Wildfire by Zane Grey
No moon showed that night, and few stars twinkled between the slow-moving clouds. The air was thick and oppressive, full of the day's heat that had not blown away. A dry storm moved in dry majesty across the horizon, and the sheets and ropes of lightning, blazing white behind the black monuments, gave weird and beautiful grandeur to the desert.
Lucy Bostil had to evade her aunt to get out of the house, and the window, that had not been the means of exit since Bostil left, once more came into use. Aunt Jane had grown suspicious of late, and Lucy, much as she wanted to trust her with her secret, dared not do it. For some reason unknown to Lucy, Holley had also been hard to manage, particularly to-day. Lucy certainly did not want Holley to accompany her on her nightly rendezvous with Slone. She changed her light gown to the darker and thicker riding-habit.
There was a longed-for, all-satisfying flavor in this night adventure—something that had not all to do with love. The stealth, the outwitting of guardians, the darkness, the silence, the risk—all these called to some deep, undeveloped instinct in her, and thrilled along her veins, cool, keen, exciting. She had the blood in her of the greatest adventurer of his day.
Lucy feared she was a little late. Allaying the suspicions of Aunt Jane and changing her dress had taken time. Lucy burned with less cautious steps. Still she had only used caution in the grove because she had promised Slone to do so. This night she forgot or disregarded it. And the shadows were thick—darker than at any other time when she had undertaken this venture. She had always been a little afraid of the dark—a fact that made her contemptuous of herself. Nevertheless, she did not peer into the deeper pits of gloom. She knew her way and could slip swiftly along with only a rustle of leaves she touched.
Suddenly she imagined she heard a step and she halted, still as a tree-trunk. There was no reason to be afraid of a step. It had been a surprise to her that she had never encountered a rider walking and smoking under the trees. Listening, she assured herself she had been mistaken, and then went on. But she looked back. Did she see a shadow—darker than others—moving? It was only her imagination. Yet she sustained a slight chill. The air seemed more oppressive, or else there was some intangible and strange thing hovering in it. She went on—reached the lane that divided the grove. But she did not cross at once. It was lighter in this lane; she could see quite far.
As she stood there, listening, keenly responsive to all the influences of the night, she received an impression that did not have its origin in sight nor sound. And only the leaves touched her—and only their dry fragrance came to her. But she felt a presence—a strange, indefinable presence.
But Lucy was brave, and this feeling, whatever it might be, angered her. She entered the lane and stole swiftly along toward the end of the grove. Paths crossed the lane at right angles, and at these points she went swifter. It would be something to tell Slone—she had been frightened. But thought of him drove away her fear and nervousness, and her anger with herself.
Then she came to a wider path. She scarcely noted it and passed on. Then came a quick rustle—a swift shadow. Between two steps—as her heart leaped—violent arms swept her off the ground. A hard hand was clapped over her mouth. She was being carried swiftly through the gloom.
Lucy tried to struggle. She could scarcely move a muscle. Iron arms wrapped her in coils that crushed her. She tried to scream, but her lips were tight-pressed. Her nostrils were almost closed between two hard fingers that smelled of horse.
Whoever had her, she was helpless. Lucy's fury admitted of reason. Then both succumbed to a paralyzing horror. Cordts had got her! She knew it. She grew limp as a rag and her senses dulled. She almost fainted. The sickening paralysis of her faculties lingered. But she felt her body released—she was placed upon her feet—she was shaken by a rough hand. She swayed, and but for that hand might have fallen. She could see a tall, dark form over her, and horses, and the gloomy gray open of the sage slope. The hand left her face.
"Don't yap, girl!" This command in a hard, low voice pierced her ears. She saw the glint of a gun held before her. Instinctive fear revived her old faculties. The horrible sick weakness, the dimness, the shaking internal collapse all left her.
"I'll—be—quiet!" she faltered. She knew what her father had always feared had come to pass. And though she had been told to put no value on her life, in that event, she could not run. All in an instant—when life had been so sweet—she could not face pain or death.
The man moved back a step. He was tall, gaunt, ragged. But not like Cordts! Never would she forget Cordts. She peered up at him. In the dim light of the few stars she recognized Joel Creech's father.
"Oh, thank God!" she whispered, in the shock of blessed relief. "I thought—you were—Cordts!"
"Keep quiet," he whispered back, sternly, and with rough hand he shook her.
Lucy awoke to realities. Something evil menaced her, even though this man was not Cordts. Her mind could not grasp it. She was amazed—stunned. She struggled to speak, yet to keep within that warning command.
"What—on earth—does this—mean?" she gasped, very low. She had no sense of fear of Creech. Once, when he and her father had been friends, she had been a favorite of Creech's. When a little girl she had ridden his knee many times. Between Creech and Cordts there was immeasurable distance. Yet she had been violently seized and carried out into the sage and menaced.
Creech leaned down. His gaunt face, lighted by terrible eyes, made her recoil. "Bostil ruined me—an' killed my hosses," he whispered, grimly. "An' I'm takin' you away. An' I'll hold you in ransom for the King an' Sarchedon—an' all his racers!"
"Oh!" cried Lucy, in startling surprise that yet held a pang. "Oh, Creech! ... Then you mean me no harm!"
The man straightened up and stood a moment, darkly silent, as if her query had presented a new aspect of the case. "Lucy Bostil, I'm a broken man an' wild an' full of hate. But God knows I never thought of thet—of harm to you.... No, child, I won't harm you. But you must obey an' go quietly, for there's a devil in me."
"Where will you take me?" she asked.
"Down in the canyons, where no one can track me," he said. "It'll be hard goin' fer you, child, an' hard fare.... But I'm strikin' at Bostil's heart as he has broken mine. I'll send him word. An' I'll tell him if he won't give his hosses thet I'll sell you to Cordts."
"Oh, Creech—but you wouldn't!" she whispered, and her hand went to his brawny arm.
