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by Max Brand
Published 2018 by Blackmore Dennett
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. — CORDOVA
2. — THE COMING OF DAVID
3. — CONCERNING FIGHTERS
4. — THE STRENGTH OF THE WEAK
5. — RETRIBUTION
6. — FREEDOM
7. — THE PROMISED LAND
8. — MURDER
9. — THE STAMPEDE
10. — THE THIEF
11. — THE FAILURE
12. — FROM THE HIP
13. — THE BARGAIN
14. — STRATEGY
15. — THE KING
16. — RED PERRIS—ADVOCATE
17. — INVISIBLE DANGER
18. — VICTORY
19. — HERVEY TAKES A TRICK
20. — THE TRAP SHUTS
21. — THE BATTLE
22. — MCGUIRE SLEEPS
23. — LOBO
24. — THE CRISIS
25. — THE LITTLE SMOKY
26. — PARTNERS
27. — THE END OF THE RACE
The west wind came over the Eagles, gathered purity from the evergreen slopes of the mountains, blew across the foothills and league wide fields, and came at length to the stallion with a touch of coolness and enchanting scents of far-off things. Just as his head went up, just as the breeze lifted mane and tail, Marianne Jordan halted her pony and drew in her breath with pleasure. For she had caught from the chestnut in the corral one flash of perfection and those far-seeing eyes called to mind the Arab belief.
Says the Sheik: "I have raised my mare from a foal, and out of love for me she will lay down her life; but when I come out to her in the morning, when I feed her and give her water, she still looks beyond me and across the desert. She is waiting for the coming of a real man, she is waiting for the coming of a true master out of the horizon!"
Marianne had known thoroughbreds since she was a child and after coming West she had become acquainted with mere "hoss-flesh," but today for the first time she felt that the horse is not meant by nature to be the servant of man but that its speed is meant to ensure it sacred freedom. A moment later she was wondering how the thought had come to her. That glimpse of equine perfection had been an illusion built of spirit and attitude; when the head of the stallion fell she saw the daylight truth: that this was either the wreck of a young horse or the sad ruin of a fine animal now grown old. He was a ragged creature with dull eyes and pendulous lip. No comb had been among the tangles of mane and tail for an unknown period; no brush had smoothed his coat. It was once a rich red-chestnut, no doubt, but now it was sun-faded to the color of sand. He was thin. The unfleshed backbone and withers stood up painfully and she counted the ribs one by one. Yet his body was not so broken as his spirit. His drooped head gave him the appearance of searching for a spot to lie down. He seemed to have been left here by the cruelty of his owner to starve and die in the white heat of this corral—a desertion which he accepted as justice because he was useless in the world.
It affected Marianne like the resignation of a man; indeed there was more personality in the chestnut than in many human beings. Once he had been a beauty, and the perfection which first startled her had been a ghost out of his past. His head, where age or famine showed least, was still unquestionably fine. The ears were short and delicately made, the eyes well-placed, the distance to the angle of the jaw long—in brief, it was that short head of small volume and large brain space which speaks most eloquently of hot blood. As her expert eye ran over the rest of the body she sighed to think that such a creature had come to such an end. There was about him no sign of life save the twitch of his skin to shake off flies.
Certainly this could not be the horse she had been advised to see and she was about to pass on when she felt eyes watching her from the steep shadow of the shed which bordered the corral. Then she made out a dapper olive-skinned fellow sitting with his back against the wall in such a position of complete relaxation as only a Mexican is capable of assuming. He wore a short tuft of black moustache cut well away from the edge of the red lip, a moustache which oddly accentuated his youth. In body and features he was of that feminine delicacy which your large-handed Saxon dislikes, and though Marianne was by no means a stalwart, she detested the man at once. For that reason, being a lady to the tips of her slim fingers, her smile was more cordial than necessary.
"I am looking for Manuel Cordova," she said.
"Me," replied the Mexican, and managed to speak without removing the cigarette.
