Forlorn River - Zane Grey - ebook
Opis

In „Forlorn River”, young Ben Ide is cast out by his rich dad, branded a wild horse hunter and possible rustler. Ide befriends a wounded man, whom he nicknames „Nevada.” Ide does the same for „Modoc,” an Indian he pulls out of a saloon. All three men form bonds of loyalty in their isolated state as they hunt wild horses in the California wilderness. Then the love of Ben’s youth returns after being away at college and an evil man has become his fathers partner and has spread lies about Ben. To win his lady love, he must clear his name and make good of his life. Many people believe in him and that is essential to his belief in himself. A wonderful, classic western romance. Beautiful descriptions of the American West, written in 1927, for people who had never seen or experienced its beauty and majesty.

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER I

BEN IDE named this lonely wandering stream Forlorn River because it was like his life.

Ben was well-born and had attended school until sixteen years of age, but from the time he had given up to his passion for the open country and the chase of wild horses he had gotten nowhere. That seemed the way of Forlorn River. It had its beginning in Clear Lake, a large body of surface water lying amid the Sage Mountains of northwestern California. It had begun well enough at its source under the beautiful rounded bare mountains of gray sage, and flowed bravely on for a few miles, then suddenly it became a lost river. That was what it was called by the Indians.

It meandered around under the foothills with their black fringe of juniper, into the wide gray valleys where thousands of wild horses roamed; to and fro across the open country as if seeking escape, on toward the dark pine-timbered ranges of Nevada; and back again, a barren little stream without creeks or springs to freshen it, a wilderness waterway, dear to the Indian and horse-hunter and cowboy; slackened by the thirsty Clay Flats to the west, and crowded away on the north by the huge red bluff that blocked entrance into Wild Goose Basin, forced at last to describe a wandering hundred-mile circle and find on the other side of the sage-hills, not far from its source, a miserable sand-choked outlet into the vast level ranch and pasture-land which had once been the bottom of Tule Lake.

Ben’s gray weather-beaten cabin partook somewhat of the melancholy austerity of the country, yet it was most picturesquely located on the south shore of the big lake, on the only elevated and wooded cape that jutted out into the wind-ruffed waters. Forlorn River was born just under his door, for his cabin did not face the lake, but the river and the west. Ben could watch the aimless windings of the stream for many a mile. Scattered juniper trees saved this slight eminence of land from the baldness of the irregular shore line. Clear Lake was ten miles round, and everywhere but at this point the gray sage reached down to the white high-water line. Back from the cabin where the cape widened stood a large well-built barn, which adjoined an enormous corral. Spirited horses kicked up the dust, and whistled, perhaps to their wild kindred in plain sight on the distant gray slopes, swelling toward the blue sky. Barn and corral, presenting such marked contrast to the little gray cabin, might have told an observant eye that Ben Ide loved horses and thought little of himself.

Spring had come late, the dryest of six successive dry springs. Clear Lake was lower than ever before in the memory of the Modoc Indians, who had lived there always. The white baked earth spread a long distance down from the sage line to the water. Flocks of ducks dotted the yellow surface of the lake. Wild geese tarried here on the way north, and every hour of day or night Ben heard their resonant and melodious honk, honk, honk. It was high country. Frost glistened on the roof of the barn and ice glinted along the shores of Forlorn River. Snow peaks notched the blue sky above the black-timbered range of Nevada mountains. The air was cold and crisp, fragrant with the scent of sage.

Ben Ide came out on the porch to gaze across the river and the long gray slope that led up to a pass between two of the Sage Mountains. His keen eye followed the winding thread that was a trail disappearing over the notch.

“No use to worry. But they ought to have got back last night,” he muttered, as he again scanned the trail.

