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   Chapter 6 No.6

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 19901

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Ambition is Born

And then began Danny's apprenticeship. Jed, the wise, did not delay activity. He commenced with the boy as soon as breakfast had been eaten and the dishes washed.

That first day they shod a horse, Danny doing nothing really, but taking orders from Jed as though the weight of a vast undertaking rested on his shoulders.

The next day they mended fences from early morning until evening.

Gradually the realization came to Danny that he was doing something, that he was filling a legitimate place-small, surely: nevertheless he was being of use, he was creating. A pleasing sensation! One of the few truly wholesome delights he had ever experienced. Danny thought about it with almost childish happiness; then, letting his mind return again to the established rut, he was surprised to know that mere thinking about his simple, homely duties had stilled for the time it endured the restless creature within him.

The boy's bodily hurts righted themselves. Long hours of sleep did more than anything else to speed recovery. Those first two nights he was between covers before darkness came to the gulch, and Jed let him sleep until the sun was well up.

On the third evening they sat outside, Danny watching Jed put a new half-sole on a cast-off riding boot.

"They're your size," the old man said, "an' you'll have to wear boots, to be sure. Them things you got on ain't what I'd call exactly fitted to ridin' a horse."

Danny looked down at his modish Oxfords and smiled. Then he glanced up at the man beside him, who hammered and cut and grunted while he worked as though his very immortality depended on getting those boots ready for his new hand to wear.

Oh, the boy from the city could not then appreciate the big feeling of man for mankind which prompted such humble labor. It was a labor of love, the mere mending of that stiff old boot! In it Jed Avery found the encompassing happiness which comes to those who understand, happiness of the same sort he had felt back there at Colt when he saw that there was a human being who needed help and that it was in his power to give him that help. And the peace this happiness engendered created an atmosphere which soothed and made warm the heart of the boy, though he did not know why.

"Guess we'd better move inside an' get a light," Jed muttered finally. "I'll shut the corral gate. You light th' candle, will you? It's on th' shelf over th' table-stickin' in a bottle."

Danny watched him go away into the dusk and heard the creak of the big gate swinging shut before he stepped into the house and groped his way along for the shelf. He found it after a moment and fumbled along for the candle Jed had said was there. His fingers closed on something hard and cold and cylindrical. He slid his fingers upward; then staggered back with a half-cry.

"What's wrong?" asked Jed, coming into the house.

Danny did not answer him, so the old man stepped forward toward the shelf. In a moment a match flared; the cold wick of the candle took the flame, warmed, sent it higher, and a glow filled the room.

The boy looked out from eyes that were dark and wide and filled with the old horror. The hand held near his lips shook, and he turned on Jed a look that pleaded, then gazed back at the light.

The candle was stuck in the neck of a whisky bottle.

Danny opened his lips to speak, but the words would not come. That terror was back again, shattering his sense of peace, melting the words in his throat with its heat.

Jed moved near to him.

"It's a bright light-for such a little candle," he said slowly, and a stout assurance was in his tone.

"But I-I touched the bottle-in the dark!"

Danny's voice was high and strained, and the words, when finally they did come, tripped over one another in nervous haste. His knees were weak under him. Such was the strength of the tentacles which reached up to stay his struggles and to drag him back into the depths from which he willed to rise. Such was the weakness of the nervous system on which the strain of the ordeal was placed.

Jed put a hand on the boy's shoulder and gazed into the drawn face.

"It's all right, sonny," he said softly, his voice modulating from twang to tenderness in the manner it had. "Most men touches it in th' dark. But don't you see what this bottle's for? Don't you see that candle? Burnin' away there, corkin' up th' bottle, givin' us light so we can see?"

Then the other hand went up to the boy's other shoulder, and the little old rancher shook young Danny Lenox gently, as though to joggle him back to himself.

"I know, sonny," he said softly. "I know-" Then he turned away quickly and smote his palms together with a sharp crack.

"Now get to bed. I'll finish these here boots to-night and in th' mornin' we ride. If you're goin' to get to be a top hand, we've got to quit foolin' around home an' get to learn th' country. They's a lot of colts we got to brand an' a bunch of wild ones to gather. It means work-lots of it-for you an' me!"