"Lucy, in thet case I'd make as poor a blackguard as anythin' else I've been," he said, forlornly. "But I'm figgerin' Bostil will give up his hosses fer you."
"Creech, I'm afraid he won't. You'd better give me up. Let me go back. I'll never tell. I don't blame you. I think you're square. My dad is.... But, oh, don't make ME suffer! You used to—to care for me, when I was little."
"Thet ain't no use," he replied. "Don't talk no more.... Git up hyar now an' ride in front of me."
He led her to a lean mustang. Lucy swung into the saddle. She thought how singular a coincidence it was that she had worn a riding-habit. It was dark and thick, and comfortable for riding. Suppose she had worn the flimsy dress, in which she had met Slone every night save this one? Thought of Slone gave her a pang. He would wait and wait and wait. He would go back to his cabin, not knowing what had befallen her.
Suddenly Lucy noticed another man, near at hand, holding two mustangs. He mounted, rode before her, and then she recognized Joel Creech. Assurance of this brought back something of the dread. But the father could control the son!
"Ride on," said Creech, hitting her horse from behind.
And Lucy found herself riding single file, with two men and a pack-horse, out upon the windy, dark sage slope. They faced the direction of the monuments, looming now and then so weirdly black and grand against the broad flare of lightning-blazed sky.
Ever since Lucy had reached her teens there had been predictions that she would be kidnapped, and now the thing had come to pass. She was in danger, she knew, but in infinitely less than had any other wild character of the uplands been her captor. She believed, if she went quietly and obediently with Creech, that she would be, at least, safe from harm. It was hard luck for Bostil, she thought, but no worse than he deserved. Retribution had overtaken him. How terribly hard he would take the loss of his horses! Lucy wondered if he really ever would part with the King, even to save her from privation and peril. Bostil was more likely to trail her with his riders and to kill the Creeches than to concede their demands. Perhaps, though, that threat to sell her to Cordts would frighten the hard old man.
The horses trotted and swung up over the slope, turning gradually, evidently to make a wide detour round the Ford, until Lucy's back was toward the monuments. Before her stretched the bleak, barren, dark desert, and through the opaque gloom she could see nothing. Lucy knew she was headed for the north, toward the wild canyons, unknown to the riders. Cordts and his gang hid in there. What might not happen if the Creeches fell in with Cordts? Lucy's confidence sustained a check. Still, she remembered the Creeches were like Indians. And what would Slone do? He would ride out on her trail. Lucy shivered for the Creeches if Slone ever caught up with them, and remembering his wild-horse-hunter's skill at tracking, and the fleet and tireless Wildfire, she grew convinced that Creech could not long hold her captive. For Slone would be wary. He would give no sign of his pursuit. He would steal upon the Creeches in the dark and— Lucy shivered again. What an awful fate had been that of Dick Sears!
So as she rode on Lucy's mind was full. She was used to riding, and in the motion of a horse there was something in harmony with her blood. Even now, with worry and dread and plotting strong upon her, habit had such power over her that riding made the hours fleet. She was surprised to be halted, to see dimly low, dark mounds of rock ahead.
"Git off," said Creech.
"Where are we?" asked Lucy.
"Reckon hyar's the rocks. An' you sleep some, fer you'll need it." He spread a blanket, laid her saddle at the head of it, and dropped another blanket. "What I want to know is—shall I tie you up or not?" asked Creech. "If I do you'll git sore. An' this'll be the toughest trip you ever made."
"You mean will I try to get away from you—or not?" queried Lucy.
Lucy pondered. She divined some fineness of feeling in this coarse man. He wanted to spare her not only pain, but the necessity of watchful eyes on her every moment. Lucy did not like to promise not to try to escape, if opportunity presented. Still, she reasoned, that once deep in the canyons, where she would be in another day, she would be worse off if she did get away. The memory of Cordts's cavernous, hungry eyes upon her was not a small factor in Lucy's decision.
"Creech, if I give my word not to try to get away, would you believe me?" she asked.
Creech was slow in replying. "Reckon I would," he said, finally.
"All right, I'll give it."
"An' thet's sense. Now you lay down."
Lucy did as she was bidden and pulled the blanket over her. The place was gloomy and still. She heard the sound of mustangs' teeth on grass, and the soft footfalls of the men. Presently these sounds ceased. A cold wind blew over her face and rustled in the sage near her. Gradually the chill passed away, and a stealing warmth took its place. Her eyes grew tired. What had happened to her? With eyes closed she thought it was all a dream. Then the feeling of the hard saddle as a pillow under her head told her she was indeed far from her comfortable little room. What would poor Aunt Jane do in the morning when she discovered who was missing? What would Holley do? When would Bostil return? It might be soon and it might be days. And Slone—Lucy felt sorriest for him. For he loved her best. She thrilled at thought of Slone on that grand horse—on her Wildfire. And with her mind running on and on, seemingly making sleep impossible, the thoughts at last became dreams. Lucy awakened at dawn. One hand ached with cold, for it had been outside the blanket. Her hard bed had cramped her muscles. She heard the crackling of fire and smelled cedar smoke. In the gray of morning she saw the Creeches round a camp-fire.
Lucy got up then. Both men saw her, but made no comment. In that cold, gray dawn she felt her predicament more gravely. Her hair was damp. She had ridden nearly all night without a hat. She had absolutely nothing of her own except what was on her body. But Lucy thanked her lucky stars that she had worn the thick riding-suit and her boots, for otherwise, in a summer dress, her condition would soon have been miserable.
"Come an' eat," said Creech. "You have sense—an' eat if it sticks in your throat."
Bostil had always contended in his arguments with riders that a man should eat heartily on the start of a trip so that the finish might find him strong. And Lucy ate, though the coarse fare sickened her. Once she looked curiously at Joel Creech. She felt his eyes upon her, but instantly he averted them. He had grown more haggard and sullen than ever before.
