Chapter IX
 

Lucy Bostil could not control the glow of strange excitement under which she labored, but she could put her mind on the riding of Sage King. She did not realize, however, that she was riding him under the stress and spell of that excitement.

She had headed out to make a short cut, fairly sure of her direction, yet she was not unaware of the fact that she would be lost till she ran across her trail. That might be easy to miss and time was flying. She put the King to a brisk trot, winding through the aisles of the sage.

Soon she had left the monument region and was down on the valley floor again. From time to time she conquered a desire to look back. Presently she was surprised and very glad to ride into a trail where she saw the tracks she had made coming out. With much relief she turned Sage King into this trail, and then any anxiety she had felt left her entirely. But that did not mitigate her excitement. She eased the King into a long, swinging lope. And as he warmed to the work she was aroused also. It was hard to hold him in, once he got out of a trot, and after miles and miles of this, When she thought best to slow down he nearly pulled her arms off. Still she finally got him in hand. Then followed miles of soft and rough going, which seemed long and tedious. Beyond that was the home stretch up the valley, whose gradual slope could be seen only at a distance. Here was a straight, broad trail, not too soft nor too hard, and for all the years she could remember riders had tried out and trained their favorites on that course.

Lucy reached down to assure herself that the cinch was tight, then she pulled her sombrero down hard, slackened the bridle, and let the King go. He simply broke his gait, he was so surprised. Lucy saw him trying to look back at her, as if he could not realize that this young woman rider had given him a free rein. Perhaps one reason he disliked her had been always and everlastingly that tight rein. Like the wary horse he was he took to a canter, to try out what his new freedom meant.

"Say, what's the matter with you?" called Lucy, disdainfully. "Are you lazy? Or don't you believe I can ride you?"

Whereupon she dug him with her spurs. Sage King snorted. His action shifted marvelously. Thunder rolled from under his hoofs. And he broke out of that clattering roar into his fleet stride, where his hoof-beats were swift, regular, rhythmic.

Lucy rode him with teeth and fists clenched, bending low. After all, she thought, it was no trick to ride him. In that gait he was dangerous, for a fall meant death; but he ran so smoothly that riding him was easy and certainly glorious. He went so fast that the wind blinded her. The trail was only a white streak in blurred gray. She could not get her breath; the wind seemed to whip the air away from her. And then she felt the lessening of the tremendous pace. Sage King had run himself out and the miles were behind her. Gradually her sight became clear, and as the hot and wet horse slowed down, satisfied with his wild run, Lucy realized that she was up on the slope only a few miles from home. Suddenly she thought she saw something dark stir behind a sage-bush just ahead. Before she could move a hand at the bridle Sage King leaped with a frantic snort. It was a swerving, nimble, tremendous bound. He went high. Lucy was unseated, but somehow clung on, and came down with him, finding the saddle. And it seemed, while in the air, she saw a long, snaky, whipping loop of rope shoot out and close just where Sage King's legs had been.

She screamed. The horse broke and ran. Lucy, righting herself, looked back to see Joel Creech holding a limp lasso. He had tried to rope the King.

The blood of her father was aroused in Lucy. She thought of the horse--not herself. If the King had not been so keen-sighted, so swift, he would have gone down with a broken leg. Lucy never in her life had been so furious.

Joel shook his fist at her and yelled, "I'd 'a' got you--on any other hoss!"

She did not reply, though she had to fight herself to keep from pulling her gun and shooting at him. She guided the running horse back into the trail, rapidly leaving Creech out of sight.

"He's gone crazy, that's sure," said Lucy. "And he means me harm!"

She ran the King clear up to the corrals, and he was still going hard when she turned down the lane to the barns. Then she pulled him in.

Farlane was there to meet her. She saw no other riders and was glad.

"Wal, Miss Lucy, the King sure looks good," said Farlane, as she jumped off and flung him the bridle. "He's just had about right, judgin'. . . . Say, girl, you're all pale! Oh, say, you wasn't scared of the King, now?"

"No," replied Lucy, panting.

"Wal, what's up, then?" The rider spoke in an entirely different voice, and into his clear, hazel eyes a little dark gleam shot.

"Joel Creech waylaid me out in the sage--and--and tried to catch me." Lucy checked herself. It might not do to tell how Joel had tried to catch her.

