Chapter XV
 

Slone's heart leaped to his throat, and its beating choked his utterances of rapture and amaze and dread. But rapture dominated the other emotions. He could scarcely control the impulse to run to meet Lucy, without a single cautious thought.

He put the precious letter inside his blouse, where it seemed to warm his breast. He buckled on his gun-belt, and, extinguishing the light, he hurried out.

A crescent moon had just tipped the bluff. The village lanes and cabins and trees lay silver in the moon-light. A lonesome coyote barked in the distance. All else was still. The air was cool, sweet, fragrant. There appeared to be a glamour of light, of silence, of beauty over the desert.

Slone kept under the dark lee of the bluff and worked around so that he could be above the village, where there was little danger of meeting any one. Yet presently he had to go out of the shadow into the moon-blanched lane. Swift and silent as an Indian he went along, keeping in the shade of what trees there were, until he came to the grove of cottonwoods. The grove was a black mystery lanced by silver rays. He slipped in among the trees, halting every few steps to listen. The action, the realization had helped to make him cool, to steel him, though never before in his life had he been so exalted. The pursuit and capture of Wildfire, at one time the desire of his heart, were as nothing to this. Love had called him--and life--and he knew death hung in the balance. If Bostil found him seeking Lucy there would be blood spilled. Slone quaked at the thought, for the cold and ghastly oppression following the death he had meted out to Sears came to him at times. But such thoughts were fleeting; only one thought really held his mind--and the one was that Lucy loved him, had sent strange, wild, passionate words to him.

He found the narrow path, its white crossed by slowly moving black bars of shadow, and stealthily he followed this, keen of eye and ear, stopping at every rustle. He well knew the bench Lucy had mentioned. It was in a remote corner of the grove, under big trees near the spring. Once Slone thought he had a glimpse of white. Perhaps it was only moonlight. He slipped on and on, and when beyond the branching paths that led toward the house he breathed freer. The grove appeared deserted. At last he crossed the runway from the spring, smelled the cool, wet moss and watercress, and saw the big cottonwood, looming dark above the other trees. A patch of moonlight brightened a little glade just at the edge of dense shade cast by the cottonwood. Here the bench stood. It was empty!

Slone's rapture vanished. He was suddenly chilled. She was not there! She might have been intercepted. He would not see her. The disappointment, the sudden relaxation, was horrible. Then a white, slender shape flashed from beside the black tree-trunk and flew toward him. It was noiseless, like a specter, and swift as the wind. Was he dreaming? He felt so strange. Then--the white shape reached him and he knew.

Lucy leaped into his arms.

"Lin! Lin! Oh, I'm so--so glad to see you!" she whispered. She seemed breathless, keen, new to him, not in the least afraid nor shy. Slone could only hold her. He could not have spoken, even if she had given him a chance. "I know everything--what they accuse you of--how the riders treated you--how my dad struck you. Oh! . . . He's a brute! I hate him for that. Why didn't you keep out of his way? . . . Van saw it all. Oh, I hate him, too! He said you lay still--where you fell! . . . Dear Lin, that blow may have hurt you dreadfully--shamed you because you couldn't strike back at my dad--but it reached me, too. It hurt me. It woke my heart. . . . Where--where did he hit you? Oh, I've seen him hit men! His terrible fists!"

"Lucy, never mind," whispered Slone. "I'd stood to be shot just for this."

He felt her hands softly on his face, feeling around tenderly till they found the swollen bruise on mouth and chin.

"Ah! . . . He struck you. And I--I'll kiss you," she whispered. "If kisses will make it well--it'll be well!"

She seemed strange, wild, passionate in her tenderness. She lifted her face and kissed him softly again and again and again, till the touch that had been exquisitely painful to his bruised lips became rapture. Then she leaned back in his arms, her hands on his shoulders, white-faced, dark-eyed, and laughed up in his face, lovingly, daringly, as if she defied the world to change what she had done.

"Lucy! Lucy! . . . He can beat me--again!" said Slone, low and hoarsely.

"If you love me you'll keep out of his way," replied the girl.

"If I love you? . . . My God! . . . I've felt my heart die a thousand times since that mornin'--when--when you--"

"Lin, I didn't know," she interrupted, with sweet, grave earnestness. "I know now!"

