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   Chapter 23 No.23

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 14627

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Life, the Trophy

To VB, at the sound of the stallion's neighing, came the realization of his position-weaponless in the midst of men who, now of all times, would shoot to kill! His righteous abhorrence of the murder Rhues had done and in which the others had been conspirators did not lessen. He did not falter in his determination for vengeance; but his thirst for it did not detract one whit from his realization of the situation's difficulties.

Seconds were precious. Just a lone instant he poised, looking quickly about, and to his ears came again the cry of the horse, plaintive, worried, appealing.

"Captain!" he cried, and started to run. "Captain! You didn't fail! They brought you!"

His voice lifted to a shout as he rounded the corner of the house, and the Captain answered.

With the horse located, VB stumbled across the short intervening space, one hand to his breast doing the double duty of attempting to still the searing of that wound and hold fast to the money belt. He flung himself at the door of the low little stable, jerked the fastening apart, and, backing in, saw men run from the house, heard them curse sharply, and saw them turn and look, each with his shooting hand raised.

VB drew the door shut after him, trembling, thinking swiftly. The Captain nosed him and nickered relief, stepping about in his agitation as though he knew the desperate nature of the corner into which they had been driven.

"We've got to get out, boy," VB cried, running his numb hands over the animal's face in caress. "We're up against it, but there's a way out!"

It was good to be back. It was good to feel that thick, firm neck again, to have the warm breath of the vital beast on his cheek, to sense his dominating presence-for it did dominate, even in that strained circumstance, and in the stress VB found half hysterical joy and voiced it:

"You didn't quit, Captain!" he cried as he felt the cinch hastily. "You didn't quit. They-that woman! She brought you here!"

He flung his arms about the stallion's head in a quick, nervous embrace at the cost of a mighty cutting pain across his chest.

Then the cautious voice of Rhues, outside and close up to the door, talking lowly and swiftly:

"Julio, saddle th' buckskin! Quick! I'll hold him here till we're ready! Then I'll shoot th' -- down in his tracks! We got to ride, anyhow-nothin' 'll make no difference now!"

Raising his voice, Rhues taunted:

"Pray, you --! Yer goin' to cash!"

VB pressed his face to a crack and saw Rhues in the moonlight, close up to the door. He also saw another man, Julio, leading a horse from the corral on the run. Two other animals, saddled, stood near.

He was cornered, helpless, in their hands-hard hands, that knew no mercy. But he did not give up. His mind worked nimbly, skipping from possibility to possibility, looking, searching for a way out.

He reeled to the black horse and felt the animal's breath against the back of his neck.

"We're up against it, boy," he whispered.

And the voice of Rhues again: "They'll find him to-morrow-with th' belt!"

He broke off suddenly, as though the words had set in his mind a new idea.

VB did not hear; would not have heeded had his senses registered the words, because an odd apathy had come over him, dulling the pain of his wound, deadening the realization of his danger. He sighed deeply and shook himself and tried to rally, but though a part of him insisted that he gather his faculties and force them to alertness, another tired, lethargic self overbore the warning. Half consciously he pulled the stirrup toward him, put up his foot with an unreal effort, and laboriously drew himself to the saddle. There, he leaned forward on his arms, which were crossed on the Captain's neck, oblivious to all that transpired.

But the great stallion was not insensible to the situation. He could not know the danger, but he did know that he had been led into a strange place, shut there and left virtually a prisoner; that his master had burst in upon him atremble with communicable excitement; that strange voices were raised close to him; that men had been running to and fro; that the sounds of struggling horses were coming from out there; that some man was standing on the other side of the door, closer than most men had ever stood to him. He breathed loudly; then stilled that breath to listen, his head moving with frequent, short jerks as he saw objects move past the cracks in the building. He switched his tail about his hindquarters sharply, and backed a step.

Another voice called softly to Rhues, and Rhues answered:

"Dah! When I rolled him over his holster flopped out of his shirt, empty. He dropped it in th' s'loon. If he'd had a gun he'd done fer us 'n there, wouldn't he?"

