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Bred of the Desert - A Horse and a Romance
by Marcus Horton
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A big steer, breaking suddenly out of the herd, tore madly to the rear. Pat, nearest the escaping beef, was spurred in pursuit. It was unexpected, the spurring, and it was savage, and, jolted out of soothing reflection, he flattened his ears and balked. The man spurred him again and again and again, finally raking his sides mercilessly. Whereupon Pat balked in earnest, bucking and pitching viciously. At this the man swung his quirt, cutting Pat repeatedly over head and ears. Yet Pat continued to plunge, holding grimly to his lesson, which was to teach this man the futility of this treatment. He did not throw the man off, but neither did he go ahead. Finally the man ceased his brutality, and evidently coming to understand, headed Pat after the moving herd without spur or quirt. Then Pat, though still rankling under the cruelty, sprang eagerly forward, desirous of showing his willingness to serve when rightly used.

That was all. The night passed quietly, the men, alert to their tasks, each separated from the other, riding stolidly into golden dawn. But not till late, with the sun half-way to its zenith, and then only because of safe distance from possible detection, did they draw rein. Saddle-bags were thrown off, though bridle and saddle were left on in case of emergency, and the horses were turned out on short tethers. The men risked a fire, since they were in the shadow of a ridge, and when the coffee-pot was steaming seated themselves on the ground, in a close circle. For the first time since midnight one spoke. It was Johnson.

"We'll hold west of Lordsburg," he declared, sweeping his eyes gloatingly over the herd. "Francisco Espor and his gang over the line'll weep when they see that bunch—for joy!"

Jim leaned back upon one elbow. "What was that rumpus last night," he inquired, "right after we started?" Then he showed his thoughts. "I mean, the horse."

Johnson swung his head around. For a moment he appeared not to understand. Then suddenly his eyes lost their good-humored twinkle and grew hard.

"Lost one," he answered, abruptly. "The horse stalled." He narrowed his eyes as he stared vindictively at Pat. "I must take a day off, after we get over the line," he snapped, "and break that animal to saddle, bridle, spur, quirt, and rope. He 'ain't never been broke, that horse, and he's naturally mean!"

Jim sat up. "Not with me," he declared, quietly, "when we got acquainted. You ain't taking him right, that's all."

Johnson eyed him surlily. "You're a wonderful piece!" he snapped; and then, by glint of eye and jerk of head showed that he dismissed the subject.

But Jim seemed to feel otherwise. "Maybe I am," he retorted, turning absent eyes in the direction of the horse. "But I ain't all. I happen to know of another wonderful piece. I'm only a one-territory piece."

Johnson grinned. "Go on," he urged, politely.

"There's no 'go on' to it," rejoined Jim, revealing equal politeness. "I'm only thinking of a piece I happen to know that runs about a man that's wanted more or less in seven states and two territories. Running double, he's hard to get."

Johnson reached over coolly and struck him nastily across the mouth. Then as coolly he sat back, while Jim slowly rose to his feet. His eyes were blazing.

"Thanks," he said, tensely. "I've heard a lot about your killings," he went on, breathless with anger. "I guess maybe that's the way—"

"Hush!" broke in Glover, excitedly, his eyes upon the ridge to the east.

The others turned. Moving slowly along the crest, disappearing, reappearing, disappearing again, was the figure of a man. They gazed a long moment, when the figure dropped from view again. They continued to gaze, silent, rigid, watchful, peering narrowly against the morning sunlight. Presently the figure reappeared, lower against the gray background, moving slowly as before, evidently crouching. Lower it came, quarter down the slope, half-way, then again disappeared. Johnson broke the tense silence.

"Sheepherder!" he snapped, and turned savage eyes back upon Jim.

But Glover leaped to his feet. "If that's a sheepherder," he cried, making for the horses at a run, "then I'm a sheep!"



CHAPTER XVII

A RUNNING FIGHT

A rifle-shot forced instant action. Jim whirled away from the camp-fire and saddle-bags and sprang toward the horses, while Johnson, leaping up with the agile twist of an athlete, gained his feet running. Jim headed grimly for Pat, but Johnson reached him a breath in advance. Snatching up the reins and mounting, he dug Pat viciously with his huge rowels. At that Pat balked. The man swore and cursed and spurred again; but the horse remained obdurate. Seeing this, Johnson stopped spurring. Thereupon Pat flung forward, dragging his tether clear of its stake, and crowded close beside the gray. Jim was mounted on the gray, bending low in the saddle, racing in frantic pursuit of Glover. Mounted on the sorrel, Glover was well in the lead, speeding straight into the west, riding at right angles to the ridge, galloping hard for the open desert. The echo of the shot reverberated again faintly, and around them closed a tense silence.

Others were making for the open. Out of the underbrush, riding easily, burst a handful of rangers. Stephen was one of them. As they swept into the clear country, well-armed, well-mounted, the look on their strong, bronzed faces told of their purpose, which was to get the thieves alive, if possible. Down the long slope they galloped, hats low against the sunlight, elbows winging slightly, heads and backs slanting to the winds, speeding like a group of centaurs. Other than Stephen, there were four of these range police. Men of insight, of experience, keen in the ways of the lawless, knowing best of all the type ahead, they rode without strain, without urging, knowing that this was a long race, a matter of endurance, a test, not for themselves so much as for the horses, those of the pursued as well as their own. Loosely scattered, they rode, eyes not upon the thieves, but upon the horses carrying the thieves, as if hopeful for another break like that shown at the start by the magnificent black.

Thus rode the rangers. Not so Stephen. Stephen knew no such laws. All he knew was that after long weeks of futile riding, here at last was Helen's Pat galloping madly away from him. Lashing and spurring his own bay mare, resolute and determined, he gradually began to pull away from the others.

Ahead, Johnson began slowly to gather in his trailing tether-rope. Almost without visible effort he wound it around his saddle-horn. Whereupon Jim, evidently aroused to like danger of tripping, set to work at the loop around the little gray's neck. The knot was tight, and his position cramped, but he persisted, and, with it loose, tossed the rope away. Glover already was free from his trailing rope, having taken the time at the outset hurriedly to cast it off. And he was still in the lead, the sorrel carrying him without seeming effort, and moving steadily away from the others, each long stride gaining half as much ground again as the swinging gait of Pat or the quick and nervous reaching of the little gray. But all were moving at top speed, racing desperately across the desert, leaping sand-dunes, dipping into hollows, mounting eagerly over larger dunes, on and on like the wind, sending up with each fling of hoof swirling clouds of dust and gravel. It was a grim effort.

Such a time comes to but few men. And such a crisis tests the mettle of men and shows the differences. Gripped in a primal emotion, fear for life, weak men show strength, and strong men weakness. Harmless men murder, murderous men weep, blasphemous men pray, praying men curse. Yet under such a stress strong men often reveal greater strength, rising to physical and spiritual heights of reserve that mock a following fate, even as praying men often pray harder and more fervently than ever they prayed in times of calm. Individual in peace, mankind is individual in war. It is the way of man.

And thus it was with these three hurtling forward in the shadow of doom. Glover, ever weak, ever apprehensive, yet always considerate of others, now revealed unexpected strength and appeared considerate only of himself. Crouching in his saddle, apparently mindful of but a single thing—escape—he lashed his horse brutally, swinging his quirt rhythmically, now and again darting cold eyes backward. Johnson, given by nature to bravado and bluster, was even more defiant in this supreme moment. He rode with a plug of tobacco in hand, biting off huge pieces frequently, more frequently squirting brown juices between lips white as the telltale ring around his mouth—a ring as expressive as the hollows beneath his glittering eyes. And Jim, ever worried, ever conscious of himself, sat in his saddle easily, now that he was about to reap the harvest of his ill-sown seeds, riding with eyes on the horse alongside—Pat—studying with coolly critical gaze the animal's smoothness of gait, wonderful carriage of head, unusual and beautiful lifting of forelegs. Thus, in this valley of the shadow, each was his true self and something more, or less, as the chaotic spirit within viewed the immediate future or scanned the distant past.

Another shot from the posse—a screaming bullet high overhead—a command to stop! But they did not stop. Instead, Johnson, rising in his stirrups, unholstered a huge revolver and fired point-blank at the rangers. It was the wrong thing to do, and instantly Jim drew away from the leader. This left a clear gap between, and exposed the speeding Glover ahead to fire from the rear. And suddenly it came, a volley of rifle-shots, and Glover, stiffening suddenly, was seen to clutch at his saddle-horn. Also, he turned his head and shoulders as if to cry out. But he uttered not a sound. Evidently the jostling of his sorrel forbade. He turned his head to the front again, and, slumping low in his saddle, began frantic use of spur and quirt. But the sorrel had lost his stride, and before he could regain it Jim and Johnson had dashed alongside. Jim swung close and looked at Glover. Glover returned the gaze, and again appeared about to speak. But now the sorrel flung forward into his stride, and the movement seemed to decide Glover against all utterance.

But Jim understood. He held close to Glover, but turned his eyes after Johnson. Instantly he scowled and his mouth drew grimly down. For Johnson was swinging off at a tangent, riding out of the set direction, rapidly pulling away from them. For one sullen moment Jim regarded him; then turned his head to the rear. One of the rangers, a young man mounted on a graceful bay—with the rangers, yet apparently not one of them—was riding well forward out of the group. Understanding Johnson's move now, comprehending his utter selfishness in thus swinging away from them, Jim gazed pityingly at Glover. But Glover did not notice him. He himself was following the swift-riding Johnson with blazing eyes, and suddenly he exploded in vindictive anger.

