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   Chapter 16 No.16

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 10796

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

The Candle Burns

Time went on, and the country dropped back from the singing pitch of excitement to which the killing of the horse buyer raised it. Men agreed that some one of that country had fired the shots into that blanket, but it is not a safe thing to suspect too openly. Dick Worth worked continually, but his efforts were without result. A reward of two hundred and fifty dollars for the slayer, dead or alive, disclosed nothing.

After the evidence had been sifted, and each man had asked his quota of questions and passed judgment on the veracity of the myriad stories, Dick said to himself: "We'll settle down now and see who leaves the country."

Jed and VB went about the winter's work in a leisurely way. For days after the visit of Worth the old man was quieter than usual. The realization of how the world looked on this young fellow he had come to love had been driven in upon him. There could be no mistaking it; and as he reasoned the situation out, he recognized the attitude of men as the only logical thing to expect.

With his quietness came a new tenderness, a deeper devotion. The two sat, one night, listening to the drawing of the stove and the whip of the wind as it sucked down the gulch. The candle burned steadily in its bottle. Jed watched it a long time, and, still gazing at the steady flame, he said, as though unconscious that thoughts found vocal expression: "Th' candle's burnin' bright, VB."

The other looked slowly around at it and smiled.

"Yes, Jed; it surely burns bright."

At the instant an unusually vicious gust of wind rattled the windows and a vagrant draft caught the flame of the taper, bending it low, dulling its orange.

"But yet sometimes," the younger man went on, "something comes along-something that makes it flicker-that takes some of the assurance from it."

Jed had started in his chair as the flame bowed before the draft.

"But it- You ain't been flickerin' lately, have you?" he asked, with a look in the old eyes that was beseeching.

Young VB rose and commenced to walk about thumbs hooked in his belt.

"I don't know, Jed," he said. "That's the whole of it: I don't know. Sometimes I'm glad I don't; but other times I wish-wish that whatever is coming would come. I seem to be gaining; I can think of drink now without going crazy. Now and then it gets hold of me; but moving around and getting busy stifles it. Still, I know it's there. That's what counts. I know I've had the habit, been down and out, and there's no telling which way it's going to turn. If I could ever be sure of myself; if I could ever come right up against it, where I needed a drink, where I wanted it-then, if I could refuse, I'd be sure."

He quickened his stride.

"Seems to me you're worryin' needless," Jed argued. "Don't you see, VB, this is th' worst night we've had; th' worst wind. An' yet it ain't blowed th' candle out! It bends low an' gets smoky, to be sure. But it always keeps on shinin'!"

"But when it bends low and gets smoky its resistance is lower," VB said. "It wouldn't take much at such a time to blow it out and let the darkness come in. You never can tell, Jed; you never can tell."

Ten minutes later he added: "Especially when you're afraid of yourself and daren't hunt out a test."

Another time they talked of the man that he had been before he came to Colt. They were riding the hills, the Captain snuggling close to the pinto pony Jed rode. The sun poured its light down on the white land. Far away, over on the divide, they could see huge spirals of snow picked up by the wind and carried along countless miles, finally to be blasted into veils of silver dust that melted away into distance. An eagle flapped majestically to a perch on a scrub cedar across the gulch; a dozen deer left off their browsing, watched the approach of the riders a moment, and then bounded easily away. The sharp air set their blood running high, and it was good to live.

"Ain't this a good place, VB?" Jed asked, turning his eyes away from a snow-capped crag that thrust into the heavens fifty miles to the east.

VB slapped the Captain's neck gladly. "I never saw a finer, Jed!" he cried. "If those people back in New York could only get the feel of this country! You bet if they once did, it would empty that dinky little island."

"You never want to go back?" the older man ventured.

VB did not answer for a long time. When he did he said: "Some day I shall go back, Jed, but not to stay. I will not go back, either, until I've come to be as good and as strong a man as the Captain is a good and strong horse. That's something to set up as a goal, isn't it? But I mean every word. When I left the city I was-nothing. When I go back I want to be everything that a man should be-as this old fellow is everything that a horse should be."

He leaned forward and pulled the Captain's ears fondly, while the stallion champed the bit and lifted his forefeet high in play. VB straightened then, and looked dreamily ahead.

"I hope that time will come before a man there gets to the end of things. He was hard with me, my father, Jed-mighty hard. But I know he was right. Perhaps I'm not doing all I could for his comfort, perhaps I'm making a bad gamble, but when I go back I want to be as I believe every man can be-at some time in his life."

