It was the beginning of the end. Winter passed, with horses abandoned for the delights, swift-following, of dinner and dance and house party. These affairs made deep inroads upon Helen's time, and so Pat was left pretty much to his own reflections.
Yet he managed to fill the days to his satisfaction. Standing in the stable, he loved to watch the snow-capped mountains, and the tiny white clouds scudding around them, and the mellow radiance of golden sunlight streaming over them. Also, gazing out of the little square window, he spent long periods in viewing the hard brown of the nearer mesaland—the dips and dunes and thread-like arroyos, with an occasional horseman crawling between. Or else, when he found himself yearning for his mistress, he would turn eyes upon the house, and with lazy speculation regard its sun-flecked windows, tightly shut doors, and smoking chimneys, in the hope that she might step forth. Then came more mild weather when he would spend long hours outside the stable, in his corner in the corral, there to renew his silent vigil over nature and the house from this vantage. Thus he filled his days, and found them not so long as formerly in his babyhood, when each hour was fraught with so many little things that demanded his closest interest and attention.
Nights found him early at rest. But not all nights. Nights there were when the house would be lighted from cellar to garret, when spectral forms would move in and out of doors, and when shadows would flicker across drawn shades. Such nights were always his nights, for he would hear sounds of merriment, and voices lifted in song, and above the voices, tinkling toward him on the crisp air, the music of a piano. Such nights were his nights, for he knew that his mistress was happy, and he would force open the stable door, step out under the cold stars, and take up his stand in his corner, there to rest his head upon the topmost board and turn steady eyes upon the scene of merriment until the last guest had departed.
Always on these nights, with wintry chills coursing down his legs or rollicking along his spine, he found himself wanting to be a part of this gaiety, wanting to enter the house, where he instinctively knew it was warm and comfortable, where he might nuzzle the whole gathering for sugar and apples. But this he could not do. He could only turn longing eyes upon the cottage and stand there until, all too soon, sounds of doors opening and closing, together with voices in cheery farewell, told him that the party was at an end. Then he would see mysterious forms flitting across to the trail, and lights in the house whisking out one by one, until the cottage gradually became engulfed in darkness. Then, but not till then, would he turn away from his corner, walk back slowly into the stable, and, because of the open door, which he could open but never close, suffer intensely from the cold throughout the long night.
One such occasion, when the round moon hung poised in the blue-black dome of heaven, and he was standing as usual in his corner, with eyes upon the brilliantly lighted house, he became suddenly aware of two people descending the rear porch and making slowly toward him. At first he did not recognize his own mistress and the young man who had been her almost constant companion since that memorable fright on the mesa eight months before. But as they drew closer, and he came to know the slender form in white, he sounded a soft whinny of greeting and pressed eagerly close to the fence. The pair came near, very near; but neither of them paid the least attention to him—a fact which troubled him deeply. And directly his mistress spoke, but, as she was addressing herself to the young man, this troubled him even more. But he could listen, and listen he did.
"Stephen," she was saying, "you must accept my answer as final. For you must know, Stephen," she went on, quietly, "that I have not changed toward you. My answer to-night, and my answer to-morrow night, and my answer for ever, in so far as I can see, will be what it was last autumn. I am more than sorry that this is so. But it is so, nevertheless." She was firm, though Pat, knowing her well, knew that it required all the force of her trembling soul to give firmness to her words.
Stephen felt something of this as he stood beside her in grim meekness. With his hungry eyes upon her, he felt the despair of one sunk to utter depths, of a man mentally and physically broken. For he loved this girl. And it was this love, God-given, that made him persist. In the spell of this love he realized that he was but a weak agent, uttering demands given him to utter, and unable, through a force as mighty as Nature herself, to do otherwise. Yet though he was utterly torn apart, he was able, despite this mighty demand within him, to understand her viewpoint. He had understood it from the first. But the craving within would not let him accept it.
"I suppose," he rejoined, "that the one decent course for me would be to drop all this. But somehow I can't. I love you that way, Helen! Don't you understand? I cannot let go! I seem to be forced repeatedly to make—make a boor of myself!" There was a moment's silence. "Yet I have resisted it," he went on. "I have fought it—fought it with all the power I have! But I—I somehow—cannot let go!"
Helen said nothing. She herself was coming to realize fully the depths of this man's passion. She knew—knew as few women have known—that here was a man who wanted her; but she knew also, and she was sorry to know it, that she could not conscientiously give herself to him. She regretted it not alone for his sake, but for her own as well. She liked him, liked him better than any other man she had ever known. But she knew that she could not marry him, and believed in her heart that her reasons for refusing him were just reasons. But she remained silent, true to her decision.
When Stephen spoke again it was not to plead with her; he seemed at last to have accepted her refusal for all time. But he asked her reason for absolutely refusing him—not that it mattered much now, since he faced the inevitable, but thought the knowledge might in future guide and strengthen him. He talked rapidly, hinting at beliefs and idolatries, comparing West with East, and East with West, while he stood motionless, one hand upon the fence—earnest, sincere, strong in his request. When he had uttered his last sad word, Helen found herself, as she searched his drawn profile pityingly, no more able to deny him an answer than at the time of their first chance meeting she could have controlled the fate which had brought it about.
"Stephen," she burst out, "I will tell you—though I don't want to tell you—remember! And if in the telling," she hurried on, "I prove rather too candid—please stop me! You will, won't you?"
He nodded listlessly.
"To begin with," she began, quietly, dreading her task, "we as a people are selfish. We are isolated here—are far from the center of things—but only certain things. We are quite our own center in certain other ways. But we are selfish as regards advancement, and being selfish in this way—being what we are and where we are—we live solely for that advancement—for the privilege of doing what we will, and of knowing! It is the first law of the country down here—of my people! We have aims and aspirations and courage all peculiar to ourselves. And when we meet your type, as I met you, we come—(Now, stop me when I get too severe!)—we come to know our own values a little better—to respect ourselves, perhaps—though perhaps, too, I shouldn't say it—a little more. Not that you lack virtues, you Easterners, but they differ from ours—and probably only in kind. And exactly what your type is you yourself have made plain to me during our many little trips together in the saddle. And—and now I fear I must become even more personal," she broke off. "And I am very sorry that I must. Though I know you will forgive me. You will, won't you?" And she looked up at him wistfully. "You thought it might benefit you to know. This is only my opinion. Others may not see it this way. But I am giving it for what it is, and I am giving it only because you asked it and have asked it repeatedly."
He roused himself. "Go on," he said, with evident forced lightness. "I see your viewpoint perfectly."
"Well," she resumed, hurriedly, "you lack ambition—a real ambition. You have ridden horses, played tennis, idled about clubs. You were a coddled and petted child, a pampered and spoiled youth. You attended a dozen schools, and, to use your own language, were 'canned' out of all of them. Which about sums up your activities. You have idled your time away, and you give every promise of continuing. I regret that I must say that, but I regret more deeply that it is true. You have many admirable qualities. You have the greatest of all qualities—power for sincere love. But in the qualities which make one acceptable down here—Wait! I'll change that. In the qualities which would make one acceptable to me you are lacking to a very considerable degree. And it is just there that you fill me with the greatest doubt—doubt so grave, indeed, that I cannot—and I use the verb advisedly—cannot permit myself to like you in the way you want me to like you."
Again he bestirred himself. "What is that, please? What is that quality?"
"I have tried to tell you," she rejoined, patiently. "It is a really worth-while ambition. You lack the desire to do something, the desire to be something—a desire that ought to have been yours, should have been yours, years ago—the thing part and parcel of our blood down here. It may take shape in any one of a hundred different things—business ventures; personal prospectings; pursuit of art, science; raising cattle—anything, Stephen! But something, something which will develop a real value, both to yourself and to your fellow-man. We have it. We have inherited it. We got it from our grandfathers—our great-grandfathers, in a few cases—men who wanted to know—to learn—to learn by doing. It is a powerful force. It must be a powerful force, it must have been strong within them, for it dragged them out of the comforts of civilization and led them into the desert. But they found what they sought; and in finding what they sought they found themselves also. And what they found—"
"Was something which, having drawn them forward to the frontier, filled them with dislike for those who remained behind?"
"If you wish to put it that way—yes." Her answer was straight and clean-cut.
"But what of those who remained behind?" asked Stephen, alert now. "Surely the quality was there! It must be there yet! Those of the old-timers who remained behind must have stayed simply because of circumstances. Good men often curb the adventurous spirit out of sheer conscientious regard for others who—"
"It is you, Stephen!" interrupted Helen, quietly. "It is you, yourself. All Easterners are not like you, I well know. Yet you and your type are found in all parts of the East."
Stephen stood for a long moment, his eyes fixed on the mystic skyline. Then he turned to her as if about to speak. But there was only the silent message of his longing eyes. Finally he turned away and, as if unconsciously, fell to stroking the horse.
