So enthralling was the gloom of these thoughts that the foreman did not hear the thudding hoofs of a horse which trotted up through the trees. Not until horse and rider appeared in the clearing was Hervey roused and then in the first glance by the size and the tossing head of the approaching pony, he recognized the horse of Red Perris!
He had time to burst from the hut and race across the clearing through the darkness which would surely shelter him from the snap-shot of even such an expert as Red Jim, but in mind and body Hervey was too paralyzed by the appearance of his enemy to stir until he saw Perris slip from his horse, slumping to the earth after the fashion of a weary man, and drag off the saddle. He paid no attention to tethering his pony, but started towards the shack, down-headed, heavy of foot.
Hervey had gained the door of the shack in the interim, and there he crouched at watch, terrified at the thought of staying till the other entered, still more terrified at the idea of bolting across the open clearing. He could see Perris clearly, in outline, for just behind him there was a rift in the circle of trees which fenced the clearing and Red Jim was thrown into somewhat bold relief against the blue-black of the night sky far beyond. He could even make out that a bandage circled the head of Perris and with that sight a new thought leaped into the brain of the foreman. The bandage, the stumbling walk, the downward head, were all signs of a badly injured and exhausted man. Suppose he were to attack Perris, single-handed and destroy him? The entire problem would be solved! The respect of his men, the deathless gratitude of Jordan were in the grip of his hand.
His fingers locked around the butt of his gun and yet he hesitated to draw. One could never be sure. How fast, how lightning fast his mind plunged through thought after thought, image after flocking image, while Red Jim made the last dragging steps towards the door of the shack! If he drew, Perris, despite his bent head might catch the glimmer of steel and draw and fire at the glance of the gun. There were tales of gun experts doing more remarkable feats. Wild Bill, in his prime, from the corner of his eye saw a man draw a white hankerchief, thought it a gun, whirled on his heel, and killed a harmless stranger.
He who stops to think can rarely act. It was true of Hervey. Then Perris, at the very door of the hut, dropped the flopping saddle to the ground and the foreman saw that no holster swung at the hip of his man. Joy leaped in him. There was no thought for the cruel cowardice of his act but only overmastering gratitude that the enemy should be thus delivered helpless into his hand. Through the split part of a second that thrill passed tingling through and through him, then he shouted: "Perris!" and at the same instant whipped out the gun and fired pointblank.
A snake will rattle before it strikes and a dog will snarl before it bares its teeth: instinct forced Hervey to that exulting cry and even as the gun came into his hand he saw Perris spin sideways. He fired and the figure at the door lunged down at him. The shoulder struck Hervey in the upturned face and smashed him backwards so that his hand flew out to break the force of the fall, knocked on the floor, and the revolver shot from the unnerved fingers.
If he had any hope that his bullet had gone home and that this was the fall of a dying man, it was instantly removed. Lean arms, amazingly swift, amazingly strong, coiled round him. Hands gripped at him with a clutch so powerful that the fingers burned into his flesh. And, most horrible of all, Red Jim fought in utter silence, as a bull-terrier fights when it goes for the throat.
The impetus of that unexpected attack, half-stunned Lew Hervey. Then the spur of terror gave him hysterical strength.
A hand caught at his throat and got a choking hold. He whirled his heavy body with all his might, tore lose, and broke to his feet. Staggering back to the wall, he saw Red Perris crouch in the door and then spring in again. Hervey struck out with all his might but felt the blow glance and then the coiling arms were around him again. Once again, in the crashing fall to the floor, the hold of Perris was broken and Hervey leaped away for the door yelling: "Perris—it's a mistake—for God's sake——"
The catlike body sprang out of the corner into which it had been flung by Hervey as the foreman rose from the floor. As well attempt to elude a panther by flight! Lew whirled with a sobbing breath of despair and smashed out again with clubbed fist. But the lithe shadow swerved as a leaf whirls from a beating hand and again their bodies crashed together.
But was it a dream that there was less power in the arms of Perris now? Had the foreman seen Red Jim lying prostrate and senseless after his battle with Alcatraz on that day, he would have understood this sudden failing of energy, but as it was he dared not trust his senses. He only knew that it was possible to tear the twining grip away, to spring back till he crashed against the side of the shanty, still pleading in a fear-maddened voice: "Perris, d'you hear? I didn't mean—"
As well appeal to a thunder-bolt. The shadowy form came again but now, surely, it was less swift and resistless. He was able to leap from the path but in dodging his legs entangled in a chair and he tumbled headlong. It was well for Hervey then that his panic was not blind, but with the surety that the end was come he whirled to his knees with the chair which had felled him gripped in both hands and straight at the lunging Perris he hurled it with all his strength. The missile went home with a crash and Red Jim slumped into a formless shadow on the floor.
Only now that a chance for flight was open to him did the strength of Hervey desert him. A nightmare weakness was in his knees so that he could hardly reel to his feet and he moved with outstretched hands towards the door until his toe clicked against his fallen revolver. He paused to scoop it up and turning back through the door, he realized suddenly that Red Jim had not moved. The body lay spilled out where it had fallen, strangely flat, strangely still.
With stumbling fingers, the foreman lighted a match and by that wobbling light he saw Perris lying on his face with his arms thrown out, as a man lies when he is knocked senseless—as a man lies when he is struck dead! Yet Hervey stood drinking in the sight until his match burned his fingers.
The old nightmare fear descended on him the moment the darkness closed about him again. He seemed to see the limp form collect itself and prepare to rise. But he fought this fancy away. He would stay and make light enough to examine the extent of his victory.
He remembered having seen paper and wood lying beside the stove. Now he scooped it up, threw off the covers of the stove, and in a moment white smoke was pouring up from the paper, then flickering bursts of flame every one of which made the body of Perris seem shuddering back to life. But presently the fire rose and Hervey could clearly see the cabin, sadly wrecked by the struggle, and the figure of Perris still moveless.
Even now he went with gingerly steps, the gun thrust out before him. It seemed a miracle that this tigerish fighter should have been suddenly reduced to the helplessness of a child. Holding the gun ready, he slipped his left hand under the fallen man and after a moment, faintly but unmistakably, he felt the beating of the heart. Let it be ended, then!
He pressed the muzzle of the revolver into the back of Perris but his finger refused to tighten around the trigger. No, the powder-burn would prove he had shot his man from behind, and that meant hanging. A tug of his left hand flopped the limp body over, but then his hands were more effectually tied than ever for the face of the unconscious man worked strangely on him.
"It's him now," thought Hervey, "or me later on."
But still he could not shoot. "Helpless as a child"—why had that comparison entered his mind? He studied the features, very pale beneath the bloody bandage which Perris had improvised when he recovered from his battle with the stallion. He was very young—terribly young. Hervey was unnerved. But suppose he let Perris come back to his senses, wakened those insolent blue eyes, started that sharp tongue to life—then it would be a very much easier matter to shoot.
So Lew went to the door, took the rope from Red Jim's saddle, and with it bound the arms of Perris to his side. Then he lifted the hanging body—how light a weight it was!—and placed it in a chair, where it doubled over, limp as a loosely stuffed scarecrow. Hervey tossed more wood on the fire and when he turned again, Perris was showing the first signs of returning consciousness, a twitching of his fingers.
After that his senses returned with astonishing speed. In the space of a moment or two he had straightened in the chair, opened dead eyes, groaned faintly, and then tugged against his bonds. It seemed that that biting of the rope into his arm-muscles cleared his mind. All in an instant he was staring straight into the eyes and into the thoughts of Hervey with full understanding.
"I see," said Perris, "it was the chair that turned the trick. You're lucky, Hervey."
It seemed to Hervey a wonderful thing that the red-headed man could be so quiet about it, and most wonderful of all that Perris could look at anything in the world rather than the big Colt which hung in the hand of the victor. And then, realizing that it was his own comparative cowardice that made this seem strange, the foreman gritted his teeth. Shame softens the heart sometimes, but more often it hardens the spirit. It hardened the conqueror against his victim, now, and made it possible for him to look down on Red Jim with a cruel satisfaction.
"Well?" he said, and the volume of his voice added to this determination.
"Well?" said Perris, as calm as ever. "Waiting for me to whine?"
"Who licked you?" he asked, forced to change his thoughts. "Who licked you—before I got at you?"
Perris smiled, and there was something about the smile that made Hervey flush to the roots of his grey hair.