"I'm glad to know you." she answered. "I am Marianne Jordan."
At this, Manuel Cordova removed his cigarette, regardless of the ashes which tumbled straightway down the bell-mouthed sleeve of his jacket; for a Mexican deems it highly indecorous to pay the slightest heed to his tobacco ashes. Whether they land on chin or waistcoat they are allowed to remain until the wind carries them away.
"The pleasure is to me," said Cordova melodiously, and made painful preparations to rise.
She gathered at once that the effort would spoil his morning and urged him to remain where he was, at which he smiled with the care of a movie star, presenting an even, white line of teeth.
Marianne went on: "Let me explain. I've come to the Glosterville fair to buy some brood mares for my ranch and of course the ones I want are the Coles horses. You've seen them?"
"But those horses," she continued, checking off her points, "will not be offered for sale until after the race this afternoon. They're all entered and they are sure to win. There's nothing to touch them and when they breeze across the finish I imagine every ranch owner present will want to bid for them. That would put them above my reach and I can only pray that the miracle will happen —a horse may turn up to beat them. I made inquiries and I was told that the best prospect was Manuel Cordova's Alcatraz. So I've come with high hopes, Senor Cordova, and I'll appreciate it greatly if you'll let me see your champion."
"Look till the heart is content, senorita," replied the Mexican, and he extended a slim, lazy hand towards the drowsing stallion.
"But," cried the girl, "I was told of a real runner—"
She squinted critically at the faded chestnut. She had been told of a four-year-old while this gaunt animal looked fifteen at least. However, it is one thing to catch a general impression and another to read points. Marianne took heed, now, of the long slope of the shoulders, the short back, the well- let-down hocks. After all, underfeeding would dull the eye and give the ragged, lifeless coat.
"He is not much horse, eh?" purred Cordova.
But the longer she looked the more she saw. The very leanness of Alcatraz made it easier to trace his running-muscles; she estimated, too, the ample girth at the cinches where size means wind.
"And that's Alcatraz?" she murmured.
"That is all," said the pleasant Cordova.
"May I go into the corral and look him over at close range? I never feel that I know a horse till I get my hands on it."
She was about to dismount when she saw that the Mexican was hesitating and she settled back in the saddle, flushed with displeasure.
"No," said Cordova, "that would not be good. You will see!"
He smiled again and rising, he sauntered to the fence and turned about with his shoulders resting against the upper bar, his back to the stallion. As he did so, Alcatraz put forward his ears, which, in connection with the dullness of his eyes, gave him a peculiarly foolish look.
"You will see a thing, senorita!" the Mexican was chuckling.
It came without warning. Alcatraz turned with the speed of a whiplash curling and drove straight at the place where his master leaned. Marianne's cry of alarm was not needed. Cordova had already started, but even so he barely escaped. The chestnut on braced legs skidded to the fence, his teeth snapping short inches from the back of his master. His failure maddened Alcatraz. He reminded Marianne of the antics of a cat when in her play with the mouse she tosses her victim a little too far away and wheels to find her prospective meal disappearing down a hole. In exactly similar wise the stallion went around the corral in a whirl of dust, rearing, lashing out with hind legs and striking with fore, catching imaginary things in his teeth and shaking them to pieces. When the fury diminished he began to glide up and down the fence, and there was something so feline in the grace of those long steps and the intentness with which the brute watched Cordova that the girl remembered a new-brought tiger in the zoo. Also, rage had poured him full of such strength that through the dust cloud she caught again glimpses of that first perfection.
He came at last to a stop, but he faced his owner with a look of steady hate. The latter returned the gaze with interest, stroking his face and snarling: "Once more, red devil, eh? Once more you miss? Bah! But I, I shall not miss!"
It was not as one will talk to a dumb beast, for there was no mistaking the vicious earnestness of Cordova, and now the girl made out that he was caressing a long, white scar which ran from his temple across the cheekbone. Marianne glanced away, embarrassed, as people are when another reveals a dark and hidden portion of his character.
