "I was driven!"
"Don't talk so loud," whispered the rider in return. "I've only a minnit. ... Here—a letter from Lucy.... An', son, don't git the idee thet I'll go back on you."
Slone took the letter with trembling fingers. All the fury and gloom instantly fled. Lucy had written him! He could not speak.
"Son, I'm double-crossin' the boss, right this minnit!" whispered Holley, hoarsely. "An' the same time I'm playin' Lucy's game. If Bostil finds out he'll kill me. I mustn't be ketched up here. But I won't lose track of you—wherever you go."
Holley slipped away stealthily in the dusk, leaving Slone with a throbbing heart.
"Wherever you go!" he echoed. "Ah! I forgot! I can't stay here."
Lucy's letter made his fingers tingle—made them so hasty and awkward that he had difficulty in kindling blaze enough to see to read. The letter was short, written in lead-pencil on the torn leaf of a ledger. Slone could not read rapidly—those years on the desert had seen to that—and his haste to learn what Lucy said bewildered him. At first all the words blurred:
"Come at once to the bench in the cottonwoods. I'll meet you there. My heart is breaking. It's a lie—a lie—what they say. I'll swear you were with me the night the boat was cut adrift. I KNOW you didn't do that. I know who.... Oh, come! I will stick to you. I will run off with you. I love you!"