"Alcatraz had the first innings," said Perris. "He cleaned me up. And that, Hervey, was tolerably lucky for you."
"Was it?" sneered the victor. "You'd of done me up quick, maybe, if Alcatraz hadn't wore you out?"
He waited hungrily for a reply that might give him some basis on which to act, for after all, it was not going to be easy to fire pointblank into those steady, steady eyes. And more than all, he hungered to see some wavering of courage, some blenching from the thing to come.
"Done you up?" echoed Red Jim. And he ran his glance slowly, thoughtfully over the body of the foreman. "I'd of busted you in two, Hervey."
A little chilly shiver ran through Hervey but he managed to shrug the feeling away—the feeling that someone was standing behind him, listening, and looking into his shameful soul. But no one could be near. It would be simple, perfectly simple. What person in the world could doubt his story of how he met Perris at the shack and warned him again to leave the Valley of the Eagles and of how Perris went for the gun but was beaten in fair fight? Who could doubt it? An immense sense of security settled around him.
"Well," he said, "second guessing is easy, even for a fool."
"Right," nodded Red Jim. "I should of knifed you when I had you down."
"If you'd had a knife," said Hervey.
"Look at my belt, Lew."
There it was, the stout handle of a hunting knife. The same chill swept through Hervey a second time and, for a moment, he wavered in his determination. Then, with all his heart, he envied that indefinable thing in the eyes of Perris, the thing which he had hated all his life. Some horses had it, creatures with high heads, and always he had made it a point to take that proud gleam out.
"A hoss is made for work, not foolishness," he used to say.
Here it was, looking out at him from the eyes of his victim. He hated it, he feared and envied it, and from the very bottom of his heart he yearned to destroy it before he destroyed Perris.
"You know," he said with sudden savagery, "what's coming?"
"I'm a pretty good guesser," nodded Red Jim. "When a fellow tries to shoot me in the dark, and then slugs me with a chair and ties me up, I generally make it out that he figures on murder, Hervey."
He gave just the slightest emphasis to the important word, and yet something in Hervey grew tense. Murder it was, and of the most dastardly order, no matter how he tried to excuse it by protesting to himself his devotion to Oliver Jordan. The lies we tell to our own souls about ourselves are the most damning ones, as they are also the easiest. But Hervey found himself so cornered that he dared not think about his act. He stopped thinking, therefore, and began to shout. This is logical and human, as every woman knows who has found an irate husband in the wrong. Hervey began to hate with redoubled intensity the man he was about to destroy.
"You come here and try to play the cock of the walk," cried the foreman. "It don't work. You try to face me out before all my men. You threaten me. You show off your gun-fighting, damn you, and then you call it murder when I beat you fair and square and—"
He found it impossible to continue. The prisoner was actually smiling.
"Hound dogs always hunt in the dark," said Red Jim.
A quiver of fear ran through Hervey. Indeed, he was haunted by chilly uneasiness all the time. In vain he assured himself with reason that his victim was utterly helpless. A ghostly dread remained in the back of his mind that through some mysterious agency the red-headed man would be liberated, and then——. Hervey shuddered in vital earnest. What would happen to a crow that dared trap an eagle.
"I'm due back at the ranch," said Hervey, "to tell 'em how you jumped me here while I was waiting here quiet to warn you again to get out of the Valley of the Eagles peaceable. Before I go, Perris, is they anything you want done, any messages you want to leave behind you?"
And he set his teeth when he saw that Perris did not blench. He was perfectly quiet. Nearness to death sometimes acts in this manner. It reduces men to the unaffected simplicity of children.
"No message, thanks," said Red Jim. "Nobody to leave them to and nothing to leave but a hoss that somebody else will ride and a gun that somebody else will shoot."
"And the girl?" said Lew Hervey.
And a thrill of consummate satisfaction passed through him, for Red Perris had plainly been startled out of his calm.
"You know what I mean. Marianne Jordan."
He smiled knowingly.
"Well?" said Perris, breathing hard.
"Why, you fool," cried the foreman, "don't you know she's gone plumb wild about you? Didn't she come begging to me to get you out of trouble?"
"You lie!" burst out Perris.
But by his roving glance, by the sudden outpouring of sweat which gleamed on his forehead, Hervey knew that he had shaken his man to the soul. By playing carefully on this string might he not reduce even this care-free fighter to trembling love of life? Might he not make Red Perris cringe! All cowards feel that their own vice exists in others. Hervey, in his entire life, had dreaded nothing saving Red Jim, and now he felt that he had found the thing which would make life too dear to Perris to be given up with a smile.
"Begging? I'll tell a man she did!" nodded Hervey.
"It's because she's plumb generous. She thought that might turn you. Why—she don't hardly know me!"
"Don't she?" sneered Hervey. "You don't figure her right. She's one of the hit or miss kind. She hated me the minute she laid eyes on me—hated me for nothing! And you knocked her off her feet the first shot. That's all there is to it. She'd give the Valley of the Eagles for a smile from you."
He saw the glance of Perris wander into thin distance and soften. Then the eye of Red Jim returned to his tormentor, desperately. The blow had told better than Hervey could have hoped.
"And me a plain tramp—a loafer—me!" said Perris to himself. He added suddenly: "Hervey, let's talk man to man!"
"Go on," said the foreman, and set his teeth to keep his exultation from showing.
Five minutes more, he felt, and Perris would be begging like a coward for his life.
Never did a fox approach a lion with more discretion than Marianne approached the careless figure of McGuire. His very attitude was a warning that her task was to be made as difficult as possible. He had pushed his sombrero, limp with age and wear, far back on his head, and now, gazing, apparently, into the distant blue depths of the sky, he regarded vacancy with mild interest and blew in the same direction a thin brownish vapor of smoke. Obviously he expected an argument; he was leading her on. And just as obviously he wanted the argument merely for the sake of killing time. He was in tremendous need of amusement. That was all.
She wanted to go straight to him with a bitter appeal to his manhood, to his mercy as a man. But she realized that this would not do at all. A strenuous attack would simply rouse him. Therefore she called up from some mysterious corner of her tormented heart a smile, or something that would do duty as a smile. Strangely enough, no sooner had the smile come than her whole mental viewpoint changed. It became easy to make the smile real; half of her anxiety fell away. And dropping one hand on her hip, she said cheerfully to McGuire.
"You look queer as a prison-guard, Mr. McGuire."
She made a great resolve, that moment, that if she were ever safely through the catastrophe which now loomed ahead, she would diminish the distance between her and her men and form the habit of calling them by their first names. She could not change as abruptly in a moment, but she understood perfectly, that if she had been able to call McGuire by some foolish and familiar nickname, half of his strangeness would immediately melt away. As it was, she made the best of a bad matter by throwing all the gentle good nature possible into her voice, and she was rewarded by seeing McGuire jerk up his head and jerk down his glance at her. At the same time, he crimsoned to the eyes, changing his weathered complexion to a flaring, reddish-brown.
"Prison-guard?" said McGuire. "Me?"
"Well," answered Marianne, "that's the truth, isn't it? You're the guard and I'm the prisoner?"
"I'm watching these hosses," said McGuire. "That's all. They ain't no money could hire me to guard a woman."
"Really?" said Marianne.
"Sure. I used to have a wife. I know."
She laughed, a little hysterically, but McGuire treated the mirth as a compliment to his jest and joined in with a tremendous guffaw. His eyes were still wet with mirth as she said: "Too bad you have to waste time like this, with such a fine warm day for sleeping. Couldn't you trust the corral bars to take care of the horses?"
His glance twinkled with understanding. It was plain that he appreciated her point and the way she made it.
"Them hosses are feeling their oats," said McGuire. "Can't tell what they'd be up to the minute I turned my back on 'em. Might jump that old fence and be off, for all I know."
"Well," said Marianne, "they look quite contented. And if one of them did take advantage of you and run away while you slept, I'm sure it would come home again."
He had quite fallen into the spirit of the thing.
"Maybe," grinned McGuire, "but I might wake up out of a job."
"Well," said Marianne, "there have been times when I would have weighed one hour of good sleep against two jobs as pleasant as this. How much real damage might that sleep do?"
"If it took me out of the job? Oh, I dunno. Might take another month before I landed a place as good."
"Surely not as long as that. But isn't it possible that your sleep might be worth two months' wages to you, Mr. McGuire?"