"You see?" said Cordova, "you would not be happy in the corral with him, eh?"
He rolled a cigarette with smiling lips as he spoke, but all the time his black eyes burned at the chestnut. He seemed to Marianne half child and half old man, and both parts of him were evil now that she could guess the whole story. Cordova campaigned through the country, racing his horse at fairs or for side bets. For two reasons he kept the animal systematically undernourished: one was that he was thereby able to get better odds; the other was that only on a weakened Alcatraz would he trust himself. At this she did not wonder for never had she seen such almost human viciousness of temper in a dumb beast.
"As for running, senorita," continued Cordova, "sometimes he does very well—yes, very well. But when he is dull the spurs are nothing to him."
He indicated a criss-crossing of scars on the flank of the stallion and Marianne, biting her lips, realized that she must leave at once if she wished to avoid showing her contempt, and her anger.
She was a mile down the road and entering the main street of Glosterville before her temper cooled. She decided that it was best to forget both Alcatraz and his master: they were equally matched in devilishness. Her last hope of seeing the mares beaten was gone, and with it all chance of buying them at a reasonable figure; for no matter what the potentialities of Alcatraz in his present starved condition he could not compare with the bays. She thought of Lady Mary with the sunlight rippling over her shoulder muscles. Certainly Alcatraz would never come within whisking distance of her tail!
Having reached this conclusion, the logical thing, of course, was for Marianne to pack and go without waiting to see the race or hear the bidding for the Coles horses; but she could not leave. Hope is as blind as love. She had left the ranch saying to her father and to the foreman, Lew Hervey: "The bank account is shrinking, but ideals are worth more than facts and I shallimprove the horses on this place." It was a rather too philosophical speech for one of her years, but Oliver Jordan had merely shrugged his shoulders and rolled another cigarette; the crushed leg which, for the past three years, had made him a cripple, had taught him patience.
Only the foreman had ventured to smile openly. It was no secret that Lew Hervey disliked the girl heartily. The fall of the horse which made Jordan a semi-invalid, killed his ambition and self-reliance at the same instant. Not only was it impossible for him to ride since the accident, but the freeswinging self-confidence which had made him prosperous disappeared at the same time; his very thoughts walked slowly on foot since his fall. Hervey gathered the reins of the ranch affairs more and more into his own hands and had grown to an almost independent power when Marianne came home from school. Having studied music and modern languages, who could have suspected in Marianne either the desire or the will to manage a ranch, but to Marianne the necessity for following the course she took was as plain as the palm of an open hand. The big estate, once such a money-maker, was now losing. Her father had lost his grip and could not manage his own affairs, but who had ever heard of a hired man being called to run the Jordan business as long as there was a Jordan alive? She, Marianne, was very much alive. She came West and took the ranch in hand.
Her father smiled and gave her whatever authority she required; in a week the estate was hers to control. But for all her determination and confidence, she knew that she could not master cattle-raising in a few weeks. She was unfemininely willing to take advice. She even hunted for it, and though her father refused to enter into the thing even with suggestions, a little help from Hervey plus her indomitable energy might have made her attempt a success.
Hervey, however, was by no means willing to help. In fact, he was profoundly disgruntled. He had found himself, beyond all expectation, in a position almost as absolute and dignified as that of a real owner with not the slightest interference from Jordan, when on a sudden the arrival of this pretty little dark-eyed girl submerged him again in his old role of the hired man. He took what Marianne considered a sneaking revenge. He entered at once upon a career of the most perfect subordination. No fault could be found with his work. He executed every commission with scrupulous care. But when his advice was asked he became a sphinx. "Some folks say one way and some another. Speaking personal, I dunno, Miss Jordan. You just tell me what to do and I'll do it."
