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16 Complete Works of Max BrandAlcatrazBlack JackBull HunterGunman ReckoningHarriganRiders of the SilencesRonicky DooneThe Garden of EdenThe Hair-Trigger KidThe Night HorsemanThe Rangeland AvengerThe Seventh ManThe Ten-foot ChainThe UntamedTrailinWay of the Lawless
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The Complete Collection of Max Brand
Riders of the Silences
The Garden of Eden
The Hair-Trigger Kid
The Night Horseman
The Rangeland Avenger
The Seventh Man
The Ten-foot Chain
Way of the Lawless
Alcatraz, by Max Brand
II.--THE COMING OF DAVID
IV.--THE STRENGTH OF THE WEAK
VII.--THE PROMISED LAND
XII.--FROM THE HIP
XVI.--RED PERRIS: ADVOCATE
XIX.--HERVEY TAKES A TRICK
XX.--THE TRAP SHUTS
XXV.--THE LITTLE SMOKY
XXVII.--THE END OF THE RACE
The characters, places, incidents and situations in this book are imaginary and have no relation to any person, place or actual happening.
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, Señor Cordova, and I'll appreciate it greatly if you'll let me see your champion."
"Look till the heart is content, señorita," 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, señorita!" 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, señorita," 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!
THE COMING OF DAVID
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 shall improve 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 chapter 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!"
Once that had irritated her but now, remembering, it rang in her ear to a different tune. As Rickety spun to his feet, Perris vaulted to the saddle and found both stirrups in mid-leap, so to speak. The gelding instantly tested the firmness of his rider's seat by vaulting high and landing on one stiffened foreleg. The resultant shock broke two ways, like a curved ball, snapping down and jerking to one side. But he survived the blow, giving gracefully to it.
It was fine riding, very fine; and the crowd hummed with appreciation.
"A handsome rascal, eh?" said Mr. Corson.
But she caught at his arm.
"Oh!" gasped Marianne. "Oh! Oh!"
Three flurries of wild pitching drew forth those horrified whispers. But still the flaming red head of the rider was as erect, as jaunty as ever. Then the quirt flashed above him and cut Rickety's flank; the crowd winced and gasped. He was not only riding straight up but he was putting the quirt to Rickety--to Rickety!
The piebald seemed to feel the sting of the insult more than the lash. He bolted across the field to gain impetus for some new and more terrible feat but as he ran a yell from Perris thrilled across the crowd.
"They do that, some men. Get plumb drunk with a fight!"
But Marianne did not hear Corson's remark. She watched Rickety slacken his run as that longdrawn yell began, so wild and high that it put a tingle in her nose. Now he was trotting, now he was walking, now he stood perfectly still, become of a sudden, an abject, cowering figure. The shout of the spectators was almost a groan, for Rickety had been beaten fairly and squarely at last and it was like the passing of some old master of the prize ring, the scarred veteran of a hundred battles.
"What happened?" breathed Marianne.
"Rickety's lost his spirit," said Corson. "That's all. I've seen it come to the bravest men in the world. A two-year-old boy could ride Rickety now. Even the whip doesn't get a single buck out of the poor rascal."
The quirt slashed the flank of the piebald but it drew forth only a meek trot. The terrible Rickety went back to the corrals like a lamb!
"Arizona's got a good man to beat," admitted Corson, "but he's got a chance yet. They won't get any more out of Rickety. He's not only been rode--he's been broke. I could ride him myself."
"Mr. Corson," said Marianne, full of an idea of her own, "I'll wager that Rickety is not broken in the least--except for Red Perris."
"Meaning Perris just sort of put a charm on him?" suggested Corson, smiling.
"Exactly that. You see?"
In fact, the moment Perris slipped from the saddle, Rickety rocked forward on his forelegs and drove both heels at one of the reckless who came too near. A second later he was fighting with the activity and venom of a cat to get away from the ropes. The crowd chattered its surprise. Plainly the fierce old outlaw had not fought his last.
"What did Perris do to the horse?" murmured Marianne.
"I don't know," said Corson. "But you seem to have guessed something. See the way he stands there with his chin on his fist and studies Rickety! Maybe Perris is one of these here geniuses and us ordinary folks can only understand a genius by using a book on him."
She nodded, very serious.
"There is a use for fighting men, isn't there?" she brooded.