"Put a hole in him!" he cried, hoarsely. "Shoot him! Shoot him, Jim! I—I can't!"

But neither could Jim. It was not his nature. Yet there was one thing he could do. And this he did. He took fresh hold on the reins, and, grim and deliberate and vengeful, swung about after Johnson. Further, in swinging his horse about he purposely crowded the sorrel over also. This brought both in direct pursuit of Johnson, and soon they overtook him. But not because of their greater speed.

Suffering from an unwonted raking of spurs, Pat had taken to sudden rebellion—balking at first, then beginning to buck, flinging about in all directions except the way desired by the fugitive on his back. Riding close and noting this, Jim felt glad beyond all decency. He even chuckled with satisfaction, conscious almost of a desire to dismount and hug the black. Then his feeling changed. He regretted his glee, became fearful for the man, and called sharply to the horse. And now Pat came to a stand. This for a moment only. Then of his own accord he sprang forward again, speeding as eagerly now as but a moment before he had rebelled, and soon he was galloping alongside the gray. Eminently pleased with the whole performance, Jim again chuckled in delight and burst forward at top speed.

Nor was this rebellion lost on Stephen. Riding well forward of the others, when he saw Pat offering resistance he whipped and spurred his mount in the hope that Pat would hold out. But Pat did not hold out, though Stephen knew that he would have, had he but understood. Also, there was his handicap—handicap of the others also. Neither he nor they dared to fire lest they should shoot the black. Occasionally the thieves spread apart, thus giving a chance for a shot with safe regard for Pat. But these openings were infrequent. All they could do was ride in the hope that the thieves might be seized with panic at last and give themselves up.

But no such thought came to the fugitives. Johnson, after his galling experience with Pat, looked more grimly determined than ever to get away. Presently he struck back again. He drew a revolver, rose in his stirrups, and fired twice to the rear. It was not without result. Up from the rangers swept a chorus of yells, and Jim, turning his head, saw the foremost pursuer, the young man who was evidently not a ranger, circle headlong over his tumbling horse. He turned to the front again, and, understanding what would follow, whipped and spurred furiously. Suddenly the answer came. The desert awoke in a fusillade of shots, and Jim saw Glover, who once more was in the lead, drift out of his saddle, slip down much as a child descends from its high-chair, and fall to earth in a crumpled heap. He swerved and dashed alongside. For an instant he drew rein and studied the still face. Then he lifted his eyes, gazing off absently toward the distant skyline, the mellow haze in the hills, the shimmering of heat-waves above the dunes, the glistening reflections of light off myriads of tiny sand cubes. Glover—poor Glover—had paid the price, and had paid it in silence.

He wheeled his horse and sped after Johnson. He overtook him swinging up over a slight elevation. Dead ahead, not more than two miles distant, he saw a long grove of trees. It gave him hope. Here was a chance for effective resistance. Here both he and Johnson could dismount, drive the horses into shelter, seek shelter themselves, and open fire upon the posse. His spirits kindled. He would shoot to kill, as he knew Johnson would shoot to kill, and then, with the rangers helplessly disabled, he would mount Pat, mount the black this time, and if Johnson became ugly he would shoot him. Then he would ride to the east, ride out of this life, and with the horse take up a decent existence somewhere, abandoning crime forever. He would—

More shots from the rear interrupted him. Evidently the rangers, mounting over the rise themselves, had also caught sight of the grove. Evidently, too, they were taking no chances against such a stand as he was contemplating. At any rate, the firing became rapid and continuous, and it was deadly, for suddenly he saw Johnson wilt in the saddle, drop his revolver, drop the reins, and clutch at his left arm. Also he heard a cry—heard it sharp and clear above the pounding of the gray's hoofs and the creak and crunch of his own saddle-leather.

"I'm hit! I'm hit, boy! They—they've got me!" Pat himself heard the outcry and felt the loosened rein. It puzzled him. He did not know whether to keep going or to slacken down. But he kept on going—going hard. Yet he would have welcomed a halt. He was weak and faint. He could not remember the time, save that memorable day on the mesa, when he had run so hard and so continuously. Yet ahead lay trees, and instinctively he accepted them as his destination. In that grove perhaps was water, an opportunity for rest, and abundance of food. So he continued forward, grimly conscious of his burning ankles, his pounding and fluttering heart and heaving and clamoring lungs—plunging forward under the weak urging of his heavy master, responding now through force of habit—feeling that because he was in motion he must continue in motion. It was a numb, mechanical effort, involuntary and apart from him, as much apart from his control as was the beating of his heart.

Another volley came from the rear, and with it another violent change in his master. The man cried out and loosened his feet in the stirrups. Yet Pat continued to gallop until he felt the weight slowly leaving him, felt it go altogether, felt it dangling from one stirrup. Then he came to a stop. As he did so the little gray dashed past—his friend. And now great loneliness gripped him. He started forward. But the weight in his stirrup checked him. He came to a stop again. Then he wanted to nicker in protest, but he found that he could not. He was too weak to utter sound. So he stood there, his eyes upon the little gray and her rider, watching them hurtling toward the grove. Then the thudding of hoofs came to his ears from the rear, and, slowly turning, he saw a group of horsemen riding wearily—one hatless; another with flaying quirt; a third with smoking carbine; a fourth, a large man, smooth and red of face, riding heavily—all galloping toward him.

But they did not hold his interest. His heart and soul lay with the little gray mare, and, turning to the front again, he saw mare and rider swinging out of sight around the end of the grove. Confidently he watched for their appearance beyond. Presently he saw them sweep into view again—moving at a gallop, swinging across a wide plain that held them clear to his straining eyes—saw them grow faint and fainter, small and ever smaller—become a hazy speck on the horizon—finally disappear from view in the engulfing dunes and vales of the surrounding desert. And now, weakened as he was, he sounded a forlorn, protracted nicker of protest.

The rangers pulled up, breathless. They dismounted stiffly, released the weight from Pat's stirrup, and carried it off a little ways. He watched them a moment, noting their ease of movement and business-like air, and then turned his gaze to the horses. All were strange to him, and he looked them over frankly, resting his eyes finally upon a chunky white. Instinctively he knew that this horse was mean, and he hated mean horses as he hated mean men. Observing that this one showed his teeth freely at him, the while holding his small ears almost constantly flat, he measured him for difficulties in the future, if the association were to continue. Then he turned his eyes back to the men.

As he did so, out of the silence rode a single horseman. He was mounted upon the sorrel, and Pat wondered at this. But as the man drew near and Pat saw a blood-smeared, ghastly face, he wondered still more. For there was something familiar about this lone rider, and he took a step toward him. Presently he saw him gain the outer edge of the circle, and then a strange thing happened. He saw the young man begin to weave in his saddle, saw two of the others suddenly leap for him—saw them reach him just in time to save him from tumbling limply to the ground. Then he noted another queer thing. He saw the young man's left arm dangle oddly from the shoulder; saw the young man himself grasp it, wincing with excruciating pain, and saw him turn wide eyes suddenly toward him. Then he heard the man speak.

"Look—look him over!" he cried, and his voice was a curious mixture of distress and restrained excitement. "I—I don't want him—him to go back—to go back—hurt—hurt in—in—"

And now Pat saw the strangest thing of all. He saw the young man slowly close his eyes and sink back into the arms of the others as one dead. He saw the others exchange troubled glances and lay the insensible form down tenderly on the sand. It was all very unusual, something new in his life; and, not knowing what else to do, yet somehow feeling that he should do something, be it never so little, he lowered his head and sounded a trembling nicker into the silence.



CHAPTER XVIII

AN ENEMY

There was water in the grove, and the men made camp at the edge of the trees. "The Doc," which was what the rangers early had affectionately nicknamed Stephen, was suffering a compound fracture of the left arm, together with numerous bruises and scratches about the head and face. He had had a nasty fall. His horse had stumbled and almost instantly died as the result of the big cattle-rustler's shots. The men set and splinted Stephen's arm as best they could, and they bandaged his head with rare skill; but it was deemed advisable for him to remain quiet for a time.

So Stephen lay listlessly smiling at the bantering of the men, too sick at heart really to take interest in any living thing. His arm pained him, and his head ached, while throughout his body he was sore and stiff and well-nigh incapable of moving. But not once following the first complete collapse did he let go of himself, although when the men set his arm it seemed that he must. Somehow he was contented that everything was as it was. True, he was hurt. But also he had found Pat, had recovered the horse for Helen, and the horse now was within sound of his voice, did he but care to lift it. His physical hurts would get well, his spiritual hurts never without the recovery of the horse. And now he had the horse.

One morning it became apparent that their food-supplies would soon need replenishing. So it was decided to break camp for the nearest town, a Mexican settlement some eighty miles to the southwest. Stephen had been walking about somewhat cheerfully for three or four days, and his condition was such that he could ride forward slowly without danger to his arm. So they broke camp, utilizing the sorrel as a pack-horse—there now were two extra saddles and bridles—and set out, Stephen, of course, mounted upon Pat.