The Creeches did not loiter over the camp tasks. Lucy was left to herself. The place appeared to be a kind of depression from which the desert rolled away to a bulge against the rosy east, and the rocks behind rose broken and yellow, fringed with cedars.
"Git the hosses in, if you want to," Creech called to her, and then as Lucy started off to where the mustangs grazed she heard him curse his son. "Come back hyar! Leave the girl alone or I'll rap you one!"
Lucy drove three of the mustangs into camp, where Creech began to saddle them. The remaining one, the pack animal, Lucy found among the scrub cedars at the base of the low cliffs. When she drove him in Creech was talking hard to Joel, who had mounted.
"When you come back, work up this canyon till you git up. It heads on the pine plateau. I can't miss seein' you, or any one, long before you git up on top. An' you needn't come without Bostil's hosses. You know what to tell Bostil if he threatens you, or refuses to send his hosses, or turns his riders on my trail. Thet's all. Now git!"
Joel Creech rode away toward the rise in the rolling, barren desert.
"An' now we'll go on," said Creech to Lucy.
When he had gotten all in readiness he ordered Lucy to follow closely in his tracks. He entered a narrow cleft in the low cliffs which wound in and out, and was thick with sage and cedars. Lucy, riding close to the cedars, conceived the idea of plucking the little green berries and dropping them on parts of the trail where their tracks would not show. Warily she filled the pockets of her jacket.
Creech led the way without looking back, and did not seem to care where the horses stepped. The time had not yet come, Lucy concluded, when he was ready to hide his trail. Presently the narrow cleft opened into a low-walled canyon, full of debris from the rotting cliffs, and this in turn opened into a main canyon with mounting yellow crags. It appeared to lead north. Far in the distance above rims and crags rose in a long, black line like a horizon of dark cloud.
Creech crossed this wide canyon and entered one of the many breaks in the wall. This one was full of splintered rock and weathered shale—the hardest kind of travel for both man and beast. Lucy was nothing if not considerate of a horse, and here she began to help her animal in all the ways a good rider knows. Much as this taxed her attention, she remembered to drop some of the cedar berries upon hard ground or rocks. And she knew she was leaving a trail for Slone's keen eyes.
That day was the swiftest and the most strenuous in all Lucy Bostil's experience in the open. At sunset, when Creech halted in a niche in a gorge between lowering cliffs, Lucy fell off her horse and lay still and spent on the grass.
Creech had a glance of sympathy and admiration for her, but he did not say anything about the long day's ride. Lucy never in her life before appreciated rest nor the softness of grass nor the relief at the end of a ride. She lay still with a throbbing, burning ache in all her body. Creech, after he had turned the horses loose, brought her a drink of cold water from the brook she heard somewhere near by.
"How—far—did—we—come?" she whispered.
"By the way round I reckon nigh on to sixty miles," he replied. "But we ain't half thet far from where we camped last night."
Then he set to work at camp tasks. Lucy shook her head when he brought her food, but he insisted, and she had to force it down. Creech appeared rough but kind. After she had become used to the hard, gaunt, black face she saw sadness and thought in it. One thing Lucy had noticed was that Creech never failed to spare a horse, if it was possible. He would climb on foot over bad places.
Night soon mantled the gorge in blackness thick as pitch. Lucy could not tell whether her eyes were open or shut, so far as what she saw was concerned. Her eyes seemed filled, however, with a thousand pictures of the wild and tortuous canyons and gorges through which she had ridden that day. The ache in her limbs and the fever in her blood would not let her sleep. It seemed that these were forever to be a part of her. For twelve hours she had ridden and walked with scarce a thought of the nature of the wild country, yet once she lay down to rest her mind was an endless hurrying procession of pictures—narrow red clefts choked with green growths—yellow gorges and weathered slides—dusty, treacherous divides connecting canyons—jumbles of ruined cliffs and piles of shale—miles and miles and endless winding miles yellow, low, beetling walls. And through it all she had left a trail.
Next day Creech climbed out of that low-walled canyon, and Lucy saw a wild, rocky country cut by gorges, green and bare, or yellow and cedared. The long, black-fringed line she had noticed the day before loomed closer; overhanging this crisscrossed region of canyons. Every half-hour Creech would lead them downward and presently climb out again. There were sand and hard ground and thick turf and acres and acres of bare rock where even a shod horse would not leave a track.
But the going was not so hard—there was not so much travel on foot for Lucy—and she finished that day in better condition than the first one.
Next day Creech proceeded with care and caution. Many times he left the direct route, bidding Lucy wait for him, and he would ride to the rims of canyons or the tops of ridges of cedar forests, and from these vantage-points he would survey the country. Lucy gathered after a while that he was apprehensive of what might be encountered, and particularly so of what might be feared in pursuit. Lucy thought this strange, because it was out of the question for any one to be so soon on Creech's trail.
These peculiar actions of Creech were more noticeable on the third day, and Lucy grew apprehensive herself. She could not divine why. But when Creech halted on a high crest that gave a sweeping vision of the broken table-land they had traversed Lucy made out for herself faint moving specks miles behind.
"I reckon you see thet," said Creech
"Horses," replied Lucy.
He nodded his head gloomily, and seemed pondering a serious question.
"Is some one trailing us?" asked Lucy, and she could not keep the tremor out of her voice.
"Wal, I should smile! Fer two days—an' it sure beats me. They've never had a sight of us. But they keep comin'."
"They! Who?" she asked, swiftly.
"I hate to tell you, but I reckon I ought. Thet's Cordts an' two of his gang."
"Oh—don't tell me so!" cried Lucy, suddenly terrified. Mention of Cordts had not always had power to frighten her, but this time she had a return of that shaking fear which had overcome her in the grove the night she was captured.
"Cordts all right," replied Creech. "I knowed thet before I seen him. Fer two mornin's back I seen his hoss grazin in thet wide canyon. But I thought I'd slipped by. Some one seen us. Or they seen our trail. Anyway, he's after us. What beats me is how he sticks to thet trail. Cordts never was no tracker. An' since Dick Sears is dead there ain't a tracker in Cordts's outfit. An' I always could hide my tracks.... Beats me!"