He had nothing to say, and he knew it. The girl was right, and he knew that. She had pointed out to him only what others at different times had mildly tried to make him see. He was a rich young man, or would be after a death or two in his family. But that in itself was no excuse for his inertia. Many had told him that. But he had never taken it seriously. It had remained for the little woman beside him to make him fully realize it. She alone had driven it home so that it hurt. Yet between this girl and the others who had taken him mildly to task there was the difference between day and darkness. For he loved this girl, and if she would not marry him for reasons which he knew he could remedy, then it was up to him to accept her criticism, which was perhaps a challenge, and go forth and do something and be something, and reveal his love to her through that effort. What it would be he did not know. He did know he must get out of the town—get out of the Territory, if needs be—but he must go somewhere in this country of worthy aspiration and live as he knew she would have him live, do something, be something, something that for its very worth to her as well as to all mankind would awaken her ready response. Such a move he realized, as he stood beside her, would be as decent in him as she in her criticism had been eloquently truthful. The vigor, the relentless certainty, with which she had pointed out his weakness—no one before had had the courage to deal with him like this. And reviewing it all, and then casting grimly forward into his future, he suddenly awoke, as he gently stroked this mettled horse, to a strange likeness between the spirit of horse and mistress. He turned to Helen.
"You are very much alike," he declared—"you and your horse." Then he paused as if in thought. "The spirit of the desert," he went on, absently, "shows itself through all the phases of its life."
Helen brightened "I am glad you think that of us, Stephen," she answered, as if relieved by this unexpected turn. "Pat is truly of the desert. He was born and bred in this land of amole and cactus."
"And you?" he asked.
"I also," she replied, gravely. "I too was born and bred in this land of amole and cactus." Suddenly she turned her head. "I am afraid they are looking for us."
They returned to the house. Helen's guests were preparing to depart. There was much high humor, and when the last but one was gone, and this one, Stephen, standing on the porch with hat in hand, Helen found that for the moment she had forgotten her distress. At sight of him, however, it all returned to her, and she faced him with earnest solicitude.
"Tell me, Stephen," she burst out, "that you forgive me my unkind words, and that you will try to forget them. But whether you succeed in that or not, Stephen," she hastily added, her voice breaking, "tell me that you will continue to be friendly. We want you, all of us—I want you! I have enjoyed our rides together so much! They have meant much to me, and I hope they have been enjoyable to you. So let us go on, on this accepted basis, and be friends. Tell me you will, Stephen!"
He was silent a long time. Then he told her of his hastily made plans. He was going away from town, of course. He could not remain, under the circumstances. Yet where he was going he didn't know. He would go farther West, probably—go somewhere and try to make good—try to do something worth while, to be something worth while. Saying which, he then thanked her fervently for everything—for her society, for her frank criticism, for having awakened him to an understanding of himself.
Helen stood speechless. She had not anticipated this, that he would go away, that he would leave her. A deep-surging bitterness gripped her, and for a moment she almost relented. But only for a moment. The spell passed, and she looked at him with frank, level eyes.
"I am sorry to hear that, Stephen," she declared, quietly. "We want you with us—all of us. But—but tell me," she concluded, finding the words coming with difficulty—"tell me that you feel no—no antagonism toward me, Stephen, because I can't—can't love you as you want me to love you, and that you understand that—that in deciding as I have I—I only wanted to be true—true to both of us!"
For answer he seized both her hands in his. He gazed straight down into her eyes. "I love you, Helen," he murmured, and then slowly released her fingers.
He left her so quietly that she hardly knew that he was gone. A step on the trail aroused her, and, lifting her eyes, she saw him striding away with shoulders back and head erect, as if awakened to a new manhood. And watching him go, as she felt, for the last time, she could no more control a sob than he at the moment could turn back. For a while she followed him with wistful eyes, then, finding sudden need for consolation, she hurried off the porch and across to the corral. Pat was there to receive her, and she flung her arms around his neck and gave way to sudden tears.
"Pat," she sobbed, "I—perhaps I do love him! Perhaps I have done wrong! I—I—" She interrupted herself. "What shall I do, Pat?" she burst out, bitterly. "Oh, what shall I do?"
Pat could not advise her. But he remained very still, supporting her weight with dumb patience, until she turned away, going slowly back into the house. Then he pressed close into his corner and sounded a shrill, protracted nicker.
That was all.
He saw the door close. He waited, pursuing his old habit, for all the lights to go out. And directly they began to disappear, one by one, first in the lower half of the house, then in the upper half, until all save one were extinguished. This one, as he knew from long experience, was in the room of his mistress. But though he waited and watched till the moon slanted behind the western hills, and the stars to the east dimmed and faded, and the gray of dawn stole across the sky above the mountains—though he waited and watched till his legs ached from long standing, and his eyes smarted from their steady vigil, and the Mexican appeared yawning from the depths of the stable, and from over toward town rose sounds of worldly activity—yet the light in her room burned on. Then the Mexican drove him into the stable. But not even now did he abandon his vigil. He entered his box-stall, with its tiny square window, and fixed his troubled gaze again upon the house. The sky was bright with coming day. From somewhere arose the crow of a rooster. Out on the river trail a team plodded slowly to market.
But the light in the room was still burning.
It was late afternoon when Helen came down from her room. She had regained her calm. The Judge had gone about his affairs, her aunt was deep in her siesta, the Mexican woman was bustling about in the kitchen. Refusing this kindly soul's offer of food, she walked listlessly into the library and sank into a huge chair. Spring was well advanced, yet there was an open fire. Elbows upon the arms of her chair, hands clasped under her chin, she turned unseeing eyes upon the flickering flames. Motionless, barely breathing, she was a picture of hopeless grief.
Yet her thoughts were active. One after another the swift-moving events of the night before came to her—a night of delightful happenings and torturing surprises. She recalled that the crowd had been unusually gay, but that Stephen had been unusually quiet and absorbed. She remembered the games, and the story-telling, and the toasting of marshmallows in the grate. But over against these simple pleasures there had been Stephen, entering into the gaiety only because he must, now forcing a smile, now drawing back within himself, until a chorus of laughter would again force him to smile. Yet she had understood, and she had excused him. She had thought him resigned and content to be merely one of the crowd. And then had come that opportunity which evidently he had sought. It had come as a surprise. But with it had come also a sudden desire to be alone with him, and to impress upon him her convictions. So they had gone out into the moonlight, to the corral fence, and to Pat, where she had endeavored to make everything clear. And then their return, and the departure of her guests, and his lingering on the porch, and his decision to go away, to leave her for ever. He hadn't put it in just that way! But that was what he was doing—that was what he had done. He had gone from her for ever.
The thought hurt. It hurt because she knew what part she had taken in it. She knew that she herself had sent him away. And when he had left her she knew, as she knew now, that in her heart she did not want it. For she liked him—liked his society. She liked his care-free manner, his whimsical outlook upon her country, his many natural talents—his playing, and the naivete of his singing, while he often admitted that his voice hurt him, and so must hurt others. No, she had not wanted him to go away. And somehow it had never occurred to her that he would go for ever. But he was gone, and she could not resign herself. Yet there was no calling him back. She had made a decision, had forced him to understand certain things. So she must accept it. But it hurt. It was slowly dawning upon her that she would never forget him.
Then another thought came to her. Since he was going, and since she had sent him away, it occurred to her that she ought to help him. It seemed to be her duty. Yet she could not determine how. He was going forth to prove himself. He would go where men only could go, and she was but a woman. And she wanted him to prove himself—she knew that—knew it more with every moment that passed. She believed he had it in him. Yet she might help in some way. She wanted to be of some use to him in his undertaking. What could she do?
Suddenly, as she sat there, seemingly powerless, there came a shrill nicker whipping across from the corral—the voice of Pat.
Like a flash she had it! Stephen would go into the cattle country—she believed that. And in the cattle country he would need a horse, a good horse, such a horse as Pat. She would present the horse to Stephen! She would send Pat with him because she herself could not go with him. This she could do. Thus she would help Stephen to find himself, as her ancestors had found themselves. She would help him to become what she wanted him to become—a man—a man! Yes, she would give Pat to Stephen. She would send the horse as she had sent the man—forth into the world of deeds—deeds denied her sex.
She rose hurriedly and ascended to her room. At her desk she drew paper and pen toward her.
My dear Stephen [she began her letter],—I am sending Pat to you through Miguel. I wanted to help you in some way. I cannot help you myself directly, but in Pat I feel you will have a valuable aid. Take him—take him with my dearest and best wishes for your success. Pat may actually show you the way—may actually point the way out to you. Who knows? He understands who you are, I know, and I am sure he knows what you have been, and what you still are, to me.
