The descent was far less precipitous than the climb and far shorter to the plateau. Just where the true mountains broke out into a pleasant medley of foothills, the stallion stopped to rest. He nibbled a few mouthfuls of grass growing lush and rank on the edge of a watercourse, waded to the knees in a still pool and blotted out the star-images with the disturbance of his drinking, and then went back onto a hilltop to sleep.
It was full day before he rose and started on again, and to keep his strength for the next stage of the journey, he ate busily first on the lee side of a hill where the grass was thickest and tenderest. Between mouthfuls he raised his head to gaze down on his new-found land. It was a day of clouds, thin sheetings and dense cumulus masses sweeping on the west wind and breaking against the mountains. Alcatraz could not see the crests over which he had climbed the night before, so thick were those breaking ranks of clouds, but the plateau beneath him was dotted with yellow sunshine and in the day it filled to the full the promise of the moonlit night. He saw wide stretches of meadow; he saw hills sharpsided and smoothly rolling—places to climb with labor and places to gallop at ease. He saw streams that promised drink at will; he saw clumps and groves of trees for shelter from sun or storm. All that a horse could will was here, beyond imaginings. Alcatraz lifted his beautiful head and neighed across the lowlands.
There was no answer. His kingdom silently awaited his coming so he struck out at a sharp pace. The run of the day before, in place of stiffening him, had put him in racing trim and he went like the wind. He was in playful mood. He danced and shied as each cloud-shadow struck him, a dim figure in the shade but shining red-chestnut in the sun patches. On every hand he saw dozens of places where he would have stopped willingly had not more distant beauties lured him on. There were hills whose tops would serve him as watch towers in time of need. There were meadows of soft soil where the grass grew long and rank and others where it was a sweeter and finer growth; but both had their places in his diet and must be remembered so Alcatraz tried to file them away in his mind. But who could remember single jewels in a great treasure? He was like a child chasing butterflies and continually lured from the pursuit of one to that of another still brighter. So he came in his kingly progress to the first blot on the landscape, the first bar, the first hindrance.
Sinuous and swift curving as a snake it twisted over hilltops and dipped across hollows, three streaks of silver light one above the other, and endless. The ears of Alcatraz flattened. He knew barb-wire fences of old and he knew they meant man and domination of man. The scars of whip and spur stung him afresh. The old sullen hatred rose in him. Those three elusive lines of light were stronger than he, he knew, just as the frail body of a man contained a mysterious strength far greater than his. He turned his head across the wind and galloped beside the new-strung fence for ten breathless minutes. Then he paused, panting. Still running endless before him and behind was the fence and now he saw a checking of similar fences across the meadows to his right. More than that, he saw a group of fat cattle browzing, and just beyond were horses in a pasture.
Alcatraz slipped backwards and sideways till he was out of sight and then galloped over the hill until he came to a grove of trees at the top. Here he paused to continue his examination from shelter. The fence was the work of man, the cattle and horses were the possessions of man, and far off to the left, out of a grove of trees, rose the smoke which spoke of the presence of man himself. The chestnut shivered as though he were shaking cold water off his hide, and then unreasoning fury gripped him. For here was his paradise, his Promised Land, pre-empted by the Great Enemy!
He stayed for a long moment gazing, and then turned reluctantly and fled like one pursued back by the way he had come. He got beyond the fence in the course of half an hour, but still he kept on. He began to feel that as long as he galloped on land which was pleasant to him it would be pleasant to man also. So he kept steadily on his way, leaping the brooks. Into the river he cast himself and swam to the farther shore. There was an instant change beyond that bank. The valley opened like a fan. The handle of it was the green, well-watered plateau into which he had first descended, but now it spread in raw colored desert, cut up by ragged hills here and there, and extending on either side to mountains purple-blue with distance.
With the water dripping from his belly, Alcatraz twinked a farewell glance to the green country behind him and set his face towards the desert. It was not so hard to leave the pleasant meadows. Now that he knew they were man-owned there was a taint in their beauty, and here on the sands of the desert with only dusty bunch-grass to eat and muddy waterholes to drink from, he was at least free from the horror of the enemy. He kept on fairly steadily, nibbling in the bunch-grass as he went, now trotting a little, now cantering lightly across a stretch barren of forage. So he came, just after noonday, down-wind from the scent of horses.
His own kind, yet he was worried, for he connected horses inevitably with the thought of man. Nevertheless, he decided to explore, and coming warily over a rise of ground he saw, in the hollow beyond, a whole troop of horses without a man in sight. He was too wise to jump to conclusions but slipped back from his watch-post and ran in a long semi-circle about the herd, but having made out that there was no cowpuncher nearby, he came back to his original place of vantage and resumed his observations.
A beautiful black stallion wandered up-wind from the rest and another, younger horse, was on the other side of the herd. Between was a raggedly assembled group of mares old and young, with leggy yearlings, deer-footed colts, and more than one time-worn stallion. It was a motley assembly. The colors ranged from piebald to grey and there was a great diversity in stature. Presently the black stallion neighed softly, whereat the rest of the herd bunched closely together, the mares with the foals on the side, and all heads turning towards the black who now galloped to a hilltop, surveyed the horizon and presently dropped his head to graze again.
This was a signal to the others. They spread out again carelessly, but Alcatraz was beginning to put two and two together in his thoughts. The two stallions were obviously guards, but what should they be guarding against in the broad light of day except that terrible destroyer who hunts as well at noon as at midnight—man! Inspiration came to Alcatraz. The difference of color and stature, the unkempt manes and tails, the wild eyes, were all telling a single story, now. These were not servants to man, and since they were not his servants they must be enemies, for that was the law of the world. The great enemy dominated, and where he could not dominate he killed. And the herd feared the same power which Alcatraz feared; instantly they became to him brothers and sisters, and he stepped boldly into view.
The result was startling. From the hilltop the black stallion whinnied shrill and short and in a twinkling the whole group was in motion scurrying north. Alcatraz looked in wonder and saw the black fall in behind the rest and range across the rear biting the flanks of older horses who found it difficult to keep the hot pace. With this accomplished and when the herd was stolidly compacted before his driving, the black skirted around the whole group and with a magnificent spurt of running placed himself in the lead. He kept his place easily, a strong galloping grey mare at his hip, and from time to time tossed his head to the side to take stock of his followers. And so they dipped out of sight beyond the next swell of ground.
Alcatraz recovered from his amazement to start in pursuit. This was a mystery worth solving. Moreover, the moment he made sure that these were not man-owned creatures they had become inexplicably dear to him and as they disappeared his heart grew heavy. His running gait carried him quickly in view. They had slackened in their flight a little but as he hove in sight again they took the alarm once more, the foals first rushing to the front and then the whole herd with flying manes and tails blown straight out.
It was a goodly sight to Alcatraz. Moreover, his heart leaped strangely, as it always did when he saw horses in full gallop. Perhaps they were striving to test his speed of foot before they admitted him to their company. In that case the answer was soon given. He sent his call after them, bidding them watch a real horse run, then overtook them in one dizzy burst of sprinting. His rush carried him not only up to them but among them. Two or three youngsters swerved aside with frightened snorts, but as he came up behind a laboring mare she paused in her flight to let drive with both heels. Alcatraz barely escaped the danger with a sidestep light as a dancer's and shortened his gallop.
He could not punish the mare for her impudence; besides, he needed time to rearrange his thoughts. Why should they flee from a companion who intended no harm? It was a great puzzle. In the meantime, keeping easily at the heels of the wild horses, he noted that they were holding their pace better than any cowponies he had ever seen running. From the oldest mare to the youngest foal they seemed to have one speed afoot.
A neigh from the black leader made the herd scatter on every side like fire in stubble. Alcatraz halted to catch the meaning of this new maneuver and saw the black approaching at a high-stepping trot as one determined to explore a danger but ready to instantly flee if it seemed a serious threat. His gaze was fixed not on Alcatraz but on the far horizon where the hills became a blue mist rolling softly against the sky. He seemed to make up his mind, presently, that nothing would follow the chestnut out of the distance and he began to move about Alcatraz in a rapid gallop, constantly narrowing his circle.
Alcatraz turned constantly to meet him, whinnying a friendly greeting, but the black paid not the slightest heed to these overtures. At length he came to a quivering stand twenty yards away, head up, ears back, a very statue of an angry and proud horse. Obviously it was a challenge, but Alcatraz was too happy in his new-found brothers to think of battle. He ducked his head a little and pawed the ground lightly, a horse's age-old manner of expressing amicable intentions. But there was nothing amicable in the black leader. He reared a little and came down lightly on his forefeet, his weight gathered on his haunches as though he were preparing to charge, and at this unmistakable evidence of ill-will, Alcatraz snorted and grew alert.
If it came to fighting he was more than at home. He was a master. More than one corral gate he had cunningly worked ajar, and more than one flimsy barn wall he had broken down with his leaning shoulder, and more than one fence he had leaped to get at the horses beyond. With anger rising in him he took stock of the opponent. The black lacked a good inch of his own height but in substance more than made up for the deficiency. He was a stalwart eight-year old, muscled like a Hercules, with plenty of bone to stand his weight; and his eyes, glittering through the tangle of forelock, gave him an air of savage cunning. Decidedly here was a foeman worthy of his steel, thought Alcatraz. He looked about him. There stood the mares and the horses ranged in a loose semi-circle, waiting and watching; only the colts, ignorant of what was to come, had begun to frolic together or bother their mothers with a savage pretense of battle. Alcatraz saw one solid old bay topple her offspring with a side-swing of her head. She wanted an unobstructed view of the fight.
His interest in this by-play nearly proved his undoing for while his head was turned he heard a rushing of hoofs and barely had time to throw himself to one side as the black flashed by him. Alcatraz turned and reared to beat the insolent stranger into the earth but he found that the leader was truly different from the sluggish horses of men. A hundred wild battles had taught the black every trick of tooth and heel; and in the thick of the fight he carried his weight with the agility of a cat: Alcatraz had not yet swung himself fairly back on his haunches when the black was upon him, the dust flying up behind from the quickness of his turn. Straight at the throat of the chestnut he dived and his teeth closed on the throat of Alcatraz just where the neck narrows beneath the jaw. His superior height enabled Alcatraz to rear and fling himself clear, but his throat was bleeding when he landed on all fours dancing with rage and the sting of his wounds. Yet he refrained from rushing; he had been in too many a fight to charge blindly.
