Wildfire by Zane Grey
Three wild-horse hunters made camp one night beside a little stream in the Sevier Valley, five hundred miles, as a crow flies, from Bostil's Ford.
These hunters had a poor outfit, excepting, of course, their horses. They were young men, rangy in build, lean and hard from life in the saddle, bronzed like Indians, still-faced, and keen-eyed. Two of them appeared to be tired out, and lagged at the camp-fire duties. When the meager meal was prepared they sat, cross-legged, before a ragged tarpaulin, eating and drinking in silence.
The sky in the west was rosy, slowly darkening. The valley floor billowed away, ridged and cut, growing gray and purple and dark. Walls of stone, pink with the last rays of the setting sun, inclosed the valley, stretching away toward a long, low, black mountain range.
The place was wild, beautiful, open, with something nameless that made the desert different from any other country. It was, perhaps, a loneliness of vast stretches of valley and stone, clear to the eye, even after sunset. That black mountain range, which looked close enough to ride to before dark, was a hundred miles distant.
The shades of night fell swiftly, and it was dark by the time the hunters finished the meal. Then the campfire had burned low. One of the three dragged branches of dead cedars and replenished the fire. Quickly it flared up, with the white flame and crackle characteristic of dry cedar. The night wind had risen, moaning through the gnarled, stunted cedars near by, and it blew the fragrant wood-smoke into the faces of the two hunters, who seemed too tired to move.
"I reckon a pipe would help me make up my mind," said one.
"Wal, Bill," replied the other, dryly, "your mind's made up, else you'd not say smoke."
"Because there ain't three pipefuls of thet precious tobacco left."
"Thet's one apiece, then.... Lin, come an' smoke the last pipe with us."
The tallest of the three, he who had brought the firewood, stood in the bright light of the blaze. He looked the born rider, light, lithe, powerful.
"Sure, I'll smoke," he replied.
Then, presently, he accepted the pipe tendered him, and, sitting down beside the fire, he composed himself to the enjoyment which his companions evidently considered worthy of a decision they had reached.
"So this smokin' means you both want to turn back?" queried Lin, his sharp gaze glancing darkly bright in the glow of the fire.
"Yep, we'll turn back. An', Lordy! the relief I feel!" replied one.
"We've been long comin' to it, Lin, an' thet was for your sake," replied the other.
Lin slowly pulled at his pipe and blew out the smoke as if reluctant to part with it. "Let's go on," he said, quietly.
"No. I've had all I want of chasin' thet damn wild stallion," returned Bill, shortly.
The other spread wide his hands and bent an expostulating look upon the one called Lin. "We're two hundred miles out," he said. "There's only a little flour left in the bag. No coffee! Only a little salt! All the hosses except your big Nagger are played out. We're already in strange country. An' you know what we've heerd of this an' all to the south. It's all canyons, an' somewheres down there is thet awful canyon none of our people ever seen. But we've heerd of it. An awful cut-up country."
He finished with a conviction that no one could say a word against the common sense of his argument. Lin was silent, as if impressed.
Bill raised a strong, lean, brown hand in a forcible gesture. "We can't ketch Wildfire!"
That seemed to him, evidently, a more convincing argument than his comrade's.
"Bill is sure right, if I'm wrong, which I ain't," went on the other. "Lin, we've trailed thet wild stallion for six weeks. Thet's the longest chase he ever had. He's left his old range. He's cut out his band, an' left them, one by one. We've tried every trick we know on him. An' he's too smart for us. There's a hoss! Why, Lin, we're all but gone to the dogs chasin' Wildfire. An' now I'm done, an' I'm glad of it."
There was another short silence, which presently Bill opened his lips to break.
"Lin, it makes me sick to quit. I ain't denyin' thet for a long time I've had hopes of ketchin' Wildfire. He's the grandest hoss I ever laid eyes on. I reckon no man, onless he was an Arab, ever seen as good a one. But now, thet's neither here nor there.... We've got to hit the back trail."
"Boys, I reckon I'll stick to Wildfire's tracks," said Lin, in the same quiet tone.
Bill swore at him, and the other hunter grew excited and concerned.
"Lin Slone, are you gone plumb crazy over thet red hoss?"
"I—reckon," replied Slone. The working of his throat as he swallowed could be plainly seen by his companions.