"Creech, I've been leaving a trail," confessed Lucy.
Then she told him how she had been dropping cedar berries and bits of cedar leaves along the bare and stony course they had traversed.
"Wal, I'm—" Creech stifled an oath. Then he laughed, but gruffly. "You air a cute one. But I reckon you didn't promise not to do thet.... An' now if Cordts gits you there'll be only yourself to blame."
"Oh!" cried Lucy, frantically looking back. The moving specks were plainly in sight. "How can he know he's trailing me?"
"Thet I can't say. Mebbe he doesn't know. His hosses air fresh, though, an' if I can't shake him he'll find out soon enough who he's trailin'."
"Go on! We must shake him. I'll never do THAT again! ... For God's sake, Creech, don't let him get me!"
And Creech led down off the high open land into canyons again.
The day ended, and the night seemed a black blank to Lucy. Another sunrise found Creech leading on, sparing neither Lucy nor the horses. He kept on a steady walk or trot, and he picked out ground less likely to leave any tracks. Like an old deer he doubled on his trail. He traveled down stream-beds where the water left no trail. That day the mustangs began to fail. The others were wearing out.
The canyons ran like the ribs of a wash-board. And they grew deep and verdant, with looming, towered walls. That night Lucy felt lost in an abyss. The dreaming silence kept her awake many moments while sleep had already seized upon her eyelids. And then she dreamed of Cordts capturing her, of carrying her miles deeper into these wild and purple cliffs, of Slone in pursuit on the stallion Wildfire, and of a savage fight. And she awoke terrified and cold in the blackness of the night.
On the next day Creech traveled west. This seemed to Lucy to be far to the left of the direction taken before. And Lucy, in spite of her utter weariness, and the necessity of caring for herself and her horse, could not but wonder at the wild and frowning canyon. It was only a tributary of the great canyon, she supposed, but it was different, strange, impressive, yet intimate, because all about it was overpowering, near at hand, even the beetling crags. And at every turn it seemed impossible to go farther over that narrow and rock-bestrewn floor. Yet Creech found a way on.
Then came hours of climbing such slopes and benches and ledges as Lucy had not yet encountered. The grasping spikes of dead cedar tore her dress to shreds, and many a scratch burned her flesh. About the middle of the afternoon Creech led up over the last declivity, a yellow slope of cedar, to a flat upland covered with pine and high bleached grass. They rested.
"We've fooled Cordts, you can be sure of thet," said Creech. "You're a game kid, an', by Gawd! if I had this job to do over I'd never tackle it again!"
"Oh, you're sure we've lost him?" implored Lucy.
"Sure as I am of death. An' we'll make surer in crossin' this bench. It's miles to the other side where I'm to keep watch fer Joel. An' we won't leave a track all the way."
"But this grass?" questioned Lucy. "It'll show our tracks."
"Look at the lanes an' trails between. All pine mats thick an' soft an' springy. Only an Indian could follow us hyar on Wild Hoss Bench."
Lucy gazed before her under the pines. It was a beautiful forest, with trees standing far apart, yet not so far but that their foliage intermingled. A dry fragrance, thick as a heavy perfume, blew into her face. She could not help but think of fire—how it would race through here, and that recalled Joel Creech's horrible threat. Lucy shuddered and put away the memory. "I can't go—any farther—to-day," she said.
Creech looked at her compassionately. Then Lucy became conscious that of late he had softened.
"You'll have to come," he said. "There's no water on this side, short of thet canyon-bed. An' acrost there's water close under the wall."
So they set out into the forest. And Lucy found that after all she could go on. The horses walked and on the soft, springy ground did not jar her. Deer and wild turkey abounded there and showed little alarm at sight of the travelers. And before long Lucy felt that she would become intoxicated by the dry odor. It was so strong, so thick, so penetrating. Yet, though she felt she would reel under its influence, it revived her.
The afternoon passed; the sun set off through the pines, a black-streaked, golden flare; twilight shortly changed to night. The trees looked spectral in the gloom, and the forest appeared to grow thicker. Wolves murmured, and there were wild cries of cat and owl. Lucy fell asleep on her horse. At last, sometime late in the night, when Creech lifted her from the saddle and laid her down, she stretched out on the soft mat of pine needles and knew no more.
She did not awaken until the afternoon of the next day. The site where Creech had made his final camp overlooked the wildest of all that wild upland country. The pines had scattered and trooped around a beautiful park of grass that ended abruptly upon bare rock. Yellow crags towered above the rim, and under them a yawning narrow gorge, overshadowed from above, blue in its depths, split the end of the great plateau and opened out sheer into the head of the canyon, which, according to Creech, stretched away through that wilderness of red stone and green clefts. When Lucy's fascinated gaze looked afar she was stunned at the vast, billowy, bare surfaces. Every green cleft was a short canyon running parallel with this central and longer one. The dips and breaks showed how all these canyons were connected. They led the gaze away, descending gradually to the dim purple of distance—the bare, rolling desert upland.
Lucy did nothing but gaze. She was unable to walk or eat that day. Creech hung around her with a remorse he apparently felt, yet could not put into words.
"Do you expect Joel to come up this big canyon?"
"I reckon I do—some day," replied Creech. "An' I wish he'd hurry."
"Does he know the way?"
"Nope. But he's good at findin' places. An' I told him to stick to the main canyon. Would you believe you could ride offer this rim, straight down thar fer fifty miles, an' never git off your hoss?"
"No, I wouldn't believe it possible."
"Wal, it's so. I've done it. An' I didn't want to come up thet way because I'd had to leave tracks."
"Do you think we're safe—from Cordts now?" she asked.
"I reckon so. He's no tracker."
"But suppose he does trail us?"
"Wal, I reckon I've a shade the best of Cordts at gun-play, any day."
