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   Chapter 9 No.9

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 19054

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Pursuit

Summer drew toward its close and the work became more exacting. Jed was sure that more of his colts ran the range without brands, and the two rode constantly, searching every gulch and break for the strays. One day they went far to the east, and at noon encountered three of Bob Thorpe's men building fence.

"It's his new drift fence," Jed explained. "He's goin' to have a lot of winter pasture, to be sure he is. It'll help us, too. When we come takin' these here willow tails off this ridge they'll find somethin' new. It's so close up to the foot of the rise that they can't jump it."

"Thorpe must be rich," remarked Young VB as they went on along the fence.

"Rich don't say it! He's rollin' in money, an' he sure knows how to enjoy it. Every winter, when things gets squared away, he takes his wife an' goes to California. I s'pose he'll be takin' his girl, too-now that she's quit goin' to school."

The boy wanted to ask questions about this daughter of Bob Thorpe's, but a diffidence, for which there was no accounting, held him back. He was curious as he had been whenever he heard of or thought of her, and as he had been when he had once seen her. But somehow he did not care to admit that curiosity even to Jed, and when he tried to analyze the reason for his reticence there was no doing so.

Now came more knowledge of the waste places with weeks of riding; more knowledge of the barren area in his own heart with self-study; more pertinent, that which the Captain typified.

And all the time that struggle continued, which at times seemed only the hopeless floundering of a man in quicksands-life on the river bank so close; death below, certain, mocking his efforts.

"He has faith in himself because he is physically equipped," VB murmured one day as he saw the Captain standing against the sky on a distant ridge. "His belief in himself is justified. But I-what do I know about my own capabilities?"

Yet a latent quality in the boy was the sort that offsets doubts, else why this emulation of the stallion, why this feeling that was almost love, constant, always growing, never hesitating?

Like most men, Young VB was unprepared for the big moments of his life. Could we only foresee them, is the plaint of men! Could we only know and go out to meet them in spirit proper! And yet that very state of preparation might take from the all-encompassing grandeur of those passages a potent element.

After all, this scheme of things has its compensations, and inability to foretell the future may be one of the greatest.

With fear in his heart and black discouragement and lack of faith, Young VB went out to meet what proved to be his first great moment.

Jed had gone to the railroad, bound for the Springs, to untangle a mess of red tape that had snarled about his filing on some land. VB was left alone, and for days the young fellow saw no one. In the natural loneliness that followed, the assault came upon him with manifold force. He could not sleep, could not eat, could not remain in one place or keep his mind on a fixed purpose.

He walked about, talking to himself in the silence, trying ineffectually to do the necessary work of the ranch, trying to stifle the loud voice that begged him to forego all the struggle and let his impulses carry him where they would.

But were not his impulses carrying him? Was it not his first impulse to go on with the fight? He did not think of that.

At times it was hard indeed to differentiate between the real and the unreal. The voice that wheedled was such a twister of words and terms, and its ally, the thirst, raged with such virility that he was forced to do something with his body. To remain an unresisting victim to the torture would only invite disaster.

Throwing a saddle on his "top" horse, Young VB set out, leaving the half-prepared dinner as it was, unable even to wait for food. He rode swiftly up the gulch to where it forked, and then to the right, letting the stanch animal under him cover the ground at a swinging trot. In three hours he was miles from the ranch, far back in the hills, and climbing to the top of a stretching ridge. He breathed through his mouth, to let the air on his burning throat, and twisted his bridle reins until the stout leather was misshapen, utterly lost in the conflict which went on within, heedless of all else.

Suddenly he realized that his horse had come a long distance without rest. He dismounted in a thicket of cedars, sharply repentant that his own torment had led him to forget the beast that served him, and even the distraction of that concern brought relief.

With the cinch eased the horse stood and breathed gratefully. But he was not fagged, he was still alert and eager. His ears were set stiffly forward, and he gazed upwind, sniffing softly now and then.

"What you see, cayuse?" VB asked, trying to make out the cause of that attentiveness.

Again the sniffing, and of a sudden the horse froze, stopped his breathing, and VB, a hand on the beast's hip, felt a quick tremor run through him.

Then the man saw that which had caused the animal to tremble, and the sight set him tingling just as it always did.

A hundred yards up the ridge, sharp against the sky, commanding, watchful, stood the Captain. He had not seen or scented VB, for he looked in other directions, moving his head from point to point, scanning every nook of the country below him. Something mannish there was about that beast, a comprehensive, planned vigilance. Down below him in a sag fed the mares.

As VB looked at that watcher he felt the lust to possess crawling up, surging through him, blotting out that other desire, that torment, making his breath congest, making his mouth dry. He tightened his cinch and mounted.

The Captain did not see VB until the rider came clear of the cover in which he had halted.

For the instant only, as the rushing horseman broke through the cedars, a scudding, fluttering object hurtling across the low brush, the black stallion stood as though his feet were imbedded in the rock under him, his head full toward the rushing rider, nose up, astonishment in the very angle of his stiff ears. Then those ears went flat; the sleek body pivoted on its dainty hind feet, and a scream of angered warning came from the long throat.

