And before the evening was over, Jim had come within a hair's breadth of plunging over the cliff and confessing his admiration in terms so outright that Marianne would have closed up her charming gaiety as a flower closes up its beauty and fragrance at the first warning chill of night. A dozen times Red Perris came to this alarming point, but he was always saved by remembering that this delightful girl had brought him here for the purpose of—killing a horse. And that memory chilled Jim to the very core of his manly heart.
Of course he knew that wild-running stallions who steal saddle stock must be cleared from a range, and by shooting if necessary. He would have received such an order from a man and never thought the less of him, but the command was too stern for the smiling lips of Marianne. To be sure, Perris was by no means a gentle rider. In fact, he rode so very hard that only fine horses could measure up to his demands, and who, since the world began, has ridden many fine horses without coming to love the entire race? Red Perris, at least, was such a man, and indeed he spent many an hour dreaming of some happy day when he should find beneath him a mount with speed like an eagle, soul of a lion, and the gentle, trusting heart of a child.
Finally, the evening ended. He left the house and the puzzled smile of Marianne behind him and went to the bunkhouse and a sleep of happy dreams. But every dream ended with the thought of a wild chestnut running into the circle of his rifle's sights, leaping into the air at the report of his gun, and dropping inert on the grass. What wonder, then, that when he wakened he thought of Marianne Jordan with mixed emotions? Perhaps the really important point was that he thought of her so much, whether for good or evil.
He went in with the other men to breakfast in the long dining-room of the ranch house, and there was Marianne Jordan again presiding at the head of the table. But half of the glamour of the evening before was gone from her and she kept her eyes seriously lowered, frowning. In fact, she had much to think about, for late the preceding evening Lew Hervey had come to her and showed her the first note that her father had written. She was not alarmed by this sudden trip over the mountains. There had been so many vagaries in the actions of Oliver Jordan in the past few months that this unannounced drive to an undetermined destination was not particularly surprising. It was only the delegation of such authority to Hervey that astonished her.
She forgot even Red Jim Perris and the lost Coles horses in her abstraction, for whenever she looked down the table she saw nothing saving the erect, burly form of the foreman, swelling, so it seemed to her, with a newly acquired and aggressive importance. However, he had the written word of her father, and she had to set her teeth over her irritation and digest it as well as he could.
Hervey had presented reasonable excuses, to be sure. There was certain work of fence-repairing, certain construction of sheds which he had called to the attention of Oliver Jordan and which Jordan had commissioned him to overlook during his absence.
"I told him they wasn't any use in writing out a note like this one," Hervey had assured her, "but you know how the chief is, these days. Sort of set in his ways when he makes up his mind about anything."
And this was so entirely true that she was half-inclined to dismiss the whole matter from her mind. Oliver Jordan paid so little heed to the running of the ranch and when he did make a suggestion he was so peremptory about it, that this commission to Hervey was not altogether astonishing. Nevertheless, it kept her absent-minded throughout breakfast.
Red Perris was naturally somewhat offended by the blankness of her eye as she passed him over. She had been so extremely intimate and cordial the night before that this neglect was almost an insult. Perhaps she had only been playing a game—trying to amuse herself during a dull hour instead of truly wishing to please him. He grew childishly sulky at the thought. After all, there was a good deal of the spoiled child about Red Jim. He had had his way in the world so much that opposition or neglect threw him into a temper.
And he stamped out of the dining-room ahead of the rest of the men, his head down, his brows black. Lew Hervey, following with the other men, had noted everything. It behooved him to be on the watch during the time of trial and triumph and at breakfast he had observed Red Perris looking at the girl a dozen times with an anticipatory smile which changed straightway to glumness when her glance passed him carelessly by. And now Hervey communicated his opinions to the others on the way to the bunkhouse to get their things for the day's riding.
"Our new friend, the gun-fighter," he said, pointedly emphasizing the last phrase, "ain't none too happy this morning. Marianne give him a smile last night and he was waiting for another this morning. He sure looks cut up, eh?"
The bowed head and rounded shoulders of Red Perris brought a chuckle from the cowpunchers. They were not at all kindly disposed towards him. Too much reputation is a bad thing for a man to have on his hands in the West. He is apt to be expected to live up to it every moment of his waking hours. Not a man in the Valley of the Eagles outfit but was waiting to see the newcomer make the first move towards bullying one of them. And such a move they were prepared to resent en masse. That Marianne might have made a good deal of a fool out of Perris, as Hervey suggested, pleased them immensely.
"Maybe the ranch suits him pretty well," suggested Slim, ironically. "Maybe he figures it might be worth his while to pick it up by marrying the old man's girl. Eh, Lew?"
Lew Hervey shrugged his shoulders. He did not wish to directly accuse the gun-fighter of anything, for talk is easily traced to its source and the account of Shorty had filled the foreman with immense respect for the fighting qualities of Red Perris. However, he was equally determined to rouse a hostile sentiment towards him among the cowhands.
"Well," said Lew, "you can't blame a gent for playing for high stakes if he's going to gamble at all. I guess Red Perris is all right. A kid like him can't help being a little proud of himself."
"Damn fat-head," growled Slim, less merciful, "sat right next to me and didn't say two words all through breakfast. Ain't going to waste no words on common cowpunchers, maybe."
So the first impression of Red Jim was created on the ranch, an impression which might be dispelled by the first real test of the man, or which in the absence of such a test might cling to him forever: Perris was a conceited gun-fighter, heart-breaker, and bully. The men who trooped into the bunkhouse behind him already hated him with a religious intensity; in ten minutes, they might have accepted him as a bunkie! For your true Western cowpuncher, when all is said and done, unites with Spartan stoicism a Spartan keenness of suspicion.
It was not hard for the foreman to see the trend of events. Something had roused an ugly mood in Perris. It might be, as he surmised, the girl. No matter what, he was obviously not in a mood to bear tampering with. Hervey determined to force the issue at once, knowing that his other men would be a solid unit behind him.
"Hey there, Red!" he called, cheerily enough, but brusquely, and then, bending over to fuss at a spur, he winked broadly at the other men. They were instantly keen for the baiting of Perris, whatever form it might take.
"Well?" said Red Perris.
"Trot over to the corral and rope that Roman-nosed buckskin with the white stockings on her forelegs, will you? I got a few things to tend to in here."
Now there was nothing entirely unheard of in a foreman ordering one of his men to catch a saddle horse for him. But usually such things were done by request rather than demand, and moreover, there was something so breezy in the manner of Hervey, taking the compliance of Red so for granted, that the latter raised his head slowly and turned to the foreman with a gloomy eye. He had come to the ranch to hunt a wild horse, not to play valet to a foreman.
"Partner," drawled Red Perris, and the silken smoothness of his tones was ample proof that he was enraged. "I don't know the ways you folks have up here, but around the parts where I've been, a gent that's big enough to ride is big enough to saddle his own hoss."
The reply of Lew Hervey was just sharp enough to goad the newcomer—just soft enough to stay on the windward side of an insult.
"I'll tell you," he said quietly. "Around the Valley of the Eagles, the boys do what the foreman asks 'em to do, most generally. And the foreman don't play favorites. I'm waiting for that hoss, Perris."
Perris rolled a cigarette, and smiled as he looked at Hervey. It was a sickly smile, his lips being white and stiff. And in another, it might have been considered a sign of fear. In Red Perris everyone there knew it was simply the badge of a rising fury. They knew, by the same token, that he was as dangerous as he had been advertised. Men whom anger reddens are blinded by it; but those who turn pale never stop thinking. Meantime, Red Jim looked at Hervey and looked at the cowpunchers behind Hervey. It was not hard to see that in a pinch they would be solid behind their foreman. They watched him with a wolfish eagerness. Why they should be so instantly hostile he could not guess but he was enough of a traveller to be prepared for strange customs in strange places. There was only one important point: he would not saddle the buckskin. Moreover, at sight of their solid front and their aggressive sneers he grew fighting hot.
"How gents come in these parts," he said with deliberate scorn, "I dunno. And I don't care a damn. If they brush their foreman's boots and saddle his hosses for him, they can go ahead and do it. But I come up here to catch a wild hoss that the gents in the Valley of the Eagles couldn't get. That's my job, and nothing else."
The growl of his cowpunchers was sweetest music to the ear of Lew Hervey. He glanced at them as much as to say: "You see what I got on my hands?" Then he stepped forward and cleared his throat.
"You're young, kid," he declared. "When you grow up you'll know better'n to talk like this. But cowpunchers we ain't going to make no trouble for you. But I'll tell you short, Perris, you'll go out and rope that hoss or else roll your blankets and clear out. Understand? I was joking when I asked you to rope the hoss first. I wanted to see what sort were. Well, I see, and I don't like what I see."
"Hervey," began Perris, trembling with his passion "Hervey—"
"Wait a minute," said the foreman, "I know your kind. You sign your name with bullets. You pay your way with lead. You bully a crowd by fingering a gun-butt. Well, son, that sort of thing don't go in the Valley of the Eagles. Lay a hand on that gun and I'll have the boys tie you in knots and roll you in a barrel of tar we got handy. Perris, get that hoss for me, or get out!"
Red Perris sat down on the edge of his bunk. He made no move towards his revolver. Indeed, it lay almost arm's length away. Almost—everyone noted that. He crossed his legs and his glance wandered slowly up and down the line of grim faces.
"Partner," he said softly to Hervey, "I'm not going to get the hoss and I'm not going to get out. The next move is up to you. Is it tar?"
For a moment Hervey was dazed. No one could have foreseen such daredeviltry as this. At the same time, he was badly cornered. If his men rushed Red Perris, Red Perris would get his gun. And if Red Perris got his gun the first shot would be for Hervey.