This attitude irritated her so that she was several times on the verge of discharging him, but how could she turn out so old an employee and one so painstaking in the duties assigned to him? Many a day she prayed for "a new foreman or night," but Hervey kept his job, and in spite of her best efforts, affairs went from bad to worse and the more desperately she struggled the more hopelessly she was lost. This affair of the horses was typical. No doubt the saddle stock were in sad need of improved blood but this was hardly the moment to undertake such an expenditure. Having once suggested the move, the quiet smiles of Hervey had spurred her on. She knew the meaning of those smiles. He was waiting till she should exhaust even the immense tolerance of her father; when she fell he would swing again into the saddle of control. Yet she would go on and buy the mares if she could. Hers was one of those militant spirits which, once committed, fights to the end along every line. And indeed, if she ever contemplated surrender, if she were more than once on the verge of giving way to the tears of broken spirit, the vague, uninterested eyes of her father and the overwise smiles of Hervey were whips which sent her back into the battle.
But today, when she regained her room in the hotel, she walked up and down with the feeling that she was struggling against manifest destiny. And in a rare burst of self-pity, she paused in front of the window, gritting her teeth to restrain a flood of tears.
A cowpuncher rocked across the blur of her vision on his pony, halted, and swung down in front of the stable across the street. The horse staggered as the weight came out of the stirrup and that made Marianne watch with a keener interest, for she had seen a great deal of merciless riding since she came West and it always angered her. The cowpunchers used "hoss-flesh" rather than horses, a distinction that made her hot. If a horse were not good enough to be loved it was not good enough to be ridden. That was one of her maxims. She stepped closer to the window. Certainly that pony had been cruelly handled for the little grey gelding swayed in rhythm with his panting; from his belly sweat dripped steadily into the dust and the reins had chafed his neck to a lather. Marianne flashed into indignation and that, of course, made her scrutinize the rider more narrowly. He was perfect of that type of cowboy which she detested most: handsome, lithe, childishly vain in his dress. About his sombrero ran a heavy width of gold-braid; his shirt was blue silk; his bandana was red; his boots were shop-made beauties, soft and flexible; and on his heels glittered —gilded spurs!
"And I'll wager," thought the indignant Marianne, "that he hasn't ten dollars in the world!"
He unknotted the cinches and drew off the saddle, propping it against one hip while he surveyed his mount. In spite of all his vainglory he was human enough to show some concern, it appeared. He called for a bucket of water and offered it to the dripping pony. Marianne repressed a cry of warning: a drink might ruin a horse as hot as that. But the gay rider permitted only a swallow and then removed the bucket from the reaching nose.
The old man who apparently sat all day and every day beside the door of the stable, only shifting from time to time to keep in shadow, passed his beard through his fist and spoke. Every sound, even of the panting horse, came clearly to her through the open window.
"Kind of small but kind of trim, that hoss."
"Not so small," said the rider. "About fifteen two, I guess."
"I'd say nigher onto fifteen one."
"Bet my spurs to ten dollars that he's fifteen two; and that's good odds for you."
The old man hesitated; but the stable boy was watching him with a grin.
"I'll take that bet if—" he began.
The rider snapped him up so quickly that Marianne was angered again. Of course he knew the height of his own horse and it would be criminal to take the old loafer's money, but that was his determination.
"Get a tape, son. We'll see."
The stable boy disappeared in the shadow of the door and came back at once with the measure. The grey gelding, in the meantime, had smelled the sweetness of hay and was growing restive but a sharp word from the rider jerked him up like a tug on his bit. He tossed his head and waited, his ears flat.
"Look out, Dad," called the rider, as he arranged the tape to fall from the withers of the horse, "this little devil'll kick your head off quicker than a wink if he gets a chance."
"He don't look mean," said the greybeard, stepping back in haste.
"I like 'em mean and I keep 'em mean," said the other. "A tame hoss is like a tame man and I don't give a damn for a gent who won't fight."
Marianne covertly stamped. It was so easy to convert her worries into anger at another that she was beginning to hate this brutal-minded Beau Brummel of the ranges. Besides, she had had bitter experience with these noisy, careless fellows when they worked on her ranch. Her foreman was such a type grown to middle-age. Indeed her anger at the whole species called "cowpuncher" now focused to a burning-point on him of the gilded spurs.