Even as the Captain's front hoofs clawed the ground in his first leap, the mares were running. They drew close together, frightened by the abruptness of the alarm, scuttling away from the punishment they knew would be coming from their master if they wasted seconds.

VB was possessed again. His reason told him that a single horseman had no chance in the world with that bunch, that he could not hope to keep up even long enough to scatter the band, that he would only run his mount down, good horse that he was. But the lust urged him on, tugging at his vitals, and he gave vent to his excitement in sharp screams of joy, the joy of the hunt-and the joy of honest attempt at supreme accomplishment.

The dust trailed behind the bunch, enveloping the rushing Captain in a dun mantle, finally to be whipped away by the breeze. They tore down stiff sagebrush in their flight; and so great was the strain that their bellies skimmed incredibly close to the ground.

VB's horse caught the spirit of the chase, as do all animals when they follow their kind. He extended himself to the last fiber, and with astonishment-a glad astonishment that brought a whoop of triumph-the boy saw that the mares were not drawing away-that he was crawling up on them!

But the Captain! Ah, he was running away from the man who gave chase, was putting more distance between them at every thundering leap, was drawing closer to his slower mares, lip stretched back over his gleaming teeth, jaws working as he strained to reach them and make that band go still faster.

VB's quirt commenced to sing its goading tune, slashing first on one side, then on the other. He hung far forward over the fork of his saddle, leaning low to offer the least possible resistance to the wind. Now and then he called aloud to his pony, swearing with glad savagery.

The Captain reached his bunch, closing in on them with a burst of speed that seemed beyond the abilities of blood and bone. The man behind thought he heard those long teeth pop as they caught the rump of a scurrying mare; surely he heard the stallion's scream of rage as, after nipping mare after mare, running to and fro behind them, he found that they had opened their hearts to the last limit and could go no faster. They could not do it-and the rider behind was crawling up, jump for jump, gaining a yard, losing a foot, gaining again, steadily, relentlessly.

VB did not know that Kelly, the horse buyer, and one of Dick Worth's riders had given the outlaws a long, tedious race that morning as they were coming in from the dry country to the west for water and better feed. He did not know that the band had been filling their bellies with great quantities of water, crowding them still more with grasses, until there was no room left for the working of lungs, for the stretching of taxed muscles.

He saw only the one fact: that he was gaining on the Captain. He did not stop even to consider the obvious ending of such a chase. He might scatter the band, but what of it? When the last hope had been cast the Captain would strike out alone, would turn all the energy that now went to driving his mares to making good his own escape, and t

hen there would be no more race-just a widening of a breach that could not be closed.

But VB did not think of anything beyond the next stride. His mind was possessed with the idea that every leap of the laboring beast under him must bring him closer to the huddle of frantic horses, nearer to the flying hindquarters of the jet leader who tried so hard to make his authority override circumstance.

The slashing of the quirt became more vicious. VB strained farther forward. His lips were parted, his eyes strained open with excitement, and the tears started by that rushing streamed over his cheeks.

"E-e-eyah!" he shrieked.

The buckskin mare found a hole. Her hind legs went into the air, sticking toward the sky above that thundering clump of tossing, rushing bodies with its fringes of fluttering hair. Her legs seemed to poise a moment; then they went down slowly. The Captain leaped her prostrate body, to sink his teeth into the flank of a sorrel that lagged half a length behind the others.

VB passed so near the buckskin as she gained her faltering feet that he could have slashed her with his quirt. Yet he had no eyes for her, had no heed for any of the mares. He was playing for the bigger game.

The sorrel quit, unable to respond to that punishment, fearful of her master. She angled off to the right, to be rid of him, and disappeared through a clump of trees. The stallion shrilled his anger and disgust, slowing his gallop a half-dozen jumps as though he wanted to follow and punish her cruelly.

Then he glanced backward, threw his nose in the air and, stretching to his own tremendous speed again, stormed on.

The huddle of mares became less compact, seemed to lose also its unity of purpose. The Captain had more to do. His trips from flank to flank of the band were longer. By the time he had spurred the gray at the left back into the lead the brown three-year-old on the other wing was a loiterer by a length. Then, when she was sent ahead, the gray was lagging again. And another by her side, perhaps.

"E-e-eyah!"

VB's throat was raw from the screaming, but he did not know it-no more than he knew that his hat was gone or that his nerves still yearned for their stinging stimulant.

The cry, coming again and again, worried the Captain. Each time it crackled from VB's lips the black nose was flung high and an eye which glared orange hate even at that distance rolled back to watch this yelling pursuer.

VB saw, and began to shout words at the animal, to cry his challenge, to curse.

The galloping gray quit, without an attempt to rally. The Captain brought to bear a terrific punishment, dropping back to within thirty yards of the man who pressed him, but it was useless, for she was spent. The water and luscious grass in her dammed up the reservoirs of her vitality, would not let her respond. When the stallion gave her up and tore on after the others she dropped even her floundering gallop, and as VB raced past her he heard the breath sob down her throat.