"Hold on, boys," he called suddenly, above the angry curses of his men, "I'm not going to risk one of you in getting this fool. Miss Jordan hired him. She can fire him if I can't. Which we'll find out pronto. Slim, go get her, will you?"
Slim jumped through the door. They heard his footsteps fade away at a run. And then, after an interval of steady silence, his voice began in the distance, replying to sharp, hurried inquiries of Marianne. In another moment Marianne was in the bunkhouse. Her glance shot from Hervey to Perris and back again.
"I knew you'd be up to something like this!" she cried. "I knew it, Lew Hervey!"
Hervey made a gesture of surrender.
"Ask the boys," he pleaded. "Ask them if I didn't try to go easy with him. But he's all teeth. He wants to bite. And we ain't going to put up with that sort of a gent here, I guess! I've ordered him off the ranch. Does that go with you?"
"Oh, Jim Perris," cried the girl. "Why have you let this happen!"
"I'm sure sorry," said Perris. He disdained further explanation.
"But," said Marianne, "I've got to have that terrible stallion killed. And who can do it but Jim Perris, Mr. Hervey?"
"Gimme time," said Lew, "and I'll do it."
She stamped her foot in anger.
"How you wheedled the authority out of my father, I don't know," she said. "But you have it and you can discharge him if you want. But he'll hear another side to this when he returns, Mr. Hervey, I promise you that!" She whirled on Red Jim. "Mr. Perris, if Mr. Hervey allows you to stay, will you remain for—a week, say, and try to get rid of Alcatraz for me? Mr. Hervey, will you let me have Mr. Perris for one week?"
There was more angry demand than appeal in her voice, but Hervey knew he must give way. After all, the way to carry this thing through was to use the high hand as little as possible. Oliver Jordan would certainly wait a week before he returned.
"I sure want to be reasonable, Miss Jordan," he said. "I'm only acting in your father's interests. Of course he can stay for a week."
She whirled away from him with a glance of angry suspicion which softened instantly as she faced Red Jim.
"You will stay?" she pleaded.
Sullen pride drew Jim one way; the bright, eager eyes drew him another.
"As long as you want," he said gravely.
If men may to some degree be classed in categories of bird and beast, one like the eagle, another like the bear, some swinish, some elephantine, some boldly leonine, unquestionably Red Perris must be likened to the cat tribe. To some the comparison would have seemed most opportune, having seen him in restless action; but the same idea might have come to one who saw him lying prone on a certain hilltop in the western foothills of the Eagle mountains, unmoving hour by hour, his rifle shoved out before him among the dead grasses, his chin resting on the back of his folded hands, and always his attentive eyes roved from point to point over the landscape below him. A cat lies passive in this manner half a day, watching the gopher hole.
It was not the first or the second time he had spent the afternoon in this place. For nearly a week he had given the better part of every day to the vigil on this hilltop. All this for very good reasons. During ten days after his first coming to the ranch he tried the ordinary methods of hunting down wild horses, and with a carefully posted string of half a dozen horses, he twice attempted to run down the outlaw, but he had never come within more than the most distant and hazardous rifle range. To be sure he had fired some dozen shots during the pursuits but they had been random efforts at times when the red chestnut was flashing off in the distance, fairly walking away from the best mounts the hunter could procure. Having logically determined that it was not in the power of horse flesh burdened with the weight of a rider to come within striking distance of the stallion, Red Jim Perris passed from action to quiescence. If he could not outrun Alcatraz he would outwait him.
First he studied the habits of the new king of the Eagle Mountains, day by day following the trail. It was not hard to distinguish after he had once measured the mighty stride of Alcatraz in full gallop and he came to know to a hair's breath the distances which the chestnut stepped when he walked or trotted or loped or galloped or ran. More than that, he could tell by the print of the four hoofs, all of the same size, the same roundness—token so dear to the heart of a horseman! By such signs he identified old and new trails until he could guess the future by the past, until he could begin to read the character of the stallion. He knew, for instance, the insatiable curiosity with which the chestnut studied his wilderness and its inhabitants. He had seen the trail looping around the spot where the rattler's length had been coiled in the sand, or where a tentative hoof had opened the squirrel's hole. On a night of brilliant moonshine, he had watched through his glass while Alcatraz galloped madly, tossing head and tail, and neighing at a low-swooping owl.
Great, foolish impulses came to Alcatraz; he might gather his mares about him and lead them for ten miles at a terrific pace and with a blind destination; he might leave them and scout far and wide, alone, always at dizzy speed. As the hunter stayed longer by his puzzling task, he began to wonder if this sprang from mere running instinct, or knowledge that he must keep himself in the pink of condition. Like a man, the preferences of Alcatraz were distinctly formed and well expressed. He disliked the middle day and during this period sought a combination of wind and shade. Only in the morning and in the evening he ranged for pasture or for pleasure. Impulse still guided him. Now and again he wandered to the eastern or the western mountains, then far into the hot heart of the desert, then, with incredible boldness, he doubled back to the well-watered lands of the Jordan ranch, leaped a fence, followed by the mares to whom he had taught the art of jumping, and fed fat under the very eye of his enemies.
The boldness of these proceedings taught Perris what he already knew, that the stallion knew man and hated as much as he dreaded his former masters. These excursions were temptings of Providence, games of hazard. Perris, gambler by instinct himself, understood and appreciated, at the same time that his anger at being so constantly outwitted, outdistanced, grew hot. Then there remained no kindness, only desire to make the kill. His dreams had come to turn on one picture—Alcatraz cantering in range of the waiting rifle!
That dream haunted even his walking moments as he lay here on the hilltop, wondering if he had not been mistaken in selecting this place of all the range. Yet he had chosen it with care as one of the points of passage for Alcatraz during the stallion's wanderings to the four quarters of his domains and though since he took up his station here an imp of the perverse kept the stallion far away, the watcher remained on guard, baked and scorched by the midday sun, constantly surveying the lower hills nearby or sweeping more distant reaches with his glass. This day he felt the long vigil to be definitely a failure, for the sun was behind the western summits and the time of deepening shadows most unfavorable to marksmanship had come. He swung the glass for the last time to the south; it caught the glint of some moving creature.
He focused his attention, but the object disappeared. A full five minutes passed before it came out of the intervening valley but then, bursting over the hilltop, it swept enormous into the power of the glass—Alcatraz, and at full gallop!
There was no shadow of a doubt, for though it was the first time he had been able to watch the stallion at close hand he recognized the long and effortless swing of that gallop. Next he remembered those stories of the charmed life and the tales he had mocked at before now became possible truths. He caught up his gun to make sure, but when his left hand slipped under the barrel to the balance and the butt of the gun pulled into the hollow of his shoulder, he became of rocklike steadiness. Swinging the gun to the left he caught Alcatraz full in the readly circle of the sights and over his set teeth the lips curled in a smile; the trail had ended! The slightest movement of his finger would beckon the life out of that marauder, but as one who tastes the wine slowly, inhales its bouquet, places the vintage, even so Red Perris delayed to taste the fruition of his work. Pivoted on his left elbow, he swung the rifle with frictionless ease and kept the galloping stallion steadily in the center of the sight.
He smiled grimly now at those fables of the charmed life and drew a bead just over the heart. The chestnut was very near. Along the glorious slope of his shoulder Perris saw the long muscles playing with every stride, and what strides they were! He floated rather than galloped; his hoofs barely flicked the ground, and it seemed to Jim Perris a shameful thing to smash that mechanism. He did not love horses; he was raised in a land where they were too strictly articles of use. But even as a machine he saw in Alcatraz perfection.
Not the body, then. He would drive the bullet home into the brain, the cunning brain which had conceived and executed all the mischief the chestnut had worked. Along the shining neck, so imperiously arched, Perris swung the sights and rested his head, at last, just below the ears with the forelock blown back between them by the wind of running. Slowly his finger closed on the trigger. It seemed that in the silence Alcatraz had found a signal of danger for now he swung that imperious head about and looked full at Red Perris. By his own act he had changed the aim of the hunter to a yet more fatal target—the forehead.
The heart of Perris leaped even as it had stirred, more than once, when he had looked into the eyes of fighting men. Here was an equal pride, an equal fierceness looking forth at him. Then he remembered the six mares somewhere at the center of the guarding circle which Alcatraz now drew. What a dauntless courage was here in the brute mind which, knowing the power of man, dared to rob him, to defy him! Truly this was the king of horses meant for higher ends than to serve as target of a Winchester. Ay, he could make his owner a king among men. Mounted on the back of the chestnut no enemy could overtake him; from that winged speed none could escape. The back of Alcatraz might be a throne! He could end all that boundless strength by one pressure of his finger but was that indeed a true conquest? It was calling to his aid a trick, it was using an unfair advantage, it seemed to Perris; but suppose that he, the rider who had never yet failed in the saddle, were to sit on the stallion—there would be a battle for the Gods to witness!
It was madness, sheer madness; it was throwing away the labor of the patient days of waiting and working; but to Perris it seemed the only thing to do. He leaped to his feet and brandished the gleaming rifle.
"Go it, boy!" he shouted. "We'll meet again!"
One snort from Alcatraz—then he changed to a red streak flashing down the hollow.
Before the stallion was out of sight, a cry rang down the wind. It was chopped off by the crack of a rifle, and Lew Hervey spurred from behind a neighboring hill and plunged after Alcatraz pumping shot on shot at the fugitive. In a frenzy Perris jerked his own gun to the shoulder and drew down on the pursuer, but the red anger cleared from his mind as he caught the burly shoulders of Hervey in the sights. He lowered the rifle with a grim feeling that he had never before been so close to a murder.