For a moment she sat deep in thought. Then suddenly awaking to the lateness of the hour, she arose and, going to the corral, called to the hostler. Miguel appeared, and she handed him the note, giving him careful instructions the while in regard to the horse. The Mexican smiled and entered the stable in quest of saddle and bridle, the while she turned to Pat in his corner and explained what she was about to do.
"Pat dear," she began, nestling her cheek against his head, "you are going away. You are going with Stephen. Do you remember Stephen?" Emotion began to grip her. "You have served me well, Pat, and faithfully. I hope you will prove as true to your new master. I—I wanted to help him. But I—I couldn't—couldn't—" She could not go on. Gazing up into his eyes she seemed to see him waver—knew that it was because of her blinding tears—and abruptly left him and returned to the house.
In her room she stood weeping at the window overlooking the corral. She saw the Mexican bridle and saddle her pride, saw him carefully tuck away her note, and saw him mount Pat with a great show of importance, as though elated with his commission. Then she saw him ride Pat out of the corral, across into the river trail, and turn toward town. Seeing her horse go from her, perhaps for all time, she turned from the window and flung herself across her bed, where she gave way to her grief. Her Pat was gone! Her Pat—heart of her life—was gone!
Miguel was indeed pleased with his commission. Never before had he been astride this so-wonderful horse. As he rode along, testing the ease of Pat's gait, noting with what readiness he responded to the reins, he fell to wishing that it were not so near dusk, since then he might become the object of envious eyes in town. But he could not control the hour of day, even though he could control the horse's movements. So he cantered along until he reached the town proper, when he slowed Pat into a walk. Lights were being switched on along the avenue, and in their glare he enjoyed to the full whatever admiring glances were turned his way from the sidewalks. But as he neared the hotel where Stephen was stopping he urged Pat into a canter first, then into a gallop, pulling up before the side entrance with a quick reining that brought both the horse and himself to a stop with a magnificent flourish. It was good—as he admitted to himself. Then he slipped to earth. And now his magnificence left him, for he never before had entered this so-beautiful hostelry. Girting in his belt, however, he strode up the steps, faltered on the threshold, and was directed to the clerk. This magnate handed the letter to a bell-boy.
Stephen was seated in his room when he read Helen's note. When he raised his eyes he stared unseeingly at the light across the street, deep in thought.
He knew what this had cost Helen. Riding with her almost every day for months, he could not but understand the depth of her attachment for the horse. Pat for years had been the one big factor in her life. And now she was giving Pat to him, to help him prove himself. It was a great thing to do, so great that he must accept it, and already, at this proof of her interest, he somehow felt assured of success. Also he saw a way open. He would go down into the cattle country, make a connection with some cattle interests, and, with Pat as guide and friend and capable servant, work out his destiny. Exactly what that would be he did not know. But he did know that he was going after it.
He turned to the boy still standing in the doorway. "Tell the man that I'll be down directly," he said. Then he made his way into his mother's suite of rooms.
The frail little woman showed surprise at his decision. But she said nothing. She nodded quiet acquiescence and went on with her instructions to her maid, who was laying clothing away in preparation for the return East in the morning. Evidently she knew her boy. Whereupon Stephen, after explaining further, though no more fully than before, left her, descending to the office.
Miguel was standing awkwardly near the doorway, and with Stephen's appearance touched his hat and led the way outside. Pat was facing three boys, the center of their interest, but when Stephen approached him, and talked to him, he turned and responded with a soft whinny, seeming to understand. Miguel remained at a respectful distance, awaiting orders. Then telling him to wait for a note to be taken to Miss Richards, Stephen re-entered the hotel.
The boys swirled off in play. Miguel stood alone with the horse. There were but few persons on the streets, since it was early evening and people were at supper. Miguel's wandering eyes at length rested upon the swing-doors of a saloon opposite—rested there a long time. Finally, unable longer to resist their spell, he glanced at Pat's bridle, noted that the reins were securely tied, and then yielded to the attention of the saloon. In a moment the swing-doors closed upon him.
They had barely ceased swinging when out of a doorway just down the street stole the figure of a man. He was young, smooth of face, garbed in blue shirt and overalls, with eyes well concealed under a black sombrero low-drawn. He moved out of the shadow cautiously, with many furtive glances about him. Then he swiftly crossed the street, hurried along the sidewalk to Pat, and reached the horse's head and bridle. Untying the reins from the post, he leaped into the saddle. Then he swung Pat around, put light spurs to him, and urged him rapidly across the avenue. Beyond the avenue toward the north lay Stygian darkness. In these black depths he disappeared.
At this moment the clerk in the hotel was aroused by the unusual spectacle of one of his guests—young Wainwright—leaping down the stairs. He looked up with a surprised question. But Stephen ran past him, across the office, without heed. He gained the door, rushed down the steps, and shouted. The boys ceased playing, a passer-by came to a stop, out of the saloon opposite stepped Miguel. Miguel hastened across, drawing his hand over his mouth as he ran. Stephen opened upon him breathlessly.
"He's gone!" he burst out. "I saw it from my window. A young man in blue shirt and overalls. The horse has been stolen!"
Miguel threw up both hands in despair. "Valgame Dios!" he cried. "I am lose my job!" He looked about him blankly.
Sick at heart, not knowing what to do, Stephen himself bolted back into the hotel. He entered the telephone booth and rang up the Judge's office. It was late, but he took a chance. The Judge answered the call. His voice was weary with the strain of a long day.
"Who in thunder wants me at this hour?" he drawled, not unpleasantly. "Can't you let a man—"
Stephen interrupted with an apology. Then he told the Judge of the loss. The Judge's voice changed instantly.
"Fine business!" he snapped. "But I reckon I know who to look for. There's only one man—one gang—in the Territory that would do that in that way. It's a job for the range police." Then his voice softened. "Don't worry, Stephen!" he added. "You just sit tight. I'll take it up with the authorities."
Stephen left the booth and entered the writing-room. Here he added a sad postscript to his note to Helen. Then he went outside, despatched Miguel with the letter, returned to his room and sat down, disconsolate and angry.
To have Pat sent to him with this noble generosity, and then to lose him! Surely fate was more than unkind. The horse, given into his keeping, had been wrested from him at once. Yes, he was all that Helen had intimated that he was—a man incapable of trust, a man such as she could never permit herself—and he recalled her words now with rankling bitterness—to care for in the way he wanted her to care for him. Knowing that Pat was gone from him, and gone in such ignoble fashion, he knew that he never could face the horse's mistress again. This was bitterest of all! For a time he gave way to despair.
Presently he awoke to a sense of stern responsibility. The horse had been delivered. Miguel had safely delivered him. It was all up to him then, Stephen, and to nobody else. He alone was responsible, and it was his duty to get Pat back. Out of his self-doubting this realization came with a sense of comfort. His course now lay clearly before him. He would get the horse back! He must get him back! There was nothing else left for him. For if he ever expected to return to Helen, and this was his life's hope, he must return to her with the horse. He could return to her in no other way.
He saw the difficulties. This was a large country, and he knew but very little of its activities. He recalled what the Judge had intimated—that the character of the thieves was such as to offer no encouragement of successful pursuit to any but men schooled to the country and the habits of the thieves. Yet against this and in his favor was the widespread reputation of Pat, and that certainly ought to be of some help in his pursuit. But, difficult or easy—take a month or a year—take five years—he would get Pat and return him to his mistress! The Judge had spoken of range police. Why couldn't he enlist with these men, enlist in any capacity, and accompany them till such time as he should learn the country well enough to venture out alone if necessary in his quest? At any rate, he would have a talk with the Judge—would see him early in the morning. He arose to his feet. The thing was settled in his mind. Also for the first time in his life his view had an object. He would go forth into life, get that which it withheld from him, bring it back and place it before the woman of his choice.
And now, so great is the power, so prompt the reward, of energy rightly applied, he found himself whistling as he began to toss wearing-apparel into a traveling-bag.
IN THE WASTE PLACES
Pat well knew that this new experience was a strange thing. The trip with the hostler, the unusual hour of day, the appearance of his mistress's friend, the stranger out of the night, the hurried departure from the hotel, all told him that. But whether it was right or wrong, he did not know. His mistress had quite sanctioned his leaving the corral, and so all things developing out of that must have her sanction also—thus worked his instincts. So not once had he rebelled. Nor was he rebelling now. And yet—and this was his emotional conflict—within him was a vague feeling that he should rebel, should kick, buck, toss, and pitch, and throw off this stranger. It grew upon him, this feeling, until, in a section of town unfamiliar to him, he decided to give way to it, to take a chance, anyway, of unseating this man and dashing back into that part of town familiar to him. But he did not. Suddenly a soothing voice restrained, the voice of his rider, which swept away for a time all thought of rebellion.
