Chapter XVII
 

For the first time in his experience Bostil found that horse-trading palled upon him. This trip to Durango was a failure. Something was wrong. There was a voice constantly calling into his inner ear--a voice to which he refused to listen. And during the five days of the return trip the strange mood grew upon him.

The last day he and his riders covered over fifty miles and reached the Ford late at night. No one expected them, and only the men on duty at the corrals knew of the return. Bostil, much relieved to get home, went to bed and at once fell asleep.

He awakened at a late hour for him. When he dressed and went out to the kitchen he found that his sister had learned of his return and had breakfast waiting.

"Where's the girl?" asked Bostil.

"Not up yet," replied Aunt Jane.

"What!"

"Lucy and I had a tiff last night and she went to her room in a temper."

"Nothin' new about thet."

"Holley and I have had our troubles holding her in. Don't you forget that."

Bostil laughed. "Wal, call her an' tell her I'm home."

Aunt Jane did as she was bidden. Bostil finished his breakfast. But Lucy did not come.

Bostil began to feel something strange, and, going to Lucy's door, he knocked. There was no reply. Bostil pushed open the door. Lucy was not in evidence, and her room was not as tidy as usual. He saw her white dress thrown upon the bed she had not slept in. Bostil gazed around with a queer contraction of the heart. That sense of something amiss grew stronger. Then he saw a chair before the open window. That window was rather high, and Lucy had placed a chair before it so that she could look out or get out. Bostil stretched his neck, looked out, and in the red earth beneath the window he saw fresh tracks of Lucy's boots. Then he roared for Jane.

She came running, and between Bostil's furious questions and her own excited answers there was nothing arrived at. But presently she spied the white dress, and then she ran to Lucy's closet. From there she turned a white face to Bostil.

"She put on her riding-clothes!" gasped Aunt Jane.

"Supposin' she did! Where is she?" demanded Bostil.

"She's run off with Slone!"

Bostil could not have been shocked or hurt any more acutely by a knife-thrust. He glared at his sister.

"A-huh! So thet's the way you watch her!"

"Watch her? It wasn't possible. She's--well, she's as smart as you are. . . . Oh, I knew she'd do it! She was wild in love with him!"

Bostil strode out of the room and the house. He went through the grove and directly up the path to Slone's cabin. It was empty, just as Bostil expected to find it.

The bars of the corral were down. Both Slone's horses were gone. Presently Bostil saw the black horse Nagger down in Brackton's pasture.

There were riders in front of Brackton's. All spoke at once to Bostil, and he only yelled for Brackton. The old man came hurriedly out, alarmed.

"Where's this Slone?" demanded Bostil.

"Slone!" ejaculated Brackton. "I'm blessed if I know. Ain't he home?"

"No. An' he's left his black hoss in your field."

"Wal, by golly, thet's news to me. . . . Bostil, there's been strange doin's lately." Brackton seemed at a loss for words. "Mebbe Slone got out because of somethin' thet come off last night. . . . Now, Joel Creech an'--an'--"

Bostil waited to hear no more. What did he care about the idiot Creech? He strode down the lane to the corrals. Farlane, Van, and other riders were there, leisurely as usual. Then Holley appeared, coming out of the barn. He, too, was easy, cool, natural, lazy. None of these riders knew what was amiss. But instantly a change passed over them. It came because Bostil pulled a gun. "Holley, I've a mind to bore you!"

The old hawk-eyed rider did not flinch or turn a shade off color. "What fer?" he queried. But his customary drawl was wanting.

"I left you to watch Lucy. . . . An' she's gone!"

Holley showed genuine surprise and distress. The other riders echoed Bostil's last word. Bostil lowered the gun.

"I reckon what saves you is you're the only tracker thet'd have a show to find this cussed Slone."

Holley now showed no sign of surprise, but the other riders were astounded.

"Lucy's run off with Slone," added Bostil.

"Wal, if she's gone, an' if he's gone, it's a cinch," replied Holley, throwing up his hands. "Boss, she double-crossed me same as you! . . . She promised faithful to stay in the house."

"Promises nothin'!" roared Bostil. "She's in love with this wild-hoss wrangler! She met him last night!"

"I couldn't help thet," retorted Holley. "An' I trusted the girl."

Bostil tossed his hands. He struggled with his rage. He had no fear that Lucy would not soon be found. But the opposition to his will made him furious.

Van left the group of riders and came close to Bostil. "It ain't an hour back thet I seen Slone ride off alone on his red hoss."

"What of thet?" demanded Bostil. "Sure she was waitin' somewheres. They'd have too much sense to go together. . . . Saddle up, you boys, an' we'll--"

"Say, Bostil, I happen to know Slone didn't see Lucy last night," interrupted Holley.

"A-huh! Wal, you'd better talk out."

"I trusted Lucy," said Holley. "But all the same, knowin' she was in love, I jest wanted to see if any girl in love could keep her word. . . . So about dark I went down the grove an' watched fer Slone. Pretty soon I seen him. He sneaked along the upper end an' I follered. He went to thet bench up by the biggest cottonwood. An' he waited a long time. But Lucy didn't come. He must have waited till midnight. Then he left. I watched him go back--seen him go up to his cabin."

"Wal, if she didn't meet him, where was she? She wasn't in her room."

Bostil gazed at Holley and the other riders, then back to Holley. What was the matter with this old rider? Bostil had never seen Holley seem so strange. The whole affair began to loom strangely, darkly. Some portent quickened Bostil's lumbering pulse. It seemed that Holley's mind must have found an obstacle to thought. Suddenly the old rider's face changed--the bronze was blotted out--a grayness came, and then a dead white.

