Part 5 out of 6
expand. His huge bulk jerked into motion and he bellowed like a mad bull.
Slone saw the blow coming, made no move to avoid it. The big fist took him
square on the mouth and chin and laid him flat on the ground. Sight failed
Slone for a little, and likewise ability to move. But he did not lose
consciousness. His head seemed to have been burst into rays and red mist that
blurred his eyes. Then these cleared away, leaving intense pain. He started to
get up, his brain in a whirl. Where was his gun? He had left it at home. But
for that he would have killed Bostil. He had already killed one man. The thing
was a burning flash--then all over! He could do it again. But Bostil was
Slone gathered up the packages of supplies, and without looking at the men he
hurried away. He seemed possessed of a fury to turn and run back. Some force,
like an invisible hand, withheld him. When he reached the cabin he shut
himself in, and lay on his bunk, forgetting that the place did not belong to
him, alive only to the mystery of his trouble, smarting with the shame of the
assault upon him. It was dark before he composed himself and went out, and
then he had not the desire to eat. He made no move to open the supplies of
food, did not even make a light. But he went out to take grass and water to
the horses. When he returned to the cabin a man was standing at the porch.
Slone recognized Holley's shape and then his voice.
"Son, you raised the devil to-day."
"Holley, don't you go back on me!" cried Slone. "I was driven!"
"Don't talk so loud," whispered the rider in return. "I've only a minnit. . .
. Here--a letter from Lucy. . . . An', son, don't git the idee thet I'll go
back on you."
Slone took the letter with trembling fingers. All the fury and gloom instantly
fled. Lucy had written him! He could not speak.
"Son, I'm double-crossin' the boss, right this minnit!" whispered Holley,
hoarsely. "An' the same time I'm playin' Lucy's game. If Bostil finds out
he'll kill me. I mustn't be ketched up here. But I won't lose track of
you--wherever you go."
Holley slipped away stealthily in the dusk, leaving Slone with a throbbing
"Wherever you go!" he echoed. "Ah! I forgot! I can't stay here."
Lucy's letter made his fingers tingle--made them so hasty and awkward that he
had difficulty in kindling blaze enough to see to read. The letter was short,
written in lead-pencil on the torn leaf of a ledger. Slone could not read
rapidly--those years on the desert had seen to that--and his haste to learn
what Lucy said bewildered him. At first all the words blurred:
Come at once to the bench in the cottonwoods. I'll meet you there. My heart
is breaking. It's a lie--a lie--what they say. I'll swear you were with me
the night the boat was cut adrift. I KNOW you didn't do that. I know who. . .
. Oh, come! I will stick to you. I will run off with you. I love you!"
Slone's heart leaped to his throat, and its beating choked his utterances of
rapture and amaze and dread. But rapture dominated the other emotions. He
could scarcely control the impulse to run to meet Lucy, without a single
He put the precious letter inside his blouse, where it seemed to warm his
breast. He buckled on his gun-belt, and, extinguishing the light, he hurried
A crescent moon had just tipped the bluff. The village lanes and cabins and
trees lay silver in the moon-light. A lonesome coyote barked in the distance.
All else was still. The air was cool, sweet, fragrant. There appeared to be a
glamour of light, of silence, of beauty over the desert.
Slone kept under the dark lee of the bluff and worked around so that he could
be above the village, where there was little danger of meeting any one. Yet
presently he had to go out of the shadow into the moon-blanched lane. Swift
and silent as an Indian he went along, keeping in the shade of what trees
there were, until he came to the grove of cottonwoods. The grove was a black
mystery lanced by silver rays. He slipped in among the trees, halting every
few steps to listen. The action, the realization had helped to make him cool,
to steel him, though never before in his life had he been so exalted. The
pursuit and capture of Wildfire, at one time the desire of his heart, were as
nothing to this. Love had called him--and life--and he knew death hung in the
balance. If Bostil found him seeking Lucy there would be blood spilled. Slone
quaked at the thought, for the cold and ghastly oppression following the death
he had meted out to Sears came to him at times. But such thoughts were
fleeting; only one thought really held his mind--and the one was that Lucy
loved him, had sent strange, wild, passionate words to him.
He found the narrow path, its white crossed by slowly moving black bars of
shadow, and stealthily he followed this, keen of eye and ear, stopping at
every rustle. He well knew the bench Lucy had mentioned. It was in a remote
corner of the grove, under big trees near the spring. Once Slone thought he
had a glimpse of white. Perhaps it was only moonlight. He slipped on and on,
and when beyond the branching paths that led toward the house he breathed
freer. The grove appeared deserted. At last he crossed the runway from the
spring, smelled the cool, wet moss and watercress, and saw the big cottonwood,
looming dark above the other trees. A patch of moonlight brightened a little
glade just at the edge of dense shade cast by the cottonwood. Here the bench
stood. It was empty!
Slone's rapture vanished. He was suddenly chilled. She was not there! She
might have been intercepted. He would not see her. The disappointment, the
sudden relaxation, was horrible. Then a white, slender shape flashed from
beside the black tree-trunk and flew toward him. It was noiseless, like a
specter, and swift as the wind. Was he dreaming? He felt so strange. Then--the
white shape reached him and he knew.
Lucy leaped into his arms.