The measuring was finished; he stepped back.
"Fifteen one and a quarter," he announced. "You win, Dad!"
Marianne wanted to cheer.
"You win, confound it! And where'll I get the mates of this pair? You win and I'm the underdog."
"A poor loser, too," thought Marianne. She was beginning to round her conception of the man; and everything she added to the picture made her dislike him the more cordially.
He had dropped on one knee in the dust and was busily loosening the spurs, paying no attention to the faint protests of the winner that he "didn't have no use for the darned things no ways." And finally he drowned the protests by breaking into song in a wide-ringing baritone and tossing the spurs at the feet of the others. He rose—laughing—and Marianne, with a mental wrest, rearranged one part of her preconception, yet this carelessness was only another form of the curse of the West and Westerners— extravagance.
He turned now to a tousle-headed three-year-old boy who was wandering near, drawn by the brilliance of the stranger.
"Keep away from those heels, kiddie. Look out, now!"
The yellow-haired boy, however, dazed by this sudden centering of attention on him, stared up at the speaker with his thumb in his mouth; and with great, frightened eyes—he headed straight for the heels of the grey!
"Take the hoss—" began the rider to the stable-boy. But the stable- boy's sudden reaching for the reins made the grey toss its head and lurch back towards the child. Marianne caught her breath as the stranger, with mouth drawn to a thin, grim line, leaped for the youngster. The grey lashed out with vicious haste, but that very haste spoiled his aim. His heels whipped over the shoulder of his master as the latter scooped up the child and sprang away. Marianne, grown sick, steadied herself against the side of the window; she had seen the brightness of steel on the driving hoofs.
A hasty group formed. The stable boy was guiltily leading the horse through the door and around the gaudy rider came the old man, and a woman who had run from a neighboring porch, and a long-moustached giant. But all that Marianne distinctly saw was the white, set face of the rescuer as he soothed the child in his arms; in a moment it had stopped crying and the woman received it. It was the old man who uttered the thought of Marianne.
"That was cool, young feller, and darned quick, and a nervy thing as I ever seen."
"Tut!" said the other, but the girl thought that his smile was a little forced. He must have heard those metal-armed hoofs as they whirred past his head.
"There is distinctly something worth while about these Westerners, after all," thought Marianne.
Something else was happening now. The big man with the sandy, long moustaches was lecturing him of the gay attire.
"Nervy enough," he began, "but you'd oughtn't to take a hoss around where kids are, a hoss that ain't learned to stop kicking. It's a fool thing to do, I say. I seen once where—"
He stopped, agape on his next word, for the lectured had turned on the lecturer, dropped his hands on his hips, and broke into loud laughter.
"Excuse me for laughing," he said when he could speak, "but I didn't see you before and—those whiskers, partner—those whiskers are —"
The laughter came again, a gale of it, and Marianne found herself smiling in sympathy. For they were odd whiskers, to be sure. They hung straight past the corners of the mouth and then curved sabre-like out from the chin. The sabre parts now wagged back and forth, as their owner moved his lips over words that would not come. When speech did break out it was a raging torrent that made Marianne stop her ears with a shiver.
Looking down the street away from the storming giant and the laughing cowpuncher, she saw that other folk had come out to watch, Westernlike. An Eastern crowd would swiftly hem the enemies in a close circle and cheer them on to battle; but these Westerners would as soon see far off as close at hand. The most violent expression she saw was the broad grin of the blacksmith. He was a fine specimen of laboring manhood, that blacksmith, with the sun glistening on his sweaty bald head and over his ample, soot-darkened arms. Beside his daily work of molding iron with heat and hammer-blows, a fight between men was play; and now, with his hands on his hips, his manner was that of one relaxed in mood and ready for entertainment.
Presently he cast up his right arm and swayed to the left; then back; then rocked forward on his toes presenting two huge fists red with iron-rust and oil. It seemed that he was engaging in battle with some airy figure before him.
