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   Chapter 5 No.5

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 16258

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Jed Philosophizes

Morning: a flickering in the east that gives again to the black hold of night. Another attempt, a longer glimmer. It recedes, returns stronger; struggles, bursts from the pall of darkness, and blots out the stars before it. And after that first silver white come soft colors-shoots of violet, a wave of pink, then the golden glory of a new day.

Jed Avery yawned loud and lingeringly, pushing the blankets away from his chin with blind, fumbling motions. He thrust both arms from the covers and reached above his head, up and up and-up! until he ended with a satisfied groan. He sat erect, opening and shutting his mouth, rubbed his eyes-and stopped a motion half completed.

Danny Lenox slept with lips parted. His brown hair-the hair that wanted to curl so badly-was well down over the brow, and the skin beneath those locks was damp. One hand rested on the tarpaulin covering of the bed, the fingers in continual motion.

"Poor kid!" Jed muttered under his breath. "Poor son of a gun! He's in a jack-pot, all right, an' it'll take all any man ever had to pull-"

"'Mornin', sonny!" he cried as Danny opened his eyes and raised his head with a start.

For a moment the boy stared at him, evidencing no recognition. Then he smiled and sat up.

"How are you, Mr. Avery?"

"Well," the other began grimly, looking straight before him, "Mr. Avery's in a bad way. He died about thirty year ago."

Danny looked at him with a grin.

"But Old Jed-Old VB," he went on, "he's alive an' happy. Fancy wrappin's is for boxes of candy an' playin' cards," he explained. "They ain't necessary to men."

"I see-all right, Jed!"

Danny stared about him at the freshness of the young day.

"Wouldn't it be slick," Jed wanted to know, "if we was all fixed like th' feller who makes th' days? If yesterday's was a bad job he can start right in on this one an' make it a winner! Now, if this day turns out bad he can forget it an' begin to-morrow at sun-up to try th' job all over again!"

"Yes, it would be fine to have more chances," agreed Danny.

Jed sat silent a moment.

"Mebby so, an' mebby no," he finally recanted. "It would be slick an' easy, all right; but mebby we'd get shiftless. Mebby we'd keep puttin' off tryin' hard until next time. As 'tis, we have to make every chance our only one, an' work ourselves to th' limit. Never let a chance get away! Throw it an' tie it an' hang on!"

"In other words, think it's now or never?"

Jed reached for a boot and declared solemnly:

"It's th' only thing that keeps us onery human bein's on our feet an' movin' along!"

Breakfast was a brief affair, brief but enthusiastic. The gastronomic feats performed at that table were things at which to marvel, and Danny divided his thoughts between wonder at them and recalling the events of the night before. Only once did he catch Rhues's eyes, and then the leer which came from them whipped a flush high in his cheeks.

Jed and Danny rode out into the morning side by side, smoking some of the boy's tobacco. As the sun mounted and the breeze did not rise, the heat became too intense for a coat, and Danny stripped his off and tied it behind the saddle. Jed looked at the pink silk shirt a long time.

"To be sure an' that's a fine piece of goods," he finally declared.

Danny glanced down at the gorgeous garment with a mingled feeling of amusement and guilt. But he merely said:

"I thought so, too, when I bought it."

And even that little tendency toward foppishness which has been handed down to men from those ancestors who paraded in their finest skins and paints before the home of stalwart cave women seemed to draw the two closer to each other.

As though he could sense the young chap's bewilderment and wonder at the life about him, Jed related much that pertained to his own work.

"Yes, I raise some horses," he concluded, "but I sell a lot of wild ones, too. It's fun chasin' 'em, and it gets to be a habit with a feller. I like it an' can make a livin' at it, so why should I go into cattle? Those horses are out there in th' hills, runnin' wild, like some folks, an' doin' nobody no good. I catch 'em an' halter-break 'em an' they go to th' river an' get to be of use to somebody."

"Isn't it a job to catch them?" Danny asked.

"Well, I guess so!" Jed's eyes sparkled.

"Some of 'em are wiser than a bad man. Why, up in our country's a stallion that ain't never had a rope on him. Th' Captain we've got to call him. He's th' wildest an' wisest critter, horse or human, you ever see. Eight years old, an' all his life he's been chased an' never touched. He's big-not so big in weight; big like this here man Napoleon, I mean. He rules th' range. He has th' best mares on th' mountain in his bunch, an' he handles 'em like a king. We've tossed down our whole hand time an' again, but he always beats us out. We're no nearer catchin' him to-day than we was when he run a yearlin'."

The little man's voice rose shrilly and his eyes flashed until Danny, gazing on him, caught some of his fever and felt it run to the ends of his body.