"H-m-m," growled McGuire, and his little shifty eyes fastened keenly on her. "You sure mean business!"
"As much as anyone in the world could!" cried the girl, suddenly serious.
And for a moment they stared at each other.
"Lady," said McGuire at length, "I begin to feel sort of yawny and sleepy, like."
"Then sleep," said Marianne, her voice trembling in spite of herself. "You might have pleasant dreams, you know—of a murder prevented—of a man's life saved!"
McGuire jerked his sombrero low over his eyes.
"You think it's as bad as that?" he growled, glaring at her.
"I swear it is!"
He considered another moment. Then: "You'll have to excuse me, Miss Jordan. But I'm so plumb tired out I can't hold up my end of this talk no longer!"
So saying, he dropped his head on both his doubled fists, and she lost sight of his face. It had come so inconceivably easily, this triumph, that she was too dazed to move, for a moment. Then she turned and fairly raced for the corral. It had all been the result of the first smile with which she went to McGuire, she felt. And as she saddled her bay in a shed a moment later she was blessing the power of laughter. It had given her the horse. It had let her pass through the bars. It placed her on the open road where she fled away at a swift gallop, only looking back, as she reached the top of the first hill, to see McGuire still seated on the stump, but now his head was canted far to one side, and she had no doubt that he must be asleep in very fact.
Then the hill rose behind her, shutting out the ranch, and she turned to settle to her work. Never in her life—and she had ridden cross-country on blood horses in the East—had she ridden as she rode on this day! She was striking on a straight line over hill and dale, through the midst of barbed wire. But the wire halted her only for short checks. The swift snipping of the pair of pliers which was ever in her saddle bag cleared the way, and as the lengths of wire snapped humming back, coiling like snakes, she rode through and headed into the next field at a renewed gallop. She was leaving behind her a day's work for half a dozen men, but she would have sacrificed ten times the value of the whole ranch to gain another half hour of precious time.
For when she broke down the last of the small fenced fields the sun was already down. And when twilight came, she knew by instinct, the blow would fall. Yet the distance to the shack was still terribly far.
She straightened the gallant little bay to her work, but at every stride she moaned. Oh for such legs beneath her as the legs of Lady Mary, stretching swiftly and easily over the ground! But this chopping, laboring stride—! She struck her hand against her forehead and then spurred mercilessly. As a result, the bay merely tossed her head, for she was already drawn straight as a string by the effort of her gallop. And Marianne had to sit back in the saddle and simply pray for time, while the little thirty-two revolver in the saddle holster before her, flapped monotonously, beating out the rhythm of every stride.
And the night rode over the mountains with mysterious speed. It seemed to her frantic brain that the gap between crimson sunset and pallid twilight could have been spanned by a scant five minutes. And now, when she found herself at the foot of the last slope, it was the utter dark, and above her head the white stars were rushing past the treetops. The slope was killing the mare. She fell from her labored gallop to a trot, from the trot to a shambling jog, and then to a walk. And all the time Marianne found herself listening with desperate intensity for the report of a gun out of the woods ahead!
She threw herself out of the saddle, cast hardly a glance at the drooping figure of the bay, and ran forward on foot, stumbling in the dark over fallen branches, slipping more than once and dropping flat on her face as her feet shot back without foothold from the pine needles. But she picked herself up again and flung herself at her work with a frantic determination.
Through the trees, filtered by the branches, she saw a light. But when she came to the edge of the clearing she made out that the illumination came from a fire, not a lantern. The interior of the cabin was awash with shadows, and across the open doorway of the hut the monstrous and obscure outline of a standing man wavered to and fro. There was no clamor of many voices. And her heart leaped with relief. Hervey and his men, then, had lost heart at the last moment. They had not dared to attack Red Jim Perris in spite of their numbers!
But her joy died, literally, mid-leap.
"Hervey," cried the voice of Perris, a trembling and fear-sharpened voice, "for God's sake, wait!"
Red Perris begging, cringing to any man, to Lew Hervey? All at once she went weak and sick, but she hurried straight towards the cabin, trying to cry out. Her throat was closed. She could not utter so much as a whisper.
"Listen to me!" went on Perris. "I've been a fool all my life. I know it now. I've wandered around fighting and playing like a block-head. I've wanted nothing but action and I've got it. But now you tell me that I've had something else right in the hollow of my hand and I didn't know it! Maybe you've lied about her. I dunno. But just the thought that she might care a little about me has——"
Marianne stopped short in the darkness and a hot wave of shame blotted out the rest of the words until the heavier voice of the foreman began again.
"Maybe you'd have me think you're kind of fond of the girl—that you love her, all at once, just because I told you she's in love with you?"
"I'd have you think it and I'd have you believe it. When a gent sits looking into the face of a gun he does his thinking and his living mighty fast and condensed. And I know this, that if you turn me loose alive, Hervey, I'll give you my word that I'll forget what's happened. You think I'll hit your trail with a gat. But you're wrong. Make your own bargain, partner. But when I think of what life might be now—Hervey, I can't die now! I'm not ready to die!"
She had been stumbling in a daze towards the door. Now she came suddenly in view of them, the broad back of Hervey turned towards her and Perris facing her, his face white, drawn, and changed. And the blood-stained bandage about his forehead. He leaned forward in his chair in the fervor of his appeal, his arms lashed against his sides with the loose of a lariat.
"Are you through begging?" sneered Hervey.
It threw Perris back in the chair like a blow in the face. Then he straightened.
"You've told me all this just to see me weaken, eh, Hervey?"
"And I've seen it," said Hervey. "I've seen you ready to take water. That's all I wanted. You've lost your grip and you'll never get it back. Right now you're all hollow inside. Perris, you can't look me in the eye!"
"You lie," said Red Jim quietly, and lifting his head, he stared full into the face of his tormentor. "You made a hound out of me, but only for a minute, Hervey."
And then she saw him stiffen in the chair, and his eyes narrow. The chains of fear and of shame which had bound her snapped.
"Hervey!" she cried, and as he whirled she came panting into the door.
Just for an instant she saw a devil glitter in his eyes but in a moment his glance wavered. He admitted himself beaten as he thrust his revolver into the holster.
"Talk wouldn't make Perris leave," he mumbled. "I been trying to throw a little scare into him. And the bluff would of worked if—"
She cut in on him: "I heard enough to understand. I know what you tried to do. Oh, Lew Hervey, if this could be told, your own men would run you down like a mad dog!"
He had grown livid with a mixture of emotions.
"If it could be told. Maybe. But it can't be told! Keep clear of him, or I'll drill him, by God!" She obeyed, stepping back from Jim.
He backed towards the door where the saddle of Perris lay, and stooping, he snatched the revolver of Red Jim from the saddle-holster. For the moment, at least, his enemy was disarmed and there was no fear of immediate pursuit.
"I still have a day or two," he said. "And the game ain't ended. Remember that, Perris. It ain't ended till Jordan comes back."
And he turned into the darkness which closed over him at once like the falling of a blanket.
"You won't follow him?" she pleaded.
He shook his head and a moment later, under the touch of his own hunting knife which she drew, the rope parted and freed his arms. At the same instant she heard the hoofs of Hervey's horse crashing through the underbrush down the mountain side. And not till that final signal of success reached her did Marianne give way to the hysteria which had been flooding higher and higher in her throat ever since those words of Hervey had arrested her in the clearing. But once released it came in a rush, blinding her, so that she could not see Perris through her tears as he placed her gently in the chair. Only through the wild confusion of her sobbing she could hear his voice saying words she did not understand, over and over again, but she knew that his voice was infinitely soft, infinitely reassuring.
Then her mind cleared and her nerves steadied with amazing suddenness, just as the wind at a stroke will tumble the storm clouds aside and leave a placid blue sky above. She found Red Jim kneeling beside the chair with his arms around her and her head on his shoulder, wet with her tears. For the first time she could hear and really understand what he had been saying over and over again. He was telling her that he loved her, would always love her, that he could forgive Lew Hervey, even, because of the message which he had brought.
Had she confessed everything, then, in the hysteria? Had she confirmed what Lew Hervey said? Yes, for the voice of Red Jim was unquestioning, cherishing as men will the thing which they love and own.
"You're better now?" he asked at length.
"Yes," she answered, "I'm weak—and ashamed—and—what have I said to you?"