Bill looked at his ally as if to confirm some sudden understanding between them. They took Slone's attitude gravely and they wagged their heads doubtfully, as they might have done had Slone just acquainted them with a hopeless and deathless passion for a woman. It was significant of the nature of riders that they accepted his attitude and had consideration for his feelings. For them the situation subtly changed. For weeks they had been three wild-horse wranglers on a hard chase after a valuable stallion. They had failed to get even close to him. They had gone to the limit of their endurance and of the outfit, and it was time to turn back. But Slone had conceived that strange and rare longing for a horse—a passion understood, if not shared, by all riders. And they knew that he would catch Wildfire or die in the attempt. From that moment their attitude toward Slone changed as subtly as had come the knowledge of his feeling. The gravity and gloom left their faces. It seemed they might have regretted what they had said about the futility of catching Wildfire. They did not want Slone to see or feel the hopelessness of his task.
"I tell you, Lin," said Bill, "your hoss Nagger's as good as when we started."
"Aw, he's better," vouchsafed the other rider. "Nagger needed to lose some weight. Lin, have you got an extra set of shoes for him?"
"No full set. Only three left," replied Lin, soberly.
"Wal, thet's enough. You can keep Nagger shod. An' MEBBE thet red stallion will get sore feet an' go lame. Then you'd stand a chance."
"But Wildfire keeps travelin' the valleys—the soft ground," said Slone.
"No matter. He's leavin' the country, an' he's bound to strike sandstone sooner or later. Then, by gosh! mebbe he'll wear off them hoofs."
"Say, can't he ring bells offen the rocks?" exclaimed Bill. "Oh, Lordy! what a hoss!"
"Boys, do you think he's leavin' the country?" inquired Slone, anxiously.
"Sure he is," replied Bill. "He ain't the first stallion I've chased off the Sevier range. An' I know. It's a stallion thet makes for new country, when you push him hard."
"Yep, Lin, he's sure leavin'," added the other comrade. "Why, he's traveled a bee-line for days! I'll bet he's seen us many a time. Wildfire's about as smart as any man. He was born wild, an' his dam was born wild, an' there you have it. The wildest of all wild creatures—a wild stallion, with the intelligence of a man! A grand hoss, Lin, but one thet'll be hell, if you ever ketch him. He has killed stallions all over the Sevier range. A wild stallion thet's a killer! I never liked him for thet. Could he be broke?"
"I'll break him," said Lin Slone, grimly. "It's gettin' him thet's the job. I've got patience to break a hoss. But patience can't catch a streak of lightnin'."
"Nope; you're right," replied Bill. "If you have some luck you'll get him—mebbe. If he wears out his feet, or if you crowd him into a narrow canyon, or ran him into a bad place where he can't get by you. Thet might happen. An' then, with Nagger, you stand a chance. Did you ever tire thet hoss?"
"An' how fur did you ever run him without a break? Why, when we ketched thet sorrel last year I rode Nagger myself—thirty miles, most at a hard gallop. An' he never turned a hair!"
"I've beat thet," replied Lin. "He could run hard fifty miles—mebbe more. Honestly, I never seen him tired yet. If only he was fast!"
"Wal, Nagger ain't so durned slow, come to think of thet," replied Bill, with a grunt. "He's good enough for you not to want another hoss."
"Lin, you're goin' to wear out Wildfire, an' then trap him somehow—is thet the plan?" asked the other comrade.
"I haven't any plan. I'll just trail him, like a cougar trails a deer."
"Lin, if Wildfire gives you the slip he'll have to fly. You've got the best eyes for tracks of any wrangler in Utah."
Slone accepted the compliment with a fleeting, doubtful smile on his dark face. He did not reply, and no more was said by his comrades. They rolled with backs to the fire. Slone put on more wood, for the keen wind was cold and cutting; and then he lay down, his head in his saddle, with a goatskin under him and a saddle-blanket over him.
All three were soon asleep. The wind whipped the sand and ashes and smoke over the sleepers. Coyotes barked from near in darkness, and from the valley ridge came the faint mourn of a hunting wolf. The desert night grew darker and colder.
The Stewart brothers were wild-horse hunters for the sake of trades and occasional sales. But Lin Slone never traded nor sold a horse he had captured. The excitement of the game, and the lure of the desert, and the love of a horse were what kept him at the profitless work. His type was rare in the uplands.
These were the early days of the settlement of Utah, and only a few of the hardiest and most adventurous pioneers had penetrated the desert in the southern part of that vast upland. And with them came some of that wild breed of riders to which Slone and the Stewarts belonged. Horses were really more important and necessary than men; and this singular fact gave these lonely riders a calling.