The black, however, had tasted victory, and came again with a snort of eagerness. It was the thing for which Alcatraz had been waiting and he played a trick which he had learned long before from a cunning old gelding who, on a day, had given him a bitter fight. He pitched back, as though he were about to rear to meet the charge, but when his fore-feet were barely clear of the ground he rocked down again, whirled, and lashed out with his heels.
Had they landed fairly the battle would have ended in that instant, but the black was cat-footed indeed, and he swerved in time to save his head. Even so one flashing heel had caught his shoulder and ripped it open like a knife. And they both sprang away, ready for the next clash. The grey mare who had run so gallantly at the hip of the leader now approached and stood close by with pricking ears. Alcatraz bared his teeth as he glanced aside at her. No doubt if he were knocked sprawling she would rush in to help her lord and master finish the enemy. That gave Alcatraz a second problem—to fight the stallion without turning his back on the treacherous mare.
Before he could plan his next move the black was at him again. This time they reared together, met with a clash of teeth and rapid beat of hoofs, and parted on equal terms. Alcatraz eyed his enemy with a fierce respect. His head was dull and ringing with the blows; his shoulder had been slightly cut by a glancing forehoof. Decidedly he could not meet the brawn of this hardened old warrior on such terms. He had used up one trick, he must find another, and still another; and when the black rushed again, Alcatraz slipped away from the contact and raced off at his matchless gallop. The other pursued a short distance and stopped, sounding his defiance and his triumph. As well follow the wind as the chestnut stranger. Besides, the blood was pouring from the gash in his shoulder and that foreleg was growing weak; it was well that the battle had ended at this point.
But it was not ended! Flight was not in the mind of Alcatraz as he swept away. He ran in dodging circles about the enemy, swerving in and then veering sharply out as the black reared to meet the expected charge. Whatever else was accomplished, he had gained the initiative and that plus his lightness of foot might bring matters to a decisive issue in his favor. Twice he made his rush; twice the black turned and met him with that shower of crushing blows with the fore hoofs. But the third time a feint at one side and a charge at the other took the leader unawares. Fair and true the shoulder of Alcatraz struck him on the side and the impact flung the black heavily to the earth. The shock had staggered even Alcatraz but he was at the other like a savage terrier. Thrice he stamped across that struggling body until the black lay motionless with his coat crimson from twenty slashes. Then Alcatraz drew away and neighed his triumph, and in his exultation he noted that the herd drew close together at his call.
Why, he could not imagine, and he had no time to ponder on it, for the black was now struggling to his feet. But there was no fight left in him. He stood dazed, with fallen head, and to the challenge of the chestnut he replied by not so much as the pricking of his flagging ears.
The grey mare went to him, touched noses with her overlord, and then backed away, shaking her head. Presently she trotted past Alcatraz, flung up her heels within an inch of his head, and then galloped on towards the herd looking back at the conqueror. Oh vanity of the weaker sex; oh frailty! She had seen her master crushed and within the minute she was flirting with the conqueror.
The herd started off as the grey joined them and Alcatraz followed; the black leader remaining unmoving and the blood dripped steadily down his legs.
After they had seen him in battle it seemed to Alcatraz that there might be some reason for the flight of the herd and yet now their running was only half-hearted; he could have raced in circles around them. There was one change in their arrangement. The grey mare was second, as before, but before her in place of the black ran the bay stallion who had stood down—wind from the rest when Alcatraz first saw them. He, perhaps, might challenge the stranger as the former leader had done. At any rate he should have the opportunity, for the fighting blood of Alcatraz was up and he would battle with every horse in the herd until he was accepted among them as an equal. He had a peculiar desire, also, to be up there beside the grey mare. Their meeting had been, indeed, only in the passing, and yet there was about her—how should one say?—a certain something.
The moment he had made up his mind, Alcatraz flung himself about the herd and advanced with high head and bounding gallop on the new leader; but the latter had seen his former master fall and apparently had no appetite for battle. He shortened his pace to a hand gallop, then to a mincing trot, and finally lowered his head and moved unobtrusively to the side with an absorbed interest in the first knot of bunch-grass that came his way. To force battle on such a foe was beneath the dignity of Alcatraz, but the whole herd had stopped, every bright eye watching him; perhaps there might be others more ambitious than the bay. He put up his head like the king of horses that he was and stepped proudly forward. Behold, they divided and left a clear path before him; even the mare who had kicked at him when he first came up now shook her head and moved aside. He reached the rear of the herd unopposed and turned to find that every head was still turned towards him with a bright attention that was certainly not altogether fear.
This was very strange, and while he thought it over Alcatraz dropped his head and nibbled the nearest cluster of grass. At that, as at a signal, every head in the herd went down; it scattered carelessly here and there. Alcatraz watched them, bewildered. This was what he had noted when the black leader was among them; then he understood and was filled with warm content. Truly they had accepted him not only as a member but as a master! To prove it, he trotted to the nearest hilltop and neighed as he had heard the black neigh. At once they bunched, looking warily towards him. He lowered his head to nibble the grass and again they scattered to eat. It was true. It was true beyond shadow of doubt that from this moment he was a king with obedient subjects until, perhaps, some younger, mightier stallion challenged and beat him down. Happily for Alcatraz such forethought was beyond his reach of mind and now he only knew the happiness of power.
He noticed a long-bodied colt, incredibly dainty of foot, wandering nervously near him with pricking ears and sniffing nose. Alcatraz extended his lordly head and sniffed the velvet muzzle, whereat the youngster snorted and darted away shaking his head and kicking up his heels as though he had just bearded the lion and was delighted at the success of his impertinence. The mother had come anxiously close during this adventure but now she regarded Alcatraz with a friendly glance and went about her serious business of eating for two.
The grey mare was drifting near, likewise, as though by inadvertence, nibbling the headed grasstops as she came; but Alcatraz shrewdly guessed that her approach was not altogether unplanned. He was not displeased. His quiet happiness grew as the cloud—shadows rushed across him and the sun warmed him. It was a pleasant world—a pleasant, pleasant world! His people wandered in the hollow. They looked to him for warning of danger. They looked at him for guidance in a crisis and he accepted the burden cheerfully.
Fear, it seemed, had made him one with them. All his life he had dreaded only one thing—man; but these creatures of the wild had many a fear of the lobo, the mountain-lion, the drought, the high flying buzzard who would claim them, dying, and added above all this, man. Not that Alcatraz knew these things definitely. He could only feel that these, his people, were strong only in their speed and in their timidity, and he felt power to rule and protect them. For he who had fought man, and won, had surely nothing to dread from beasts. The great moment of his life had come to him not in the crushing of the Mexican or the baffling of the mountain lion or the defeat of the black leader but in the first gentle kindness that had ever softened his stern spirit. He was used to battle; but these, his people, accepted him. He was used to suspicion and trickery but these trusted him blindly. He was used to hate, but because they had put themselves into his power he began to love them. He felt a blood-tie between him and the weakest colt within the range of his eye.
The herd drifted slowly down—wind until late afternoon, eating their way rather than travelling, but when the heat began to wane and the slant sunlight took on a yellow tone they began to show signs of unrest, milling in a compact group with the foals frolicking on the outskirts of the circle. The mares were particularly disturbed, it seemed to Alcatraz, especially the mothers; and since all heads were turned repeatedly towards him he became anxious. Something was expected of him. What was it?
In case they had scented a danger unknown to him, he cast a wide circle around them at a sharp gallop, but nothing met his nostril, his eye, or his ear except the dust with its keen taint of alkali, and the bare hills, and the vague horizon sounds. Alcatraz came back to his companions at a halting trot which denoted his uneasy alertness. They were milling more closely than ever. The brood mares had passed to a sullen nervousness and were kicking savagely at everything that came near. Decidedly something was wrong. The wise-headed grey mare loped out to meet him and threw a course of circles around him as he came slowly forward. Plainly she expected him to do something, but what this might be Alcatraz could not tell. Besides, a growing thirst was making him irritable and the insistence of the grey mare made him wish to fasten his teeth over the back of her neck and shake her into better behavior.
By her antics she had worked him around to the head of the herd and she had no sooner reached this point than she threw up her head with a shrill neigh and started off at a gallop. The entire herd rushed after her and Alcatraz, in a bound, ranged along side the grey and a neck in the lead. While he ran he whinnied a soft question to which she replied with a toss of her head as though impatient at such ignorance. In reality she was guiding the herd. She knew it and Alcatraz understood her knowledge, but he made a show of maintaining the guidance, keeping a sharp outlook and turning the moment she showed signs of veering in a new direction. Sometimes, of course, he misread her intentions and swerved across her head and on each of these occasions she reached out and nipped him shrewdly. Alcatraz was too taken up in his wonder at the actions of the herd to resent this insolence. For half an hour they kept up the steady pace and then Alcatraz literally ran into the reason.
It was a beautiful little lake, bedded in hard gravel and maintained by a dribble of water from a brook on the north shore. Alcatraz snorted in disgust at his folly. What had disturbed them was exactly what had disturbed him—thirst. He controlled his own desire for water, however, and followed an instinct that made him draw back and wait until all the rest—the oldest stallion and the youngest colt—had waded in and plunged their noses deep in the water. Then he went to the lake edge a little apart from the rest and drank with his reflection glistening beneath him.
It was a time of utter peace for the chestnut. While he drank he watched the line of images broken by the small waves in the lake and listened to the foals which had only tasted the water and now were splashing it about with their upper lips. For his own part he did not drink too much, since much water in the belly makes a leaden burden and Alcatraz felt that, as leader, he must always be ready for running. A scrawny colt, escaping from the heels of a yearling floundered against him. Alcatraz gave way to the little fellow and warned the yearling back with a savage baring of his teeth and a shake of his head. The foal, with head cocked upon one side, regarded its protector with impish curiosity and was in the act of nibbling at the flowing mane of the stallion when Alcatraz heard a sharp humming as of a wasp; then the sound of a blow, and the foal leaped straight into the air with head flung back. Before it hit water a report as of a hammer falling on anvil burst across the level pond, and then the colt struck heavily on its side, dead.