"Use for 'em?" laughed Corson. "Why, lady, how come we to be sitting here? Because gents have fought to put us here! How come this is part of God's country? Because a lot of folks buckled on guns to make it that! Use for a fighter? Well, Miss Jordan, I've done a little fighting of one kind and another in my day and I don't blush to think about it. Look at my kid there. What do you think I'm proudest of: because he was head of his class at school last winter or because he could lick every other boy his own size? First time he come home with a black eye I gave him a dollar to go back and try to give the other fellow two black eyes. And he done it! All good fighters ain't good men; I sure know that. But they never was a man that was good to begin with and was turned bad by fighting. They's a pile of bad men around these parts that fight like lions; but that part of 'em is good. Yes sirree, they's plenty of use for a fighting man! Don't you never doubt that!"
She smiled at this vehemence, but it reinforced a growing respect for Perris.
Then, rather absurdly, it irritated her to find that she was taking him so seriously. She remembered the ridiculous song:
"Oh, father, father William, I've seen your daughter dear. Will you trade her for the brindled cow and the yellow steer?"
The shout of the crowd called her away from herself. Far from broken by the last ride, the outlaw horse now seemed all the stronger for the exercise. Discarding fanciful tricks, he at once set about sun-fishing, that most terrible of all forms of bucking.
The name in itself is a description. Literally Rickety hurled himself at the sun and landed alternately on one stiffened foreleg and then the other. At each shock the chin of Arizona Charley was flung down against his chest and at the same time his head snapped sideways with the uneven lurch of the horse. An ordinary pony would have broken his leg at the first or second of these jumps; but Rickety was untiring. He jarred to the earth; he vaulted up again as from springs--over and over the same thing.
It would eventually have become tiresome to watch had not both horse and rider soon showed effects of the work. Every leap of Rickety's was shorter. Sweat shone on his thick body. He was killing Arizona but he was also breaking his own heart. Arizona weakened fast under that continual battering at the base of his brain. His eyes rolled. He no longer pretended to ride straight up, but clung to pommel and cantle. A trickle of blood ran from his mouth. Marianne turned away only to find that mild old Corson was crying: "Watch his head! When it begins to roll then you know that he's stunned and the next jump or so will knock him out of the saddle as limp as a half filled sack."
"It's too horrible!" breathed the girl. "I can't watch!"
"Why not? You liked it when a man beat a hoss. Now the tables are turned and the hoss is beating the man. Ah, I thought so. There goes his head! Rolls as if his neck was broken. Now! Now!"
Arizona Charley toppled loose-limbed from the saddle and lay twisted where he fell, but it had taken the last of Rickety's power. His legs were now braced, his head untriumphantly low, and the sweat dripped steadily from him. He had not enough energy to flee from those who approached to lift Arizona from the ground. Corson was pounding his knee with a fat fist.
"Ever see a fight like that in your life? Nope, you never did! Me neither! But Lord, Lord, won't Red Jim Perris take a mule-load of coin out of Glosterville! They been giving five to one agin him. I was touched a bit myself."
For the moment, Marianne was more keenly interested in the welfare of Arizona Charley. Perris, with others following, reached him first and strong hands carried the unconscious champion towards that corner of the field where the Corson buckboard stood; for there were the water-buckets. They were close to the goal when Arizona recovered sufficiently to kick himself loose feebly from his supporters.
"What the hell's all this?" Marianne heard him say in a voice which he tried to make an angered roar but which was only a shrill quaver from his weakness. "Maybe I'm a lady? Maybe I've fainted or something? Not by a damned sight! Maybe I been licked by that boiled-down bit of hell, Rickety, but I ain't licked so bad I can't walk home. Hey, Perris, shake on it! You trimmed me, all right, and you collect off'n me and a pile more besides me. Here's my boodle."
At the mention of the betting a little circle cleared around Perris and from every side hands full of greenbacks were thrust forward. The latter pushed back his sombrero and scratched his head, apparently deep in thought.
"It's a speech, boys," cried Arizona Charley, supporting himself on the shoulder of a friend. "Give Red air; give him room; he's going to make a speech! And then we'll pay him for what he's got to say."
There was much laughter, much slapping of backs.
"That's Arizona," remarked Corson. "Ain't he a game loser?"
"He's a fine fellow," said the girl, with emotion. "My heart goes out to him!"
"Does it, now?" wondered Corson. "Well, I'd of figured more on Perris being the man for the ladies to look at. He's sure set up pretty! Now he makes his little talk."
"Ladies and gents," said Red Perris, turning the color of his sobriquet. "I ain't any electioneer when it comes to speech making."