Before the Spaniards came there were no horses in the West. Those explorers left or lost horses all over the southwest. Many of them were Arabian horses of purest blood. American explorers and travelers, at the outset of the nineteenth century, encountered countless droves of wild horses all over the plains. Across the Grand Canyon, however, wild horses were comparatively few in number in the early days; and these had probably come in by way of California.
The Stewarts and Slone had no established mode of catching wild horses. The game had not developed fast enough for that. Every chase of horse or drove was different; and once in many attempts they met with success.
A favorite method originated by the Stewarts was to find a water-hole frequented by the band of horses or the stallion wanted, and to build round this hole a corral with an opening for the horses to get in. Then the hunters would watch the trap at night, and if the horses went in to drink, a gate was closed across the opening. Another method of the Stewarts was to trail a coveted horse up on a mesa or highland, places which seldom had more than one trail of ascent and descent, and there block the escape, and cut lines of cedars, into which the quarry was ran till captured. Still another method, discovered by accident, was to shoot a horse lightly in the neck and sting him. This last, called creasing, was seldom successful, and for that matter in any method ten times as many horses were killed as captured.
Lin Slone helped the Stewarts in their own way, but he had no especial liking for their tricks. Perhaps a few remarkable captures of remarkable horses had spoiled Slone. He was always trying what the brothers claimed to be impossible. He was a fearless rider, but he had the fault of saving his mount, and to kill a wild horse was a tragedy for him. He would much rather have hunted alone, and he had been alone on the trail of the stallion Wildfire when the Stewarts had joined him.
Lin Slone awoke next morning and rolled out of his blanket at his usual early hour. But he was not early enough to say good-by to the Stewarts. They were gone.
The fact surprised him and somehow relieved him. They had left him more than his share of the outfit, and perhaps that was why they had slipped off before dawn. They knew him well enough to know that he would not have accepted it. Besides, perhaps they felt a little humiliation at abandoning a chase which he chose to keep up. Anyway, they were gone, apparently without breakfast.
The morning was clear, cool, with the air dark like that before a storm, and in the east, over the steely wall of stone, shone a redness growing brighter.
Slone looked away to the west, down the trail taken by his comrades, but he saw nothing moving against that cedar-dotted waste.
"Good-by," he said, and he spoke as if he was saying good-by to more than comrades.
"I reckon I won't see Sevier Village soon again—an' maybe never," he soliloquized.
There was no one to regret him, unless it was old Mother Hall, who had been kind to him on those rare occasions when he got out of the wilderness. Still, it was with regret that he gazed away across the red valley to the west. Slone had no home. His father and mother had been lost in the massacre of a wagon-train by Indians, and he had been one of the few saved and brought to Salt Lake. That had happened when he was ten years old. His life thereafter had been hard, and but for his sturdy Texas training he might not have survived. The last five years he had been a horse-hunter in the wild uplands of Nevada and Utah.
Slone turned his attention to the pack of supplies. The Stewarts had divided the flour and the parched corn equally, and unless he was greatly mistaken they had left him most of the coffee and all of the salt.
"Now I hold that decent of Bill an' Abe," said Slone, regretfully. "But I could have got along without it better 'n they could."
Then he swiftly set about kindling a fire and getting a meal. In the midst of his task a sudden ruddy brightness fell around him. Lin Slone paused in his work to look up.
The sun had risen over the eastern wall.
"Ah!" he said, and drew a deep breath.
The cold, steely, darkling sweep of desert had been transformed. It was now a world of red earth and gold rocks and purple sage, with everywhere the endless straggling green cedars. A breeze whipped in, making the fire roar softly. The sun felt warm on his cheek. And at the moment he heard the whistle of his horse.
"Good old Nagger!" he said. "I shore won't have to track you this mornin'."
Presently he went off into the cedars to find Nagger and the mustang that he used to carry a pack. Nagger was grazing in a little open patch among the trees, but the pack-horse was missing. Slone seemed to know in what direction to go to find the trail, for he came upon it very soon. The pack-horse wore hobbles, but he belonged to the class that could cover a great deal of ground when hobbled. Slone did not expect the horse to go far, considering that the grass thereabouts was good. But in a wild-horse country it was not safe to give any horse a chance. The call of his wild brethren was irresistible. Slone, however, found the mustang standing quietly in a clump of cedars, and, removing the hobbles, he mounted and rode back to camp. Nagger caught sight of him and came at his call.