Once more Pat found himself following an unmarked and desolate trail. Moving always at a walk now instead of the conventional fox-trot, he found his service, save for this and one other thing, identical with that under his previous masters. The single other difference was that instead of irritating silence, these men unwittingly soothed him with their talk and swift exchange of jokes. Thus the hours passed, until noon came, when, with his bridle and saddle removed, and pungent odors of savory cooking tickling his nostrils, he received the privilege of grazing over the whole desert unhobbled and untethered. But this, liberal as it seemed, brought him nothing of the nourishment his soul craved. After an hour or two of lazy wandering, while the men passed the time at cards, he was sent forward again along the ever-mysterious trail. And thus he moved, through the long hot afternoon, the cool and lingering twilight, on to a night camp where once more he was turned loose with the other horses to glean as best he might life-giving sustenance from the scant herbage. But it was drearily monotonous.

Throughout it all, however, there was one who kept his interest alive. It was the white horse. In the camp holding himself aloof, as if superciliously refraining from close contact, on the trail this horse took to revealing his antagonism. He would stand a short way from him while they grazed, lay back his ears and whisk his tail, and, whenever the chance came, he would snap viciously at the other horses. Pat understood the meaning of all this, and held himself ready to resist attack, yet he simply looked at the horse with a kind of amused speculation. Nor at any time did he feel grave apprehension. That he did not take the horse seriously lay in the fact that after drawing near in this fashion and bristling nastily the white horse would quickly draw away again, steadily and craftily, and then fall to worrying one of the other horses, usually one of smaller size that quite obviously feared him.

There came the time when the white did not confine his threatenings to the grazing-periods. He became aggressive on the march. Though less free to give battle here, which was possibly his reason, he would frequently jockey close, and either flash his head around with teeth snapping, or else, as if to make Pat feel inferiority, would plunge forward to a point immediately in front, and in this position fling back choking dust or gravel. At such times the round-faced man, the white's master, would drag him away mightily, or, if he was not quick enough, then the sorrel, drowsing along behind on a lead-rope, would unconsciously offer resistance. But it was all very disagreeable, and Pat, while finding that it broke up the monotony of the journey, yet at length found himself also becoming irritated.

He finally gave way to it. It was his nature to brood over annoyances and sometimes to heap grains of injustice into mountains of woes. He fell to thinking of his general lot, his misfortunes, the lack of proper food, the occasional lack of water, until he became sullen and peevish. The change showed in sudden starts at unusual sounds which brought sharp protests from his young master, and then he began to refuse to eat. This was grave, and he knew it. But he could not or would not help it; he never knew quite which it was. But he did not eat. Instead of moving about with the other horses, nose to ground, mouthing the bunch-grass, he would mope by himself well away from the other horses, standing with head hanging and ears inert, all in motionless silence. As the water-holes became farther apart, and the grazing worse yet, he did this more and more, until the white horse, evidently seeing his lack of spirit, became a source of downright aggravation, frequently taking lightning nips at him. At such times Pat would lift his head and hold himself erect and vigilant during the grazing-period, but he brooded, none the less, and as persistently refused to eat.

This was not lost upon Stephen or the rangers, neither his refusing to eat nor the white's antagonism. They spent hours discussing both. Having found in Pat none of the regular symptoms of disease, yet aware that something grave was the matter, the rangers fell to discussing Pat's condition with much earnestness, frequently interrupting their arguments on the one subject to declare that the white horse, provided Pat held out and healed up against his complaint, would get a fight such as was never before witnessed in the desert. That they were evenly matched both as to build and strength was recognized; that Pat was possessed of a reserve that told of finer courage all agreed. Yet in this last lurked opportunities for argument; and argue they did, sometimes long into the night, the little man known as the Professor and the rangy individual with the scrubby beard showing the greatest vehemence. Yet despite all their arguments, to which Stephen invariably listened in smiling silence, none as yet had offered good reason for the villainous attitude of the white toward the peaceful Pat.

"I know!" suddenly declared the man with the scrubby beard one evening, after the tin dishes had been cleared away. "It's jealousy!" He narrowed his eyes out through the darkness in the direction of the horses. "Who ever 'u'd believe old Tom out there 'u'd show jealousy? I see it, though, the first day. You recollect we made a heap of the black, kind of petting him up some, and Tom, bein', as he sure is, an intelligent hoss, I reckon he figured it out that he'd played the game and been faithful all along, and then to see himself set back that way by a complete stranger, it jest nachelly made him sore. Same as it would you or me, mebbe, if we was informed polite and all that from headquarters that they was a new man comin' to jine us that was the pure quill whichever way you looked at him. Old Tom is bein' et up with jealousy, I'm regretful to say."

"Animiles feels things a heap more'n humans does," put in the little man known as the Professor. "But they're more reserved in showin' 'em out. Yit when they do show 'em out, they're a lot less polite about it than humans."

"Nachelly," snapped the lean man, glaring savagely across the fire at the other. "But that ain't tellin' us what ails the black," he went on, dropping the subject of the white and taking up with the symptoms of the black, evidently through perverseness. "He's solemn and dumpish," he declared, thoughtfully, "like he might have distemper. But he 'ain't got distemper. And his teeth ain't sharp, yet he don't eat at all. And I can't see anything the matter with his insides."

"Did you look?" inquired the Professor, innocently, but with a quick wink at Stephen.

"Yes, I—" began the lean man, only to check himself with an angry snort. Then he shifted the topic again, reverting to the case of old Tom. "That white hoss'll about push that matter to a finish," he declared. "See if what I say don't pan out! Tom he'll just about obey that law o' nature which animals has knowed from long before the ark, but which us humans is just gettin' a hold on. He'll remove the cause—old Tom will—or get himself removed. He ain't nobody's fool—nor never was!" And he rested his eyes significantly upon the Professor.

The Professor was busy, however. He had pulled a deck of cards from his hip pocket, and now was riffling them with pointed interest. Directly he began to deal them around, carefully overlooking the lean man as he did so. But the latter, dropping over upon one elbow, permitted the game to proceed without offering objection to the oversight, a peculiar one, since he was in the full glare of the fire.

That argument was closed.

But next morning Pat received unexpected attention. His young master approached him, looped a rope around his neck, and gave the end to the large man, who mounted the white. Then the lean man bridled and saddled the sorrel for the young man, who evidently was unable conveniently to do these things with his one hand. After this he loaded Pat with the extra saddles and bridles, and thus they set out. It was a not unfavorable change, and Pat, while harboring mixed emotions, since he now was trailing along behind the white, yet found himself in a lighter mood. Feeling little jealousy of the white, however, he soon forgot the changed relations, finding in his own position a new viewpoint upon the cavalcade which was interesting. For now he could survey the whole squad, five horses of varied size and action, and this, as he studied the individual gait of each, was not without its pleasure. Also, being, as he was, free from the weight of a man, he felt an airy lightness that was positively refreshing. And finally, since he was out of reach of the nagging white, this blessing alone made him grateful. So he followed along, working yet not working, with a feeling of complete composure such as had not been his for many a day.

Still his composure did not last. The novelty wore off toward noon, and he found himself morose and introspective again. Sounding the depths of his grievances, he at length took to thinking of the white corral beside the river. Not in many a day had he thought of the ranch. But he was recalling it now, not through affection, not because it was home to him, but because, brooding over his many discomforts in the open, he was suddenly remembering that his life had not always been this—that he knew actual comfort, knew what it was to have his wants gratified. And recalling these facts, he naturally recalled that which had made them possible—the little ranch in the valley. So he let his thoughts linger there. Faint and elusive at first, those other days became finally quite vivid, days of expectancy and gratification, days of sugar and quartered apples, days of affection and love-talk from his pretty little mistress. And how he missed them all! How he missed them—even the Mexican hostler and the brown saddler and the old matronly horse—his mother by adoption! But they were gone from him now, gone for all time out of his life. Yet though he believed them gone, he continued to brood on them, to live each day over again in his thoughts, till the men ahead dismounted suddenly. Then he was glad to turn his attention to other matters, things close around him. One of these was the coming of the lean man with a pair of familiar objects in his hands—this after the noonday meal.

"Well, my bucky," he began, turning critical eyes over Pat, "I been studyin' your case a heap, and I've come to think I'm old Doctor Sow himself. Your young man here is knocked out of all possible good," he went on, as Stephen smilingly approached, "and so it occurred to me, sir, as how you ain't sick no more'n I be. What ails you is you're an aristocrat—something that's been knocked around unusual—what with them rustlers and with us that's worse than rustlers—and got yourself all mussed up and unfit! All you need is a cleanin'—that's what ails you! You're just nice furniture—a piece o' Sheraton, mebbe—that's all over sweepings, and I'm the he-maid that's going to dust you off. Hold still, now."

So Pat, after taking a step toward Stephen, who now was stroking him tenderly, held very still, not only under the soothing caress, but under the operation—for such was the cleaning—since he was gritty beyond belief. Also, after the operation he felt immeasurably better, and better still when Stephen led him to a tiny stream and he had relieved his thirst. But that was not all of joy. Turned loose with the other horses, he fell to grazing eagerly, actually finding it good, and once lifting a long and shrill nicker in gratitude for this change in his condition. Nor did his delight stop here. With camp broken, and his young master, instead of returning him to the lead-rope, bridling and saddling him awkwardly with one hand, he set out along the trail at a gait so brisk that it brought a startled exclamation from the young man, who promptly pulled him down. But though he was forced to keep a slow gait, yet frequently during the afternoon, conscious of his fresh coat and the sense of buoyancy it gave him, he flung up his head and nickered loud and joyfully. Also, with night once more descending, and the stars twinkling in the blue-black heavens, and the sheen of a rising moon flooding the desert, he moved about among the other horses with a vigor that was almost insolence, seizing tufts of grass wherever he saw them, heedless of others' rights.