"Oh, but that's a horse!" Jed went on. "Why, just to see him standin' up on the sky line, head up, tail arched-like, ready to run, not scared, just darin' us to come get him-well, it's worth a hard ride. There's somethin' about th' Captain that keeps us from hatin' him. By all natural rights somebody ought to shoot a stallion that'll run wild so long an' drive off bunches of gentle mares an' make 'em crazy wild. But no. Nobody on Red Mountain or nobody who ever chased th' Captain has wanted to harm him; yet I've heard men swear until it would make your hair curl when they was runnin' him! He's that kind. He gets to somethin' that's in real men that makes 'em light headed. I guess it's his strength. He's bigger'n tricks, that horse. He's learned all about traps an' such, an' th' way men generally catch wild horses don't bother him at all. Lordy, boy, but th' Captain's somethin' to set up nights an' talk about!"

His voice dropped on that declaration, almost in reverence.

"Well, he's so wise and strong that he'll just keep right on running free; is that the idea?" asked Danny.

Jed gnawed off a fresh chew and repocketed the plug, shifted in his saddle, and shook his head.

"Nope, I guess not," he said gravely. "I don't reckon so, because it ain't natural; it ain't th' way things is done in this world. Did you ever stop to think that of all th' strong things us men has knowed about somethin' has always turned up to be a little bit stronger? We've been all th' time pattin' ourselves on th' back an' sayin', 'There, we've gone an' done it; that'll last forever!' an' then watchin' a wind or a rain carry off what we've thought was so strong. Either that, I say, or else we've been fallin' down on our knees an' prayin' for help to stop somethin' new an' powerful that's showed up. An' when prayin' didn't do no good up pops somebody with an idea that th' Lord wants us folks to carry th' heavy end of th' load in such matters, an' gets busy workin'. An' his job ends up by makin' somethin' so strong that it satisfied all them prayers-folks bein' that unparticular that they don't mind where th' answer comes from so long as it comes an' they gets th' benefits!

"That's th' way it is all th' time. We wake up in th' mornin' an' see somethin' so discouragin' that we want to crawl back to bed an' quit tryin'; then we stop to think that nothin' has ever been so great or so strong that it kept right on havin' its own way all th' time; an' we get our sand up an' pitch in, an' pretty soon we're on top!

"All we need is th' sand to tackle big jobs; just bein' sure that they's some way of doin' or preventin' an' makin' a reg'lar hunt for that one thing. So 'tis with th' Captain. He's fooled us a long time now, but some day a man'll come along who's wiser than th' Captain, an' he'll get caught.

"Nothin' strange about it. Just th' workin' out of things. 'Course, it'll all depend on th' man. Mebby some of us on th' mountain has th' brains; mebby some others has th' sand, bu

t th' combination ain't been struck yet. We ain't men enough. Th' feller who catches that horse has got to be all man, just like th' feller who beats out anythin' else that's hard; got to be man all th' way through. If he's only part man an' tackles th' job he's likely to get tromped on; if he's all man, he'll do th' ridin'."

Jed stopped talking and gazed dreamily at the far horizon; dreamily, but with an eye which moved a trifle now and then to take into its range the young chap who rode beside him. Danny's head was down, facing the dust which rose from the feet of the horses ahead. The biting particles irritated the membrane of his throat, but for the moment he did not heed. "Am I a man-all the way through?" he kept asking himself. "All the way through?"

And then his nerves stung him viciously, shrieking for the stimulant which had fed them so long and so well. His aching muscles pleaded for it; his heart, miserable and lonely, missed the close, reckless friendships of those days so shortly removed, in spite of his realization of what those relations had meant; he yearned for the warming, heedless thrills; his eyes ached and called out for just the one draft that would make them alert, less hurtful.

From every joint in his body came the begging! But that chord down in his heart still vibrated; his father's arraignment was in his ears, its truth ringing clearly. The incentive to forge ahead, to stop the wasting, grew bigger, and his will stood stanch in spite of the fact that his spinning brain played such tricks as making the click of pebbles sound like the clink of ice in glasses!

Then, too, there was Jed, the big-hearted, beside him. And Jed was saying, after a long silence, as though he still thought of his theme: "Yes, sir, us men can do any old thing if we only think so! Nothin' has ever been too much for us; nothin' ever will-if we only keep on thinkin' as men ought to think an' respectin' ourselves."

Thus they traveled, side by side, the one fighting, the other uttering his homely truths and watching, always watching, noting effects, detecting temptations when the strain across the worried brow and about the tight mouth approached the breaking point. With keen intuition he went down into the young fellow and found the vibrating chord, the one that had been set humming by scorn and distrust. But instead of abusing it, instead of goading it on, Jed nursed it, fed it, strengthening the chord itself with his philosophy and his optimism.