He set to work, busily thumping on the boot.

In the morning, Danny was subdued, subdued and shaking. The spontaneity that had characterized his first days on the ranch had departed. He was still eager for activity, but not for the sake of the new experiences in themselves. That gnawing was again in his throat, tearing his flesh, it seemed, and to still the trembling of his hand it was necessary for him to clutch the saddle horn and keep his fingers clamped tightly about it as they rode along.

They climbed out of the gulch, horses picking their way up an almost impossible trail, and on a high ridge, where country rolled and tossed about them for immeasurable distances, Jed stopped and pointed out the directions to his companion.

Thirty miles to the south was Clear River with its string of ranches, and the town of Ranger, their post office. Twenty miles to the southeast was the S Bar S Ranch, the center of the country's cattle activity, and over west, on Sand Creek, a dozen miles' ride across the hills and double that distance by road, was another scattering of ranches where Dick Worth, deputy sheriff for that end of Clear River County, lived.

"An' to th' north of us," continued Jed, with a sweep of his hand, "they's nothin' but hills-clean to Wyoming! We're on th' outskirts of settlements. South of th' river it's all ranches, but north-nothin'. Couple of summer camps but no ranches. It's a great get-away country, all right!"

The riding was easy that day, and in spite of his stiffness Danny wished it were harder, because the turmoil kept up within him, and even the unbroken talk of Jed, giving him an intelligent, interesting idea of the country, could not crowd out his disquieting thoughts.

But it was easier the next day, and Danny took a deep interest in the hunt for a band of mares with colts that should be branded. Jed's low, warning "H-s-s-t! There they are!" set his heart pounding wildly, and he listened eagerly to the directions the old man gave him; then he waited in high excitement while Jed circled and got behind the bunch.

The horses came toward him, and Danny, at Jed's shout, commenced to ride for the ranch. It was a new, an odd, an interesting game. The horses came fast and faster. Now and then to his ears floated Jed's repeated cry: "Keep goin'! Keep ahead!" And he spurred on, wondering at every jump how his horse could possibly keep his feet longer in that awful footing.

But he had faith in the stout little beast he rode, and his spirit was of the sort that would not question when a man as skilled in the game as was Jed urged him along.

The mares with their colts pressed closely, but Danny kept going, kept urging speed. Straight on for the ranch he headed, and when they reached the level bottom of the gulch the race waxed warm.

"Into th' round corral!" cried Jed. "Keep goin'! You're doin' fine!"

And into the round corral Danny headed his mount, while the nose of the lead mare reached out at his pony's flank.

The gate swung shut; the mares trotted around the inclosure, worried, for there their offspring had been taken from them before. The colts hung close to their mothers, snorting and rolling their wide eyes, while the saddle horses stood with legs apart, getting their wind.

Danny's eyes sparkled.

"That's sport!" he declared. "But, say, will these horses always follow a rider that way?"

Jed loosed his cinch before he answered: "Horses is like some men. As long as they're bein' pushed from behind an' they's somebody goin' ahead of 'em, they'll follow-follow right through high water! But once let 'em get past th' rider who's supposed to be holdin' 'em up-why, then they's no handlin' 'em at all. They scatter an' go their own way, remainin' free.

"As I said, they're like men. To be sure, lots of men has got to give that what's leadin' 'em such a run that they beat it to death an' get a chance to go free!"

Danny rubbed his horse's drenched withers and agreed with a nod as Jed walked over to the gate and fumbled with the fastening.

"Say," he said, turning round, "I like th' way you ride!"

Danny looked up quickly, pleased.

"I'm glad," he said, but in the simple assertion was a great self-pride.

"Most fellers strange in th' country wouldn't fancy takin' that kind of a bust down off a point. No, sir. Not such a ride for us old heads, but for a greenhorn- Well, I guess you'll get to be a top hand some day, all right!"

