Chapter XVIII
 

On the day that old Creech repudiated his son, Slone with immeasurable relief left Brackton's without even a word to the rejoicing Holley, and plodded up the path to his cabin.

After the first flush of elation had passed he found a peculiar mood settling down upon him. It was as if all was not so well as he had impulsively conceived. He began to ponder over this strange depression, to think back. What had happened to dash the cup from his lips? Did he regret being freed from guilt in the simple minds of the villagers --regret it because suspicion would fall upon Lucy's father? No; he was sorry for the girl, but not for Bostil. It was not this new aspect of the situation at the Ford that oppressed him.

He trailed his vague feelings back to a subtle shock he had sustained in a last look at Creech's dark, somber face. It had been the face of a Nemesis. All about Creech breathed silent, revengeful force. Slone worked out in his plodding thought why that fact should oppress him; and it was because in striking Bostil old Creech must strike through Bostil's horses and his daughter.

Slone divined it--divined it by the subtle, intuitive power of his love for Lucy. He did not reconsider what had been his supposition before Creech's return--that Creech would kill Bostil. Death would be no revenge. Creech had it in him to steal the King and starve him or to do the same and worse with Lucy. So Slone imagined, remembering Creech's face.

Before twilight set in Slone saw the Creeches riding out of the lane into the sage, evidently leaving the Ford. This occasioned Slone great relief, but only for a moment. What the Creeches appeared to be doing might not be significant. And he knew if they had stayed in the village that he would have watched them as closely as if he thought they were trying to steal Wildfire.

He got his evening meal, cared for his horses, and just as darkness came on he slipped down into the grove for his rendezvous with Lucy. Always this made his heart beat and his nerves thrill, but to-night he was excited. The grove seemed full of moving shadows, all of which he fancied were Lucy. Reaching the big cottonwood, he tried to compose himself on the bench to wait. But composure seemed unattainable. The night was still, only the crickets and the soft rustle of leaves breaking a dead silence. Slone had the ears of a wild horse in that he imagined sounds he did not really hear. Many a lonely night while he lay watching and waiting in the dark, ambushing a water-hole where wild horses drank, he had heard soft treads that were only the substance of dreams. That was why, on this night when he was overstrained, he fancied he saw Lucy coming, a silent, moving shadow, when in reality she did not come. That was why he thought he heard very stealthy steps.

He waited. Lucy did not come. She had never failed before and he knew she would come. Waiting became hard. He wanted to go back toward the house--to intercept her on the way. Still he kept to his post, watchful, listening, his heart full. And he tried to reason away his strange dread, his sense of a need of hurry. For a time he succeeded by dreaming of Lucy's sweetness, of her courage, of what a wonderful girl she was. Hours and hours he had passed in such dreams. One dream in particular always fascinated him, and it was one in which he saw the girl riding Wildfire, winning a great race for her life. Another, just as fascinating, but so haunting that he always dispelled it, was a dream where Lucy, alone and in peril, fought with Cordts or Joel Creech for more than her life. These vague dreams were Slone's acceptance of the blood and spirit in Lucy. She was Bostil's daughter. She had no sense of fear. She would fight. And though Slone always thrilled with pride, he also trembled with dread.

At length even wilder dreams of Lucy's rare moments, when she let herself go, like a desert whirlwind, to envelop him in all her sweetness, could not avail to keep Slone patient. He began to pace to and fro under the big tree. He waited and waited. What could have detained her? Slone inwardly laughed at the idea that either Holley or Aunt Jane could keep his girl indoors when she wanted to come out to meet him. Yet Lucy had always said something might prevent. There was no reason for Slone to be concerned. He was mistaking his thrills and excitement and love and disappointment for something in which there was no reality. Yet he could not help it. The longer he waited the more shadows glided beneath the cottonwoods, the more faint, nameless sounds he heard.