Then from force of habit he looked on up the vast heave and bulge of the mountain, so softly and beautifully gray and purple in the morning sunlight. Here he did not meet with disappointment. Nine wild horses were in sight, two pure white that shone wonderfully in the clear air, and the rest all black. They lived on that mountain-top. They had been there all the four years Ben had lived at Forlorn River. During the first year of his sojourn there he had often chased them, as much for sport as for profit. But the advantage had always been theirs, and as they could not be driven from the great dome of this mountain, he let them alone, and came at last to watch for them in pleasure and love. When there was snow on the slopes they never left the mountain, and in summer, when they ventured down to the lake to drink, it was always at night. They never raised a colt and never took a strange horse into their band.

Just the mere sight of them had power to thrill Ben Ide. He hailed them gayly, as if they were as near as his own whistling horses in the corral. He gloried in their beauty, freedom, and self-sufficiency. He understood them. They were like eagles. They could look far away and down, and see their kindred, and their enemy, man. Years had taught them wisdom.

“Oh, you wild horses, just how long will you last up there?” he cried, poignantly. “Another dry year means your doom! Nothing to eat but sage, and the water going fast!”

That reminded Ben of his own long-unrealized hopes. If he were ever to catch a valuable string of wild horses and prove to his father that wild-horse hunting was not profitless, not the calling of a wanderer and outlaw, he must do it this year. If he were ever to catch California Red, the sorrel stallion that more than anything had lured him into this wild lonely life, he must accomplish the almost hopeless task before another dry season killed all the horses or drove them far out of the country.

Fifteen thousand wild horses grazed in that sage country between the gray California mountains and the Nevada ranges. They were the bane of the cattlemen who had begun to work back into the wild country. Horses were so plentiful and cheap in Oregon and California that there was no sale for any except good stock. Ben Ide was chasing a rainbow and he knew it. Yet something irresistible bound him. He would rather catch one beautiful wild mustang and keep it for himself than sell a hundred common horses at a profit. That very failing had ruined him. Ranchers had made attractive deals with Ben Ide, deals calculated to earn him money and free their ranges from these pests of wild horses, but Ben had always fallen short of success. At the crucial times he had loved the horses, not the money. He could not be brutal to the fiercest stallion, and he could not kill the meanest mustang.

Along the winding trail below the notch between the Sage Mountains appeared low rolling clouds of yellow dust.

“Nevada and Modoc. Good!” ejaculated Ben, as he watched with squinting eyes. “Traveling along right pert, too. That means they’ve sold my horses…. Wonder if I’ll hear from home.”

Ben Ide had never failed to look and hope for some word from home, though seldom indeed did he get any. Sometimes his sister Hettie, who alone remained true to him, contrived to send him a letter. The last one had been received six months ago. With the return of spring dormant feelings seemed to revive in Ben. During the long cold winter he had lived somewhat like a hibernating bear. The honk of the wild geese and the new fragrance of sage, the gray slopes coming out of the snow, and the roving bands of wild horses–these stirred in his heart the old wandering urge to get into the hills, and along with it awakened keener memories of mother and sister, of his stern father, of the old ranch home and spring school days.

He sat on the porch, bareheaded, and watched the moving clouds of dust come down to a level and fade into the gray sage along the lake. Black dots appeared and grew in size, and at length took the shape of horses. Watching them, Ben experienced a familiar old thrill–the vague boyish emotion he had learned to associate with sight of the wild lonely country and the smell of sage and whistle of mustangs, sunrise and the long day ahead. But happiness no more attended this fleeting state. He had thought too much; he had grown older; he had realized that he must find something more significant to live for. Not that the wild open country did not suffice! But he was unsatisfied and could not divine why.

Horsemen and pack-horses wound along the gray sage-slope shore line, splashed through the shallow mouth of Forlorn River, and climbed to the level shady patch in front of the cabin.

A stout square-faced Indian, dressed like a cowboy and wearing his hair short, was in the lead. The other rider was a striking figure. He sat in his saddle as if he had grown there. His hair was long and black, showing under a dilapidated old sombrero. He had a lean face, clean and brown, a long nose, and piercing dark eyes, and an expression of reckless good nature. He wore a checkered blouse, a flowing scarf of red, a silver-buckled belt about his lean waist, and rough leather chaps. From a pocket of these, low down, protruded the brown handle of a heavy gun.