"So you're Pat!" the man said, and, though his voice was gentle, and perhaps kindly, as Pat judged the human voice, he yet somehow did not like the owner of it. "Well, they hain't lied to me, anyway," went on the voice. "You're one nice piece of horseflesh!"
That was all. But somehow it dispelled all discontent within Pat. Thereafter he thought only of his task, which was that of holding to a devious course through winding alleys and streets well under rein, until he found himself on the river trail and heading south through a section not unfamiliar to him. Then his interest only quickened.
As he went on, it came to him that he rather liked this traveling through the gloom of night. It was a new experience for him, and the trail, familiar to him, yet somehow not familiar, offered much of interest. Ranch-houses, clumps of trees, soft-rustling fields of alfalfa, looming up before or beside him, taxed his powers of recognition as the stars in the heavens, becoming ever more overcast, withdrew, and with them the moon, leaving the earth and its objects finally mere tragic outlines. These objects, rising silently before him, gave him many fitful starts, and seemed to forbid this night-incursion. But he held to the trail, for the most part in perfect contentment, enjoying his unwonted call to duty, but wondering whither it was leading him.
This contentment did not last. It broke as he found himself rounding a bend which he recognized as leading to the river bridge. The change came not through the flicking of his conscience like his former feeling, but through sudden awakening to physical discomfort. For a time he did not know what it was—though he had questioned the new grip on the reins, the rider's seat, his weight. There it was. The man's weight. Miguel had been heavy, of course, but Miguel's seat had been short-lived. This man must weigh fully as much as Miguel, and twice as much as his mistress, and he had been on his back now a long time. There came another something. As Pat grew aware of the weight it seemed to become heavier, so he decided to seek relief of some sort. He dropped back into a walk, grimly taking his comfort into his own control. And, half expecting that the man would force him into a canter again, he continued at a walk. But neither by word nor movement did the man show that he noticed the change. So Pat settled to his task again, once more enjoying quiet satisfaction.
But neither did this last. He soon found another cause for dissatisfaction. He found it because, unconsciously, he was looking for it. He found it this time in the tight grip on his reins, which was setting up a sore chafing in the corners of his mouth. His mistress had never held him so tightly. The result of it, together with his other discomfort, was that he became sullen and antagonistic, and, descending the slight grade to the bridge, he determined to resist. And resist he did. He came to a sudden stop, threw down his head, pitched and bucked frantically. His efforts carried him all over the trail, and once dangerously near the edge and the turbulent waters below. But he found himself unable to throw off the weight.
"Guess maybe—I made—a slight—mistake!" exploded the rider, clamping his knees against Pat. "But go—go to it—old trader!"
Pat accepted the challenge. For this he knew it was. He leaped and twisted; returned to earth with a jolt; pitched and tossed and bucked. And he kept it up, fighting grimly, till he discovered its futility, when he stopped. A moment he stood, breathing heavily, then he set out across the bridge, whisking his tail and wriggling his ears, all in spirited acceptance of reluctant defeat.
He did not attempt further rebellion. Slow-kindling respect stirred within him for this man upon his back—the respect but not love which one entertains toward the mighty, and he gained the end of the bridge and turned south along the trail, partly reconciled. Yet he had not rebelled in vain. The grip on his bit no longer annoyed him, and though the weight still remained heavy, somehow it seemed more endurable now through some cause which he could not determine—probably his increased respect for it. So he trotted along, amiably disposed toward all the world, pleasantly anticipatory of the immediate future, ears and eyes alert and straining toward all things. On his left the river gurgled softly in the desert stillness—a stillness sharply broken. From afar off came a strange call, the long-drawn howl of a coyote. It was not alone. Instantly from a point dead ahead rose another, grooving into the echo of the first in a staccato yelp. Then the first opened up with a choking whine that lifted steadily into an ecstatic mating-call, and Pat saw a black something, blacker even than the night, leap against the far, faint skyline, dangle seemingly a trembling moment, then flash from view across the desert.
Which was but one of the many incidents that served to hold his interest and increase his alertness as he fox-trotted along the road. Nor was one of them without its informing value. For this was his first night journey, and what he saw now would remain with him vividly, helping him to become as successful on night trails as he was now by day.
Something else came to him out of the darkness. It was off to his distant right and well back from the river. It was a tiny gleam of light, shining out of the density of the desert. He watched it with studied interest. It glowed like a cat's eye, and, fascinated, quietly speculative, he kept his eyes upon it until, as he turned a bend in the trail, he saw another light flash into view close beside the first, and equal to it in brilliancy. Suddenly, watching these lights, his interest leaped higher. This was his destination. He instinctively knew it. And presently he was certain of it, for his master, urging him to the right, now sent him along a narrow path that led straight toward the lights.
Within a very few moments Pat found himself before a hulk of an adobe. It was a long, rambling structure, somehow forbidding, and he blinked as he stared with faint apprehension at the lamplight streaming out of two windows. Directly the man dismounted and, making the reins fast to a post, walked toward the house. For a moment Pat saw his tall figure silhouetted in the doorway, to the accompaniment of a quiet chorus of greetings from within, then he saw the door close upon him, and immediately afterward a hand appear at the windows and draw down the shades. And now he felt a great loneliness creep over him, slowly at first, then somehow faster as he heard voices within sink from a cheerful note of greeting to a low rumble of discord.
He began to take heed of objects close around him. He discovered, now that all light was shut off, that he was not alone. To his left stood two horses, with heads drooping, legs slightly spread, reins dangling, quiet and patient in their mute waiting. Promptly with the discovery he took a step in their direction, intent upon establishing friendship. But he found himself checked with a jerk. For an instant he did not understand this. Then he remembered that his reins were tied, and because his mistress never had deemed this necessary he came to feel a kind of irritation, though he made no attempt to force his freedom. Yet, keeping his eyes upon the other horses, he saw that they themselves were free to come and go, that their reins were dangling on the ground. And now he realized that he was under suspicion. He knew what that was from long association with the Mexican hostler, and, smarting under it, he determined to show his new master, and that before many hours had elapsed, he as well as these others was capable of trust.
The door flung open and three men filed out. A fourth remained standing on the threshold, holding up a smoking lamp. Other than the tread of heels no sound accompanied their appearance, no comment, no laughter, no farewells. This made a deep impression upon him, and with further misgivings he watched the men descend the few loose steps and make for the horses, his own master, the tallest of the men, coming slowly toward him. A moment of gathering reins, then all mounted, and one, a squat, powerfully built man, evidently the leader, turned in a southwesterly direction, riding off in the engulfing darkness, heading away from the river. Seeing this, Pat stepped out after him, pressing close upon the heels of his horse, conscious that the third horse, ridden by a little man, was crowding him for second position. But he held stubbornly to his place, and in this place set out along an unmarked trail. He covered mile after mile at a fox-trot, mile after mile in absolute silence, until faint rays of dawn, streaking the sky above a ridge to the east, surprised him into realization of the quick passage of night and his own prolonged duty therein. It was all very strange.
Daylight followed swiftly. From a dull lead color the sky immediately above the ridge, which stretched away interminably north and south, gave way to a pink indescribably rich and delicate. Steadily this pink crept over the heavens, rolling up like the gradual unfolding of a giant canvas, dragging along in its wake hues verging toward golden yellow, until the whole eastern sky, aflame with the light of approaching day, was a conflagration of pinks and yellows in all their manifold mixtures, promising, but not yet realizing, a warmth which would dispel the spring chill left by the long night. Then, with the whole east blazing with molten gold, there came the feeling of actual warmth, and with it the full radiance of day—bringing out in minute detail rock and arroyo and verdant growth, and an expanse of desert unbroken by the least vestige of animal life. At this absence of all that which would suggest the presence of life—adobes, corrals, windmills—Pat awoke again to vague uneasiness and fell to pondering his future under these men, whom he now instinctively knew pursued ways outside the bounds of the civilization of his past.
A voice behind, presumably that of the little man, interrupted the protracted silence. It was high-pitched.
"How's that hoss a-holdin', Jim?"
Pat felt a slight twitch on the reins. Evidently the man had been in deep thought, out of which the voice had startled him. Directly he made answer.
"I got quality here, Glover—I guess. Can't never tell, though. He's a good horse, but he mayn't pan out good for me."
There was further silence.
"Johnson," went on the high-pitched voice again, after a time, "did ye git what Zeke said about the country down there?"
But the leader seemed not to hear. Straight as an arrow, bulking large upon a little gray mare, he moved not the fraction of an inch with the question. Whereupon the little man, after muttering something further about Zeke, relapsed into silence.