"He did? An' you on the King!" Farlane laughed, as if relieved. "Wal, he's tried thet before. Miss Lucy. But when you was up on the gray--thet shows Joel's crazy, sure."

"He sure is. Farlane, I--I am mad!"

"Wal, cool off, Miss Lucy. It ain't nothin' to git set up about. An' don't tell the old man."

"Why not?" demanded Lucy.

"Wal, because he's in a queer sort of bad mood lately. It wouldn't be safe. He hates them Creeches. So don't tell him."

"All right, Farlane, I won't. Don't you tell, either," replied Lucy, soberly.

"Sure I'll keep mum. But if Joel doesn't watch out I'll put a crimp in him myself."

Lucy hurried away down the lane and entered the house without meeting any one. In her room she changed her clothes and lay down to rest and think.

Strangely enough, Lucy might never have encountered Joel Creech out in the sage, for all the thought she gave him. Her mind was busy with the crippled rider. Who was he? Where was he from? What strange passion he had shown over the recovery of that wonderful red horse! Lucy could not forget the feeling of his iron arm when he held her in a kind of frenzied gratitude. A wild upland rider, living only for a wild horse! How like Indians some of these riders! Yet this fellow had seemed different from most of the uncouth riders she had known. He spoke better. He appeared to have had some little schooling. Lucy did not realize that she was interested in him. She thought she was sorry for him and interested in the stallion. She began to compare Wildfire with Sage King, and if she remembered rightly Wildfire, even in his disheveled state, had appeared a worthy rival of the King. What would Bostil say at sight of that flame-colored stallion? Lucy thrilled.

Later she left her room to see if the hour was opportune for her plan to make up a pack of supplies for the rider. Her aunt was busy in the kitchen, and Bostil had not come in. Lucy took advantage of the moment to tie up a pack and carry it to her room. Somehow the task pleased her. She recalled the lean face of the rider. And that recalled his ragged appearance. Why not pack up an outfit of clothes? Bostil had a stock-room full of such accessories for his men. Then Lucy, glowing with the thought, hurried to Bostil's stock-room, and with deft hands and swift judgment selected an outfit for the rider, even down to a comb and razor. All this she carried quickly to her room, where in her thoughtfulness she added a bit of glass from a broken mirror, and soap and a towel. Then she tied up a second pack.

Bostil did not come home to supper, a circumstance that made Lucy's aunt cross. They ate alone, and, waiting awhile, were rather late in clearing away the table. After this Lucy had her chance in the dusk of early evening, and she carried both packs way out into the sage and left them near the trail.

"Hope a coyote doesn't come along," she said. That possibility, however, did not worry her as much as getting those packs up on the King. How in the world would she ever do it?

She hurried back to the house, stealthily keeping to the shadow of the cottonwoods, for she would have faced an embarrassing situation if she had met her father, even had he been in a good humor. And she reached the sitting-room unobserved. The lamps had been lighted and a log blazed on the hearth. She was reading when Bostil entered.

"Hello, Lucy!" he said.

He looked tired, and Lucy knew he had been drinking, because when he had been he never offered to kiss her. The strange, somber shade was still on his face, but it brightened somewhat at sight of her. Lucy greeted him as always.

"Farlane tells me you handled the King great--better 'n Van has worked him lately," said Bostil. "But don't tell him I told you."

That was sweet praise from Farlane. "Oh, Dad, it could hardly be true," expostulated Lucy. "Both you and Farlane are a little sore at Van now."

"I'm a lot sore," replied Bostil, gruffly.

"Anyway, how did Farlane know how I handled Sage King?" queried Lucy.

"Wal, every hair on a hoss talks to Farlane, so Holley says. . . . Lucy, you take the King out every day for a while. Ride him now an' watch out! Joel Creech was in the village to-day. He sure sneaked when he seen me. He's up to some mischief."

Lucy did not want to lie and she did not know what to say. Presently Bostil bade her good night. Lucy endeavored to read, but her mind continually wandered back to the adventure of the day.

Next morning she had difficulty in concealing her impatience, but luck favored her. Bostil was not in evidence, and Farlane, for once, could spare no more time than it took to saddle Sage King. Lucy rode out into the sage, pretty sure that no one watched her.