And Slone could not but know, too, looking at her; and the sweetness, the eloquence, the noble abandon of her avowal sounded to the depths of him. His dread, his resignation, his shame, all sped forever in the deep, full breath of relief with which he cast off that burden. He tasted the nectar of happiness, the first time in his life. He lifted his head--never, he knew, to lower it again. He would be true to what she had made him.

"Come in the shade," he whispered, and with his arm round her he led her to the great tree-trunk. "Is it safe for you here? An' how long can you stay?"

"I had it out with Dad--left him licked once in his life," she replied. "Then I went to my room, fastened the door, and slipped out of my window. I can stay out as long as I want. No one will know."

Slone's heart throbbed. She was his. The clasp of her hands on his, the gleam of her eyes, the white, daring flash of her face in the shadow of the moon--these told him she was his. How it had come about was beyond him, but he realized the truth. What a girl! This was the same nerve which she showed when she had run Wildfire out in front of the fleetest horses in the uplands.

"Tell me, then," he began, quietly, with keen gaze roving under the trees and eyes strained tight, "tell me what's come off."

"Don't you know?" she queried, in amaze.

"Only that for some reason I'm done in Bostil's Ford. It can't be because I punched Joel Creech. I felt it before I met Bostil at the store. He taunted me. We had bitter words. He told before all of them how the outfit I wore you gave me. An' then I dared him to race the King. My horse an' my life against You!"

"Yes, I know," she whispered, softly. "It's all over town. . . . Oh, Lin! it was a grand bet! And Bostil four-flushed, as the riders say. For days a race between Wildfire and the King had been in the air. There'll never be peace in Bostil's Ford again till that race is run."

"But, Lucy, could Bostil's wantin' Wildfire an' hatin' me because I won't sell--could that ruin me here at the Ford?"

"It could. But, Lin, there's more. Oh, I hate to tell you!" she whispered, passionately. "I thought you'd know. . . . Joel Creech swore you cut the ropes on the ferry-boat and sent it adrift."

"The loon!" ejaculated Slone, and he laughed low in both anger and ridicule. "Lucy, that's only a fool's talk."

"He's crazy. Oh, if I ever get him in front of me again when I'm on Sarch--I'll--I'll. . . ." She ended with a little gasp and leaned a moment against Slone. He felt her heart beat--felt the strong clasp of her hands. She was indeed Bostil's flesh and blood, and there was that in her dangerous to arouse.

"Lin, the folks here are queer," she resumed, more calmly. "For long years Dad has ruled them. They see with his eyes and talk with his voice. Joel Creech swore you cut those cables. Swore he trailed you. Brackton believed him. Van believed him. They told my father. And he--my dad--God forgive him! he jumped at that. The village as one person now believes you sent the boat adrift so Creech's horses could not cross and you could win the race."

"Lucy, if it wasn't so--so funny I'd be mad as--as--" burst out Slone.

"It isn't funny. It's terrible. . . . I know who cut those cables. . . Holley knows. . . . Dad knows--an', oh, Lin--I--hate--I hate my own father!"

"My God!" gasped Slone, as the full signification burst upon him. Then his next thought was for Lucy. "Listen, dear--you mustn't say that," he entreated. "He's your father. He's a good man every way except when he's after horses. Then he's half horse. I understand him. I feel sorry for him. . . . An' if he's throwed the blame on me, all right. I'll stand it. What do I care? I was queered, anyhow, because I wouldn't part with my horse. It can't matter so much if people think I did that just to help win a race. But if they knew your--your father did it, an' if Creech's horses starve, why it'd be a disgrace for him--an' you."

"Lin Slone--you'll accept the blame!" she whispered, with wide, dark eyes on him, hands at his shoulders.

"Sure I will," replied Slone. "I can't be any worse off."

"You're better than all of them--my rider!" she cried, full-voiced and tremulous. "Lin, you make me love you so--it--it hurts!" And she seemed about to fling herself into his arms again. There was a strangeness about her--a glory. "But you'll not take the shame of that act. For I won't let you. I'll tell my father I was with you when the boat was cut loose. He'll believe me."