Lucy regarded the man in surprise. "Oh, it's so—strange!" she said. "You'd fight for me. Yet you dragged me for days over these awful rocks! ... Look at me, Creech. Do I look much like Lucy Bostil?"
Creech hung his head. "Wal, I reckoned I wasn't a blackguard, but I AM."
"You used to care for me when I was little. I remember how I used to take rides on your knee."
"Lucy, I never thought of thet when I ketched you. You was only a means to an end. Bostil hated me. He ruined me. I give up to revenge. An' I could only git thet through you."
"Creech, I'm not defending Dad. He's—he's no good where horses are concerned. I know he wronged you. Then why didn't you wait and meet him like a man instead of dragging me to this misery?"
"Wal, I never thought of thet, either. I wished I had." He grew gloomier then and relapsed into silent watching.
Lucy felt better next day, and offered to help Creech at the few camp duties. He would not let her. There was nothing to do but rest and wait, and the idleness appeared to be harder on Creech than on Lucy. He had always been exceedingly active. Lucy divined that every hour his remorse grew keener, and she did all she could think of to make it so. Creech made her a rude brush by gathering small roots and binding them tightly and cutting the ends square. And Lucy, after the manner of an Indian, got the tangles out of her hair. That day Creech seemed to want to hear Lucy's voice, and so they often fell into conversation. Once he said, thoughtfully:
"I'm tryin' to remember somethin' I heerd at the Ford. I meant to ask you—" Suddenly he turned to her with animation. He who had been so gloomy and lusterless and dead showed a bright eagerness. "I heerd you beat the King on a red hoss—a wild hoss! ... Thet must have been a joke—like one of Joel's."
"No. It's true. An' Dad nearly had a fit!"
"Wal!" Creech simply blazed with excitement. "I ain't wonderin' if he did. His own girl! Lucy, come to remember, you always said you'd beat thet gray racer.... Fer the Lord's sake tell me all about it."
Lucy warmed to him because, broken as he was, he could be genuinely glad some horse but his own had won a race. Bostil could never have been like that. So Lucy told him about the race—and then she had to tell about Wildfire, and then about Slone. But at first all of Creech's interest centered round Wildfire and the race that had not really been run. He asked a hundred questions. He was as pleased as a boy listening to a good story. He praised Lucy again and again. He crowed over Bostil's discomfiture. And when Lucy told him that Slone had dared her father to race, had offered to bet Wildfire and his own life against her hand, then Creech was beside himself.
"This hyar Slone—he CALLED Bostil's hand!"
"He's a wild-horse hunter. And HE can trail us!"
"Trail us! Slone? Say, Lucy, are you in love with him?"
Lucy uttered a strange little broken sound, half laugh, half sob. "Love him! Ah!"
"An' your Dad's ag'in him! Sure Bostil'll hate any rider with a fast hoss. Why didn't the darn fool sell his stallion to your father?"
"He gave Wildfire to me."
"I'd have done the same. Wal, now, when you git back home what's comin' of it all?"
Lucy shook her head sorrowfully. "God only knows. Dad will never own Wildfire, and he'll never let me marry Slone. And when you take the King away from him to ransom me—then my life will be hell, for if Dad sacrifices Sage King, afterward he'll hate me as the cause of his loss."
"I can sure see the sense of all that," replied Creech, soberly. And he pondered.
Lucy saw through this man as if he had been an inch of crystal water. He was no villain, and just now in his simplicity, in his plodding thought of sympathy for her he was lovable.
"It's one hell of a muss, if you'll excuse my talk," said Creech. "An' I don't like the looks of what I 'pear to be throwin' in your way.... But see hyar, Lucy, if Bostil didn't give up—or, say, he gits the King back, thet wouldn't make your chance with Slone any brighter."
"I don't know."
"Thet race will have to be ran!"
"What good will that do?" cried Lucy, with tears in her eyes. "I don't want to lose Dad. I—I—love him—mean as he is. And it'll kill me to lose Lin. Because Wildfire can beat Sage King, and that means Dad will be forever against him."
"Couldn't this wild-horse feller LET the King win thet race?"
"Oh, he could, but he wouldn't."
"Can't you be sweet round him—fetch him over to thet?"
"Oh, I could, but I won't."
Creech might have been plotting the happiness of his own daughter, he was so deeply in earnest.
"Wal, mebbe you don't love each other so much, after all.... Fast hosses mean much to a man in this hyar country. I know, fer I lost mine! ... But they ain't all.... I reckon you young folks don't love so much, after all."
"But—we—do!" cried Lucy, with a passionate sob. All this talk had unnerved her.
"Then the only way is fer Slone to lie to Bostil."
"Lie!" exclaimed Lucy.
"Thet's it. Fetch about a race, somehow—one Bostil can't see—an' then lie an' say the King run Wildfire off his legs."
Suddenly it occurred to Lucy that one significance of this idea of Creech's had not dawned upon him. "You forget that soon my father will no longer own Sage King or Sarchedon or Dusty Ben—or any racer. He loses them or me, I thought. That's what I am here for."
Creech's aspect changed. The eagerness and sympathy fled from his face, leaving it once more hard and stern. He got up and stood a tall, dark, and gloomy man, brooding over his loss, as he watched the canyon. Still, there was in him then a struggle that Lucy felt. Presently he bent over and put his big hand on her head. It seemed gentle and tender compared with former contacts, and it made Lucy thrill. She could not see his face. What did he mean? She divined something startling, and sat there trembling in suspense.
"Bostil won't lose his only girl—or his favorite hoss! ... Lucy, I never had no girl. But it seems I'm rememberin' them rides you used to have on my knee when you was little!"
Then he strode away toward the forest. Lucy watched him with a full heart, and as she thought of his overcoming the evil in him when her father had yielded to it, she suffered poignant shame. This Creech was not a bad man. He was going to let her go, and he was going to return Bostil's horses when they came. Lucy resolved with a passionate determination that her father must make ample restitution for the loss Creech had endured. She meant to tell Creech so.