She had hidden the packs near the tallest bunch of greasewood along the trail; and when she halted behind it she had no fear of being seen from the corrals. She got the packs. The light one was not hard to tie back of the saddle, but the large one was a very different matter. She decided to carry it in front. There was a good-sized rock near, upon which she stepped, leading Sage King alongside; and after an exceedingly trying moment she got up, holding the pack. For a wonder Sage King behaved well.

Then she started off, holding the pack across her lap, and she tried the King's several gaits to see which one would lend itself more comfortably to the task before her. The trouble was that Sage King had no slow gait, even his walk was fast. And Lucy was compelled to hold him into that. She wanted to hurry, but that seemed out of the question. She tried to keep from gazing out toward the monuments, because they were so far away.

How would she find the crippled rider? It flashed into her mind that she might find him dead, and this seemed horrible. But her common sense persuaded her that she would find him alive and better. The pack was hard to hold, and Sage King fretted at the monotonous walk. The hours dragged. The sun grew hot. And it was noon, almost, when she reached the point where she cut off the trail to the left. Thereafter, with the monuments standing ever higher, and the distance perceptibly lessening, the minutes passed less tediously.

At length she reached the zone of lofty rocks, and found them different, how, she could not tell. She rode down among them, and was glad when she saw the huge mittens--her landmarks. At last she espied the green-bordered wash and the few cedar-trees. Then a horse blazed red against the sage and another shone black. That sight made Lucy thrill. She rode on, eager now, but moved by the strangeness of the experience.

Before she got quite close to the cedars she saw a man. He took a few slow steps out of the shade. His back was bent. Lucy recognized the rider, and in her gladness to see him on his feet she cried out. Then, when Sage King reached the spot, Lucy rolled the pack off to the ground.

"Oh, that was a job!" she cried.

The rider looked up with eyes that seemed keener, less staring than she remembered. "You came? . . . I was afraid you wouldn't," he said.

"Sure I came. . . . You're better--not badly hurt?" she said, gravely, "I--I'm so glad."

"I've got a crimp in my back, that's all."

Lucy was quick to see that after the first glance at her he was all eyes for Sage King. She laughed. How like a rider! She watched him, knowing that presently he would realize what a horse she was riding. She slipped off and threw the bridle, and then, swiftly untying the second pack, she laid it down.

The rider, with slow, painful steps and bent back, approached Sage King and put a lean, strong, brown hand on him, and touched him as if he wished to feel if he were real. Then he whistled softly. When he turned to Lucy his eyes shone with a beautiful light.

"It's Sage King, Bostil's favorite," said Lucy.

"Sage King! . . . He looks it. . . . But never a wild horse?"

"No."

"A fine horse," replied the rider. "Of course he can run?" This last held a note of a rider's jealousy.

Lucy laughed. "Run! . . . The King is Bostil's favorite. He can run away from any horse in the uplands."

"I'll bet you Wildfire can beat him," replied the rider, with a dark glance.

"Come on!" cried Lucy, daringly.

Then the rider and girl looked more earnestly at each other. He smiled in a way that changed his face--brightened out the set hardness.

"I reckon I'll have to crawl," he said, ruefully. "But maybe I can ride in a few days--if you'll come back again."

His remark brought to Lucy the idea that of course she would hardly see this rider again after to-day. Even if he went to the Ford, which event was unlikely, he would not remain there long. The sensation of blankness puzzled her, and she felt an unfamiliar confusion.

"I--I've brought you--some things," she said, pointing to the larger pack.

"Grub, you mean?"

"No."

"That was all I asked you for, miss," he said, somewhat stiffly.

"Yes, but--I--I thought--" Lucy became unaccountably embarrassed. Suppose this strange rider would be offended. "Your clothes were-- so torn. . . . And no wonder you were thrown--in those boots! . . . So I thought I'd--"

"You thought I needed clothes as bad as grub," he said, bitterly. "I reckon that's so."

His look, more than his tone, cut Lucy; and involuntarily she touched his arm. "Oh, you won't refuse to take them! Please don't!"

At her touch a warmth came into his face. "Take them? I should smile I will."