Around the fire sat or sprawled the men. Two of them were industriously mending, one a shirt, the other a bridle. The Professor and the man with the scrubby beard were complacently smoking, while Stephen, glad to stretch out after the day's ride with an arm that constantly distressed him, was reclining upon a blanket, staring into the flames and conjuring up in their leaping tongues numerous soothing pictures. As he sat there the man with the beard suddenly addressed him.

"Doc," he drawled, removing his pipe from between whiskers that glinted in the light of the fire, "now that you've got him, what are you thinking of doing with that horse?"

"I'll take him back," replied Stephen, pleasantly.

The other was silent. "Shore!" he rejoined, after a moment. "But take him back where?"

"Where he belongs."

There was further silence. "Excuse me!" finally exclaimed the other. "I was thinking as mebbe you'd take him whence he came."

Stephen sat erect and looked at the other. He was smoking again complacently.

"Whence come you?" asked Stephen, after a time.

The other slowly removed his pipe. Then he told him. Then Stephen spoke. And then the man rose stiffly, crossed solemnly to him and shook hands with him cordially.

"I knowed you was white the fust day I see you," he declared. Then he waved a vague hand over the others. "They've all—all of 'em—traveled that way. I was raised—"

A sudden shrill scream out in the darkness interrupted him. It was a horse. The cry stirred the entire camp. The Professor arose, sauntered out, whistling, whirled, and called back sharply. The others ran toward him; the large man struck a match. The white horse was limping on three legs. They bent over and examined the fourth. The match went out. All straightened up. As they did so Pat sounded a shrill nicker.

"Busted!" exclaimed the large man, quietly. "Well, I'm a goat! That black horse has kicked old Tom clear over the divide. I—I'm clean done! Quick as lightning, too! No preambles; no circumlocutions; no nothing. Just put it to him. Good Lord!" Then he regretfully drew a revolver. "I reckon you boys better stand back."

A shot broke the quiet, and the desert shivered and was still again. The white horse sank to the ground. Stephen walked to Pat, struck a match, and looked him over critically. Pat was torn and bleeding in two places along the neck, but otherwise he needed no attention. Stephen patted him thoughtfully, gratefully, fighting the horror of what might have been had this splendid horse weakened in the crisis. No wonder the little girl in the valley worshiped him.

But he said nothing. After a time he returned to the fire and sat down among a very sober group of men. Presently the man with the scrubby beard broke the quiet. His voice sounded hollow and distressed.

"I knowed it," he declared. "Though I thought old Tom 'u'd done better." He began to roll a cigarette. "Pore old Tom! He's killed; he's dead—dead and gone." With the cigarette made, he snatched a brand from the fire and lighted it. He fell to smoking in thoughtful silence, in his eyes a look of unutterable sadness.

The Professor bestirred himself. "Tell me," he asked, lifting his gaze to the heavens reflectively—"tell me, does any of you believe that horses—any animiles—has souls?"

The lean man glanced at him. His eyes now had the look of one anxious to express his views, but cautiously refused to be baited. Finally he made answer.

"If you're askin' my opinion," he said, "I'll tell you that I know they have." He was silent. "I know that animals has the same thing we've got," he continued—"that thing we call the soul—but they've got it in smaller proportions, so to speak. It's easy as falling off a bucking bronc. Take old Tom out there. Take that Lady horse that got killed two years ago by rustlers—take any horse, any dumb animal—and I'll show you in fifteen different ways that they've got souls."

"How?"

The lean man glared. "Now 'how'!" he snapped. "You give me a mortal pang. Why don't you never use your eyes once like other and more decent folks? Get the habit. You'll see there ain't any difference between animals and humans, only speech, and they've got that!"

The large man smiled. "Let's have it, Bob," he invited. "Where'll we look for it first?"

The lean man showed an impatience born of contempt. "Well," he began, tossing away his cigarette, "in desires, first, then in their power to appreciate, and, finally, in their sense of the worth of things. They have that, and don't you think they hain't. But they've got the others, too. Animals like to eat and drink and play, don't they? You know that! And they understand when you're good to 'em and when you're cussed mean. You know that. And they know death when they see it, take it from me, because they're as sensitive to loss of motion, or breathing, or animal heat, as us humans—more so. They feel pain, for instance, more'n we do, because, lackin' one of the five—or six, if you like—senses, their other senses is keyed up higher'n our'n."

The Professor looked belligerent. "Get particular!" he demanded.

"I won't get particular," snapped the other. "S'pose you wrastle it out for yourself—same as us humans." Evidently he was still bitter against this man. "That Lady horse o' mine," he went on, his eyes twinkling, addressing himself to the others, "she had it all sized about right. She used to say to me, when I'd come close to her in the morning: 'Well, old sock,' she'd say, throwin' her old ears forward, 'how are you this mornin'?—You know,' she'd declare, 'I kind o' like you because you understand me.' Then she'd about wipe her nose on me and go on. 'Wonder why it is that so many of you don't! It's easy enough, our language,' she'd p'int out, 'but most o' you two-legged critters don't seem to get us. It's right funny! You appear to get 'most everything else—houses, and land, and playin'-cards, and sich. But you don't never seem to get us—that is, most o' you! Why, 'tain't nothin' but sign language, neither—same as Injuns talkin' to whites. But I reckon you're idiots, most o' you, and blind, you hairless animals, wearin' stuff stole offen sheep, and your ugly white faces mostly smooth. You got the idee we don't know nothin'—pity us, I s'pose, because we can't understand you. Lawzee! We understand you, all right. It's you 'at don't understand us. And that's the hull trouble. You think we're just a lump o' common dirt, with a little tincture o' movement added, just enough so as we can run and drag your loads around for you. Wisht you could 'a' heard me and old Tom last night, after you'd all turned in, talkin' on the subject o' keepin' well and strong and serene o' mind. Sign language? Some. But what of it, old whiskers? Don't every deef-and-dumb party get along with few sounds and plenty of signs? You humans give me mortal distress!'

"And so on," concluded this lover of animals. "Thus Lady horse used to talk to me every mornin', tryin' to make me see things some little clearer. And that's all animals—if you happen to know the 'try me' on their little old middle chamber work." He fell silent.

The others said nothing. Each sat smoking reflectively, gazing into the dying flames, until one arose and prepared to turn in. Stephen was the last except the Professor and the man with the scrubby beard. And finally the Professor gained his feet and, with a glance at the last figure remaining at the fire, took off his boots and rolled up in his blanket. For a long moment he stared curiously at the other bowed in thought.

"Ain't you goin' to turn in?" he finally inquired. "You ain't et up by nothin', be you?"

The lean man slowly lifted his head. "I was thinkin'," he said, half to himself, "of a—a kind of horse's prayer I once see in a harness-shop in Albuquerque."

The other twisted himself under his blanket. "How did it go?" he asked, encouragingly. "Let's all have it!"

The lean man arose. "'To thee, my master,' it started off," he began, moving slowly toward his blanket. Suddenly he paused. "I—I don't just seem to remember it all," he said, and sat down and pulled off one of his boots. He held it in his hands absently.

The Professor urged him on. "Let her come," he said, his face now hidden in the folds of his covering. "Shoot it—let's hear."

"'To thee, my master, I offer my prayer,'" presently continued the other, turning reflective eyes toward the flickering coals. "'Feed me, water me, care for me, and, when the—the day's work is done, provide me with shelter and a clean, dry bed, and, when you can, a stall wide enough for me to lie down in in comfort. Always be kind to me. Talk to me—your voice often means as much to me as the reins. Pet me sometimes, that I may serve you the more gladly and know that my services are appreciated, and that I may learn to love you. Do not jerk the reins, and do not whip me when going up-hill. And when I don't understand you, what you want, do not strike or beat or kick me, but give me a chance to understand you. And if I continue to fail to understand, see if something is not wrong with my harness or feet.'"

The Professor's blanket stirred. "Go on!" he yelled. "Sounds all right. Go ahead! Is that all?"

"I disremember the rest," replied the other. "Let's see!" He was silent. "No," he finally blurted out, "I can't get it. It says something about overloading, and a-hitching where water don't drop on him, and—Oh yes! 'I can't tell you when I'm thirsty,' it goes on, 'so give me cool, clean water often. Never put a frosty bit in my mouth; first warm it by holdin' it a moment in your hands. And, remember, I try to carry you and your burdens without a murmur, and I wait patiently for you long hours of the day and night. Without power to choose my shoes or path, I sometimes stumble and fall, but I stand always in readiness at any moment to lose my life in your service. And this is important, and, finally, O my master! when my useful strength is gone do not turn me out to starve, or sell me to some cruel owner to be slowly tortured and starved to death; but do thou, my master, take my life in the kindest way, and your God will reward you here and hereafter. You will not consider me irreverent, I know, if I ask all this in the name of Him Who was born in a stable.'"

The Professor's blanket stirred again. "Go on," he demanded in muffled tones. "Is that all?"

The lean man slipped off his second boot. "No," he replied, quietly, "that ain't all."

"Well, go ahead. It's good. That horse must 'a' been a city horse; but go on!"

"Only one more word, anyway," was the rejoinder. He was still holding his boot.

"What is it?"

"Why"—the voice was solemn—"it's 'Amen.'"

"Aw, shucks!" came from the depths of the blanket.