This horse Nagger appeared as unique in his class as Slone was rare among riders. Nagger seemed of several colors, though black predominated. His coat was shaggy, almost woolly, like that of a sheep. He was huge, raw-boned, knotty, long of body and long of leg, with the head of a war charger. His build did not suggest speed. There appeared to be something slow and ponderous about him, similar to an elephant, with the same suggestion of power and endurance. Slone discarded the pack-saddle and bags. The latter were almost empty. He roped the tarpaulin on the back of the mustang, and, making a small bundle of his few supplies, he tied that to the tarpaulin. His blanket he used for a saddle-blanket on Nagger. Of the utensils left by the Stewarts he chose a couple of small iron pans, with long handles. The rest he left. In his saddle-bags he had a few extra horseshoes, some nails, bullets for his rifle, and a knife with a heavy blade.
"Not a rich outfit for a far country," he mused. Slone did not talk very much, and when he did he addressed Nagger and himself simultaneously. Evidently he expected a long chase, one from which he would not return, and light as his outfit was it would grow too heavy.
Then he mounted and rode down the gradual slope, facing the valley and the black, bold, flat mountain to the southeast. Some few hundred yards from camp he halted Nagger and bent over in the saddle to scrutinize the ground.
The clean-cut track of a horse showed in the bare, hard sand. The hoof-marks were large, almost oval, perfect in shape, and manifestly they were beautiful to Lin Slone. He gazed at them for a long time, and then he looked across the dotted red valley up the vast ridgy steps, toward the black plateau and beyond. It was the look that an Indian gives to a strange country. Then Slone slipped off the saddle and knelt to scrutinize the horse tracks. A little sand had blown into the depressions, and some of it was wet and some of it was dry. He took his time about examining it, and he even tried gently blowing other sand into the tracks, to compare that with what was already there. Finally he stood up and addressed Nagger.
"Reckon we won't have to argue with Abe an' Bill this mornin'," he said, with satisfaction. "Wildfire made that track yesterday, before sun-up."
Thereupon Slone remounted and put Nagger to a trot. The pack-horse followed with an alacrity that showed he had no desire for loneliness.
As straight as a bee-line Wildfire had left a trail down into the floor of the valley. He had not stopped to graze, and he had not looked for water. Slone had hoped to find a water-hole in one of the deep washes in the red earth, but if there had been any water there Wildfire would have scented it. He had not had a drink for three days that Slone knew of. And Nagger had not drunk for forty hours. Slone had a canvas water-bag hanging over the pommel, but it was a habit of his to deny himself, as far as possible, till his horse could drink also. Like an Indian, Slone ate and drank but little.
It took four hours of steady trotting to reach the middle and bottom of that wide, flat valley. A network of washes cut up the whole center of it, and they were all as dry as bleached bone. To cross these Slone had only to keep Wildfire's trail. And it was proof of Nagger's quality that he did not have to veer from the stallion's course.
It was hot down in the lowland. The heat struck up, reflected from the sand. But it was a March sun, and no more than pleasant to Slone. The wind rose, however, and blew dust and sand in the faces of horse and rider. Except lizards, Slone did not see any living things.
Miles of low greasewood and sparse yellow sage led to the first almost imperceptible rise of the valley floor on that side. The distant cedars beckoned to Slone. He was not patient, because he was on the trail of Wildfire; but, nevertheless, the hours seemed short.
Slone had no past to think about, and the future held nothing except a horse, and so his thoughts revolved the possibilities connected with this chase of Wildfire. The chase was hopeless in such country as he was traversing, and if Wildfire chose to roam around valleys like this one Slone would fail utterly. But the stallion had long ago left his band of horses, and then, one by one his favorite consorts, and now he was alone, headed with unerring instinct for wild, untrammeled ranges. He had been used to the pure, cold water and the succulent grass of the cold desert uplands. Assuredly he would not tarry in such barren lands as these.
For Slone an ever-present and growing fascination lay in Wildfire's clear, sharply defined tracks. It was as if every hoof-mark told him something. Once, far up the interminable ascent, he found on a ridge-top tracks showing where Wildfire had halted and turned.
"Ha, Nagger!" cried Slone, exultingly. "Look there! He's begun facin' about. He's wonderin' if we're still after him. He's worried.... But we'll keep out of sight—a day behind."
