Wildfire by Zane Grey
Lucy Bostil had called twice to her father and he had not answered. He was out at the hitching-rail, with Holley, the rider, and two other men. If he heard Lucy he gave no sign of it. She had on her chaps and did not care to go any farther than the door where she stood.
"Somers has gone to Durango an' Shugrue is out huntin' hosses," Lucy heard Bostil say, gruffly.
"Wal now, I reckon I could handle the boat an' fetch Creech's hosses over," said Holley.
Bostil raised an impatient hand, as if to wave aside Holley's assumption.
Then one of the other two men spoke up. Lucy had seen him before, but did not know his name.
"Sure there ain't any need to rustle the job. The river hain't showed any signs of risin' yet. But Creech is worryin'. He allus is worryin' over them hosses. No wonder! Thet Blue Roan is sure a hoss. Yesterday at two miles he showed Creech he was a sight faster than last year. The grass is gone over there. Creech is grainin' his stock these last few days. An' thet's expensive."
"How about the flat up the canyon?" queried Bostil. "Ain't there any grass there?"
"Reckon not. It's the dryest spell Creech ever had," replied the other. "An' if there was grass it wouldn't do him no good. A landslide blocked the only trail up."
"Bostil, them hosses, the racers special, ought to be brought acrost the river," said Holley, earnestly. He loved horses and was thinking of them.
"The boat's got to be patched up," replied Bostil, shortly.
It occurred to Lucy that her father was also thinking of Creech's thoroughbreds, but not like Holley. She grew grave and listened intently.
There was an awkward pause. Creech's rider, whoever he was, evidently tried to conceal his anxiety. He flicked his boots with a quirt. The boots were covered with wet mud. Probably he had crossed the river very recently.
"Wal, when will you have the hosses fetched over?" he asked, deliberately. "Creech'll want to know."
"Just as soon as the boat's mended," replied Bostil. "I'll put Shugrue on the job to-morrow."
"Thanks, Bostil. Sure, thet'll be all right. Creech'll be satisfied," said the rider, as if relieved. Then he mounted, and with his companion trotted down the lane.
The lean, gray Holley bent a keen gaze upon Bostil. But Bostil did not notice that; he appeared preoccupied in thought.
"Bostil, the dry winter an' spring here ain't any guarantee thet there wasn't a lot of snow up in the mountains." Holley's remark startled Bostil.
"No—it ain't—sure," he replied.
"An' any mornin' along now we might wake up to hear the Colorado boomin'," went on Holley, significantly.
Bostil did not reply to that.
"Creech hain't lived over there so many years. What's he know about the river? An' fer that matter, who knows anythin' sure about thet hell-bent river?"
"It ain't my business thet Creech lives over there riskin' his stock every spring," replied Bostil, darkly.
Holley opened his lips to speak, hesitated, looked away from Bostil, and finally said, "No, it sure ain't." Then he turned and walked away, head bent in sober thought. Bostil came toward the open door where Lucy stood. He looked somber. At her greeting he seemed startled.
"What?" he said.
"I just said, 'Hello, Dad,'" she replied, demurely. Yet she thoughtfully studied her father's dark face.
"Hello yourself.... Did you know Van got throwed an' hurt?"
Bostil swore under his breath. "There ain't any riders on the range thet can be trusted," he said, disgustedly. "They're all the same. They like to get in a bunch an' jeer each other an' bet. They want MEAN hosses. They make good hosses buck. They haven't any use for a hoss thet won't buck. They all want to give a hoss a rakin' over.... Think of thet fool Van gettin' throwed by a two-dollar Ute mustang. An' hurt so he can't ride for days! With them races comin' soon! It makes me sick."
"Dad, weren't you a rider once?" asked Lucy.
"I never was thet kind."
"Van will be all right in a few days."
"No matter. It's bad business. If I had any other rider who could handle the King I'd let Van go."
"I can get just as much out of the King as Van can," said Lucy, spiritedly.
"You!" exclaimed Bostil. But there was pride in his glance.
"I know I can."
"You never had any use for Sage King," said Bostil, as if he had been wronged.
"I love the King a little, and hate him a lot," laughed Lucy.