The lean man turned his head. "Say, you!" he rasped, belligerently.

"What?"

For answer the boot sailed across the camp.

The Professor popped his head out of the blanket, drew it back suddenly, popped it out again, all strongly suggestive of a turtle.

There was a hoarse laugh, then silence, but none of those men forgot the Prayer of the Horse.



CHAPTER XIX

ANOTHER CHANGE OF MASTERS

The next morning Pat had a change from the tedium of the desert. With the others he struck into a narrow canyon that led out to a beaten trail upon a rolling mesa. The trail wound diagonally across the mesa from the south and lost itself in snake-like twistings among hills to the north. Guided to the right into this trail, Pat found himself, a little before noon, in a tiny Mexican settlement. It was a squat hamlet, nestling comfortably among the hills, made up of a few adobes, a lone well, and a general store. The store was at the far end, and toward this his young master directed him.

As they rode on Pat noticed a queer commotion. Here and there a door closed violently, only to open again cautiously as they drew opposite, revealing sometimes two, sometimes three, sometimes five pairs of black eyes, all ranged timidly one pair over another in the opening. Dogs skulked before their approach, snarling in strange savagery, while whole flocks of chickens, ruffling in dusty hollows, took frantically to wing at their coming, fleeing before them in unwonted disorder. And finally, as they moved past the well, a half-grown boy, only partly dressed, hurtled out of the side door of one house, raced across a yard to the front door of another house, and slammed the door shut behind him in a panic.

It was all very strange, and it made a deep impression upon him. Also it evidently impressed the men, for as they drew rein in front of the store, with its dust-dry shelves and haunting silence, all asked quick questions of the proprietor, a little wizened, gimlet-eyed Mexican who was leaning in the doorway. After glancing over their accoutrements with a nod of understanding, he answered, explaining the reason for the agitation.

It was all the result of a raid. Three days before a band of marauders had swept down from the north, ransacked pigstys and chicken-coops and corrals, and galloped off madly to the south. Yes, they had plundered the store also. Indian renegades—yes. He could not say from what reservation. Yes, they were armed, and in warpaint, and riding good horses—all of them. No, he could not say—about thirty in the band, perhaps. He—What? Yes, he had alfalfa and, if they wished, other things—beans and rice and canned goods. No, the renegades had not wholly cleaned out the store. Yes, he had matches. No, they had not— What? Vino? To be sure he had Vino! He would get—how many bottles?—right away! It was in the cellar, where he kept it cool, and reasonably safe from all marauders—including himself. With this slight witticism he disappeared into the store.

The men dismounted. They sat down upon the porch, and one of them, the large man, removed his hat, produced a blue bandana, and fell to mopping his red face. The day was warm, and the settlement, lying low under surrounding peaks, received none of the outside breezes. Also, it was inert now, wrapped in the quiet of a frightened people. There was no movement anywhere save that of ruffling hens in the dust of the trail, and the nearer switching of horses' tails. Once this stillness was broken. Among the houses somewhere rose feminine lamentations, wailing sobs, the outburst cutting the quiet with a sharpness that caused the men to turn grave eyes in its direction. And now the keeper of the store reappeared, bearing three bottles of wine in his arms, and numerous supplies, which the men accepted and paid for. Then all led their horses back to the well, which was in a little clearing, and there prepared to make camp, throwing off saddle-bags and accoutrements and building a fire while they planned a real meal.

Pat was enjoying all this. The settlement had a faintly familiar look, and he half expected to see a swarthy Mexican, whip in hand, approach him with abusive tongue. Also, after weeks of far horizons and unending sweeps of desert, he found in this nearness of detail pleasurable relief. It was good to see something upright again without straining across miles of desolation, even as it was good to see adobes once more, with windows and doors, and smoke curling up out of chimneys. He felt a deep sense of security, of coziness, which he had been fast losing on the broad reaches, together with his sight for short distances. For his eyes had become affected since leaving the white corral beside the river, although with this he was aware of a peculiar gain. His sense of hearing now was most acute, and he could hear the least faint sounds—sounds which, before his taking to the open, he could not have heard. So he was enjoying it all, feeling real comfort, a kind of fitness, as if he belonged here and would better remain here for ever. Then, with a generous supply of alfalfa tossed to him, as to the other horses, he became convinced that he should remain in this little settlement for all time.

Along in the afternoon the storekeeper, accompanied by a native woman, who was tear-stained and weeping, crossed the settlement. At the moment the men, lounging about on blankets, were discussing ways and means for Stephen. He need not continue with them now, they informed him, unless he wanted to. Arrangements could be made here to get him to a railroad in some kind of vehicle, leading Pat behind. But it was up to him. They weren't hurrying him away, by any means, yet it sure was up to him to get proper treatment for his arm, which showed slow signs of recovery.

Stephen was considering this when the two Mexicans approached. The proprietor of the store started to explain, when the little woman draped in a black mantilla interrupted him with further sobbing and a pointing finger—pointing back across the settlement.

"Caballeros," she began, "you coom please wit' me, I—I haf show you soomt'ing." Then again she burst into weeping.

Startled, Stephen arose, and the others gained their feet. They set out across the settlement. They struck between some adobe houses, crossed some back yards, dodged under clothes-lines, and found themselves in a tiny graveyard. The woman brought them to a stop before a fresh mound of earth. Here she knelt in another outburst of tears, while the gimlet-eyed storekeeper explained.

It was a little boy twelve years old. The marauders had stolen his pig. He had bitterly denounced them, and one—evidently the leader—had shot him. It was too bad! But it was not all. In one of the houses, the large house they had passed in coming here, lay an old man, seventy-eight years of age, dying from a rifle-shot. Yes, the renegade Indians had shot him also. What had he done? He had defended his chickens against theft. It was too bad! It was all too bad! Could not there something be done? To live in peace, to live in strict accord with all known laws, such was the aim and such had been the conduct of these people. And then to have a band of cutthroats, murderers, thieves, descend upon their peace and quiet in this fashion! It was all too bad!

The rangers turned away from the scene. All save the woman set out across the settlement, returning to the camp in silence. Seated once more, they fell to discussing this situation. And discussing the tragedy, they reverted to Stephen and his own troubles, light in comparison. They themselves, they acknowledged, had their work all cut out for them. It was what they got their money for. But there was hardly any use, they pointed out, in Stephen's accompanying them on this mission. Yet he could go if he wanted to. What did he say?

And Stephen, gazing off thoughtfully toward the tiny mound of fresh earth, and seeing the little woman prostrated with grief upon the grave, knew that Helen, herself bitter with loss, and no doubt needing Pat as much almost as this woman needed her own lost one, would have him do what he wanted to do. And what he wanted to do, felt as if he must do, was to accompany these men, go with them, disabled though he was, and help as best he could to bring down retribution upon the renegades. And he made known his wishes to the others, finally, expressing them with a note of determination.

As they bridled and saddled, leaving all equipment not actually required, the proprietor of the store, his small eyes eager, stood close and frequently repeated his opinion that murder in even more gruesome form had been committed to the north. Then they set out, following the direction taken by the Indians, riding briskly, keyed up to energy through hope of encounter, although Stephen suffered not a little from the jolting of his arm. Dropping down from the hills, they swung out upon the mesa, and thence made into the south along a winding trail. Ordinarily they would have lingered to accept the strained hospitality of the settlement. But this was duty, duty large and grave, and, conscious of it all, they pressed forward in silence. The renegades' tracks stood out clearly, and the rangers noted that some of the horses were shod, others only half shod, while the greater number were without shoes at all. This told of the marauders' nondescript collection of mounts, and also acquainted them with the fact that many of the animals had been stolen. On through the afternoon they rode, making but little gain, since the tracks became no fresher. When darkness fell, though still in the open without protection of any kind save that offered by a slight rise of ground, they dismounted and prepared to make camp.

Throughout the afternoon Pat had felt something of the grim nature of this business. This not only because of the severe crowding which he had endured—though that had told him much—but because of the unwonted silence upon the men. So he had held himself keenly to the stride, rather liking its vigor after long days of walking, finding himself especially fit to meet it after his recent change of food. And although the sun had been swelteringly hot, yet the desert had been swept with counteracting breezes, and, with night finally descending, he had felt more than ever his fine mettle, and now, even though his master was painfully dismounting, he felt fit to run his legs off at the least suggestion.

This fitness remained with him. When his young master turned him loose at the end of a generous tether, he stepped eagerly away from the firelight and out into the light of a rising moon, not to graze, for he felt no desire to graze, having eaten his fill and more at noon, but to give vent to his high spirits in unusual rolling in the sands. This he quickly proceeded to do, kicking and thrashing about, and holding to it long after the men about the fire had ceased to come and go in preparing their meal, long after they had seated themselves in the cheerful glow, smoking and talking as was their habit.

The Professor noticed it. He looked at the man with the beard pointedly. "That Pat hoss he's workin' up another job o' cleanin' for you," he observed. "Seemed in an awful hurry, too," he added, then dropped his eyes innocently.

The other was punching new holes in his belt with an unwieldy jack-knife. He suddenly gave off twisting the point of the knife against the leather and lifted it menacingly in the direction of his tormentor.

"Look-a-here, Professor," he retorted, "I ain't feelin' any too pert right now, and I'll take a hop out o' you if you don't shet up!"

The Professor looked grieved. "What's the matter of you?" he inquired.

"Never you mind!" The knife went back to the leather again. "Let that horse roll if he wants to! It ain't any skin off your hands!"