Then his voice was raised in a sharp command: "Help him, Julio! Hang on to his ear an' he'll stand. Pronto!"

Sounds of men grunting, of a horse striving to break from them; a sharp cry. These things-and emanating from a scene taking place outside the Captain's sight! He half wheeled and scrubbed the back wall of the stable with his hip, blowing loudly in fright. He stamped a forefoot impatiently; followed that by a brisk, nervous pawing. He tossed his head and chewed his bit briskly; then shook his head and blew loudly again. He shied violently as a man ran past the door, wheeled, crashed into the wall again and, crouching, quivered violently.

VB moaned with pain. When the horse under him had shied the boy had pushed himself erect in the saddle and the effort tore at the wound in his chest. The pain roused him, and as the Captain again wheeled, frantic to find a way out of this pen, VB's heels clapped inward to retain his seat, the spurs drove home, and with a whimper the horse reared to his hind legs, lunged forward, and the front hoofs, shooting out, crashed squarely against the closed door!

Under the force of the blow the door swept outward, screaming on its rusty hinges. A third of the way open it struck resistance, quivered, seemed to hesitate, then continued on its arc.

A surprised, muffled shout, the sound of a body striking ground, a shot, its stream of fire spitting toward the night sky. Then the vicious smiting of hoofs as the Captain, bearing his witless rider, swung in a short circle and made for the river.

Rhues, caught and knocked flat by the bursting open of the door, was perhaps a half-dozen seconds in getting to his feet. He came up shooting, a stream of leaden missiles shrieking aimlessly off into space. Julio and Matson, busy with the refractory buckskin, heard the crash and creak of the swinging door, heard the shout, heard the shot; they turned to see the black stallion sweep from the little building and swirl past them, ears back, teeth gleaming, and bearing to the north.

Still clinging to the buckskin's head, the Mexican drew his gun; Matson, utterly bewildered, fearful of impending consequences, gave the cinch a final tug, but before Julio could fire the water of the river was thrown in radiant spray as the Captain floundered into midstream with VB low on his neck.

Then Rhues was on them, putting into choking words the vileness of his heart. He did not explain beyond:

"Th' -- horse! Th' door got me!"

He seized the cheek str

ap of the buckskin's bridle and swung up, while the others watched the horse running out into the moonlit river. The pony reared and pivoted on his hind legs.

"Git on yer hosses!" Rhues screeched, yanking at the bit. "He can't git away, with his hoss run down once to-night! An' if we let him-we swing!"

Goaded by that terror they obeyed, hanging spurs in their horses' flanks before they found stirrups, and the trio whirled down to the water.

"He's goin' home!" Rhues cried above the splashing. "That's our way out; we'll git him as we go 'long! We'll ride him down; he ain't got a gun! An' they'll find him out yonder with th' money belt on him! We-" He broke short with a laugh. "We could claim th' reward! Two fifty, dead 'r alive!"

Matson snarled something. Then, as their horses struggled up the far bank of the stream, completed it:

"-- with th' reward! What we want's a get-away!"

"We're on our way now," growled Rhues, and lashed his pony viciously with the ends of his bridle reins.

Knee to knee they raced, the ponies stretching their heads far out in efforts to cover that light ribbon of road which clove the cloudlike sage brush and ate up the distance between their position and that scudding blur ahead. Each had his gun drawn and held high in the right hand ready for use; each, with eyes only for that before them, with minds only for speed-and quick speculation on what might happen should they fail.

The creak of leather, the sharp batter of hoofs, the rattle of pebbles as they were thrown out against the rocks, the excited breathing of horses: A race, with human life the trophy!

And VB, looking back, saw. With set teeth he leaned still lower over the Captain's neck in spite of the raging the posture set up in his torn breast. No will of his had directed the stallion in that flight northward. His unexpected dash through the barn door, the quick recognition of the point they had scored, the sharp pang which came when VB realized the fact that the horse's, break for home had cut him off from help that might have remained in Ranger, left the wounded man in a swirl of confused impressions.