"Wal, I might let you ride at thet, if Van ain't in shape," rejoined her father.
"I wouldn't ride him in the race. But I'll keep him in fine fettle."
"I'll bet you'd like to see Sarch beat him," said Bostil, jealously.
"Sure I would," replied Lucy, teasingly. "But, Dad, I'm afraid Sarch never will beat him."
Bostil grunted. "See here. I don't want any weight up on the King. You take him out for a few days. An' ride him! Savvy thet?"
"Give him miles an' miles—an' then comin' home, on good trails, ride him for all your worth.... Now, Lucy, keep your eye open. Don't let any one get near you on the sage."
"I won't.... Dad, do you still worry about poor Joel Creech?"
"Not Joel. But I'd rather lose all my stock then have Cordts or Dick Sears get within a mile of you."
"A mile!" exclaimed Lucy, lightly, though a fleeting shade crossed her face. "Why, I'd run away from him, if I was on the King, even if he got within ten yards of me."
"A mile is close enough, my daughter," replied Bostil. "Don't ever forget to keep your eye open. Cordts has sworn thet if he can't steal the King he'll get you."
"Oh! he prefers the horse to me."
"Wal, Lucy, I've a sneakin' idea thet Cordts will never leave the uplands unless he gets you an' the King both."
"And, Dad—you consented to let that horse-thief come to our races?" exclaimed Lucy, with heat.
"Why not? He can't do any harm. If he or his men get uppish, the worse for them. Cordts gave his word not to turn a trick till after the races."
"Do you trust him?"
"Yes. But his men might break loose, away from his sight. Especially thet Dick Sears. He's a bad man. So be watchful whenever you ride out."
As Lucy went down toward the corrals she was thinking deeply. She could always tell, woman-like, when her father was excited or agitated. She remembered the conversation between him and Creech's rider. She remembered the keen glance old Holley had bent upon him. And mostly she remembered the somber look upon his face. She did not like that. Once, when a little girl, she had seen it and never forgotten it, nor the thing that it was associated with—something tragical which had happened in the big room. There had been loud, angry voices of men—and shots—and then the men carried out a long form covered with a blanket. She loved her father, but there was a side to him she feared. And somehow related to that side was his hardness toward Creech and his intolerance of any rider owning a fast horse and his obsession in regard to his own racers. Lucy had often tantalized her father with the joke that if it ever came to a choice between her and his favorites they would come first. But was it any longer a joke? Lucy felt that she had left childhood behind with its fun and fancies, and she had begun to look at life thoughtfully.
Sight of the corrals, however, and of the King prancing around, drove serious thoughts away. There were riders there, among them Farlane, and they all had pleasant greetings for her.
"Farlane, Dad says I'm to take out Sage King," announced Lucy.
"No!" ejaculated Farlane, as he pocketed his pipe.
"Sure. And I'm to RIDE him. You know how Dad means that."
"Wal, now, I'm doggoned!" added Farlane, looking worried and pleased at once. "I reckon, Miss Lucy, you—you wouldn't fool me?"
"Why, Farlane!" returned Lucy, reproachfully. "Did I ever do a single thing around horses that you didn't want me to?"
Farlane rubbed his chin beard somewhat dubiously. "Wal, Miss Lucy, not exactly while you was around the hosses. But I reckon when you onct got up, you've sorta forgot a few times."
All the riders laughed, and Lucy joined them.
"I'm safe when I'm up, you know that," she replied.
They brought out the gray, and after the manner of riders who had the care of a great horse and loved him, they curried and combed and rubbed him before saddling him.
"Reckon you'd better ride Van's saddle," suggested Farlane. "Them races is close now, an' a strange saddle—"
"Of course. Don't change anything he's used to, except the stirrups," replied Lucy.
Despite her antipathy toward Sage King, Lucy could not gaze at him without all a rider's glory in a horse. He was sleek, so graceful, so racy, so near the soft gray of the sage, so beautiful in build and action. Then he was the kind of a horse that did not have to be eternally watched. He was spirited and full of life, eager to run, but when Farlane called for him to stand still he obeyed. He was the kind of a horse that a child could have played around in safety. He never kicked. He never bit. He never bolted. It was splendid to see him with Farlane or with Bostil. He did not like Lucy very well, a fact that perhaps accounted for Lucy's antipathy. For that matter, he did not like any woman. If he had a bad trait, it came out when Van rode him, but all the riders, and Bostil, too, claimed that Van was to blame for that.