Which was the key-note of all assembled save the Professor. All except him appeared tense and nervous and in no way inclined to joke. For a time after the lean man's rebuke they engaged in casual talk, then one after another they drew off their boots and rolled up in their blankets. All but Stephen. His arm was throbbing with unusual pain. It was still in splints, and still bandaged in a sling around his neck, and since it always hurt him to change positions, he remained seated beside the fire, wrapped in sober thought. Outside, in the green-white light of the moon, he heard the horses one by one sink to rest. Around him the desert, gripped in death-stillness, pressed close, while overhead the star-sprinkled dome of heaven, unclouded, arched in all its wonted glittering majesty. A long time he sat there, keenly alive to these things, yet thinking strange thoughts, thoughts of his loneliness, and what might have been, and where he might have been, had he never met the girl. These were new thoughts, and he presently arose to rid himself of them and turned in, and soon was in a doze.

Some time later, he did not know how much later, he was aroused by a sound as of distant thunder. But as he lifted his head the sound disappeared. Yet when he dropped his head back again he heard it. He pressed his left ear close to earth. The sound grew louder and seemed to come nearer. Again he lifted his head. As before, he could hear nothing save the snoring of the large man and the dream-twitching of the Professor. He gazed about him. The camp was still. He peered outside in the moonlight. The horses were all down—at rest. At length he dropped back once more, closed his eyes sleepily, and soon dozed a second time.

But again he was aroused. He whipped up his head. The sound was thundering in his ears. He heard trampling hoofs—many hoofs—immediately outside. He leaped to his feet. He saw horsemen—Indians—the renegades—crowding past, riding frantically to the north. He called sharply to the others, who were already waking and leaping to their feet. He turned to the horses. They were all there, standing now, alert and tense. Wheeling, he stared after the Indians. They were speeding away like the wind, close huddled, fleeing in a panic. He watched them, dazed, saw them ascend a rise, become a vacillating speck in the moonlight, and drop from view in a hollow beyond the rise. He turned to the men. All stood in mute helplessness, only half comprehending. He opened his mouth to speak, but as he did so there came a sudden interruption.

It was a bugle-call, rollicking across the desert, crashing into the death-like hush which had settled upon the camp. He turned his eyes toward the sound—to the south. Over a giant sand-dune, riding grouped, with one or two in the lead, swept a company of cavalrymen. Down the slope they galloped, moonlight playing freely upon them, bringing out every detail—the glint of arms, the movement of hat-brims, the lift and fall of elbows—pounding straight for the camp. Another blast of the bugle, crisp and metallic, and they swerved; they drew near, nearer still, came close on the right, and swept past in a whirlwind of sounds, thundering hoofs, cursing men, slamming carbines, creaking saddles, snorting horses. So they swept on into the north, pushing, crowding, jostling, throwing back flying gravel, odors of sweat, swirling dust-clouds. They mounted rapidly over the rise, and became, as the pursued, vacillating specks, and then disappeared in the hollow beyond.

Stephen recovered himself. He swept his eyes again over the horses. He saw a change among them. Three were calm, but not the other two. Both of them were weaving faintly, and, even as he sprang to them, one sank slowly to the ground. Wondering, dazed, gripped in apprehension, he bent over it. The horse was a stranger, and it was gasping its last breath. Dismayed, he turned to the other. This horse also was a strange horse, and it was white with foam and panting, also run to death. Astonished, cold with apprehension, he looked for Pat. But neither Pat nor the sorrel was to be seen. Then the truth overwhelmed him. The renegades, seeing fresh horses here, had made a swift change. Pat was gone!

For one tense moment he stood spellbound. Then he sprang into action. He dressed as best he could, called to the others to bridle and saddle a horse, and leaped into the saddle. His whole body rebelled at the movement. But he set his jaw grimly, and, clutching at his bandaged arm, yet keeping his grip on the reins, he spurred frantically after the cavalry. As he dashed away he shouted back his purpose.

But the men, standing with wide eyes turned after him, heard only the end:

"I'll get him in spite of hell!"



CHAPTER XX

FIDELITY

Meantime Pat was running at top speed across the desert. Yet he was trying to understand this strange call to duty. Roused from fitful slumber by trampling hoofs, he had felt an excited hand jerking him to his feet, and after that a slender rope looped round his lower jaw. Then he had been urged, with a wriggling form on his bare back, frantic heels drumming his sides, and a strange voice impelling him onward past a surging crowd of horsemen, still only half awake, out into the open. When he was well in the fore, he had found himself crowded to his utmost—over sand-dune, into arroyo, across the level—around him thundering hoofs, panting horses, silent men, all speeding forward in the glorious moonlight. It was a strange awakening, yet he had not entertained thoughts of rebellion, despite the fact that he had not liked the flaying rope, the soft digging heels, the absence of bridle and saddle. It was strange; it was not right. None of it had checked up with any item of his experience. Yet, oddly enough, he had not rebelled.

Nor was he harboring thoughts of rebellion now. Racing onward, smarting with each swing of the lash, he found himself somehow interested solely in holding his own with the other horses. Suddenly, alert to their movements, he saw a cleft open in their surging ranks, made by the fall of an exhausted horse. Yet the others did not stop. They galloped on, unheeding, though he himself was jerked up. Then followed a swift exchange of words, and then the unhorsed man mounted behind Pat's new master. Carrying a double load now, Pat nevertheless dashed ahead at his former speed, stumbling with his first steps, but soon regaining his stride and overtaking the others. And though it cost him straining effort, he felt rewarded for his pains when one of the men uttered a grunt which he interpreted as approval. But it was all very strange.

A canyon loomed up on his left. He had hardly seen the black opening when he was swung toward it. He plunged forward with the other horses, and was the first to enter the canyon's yawning mouth. Between its high walls, however, he found himself troubled by black shadows. Many of them reached across his path like projections of rock, and more than once he faltered in his stride. But after passing through two or three in safety he came at length to understand them and so returned to his wonted self-possession.

But he was laboring heavily now. His heart was jumping and pounding, his breath coming in gasps, but he held to the trail, moving ever deeper into the hills, until he burst into a basin out of which to the right led a narrow canyon. Then he slowed down and, turning into the canyon, which wound and twisted due north and south in the bright moonlight, he continued at a slower pace. But his heart no longer was in the task. The weight on his back seemed heavier; there was a painful swelling of his ankles. He knew the reason for this pain. It had come from unwonted contact with hard surfaces and frequent stepping on loose stones in this strange haste with a strange people in the hills. Yet he kept on, growing steadily more weary, yet with pride ever to the fore, until a faint light began to streak the overhead sky, stealing cautiously down the ragged walls of the canyon. Then he found himself pulled into a walk.

He was facing a narrow defile that wound up among the overhanging crags. Glad of the privilege of resting, for a walk was a rest with him now, he set forward into the uninviting pass. Up and up he clambered, crowding narrowly past boulders, rounding on slender ledges, up and ever up. As he ascended he saw gray-white vales below, felt the stimulus of a rarer air, and at last found his heart fluttering unpleasantly in the higher altitude. Yet he held grimly to his task, and, when broad daylight was streaming full upon him, he found himself on a wide shelf of rock, a ledge falling sheer on one side to unseen depths, towering on the other to awe-inspiring heights. Here he came to a halt. And then, so tired was he, so faint with exhaustion, so racked of body and spirit, that he sank upon the cool rock even before the men could clear themselves from him, and lay there on his side, his eyes closed, his lungs greedily sucking air.

The glare of full daylight aroused him. Regaining his feet, he stared about him. He saw many strange-looking men, and near them many dirty and bedraggled horses. He turned his eyes outward from the ledge. He saw around him bristling peaks, and below them, far below, a trailing canyon, winding in and out among hills toward the rising sun, and terminating in a giant V, beyond which, a connecting thread between its sloping sides, lay an expanse of rolling mesa. It was far from him, however—very, very far—and he grew dizzy at the view, finding himself more and more unnerved by the height. At length he turned away and swept his eyes again over the horses, where he was glad to find the rangy sorrel. Then he turned back to the men, some of whom were standing, others squatting, but all in moody silence.

As he looked he grew aware that a pair of dark eyes were fixed upon him. He stared back, noting the man's long hair and painted features and the familiar glow of admiration in his eyes. Believing him to be his new master, he continued to regard him soberly until the man, with a grunt and a grimace, rose and approached him. Pat stood very still under a rigid examination. The man rubbed his ankles, turned up his hoofs, looked at his teeth; and at the conclusion of all this Pat felt that he had met with approval. Also, he realized that he rather approved of the man. Then came a volley of sounds he did not understand, and he found himself touched with grave apprehension. But not for long. The man led him across the ledge to a tiny stream trickling down the rocks, walking with a quiet dignity he long since had learned to connect with kindliness. This and the fact that he led him to water determined his attitude.

Toward noon, as he was brooding over hunger pangs, he was startled by excited gutturals among the men. Gazing, he saw one of the men standing on the edge of the shelf, pointing out through the long canyon. With the others, Pat turned his eyes that way. Between the distant V dotting the mesa beyond rode a body of horsemen. They were not more than specks to his eyes, proceeding slowly, so slowly, in fact, that while he could see they were moving he yet could not see them move as they crawled across the span between the canyon's mouth. Interested, gripped in the contagion of the excitement round him, he kept his eyes upon the distant specks until the sun had changed to another angle. But even after this lapse of time, so distant were the horsemen, so wide the canyon's mouth, they had traveled only half-way across the span. Yet he continued to watch, wondering at the nervousness around him, conscious of steadily increasing heat upon him, until the last of the slow-moving specks, absorbed one by one by the canyon's wall, disappeared from view. Then he turned his eyes elsewhere.