"Yes, an' he'll kill me!" groaned Slone. "Good Lord! Lucy, don't do that!"

"I will! An' he'll not kill you. Lin, Dad took a great fancy to you. I know that. He thinks he hates you. But in his heart he doesn't. If he got hold of Wildfire--why, he'd never be able to do enough for you. He never could make it up. What do you think? I told him you hugged and kissed me shamefully that day."

"Oh, Lucy! you didn't?" implored Slone.

"I sure did. And what do you think? He said he once did the same to my mother! . . . No, Lin, Dad'd never kill you for anything except a fury about horses. All the fights he ever had were over horse deals. The two men--he--he--" Lucy faltered and her shudder was illuminating to Slone. "Both of them--fights over horse trades!"

"Lucy, if I'm ever unlucky enough to meet Bostil again I'll be deaf an' dumb. An' now you promise me you won't tell him you were with me that night."

"Lin, if the occasion comes, I will--I couldn't help it," replied Lucy.

"Then fight shy of the occasion," he rejoined, earnestly. "For that would be the end of Lin Slone!"

"Then--what on earth can--we do?" Lucy said, with sudden break of spirit.

"I think we must wait. You wrote in your letter you'd stick to me-- you'd--" He could not get the words out, the thought so overcame him.

"If it comes to a finish, I'll go with you," Lucy returned, with passion rising again.

"Oh! to ride off with you, Lucy--to have you all to myself--I daren't think of it. But that's only selfish."

"Maybe it's not so selfish as you believe. If you left the Ford--now --it'd break my heart. I'd never get over it."

"Lucy! You love me--that well?"

Then their lips met again and their hands locked, and they stood silent, straining toward each other. He held the slight form, so pliant, so responsive, so alive, close to him, and her face lay hidden on his breast; and he looked out over her head into the quivering moonlit shadows. The night was as still as one away on the desert far from the abode of men. It was more beautiful than any dream of a night in which he had wandered far into strange lands where wild horses were and forests lay black under moon-silvered peaks.

"We'll run--then--if it comes to a finish," said Slone, huskily. "But I'll wait. I'll stick it out here. I'll take what comes. So--maybe I'll not disgrace you more."

"I told Van I--I gloried in being hugged by you that day," she replied, and her little defiant laugh told what she thought of the alleged disgrace.

"You torment him," remonstrated Slone. "You set him against us. It would be better to keep still."

"But my blood is up!" she said, and she pounded his shoulder with her fist. "I'll fight--I'll fight! . . . I couldn't avoid Van. It was Holley who told me Van was threatening you. And when I met Van he told me how everybody said you insulted me--had been worse than a drunken rider--and that he'd beat you half to death. So I told Van Joel Creech might have seen us--I didn't doubt that--but he didn't see that I liked being hugged."

"What did Van say then?" asked Slone, all aglow with his wonderful joy.

"He wilted. He slunk away. . . . And so I'll tell them all."

"But, Lucy, you've always been so--so truthful."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, to say you liked being hugged that day was--was a story, wasn't it?"

"That was what made me so furious," she admitted, shyly. "I was surprised when you grabbed me off Wildfire. And my heart beat--beat --beat so when you hugged me. And when you kissed me I--I was petrified. I knew I liked it then--and I was furious with myself."

Slone drew a long, deep breath of utter enchantment. "You'll take back Wildfire?"

"Oh, Lin--don't--ask--me," she implored.

"Take him back--an' me with him."

"Then I will. But no one must know that yet."

They drew apart then.

"An' now you must go," said Slone, reluctantly. "Listen. I forgot to warn you about Joel Creech. Don't ever let him near you. He's crazy an' he means evil."

"Oh, I know, Lin! I'll watch. But I'm not afraid of him."

"He's strong, Lucy. I saw him lift bags that were hefty for me. . . . Lucy, do you ride these days?"

"Every day. If I couldn't ride I couldn't live."

"I'm afraid," said Slone, nervously. "There's Creech an' Cordts-- both have threatened you."

"I'm afraid of Cordts," replied Lucy, with a shiver. "You should have seen him look at me race-day. It made me hot with anger, yet weak, too, somehow. But Dad says I'm never in any danger if I watch out. And I do. Who could catch me on Sarch?"