“Howdy, Ben!” he called, as he slid out of his saddle. “Made a jim-dandy deal with the hosses. Paid all your debts an’ got six months’ grub. How about that, old timer?”

“Nevada, if you’re not lying, it’s sure great,” replied Ben, heartily.

“It’s true, Ben, I’m darn glad to say,” said Nevada. “An’ here’s a letter from your sister. I just rode over to the ranch, sent a kid in to tell Hettie, an’ waited.”

“Oh, but you’re a life-saver!” declared Ben, as he eagerly grasped the thick envelope Nevada held out. “I was feeling pretty blue.”

“We had supper in town, an’ have been ridin’ ever since,” returned Nevada, wearily.

“Say, you must be tired and hungry…. And how’re you, Modoc?”

“Bad. Town no good for Indian,” replied the Modoc, with a grin.

“Ben, I wouldn’t trade this camp for any town on earth,” declared Nevada.

“Neither would I, if you and Modoc were here. It’s been lonesome,” said Ben, as he set to the task of unpacking the three laden horses. Presently Modoc led away the smoking wet animals.

“Nevada, this is an awful lot of stuff,” continued Ben, surveying the large assortment of boxes, bags, and bales.

“Bought every darn thing I could think of,” rejoined Nevada, mildly.

“First time I’ve felt rich for years. Now I’ll pack this outfit inside and then get some breakfast.”

It took all of the small storeroom, the kitchen shelves, and half of the loft of Ben’s cabin to hold the new supplies. While Ben worked at this task Nevada lay on one of the narrow red-blanketed couches and talked.

“Got an all-fired lot of news,” he said, complacently, “if I can only remember. Reckon though it won’t make any difference how it comes…. Ben, your dad has made a pile of money. Sold two thousand acres that used to be under water, they said. The drainin’ of Tule Lake made your dad rich. But he ain’t the only one. Hart Blaine had the most of that low land. I loafed around Hammell in the saloons an’ stores, waitin’ for it to get dark, so’s I could sneak over to your dad’s ranch. An’ I shore asked questions. All the ranchers livin’ away from Tule Lake drains have been hard hit by the drought. Stock poor an’ grass scarce. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good. This dry spell hasn’t hurt your dad or Blaine, or any of them farmers in the middle of the basin. But if Forlorn River dries up this summer they’re goin’ to be in the same boat with the others…. I run into that McAdam guy an’ he wasn’t overly civil askin’ about you. I strung him good an’ plenty when all the time I wanted to slam him on his slick jaw. One of the waitresses told me he had a cinch on the Blaine girl–I forgot her name–the one that’s been away to school. An’–”

“Was it Ina?” interrupted Ben, quickly.

“Yep, shore was. Sort of pretty little handle to Blaine, huh?”

“Ina Blaine,” said Ben, dreamily, pausing in his task. “She ought to be nineteen now.”

“Pard, was this Ina Blaine an old girl of yours?” queried Nevada, with great interest. But as there was no reply forthcoming he went on: “Reckon she was only a kid when you left home…. Well, to resoom, I hired a lad to take me over to your dad’s place, while Modoc rode on with the pack outfit. Smart little fellar, keen about wild-hoss huntin’. No use talkin’, Ben, there’s somethin’ about a wild hoss that gets even a boy. He rode behind me an’ we got to the ranch before dark. I hid outside in a grove of trees an’ sent the kid in. It was just a gamble, you know, because there was ten to one he’d run into somebody else beside Hettie. But, by golly! she came to the door, he said, an’ we waited. Hettie slipped out with the letter I gave you…. Ben, she’s grown up. I couldn’t see her as well as I’d have liked, but it was enough. She was nice, Ben, soft-voiced an’ sweet–an’ it got me. Reckon I’d better not pull this letter stunt for you again. But she asked me to come an’ I was fool enough to promise…. So I took the kid back to Hammell, an’ hung around some more…. Ben, there’s an outfit of wild-hoss hunters over here between Silver Meadow an’ the Nevada line that’s takin’ to stealin’ cattle.”