Suddenly Pat stumbled and fell to his knees. He quickly regained his feet, however, and resumed the steady forward grind. And grind it now was becoming. His legs burned with a strange distress, his eyes ached from loss of sleep. Throughout his body was a weariness new to him. He was not accustomed to this ceaseless fox-trotting. He could not recall the time when, even on their longest excursion, his mistress had forced him like this. She had always considered him to the extent of granting him many blissful periods of rest. He found himself wanting some such consideration now. He felt that he would like to drop into a walk or to burst into a canter, knowing the relief to be found in any change of gait. But this was denied him. Yet, since the other horses gave no sign of weariness, each appearing possessed of endurance greater than his own, he refrained, through a pride greater even than his distress, from making of his own accord any change in his gait.
Toward noon, as he was brooding over another distress, one caused by gnawing hunger, he felt his master draw down. Also, the others came to a stop. With the men dismounted, he swept eyes over the scene. But he saw nothing that appeared to warrant pause. The place was dead and desolate, barren of all that which had invariably met his gaze when pausing with his mistress. But when one of the men began to build a fire, while the others flung off light saddle-bags from the little gray and the sorrel—an exceptionally rangy horse—he came in a way to understand. Further, with the fire crackling pleasantly and his bridle and saddle removed, he understood fully the cause of this halt. It was time to feed; and, raging with hunger, he forgot all other distress in the thought that now he would have a generous quantity of food, which he believed was due him, since he had more than earned it in his prolonged service through the night. Indeed, so certain was he of reward, he prepared himself for sugar and quartered apples, and, with mouth dripping saliva, stood very still, eyes following every move of his new master.
But he was doomed to bitter disappointment. Instead of sugar and quartered apples, his master tied a rope around his neck and, with a friendly slap, left him to his own devices. Wondering at this, he gazed about him—saw that the other horses were grazing. Disappointed, fretful, stung into action by hunger pangs, he set out in their direction, curious to learn what it was they were feeding upon so eagerly. But, as had happened the night before, he found himself checked with a jerk. He did not like it, for it made him conscious again of his master's suspicions. So he turned a sour gaze upon his unrestricted companions until, forced to it by inner yearnings amounting to acuteness now, he himself lowered his head and fell to grazing.
But he found it all too insufficient. His stomach urgently demanded grain and alfalfa. And he yearned for a little bran-mash. But there were none of these. He saw not even a tiny morsel of flower to appease his inner grumblings, and finally, lifting his head in a kind of disgust, he ceased to graze altogether. As he did so, the men made ready to resume the journey, replacing bridles and saddles and saddle-bags. Pat found himself hopeful again, believing that with the end of this prolonged service, which in view of the distance already traversed must be soon, he would have those things for which his body and soul cried out. And thus he set forth, occupying his former place in the order of advance, moving, as before, at a fox-trot and amid silence from the men. He was still hopeful of better things to come. But it was all a drear experience.
The grind began to tell upon him. As he trotted along, thirst-stricken, miserably nourished, weary from loss of sleep and this ceaseless toil, he sought frankly for cause to rebel, as he had done in the first hour of this strange call to new duty. And he found it. He found it not only in the man's weight, and the infrequent contact of spurs, and the tight grip on the reins, all as on that first occasion, but he found it as well in other things—in the dust thrown up by the little gray ahead, in the sun's rays slanting into his eyes from the west, in the scorching, blistering heat of this same ruthless orb beating down upon his back. Suddenly, cost him what it would, he dropped out of the fox-trot into a walk, prepared to fight for this change of stride to the last breath.
He did not hold to it, however, even though his master, curiously enough, permitted him the change. Pride asserted itself, and after a time, of his own volition, finding the gap between himself and the others much too wide to please him, he broke into a canter and quickly closed the gap, crowding back into his place between the other two horses. That was all of rebellion, though the mood still remained. Bitter, disappointed, nervous, and irritable, he continued forward, wanting things—wanting food and water, wanting sounds of voices, wanting a respite from this unnerving grind. But he made no effort to get them or to show that he wanted them. And he knew why he maintained this attitude of meek acceptance. He was too weak to enforce his demands. He knew that it required energy to buck and pitch, and he knew that he lacked this energy. So he continued along in sullen resignation until, accepting the hint of his instincts, he closed his eyes. This brought relief, and after a time, his movements becoming ever more mechanical, he found himself adrift upon a peaceful sea of semi-coma, oblivious to all trouble—hunger pangs, thirst, weariness. When he returned to full consciousness, somewhat refreshed and fit for farther distances, he found the sun well down the western sky, the cool of evening wrapping him about in delightful zephyrs, and he was still keeping his place between the two horses.
Dusk found him in a small oasis. His master slipped to earth, and with relief Pat gazed about him. He saw a clump of trees, and in their depths, glinting out at him between the trunks, a shimmering pool of water. Also, near these trees, on the edge of the grove, he saw a shack made up of rough logs. But he was interested only in the pool, and, when his master removed his saddle, eagerly and with a soft nicker he stepped toward it. But the man jerked him back. So he waited, realizing that he had been hasty, till his bridle was removed, when again he stepped toward the pool. But again he was jerked back, this time by a firm grip on his forelock. So again he waited while the man placed the disagreeable rope around his neck. With this secure, he found himself led into the grove, where he soon was quenching his raging thirst, and where, after drinking, he felt more kindly not only toward the man, but toward the whole world. When he was conducted back into the open, and the end of the rope made fast to a stake, he lifted his voice in a shrill nicker proclaiming his satisfaction. Then he stood very still, watching the man enter the shack, utterly absorbed in getting that long-delayed reward of sugar and quartered apples.
But again he waited in vain. The man did not reappear; indeed, none of the men reappeared. So after a time, swallowing his disappointment, he turned his eyes upon the other horses. As at noon, they were grazing industriously, and he knew what was in store for him. He regarded them a long moment, trying to bring himself to graze also, but finding that his knowledge of better things would not permit him. Yet there was one pleasant surprise. The little gray, sounding a soft whinny, made her way slowly toward him. This was unexpected friendliness, for the horse had seemed hostile earlier, and he promptly showed his pleasure by licking her neck with lavish attention. And though he found her coat gritty with dust, he continued this generous attention till she lowered her head and resumed her grazing. This reminded him of his own fierce hunger, and he promptly lowered his own head, following her example with a kind of gratitude, and fell to grazing with her, finding in her interest the one ray of light in all the darkness of his distress and continued disappointment. And thus he fed, keeping with her to the limits of his tether, until, soon after the candlelight had whisked out in the shack, she lay down in the yielding sand with a restful sigh. Pat understood this, but he regarded it with uncertainty, knowing that he himself with the coming of night always had protection in a stable. Then, deciding that it was right and fitting, especially as the sorrel also sank into the sand, he himself bent his knees and lay down to rest in the warmth of the desert.
But his lesson in the open was not yet fully learned. Next morning, with the other horses astir, and with the men moving in and out of the shack, he saw his master coming toward him. Reaching him, the man untied the rope from the stake, led him to the pool of water, and permitted him to drink. Then he returned him to the open, and there removed the rope from him entirely. But despite this he found that he was not free from suspicion. For now the man tied a short rope around his fore ankles, and strode back into the shack, leaving him, as before, to his own devices.
Half expecting the man to return with sugar and apples, Pat watched him take himself off with mild anticipation. But as the man did not return he bethought him after a time of his sterner hunger, and took prompt step in the direction of a tuft of grass. Instantly he felt a sharp twitch at his ankles and fell headlong. For a moment he lay dazed, utterly at a loss to understand, thrashing about frantically in futile effort to regain his feet. Then he became calm again, and brought craftiness instead of brute force to bear upon the trouble. He regained his feet. Then he studied the cause of the disaster, and finally stepped out again, cautiously now, having learned his lesson. So he did not stumble. But he did feel the check around his ankles again. Steadying himself, he saw clearly the cause of his previous discomfiture, but he did not accept it as defeat. Casting his eyes toward the other horses, he awoke to the fact that they, as well as himself, were hobbled. Watching them, studying them, he finally saw one rear, strike out with his front legs, and draw his hind legs up to meet the advance. So that was it! He now knew what he himself must do. Feeling out his hobbles carefully, gathering quick courage the while, he himself at length reared, struck out with fore legs, followed up with hind legs, and found himself directly over the tuft of grass. This was pleasant, and he promptly began to nibble it, finding it no less toothsome—perhaps more toothsome—for the effort. And when he had finished this he gazed about for others, and, seeing others, moved upon each in turn as he had moved upon the first, rearing and striking, following it with hind legs, rearing and striking again, following again with hind legs, all successfully. And so he learned his second great lesson in the open.
Thus he began his life in the desert. Fraught as it was with much discomfort, both spiritual and physical, he yet found much of interest in it all, and he was destined to find in it, as time went on, much more of even greater interest. And in the days which followed, and the weeks and months following these, because he showed that he was willing and anxious to learn, to attune himself to the life, he aroused in all who came in contact with him, men as well as horses, an esteem and affection which made life smoother and more pleasant for him than it might otherwise have been.
