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   Chapter 19 No.19

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 11568

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Through the Night

On into the night went the Captain, bearing VB. Over the gate the bridle-rein drew against his neck and the big beast swung to the right, following the road southward, on down the gulch, on toward Ranger-a fierceness in his rider's heart that was suicidal.

All the bitterness VB had endured, from the stinging torrent his father turned upon him back in New York to the flat realization that to let himself love Gail Thorpe might bring him into worse hells, surged up into his throat and mingled with the craving there. It seeped through into his mind, perverted his thoughts, stamped down the optimism that had held him up, shattered what remnants of faith still remained.

"Faster, Captain!" he cried. "Faster!"

And the stallion responded, scudding through the blue moonlight with a speed that seemed beyond the power of flesh to attain. He shook his fine head and stretched out the long nose as though the very act of thrusting it farther would give more impetus to his thundering hoofs.

VB sat erect in the saddle, a fierce delight aroused by the speed running through his veins like fire-and, reaching to his throat, adding to the scorching. He swung his right hand rhythmically, keeping time to the steady roll of the stallion's feet. The wind tore at him, vibrating his hat brim, whipping the long muffler out from his neck, and he shook his head against it.

He was free at last! Free after those months of doubt, of foolish fighting! He was answering the call that came from the depths of his true self-that hidden self-the call of flesh that needs aid! He cared not for the morrow, for the stretching future. His one thought was on the now-on the rankling, eating, festering moment that needed only one thing to be wiped out forever.

And always, in the back of his mind, was the picture of Gail Thorpe as she had turned from him that afternoon. It loomed large and larger as he tore on to the south through the solitude, ripping his way through the cool murk.

"I won't put my mark on her!" he cried, and whipped the Captain's flanks with his heavy hat, the thought setting his heart flaming. "I won't!" he cried. And again, "I won't!"

He was riding down into his particular depths so to stultify himself that it would be impossible to risk that woman's happiness against the chance that some time, some day, he would go down, loving her, making her know he loved her, but fighting without gain. That, surely, is one sort of love, faulty though the engendering spirit may be.

The whipping with the hat sent the horse on to still greater endeavor. A slight weariness commenced to show in the ducking of his head with every stride, but he did not slacken his pace. His ears were still set stiffly forward, flipping back, one after the other, for word from his rider; the spurn of his feet was still sharp and clear and unfaltering; the spirit in that rippling, dripping body still ran high.

And closing his eyes, drinking the night air through his mouth in great gulps, VB let the animal carry him on and on,-yet backward, back into the face of all that fighting he had summoned, doubling on his own tracks, slipping so easily down the way he had blazed upward with awful sacrifice and hardship.

An hour-two-nine-eleven-the Captain might have been running so a week, and VB would not have known. His mind was not on time, not on his horse. He had ceased to think beyond the recognition of a craving, a craving that he did not fight but encouraged, nursed, teased-for it was going to be satisfied!

The stallion's pace began to slacken. He wearied. The bellows lungs, the heart of steel, the legs of tireless sinew began to feel the strain of that long run. The run waned to a gallop, and the gallop to a trot. There his breathing becoming easier, he blew loudly from his nostrils as though to distend them farther and make way for the air he must have.

VB realized this dully but his heeding of that devilish inner call had taken him so far from his more tender self, from his instinctive desire to love and understand, that he did not follow out his comprehension.

"Go it, boy!" he muttered. "It's all I'll ask of you-just this one run."

And the Captain, dropping an ear back for the word, leaned to the task, resuming the steady, space-eating gallop mile after mile. All the way into Ranger they held that pace. In the last mile the stallion stumbled twice, but after both breaks in his stride ran on more swiftly for many yards, as though to make up to his master for the jolting the half falls gave him. He was a bit unsteady on those feet as he took the turn and dropped down the low bank into the river. They forded it in a shimmer of silver as the horse's legs threw out the black water to be frozen and burnished by the light of the moon. The stallion toiled up the far bank at a lagging trot, and on the flat VB pulled the panting animal down to a walk.

Oh, VB, it was not too late then, had you only realized it! Your ideal was still there, more exemplary than ever before, but you could not recognize it through those eyes which saw only the red of a wrecking passion! You had drained to the last ounce of reserve the strength of that spirit you had so emulated, which had been as a shining light, an unfaltering candle in the darkness. It was stripped bare before you as that splendid animal gulped between breaths. Could you have but seen! Could something only have made you see! But it was not to be.

VB had forgotten the Captain. In the face of his wretched weakening the stallion became merely a conveyance, a convenience, a means for stifling the neurotic excitement within him. He forgot that this thing he rode represented his only achievement-an achievement such as few men ever boast.