When Slone reached the cedars the sun was low down in the west. He looked back across the fifty miles of valley to the colored cliffs and walls. He seemed to be above them now, and the cool air, with tang of cedar and juniper, strengthened the impression that he had climbed high.
A mile or more ahead of him rose a gray cliff with breaks in it and a line of dark cedars or pinyons on the level rims. He believed these breaks to be the mouths of canyons, and so it turned out. Wildfire's trail led into the mouth of a narrow canyon with very steep and high walls. Nagger snorted his perception of water, and the mustang whistled. Wildfire's tracks led to a point under the wall where a spring gushed forth. There were mountain-lion and deer tracks also, as well as those of smaller game.
Slone made camp here. The mustang was tired. But Nagger, upon taking a long drink, rolled in the grass as if he had just begun the trip. After eating, Slone took his rifle and went out to look for deer. But there appeared to be none at hand. He came across many lion tracks and saw, with apprehension, where one had taken Wildfire's trail. Wildfire had grazed up the canyon, keeping on and on, and he was likely to go miles in a night. Slone reflected that as small as were his own chances of getting Wildfire, they were still better than those of a mountain-lion. Wildfire was the most cunning of all animals—a wild stallion; his speed and endurance were incomparable; his scent as keen as those animals that relied wholly upon scent to warn them of danger, and as for sight, it was Slone's belief that no hoofed creature, except the mountain-sheep used to high altitudes, could see as far as a wild horse.
It bothered Slone a little that he was getting into a lion country. Nagger showed nervousness, something unusual for him. Slone tied both horses with long halters and stationed them on patches of thick grass. Then he put a cedar stump on the fire and went to sleep. Upon awakening and going to the spring he was somewhat chagrined to see that deer had come down to drink early. Evidently they were numerous. A lion country was always a deer country, for the lions followed the deer.
Slone was packed and saddled and on his way before the sun reddened the canyon wall. He walked the horses. From time to time he saw signs of Wildfire's consistent progress. The canyon narrowed and the walls grew lower and the grass increased. There was a decided ascent all the time. Slone could find no evidence that the canyon had ever been traveled by hunters or Indians. The day was pleasant and warm and still. Every once in a while a little breath of wind would bring a fragrance of cedar and pinyon, and a sweet hint of pine and sage. At every turn he looked ahead, expecting to see the green of pine and the gray of sage. Toward the middle of the afternoon, coming to a place where Wildfire had taken to a trot, he put Nagger to that gait, and by sundown had worked up to where the canyon was only a shallow ravine. And finally it turned once more, to lose itself in a level where straggling pines stood high above the cedars, and great, dark-green silver spruces stood above the pines. And here were patches of sage, fresh and pungent, and long reaches of bleached grass. It was the edge of a forest. Wildfire's trail went on. Slone came at length to a group of pines, and here he found the remains of a camp-fire, and some flint arrow-heads. Indians had been in there, probably having come from the opposite direction to Slone's. This encouraged him, for where Indians could hunt so could he. Soon he was entering a forest where cedars and pinyons and pines began to grow thickly. Presently he came upon a faintly defined trail, just a dim, dark line even to an experienced eye. But it was a trail, and Wildfire had taken it.
Slone halted for the night. The air was cold. And the dampness of it gave him an idea there were snow-banks somewhere not far distant. The dew was already heavy on the grass. He hobbled the horses and put a bell on Nagger. A bell might frighten lions that had never heard one. Then he built a fire and cooked his meal.
It had been long since he had camped high up among the pines. The sough of the wind pleased him, like music. There had begun to be prospects of pleasant experience along with the toil of chasing Wildfire. He was entering new and strange and beautiful country. How far might the chase take him? He did not care. He was not sleepy, but even if he had been it developed that he must wait till the coyotes ceased their barking round his camp-fire. They came so close that he saw their gray shadows in the gloom. But presently they wearied of yelping at him and went away. After that the silence, broken only by the wind as it roared and lulled, seemed beautiful to Slone. He lost completely that sense of vague regret which had remained with him, and he forgot the Stewarts. And suddenly he felt absolutely free, alone, with nothing behind to remember, with wild, thrilling, nameless life before him. Just then the long mourn of a timber wolf wailed in with the wind. Seldom had he heard the cry of one of those night wanderers. There was nothing like it—no sound like it to fix in the lone camper's heart the great solitude and the wild.