Chapter VII
 

Slone looked grimly glad when simultaneously with the first red flash of sunrise a breeze fanned his cheek. All that was needed now was a west wind. And here came the assurance of it.

The valley appeared hazy and smoky, with slow, rolling clouds low down where the line of fire moved. The coming of daylight paled the blaze of the grass, though here and there Slone caught flickering glimpses of dull red flame. The wild stallion kept to the center of the valley, restlessly facing this way and that, but never toward the smoke. Slone made sure that Wildfire gradually gave ground as the line of smoke slowly worked toward him.

Every moment the breeze freshened, grew steadier and stronger, until Slone saw that it began to clear the valley of the low-hanging smoke. There came a time when once more the blazing line extended across from slope to slope.

Wildfire was cornered, trapped. Many times Slone nervously uncoiled and recoiled his lasso. Presently the great chance of his life would come--the hardest and most important throw he would ever have with a rope. He did not miss often, but then he missed sometimes, and here he must be swift and sure. It annoyed him that his hands perspired and trembled and that something weighty seemed to obstruct his breathing. He muttered that he was pretty much worn out, not in the best of condition for a hard fight with a wild horse. Still he would capture Wildfire; his mind was unalterably set there. He anticipated that the stallion would make a final and desperate rush past him; and he had his plan of action all outlined. What worried him was the possibility of Wildfire doing some unforeseen feat at the very last. Slone was prepared for hours of strained watching, and then a desperate effort, and then a shock that might kill Wildfire and cripple Nagger, or a long race and fight.

But he soon discovered that he was wrong about the long watch and wait. The wind had grown strong and was driving the fire swiftly. The flames, fanned by the breeze, leaped to a formidable barrier. In less than an hour, though the time seemed only a few moments to the excited Slone, Wildfire had been driven down toward the narrowing neck of the valley, and he had begun to run, to and fro, back and forth. Any moment, then, Slone expected him to grow terrorized and to come tearing up toward the pass.

Wildfire showed evidence of terror, but he did not attempt to make the pass. Instead he went at the right-hand slope of the valley and began to climb. The slope was steep and soft, yet the stallion climbed up and up. The dust flew in clouds; the gravel rolled down, and the sand followed in long streams. Wildfire showed his keenness by zigzagging up the slope.

"Go ahead, you red devil!" yelled Slone. He was much elated. In that soft bank Wildfire would tire out while not hurting himself.

Slone watched the stallion in admiration and pity and exultation. Wildfire did not make much headway, for he slipped back almost as much as he gained. He attempted one place after another where he failed. There was a bank of clay, some few feet high, and he could not round it at either end or surmount it in the middle. Finally he literally pawed and cut a path, much as if he were digging in the sand for water. When he got over that he was not much better off. The slope above was endless and grew steeper, more difficult toward the top. Slone knew absolutely that no horse could climb over it. He grew apprehensive, however, for Wildfire might stick up there on the slope until the line of fire passed. The horse apparently shunned any near proximity to the fire, and performed prodigious efforts to escape.

"He'll be ridin' an avalanche pretty soon," muttered Slone.

Long sheets of sand and gravel slid down to spill thinly over the low bank. Wildfire, now sinking to his knees, worked steadily upward till he had reached a point halfway up the slope, at the head of a long, yellow bank of treacherous-looking sand. Here he was halted by a low bulge, which he might have surmounted had his feet been free. But he stood deep in the sand. For the first time he looked down at the sweeping fire, and then at Slone.

Suddenly the bank of sand began to slide with him. He snorted in fright. The avalanche started slowly and was evidently no mere surface slide. It was deep. It stopped--then started again--and again stopped. Wildfire appeared to be sinking deeper and deeper. His struggles only embedded him more firmly. Then the bank of sand, with an ominous, low roar, began to move once more. This time it slipped swiftly. The dust rose in a cloud, almost obscuring the horse. Long streams of gravel rattled down, and waterfalls of sand waved over the steps of the slope.

Just as suddenly the avalanche stopped again. Slone saw, from the great oval hole it had left above, that it was indeed deep. That was the reason it did not slide readily. When the dust cleared away Slone saw the stallion, sunk to his flanks in the sand, utterly helpless.