"Any horse can be tripped in the sage. You told me how Joel tried to rope Sage King. Did you ever tell your dad that?"

"I forgot. But then I'm glad I didn't. Dad would shoot for that, quicker than if Joel tried to rope him. . . . Don't worry, Lin, I always pack a gun."

"But can you use it?"

Lucy laughed. "Do you think I can only ride?"

Slone remembered that Holley had said he had taught Lucy how to shoot as well as ride. "You'll be watchful--careful," he said, earnestly.

"Oh, Lin, you need to be that more than I. . . . What will you do?"

"I'll stay up at the little cabin I thought I owned till to-day."

"Didn't you buy it?" asked Lucy, quickly.

"I thought I did. But . . . never mind. Maybe I won't get put out just yet. An' when will I see you again?"

"Here, every night. Wait till I come," she replied. "Good night, Lin."

"I'll--wait!" he exclaimed, with a catch in his voice. "Oh, my luck! . . . I'll wait, Lucy, every day--hopin' an' prayin' that this trouble will lighten. An' I'll wait at night--for you!"

He kissed her good-by and watched the slight form glide away, flit to and fro, white in the dark patches, grow indistinct and vanish. He was left alone in the silent grove.

Slone stole back to the cabin and lay sleepless and tranced, watching the stars, till late that night.

All the next day he did scarcely anything but watch and look after his horses and watch and drag the hours out and dream despite his dread. But no one visited him. The cabin was left to him that day.

It had been a hot day, with great thunderhead, black and creamy white clouds rolling down from the canyon country. No rain had fallen at the Ford, though storms near by had cooled the air. At sunset Slone saw a rainbow bending down, ruddy and gold, connecting the purple of cloud with the purple of horizon.

Out beyond the valley the clouds were broken, showing rifts of blue, and they rolled low, burying the heads of the monuments, creating a wild and strange spectacle. Twilight followed, and appeared to rise to meet the darkening clouds. And at last the gold on the shafts faded; the monuments faded; and the valley grew dark.

Slone took advantage of the hour before moonrise to steal down into the grove, there to wait for Lucy. She came so quickly he scarcely felt that he waited at all; and then the time spent with her, sweet, fleeting, precious, left him stronger to wait for her again, to hold himself in, to cease his brooding, to learn faith in something deeper than he could fathom.

The next day he tried to work, but found idle waiting made the time fly swifter because in it he could dream. In the dark of the rustling cottonwoods he met Lucy, as eager to see him as he was to see her, tender, loving, remorseful--a hundred sweet and bewildering things all so new, so unbelievable to Slone.

That night he learned that Bostil had started for Durango with some of his riders. This trip surprised Slone and relieved him likewise, for Durango was over two hundred miles distant, and a journey there even for the hard riders was a matter of days.

"He left no orders for me," Lucy said, "except to behave myself. . . . Is this behaving?" she whispered, and nestled close to Slone, audacious, tormenting as she had been before this dark cloud of trouble. "But he left orders for Holley to ride with me and look after me. Isn't that funny? Poor old Holley! He hates to doublecross Dad, he says."

"I'm glad Holley's to look after you," replied Slone. "Yesterday I saw you tearin' down into the sage on Sarch. I wondered what you'd do, Lucy, if Cordts or that loon Creech should get hold of you?"

"I'd fight!"

"But, child, that's nonsense. You couldn't fight either of them."

"Couldn't I? Well, I just could. I'd--I'd shoot Cordts. And I'd whip Joel Creech with my quirt. And if he kept after me I'd let Sarch run him down. Sarch hates him."

"You're a brave sweetheart," mused Slone. "Suppose you were caught an' couldn't get away. Would you leave a trail somehow?"

"I sure would."

"Lucy, I'm a wild-horse hunter," he went on, thoughtfully, as if speaking to himself. "I never failed on a trail. I could track you over bare rock."

"Lin, I'll leave a trail, so never fear," she replied. "But don't borrow trouble. You're always afraid for me. Look at the bright side. Dad seems to have forgotten you. Maybe it all isn't so bad as we thought. Oh, I hope so! . . . How is my horse, Wildfire? I want to ride him again. I can hardly keep from going after him."