He waited long after he became convinced she would not come. Upon his return through the grove he reached a point where the unreal and imaginative perceptions were suddenly and stunningly broken. He did hear a step. He kept on, as before, and in the deep shadow he turned. He saw a man just faintly outlined. One of the riders had been watching him--had followed him! Slone had always expected this. So had Lucy. And now it had happened. But Lucy had been too clever. She had not come. She had found out or suspected the spy and she had outwitted him. Slone had reason to be prouder of Lucy, and he went back to his cabin free from further anxiety.

Before he went to sleep, however, he heard the clatter of a number of horses in the lane. He could tell they were tired horses. Riders returning, he thought, and instantly corrected that, for riders seldom came in at night. And then it occurred to him that it might be Bostil's return. But then it might be the Creeches. Slone had an uneasy return of puzzling thoughts. These, however, did not hinder drowsiness, and, deciding that the first thing in the morning he would trail the Creeches, just to see where they had gone, he fell asleep.

In the morning the bright, broad day, with its dispelling reality, made Slone regard himself differently. Things that oppressed him in the dark of night vanished in the light of the sun. Still, he was curious about the Creeches, and after he had done his morning's work he strolled out to take up their trail. It was not hard to follow in the lane, for no other horses had gone in that direction since the Creeches had left.

Once up on the wide, windy slope the reach and color and fragrance seemed to call to Slone irresistibly, and he fell to trailing these tracks just for the love of a skill long unused. Half a mile out the road turned toward Durango. But the Creeches did not continue on that road. They entered the sage. Instantly Slone became curious.

He followed the tracks to a pile of rocks where the Creeches had made a greasewood fire and had cooked a meal. This was strange--within a mile of the Ford, where Brackton and others would have housed them. What was stranger was the fact that the trail started south from there and swung round toward the village.

Slone's heart began to thump. But he forced himself to think only of these tracks and not any significance they might have. He trailed the men down to a bench on the slope, a few hundred yards from Bostil's grove, and here a trampled space marked where a halt had been made and a wait.

And here Slone could no longer restrain conjecture and dread. He searched and searched. He got on his knees. He crawled through the sage all around the trampled space. Suddenly his heart seemed to receive a stab. He had found prints of Lucy's boots in the soft earth! And he leaped up, wild and fierce, needing to know no more.

He ran back to his cabin. He never thought of Bostil, of Holley, of anything except the story revealed in those little boot-tracks. He packed a saddle-bag with meat and biscuits, filled a canvas water-bottle, and, taking them and his rifle, he hurried out to the corral. First he took Nagger down to Brackton's pasture and let him in. Then returning, he went at the fiery stallion as he had not gone in many a day, roped him, saddled him, mounted him, and rode off with a hard, grim certainty that in Wildfire was Lucy's salvation.

Four hours later Slone halted on the crest of a ridge, in the cover of sparse cedars, and surveyed a vast, gray, barren basin yawning and reaching out to a rugged, broken plateau.

He expected to find Joel Creech returning on the back-trail, and he had taken the precaution to ride on one side of the tracks he was following. He did not want Joel to cross his trail. Slone had long ago solved the meaning of the Creeches' flight. They would use Lucy to ransom Bostil's horses, and more than likely they would not let her go back. That they had her was enough for Slone. He was grim and implacable.

The eyes of the wild-horse hunter had not searched that basin long before they picked out a dot which was not a rock or a cedar, but a horse. Slone watched it grow, and, hidden himself, he held his post until he knew the rider was Joel Creech. Slone drew his own horse back and tied him to a sage-bush amidst some scant grass. Then he returned to watch. It appeared Creech was climbing the ridge below Slone, and some distance away. It was a desperate chance Joel ran then, for Slone had set out to kill him. It was certain that if Joel had happened to ride near instead of far, Slone could not have helped but kill him. As it was, he desisted because he realized that Joel would acquaint Bostil with the abducting of Lucy, and it might be that this would be well.

Slone was shaking when young Creech passed up and out of sight over the ridge--shaking with the deadly grip of passion such as he had never known. He waited, slowly gaining control, and at length went back for Wildfire.