Upon his return, however, he seemed so strange and forbidding again that her heart failed her. Had he reconsidered his generous thought? Lucy almost believed so. These old horse-traders were incomprehensible in any relation concerning horses. Recalling Creech's intense interest in Wildfire and in the inevitable race to be run between him and Sage King, Lucy almost believed that Creech would sacrifice his vengeance just to see the red stallion beat the gray. If Creech kept the King in ransom for Lucy he would have to stay deeply hidden in the wild breaks of the canyon country or leave the uplands. For Bostil would never let that deed go unreckoned with. Like Bostil, old Creech was half horse and half human. The human side had warmed to remorse. He had regretted Lucy's plight; he wanted her to be safe at home again and to find happiness; he remembered what she had been to him when she was a little girl. Creech's other side was more complex.
Before the evening meal ended Lucy divined that Creech was dark and troubled because he had resigned himself to a sacrifice harder than it had seemed in the first flush of noble feeling. But she doubted him no more. She was safe. The King would be returned. She would compel her father to pay Creech horse for horse. And perhaps the lesson to Bostil would be worth all the pain of effort and distress of mind that it had cost her.
That night as she lay awake listening to the roar of the wind in the pines a strange premonition—like a mysterious voice—-came to her with the assurance that Slone was on her trail.
On the following day Creech appeared to have cast off the brooding mood. Still, he was not talkative. He applied himself to constant watching from the rim.
Lucy began to feel rested. That long trip with Creech had made her thin and hard and strong. She spent the hours under the shade of a cedar on the rim that protected her from sun and wind. The wind, particularly, was hard to stand. It blew a gale out of the west, a dry, odorous, steady rush that roared through the pine-tops and flattened the long, white grass. This day Creech had to build up a barrier of rock round his camp-fire, to keep it from blowing away. And there was a constant danger of firing the grass.
Once Lucy asked Creech what would happen in that case.
"Wal, I reckon the grass would burn back even ag'in thet wind," replied Creech. "I'd hate to see fire in the woods now before the rains come. It's been the longest, dryest spell I ever lived through. But fer thet my hosses— This hyar's a west wind, an' it's blowin' harder every day. It'll fetch the rains."
Next day about noon, when both wind and heat were high, Lucy was awakened from a doze. Creech was standing near her. When he turned his long gaze away from the canyon he was smiling. It was a smile at once triumphant and sad.
"Joel's comin' with the hosses!"
Lucy jumped up, trembling and agitated. "Oh! ... Where? Where?"
Creech pointed carefully with bent hand, like an Indian, and Lucy either could not get the direction or see far enough.
"Right down along the base of thet red wall. A line of hosses. Jest like a few crawlin' ants' ... An' now they're creepin' out of sight."
"Oh, I can't see them!" cried Lucy. "Are you SURE?"
"Positive an' sartin," he replied. "Joel's comin'. He'll be up hyar before long. I reckon we'd jest as well let him come. Fer there's water an' grass hyar. An' down below grass is scarce."
It seemed an age to Lucy, waiting there, until she did see horses zigzagging the ridges below. They disappeared, and then it was another age before they reappeared close under the bulge of wall. She thrilled at sight of Sage King and Sarchedon. She got only a glimpse of them. They must pass round under her to climb a split in the wall, and up a long draw that reached level ground back in the forest. But they were near, and Lucy tried to wait. Creech showed eagerness at first, and then went on with his camp-fire duties. While in camp he always cooked a midday meal.
Lucy saw the horses first. She screamed out. Creech jumped up in alarm.
Joel Creech, mounted on Sage King, and leading Sarchedon, was coming at a gallop. The other horses were following.
"What's his hurry?" demanded Lucy. "After climbing out of that canyon Joel ought not to push the horses."
"He'll git it from me if there's no reason," growled Creech. "Them hosses is wet."
"Look at Sarch! He's wild. He always hated Joel."
"Wal, Lucy, I reckon I ain't likin' this hyar. Look at Joel!" muttered Creech, and he strode out to meet his son.
Lucy ran out too, and beyond him. She saw only Sage King. He saw her, recognized her, and, whistled even while Joel was pulling him in. For once the King showed he was glad to see Lucy. He had been having rough treatment. But he was not winded—only hot and wet. She assured herself of that, then ran to quiet the plunging Sarch. He came down at once, and pushed his big nose almost into her face. She hugged his great, hot neck. He was quivering all over. Lucy heard the other horses pounding up; she recognized Two Face's high whinny, like a squeal; and in her delight she was about to run to them when Creech's harsh voice arrested her. And sight of Joel's face suddenly made her weak.
"What'd you say?" demanded Creech.
"I'd a good reason to run the hosses up-hill—thet's what!" snapped Joel. He was frothing at the mouth.
"Out with it!"
"Cordts an' Hutch!"
"What?" roared Creech, grasping the pale Joel and shaking him.
"Cordts an' Hutch rode in behind me down at thet cross canyon. They seen me. An' they're after me hard!"
Creech gave close and keen scrutiny to the strange face of his son. Then he wheeled away.
"Help me pack. An' you, too, Lucy. We've got to rustle out of hyar."
Lucy fought a sick faintness that threatened to make her useless. But she tried to help, and presently action made her stronger.
The Creeches made short work of that breaking of camp. But when it came to getting the horses there appeared danger of delay. Sarchedon had led Dusty Ben and Two Face off in the grass. When Joel went for them they galloped away toward the woods. Joel ran back.
"Son, you're a smart hossman!" exclaimed Creech, in disgust.
"Shall I git on the King an' ketch them?"
"No. Hold the King." Creech went out after Plume, but the excited and wary horse eluded him. Then Creech gave up, caught his own mustangs, and hurried into camp.
"Lucy, if Cordts gits after Sarch an' the others it'll be as well fer us," he said.