A moment later he began to chuckle behind his set teeth. No wonder they credited the chestnut with a charmed life. As he raced away gaining a yard at every leap, he swerved like a jackrabbit from side to side. Perhaps the deadly hum of bullets on many another chase had taught him this trick of dodging, but beyond all doubt when Hervey returned to the ranch that night he would have a tale of mystery. To preserve his self-respect as a good marksman, what else could he do?
In the meantime pursued and pursuer scurried out of sight beyond a hill; the gun barked far away and the echoes murmured lightly from the hollows. Then Perris turned his back and trudged homewards.
RED PERRIS: ADVOCATE
He did not choose to live in the ranch because of Hervey and because it was too far removed from the scene of action. Instead, he selected a shack stumbling with age on the west slope of the Eagle Mountains. From his door many a time, with his glass, he picked out the shining form of Alcatraz and the mares in the distance; he had even been able to follow the maneuvers of the outlaw on several occasions when Hervey and his men pursued with relays of horses, and on the whole he felt that the site was such a position as a good general must prefer, being behind the lines but with a view which enabled him to survey the whole action. His quarters consisted of a single room while a shed leaned against the back wall with one space for a horse, the other portion of the shed being used as a mow for hay and grain.
It was the beginning of the long, still time of the mountain twilight when Red Perris climbed to the clearing in which the cabin stood. Ordinarily he would have set about preparing supper before the coming of the dark, but now he watered and saddled his cowpony, a durable little buckskin, and with a touch of the spurs sent him at a pitching gallop down the slope.
It was not a kindly thing to do but Red Perris was not a kindly man with horses and though he knew that it is hard on the shoulders of even a mustang to be ridden downhill rapidly, he kept on with unabated speed until he broke onto the well-established trail which led to the Jordan house. Then a second touch of the spurs brought the pony close to a full gallop. In fact, Perris was riding against time, for he guessed that Lew Hervey, after quitting the trail of Alcatraz, would veer straight towards the home place and there lay before Marianne an account of how the chosen hunter had allowed the stallion to slip through his hands. This, together with the fact that his week was up was enough to bring about his discharge, for he had seen sufficient of the girl to guess her fiery temper and he knew that she must have been harshly tried during the last weeks by his lack of success and by the continual sneers and mockery which the foreman and his followers had directed at the imported horse-catcher. Before sunset of that day he would have welcomed his discharge; now it loomed before him as the greatest of all possible catastrophes.
Soon he was swinging down an easy road with the tilled lands on one side, the pastures and broad ranges on the other, and even in the dim light he guessed the wealth which the estate was capable of producing. Even the deliberate mismanagement of Hervey was barely able to create a deficit and Perris grew hot when he thought of the foreman. His own dislikes found swift expression and were as swiftly forgotten; that a grown ranchman could nourish resentment towards a girl, and that because she was attempting to take charge of her own property, was well beyond his comprehension. For he had that quality which is common to all born leaders: he understood in what good and faithful service should consist; with this addition, that he was far more fitted to command than to be commanded.
It may be seen that there was a background of gloomy thought in his mind, yet from time to time he startled the mustang to a harder pace by a ringing burst of song. Remembering the windlike gallop of Alcatraz, it seemed to him that the buckskin was hardly keeping to a lope—as a matter of fact the cow pony was being ridden to the verge of exhaustion. So the songs of Perris kept the rhythm of the departed hoofs of wild Alcatraz and the shining form of the stallion wavered and danced in his mind.
The ranch building grew out of the dun evening and he smiled at the sight. The bank roll of Marianne had not been thick enough to enable her to do the reconstruction she desired, but at least she had been able to hire a corps of painters, so that the drab, weathered frame structures had been lifted into crimson and green roofs, white yellow, and flaming orange walls. "A little color is a dangerous thing," Marianne had said, somewhat overwisely, "but a great deal of it is pretty certain to be pleasing." So she had let her fancy run amuck, so to speak, and behind the merciful screen of trees there was now what Lew Hervey profanely termed: "A whole damn rainbow gone plumb crazy." Even Marianne at times had her doubts, but from a distance and by dint of squinting, she was usually able to reduce the conglomerate to a tolerably harmonious whole. "It's a promise of changes to come," she told herself. "It's a milestone pointing towards new goals." But the milestone set Perris chuckling. Yonder a scarlet roof burned through the shadows above moonwhite walls—that was a winter-shed for cows. Straight before him were the hot orange sides of the house itself. He dismounted at the arched entrance and walked into the patio.
The first thing that Perris heard was the most provocative and sneering tone of the foreman, and cursing the slowness of the buckskin, he realized that he had been beaten to his goal. He paused in the shadow of the arch to take stock of his position. The squat arcade of 'dobe surrounding the patio was lighted vaguely by a single lantern at his left. It barely served to make the shadowy outlines of the house visible, the heavy arches, roughly sketched doorways, and hinted at the forms of the cowpunchers who were ranged under the far arcade for their after-dinner smoke, all eagerly listening to the dialogue between the mistress and the foreman. When a breath of wind made the flame jump in the lantern chimney a row of grinning faces stood out from the shadow.
Marianne sat in a deep chair which made her appear girlishly slight. The glow of the reading lamp on the table beside her fell on her hair, cast a highlight on her cheek, and showed her hand lying on the open book in her lap, palm up. There was something about that hand which spoke to Perris of helpless surrender, something more in the gloomy eyes which looked up to the foreman where he leaned against a pillar. The voice drawled calmly to an end: "And that's what he is, this gent you got to finish what me and the rest started. Here he is to tell you that I've spoke the truth."
With the uncanny Western keenness of vision, Hervey had caught sight of the approaching Perris from the corner of his eye. He turned now and welcomed the hunter with a wave of his hand. Marianne drew herself up with her hands clasped together in her lap and though in this new attitude her face was in complete shadow, Perris felt her eyes burning out at him. His dismissal was at hand, he knew, and then the carelessly defiant speech which was forming in his throat died away. Sick at heart, he realized that he must cringe under the hand which was about to strike and be humble under the very eye of Hervey. He was no longer free and the chain which held him was the conviction that he could never be happy until he had met and conquered wild Alcatraz, that he was as incomplete as a holster without a gun or a saddle without stirrups until the speed and the great heart of the stallion were his to control and command.
"I've heard everything from Lew Hervey," said the girl, in that low strained voice which a woman uses when her self-control is barely as great as her anger, "and I suppose I don't need to say that after these days of waiting, Mr. Perris, I'm disappointed. I shall need you no longer. You are free to go without giving notice. The experiment has been—unfortunate."
He felt that she had searched as carefully as her passion permitted to find a word that would sting him. The hot retort leaped to his lips but he closed his teeth tight over it. A vision of Alcatraz with the wind in tail and mane galloped back across his memory and staring bitterly down at the girl he reflected that it was she who had brought him face to face with the temptation of the outlaw horse.
Then he found that he was saying stupidly: "I'm sure sorry, Miss Jordan. But I guess being sorry don't help much."
"None at all. And—we won't talk any longer about it, if you please. The thing is done; another failure. Mr. Hervey will give you your pay. You can do the rest of your talking to him."
She lowered her head; she opened the book; she adjusted it carefully to the light streaming over her shoulder; she even summoned a faint smile of interest as though her thoughts were a thousand miles from this petty annoyance and back in the theme of the story. Perris, blind with rage, barely saw the details, barely heard the many-throated chuckle from the watchers across the patio. Never in his life had he so hungered to answer scorn with scorn but his hands were tied. Alcatraz he must have as truly as a starved man must have food; and to win Alcatraz he must live on the Jordan ranch. He could not speak, or even think, for that maddening laughter was growing behind him; then he saw the hand of Marianne, as she turned a page, tremble slightly. At that his voice came to him.
"Lady, I can't talk to Hervey."
She answered without looking up, and he hated her for it.
"Are you ashamed to face him?"
"I'm afraid to face him."
That, indeed, brought her head up and let him see all of her rage translated into cruel scorn.
"Really afraid? I don't suppose I should be surprised."
He accepted that badgering as martyrs accept the anguish of fire.
"I'm afraid that if I turn around and see him, Miss Jordan, I ain't going to stop at words."
The foreman acted before she could speak. The laughter across the patio had stopped at Perris' speech; plainly Hervey must not remain quiescent. He dropped his big hand on the shoulder of Perris.
"Look here, bucco," he growled, "You're tolerable much of a kid to use man-sized talk. Turn around."
He even drew Perris slightly towards him, but the latter persisted facing the girl even though his words were for the foreman. She was growing truly frightened.
"Tell Hervey to take his hand off me," said the horse-breaker. "He's old enough to know better!"
If his words needed amplification it could be found in the wolfish malevolence of his lean face or in the tremor which shook him; the thin space of a thought divided him from action. Marianne sprang from her chair. She knew enough of Hervey to understand that he could not swallow this insult in the presence of his cowpunchers. She knew also by the sudden compression of his lips and the white line about them that her foreman felt himself to be no match for this tigerish fighter. She thrust between them. Even in her excitement she noticed that Hervey's hand came readily from the shoulder of Perris. The older man stepped back with his hand on his gun, but in a burst of pitying comprehension she knew that it was the courage of hopelessness. She swung about on Perris, all her control gone, and the bitterness of a thousand aggravations and all her failures on the ranch poured out in words.
"I know your kind and despise it. You practice with your guns getting ready for your murders which you call fair fights. Fair fights! As well race a thoroughbred against a cowpony! You wrong a man and then bully him. That's Western fair play! But I swear to you, Mr. Perris, that if you so much as touch your weapon I'll have my men run you down and whip you out of the mountains!"
Her outbreak gave him, singularly, a more even poise. There was never a fighter who was not a nervous man; there was never a fighter who in a crisis was not suddenly calm.
"Lady," he answered, "you think you know the West, but you don't. If me and Hervey fell out there wouldn't be a man yonder across the patio that'd lift a hand till the fight was done. That ain't the Western way."