He guided the stallion to a half-wrecked log house south of the road, dismounted, and stood a moment before the shack, his glittering eyes on the squares of light yonder under the rising hill. He heard a faint tinkling from the place, and a voice raised in laughter.

As he watched, a mounted man passed between him and the yellow glare. In a moment he saw the man enter the saloon door.

"Come, boy," he muttered, moving cautiously through the opening into the place. "You'll be warm in here. You'll cool off slowly."

Then, in a burst of hysterical passion, he threw his arms about the stallion's head and drew it to him fiercely.

"Oh, I won't be gone long, Captain!" he promised. "Not long-just a little while. It's not the worst, Captain! I'm not weakening!"

Drunk with the indulgence of his nervous weakness, he lied glibly, knowing he lied, without object-just to lie, to pervert life. And as the Captain's quick, hot breath penetrated his garments, VB drew the head still tighter.

"You're all I've got, Captain," he muttered, now in a trembling calm. "You'll wait. I know that. I know what you will do better than I know anything else in the world-better than I know what-what I'll do! Wait for me, boy-wait right here!"

His voice broke on the last word as he stumbled through the door and set off toward the building against the hill. He did not hear the Captain turn, walk as far as the door of the shack, and peer after him anxiously. Nor did he see the figure of a man halted in the road, watching him go across the flat, chaps flapping, brushing through the sage noisily.

VB halted in the path of light, swaying the merest trifle from side to side as he pulled his chap belt in another hole and tried to still the twitching of his hands, the weakening of his knees.

The tinkling he had heard became clear. He could see now. A Mexican squatted on his spurs, back against the wall, and twanged a fandango on a battered guitar. His hat was far back over his head, cigarette glowing in the corner of his mouth, gay blue muffler loose on his shoulders. He hummed to the music, his voice rising now and then to float out into the night above the other sounds from the one room.

The bar of rough boards, top covered with red oilcloth, stretched along one side. Black bottles flashed their high lights from a shelf behind it, above which hung an array of antlers. The bartender, broad Stetson shading his face, talked loudly, his hands wide apart on the bar and bearing much of his weight. Now and then he dropped his head to spit between his forearms.

Three men in chaps lounged before the bar, talking. One, the tallest, talked with his head flung back and gestures that were a trifle too loose. The shortest looked into his face with a ceaseless, senseless smile, and giggled whenever the voice rose high or the gestures became unusually wild. The third, elbows on the oilcloth, head on his fists, neither joined in nor appeared to heed the conversation.

Back in the room stood two tables, both covered with green cloth. One was unused; the other accommodated four men. Each of the quartet wore a hat drawn low over his face; each held cards. They seldom spoke; when they did, their voices were low. VB saw only their lips move. Their motions were like the words-few and abrupt. When chips were counted it was with expertness; when they were shoved to the center of the table it was with finality.

Near them, tilted against the wall in a wire-trussed chair, sat a sleeping man, hat on the floor.

Two swinging oil lamps lighted the smoke-fogged air of the place, and their glow seemed to be diffused by it, idealizing everything, softening it-

Everything except the high lights from the bottles on the shelf. Those were stabs of searing brightness; they hurt VB's eyeballs.

His gaze traveled back to the Mexican. The melody had drifted from the fandango into a swinging waltz song popular in the cities four years before. He whistled the air through his teeth. The cigarette was still between his lips. The face brought vague recollections to VB. Then he remembered that this was Julio, the Mexican who ran with Rhues. He belonged to Rhues, they had told him, body and soul.

Thought of Rhues sent VB's right hand to his left side, up under the arm. He squeezed the gun that nestled there.

Of a sudden, nausea came to the man who looked in. It was not caused by fear of Rhues-of the possibility of an encounter. The poignant fumes that came from the open door stirred it, and the sickness was that of a man who sees his great prize melt away.

For the moment VB wanted to rebel. He tore his eyes from those glittering bottles; tried to stop his breathing that treacherous nostrils might not inhale those odors.

But it was useless-his feet would not carry him away. He knew he must move, move soon, and though he now cried out in his heart against it he knew which way his feet would carry him.

He half turned his body and looked back toward the shack where the Captain waited, and a tightening came in his throat to mingle with the rapaciousness there.

"Just a little while, Captain," he whispered, feeling childishly that the horse would hear the words and understand. "Just a little while-I'm just-just going to take a little hand in the card game."

And as the Mexican finished his waltz with a rip of the thumb clear across the six strings of his instrument, Young VB put a foot on the threshold of the saloon and slowly drew himself to his full height in the doorway. Framed by darkness he stood there, thumbs in his belt, mouth in a grim line, hat down to hide the pallor of his cheeks, the torment in his eyes; his shoulders were braced back in resolution, but his knees, inside his generous chaps, trembled.

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