"Bostil, mebbe you 'ain't been told yet thet--thet Creech rode in yesterday. . . . He lost all his racers! He had to shoot both Peg an' Roan!"

Bostil's thought suffered a sudden, blank halt. Then, with realization, came the shock for which he had long been prepared.

"A-huh! Is thet so? . . . Wal, an' what did he say?"

Holley laughed a grim, significant laugh that curdled Bostil's blood. "Creech said a lot! But let thet go now. . . . Come with me."

Holley started with rapid strides down the lane. Bostil followed. And he heard the riders coming behind. A dark and gloomy thought settled upon Bostil. He could not check that, but he held back impatience and passion.

Holley went straight to Lucy's window. He got down on his knees to scrutinize the tracks.

"Made more 'n twelve hours ago," he said, swiftly. "She had on her boots, but no spurs. . . . Now let's see where she went."

Holley began to trail Lucy's progress through the grove, silently pointing now and then to a track. He went swifter, till Bostil had to hurry. The other men came whispering after them.

Holley was as keen as a hound on scent.

"She stopped there," he said, "mebbe to listen. Looks like she wanted to cross the lane, but she didn't: here she got to goin' faster."

Holley reached an intersecting path and suddenly halted stock-still, pointing at a big track in the dust.

"My God! . . . Bostil, look at thet!"

One riving pang tore through Bostil--and then he was suddenly his old self, facing the truth of danger to one he loved. He saw beside the big track a faint imprint of Lucy's small foot. That was the last sign of her progress and it told a story.

"Bostil, thet ain't Slone's track," said Holley, ringingly.

"Sure it ain't. Thet's the track of a big man," replied Bostil.

The other riders, circling round with bent heads, all said one way or another that Slone could not have made the trail.

"An' whoever he was grabbed Lucy up--made off with her?" asked Bostil.

"Plain as if we seen it done!" exclaimed Holley. There was fire in the clear, hawk eyes.

"Cordts!" cried Bostil, hoarsely.

"Mebbe--mebbe. But thet ain't my idee. . . . Come on."

Holley went so fast he almost ran, and he got ahead of Bostil. Finally several hundred yards out in the sage he halted, and again dropped to his knees. Bostil and the riders hurried on.

"Keep back; don't stamp round so close," ordered Holley. Then like a man searching for lost gold in sand and grass he searched the ground. To Bostil it seemed a long time before he got through. When he arose there was a dark and deadly certainty in his face, by which Bostil knew the worst had befallen Lucy.

"Four mustangs an' two men last night," said Holley, rapidly. "Here's where Lucy was set down on her feet. Here's where she mounted. . . . An' here's the tracks of a third man--tracks made this mornin'."

Bostil straightened up and faced Holley as if ready to take a death-blow. "I'm reckonin' them last is Slone's tracks."

"Yes, I know them," replied Holley.

"An'--them--other tracks? Who made them?"

"Creech an' his son!"

Bostil felt swept away by a dark, whirling flame. And when it passed he lay in his barn, in the shade of the loft, prostrate on the fragrant hay. His strength with his passion was spent. A dull ache remained. The fight was gone from him. His spirit was broken. And he looked down into that dark abyss which was his own soul.

By and by the riders came for him, got him up, and led him out. He shook them off and stood breathing slowly. The air felt refreshing; it cooled his hot, tired brain. It did not surprise him to see Joel Creech there, cringing behind Holley.

Bostil lifted a hand for some one to speak. And Holley came a step forward. His face was haggard, but its white tenseness was gone. He seemed as if he were reluctant to speak, to inflict more pain.

"Bostil," he began, huskily, "you're to send the King--an' Sarch--an' Ben an' Two Face an' Plume to ransom Lucy! . . . If you won't--then Creech'll sell her to Cordts!"

What a strange look came into the faces of the riders! Did, they think he cared more for horseflesh than for his own flesh and blood?

"Send the King--an' all he wants. . . . An' send word fer Creech to come back to the Ford. . . . Tell him I said--my sin found me out!"

Bostil watched Joel Creech ride the King out upon the slope, driving the others ahead. Sage King wanted to run. Sarchedon was wild and unruly. They passed out of sight. Then Bostil turned to his silent riders.

"Boys, seein' the King go thet way wasn't nothin'. . . . But what crucifies me is--will thet fetch her back?"

"God only knows!" replied Holley. "Mebbe not--I reckon not! . . . But, Bostil, you forget Slone is out there on Lucy's trail. Out there ahead of Joel! Slone he's a wild-hoss hunter--the keenest I ever seen. Do you think Creech can shake him on a trail? He'll kill Creech, an' he'll lay fer Joel goin' back--an' he'll kill him. . . . An' I'll bet my all he'll ride in here with Lucy an' the King!"

"Holley, you ain't figurin' on thet red hoss of Slone's ridin' down the King?"

Holley laughed as if Bostil's query was the strangest thing of all that poignant day. "Naw. Slone'll lay fer Joel an' rope him like he roped Dick Sears."

"Holley, I reckon you see--clearer 'n me," said Bostil, plaintively. "'Pears as if I never had a hard knock before. Fer my nerve's broke. I can't hope. . . . Lucy's gone! . . . Ain't there anythin' to do but wait?"

"Thet's all. Jest wait. If we went out on Joel's trail we'd queer the chance of Creech's bein' honest. An' we'd queer Slone's game. I'd hate to have him trailin' me."