"Lin! Lin! Oh, I'm so--so glad to see you!" she whispered. She seemed
breathless, keen, new to him, not in the least afraid nor shy. Slone could
only hold her. He could not have spoken, even if she had given him a chance.
"I know everything--what they accuse you of--how the riders treated you--how
my dad struck you. Oh! . . . He's a brute! I hate him for that. Why didn't you
keep out of his way? . . . Van saw it all. Oh, I hate him, too! He said you
lay still--where you fell! . . . Dear Lin, that blow may have hurt you
dreadfully--shamed you because you couldn't strike back at my dad--but it
reached me, too. It hurt me. It woke my heart. . . . Where--where did he hit
you? Oh, I've seen him hit men! His terrible fists!"
"Lucy, never mind," whispered Slone. "I'd stood to be shot just for this."
He felt her hands softly on his face, feeling around tenderly till they found
the swollen bruise on mouth and chin.
"Ah! . . . He struck you. And I--I'll kiss you," she whispered. "If kisses
will make it well--it'll be well!"
She seemed strange, wild, passionate in her tenderness. She lifted her face
and kissed him softly again and again and again, till the touch that had been
exquisitely painful to his bruised lips became rapture. Then she leaned back
in his arms, her hands on his shoulders, white-faced, dark-eyed, and laughed
up in his face, lovingly, daringly, as if she defied the world to change what
she had done.
"Lucy! Lucy! . . . He can beat me--again!" said Slone, low and hoarsely.
"If you love me you'll keep out of his way," replied the girl.
"If I love you? . . . My God! . . . I've felt my heart die a thousand times
since that mornin'--when--when you--"
"Lin, I didn't know," she interrupted, with sweet, grave earnestness. "I know
And Slone could not but know, too, looking at her; and the sweetness, the
eloquence, the noble abandon of her avowal sounded to the depths of him. His
dread, his resignation, his shame, all sped forever in the deep, full breath
of relief with which he cast off that burden. He tasted the nectar of
happiness, the first time in his life. He lifted his head--never, he knew, to
lower it again. He would be true to what she had made him.
"Come in the shade," he whispered, and with his arm round her he led her to
the great tree-trunk. "Is it safe for you here? An' how long can you stay?"
"I had it out with Dad--left him licked once in his life," she replied. "Then
I went to my room, fastened the door, and slipped out of my window. I can stay
out as long as I want. No one will know."
Slone's heart throbbed. She was his. The clasp of her hands on his, the gleam
of her eyes, the white, daring flash of her face in the shadow of the
moon--these told him she was his. How it had come about was beyond him, but he
realized the truth. What a girl! This was the same nerve which she showed when
she had run Wildfire out in front of the fleetest horses in the uplands.
"Tell me, then," he began, quietly, with keen gaze roving under the trees and
eyes strained tight, "tell me what's come off."
"Don't you know?" she queried, in amaze.
"Only that for some reason I'm done in Bostil's Ford. It can't be because I
punched Joel Creech. I felt it before I met Bostil at the store. He taunted
me. We had bitter words. He told before all of them how the outfit I wore you
gave me. An' then I dared him to race the King. My horse an' my life against
"Yes, I know," she whispered, softly. "It's all over town. . . . Oh, Lin! it
was a grand bet! And Bostil four-flushed, as the riders say. For days a race
between Wildfire and the King had been in the air. There'll never be peace in
Bostil's Ford again till that race is run."
"But, Lucy, could Bostil's wantin' Wildfire an' hatin' me because I won't
sell--could that ruin me here at the Ford?"
"It could. But, Lin, there's more. Oh, I hate to tell you!" she whispered,
passionately. "I thought you'd know. . . . Joel Creech swore you cut the ropes
on the ferry-boat and sent it adrift."
"The loon!" ejaculated Slone, and he laughed low in both anger and ridicule.
"Lucy, that's only a fool's talk."
"He's crazy. Oh, if I ever get him in front of me again when I'm on
Sarch--I'll--I'll. . . ." She ended with a little gasp and leaned a moment
against Slone. He felt her heart beat--felt the strong clasp of her hands. She
was indeed Bostil's flesh and blood, and there was that in her dangerous to
"Lin, the folks here are queer," she resumed, more calmly. "For long years Dad
has ruled them. They see with his eyes and talk with his voice. Joel Creech
swore you cut those cables. Swore he trailed you. Brackton believed him. Van
believed him. They told my father. And he--my dad--God forgive him! he jumped
at that. The village as one person now believes you sent the boat adrift so
Creech's horses could not cross and you could win the race."
"Lucy, if it wasn't so--so funny I'd be mad as--as--" burst out Slone.
"It isn't funny. It's terrible. . . . I know who cut those cables. . . Holley
knows. . . . DAD knows--an', oh, Lin--I--hate--I hate my own father!"
"My God!" gasped Slone, as the full signification burst upon him. Then his
next thought was for Lucy. "Listen, dear--you mustn't say that," he entreated.
"He's your father. He's a good man every way except when he's after horses.
Then he's half horse. I understand him. I feel sorry for him. . . . An' if
he's throwed the blame on me, all right. I'll stand it. What do I care? I was
queered, anyhow, because I wouldn't part with my horse. It can't matter so
much if people think I did that just to help win a race. But if they knew
your--your father did it, an' if Creech's horses starve, why it'd be a
disgrace for him--an' you."
