Chapter XIX
 

That track led up the narrowing canyon to its head at the base of the plateau.

Slone, mindful of his horse, climbed on foot, halting at the zigzag turns to rest. A long, gradually ascending trail mounted the last slope, which when close at hand was not so precipitous as it appeared from below. Up there the wind, sucked out of the canyons, swooped and twisted hard.

At last Slone led Wildfire over the rim and halted for another breathing-spell. Before him was a beautiful, gently sloping stretch of waving grass leading up to the dark pine forest from which came a roar of wind. Beneath Slone the wild and whorled canyon breaks extended, wonderful in thousands of denuded surfaces, gold and red and yellow, with the smoky depths between.

Wildfire sniffed the wind and snorted. Slone turned, instantly alert. The wild horse had given an alarm. Like a flash Slone leaped into the saddle. A faint cry, away from the wind, startled Slone. It was like a cry he had heard in dreams. How overstrained his perceptions! He was not really sure of anything, yet on the instant he was tense.

Straggling cedars on his left almost wholly obstructed Slone's view. Wildfire's ears and nose were pointed that way. Slone trotted him down toward the edge of this cedar clump so that he could see beyond. Before he reached it, however, he saw something blue, moving, waving, lifting.

"Smoke!" muttered Slone. And he thought more of the danger of fire on that windy height than he did of another peril to himself.

Wildfire was hard to hold as he rounded the edge of the cedars.

Slone saw a line of leaping flame, a line of sweeping smoke, the grass on fire . . . horses!--a man!

Wildfire whistled his ringing blast of hate and menace, his desert challenge to another stallion.

The man whirled to look.

Slone saw Joel Creech--and Sage King--and Lucy, half naked, bound on his back!

Joy, agony, terror in lightning-swift turns, paralyzed Slone. But Wildfire lunged out on the run.

Sage King reared in fright, came clown to plunge away. and with a magnificent leap cleared the line of fire.

Slone, more from habit than thought, sat close in the saddle. A few of Wildfire's lengthening strides, quickened Slone's blood. Then Creech moved, also awaking from a stupefying surprise, and he snatched up a gun and fired. Slone saw the spurts of red, the puffs of white. But he heard nothing. The torrent of his changed blood, burning and terrible, filled his ears with hate and death.

He guided the running stallion. In a few tremendous strides Wildfire struck Creech, and Slone had one glimpse of all awful face. The impact was terrific. Creech went hurtling through the air, limp and broken, to go down upon a rock, his skull cracking like a melon.

The horse leaped over the body and the stone, and beyond he leaped the line of burning grass.

Slone saw the King running into the forest. He saw poor Lucy's white body swinging with the horse's motion. One glance showed the great gray to be running wild. Then the hate and passion cleared away, leaving suspense and terror.

Wildfire reached the pines. There down the open aisles between the black trees ran the fleet gray racer. Wildfire saw him and snorted. The King was a hundred yards to the fore.

"Wildfire--it's come--the race--the race!" called Slone. But he could not hear his own call. There was a roar overhead, heavy, almost deafening. The wind! the wind! Yet that roar did not deaden a strange, shrieking crack somewhere behind. Wildfire leaped in fright. Slone turned. Fire had run up a pine-tree, which exploded as if the trunk were powder!

"My God! A race with fire! . . . Lucy! Lucy!"

In that poignant cry Slone uttered his realization of the strange fate that had waited for the inevitable race between Wildfire and the King; he uttered his despairing love for Lucy, and his acceptance of death for her and himself. No horse could outrun wind-driven fire in a dry pine forest. Slone had no hope of that. How perfectly fate and time and place and horses, himself and his sweetheart, had met! Slone damned Joel Creech's insane soul to everlasting torment. To think-- to think his idiotic and wild threat had come true--and come true with a gale in the pine-tops! Slone grew old at the thought, and the fact seemed to be a dream. But the dry, pine-scented air made breathing hard; the gray racer, carrying that slender, half-naked form, white in the forest shade, lengthened into his fleet and beautiful stride; the motion of Wildfire, so easy, so smooth, so swift, and the fierce reach of his head shooting forward--all these proved that it was no dream.

Tense questions pierced the dark chaos of Slone's mind--what could he do? Run the King down! Make 'him kill Lucy! Save her from horrible death by fire!