That was enough of a hint to make Marianne look again towards the pair directly below her; the hat of the gaudy cowpuncher lay in the dust where it had evidently been knocked by the first poorly aimed blow of him of the moustaches, and the owner of the hat danced away at a little distance. Marianne saw what the hat had hitherto concealed, a shock of flame-red hair, and she removed her fingers from her ears in time to hear the big man roar: "This ain't a dance, damn you! Stand still and fight!"
"Nope," laughed the other. "It ain't a dance. It's a pile more fun. Come on you—"
The big man obscured the last of the insulting description of his ancestry with the rush of a bull, his head lowered and his fists doing duty as horns. Plainly the giant had only to get one blow home to end the conflict, but swift and graceful as a tongue of fire dancing along a log the red-headed man flashed to one side, and as he whirled Marianne saw that he was laughing still, drunk with the joy of battle. Goliath roared past, thrashing the air; David swayed in with darting fists. They closed. They became obscure forms whirling in a fog of dust until red-head leaped out of the mist.
Goliath followed with the cloud boiling away from him, a mountain of a man above his foeman.
"It's unfair!" shrilled Marianne. "That great brute and—"
Red-head darted forward, a blue clad arm flicked out. She almost heard and felt the jar of that astonishing shock which halted Goliath in his tracks with one foot raised. He wobbled an instant, then his great knees bent, and dropping inert on his face the dust spurted like steam under the impact.
The crowd now washed in from every side to lift him up and revive him with canteens of water, yet they were quite jovial in the midst of their work of mercy and Marianne gathered that the fall of Goliath was not altogether unwelcome to the townsmen. She saw the bulky figure raised to a sitting posture, saw a dull-eyed face, bloody about the mouth, and looked away hastily towards the red-headed victor.
He was in the act of picking the torn fragments of his sombrero from the dust. It had probably come in contact with the giant's spurs as they wrestled, for the crown was literally ripped to tatters. And when its owner beat out the dirt and placed the hat on his head, the fiery hair was still visible through the rents. Yet he was not downhearted, it seemed. He leaned jauntily against a hitching post under her window and rolled a cigarette, quite withdrawn from the crowd which was working over his victim.
Marianne began to feel that all she had seen was an ordinary ter in his life; yet in the mere crossing of that street he had lost his spurs on a bet; saved a youngster from death at the risk of his own head, battled with a monster and now rolled a cigarette cheerily complacent. If fifty feet of his life made such a story what must a year of it be?
As though he felt her wonder above him, he raised his head in the act of lighting his cigarette and Marianne was looking down into bright, whimsical blue eyes. She was utterly unconscious of it at the moment but at the sight of that happy face and all the dust-dimmed finery of the cavalier, Marianne involuntarily smiled. She knew what she had done the moment he grinned in response and began to whistle, and whistle he did, keeping the rhythm with the sway of his head:
"At the end of the trail I'll be weary riding But Mary will wait with a smile at the door; The spurs and the bit had been chinking and chiding But the end of the trail—"
Marianne stepped back from the window with the blood tingling in her face. She was terribly ashamed, for some reason, because she knew the words of that song.
"A cowpuncher—actually whistling at me!" she muttered, "I've never known a red-headed man who wasn't insolent!"
The whistling died out, a clear-ringing baritone began a new air:
"Oh, father, father William, I've seen your daughter dear.Will you trade her for the brindled cow and the yellow steer?And I'll throw in my riding boots and..."
Marianne slammed down the window. A moment later she was horrified to find herself smiling.
The race-track had come into existence by grace of accident for it happened that a lane ran a ragged course about a big field taking the corners without pretense of making true curves, with almost an elbow-turn into the straightaway; but since the total distance around was over a mile it was called the "track." The sprints were run on the straightaway which was more than the necessary quarter of a mile but occasionally there was a longer race and then the field had to take that dangerous circuit, sloppy and slippery with dust. The land enclosed was used for the bucking contest, for the two crowning events of the Glosterville fiesta, the race and the horse-breaking, had been saved for this last day. Marianne Jordan gladly would have missed the latter event. "Because it sickens me to see a man fight with a horse," she often explained. But she forced herself to go.