"That's all right, boy," shouted encouraging partisans. "You'll get my vote if you don't say a word."
"But I'll make it short," said Perris. "It's about these bets. They're all off. It just come to my mind that two winters back me and this same Rickety had a run in up Montana-way and he come out second-best. Well, he must of remembered me the way I just now remembered him. That's why he plumb quit when I let out a whoop. If he'd turned loose all his tricks like he done with Arizona, why most like Charley would never of had to take his turn. I'd be where he is now and he'd be doing the laughing. Anyway, boys, the bets are off. I don't take money on a sure thing."
It brought a shout of protest which was immediately drowned in a hearty yell of applause.
"Now, don't that warm your heart, for you?" said Corson as the noise fell away a little. "I tell you what--" he broke off with a chuckle, seeing that she had taken a pencil and a piece of paper from her purse and was scribbling hastily: "Taking notes on the Wild West, Miss Jordan?"
"Mental notes," she said quietly, but smiling at him as she folded the slip. She turned to the stripling, who all this time had hardly taken his eyes from her even to watch the bucking and to hear the speech of Perris.
"Will you take this to Jim Perris for me?"
A gulp, a grin, a nod, he was down from the wagon in a flash and using his leanness to wriggle snakelike through the crowd.
"Well!" chuckled Corson, not unkindly, "I thought it would be more Perris than Arizona in the wind-up!"
She reddened, but not because of his words. She was thinking of the impulsive note in which she asked Red Perris to call at the hotel after the race and ask for Marianne Jordan. Remembering his song from the street, she wondered if he, also, would have the grace to blush when they met.
THE STRENGTH OF THE WEAK
By simply turning about the crowd was in position to watch the race. Of course it packed dense around the finish on both sides of the lane but Corson had chosen his position well, the white posts were not more than a dozen yards above them and they would be able to see the rush of horses across the line. It was pleasant to Marianne to turn her back on the scene of the horse-breaking and face her own world which she knew and loved.
The ponies were coming out to be paraded for admiration and to loosen their muscles with a few stretching gallops. Each was ridden by his owner, each bore a range saddle. To one accustomed to jockeys and racing-pads, these full-grown riders and cumbrous trappings made the cowponies seem small but they were finely formed, the pick of the range. The days of mongrel breeds are long since over in the West. Smaller heads, longer necks, more sloping shoulders, told of good blood crossed on the range stock. Still, the base-stock showed clearly when the Coles mares came onto the track with mincing steps, turning their proud heads from side to side and every one coming hard on the bit. Coles had taken no chances, and though he had been forced by the rules of the race to put up the regulation range saddles he had found the lightest riders possible. Their small figures brought out the legginess of the mares; beside the compact range horses their gait was sprawling, but the wise eye of Marianne saw the springing fetlocks kiss the dust and the long, telltale muscles. She cried out softly in admiration and pleasure.
"You see the Coles mares?" she said. "There go the winners, Mr. Corson. The ponies won't be in it after two furlongs."
Corson regarded her with a touch of irritation: "Now, don't you be too sure, lady," he growled. "Lots of legs, I grant you. Too much for me. Are they pure bred?"
"No," she answered, "there's enough cold blood to bring the price down. But Coles is a wise business man. After they've won this race in a bunch they'll look, every one, like daughters of Salvator. See that! Oh, the beauties!"
One of the range horses was loosed for a fifty yard sprint and as he shot by, the mares swayed out in pursuit. There was a marked difference between the gaits. The range horse pounded heavily, his head bobbing; the mares stepped out with long, rocking gallop. They seemed to be going with half the effort and less than half the speed, and yet, strangely, they very nearly kept up with the sprinter until their riders took them back to the eager, prancing walk. Marianne's eyes sparkled but the little exhibition told a different story to old Corson. He snorted with pleasure.
"Maybe you seen that, Miss Jordan? You seen Jud Hopkin's roan go by them fancy Coles mares? Well, well, it done my heart good! This gent Coles comes out of the East to teach us poor ignorant ranchers what right hoss flesh should be. He's going to auction off them half dozen mares after the race. Well, sir, I wouldn't give fifty dollars a head for 'em. Nor neither will nobody else when they see them mares fade away in the home stretch; nope, neither will nobody else."
In this reference to over-wise Easterners there was a direct thrust at the girl, but she accepted it with a smile.
"Don't you think they'll last for the mile and a quarter, Mr. Corson?"