The red horse had not gained a yard on the gray. Slone, keen to judge distance, saw this, and for the first time he doubted Wildfire's power to ran down the King. Not with such a lead! It was hopeless-- so hopeless--

He turned to look back. He saw no fire, no smoke--only the dark trunks, and the massed green foliage in violent agitation against the blue sky. That revived a faint hope. If he could get a few miles ahead, before the fire began to leap across the pine-crests, then it might be possible to run out of the forest if it were not wide.

Then a stronger hope grew. It seemed that foot by foot Wildfire was gaining on the King. Slone studied the level forest floor sliding toward him. He lost his hope--then regained it again, and then he spurred the horse. Wildfire hated that as he hated Slone. But apparently he did not quicken his strides. And Slone could not tell if he lengthened them. He was not running near his limit but, after the nature of such a horse, left to choose his gait, running slowly, but rising toward his swiftest and fiercest.

Slone's rider's blood never thrilled to that race, for his blood had curdled. The sickness within rose to his mind. And that flashed up whenever he dared to look forward at Lucy's white form. Slone could not bear this sight; it almost made him reel, yet he was driven to look. He saw that the King carried no saddle, so with Lucy on him he was light. He ought to run all day with only that weight. Wildfire carried a heavy saddle, a pack, a water bag, and a rifle. Slone untied the pack and let it drop. He almost threw aside the water-bag, but something withheld his hand, and also he kept his rifle. What were a few more pounds to this desert stallion in his last run? Slone knew it was Wildfire's greatest and last race.

Suddenly Slone's ears rang with a terrible on-coming roar. For an instant the unknown sound stiffened him, robbed him of strength. Only the horn of the saddle, hooking into him, held him on. Then the years of his desert life answered to a call more than human.

He had to race against fire. He must beat the flame to the girl he loved. There were miles of dry forest, like powder. Fire backed by a heavy gale could rage through dry pine faster than any horse could run. He might fail to save Lucy. Fate had given him a bitter ride. But he swore a grim oath that he would beat the flame. The intense and abnormal rider's passion in him, like Bostil's, dammed up, but never fully controlled, burst within him, and suddenly he awoke to a wild and terrible violence of heart and soul. He had accepted death; he had no fear. All that he wanted to do, the last thing he wanted to do, was to ride down the King and kill Lucy mercifully. How he would have gloried to burn there in the forest, and for a million years in the dark beyond, to save the girl!

He goaded the horse. Then he looked back.

Through the aisles of the forest he saw a strange, streaky, murky something moving, alive, shifting up and down, never an instant the same. It must have been the wind--the heat before the fire. He seemed to see through it, but there was nothing beyond, only opaque, dim, mustering clouds. Hot puffs shot forward into his face. His eyes smarted and stung. His ears hurt and were growing deaf. The tumult was the rear of avalanches, of maelstroms, of rushing seas, of the wreck of the uplands and the ruin of the earth. It grew to be so great a roar that he no longer heard. There was only silence.

And he turned to face ahead. The stallion stretched low on a dead run; the tips of the pines were bending before the wind; and Wildfire, the terrible thing for which his horse was named, was leaping through the forest. But there was no sound.

Ahead of Slone, down the aisles, low under the trees spreading over the running King, floated swiftly some medium, like a transparent veil. It was neither smoke nor air. It carried faint pin points of light, sparks, that resembled atoms of dust floating in sunlight. It was a wave of heat driven before the storm of fire. Slone did not feel pain, but he seemed to be drying up. parching. And Lucy must be suffering now. He goaded the stallion, raking his flanks. Wildfire answered with a scream and a greater speed. All except Lucy and Sage King and Wildfire seemed so strange and unreal--the swift rush between the pines, now growing ghostly in the dimming light, the sense of a pursuing, overpowering force, and yet absolute silence.

Slone fought the desire to look back. But he could not resist it. Some horrible fascination compelled him. All behind had changed. A hot wind, like a blast from a furnace, blew light, stinging particles into his face. The fire was racing in the tree-tops, while below all was yet clear. A lashing, leaping flame engulfed the canopy of pines. It was white, seething, inconceivably swift, with a thousand flashing tongues. It traveled ahead of smoke. It was so thin he could see the branches through it, and the fiery clouds behind. It swept onward, a sublime and an appalling spectacle. Slone could not think of what it looked like. It was fire, liberated, freed from the bowels of the earth, tremendous, devouring. This, then, was the meaning of fire. This, then, was the horrible fate to befall Lucy.