Soon they were riding into the forest, Creech leading, Lucy in the center, and Joel coming behind on the King. Two unsaddled mustangs carrying the packs were driven in front. Creech limited the gait to the best that the pack-horses could do. They made fast time. The level forest floor, hard and springy, afforded the best kind of going.
A cold dread had once more clutched Lucy's heart. What would be the end of this flight? The way Creech looked back increased her dread. How horrible it would be if Cordts accomplished what he had always threatened—to run off with both her and the King! Lucy lost her confidence in Creech. She did not glance again at Joel. Once had been enough. She rode on with heavy heart. Anxiety and dread and conjecture and a gradual sinking of spirit weighed her down. Yet she never had a clearer perception of outside things. The forest loomed thicker and darker. The sky was seen only through a green, crisscross of foliage waving in the roaring gale. This strong wind was like a blast in Lucy's face, and its keen dryness cracked her lips.
When they rode out of the forest, down a gentle slope of wind-swept grass, to an opening into a canyon Lucy was surprised to recognize the place. How quickly the ride through the forest had been made!
Creech dismounted. "Git off, Lucy. You, Joel, hurry an' hand me the little pack.... Now I'll take Lucy an' the King down in hyar. You go thet way with the hosses an' make as if you was hidin' your trail, but don't. Do you savvy?"
Joel shook his head. He looked sullen, somber, strange. His father repeated what he had said.
"You're wantin' Cordts to split on the trail?" asked Joel.
"Sure. He'll ketch up with you sometime. But you needn't be afeared if he does."
"I ain't a-goin' to do thet."
"Why not?" Creech demanded, slowly, with a rising voice.
"I'm a-goin' with you. What d'ye mean, Dad, by this move? You'll be headin' back fer the Ford. An' we'd git safer if we go the other way."
Creech evidently controlled his temper by an effort. "I'm takin' Lucy an' the King back to Bostil."
Joel echoed those words, slowly divining them. "Takin' them BOTH! The girl.... An' givin' up the King!"
"Yes, both of them. I've changed my mind, Joel. Now—you—"
But Creech never finished what he meant to say. Joel Creech was suddenly seized by a horrible madness. It was then, perhaps, that the final thread which linked his mind to rationality stretched and snapped. His face turned green. His strange eyes protruded. His jaw worked. He frothed at the mouth. He leaped, apparently to get near his father, but he missed his direction. Then, as if sight had come back, he wheeled and made strange gestures, all the while cursing incoherently. The father's shocked face began to show disgust. Then part of Joel's ranting became intelligible.
"Shut up!" suddenly roared Creech.
"No, I won't!" shrieked Joel, wagging his head in spent passion. "An' you ain't a-goin' to take thet girl home.... I'll take her with me.... An' you take the hosses home!"
"You're crazy!" hoarsely shouted Creech, his face going black. "They allus said so. But I never believed thet."
"An' if I'm crazy, thet girl made me.... You know what I'm a-goin' to do? ... I'll strip her naked—an' I'll—"
Lucy saw old Creech lunge and strike. She heard the sodden blow. Joel went down. But he scrambled up with his eyes and mouth resembling those of a mad hound Lucy once had seen. The fact that he reached twice for his gun and could not find it proved the breaking connection of nerve and sense. Creech jumped and grappled with Joel. There was a wrestling, strained struggle. Creech's hair stood up and his face had a kind of sick fury, and he continued to curse and command. They fought for the possession of the gun. But Joel seemed to have superhuman strength. His hold on the gun could not be broken. Moreover, he kept straining to point the gun at his father. Lucy screamed. Creech yelled hoarsely. But the boy was beyond reason or help, and he was beyond over powering! Lucy saw him bend his arm in spite of the desperate hold upon it and fire the gun. Creech's hoarse entreaties ceased as his hold on Joel broke. He staggered. His arms went up with a tragic, terrible gesture. He fell. Joel stood over him, shaking and livid, but he showed only the vaguest realization of the deed. His actions were instinctive. He was the animal that had clawed himself free. Further proof of his aberration stood out in the action of sheathing his gun; he made the motion to do so, but he only dropped it in the grass.
Sight of that dropped gun broke Lucy's spell of horror, which had kept her silent but for one scream. Suddenly her blood leaped like fire in her veins. She measured the distance to Sage King. Joel was turning. Then Lucy darted at the King, reached him, and, leaping, was half up on him when he snorted and jumped, not breaking her hold, but keeping her from getting up. Then iron hands clutched her and threw her, like an empty sack, to the grass.
Joel Creech did not say a word. His distorted face had the deriding scorn of a superior being. Lucy lay flat on her back, watching him. Her mind worked swiftly. She would have to fight for her body and her life. Her terror had fled with her horror. She was not now afraid of this demented boy. She meant to fight, calculating like a cunning Indian, wild as a trapped wildcat.
Lucy lay perfectly still, for she knew she had been thrown near the spot where the gun lay. If she got her hands on that gun she would kill Joel. It would be the action of an instant. She watched Joel while he watched her. And she saw that he had his foot on the rope round Sage King's neck. The King never liked a rope. He was nervous. He tossed his head to get rid of it. Creech, watching Lucy all the while, reached for the rope, pulled the King closer and closer, and untied the knot. The King stood then, bridle down and quiet. Instead of a saddle he wore a blanket strapped round him.
It seemed that Lucy located the gun without turning her eyes away from Joel's. She gathered all her force—rolled over swiftly—again—got her hands on the gun just as Creech leaped like a panther upon her. His weight crushed her flat—his strength made her hand-hold like that of a child. He threw the gun aside. Lucy lay face down, unable to move her body while he stood over her. Then he struck her, not a stunning blow, but just the hard rap a cruel rider gives to a horse that wants its own way. Under that blow Lucy's spirit rose to a height of terrible passion. Still she did not lose her cunning; the blow increased it. That blow showed Joel to be crazy. She might outwit a crazy man, where a man merely wicked might master her.
