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   Chapter 11 No.11

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 11860

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

A Letter and a Narrative

Jed Avery had been away from Young VB almost two weeks, and he had grown impatient in the interval. So he pushed his bay pony up the trail from Ranger, putting the miles behind him as quickly as possible. The little man had fretted over every step of the journey homeward, and from Colt on into the hills it was a conscious effort that kept him from abusing his horse by overtravel.

"If he should have gone an' busted over while I was away I'd-I'd never forgive myself-lettin' that boy go to th' bad just for a dinky claim!"

It was the thousandth time he had made the declaration, and as he spoke the words a thankfulness rose in his heart because of what he had not heard in Ranger. He knew that VB had kept away from town. Surely that was a comfort, an assurance, a justification for his faith that was firm even under the growling.

Still, there might have been a wanderer with a bottle-

And as he came in sight of his own buildings Jed put the pony to a gallop for the first time during that long journey. Smoke rose from the chimney, the door stood open, an atmosphere of habitation was about the place, and that proved something. He crowded his horse close against the gate, leaned low, unfastened the hasp, and rode on through.

"Oh, VB!" he called, and from the cabin came an answering hail, a scraping of chair legs, and the young fellow appeared in the doorway.

"How's th'-"

Jed did not finish the question then-or ever. His eagerness for the meeting, the light of anticipation that had been in his face, disappeared. He reined up his horse with a stout jerk, and for a long moment sat there motionless, eyes on the round corral. Then his shoulders slacked forward and he raised a hand to scratch his chin in bewilderment.

For yonder, his nose resting on one of the gate bars, watching the newcomer, safe in the inclosure, alive, just as though he belonged there, stood the Captain!

After that motionless moment Jed turned his eyes back to Young VB, and stared blankly, almost witlessly. Then he raised a limp hand and half pointed toward the corral, while his lips formed a soundless question.

VB stepped from the doorway and walked toward Jed, smiling.

"Yes," he said with soft pride, as though telling of a sacred thing, "the Captain is there-in our corral."

Jed drew a great breath.

"Did you do it-and alone?"

"Well, there wasn't any one else about," VB replied modestly.

Again Jed's chest heaved.

"Well, I'm a-"

He ended in inarticulate distress, searching for a proper expletive, mouth open and ready, should he find one. Then he was off his horse, both hands on the boy's shoulders, looking into the eyes that met his so steadily.

"You done it, Young VB!" he cried brokenly. "You done it! Oh, I'm proud of you! Your old adopted daddy sure is! You done it all by yourself, an' it's somethin' that nobody has ever been able to do before!"

Then they both laughed aloud, eyes still clinging.

"Come over and get acquainted," suggested VB. "He's waiting for us."

They started for the corral, Jed's eyes, now flaming as they took in the detail of that wonderful creature, already seen by him countless times, but now for the first time unfree.

The stallion watched them come, moving his feet up and down uneasily and peering at them between the bars. VB reached for the gate fastening, and the horse was away across the corral, snorting, head up, as though fearful.

"Why, Captain!" the boy cried. "What ails you?"

"What ails him?" cried Jed. "Man alive, I'd expect to see him tryin' to tear our hearts out!"

"Oh, but he's like a woman!" VB said softly, watching the horse as he swung the gate open.

They stepped inside, Jed with caution. VB walked straight across to the horse and laid his hand on the splendid curve of the rump.

"Well, I'm a-" Again Jed could find no proper word to express his astonishment. He simply took off his hat and swung it in one hand, like an embarrassed schoolgirl.

"Come over and meet the boss, Captain," VB laughed, drawing the black head around by its heavy forelock.

And the Captain came-unexpectedly. The boy realized the danger with the first plunge and threw his arms about the animal's neck, crying to him to be still. And Jed realized, too. He slipped outside, putting bars between himself and those savage teeth which reached out for his body.

Foiled, the stallion halted.

"Captain," exclaimed VB, "what ails you?"

"To be sure, nothin' ails him," said Jed sagely. "You're his master; you own him, body and soul; but you ain't drove th' hate for men out of his heart. He seems to love you-but not others-yes-"

His voice died out as he watched the black beast make love to the tall young chap who scolded into his dainty ear. The soft, thin lips plucked at VB's clothing, nuzzling about him as he stood with arms clasped around the glossy neck. The great cheek rubbed against the boy's side until it pushed him from his tracks, though he strained playfully against the pressure. Such was the fierceness of that horse's allegiance. His nostrils fluttered, but no sound came from them: the beast whisperings of affection. All the time VB scolded softly, as a father might banter with a child. And when the boy looked up a great pride was in his face, and Jed understood.

"That's right, Young VB-be proud of it! Be proud that he's yours; be proud that he's yours, an' yours only. Keep him that way; to be sure, an' you've earned it!"

Then he stepped close to the bars and gazed at the animal with the critical look of a connoisseur.

"Not a hair that ain't black," he muttered. "Black from ankle to ear; hoofs almost black, black in th' nostrils. Black horses generally have brown eyes, but you can't even tell where th' pupil is in his!