"Thar, I reckon them stirrups is right," declared Farlane. "Now, Miss Lucy, hold him tight till he wears off thet edge. He needs work."
Sage King would not kneel for Lucy as Sarchedon did, and he was too high for her to mount from the ground, so she mounted from a rock. She took to the road, and then the first trail into the sage, intending to trot him ten or fifteen miles down into the valley, and give him some fast, warm work on the return.
The day was early in May and promised to grow hot. There was not a cloud in the blue sky. The wind, laden with the breath of sage, blew briskly from the west. All before Lucy lay the vast valley, gray and dusky gray, then blue, then purple where the monuments stood, and, farther still, dark ramparts of rock. Lucy had a habit of dreaming while on horseback, a habit all the riders had tried to break, but she did not give it rein while she rode Sarchedon, and assuredly now, up on the King, she never forgot him for an instant. He shied at mockingbirds and pack-rats and blowing blossoms and even at butterflies; and he did it, Lucy thought, just because he was full of mischief. Sage King had been known to go steady when there had been reason to shy. He did not like Lucy and he chose to torment her. Finally he earned a good dig from a spur, and then, with swift pounding of hoofs, he plunged and veered and danced in the sage. Lucy kept her temper, which was what most riders did not do, and by patience and firmness pulled Sage King out of his prancing back into the trail. He was not the least cross-grained, and, having had his little spurt, he settled down into easy going.
In an hour Lucy was ten miles or more from home, and farther down in the valley than she had ever been. In fact, she had never before been down the long slope to the valley floor. How changed the horizon became! The monuments loomed up now, dark, sentinel-like, and strange. The first one, a great red rock, seemed to her some five miles away. It was lofty, straight-sided, with a green slope at its base. And beyond that the other monuments stretched out down the valley. Lucy decided to ride as far as the first one before turning back. Always these monuments had fascinated her, and this was her opportunity to ride near one. How lofty they were, how wonderfully colored, and how comely!
Presently, over the left, where the monuments were thicker, and gradually merged their slopes and lines and bulk into the yellow walls, she saw low, drifting clouds of smoke.
"Well, what's that, I wonder?" she mused. To see smoke on the horizon in that direction was unusual, though out toward Durango the grassy benches would often burn over. And these low clouds of smoke resembled those she had seen before.
"It's a long way off," she added.
So she kept on, now and then gazing at the smoke. As she grew nearer to the first monument she was surprised, then amazed, at its height and surpassing size. It was mountain-high—a grand tower—smooth, worn, glistening, yellow and red. The trail she had followed petered out in a deep wash, and beyond that she crossed no more trails. The sage had grown meager and the greasewoods stunted and dead; and cacti appeared on barren places. The grass had not failed, but it was not rich grass such as the horses and cattle grazed upon miles back on the slope. The air was hot down here. The breeze was heavy and smelled of fire, and the sand was blowing here and there. She had a sense of the bigness, the openness of this valley, and then she realized its wildness and strangeness. These lonely, isolated monuments made the place different from any she had visited. They did not seem mere standing rocks. They seemed to retreat all the time as she approached, and they watched her. They interested her, made her curious. What had formed all these strange monuments? Here the ground was level for miles and miles, to slope gently up to the bases of these huge rocks. In an old book she had seen pictures of the Egyptian pyramids, but these appeared vaster, higher, and stranger, and they were sheerly perpendicular.
Suddenly Sage King halted sharply, shot up his ears, and whistled. Lucy was startled. That from the King meant something. Hastily, with keen glance she swept the foreground. A mile on, near the monument, was a small black spot. It seemed motionless. But the King's whistle had proved it to be a horse. When Lucy had covered a quarter of the intervening distance she could distinguish the horse and that there appeared some thing strange about his position. Lucy urged Sage King into a lope and soon drew nearer. The black horse had his head down, yet he did not appear to be grazing. He was as still as a statue. He stood just outside a clump of greasewood and cactus.
