Chapter XX
 

A darkness, like the streaming clouds overhead, seemed to blot out Slone's sight, and then passed away, leaving it clearer.

Lucy was bending over him, binding a scarf round his shoulder and under his arm. "Lin! It's nothing!" she was saying, earnestly. "Never touched a bone!"

Slone sat up. The smoke was clearing away. Little curves of burning grass were working down along the rim. He put out a hand to grasp Lucy, remembering in a flash. He pointed to the ledge across the chasm.

"They're--gone!" cried Lucy, with a strange and deep note in her voice. She shook violently. But she did not look away from Slone.

"Wildfire! The King!" he added, hoarsely.

"Both where they dropped. Oh, I'm afraid to--to look. . . . And, Lin, I saw Sarch, Two Face, and Ben and Plume go down there."

She had her back to the chasm where the trail led down, and she pointed without looking.

Slone got up, a little unsteady on his feet and conscious of a dull pain.

"Sarch will go straight home, and the others will follow him," said Lucy. "They got away here where Joel came up the trail. The fire chased them out of the woods. Sarch will go home. And that'll fetch the riders."

"We won't need them if only Wildfire and the King--" Slone broke off and grimly, with a catch in his breath, turned to the horses.

How strange that Slone should run toward the King while Lucy ran to Wildfire!

Sage King was a beaten, broken horse, but he would live to run another race.

Lucy was kneeling beside Wildfire, sobbing and crying: "Wildfire! Wildfire!"

All of Wildfire was white except where he was red, and that red was not now his glossy, flaming skin. A terrible muscular convulsion as of internal collapse grew slower and slower. Yet choked, blinded, dying, killed on his feet, Wildfire heard Lucy's voice.

"Oh, Lin! Oh, Lin!" moaned Lucy.

While they knelt there the violent convulsions changed to slow heaves.

"He run the King down--carryin' weight--with a long lead to overcome!" Slone muttered, and he put a shaking hand on the horse's wet neck.

"Oh, he beat the King!" cried Lucy. "But you mustn't--you can't tell Dad!"

"What can we tell him?"

"Oh, I know. Old Creech told me what to say!"

A change, both of body and spirit, seemed to pass over the great stallion.

"Wildfire! Wildfire!"

Again the rider called to his horse, with a low and piercing cry. But Wildfire did not hear.

The morning sun glanced brightly over the rippling sage which rolled away from the Ford like a gray sea.

Bostil sat on his porch, a stricken man. He faced the blue haze of the north, where days before all that he had loved had vanished. Every day, from sunrise till sunset, he had been there, waiting and watching. His riders were grouped near him, silent, awed by his agony, awaiting orders that never came.

From behind a ridge puffed up a thin cloud of dust. Bostil saw it and gave a start. Above the sage appeared a bobbing, black object --the head of a horse. Then the big black body followed.

"Sarch!" exclaimed Bostil.

With spurs clinking the riders ran and trooped behind him.

"More hosses back," said Holley, quietly.

"Thar's Plume!" exclaimed Farlane.

"An' Two Face!" added Van.

"Dusty Ben!" said another.

"Riderless!" finished Bostil.

Then all were intensely quiet, watching the racers come trotting in single file down the ridge. Sarchedon's shrill neigh, like a whistle-blast, pealed in from the sage. From, fields and corrals clamored the answer attended by the clattering of hundreds of hoofs.

Sarchedon and his followers broke from trot to canter--canter to gallop--and soon were cracking their hard hoofs on the stony court. Like a swarm of bees the riders swooped down upon the racers, caught them, and led them up to Bostil.

On Sarchedon's neck showed a dry, dust-caked stain of reddish tinge. Holley, the old hawk-eyed rider, had precedence in the examination.

"Wal, thet's a bullet-mark, plain as day," said Holley.

"Who shot him?" demanded Bostil.

Holley shook his gray head.

"He smells of smoke," put in Farlane, who had knelt at the black's legs. "He's been runnin' fire. See thet! Fetlocks all singed!"

All the riders looked, and then with grave, questioning eyes at one another.