That bullet had been aimed for the tall leader and only the lifting of the foal's head had saved Alcatraz. He recognized the report of a rifle and whirled from the water-edge, signalling his company with a short neigh of fear; the arch enemy was upon them! A volley poured in. Alcatraz, as he gained the shore, saw an old stallion double up with a scream of pain and no sound is so terrible as the shriek of a tortured horse. No sound is so terrible even to horses. It threw the leader into an hysteria of panic. Others of the herd were falling or staggering in the lake; the remnant rushed up the slope and over the sheltering crest of the hill beyond.
Every nerve in the body of Alcatraz urged him to leap away with arrowy speed, passing even the grey mare—she who now shot off across the hills far in the van—but behind him raced weaker and slower horses, the older stallions and the mares with their foals. Instinct proved greater than fear. He swept around the rear of his diminished company to round up the laggards, but they were already laboring to the full of their power as five horsemen streamed across the crest with their rifles carried at the ready. They were a hardy crew, these cowpunchers of the Jordan ranch, but to the sternest of them this was ugly work. To draw a bead on a horse was like gathering the life of a man into the sight of the rifle, yet they knew that a band of wildrunning mustangs is a perpetual menace. Already the black leader had recruited his herd with more than one stray from the Jordan outfit; and it was for the black, first of all, that they looked. There was no sign of him, and in his place ranged a picture horse—a beautiful red—chestnut with a gallop that made one's head swim. Lew Hervey, who had kept his men in cunning ambush near the lake, had chosen the new leader for a target but shot the colt instead. And it was Lew Hervey, again, who swung over the crest of the hill and got the next chance at Alcatraz.
The foreman of the Jordan ranch pitched his rifle to his shoulder just as the leader, sweeping back to round up the rearmost of his company, presented a broadside target. It was a sure hit. In the certainty of his skill Lew Hervey allowed his hand to swing and followed for a strike or two the rhythm of that racing body. The sunshine of the late afternoon flashed on the flanks and on the frightened eyes of the stallion; mane and tail fluttered straight out with his speed; and then he fired, and jerked up his gun to await the crashing fall of the horse. But Alcatraz did not drop. That moment of lingering on the part of the foreman saved him, for through the sights of his rifle Hervey had seen such grace and beauty in horseflesh that his nerve was unsteadied. Alcatraz knew the stinging hum of a bullet past his head; and the foreman knew a miracle. He could not believe his failure.
"Leave the chestnut to me!" he shouted as his men drove their ponies over the hill, and pulling his own horse to a stand he jerked the rifle butt hard against his shoulder and fired again; the only result was a flirt of the tail of the chestnut as he darted about a hillside and disappeared. Hervey made no attempt to follow but sat his saddle agape and staring, thinking ghostly thoughts.
This was the beginning of the legend that Alcatraz bore a charmed life. For the mountains were rich with Indian folklore which had drifted far from its source and had come by hook and crook into the lives of the miners and cowpunchers. Into such a background many a wild tale fitted and the tale of Alcatraz was to be one of the wildest.
At any rate, the stallion owed his life on this day to the superstition of Lew Hervey which kept him anchored on his horse until the target was gone. A dozen times his men could have dropped the chestnut who persisted with a frantic courage in running behind the rearmost of his companions, urging them to greater efforts, but since Hervey had selected this as his own prize his men dared not shoot.
It was a strange and beautiful thing to see that king of horses—sweep back around the slowest of his mustangs, shake his head at the barking guns, and then circle forward again as though he would show the laggard what running should be. The cowpunchers could have shot him as he veered back; they could have salted him with lead as he flashed broadside, but the orders of their chief restrained them. Lew Hervey's lightest word had a weight with them.
However, before and behind the leader of the herd their guns did deadly work. Brood mares, stallions young and old, even the foals were dropped. It was horrible work to the hardest of them but this horseflesh was useless. Too many times they had seen mustangs taken and ridden and when they were not hopeless outlaws they became broken-spirited and useless, as though their strength lay in their freedom. With that gone they were valueless even as slaves of men.
Before the slaughter ended, young or old there was not a horse left in the band of Alcatraz save the grey mare far ahead. She was already beyond range, and as the last of the fleeing horses pitched heavily forward and lay still with oddly sprawling limbs, old Bud Seymour drew rein and shoved his rifle back into the long holster.
"Now, look!" he called, as his companions pulled up beside him. "That grey is fast as a streak—but look! look!"
For the red-chestnut was bounding away in pursuit of his last companion with a winged gallop. It seemed that the wind caught him up and buoyed him from stride to stride, and the cowpunchers with hungry, burning eyes watched without a word until the grey and the chestnut blurred on the horizon and dipped out of view together. The spell was broken in the same instant by a stream of profanity floating up from the rear. It was Lew Hervey approaching and swearing his mightiest.
"But I dunno," said Bud Seymour softly. "I feel kind of glad that Lew missed."
He glanced sharply at his companions for fear they might laugh at this childish weakness, but there was no laughter and by their starved eyes he knew that every one of them was riding over the horizon in imagination, on the back of the chestnut.
The grey mare made no effort to draw away when Alcatraz sprinted up beside her. She gave him not so much as a toss of the head or a swish of the tail but kept her gaze on the far Western mountains for she was still sick with the scent of blood; and she maintained a purposeful, steady, lope. It was far other with the stallion. He kept at her side with his gliding canter but he was not thinking of the peace and the shelter from man which they might find in the blue valleys of yonder mountains. His mind was back at the slaughter of Mingo Lake hearing the crackle of the rifles and seeing his comrades fall and die. It was nothing that he had known the band only since morning. They were his kind, they were his people, they had accepted his rule; and now he was emptyhearted, a king without a people. The grey mare, the fleetest and the wisest of them all, remained; but she was only a reminder of his vanished glory.
Remembering how Cordova had been served, might he not find a way of harming those men even as they had harmed him? He slackened to a trot and finally halted. His companion kept on until he neighed. Then she came obediently enough but swinging her head up and down to indicate her intense disapproval of this halt. When Alcatraz actually started back towards the place where the cowpunchers had dropped the pursuit, she threw herself across his way, striving to turn him with bared teeth and flirting heels.
He merely kept a weaving course to avoid her, his head high and his ears back, which was a manner the mare had never seen in him before; she could only tell that she was less than nothing to him. Once she strove to draw back by running a little distance west and then turning and calling him but her whinny made him not so much as shake his head. At length she surrendered and sullenly took up his trail.
He roved swiftly across the hollows; he sneaked up to every commanding rise as though he feared the guns of men might be just beyond the crest and these tactics continued until they came in view of the small row of black figures riding against the sunset. The grey halted at once, rearing and snorting, for the sight brought again that hateful smell of blood but her leader moved quietly after the cowpunchers; he was taking the man-trail!
It was arduous work, frisking from one point of vantage to another, never knowing when the Great Enemy might turn. They could make death speak from the distance of half a mile; under shelter of the hills they might even double back to close range; they might be luring him by the pretense that he was unseen.
In such maneuvers the mare was a dangerous encumbrance, for though she had fallen into the spirit of the thing at once and never uttered even the faintest whinny yet it would be far easier for the men to hear and see two than to detect one. Alcatraz strove to drive her back, sometimes whirling with teeth bared and rushing at her, sometimes halfrearing as though to strike. But on such occasions she merely stopped and regarded him with eyes of mild amazement. She knew perfectly that he would never touched her with tooth or hoof; she also knew that this was dangerous folly—this badgering of terrible man, but since Alcatraz was not wise enough to follow her she must even follow him in spite of his folly.
She stayed half a dozen lengths in the rear, trembling with excitement, for now they passed the verge of the desert and now they entered a man-made road bordered with shining fences of men; what retreat was there if men closed in from the front and the rear? Yet she went on with dainty and uneasy steps. As for Alcatraz, he had pressed up boldly, close to the riders, for now the twilight grew thick and it was hard to make out the glimmering forms before him. Twice he paused; twice he went on. There was no real purpose in this following. He dared not come too close, and yet he hoped to harm them. He continued, wrung by a confusion of dreads and desires.
He was beset with signs of man even in the darkness. Over the well-watered fields of the ranch he heard the lowing of cattle and now and again the chorus of the sheep in a nearby pasture land was reawakened when the bell of the leader tinkled. They were all hateful sounds to Alcatraz, and every step he made seemed to consign him the more definitely to the power of the Great Enemy.
In spite of his boldness he lost sight of the riders among the deeper shadows of the ranch buildings, and he stopped again to consider. The grey mare came beside him and begged him back with a call softer than a whisper, but he merely raised his head the higher and stared at the huge outlines of the sheds and barns. To Alcatraz every one of them was a fortress filled with danger that might leap up at him. Yet he must not turn back after having come all this distance, surely. He went on. The road opened into an unfenced semicircle with corrals on every side and from one of these enclosures a horse neighed, and there was a brief sound of many trampling feet. Some of his own kind were playing there; Alcatraz forgot his hatred a little, forgot man. He went straight to the corral and put his head over the top bar.
Snorting softly, curious and frightened at once, six beautiful animals came towards him. He was one of their kind, so they came close; the scent of the wilderness was already on him, and they shrank away. Surely some sinister genius had directed Alcatraz to the one most valuable point of attack on all the ranch, for these were the six brood mares for whose purchase Marianne Jordan had cleaned out her bank account. The stallion did not know, of course. He did not even recognize them as his competitors in the race. All he felt was that there was something charmingly remembered, something half familiar about them. The boldest came near and he touched noses, whereat she whirled with a little squeal and lashed out at him; but her heels were carefully aimed wide of the mark and Alcatraz merely tossed his nose; plainly she was a flirt. He pressed a little closer to the fence and urged friendliness with a conversational whinny. They were not averse, coming towards him with eyes that glimmered in the darkness, retreating often and coming on again, until he had touched noses with them all. It was extremely pleasant to Alcatraz and hardly less so because the grey mare came and shouldered him rudely.
