Wildfire by Zane Grey
The days did not pass swiftly at Bostil's Ford. And except in winter, and during the spring sand-storms, the lagging time passed pleasantly. Lucy rode every day, sometimes with Van, and sometimes alone. She was not over-keen about riding with Van—first, because he was in love with her; and secondly, in spite of that, she could not beat him when he rode the King. They were training Bostil's horses for the much-anticipated races.
At last word arrived from the Utes and Navajos that they accepted Bostil's invitation and would come in force, which meant, according to Holley and other old riders, that the Indians would attend about eight hundred strong.
"Thet old chief, Hawk, is comin'," Holley informed Bostil. "He hasn't been here fer several years. Recollect thet bunch of colts he had? They're bosses, not mustangs.... So you look out, Bostil!"
No rider or rancher or sheepman, in fact, no one, ever lost a chance to warn Bostil. Some of it was in fun, but most of it was earnest. The nature of events was that sooner or later a horse would beat the King. Bostil knew that as well as anybody, though he would not admit it. Holley's hint made Bostil look worried. Most of Bostil's gray hairs might have been traced to his years of worry about horses.
The day he received word from the Indians he sent for Brackton, Williams, Muncie, and Creech to come to his house that night. These men, with Bostil, had for years formed in a way a club, which gave the Ford distinction. Creech was no longer a friend of Bostil's, but Bostil had always been fair-minded, and now he did not allow his animosities to influence him. Holley, the veteran rider, made the sixth member of the club.
Bostil had a cedar log blazing cheerily in the wide fireplace, for these early spring nights in the desert were cold.
Brackton was the last guest to arrive. He shuffled in without answering the laconic greetings accorded him, and his usually mild eyes seemed keen and hard.
"John, I reckon you won't love me fer this here I've got to tell you, to-night specially," he said, seriously.
"You old robber, I couldn't love you anyhow," retorted Bostil. But his humor did not harmonize with the sudden gravity of his look. "What's up?"
"Who do you suppose I jest sold whisky to?"
"I've no idea," replied Bostil. Yet he looked as if he was perfectly sure.
"Cordts! ... Cordts, an' four of his outfit. Two of them I didn't know. Bad men, judgin' from appearances, let alone company. The others was Hutchinson an'—Dick Sears."
"DICK SEARS!" exclaimed Bostil.
Muncie and Williams echoed Bostil. Holley appeared suddenly interested. Creech alone showed no surprise.
"But Sears is dead," added Bostil.
"He was dead—we thought," replied Brackton, with a grim laugh. "But he's alive again. He told me he'd been in Idaho fer two years, in the gold-fields. Said the work was too hard, so he'd come back here. Laughed when he said it, the little devil! I'll bet he was thinkin' of thet wagon-train of mine he stole."
Bostil gazed at his chief rider.
"Wal, I reckon we didn't kill Sears, after all," replied Holley. "I wasn't never sure."
"Lord! Cordts an' Sears in camp," ejaculated Bostil, and he began to pace the room.
"No, they're gone now," said Brackton.
"Take it easy, boss. Sit down," drawled Holley. "The King is safe, an' all the racers. I swear to thet. Why, Cordts couldn't chop into thet log-an'-wire corral if he an' his gang chopped all night! They hate work. Besides, Farlane is there, an' the boys."
This reassured Bostil, and he resumed his chair. But his hand shook a little.
"Did Cordts have anythin' to say?" he asked.
"Sure. He was friendly an' talkative," replied Brackton. "He came in just after dark. Left a man I didn't see out with the hosses. He bought two big packs of supplies, an' some leather stuff, an', of course, ammunition. Then some whisky. Had plenty of gold an' wouldn't take no change. Then while his men, except Sears, was carryin' out the stuff, he talked."
"Go on. Tell me," said Bostil.
"Wal, he'd been out north of Durango an' fetched news. There's wild talk back there of a railroad goin' to be built some day, joinin' east an' west. It's interestin', but no sense to it. How could they build a railroad through thet country?"
"North it ain't so cut up an' lumpy as here," put in Holley.
"Grandest idea ever thought of for the West," avowed Bostil. "If thet railroad ever starts we'll all get rich.... Go on, Brack."