"Reckon thar's been hell!" muttered Holley, darkly.

Some of the riders led the horses away toward the corrals. Bostil wheeled to face the north again. His brow was lowering; his cheek was pale and sunken; his jaw was set.

The riders came and went, but Bostil kept his vigil. The hours passed. Afternoon came and wore on. The sun lost its brightness and burned red.

Again dust-clouds, now like reddened smoke, puffed over the ridge. A horse carrying a dark, thick figure appeared above the sage.

Bostil leaped up. "Is thet a gray hoss--or am--I blind?" he called, unsteadily.

The riders dared not answer. They must be sure. They gazed through narrow slits of eyelids; and the silence grew intense.

Holley shaded the hawk eyes with his hand. "Gray he is--Bostil--gray as the sage. . . . an' so help me God if he ain't the king!"

"Yes, it's the King!" cried the riders, excitedly. "Sure! I reckon! No mistake about thet! It's the King!"

Bostil shook his huge frame, and he rubbed his eyes as if they had become dim, and he stared again.

"Who's thet up on him?"

"Slone. I never seen his like on a hoss," replied Holley.

"An' what's--he packin'?" queried Bostil, huskily.

Plain to all keen eyes was the glint of Lucy Bostil's golden hair. But only Holley had courage to speak.

"It's Lucy! I seen thet long ago."

A strange, fleeting light of joy died out of Bostil's face. The change once more silenced his riders. They watched the King trotting in from the sage. His head drooped. He seemed grayer than ever and he limped. But he was Sage King, splendid as of old, all the more gladdening to the riders' eyes because he had been lost. He came on, quickening a little to the clamoring welcome from the corrals.

Holley put out a swift hand. "Bostil--the girl's alive--she's smilin'!" he called, and the cool voice was strangely different.

The riders waited for Bostil. Slone rode into the courtyard. He was white and weary, reeling in the saddle. A bloody scarf was bound round his shoulder. He held Lucy in his arms. She had on his coat. A wan smile lighted her haggard face.

Bostil, cursing deep, like muttering thunder, strode out. "Lucy! You ain't bad hurt?" he implored, in a voice no one had ever heard before.

"I'm--all right--Dad," she said, and slipped down into his arms.

He kissed the pale face and held her up like a child, and then, carrying her to the door of the house, he roared for Aunt Jane.

When he reappeared the crowd of riders scattered from around Slone. But it seemed that Bostil saw only the King. The horse was caked with dusty lather, scratched and disheveled, weary and broken, yet he was still beautiful. He raised his drooping head and reached for his master with a look as soft and dark and eloquent as a woman's.

No rider there but felt Bostil's passion of doubt and hope. Had the King been beaten? Bostil's glory and pride were battling with love. Mighty as that was, it did not at once overcome his fear of defeat.

Slowly the gaze of Bostil moved away from Sage King and roved out to the sage and back, as if he expected to see another horse. But no other horse was in sight. At last his hard eyes rested upon the white-faced Slone.

"Been some--hard ridin'?" he queried, haltingly. All there knew that had not been the question upon his lips.

"Pretty hard--yes," replied Slone. He was weary, yet tight-lipped, intense.

"Now--them Creeches?" slowly continued Bostil.

"Dead."

A murmur ran through the listening riders, and they drew closer.

"Both of them?"

"Yes. Joel killed his father, fightin' to get Lucy. . . . An' I ran--Wildfire over Joel--smashed him!"

"Wal, I'm sorry for the old man," replied Bostil, gruffly. "I meant to make up to him. . . . But thet fool boy! . . . An' Slone--you're all bloody."

He stepped forward and pulled the scarf aside. He was curious and kindly, as if it was beyond him to be otherwise. Yet that dark cold something, almost sullen clung round him.

"Been bored, eh? Wal, it ain't low, an' thet's good. Who shot you?"

"Cordts."

"Cordts!" Bostil leaned forward in sudden, fierce eagerness.

"Yes, Cordts. . . . His outfit run across Creech's trail an' we bunched. I can't tell now. . . . But we had--hell! An' Cordts is dead--so's Hutch--an' that other pard of his. . . . Bostil, they'll never haunt your sleep again!"