Creech tried to turn her. Lucy resisted. And she was strong. Resistance infuriated Creech. He cuffed her sharply. This action only made him worse. Then with hands like steel claws he tore away her blouse.
The shock of his hands on her bare flesh momentarily weakened Lucy, and Creech dragged at her until she lay seemingly helpless before him.
And Lucy saw that at the sight of her like this something had come between Joel Creech's mad motives and their execution. Once he had loved her—desired her. He looked vague. He stroked her shoulder. His strange eyes softened, then blazed with a different light. Lucy divined that she was lost unless she could recall his insane fury. She must begin that terrible fight in which now the best she could hope for was to make him kill her quickly.
Swift and vicious as a cat she fastened her teeth in his arm. She bit deep and held on. Creech howled like a dog. He beat her. He jerked and wrestled. Then he lifted her, and the swing of her body tore the flesh loose from his arm and broke her hold. Lucy half rose, crawled, plunged for the gun. She got it, too, only to have Creech kick it out of her hand. The pain of that brutal kick was severe, but when he cut her across the bare back with the rope she shrieked out. Supple and quick, she leaped up and ran. In vain! With a few bounds he had her again, tripped her up. Lucy fell over the dead body of the father. Yet even that did not shake her desperate nerve. All the ferocity of a desert-bred savage culminated in her, fighting for death.
Creech leaned down, swinging the coiled rope. He meant to do more than lash her with it. Lucy's hands flashed up, closed tight in his long hair. Then with a bellow he jerked up and lifted her sheer off the ground. There was an instant in which Lucy felt herself swung and torn; she saw everything as a whirling blur; she felt an agony in her wrists at which Creech was clawing. When he broke her hold there were handfuls of hair in Lucy's fists.
She fell again and had not the strength to rise. But Creech was raging, and little of his broken speech was intelligible. He knelt with a sharp knee pressing her down. He cut the rope. Nimbly, like a rider in moments of needful swiftness, he noosed one end of the rope round her ankle, then the end of the other piece round her wrist. He might have been tying up an unbroken mustang. Rising, he retained hold on both ropes. He moved back, sliding them through his hands. Then with a quick move he caught up Sage King's bridle.
Creech paused a moment, darkly triumphant. A hideous success showed in his strange eyes. A long-cherished mad vengeance had reached its fruition. Then he led the horse near to Lucy.
Warily he reached down. He did not know Lucy's strength was spent. He feared she might yet escape. With hard, quick grasp he caught her, lifted her, threw her over the King's back. He forced her down.
Lucy's resistance was her only salvation, because it kept him on the track of his old threat. She resisted all she could. He pulled her arms down round the King's neck and tied them close. Then he pulled hard on the rope on her ankle and tied that to her other ankle.
Lucy realized that she was bound fast. Creech had made good most of his threat. And now in her mind the hope of the death she had sought changed to the hope of life that was possible. Whatever power she had ever had over the King was in her voice. If only Creech would slip the bridle or cut the reins—if only Sage King could be free to run!
Lucy could turn her face far enough to see Creech. Like a fiend he was reveling in his work. Suddenly he picked up the gun.
"Look a-hyar!" he called, hoarsely.
With eyes on her, grinning horribly, he walked a few paces to where the long grass had not been trampled or pressed down. The wind, whipping up out of the canyon, was still blowing hard. Creech put the gun down in the grass and fired.
Sage King plunged. But he was not gun-shy. He steadied down with a pounding of heavy hoofs. Then Lucy could see again. A thin streak of yellow smoke rose—a little snaky flame—a slight crackling hiss! Then as the wind caught the blaze there came a rushing, low roar. Fire, like magic, raced and spread before the wind toward the forest.
Lucy had forgotten that Creech had meant to drive her into fire. The sudden horror of it almost caused collapse. Commotion within—cold and quake and nausea and agony—deadened her hearing and darkened her sight. But Creech's hard hands quickened her. She could see him then, though not clearly. His face seemed inhuman, misshapen, gray. His hands pulled at her arms—a last precaution to see that she was tightly bound. Then with the deft fingers of a rider he slipped Sage King's bridle.
Lucy could not trust her sight. What made the King stand so still? His ears went up—stiff—pointed!
Creech stepped back and laid a violent hand on Lucy's garments. She bent—twisted her neck to watch him. But her sight grew no clearer. Still she saw he meant to strip her naked. He braced himself for a strong, ripping pull. His yellow teeth showed deep in his lip. His contrasting eyes were alight with insane joy.
But he never pulled. Something attracted his attention. He looked. He saw something. The beast in him became human—the madness changed to rationality—the devil to a craven! His ashen lips uttered a low, terrible cry.
Lucy felt the King trembling in every muscle. She knew that was flight. She expected his loud snort, and was prepared for it when it rang out. In a second he would bolt. She knew that. She thrilled. She tried to call to him, but her lips were weak. Creech seemed paralyzed. The King shifted his position, and Lucy's last glimpse of Creech was one she would never forget. It was as if Creech faced burning hell!
Then the King whistled and reared. Lucy heard swift, dull, throbbing beats. Beats of a fast horse's hoofs on the run! She felt a surging thrill of joy. She could not think. All of her blood and bone and muscle seemed to throb. Suddenly the air split to a high-pitched, wild, whistling blast. It pierced to Lucy's mind. She knew that whistle.
"Wildfire!" she screamed, with bursting heart.
The King gave a mighty convulsive bound of terror. He, too, knew that whistle. And in that one great bound he launched out into a run. Straight across the line of burning grass! Lucy felt the sting of flame. Smoke blinded and choked her. Then clear, dry, keen wind sung in her ears and whipped her hair. The light about her darkened. The King had headed into the pines. The heavy roar of the gale overhead struck Lucy with new and torturing dread. Sage King once in his life was running away, bridleless, and behind him there was fire on the wings of the wind.