Then he rode boldly forth on the trail. He calculated that old Creech would take Lucy to some wild retreat in the canyons and there wait for Joel and the horses. Creech had almost certainly gone on and would be unaware of a pursuer so closely on his trail. Slone took the direction of the trail, and he saw a low, dark notch in the rocky wall in the distance. After that he paid no more attention to choosing good ground for Wildfire than he did to the trail. The stallion was more tractable than Slone had ever found him. He loved the open. He smelled the sage and the wild. He settled down into his long, easy, swinging lope which seemed to eat up the miles. Slone was obsessed with thoughts centering round Lucy, and time and distance were scarcely significant.

The sun had dipped full red in a golden west when Slone reached the wall of rocks and the cleft where Creech's tracks and Lucy's, too, marked the camp. Slone did not even dismount. Riding on into the cleft, he wound at length into a canyon and out of that into a larger one, where he found that Lucy had remembered to leave a trail, and down this to a break in a high wall, and through it to another winding, canyon. The sun set, but Slone kept on as long as he could see the trail, and after that, until an intersecting canyon made it wise for him to halt.

There were rich grass and sweet water for his horse. He himself was not hungry, but he ate; he was not sleepy, but he slept. And daylight found him urging Wildfire in pursuit. On the rocky places Slone found the cedar berries Lucy had dropped. He welcomed sight of them, but he did not need them. This man Creech could never hide a trail from him, Slone thought grimly, and it suited him to follow that trail at a rapid trot. If he lost the tracks for a distance he went right on, and he knew where to look for them ahead. There was a vast difference between the cunning of Creech and the cunning of a wild horse. And there was an equal difference between the going and staying powers of Creech's mustangs and Wildfire. Yes, Slone divined that Lucy's salvation would be Wildfire, her horse. The trail grew rougher, steeper, harder, but the stallion kept his eagerness and his pace. On many an open length of canyon or height of wild upland Slone gazed ahead hoping to see Creech's mustangs. He hoped for that even when he knew he was still too far behind. And then, suddenly, in the open, sandy flat of an intersecting canyon he came abruptly on a fresh trail of three horses, one of them shod.

The surprise stunned him. For a moment he gazed stupidly at these strange tracks. Who had made them? Had Creech met allies? Was that likely when the man had no friends? Pondering the thing, Slone went slowly on, realizing that a new and disturbing feature confronted him. Then when these new tracks met the trail that Creech had left Slone found that these strangers were as interested in Creech's tracks as he was. Slone found their boot-marks in the sand--the hand-prints where some one had knelt to scrutinize Creech's trail.

Slone led his horse and walked on, more and more disturbed in mind. When he came to a larger, bare, flat canyon bottom, where the rock had been washed clear of sand, he found no more cedar berries. They had been picked up. At the other extreme edge of this stony ground he found crumpled bits of cedar and cedar berries scattered in one spot, as if thrown there by some one who read their meaning.

This discovery unnerved Slone. It meant so much. And if Slone had any hope or reason to doubt that these strangers had taken up the trail for good, the next few miles dispelled it. They were trailing Creech.

Suddenly Slone gave a wild start, which made Wildfire plunge.

"Cordts!" whispered Slone and the cold sweat oozed out of every pore.

These canyons were the hiding-places of the horse-thief. He and two of his men had chanced upon Creech's trail; and perhaps their guess at its meaning was like Slone's. If they had not guessed they would soon learn. It magnified Slone's task a thousandfold. He had a moment of bitter, almost hopeless realization before a more desperate spirit awoke in him. He had only more men to kill--that was all. These upland riders did not pack rifles, of that Slone was sure. And the sooner he came up with Cordts the better. It was then he let Wildfire choose his gait and the trail. Sunset, twilight, dusk, and darkness came with Slone keeping on and on. As long as there were no intersecting canyons or clefts or slopes by which Creech might have swerved from his course, just so long Slone would travel. And it was late in the night when he had to halt.

Early next day the trail led up out of the red and broken gulches to the cedared uplands. Slone saw a black-rimmed, looming plateau in the distance. All these winding canyons, and the necks of the high ridges between, must run up to that great table-land.