"Then Cordts said water an' grass was peterin' out back on the trail, same as Red Wilson said last week. Finally he asked, 'How's my friend Bostil?' I told him you was well. He looked kind of thoughtful then, an' I knew what was comin'....'How's the King?' 'Grand' I told him—'grand.' 'When is them races comin' off?' I said we hadn't planned the time yet, but it would be soon—inside of a month or two. 'Brackton,' he said, sharp-like, 'is Bostil goin' to pull a gun on me at sight?' 'Reckon he is,' I told him. 'Wal, I'm not powerful glad to know thet.... I hear Creech's blue hoss will race the King this time. How about it?' 'Sure an' certain this year. I've Creech's an' Bostil's word for thet.' Cordts put his hand on my shoulder. You ought to 've seen his eyes!...'I want to see thet race.... I'm goin' to.' 'Wal,' I said, 'you'll have to stop bein'—You'll need to change your bizness.' Then, Bostil, what do you think? Cordts was sort of eager an' wild. He said thet was a race he jest couldn't miss. He swore he wouldn't turn a trick or let a man of his gang stir a hand till after thet race, if you'd let him come."
A light flitted across Bostil's face.
"I know how Cordts feels," he said.
"Wal, it's a queer deal," went on Brackton. "Fer a long time you've meant to draw on Cordts when you meet. We all know thet."
"Yes, I'll kill him!" The light left Bostil's face. His voice sounded differently. His mouth opened, drooped strangely at the corners, then shut in a grim, tense line. Bostil had killed more than one man. The memory, no doubt, was haunting and ghastly.
"Cordts seemed to think his word was guarantee of his good faith. He said he'd send an Indian in here to find out if he can come to the races. I reckon, Bostil, thet it wouldn't hurt none to let him come. An' hold your gun hand fer the time he swears he'll be honest. Queer deal, ain't it, men? A hoss-thief turnin' honest jest to see a race! Beats me! Bostil, it's a cheap way to get at least a little honesty from Cordts. An' refusin' might rile him bad. When all's said Cordts ain't as bad as he could be."
"I'll let him come," replied Bostil, breathing deep. "But it'll be hard to see him, rememberin' how he's robbed me, an' what he's threatened. An' I ain't lettin' him come to bribe a few weeks' decency from him. I'm doin' it for only one reason.... Because I know how he loves the King—how he wants to see the King run away from the field thet day! Thet's why!"
There was a moment of silence, during which all turned to Creech. He was a stalwart man, no longer young, with a lined face, deep-set, troubled eyes, and white, thin beard.
"Bostil, if Cordts loves the King thet well, he's in fer heartbreak," said Creech, with a ring in his voice.
Down crashed Bostil's heavy boots and fire flamed in his gaze. The other men laughed, and Brackton interposed:
"Hold on, you boy riders!" he yelled. "We ain't a-goin' to have any arguments like thet.... Now, Bostil, it's settled, then? You'll let Cordts come?"
"Glad to have him," replied Bostil.
"Good. An' now mebbe we'd better get down to the bizness of this here meetin'."
They seated themselves around the table, upon which Bostil laid an old and much-soiled ledger and a stub of a lead-pencil.
"First well set the time," he said, with animation, "an' then pitch into details.... What's the date?"
No one answered, and presently they all looked blankly from one to the other.
"It's April, ain't it?" queried Holley.
That assurance was as close as they could get to the time of year.
"Lucy!" called Bostil, in a loud voice.
She came running in, anxious, almost alarmed.
"Goodness! you made us jump! What on earth is the matter?"
"Lucy, we want to know the date," replied Bostil.
"Date! Did you have to scare Auntie and me out of our wits just for that?"
"Who scared you? This is important, Lucy. What's the date?"
"It's a week to-day since last Tuesday," answered Lucy, sweetly.
"Huh! Then it's Tuesday again," said Bostil, laboriously writing it down. "Now, what's the date?"
"Don't you remember?"
"Remember? I never knew."
"Dad! ... Last Tuesday was my birthday—the day you DID NOT give me a horse!"
"Aw, so it was," rejoined Bostil, confused at her reproach. "An' thet date was—let's see—April sixth.... Then this is April thirteenth. Much obliged, Lucy. Run back to your aunt now. This hoss talk won't interest you."
Lucy tossed her head. "I'll bet I'll have to straighten out the whole thing." Then with a laugh she disappeared.
"Three days beginnin—say June first. June first—second, an' third. How about thet for the races?"
Everybody agreed, and Bostil laboriously wrote that down. Then they planned the details. Purses and prizes, largely donated by Bostil and Muncie, the rich members of the community, were recorded. The old rules were adhered to. Any rider or any Indian could enter any horse in any race, or as many horses as he liked in as many races. But by winning one race he excluded himself from the others. Bostil argued for a certain weight in riders, but the others ruled out this suggestion. Special races were arranged for the Indians, with saddles, bridles, blankets, guns as prizes.