But no! He thought he must be insane not to be overcome in spirit. Yet he was not. He would beat the flame to Lucy. He felt the loss of something, some kind of a sensation which he ought to have had. Still he rode that race to kill his sweetheart better than any race he had ever before ridden. He kept his seat; he dodged the snags; he pulled the maddened horse the shortest way, he kept the King running straight.

No horse had ever run so magnificent a race! Wildfire was outracing wind and fire, and he was overhauling the most noted racer of the uplands against a tremendous handicap. But now he was no longer racing to kill the King; he was running in terror. For miles he held that long, swift, wonderful stride without a break. He was running to his death, whether or not he distanced the fire. Nothing could stop him now but a bursting heart.

Slone untied his lasso and coiled the noose. Almost within reach of the King! One throw--one sudden swerve--and the King would go down. Lucy would know only a stunning shock. Slone's heart broke. Could he kill her--crush that dear golden head? He could not, yet he must! He saw a long, curved, red welt on Lucy's white shoulders. What was that? Had a branch lashed her? Slone could not see her face. She could not have been dead or in a faint, for she was riding the King, bound as she was!

Closer and closer drew Wildfire. He seemed to go faster and faster as that wind of flame gained upon them. The air was too thick to breathe. It had an irresistible weight. It pushed horses and riders onward in their flight--straws on the crest of a cyclone.

Again Slone looked back and again the spectacle was different. There was a white and golden fury of flame above, beautiful and blinding; and below, farther back, an inferno of glowing fire, black-streaked, with trembling, exploding puffs and streams of yellow smoke. The aisles between the burning pines were smoky, murky caverns, moving and weird. Slone saw fire shoot from the tree-tops down the trunks, and he saw fire shoot up the trunks, like trains of powder. They exploded like huge rockets. And along the forest floor leaped the little flames. His eyes burned and blurred till all merged into a wide, pursuing storm too awful for the gaze of man.

Wildfire was running down the King. The great gray had not lessened his speed, but he was breaking. Slone felt a ghastly triumph when he began to whirl the noose of the lasso round his head. Already he was within range. But he held back his throw which meant the end of all. And as he hesitated Wildfire suddenly whistled one shrieking blast.

Slone looked. Ahead there was light through the forest! Slone saw a white, open space of grass. A park? No--the end of the forest! Wildfire, like a demon, hurtled onward, with his smoothness of action gone, beginning to break, within a length of the King.

A cry escaped Slone--a cry as silent as if there had been no deafening roar--as wild as the race, and as terrible as the ruthless fire. It was the cry of life--instead of death. Both Sage King and Wildfire would beat the flame.

Then, with the open just ahead, Slone felt a wave of hot wind rolling over him. He saw the lashing tongues of flame above him in the pines. The storm had caught him. It forged ahead. He was riding under a canopy of fire. Burning pine cones, like torches, dropped all around him. He had a terrible blank sense of weight, of suffocation, of the air turning to fire.

Then Wildfire, with his nose at Sage King's flank, flashed out of the pines into the open. Slone saw a grassy wide reach inclining gently toward a dark break in the ground with crags rising sheer above it, and to the right a great open space.

Slone felt that clear air as the breath of deliverance. His reeling sense righted. There--the King ran, blindly going to his death. Wildfire was breaking fast. His momentum carried him. He was almost done.

Slone roped the King, and holding hard, waited for the end. They ran on, breaking, breaking. Slone thought he would have to throw the King, for they were perilously near the deep cleft in the rim. But Sage King went to his knees.

Slone leaped off just as Wildfire fell. How the blade flashed that released Lucy! She was wet from the horse's sweat and foam. She slid off into Slone's arms, and he called her name. Could she hear above that roar back there in the forest? The pieces of rope hung to her wrists and Slone saw dark bruises, raw and bloody. She fell against him. Was she dead? His heart contracted. How white the face! No; he saw her breast heave against his! And he cried aloud, incoherently in his joy. She was alive. She was not badly hurt. She stirred. She plucked at him with nerveless hands. She pressed close to him. He heard a smothered voice, yet so full, so wonderful!

"Put--your--coat--on me!" came somehow to his ears.

Slone started violently. Abashed, shamed to realize he had forgotten she was half nude, he blindly tore off his coat, blindly folded it around her.

"Lin! Lin!" she cried.

"Lucy--Oh! are y-you--" he replied, huskily.

"I'm not hurt. I'm all right."