He tried to reach down to lift the pack, but as it was obviously painful for him to bend, Lucy intercepted him.

"But you've had no breakfast," she protested. "Why not eat before you open that pack?"

"Nope. I'm not hungry. . . . Maybe I'll eat a little, after I dress up." He started to walk away, then turned. "Miss Bostil, have you been so good to every wanderin' rider you happened to run across?"

"Good!" she exclaimed, flushing. She dropped her eyes before his. "Nonsense. . . . Anyway, you're the first wandering rider I ever met--like this."

"Well, you're good," he replied, with emotion. Then he walked away with slow, stiff steps and disappeared behind the willows in the little hollow.

Lucy uncoiled the rope on her saddle and haltered Sage King on the best grass near at hand. Then she opened the pack of supplies, thinking the while that she must not tarry here long.

"But on the King I can run back like the wind," she mused.

The pack contained dried fruits and meat and staples, also an assortment of good things to eat that were of a perishable nature, already much the worse for the long ride. She spread all this out in the shade of a cedar. The utensils were few--two cups, two pans, and a tiny pot. She gathered wood, and arranged it for a fire, so that the rider could start as soon as he came back. He seemed long in coming. Lucy waited, yet still he did not return. Finally she thought of the red stallion, and started off down the wash to take a look at him. He was grazing. He had lost some of the dirt and dust and the bedraggled appearance. When he caught sight of her he lifted his head high and whistled. How wild he looked! And his whistle was shrill, clear, strong. Both the other horses answered it. Lucy went on closer to Wildfire. She was fascinated now.

"If he doesn't know me!" she cried. Never had she been so pleased. She had expected every sign of savageness on his part, and certainly had not intended to go near him. But Wildfire did not show fear or hate in his recognition. Lucy went directly to him and got a hand on him. Wildfire reared a little and shook a little, but this disappeared presently under her touch. He held his head very high and watched her with wonderful eyes. Gradually she drew his head down. Standing before him, she carefully and slowly changed the set of the hackamore, which had made a welt on his nose. It seemed to have been her good fortune that every significant move she had made around this stallion had been to mitigate his pain. Lucy believed he knew this as well as she knew it. Her theory, an often disputed one, was that horses were as intelligent as human beings and had just the same fears, likes, and dislikes. Lucy knew she was safe when she untied the lasso from the strong root where she had fastened it, and led the stallion down the wash to a pool of water. And she stood beside him with a hand on his shoulder while he bent his head to sniff at the water. He tasted it, plainly with disgust. It was stagnant water, full of vermin. But finally he drank. Lucy led him up the wash to another likely place, and tied him securely.

When she got back to the camp in the cedars the rider was there, on his knees, kindling the fire. His clean-shaved face and new apparel made him vastly different. He was young, and, had he not been so gaunt. he would have been fine-looking, Lucy thought.

"Wildfire remembered me," Lucy burst out. "He wasn't a bit scary. Let me handle him. Followed me to water."

"He's taken to you," replied the rider, seriously. "I've heard of the like, but not so quick. Was he in a bad fix when you got to him yesterday?"

Lucy explained briefly.

"Aha! . . . If that red devil has any love in him I'll never get it. I wish I could have done so much for him. But always when he sees me he'll remember."

Lucy saw that the rider was in difficulties. He could not bend his back, and evidently it pained him to try. His brow was moist.

"Let me do that," she said.

"Thanks. It took about all my strength to get into this new outfit," he said, relinquishing, his place to Lucy.

When she looked up from her task, presently, he was sitting in the shade of the cedar, watching her. He had the expression of a man who hardly believed what he saw.

"Did you have any trouble gettin' away, without tellin'--about me?" he asked.

"No. But I sure had a job with those packs," she replied.

"You must be a wonder with a horse."

As far as vanity was concerned Lucy had only one weakness--and he had touched upon it.

"Well, Dad and Holley and Farlane argue much about me. Still, I guess they all agree I can ride."

"Holley an' Farlane are riders?" he questioned.

"Yes, Dad's right-hand men."

"Your dad hires many riders, I supposed?"

"Sure I never heard of him turning any rider down, at least not without a try."

"I wonder if he would give me a job?"

Lucy glanced up quickly. The idea surprised her--pleased her. "In a minute," she replied. "And he'd be grand to you. You see, he'd have an eye for Wildfire."