She was in the Rocky Mountains, now, not on the Blue Grass. Here riding bucking horses was the order of the day. It might be rough, but this was a rough country.
It was a day of undue humidity—and the Eagle Mountains were pyramids of blue smoke. Closer at hand the roofs of Glosterville shone in the fierce sun and between the village and the mountains the open fields shimmered with rising heat waves. A hardy landscape meant only for a hardy people.
"One can't adopt a country," thought Marianne, "it's the country that does the adopting. If I'm not pleased by what pleases other people in the West, I'd better leave the ranch to Lew Hervey and go back East."
This was extraordinarily straight-from-the-shoulder thinking but all the way out to the scene of the festivities she pondered quietly. The episode of the mares was growing in importance. So far she had been able to do nothing of importance on the ranch; if this scheme fell through also it would be the proverbial last straw.
In spite of her intentions, she had delayed so long that the riding was very nearly ended before she arrived. Buckboards and automobiles lined the edges of the field in ragged lines, but these did not supply enough seats and many were standing. They weaved with a continual life; now and again the rider of one of the pitching horses bobbed above the crowd, and the rattle of voices sharpened, with piercing single calls. Always the dust of battle rose in shining wisps against the sun and Marianne approached with a sinking heart, for as she crossed the track and climbed through the fence she heard the snort and squeal of an angry, fear-tormented horse. The crying of a child could not have affected her so deeply.
The circle was too thick to be penetrated, it seemed, but as she drew closer an opening appeared and she easily sifted through to the front line of the circle. It was not the first time she had found that the way of women is made easy in the West. Just as she reached her place a horse scudded away from the far end of the field with a rider yelling; the swaying head and shoulders back. He seemed to be shrinking from such speed, but as a matter of fact he was poised and balanced nicely for any chance whirl. When it had gained full speed the broncho pitched high in the air, snapped its head and heels close together, and came down stiff-legged. Marianne sympathetically felt that impact jar home in her brain but the rider kept his seat. Worse was coming. For sixty seconds the horse was in an ecstasy of furious and educated bucking, flinging itself into odd positions and hitting the earth. Each whip-snap of that stinging struggling body jarred the rider shrewdly. Yet he clung in his place until the fight ended with startling suddenness. The grey dropped out of the air in a last effort and then stood head-down, quivering, beaten.
The victor jogged placidly back to the high-fenced corrals, with shouts of applause going up about him.
"Hey, lady," called a voice behind and above Marianne. "Might be you would like to sit up here with us?"
It was a high-bodied buckboard with two improvised seats behind the driver's place and Marianne thanked him with a smile. A fourteen-year-old stripling sprang down to help her but she managed the step-up without his hand. She was taken at once, and almost literally, into the bosom of the family, three boys, a withered father, a work-faded mother, all with curious, kindly eyes. They felt she was not their order, perhaps. The sun had darkened her skin but would never spoil it; into their sweating noonday she carried a morning- freshness, so they propped her in the angle of the driver's seat beside the mother and made her at home. Their name was Corson; their family had been in the West "pretty nigh onto always"; they had a place down the Taliaferro River; and they had heard about the Jordan ranch. All of this was huddled into the first two minutes. They brushed through the necessaries and got at the excitement of the moment.
"I guess they ain't any doubt," said Corson. "Arizona Charley wins. He won two years back, too. Minds me of Pete Langley, the way he rests in a saddle. Now where's this Perris gent? D'you see him? My, ain't they shouting for Arizona! Well, he's pretty bad busted up, but I guess he's still good enough to hold this Perris they talk about. Where's Perris?"
The same name was being shouted here and there in the crowd. Corson stood up and peered about him.
"Who is Perris?" asked Marianne.