"Something that's made me happier than a king. And I'll make it a thing you'll never have to regret, so help me God!"
He raised her to her feet.
"Now you have to go home—at once."
"Hervey will come hunting me again tomorrow, and he'll have his men with him. He doesn't know I've forgotten him. He thinks it's his life or mine, and he'll try to run me down."
"The sheriff—" she cried fiercely.
"That's where I'm going. To Glosterville to hide like a coward where the sheriff can look out for me. I can't take chances now. I don't belong to myself. When your father comes back and takes charge of the ranch, and Hervey, I'll come when you send for me. I'll get my things together to-night, ride down the valley so they can't trap me again here, camp out for an hour or so in the morning, and then cut out across the Eagles. But you're strong enough to ride home?"
She nodded, and they walked side by side out across the clearing and down towards the place where she had left the bay. And it seemed to Marianne, leaning a little on the arm of Red Jim, that she had shifted the whole burden of her worries onto the shoulders of her lover. Her troubles disappeared. The very sound of his voice assured her of happiness forever.
They found the bay. The tough little mustang was already much recuperated, and Perris swept Marianne into the saddle. She leaned to kiss him. In the dark her lips touched the bandage around his head.
"It's where Hervey struck you down!" she exclaimed. "Jim, you can't ride across the mountains so terribly hurt—"
"It's only a scratch," he assured her. "I met Alcatraz to-day, and he won again! But the third time—"
"Don't speak of him! He haunts me, Jim. The very mention of him takes all the happiness out of me. I feel—almost as if there were a bad fate in him. But you promise, that you won't stay to take one final chance? You won't linger in the Valley to hunt Alcatraz again? You'll ride straight across the mountains when the morning comes?"
"I promise," answered Perris.
But afterwards, as he watched her drift away through the darkness calling back to him from time to time until her voice dwindled to a bird-note and then faded away, Red Jim prayed in his heart of hearts that he would not chance upon sight of the stallion in the morning, for if he did, he knew that the first solemn promise of his life would be broken.
The dawn of the next day came cold and grey about Alcatraz, grey because the sheeted clouds that promised a storm were covering the sky, and cold with a wind out of the north. When he lifted his head, he saw where the first rains had covered the slopes of the Eagle Mountains with tenderest green, and looking higher, the snows were gathering on the summits. The prophetic thickening of his coat foretold a hard winter.
Now he was on watch with the mares in the hollow behind and himself on the crest rarely turning his head from a wisp of smoke which rose far south. He knew what that meant. Red Perris was on his trail again, and this was the morning-fire of the Great Enemy. He had lain on the ground like a dead man the day before. Now he was risen to battle again! Instinctively he swung his head and looked at the place where the saddle had rested the day before, the saddle which he had worked off with so much wild rolling and scraping against rocks.
He nibbled the grass as he watched, or now and again jerked up his head to catch the scents which blow truer in the upper air-currents.
It was on one of these occasions that he caught an odor only vaguely known to him, and known as a danger. He had never been able to label it but he knew that when the grey mare caught such a scent she was even more perturbed than when man rode into view. So now he breathed deep, his great eyes shining with excitement. What could this danger be which was more to be dreaded than the Great Enemy? Yielding to curiosity, he headed straight up wind to make sure.
No doubt he thereby gave proof that he was unfitted to lead wild horses in the mountains. The wise black of former days, or the grey mare now, would never have stopped to question, but gathering the herd with the alarm call, they would have busied themselves with unrolling mile after mile behind their flying heels. Alcatraz increased his walk to a trot, promptly lost the scent altogether, and headed onto the next elevation to see if he could catch it again. He stood there for a long moment, raising and lowering his head, and then turning a little sidewise so that the wind would cut into his nostrils—which was a trick the grey had taught him. The scent was gone and the wind blew to him only the pure coolness of dew, just sharpened to fragrance by a scent of distant sagebrush. He gave up and turned about to head for the mares.
The step for which he raised his forefoot was not completed for down the hollow behind him he saw a grey skulker slinking with its belly close to the ground. If it stood erect it would be as tall as a calf new-born. The tail was fluffy, the coat of fur a veritable mane around the throat, the head long of muzzle and broad across the forehead with dark marks between the eyes and arching like brows above them so that the facial expression was one of almost human wisdom and wistfulness. It was a beautiful creature to watch, as its smooth trot carried it with incredible speed across the stallion's line of retreat, but Alcatraz had seen those grey kings of the mountains before and knew everything about them except their scent. He saw no beauty in the lofer wolf.
The blood which congealed in his veins was released; he reared and wheeled and burst away at full gallop; there was a sobbing whine of eagerness behind him—the lobo was stretched in pursuit.
Never in his life had the chestnut run as he ran now, and never had he fled so hopelessly. He knew that one slash of those great white teeth would cut his throat to the vital arteries. He knew that for all his speed he had neither the foot nor the wind to escape the grey marauder. It was only a matter of time, and short time at that, before the end came. The lofer prefers young meat and as a rule will cut down a yearling colt, or dine on warm veal, eschewing cold flesh and feeding only once from every kill—the lobo being the Lucullus of beasts of prey—but this prowler had either found scanty fare in a long journey across the mountains or else he wished to kill now for pure deviltry and not from hunger. At any rate, he slid over the ground like the shadow of a cloud driven in a storm.
Already he gained fast, and yet he had not attained top speed; when he did, he would walk up on the chestnut as the latter could walk up on the mares of his herd.
Over a hill bolted Alcatraz and beneath him he saw a faint hope of escape—the flash of water where a brook, new-swelled by the rains, was running bankfull, a noisy torrent. He went down the slope like the wind, struck the level at such speed that the air stung his nostrils, and leaped from the firm gravel at the edge of the stream.
The far bank seemed a mighty distance as he soared high—the water rushed broad and swift beneath him, no swimming if he struck that bubbling current—and then, a last pitch forwards in mid-air; a forefoot struck ground, the bank crushed in beneath his weight, and then he was scrambling to the safety beyond and reeling into a new gallop.
Behind him, he saw the shadowy pursuer skim down the slope, fling into the air, and drop out of sight. Had he reached the shore? Ten seconds—no long and ominous head appeared—certainly he had fallen short and landed in the furious current. Alcatraz dropped his heart-breaking pace to a moderate gallop, but as he did so he saw a form which dripped with water scramble into view fifty yards down-stream—the lobo had managed to reach safety after all and now he came like a bullet to end the chase.
There was only half a hope left to Alcatraz and that was to turn and attempt to leave the wolf again at the water-jump; but now his renewed panic paralyzed all power of thinking. He did not even do the next best thing—race straight away in a true line, but bearing off first to the left and then to the right, he shot across the hills in a miserably wavering flight.
The lobo came like doom behind him. The chill of the water had enraged him. Besides, he did not often have to waste such time and energy to make a kill, and now, bent on a quick ending, the fur which fringed his lean belly cut the dew from the grass as he stretched to his full and matchless speed. Alcatraz saw and strained forward but he had reached his limit and the wolf gained with the passage of every second.
Another danger appeared. Off to the side and well ahead, spurring his mount to top effort, came Red Perris, who must have marked the chase with his glass. Alcatraz gave him not a glance, not a thought. What was the whisper and burn of a rope, what was even the hum of a bullet compared with the tearing teeth of the lofer wolf? So he kept to his course, stretched straight from the tip of his nose to the end of his flying tail and marking from the corner of his eye that the lobo still gained vital inches at every leap.
The horseman to his left shot over a hill and disappeared into the hollow beyond—he would be a scant hundred yards away when Alcatraz raced by, if indeed he could keep beyond reach of the wolf as long as this. And that was more than doubtful—impossible! For the grey streak had shot from behind until it now was at his tail, at his flank, with red tongue lolling and the sound of its panting audible. Half a minute more and it would be in front and heading him, and when he whirled the creature would spring.
And so it happened. The killer swept to the front and snapped—at the flash of the teeth Alcatraz wheeled, saw the monster leave the ground—and then a limp weight struck his shoulder and rolled heavily back to the ground; but not until he had straightened away on his new course did Alcatraz hear the report of the rifle, so much had the bullet outdistanced the sound.
He looked back.
Red Perris sat in his saddle with the rifle coming slowly down from his shoulder. The lofer wolf lay with a smear of red across one side of his head. Then a hill rose behind the stallion and shut off his view.