The rider nodded his head as if he understood how that would be.

"And of course you'd never sell nor trade Wildfire?" went on Lucy.

The rider's smile was sad, but it was conclusive.

"Then you'd better stay away from Bostil," returned Lucy, shortly.

He remained silent, and Lucy, busy about the campfire, did not speak again till the simple fare was ready. Then she spread a tarpaulin in the shade.

"I'm pretty hungry myself," she said. "But I don't suppose I know what hunger is."

"After a while a fellow loses the feelin' of hunger," he replied. "I reckon it'll come back quick. . . . This all looks good."

So they began to eat. Lucy's excitement, her sense of the unreality of this adventure, in no wise impaired her appetite. She seemed acutely sensitive to the perceptions of the moment. The shade of the cedars was cool. And out on the desert she could see the dark smoky veils of heat lifting. The breeze carried a dry odor of sand and grass. She heard bees humming by. And all around the great isolated monuments stood up, red tops against the blue sky. It was a silent, dreaming, impressive place, where she felt unlike herself.

"I mustn't stay long," she said, suddenly remembering.

"Will you come back--again?" he asked.

The question startled Lucy. "Why--I--I don't know. . . . Won't you ride in to the Ford just as soon as you're able?"

"I reckon not."

"But it's the only place where there's people in hundreds of miles. Surely you won't try to go back the way you came?"

"When Wildfire left that country I left it. We can't back."

"Then you've no people--no one you care for?" she asked, in sweet seriousness.

"There's no one. I'm an orphan. My people were lost in an Indian massacre--with a wagon-train crossin' Wyomin'. A few escaped, an' I was one of the youngsters. I had a tough time, like a stray dog, till I grew up. An' then I took to the desert."

"Oh, I see. I--I'm sorry," replied Lucy. "But that's not very different from my dad's story, of his early years. . . . What will you do now?"

"I'll stay here till my back straightens out. . . . Will you ride out again?"

"Yes," replied Lucy, without looking at him; and she wondered if it were really she who was speaking.

Then he asked her about the Ford, and Bostil, and the ranches and villages north, and the riders and horses. Lucy told him everything she knew and could think of, and, lastly, after waxing eloquent on the horses of the uplands, particularly Bostil's, she gave him a graphic account of Cordts and Dick Sears.

"Horse-thieves!" exclaimed the rider, darkly. There was a grimness as well as fear in his tone. "I've heard of Sears, but not Cordts. Where does this band hang out?"

"No one knows. Holley says they hide up in the canyon country. None of the riders have ever tried to track them far. It would be useless. Holley says there are plateaus of rich grass and great forests. The Ute Indians say that much, too. But we know little about the wild country."

"Aren't there any hunters at Bostil's Ford?"

"Wild-horse hunters, you mean?"

"No. Bear an' deer hunters."

"There's none. And I suppose that's why we're not familiar with the wild canyon country. I'd like to ride in there sometime and camp. But our people don't go in for that. They love the open ranges. No one I know, except a half-witted boy, ever rode down among these monuments. And how wonderful a place! It can't be more than twenty miles from home. . . . I must be going soon. I'm forgetting Sage King. Did I tell you I was training him for the races?"

"No, you didn't. What races? Tell me," he replied, with keen interest.

Then Lucy told him about the great passion of her father--about the long, time-honored custom of free-for-all races, and the great races that had been run in the past; about the Creeches and their swift horses; about the rivalry and speculation and betting; and lastly about the races to be run in a few weeks--races so wonderful in prospect that even the horse-thief, Cordts, had begged to be allowed to attend.

"I'm going to see the King beat Creech's roan," shouted the rider, with red in his cheeks and a flash in his eye.

His enthusiasm warmed Lucy's interest, yet it made her thoughtful. Ideas flashed into her mind. If the rider attended the races he would have that fleet stallion with him. He could not be separated from the horse that had cost him so dearly. What would Bostil and Holley and Farlane say at sight of Wildfire? Suppose Wildfire was to enter the races! It was probable that he could run away from the whole field--even beat the King. Lucy thrilled and thrilled. What a surprise it would be! She had the rider's true love of seeing the unheralded horse win over the favorite. She had for years wanted to see a horse--and ride a horse--out in front of Sage King. Then suddenly all these flashing ideas coruscated seemingly into a gleam-- a leaping, radiant, wonderful thought. Irresistibly it burst from her.