Then a voice spoke from the barn which opened off the corral: "What's all that damned nonsense with the mares yonder?"
Alcatraz crouched for flight. Another voice answered: "They'll mill around every night for a while till they get used to the new place. That's the way with them crazy hot-bloods. No hoss-sense."
The voices departed. The shrinking of the stallion had made the mares wince away in turn, but they came back now and resumed the conversation where it had been broken off. He was careful to introduce himself to each one. He was greatly tempted to jump the fence and talk to them at closer hand but he knew that it was great folly to risk his neck in a group of mares before he had made out whether or not they were amiable. If they were cross-tempered he might be kicked to death before he could escape.
The investigations brought entirely favorable returns. They were very young, these Coles horses, and hence their curiosity was far stronger than their timidity. Before long every one of the six necks was stretched across the top-rail and when Alcatraz turned his back on them they whinnied uneasily to call him back.
If that were the case, why did they not jump? He went back and showed them how simple it was if they really wanted to escape and come out with him into the wind and under the free stars of the mountains. Such a fence was nothing to that powerful jumper. He walked calmly to it, reared, and sailed over. That sent the mares scampering wildly, here and there about the corral, and though they came back again after a time, they seemed to have learned nothing. When he jumped out again not one of them followed.
Alcatraz stood off and eyed them in disgust. When he was a yearling, he felt, he had known more than those big, stupid, beautiful creatures. But plainly they wanted to get out with him. A wild horse is to the tame what the adventurous traveller is to the quiet man who builds a home, and from the grey mare and Alcatraz the six were learning many things. The scent of the open desert was on them, the sweat of hard running had dried on their hides, their heads were recklessly proud; and this tall stallion jumped the fence as though there had never been men who made laws which well-trained horses must not transgress. Plainly he wanted them to come out. They were very willing to go for a romp but they knew nothing about jumping, as yet, and all they could do was to show their eagerness to be out for a run by milling up and down the fence.
If that were the case, there were other ways of opening corrals and Alcatraz knew them all. He tried the fence with his shoulder, leaning all his weight. More than once he had smashed time-rotted fences in this manner, but he found that these posts were new and well tamped and the boards were strongly nailed. He gave up that effort and went about looking for a gate. Gates were not hard to find. A gate is that part of a fence under which many tracks and many scents go; it is also a section which swings a little and rattles annoyingly in a wind. Upon the top board of that section there is sure to be thick scent of man where his hands have fallen. Alcatraz found the gate. Under the weight of his shoulder it creaked but did not give. He took the top rail in his teeth, while the mares stood back, wondering, in a high-headed semi-circle and the grey kept nudging at his flank, saying very plainly: "Enough of this nonsense. These gangling creatures, all legs and foolishness, are not of our kind, O my master. Let us be gone!" But Alcatraz heeded her not. He shook the gate back and forth.
There are three kinds of fastenings for corral gates. One of them squeaks and strains when it is pulled against. It is made of wire that leaves a bitter taste of iron and rust in the mouth when it is touched. Wire is often very difficult but with teeth and prehensile upper lip it may usually be worked up high, and finally it will fall over the top of one of the posts with a rattle, and then the gate is open. Another kind of fastening rattles very much when the gate is shaken. This means that a loose board unites gates and post, running in a slot, and the only way to handle such a gate is to take the loose board by the end and draw it back as far as possible. Then the gate always swings open of its own accord. There is a third kind of fastening. Manuel Cordova used it. It consists of a padlock and chain and where this is found one had better leave the cursed thing untried for it will never be broken or removed.
By the first shake of the gate and the corresponding rattle Alcatraz knew that the sliding board fastened it. He sniffed for it and found it very easily, for always the latch-board is the one heaviest with the man-scent. He found it and worked it easily back. It caught on a nail. He tugged again, and as he tugged he quivered at the sound of a human voice and shrank as though the familiar whip of Cordova had cut him.
"They're a little restless to-night, but aren't they dears, Shorty?" queried Marianne.
"Kind of dear," said the cowpuncher, "but maybe they're worth the price." For all his surliness, however, Shorty was her best ally.
"Wait till you see Lady Mary begin to—but isn't that a horse beyond the corral? A grey horse? I think it is, but it can't be."
"There isn't a grey horse on the ranch, and—oh!"
For the gate of the corral creaked and then swung wide. They could not see Alcatraz, for the bay mares stood between.
"Don't move, don't speak!" whispered the girl. "It's that stupid Lucas man. I told Lew Hervey that he was too careless to take care of the mares; and the first thing he's done is to leave the gate unlatched. I'll steal around and—"
At the first sound of the voice the grey mare had drifted deeper into the safety of the night; Alcatraz with a careful effort pulled open the gate; and the wind, aiding him, blew it wide, and now the soft whinny of invitation to the mares cut into the words of Marianne. She went around the corral bending low, skulking in her run; for once the mares got out the gate they might bolt like crazy things and come to harm in the murderous barbed-wire fences. Shorty was hurrying around on the other side.
Before she had taken half a dozen steps the neigh of the stallion, deafeningly loud, brought her to a halt with her hands clasped. She saw the mares start under the alarm-call and rush for the gate; in a moment their hoofs were volleying down the road and the wail of Marianne went shrilling: "Lew Hervey! Lew Hervey! They're gone!"
Lew Hervey, in the bunkhouse, pushed away his cards and rose with a curse. "That's what comes of working for a woman," he growled. "No peace. No rest. Work day and night. And if you ain't kept working you're just kept worried. It's hell!"
He clumped to the door and cast it open.
"Well?" he called into the darkness.
"Every one out!" cried Marianne. "The mares have broken through the gate and stampeded!"
They came with a rush, at that. The mares the girl prized so highly were, in the phrase of the cowpunchers, "high-headed fools" incapable of taking care of themselves. Running wild through the night, as likely as not they would cut themselves to pieces on the first barbed wired fence that blocked their way. With such a thought to urge them, Marianne's hired men caught their fastest mounts and saddled like lightning. There was a play of ropes and curses in the big corral, the scuffle of leather as saddle after saddle flopped into place, and then a stream of dim riders darted through the corral gate.
All of this, dazed by the misfortune, Marianne waited to see, but as the first of the pursuers darted out of sight she turned and ran to the box stall where she kept her favorite pony, a nimble bay, inimitable on a mountain trail and with plenty of foot on the flat. But never did hurry waste so much precious time. The rush of her entrance in the dark startled the nervous horse, and she had to soothe it for a minute or more with a voice broken by excitement. After that, there was the saddling to be done and her fingers stumbled and stuttered over the straps so that when at last she led the bay out and swung up to the saddle there was no sound or sight of the cowpunchers. But a young moon was edging above the eastern mountains and by that light, now only an illusory haze, she hoped to gain sight of her men.
Down the road she jockeyed the mare at the top of her pace with the barbed wire running in three dim streaks of light on either side until at last she struck the edge of the desert. The moon was now well above the horizon and the sands rolled in dun levels and black hollows over which she could peer for a considerable distance. Still there was no sight of her cowpunchers and this was a matter of small wonder, for a ten minute start had sent them far away ahead of her.
It would never do to push ahead with a blind energy. Already the bay was beginning to feel the run, and Marianne reluctantly drew down to the long lope which is the favorite gait of the cowpony. At this pace she rocked on over mile after mile of desert through the moonhaze, but never a token of the cowpunchers came on her. Twice she was on the verge of turning back; twice she shook her head and urged the mare on again. Hour upon hour had slipped by her. Perhaps Hervey long since had given up the chase and turned towards the ranch. In the meantime, so much alike was all the ground she covered that she seemed to be riding on a treadmill but yet she could not return.
The moon floated higher and higher as the night grew old and at length there was a dim lightening in the east which foretold dawn, but Marianne kept on. If she lost the mares it would be very much like losing her last claim to the respect of her father. She could see him, in prospect, shrug his shoulders and roll another cigarette; above all she could see Lew Hervey smile with a suppressed wisdom. Both of them had, from the first, not only disapproved of the long price of the Coles horses, but of their long legs as well and their "damned high heads." She had kept telling herself fiercely that before long, when the mares were used to mountain ways and trails, she would ride one of them against the pick of Hervey's saddle ponies and at the end of a day he would know how much blood counts in horse flesh! But if that chance were lost to her with the mares themselves—she did not know where she could find the courage to go back and face the people at the ranch. Meantime the dawn grew slowly in the east but even when the mountains were huge and black against flaming colors of the horizon sky, there was no breaking of Marianne's gloom. Now and then, hopelessly, she raised her field glasses and swept a segment of the compass. But it was an automatic act, and her own forecast of failure obscured her vision, until at last, saddle-racked, trembling with weariness and grief, she stopped the mare. She was beaten!
She had turned the bay towards the home-trail when something subconsciously noted made her glance over her shoulder. And she saw them! She needed no glass to bring them close. Those six small forms moving over the distant hill could be nothing else, but if she doubted, all room for doubt was instantly removed, for in a moment a group of horsemen passed raggedly over the same crest. Hervey had found them, after all! Tears of relief and astonishment streamed down her face. God bless Lew Hervey for this good work!
Even the bay seemed to recover her spirit at the sight. She had picked up her head before she felt the rein of the mistress and now she answered the first word by swinging into a brisk gallop that overhauled the others swiftly. How the eyes of Marianne feasted on the reclaimed truants! They danced along gaily, their slender bodies shining with sweat in the light of the early day, and Lady Mary mincing in the lead. A moment later, Marianne was among her cowpunchers.
They were stolid as ever but she knew them well enough to understand by the smiles they interchanged, that they were intensely pleased with their work of the night. Then she found herself crying to Hervey: "You're wonderful! Simply wonderful! How could you have followed them so far and found them in the night?"
At that, of course, Hervey became exceedingly matter of fact. He spoke as though the explanation were self-evident.