"Lin Slone--you'll accept the blame!" she whispered, with wide, dark eyes on
him, hands at his shoulders.
"Sure I will," replied Slone. "I can't be any worse off."
"You're better than all of them--my rider!" she cried, full-voiced and
tremulous. "Lin, you make me love you so--it--it hurts!" And she seemed about
to fling herself into his arms again. There was a strangeness about her--a
glory. "But you'll not take the shame of that act. For I won't let you. I'll
tell my father I was with you when the boat was cut loose. He'll believe me."
"Yes, an' he'll KILL me!" groaned Slone. "Good Lord! Lucy, don't do that!"
"I will! An' he'll not kill you. Lin, Dad took a great fancy to you. I know
that. He thinks he hates you. But in his heart he doesn't. If he got hold of
Wildfire--why, he'd never be able to do enough for you. He never could make it
up. What do you think? I told him you hugged and kissed me shamefully that
"Oh, Lucy! you didn't?" implored Slone.
"I sure did. And what do you think? He said he once did the same to my mother!
. . . No, Lin, Dad'd never kill you for anything except a fury about horses.
All the fights he ever had were over horse deals. The two men--he--he--" Lucy
faltered and her shudder was illuminating to Slone. "Both of them--fights over
"Lucy, if I'm ever unlucky enough to meet Bostil again I'll be deaf an' dumb.
An' now you promise me you won't tell him you were with me that night."
"Lin, if the occasion comes, I will--I couldn't help it," replied Lucy.
"Then fight shy of the occasion," he rejoined, earnestly. "For that would be
the end of Lin Slone!"
"Then--what on earth can--we do?" Lucy said, with sudden break of spirit.
"I think we must wait. You wrote in your letter you'd stick to me-- you'd--"
He could not get the words out, the thought so overcame him.
"If it comes to a finish, I'll go with you," Lucy returned, with passion
"Oh! to ride off with you, Lucy--to have you all to myself--I daren't think of
it. But that's only selfish."
"Maybe it's not so selfish as you believe. If you left the Ford--now --it'd
break my heart. I'd never get over it."
"Lucy! You love me--that well?"
Then their lips met again and their hands locked, and they stood silent,
straining toward each other. He held the slight form, so pliant, so
responsive, so alive, close to him, and her face lay hidden on his breast; and
he looked out over her head into the quivering moonlit shadows. The night was
as still as one away on the desert far from the abode of men. It was more
beautiful than any dream of a night in which he had wandered far into strange
lands where wild horses were and forests lay black under moon-silvered peaks.
"We'll run--then--if it comes to a finish," said Slone, huskily. "But I'll
wait. I'll stick it out here. I'll take what comes. So--maybe I'll not
disgrace you more."
"I told Van I--I gloried in being hugged by you that day," she replied, and
her little defiant laugh told what she thought of the alleged disgrace.
"You torment him," remonstrated Slone. "You set him against us. It would be
better to keep still."
"But my blood is up!" she said, and she pounded his shoulder with her fist.
"I'll fight--I'll fight! . . . I couldn't avoid Van. It was Holley who told me
Van was threatening you. And when I met Van he told me how everybody said you
insulted me--had been worse than a drunken rider--and that he'd beat you half
to death. So I told Van Joel Creech might have seen us--I didn't doubt
that--but he didn't see that I liked being hugged."
"What did Van say then?" asked Slone, all aglow with his wonderful joy.
"He wilted. He slunk away. . . . And so I'll tell them all."
"But, Lucy, you've always been so--so truthful."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, to say you liked being hugged that day was--was a story, wasn't it?"
"That was what made me so furious," she admitted, shyly. "I was surprised when
you grabbed me off Wildfire. And my heart beat--beat --beat so when you hugged
me. And when you kissed me I--I was petrified. I knew I liked it then--and I
was furious with myself."
Slone drew a long, deep breath of utter enchantment. "You'll take back
"Oh, Lin--don't--ask--me," she implored.
"Take him back--an' me with him."
"Then I will. But no one must know that yet."
They drew apart then.
"An' now you must go," said Slone, reluctantly. "Listen. I forgot to warn you
about Joel Creech. Don't ever let him near you. He's crazy an' he means evil."
"Oh, I know, Lin! I'll watch. But I'm not afraid of him."
"He's strong, Lucy. I saw him lift bags that were hefty for me. . . . Lucy, do
you ride these days?"
"Every day. If I couldn't ride I couldn't live."
"I'm afraid," said Slone, nervously. "There's Creech an' Cordts-- both have
"I'm afraid of Cordts," replied Lucy, with a shiver. "You should have seen him
look at me race-day. It made me hot with anger, yet weak, too, somehow. But
Dad says I'm never in any danger if I watch out. And I do. Who could catch me
"Any horse can be tripped in the sage. You told me how Joel tried to rope Sage
King. Did you ever tell your dad that?"
"I forgot. But then I'm glad I didn't. Dad would shoot for that, quicker than
if Joel tried to rope him. . . . Don't worry, Lin, I always pack a gun."
"But can you use it?"
Lucy laughed. "Do you think I can only ride?"