And the influence which more than all else was to help Danny become a top hand, which was to set up in his heart the great ambition, which was to hold itself up as a blazing ideal, came early in his novitiate as a horse hunter-came in a fitting setting, on a day richly golden, when the air seemed filled with a haze of holy incense, holy with the holiness of beauty. It was one of those mountain days when the immensity of nature beco

mes so obvious and so potent that even the beasts leave off their hunting or their grazing to gaze into wondrous distances. The sage is green and brash in the near sunlight, soft and purple out yonder; the hills sharp and hard and detailed under the faultless sky for unthinkable miles about, then soft and vague, melting in color and line, rolling, reaching, tossing in a repetition of ranges until eyes ache in following them and men are weak about their middles from the feeling of vastnesses to which measurements by figures are profane.

Jed and Danny searched for horses along two parallel ridges. Now and then they saw each other, but for the most part it had been a day of solitary riding.

Late afternoon arrived, and Danny had about abandoned hope of success. He was considering the advisability of mounting the ridge above the gulch into which he had ridden and locating Jed, though loath to leave the solitudes.

His pony picked them out and stopped before Danny's eyes registered the sight. The boy searched quickly, and over against a clump of cedars, halfway up the rise, he saw horses.

"No, that's not they," he muttered. "Jed said there were two white mares among them. Not-"

His pony started under him, gave a sharp little shudder, then moved a step backward and stood still, a barely perceptible tremor shaking his limbs.

Then a sound new and strange came to Danny. He did not know its origin, but it contained a quality that sent a thrill pulsing from his heart. Shrill it was, but not sharply cut, wavering but not breaking; alarm, warning, concern, caution-the whistle of a stallion! Then silence, while the mares stood rigid and the saddle horse held his breath.

Again it came, and a quick chill struck down Danny's spine. His searching eyes encountered the source. There, halfway between the mares and the crown of the ridge he stood, out on a little rim-rock that made a fitting pedestal, alert, defiant, feet firmly planted, with the poise of a proud monarch.

Even across the distance his coat showed the glossiness seen only on fine, short hair; his chest, turned halfway toward the rider, was splendid in breadth and depth, indicating superb strength, endurance, high courage. Danny looked with a surge of appreciation at the arch of the neck, regal in its slim strength, at the fine, straight limbs, clean as a dancing girl's; at the long, lithe barrel with its fine symmetry.

A wandering breath of breeze came up the gulch, fluttering the wealth of tail, lifting the heavy mane and forelock. The horse raised a front foot and smote the ledge on which he stood as though wrath rose that a mere man should ride into his presence, and he would demand departure or homage from Danny Lenox. He shook his noble head impatiently, to clear his eyes of the hair that blew about them. And once more came the whistle.

The mares stirred. One, a bright buckskin, trotted up the rise a dozen yards, and stopped to turn and look. The others moved slowly, eyes and ears for Danny.

Again the whistle; a clatter of loosened stones as the black leader bounded up the hillside; and the bunch was away in his wake.

"The Captain!" Danny breathed, and then, in a cry which echoed down the gulch-"The Captain!"

He was scarcely conscious of his movements, but his quirt fell, his spurs raked the sides of his pony, and the sturdy little animal, young and not yet fully developed, doing his best in making up the ridge, labored effectively, perhaps drawn on by that same raw desire which went straight to the roots of Danny's spirit and came back to set the fires glowing in his eyes.

The boy rode far forward in his saddle, his gaze on the plunging band that scattered stones and dirt as they strove for the top. But he was many lengths behind when the last mare disappeared over the rim. He fanned his pony again, and the beast grunted in his struggles for increased speed in the climbing, lunging forward with mighty efforts which netted so little ground.

As he toiled up the last yards Danny saw the Captain again, standing there against the sky, watching, waiting, mane and tail blowing about him. His strong, full, ever delicate body quivered with the singing spirit of confidence within him and communicated itself to the weakling pursuer. Just a glimpse of the man was all that the black horse wanted, then-he was off.

As Danny's horse caught the first stride in the run down the ridge he saw the Captain stretch that fine nose out to the flank of a lagging mare, and saw the animal throw her head about in pain as the strong teeth nipped her flesh, commanding more speed.

Danny Lenox was mad! He pulled off his hat and beat his pony's withers with it. He cried aloud the Captain's name. He went on and on, dropping far down on his horse's side as they brushed under the cedars, settling firmly to the seat when the animal leaped over rocks. His shirt was open at the neck, and his throat was chilled with the swift rush of air, while hot blood swirled close to the skin. His eyes glowed with the fire set there by this new fascination, the love of beautiful strength; and through his body sang the will to conquer!