All this appeared of absorbing interest to Bostil. He perspired freely. There was a gleam in his eye, betraying excitement. When it came to arranging the details of the big race between the high-class racers, then he grew intense and harder to deal with. Many points had to go by vote. Muncie and Williams both had fleet horses to enter in this race; Holley had one; Creech had two; there were sure to be several Indians enter fast mustangs; and Bostil had the King and four others to choose from. Bostil held out stubbornly for a long race. It was well known that Sage King was unbeatable in a long race. If there were any chance to beat him it must be at short distance. The vote went against Bostil, much to his chagrin, and the great race was set down for two miles.
"But two miles! ... Two miles!" he kept repeating. "Thet's Blue Roan's distance. Thet's his distance. An' it ain't fair to the King!"
His guests, excepting Creech, argued with him, explained, reasoned, showed him that it was fair to all concerned. Bostil finally acquiesced, but he was not happy. The plain fact was that he was frightened.
When the men were departing Bostil called Creech back into the sitting-room. Creech appeared surprised, yet it was evident that he would have been glad to make friends with Bostil.
"What'll you take for the roan?" Bostil asked, tersely,' as if he had never asked that before.
"Bostil, didn't we thresh thet out before—an' FELL out over it?" queried Creech, with a deprecating spread of his hands.
"Wal, we can fall in again, if you'll sell or trade the hoss."
"I'm sorry, but I can't."
"You need money an' hosses, don't you?" demanded Bostil, brutally. He had no conscience in a matter of horse-dealing.
"Lord knows, I do," replied Creech.
"Wal, then, here's your chance. I'll give you five hundred in gold an' Sarchedon to boot."
Creech looked as if he had not heard aright. Bostil repeated the offer.
"No," replied Creech.
"I'll make it a thousand an' throw Plume in with Sarch," flashed Bostil.
"No!" Creech turned pale and swallowed hard.
"Two thousand an' Dusty Ben along with the others?" This was an unheard-of price to pay for any horse. Creech saw that Bostil was desperate. It was an almost overpowering temptation. Evidently Creech resisted it only by applying all his mind to the thought of his clean-limbed, soft-eyed, noble horse.
Bostil did not give Creech time to speak. "Twenty-five hundred an' Two Face along with the rest!"
"My God, Bostil—stop it! I can't PART with Blue Roan. You're rich an' you've no heart. Thet I always knew. At least to me you never had, since I owned them two racers. Didn't I beg you, a little time back, to lend me a few hundred? To meet thet debt? An' you wouldn't, unless I'd sell the hosses. An' I had to lose my sheep. Now I'm a poor man—gettin' poorer all the time. But I won't sell or trade Blue Roan, not for all you've got!"
Creech seemed to gain strength with his speech and passion with the strength. His eyes glinted at the hard, paling face of his rival. He raised a clenching fist.
"An' by G—d, I'm goin' to win thet race!"
During that week Lucy had heard many things about Joel Creech, and some of them were disquieting.
Some rider had not only found Joel's clothes on the trail, but he had recognized the track of the horse Lucy rode, and at once connected her with the singular discovery. Coupling that with Joel's appearance in the village incased in a heaving armor of adobe, the riders guessed pretty close to the truth. For them the joke was tremendous. And Joel Creech was exceedingly sensitive to ridicule. The riders made life unbearable for him. They had fun out of it as long as Joel showed signs of taking the joke manfully, which was not long, and then his resentment won their contempt. That led to sarcasm on their part and bitter anger on his. It came to Lucy's ears that Joel began to act and talk strangely. She found out that the rider Van had knocked Joel down in Brackton's store and had kicked a gun out of his hand. Van laughed off the rumor and Brackton gave her no satisfaction. Moreover, she heard no other rumors. The channels of gossip had suddenly closed to her. Bostil, when questioned by Lucy, swore in a way that amazed her, and all he told her was to leave Creech alone. Finally, when Muncie discharged Joel, who worked now and then, Lucy realized that something was wrong with Joel and that she was to blame for it.
She grew worried and anxious and sorry, but she held her peace, and determined to find out for herself what was wrong. Every day when she rode out into the sage she expected to meet him, or at least see him somewhere; nevertheless days went by and there was no sign of him.
One afternoon she saw some Indians driving sheep down the river road toward the ford, and, acting upon impulse, she turned her horse after them.