He brought down his gait to a stumbling canter for now a great weakness was pouring through his legs and his heart fluttered and trembled like the heart of a yearling when it first feels the strain and burn of the rope. He was saved, but by how small a margin! He was saved, but in his mind grew another problem. Why had the Great Enemy chosen to kill the wolf and spare the horse? And how great was his greatness who could strike down from afar that king of flesh-eaters in the very moment of a kill! But he knew, very clearly, that he had been in the hollow of the man's hand and had been spared; and that he had been rescued from certain death; was not the scent of the wolf's pelt still in his nostrils as the creature had leaped?
He came to the brook and snorted in wonder. In a sane moment he would never have attempted that leap. For that matter, perhaps, no other horse between the seas would have ever dreamed of the effort. Alcatraz headed up the stream for a narrow place, shaking his head at the roar of the current.
When he found a place where he could jump the Little Smoky he picked up his mares again and led them straight north, accepting their whinnies of congratulation with a careless toss of his head as though only women-folk would bother to think of such small matters. He had a definite purpose, now. He had had enough of the Valley of the Eagles with its haunting lobos and its cunning human hunters. And he chose for exit the canon of the Little Smoky itself. For there were many blind ravines pocketing the sides of the Valley of the Eagles, but the little Smoky would lead him straight to the summits. He looked back as he reached the mouth of the gorge, filled with the murmur of the rain-swollen waters. Perris was drifting towards them. And Alcatraz tossed his head and struck into a canter.
It was a precaution which he never abandoned, for while the Great Enemy was most to be feared, there were other human foes and such a narrow-throated gorge as this would ideally serve them as a trap. He shortened his lope so as to be ready to whirl away as he came to the first winding between the rugged walls of the valley—but the ground was clear before him and calling up his lagging herd, he made on towards a sound of falling water ahead. It was a new sound to Alcatraz in that place, for he remembered no cataract in this gorge. But every water-course had been greatly changed since the rains began, and who could tell what alterations had occurred here?
Who, indeed, could have guessed it? For as he swung about the next bend he was confronted by a sheer wall of rock over which the falling torrent of the Little Smoky was churned to white spray by projecting fragments. Far above, the side of the mountain was still marked by a raw wound where the landslide had swept, cutting deeper and deeper, until it choked the narrow ravine with an incalculable mass of sand, crushed trees, and a rubble of broken stone. It had dammed the Little Smoky, but soon topping the obstruction, the river now poured over the crest and filled the valley with a noise of rushing and shouting so caught up by echoes that Alcatraz seemed to be standing inside a whole circle of invisible waterfalls.
He wondered at that sight for only an instant; then, as the meaning drove home to him, he wheeled and raced down the valley. This was the explanation of the Enemy's move towards the throat of the canon!
He passed the mares like a red streak of light, his ears flagging back and his tail swept out straight behind by the wind of his gallop. He rushed about the next turn of the cliff and saw that the race had been in vain—the Great Enemy was spurring his reeling cowpony into the mouth of the Little Smoky gap!
The chestnut made his calculations without slackening his pace. The man was in the valley, but he had not yet reached that narrow throat where his lariat was of sufficient radius to cover the space between the wall of the canon and the stream. However, he was in excellent position to maneuver for a throw in case Alcatraz tried to slip by. Therefore he now brought his pony to a slow lope, and loosening his rope, he swung the noose in a wide circle; he was ready to plunge to either side and cast the lariat.
Being nearer to the river than to the canon wall it was in the latter direction that the stallion found the wider free space and towards it, accordingly, he directed his flight, running as he had only run when the lofer wolf dogged his heels. It was only a feint. His eye was too keen in the calculation of distances and relative speeds not to realize that the cowpony would beat him to the goal, yet he kept up his furious pace even when Perris had checked his horse to a trot. Straight on swept Alcatraz until he saw the glitter of the hunter's eyes beneath the wide brim of his sombrero—then he braced his legs, knocking up a small shower of sand and rocks, swerved to the left, and bolted for the river bank.
Even as he made the move, though blinded by the fierceness of his own effort, he knew that it would be a tight squeeze. Had the pony under Perris possessed half of its ordinary speed of foot it would easily have headed the fugitive or at the least brought its rider in rope-throw, now, outworn by the long trail it had followed, the little animal stumbled and almost fell when Perris with iron hand swung it around. That blunder lost fatal yards, but still it did its honest best. It was a veteran of many a round-up. No pony in the arduous work of cutting out was surer of eye or quicker of foot, and now this dodging back and forth brought a gleam into the bronco's eyes. There was no need of the goading spur of Perris to make it spring forth at full speed, running on nerve-power in place of the sapped strength of muscle.
The stumble had given Alcatraz a fighting chance for his freedom—that was all. He recognized the flying peril as he raced in a wide loping semicircle. If the river were twenty yards further off he, running two feet to the cowpony's one, would brush through safely, but as it was no one could tell. He knew the reach of a lariat as well as a man; had not Cordova tormented him devilishly with one time and again? Estimating the speed of his approaching enemy and the reach of the rope he felt that he could still gain freedom—unless luck was against him.
The burst of Alcatraz for the river and safety was a remarkable explosion of energy. Out of the corner of his reddening eye, as he gained swift impetus after his swerve, he saw the cowpony wheel, falter, and then burst across in pursuit to close the gap. He heeled over to the left, and found a mysterious source of energy within him that enabled his speed to be increased, until, at the top of his racing gait, he reached the very verge of the stream. There remained nothing now but a straight dash for freedom.
Luck favored him in one respect at least. The swollen current of the Little Smoky had eaten away its banks so that there was a sheer drop, straight as a cliff in most places, to the water, and the cliff-edge above was solidly compacted sand and gravel. A better race-track could hardly have been asked and the heart of Alcatraz swelled with hope as he saw the ground spin back behind him. Red Perris, too, shouting like a mad man as he spurred in, realized that his opportunity was slipping through his fingers. For now, though far away, he swung his rope in a stiffly horizontal circle about his head. The time had come. Straight before him shot the red streak of the stallion; and leaning in his saddle to give greater length to the cast he made the throw.
It failed. Even as the noose whirled above him Alcatraz knew the cast would fall short. An instant later, falling, it slapped against his shoulder and he was through the gap free! But at the contact of that dreaded lariat instinct forced him to do what reason told him was unneeded—he veered some vital inches off towards the edge of the bank.
Thereby his triumph was undone! The gravel which made so good a footing was, after all, a brittle support and now, under his pounding hoofs, the whole side of the bank gave way. A squeal of terror broke from Alcatraz. He swerved sharply in, but it was too late. The very effort to change direction brought a greater weight upon his rear hoofs and now they crushed down through flying gravel and sand. He faced straight in, pawing the yielding bank with his forehoofs and suspended over the roar of the torrent. It was like striving to climb a hill of quicksand. The greater his struggle the more swiftly the treacherous soil melted under his pounding hoofs.
Last of all, he heard a yell of horror from the Great Enemy and saw the hands of the man go up before his eyes to shut out the sight. Then Alcatraz pitched back into thin air.
He caught one glimpse of the wildly blowing storm-clouds above him, then he crashed with stinging force into the water below.
THE LITTLE SMOKY
Pure madness poured into the brain of Red Perris as he saw the fall. Here, then was the end of the trail, and that great battle would never be fought. Groaning he rode to the bank of the stream, mechanically gathering up the rope as he went.
He saw below him nothing but the rush of water, white riffles showing its speed. An occasional dark steak whirled past—the trunks of trees which the Little Smoky had chewed away from their foothold on its sides. Doubtless one of these burly missiles had struck and instantly killed the stallion.
But no, yonder his head broke above the surface—a great log flung past him, missing the goal by inches—a whirl in the current rolled him under,—but up he came again, swimming gallantly. The selfish rage which had consumed Red Perris broke out in words. Down the bank he trotted the buckskin, shaking his fist at Alcatraz and pouring the stream of his curses at that devoted head. Was this the reward of labor, the reward of pain and patience through all the weeks, the sleepless nights, the weary days?
"Drown, and be damned!" shouted Red Perris, and as if in answer, the body of the stallion rose miraculously from the stream and the hunter gasped his incredulity. Alcatraz was facing up stream, half his body above the surface.