"They busted away in a straight line," he said, "so I knew by that that something was leading 'em. Them bays ain't got sense enough of their own to run so straight." She noted the slur without anger. "Well, what was leading 'em must of been what let 'em out of the corral; and what let 'em out of the corral—"
"Horse thieves!" cried Marianne, but Hervey observed her without interest.
"Hoss stealing ain't popular around these parts for some time," he said. "Rustle a cow, now and then, but they don't aim no higher—not since we strung Josh Sinclair to the cottonwood. Nope, they was stole, but not by a man."
Here he made a tantalizing pause to roll a cigarette with Marianne exclaiming: "If not a man, then what on earth, Mr. Hervey?"
He puffed out his answer with the first big cloud of smoke: "By another hoss! I guessed it right off. Remember what I said last night about the chestnut stallion and the bad luck he put on my gun?"
She recalled vividly how Hervey, with the utmost solemnity, had avowed that the leader of the mustangs put "bad luck" on his bullets and that they had not seen the last of the horse. She dared not trust herself to answer Lew but glanced at the other men to see if they were not smiling at their foreman's absurd idea; they were as grave as images.
"The chestnut wanted to get back at us for killing his herd off," went on Hervey. "So he sneaks up to the ranch and opens the corral gate and takes the mares out. When I seen the mares were traveling so straight as all that I guessed what was up. Well, if the hoss was leading 'em, where would he take 'em? Straight to water. They was no use trying to run down them long-legged gallopers. I took a swing off to the right and headed for Warner's Tank. Sure enough, when we got there we seen the mares spread out and the chestnut and the grey mare hanging around."
He paused again and looked sternly at Slim, and Slim flushed to the eyes and glared straight ahead.
"Slim, here, had been saying maybe it was my bum shooting and not the bad luck the stallion put on my rifle that made me miss. So I give him the job of plugging the hoss. Well, he tried and missed three times. Off goes the grey and the chestnut like a streak the first crack out of the box, but we got ahead of the mares and turned 'em. And here we are. That's all they was to it. But," he added gravely, "we ain't seen the last of that chestnut hoss, Miss Jordan."
"I guess hardly another man on the range could have trailed them so well," she said gratefully. "But this wild horse—do you really think he'll try to steal our mares again?"
"Think? I know! And the next time we won't get 'em back so plumb easy. Right this morning, if they'd got started quick enough when he give 'em the signal, we'd never of headed 'em. But they ain't turned wild yet; they ain't used to his ways. Give him another whirl with them and they'll belong to him for good. Ain't no hosses around these parts can run them mares down!"
She heard the tribute with a smile of pleasure and ran satisfied glances over the six beauties which cantered or trotted before them.
"But even wild things are captured," she argued. "Even deer are caught. If the chestnut did run off the mares again why couldn't—"
Hervey interrupted dryly: "Down Concord way, Jess Rankin was pestered by a black mustang. Jess was a pretty tolerable fair hunter, knowed mustangs and mustang-ways, and had a right fine string of saddle hosses. Well, it took Jess four years of hard work to get the black. Up by Mexico Creek, Bud Wilkinson had a grey stallion that run amuck on his range. Took Bud nigh onto five years to get the grey. Well, I seen both the grey and the black, and I helped run 'em a couple of times. Well, Miss Jordan, when it come to running, neither of 'em was one-two-three beside this chestnut, and if it took five years to get in rifle range of 'em for a good shot, it'll take ten to get the chestnut. That's the way I figure!"
And as he ended, his companions nodded soberly.
"Plumb streak of light," they said. "Just nacheral crazy fool when it comes to running, that hoss is!"
And Marianne, for the first time truly appreciating how great was the danger from which the mares had been saved, sighed as she looked them over again, one by one. It had been a double triumph, this night's work. Not only were the mares retaken, but they had proved their speed and staying powers conclusively in the long run over the desert. Hervey himself began hinting, as they rode on, that he would like "to clap a saddle on that Lady Mary hoss, one of these days." In truth, her purchase was vindicated completely and Marianne fell into a happy dream of a ranch stocked with saddle horses all drawn from the blood of these neat-footed mares. With such horses to offer, she could pick and cull among the best "punchers" in the West.
Into the dream, appropriately enough, ran the neigh of a horse, long drawn and shrill of pitch, interrupted by a sudden burst of deep-throated curses from the riders. The six mares had come to a halt with their beautiful heads raised to listen, and on a far-off hill, Mary saw the signaler—a chestnut horse gleaming red in the morning light.
"It's him!" shouted Hervey. "The nervy devil has come back to give us a look. Shorty, take a crack at him!"
For that matter, every man in the party was whipping his rifle out of its holster as Mary raised her field glass hurriedly to study the stranger. She focused on him clearly at once and it was a startling thing to see the distant figure shoot suddenly close to her, distinct in every detail, and every detail an item of perfect beauty. She gasped her admiration and astonishment; mustang he might be, but the short line of the back above and the long line below, the deep set of the shoulders, the length of neck, the Arab perfection of head, would have allowed him to pass unquestioned muster among a group of thoroughbreds, and a picked group at that. He turned, at that instant, and galloped a short distance along the crest, neighing again, and then paused like an expectant dog, with one forefoot raised, a white-stockinged forefoot. Marianne gripped the glass hard and then dropped it. By the liquid smoothness of that gallop, by the white-stockinged forefoot, by something about his head, and above all by what she knew of his cunning, she had recognized Alcatraz. And where, in the first glimpse, she had been about to warn the men not to shoot this peerless beauty, she now dropped the glass with the memory of the trampling of Manuel Cordova rushing back across her mind.
"It's Alcatraz!" she cried. "It's that chestnut I told you of at Glosterville, Mr. Hervey. Oh, shoot and shoot to kill. He's a murderer— not a horse!"
That injunction was not needed. The rifle spoke from the shoulder of Shorty, but the stallion neither fell nor fled, and his challenging neigh rang faintly down to them.
"Mind the mares!" shrilled Marianne suddenly. "They're starting for him!!"
In fact, it seemed as though the report of the rifle had started the Coles horses towards their late companion They went forward at a high-stepping trot as horses will when their minds are not quite made up about their course. Now, in obedience to shouted orders from Hervey, the cowpunchers split into two groups and slipped away on either side to head the truants; Marianne herself, spurring as hard as she could after Hervey, heard the foreman groaning: "By God, d'you ever see a hoss stand up under gunfire like that?"
For as they galloped, the men were pumping in shot after shot wildly, and Alcatraz did not stir! The firing merely served to rouse the mares from trot to gallop, and from gallop to run. For the first time Marianne mourned their speed. They glided away as though the horses of the cowpunchers were running fetlock deep in mud; they shot up the slope towards the distant stallion like six bright arrows.
Then came Hervey's last, despairing effort: "Pull up! Shorty! Slim! Pull up and try to drop that devil!"
They obeyed; Marianne, racing blindly ahead, heard a clanguor of shots behind her and riveted her eyes on the chestnut, waiting for him to fall. But he did not fall. He seemed to challenge the bullets with his lordly head and in another moment he was wheeling with the mares about him. Even in her anguish, Marianne noted with a thrill of wonder that though the Coles horses were racing at the top of their speed, the stallion overtook them instantly and shot into the lead. For that matter, handicapped with a wretched ride, staggering weak from underfeeding, he had been good enough to beat them in Glosterville, and now he was transformed by rich pasture and glorious freedom.
The whole group disappeared, and when she reached the crest in turn, she saw them streaking far off, hopelessly beyond pursuit, and in the rear labored a grey mare, sadly outrun. Then, as she drew rein, with the mare heaving and swaying from exhaustion beneath her, she remembered the words of Lew Hervey: "It'll take ten years to get the chestnut!" Marianne dropped her face in her hands and burst into tears.
It was only a momentary surrender. When she turned back to join the downheaded men on the home-trail—for it was worse than useless to follow Alcatraz on such jaded horses—Marianne had rallied to continue the fight. Ten years to capture Alcatraz and the mares he led? She swept the forms of the cowpunchers with one of those all-embracing glances of which few great men and all excited women are capable. Yes, old age would capture Alcatraz before such men as these. For this trail there was needed a spirit as much superior to other men in tireless endurance and in speed as Alcatraz was superior to other horses. There was needed a man who stood among his fellows as Alcatraz had stood on the hillcrest, defiant, lordly, and free. And as the thought drove home in her, Marianne uttered a little cry of triumph. All in a breath she had it. Red Perris was the man!
But would he come? Yes, for the sake of such a battle as this he would journey to the end of the world and give his services for nothing.
Before noon Shorty, that lightweight and tireless rider, unwearied, to all appearance, by his efforts of that night, had started towards Glosterville with her letter to Perris, but it was not until the next day that she confessed what she had done to Hervey. Certainly he had done more than his share in his effort to get back the Coles horses and she had no wish to needlessly hurt his feelings by letting him know that the business was to be taken out of his hands and given into those of a more efficient worker. But Hervey surprised her by the complaisance with which he heard the tidings.
"Never in my life hung out a shingle as a hoss-catcher," he assured her. "He's welcome to the job. Me and the boys won't envy him none. It'll be a long trail and a tolerable lonely one, most like."
After that she settled down to wait with as great a feeling of security as though the mares were already safely back in the corral. If he came, the death-warrant of Alcatraz was as good as signed. But when the third day of waiting ended without bringing Shorty and Perris, as it should have done, the "if" began to assume greater proportions, and by late afternoon of the fourth day she had made up her mind that Perris was gone from Glosterville and that Shorty was on a wild goose chase after him. So great was her gloom that even her father, usually blind to all emotions around him, delayed a moment after he had been helped into his buckboard and stared thoughtfully down at her.
The habit had grown on Oliver Jordan of late. When the westering sun lost most of its heat and threw slant shadows and a yellow light over the mountains, Oliver would have a pair of ancient greys, patient as burros and hardly faster, hitched to a buckboard and then drive off into the evening and perhaps, long after the dinner hour. Only foul weather kept him in from these lonely jaunts on which he never took a companion. To Marianne they were a never-ending source of wonder and sorrow, for she saw her father slowly withdrawing himself from the life about him and dwelling in a gentle, uninterrupted melancholy. She met his stare, on this evening, with eyes clouded with tears.