He turned his eyes on the little, huddled figure that

rode at his side.

"Then, when I've seen New York once more, with all its artificiality and dishonest motives and its unrealities-from the painted faces of its women to its very reasons for living and doing-I'll come back here, Jed; back to the Captain and to the hills.

"I've seen the other! Oh, I've seen it, not from the ground up, but from the ground down! I've gone to the very subcellars of rottenness-and there's nothing to attract. But here there's a bigness, a freedom, an incentive to be real that you won't find in places where men huddle together and lie and cheat and scheme!"

They returned to the ranch in late afternoon and found that a passing cowboy had left mail for them-papers and circulars-and a picture postal card. VB had picked up the bundle of mail first, and for a long time he gazed at the gaudy colorings of that card. Palm trees, faultlessly kept lawns, a huge, rambling building set back from the road that formed a foreground, and a glimpse of a superblue Pacific in the distance. He held it in his fingers and took in every detail. Then, with a queer little feeling about his middle, he turned it over. A small hand-he remembered just how firm the fingers were that held the pen-had written:

Mr. VB

Ranger, Colorado

And across the correspondence section of the card was inscribed this:

Give my very best regards to the Captain and to Mr. Avery. Home early in April.

He read the message again and again, looking curiously at the way she had formed the letters. Then he muttered:

"Why didn't she send it to Jed-or to the Captain?"

When Jed came into the cabin VB asked him, as though it were a matter of great concern:

"Where's that calendar we had around here?"

That night the young fellow lay awake long hours. The thirst had come again. Not so ravishing as it used to be, not inspiring all the old terror, but still it was there, and as it tugged at his throat and teased from every fiber of his being, he thought of Gail Thorpe-and tossed uneasily.

"Why?" he asked himself. "Why is it that the thirst calls so loudly when I think of that girl?"

He could not answer, and suddenly the query seemed so portentous that he sat up in bed, prying the darkness with his eyes, as though to find a solution of the enigma there. And his wandering mind, circling and doubling and shooting out in crazy directions, settled back on the Captain, and with it the hurt of his jumping nerves became dulled.

He closed his eyes, picturing the great stallion as he had first seen him, standing there on a little rim-rock protecting his band of mares, watching with regal scorn the approach of his adversary.

"And his spirit didn't break," VB muttered. "It's all there, just as sound as it ever was-but it's standing for different things. It's no longer defiance-it's love."

When March was well on its way Jed and VB drove to Ranger for more supplies. The Captain had been turned into the lower pasture, and followed them as far as he could. When stopped by the fence he stood looking after them inquiringly, and when they topped a little swell in the road, ready to drop out of sight, a long-drawn neighing came from him.

"Poor Captain!" muttered VB. "It's like going away from a home-to leave him."

"You're foolish!" snorted Jed. Later he said sharply: "No, you ain't, either!"

When they reached Ranger three cowboys were shooting at a tin can out on the flat, and before entering the store they stopped to watch. A man came out of the saloon and walked swiftly toward the buildings along the road. As he approached both recognized Rhues.

"Better come in," said Jed, moving toward the door.


With apparent carelessness VB lounged against a post that supported the wooden awning. Rhues slowed his pace a trifle as he saw who the men were, and VB could see his mouth draw into an expression of nasty hate as he passed close and entered the blacksmith shop. No further sign of recognition had passed between them.

When the trading was finished and they walked back toward the corral Jed remarked uneasily: "I don't feel right-havin' you around Rhues, VB. He's bound to try to get you some time. I know his breed. He'll never forget th' beatin' you give him, an' th' first time he sees an openin' he'll try for you. Men like him lives just to settle one big grudge-nothin' else counts."

VB raised a hand to his side and gripped the forty-five that was slung in a shoulder holster under his shirt.

"I know it, Jed. I hate to pack this gun-makes me feel like a yellow dog or a Broadway cow-puncher-I don't know which. But I know he means business. I don't want to let him think I'd step an inch out of his way, though; that's why I didn't go into the store."

He lowered his voice and went on: "Jed, I wouldn't say a word that would send the worst man in the world into trouble with the law unless I was absolutely certain. I've never mentioned it even to you-but I think when Kelly was killed the man who did that shooting believed he was getting me."

Jed spat lingeringly.

"VB, I've thought so, too," he said.

They reached the ranch the next afternoon, greeted by a shrilling from the Captain that endured from the time they came in sight until VB was beside him.

"Captain," the boy whispered, rubbing the velvety nose, "making them respect you is worth having a gunman on my trail-it is."

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