The men also turned away, but continued their excited talk. But even they after a time relapsed into silence. What it was all about Pat did not know. He knew it was something very serious, and suddenly fear came to him. He saw some of the men lie down as if to sleep, and he feared that they intended to remain here for ever, in this place absolutely destitute of herbage. But after a time, made sluggish by the attitude of the men, he himself attempted to drowse. But the heat pulsating up off the rocks discouraged him, and he soon abandoned the attempt, standing motionless in the hot sun.

A change came over him. He took to brooding over his many discomforts—hunger pangs, loss of sleep, bothersome flies, the pain of his swollen ankles. As the day advanced his ankles swelled more, and grew worse, the flies became more troublesome, and his inner gnawings more pronounced. So the time went on and he brooded through the still watches of the afternoon, through the soft stirrings of evening, on into night again. With the coming of night light breezes rose from the spaces below to spur his fevered body into something of its wonted vigor. And the night brought also preparations among the men to journey on. This he welcomed, even more than the cooling zephyrs.

There was some delay. His master entered upon a dispute with the horseless man. The voices became excited and rose to vehement heights. But presently they subsided when Pat himself, anxious to be active, sounded a note of protest. Yet the argument proved to his benefit. Instead of mounting him behind his master, the odd man swung up behind another man on the sorrel. Then he was permitted to move forward, and as he approached the narrow defile he sounded another nicker, now of gratification.

The pass dropped almost sheer in places. As he descended, more than once he was compelled to slide on stiffened legs. In this at first he felt ecstatic danger thrills. But only at first. Soon he wearied of it, and he was glad when he struck the bottom, where, after being guided out of shadow and into broad moonlight, he found himself moving to the west in a deep canyon. With the other horses he burst into a canter, and continued at a canter hour after hour, following the winding and twisting canyon until daylight, with its shadows creeping away before him, revealed to his tired eyes a stretch of mesa ahead, dotted with inviting clumps of bunch-grass. Then of his own volition he came to a stop and fell to grazing. Soon all the horses were standing with mouths to earth, feeding eagerly.

The men, sitting for a time in quiet conversation, finally dismounted, laughing now and then, and casting amused glances toward the black horse.

Soon they mounted again to take the trail. Instead of riding with the other on the sorrel, the odd man swung up on Pat's back behind his master. But as Pat no longer suffered from hunger, he complacently accepted the return of the double load. Then all moved forward. Pat jogged out of the canyon, turning to the right on the desert, and moved rapidly north in the shadow of the hills. He held to his stride, and toward noon, rounding a giant ridge projecting into the desert from the hills, he saw ahead on his right, perhaps two miles distant across a basin, the mouth of another canyon. Evidently his master saw it also, and obviously it contained danger, for he jerked Pat down to a walk. Almost instantly he knew that the danger was real, for the man, sounding a sharp command to the others, brought him to a full stop. Then followed an excited discussion, and, when it ended, Pat, gripped in vague uneasiness, found himself urged forward at top speed. Yet in a dim way he knew what was wanted of him. He flung himself into a long stride and dashed across the wide basin, across the mouth of the canyon, into the shadow of the hills again. Breathless, he slackened his pace with thirty excited horses around him, mad swirling clouds of dust all about, and before him the oppressive stillness of the desert. They were safely past the danger zone.

He pressed on at a slow canter. Ahead the mesa revealed numerous sand-dunes, large and small, rising into the monotonous skyline. Plunging among them, he mounted some easily, others he skirted as easily, and once, to avoid an unusually large one, he dropped down into the bed of an arroyo, traveled along its dry course, and then clambered up on the desert. But it was wearying work, and, becoming ever more aware of his double load, he began to chafe with dissatisfaction. Yet he held to his gait, hopeful of better things—he was always hopeful of better things now—until he reached another dune, larger than any as yet encountered, when once more he broke out of his stride to circle its bottom. As he did so, of his own volition he checked himself. Dead ahead he saw horses scattered about, and beyond the horses, rising limply in the noon haze, a thin column of smoke. Also, he felt both his riders stiffen. Then on the midday hush rose the crack of firearms from the direction of the camp.

His master lifted a shrill voice. He felt a mighty pull at his head. He swung around like a flash. Then came the flaying of a rope and frantic urging of heels. He plunged among the surging horses, dancing and whirling excitedly, and out into the open beyond. He set his teeth grimly, and raced headlong to the south, galloping furiously, tearing blindly over the desert. He headed straight for the distant basin, straight for the mouth of the canyon, hurtling forward, struggling mightily under his double load. He did not know it, but he was speeding into a tragic crisis.

The others overtook him. They were carrying but single loads. But they did not pass him. He saw to that. He burst forward into even greater speed, clung to it grimly, forged into a position well in the lead. And he held this place—around him frenzied horses, frantic riders; behind him, to the distant rear, shot after shot echoing over the desert; before him the baking sands, shimmering heat-waves, sullen and silent. He raced on, swinging up over dunes, dropping into hollows, speeding across flats, mounting over dunes again, on and on toward the basin and the mouth of the canyon—and protection.

But again disaster.

Suddenly, out of the canyon poured the cheerful notes of a bugle. On the vibrant wings of the echoes, streaming into the basin from the canyon, swept a body of flying horsemen. Instantly he checked himself. Then his master sounded a shrill outcry, swung his head around violently, and lashed him forward again. He hurtled headlong, dashing toward the distant ridge, the peninsula jutting out into the desert. Grimly he flung out along this new course. But he kept his eyes to the left. He saw the horsemen there also swerve, saw them spread out like a fan, and felt his interest kindle joyously. For this was a race! It was a race for that ridge! And he must win! He must do this thing, for instinctively he knew that beyond it lay safety. There he could flee to some haven, while cut off from it, cut off by these steady-riding men on his left, he must submit to wretched defeat. So he strained himself harder and burst into fresh speed, finding himself surprised that he could. In the thrill of it he forgot his double load, forgot the close-pressing horses, forgot irritating dust. On he galloped, racing forward with machine-like evenness—on his left the paralleling horsemen, to his rear yelling and shooting, on his right his own men and horses, and for them he felt he must do big things.

Suddenly the shooting in his rear ceased. Evidently these men had received some warning from the riders on his left. Then he awoke to another truth. The horsemen on his left were gaining. It troubled him, and he cast measuring eyes to the front. He saw that he was pursuing a shorter line to the ridge; he believed he still could reach it first. So again he strained on, whipping his legs into movement till they seemed about to snap. But the effort hurt him and he discovered that he was becoming woefully tired. Also, the double weight worried him. It had not become lighter with the miles, nor had he grown stronger. Yet he galloped on with thundering hoofs, the tranquil desert before him, the thud of carbines against leather to the left, behind him ominous silence. But he kept his eyes steadily to the left, and presently he awoke to something else there, something that roused him suddenly and in some way whipped his conscience. For now he saw a white figure amid the khaki, racing along with them—a part of them and yet no part of them—a familiar figure wearing a familiar bandage. This for a brief moment only. Then he took to measuring distances again; saw that the cavalrymen were holding to the course steadily, racing furiously as he himself was racing for the ridge. Would he win?

A shrill outcry from his master, and he found himself checked with a jerk. It was unexpected, sudden, and he reared. The movement shook off the second man. Dropping back upon all-fours, Pat awoke to the relief the loss of this load gave him. Grimly determining to hold to this relief, he dashed ahead, following the guidance of his master in yet another direction, hurtled away before the second man could mount again.

He found that he was speeding in a direction almost opposite from the ridge. He did not understand this. But his regret was not long lived. Casting his eyes to his left in vague expectancy of seeing the familiar spot of white again, he saw only his own men and horses, and beyond them the smiling desert. Puzzled, he gazed to the right. Here he saw the cavalrymen, and though puzzled more, he yet kept on with all his power. As he ran he suddenly awoke to the presence of a new body of horsemen on his distant left, a smaller band than the cavalrymen, men without uniforms, most of them hatless, all yelling. He remembered this yell, and now he understood. He was speeding toward the mouth of the canyon; had been turned completely around. And thus it was, he knew, that the horsemen once on his left were now on his right, and the madly yelling group at his rear was now on his left. He awoke to another realization. This was a race again, a race with three new entrants now—all three making toward the canyon. Would he win?

He fell to studying the flanking groups. On his right, riding easily, bent to the winds, their heavy horses swinging rhythmically, their accoutrements rattling, galloped the cavalry—steady, sure of themselves, well in hand. On his left, riding furiously, without formation, dashed the smaller group of riders—their horses wrangling among themselves, one or two frequently bucking, all flinging forward in excited disorder. This disorder, this evident nervousness, he feared. He knew somehow that the first real trouble would come from this source. He knew men to that extent. And suddenly his fears were realized. With the three converging lines of direction drawing closer, and the mouth of the canyon but a short distance away, out of this group on his left came a nasty rifle-fire, followed by a mighty chorus of yells. There was a result at once. Close beside him a horse stumbled; the man astride the horse was thrown headlong; from the cavalrymen on his right came a single shrill, piercing outcry—a cry to desist! But he did not understand this. Nor did he heed it. Galloping forward, eyes upon the ever-nearing canyon, he at length became grimly conscious of approaching defeat—of the firm and ruthless closing in upon him from either side of the two bands. And now, and not till now, realizing as he did that the thing was beyond him, that he could not reach the canyon first—now, and not till now, though soul and body were wrecked by exhaustion, Pat abated his speed.