He had spoken much more than he was assured of. He had even sensed, behind him, the rising of the cowpunchers as the girl talked but at this appeal to their spirit of fair-play they settled down again.
He went on, speaking so that every man in the patio could hear: "If I won, they might tackle me one by one and we'd have it out till a better man beat me fair and square. But mobs don't jump one man, lady—not around these parts unless he's stole a hoss!"
"I don't ask no help," said Lew Hervey, but his voice was husky and uneven. "I'll stand my ground with any man, gun-fighter or not!"
"Please be quiet and let me handle this affair," said the girl. "As a matter of fact, it's ended. If you won't take the money from Mr. Hervey, I'll pay it to you myself. How much?"
"Nothing," said Red Perris.
"Are you going to give me an example of wounded virtue?" cried Marianne, white with contempt.
He was as pale as she, and taking off his hat he began to dent and re-dent its four sides. The girl, looking at that red shock of hair and the lowered eyes, guessed for the first time that he was suffering an agony of humiliation. Half of her anger instantly vanished and remembering her passion of the moment before, she began to wonder what she had said. In the meantime, shrugging his shoulders with a forced indifference, Hervey crossed the patio and she was aware that he was received in silence—no murmurs of congratulation for the manner in which he had borne himself during the interview.
"I got to ask you to gimme about two minutes of listening, Miss Jordan. Will you do it?"
"At least I won't stop you. Say what you please, Mr. Perris."
She wished heartily that she could have spoken with a little show of relenting but she had committed herself to coldness. In her soul of souls she wanted to bid him take a chair and tell her frankly all about it, assure him that after a moment of blind anger she had never doubted his straightforward desire to serve her. He began to speak.
"It's this way. I come out here to shoot a hoss, and I've worked tolerable hard to get in rifle range. I guess Hervey has been saying that I've got into shooting distance a dozen times but it ain't true. He happened to be sneaking about to-day, and he saw Alcatraz come close by me for the first time."
He paused. "I'll give you my word on that."
"You don't need to" said the girl, impetuously.
His eyes flashed up at her, at that, and he stood suddenly straight as though she had given him the right to stop cringing and talk like a man. What on earth, she wondered, could have forced the man to such humility? It made her shrink as one might on seeing an eagle cower before a wren. As for Perris, his resentment was in no wise abated by her friendliness. She had given him some moments of torture and the memory of that abasement would haunt him many a day. He mutely vowed that she should pay for it, and went on: "I sure wanted to sing when I caught Alcatraz in the sights. I pulled a bead on him just behind the shoulder but I could see the muscles along his shoulders working and it was a pretty sight, Miss Jordan."
She nodded, frowning in the intentness with which she followed him. She had thought of him as one with the careless, mischievous soul of a child but now, in quick, deep glances, she reached to profounder things.
"I held the bead," he kept repeating, his glance going blankly past her as he struggled to find words for the strange experience, "but then I saw his ribs going in and out. He was big where the cinches would run, you see, and I began to understand where he got that wind of his that never gives out. Besides, I somehow got to thinking about his heart under the ribs, lady, and I figured it kind of low to stop all the life in him with a bullet. So I swung my bead up along his neck—he's got a long neck and that means a long stride—till I came plump on his head, and just then he swung his head and gave me a look."
He breathed deeply, and then: "It was like jumping into cold water all of a sudden. I felt hollow inside. And then all at once I knew they'd never been a hoss like him in the mountains. I knew he was an outlaw. I knew he was plumb bad. But I knew he was a king, lady, and I couldn't no more shoot him that I could lie behind a bush and shoot a man." He was suddenly on fire.
"Looked to me like he was my hoss. Like he'd been planned for me. I wanted him terrible bad, the way you want things when you're a kid—the way you want Christmas the day before, when it don't seem like you could wait for tomorrow."
"But—he's a man-killer, Mr. Perris. I've seen it!"
His hand went out to her and she listened in utter amazement while he pleaded with all his heart in his voice.
"Lemme have a chance to make him my hoss, murders or not! Lemme stay here on the ranch and work, because they's no other good place for hunting him. I know you want them mares, but some day I'll get my rope on him and then I swear I'll break him or he'll break me. I'll break him, ride him to death, or he'll pitch me off and finish me liked he finished Cordova. But I know I can handle him. I sure feel it inside of me, lady! Pay? I don't want pay! I'll work for nothing. If I had a stake, I'd give it to you for a chance to keep on trying for him. I know I'm asking a pile. You want the mares and you can get them the minute Alcatraz is dropped with a bullet,—but I tell you straight, he's worth all of 'em—all six and more!"
A light came over his face. "Miss Jordan, lemme stay on and try my luck and if I get him and break him, I'll turn him over to you. And I tell you: he's the wind on four feet."
"You'll do all this and then give him to me when he's gentled and broken—if that can be done? Then why do you want him?"
"I want to show him that he's got a master. He's played with me and plumb fooled me all these weeks. I want to get on him and show him he's beat." His fierce joy in the thought was contagious. "I want to make him turn when I pull on the reins. I'll have him start when I want to start and stop when I want to stop. I'll make him glad when I talk soft to him and shake when I talk hard. He's made a fool of me; I'll make a fool and a show of him. Lady, will you say yes?"
He had swept her off her feet and with a mind full of a riot of imaginings—the frantic stallion, the clinging rider, the struggle for superiority—she breathed: "Yes, yes! A thousand times yes—and good luck, Mr. Perris."
He tossed his arms above his head and cried out joyously.
"Lady, it's more'n ten years of life to me!"
"But wait!" she said, suddenly aware of Hervey, lingering in the background. "I haven't the power to let you stay. It's Mr. Hervey who has authority while my father is away."
The lips of Red Jim twitched to a sneering malevolence mingled with gloom.
"It's up to him?" he echoed. "Then I might of spared myself all of this talk."
It would all be over in a moment. The foreman would utter the refusal. Red Perris would be in his saddle and bound towards the mountains. And that thought gave Marianne sudden insight into the fact that the Valley of the Eagles would be a drear, lonely place without Red Jim.
"You don't know Mr. Hervey," she broke in before the foreman could speak for himself. "He'll bear no malice to you. He's forgotten that squabble over—"
"Sure I have," said Lew Hervey. "I've forgotten ten all about it. But the way I figure, Miss Jordan, is that Perris is like a chunk of dynamite on the ranch. Any day one of the boys may run into him and there'll be a killing. They're red-hot against him. They might start for him in a gang one of these days, for all I know. For his own sake, Perris had better leave the Valley."
He had advanced his argument cunningly enough and by the way Marianne's eyes grew large and her color changed, he knew that he had made his point.
"Would they do that?" she gasped. "Have we such men?"
"I dunno," said Lew. "He sure rode 'em hard that morning."
"Then go," cried Marianne, turning eagerly to Red Jim. "For heaven's sake, go at once! Forget Alcatraz—forget the mares—but start at once, Mr. Perris!"
Even a blind man might have guessed many things from the tremor of her voice. Lew Hervey saw enough to make his eyes contract to the brightness of a ferret's as he glanced from the girl to handsome Jim Perris. But the red-headed adventurer was quite blind, quite deaf. No matter how the thing had been done, he knew that the girl and the foreman were now both combined to drive him from the ranch, from Alcatraz. For a moment of blind anger he wanted to crush, kill, destroy. Then he turned on his heel and strode towards the arch which led into the patio.
"Mind you!" called Lew Hervey in warning. "It's on your own head, Perris. If you don't leave, I'll throw you off!"
Red Jim flashed about under the shade of the arch.
"Come get me, and be damned," he said.
And then he was gone. The cowpunchers, furious at this open defiance of them all, boiled out into the patio, growling.
"You see?" said Hervey to the girl. "He won't be satisfied till there's a killing!"
"Keep them back!" she pleaded. "Don't let them go, Mr. Hervey. Don't let them follow him!"
One sharp, short order from Hervey stopped the foremost as they ran for the entrance. In fact, not one of them was peculiarly keen to follow such a trail as this in the darkness. Breathless silence fell over the patio, and then they heard the departing beat of the hoofs of Red's horse. And the shock of every footfall struck home in the heart of Marianne and filled her with a great loneliness and terror. And then the noise of the gallop died away in the far-off night.
Alcatraz, cresting the hill, warned the mares with a snort. One by one the bays brought up their beautiful heads to attention but the grey, as was her custom in moments of crisis or indecision, trotted forward to the side of the leader and glanced over the rolling lands below. Her decision was instant and decisive. She shook her head and turning to the side, she started down the left slope at a trot. Alcatraz called her back with another snort. He knew, as well as she did, the meaning of that faint odor on the east wind: it was man, unmistakably the great enemy; but during five days that scent had hung steadily here and yet, over all the miles which he could survey there was no sign of a man nor any places where man could be concealed. There was not a tree; there was not a fallen log; there was not a stump; there was not a rock of such respectable dimensions that even a rabbit would dare to seek shelter behind it. Still, mysteriously, the scent of man was there.
Alcatraz stamped with impatience and when the grey whinnied he merely shook his head angrily in answer. It irritated him to have her always right, always cautious, and besides he felt somewhat shamed by the necessity of using her as a court of last appeal. To be sure, he was a keener judge of the sights and scents of the mountain desert than any of the half-bred mares but though he lived to fifty years he would never approach the stored wisdom, the uncanny acuteness of eye, ear, and nostril of the wild grey. Her view-point seemed, at times, that of the high-sailing buzzards, for she guessed, miles and miles away, what water-holes were dry and what "tanks" brimmed with water; what trails were broken by landslides since they had last been travelled and where new trails might be found or made; when it was wise to seek shelter because a sand-storm was brewing; where the grass grew thickest and most succulent on far-off hillsides; and so on and on the treasury of her knowledge could be delved in inexhaustibly.