"Let Me ride your Wildfire in the great race?" she cried, breathlessly.

His response was instantaneous--a smile that was keen and sweet and strong, and a proffered hand. Impulsively Lucy clasped that hand with both hers.

"You don't mean it," she said. "Oh, it's what Auntie would call one of my wild dreams! . . . And I'm growing up--they say. . . . But-- Oh, if I could ride Wildfire against the field in that race. . . . If I only could!"

She was on fire with the hope, flushing, tingling. She was unconscious of her effect upon the rider, who gazed at her with a new-born light in his eyes.

"You can ride him. I reckon I'd like to see that race just as much as Bostil or Cordts or any man. . . . An' see here, girl, Wildfire can beat this gray racer of your father's."

"Oh!" cried Lucy.

"Wildfire can beat the King," repeated the rider, intensely. "The tame horse doesn't step on this earth that can run with Wildfire. He's a stallion. He has been a killer of horses. It's in him to Kill. If he ran a race it would be that instinct in him."

"How can we plan it?" went on Lucy, impulsively. She had forgotten to withdraw her hands from his. "It must be a surprise--a complete surprise. If you came to the Ford we couldn't keep it secret. And Dad or Farlane would prevent me, somehow."

"It's easy. Ride out here as often as you can. Bring a light saddle an' let me put you up on Wildfire. You'll run him, train him, get him in shape. Then the day of the races or the night before I'll go in an' hide out in the sage till you come or send for Wildfire."

"Oh, it'll be glorious," she cried, with eyes like stars. "I know just where to have you hide. A pile of rocks near the racecourse. There's a spring and good grass. I could ride out to you just before the big race, and we'd come back, with me on Wildfire. The crowd always stays down at the end of the racecourse. Only the starters stay out there. . . . Oh, I can see Bostil when that red stallion runs into sight!"

"Well, is it settled?" queried the rider, strangely.

Lucy was startled into self-consciousness by his tone.

How strangely he must have felt. And his eyes were piercing.

"You mean--that I ride Wildfire?" she replied, shyly. "Yes, if you'll let me."

"I'll be proud."

"You're very good. . . . And do you think Wildfire can beat the King?"

"I know it."

"How do you?"

"I've seen both horses."

"But it will be a grand race."

"I reckon so. It's likely to be the grandest ever seen. But Wildfire will win because he's run wild all his life--an' run to kill other horses. . . . The only question is--Can you ride him?"

"Yes. I never saw the horse I couldn't ride. Bostil says there are some I can't ride. Farlane says not. Only two horses have thrown me, the King and Sarchedon. But that was before they knew me. And I was sort of wild. I can make your Wildfire love me."

"That's the last part of it I'd ever doubt," replied the rider. "It's settled, then. I'll camp here. I'll be well in a few days. Then I'll take Wildfire in hand. You will ride out whenever you have a chance, without bein' seen. An' the two of us will train the stallion to upset that race."

"Yes--then--it's settled."

Lucy's gaze was impelled and held by the rider's. Why was he so pale? But then he had been injured--weakened. This compact between them had somehow changed their relation. She seemed to have known him long.

"What's your name?" she asked.

"Lin Slone," replied the rider.

Then she released her hands. "I must ride in now. If this isn't a dream I'll come back soon." She led Sage King to a rock and mounted him.

"It's good to see you up there," said Slone. "An' that splendid horse! . . . He knows what he is. It'll break Bostil's heart to see that horse beat."

"Dad'll feel bad, but it'll do him good," replied Lucy.

That was the old rider's ruthless spirit speaking out of his daughter's lips.

Slone went close to the King and, putting a hand on the pommel, he looked up at Lucy. "Maybe--it is--a dream--an' you won't come back," he said, with unsteady voice.

"Then I'll come in dreams," she flashed. "Be careful of yourself. . . . Good-by."

And at a touch the impatient King was off. From far up the slope near a monument Lucy looked back. Slone was watching her. She waved a gauntleted hand--and then looked back no more.