Suddenly a sound pierced the stillness. The King jumped and snorted in fright. For an instant Lucy's blood ran cold, for it was a horrible cry. Then she recognized it as the neigh of a horse in agony. She had heard crippled and dying horses utter that long-drawn and blood-curdling neigh. The black horse had not moved, so the sound could not have come from him. Lucy thought Sage King acted more excited than the occasion called for. Then remembering her father's warning, she reined in on top of a little knoll, perhaps a hundred yards from where the black horse stood, and she bent her keen gaze forward.
It was a huge, gaunt, shaggy black horse she saw, with the saddle farther up on his shoulders than it should have been. He stood motionless, as if utterly exhausted. His forelegs were braced, so that he leaned slightly back. Then Lucy saw a rope. It was fast to the saddle and stretched down into the cactus. There was no other horse in sight, nor any living thing. The immense monument dominated the scene. It seemed stupendous to Lucy, sublime, almost frightful.
She hesitated. She knew there was another horse, very likely at the other end of that lasso. Probably a rider had been thrown, perhaps killed. Certainly a horse had been hurt. Then on the moment rang out the same neigh of agony, only weaker and shorter. Lucy no longer feared an ambush. That was a cry which could not be imitated by a man or forced from a horse. There was probably death, certainly suffering, near at hand. She spurred the King on.
There was a little slope to descend, a wash to cross, a bench to climb—and then she rode up to the black horse. Sage King needed harder treatment than Lucy had ever given him.
"What's wrong with you?" she demanded, pulling him down. Suddenly, as she felt him tremble, she realized that he was frightened. "That's funny!" Then when she got him quiet she looked around.
The black horse was indeed huge. His mane, his shaggy flanks, were lathered as if he had been smeared with heavy soap-suds. He raised his head to look at her. Lucy, accustomed to horses all her life, saw that this one welcomed her arrival. But he was almost ready to drop.
Two taut lassoes stretched from the pommel of his saddle down a little into a depression full of brush and cactus and rocks. Then Lucy saw a red horse. He was down in a bad position. She heard his low, choking heaves. Probably he had broken legs or back. She could not bear to see a horse in pain. She would do what was possible, even to the extent of putting him out of his misery, if nothing else could be done. Yet she scanned the surroundings closely, and peered into the bushes and behind the rocks before she tried to urge Sage King closer. He refused to go nearer, and Lucy dismounted.
The red horse was partly hidden by overbending brush. He had plunged into a hole full of cactus. There was a hackamore round his nose and a tight noose round his neck. The one round his neck was also round his forelegs. And both lassoes were held taut by the black horse. A torn and soiled rider's scarf hung limp round the red horse's nose, kept from falling off by the hackamore.
"A wild horse, a stallion, being broken!" exclaimed Lucy, instantly grasping the situation. "Oh! where's the rider?"
She gazed around, ran to and fro, glanced down the little slope, and beyond, but she did not see anything resembling the form of a man. Then she ran back.
Lucy took another quick look at the red stallion. She did not believe either his legs or back were hurt. He was just played out and tangled and tied in the ropes, and could not get up. The shaggy black horse stood there braced and indomitable. But he, likewise, was almost ready to drop. Looking at the condition of both horses and the saddle and ropes, Lucy saw what a fight there had been, and a race! Where was the rider? Thrown, surely, and back on the trail, perhaps dead or maimed.
Lucy went closer to the stallion so that she could almost touch him. He saw her. He was nearly choked. Foam and blood wheezed out with his heaves. She must do something quickly. And in her haste she pricked her arms and shoulders on the cactus.
She led the black horse closer in, letting the ropes go, slack. The black seemed as glad of that release as she was. What a faithful brute he looked! Lucy liked his eyes.
Then she edged down in among the cactus and brush. The red horse no longer lay in a strained position. He could lift his head. Lucy saw that the noose still held tight round his neck. Fearlessly she jerked it loose. Then she backed away, but not quite out of his reach. He coughed and breathed slowly, with great heaves. Then he snorted.