On and across they tore, dropping into sags of the ridge, climbing sharp little pitches, swinging now to the right and bending back to the left again in a sweeping curve. The uneven galloping of the horse under him, the gulps for breath the pony made as the footing fooled him and he jolted sharply, the shiftings and duckings and quick turnings as they stormed through groups of trees, the rattle of brush as it smote his boot toes and stirrups were all unheeded by VB.

Once his shoulder met a tough cedar bough, and the blow wrenched it from its trunk. His face was whipped to rawness by smaller branches, and one knee throbbed dully where it had skimmed a bowlder as they shot past. But he saw only that floundering band ahead.

The buckskin was gone, the sorrel, the gray; next, two mares quit together, and the Captain, seeing them go, did not slacken his speed, did not even scream his rage. Only four remained, and he gambled on them as against the slight chance of recovering any of those others; for that screaming rider was closing in on him all the time.

Oh, water and grass! How necessary both are to life, but how dangerous at a time like this! Pop-pop! The teeth closed on those running hips. The vainness of it all! They could go no faster. They had tried first from instinct, then from willingness; now they tried from fear as their lord tortured them. But though the will was there, the ability could not come, not even when the Captain pushed through them, and in a desperate maneuver set the pace, showing them his fine heels and clean limbs, demonstrating how easy it was to go on and on and draw away from that rider who tugged at his muffler that wind might find and cool his throat, burning now from unalloyed hope.

And so VB, the newest horse runner on the range, scattered the Captain's band, accomplishing all that the best of the men who rode that country had ever been able to boast.

The stallion tried once more to rally his mates into escape, but their hearts were bursting, their lungs clogged. They could do no more.

Then away he went alone, head high and turning from side to side, mane flaunting, tail trailing gracefully behind him, beauty in every regal line and curve, majestic superiority in each stride he took.

He raced off into the country that stretched eastward, the loser for the time of one set of conquests but free-free to go on and make himself more high, more powerful, more a thing to be emulated even by man.

He ran lightly, evenly, without effort, and the gap between him and the rider behind, narrowed by such tremendous exertion from that lathered pony, widened with scarce an added effort.

But VB went on, driving his reeking pony mercilessly. He had ceased yelling now. His face was set; blood that had been whipped into it by his frenzy, by the rushing of the wind, by the smiting of branches, left the skin. It became white, and from that visage two eyes glowed abnormally brilliant. For the Captain was taking off the ridge where it bent and struck into the north, was plunging down over the pitch into the shadows. He was going his best, in long, keen strides that would carry him to the bottom with a momentum so tremendous that on the flat he would be running himself into a blur. And VB's face was colorless, with eyes brilliant, because he knew that along the bottom of the drop ran the new drift fence that Bob Thorpe's men were erecting.

He began to plead with his pony, to talk to him childishly, to beg him to keep his feet, to coax him to last, to pray him to follow-and in control of himself, and on time! As they dropped off the ridge, down through the sliding shale and scattered brush, VB's right hand, upraised to keep his balance, held the loop of his rope, and the other, flung behind the cantle of his saddle, grasped the coils of the sturdy hemp.

Oh, Captain, your speed was against you! You took off that ridge with those ground-covering leaps, limbs flying, heart set on reaching the bottom with a swirl of speed that would dishearten your follower. But you did not reckon on an obstruction, on the thing your eyes encountered when halfway down that height and going with all the power within you. Those fresh posts and the wires strung between them! A fence! Men had invaded your territory with their barriers, and at such a time! You knew, too, that there was no jumping it; they had set the posts so far up on the pitch that no take-off had been left.

So the Captain tried to stop. With haunches far under him, front feet straight before, belly scrubbing the brush, he battled to overcome the awful impetus his body had received up above. Sprawling, sliding, feet shooting in any direction as the footing gave, he struggled to stop his progress. It was no simple matter; indeed, checking that flight was far more difficult than the attaining of that speed. In the midst of rolling, bounding stones, sliding dust, breaking brush, the great stallion gradually slowed his going. Slow and more slowly he went on toward the bottom; almost stopped, but still was unable to bring his muscles into play for a dash to right or left.

On behind, pony floundering in the wake of the Captain, rode VB, right hand high, snapping back and forth to hold him erect, rope dangling from it crazily. He breathed through his mouth, and at every exhalation his vocal chords vibrated.

Perhaps even then the Captain might have won. The odds of the game were all against him, it is true, for breaking down the pitch as he did, it required longer for him to reach the bottom in possession of his equilibrium than it did the slower-moving horse that bore VB. It would have been a tight squeeze for the horse, but the man was in a poor position to cast his loop with any degree of accuracy.

But a flat sliding stone discounted all other factors. Nothing else mattered. The Captain came to a stop, eyes wild, ears back. With a slow-starting, mighty lunge, he made as though to turn and race down along the line of fence before VB could get within striking distance. The great muscles contracted, his ragged hoofs sought a hold. The hind legs straightened, that mighty force bore on his footing-and the stone slipped! The Captain was outlucked.

His hind legs shot backward, staggering him. His hindquarters slipped downhill, throwing his head up to confront VB. His nostrils flared, that orange hate in his eyes met the glow from his pursuer's, who came down upon him-only half a dozen lengths away!

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