“Who said so?” demanded Ben, suspiciously.

“Common gossip round Hammell,” continued Nevada. “But after buyin’ some drinks for two cowboys I got a hunch who’d branded wild-hoss hunters as cattle thieves. Nobody else but Less Setter. You know we run into some of his deals last summer, an’ he rode right in here one day when you was away. Ben, I’m tellin’ you Less Setter is not on the level.”

“How do you know?” queried Ben, sharply.

“How do you know a hoss that’s thoroughbred from one that ain’t? But it’s only fair for me to admit that I knowed Less Setter before he came to California.”

“Ahuh!” ejaculated Ben, with intent gaze on his friend’s masklike face. That statement of Nevada’s was absolutely the first he had ever made in reference to his past. Years before, one night back in the sage hills, Nevada had ridden up to Ben’s lonely campfire. He had a wound in his arm; he was exhausted and almost starved; his horse limped. Ben expressed himself twice: “Get down and come in, stranger,” and, “Where are you from?” The answer had been “Nevada.” Ben had succored this rider and had never asked another question. Nevada had become attached to Ben and had never mentioned his past.

“What’s more to the point,” went on Nevada, calmly, “Less Setter knowed me. An’ it’s a good bet he has never gabbed about me. If he had–your folks might reckon I wasn’t fit company for you.”

“Ha! Ha!” laughed Ben, bitterly. “Nevada, don’t talk in riddles. Tell me anything or not, just as you like. I love you for what you are, not what you might have been.”

“Ben, you’re talkin’ strong,” said Nevada, with his piercing eyes softening. “Reckon no one ever loved me in all my life till now–if you really do. I wouldn’t want you to throw around such talk careless, you know.”

“Well, I do,” declared Ben, stoutly.

“All right, pard,” replied Nevada, and there was a beautiful light in the gaze he bent on Ben. “We make a good or bad pair to draw to, accordin’ to the draw…. I get queer hunches sometimes. Not many, but when I get one I can tie to it. An’ I’ve had a hunch your bad luck has changed. It came to me when Hettie put that letter in my hands. Funny feelin’, Ben. It’s not a thought. It just comes from somewhere outside.”

At this moment the Indian entered with his slow silent tread and taking up the water pails he went out. Ben replenished the fire in the wide stone fireplace, and then set swiftly to the preparation of biscuits, coffee, bacon. His mind worked as swiftly as his hands.

“I’d like to believe the tide of my fortune has turned,” he said, seriously. “It sure was lucky I sent you. I’m no fellow to sell or buy, to make deals and carry them out. But you’re as smart as a whip, Nevada, and for me at least you drive good bargains.”

“Ben, have you noticed anythin’ particular about me?” inquired Nevada, complacently.

“Can’t say I do,” returned Ben, looking up from his work. “You’ve got a nice clean shave an’ a new scarf.”

“No good. You lose. Ben, I didn’t have one single solitaree drink at Klamath or Hammell. The reason was I had a hunch I might see your sister Hettie, an’ I didn’t want her to smell whisky on me.”

“That’s to your credit, Nevada. I’ll bet it would please Hettie…. But what about it?”

“Nothin’, only I feel better. Reckon I’ll quit drinkin’,” rejoined Nevada, thoughtfully. “Ben, if I ketch California Red for you–”

“What?” shouted Ben, jumping as if he had been struck.

“Excoose me, pard. I meant if I help you ketch that darned wild stallion you’re so dotty about will you listen to some sense?”

“Yes, Nevada. I’ll listen to that right now. But see here, you’ve heard something about California Red.”

“Sure have an’ it’ll keep. I want some breakfast an’ if I told you where that red hoss is you’d chuck everythin’ an’ run.”

Ben thrilled at the words and at the bright light in Nevada’s eyes, but he smothered his burning eagerness.