The explanation was simple. At this point the Little Smoky abated its speed a little and had dropped a load of rolling stones and sand. An hour later it might be washed away, but now it made a strong bank with the current skimming above the surface. On this the stallion had struck, and whirling with the current he faced towards the source of the valley and looked into the volleying waters. Here, surely, was a sight to make a weakling tremble. But to the astonishment of Perris, he saw the head of the stallion raised, and the next moment the thunder of his neigh rang high above the voices of the river, as though he bade defiance to his destroyer, as though he called on the God of Gods to bear witness that he died without fear.
"By the Eternal!" breathed Red Perris, smitten with awe, and the next instant, the ground giving way beneath him, Alcatraz was bowled over and over, only to come up again farther down the stream.
He turned his head. Far away he made out a line of horsemen—grey, ghostly figures miles away. Hervey was keeping to his word, then. But the thought of his own danger did not hold Red Jim Perris for a moment. Down there in the thundering water Alcatraz was dying!
The heart of Red Perris went out to the dauntless chestnut. He spurred down the bank until he was even with the struggler. He swayed far out, riding the mustang so near the brink that the poor creature shuddered. He capped his hands about his lips and the hunter screamed encouragement to the hunted, yelled advice, shrieked his warnings when treetrunks hurtled from behind.
It seemed to Red Perris that Alcatraz was not a brute beast but a soul about to perish. So much do brave men love courage! Then he saw, a hundred yards away, that the bank of the stream fell away until it became a gradually shoaling beach to the water edge. With a shout of hope he raced to this point of vantage and flung himself from the saddle. Then, grasping the rope, he ran into the stream until it foamed with staggering force about his hips.
But would Alcatraz live among those sweeping treetrunks and come within casting distance of the rope? Even if he did, would the rope catch around that head of which only the nose and eyes were showing? Even if it caught could the stallion be drawn to shoal water without being strangled by the slip-knot? Had Perris been a calm man he would have discarded the thousandth chance which remained after all of these possibilities. He would have looked, instead, to his cowpony which was now cantering away towards liberty in the rear of the flying squadron of mares. But Perris saw and lived for only one thing.
Down came that brave head, but now with the ears flattened, for in the fury of the river his strength was being rapidly exhausted. Down the current it came, momentarily nearer but always with dangers shooting about it. Even while Perris looked, a great tree from which the branches had not yet been stripped rushed from behind. The hunter's yell of alarm was drowned by the thousand voices of the Little Smoky, and over that head the danger swept.
Red Perris closed his eyes and his head fell, but when he looked again the tree was far down stream and the stallion still swam in the central current, but now near, very near. Only the slender outer branches could have struck him, and these with barely sufficient force to drive him under.
Perris strode still further into the wild water until it foamed about his waist, and stretching out his arms he called to the stallion. Had he possessed ten times the power of voice he could not have made himself heard above the rioting of the Little Smoky but his gesture could be seen, and even a dumb beast could understand it. The chestnut, at least, comprehended for to the joy of Perris he now saw those gallant ears come forward again, and turning as well as he could, Alcatraz swam stoutly for the shore. In the hour of need, the Great Enemy had become his last hope.
But his progress towards the sloping bank was small. For every inch he fought to the bank the current carried him a foot down stream, yet those inches gained in the lateral direction were every one priceless. Finally Perris swung the lariat and shot it through the air. Fair and true the circle struck above the head of the stallion and the hunter shouted with hysterical triumph; a moment later he groaned as the current whirled the rope over the head of Alcatraz and down stream.
Yet he fought the hopeless fight. Staggering in the currents, beaten from his footing time and again, Perris stumbled down stream gathering his rope for a new cast as he went. Neither had the chestnut abandoned the struggle. His last efforts had swerved him about and now he headed up stream with the water foaming about his red, distended nostrils; but still through the whipping spray his great eyes were fixed on Perris. As for the man, there was a prayer in the voice with which he shouted: "Alcatraz!" and hurled the rope again.
Heavy with the water it had soaked up the noose splashed in a rough circle around the head of the swimmer and then cut down into the water. Hand over hand he drew in the slack, felt resistance, then a jar that toppled him from his foothold. The noose had indeed caught around the neck of the stallion, but the success threatened to be his ruin. Toppled head over heels in the rush of the Little Smoky, still his left hand gripped the rope and as he came gasping to the surface his feet struck and lodged strongly against the surface of a great boulder. His one stroke of luck!
He had no time to give thanks. The next moment the full weight of the torrent on Alcatraz whipped the lariat quivering out of the water. The horse was struggling in the very center of the strongest current and the tug on the arms of Perris made his shoulder sockets ache. He endured that pain, praying that his hands would not slip on the wet rope. Then, little by little, he increased his pull until all the strength of leg muscles, back, and arms was brought to bear. It seemed that there was no result; Alcatraz did not change his position; but inch by inch the rope crept in to him; he at length could shift holds, whipping his right hand in advance of the left and tugging again. There was more rapid progress, now, but as the first frenzy of nervous energy was dissipated, a tremor of exhaustion passed through his limbs and the beat of his heart redoubled until he was well-nigh stifled. True, the rope was coming in hand over hand, now, but another danger. The head of Alcatraz was sinking, his nostrils distended to the bursting point, his eyes red and bulging from their sockets. He was being throttled by the grip of the slip knot; and an instant later his head disappeared beneath the surface.
Then all weakness passed from Red Perris; there was invigorating wine in the air he breathed; a vast power clothed him suddenly and while the frenzy endured he drew Alcatraz swiftly in from the gripping currents and to the comparatively mild swirl of water where he stood. Wavering, distorted, and dim as an image in a dull mirror, he saw the form of the horse float towards him beneath the water. Still the frenzy was on him. It enabled him to spring from his place, tear the strangling noose from the neck of the stallion, and lifting that lifeless head in both hands struggle towards the shore. The water buoyed a weight which he could not otherwise have budged; he stumbled in the shoaling gravel to his knees, rose again lifting and straining, until blackness rushed across his eyes; and he pitched forward on his face.
He wakened in a whipping rain that stung the back of his neck and as he propped himself on his arms he found that he had been lying across the neck and shoulders of the stallion. That much of him, and the slender forelegs, was clear of the water. But had he not brought a dead thing to land?
He bent his cheek to the nostrils of Alcatraz, but he felt no breath. He came reeling to his knees and slid his hand beneath the water to the heart of the horse; he felt no reassuring throb. Yet he could not be sure that the end was indeed come, for the blood raged and surged through his brain and waves of violent trembling passed over him so that his sense of touch might well belie the truth. How long had he lain unconscious—a minute or an hour?
At least, he must try to get the body farther ashore. Alas, his strength hardly sufficed now to raise the head alone and when he made his effort his legs crumpled beneath him. There he sat with the head of Alcatraz in his lap—he the hunter and this the hunted!
There was small measure of religion in Red Perris but now, in helplessness, he raised his trembling hands to the stormy grey of the sky above him.
"God A'mighty," said Red Perris, "I sure ain't done much to make You listen to me, but I got this to say: that if they's a call for something to die right now it ain't the hoss that's to blame. It's me that hounded him into the river. Alcatraz ain't any pet, but he's sure lived according to his rights. Let him live and I'll let him go free. I got no right to him. I didn't make him. I never owned him. But let him stand up on his four legs again; let me see him go galloping once more, the finest hoss that ever bucked a fool man out of the saddle, and I'll call it quits!"
It was near to a prayer, if indeed this were not a prayer in truth. And glancing down to the head on his lap, he shivered with superstitious wonder. Alcatraz had unquestionably drawn a long and sighing breath.
The recovery was no miracle. The strangling coil of rope which shut off the wind of Alcatraz had also kept any water from passing into his lungs, and as the air now began to come back and the reviving oxygen reached his blood, his recovery was amazingly rapid. Before Perris had ceased wondering at the first audible breath the eyes of Alcatraz were lighted with flickering intelligence; then a snort of terror showed that he realized his nearness to the Great Enemy. His very panic acted as a thrillingly powerful restorative. By the time Perris got weakly to his feet, Alcatraz was lunging up the river bank scattering gravel and small rocks behind him.
And Perris made no attempt to throw the rope again. He allowed it to lie limp and wet on the gravel, but turning to watch that magnificent body, shining from the river, he saw the lines of Hervey's hunters coming swinging across the plain, riding to the limit of the speed of their horses.