"But that wretch, Joel. He--"

"He'd killed his father--just a--minute--before you came. I fought him! Oh! . . . But I'm all right. . . . Did you--"

"Wildfire ran him down--smashed him. . . . Lucy! this can't be true. . . . Yet I feel you! Thank God!"

With her free hand Lucy returned his clasp. She seemed to be strong. It was a precious moment for Slone, in which he was uplifted beyond all dreams.

"Let me loose--a second," she said. "I want to--get in your coat."

She laughed as he released her. She laughed! And Slone thrilled with unutterable sweetness at that laugh.

As he turned away he felt a swift wind, then a strange impact from an invisible force that staggered him, then the rend of flesh. After that came the heavy report of a gun.

Slone fell. He knew he had been shot. Following the rending of his flesh came a hot agony. It was in his shoulder, high up, and the dark, swift fear for his life was checked.

Lucy stood staring down at him, unable to comprehend, slowly paling. Her hands clasped the coat round her. Slone saw her, saw the edge of streaming clouds of smoke above her, saw on the cliff beyond the gorge two men, one with a smoking gun half leveled.

If Slone had been inattentive to his surroundings before, the sight of Cordts electrified him.

"Lucy! drop down! quick!"

"Oh, what's happened? You--you--"

"I've been shot. Drop down, I tell you. Get behind the horse an' pull my rifle."

"Shot!" exclaimed Lucy, blankly.

"Yes--Yes. . . . My God! Lucy, he's goin' to shoot again!"

It was then Lucy Bostil saw Cordts across the gulch. He was not fifty yards distant, plainly recognizable, tall, gaunt, sardonic. He held the half-leveled gun ready as if waiting. He had waited there in ambush. The clouds of smoke rolled up above him, hiding the crags.

"Cordts!" Bostil's blood spoke in the girl's thrilling cry.

"Hunch down, Lucy!" cried Slone. "Pull my rifle. . . . I'm only winged--not hurt. Hurry! He's goin'--"

Another heavy report interrupted Slone. The bullet missed, but Slone made a pretense, a convulsive flop, as if struck.

"Get the rifle! Quick!" he called.

But Lucy misunderstood his ruse to deceive Cordts. She thought he had been hit again. She ran to the fallen Wildfire and jerked the rifle from its sheath.

Cordts had begun to climb round a ledge, evidently a short cut to get down and across. Hutchinson saw the rifle and yelled to Cordts. The horse-thief halted, his dark face gleaming toward Lucy.

When Lucy rose the coat fell from her nude shoulders. And Slone, watching, suddenly lost his agony of terror for her and uttered a pealing cry of defiance and of rapture.

She swept up the rifle. It wavered. Hutchinson was above, and Cordts, reaching up, yelled for help. Hutchinson was reluctant. But the stronger force dominated. He leaned down--clasped Cordts's outstretched hands, and pulled. Hutchinson bawled out hoarsely. Cordts turned what seemed a paler face. He had difficulty on the slight footing. He was slow.

Slone tried to call to Lucy to shoot low, but his lips had drawn tight after his one yell. Slone saw her white, rounded shoulders bent, with cold, white face pressed against the rifle, with slim arms quivering and growing tense, with the tangled golden hair blowing out.

Then she shot.

Slone's glance shifted. He did not see the bullet strike up dust. The figures of the men remained the same--Hutchinson straining, Cordts. . . . No, Cordts was not the same! A strange change seemed manifest in his long form. It did not seem instinct with effort. Yet it moved.

Hutchinson also was acting strangely, yelling, heaving, wrestling. But he could not help Cordts. He lifted violently, raised Cordts a little, and then appeared to be in peril of losing his balance.

Cordts leaned against the cliff. Then it dawned upon Slone that Lucy had hit the horse-thief. Hard hit! He would not--he could not let go of Hutchinson. His was a death clutch. The burly Hutchinson slipped from his knee-hold, and as he moved Cordts swayed, his feet left the ledge, he hung, upheld only by the tottering comrade.

What a harsh and terrible cry from Hutchinson! He made one last convulsive effort and it doomed him. Slowly he lost his balance. Cordts's dark, evil, haunting face swung round. Both men became lax and plunged, and separated. The dust rose from the rough steps. Then the dark forms shot down--Cordts falling sheer and straight, Hutchinson headlong, with waving arms--down and down, vanishing in the depths. No sound came up. A little column of yellow dust curled from the fatal ledge and, catching the wind above, streamed away into the drifting clouds of smoke.