“Reckon I don’t know whether this is sense or the hunch I mentioned,” said Nevada. “But it’s got me, pard. Now listen. We’ve homesteaded three hundred an’ twenty acres of this sage. There are three homesteads we can buy for almost nothin’. That acreage takes in the best of Forlorn River Valley an’ gives control of the range beyond. Right here under our noses is a big cattle country. Let’s go in for cattle, Ben…. Damn! Don’t look like that. I tell you I’ve had a hunch. Now’s the time to buy cattle, when there’s no water or grass. Let’s make up our minds an’ get the money afterwards. When the rains come this Clear Lake country is goin’ to boom. The wild hosses have got to go. You admit that, Ben. Well, let’s ketch California Red an’ a thousand head, an’ keep them for ourselves, an’ settle down to ranchin’ on a big scale.”

“Nevada, you said you didn’t have one drink.”

“I swear I hadn’t.”

“What’s got into you then?”

“Sense an’ hunch.”

“Nevada, how long did you talk to my sister?” queried Ben, gravely.

“It seemed like a few swift seconds, but I reckon it might have been longer,” replied Nevada, with unconscious revelation of enchantment.

“What did Hettie say?” continued Ben, hungrily.

“She remembered me, but all the same she asks, ‘You’re Ben’s Friend, Nevada?’ an’ I answers I was. Then she fired a beltful of questions at me, all about how you were, an’ I shore answered quick. After that she looked square up at me–reckon it was then I fell–an’ she asks, ‘Nevada, if you’re Ben’s friend you’re mine, too. Tell the truth. Are you an’ Ben livin’ honest?’ An’ I says, ‘Miss Hettie, I wouldn’t lie to no girl, let alone you. Me an’ Ben are shore livin’ honest!’ … She squeezed my hands an’ cried. It was awful for me. Then she fired up. ‘Aren’t you two boys ashamed to be thought–what you are? This is a new country. It’ll be big. You’re young, strong. You’re great riders. Why don’t you do somethin’? Chase wild hosses, if you must, but ketch them. Sell them. Buy cattle. Homestead land. Study an’ think an’ plan, an’ work. Fool these hard-shelled old people! Make big ranchmen out of yourselves.’ … Pard Ben, you could have roped me with a cobweb. An’ there I stood, burstin’ to talk, but couldn’t say a word. She told me how to fetch word from you an’ then she ran off.”

“Hettie! God bless her!” exclaimed Ben, heartily. “I’m not surprised. Even as a kid she was bighearted. Hettie has grown up. She’s sixteen. And to think I’ve not seen her for two years!”

Modoc returned with the pails of water. Ben soon had breakfast ready, and when his companions sat down at the rude table he went outside to read Hettie’s letter. He threw himself in the shade and with trembling fingers tried to open the envelope quickly yet not tear it.

The Ranch.

Dearest Ben:

I’m in a terrible rush and won’t be able to write half what I want to, as the little boy said “Nevada” is waiting for me outside and I must hurry. Oh, how I wish it were you!

Dad is away. He went to Klamath Falls with Mr. Setter. They’re making big cattle deals. So many poor ranchers are failing on account of the dry season. I think it’d be more to dad’s credit if he helped some of these little fellows, instead of taking advantage of their bad luck. I don’t like Mr. Setter, and when I see you I’ll tell you why.

Ben, it’s a long time since I wrote you last. Nearly a year. I’m through high school. Dad wants me to go to college and mother wants me to stay home. Dad and Mr. Blaine and several more of the old lake pioneers have made an awful lot of money since the government drained Tule Lake. I don’t know whether it’s good or not. In a few ways it’s nice, but there’s something gone. Dad always was hard, you know, and now he has gotten “stuck up.” And I’m afraid I must tell you that your brothers and sisters (except me) are almost as bad. I’d like to write you just what they do, but you must wait until I can tell you. And that brings me to the important thing in this letter.