"Think? I don't think. I know! Picture hosses like them--well, they'd ought to be left in books. They run a little. Inside a half mile they bust down. Look how long they are!"
"But their backs are short," put in Marianne hastily.
"Backs short?" scoffed Corson, "Why, lady look for yourself!"
She choked back her answer. If the self-satisfied old fellow could not see how far back the withers reached and how far forward the quarters, so that the true back was very short, it was the part of wisdom to let experience teach him. Yet she could not refrain from saying: "You'll see how they last in the race, Mr. Corson."
"We'll both see," he answered. "There goes a gent that's going to lose money today!"
A big red-faced man with his hat on the back of his head and sweat coursing down his cheeks, was pushing through the crowd calling with a great voice:
"Here's Lady Mary money. Evens or odds on Lady Mary!" "That's Colonel Dickinson," said Corson. "He comes around every year to play the races here and most generally he picks winners. But today he's gone wrong. His eye has been took by the legs of them Coles hosses and he's gone crazy betting on 'em. Well, he gets plenty of takers!"
Indeed, Colonel Dickinson was stopped right and left to record wagers.
"I got down a little bet myself, this morning, agin his Lady Mary." Corson chuckled at the thought of such easy money.
"What makes you so sure?" asked Marianne, for even if she were lucky enough to get the mares she felt that from Corson she could learn beforehand the criticisms of Lew Hervey.
"So sure? Why anybody with half an eye--" here he remembered that he was talking to a lady and continued more mildly. "Them bay mares ain't hosses--they're tricks. Look how skinny all that underpinning is, Miss Jordan."
"When they fill out--" she began.
"Tush! They won't never fill out proper. Too much leg to make a hoss. Too much daylight under 'em. Besides, what good would they be for cow-work? High headed fools, all of 'em, and a hoss that don't know enough to run with his head low can't turn on a forty acre lot. Don't tell me!"
He forbade contradiction by raising an imperious hand. Marianne was so exasperated that she looked to Mrs. Corson in the pinch, but that old lady was smiling dimly behind her glasses; she seemed to be studying the smoky gorges of the Eagles, so Marianne wisely deferred her answer and listened to that unique voice which rises from a crowd of men and women when horses are about to race. There is no fellow to the sound. The voice of the last-chance better is the deep and mournful burden; the steady rattle of comment is the body of it; and the edge of the noise is the calling of those who are confident with "inside dope." Marianne, listening, thought that the sound in Glosterville was very much like the sound in Belmont. The difference was in the volume alone. The hosses were now lining up for the start, it was with a touch of malice that Marianne said: "I suppose that's one of your range types? That faded old chestnut just walking up to get in line?"
Corson started to answer and then rubbed his eyes to look again.
It was Alcatraz plodding towards the line of starters, his languid hoofs rousing a wisp of dust at every step. He went with head depressed, his sullen; hopeless ears laid back. On his back sat Manuel Cordova, resplendent in sky-blue, tight-fitting jacket. Yet he rode the spiritless chestnut with both hands, his body canted forward a little, his whole attitude one of desperate alertness. There was something so ludicrous in the contrast between the hair-trigger nervousness of the Mexican and the drowsy unconcern of the stallion that a murmur of laughter rose from the crowd about the starting line and drifted across the field.
"I suppose you'll say that long hair is good to keep him warm in winter," went on the girl sarcastically. "As far as legs are concerned, he seems to have about as much as the longest of the mares."
Corson shook his head in depreciation.
"You never can tell what a fool Mexican will do. Most like he's riding in this race to show off his jacket, not because he has any hope of winning. That hoss ain't any type of range--"
"Perhaps you think it's a thoroughbred?" asked Marianne.
Corson sighed, feeling that he was cornered.
"Raised on the range, all right," he admitted. "But you'll find freak hosses anywhere. And that chestnut is just a plug."
"And yet," ventured Marianne, "it seems to me that the horse has some points."
This remark drew a glance of scorn from the whole Corson family. What would they think, she wondered, if they knew that her hopes centered on this very stallion? Silence had spread over the field. The whisper of Corson seemed loud. "Look how still the range hosses stand. They know what's ahead. And look at them fool bays prance!"
The Coles horses were dancing eagerly, twisting from side to side at the post.
"Oh!" cried Mrs. Corson. "What a vicious brute!"
Alcatraz had wakened suddenly and driven both heels at his neighbor. Luckily he missed his mark, but the starter ran across the track and lessoned Cordova with a raised finger. Then he went back; there was a breath of waiting; the gun barked!
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