"A gent that come out of the north, up Montana way, I hear. He's been betting on himself to win this bucking contest, covering everybody's money. A crazy man, he sure is!"
The voice drifted dimly to Marianne for she was falling into a pleasant haze, comfortably aware of eyes of admiration lifted to her more and more frequently from the crowd. She envied the blue coolness of the mountains, or breathed gingerly because the sting of alkali-dust was in the air, or noted with impersonal attention the flash of sun on a horse struggling in the far off corrals. The growing excitement of the crowd, as though a crisis were approaching, merely lulled her more. So the voice of Corson was half heard; the words were unconnotative sounds.
"Let the winner pick the worst outlaw in the lot. Then Perris will ride that hoss first. If he gets throwed he loses. If he sticks, then the other gent has just got to sit the same hoss—one that's already had the edge took off his bucking. Well, ain't that a fool bet?"
"It sounds fair enough," said Marianne. "Perris, I suppose, hasn't ridden yet. And Arizona Charley is tired from his work."
"Arizona tired? He ain't warmed up. Besides, he's got a hoss here that Perris will break his heart trying to ride. You know what hoss they got here today? They got Rickety! Yep, they sure enough got old Rickety!"
"There he comes out!"
Marianne looked lazily in the indicated direction and then sat up, wide awake. She had never seen such cunning savagery as was in the head of this horse, its ears going back and forth as it tested the strength of the restraining ropes. Now and then it crouched and shuddered under the detested burden of the saddle. It was a stout-legged piebald with the tell-tale Roman nose obviously designed for hard and enduring battle. He was a fighting horse as plainly as a terrier is a fighting dog.
Arizona Charley, a tall man off a horse and walking with a limp, moved slowly about the captive, grinning at his companions. It was plain that he did not expect the stranger to survive the test.
A brief, deep-throated shout from the crowd.
"There's Perris!" cried Corson. "There's Red Perris, I guess!"
It was the devil-may-care cavalier who had laughed and fought and whistled under the window of her room. He stepped from the thick of the circle near Rickety and responded to the voice of the crowd by waving his hat. It would have been a trifle too grandiloquent had he not been laughing.
"He's going through with it," said Corson, shivering and chuckling at the same time. "He's going to try Rickety. They look like one and the same kind to me—two reckless devils, that hoss and Red Jim Perris!"
"Is there real danger?" asked Marianne.
Corson regarded her with pity.
"Rickety can be rode, they say," he answered, "but I disremember anybody that's done it. Look! He's a man-killer that hoss!"
Perris had stepped a little too close and the piebald thrust out at him with reaching teeth and striking forefoot. The man leaped back, still laughing.
"Cool, all right," said Corson judicially. "And maybe he ain't just a blow-hard, after all. There they go!"
It happened very quickly. Perris had shaken hands with Arizona, then turned and leaped into the saddle. The ropes were loosed. Rickety crouched a moment to feel out the reality of his freedom, then burst away with head close to the ground and ragged mane fluttering. There was no leaning back in this rider. He sat arrowy-straight save that his left shoulder worked back in convulsive jerks as he strove to get the head of Rickety up. But the piebald had the bit. Once his chin was tucked back against his breast his bucking chances were gone and he kept his nose as low as possible, like the trained fighter that he was. There were no yells now. They received Rickety as the appreciative receive a great artist—in silence.
The straight line of his flight broke into a crazy tangle of criss-cross pitching. Out of this maze he appeared again in a flash of straight galloping, used the impetus for a dozen jarring bucks, then reared and toppled backward to crush the cowpuncher against the earth.
Marianne covered her eyes, but an invisible power dragged her hand down and made her watch. She was in time to see Perris whisk out of the saddle before Rickety struck the dirt. His hat had been snapped from his head. The sun and the wind were in his flaming hair. Blue eyes and white teeth flashed as he laughed again.
"I like 'em mean," he had said, "and I keep 'em mean. A tame horse is like a tame man, and I don't give a damn for a fellow who won't fight!"