That day he lost two of the horse tracks. He did not mark the change for a long time after there had been a split in the party that had been trailing Creech. Then it was too late for him to go back to investigate, even if that had been wise. He kept on, pondering, trying to decide whether or not he had been discovered and was now in danger of ambush ahead and pursuit from behind. He thought that possibly Cordts had split his party, one to trail along after Creech, the others to work around to head him off. Undoubtedly Cordts knew this broken canyon country and could tell where Creech was going, and knew how to intercept him.

The uncertainty wore heavily upon Slone. He grew desperate. He had no time to steal along cautiously. He must be the first to get to Creech. So he held to the trail and went as rapidly as the nature of the ground would permit, expecting to be shot at from any clump of cedars. The trail led down again into a narrow canyon with low walls. Slone put all his keenness on what lay before him.

Wildfire's sudden break and upflinging of head and his snort preceded the crack of a rifle. Slone knew he had been shot at, although he neither felt nor heard the bullet. He had no chance to see where the shot came from, for Wildfire bolted, and needed as much holding and guiding as Slone could give. He ran a mile. Then Slone was able to look about him. Had he been shot at from above or behind? He could not tell. It did not matter, so long as the danger was not in front. He kept a sharp lookout, and presently along the right canyon rim, five hundred feet above him, he saw a bay horse, and a rider with a rifle. He had been wrong, then, about these riders and their weapons. Slone did not see any wisdom in halting to shoot up at this pursuer, and he spurred Wildfire just as a sharp crack sounded above. The bullet thudded into the earth a few feet behind him. And then over bad ground, with the stallion almost unmanageable, Slone ran a gantlet of shots. Evidently the man on the rim had smooth ground to ride over, for he easily kept abreast of Slone. But he could not get the range. Fortunately for Slone, broken ramparts above checked the tricks of that pursuer, and Slone saw no more of him.

It afforded him great relief to find that Creech's trail turned into a canyon on the left; and here, with the sun already low, Slone began to watch the clumps of cedars and the jumbles of rock. But he was not ambushed. Darkness set in, and, being tired out, he was about to halt for the night when he caught the flicker of a campfire. The stallion saw it, too, but did not snort. Slone dismounted and, leading him, went cautiously forward on foot, rifle in hand.

The canyon widened at a point where two breaks occurred, and the less-restricted space was thick with cedar and pinyon. Slone could tell by the presence of these trees and also by a keener atmosphere that he was slowly getting to a higher attitude. This camp-fire must belong to Cordts or the one man who had gone on ahead. And Slone advanced boldly. He did not have to make up his mind what to do.

But he was amazed to see several dark forms moving to and fro before the bright camp-fire, and he checked himself abruptly. Considering a moment, Slone thought he had better have a look at these fellows. So he tied Wildfire and, taking to the darker side of the canyon, he stole cautiously forward.

The distance was considerable, as he had calculated. Soon, however, he made out the shadowy outlines of horses feeding in the open. He hugged the canyon wall for fear they might see him. As luck would have it the night breeze was in his favor. Stealthily he stole on, in the deep shadow of the wall, and under the cedars, until he came to a point opposite the camp-fire, and then he turned toward it. He went slowly, carefully, noiselessly, and at last he crawled through the narrow aisles between thick sage-brush. Another clump of cedars loomed up, and he saw the flickering of firelight upon the pale-green foliage.

He heard gruff voices before he raised himself to look, and by this he gauged his distance. He was close enough--almost too close. But as he crouched in dark shade and there were no horses near, he did not fear discovery.

When he peered out from his covert the first thing to strike and hold his rapid glance was the slight figure of a girl. Slone stifled a gasp in his throat. He thought he recognized Lucy. Stunned, he crouched down again with his hands clenched round his rifle. And there he remained for a long moment of agony before reason asserted itself over emotion. Had he really seen Lucy? He had heard of a girl now and then in the camps of these men, especially Cordts. Maybe Creech had fallen in with comrades. No, he could not have had any comrades there but horse-thieves, and Creech was above that. If Creech was there he had been held up by Cordts; if Lucy only was with the gang, Creech had been killed.