A hundred miles west from the shack, stretching away from it in an almost unbroken expanse, was a desert within the desert. Amole and sagebrush and cactus vied with each other to relieve the dead, flat, monotonous brown. Without movement anywhere, save for the heat-waves ascending, this expanse presented an unutterably drear and lonesome aspect. It terminated, or partly terminated—swerving off into the south beyond—in a long sand-dune running northeast and southwest. This mighty roll lay brooding, as did the world-old expanse fringing it, in the silence of late morning. Overhead a turquoise sky, low, spotless, likewise brooding, dipped down gracefully to the horizon around—a horizon like an immense girdle, a girdle which, as one journeyed along, seemed to accompany him, rapidly if he moved rapidly, slowly if he moved slowly—an immense circle of which he was the center. The sun was glaring, and revealed here and there out of the drifts a bleached skeleton, mutely proclaiming the sun as overlord, while over all, around and about and within this throbbing furnace, there seemed to lurk a voice, a voice of but a softly lisped word—solitude.
Suddenly, like a mere dot against the skyline, there appeared over the giant dune to the north a single horseman. A moment he seemed to pause on the crest, then began the long descent, slowly, with almost imperceptible movement. He was not more than under way when another dot appeared against the skyline, a second horseman, close behind the first, who, like the first, after seeming to pause a moment on the crest, dipped into the long slope with almost imperceptible movement. A third dot appeared, two dots close beside each other, and these, like the others, dipping into the descent with almost imperceptible movement, for all the world like flies reluctantly entering a giant saucer. And then appeared another, the fifth, and then no more. The last also seemed to pause a brief moment on the crest, and also dipped with almost imperceptible movement into the long descent.
They struck the floor of the furnace. Details began to emerge. One was a fat man, another was a gaunt man, a third was a little man—all smooth of face. Then there was a man with a scrubby beard. And there was another smooth-faced man, riding a little apart from the others, a little more alert, perhaps, his garments not their garments, his horse a little rounder of outline, a little more graceful of movement. They might have been in conversation, these riders out of the solitude. But all were heavily armed. And all rode slowly, leisurely, taking their own good time, as if this in itself was duty, with orders uncertain, or with no orders at all. They rode on across the desert within the desert, presenting three-quarter profile, then, with an hour passing, full profile, then, with another hour passing, quarter profile, and now, with yet another hour passing, five agreeable backs—broad, most of them, all topped with sombreros, and all motionless save for the movement of their mounts. On and on they rode into the south, underneath a blistering sun at full zenith. They became mere dots again upon the pulsating horizon, mere specks, and disappeared in the shimmering haze.
Solitude, the voice of solitude, the death-stillness, throbbing silence, reigned once more. Not an animal, not an insect, not a tree, struck the eye. The arid and level floor was again clean of movement. The sun glared, revealing here and there out of the drifts a bleached skeleton, in this speechless thing mutely proclaiming its own sway. Beneath the sun the horizon, an immense girdle, swept round in unbroken line, pulsating. The turquoise sky hung low, spotless and shimmering, brooding, dipping smoothly down to the horizon and to the long sand-dune running to northeast and southwest. Skirting this dune, reaching to it out of the east, then swerving off to the south beyond, lay the almost unbroken expanse, the desert within the desert, its dead, flat, monotonous brown relieved here and there with alternating sagebrush and cactus and amole, stretching back a distance of a hundred miles to the shack.
CHANGE OF MASTERS
The interior of the shack was comparatively bare. On the floor, which was of adobe, and therefore hard and smooth as cement, were five three-legged stools and a table, all crude and evidently shaped out of saplings from the grove. There was but a single window, high up, tiny and square, containing neither glass nor frame, which looked out upon the south. Built against the walls were some shelves, upon which lay a scant supply of tinware, and in the opposite wall was a tier of bunks, just now littered with soiled blankets. Evidently this place had sheltered these men frequently, for each moved about it with easy familiarity, and obviously it was a retreat, a rendezvous, a hiding-place against the range police.
A game of cards was about to be started. The three men were seated round the table, and before two of them—the younger man, Jim, and the heavy-set man, the leader, Johnson—was an even distribution of chips. The third man, Glover, was smoking a short-stemmed pipe, evidently having been cut out of the play.
"Jim," said Johnson, showing his perfect teeth with an unpleasant grin, "we'll hop right to this! I think my little proposition here is fair and square. Thirty dollars in money against that black horse out there. I told you where you could get a good horse, and you got one sure enough! And he's yours! But I've taken a kind of shine to him myself, and why ain't this a good way to push it over? My little gray and thirty dollars in money. What's the matter with it?"
The other did not appear greatly pleased, nevertheless. Thoughtfully he riffled the cards a long moment. Then he looked up into Johnson's black eyes steadily.
"Poker?" he asked, quietly.
"Draw poker," replied the leader, giving his black mustache a satisfied twist. He jerked his head in the direction of the chips. "Win all, take all," he added.
Jim lowered his eyes again. He was not more than a boy, this outlaw, and he had formed a strong attachment for the black horse. And because he had come to understand Pat and to appreciate him, he hated to think of the horse's serving under this bloodless man opposite. Pat's life under this man would be a life of misery. It was so with all of Johnson's horses. Either they died early, or else, as in the case of the little gray, their spirits sank under his cruelty to an ebb so low that nothing short of another horse, and one obviously capable of rendering successful protection, roused them to an interest in their own welfare. This was why the little gray, he recalled, had approached the black the first night after reaching the shack. Evidently she had recognized in him an able protector, should he care to protect her, against the brutality of her master. And so to play a game of cards, or anything else, with a view to losing possession—
"I don't hear you saying!" cut in the cold voice of the other upon his thoughts. "Ain't the stakes right?"
Jim looked up. "I guess so," he said. "I'm tryin' to figure—percentages and the like."
Again he relapsed into thought. He feared this man as he feared a snake. For Johnson had a grip on him in many ways, and in ways unpleasant to recall. So he knew that to refuse meant a volley of invectives that would end in his losing the horse anyway, losing him by force, and a later treatment of the animal, through sheer spite, the brutality of which he did not like to contemplate. So he did not reply; he did not dare to say yes or no. Either way, the horse was gone. For Johnson was clever with the cards, fiendishly clever, and when playing recognized no law save crookedness.
"Jim," burst out Johnson, controlling himself evidently with effort, "I want to ask you something. I want you to tell me something. I want you to tell me who it was grubstaked you that winter you needed grubstaking mighty bad. I want you to tell me who it was got you out of that scrape over in Lincoln County two years ago. I want you to tell me who it was took care of you last winter—under mighty trying circumstances, too—and put you in the way of easy money this spring! But you needn't tell me," he suddenly concluded, picking up the cards savagely. "I know who it was without your telling me, and you know who it was without my telling you. And now what's the returns? When I give you a chance to come back a little—in a dead-square, open game of cards—you crawl into your shell and act like I'd asked you to step on the gallows."
Jim permitted himself a quiet smile. "I don't think I'm playing the hog, exactly," he rejoined, evenly. "I guess maybe I'm thinking of the horse as much as anything. And not so much of him, either, maybe, as of you, the way you handle horses if they don't dance a two-step when you want a two-step. In about a week, Johnson," he continued, mildly, "you'd have that horse jabbed full of holes with them Mexican rowels of yours! He wouldn't stand for that kind of affection, or I'm no judge of horseflesh. He ain't used to it; he ain't that kind of a horse—your kind! You ought to see that yourself. You don't want no spirited horse like him, because either you'd kill him or he'd kill you. I can see it, if you can't!"
"We'll now cut for deal," interposed Johnson, grimly.
"Take myself," went on the other, half smiling "why I like the idea of keeping him. I used to kill cats and rob nests and stone dogs when I was a kid; but later I learned different. I didn't kill cats and rob nests after that; dogs I got to petting whenever I'd meet one. I got acquainted with animals that way. Made the acquaintance from both angles—seeing how they acted under torture, then learning how they acted under kindness. I know animals, Johnson," he added, quietly. "And an animal to me is an animal and something more. A horse, for instance. I see more in a horse than just an easy way of getting around. But that ain't you. You're like a man I once knowed that kept a dog just because the dog was a good hunter. If I couldn't see more in a dog than just what he's fit for, I'd quit the sport."
"Now we'll cut for deal."
Jim had been rocking back and forth easily on two legs of his stool. He now dropped forward squarely on the floor and nodded assent.
"Cut for deal," he said, quietly. "You!"
The game began. Glover, who evidently found interest in discussions, but none whatever in a game of cards, tilted back against the wall and began to talk, now that the argument was over.