Slone remembered that Holley had said he had taught Lucy how to shoot as well
as ride. "You'll be watchful--careful," he said, earnestly.
"Oh, Lin, you need to be that more than I. . . . What will you do?"
"I'll stay up at the little cabin I thought I owned till to-day."
"Didn't you buy it?" asked Lucy, quickly.
"I thought I did. But . . . never mind. Maybe I won't get put out just yet.
An' when will I see you again?"
"Here, every night. Wait till I come," she replied. "Good night, Lin."
"I'll--wait!" he exclaimed, with a catch in his voice. "Oh, my luck! . . .
I'll wait, Lucy, every day--hopin' an' prayin' that this trouble will lighten.
An' I'll wait at night--for you!"
He kissed her good-by and watched the slight form glide away, flit to and fro,
white in the dark patches, grow indistinct and vanish. He was left alone in
the silent grove.
Slone stole back to the cabin and lay sleepless and tranced, watching the
stars, till late that night.
All the next day he did scarcely anything but watch and look after his horses
and watch and drag the hours out and dream despite his dread. But no one
visited him. The cabin was left to him that day.
It had been a hot day, with great thunderhead, black and creamy white clouds
rolling down from the canyon country. No rain had fallen at the Ford, though
storms near by had cooled the air. At sunset Slone saw a rainbow bending down,
ruddy and gold, connecting the purple of cloud with the purple of horizon.
Out beyond the valley the clouds were broken, showing rifts of blue, and they
rolled low, burying the heads of the monuments, creating a wild and strange
spectacle. Twilight followed, and appeared to rise to meet the darkening
clouds. And at last the gold on the shafts faded; the monuments faded; and the
valley grew dark.
Slone took advantage of the hour before moonrise to steal down into the grove,
there to wait for Lucy. She came so quickly he scarcely felt that he waited at
all; and then the time spent with her, sweet, fleeting, precious, left him
stronger to wait for her again, to hold himself in, to cease his brooding, to
learn faith in something deeper than he could fathom.
The next day he tried to work, but found idle waiting made the time fly
swifter because in it he could dream. In the dark of the rustling cottonwoods
he met Lucy, as eager to see him as he was to see her, tender, loving,
remorseful--a hundred sweet and bewildering things all so new, so unbelievable
That night he learned that Bostil had started for Durango with some of his
riders. This trip surprised Slone and relieved him likewise, for Durango was
over two hundred miles distant, and a journey there even for the hard riders
was a matter of days.
"He left no orders for me," Lucy said, "except to behave myself. . . . Is this
behaving?" she whispered, and nestled close to Slone, audacious, tormenting as
she had been before this dark cloud of trouble. "But he left orders for Holley
to ride with me and look after me. Isn't that funny? Poor old Holley! He hates
to doublecross Dad, he says."
"I'm glad Holley's to look after you," replied Slone. "Yesterday I saw you
tearin' down into the sage on Sarch. I wondered what you'd do, Lucy, if Cordts
or that loon Creech should get hold of you?"
"But, child, that's nonsense. You couldn't fight either of them."
"Couldn't I? Well, I just could. I'd--I'd shoot Cordts. And I'd whip Joel
Creech with my quirt. And if he kept after me I'd let Sarch run him down.
Sarch hates him."
"You're a brave sweetheart," mused Slone. "Suppose you were caught an'
couldn't get away. Would you leave a trail somehow?"
"I sure would."
"Lucy, I'm a wild-horse hunter," he went on, thoughtfully, as if speaking to
himself. "I never failed on a trail. I could track you over bare rock."
"Lin, I'll leave a trail, so never fear," she replied. "But don't borrow
trouble. You're always afraid for me. Look at the bright side. Dad seems to
have forgotten you. Maybe it all isn't so bad as we thought. Oh, I hope so! .
. . How is my horse, Wildfire? I want to ride him again. I can hardly keep
from going after him."
And so they whispered while the moments swiftly passed.
It was early during the afternoon of the next day that Slone, hearing the
clip-clop of unshod ponies, went outside to look. One part of the lane he
could see plainly, and into it stalked Joel Creech, leading the leanest and
gauntest ponies Slone had ever seen. A man as lean and gaunt as the ponies
The sight shocked Slone. Joel Creech and his father! Slone had no proof,
because he had never seen the elder Creech, yet strangely he felt convinced of
it. And grim ideas began to flash into his mind. Creech would hear who was
accused of cutting the boat adrift. What would he say? If he believed, as all
the villagers believed, then Bostil's Ford would become an unhealthy place for
Lin Slone. Where were the great race-horses--Blue Roan and Peg--and the other
thoroughbreds? A pang shot through Slone.
"Oh, not lost--not starved?" he muttered. "That would be hell!"
Yet he believed just this had happened. How strange he had never considered
such an event as the return of Creech.
"I'd better look him up before he looks me," said Slone.
It took but an instant to strap on his belt and gun. Then Slone strode down
his path, out into the lane toward Brackton's. Whatever before boded ill to
Slone had been nothing to what menaced him now. He would have a man to face--a
man whom repute called just, but stern.