Truly he had aged wonderfully in the past years.
The accident which robbed him of his physical freedom seemed, at the same time, to destroy all spirit of youth. Whether walking or sitting he was bowed. His eyes were dull. Beside his mouth and between his eyes deep lines gave a sad dignity to his expression. And though, as his cowpunchers swore, his hand was as swift to draw a gun as ever and his eye as steady on a target, he had gradually lost interest in even his revolvers. Indeed, what real interest remained to him in the world, Marianne was unable to tell. He lived and moved as one in a dream surrounded by a world of dreams. His eyes were dull from looking into the dim distance of strange thoughts, and the smile which was rarely away from his lips was rather whimsically enduring than a sign of mirth.
But as he looked down at her from the buckboard, Marianne saw his expression clear to awareness of her. He even reached out and rested his hand on her head so that her face was tilted up to him.
"Honey," he said, "you're eating your heart out about something. How come?"
"Red Perris is overdue," she said. "But I don't want to bother you with my troubles, Dad."
"Red Perris? Who's he?"
"Don't you remember? I told you how he rode Rickety. And now I've sent for him to come and hunt Alcatraz—because once that man-killing horse is dead, it will be easy to get the mares back. And every day counts— every day the mares are getting wilder!"
"What mares?" Then he nodded. "I remember. And they ain't nothing but that worrying you, Marianne."
His expression of concern vanished; his glance wandered far east where the shades were already brimming the valleys.
"I'll be getting on, then, honey."
All at once, for pity at thought of him driving into the lonely silences, she caught his hand. It was still lean, hard of palm, sinewy with strength of which most extreme age, indeed, would never entirely rob it. And the touch of those strong fingers called back to her mind the picture of Oliver Jordan as he had been, a kingly man among men. Tears came into the eyes of Marianne.
"But where are you going?" she asked him gently. "And why do you never let me go with you, dear?"
"You?" he chuckled. "Waste time driving out nowheres with an old codger like me? I didn't give you all that schooling to have you throw your life away doing things like that. Don't you bother about me, Marianne. I'm just going to drift over yonder around Jackson Peak. You see?"
"But who is there, and what is there?"
He merely rubbed his knuckles across his forehead and then shook his head. "I dunno. Nothing much. It's tolerable quiet, though. And you get the smell of the pines the minute the trail starts climbing. Sort of a lazy place to go, but then I've turned into a lazy man, honey. Just sitting and thinking is about all I'm good for, or most like just the sitting without the thinking. Why, Marianne, where'd you get them tears?"
She choked them back.
"I wish—I wish—" she began.
"That's right," he nodded. "Keep right on wishing things. That's what I been doing lately. And wishing things is better than doing them. The way kids are, that's the best way to be. S'long, Marianne."
She stepped back, trying valiantly to smile, and he raised a cautioning finger, chuckling: "Look here, now, don't you go to bothering your head about me. Just save your worrying for this Perris gent."
He clucked to the greys and their sudden start threw him violently against the back of the seat.
The promise of that start, however, was by no means borne out by the pace into which they immediately fell, which was a dog-trot executed with trailing hoofs that raised little wisps of dust at every stride. She saw the lines slacken and hang loosely to every swing of the buckboard. Had she not, ten years before, trembled at the sight of this same team dashing into the road, high-headed, eyes of fire, and the reins humming with the strength of Oliver Jordan's pull?
The buckboard jolted slowly down the road and swung out of sight, but Marianne Jordan remained for long moments, staring after her father. Every time they passed through one of these interviews—and today's talk had been longer than most—she always felt that she had been pushed a little farther away from him. At the very time of his life when his daughter should have become a comfort to him, Oliver Jordan withdrew himself more and more from the world, and she could not but feel that his evening drives through the silences of the hill were dearer and closer to him than his daughter. The buckboard reappeared, lurching up a farther knoll, and then rolled out of sight to be seen no more. And Marianne felt again, what she had often felt before, seeing her father drive away in this fashion, that some day Oliver Jordan would never come back from the hills.
A moment later half a dozen of the cowpunchers came into view with the unmistakable form of Lew Hervey in the lead. He was a big-looking man in the saddle and he showed himself to the greatest advantage by riding rigidly erect with his head thrown a little back, so that the loose brim of his sombrero was continually in play about his face. For all her dislike of him she could not but admit that he was the beau ideal of the fine horseman. The dominant leader showed in every line and it was no wonder that the cowpunchers feared and respected him. Besides, there were many tales of his prowess with rifle and revolver to make him stand out in bolder relief.
She saw the riders disappear in the direction of the corrals and then turned back towards the house. Unquestionably it was to avoid sight of his men returning from their day's work that Oliver Jordan usually drove off at this time of the day; it brought home to him too keenly the many times when he himself had ridden back by the side of Lew Hervey from a day of galloping in the wind; it crushed him with a sense of the impotence into which his life had fallen. Indeed, unless some vital change came, her father must soon mourn himself into a grave. For the first time Marianne clearly perceived this. Oliver Jordan was wasting for grief over his lost freedom just as some youthful lover might decline because of the death of his mistress. The shock of this perception brought Marianne to a halt. When she looked up Shorty and Red Perris were not a hundred yards away, swinging along at a steady lope!
All sad thoughts were whisked from her mind as a gust whirls dead leaves away and shows the green grass beneath, newly growing. How it lifted her heart to see him. But she looked down, with a cold falling of gloom, at her blue gingham dress. That was not as she wished to appear. She could be in her riding costume, with the rather mannish blouse and loosely tied cravat, spurs on her boots and quirt in her hand as became the mistress and ruling force of a big ranch. Then she received sudden and convincing proof that mere outward appearances meant nothing in the life of Red Jim Perris. He took off his hat and swung it in greeting. There was a white flash of his teeth as he laughed, a red flash of his amazing hair in the sunset light. Then he was pulling up and swinging down to the ground. He came to meet her with his hat dangling in one hand and the other extended.
Typically Western, she thought, that in their second meeting he should act like an old friend. Delightfully Western, too! Under his straight-glancing eyes, his open smile of pleasure, new confidence came in Marianne, new self-reliance. The grip of his hand sent strength up her arm and into her heart.
"I'd given you up," she admitted.
"Mighty sorry it took so long," said Perris. "You see, I was right in the middle of a little poker game that hung on uncommon long. But when it finished up, me and Shorty come as fast as we could. Eh, Shorty?"
"Huh!" grunted Shorty. Marianne looked to her messenger for the first time.
He sat his saddle loosely, one hand falling heavily on the pommel, and his head bent. He did not raise it to meet her glance, but rolled his eyes up in a gloomy scowl which flitted over her face and then came to a rest on the face of Red Jim Perris. A frown of weariness puckered the brow of Shorty. Purple, bruised places of sleeplessness surrounded his eyes. And every line of age or worry or labor was graven more deeply on his face.
"Huh!" grunted Shorty again, mumbling his words very much like a drunkard. "I've killed my Mamie hoss, that's all!"
And with this gloomy retort, he urged the mare to a down-headed trot. In fact, the staunch little brown mare staggered on tired legs and her sides heaved like bellows. The grey horse of Red Jim Perris was in hardly better condition.
"I wanted you quickly," said Marianne, a little horrified. "But I didn't ask you to kill your horses coming."
"Kill 'em?" said Perris, and he cast a sharp glance of disapproval at her. "Not much! That hoss of mine is a pile fagged. I aim to get her that way. But she'll be fit as a fiddle in the morning. I ride her till she's through and never a step more. I know the minute she's through working on muscle and starts working on her nerve, and when that time comes, I stop. I've put up in the middle of nowheres to let her get back her wind. Kill her? Nope, lady, and the only reason Shorty's hoss was so used up was because he plumb insisted on keeping up with us!"
And Marianne nodded. Ordinarily such a speech would have drawn argument from her. Indeed, her own submissiveness startled her as she found herself gently inviting the fire eater to come into the house and learn in detail the work which lay before him.
FROM THE HIP
Shorty rode for the bunkhouse instead of the corrals and tumbling out of the saddle he staggered through the door. Inside, the cowpunchers sat about enjoying a before-dinner smoke and the coolness which the evening wash had brought to their wind-parched skins. Shorty reeled through the midst of them to his bunk and collapsed upon it.
Not a man stirred. Not an eye followed him. No matter what curiosity was burning in their vitals, etiquette demanded that they ask no questions. If in no other wise, the Indian has left his stamp on the country in the manners of the Western riders.
In the meantime, Shorty lay on his back with his arms flung out crosswise, his eyes closed, his breath expelled with a moan and drawn in with a rattle.
"Slim!" he called at length.
Slim raised his little freckled face which was supported by a neck of uncanny length, and he blinked unconcernedly at his bunkie. He and Shorty were inseparable companions.
"Take the saddle off my horse and put 'er up," groaned Shorty. "I'm dead beat!"
"Maybe you been chasing Perris on foot," observed Lew Hervey. Direct questions were still not in order, but often a man could be taunted into speech.
"Damn Perris and damn him black," retorted Shorty, opening his eyes with a snap and letting a glance blaze into space. "Of all the leather-skinned, mule-muscled, wrong-headed gents I ever seen he's the outlastingest."
"You sure got your vocabulary all warmed up," observed Little Joe, so-called because of two hundred pounds of iron-hard sinew and muscle. Slim was wandering towards the door to execute his mission, but he kept his head cocked towards his prostrated friend to learn as much as possible before he left. "Which I disremember," went on Little Joe thoughtfully, "of you ever putting so many words together without cussing. Perris must of give you some Bible study down to Glosterville."
It brought Shorty up on one bulging elbow and he glared at Little Joe.
"Bible?" snorted Shorty. "His idea of a Bible is fifty-two cards and a joker. He does his praying with one foot on a footrail."
"He'll sure fit in fine here," drawled Little Joe. "What with a girl for our boss and a hired hoss-catcher, none of us being good enough to take the job, we-all will get a mighty fine rep around these parts. You done yourself proud bringing him up here, Shorty."