"Zeke tells me," he began in a nasal voice, tamping the tobacco into the bowl of his pipe reflectively, "as how they's a bunch o' Injun renegades movin' south'ards off the reservation on a hell-toot. I meant to speak of it afore, but forgot, as usual. Jim's talk here o' animals lovin' each other that away reminds me." He lifted gray eyes to Johnson. "Didn't Zeke say nothin' to you about that, neither?" he asked, evidently mindful of some other grave oversight on the part of "Zeke."
Johnson did not reply until after three or four rounds of the cards. "Zeke told you a lot of things that hour you sat with him alone," he rejoined, with broad sarcasm. "Zeke must like you!"
"Mebbe," agreed Glover, accepting the remark with all seriousness. "He says as how Fort Wingate is out, and I remarks that sich a move about terminates the performance. He agrees with me—says fust squint them renegades gits at regular troops they'll hunt gopher-holes as places o' ginerous salvation."
The others remained silent. The game was going decidedly against Jim. It had gone against him from the first—as he had known it would. Yet he continued to play, watchful of his opponent, keen to note any irregularities. Yet he had discovered nothing that might be interpreted as cheating. Still he was losing, and still, despite all beliefs to the contrary, he entertained hope, hope that he might win. If he did win, he told himself, Johnson was enough of a white man to accept the defeat and leave the horse where he was. Yet his chips were steadily dwindling; the cards persistently refused to come his way; only once thus far had he held a winning hand. But he played on, becoming ever more discouraged, until, suddenly awaking to an unexpectedly good hand, he opened the pot. The raises followed back and forth swiftly, but he lost again. And now Johnson, as he mechanically drew the chips toward him, broke the silence.
"Zeke got you all worked up, didn't he?" he declared, turning his eyes upon Glover. "As for renegades," he went on, beginning to deal the cards again, "I've knowed 'em—hull droves of 'em—to stampede on the whistle of a rattler." Evidently he was returning to good humor.
Glover took his pipe from his mouth. "Renegades gits stirred up every jest so often," he observed. "I s'pose it's because of the way they feel about things. Being run offen the reservations thataway ain't nowise pleasant, to begin with, and then havin' to hang around the aidges for what grub their folks sees fit for to sneak out to 'em ought to make it jest that much more monotonous—kind of. Reckon I'd break out myself—like a man that eats pancakes a lot—under sich circumstances. Zeke says this band—the latest gang to git sore—is a-headin' dead south. Talks like we might run agin trouble down there. More'n one brand, too—the police and the reg'lars all bein' out thataway. They're all out—Zeke says."
The others were absorbed in play, and so made no retort. Whereat Glover, with a reflective light in his eyes, continued:
"I've seen something myself," he went on, evidently mindful of Johnson's observation. "I've seen better men than Injuns stampede on less than rattlesnakes—and cover a heap more ground in a lot less shorter time. What I'm talkin' about is skunks," he explained, to nobody in particular—"hydrophoby skunks—their bite. Why," he continued, warming to his subject and seemingly ignorant of its myths, "I once seen a man ride into San Mercial with his face that white it wouldn't 'a' showed a chalk mark! And he was holdin' up his thumb like it was pizen—which it was! And he was cuttin' for old Doc Struthers that fast his cayuse was sparkin' out of his ears. Bit by a hydrophoby skunk—yes, sirree. Got to the Doc's just in time, too! But he allus was lucky—the Doc! Money jest rolled into that party all the time. But some folks don't jest quite make it—horses gives out, or something. And if they ain't got the sand to shoot the finger off—"
A sudden shadow across the window checked him. He quietly reached for his gun. Also, Johnson lifted quick eyes to the window. And now Jim turned his head. Directly Glover rose to his feet; Johnson got up off his stool; Jim flung to the door. A moment they stood tense. Then Jim moved cautiously to the window. He gazed outside. As he did so his features relaxed. Presently he returned to the table.
"That horse," he explained, eyes twinkling.
The others returned to their places. All were visibly relieved. But Glover did not go on with his yarn. Lighting his pipe again, he fell to smoking in thoughtful silence.
Jim picked up his cards. He saw four kings. But he felt no elation. Before him was a mere dribble of chips, and he knew that he could not hold out much longer. Johnson was coldly surveying his own cards, and after a studied moment opened the pot. Jim thrust forward half his small stack, followed by Johnson with a raise, whereupon Jim placed all he had upon the board. That closed the game. The other spread out his cards generously, and Jim, glancing listlessly at four aces, rose from the table. Turning to the window, he saw Pat still lingering near the shack. He gazed at him a long moment in silence.
"He's yours," he said, finally, facing Johnson. "Reckon I'll go outside for a little air."
Outside, he made straight for Pat, removed the hobbles, led him into the grove. As the horse quenched his thirst, Jim sat down with his back against a tree and removed his hat.
"Sorry, old-timer," he began, quietly, "but it can't be helped. We—" He interrupted himself; shoved Pat away a step. "That's better," he went on, smiling. Then, as Pat looked puzzled, "On my foot—yes," he explained. "All of your own, too, of course!" he added. "But one of mine, too!" He was silent. "As I was remarking," he continued, after a moment, "we've got to beat him some other way. You're a likely horse."
He lowered his eyes thoughtfully. He did know of a way to beat Johnson. That way was to mount Pat, ride hard for the open, and race it out against the little gray mounted by Johnson. But already he could see the vindictive and cursing Johnson in pursuit, discharging guns before him. So the idea was hopeless, for he knew that Johnson even now was alert for some such move. But even if it were feasible, he realized that he never could rid himself of the man. Others had tried, as he well recalled—tried to break away from him for all time, with a result in no way to Johnson's credit. Two had never been seen again, which pointed grimly to the fact that Johnson lived up to his favorite maxim, which was that dead men tell no tales. Another was the case of that poor luckless devil who, through some mysterious workings of the law, having broken with Johnson, had been arrested and convicted of a crime long forgotten. But Jim knew, as others closely associated with Johnson knew, that it was Johnson who indirectly had sent the unfortunate one to the penitentiary. So it required courage, a kind of unreasoning desperation, to quit the man and the life he led.
Suddenly Jim took a new hold upon himself. What, he began to ask himself, was getting into him? Why was he suddenly thinking of quitting Johnson? What would he do if he did quit him? To his kind all decent channels were closed for any but the exceptional man. But that wasn't it! Why was he arguing with himself along these lines? What was getting into him? He felt as if some good and powerful influence was come into his life! He had felt like this in Denver when a Salvation Army lassie had approached him. But this wasn't Denver! Nor was there a woman! What was it, anyway? He could not decide.
He arose and laid his hand upon Pat's forelock.
"It's a regular case," he said, leading the horse out of the grove, "for something to turn up. It generally does, anyway," he concluded. "Don't it, Old Gravity?"
PAT TURNS THIEF
A week passed before Pat knew of his change in masters. But that was not strange. Busily engaged in keeping himself alive on scant herbage, he took but little interest in anything else. Besides, his young friend continued to make much of him, talking in soothing tones and gently stroking his sides, and the little gray, holding herself faithfully near, also maintained quiet evidence of friendliness. So he had no reason to suspect change. But one morning, with camp broken, and saddle-bags flung out, and the window sealed over, and the door shut and barred, and the other horses bridled and saddled, there came to him in the person of the large man himself—a person he had instinctively disliked—the first sign of the change in his fortune.
The man approached, bridle on arm, to remove his hobbles. He remained motionless under this, and prepared also to accept the bridle quietly. But in bridling him the man was rough to an extent he had never before known—forcing an oddly shaped bit against his tongue, and twisting and turning his sensitive ears as if these delicate organs were so much refractory leather or metal. Then came the saddle, and with it further torture. The forward belt was made snug, which he was accustomed to and expected; but when the rear girdle was cinched so tight that he found difficulty in breathing, he became nervous and wanted to protest. It was all very unusual, this rough handling, and he did not understand it. The effect of the tight cinch was peculiar, too. With the knot tied firmly, he felt girded as for some great undertaking, his whole nervous system seemed to center in his stomach, and all his wonted freedom and buoyancy seemed compressed and smothered. With all this, and the man in the saddle and spurring viciously, he realized grimly the change in masters.
They set out at a fox-trot, continuing their southwesterly direction. It was an unmarked course from the beginning, leading them steadily down into the Mogollon range, and, as before, Johnson was occupying the lead, with Jim next behind, and Glover bringing up the rear. And, as on the first leg of the journey, all rode in silence.