This was the end, then. In ten minutes, or less, they would be on him, and he without a gun in his hands!
As though he saw the same approaching line of riders, Alcatraz whirled on the edge of the sand, but he did not turn to flee. Instead, he lifted his head and turned his bright eyes on the Great Enemy, and stood there trembling at their nearness! The heart of Perris leaped. A great hope which he dared not frame in thought rushed through his mind, and he stepped slowly forward, his hand extended, his voice caressing. The chestnut winced one step back, and then waited, snorting. There he waited, trembling with fear, chained by curiosity, and ready to leap away in arrowy flight should the sun wink on the tell-tale brightness of steel or the noosed rope dart whispering through the air above him. But there was no such sign of danger. The man came steadily on with his right hand stretched out palm up in the age-old token of amity, and as he approached he kept talking. Strange power was in that voice to enter the ears of the stallion and find a way to his heart of hearts. The fierce and joyous battle-note which he had heard on the day of the great fight was gone and in its place was a fiber of piercing gentleness. It thrilled Alcatraz as the touch of the man's fingers had thrilled him on another day.
Now he was very near, yet Perris did not hurry, did not change the quiet of his words. By the nearness his face was become the dominant thing. What was there between the mountains so terrible and so gentle, so full of awe, of wisdom, and of beauty, as this human face? Behind the eyes the outlaw horse saw the workings of that mystery which had haunted his still evenings in the desert—the mind.
Far away the grey mare was neighing plaintively and the scared cowpony trailed in the distance wondering why these free creatures should come so close to man, the enslaver; but to Alcatraz the herd was no more than a growth of trees; nothing existed under the sky saving that hand ceaselessly outstretched towards him, and the steady murmur of the voice.
He began to wonder: what would happen if he waited until the finger tips were within a hair's-breadth of his nose? Surely there would be no danger, for even if the Great Enemy slid onto his back again he could not stay, weak as Red Perris now was.
Alcatraz winced, but without moving his feet; and when he straightened the finger tips touched the velvet of his nose. He stamped and snorted to frighten the hunter away but the hand moved dauntlessly high and higher—it rested between his eyes—it passed across his head, always with that faint tingle of pleasure trailing behind the touch; and the voice was saying in broken tones: "Some damn fools say they ain't a God! Some damn fools! Something for nothing. That's what He gives! Steady, boy: steady!"
Between perfect fear and perfect pleasure, the stallion shuddered. Now the Great Enemy was beside him with a hand slipping down his neck. Why did he not swerve and race away? What power chained him to the place? He jerked his head about and caught the shoulder of Perris in his teeth. He could crush through muscles and sinews and smash the bone. But the teeth of Alcatraz did not close for the hunter made no sign of fear or pain.
"You're considerable of an idiot, Alcatraz, but you don't know no better," the voice was saying. "That's right, let go that hold. In the old days I'd of had my rope on you quicker'n a wink. But what good in that? The hoss I love ain't a down-headed, mean-hearted man-killer like you used to be; it's the Alcatraz that I've seen running free here in the Valley of the Eagles. And if you come with me, you come free and you stay free. I don't want to set no brand on you. If you stay it's because you like me, boy; and when you want to leave the corral gate will be sure open. Are you coming along?"
The fingers of that gentle hand had tangled in the mane of Alcatraz, drawing him softly forward. He braced his feet, snorting, his ears back. Instantly the pressure on his mane ceased. Alcatraz stepped forward.
"By God," breathed the man. "It's true! Alcatraz, old hoss, d'you think I'd ever of tried to make a slave out of you if I'd guessed that I could make you a partner?"
Behind them, the rattle of volleying hoofs was sweeping closer. The rain had ceased. The air was a perfect calm, and the very grunt of the racing horses was faintly audible and the cursing of the men as they urged their mounts forward. Towards that approaching fear, Alcatraz turned his head. They came as though they would run him into the river. But what did it all mean? So long as one man stood beside him, he was shielded from the enmity of all other men. That had been true even in the regime of the dastardly Cordova.
"Steady!" gasped Red Perris. "They're coming like bullets, Alcatraz, old timer! Steady!"
One hand rested on the withers, the other on the back of the chestnut, and he raised himself gingerly up. Under the weight the stallion shrank catwise, aside and down. But there was no wrench of a curb in his mouth, no biting of the cinches. In the old days of his colthood, a barelegged boy used to come into the pasture and jump on his bare back. His mind flashed back to that—the bare, brown legs. That was before he had learned that men ride with leather and steel. He waited, holding himself strongly on leash, ready to turn loose his whole assortment of tricks—but Perris slipped into place almost as lightly as that dimly remembered boy in the pasture.
To the side, that line of rushing riders was yelling and waving hats. And now the light winked and glimmered on naked guns.
"Go!" whispered Perris at his ear. "Alcatraz!"
And the flat of his hand slapped the stallion on the flank. Was not that the old signal out of the pasture days, calling for a gallop?
He started into a swinging canter. And a faint, half-choked cry of pleasure from the lips of his rider tingled in his ears. For your born horseman reads his horse by the first buoyant moment, and what Red Jim Perris read of the stallion surpassed his fondest dreams. A yell of wonder rose from Hervey and his charging troop. They had seen Red Jim come battered and exhausted from his struggle with the stallion the day before, and now he sat upon the bareback of the chestnut—a miracle!
"Shoot!" yelled Hervey. "Shoot for the man. You can't hit the damned hoss!"
In answer, a volley blazed, but what they had seen was too much for the nerves of even those hardy hunters and expert shots. The volley sang about the ears of Perris, but he was unscathed, while he felt Alcatraz gather beneath him and sweep into a racing pace, his ears flat, his neck extended. For he knew the meaning of that crashing fire. Fool that he had been not to guess. He who had battled with him the day before, but battled without man's ordinary tools of torture; he who had saved him this very day from certain death in the water; this fellow of the flaming red hair, was in truth so different from other men, that they hunted him, they hated him, and therefore they were sending their waspish and invisible messengers of death after him. For his own safety, for the life of the man on his back, Alcatraz gave up his full speed.
And Perris bowed low along the stallion's neck and cheered him on. It was incredible, this thing that was happening. They had reached top speed, and yet the speed still increased. The chestnut seemed to settle towards the earth as his stride lengthened. He was not galloping. He was pouring himself over the ground with an endless succession of smooth impulses. The wind of that running became a gale. The blown mane of Alcatraz whipped and cut at the face of Perris, and still the chestnut drove swifter and swifter.
He was cutting down the bank of the river which had nearly seen his death a few moments before, striving to slip past the left flank of Hervey's men, and now the foreman, yelling his orders, changed his line of battle, and the cowpunchers swung to the left to drive Alcatraz into the very river. The change of direction unsettled their aim. It is hard at best to shoot from the back of a running horse at an object in swift motion; it is next to impossible when sharp orders are being rattled forth. They fired as they galloped, but their shots flew wild.
In the meantime, they were closing the gap between them and the river bank to shut off Alcatraz, but for every foot they covered the chestnut covered two, it seemed. He drove like a red lightning bolt, with the rider flattened on his back, shaking his fist back at the pursuers.
"Pull up!" shouted Lew Hervey, in sudden realization that Alcatraz would slip through the trap. "Pull up! And shoot for Perris! Pull up!"
They obeyed, wrenching their horses to a halt, and as they drew them up, Red Jim, with a yell of triumph, straightened on the back of the flying horse and waved back to them. The next instant his shout of defiance was cut short by the bark of three rifles, as Hervey and Shorty and Little Joe, having halted their horses, pitched their guns to their shoulders and let blaze after the fugitive. There was a sting along the shoulder of Perris as though a red hot knife had slashed him; a bullet had grazed the skin.
Ah, but they would have a hard target to strike, from now on! The trick which Alcatraz had learned in his own flights from the hunters he now brought back into play. He began to swerve from side to side as he raced.
Another volley roared from the cursing cowpunchers behind them, but every bullet flew wide as the chestnut swerved.
"Damn him!" yelled Lew Hervey. "Has the hoss put the charm on the hide of that skunk, too?"
For in the fleeing form of Red Perris he saw all his hopes eluding his grasp. With Red Jim escaped and his promise to the rancher unfulfilled, what would become of his permanent hold on Oliver Jordan? Ay, and Red Jim, once more in safety and mounted on that matchless horse, would swoop down on the Valley of the Eagles and strike to kill, again, again, and again!