They went on down Ant Creek, past the ranches which spread across the narrow valley. Again they slept under the open skies, and Danny once more marveled at the stars.

That second morning was agony, but Jed knew no relenting.

"You're sore an' stiff," he said, "but keepin' at a thing when it hurts is what counts, is what gets a feller well-an' that applies to more things than saddle sores, too."

He said the last as though aside, but the point carried.

At the mouth of the creek, where it flows into Clear River, they swung to the west and went downstream. Danny's condition became only semi-conscious. His head hung, his eyes were but half opened. Living resolved itself into three things. First and second: the thundering demands and the stubborn resistance of his will. When Jed spoke and roused him the remaining element come to the fore: his physical suffering. That agony became more and more acute as the miles passed, but in spite of its sharpness it required the influence of his companion's voice to awaken him to its reality.

Always, in a little back chamber of his mind, was a bit of glowing warmth-his newly born love for the man who rode beside him.

It was night when they reached the ranch.

"We're arrived, sonny! This is home!" cried Jed, slapping Danny on the shoulder. "Our home."

The boy mastered his senses with an effort. When he dismounted he slumped to one knee and Jed had to help him stand erect.

Danny remembered nothing of the bed going, nor could he tell how long the little, gray-haired man stood over him, muttering now and then, rubbing his palms together; nor of how, when he turned toward the candle on the table, burning steadily and brightly there in the night like a young Crusader fighting back the shadows into the veriest corner of the room, his eyes were misted.

It was a strange awakening, that which followed. Danny felt as though he had slept through a whole phase of his existence. At first he was not conscious of his surroundings, did not try to remember where he was or what had gone before. He lay on his back, mantled in a strange peace, wonderfully content. Torture seemed to have left him, bodily torments had fled. His heart pumped slowly; a vague, pleasing weakness was in his bones. It was rest-rest after achievement, the achievement of stability, the arrival at a goal.

Then, breaking into full consciousness, his nostrils detected odors. He sniffed slightly, scarcely knowing that he did so. Cooking! It was unlike other smells from places of cookery that he had known; it was attractive, compelling.

All that had happened since his departure from Colt came back to him with his first movement. His body was a center of misery, as though it were shot full of needles, as though it had been stretched on a rack, then blistered. Dressing was accomplished to the accompaniment of many grunts and quick intakings of breath.

When he tried to walk he found that the process was necessarily slow-slower than it had ever been before. Setting each foot before the other gingerly, as if in experiment, he walked across the tiny room toward the larger apartment of the cabin.

"Mornin'!" cried Jed, closing the oven door with a gentleness that required the service of both hands. "I allowed you'd be up about now. Just step outside an' wash an' it'll be about ready. Can you eat? Old VB sure can build a breakfast, an' he's never done better than this."

"By the smell, I judge so," said Danny.

The warm breath of baking biscuits came to him from the oven. A sputtering gurgle on the stove told that something fried. The aroma of coffee was in the air, too, and Jed lifted eggs from a battered pail to drop them into a steaming kettle. The table, its plain top scrubbed to whiteness, was set for two, and the sunlight that streamed through the window seemed to be all caught and concentrated in a great glass jar of honey that served as a centerpiece.

Danny's eyes and nostrils and ears took it all in as he moved toward the outer doorway. When he gained it he paused, a hand on the low lintel, and looked out upon his world.

Away to the south stretched the gulch, rolling of bottom, covered with the gray-green sage. Over east rose the stern wall, scarred and split, with cedars clinging in the interstices, their forms dark green against the saffron of the rocks. Up above, towering into the unstained sky of morning, a rounded, fluted peak, like the crowning achievement of some vast cathedral.

The sun was just in sight above the cliff, but Danny knew that day was aging, and felt, with his peace, a sudden sharp affection for the old man who, with an indulgence that was close to motherly, had let him sleep. It made him feel young and incompetent, yet it was good, comforting-like the peace of that great stillness about him.

Except for the soft sounds from the stove, there was no break. Above, on the ridges, a breeze might be blowing; but not an intimation of it down here. Just quiet-silvery and holy.

The sun shoved itself clear of the screening trees. A jack rabbit, startled by nothing at all, sprang from its crouching under a brush shelter and made off across the gulch with the jerky lightness of a stone skipping on water. As he bobbed the grass and bushes dewdrops flew from them, catching sunbeams as they hurtled out to their death, for one instant of wondrous glory flashing like gems.

Danny Lenox, late of New York, drew a deep, quivering breath and leaned his head against the crude doorway. He was sore and weak and felt almost hysterical, but perhaps this was only because he was so happy!

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