On only one point did he feel that his cleverness might rival hers and that point was the most important of all—man the Great Destroyer. She knew him only from a distance whereas had not Alcatraz breathed that dreaded scent close at hand? Had he not on one unforgetable occasion felt the soft flesh turn to pulp beneath his stamping feet, and heard the breaking of bones? His nostrils distended at the memory and again he searched the lowlands.
No, there was not a shadow of a place where man might be concealed and that scent could be nothing but a snare and an illusion. To be sure there were other ways hardly less convenient to the waterhole, but why should he be turned from the easiest way day after day because of this unbodied warning? He started down the slope.
It brought the grey after him, neighing wildly, but though she circled around him at full speed time after time, he would not pause, and when she attempted to block him he raised his head and pushed her away with the resistless urge of breast and shoulders. At that she attempted no more forceful persuasion but fell in behind him, still pausing from time to time to send her mournfully persuasive whinny after the obdurate leader until even the bays, usually so blindly docile, grew alarmed and fell back to a huddled grouping half way between Alcatraz and the trailing grey. It touched his pride sharply, this division of their trust. Twice he slackened his lope and called to them to hasten and when they responded with only a faint-hearted trot he was forced to mask his impatience. Coming to a walk he cropped imaginary grasses from time to time and so induced the others to draw nearer.
It was slow work going down the hollow in this way, and hot work, too, but though he often glanced up yearningly towards the wooded hills beyond, he kept to his pretense of carelessness and so managed to hold the mares in a close-bunched group behind him. In the meantime the scent grew stronger, closer to the ground on that east wind. Time and again he raised his head and stared earnestly, but it was impossible for any living creature to stalk within hundreds of yards of him without being seen—whereas that scent spoke of one almost within leaping distance. Once it seemed to his excited imagination—as he lowered his head to sniff at a tuft of dead grasses—that he heard the sound of human breathing.
He snorted the foolish thought into nothingness and after a glance back to make sure that his companions followed, he resolutely stepped out into the very heart of the man-scent. So closely was that phantom located by the sense of smell that it seemed to Alcatraz he could see the exact spot on the hillside behind a small rock where the ghost must lie. Yet he disdained to flee from empty air and for all his beating heart he raised his head and walked sedately on. The danger spot was drifting past on his left when a squeal of fear from the wild grey far in the rear made Alcatraz leap sidewise with catlike suddenness.
Growing by magic from the sand behind the little rock the head and shoulders of a man appeared, his shadow pouring down the sun-whitened slope. In his hand he swung a rapidly lengthening loop of rope and as his arm went back it knocked off the fellow's hat and exposed a shock of red hair. So much Alcatraz saw while the paralysis of fear locked every joint for the tenth part of a second, and deeply as he dreaded the apparition itself he dreaded more the whipping circle of rope. For had he not seen the dead thing become alive and snakelike in the skilled hand of Manuel Cordova? The freezing terror relaxed; the sand crunched away under the drive of his rear hoofs as he flung himself forward—with firm footing to aid he would have slid from beneath the flying danger, but as it was he heard the live rope whisper in the air above his head.
He landed on stiff legs, checked his forward impetus and flung sidewise. On solid footing he would have dodged successfully; as it was the noose barely clipped past his ear.
As the rope touched his neck, it seemed to Alcatraz that every wound dealt him by the hand of man was suddenly aching and bleeding again, the skin along his flanks quivered where the spurs of Cordova had driven home time and again, and on shoulders and belly and hips there were burning stripes where the quirt had raised its wale. Most horrible of all, in his mouth came the taste of iron and his own blood where the Spanish bit had wrenched his jaws apart. Out of the old days he might have remembered the first and bitterest lesson—that it is folly to pull against a rope—but now he saw nothing save the fleeing forms of the seven mares and his own freedom vanishing with them. In his mid-leap the lariat hummed taut, sank in a burning circle into the flesh at the base of his neck, and he was flung to the ground. No man's power could have stopped him so short; the cunning enemy had turned a half-hitch around the top of that deep-rooted rock.
He landed, not inert, but shocked out of hysteria into all his old cunning—that wily savagery which had kept Cordova in fear, ten-fold more terrible since the free life had clothed him with his full strength. The very impetus of his fall he used to help him whirl to his feet, and as he rose he knew what he must do. To struggle against the tools of man was always madness and brought only pain as a result; like a good general he determined to end the battle by getting at the root of the enemy's fire, and wheeling on his hind legs he charged Red Perris.
The first leap revealed the mystery of the man's appearance. Behind this rock, which was barely sufficient shelter for his head, he had excavated a pit sufficient to shelter his crouching body and the sand which he removed for this purpose had been spread evenly over the slope so that no suspicion might be created in the most watchful eye. He had sprung from his concealment and was now working to loosen the half-hitch from the rock. As the knot came free Alcatraz was turning and now Perris faced the charge with the rope caught in his hand. What could he do? There was only one thing, and the stallion saw the heavy revolver bared and levelled at him, a flickering bit of metal. He knew well what it meant but there was no hope save to rush on; another stride and he would be on that frail creature, tearing with his teeth and crushing with his hoofs. And then a miracle happened. The revolver was flung aside, a gleaming arc and a splash of sand where it struck; Red Perris preferred to risk his life rather than end the battle before it was well begun with a bullet. He crouched over the rope as though he had braced himself to meet the shock of the charging stallion. But that was not his purpose. As the stallion rushed on him he darted to one side and the fore hoof with which Alcatraz struck merely slashed his shirt down the back.
A feint had saved him, but Alcatraz was no bull to charge blindly twice. He checked himself so abruptly that he knocked up a shower of sand, and he turned savagely out of that dust-cloud to end the struggle. Yet this small, mad creature stood his ground, showed no inclination to flee. With the rope he was doing strange things, making it spin in swift spirals, close to the ground. Let him do what he would, his days were ended. Alcatraz bared his teeth, laid back his ears, and lunged again. Another miracle! As his forefeet struck the ground in the midst of one of those wide circles of rope, the red-headed man lunged back, the circle jumped like a living thing and coiled itself around both forefeet, between fetlock and hoof. When he attempted the next leap his front legs crumbled beneath him. At the very feet of Red Perris he plunged into the sand.
Once more he whirled to regain his lost footing, but as he turned on his back the rope twisted and whispered above him; the off hind leg was noosed, and then the near one—Alcatraz lay on his side straining and snorting but utterly helpless.
Of a sudden he ceased all struggle. About neck and all four hoofs was the burning grip of the rope, so bitterly familiar, and man had once again enslaved him. Alcatraz relaxed. Presently there would come a swift volley of curses, then the whir and cut of the whip—no, for a great occasion such as this the man would choose a large and durable club and beat him across the ribs. Why not? Even as he had served Cordova this man of the flaming hair would now serve him. He was very like Cordova in one thing. He did not hurry, but first picked up his revolver and replaced it in its holster, having blown the sand from the mechanism as well as he could. Then he put on his fallen hat and stood back with his hands dropped on his hips and eyed the captive. For the first time he spoke, and Alcatraz shuddered at the sound of a voice well-nigh as smooth as that of Cordova, with the same well-known ring of fierce exultation.
"God A'mighty, God A'mighty! They can't be no hoss like this! Jim, you're dreaming. Rub your fool eyes and wake up!"
He began to walk in a circle about his victim, and Alcatraz shuddered when the conqueror came behind him. That had been Cordova's way—to come to a place where he could not be seen and then strike cruelly and by surprise. To his unspeakable astonishment, Perris presently leaned over him—and then deliberately sat down on the shoulder of the chestnut. Two thoughts flashed through the mind of the stallion; he might heave himself over by a convulsive effort and attempt to crush this insolent devil; or he might jerk his head around and catch Perris with his teeth. A third and better thought, however, immediately followed—that bound as he was he would have little chance to reach this elusive will-o'-the-wisp. He could not repress a quiver of horror and anger, but beyond that he did not stir.
Other liberties were being taken; Cordova in his maddest moments would not have dared so much. Down the long muscles of his shoulder and upper foreleg went curious and gently prying finger-tips, and where they passed a tingling sensation followed, not altogether unpleasant. Again beginning on his neck the hand trailed down beneath his mane and at the same time the voice was murmuring: "Oh beauty! Oh beauty!"
The heart of Alcatraz swelled. He had felt his first caress.
Not that he recognized it as such but the touch was a pleasure and the quiet voice passed into his mind with a mild and soothing influence that made the wide freedom of the mountain-desert seem a worthless thing. The companionship of the mares was a bodiless nothing compared with the hope of feeling that hand again, hearing that voice, and knowing that all troubles, all worries were ended for ever. Like the stout Odysseus of many devices Alcatraz scorned the ways of the lotus eaters; for well he knew how Cordova had often lured him to perfect trust with the magic of man's voice, only to waken him from the dream of peace with the sting of a blacksnake. This red-headed man, so soft of hand, so pleasant of voice, was for those very reasons the more to be suspected. The chestnut bided his time; presently the torment would begin.
The calm voice was proceeding: "Old sport, you and me are going to stage a sure enough scrap right here and now. Speaking personal, I'd like to take off the rope and go at you man to man with no saddle to help me out. But if I did that I wouldn't have a ghost of a show. I'll saddle you, right enough, but I'll ride you without spurs, and I'll put a straight bit in your mouth—damn the Mexican soul of Cordova, I see where he's sawed your mouth pretty near in two with his Spanish contraptions! Without a quirt or spurs or a curb to choke you down, you and me'll put on a square fight, so help me God! Because I think I can beat you, old hoss. Here goes!"