Instantly pandemonium broke loose. He heard the firing on his left increasing. He felt his master make ready to return it. He saw others around him, twisting vengefully into position, open with repeating rifles. Then the cavalrymen, evidently forced into it by the others, swung to the fray with their carbines, which began to boom on his right. The whole basin echoed and re-echoed sharp reports. Across his eyes burst intermittent flames. His ears rang with shots and yells. The shooting became heavier. Bullets sang close about him—seemed centered—as if the enemy would cut down his master at once and disrupt the others through his loss. The bullets sang closer still. And now immediately about him men and horses dropped, upsetting other riders, tumbling over sound horses—all in a seething chaos. He became dazed. His eyes were blinded with the flashes, and his ears ached with the crash and tumult. He grew faint. A dizziness seized him. But on he labored, his head aching, his eyes growing dimmer, his limbs numb and rebellious, his heart thumping in sullen rebellion, his ears bursting with the uproar.

Another change swept over him. Mist leaped before his eyes. The roaring in his ears subsided. His legs flew off—he had no legs! The mist became a film. Yet he could see—see faintly. He saw a mad jumble of flying men and horses—a riotous mixture of color, arms, and firearms whirling and interlaced, a grim, struggling mass in death-grips. It swept close—crashed over him, struck him full. He felt the impact—then another. The ground rose and struck him. And now there fell upon him a great and wonderful peace—and a blank—then a voice, a familiar voice, and he drifted into unconsciousness.

He was wakened by a fiery liquid in his throat. He slowly opened his eyes. He saw men and horses, many of them, standing or reclining in small groups. He saw them between the legs of a group immediately around him—men gazing down at him pitifully. As he lay thus dazed he heard the familiar voice again. It was sounding his name. He struggled to his feet. Steadying himself against his dizziness, he looked curiously at the young man standing before him. And suddenly he recognized him. This was his young master with the white around his arm and neck—the young man who had ridden him into the Mexican settlement, and who had been so good to him there, giving him generous quantities of alfalfa. He—But the voice was sounding again.

"You poor dumb brute!" said Stephen, quietly; and Pat liked the petting he received. "You've just come through hell! But—but if they get you again—anywhere, friend of mine—they'll wade through hell themselves to do it." He was silent. "Pat, old boy," he concluded, finally, "you're going back home! I—I'm through!"

A strange thing took place in Pat. Hearing this voice now, and seeing the owner of it, though he had seen him and heard his voice many times just before this last heartbreaking task under a strange master, he suddenly found himself thinking of the little ranch beside the river, and of his loving mistress, and also the cold and cruel Mexican hostler. And, thinking of them, he found himself thinking also of another, one who had accompanied him and his mistress on many delightful trips in the valley and up on the mesa in the shadow of the mountains. And now, thinking of this person, he somehow recognized this young man before him fully, and wondered why this had not come to him before. For this was the same young man—curiously pale, curiously drawn and haggard—but yet the same man. Understanding, understanding everything, he nickered softly and pressed close, mindful of yet another thing—something that had helped to make his life on the little ranch so pleasant and unforgettable. What he was mindful of, and what he now sought, was sugar and quartered apples.



CHAPTER XXI

LIFE AND DEATH

The third group in the affray consisted of cowboys. Weary and bedraggled, yet joyous at the suppression of the uprising, they set out for home about noon. Stephen, mounted upon Pat, accompanied them. They headed into the northwest, riding slowly, talking over the affair, while Stephen explained in part his interest in the black horse. Night found them near a water-hole, and here they went into camp, Stephen weak and distressed, his whole body aching, his arm and shoulder throbbing in agonizing pain. The men proved attentive and considerate; but he lay down exhausted and courted sleep, hardly hearing what they said. Sleep came to him only fitfully, and he was glad when break of day brought a change. They rode on through the second day, usually in sober silence, on into another dusk and another night of torture. A third day and a third dusk followed, but there was no camp this time. Continuing forward, just before dawn, with the moon brilliant in the heavens, they reached a cluster of buildings. One of them was a dwelling with a fence around it as a protection against cattle and horses, and to the rear of this all dismounted. Stephen led Pat into a spacious stable, and, with the assistance of the others, unsaddled and unbridled him, watered and fed him generously, then left him for the night.

Instantly Pat began to inquire into his condition and surroundings. He was stiff and sore and a little nervous from the events of the past few days, and he found the stable, spacious though it was, depressing after his protracted life in the open. Yet there were many offsetting comforts. He had received a generous supply of grain and all the water he could drink. Then there was another comfort, though he awoke to this only after sinking to rest. His stall was thickly bedded with straw, which was comfort indeed, and though he had become accustomed to the pricking of the desert sand, he nestled into the straw with a sigh of satisfaction. To his right and left other horses stirred restlessly, and from outside came an occasional nicker, presumably from some unroofed inclosure. All these sounds kept him awake for a time, and it was approaching day before he felt himself sinking off into easy slumber.

He was awakened by the coming of a stranger into his stall. It was broad daylight, and he hastily gained his feet, mystified for an instant that he should be sleeping in broad day, and not a little troubled by his strange surroundings. The new-comer was a fat youth with a round and smiling face, who, as he raked down the bedding, talked in a pleasing drawl.

"Pat," he began, shoving him over gently, "you're shore some cayuse. Wouldn't mind ownin' a piece o' you myself. But I was goin' for to say there's trouble come onto you. That mighty likable pardner o' yours is gone in complete—sick to death. We've telephoned for the doc, but he's off somewheres, and we've got to wait till he gits back. But it's shore too bad—all of it. Steve he's got a nasty arm and shoulder, and he's all gone generally. Mighty distressin' I call it."

With this he slapped Pat heartily and left him.

When he had gone Pat felt a depression creeping over him. It became heavier as the hours passed. He knew that his young friend was somewhere about, and could not understand why he failed to come to him himself, instead of sending this stranger. Then, with the hours lengthening into a day, and the days dragging into a week, with only the smiling stranger coming to him regularly, and petting and stroking and talking to him, he came to feel that something of grave and serious nature was going on outside. So he longed to get out of the stable, out into sunlight and away from this restraint, and to see for himself what it was that was holding his master from him.

Then late one afternoon he heard a step approaching. It was his master's step, yet it was very different. It was slow and dragging, and while the voice was the same, yet there was a note of hollowness as he spoke that did not belong there, a note as if it required great effort to speak at all. But in spite of this he recognized his young master, and sounded a welcoming nicker, anxious to be off. For somehow he believed that now he would be taken out into the sunlight. Nor was he disappointed. After a moment's petting the young man led him outdoors, and there began to bridle and saddle him, slowly, with many pauses for breath, all as if it hurt him, as indeed it must, since he still wore the white bandages. Then there appeared a group of interested young men, suddenly, as though they had just discovered the proposed departure.

"See here, Steve," one of them exploded, "this ain't treating us a bit nice. You're a mighty sick man. I ain't saying that to worry you, neither; but I can't see the idee of your hopping out of bed to do this thing. You stick around till the doc comes again, anyway. Now, don't be a fool, Steve."

Stephen continued slowly with his saddling. "It's decent of you fellows," he said, quietly. "And I don't want you to think me ungrateful. It's just a feeling I've got. I want to get this horse back where he belongs."

Another of the group took up the attempt at persuasion. "But you're sick, man!" he exclaimed, beginning to stroke Pat absently. "You won't never make the depot! You owe it to everybody you've ever knowed to get right back into bed and stay there!"

But Stephen only shook his head. Yet he knew that what the boys said was true. He was sick, and he knew it. He realized that he ought to be in bed. And he wanted to be in bed. But already he had suffered too much, lying inert, not because of his arm and the fever upon him, though these were almost unbearable, but because of the haunting fear, come to him ever more insistently with each passing day, that since Pat had escaped from him twice thus far, he was destined to escape from him a third time. Sometimes this fear took shape in visions of a blazing fire in the stable, in which Pat was burned to a crisp; again it took form in some malady peculiar to horses which would prove equally disastrous. At last, unable to withstand these pictures longer, he had crept out of bed, dressed as best he could, and stolen out of the house, bent upon getting Pat to the railroad, and there shipping him east to Helen at whatever cost to himself. So here he was, about to ride off.

"You're—you're mighty decent," he repeated, hollowly, by way of farewell. "But I've got to go. And don't worry about my making the station," he added, reassuringly. "I have the directions, and I'll get there in time to make that ten-thirty eastbound to-night." He clambered painfully up into the saddle.

A third member of the group, the round-faced and smiling cowpuncher, opened up with his pleasing drawl. "Why'n't you stay over till mornin', then?" he demanded. "The ranch wagon goes up early, and you could ride the seat just like a well man."

But Stephen remained obdurate, and, repeating his thanks and farewells, he urged Pat forward at a walk because he himself could not stand the racking of a more rapid gait. The men sent after him expressions of regret mingled with friendly denunciations, but he rode steadily on, closing his ears grimly against their pleas, and soon he was moving slowly across the Arizona desert. His direction was northwest, and his destination, though new to him, a little town on the Santa Fe.

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