"You're all right now," said Lucy, soothingly. Slowly she reached a hand toward his head. He drew it back as far as he could. She stepped around, closer, and more back of him, and put a hand on him, gently, for an instant. Then she slipped out of the brush and, untying one lasso from the pommel, she returned to the horse and pulled it from round his legs. He was free now, except the hackamore, and that rope was slack. Lucy stood near him, watching him, talking to him, waiting for him to get up. She could not be sure he was not badly hurt till he stood up. At first he made no efforts to rise. He watched Lucy, less fearfully, she imagined. And she never made a move. She wanted him to see, to understand that she had not hurt him and would not hurt him. It began to dawn upon her that he was magnificent.
Finally, with a long, slow heave he got to his feet. Lucy led him out of the hole to open ground. She seemed somehow confident. There occurred to her only one way to act.
"A little horse sense, as Dad would say," she soliloquized, and then, when she got him out of the brush, she stood thrilled and amazed.
"Oh, what a wild, beautiful horse! What a giant! He's bigger than the King. Oh, if Dad could see him!"
The red stallion did not appear to be hurt. The twitching of his muscles must have been caused by the cactus spikes embedded in him. There were drops of blood all over one side. Lucy thought she dared to try to pull these thorns out. She had never in her life been afraid of any horse. Farlane, Holley, all the riders, and her father, too, had tried to make her realize the danger in a horse, sooner or later. But Lucy could not help it; she was not afraid; she believed that the meanest horse was actuated by natural fear of a man; she was not a man and she had never handled a horse like a man. This red stallion showed hate of the black horse and the rope that connected them; he showed some spirit at the repeated blasts of Sage King. But he showed less fear of her.
"He has been a proud, wild stallion," mused Lucy. "And he's now broken—terribly broken—all but ruined."
Then she walked up to him naturally and spoke softly, and reached a hand for his shoulder.
"Whoa, Reddy. Whoa now.... There. That's a good fellow. Why, I wouldn't rope you or hit you. I'm only a girl."
He drew up, made a single effort to jump, which she prevented, and then he stood quivering, eying her, while she talked soothingly, and patted him and looked at him in the way she had found infallible with most horses. Lucy believed horses were like people, or easier to get along with. Presently she gently pulled out one of the cactus spikes. The horse flinched, but he stood. Lucy was slow, careful, patient, and dexterous. The cactus needles were loose and easily removed or brushed off. At length she got him free of them, and was almost as proud as she was glad. The horse had gradually dropped his head; he was tired and his spirit was broken.
"Now, what shall I do?" she queried. "I'll take the back trail of these horses. They certainly hadn't been here long before I saw them. And the rider may be close. If not I'll take the horses home."
She slipped the noose from the stallion's head, leaving the hackamore, and, coiling the loose lasso, she hung it over the pommel of the black's saddle. Then she took up his bridle.
"Come on," she called.
The black followed her, and the stallion, still fast to him by the lasso Lucy had left tied, trooped behind with bowed head. Lucy was elated. But Sage King did not like the matter at all. Lucy had to drop the black's bridle and catch the King, and then ride back to lead the other again.
A broad trail marked the way the two horses had come, and it led off to the left, toward where the monuments were thickest, and where the great sections of wall stood, broken and battlemented. Lucy was hard put to it to hold Sage King, but the horses behind plodded along. The black horse struck Lucy as being an ugly, but a faithful and wonderful animal. He understood everything. Presently she tied the bridle she was leading him by to the end of her own lasso, and thus let him drop back a few yards, which lessened the King's fretting.
Intent on the trail, Lucy failed to note time or distance till the looming and frowning monuments stood aloft before her. What weird effect they had! Each might have been a colossal statue left there to mark the work of the ages. Lucy realized that the whole vast valley had once been solid rock, just like the monuments, and through the millions of years the softer parts had eroded and weathered and blown away—gone with the great sea that had once been there. But the beauty, the solemnity, the majesty of these monuments fascinated her most. She passed the first one, a huge square butte, and then the second, a ragged, thin, double shaft, and then went between two much alike, reaching skyward in the shape of monstrous mittens. She watched and watched them, sparing a moment now and then to attend to the trail. She noticed that she was coming into a region of grass, and faint signs of water in the draws. She was getting high again, not many miles now from the wall of rock.