Before Slone reached the vicinity of the store he saw riders come out to meet
the Creech party. It so happened there were more riders than usually
frequented Brackton's at that hour. The old storekeeper came stumbling out and
raised his hands. The riders could be heard, loud-voiced and excited. Slone
drew nearer, and the nearer he got the swifter he strode. Instinct told him
that he was making the right move. He would face this man whom he was accused
of ruining. The poor mustangs hung their heads dejectedly.
"Bags of bones," some rider loudly said.
And then Slone drew dose to the excited group. Brackton held the center; he
was gesticulating; his thin voice rose piercingly.
"Creech! Whar's Peg an' the Roan? Gawd Almighty, man! You ain't meanin' them
cayuses thar are all you've got left of thet grand bunch of hosses?"
There was scarcely a sound. All the riders were still. Slone fastened his eyes
on Creech. He saw a gaunt, haggard face almost black with dust --worn and
sad--with big eyes of terrible gloom. He saw an unkempt, ragged form that had
been wet and muddy, and was now dust-caked.
Creech stood silent in a dignity of despair that wrung Slone's heart. His
silence was an answer. It was Joel Creech who broke the suspense.
"Didn't I tell you-all what'd happen?" he shrilled. "PARCHED AN' STARVED!"
"Aw no!" chorused the riders.
Brackton shook all over. Tears dimmed his eyes--tears that he had no shame
for. "So help me Gawd--I'm sorry!" was his broken exclamation.
Slone had forgotten himself and possible revelation concerning him. But when
Holley appeared close to him with a significant warning look, Slone grew keen
once more on his own account. He felt a hot flame inside him--a deep and
burning anger at the man who might have saved Creech's horses. And he, like
Brackton, felt sorrow for Creech, and a rider's sense of loss, of pain. These
horses--these dumb brutes-- faithful and sometimes devoted, had to suffer an
agonizing death because of the selfishness of men.
"I reckon we'd all like to hear what come off, Creech, if you don't feel too
bad to tell us," said Brackton.
"Gimme a drink," replied Creech.
"Wal, d--n my old head!" exclaimed Brackton. "I'm gittin' old. Come on in. All
of you! We're glad to see Creech home."
The riders filed in after Brackton and the Creeches. Holley stayed close
beside Slone, both of them in the background.
"I heerd the flood comin' thet night," said Creech to his silent and
tense-faced listeners. "I heerd it miles up the canyon. 'Peared a bigger roar
than any flood before. As it happened, I was alone, an' it took time to git
the hosses up. If there'd been an Indian with me--or even Joel--mebbe--" His
voice quavered slightly, broke, and then he resumed. "Even when I got the
hosses over to the landin' it wasn't too late--if only some one had heerd me
an' come down. I yelled an' shot. Nobody heerd. The river was risin' fast. An'
thet roar had begun to make my hair raise. It seemed like years the time I
waited there. . . . Then the flood came down-- black an' windy an' awful. I
had hell gittin' the hosses back.
"Next mornin' two Piutes come down. They had lost mustangs up on the rocks.
All the feed on my place was gone. There wasn't nothin' to do but try to git
out. The Piutes said there wasn't no chance north--no water--no grass--an' so
I decided to go south, if we could climb over thet last slide. Peg broke her
leg there, an'--I--I had to shoot her. But we climbed out with the rest of the
bunch. I left it then to the Piutes. We traveled five days west to head the
canyons. No grass an' only a little water, salt at thet. Blue Roan was game if
ever I seen a game hoss. Then the Piutes took to workin' in an' out an'
around, not to git out, but to find a little grazin'. I never knowed the earth
was so barren. One by one them hosses went down. . . . An' at last, I
couldn't--I couldn't see Blue Roan starvin'--dyin' right before my eyes--an' I
shot him, too. . . . An' what hurts me most now is thet I didn't have the
nerve to kill him fust off."
There was a long pause in Creech's narrative.
"Them Piutes will git paid if ever I can pay them. I'd parched myself but for
them. . . . We circled an' crossed them red cliffs an' then the strip of red
sand, an' worked down into the canyon. Under the wall was a long stretch of
beach--sandy--an' at the head of this we found Bostil's boat."
"Wal,--!" burst out the profane Brackton. "Bostil's boat! . . . Say, 'ain't
Joel told you yet about thet boat?"
"No, Joel 'ain't said a word about the boat," replied Creech. "What about it?"
"It was cut loose jest before the flood."
Manifestly Brackton expected this to be staggering to Creech. But he did not
even show surprise.
"There's a rider here named Slone--a wild-hoss wrangler," went on Brackton,
"an' Joel swears this Slone cut the boat loose so's he'd have a better chance
to win the race. Joel swears he tracked this feller Slone."
For Slone the moment was fraught with many emotions, but not one of them was
fear. He did not need the sudden force of Holley's strong hand, pushing him
forward. Slone broke into the group and faced Creech.
"It's not true. I never cut that boat loose," he declared ringingly.
"Who're you?" queried Creech.
"My name's Slone. I rode in here with a wild horse, an' he won a race. Then I
was blamed for this trick."
Creech's steady, gloomy eyes seemed to pierce Slone through. They were
terrible eyes to look into, yet they held no menace for him. "An' Joel accused
"So they say. I fought with him--struck him for an insult to a girl."
