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   Chapter 24 No.24

I Conquered"" By Harold Titus Characters: 17422

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Victory

The road writhed on through the sage brush sixteen miles from Ranger before it branched. Then to the right ran the S Bar S route, while straight on it headed into Jed's ranch, and the left-hand course, shooting away from the others behind a long, rocky point, followed Sand Creek up to the cluster of buildings which marked the domicile of Dick Worth.

It was more than halfway. The Captain, now trotting heavily, now breaking once more into a floundering gallop, passed the first fork, that leading toward Worth's. With a gulp of relief VB saw that the moon hung low in the west-so low that the road home would be in the shadow of the point, which seemed to come down purposely to split the highway. He might then find refuge in darkness somewhere. He must have refuge!

At the tenth mile he had suspected, now he knew, that it would be impossible to stand off his pursuers clear to the ranch, and there were no habitations between him and Jed's.

"They haven't gained on you, boy!" he cried as he made out the distinct outlines of the point. "They're right where they were at the start! No other horse in the world could have done it; not even you should be asked to do it-but-but-"

He choked back the sob that fought to come. He knew he must concentrate his last energy, now. If he came through there would be time to think of his crime against the Captain! But now- Futures depend on lives. His life dangled in the balance, and he wanted it, as men can want life only when they feel it slipping.

Back there three men raked the streaming sides of their ponies with vicious spurs.

"He can't make it!" Rhues swore. "Th' black's quittin' now! If he gits away, what chance we got? We got to git him! It'll give us th' last chance!"

"We're killin' our horses," growled Matson.

And Julio, a length behind, flogged his pinto mercilessly.

No craving for VB's life prompted Rhues now. He must go on for the sake of his own safety. He and those other two had all to gain and nothing to lose. If they could drop the man ahead it would be possible to skirt the ranches, catch fresh horses, and make on toward Wyoming. But let VB gain shelter with Jed or any one else, and a posse would be on their trail before they could be beyond reach.

No, there could be no turning back! They had made their bet; now they must back it with the whole stack. And before them-that blot in the moonlight-a wounded, suffering man cried aloud to the horse that moved so heavily under him.

"Make it to the point, Captain!" he begged. "Just there! It'll be dark! Only a little faster, boy!"

The stallion grunted under the stress of his effort, moving for the moment with less uncertainty, with a jot more speed.

They crawled up to the point and followed the bend of the road as it led into the dimness of the gulch. Across the way, far to the right, moonlight fell on the cliffs, but where the road hung close to the rise at the left all was in shadow.

To VB, entering the murk was like plunging from the heat of glaring day to the cool of a forest.

The men behind him would be forced to come twice as close before they could make firing effective. Then, when he reached the ranch-

He threw out an arm in a gesture of utter hopelessness. Reach the ranch? He laughed aloud, mocking his own guilelessness. He had come only a little more than half the distance now, and Captain could scarcely be held at a trot. Three miles, possibly five, he might last, and then his rider would have to face his pursuers with empty hands.

His was the very epitome of despair. A weaker man would have quit then, would have let the stallion flounder to his finish, would have waited submissively for Rhues to come and shoot him down. But VB possessed the strength of his desperation.

Rhues might get him now, as he had tried to get him twice before, but he would get him by fighting. Not wholly for himself did the boy think, but for the likable, friendly Kelly, who had died there in his blankets without warning. If he could rid men of the menace which Rhues represented he would have done service, and the life of those last months had implanted within him the will to be of use-though, a few hours back, he might have thought it all a delusion.

So VB was alert with the acute alertness of mind which is given to humans when forced to fight to preserve life-when everything, the buried subconscious impulses, the forgotten, tucked-away memories, are in the fore, crying to help. Abandoning hope of reaching Jed's, he turned all his physical force, even, into the mental effort to seek a way out; fought his way to clarified thought, fought his way into logic. He could not go on much longer; there was no such thing as turning back, for he could hear them, nearer now! He could hear the click of pebbles as his pursuers' horses sent them scattering, and a pebble click will not travel far. Ahead-weakening muscles; behind-guns ready; to the right-moonlight; to the left-

The bridle rein drew across the Captain's lathered neck. The big beast swung to the left, out of the road, crashed through the brush, and lunged against the rise of rocks.