No wonder there was an agony shrill in the voice of the foreman as he shouted: "Once more!"
Up went the shining barrels of the rifles, followed the swerving form of the horseman for a moment, and then, steadied to straight, gleaming lines, they fired at the same instant, as though in obedience to an unspoken order.
And the form of Red Perris was knocked forward on the back of Alcatraz!
Some place in his body one of those bullets had struck. They saw him slide far to one side. They saw, while they shouted in triumph, that Alcatraz instinctively shortened his pace to keep his slipping burden from falling.
"He's done!" yelled Hervey, and shoving his rifle back in its holster, he spurred again in the pursuit.
But Red Perris was not done. Scrambling with his legs, tugging with his arms, he drew himself into position and straightway collapsed along the back of Alcatraz with both hands interwoven in the mane of the horse.
And the stallion endured it! A shout of amazement burst from the foreman and his men. Alcatraz had tossed up his head, sent a ringing neigh of defiance floating behind him, and then struck again into his matchless, smooth flowing gallop!
Perhaps it was not so astonishing, after all, as some men could have testified who have seen horses that are devils under spur and saddle become lambs when the steel and the leather they have learned to dread are cast away.
But all Alcatraz could understand, as his mind grasped vaguely towards the meaning of the strange affair, was that the strong, agile power on his back had been suddenly destroyed. Red Perris was now a limp and hanging weight, something no longer to be feared, something to be treated, at will, with contempt. The very voice was changed and husky as it called to him, close to his ear. And he no longer dared to dodge, because at every swerve that limp burden slid far to one side and dragged itself back with groans of agony. Then something warm trickled down over his shoulder. He turned his head. From the breast of the rider a crimson trickle was running down over the chestnut hair, and it was blood. With the horror of it he shuddered.
He must gallop gently, now, at a sufficient distance to keep the rifles from speaking behind him, but slowly and softly enough to keep the rider in his place. He swung towards the mares, running, frightened by the turmoil, in the distance. But a hand on his neck pressed him back in a different direction and down into the trail which led, eventually, to the ranch of Oliver Jordan. Let it be, then, as the man wished. He had known how to save a horse from the Little Smoky. He would be wise enough to keep them both safe even from other men, and so, along the trail towards the ranch, the chestnut ran with a gait as gentle as the swing and light fall of a ground swell in mid-ocean.
THE END OF THE RACE
Far behind him he could see the pursuers driving their horses at a killing gallop. He answered their spurt and held them safely in the distance with the very slightest of efforts. All his care was given to picking out the easiest way, and avoiding jutting rocks and sharp turns which might unsettle the rider. Just as, in those dim old days in the pasture, when the short brown legs of the boy could not encompass him enough to gain a secure grip, he used to halt gently, and turn gently, for fear of unseating the urchin. How far more cautious was his maneuvering now! Here on his back was the power which had saved him from the river. Here on his back was he whose trailing fingers had given him his first caress.
He had no power of reason in his poor blind brain to teach him the why and the wherefore. But he had that overmastering impulse which lives in every gentle-blooded horse—the great desire to serve. A mustang would have been incapable of such a thing, but in Alcatraz flowed the pure strain of the thoroughbred, tracing back to the old desert stock where the horse lives in the tent of his master, the most cherished member of the family. There was in him dim knowledge of events through which he himself had never passed. By the very lines of his blood there was bred in him a need for human affection and human care, just as there was bred in him the keen heart of the racer. And now he knew to the full that exquisite delight of service with the very life of a helpless man given into his keeping.
One ear he canted back to the pain-roughened voice which spoke at his ear. The voice was growing weaker and weaker, just as the grip of the legs was decreasing, and the hands were tangled less firmly in his mane, but now the bright-colored buildings of the ranch appeared through the trees. They were passing between the deadly rows of barbed wire with far-off mutter of the pursuing horses beating at his ear and telling him that all escape was cut off. Yet still the man held him to the way through a mingling of trails thick with the scents of man, of man-ridden horses. The burden on his back now slipped from side to side at every reach of his springy gallop.
They came in sight of the ranch house itself. The failing voice rose for one instant into a hoarse cry of joy. Far behind, rose a triumphant echo of shouting. Yes, the trap was closed, and his only protection from the men riding behind was this half-living creature on his back.
Out from the arched entrance to the patio ran a girl. She started back against the 'dobe wall of the house and threw up one hand as though a miracle had flashed across her vision. Alcatraz brought his canter to a trot that shook the loose body on his back, and then he was walking reluctantly forward, for towards the girl the rider was directing him against all his own power of reason. She was crying out, now, in a shrill voice, and presently through the shadowy arch swung the figure of a big man on crutches, who shouted even as the girl had shouted.
Oliver Jordan, reading through the lines of his foreman's letter, had returned to find out what was going wrong, and from his daughter's tale he had learned more than enough.
Trembling at the nearness of these two human beings, but driven on by the faint voice, and the guiding hands, Alcatraz passed shuddering under the very arch of the patio entrance and so found himself once more—and forever—surrendered into the power of men!
But the weak figure on his back had relaxed, and was sliding down. He saw the gate closing the patio swing to. He saw the girl run with a cry and receive the bleeding body of Red Perris into her arms. He saw the man on crutches swing towards them, exclaiming "—without even a bridle! Marianne, he must have hypnotized that hoss!"
"Oh, Dad," the girl wailed, "if he dies—if he dies——"
The eyes of Perris, where he lay on the flagging, opened wearily.
"I'll live—I can't die! But Alcatraz ... keep him from butcher Hervey ... keep him safe...."
Then his gaze fixed on the face of Oliver Jordan and his eyes widened in amazement.
"My father," she said, as she cut away the shirt to get at the wound.
"Him!" muttered Perris.
"Partner," said Oliver Jordan, wavering above the wounded man on his crutches, "what's done is done."
"Ay," said Perris, smiling weakly, "if you're her father that trail is sure ended. Marianne—get hold of my hand—I'm going out again ... keep Alcatraz safe...."
His eyes closed in a faint.
Between the cook and Marianne they managed to carry the limp figure to the shelter of the arcade just as Hervey and his men thundered up to the closed gate of the patio, and there the foreman drew rein in a cloud of dust and cursed his surprise at the sight of the ranchman.
The group in the patio, and the shining form of Alcatraz, were self explanatory. His plans were ruined at the very verge of a triumph. He hardly needed to hear the voice of Jordan saying: "I asked you to get rid of a gun-fighting killer—and you've tried to murder a man. Hervey, get out of the Valley and stay out if you're fond of a whole skin!"
And Hervey went.
* * * * *
There followed a strange time for Alcatraz. He could not be led from the patio. They could only take him by tying every hoof and dragging him, and such force Marianne would not let the cowpunchers use. So day after day he roamed in that strange corral while men came and stared at him through the strong bars of the gate, but no one dared enter the enclosure with the wild horse saving the girl alone, and even she could not touch him.
It was all very strange. And strangest of all was when the girl came out of the door through which the master had been carried and looked at Alcatraz, and wept. Every evening she came but she had no way of answering the anxious whinny with which he called for Red Jim again.
Strange, too, was the hush which brooded over the house. Even the cowpunchers, when they came to the gate, talked softly. But still the master did not come. Two weeks dragged on, weary weeks of waiting, and then the door to the house opened and again they carried him out on a wicker couch, a pale and wasted figure, around whom the man on the crutches and the girl and half a dozen cowpunchers gathered laughing and talking all at once.
"Stand back from him, now," ordered Marianne, "and watch Alcatraz."
So they drew away under the arcade and Alcatraz heard the voice of the master calling weakly.
It was not well that the others should be so near. For how could one tell from what hand a rope might be thrown or in what hand a gun might suddenly flash? But still the voice called and Alcatraz went slowly, snorting his protest and suspicion, until he stood at the foot of the couch and stretching forth his nose, still with his frightened glance fixed on the watchers, Alcatraz sniffed the hand of Red Jim. It turned. It patted him gently. It drew his gaze away from the others and into the eyes of this one man, the mysterious eyes which understood so much.
"A lone trail is right enough for a while, old boy," Red Jim was saying, "but in the end we need partners, a man and a woman and a horse and a man."
And Alcatraz, feeling the trail of the finger tips across the velvet skin of his muzzle, agreed.