"Come round hyar, Joel," called Creech, sternly. His big, scaly, black hand
closed on the boy's shoulder. Joel cringed under it. "Son, you've lied. What
Joel showed abject fear of his father. "He's gone on Lucy--an' I seen him with
her," muttered the boy.
"An' you lied to hurt Slone?"
Joel would not reply to this in speech, though that was scarcely needed to
show he had lied. He seemed to have no sense of guilt. Creech eyed him
pityingly and then pushed him back.
"Men, my son has done this rider dirt," said Creech. "You-all see thet. Slone
never cut the boat loose. . . . An' say, you-all seem to think cuttin' thet
boat loose was the crime. . . . No! Thet wasn't the crime. The crime was
keepin' the boat out of the water fer days when my hosses could have been
Slone stepped back, forgotten, it seemed to him. Both joy and sorrow swayed
him. He had been exonerated. But this hard and gloomy Creech --he knew things.
And Slone thought of Lucy.
"Who did cut thet thar boat loose?" demanded Brackton, incredulously.
Creech gave him a strange glance. "As I was sayin', we come on the boat fast
at the head of the long stretch. I seen the cables had been cut. An' I seen
more'n thet. . . . Wal, the river was high an' swift. But this was a long
stretch with good landin' way below on the other side. We got the boat in, an'
by rowin' hard an' driftin' we got acrost, leadin' the hosses. We had five
when we took to the river. Two went down on the way over. We climbed out then.
The Piutes went to find some Navajos an' get hosses. An' I headed fer the
Ford--made camp twice. An' Joel seen me comin' out a ways."
"Creech, was there anythin' left in thet boat?" began Brackton, with intense
but pondering curiosity. "Anythin' on the ropes-- or so--thet might give an
idee who cut her loose?"
Creech made no reply to that. The gloom burned darker in his eyes. He seemed a
man with a secret. He trusted no one there. These men were all friends of his,
but friends under strange conditions. His silence was tragic, and all about
the man breathed vengeance.
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"Lucy, if Cordts gits after Sarch an' the others it'll be as well fer us," he
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
For the first time in his experience Bostil found that horse-trading palled
upon him. This trip to Durango was a failure. Something was wrong. There was a
voice constantly calling into his inner ear--a voice to which he refused to
listen. And during the five days of the return trip the strange mood grew upon
The last day he and his riders covered over fifty miles and reached the Ford
late at night. No one expected them, and only the men on duty at the corrals
knew of the return. Bostil, much relieved to get home, went to bed and at once
He awakened at a late hour for him. When he dressed and went out to the
kitchen he found that his sister had learned of his return and had breakfast
"Where's the girl?" asked Bostil.
"Not up yet," replied Aunt Jane.
"Lucy and I had a tiff last night and she went to her room in a temper."
"Nothin' new about thet."
"Holley and I have had our troubles holding her in. Don't you forget that."
Bostil laughed. "Wal, call her an' tell her I'm home."
Aunt Jane did as she was bidden. Bostil finished his breakfast. But Lucy did
Bostil began to feel something strange, and, going to Lucy's door, he knocked.
There was no reply. Bostil pushed open the door. Lucy was not in evidence, and
her room was not as tidy as usual. He saw her white dress thrown upon the bed
she had not slept in. Bostil gazed around with a queer contraction of the
heart. That sense of something amiss grew stronger. Then he saw a chair before
the open window. That window was rather high, and Lucy had placed a chair
before it so that she could look out or get out. Bostil stretched his neck,
looked out, and in the red earth beneath the window he saw fresh tracks of
Lucy's boots. Then he roared for Jane.
She came running, and between Bostil's furious questions and her own excited
answers there was nothing arrived at. But presently she spied the white dress,
and then she ran to Lucy's closet. From there she turned a white face to
"She put on her riding-clothes!" gasped Aunt Jane.
"Supposin' she did! Where is she?" demanded Bostil.
"SHE'S RUN OFF WITH SLONE!"
Bostil could not have been shocked or hurt any more acutely by a knife-thrust.
He glared at his sister.
"A-huh! So thet's the way you watch her!"
"Watch her? It wasn't possible. She's--well, she's as smart as you are. . . .
Oh, I knew she'd do it! She was wild in love with him!"
Bostil strode out of the room and the house. He went through the grove and
directly up the path to Slone's cabin. It was empty, just as Bostil expected
to find it.
The bars of the corral were down. Both Slone's horses were gone. Presently
Bostil saw the black horse Nagger down in Brackton's pasture.
There were riders in front of Brackton's. All spoke at once to Bostil, and he
only yelled for Brackton. The old man came hurriedly out, alarmed.
"Where's this Slone?" demanded Bostil.
"Slone!" ejaculated Brackton. "I'm blessed if I know. Ain't he home?"
"No. An' he's left his black hoss in your field."
"Wal, by golly, thet's news to me. . . . Bostil, there's been strange doin's
lately." Brackton seemed at a loss for words. "Mebbe Slone got out because of
somethin' thet come off last night. . . . Now, Joel Creech an'--an'--"
Bostil waited to hear no more. What did he care about the idiot Creech? He
strode down the lane to the corrals. Farlane, Van, and other riders were
there, leisurely as usual. Then Holley appeared, coming out of the barn. He,
too, was easy, cool, natural, lazy. None of these riders knew what was amiss.