So Pat was in the lead, and while he found his new master half as heavy again as the other, he also found compensation for the increased weight in the position which he occupied. Not that he was proud to be in the lead; nothing from the beginning of this adventure had caused a thrill of either joy or pride. But he did find in his new place freedom from dust cast up by the heels of his companions, and he trotted along in contentment, to all outward appearances. But it was only an appearance of content. Within were mixed emotions. While he felt pleasure at being active again, while he was resigned in a way to his hunger pangs, and he was glad that his friends, the little gray and the young man, were still with him, yet against all this was a sense of revolt at the unnecessary tightness of the cinch, the hard hand on the reins, and the frequent touch of spur and heel and stirrup against his sides. Finally the feeling which began at that initial torture in bridling swelled with the consequent annoyances into approaching revolt. He became ugly and morose.
This soon revealed itself. He was crossing a wide arroyo. Without counting costs, grimly blind to the result, he burst out of the fox-trot into a canter. He held to this a thrilling moment, and then, finding himself keyed to greater exertions, abandoned the canter and broke into a sharp run. It was all done quickly, the changes of stride lapping almost within his own length, and his heart leaped and pounded with delight, for the change somehow relieved him.
But it was a mistake. Quickly as it was done, he found himself almost as quickly jerked up, swung viciously around, and his sides raked with ruthless spurs. He gasped a moment under the smarting fire of the spurs, then, as in the old days, reared in a towering rage. And this was a mistake. Too late he found the man's weight overbalancing him. He struggled to recover himself, plunged over backward, and down, striking the earth heavily. Hurriedly he regained his feet, but not so the man, not till the others sprang to his assistance. Then he realized what he had done, realized it fully as he caught the venomous gleam in the man's eyes and heard the storm of abuse volleying from his lips. Then, looking at the man, and listening to his raging outburst, he conjured up out of the dim past memories of the Mexican hostler and of that single encounter in the white corral. And now his fear for the man left him.
"I'll kill him! I'll shoot the horse!" roared Johnson, his face yellow underneath the tan. He reached toward his side-arms.
But he did not shoot. With his face white and drawn Jim strode to Pat's head, while Glover, quick to understand, played the solicitous attendant, assisting the limping Johnson into the saddle. And that closed the incident. Presently all were riding along again, with Johnson, wincing under internal distress, holding his reins more loosely than before.
But it was not without its good. As on that other occasion in the corral, Pat had learned something. He had measured a man, and he knew, and knew that the man knew, that he had come off victor. But it gave him no secret gratification. He continued to trot along, holding steadily to the gait, subtly aware of the slackened rein and of the wrenched and loosened girdle, until, with the coming of noon, the blessed relief from the weight of the man, the ill-fitting saddle, and the over-tight girth, came also an agreeable surprise. He was turned out to graze without hobble or tether, and for this consideration he felt faint glimmerings of respect for his new master. Making free at first with the other horses, he set off to enjoy to the full his new-found liberty.
But as he pursued ever farther the elusive vegetation in the joy of freedom, he presently awoke to his great distance from camp, and, indeed, from the other horses. Conscious of a sudden gripping loneliness and a certain apprehension, he began to retrace his way. As he did so, out of the silence came a nasty whirring sound, and suddenly he felt a rope settle over his head. Surprise, then anger, displaced his loneliness and apprehension; he jerked back to escape the rope. But it held fast. He braced his legs and began to pull steadily. But the harder he pulled the worse the rope choked him. Finally he ceased all effort and turned his eyes along the rope. At the far end stood the little mare, legs braced in the sand, and astride her, stolid and grim, and with eyes narrowed, the figure of the large man. At sight of him Pat began to pull again, more through ugliness now than desire to escape, until he found that he was dragging the little gray out of her stiffened hold. Then he slackened off. Also, as she wheeled back toward camp, he set out amiably after her. In camp he found his young friend scattering and deadening the coals of the camp-fire, and the little man making up the saddle-bags. This told him that the journey was to be resumed, and he stood quiet and peaceful as he was being bridled and saddled, and afterward he trotted along under the guidance of his master without show of anger or rebellion. Indeed, though the sun was hot, and the unmarked trail tedious, and the weight on his back heavier than ever, he felt less fretful and more contented than at any time since leaving the little ranch beside the river—possibly because of the thrill of his double encounter.
Ahead and on either hand the desert soon began to break and lift. As they went on the dunes grew to be hills and heights, growing, looming, closing in upon them. Now and again a clump of trees or a shoulder of rock or a stretch of foliage stepped out in relief against the brown of the landscape, revealing more than once ideal grazing-land. Also, as they penetrated deeper into this broken country, the sky overhead showed change. From a spotless blue it revealed tiny splotches of gray-white cloud scudding before upper currents. With the passing hours these clouds became heavy, sullen, and threatening, until the sun, dipping into the west, sinking in a kind of hazy moisture, left the heavens completely overcast, cold and bleak and forbidding—a dense mass of cloud-banks down to the tip of ridge and range. And now came dusk, short and chill, and with it the slow ascent of a long grade, leading them up to a ridge, low and ragged, trailing away interminably to north and south in the gloom. Complete darkness found them deep among high hills.
The men drew rein beside a little stream. They watered the horses, and then, throwing off saddle-bags and gathering brush, they built a tiny fire. Glover appeared nervous and worried, and when the meal was ended turned to mount and be off again. But Johnson called him back. Johnson was seated on the ground, close beside Jim, and Glover sat down with them. Thus they waited, silent, reflective, watching, while about them pressed the close night, seeming by its touch to impart to them something of its solemnity. Off at one side the horses, bridled and saddled, waited also—watching and waiting, motionless, and over them all brooded a stillness that was mighty and portentous. Thus they waited for two hours, wrapped in profound silence, and then Johnson, after scanning the sky, rose and made for the horses. The others quickly followed him. Their trail led into a narrow defile. Up this winding way they rode, with Johnson in the lead, up and ever up, until they burst through a clump of brush at the top. There they drew rein and again waited, silent, reflective, watching. Presently Glover, with eyes turned eastward, uttered a grunt which meant relief.
The clouds in the eastern sky were breaking. Through the heavy banks came a faint glimmering of moonlight. At first but a hair-line, it widened out, reaching up and across the sky, developing steadily into the semblance of a frozen flash of heat lightning, until all the eastern heavens showed a shimmering expanse, broken here and there by black clouds sullenly holding their own, which flooded the underscudding desert in beautiful mottled gray-green coloring. Wider and wider the light spread, up and away on either hand, moving stealthily across the sky, until the sheen of it broke over the ridge itself, and then swept beyond to the west, laying bare a broad expanse of mesa dotted with gray-green specks that told of the presence of hundreds of cattle. And now the sullen clouds took to weaving, swaying under the pressure of upper-air currents, the specks below beginning to lift and fall with the motion of the clouds like bits of wreckage undulate on the sea. The air-drifts descended, came closer, fanning the cheeks of the men, rustling through the leaves which crowned the ridge, and breaking the heavy silence. The air-currents flicked the desert with their freight of swift-moving shadows, causing strange movement among the bits of wreckage—the cattle. It was a glorious march, lighting up the western expanse beneath and revealing a flat country, unbroken by dune or cleft as far as the eye could penetrate. So the light moved on, crowding before it sullen shadows which presently disappeared.
Johnson broke the stillness. "We'd better move along down," he said, and shook Pat's reins.
The horses began the long descent. As compared with the upward climb they made slow progress. Forced to feel their way, they moved always in halts and starts, over saplings, around bulging rocks, along narrow ledges, and at length gained the mesa, where the men drew rein. Johnson, sweeping his eyes coolly over the field of his campaign, began to give orders.
"Jim," he snapped, "cut in over there—that arroyo—and crowd 'em around to the south. Don't go too deep." Then, as Jim caught up his reins, "Glover, swing off this side—close in. We'll keep close in down to the line. Hop along!"
Pat remained standing. He turned his eyes after the little gray and her rider. He saw the pair swing up over a rise of ground at a gallop, dip from view into a hollow, and appear again on the level beyond. Across this they rode, speeding to the opposite slopes, then slackening as they ascended, making quietly among the nervous cattle, horses and riders moving with the easy certainty that told of much experience. Then he saw the head and shoulders of the young man above the surging herd, crowding a part of it slowly in his direction, to the right, to the left, forward and around, always making steadily toward him. It was interesting, and he continued to watch the cool steadiness of the man and the easy control of the horse, until he caught sight of the other, riding the opposite flank, but also crowding steadily toward him. He fell to watching this man, who, not so tall as Jim among the herd, but as quietly active, was also pressing to right and left and forward and around among the cattle, relentlessly cutting them out. Soon there was a general forward movement, the young man riding on the far side, the little man closing up the rear, and this brought the whole herd, some bellowing loudly, others in sullen silence, still others contentedly munching, directly opposite. Then he felt the prick of spurs, and, throwing himself eagerly at the task, he galloped around behind the advancing cattle, falling into the position now abandoned by the little man, who cantered around and forward upon the left flank. It was exciting, and for a moment he thrilled. Then came the only interruption.