Slone had to force himself to look again. The girl had changed her position. But the light shone upon the men. Creech was not one of the three, nor Cordts, nor any man Slone had seen before. They were not honest men, judging from their hard, evil looks. Slone was nonplussed and he was losing self-control. Again he lowered himself and waited. He caught the word "Durango" and "hosses" and "fer enough in," the meaning of which was, vague. Then the girl laughed. And Slone found himself trembling with joy. Beyond any doubt that laugh could not have been Lucy's.

Slone stole back as he had come, reached the shadow of the wall, and drew away until he felt it safe to walk quickly. When he reached the place where he expected to find Wildfire he did not see him. Slone looked and looked. Perhaps he had misjudged distance and place in the gloom. Still, he never made mistakes of that nature. He searched around till he found the cedar stump to which he had tied the lasso. In the gloom he could not see it, and when he reached out he did not feel it. Wildfire was gone! Slone sank down, overcome. He cursed what must have been carelessness, though he knew he never was careless with a horse. What had happened? He did not know. But Wildfire was gone--and that meant Lucy's doom and his! Slone shook with cold.

Then, as he leaned against the stump, wet and shaking, familiar sound met his ears. It was made by the teeth of a grazing horse--a slight, keen, tearing cut. Wildfire was close at hand! With a sweep Slone circled the stump and he found the knot of the lasso. He had missed it. He began to gather in the long rope, and soon felt the horse. In the black gloom against the wall Slone could not distinguish Wild-fire.

"Whew!" he muttered, wiping the sweat off his face. "Good Lord! . . . All for nothin'."

It did not take Slone long to decide to lead the horse and work up the canyon past the campers. He must get ahead of them, and once there he had no fear of them, either by night or day. He really had no hopes of getting by undiscovered, and all he wished for was to get far enough so that he could not be intercepted. The grazing horses would scent Wildfire or he would scent them.

For a wonder Wildfire allowed himself to be led as well as if he had been old, faithful Nagger. Slone could not keep close in to the wall for very long, on account of the cedars, but he managed to stay in the outer edge of shadow cast by the wall. Wildfire winded the horses, halted, threw up his head. But for some reason beyond Slone the horse did not snort or whistle. As he knew Wildfire he could have believed him intelligent enough and hateful enough to betray his master.

It was one of the other horses that whistled an alarm. This came at a point almost even with the camp-fire. Slone, holding Wildfire down, had no time to get into a stirrup, but leaped to the saddle and let the horse go. There were hoarse yells and then streaks of fire and shots. Slone heard the whizz of heavy bullets, and he feared for Wildfire. But the horse drew swiftly away into the darkness. Slone could not see whether the ground was smooth or broken, and he left that to Wildfire. Luck favored them, and presently Slone pulled him in to a safe gait, and regretted only that he had not had a chance to take a shot at that camp.

Slone walked the horse for an hour, and then decided that he could well risk a halt for the night.

Before dawn he was up, warming his chilled body by violent movements, and forcing himself to eat.

The rim of the west wall changed from gray to pink. A mocking-bird burst into song. A coyote sneaked away from the light of day. Out in the open Slone found the trail made by Creech's mustangs and by the horse of Cordts's man. The latter could not be very far ahead. In less than an hour Slone came to a clump of cedars where this man had camped. An hour behind him!