But instantly a change passed over them. It came because Bostil pulled a gun.
"Holley, I've a mind to bore you!"
The old hawk-eyed rider did not flinch or turn a shade off color. "What fer?"
he queried. But his customary drawl was wanting.
"I left you to watch Lucy. . . . An' she's gone!"
Holley showed genuine surprise and distress. The other riders echoed Bostil's
last word. Bostil lowered the gun.
"I reckon what saves you is you're the only tracker thet'd have a show to find
this cussed Slone."
Holley now showed no sign of surprise, but the other riders were astounded.
"Lucy's run off with Slone," added Bostil.
"Wal, if she's gone, an' if he's gone, it's a cinch," replied Holley, throwing
up his hands. "Boss, she double-crossed me same as you! . . . She promised
faithful to stay in the house."
"Promises nothin'!" roared Bostil. "She's in love with this wild-hoss
wrangler! She met him last night!"
"I couldn't help thet," retorted Holley. "An' I trusted the girl."
Bostil tossed his hands. He struggled with his rage. He had no fear that Lucy
would not soon be found. But the opposition to his will made him furious.
Van left the group of riders and came close to Bostil. "It ain't an hour back
thet I seen Slone ride off alone on his red hoss."
"What of thet?" demanded Bostil. "Sure she was waitin' somewheres. They'd have
too much sense to go together. . . . Saddle up, you boys, an' we'll--"
"Say, Bostil, I happen to know Slone didn't see Lucy last night," interrupted
"A-huh! Wal, you'd better talk out."
"I trusted Lucy," said Holley. "But all the same, knowin' she was in love, I
jest wanted to see if any girl in love could keep her word. . . . So about
dark I went down the grove an' watched fer Slone. Pretty soon I seen him. He
sneaked along the upper end an' I follered. He went to thet bench up by the
biggest cottonwood. An' he waited a long time. But Lucy didn't come. He must
have waited till midnight. Then he left. I watched him go back--seen him go up
to his cabin."
"Wal, if she didn't meet him, where was she? She wasn't in her room."
Bostil gazed at Holley and the other riders, then back to Holley. What was the
matter with this old rider? Bostil had never seen Holley seem so strange. The
whole affair began to loom strangely, darkly. Some portent quickened Bostil's
lumbering pulse. It seemed that Holley's mind must have found an obstacle to
thought. Suddenly the old rider's face changed--the bronze was blotted out--a
grayness came, and then a dead white.
"Bostil, mebbe you 'ain't been told yet thet--thet Creech rode in yesterday. .
. . He lost all his racers! He had to shoot both Peg an' Roan!"
Bostil's thought suffered a sudden, blank halt. Then, with realization, came
the shock for which he had long been prepared.
"A-huh! Is thet so? . . . Wal, an' what did he say?"
Holley laughed a grim, significant laugh that curdled Bostil's blood. "Creech
said a lot! But let thet go now. . . . Come with me."
Holley started with rapid strides down the lane. Bostil followed. And he heard
the riders coming behind. A dark and gloomy thought settled upon Bostil. He
could not check that, but he held back impatience and passion.
Holley went straight to Lucy's window. He got down on his knees to scrutinize
"Made more 'n twelve hours ago," he said, swiftly. "She had on her boots, but
no spurs. . . . Now let's see where she went."
Holley began to trail Lucy's progress through the grove, silently pointing now
and then to a track. He went swifter, till Bostil had to hurry. The other men
came whispering after them.
Holley was as keen as a hound on scent.
"She stopped there," he said, "mebbe to listen. Looks like she wanted to cross
the lane, but she didn't: here she got to goin' faster."
Holley reached an intersecting path and suddenly halted stock-still, pointing
at a big track in the dust.
"My God! . . . Bostil, look at thet!"
One riving pang tore through Bostil--and then he was suddenly his old self,
facing the truth of danger to one he loved. He saw beside the big track a
faint imprint of Lucy's small foot. That was the last sign of her progress and
it told a story.
"Bostil, thet ain't Slone's track," said Holley, ringingly.
"Sure it ain't. Thet's the track of a big man," replied Bostil.
The other riders, circling round with bent heads, all said one way or another
that Slone could not have made the trail.
"An' whoever he was grabbed Lucy up--made off with her?" asked Bostil.
"Plain as if we seen it done!" exclaimed Holley. There was fire in the clear,
"Cordts!" cried Bostil, hoarsely.
"Mebbe--mebbe. But thet ain't my idee. . . . Come on."
Holley went so fast he almost ran, and he got ahead of Bostil. Finally several
hundred yards out in the sage he halted, and again dropped to his knees.
Bostil and the riders hurried on.
"Keep back; don't stamp round so close," ordered Holley. Then like a man
searching for lost gold in sand and grass he searched the ground. To Bostil it
seemed a long time before he got through. When he arose there was a dark and
deadly certainty in his face, by which Bostil knew the worst had befallen
"Four mustangs an' two men last night," said Holley, rapidly. "Here's where
Lucy was set down on her feet. Here's where she mounted. . . . An' here's the
tracks of a third man--tracks made this mornin'."
Bostil straightened up and faced Holley as if ready to take a death-blow. "I'm
reckonin' them last is Slone's tracks."
"Yes, I know them," replied Holley.