It was an unfair race. Danny and his light young horse had no chance. Off and away drew the stallion and his bunch, without effort after that first crazy break down the ridge. The last Danny saw of him was with head turned backward, nose lifted, as though he breathed disdainful defiance at the man who would come in his wake with the thirst for possession high within him!

And so the boy pulled up, dropped off, and let his breathing pony rest. His legs were uncertain under him, and he knew that his pulses raced. For many minutes he strove to analyze his emotion but could not.

Jed slid off the next ridge and came up at a trot. His face was radiant. "Well, he got you, didn't he?" He laughed aloud.

"I thought he would, all along; and I knowed he had you when I see you break up over th' ridge. You've got th' fever now, like a lot of th' rest of us! Mebby you'll chase horses here for years, but you'll always have an eye out for just one thing-th' Captain. You won't be satisfied until you've got him-like all of us; not satisfied until we've done th' biggest thing there is in sight to do."

Then, as though parenthetically: "An' when we've done that we've only h'isted ourselves up to where we can see that they's a hunderd times as much to do."

"Gad, but he goes right into a fellow's heart!" breathed Danny, looking into the sunset. "I didn't know I was following him, Jed, until the pony here commenced to tire."

He laughed apologetically, as though confessing a foolishness, but his face was glowing with a new light. A fresh incentive had come to him with this awakening admiration, inciting him to emulation. The spirit of the stallion stirred in him again that vibrant chord which had been urging him to fight on, not to give up.

His ambition to overcome his weakness began to take quick, definite direction. Added to the effort of overcoming his vices would henceforth be the endeavor to achieve, to compass some worthy object. This was his aim: to be a leader to whom men would turn for inspiration; to be unconquerable among men, as the Captain was unconquerable among his kind.

As the ideal took shape, springing full-born from his excitement, Danny Lenox felt lifted above himself, felt stronger than human strength, felt as though he were forever beyond human weaknesses.

When they had ridden twenty minutes in silence Jed broke out: "Sonny, I don't want to act like 'n old woman, but I guess I'm gettin' childish! I've knowed you less than a month. I don't even know who you was when you come. We don't ask men about theirselves when they come in here. What a feller wants to tell, we take; what he keeps to hisself we wonder at without mentionin' it.

"But you, sonny-you couldn't keep it from me. I know what it is, I know. I seen it when you got off th' train at Colt-seen that somethin' had got you down. I knowed for sure what it was when you stopped by th' saloon there. I knowed how honest you was with yourself in that little meetin' with Rhues. I know all about it-'cause I've been through th' same thing-alone, an' years ago."

After a pause he went on: "An' just now, when I seen you comin' down that ridge after th' Captain, I knowed th' right stuff was in you-because when a thing like that horse touches a man off it's a sign he's th' right kind, th' kind that wants to do things for th' sake of knowin' his own strength. You've got th' stuff in you to be a man, but you're fightin' an awful fight. You need help; you ought to have friends-you ought to have a daddy!"

He gulped, and for a dozen strides there were no more words.

"I feel like adoptin' you, sonny, 'cause I know. I feel like makin' you a part of this here outfit, which ain't never branded a colt that didn't belong to it, which ain't never done nothin' but go straight ahead an' be honest with itself, good times an' bad.

"I used to be proud when they called me Old VB, 'cause they all knowed th' brand was on th' level, an' when they, as you might say, put it on me, I felt like I was wearin' some sort of medal. I feel just like makin' you part of th' VB-Young VB-'cause I can help you here an'-an' 'fore God A'mighty you need help, man that you are!"

An hour and a half later, when the last dish had been wiped, when the dishpan had been hung away, Danny spoke the next words. He walked close to the old man, his face quiet under the new consciousness of how far he must go to approach this new ideal. He took the hard old hand in his own, covered its back with the other, and muttered in a voice that was far from clear: "Good night, Old VB."

And the other, to cover the tenderness in his tone, snapped back: "Get to bed, Young VB; they's that ahead of you to-morrow which'll take every bit of your courage and strength!"

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