"Laugh, damn you," said Shorty, heated to such a point that he half-forgot his exhaustion. "You ain't been through what I been through. You ain't man enough to of lasted." The imputation sobered Little Joe and he shrugged his massive shoulders significantly. Shorty's laugh was shrill with contempt. "Oh, you're big enough," he sneered. "But what does beef count agin a lightning flash?" He grew reminiscent. "I seen him bluff down the Wyoming Kid, yesterday."
A religious silence spread in the bunkhouse. The cowpunchers sat as stiff as though in Sunday store-clothes. Shorty took advantage of this favoring hush.
"I find him sitting in at a game of poker and I give him the girl's letter. He shakes it open saying: 'See that ten and raise you ten more.' I look over his shoulder as he flips up his cards. He's got a measly pair of deuces! Then he reads the letter and hands it back to me. 'Is it as bad as all that?' he says. 'See that other five and raise you twenty.' 'You're too strong for me Red,' says the gent that was bucking him—and lays down to that pair of deuces! I read the letter:
"'Dear Mr. Perris,
"'I know you don't like to hire out. But this is a job where you won't have a boss. The chestnut horse that nearly killed Manuel Cordova— Alcatraz—has come to my ranch and stolen half a dozen valuable mares. Will you come up and try to get rid of him for me? The job seems to be too big for my men. Name your own terms.
"I hands him back the letter while he rakes in his winnings. 'I wouldn't go as far as she does about the men she's got,' I says, 'but the hoss is sure a fast thinking, fast moving devil.'
"'Well,' says he, 'it sort of sounds good to me. Soon as this game busts up we'll start. They's only four of us. Won't you take a hand?'
"Well, that game run on forty hours. Every time I got busted he staked me agin like a millionaire. But finally we was both flat.
"'All right,' says he, 'I got a purse light enough for travel now. Let's start.'
"'Without no sleep?' says I.
"'Have it your own way,' says he. 'We'll have a snooze and then start.'
"We didn't have the price of another room. He took me up to his room and makes me take the bed while he curls up on the floor. The next minute he's snoring while I was still arguing about not wanting to take the bed.
"Minute later I was asleep, but didn't seem my eyes were more'n close when he gives me a shake.
"'Five o'clock,' says he, 'and time to start.'
"We'd gone to bed about twelve but I wasn't going to let him put anything over on me. He bums a breakfast off the hotel, stalls 'em on his bill, and then we hit the road, him singing every step of the way and me near dead for sleep. I got so mad I couldn't talk. That damn singing sure was riding my nerves. I tried to take it out on a squirrel that run across the road but I missed him.
"'Tell you what, partner,' says Perris, 'for a quick shot, shooting from the hip is the only stuff.'
"'Shooting from the hip at squirrels?' says I. 'I've read about that sort of stuff in a book, but it never was done out of print.'
"'Just a matter of practice,' says he.
"'Huh,' says I, 'I'm here to see and do my talking afterwards.'
"Just then another squirrel pops across the trail dodging like a yearling trying to get back to the herd. Quick as a wink out comes Red's gun. It just does a flip out of the holster and bang! The dust jumped right under the squirrel's belly. Bang! goes the gat again and Mister Squirrel's tail is chopped plumb in two and then he ducks down his hole by the side of the trail and we hear him squealing and chattering cusswords at us.
"I never see such shooting in my life. But Perris puts up his gun and gets red as a girl when two gents ask her for the same dance.
"'I'm plumb out of practice,' he says. 'Anyways, I guess I been talking too much. You'll have to excuse me, Shorty!'
"And he meant it. He wasn't talking guff. Didn't seem possible anybody could shoot as fast and straight as that, but Perris was all cut up because he'd missed and he didn't do no more singing for about half an hour. And I needed that time for a lot of thinking. Made up my mind that if anybody wanted to make trouble for Perris they could count me out of the party.
"And he kept on singing, when he started again, all the way to the ranch and me wondering when I was going to go to sleep and fall off. I tried to make talk. Seen a queer looking fob he wore for his watch pocket. Asked him where he got it.
"'Tell you about it,' he says. 'Comes from me being plumb peaceable.' I remembered some of the things I'd heard about Red Perris in Glosterville and didn't say nothing. I just swallowed hard and took a squint at a cloud. 'Four or five years back,' he says, 'when they was more liquor and ambition floating around these parts, I was up in a little cross-roads saloon in Utah, near Gunterville. Saloon was pretty jammed with folks, all strangers to me. I wasn't packing a gun. Never do when I'm in a crowd, if I can help it. Well, I got into a little game of stud, and things were running pretty easy for me when a big gent across the table that had been losing hard and drinking hard ups and says he allows I sure have the cards talking. It sort of riled me. I tell him pretty liberal what I think of him and all like him. I go back into the past and give him a nice little description all about his ancestors. I aim to wind up with an invite to step outside and have it out with fists, but he don't wait. Right in the middle of my sermon he outs with a gat and blazes away at me. The slug drills me in the thigh and I go down.
"'Well, this is the slug. And I been wearing it to remind me that I particular want to meet up with that same gent before he gets too old for a gunfight!'"
Here Shorty paused and sighed, shaking his bullet-head. And a deep murmur of appreciation passed around the room. Shorty sank back again on the bunk and turned his broad back on the crowd.
"Don't nobody wake me for chuck," he warned them. "I've just finished cramming a month into four days and I got a night off coming."
Instantly his snoring began but it was some moments before anyone spoke. Then it was Little Joe in his solemn bass voice.
"Sounds man-sized," he declared. "Wears a bullet for a watch-fob, busts hosses for fun, sleeps one day a week, and don't work under a boss. Hervey, you'll have to put on kid gloves when you talk to that Perris, eh? Hey, where you going?"
"He's going out to think it over!" chuckled another. "He needs air, and I don't blame him. Just as soon be foreman over a wildcat as over a gent like Perris. There goes the gong!"
But in spite of the dinner bell, Hervey made for the corrals instead of the house, roped and saddled the fastest pony in his string, jogged out to the eastern trail, and then sent his mount at a run into the evening haze. After a time he drew back to a more moderate gait, but still the narrow firs shot smoothly and swiftly past him for well over half an hour until the twilight settled into darkness and the treetops moved past the horseman against a sky alive with the brighter stars of the mountains. He reached the hills. The trail tangled into zigzag lines, tossing up and down, dodging here and there. And in one of these elbow turns, a team of horses loomed huge and black above him, and against the stars behind the hilltop it seemed as though the team were stepping out into the thin air. Behind them, Lew Hervey made out the low body of the buckboard and on the seat a squat, bunched figure with head dropped so low that the sombrero seemed to rest flat on the shoulders.
Hervey raised his hand with a shout of relief: "Hey, Jordan!"
The brakes crashed home, but the impetus of the downgrade bore the wagon to the bottom of the little slope before it came to a stop and Hervey was choked by the cloud of dust. He fanned a clear path for his voice.
"It's me. Hervey." And he came close to the wagon.
"Well, Lew?" queried the uninterested voice of the master.
Hervey leaned a little from the saddle and peered anxiously at the "big boss." He counted on creating a panic with his news. But a man past hope might very well be a man past fear. Hopeless Oliver Jordan certainly had been since his accident, hopeless and blind. That blindness had enabled Hervey to reap tidy sums out of his management of the ranch, and now that the coming of the sharp-eyed girl had cut off his sources of revenue he was ready to fight hard to put himself back in the saddle as unquestioned master of the Valley of the Eagles. But he could only work on Jordan through fear and what capacity for that emotion remained in the rancher. He struck at once.
"Jordan, have you got a gun with you?"
"Gun? Nope. What do I need a gun for?"
"Take this, then. It's my old gat. You know it pretty near as well as I do."
A nerveless hand accepted the heavy weapon and allowed it to sink idly upon his knee.
"How come?" drawled Jordan, and the heart of Lew Hervey sank. This was certainly not the voice of a man liable to panic.
"You and me got a bad time coming, Jordan, when we get to the ranch. He's there, and he's a devil for a fight!"
"Him! You remember that fight you got into in that saloon up in Wyoming? That night you and me was at the cross-roads saloon and you got off your feed with red-eye?"
The figure on the seat of the buckboard grew taller.
"Do I remember? Aye, and I'll never forget! The one downright bad thing I've ever done, Hervey. It was the infernal red-eye that made me a crazy man. You should of let me go back and see how bad he was hurt, Lew!"
"Nope. I was right. Best thing a gent can do after he's dropped his man is to climb a hoss and feed it leather."
"He didn't have a gun," groaned Jordan heavily. "But I forgot it. The red-eye got to working on me. I was losing. It was the one rotten yaller thing I ever done, Lew!"
"I know. And now he's here. He's Red Perris!"
"Red Perris!" breathed Oliver Jordan. "The man Marianne sent for? Why— why it's like fate, her bringing him right to the ranch!"
Hervey was discreetly silent.
"But," cried Jordan suddenly, and there was a ghost of the old ring in his voice, "I dropped him once by a crooked play and now I'll drop him fair and square, if he's here looking for trouble! I don't want your help, Lew. Mighty fine of you to offer it, but I ain't plumb forgot how to shoot. I don't want help!"
Hervey waited a moment for that heat of defiance to die away. Then he said with the quiet of certainty: "No use, Jordan. No use at all. Shorty seen this gent do some shooting on the way up to the ranch. He pulled on a squirrel that dodged across the trail. First slug knocked dust into the squirrel's belly-fur and the second chipped off his tail. Both of them slugs would have landed dead-center in a target as big as the body of a man!"
He paused again. He could hear the heavy breathing of Oliver Jordan and the figure of the driver swayed a little back and forth in the seat as a man will do when his mind is swinging from one alternative to another.
"He done that shooting from the hip," added Hervey, as though by afterthought.
There was a gasp from Jordan.
"Good God, Lew! You don't mean that!"