Lucy seldom went down the river road. Riding down and up was merely work, and a horse has as little liking for it as she had. Usually it was a hot, dusty trip, and the great, dark, overhanging walls had a depressing effect, upon her. She always felt awe at the gloomy canyon and fear at the strange, murmuring red river. But she started down this afternoon in the hope of meeting Joel. She had a hazy idea of telling him she was sorry for what she had done, and of asking him to forget it and pay no more heed to the riders.
The sheep raised a dust-cloud in the sandy wash where the road wound down, and Lucy hung back to let them get farther ahead. Gradually the tiny roar of pattering hoofs and the blended bleating and baaing died away. The dust-cloud, however, hung over the head of the ravine, and Lucy had to force Sarchedon through it. Sarchedon did not mind sand and dust, but he surely hated the smell of sheep. Lucy seldom put a spur to Sarchedon; still, she gave him a lash with her quirt, and then he went on obediently, if disgustedly. He carried his head like a horse that wondered why his mistress preferred to drive him down into an unpleasant hole when she might have been cutting the sweet, cool sage wind up on the slope.
The wash, with its sand and clay walls, dropped into a gulch, and there was an end of green growths. The road led down over solid rock. Gradually the rims of the gorge rose, shutting out the light and the cliffs. It was a winding road and one not safe to tarry on in a stormy season. Lucy had seen boulders weighing a ton go booming down that gorge during one of the sudden fierce desert storms, when a torrent of water and mud and stone went plunging on to the river. The ride through here was short, though slow. Lucy always had time to adjust her faculties for the overpowering contrast these lower regions presented. Long before she reached the end of the gorge she heard the sullen thunder of the river. The river was low, too, for otherwise there would have been a deafening roar.
Presently she came out upon a lower branch of the canyon, into a great red-walled space, with the river still a thousand feet below, and the cliffs towering as high above her. The road led down along this rim where to the left all was open, across to the split and peaked wall opposite. The river appeared to sweep round a bold, bulging corner a mile above. It was a wide, swift, muddy, turbulent stream. A great bar of sand stretched out from the shore. Beyond it, through the mouth of an intersecting canyon, could be seen a clump of cottonwoods and willows that marked the home of the Creeches. Lucy could not see the shore nearest her, as it was almost directly under her. Besides, in this narrow road, on a spirited horse, she was not inclined to watch the scenery. She hurried Sarchedon down and down, under the overhanging brows of rock, to where the rim sloped out and failed. Here was a half-acre of sand, with a few scant willows, set down seemingly in a dent at the base of the giant, beetling cliffs. The place was light, though the light seemed a kind of veiled red, and to Lucy always ghastly. She could not have been joyous with that river moaning before her, even if it had been up on a level, in the clear and open day. As a little girl eight years old she had conceived a terror and hatred of this huge, jagged rent so full of red haze and purple smoke and the thunder of rushing waters. And she had never wholly outgrown it. The joy of the sun and wind, the rapture in the boundless open, the sweetness in the sage—these were not possible here. Something mighty and ponderous, heavy as those colossal cliffs, weighted down her spirit. The voice of the river drove out any dream. Here was the incessant frowning presence of destructive forces of nature. And the ford was associated with catastrophe—to sheep, to horses and to men.
Lucy rode across the bar to the shore where the Indians were loading the sheep into an immense rude flatboat. As the sheep were frightened, the loading was no easy task. Their bleating could be heard above the roar of the river. Bostil's boatmen, Shugrue and Somers, stood knee-deep in the quicksand of the bar, and their efforts to keep free-footed were as strenuous as their handling of the sheep. Presently the flock was all crowded on board, the Indians followed, and then the boatmen slid the unwieldy craft off the sand-bar. Then, each manning a clumsy oar, they pulled up-stream. Along shore were whirling, slow eddies, and there rowing was possible. Out in that swift current it would have been folly to try to contend with it, let alone make progress. The method of crossing was to row up along the shore as far as a great cape of rock jutting out, and there make into the current, and while drifting down pull hard to reach the landing opposite. Heavily laden as the boat was, the chances were not wholly in favor of a successful crossing.