All at once Sage King shied, and Lucy looked down to see a man lying on the ground. He lay inert. But his eyes were open—dark, staring eyes. They moved. And he called. But Lucy could not understand him.
In a flash she leaped off the King. She ran to the prostrate man—dropped to her knees.
"Oh!" she cried. His face was ghastly. "Oh! are you—you badly hurt?"
"Lift me—my head," he said, faintly.
She raised his head. What a strained, passionate, terrible gaze he bent upon the horses.
"Boy, they're mine—the black an' the red!" he cried.
"They surely must be," replied Lucy. "Oh! tell me. Are you hurt?"
"Boy! did you catch them—fetch them back—lookin' for me?"
"I sure did."
"You caught-that red devil—an' fetched him—back to me?" went on the wondering, faint voice. "Boy—oh—boy!"
He lifted a long, ragged arm and pulled Lucy down. The action amazed her equally as his passion of gratitude. He might have been injured, but he had an arm of iron. Lucy was powerless. She felt her face against his—and her breast against his. The pounding of his heart was like blows. The first instant she wanted to laugh, despite her pity. Then the powerful arm—the contact affected her as nothing ever before. Suppose this crippled rider had taken her for a boy—She was not a boy! She could not help being herself. And no man had ever put a hand on her. Consciousness of this brought shame and anger. She struggled so violently that she freed herself. And he lay back.
"See here—that's no way to act—to hug—a person," she cried, with flaming cheeks.
"I'm NOT a boy. I'm a girl."
Lucy tore off her sombrero, which had been pulled far forward, and this revealed her face fully, and her hair came tumbling down. The rider gazed, stupefied. Then a faint tinge of red colored his ghastly cheeks.
"A girl! ... Why—why 'scuse me, miss. I—I took you—for a boy."
He seemed so astounded, he looked so ashamed, so scared, and withal, so haggard and weak, that Lucy immediately recovered her equanimity.
"Sure I'm a girl. But that's no matter.... You've been thrown. Are you hurt?"
He smiled a weak assent.
"Badly?" she queried. She did not like the way he lay—so limp, so motionless.
"I'm afraid so. I can't move."
"Oh! ... What shall I do?"
"Can you—get me water?" he whispered, with dry lips.
Lucy flew to her horse to get the small canteen she always carried. But that had been left on her saddle, and she had ridden Van's. Then she gazed around. The wash she had crossed several times ran near where the rider lay. Green grass and willows bordered it. She ran down and, hurrying along, searched for water. There was water in places, yet she had to go a long way before she found water that was drinkable. Filling her sombrero, she hurried back to the side of the rider. It was difficult to give him a drink.
"Thanks, miss," he said, gratefully. His voice was stronger and less hoarse.
"Have you any broken bones?" asked Lucy.
"I don't know. I can't feel much."
"Are you in pain?"
"Hardly. I feel sort of thick."
Lucy, being an intelligent girl, born in the desert and used to its needs, had not often encountered a situation with which she was unable to cope.
"Let me feel if you have any broken bones.... THAT arm isn't broken, I'm positive."
The rider smiled faintly again. How he stared with his strained, dark eyes! His face showed ghastly through the thin, soft beard and the tan. Lucy found his right arm badly bruised, but not broken. She made sure his collar-bones and shoulder-blades were intact. Broken ribs were harder to locate; still, as he did not feel pain from pressure, she concluded there were no fractures there. With her assistance he moved his legs, proving no broken bones there.
"I'm afraid it's my—spine," he said.
"But you raised your head once," she replied. "If your back was—was broken or injured you couldn't raise your head."
"So I couldn't. I guess I'm just knocked out. I was—pretty weak before Wildfire knocked me—off Nagger."
"That's the red stallion's name."
"Oh, he's named already?"
"I named him—long ago. He's known on many a range."
"I think far north of here. I—trailed him—days—weeks—months. We crossed the great canyon—"
"The Grand Canyon?"
"It must be that."