Mother is not well, Ben. There’s no use to dodge the truth. She’s failing. It breaks my heart. You were her favorite, Ben, and she has pined in secret. I believe dad’s bitter hardness about you, his injustice to you, has broken mother. Anyway, she is ailing and I know longs to see you. She’d obey dad, of course, and not ask you to come. But you can surprise her. And, Ben, dearest, if you could only prove to mother that you were not wasting your life–that these vile things Mr. Setter and others have told dad are lies–I think she might improve. So the day you get this ride in to the ranch. I’ll be looking for you down the lane just about dusk. You can see mother for a little, and then you and I will go out in the grove and have a long, long talk.

I’ve a lot to tell you, Ben, about what’s going on here. And I’m going to put some pretty plain questions to you. Dare say you’ll know some of them before you see me, because if I have a minute with this “Nevada” I’ll sure put some to him.

Ben, I mustn’t end this without a word about Ina Blaine. She’s home from school. I was afraid to meet her, but, oh! Ben, she’s as sweet and nice as ever she was when you and she were kid sweethearts and I was forever pestering you. And she’s lovely. School has improved her, that’s certain, and if it weren’t for mother I’d grasp my opportunity and go.

I’ve seen Ina three times. I believe we’re going to be friends. We think the same about a lot of things. Ina isn’t crazy about money, and I’ll miss my guess if she goes in for the town gayety that has struck the Blaine family.

Ben, she remembers you. I’m not in her confidence yet, but I can feel how she feels. She likes you, Ben. I don’t believe the years of school have made any difference in her, except to improve. The difference in her looks, though, is tremendous. You’ll not know Ina. Already she’s heard this village gossip about you. For she asked me straight out. I told her no, that you had your choice and took it. She wants to help you, and says we are arch plotters. She was awfully curious about that terrible wild horse they say you’re mad to catch. Brother, you know I wouldn’t mislead you, and I’m telling you I couldn’t make a mistake about how I feel–or mother–or Ina Blaine. And if we care for you still you’ve got to do something. She’ll be the richest and most popular girl in this whole valley of towns and ranches. Do you imagine that’ll ever change her? No! Ben, you’ve more to catch around these sage hills than a beautiful wild mustang. You’ve your boyhood’s sweetheart, Ina Blaine. So there!

I must close now, but it’s hard. Don’t let anything keep you from coming. I’m quite capable of riding out to Forlorn River.

With love, Hettie.

When Ben finished the letter his eyes were blurred and he had a hard dry contraction of his throat, a pang deep in his breastbone. Wave after wave of emotion had swept over him. And then he sat there motionless, the open letter in his hands, his gaze across the gray melancholy river to the dim gray hills of sage. He did not see them. The eyes of his mind were fixed on the dear familiar scenes of boyhood, home and mother, and freckled-faced Hettie with her big loving blue eyes, on the miles of wind-swept swamp land along Tule Lake, on the schoolhouse at Hammell, and the long lane that led from the Ide ranch down to Blaines’. He saw a girl of fourteen with a chestnut braid down her back, a white pearly skin that even the summer sun could not tan, and dark eyes of velvet softness. Then the heart-numbing pictures faded for the stalwart figure of his father, iron of muscle and of mind, the gray clear eye like sunlight on ice, and the weathered wrinkled face, a record of labor and strife.

*     *

*

A second and more thoughtful perusal of Hettie’s letter fixed Ben’s mind upon the most poignant and unavoidable fact of it–that pertaining to his mother. She was failing. What a terrible sickening shock ran through him! Then he was gripped in the cruel clutches of remorse. It was a bitter moment, but short because his decision to go was almost instantaneous. Folding Hettie’s letter, Ben went into the cabin.

“Modoc, saddle the gray,” he said, shortly.

The Indian laid down pan and dishcloth and abruptly glided out. Nevada looked up quickly from his task, with swift curious gleam of eyes searching Ben’s face.

“Bad news, pard?” he queried.

“Yes. Hettie says mother is–is failing, and I must come in to see her,” returned Ben, getting down his spurs and chaps. “It’d hurt like hell, Nevada, in any case, but to realize I’ve broken mother’s heart–it’s–it’s–”

With bowed head he slouched to the bed, dragging his chaps and dropping the clinking spurs, and sat down heavily.