Lucy watched the slow, laborious struggle of the boatmen with the heavy oars until she suddenly remembered the object of her visit down to the ford. She appeared to be alone on her side of the river. At the landing opposite, however, were two men; and presently Lucy recognized Joel Creech and his father. A second glance showed Indians with burros, evidently waiting for the boat. Joel Creech jumped into a skiff and shoved off. The elder man, judging by his motions, seemed to be trying to prevent his son from leaving the shore. But Joel began to row up-stream, keeping close to the shore. Lucy watched him. No doubt he had seen her and was coming across. Either the prospect of meeting him or the idea of meeting him there in the place where she was never herself made her want to turn at once and ride back home. But her stubborn sense of fairness overruled that. She would hold her ground solely in the hope of persuading Joel to be reasonable. She saw the big flatboat sweep into line of sight at the same time Joel turned into the current. But while the larger craft drifted slowly the other way, the smaller one came swiftly down and across. Joel swept out of the current into the eddy, rowed across that, and slid the skiff up on the sand-bar. Then he stepped out. He was bareheaded and barefooted, but it was not that which made him seem a stranger to Lucy.
"Are you lookin' fer me?" he shouted.
Lucy waved a hand for him to come up.
Then he approached. He was a tall, lean young man, stoop-shouldered and bow-legged from much riding, with sallow, freckled face, a thin fuzz of beard, weak mouth and chin, and eyes remarkable for their small size and piercing quality and different color. For one was gray and the other was hazel. There was no scar on his face, but the irregularity of his features reminded one who knew that he had once been kicked in the face by a horse.
Creech came up hurriedly, in an eager, wild way that made Lucy suddenly pity him. He did not seem to remember that the stallion had an antipathy for him. But Lucy, if she had forgotten, would have been reminded by Sarchedon's action.
"Look out, Joel!" she called, and she gave the black's head a jerk. Sarchedon went up with a snort and came down pounding the sand. Quick as an Indian Lucy was out of the saddle.
"Lemme your quirt," said Joel, showing his teeth like a wolf.
"No. I wouldn't let you hit Sarch. You beat him once, and he's never forgotten," replied Lucy.
The eye of the horse and the man met and clashed, and there was a hostile tension in their attitudes. Then Lucy dropped the bridle and drew Joel over to a huge drift-log, half buried in the sand. Here she sat down, but Joel remained standing. His gaze was now all the stranger for its wistfulness. Lucy was quick to catch a subtle difference in him, but she could not tell wherein it lay.
"What'd you want?" asked Joel.
"I've heard a lot of things, Joel," replied Lucy, trying to think of just what she wanted to say.
"Reckon you have," said Joel, dejectedly, and then he sat down on the log and dug holes in the sand with his bare feet.
Lucy had never before seen him look tired, and it seemed that some of the healthy brown of his cheeks had thinned out. Then Lucy told him, guardedly, a few of the rumors she had heard.
"All thet you say is nothin' to what's happened," he replied, bitterly. "Them riders mocked the life an' soul out of me."
"But, Joel, you shouldn't be so—so touchy," said Lucy, earnestly. "After all, the joke WAS on you. Why didn't you take it like a man?"
"But they knew you stole my clothes," he protested.
"Suppose they did. That wasn't much to care about. If you hadn't taken it so hard they'd have let up on you."
"Mebbe I might have stood that. But they taunted me with bein'—loony about you."
Joel spoke huskily. There was no doubt that he had been deeply hurt. Lucy saw tears in his eyes, and her first impulse was to put a hand on his and tell him how sorry she was. But she desisted. She did not feel at her ease with Joel.
"What'd you and Van fight about?" she asked, presently. Joel hung his head. "I reckon I ain't a-goin' to tell you."
"You're ashamed of it?"
Joel's silence answered that.
"You said something about me?" Lucy could not resist her curiosity, back of which was a little heat. "It must have been—bad—else Van wouldn't have struck you."
"He hit me—he knocked me flat," passionately said Joel.
"And you drew a gun on him?"
"I did, an' like a fool I didn't wait till I got up. Then he kicked me! ... Bostil's Ford will never be big enough fer me an' Van now."
"Don't talk foolish. You won't fight with Van.... Joel, maybe you deserved what you got. You say some—some rude things."
"I only said I'd pay you back," burst out Joel.
"I swore I'd lay fer you—an' steal your clothes—so you'd have to run home naked."
There was indeed something lacking in Joel, but it was not sincerity. His hurt had rankled deep and his voice trembled with indignation.
"But, Joel, I don't go swimming in spring-holes," protested Lucy, divided between amusement and annoyance.
"I meant it, anyhow," said Joel, doggedly.
"Are you absolutely honest? Is that all you said to provoke Van?"
"It's all, Lucy, I swear."