The stallion listened to the soothing murmur, listened and waited, and sure enough he had not long to stay in expectation. For Perris went to the hole behind the rock and presently returned carrying that flapping, creaking instrument of torture—a saddle.
To all that followed—the blind-folding, the bridling, the jerk which urged him to his feet, the saddling,—Alcatraz submitted with the most perfect docility. He understood now that he was to have a chance to fight for his liberty on terms of equality and his confidence grew. In the old days that consummate horseman, Manuel Cordova, had only been able to keep his seat by underfeeding Alcatraz to the point of exhaustion but now, from withers to fetlock joint, the chestnut was conscious of a mighty harmony of muscles and reserves of energy. The wiles which he had learned in many a struggle with the Mexican were not forgotten and the tricks which had so often nearly unseated the old master could now be executed with threefold energy. In the meantime he waited quietly, assuming an air of the most perfect meekness, with the toe of one hind foot pointed so that he sagged wearily on that side, and with his head lowered in all the appearance of mild subjection.
The cinches bit deep into his flesh. He tasted that horror of iron in his mouth, with this great distinction: that whereas the bits of Manuel Cordova had been heavy instruments of torture this was a light thing, smooth and straight and without the wheel of spikes. The crisis was coming. He felt the weight of the rider fall on the left stirrup, the reins were gathered, then Perris swung lightly into the saddle and leaning, snatched the blindfold from the eyes of the stallion.
One instant Alcatraz waited for the sting of the spurs, the resounding crack of the heavy quirt, the voice of the rider raised in curses; but all was silence. The very feel of the man in the saddle was different, not so much in poundage as in a certain exquisite balance which he maintained but the pause lasted no longer than a second after the welcome daylight flashed on the eyes of Alcatraz. Fear was a spur to him, fear of the unknown. He would have veritably welcomed the brutalities of Cordova simply because they were familiar—but this silent and clinging burden? He flung himself high in the air, snapped up his back, shook himself in mid-leap, and landed with every leg stiff. But a violence which would have hurled another man to the ground left Perris laughing. And were beasts understood, that laughter was a shameful mockery!
Alcatraz thrust out his head. In vain Perris tugged at the reins. The lack of curb gave him no pry on the jaw of the chestnut and sheer strength against strength he was a child on a giant. The strips of leather burned through his fingers and the first great point of the battle was decided in favor of the horse: he had the bit in his teeth. It was a vital advantage for, as every one knows who has struggled with a pitching horse, it cannot buck with abandon while its chin is tucked back against its breast; only when the head is stretched out and the nose close to the ground can a bucking horse double back and forth to the full of his agility, twisting and turning and snapping as an "educated" bucker knows how.
And Alcatraz knew, none so well! The deep exclamation of dismay from the rider was sweetest music to his malicious ears, and, in sheer joy of action, he rushed down the hollow at full speed, bucking "straight" and with never a trick attempted, but when the first ecstasy cleared from his brain he found that Perris was still with him, riding light as a creature of mist rather than a solid mass of bone and muscle—in place of jerking and straining and wrenching, in place of plying the quirt or clinging with the tearing spurs, he was riding "straight up" and obeying every rule of that unwritten code which prescribes the manner in which a gentleman cowpuncher shall combat with his horse for superiority. Again that thrill of terror of the unknown passed through the stallion; could this apparently weaponless enemy cling to him in spite of his best efforts? He would see, and that very shortly. Without going through the intermediate stages by which the usual educated bronco rises to a climax of his efforts, Alcatraz began at once that most dreaded of all forms of bucking—sun-fishing. The wooded hills were close now and the ground beneath him was firm underfoot assuring him full use of all his agility and strength. His motion was like that of a breaking comber. First he hurled himself into the air, then pitched sharply down and landed on one stiffened foreleg—the jar being followed by the deadly whiplash snap to the side as he slumped over. Then again driven into the air by the impulse of those powerful hind legs, he landed on the alternate foreleg and snapped his rider in the opposite direction—a blow on the base of the brain and another immediately following on the side.
Underfed mustangs have killed men by this maneuver, repeated without end. Alcatraz was no starveling mongrel, but to the fierceness of a wild horse and the tireless durability of a mustang he united the subtlety which he had gained in his long battle with the Mexican and above all this, his was the pride of one who had already conquered man. His fierce assault began to produce results.
He saw Red Perris sway drunkenly at every shock; his head seemed to swing on a pivot from side to side under that fearful jolting—his mouth was ajar, his eyes staring, a fearful mask of a face; yet he clung in place. When he was stunned, instinct still kept his feet in the stirrups and taught him to give lightly to every jar. He fought hard but in time even Red Perris must collapse.
But could the attack be sustained indefinitely? Grim as were results of sun-fishing on the rider, they were hardly less vitiating for the horse. The forelegs of Alcatraz began to grow numb below the shoulder; his knees bowed and refused to give the shock its primal snap; to the very withers he was an increasing ache. He must vary the attack. As soon as that idea came, he reared and flung himself back to the earth.
He heard a sharp exclamation from the rider—he felt the tug as the right foot of Perris hung in the stirrup, then the stunning impact on the ground. To make sure of his prey he whirled himself to the left, but even so his striking feet did not reach the Great Enemy. Perris had freed himself in the last fraction of a second and pitching headlong from the saddle he rolled over and over in the dirt, safe. That fall opened a new hope to Alcatraz. Had he possessed his full measure of agility he would have gained his feet and rushed the man, but the long struggle had taken the edge from his activity and as he lunged up he saw Perris, springing almost on all-fours, animal-like, leap through the air and his weight struck home in the saddle.
Quick, now, before the Enemy gained a secure hold, before that reaching foot attained the other stirrup, before the proper balance was struck! Up in the air went the chestnut—down on one stiff foreleg and with a great swelling of the heart he felt the rider slump far to one side, clinging with one leg from the saddle, one hand wrapped in the flying mane. Now victory with a last effort! Again he leaped high and again struck stiffly on the opposite foreleg; but alas! that very upward bound swung Perris to the erect, and with incredible and catlike speed he slipped into the saddle. He received the shock with both feet lodged again in the supporting stirrups.
The frenzy of disappointment gave Alcatraz renewed energy. It was not sun-fishing now, but fence-rowing, cross-bucking, flinging himself to the earth again and again, racing a little distance and stopping on braced legs, sun-fishing to end the programme. As he fought he watched results. It was as though invisible fists were crashing against the head and body of the unfortunate rider. From nose and ears and gaping mouth the blood trickled; his eyes were blurs of red; his head rolled hideously on his shoulders. Ten times he was saved by a hair's-breadth from a fall; ten times he righted himself again and a strange and bubbling voice jerked out defiance to the horse.
"Buck—damn you!—go it, you devil—I'll—beat—you still! I'll break you—I'll—make you come—when I whistle—I'll make you—a—lady's hoss!"'
Consuming terror was in the stallion and the fear that, incredible as it seemed, he was being beaten by a man who did not use man's favorite weapon—pain. No, not once had the cruel spurs clung in his flanks, or the quirt whirred and fallen; not once, above all, had his mouth been torn and his jaw nearly broken by the wrenching of a curb. It came vaguely into the brutes' mind that there was something to be more dreaded than either bit, spur, or whip, and that was the controlling mind which spoke behind the voice of Perris, which was telegraphed again and again down the taut reins. That fear as much as the labor drained his vigor.
His knees buckled now. He could no longer sunfish. He could not even buck straight with the bone-breaking energy. He was nearly done, with a tell-tale wheeze in his lungs, with blood pressure making his eyes start well-nigh from his head, and a bloody froth choking him. Red Perris also was in the last stage of exhaustion—one true pitch would have hurled him limp from his seat—yet, with his body numb from head to toe, he managed to keep his place by using that last and greatest strength of feeble man—power of will. Alcatraz, coming at last to a beaten stop, looked about him for help.
There was nothing to aid, nothing save the murmur of the wind in the trees just before him. Suddenly his ears pricked with new hope and he shut out the weak voice which murmured huskily: "I've got you now. I've got you, Alcatraz. I've all by myself—no whip,—no spur—no leather pulling—I've rode straight up and——"
Alcatraz lunged out into a rickety gallop. Only new hope sustained him as he headed straight for the trees.
Even the dazed brain of Perris understood. With all his force he wrenched at the bit—it was hopelessly lodged in the teeth of the stallion—and then he groaned in despair and a moment later swayed forward to avoid a bough brushing close overhead.
There were other branches ahead. On galloped Alcatraz, heading cunningly beneath the boughs until he was stopped by a shock that dropped him staggering to his knees. The pommel had struck a branch—and Red Perris was still in place.
Once more the chestnut started, reeling heavily in his lope. This time, to avoid the coming peril, the rider slipped far to one side and Alcatraz veered swiftly towards a neighboring tree trunk. Too late Red Perris saw the danger and strove to drag himself back into the saddle, but his numbed muscles refused to act and Alcatraz felt the burden torn from his back, felt a dangling foot tug at the left stirrup—then he was free.
So utter was his exhaustion that in checking himself he nearly fell, but he turned to look at the mischief he had worked.
The man lay on his back with his arms flung out cross-wise. From a gash in his forehead the blood streamed across his face. His legs were twisted oddly together. His eyes were closed. From head to foot the stallion sniffed that limp body, then raised a forehoof to strike; with one blow he could smash the face to a smear of red as he had smashed Manuel Cordova the great day long before.
The hoof fell, was checked, and wondering at himself Alcatraz found that his blow had not struck home. What was it that restrained him? It seemed to the conqueror that he felt again the gentle finger-tips which had worked down the muscles of his shoulder and trailed down his neck. More than that, he heard the smooth murmur of the man's voice like a kindly ghost beside him. He dreaded Red Perris still, but hate the fallen rider he could not. Presently a loud rushing of the wind among the branches above made him turn and in a panic he left the forest at a shambling trot.