With a wild whoop Slone leaped off Nagger, and, a lasso in each hand, he ran down the long bank. The fire was perhaps a quarter of a mile distant, and, since the grass was thinning out, it was not coming so fast as it. had been. The position of the stallion was half-way between the fire and Slone, and a hundred yards up the slope.

Like a madman Slone climbed up through the dragging, loose sand. He was beside himself with a fury of excitement. He fancied his eyes were failing him, that it was not possible the great horse really was up there, helpless in the sand. Yet every huge stride Slone took brought him closer to a fact he could not deny. In his eagerness he slipped, and fell, and crawled, and leaped, until he reached the slide which held Wildfire prisoner.

The stallion might have been fast in quicksand, up to his body, for all the movement he could make. He could move only his head. He held that up, his eyes wild, showing the whites, his foaming mouth wide open, his teeth gleaming. A sound like a scream rent the air. Terrible fear and hate were expressed in that piercing neigh. And shaggy, wet, dusty red, with all of brute savageness in the look and action of his head, he appeared hideous.

As Slone leaped within roping distance the avalanche slipped a foot or two, halted, slipped once more, and slowly started again with that low roar. He did not care whether it slipped or stopped. Like a wolf he leaped closer, whirling his rope. The loop hissed round his head and whistled as he flung it. And when fiercely he jerked back on the rope, the noose closed tight round Wildfire's neck.

"By G--d--I--got--a rope-on him!" cried Slone, in hoarse pants.

He stared, unbelieving. It was unreal, that sight--unreal like the slow, grinding movement of the avalanche under him. Wildfire's head seemed a demon head of hate. It reached out, mouth agape, to bite, to rend. That horrible scream could not be the scream of a horse.

Slone was a wild-horse hunter, a rider, and when that second of incredulity flashed by, then came the moment of triumph. No moment could ever equal that one, when he realized he stood there with a rope around that grand stallion's neck. All the days and the miles and the toil and the endurance and the hopelessness and the hunger were paid for in that moment. His heart seemed too large for his breast.

"I tracked--you!" he cried, savagely. "I stayed--with you! . . . An' I got a rope--on you! An'--I'll ride you--you red devil!"

The passion of the man was intense. That endless, racking pursuit had brought out all the hardness the desert had engendered in him. Almost hate, instead of love, spoke in Slone's words. He hauled on the lasso, pulling the stallion's head down and down. The action was the lust of capture as well as the rider's instinctive motive to make the horse fear him. Life was unquenchably wild and strong in that stallion; it showed in the terror which made him hideous. And man and beast somehow resembled each other in that moment which was inimical to noble life.

The avalanche slipped with little jerks, as if treacherously loosing its hold for a long plunge. The line of fire below ate at the bleached grass and the long column of smoke curled away on the wind.

Slone held the taut lasso with his left hand, and with the right he swung the other rope, catching the noose round Wildfire's nose. Then letting go of the first rope he hauled on the other, pulling the head of the stallion far down. Hand over hand Slone closed in on the horse. He leaped on Wildfire's head, pressed it down, and, holding it down on the sand with his knees, with swift fingers he tied the noose in a hackamore--an improvised halter. Then, just as swiftly, he bound his scarf tight round Wildfire's head, blindfolding him.

"All so easy!" exclaimed Slone, under his breath. "Lord! who would believe it! . . . Is it a dream?"

He rose and let the stallion have a free head.

"Wildfire, I got a rope on you--an' a hackamore--an' a blinder," said Slone. "An' if I had a bridle I'd put that on you. . . . Who'd ever believe you'd catch yourself, draggin' in the sand?"

Slone, finding himself failing on the sand, grew alive to the augmented movement of the avalanche. It had begun to slide, to heave and bulge and crack. Dust rose in clouds from all around. The sand appeared to open and let him sink to his knees. The rattle of gravel was drowned in a soft roar. Then he shot down swiftly, holding the lassoes, keeping himself erect, and riding as if in a boat. He felt the successive steps of the slope, and then the long incline below, and then the checking and rising and spreading of the avalanche as it slowed down on the level. All movement then was checked violently. He appeared to be half buried in sand. While he struggled to extricate himself the thick dust blew away and settled so that he could see. Wildfire lay before him, at the edge of the slide, and now he was not so deeply embedded as he had been up on the slope. He was struggling and probably soon would have been able to get out. The line of fire was close now, but Slone did not fear that.