This canyon was open, with a level and narrow floor divided by a deep wash. Slone put Wildfire to a gallop. The narrow wash was no obstacle to Wildfire; he did not have to be urged or checked. It was not long before Slone saw a horseman a quarter of a mile ahead, and he was discovered almost at the same time. This fellow showed both surprise and fear. He ran his horse. But in comparison with Wildfire that horse seemed sluggish. Slone would have caught up with him very soon but for a change in the lay of the land. The canyon split up and all of its gorges and ravines and washes headed upon the pine-fringed plateau, now only a few miles distant. The gait of the horses had to be reduced to a trot, and then a walk. The man Slone was after left Creech's trail and took to a side cleft. Slone, convinced he would soon overhaul him, and then return to take up Creech's trail, kept on in pursuit. Then Slone was compelled to climb. Wildfire was so superior to the other's horse, and Slone was so keen at choosing ground and short cuts, that he would have been right upon him but for a split in the rock which suddenly yawned across his path. It was impassable. After a quick glance Slone abandoned the direct pursuit, and, turning along this gulch, he gained a point where the horse-thief would pass under the base of the rim-wall, and here Slone would have him within easy rifle shot.

And the man, intent on getting out of the canyon, rode into the trap, approaching to within a hundred yards of Slone, who suddenly showed himself on foot, rifle in hand. The deep gulch was a barrier to Slone's further progress, but his rifle dominated the situation.

"Hold on!" he called, warningly.

"Hold on yerself!" yelled the other, aghast, as he halted his horse. He gazed down and evidently was quick to take in the facts.

Slone had meant to kill this man without even a word, yet now when the moment had come a feeling almost of sickness clouded his resolve. But he leveled the rifle.

"I got it on you," he called.

"Reckon you hev. But see hyar--"

"I can hit you anywhere."

"Wal, I'll take yer word fer thet."

"All right. Now talk fast. . . . Are you one of Cordts's gang?"

"Sure."

"Why are you alone?"

"We split down hyar."

"Did you know I was on this trail?"

"Nope. I didn't sure, or you'd never ketched me, red hoss or no."

"Who were you trailin'?"

"Ole Creech an' the girl he kidnapped."

Slone felt the leap of his blood and the jerk it gave the rifle as his tense finger trembled on the trigger.

"Girl. . . . What girl?" he called, hoarsely.

"Bostil's girl."

"Why did Cordts split on the trail?"

"He an' Hutch went round fer some more of the gang, an' to head off Joel Creech when he comes in with Bostil's hosses."

Slone was amazed to find how the horse thieves had calculated; yet, on second thought, the situation, once the Creeches had been recognized, appeared simple enough.

"What was your game?" he demanded.

"I was follerin' Creech jest to find out where he'd hole up with the girl."

"What's Cordts's game--After he heads Joel Creech?"

"Then he's goin' fer the girl."

Slone scarcely needed to be told all this, but the deliberate words from the lips of one of Cordts's gang bore a raw, brutal proof of Lucy's peril. And yet Slone could not bring himself to kill this man in cold blood. He tried, but in vain.

"Have you got a gun?" called Slone, hoarsely.

"Sure."

"Ride back the other way! . . . If you don't lose me I'll kill you!"

The man stared. Slone saw the color return to his pale face. Then he turned his horse and rode back out of sight. Slone heard him rolling the stones down the long, rough slope; and when he felt sure the horse-thief had gotten a fair start he went back to mount Wildfire in pursuit.

This trailer of Lucy never got back to Lucy's trail--never got away.

But Slone, when that day's hard, deadly pursuit ended, found himself lost in the canyons. How bitterly he cursed both his weakness in not shooting the man at sight, and his strength in following him with implacable purpose! For to be fair, to give the horse-thief a chance for his life, Slone had lost Lucy's trail. The fact nearly distracted him. He spent a sleepless night of torture.

All next day, like a wild man, he rode and climbed and descended, spurred by one purpose, pursued by suspense and dread. That night he tied Wildfire near water and grass and fell into the sleep of exhaustion.

Morning came. But with it no hope. He had been desperate. And now he was in a frightful state. It seemed that days and days had passed, and nights that were hideous with futile nightmares.

He rode down into a canyon with sloping walls, and broken, like all of these canyons under the great plateau. Every canyon resembled another. The upland was one vast network. The world seemed a labyrinth of canyons among which he was hopelessly lost. What would--what had become of Lucy? Every thought in his whirling brain led back to that--and it was terrible.

Then--he was gazing transfixed down upon the familiar tracks left by Creech's mustangs. Days old, but still unfollowed!