HERVEY TAKES A TRICK
The night before, when Perris rode off from the ranchhouse after defying Hervey and his men, his hoofbeats had no sooner faded to nothing than the cowpunchers swarmed out from the patio and into the open; as though they wished to put their heads together and plan the battle which the command of Hervey, to-night, had postponed. All of that was perfectly clear to Marianne. Her call brought Hervey back to her and she led him at once off the veranda and to the living room where she could talk secure of interruption or of being overheard. There he slumped uninvited into the first easy chair and sat twirling his sombrero on his finger-tips, obviously well satisfied with himself and the events of the evening. She herself remained standing, carefully turning her back to the light so that her face might, as much as possible, be in shadow. For she knew it was pale and the eyes unnaturally large.
Hervey must not see. He must not guess at the torment in her mind and all the self-revelations which had been pouring into her consciousness during the past few moments. Greatest of all was one overshadowing fact: she loved Red Jim Perris! What did it matter that she had seen him so few times, and spoke to him so few words? A word might be a thunderclap; a glance might carry into the very soul of a man. And indeed she felt that she had seen that proud, gay, impatient soul in Jim. What he thought of her was another matter. That he found a bar between them was plain. But on the night of his first arrival at the ranch, when she sang to him, had she not felt him, once, twice and again, leaning towards her, into her life. And if they met once more, might he not come all the way? But no matter. The thing now was to use all her cunning of mind, all her strength of body, to save him from imminent danger; and the satisfied glint of Hervey's eye convinced her that the danger was imminent indeed. Why he should hate Jim so bitterly was not clear; that he did so hate the stranger was self-evident. The more she studied her foreman the more her terror grew, the more her lonely sense of weakness increased.
"Mr. Hervey," she said suddenly. "What's to be done?"
Her heart fell. He had avoided her eyes.
"I dunno," said Hervey. "You seen to-night that I treated him plumb white. I put my cards on the table. I warned him fair and square. And that after I'd given him a week's grace. A gent couldn't do any more than that, I guess!"
He was right, in a way. At least, the whole populace of the mountains would agree that he had given Red Jim every chance to leave the ranch peaceably. And if he would not go peaceably, who could raise a finger against Hervey for throwing the man off by force?
"But something more has to be done," she said eagerly. "It has to be done!"
Hervey frowned at her.
"Look here," he said, in a more dictatorial manner than he had ever used before. "Why you so interested in this Perris?"
She hesitated, but only for an instant. What did such a thing as shame matter when the life of Perris might be saved by a confession? And certainly Hervey would not dare to proceed against Perris if she made such a confession.
"I'm interested," she said steadily, "because he—he means more to me than any other man in the world."
She saw the head of the foreman jerk back as though he had received a blow in the face.
"More'n your father?"
"In a different way—yes, more than Dad!"
Hervey rose and stretched an accusing arm towards her.
"You're in love with Red Perris!"
And she answered him fiercely: "Yes, yes, yes! In love with Red Perris! Go tell every one of your men. Shame me as far as you wish! But—Mr. Hervey, you won't dare lead a gang against him now!"
He drew back from her, thrust away by her half-hysteria of emotion.
"Won't I?" growled Hervey, regarding her from beneath sternly gathered brows. "I seen something of this to-night. I guessed it all. Won't I lay a hand on a sneaking hound that comes grinning and talking soft and saying things he don't half mean? Why, it's a better reason for throwing him off the ranch than I ever had before, seems to me!"
"You don't mean that!" she breathed. "Say you don't mean that!"
"Your Dad ain't here. If he was, he'd say the same as me. I got to act in his place. You think you like Perris. Why, you'd be throwing yourself away. You'd break Oliver Jordan's heart. That's what you'd do!"
Her brain was whirling. She grasped at the first thought that came to her.
"Then wait till he comes back before you touch Jim Perris."
"And let Perris raise the devil in the meantime?"
He laughed in her face.
"At least," she cried, her voice shrill with anger and fear, "let me know where he is. Let me send for him myself."
"Dunno that I'm exactly sure about where he is myself," fenced Lew Hervey.
"Ah," moaned the girl, half-breaking down under the strain. "Why do you hate me so? What have I done to you?"
"Nothing," said Hervey grimly. "Made me the laughing stock of the mountains—that's all. Made me a joke—that's all you've done to me. 'Lew Hervey and his boss—the girl.' That's what they been saying about me. But I ain't been taking that to heart. What I'm doing now is for your own good, only you don't know it! You'll see it later on."
"Mr. Hervey," she pleaded, "if it will change you, I'll give you my oath to stop bothering with the management of the ranch. You can run it your own way. I'll leave if you say the word, but——"
"I know," said Hervey. "I know what you'd say. But Lord above, Miss Jordan, I ain't doing this for my own sake. I'm doing it for yours and your father's. He'll thank me if you don't! Far as Perris goes, I'd——"
He halted. She had sunk into a chair—collapsed into it, rather, and lay there half fainting with one arm thrown across her face. Hervey glowered down on her a moment and then turned on his heel and left the house.
He went straight to the bunkhouse, gathered the men about him, and told them the news.
"Boys," he said, "the cat's out of the bag. I've found out everything, and it's what I been fearing. She started begging me to keep off Red Jim's trail. Wouldn't hear no reason. I told her there wasn't nothing for me to gain by throwing him off the ranch. Except that he'd been ordered off and he had to go. It'd make a joke of me and all of you boys if the word got around that one gent had laughed at us and stayed right in the Valley when we told him to get out."
A fierce volley of curses bore him out.
"Well," said Hervey, "then she come right out and told me the truth: she's in love with Perris. She told me so herself!"
They gaped at him. They were young enough, most of them, and lonely and romantic enough, to have looked on Marianne with a sort of sad longing which their sense of humor kept from being anything more aspiring. But to think that she had given her heart so suddenly and so freely to this stranger was a shock. Hervey reaped the harvest of their alarmed glances with a vast inward content. Every look he met was an incipient gun levelled at the head of Red Jim.
"Didn't make no bones about it," he said, "she plumb begged for him. Well, boys, she ain't going to get him. I think too much of old man Jordan to let his girl run off with a man-killing vagabond like this Perris. He's good looking and he talks dead easy. That's what's turned the trick. I guess the rest of you would back me up?"
The answer was a growl.
"I'll go bust his neck," said Little Joe furiously. "One of them heart-breakers, I figure."
"First thing," said the foreman, "is to see that she don't get to him. If she does, she'll sure run off with him. But she's easy kept from that. Joe, you and Shorty watch the hoss corrals to-night, will you? And don't let her get through to a hoss by talking soft to you."
They vowed that they would be adamant. They vowed it with many oaths. In fact, the rage of the cowpunchers was steadily growing. Red Perris was more than a mere insolent interloper who had dared to scoff at the banded powers of the Valley of the Eagles. He was far worse. He was the most despicable sort of sneak and thief for he was trying to steal the heart and ruin the life of a girl. They had looked upon the approaching conflict with Perris as a bitter pill that must be swallowed for the sake of the Valley of the Eagles outfit. They looked upon it, from this moment, as a religious duty from which no one with the name of a man dared to shrink. Little Joe and Shorty at once started for the corral. The others gathered around the foreman for further details, but he waved them away and retired to his own bunk. For he never used the little room at the end of the building which was set aside for the foreman. He lived and slept and ate among his cowpunchers and that was one reason for his hold over them.
At his bunk, he produced writing materials scribbled hastily.
"Hell has busted loose.
"I played Perris with a long rope. I gave him a week because Miss Jordan asked me to. But at the end of the week he still wasn't ready to go. Seems that he's crazy to get Alcatraz. Talks about the horse like a drunk talking about booze. Plumb disgusting. But when I told him to go to-night, he up and said they wasn't enough men in the Valley to throw him off the ranch. I would of taken a fall out of him for that, but Miss Jordan stepped in and kept me away from him.
"Afterwards I had a talk with her. She begged me not to go after Perris because he would fight and that meant a killing. I told her I had to do what I'd said I'd do. Then she busted out and told me that she loved Perris. Seemed to think that would keep me from going after Perris. She might of knowed that it was the very thing that would make me hit the trail. I'm not going to stand by and see a skunk like Perris run away with your girl while you ain't on the ranch.
"I've just given orders to a couple of the boys to see that she don't get a horse to go out to Perris. Tomorrow or the next day I'll settle his hash.
"This letter may make you think that you'd better come back to the ranch. But take my advice and stay off. I can handle this thing better while you're away. If you're here you'll have to listen to a lot of begging and crying. Come back in a week and everything will be cleared up.
"Take it easy and don't worry none. I'm doing my best for you and your daughter, even if she don't know it.
This letter, when completed, he surveyed with considerable complacence. If ever a man were being bound to another by chains of inseparable gratitude, Oliver Jordan was he! Indeed, the whole affair was working out so smoothly, so perfectly, that Hervey felt the thrill of an artist sketching a large and harmonious composition. In the first place, Red Jim Perris, whom he hated with unutterable fervor because the younger man filled him with dread, would be turned, as Hervey expressed it, "into buzzard food." And Hervey would be praised for the act! Oliver Jordan, owing the preservation of his daughter from a luckless marriage to the vigilance of his foreman, could never regret the life-contract which he had drawn up. No doubt that contract, as it stood, could never hold water in the law. But Jordan's gratitude would make it proof. Last of all, and best of all, when Perris was disposed of, Marianne would never be able to remain on the ranch. She would go to forget her sorrow among her school friends in the East. And Hervey, undisputed lord and master of the ranch, could bleed it white in half a dozen years and leave it a mere husk, overladen with mortgages.