“Ben, it’s tough news, but don’t look on the dark side,” said Nevada, with swift hand going to Ben’s shoulder. “Your mother’s not old. Seein’ you will cheer her. She’ll get well. Don’t be downcast, Ben. That’s been your disease as drink was mine. Let’s make an end to both of them…. Shake on it, pard!”

“By Heaven! Nevada, you’ve got something in your mind that you must drive into mine,” replied Ben, rising with violence, and jerking up his head he wrung Nevada’s hand. “I’ve got to get over not caring. Oh, it’s not that. It was that I cared too much.”

“Ben, you can’t care too much,” went on Nevada. “When you don’t care you’re no good. I never cared–till I rode into your camp on Forlorn River…. Let’s brace up an’ fool the whole country.”

“If I only had in–in me what Hettie believes–what you believe–” muttered Ben, thickly, struggling for self-control. He flung his chaps on and buckled them with shaking hands. There seemed to be a tight painful knot in his breast that must burst before he could feel relief.

“Ben, I felt this comin’ to us six months back,” said Nevada, soft-voiced, hovering around Ben like a woman. “Reckon I didn’t know what it was. But Hettie gave me the hunch. I tell you our luck has changed…. Mebbe I’ll have to kill Less Setter, but that’s neither here nor there…. You ride in to see your mother an’ sister. Make them happy for havin’ faith in you. While you’re gone I’ll do a heap of thinkin’. But come back to-morrow night.”

“What’ll you think so hard about?” asked Ben, curiously.

“Wal, most about California Red,” replied Nevada, with utmost seriousness. “Ben, that red-skinned mustang has wintered over here at Mule Deer Lake.”

“Nevada!” expostulated Ben, suddenly transfixed.

“It’s a fact, unless all them cowmen was lyin’. An’ I don’t see why they should lie. Red is pretty darn smart. We thought he was rangin’ round the lava beds an’ Modoc caves, where there was so many wild hosses, or else over in that big country east of Wild Goose Lake. But the son-of-a-gun wasn’t ten miles from here all winter. Nobody chased him. Reckon those who knew didn’t think there was any chance. But I say winter’s the best time to ketch wild hosses. I’ll prove it to you yet.”

“Too late now. Here’s spring and summer coming fast. You and Modoc ride over to Mule Deer Lake to-morrow.”

“Shore will. I hate to tell you, Ben, there’ll likely be more’n one outfit after California Red from now on.”

“Why now, more than last winter or summer?” queried Ben, sharply.

“Wal, I heard a lot of talk in the saloons,” replied Nevada. “One of them new-rich lake ranchers, Blaine it was, has offered three thousand dollars for California Red, sound an’ well broke.”

“Blaine!” ejaculated Ben, in amaze. “That’s Hart Blaine. There’s only one. He’s a neighbor of my father’s…. Three thousand dollars! Why, that’s a fortune! He used to be so stingy he wouldn’t give a boy an apple out of his orchard. All that money!”

“You ought to be tickled to death,” declared Nevada. “For no one else but you will ever ketch Red.”

“I didn’t think of the money. But what could Blaine want that wild horse for? Sound and well broke!”

“Say, any rancher in northern California would go broke for Red,” rejoined Nevada. “Some cowboy said Less Setter offers more than three thousand. If he pays it I’m goin’ to think money’s comin’ easy, an’ you can bet I’ll look around on the ranges…. Yes, I mean just that, Ben Ide. But the fellows at Hammell reckon Blaine wants California Red for his daughter.”

The idea struck Ben so strangely that he uttered a loud laugh. California Red, that wild fleet sorrel mustang for sweet little Ina Blaine! It seemed so ridiculous. Yet Ina Blaine was the only person Ben could have allowed to possess the great stallion, even in thought. California Red was his, by right of discovery–for Ben had been the first to see the red-flashing colt on the sage–and by the years of watching and striving.

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