"That's what he done the shooting for—to show Shorty how to get off a quick shot. Shorty says he got his gun out and fired inside the time it'd take a common gun-man to wink twice. And that's why you and me have got to face him together, chief. You know I ain't particular yaller. But I'd as soon tackle a machine gun with a pea-shooter as run into this Perris all by myself. He's bad medicine, chief!"
"Two to one. That'd be worse'n murder, Lew. Neither you nor me could ever hold up a head around these parts again if the two of us jumped one gent."
"I know it," said Hervey solemnly. "But it's better to be shamed than to be dead. That's the way I figure. And I ain't so sure that both of us together could win out."
There was another interval of silence, far more important than many words. Through the hush Hervey, with a beating heart, strove to peer into the mind of the rancher.
"I'll go back and face him all by myself," said Jordan huskily. "I'll let him rub out that old score. If he finishes me—well, what good am I in the world, anyway? No good, Lew. I'm done for just as much as though somebody had plugged me with a gat. Let Perris finish the job." He added hastily: "But these five years have changed me a lot. Maybe he won't know me."
"You ain't changed that much, Jordan. Look at Howlands. He hadn't seen you for eight years. He knew you right off."
"Ay," growled Jordan. "That's true enough. But what makes you so sure that Perris is so hot after me. Ain't there been time enough for him to cool down?"
With the skill of a connoisseur, saving his choicest morsel for the end, Hervey had waited for the most favorable opportunity before striking home with his most convincing item.
"You remember you drilled him in the leg, chief?"
"I remember everything. The whole damned affair has never been out of my head for a whole day. I've gone over every detail of it a thousand times, Lew!"
"So has Perris," answered Lew Hervey solemnly. "That slug of yours—when the doctor cut it out of his leg he had it fixed up and now he wears it for a fob so's he won't forget the gent that shot him down that night when he wasn't armed!"
"Most like that's why he's practiced so much with a gun," muttered Jordan. "He's been getting ready for me."
"Most like," said the gloomy Hervey, but his voice well-nigh trembled with gratification.
The head of Jordan bowed again, but this time, as Hervey shrewdly guessed, it was in thought, not in despair.
"Why," chuckled Jordan at last, "what we wasting all this fool time about? You just slip back to the ranch and fire Perris."
In the favoring dark, Hervey threw back his head and made a grimace of joy. Exactly as he had prefigured, this talk was going. Every card was being played into his hand as though his wishes were subconsciously entering and ruling the mind of the chief.
"I can't do it," he answered firmly.
"You can't? Ain't you foreman?"
"No," said Hervey, and a trace of bitterness came into his voice. "I used to be. But you know as well as me that I'm only a straw boss now. Miss Marianne is running things, big and small. Besides, she picked up Perris. And she won't let him go easy, I tell you!"
"What do you mean by that, Hervey?"
"I seen her face when she met him. I was standing outside the bunkhouse. And she sure was tolerable pleased to see him."
A tremendous oath burst from Jordan.
"You mean she's sweet on this—this Perris?" But he added: "Why should that rile me? Maybe he's all right."
"He's one of them flashy dressers," said Lew Hervey. "Silk shirts and swell bandannas and he wears shopmade boots and keep 'em all shined up. Besides, it's dead easy for him to talk to a girl. He's the kind that get on with 'em pretty well."
The innuendo brought a huge roar from Oliver Jordan.
"By God, Lew, d'you think that's what it means? I thought she talked pretty strong about this Perris!"
"Maybe I've said too much," said Hervey.
"Not a word too much," said Jordan heartily, and reaching through the night he found the hand of Hervey and wrung it heartily. "I know how square you are, Lew. I know how you've stood by me. I'd stake my last dollar on you!"
Hervey blessed again the mercy of the darkness which concealed the crimson that spread hotly over his face. There was enough truth in what the rancher said to make the untruths the more painful. Before the accident Hervey had, indeed, been all that anyone could ask in a manager. But when too much authority came into his hands owing to the crippling of his chief, the temptation proved too strong for resistance. It was all so easy. A few score of cows run off here and there were never noted, and his share in the profit was fifty-fifty. Indeed, as the hand of Jordan crushed over his own he came perilously near to making a clean breast of everything, but the memory of his fat and growing bank-account gagged the confession.
"If that's the way things are standing," Jordan was saying, "we got to get rid of this skunk Perris. Good-looking, as I remember him, and Marianne is so darned lonely on the ranch that she might begin to take him serious and—Hervey, I'll give you a written note. That'll be authority. I'll give you a note to Marianne, telling her that I've got to go across the mountains and that I want you to have the running of the place till I get back. I guess that'll give you a free hand, Lew! You fire that Perris, and when he's gone, send me word over to the hotel in Lawrence. That's where I'll go."
Hervey appeared dubious with great skill.
"I'll take the note, Jordan," he said, putting all the despair he could summon into his tone. "But it sure goes hard—the idea of losing my place up here. I've been in the Valley so long, you see, that it's like a home to me."
"And who the devil said anything about you leaving? Ain't I just now about to give you a note to run the ranch while I'm gone?"
"Sure you are. And I'll take it—and fire Perris. But when you come back—that's the end of me!"
"You know how your daughter is. She'll plumb hate me when I come back with orders to run things. She'll think I asked for 'em."
"I'll tell her different."
"Were you ever able to convince her, once she made up her mind?"
"H-m-m," growled Jordan.
"And she'll never rest till things are so hot for me that I got to get out. Not that I grudge it, Jordan. I'd give up more than this job for your sake. Only it sure makes me homesick to think about starting out at my time of life and riding herd for a strange outfit."
"You ride for another outfit?" said Jordan. "And after you've worked this game on Perris for me? I'll tell you what, Lew, if you get Perris safe off the ranch you can stop worrying. You're foreman for life! You have my word for it."
"But suppose—" protested Hervey faintly.
"Suppose nothing. You have my word. Besides, I'm tired of talking!"
With well-acted diffidence, Lew held out the paper, which Oliver Jordan snatched and smoothed on his knee. Then Hervey rode closer, lighted a match, and held it so that the rancher could see to write.
"Dear Marianne," scrawled the pencil, "this is to let you know that I have to go on business to—"
"Better not tell her where," suggested Hervey. "She might send after and ask a lot of bothersome questions. You know the way a woman is."
"You sure got a fine head for business, Lew," nodded Jordan, and continued his note: "to a town across the mountains and it may be a few days before I get back. I met Lew on the road, so I'm letting him take this note back to you Another thing: I've told Lew about several things I want done while I'm gone. Easier than explaining them all to you, honey, he can do them himself and tell you later.
As he scrawled the signature Hervey suggested softly: "Suppose you put down at the bottom: 'This will serve as authority to Lew Hervey to act in my name while I'm away.'"
"Sure," nodded Jordan, as he scribbled the dictated words. "Marianne is a stickler for form. She'll want something like that to convince her."
He shoved the paper into the trembling hand of Lew Hervey, and sighed with weariness.
"Chief," muttered Hervey, finding that even in the darkness he could not look into the tired, pain-worn face of the rancher, "I sure hope you never have no call to be sorry for this."
"Sorry? I ain't bothering about that. So long, Lew."
But Lew Hervey had suddenly lost his voice. He could only wave his adieu.
Never had Red Perris passed a night of such pleasant dreams. For never, indeed, had he been so exquisitely flattered as during the preceding evening when Marianne Jordan kept him after dinner in the ranchhouse while the other hired men, as was their custom, loitered to smoke their after-dinner cigarettes in the moist coolness of the patio. For the building was on the Spanish-Mexican style. The walls were heavy enough to defy the most biting cold of winter and the most searching sun in summer. And they marched in a wide circle around an interior court which was bordered with a clumsy arcade of 'dobe pillars. By daylight the defects in construction were rather too apparent. But at night the effect was imposing, almost grand.
But while the cowhands smoked in the patio, the noise of their laughter and their heavy voices penetrated no louder than the dim humming of bees to the ear of Red Jim Perris, sitting tete-a-tete with Marianne in an inner room. And he did not envy the sprawling freedom of those outside.
Pretty girls had come his way now and again during his wanderings north and south and east and west through the mountain deserts. But never before had he seen one in such a background. She had had the good taste to make the inside of the house well-nigh as Spanish as its exterior. There were cool, dim spaces in the big rooms; and here and there were bright spots of color. Her very costume for the evening showed the same discrimination. She wore drab riding clothes. But from her own garden she had chosen a scentless blossom of a kind which Red Perris had never seen before. The absent charm of perfume was turned into a deeper coloring, a crimson intense as fire in the darkness of her hair. That one touch of color, and no more, but it gave wonderful warmth to her eyes and to her smile.
And indeed she was not sparing in her smiles. Red Jim Perris pleased her, and she was not afraid to show it. To be sure, she talked of the business before them, but she talked of it only in scattered phrases. Other topics drew her away. A score of little side-issues carried her away. And Jim Perris was glad of the diversions.
For the only thing which he disliked in her, the only thing which repelled him time and again, was this eagerness of hers to have the chestnut stallion killed. She spoke of Alcatraz with a consuming hatred. And Perris was a little horrified. He knew that Alcatraz had stolen away the six mares, and Marianne explained briefly and eloquently how much the return of those mares meant to her self-respect and to the financial soundness of the ranch. But this, after all, was a small excuse for an ugly passion. If he could have known that with her own eyes she had seen the chestnut crush Cordova to shapelessness and almost to death, the mystery might have been cleared. But Marianne could not refer to that terrible memory. All she could say was that Alcatraz must be killed—at once! And she said it with her eyes on fire with detestation.
Indeed, that touch of angry passion in her was the flower of Hermes to Red Jim, keeping him from complete infatuation when she sang to him, playing her own lightly-touched accompaniment at the piano. He had never been entertained like this before. And when a girl sang a love ballad and at the same time looked at him with eyes at once serious and laughing, he had to set his teeth and shake himself to keep from taking the words of the poet too literally. Perhaps Marianne was going a little farther than she intended. But after all, every good woman has a tremendous desire to make men happy, and handsome Jim Perris with his straight, steady eyes and his free laughter was such a pleasant fellow to work with that Marianne quite forgot moderation.