And so they whispered while the moments swiftly passed.

It was early during the afternoon of the next day that Slone, hearing the clip-clop of unshod ponies, went outside to look. One part of the lane he could see plainly, and into it stalked Joel Creech, leading the leanest and gauntest ponies Slone had ever seen. A man as lean and gaunt as the ponies stalked behind.

The sight shocked Slone. Joel Creech and his father! Slone had no proof, because he had never seen the elder Creech, yet strangely he felt convinced of it. And grim ideas began to flash into his mind. Creech would hear who was accused of cutting the boat adrift. What would he say? If he believed, as all the villagers believed, then Bostil's Ford would become an unhealthy place for Lin Slone. Where were the great race-horses--Blue Roan and Peg--and the other thoroughbreds? A pang shot through Slone.

"Oh, not lost--not starved?" he muttered. "That would be hell!"

Yet he believed just this had happened. How strange he had never considered such an event as the return of Creech.

"I'd better look him up before he looks me," said Slone.

It took but an instant to strap on his belt and gun. Then Slone strode down his path, out into the lane toward Brackton's. Whatever before boded ill to Slone had been nothing to what menaced him now. He would have a man to face--a man whom repute called just, but stern.

Before Slone reached the vicinity of the store he saw riders come out to meet the Creech party. It so happened there were more riders than usually frequented Brackton's at that hour. The old storekeeper came stumbling out and raised his hands. The riders could be heard, loud-voiced and excited. Slone drew nearer, and the nearer he got the swifter he strode. Instinct told him that he was making the right move. He would face this man whom he was accused of ruining. The poor mustangs hung their heads dejectedly.

"Bags of bones," some rider loudly said.

And then Slone drew dose to the excited group. Brackton held the center; he was gesticulating; his thin voice rose piercingly.

"Creech! Whar's Peg an' the Roan? Gawd Almighty, man! You ain't meanin' them cayuses thar are all you've got left of thet grand bunch of hosses?"

There was scarcely a sound. All the riders were still. Slone fastened his eyes on Creech. He saw a gaunt, haggard face almost black with dust --worn and sad--with big eyes of terrible gloom. He saw an unkempt, ragged form that had been wet and muddy, and was now dust-caked.

Creech stood silent in a dignity of despair that wrung Slone's heart. His silence was an answer. It was Joel Creech who broke the suspense.

"Didn't I tell you-all what'd happen?" he shrilled. "Parched an' starved!"

"Aw no!" chorused the riders.

Brackton shook all over. Tears dimmed his eyes--tears that he had no shame for. "So help me Gawd--I'm sorry!" was his broken exclamation.

Slone had forgotten himself and possible revelation concerning him. But when Holley appeared close to him with a significant warning look, Slone grew keen once more on his own account. He felt a hot flame inside him--a deep and burning anger at the man who might have saved Creech's horses. And he, like Brackton, felt sorrow for Creech, and a rider's sense of loss, of pain. These horses--these dumb brutes-- faithful and sometimes devoted, had to suffer an agonizing death because of the selfishness of men.

"I reckon we'd all like to hear what come off, Creech, if you don't feel too bad to tell us," said Brackton.

"Gimme a drink," replied Creech.

"Wal, d--n my old head!" exclaimed Brackton. "I'm gittin' old. Come on in. All of you! We're glad to see Creech home."

The riders filed in after Brackton and the Creeches. Holley stayed close beside Slone, both of them in the background.

"I heerd the flood comin' thet night," said Creech to his silent and tense-faced listeners. "I heerd it miles up the canyon. 'Peared a bigger roar than any flood before. As it happened, I was alone, an' it took time to git the hosses up. If there'd been an Indian with me--or even Joel--mebbe--" His voice quavered slightly, broke, and then he resumed. "Even when I got the hosses over to the landin' it wasn't too late--if only some one had heerd me an' come down. I yelled an' shot. Nobody heerd. The river was risin' fast. An' thet roar had begun to make my hair raise. It seemed like years the time I waited there. . . . Then the flood came down-- black an' windy an' awful. I had hell gittin' the hosses back.