No wonder a song was in the heart of the foreman as he sealed the letter. He gave the message to Slim, and added directions.
"You'll be missing from the party," he said, as he handed over the letter, "but the party we have with Perris is apt to be pretty much like a party with a wild-cat. You can thank your stars you'll be on the road when it comes off!"
And Slim had sense enough to nod in agreement.
THE TRAP SHUTS
In one matter Lew Hervey had acted none too quickly. Shorty and Little Joe arrived at the corral in time to find Marianne in the very act of leading out her pony. They told her firmly and gently that the horse must go back, and when she defied them, they astonished her by simply removing her hand from the lead-rope and taking the horse away. In vain she stormed and threatened. In vain, at length, she broke into tears. Either of them would have given an arm to serve her. But in fact they considered they were at that moment rendering the greatest service possible. They were saving her from herself.
She fled back to the house again, finally, and threw herself face down on her bed in an agony of dread, and helplessness, and shame. Shame because from Little Joe's brief remarks, she gathered that Hervey had already spread the news of her confession. But shame and fear were suddenly forgotten. She found herself sitting wide-eyed on the edge of the bed repeating over and over in a shaking voice "I have to get there! I have to get there!"
But how utterly Hervey had tied her hands! She could not budge to warn Perris or to join him!
The long night wore away with Marianne crouched at the window straining her eyes towards the corrals. Night was the proper time for such a thing as the murder of Red Perris. They would not dare, she felt, for all their numbers, to face him in the honest sunshine. So she peered eagerly towards the shadowy outlines of the barns and sheds until at length a wan moon rose and gave her blessed light.
But no one approached the corrals from the bunkhouse, and at length, when the dawn began to grow, she fell asleep. It was a sleep filled with nightmares and before the sun was well up she was awake again, and at watch.
Mid-morning came, yet still none of the men rode out to their ordinary work. There could be only one meaning. They were held back to join the expedition. They were at this very moment, perhaps, cleaning their guns in the bunkhouse. Noon brought no action. They trooped cheerfully towards the house in answer to the noon-gong. She heard them laughing and jesting. What cold-blooded fiends they were to be able to conduct themselves in this manner when they intended to do a murder before the day had ended! And indeed, it was only for this meal they seemed to have planned to wait.
Before the afternoon was well begun, there was saddling and mounting and then Hervey, Little Joe, Shorty, Macintosh, and Scotty climbed onto their mounts and jogged out towards the east. Her heart leaped with only a momentary hope when she saw the direction, but instantly she undeceived herself. They would, of course, swing north as soon as they were well out of sight from the house, and then they would head for the shack on the mountain-side, aiming to reach it at about the fall of twilight. And what could she do to stop them?
She ran out through the patio and to the front of the house. The dust-cloud already had swallowed the individual forms of the riders. And turning to the left, she saw McGuire and Hastings lolling in full view near the corrals. With consummate tact, Hervey had chosen those of his men who were the oldest, the hardest, the least liable to be melted by her persuasions.
Moaning, she turned back and looked east. The dust-cloud was dwindling every minute. And without hope, she cast another glance towards the corrals. Evidently, the men agreed that it was unnecessary for two of them to stay in the heat of the sun to prevent her from getting at a horse. Hastings had turned his back and was strolling towards the bunkhouse. McGuire was perched on a stump rolling a cigarette and grinning broadly towards her.
He would be a hard man to handle. But at least there was more hope than before. One man was not so hard to manage as two, each shaming the other into indifference. She went slowly towards McGuire, turning again to see the dust-cloud roll out of view over a distant hill.
In that cloud of dust, Hervey kept the pace down to an easy dog-trot. From mid-afternoon until evening—for he did not intend to expose himself primarily and his men in the second place, to the accurate gun of Red Jim in broad daylight—was a comfortable stretch in which to make the journey to the shack on the mountain-side. Like a good general, he kept the minds of his followers from growing tense by deftly turning the talk, on the way, to other topics, as they swung off the east trail towards Glosterville and journeyed due north over the rolling foothills. There was only one chance in three that he could have deceived the girl by his first direction, but that chance was worth taking. He had a wholesome respect for the mental powers of Oliver Jordan's daughter and he by no means wished to drive her frantic in the effort to get to Perris with her warning. Of course it would be impossible for her to wheedle McGuire and Hastings into letting her have a horse, but if she should——
Here Hervey abruptly turned his thoughts in a new direction. The old one led to results too unpleasant.
In the meantime, as they wore out the miles and the day turned towards sunset time, the cheery conversation which Little Joe had led among the riders fell away. They were coming too close to the time and place of action. What that action must be was only too easy to guess. It was simply impossible to imagine Red Perris submitting to an order to leave. He had already defied their assembled forces once. He would certainly make the attempt again. Of course odds of five to one were too great for even the most courageous and skilful fighter to face. But he might do terrible damage before the end.
And it was a solemn procession which wound up the hillside through the darkening trees. Until at length, at a word from Hervey, they dismounted, tethered their horses here and there where there was sufficient grass to occupy them and keep them from growing nervous and neighing, and then started on again on foot.
At this point Hervey took the lead. For that matter, he had never been lacking in sheer animal courage, and now he wound up the path with his long colt in his hand, ready to shoot, and shoot to kill. Once or twice small sounds made him pause, uneasy. But his progress was fairly steady until he came to the edge of the little clearing where the shack stood.
There was no sign of life about it. The shack seemed deserted. Thick darkness filled its doorway and the window, though the rest of the clearing was still permeated with a faint afterglow of the sunset.
"He ain't here," said Little Joe softly, as he came to the side of the watchful foreman.
"Don't be too sure," said the other. "I'd trust this Perris and take about as many chances with him as I would with a rattler in a six-by-six room. Maybe he's in there playing possum. Waiting for us to make a break across the clearing. That'd be fine for Red Jim, damn his heart!"
Little Joe peered back at the anxious faces of the others, as they came up the path one by one. He did not like to be one of so large a party held up by a single man. In fact, Joe was a good deal of a warrior himself. He was new to the Valley of the Eagles, but there were other parts of the mountain-desert where his fame was spread broadcast. There were even places where sundry officers of the law would have been glad to lay hands upon him.
"Well," quoth Joe, "we'll give him a chance. If he ain't a fighting man, but just a plain murderer, we'll let him show it," and so saying, he stepped boldly out from the sheltering darkness of the trees and strode towards the hut, an immense and awesome figure in the twilight.
Lew Hervey followed at once. It would not do to be out-dared by one of his crew in a crisis as important as this. But for all his haste the long strides of Joe had brought him to the door of the hut many yards in the lead, and he disappeared inside. Presently his big voice boomed: "He ain't here. Plumb vanished."
They gathered in the hut at once.
"Where's he gone?" asked the foreman, scratching his head.
"Maybe he ain't acting as big as he talked," said Shorty. "Maybe he's slid over the mountains."
"Strike a light, somebody," commanded the foreman.
Three or four sulphur matches were scratched at the same moment on trousers made tight by cocking the knee up. Each match glimmered through sheltering fingers with dull blue light, for a moment, and then as the sulphur was exhausted and the flame caught the wood, the hands opened and directed shafts of light here and there. The whole cabin was dimly illumined for a moment while man after man thrust his burning match towards something he had discovered.
"Here's his blankets. All mussed up."
"Here's a pair of boots."
"Here's the frying pan right on the stove."
They wandered here and there, lighting new matches until Little Joe spoke.
"No use, boys," he declared. "Perris has hopped out. Wise gent, at that. He seen the game was too big for him. And I don't blame him for quitting. Ain't nothing here that he'd come after. Them boots are wore out. The blankets and the cooking things he got from the ranch. Look at the way the blankets are piled up. Shows he quit in a rush and started away. When a gent figures on coming back, he tidies things up a little when he leaves in the morning. No, boys, he's gone. Main thing to answer is: If he ain't left the valley why ain't he here in his shack now?"
"Maybe he's hunting that damn hoss?" suggested the foreman, but his voice was weak with uncertainty.
"Hunting Alcatraz after dark?" queried Little Joe.
There was no answer possible. The last glow of twilight was fading to deep night. The trees on the edge of the clearing seemed to grow taller and blacker each moment. Certainly if it were well-nigh impossible to hunt the stallion effectively in daylight it was sheer madness to hunt him at night. Every moment they waited in the cabin, the certainty that Perris had left the valley grew greater. It showed in their voices, for every man had spoken softly at first as though for fear the spirit of the inhabitant of the shack might drift near unseen and overhear. Now their words came loud, disturbing and startling Hervey in the midst of his thoughts, as he continued wandering about the cabin, lighting match after match, striving in vain to find something which would reawaken his hopes. But there was nothing of enough worth to induce Perris to return, and finally Hervey gave up.
"We'll start on," he said at length. "You boys ride along. I'll give the place another look."
As a matter of fact, he merely wished to be alone, and he was dimly pleased as they sauntered off through the trees, their voices coming more and more vaguely back to him, until the far-off rattle of hoofs began. The last he heard of them was a high-pitched laugh. It irritated Hervey. It floated back to him thin and small, like mockery. And indeed he had failed miserably. How great was his failure he could hardly estimate in a moment and he needed quiet to sum up his losses.
First of all, he had hopelessly alienated the girl and while offending her he had failed to serve the rancher. For Red Jim Perris, driven by force from the ranch, would surely return again to exact payment in full for the treatment he had received. The whole affair was a hopeless muddle. He had staked everything on his ability to trap Perris and destroy him, thereby piling upon the shoulders of Oliver Jordan a burden of gratitude which the rancher could never repay. But now that Perris was footloose he became a danger imperilling not only Jordan but Hervey himself. The trap had closed and closed on nothing. The future presented to Hervey stark ruin.