"Say, VB, he makes th' ace of spades look like new snow, don't he?"

"He does that!" cried VB, and putting his

hands on the animal's back, he leaped lightly up, sitting sidewise on the broad hips and playing with the heavy tail.

"VB, I'm a- Lord, a thousand dollars for a new oath!"

At VB's suggestion they started back to the cabin.

"Why, boy, you're limpin'!" the old man exclaimed. "An' in both legs!" He stopped and looked the young fellow over from hat to heel. "One side of your face's all skinned. Looks as though your left hand'd all been smashed up, it's that swelled. You move like your back hurt, too-like sin. VB?"

The boy stopped and looked down at the ground. Then his eyes met those of the old rancher, and Jed Avery understood-he had seen the bond between man and horse; he realized what must have transpired between them.

And he knew the love that men can have for animals, something which, if you have never felt it, is far beyond comprehension. So he asked just this question: "How long?"

And VB answered: "Six days-from dawn till dark. One to get a halter on him, another to get my hand on his head; three days in the Scotch hobble, and the last-to ride him like a hand-raised colt."

Jed replaced his hat, pulling it low to hide his eyes.

"Ain't I proud to be your daddy?" he whispered.

An overwhelming pride-a pride raised to the nth degree, of the sort that is above the understanding of most men-was in the tone timbre of the question.

They went on into the house.

"Jed," VB said, as though he had waited to broach something of great import, "I've written a letter this morning, and I want to read it to you, just to see how it sounds out loud."

He sat down in a chair and drew sheets of small tablet paper toward him.

Jed, without answer, leaned against the table and waited. VB read:

"My Dear Father:

"I am writing merely to say that I know you were right and I was wrong.

"I am in a new life, where men do big, real things which justify their own existence. I am finding myself. I am getting that perspective which lets me see just how right you were and how wrong I was.

"Since coming here I have done something real. I have captured and made mine the wildest horse that ever ran these hills. I am frankly proud of it. I may live to do things of more obvious greatness, but that will be because men have had their sense of values warped. For me, this attainment is a true triumph.

"I am now in the process of taming another beast, more savage than the one I have mastered, and possessing none of his noble qualities. It is a beast not of the sort we can grapple with, though we can see it in men. It is giving me a hard battle, but try to believe that my efforts are sincere and, though it may take my whole lifetime, I am bound to win in the end.

"This letter will be mailed in Kansas City by a friend. I am many days' travel from that point. When I am sure of the other victory I shall let you know where I am.

"Your affectionate son,"

He tossed the sheets back to the table top.

"I'm going to get it over to Ant Creek and let some of the boys take it to the river when they go with beef," he explained. "Now, how does it sound?"

"Fine, VB, fine!" Jed muttered, rubbing one cheek. "To be sure, it ain't so much what you say as th' way you say it-makin' a party feel as though you meant it from th' bottom of your feet to th' tip of th' longest hair on your head!"

"Well, Jed, I do mean it just that way. That horse out there-he-he stands for so much now. He stands for everything I haven't been, and for all that I want to be. He ran free as the birds, but it couldn't always be so. He had to succumb, had to give up that sort of liberty.

"I took his power from him, made him my own, made him my servant. Yet it didn't scathe his spirit. It has changed all that bitterness into love, all that wasted energy into doing something useful. I didn't break him, Jed; I converted him. Understand?"

"I do, VB; but we won't convert this here other beast. We'll bust him wide open, won't we? Break him, body an' spirit!"

The boy smiled wanly.

"That's what we're trying to do."

He pointed to the candle in its daubed bottle.

"Just to keep the light burning, Jed-just to keep its light fighting back the darkness. The little flame of that candle breaks the power of the black thing which would shut it in-like a heart being good and true in spite of the rotten body in which it beats. And when my body commences to want the old things-to want them, oh, so badly-I just think of this little candle here, calm and quiet and steady, sticking out of what was once a cesspool, a poison pot, and making a place in the night where men can see."

While a hundred could have been counted slowly they remained motionless, quiet, not a sound breaking the silence.

Then Jed began talking in a half-tone:

"I know, Young VB; I know. You've got time now to light it and nurse th' flame up so's it won't need watchin'-an' not miss things that go by in th' dark. Some of us puts it off too long-like a man I know-now. I didn't know him then-when it happened. He was wanderin' around in a night that never turned to day, thinkin' he knowed where he was goin', but all th' time just bein' fooled by th' dark.

"And there was a girl back in Kansas. He started after her, but it was so dark he couldn't find th' way, an' when he did-

"Some folks is fools enough to say women don't die of broken hearts. But-well, when a feller knows some things he wants to go tell 'em to men who don't know; to help 'em to understand, if he can; to give 'em a hand if they do see but can't find their way out-"

He stopped, staring at the floor. VB had no cause to search for identities.

From the corral came a shrill, prolonged neighing. VB arose and laid a hand gently on Jed's bowed shoulder.

"That's the Captain," he said solemnly; "and he calls me when he's thirsty."

While he was gone Jed remained as he had been left, staring at the floor.

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