She believed him, and saw the unfortunate circumstance more than ever her fault. "I'm sorry, Joel. I'm much to blame. I shouldn't have lost my temper and played that trick with your clothes.... If you'd only had sense enough to stay out till after dark! But no use crying over spilt milk. Now, if you'll do your share I'll do mine. I'll tell the boys I was to blame. I'll persuade them to let you alone. I'll go to Muncie—"
"No you won't go cryin' small fer me!" blurted out Joel.
Lucy was surprised to see pride in him. "Joel, I'll not make it appear—"
"You'll not say one word about me to any one," he went on, with the blood beginning to darken his face. And now he faced her. How strange the blaze in his differently colored eyes! "Lucy Bostil, there's been thet done an' said to me which I'll never forgive. I'm no good in Bostil's Ford. Mebbe I never was much. But I could get a job when I wanted it an' credit when I needed it. Now I can't get nothin'. I'm no good! ... I'm no good! An' it's your fault!"
"Oh, Joel, what can I do?" cried Lucy.
"I reckon there's only one way you can square me," he replied, suddenly growing pale. But his eyes were like flint. He certainly looked to be in possession of all his wits.
"How?" queried Lucy, sharply.
"You can marry me. Thet'll show thet gang! An' it'll square me. Then I'll go back to work an' I'll stick. Thet's all, Lucy Bostil."
Manifestly he was laboring under strong suppressed agitation. That moment was the last of real strength and dignity ever shown by Joel Creech.
"But, Joel, I can't marry you—even if I am to blame for your ruin," said Lucy, simply.
"Because I don't love you."
"I reckon thet won't make any difference, if you don't love some one else."
Lucy gazed blankly at him. He began to shake, and his eyes grew wild. She rose from the log.
"Do you love anybody else?" he asked, passionately.
"None of your business!" retorted Lucy. Then, at a strange darkening of his face, an aspect unfamiliar to her, she grew suddenly frightened.
"It's Van!" he said, thickly.
"Joel, you're a fool!"
That only infuriated him.
"So they all say. An' they got my old man believin' it, too. Mebbe I am.... But I'm a-goin' to kill Van!"
"No! No! Joel, what are you saying? I don't love Van. I don't care any more for him than for any other rider—or—or you."
"Thet's a lie, Lucy Bostil!"
"How dare you say I lie?" demanded Lucy. "I've a mind to turn my back on you. I'm trying to make up for my blunder and you—you insult me!"
"You talk sweet ... but talk isn't enough. You made me no-good .... Will you marry me?"
"I will not!" And Lucy, with her blood up, could not keep contempt out of voice and look, and she did not care. That was the first time she had ever shown anything, approaching ridicule for Joel. The effect was remarkable. Like a lash upon a raw wound it made him writhe; but more significant to Lucy was the sudden convulsive working of his features and the wildness of his eyes. Then she turned her back, not from contempt, but to hurry away from him.
He leaped after her and grasped her with rude hands.
"Let me go!" cried Lucy, standing perfectly motionless. The hard clutch of his fingers roused a fierce, hot anger.
Joel did not heed her command. He was forcing her back. He talked incoherently. One glimpse of his face added terror to Lucy's fury.
"Joel, you're out of your head!" she cried, and she began to wrench and writhe out of his grasp. Then ensued a short, sharp struggle. Joel could not hold Lucy, but he tore her blouse into shreds. It seemed to Lucy that he did that savagely. She broke free from him, and he lunged at her again. With all her strength she lashed his face with the heavy leather quirt. That staggered him. He almost fell.
Lucy bounded to Sarchedon. In a rush she was up in the saddle. Joel was running toward her. Blood on his face! Blood on his hands! He was not the Joel Creech she knew.
"Stop!" cried Lucy, fiercely. "I'll run you down!"
The big black plunged at a touch of spur and came down quivering, ready to bolt.
Creech swerved to one side. His face was lividly white except where the bloody welts crossed it. His jaw seemed to hang loosely, making speech difficult.
"Jest fer—thet—" he panted, hoarsely, "I'll lay fer you—an' I'll strip you—-an' I'll tie you on a hoss—an' I'll drive you naked through Bostil's Ford!"
Lucy saw the utter futility of all her good intentions. Something had snapped in Joel Creech's mind. And in hers kindness had given precedence to a fury she did not know was in her. For the second time she touched a spur to Sarchedon. He leaped out, flashed past Creech, and thundered up the road. It was all Lucy could do to break his gait at the first steep rise.