Slone finished with a strange sternness that seemed almost bitter.

Bostil raised both his huge fists. The blood was bulging his thick neck. It was another kind of passion that obsessed him. Only some violent check to his emotion prevented him from embracing Slone. The huge fists unclenched and the big fingers worked.

"You mean to tell me you did fer Cordts an' Hutch what you did fer Sears?" he boomed out.

"They're dead--gone, Bostil--honest to God!" replied. Slone.

Holley thrust a quivering, brown hand into Bostil's face. "What did I tell you?" he shouted. "Didn't I say wait?"

Bostil threw away all that deep fury of passion, and there seemed only a resistless and speechless admiration left. Then ensued a moment of silence. The riders watched Slone's weary face as it drooped, and Bostil, as he loomed over him.

"Where's the red stallion?" queried Bostil. That was the question hard to get out.

Slone raised eyes dark with pain, yet they flashed as he looked straight up into Bostil's face. "Wildfire's dead!"

"Dead!" ejaculated Bostil.

Another moment of strained exciting suspense.

"Shot?" he went on.

"No."

"What killed him?"

"The King, sir! . . . Killed him on his feet!"

Bostil's heavy jaw bulged and quivered. His hand shook as he laid it on Sage King's mane--the first touch since the return of his favorite.

"Slone--what--is it?" he said, brokenly, with voice strangely softened. His face became transfigured.

"Sage King killed Wildfire on his feet. . . . A grand race, Bostil! . . . But Wildfire's dead--an' here's the King! Ask me no more. I want to forget."

Bostil put his arm around the young man's shoulder. "Slone, if I don't know what you feel fer the loss of thet grand hoss, no rider on earth knows! . . . Go in the house. Boys, take him in--all of you--an' look after him."

Bostil wanted to be alone, to welcome the King, to lead him back to the home corral, perhaps to hide from all eyes the change and the uplift that would forever keep him from wronging another man.

The late rains came and like magic, in a few days, the sage grew green and lustrous and fresh, the gray turning to purple.

Every morning the sun rose white and hot in a blue and cloudless sky. And then soon the horizon line showed creamy clouds that rose and spread and darkened. Every afternoon storms hung along the ramparts and rainbows curved down beautiful and ethereal. The dim blackness of the storm-clouds was split to the blinding zigzag of lightning, and the thunder rolled and boomed, like the Colorado in flood.

The wind was fragrant, sage-laden, no longer dry and hot, but cool in the shade.

Slone and Lucy never rode down so far as the stately monuments, though these held memories as hauntingly sweet as others were poignantly bitter. Lucy never rode the King again. But Slone rode him, learned to love him. And Lucy did not race any more. When Slone tried to stir in her the old spirit all the response he got was a wistful shake of head or a laugh that hid the truth or an excuse that the strain on her ankles from Joel Creech's lasso had never mended. The girl was unutterably happy, but it was possible that she would never race a horse again.

She rode Sarchedon, and she liked to trot or lope along beside Slone while they linked hands and watched the distance. But her glance shunned the north, that distance which held the wild canyons and the broken battlements and the long, black, pine-fringed plateau.

"Won't you ever ride with me, out to the old camp, where I used to wait for you?" asked Slone.

"Some day," she said, softly.

"When?"

"When--when we come back from Durango," she replied, with averted eyes and scarlet cheek. And Slone was silent, for that planned trip to Durango, with its wonderful gift to be, made his heart swell.

And so on this rainbow day, with storms all around them, and blue sky above, they rode only as far as the valley. But from there, before they turned to go back, the monuments appeared close, and they loomed grandly with the background of purple bank and creamy cloud and shafts of golden lightning. They seemed like sentinels-- guardians of a great and beautiful love born under their lofty heights, in the lonely silence of day, in the star-thrown shadow of night. They were like that love. And they held Lucy and Slone, calling every day, giving a nameless and tranquil content, binding them true to love, true to the sage and the open, true to that wild upland home.