"The Grand Canyon is down there," said Lucy, pointing. "I live on it.... You've come a long way."
"Hundreds of miles! ... Oh, the ground I covered that awful canyon country! ... But I stayed with Wildfire. An' I put a rope on him. An' he got away.... An' it was a boy—no—a GIRL who—saved him for me—an' maybe saved my life, too!"
Lucy looked away from the dark, staring eyes. A light in them confused her.
"Never mind me. You say you were weak? Have you been ill?"
"No, miss, just starved.... I starved on Wildfire's trail."
Lucy ran to her saddle and got the biscuits out of the pockets of her coat, and she ran back to the rider.
"Here. I never thought. Oh, you've had a hard time of it! I understand. That wonderful flame of a horse! I'd have stayed, too. My father was a rider once. Bostil. Did you ever hear of him?"
"Bostil. The name—I've heard." Then the rider lay thinking, as he munched a biscuit. "Yes, I remember, but it was long ago. I spent a night with a wagon-train, a camp of many men and women, religious people, working into Utah. Bostil had a boat at the crossing of the Fathers."
"Yes, they called the Ferry that."
"I remember well now. They said Bostil couldn't count his horses—that he was a rich man, hard on riders—an' he'd used a gun more than once."
Lucy bowed her head. "Yes, that's my dad."
The rider did not seem to see how he had hurt her.
"Here we are talking—wasting time," she said. "I must start home. You can't be moved. What shall I do?"
"That's for you to say, Bostil's daughter."
"My name's Lucy," replied the girl, blushing painfully, "I mean I'll be glad to do anything you think best."
"You're very good."
Then he turned his face away. Lucy looked closely at him. He was indeed a beggared rider. His clothes and his boots hung in tatters. He had no hat, no coat, no vest. His gaunt face bore traces of what might have been a fine, strong comeliness, but now it was only thin, worn, wan, pitiful, with that look which always went to a woman's heart. He had the look of a homeless rider. Lucy had seen a few of his wandering type, and his story was so plain. But he seemed to have a touch of pride, and this quickened her interest.
"Then I'll do what I think best for you," said Lucy.
First she unsaddled the black Nagger. With the saddle she made a pillow for the rider's head, and she covered him with the saddle blanket. Before she had finished this task he turned his eyes upon her. And Lucy felt she would be haunted. Was he badly hurt, after all? It seemed probable. How strange he was!
"I'll water the horses—then tie Wildfire here on a double rope. There's grass."
"But you can't lead him," replied the rider.
"He'll follow me."
"That red devil!" The rider shuddered as he spoke.
Lucy had some faint inkling of what a terrible fight that had been between man and horse. "Yes; when I found him he was broken. Look at him now."
But the rider did not appear to want to see the stallion. He gazed up at Lucy, and she saw something in his eyes that made her think of a child. She left him, had no trouble in watering the horses, and haltered Wildfire among the willows on a patch of grass. Then she returned.
"I'll go now," she said to the rider.
"Home. I'll come back to-morrow, early, and bring some one to help you—"
"Girl, if YOU want to help me more—bring me some bread an' meat. Don't tell any one. Look what a ragamuffin I am.... An' there's Wildfire. I don't want him seen till I'm—on my feet again. I know riders.... That's all. If you want to be so good—come."
"I'll come," replied Lucy, simply.
"Thank you. I owe you—a lot.... What did you say your name was?"
"Oh, I forgot.... Are you sure you tied Wildfire good an' tight?"
"Yes, I'm sure. I'll go now. I hope you'll be better to-morrow."
Lucy hesitated, with her hand on the King's bridle. She did not like to leave this young man lying there helpless on the desert. But what else could she do? What a strange adventure had befallen her! At the following thought that it was not yet concluded she felt a little stir of excitement at her pulses. She was so strangely preoccupied that she forgot it was necessary for her to have a step to mount Sage King. She realized it quickly enough when she attempted it. Then she led him off in the sage till she found a rock. Mounting, she turned him straight across country, meaning to cut out miles of travel that would have been necessary along her back-trail. Once she looked back. The rider was not visible; the black horse, Nagger, was out of sight, but Wildfire, blazing in the sun, watched her depart.