The horse seemed to sense the fact that this was the one remaining chance, the last possibility left in their bag of tricks. He picked his way up among the ragged bowlders and spiked brush with a quickness of movement that told of the breaking through into those reservoirs of strength which are held in man and beast until a last hope is found.

VB went suddenly faint. The loss of blood, the pain, the stress of nervous thought, the knowing that his full hand was on the table, caused him to reel dizzily in the saddle. He made no pretense of guiding the Captain. He merely sagged forward and felt the horse lunge and plunge and climb with him, heard the rasping breath that seemed to come from a torn throat.

Below and behind, the trailers swept from moonlight into shadow, horses wallowing as though that hard road were in deep mud, so great was the race that the stallion, spent though he might be, had given them. Rhues was ahead, revolver held higher than before, Matson's pony at his flank and Julio a dozen lengths behind. Bridle reins, knotted, hung loosely on their horses' necks; the three left hands rose and fell and quirts swished viciously through the night air.

"We got to close in!" Rhues cried. "We'll have him 'n a mile!"

And he called down on the heads of the horses awful imprecations for their weakness.

On into the darkness they stormed, Julio trailing. And when Rhues had passed by fifty yards the point where the Captain had turned to take the steep climb the Mexican opened his throat in a cry, half of fright, half of exultation.

The Captain, almost at the end of his climb, leaping from rise to rise, had missed his footing. The soft earth slid as he jumped for a ledge of rock, and the front feet, coming down on the smooth surface in frantic clawing to prevent a fall, sent fire streaming from their shoes. In the darkness Julio had seen the orange sparks. At his cry the others set their ponies back on haunches and, following the Mexican, who now led, cursing VB and their weakening mounts, they commenced the climb. VB knew. The flash from the stallion's feet had roused him; he heard the shout; he knew what must follow. He gave no heed to the bullet which bored the air above him as he was silhouetted for the instant against moonlit space before he commenced the drop to the road leading up Sand Creek.

Where now? With a sigh which ended in a quick choking, as though he were through, ready to give up this ghost of a chance, ready to quit struggling on, the Captain dropped from the last little rim and turned into the road. Not on ahead-into that void where they could ride him down. Not back toward Ranger, for it was impossibly far. Where then? What was there? Sand Creek! And up Sand Creek was Dick Worth's!

VB caught his breath in a sob. It was the one goal open to him, though the odds were crushing. He pressed the money belt tightly. Dick Worth was the man who should have that-Dick Worth, deputy sheriff! He lifted his voice and cried aloud the name of the deputy.

To the north once more the Captain headed, and with no word from VB took up the floundering way again. The boy looked behind and saw the others commence the drop down the moonlit point-saw one of the blurs slump quickly and heard a man scream. Then he leaned low on the stallion and talked to the horse as he would talk to a child who could pilot him to safety.

Behind him, along the road, came the blot again, now, however, smaller. VB did not know that it was Julio who had fallen, but he knew with a

fierce delight that the Captain, running on his bare spirit, had killed off one of the pursuers!

The boy grew hysterical. He chattered to the stallion, knowing nothing of the words he uttered. At times his lips moved but uttered no sound. Continually his hands sought his breast. He knew from the dampness that crept down his side, on down into the trouser leg, that the wound still bled, that his life was running out through the gash.

Through the clamoring of his heart a familiar ache came into his throat, and the boy lifted his voice into the night with a rant of rage, of self-denunciation.

"Oh, Captain! You were the price!" he moaned.

But still he wanted-just one drink! Not to satisfy that craving now, but to keep him alive, a legitimate use for stimulant.