At his shrill whistle Nagger bounded toward him, obedient, but snorting, with ears laid back. He halted. A second whistle started him again. Slone finally dug himself out of the sand, pulled the lassoes out, and ran the length of them toward Nagger. The black showed both fear and fight. His eyes roiled and he half shied away.

"Come on!" called Slone, harshly.

He got a hand on the horse, pulled him round, and, mounting in a flash, wound both lassoes round the pommel of the saddle.

"Haul him out, Nagger, old boy!" cried Slone, and he dug spurs into the black.

One plunge of Nagger's slid the stallion out of the sand. Snorting, wild, blinded, Wildfire got up, shaking in every limb. He could not see his enemies. The blowing smoke, right in his nose, made scent impossible. But in the taut lassoes he sensed the direction of his captors. He plunged, rearing at the end of the plunge, and struck out viciously with his hoofs. Slone, quick with spur and bridle, swerved Nagger aside and Wildfire, off his balance, went down with a crash. Slone dragged him, stretched him out, pulled him over twice before he got forefeet planted. Once up, he reared again, screeching his rage, striking wildly with his hoofs. Slone wheeled aside and toppled him over again.

"Wildfire, it's no fair fight," he called, grimly. "But you led me a chase. . . . An' you learn right now I'm boss!"

Again he dragged the stallion. He was ruthless. He would have to be so, stopping just short of maiming or killing the horse, else he would never break him. But Wildfire was nimble. He got to his feet and this time he lunged out. Nagger, powerful as he was, could not sustain the tremendous shock, and went down. Slone saved himself with a rider's supple skill, falling clear of the horse, and he leaped again into the saddle as Nagger pounded up. Nagger braced his huge frame and held the plunging stallion. But the saddle slipped a little, the cinches cracked. Slone eased the strain by wheeling after Wildfire.

The horses had worked away from the fire, and Wildfire, free of the stifling smoke, began to break and lunge and pitch, plunging round Nagger in a circle, running blindly, but with unerring scent. Slone, by masterly horsemanship, easily avoided the rushes, and made a pivot of Nagger, round which the wild horse dashed in his frenzy. It seemed that he no longer tried to free himself. He lunged to kill.

"Steady, Nagger, old boy!" Slone kept calling. "He'll never get at you. . . . If he slips that blinder I'll kill him!"

The stallion was a fiend in his fury, quicker than a panther, wonderful on his feet, and powerful as an ox. But he was at a disadvantage. He could not see. And Slone, in his spoken intention to kill Wildfire should the scarf slip, acknowledged that he never would have a chance to master the stallion. Wildfire was bigger, faster, stronger than Slone had believed, and as for spirit, that was a grand and fearful thing to see.

The soft sand in the pass was plowed deep before Wildfire paused in his mad plunges. He was wet and heaving. His red coat seemed to blaze. His mane stood up and his ears lay flat.

Slone uncoiled the lassoes from the pommel and slacked them a little. Wildfire stood up, striking at the air, snorting fiercely. Slone tried to wheel Nagger in close behind the stallion. Both horse and man narrowly escaped the vicious hoofs. But Slone had closed in. He took a desperate chance and spurred Nagger in a single leap as Wildfire reared again. The horses collided. Slone hauled the lassoes tight. The impact threw Wildfire off his balance, just as Slone had calculated, and as the stallion plunged down on four feet Slone spurred Nagger close against him. Wildfire was a little in the lead. He could only half rear now, for the heaving, moving Nagger, always against him, jostled him down, and Slone's iron arm hauled on the short ropes. When Wildfire turned to bite, Slone knocked the vicious nose back with a long swing of his fist.

Up the pass the horses plunged. With a rider's wild joy Slone saw the long green-and-gray valley, and the isolated monuments in the distance. There, on that wide stretch, he would break Wildfire. How marvelously luck had favored him at the last!

"Run, you red devil!" Slone called. "Drag us around now till you're done!"

They left the pass and swept out upon the waste of sage. Slone realized, from the stinging of the sweet wind in his face, that Nagger was being pulled along at a tremendous pace. The faithful black could never have made the wind cut so. Lower the wild stallion stretched and swifter he ran, till it seemed to Slone that death must end that thunderbolt race.