"Next mornin' two Piutes come down. They had lost mustangs up on the rocks. All the feed on my place was gone. There wasn't nothin' to do but try to git out. The Piutes said there wasn't no chance north--no water--no grass--an' so I decided to go south, if we could climb over thet last slide. Peg broke her leg there, an'--I--I had to shoot her. But we climbed out with the rest of the bunch. I left it then to the Piutes. We traveled five days west to head the canyons. No grass an' only a little water, salt at thet. Blue Roan was game if ever I seen a game hoss. Then the Piutes took to workin' in an' out an' around, not to git out, but to find a little grazin'. I never knowed the earth was so barren. One by one them hosses went down. . . . An' at last, I couldn't--I couldn't see Blue Roan starvin'--dyin' right before my eyes--an' I shot him, too. . . . An' what hurts me most now is thet I didn't have the nerve to kill him fust off."

There was a long pause in Creech's narrative.

"Them Piutes will git paid if ever I can pay them. I'd parched myself but for them. . . . We circled an' crossed them red cliffs an' then the strip of red sand, an' worked down into the canyon. Under the wall was a long stretch of beach--sandy--an' at the head of this we found Bostil's boat."

"Wal,--!" burst out the profane Brackton. "Bostil's boat! . . . Say, 'ain't Joel told you yet about thet boat?"

"No, Joel 'ain't said a word about the boat," replied Creech. "What about it?"

"It was cut loose jest before the flood."

Manifestly Brackton expected this to be staggering to Creech. But he did not even show surprise.

"There's a rider here named Slone--a wild-hoss wrangler," went on Brackton, "an' Joel swears this Slone cut the boat loose so's he'd have a better chance to win the race. Joel swears he tracked this feller Slone."

For Slone the moment was fraught with many emotions, but not one of them was fear. He did not need the sudden force of Holley's strong hand, pushing him forward. Slone broke into the group and faced Creech.

"It's not true. I never cut that boat loose," he declared ringingly.

"Who're you?" queried Creech.

"My name's Slone. I rode in here with a wild horse, an' he won a race. Then I was blamed for this trick."

Creech's steady, gloomy eyes seemed to pierce Slone through. They were terrible eyes to look into, yet they held no menace for him. "An' Joel accused you?"

"So they say. I fought with him--struck him for an insult to a girl."

"Come round hyar, Joel," called Creech, sternly. His big, scaly, black hand closed on the boy's shoulder. Joel cringed under it. "Son, you've lied. What for?"

Joel showed abject fear of his father. "He's gone on Lucy--an' I seen him with her," muttered the boy.

"An' you lied to hurt Slone?"

Joel would not reply to this in speech, though that was scarcely needed to show he had lied. He seemed to have no sense of guilt. Creech eyed him pityingly and then pushed him back.

"Men, my son has done this rider dirt," said Creech. "You-all see thet. Slone never cut the boat loose. . . . An' say, you-all seem to think cuttin' thet boat loose was the crime. . . . No! Thet wasn't the crime. The crime was keepin' the boat out of the water fer days when my hosses could have been crossed."

Slone stepped back, forgotten, it seemed to him. Both joy and sorrow swayed him. He had been exonerated. But this hard and gloomy Creech --he knew things. And Slone thought of Lucy.

"Who did cut thet thar boat loose?" demanded Brackton, incredulously.

Creech gave him a strange glance. "As I was sayin', we come on the boat fast at the head of the long stretch. I seen the cables had been cut. An' I seen more'n thet. . . . Wal, the river was high an' swift. But this was a long stretch with good landin' way below on the other side. We got the boat in, an' by rowin' hard an' driftin' we got acrost, leadin' the hosses. We had five when we took to the river. Two went down on the way over. We climbed out then. The Piutes went to find some Navajos an' get hosses. An' I headed fer the Ford--made camp twice. An' Joel seen me comin' out a ways."

"Creech, was there anythin' left in thet boat?" began Brackton, with intense but pondering curiosity. "Anythin' on the ropes-- or so--thet might give an idee who cut her loose?"

Creech made no reply to that. The gloom burned darker in his eyes. He seemed a man with a secret. He trusted no one there. These men were all friends of his, but friends under strange conditions. His silence was tragic, and all about the man breathed vengeance.