Behind all the jumble was the big urge to reach that place which had been the only true haven of his experience. He felt a glimmer of solace when he sensed that he was going home which quite neutralized the terror that the glance at those oncoming riders provoked. The comfort inculcated by the idea grew into clear thinking; from there on into the status of an obsession. He was going home! He was on the way, with that mighty beast under him! He raised more of his weight to the stirrups and laid a reassuring hand on the snapping shoulder of his horse.

And on his trail rode the merciless three, their eyes following the bending course of the road, hat-brims now blown back against the crowns, now down over their eyes in the rush through the night. Rhues rode a quarter of a length ahead of the others, and his automatic was raised higher than were their gun-hands. Now and then one of the trio spoke sharply to his horse and grunted as he raked with a spur, but for the greater part of the time they did not lift their voices above the thunder of the race. They knew what must happen; they held their own, and waited!

"Go, boy, go!" whispered VB. "We'll run their legs off; they'll never get in range!"

The Captain held an attentive ear backward a moment, then shot it forward, watching the road, holding his rolling, space-eating stride. VB turned his head and again looked back. They were still there! No nearer-but he had not shaken them off. Two, perhaps three, miles had been covered and they hung by him, just within sight, just beyond that point where they might fire with an even chance of certainty. He pressed his arm against his burning breast, crowding the treasured money belt tighter against the wound. Somehow, it seemed to dull the torment, and for minutes he held the pressure constant, still lifted to supreme heights of endeavor and ability to withstand suffering by the rage that had welled up from his depths as he stood back in the shadow of the cabin and had the suspicion of how and why Kelly had met death become certainty.

Another mile, and he turned to look back again. They still hung there, making a blur in the moonlight, fanciful, half floating, but he knew they were real, knew that they hammered their way through the night with lust for his life!

"Captain!" he cried, apprehension rising. "Go it, boy; go it!"

He pressed a spur lightly against his side and felt the great beast quiver between strides. The pace quickened a trifle, but VB saw that the ears were no longer held steadily to the fore, that the head ducked with each leap forward as he had never seen it duck before. And as the thought with its killing remorse thundered into his intelligence, VB sat erect in the saddle with a gasp and a movement which staggered the running animal that bore him.

The Captain's strength had been drained! For twenty strides VB sat there, inert, a dead weight, while grief came into his throat, into his vision, deadening his mind. In all that melodrama which began when he stared through the saloon door and saw Rhues standing in the moonlight, gun ready, the reason for his presence in Ranger, the history of the earlier night, had been obliterated for the time being. Now, as he felt the beast under him labor, heard his heavy breathing, saw the froth on his lips, it all came back to Young VB.

"Oh, Captain!" he wailed, leaning forward again, eyes burning, throat choking.

And for a long time he rode as though unable to do else but hold his position over the fork of the saddle.

He was stunned, beaten down by poignant remorse. The Captain had made the long ride from Jed's to Ranger at a killing pace. VB remembered acutely now that the stallion had staggered as he emerged from Clear River and came into view of the saloon lights. And he had been there how long? An hour of poker, perhaps; an hour more at the outside. Two hours for the horse to regain the strength that had been taken from him in that cruel ride-a ride taken to satisfy the viciousness which made VB a man uncertain of himself!

The Captain had been wasted! He had gone, as had VB's heart and mind, to be a sacrifice for hideous gods! In an hour of weakness he had been offered, had been given gladly, and without thought of his value! For had not VB gloried in that ride to Ranger? Had it not been the end of all things for him? An end for which he was thankful? Had it not been all conscious, witting, planned? It had-and it had not been worth the candle!

The boy moaned aloud and wound his fingers in the flapping mane.

"Captain!" he cried. "It was all wrong-all false! I threw you away an hour ago, and now-you're life to me! Oh, boy, will you forgive? Can you?"

No fear of death tapped the wells of his grief. There was only sorrow for his wasting of that great animal, that splendid spirit, that clean strength!

After a moment he sobbed: "You can't do anything else but go on, boy! You're that sort! You'll go, then I'll go; anyhow, it will be together!"

And the great beast, blowing froth from his lips, struggled on, while from behind came the sounds of other running horses-perhaps a trifle nearer.

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