"An'--them--other tracks? Who made them?"
"CREECH AN' HIS SON!"
Bostil felt swept away by a dark, whirling flame. And when it passed he lay in
his barn, in the shade of the loft, prostrate on the fragrant hay. His
strength with his passion was spent. A dull ache remained. The fight was gone
from him. His spirit was broken. And he looked down into that dark abyss which
was his own soul.
By and by the riders came for him, got him up, and led him out. He shook them
off and stood breathing slowly. The air felt refreshing; it cooled his hot,
tired brain. It did not surprise him to see Joel Creech there, cringing behind
Bostil lifted a hand for some one to speak. And Holley came a step forward.
His face was haggard, but its white tenseness was gone. He seemed as if he
were reluctant to speak, to inflict more pain.
"Bostil," he began, huskily, "you're to send the King--an' Sarch--an' Ben an'
Two Face an' Plume to ransom Lucy! . . . If you won't--then Creech'll sell her
What a strange look came into the faces of the riders! Did, they think he
cared more for horseflesh than for his own flesh and blood?
"Send the King--an' all he wants. . . . An' send word fer Creech to come back
to the Ford. . . . Tell him I said--my sin found me out!"
Bostil watched Joel Creech ride the King out upon the slope, driving the
others ahead. Sage King wanted to run. Sarchedon was wild and unruly. They
passed out of sight. Then Bostil turned to his silent riders.
"Boys, seein' the King go thet way wasn't nothin'. . . . But what crucifies me
is--WILL THET FETCH HER BACK?"
"God only knows!" replied Holley. "Mebbe not--I reckon not! . . . But, Bostil,
you forget Slone is out there on Lucy's trail. Out there ahead of Joel! Slone
he's a wild-hoss hunter--the keenest I ever seen. Do you think Creech can
shake him on a trail? He'll kill Creech, an' he'll lay fer Joel goin'
back--an' he'll kill him. . . . An' I'll bet my all he'll ride in here with
Lucy an' the King!"
"Holley, you ain't figurin' on thet red hoss of Slone's ridin' down the King?"
Holley laughed as if Bostil's query was the strangest thing of all that
poignant day. "Naw. Slone'll lay fer Joel an' rope him like he roped Dick
"Holley, I reckon you see--clearer 'n me," said Bostil, plaintively. "'Pears
as if I never had a hard knock before. Fer my nerve's broke. I can't hope. . .
. Lucy's gone! . . . Ain't there anythin' to do but wait?"
"Thet's all. Jest wait. If we went out on Joel's trail we'd queer the chance
of Creech's bein' honest. An' we'd queer Slone's game. I'd hate to have him
On the day that old Creech repudiated his son, Slone with immeasurable relief
left Brackton's without even a word to the rejoicing Holley, and plodded up
the path to his cabin.
After the first flush of elation had passed he found a peculiar mood settling
down upon him. It was as if all was not so well as he had impulsively
conceived. He began to ponder over this strange depression, to think back.
What had happened to dash the cup from his lips? Did he regret being freed
from guilt in the simple minds of the villagers --regret it because suspicion
would fall upon Lucy's father? No; he was sorry for the girl, but not for
Bostil. It was not this new aspect of the situation at the Ford that oppressed
He trailed his vague feelings back to a subtle shock he had sustained in a
last look at Creech's dark, somber face. It had been the face of a Nemesis.
All about Creech breathed silent, revengeful force. Slone worked out in his
plodding thought why that fact should oppress him; and it was because in
striking Bostil old Creech must strike through Bostil's horses and his
Slone divined it--divined it by the subtle, intuitive power of his love for
Lucy. He did not reconsider what had been his supposition before Creech's
return--that Creech would kill Bostil. Death would be no revenge. Creech had
it in him to steal the King and starve him or to do the same and worse with
Lucy. So Slone imagined, remembering Creech's face.
Before twilight set in Slone saw the Creeches riding out of the lane into the
sage, evidently leaving the Ford. This occasioned Slone great relief, but only
for a moment. What the Creeches appeared to be doing might not be significant.
And he knew if they had stayed in the village that he would have watched them
as closely as if he thought they were trying to steal Wildfire.
He got his evening meal, cared for his horses, and just as darkness came on he
slipped down into the grove for his rendezvous with Lucy. Always this made his
heart beat and his nerves thrill, but to-night he was excited. The grove
seemed full of moving shadows, all of which he fancied were Lucy. Reaching the
big cottonwood, he tried to compose himself on the bench to wait. But
composure seemed unattainable. The night was still, only the crickets and the
soft rustle of leaves breaking a dead silence. Slone had the ears of a wild
horse in that he imagined sounds he did not really hear. Many a lonely night
while he lay watching and waiting in the dark, ambushing a water-hole where
wild horses drank, he had heard soft treads that were only the substance of
dreams. That was why, on this night when he was overstrained, he fancied he
saw Lucy coming, a silent, moving shadow, when in reality she did not come.
That was why he thought he heard very stealthy steps.
He waited. Lucy did not come. She had never failed before and he knew she
would come. Waiting became hard. He wanted to go back toward the house--to
intercept her on the way. Still he kept to his post, watchful, listening, his
heart full. And he tried to reason away his strange dread, his sense of a need