The stallion ceased pretense of galloping. Now and then he even dropped from his uncertain trotting to a walk.

VB, watching behind, could just make out those other travelers in the light of the low-hanging moon which seemed to balance on the ragged horizon and linger for sight of the finish of this grim drama worked out in the lonely stretches. As the horse stumbled more and more frequently under him VB knew that those who pressed him were coming closer. Then a flash of flame and a bullet spattered itself against a rock ahead and to the right.

"They're closer, Captain!" he muttered grimly. "The game's going against us-against you. I'm too much of a burden-too much weight."

His mind seized upon the aimless words. The suddenness of his shifting in the saddle made the stallion stagger, for VB's whole weight went into the right stirrup. He drew the other up with fiendish tinges shooting through his breast and tore at the cinch. It came loose. The saddle turned. VB flung his arms about the Captain's neck and kicked it from under him.

"Fifty pounds gone!" he muttered triumphantly, and the horse tossed his head, quickening the trot, trying once again the heavy gallop.

VB could hear the horse breathing through his mouth. He looked down and saw that the long tongue flopped from the lips with every movement of the fine head. Tears came to his eyes as he caressed the Captain's withers frantically.

"Can I do more, boy?" he asked in a strained voice. "Can I do more?"

It was as though he pleaded with a dying human.

"Yes, I can do more!" he cried a moment later in answer to his own question. "You've given your whole to me; now I'll give you back your freedom, make you as free as you were the day I took you. I'll strip you, boy!"

He reached far out along the neck, drawing his weight up on the withers, and loosed the head-stall. The bridle fell into the road and the Captain ran naked! And, as though to show his gratitude, the horse shook his head groggily and reeled on in his crazy progress.

A half mile farther on the Captain fell. VB went down heavily and mounted the waiting horse again in a daze-from which he was roused by the fresh gushing on his breast. Another shot from behind-then two close together.

Dawn was coming. He looked around vaguely. The moon was slipping away. Perhaps yet it would be in at the finish. The shimmering light of new day was taking from objects their ghostly quality; making them real. The men behind could see VB-and they were firing!

The boy said no word to the Captain. He merely clamped his knees tighter and leaned lower on his neck. He had ceased to think, ceased to struggle. His trust, his life, was in the shaking legs of the animal he rode, whose sweat soaked through his clothing to mingle with the blood there.

The stallion breathed in great moaning sobs, as though his heart were bursting, as though his lungs were raw and bleeding. He reeled from side to side crazily. Now and then he ran out of the road and floundered blindly back. His head hung low, almost to his knees, and swung from side to side with each step, and at intervals he raised it as though it were a great weight, to gasp-and to sob!

From behind, bullets. Rhues and Matson fired grimly. They had ceased to lash their ponies, for it was useless. The beasts were beyond giving better service in return for punishment. Their sides dripped blood, but they were beyond suffering. Handicapped as he had been, the Captain had held them off, almost stride for stride.

Better light now, but their shooting could not hope to find a mark except through chance. They cursed in glad snarls as they saw the stallion reel, sink to his knees; then snarled again as they saw him recover and go on at his drunken trot.

Before VB's eyes floated a blotch of color. It was golden, a diffused light that comforted him; that, for some incomprehensible reason, was soothing to the senses. It eased the wound, too, and put new strength in his heart so that he could feel the warm blood seeping slowly into his numb arms and hands and fingers. He smiled foolishly and hugged the Captain's neck as the horse reeled along. Oh, it was a glorious color! He remembered the day he had seen a little patch of it scudding along the roadway in the sunshine. Why, it had seemed like concentrated sunshine itself.

"Gail," he murmured. "It was you-I didn't want to put-that mark-on you!"

The nature of that color became clear to him and he roused himself. It was a light-a light in a window-the window of a ranch house-Dick Worth's ranch house!

Bullets had ceased to zip and sing and spatter. He did not turn to see what had become of his pursuers, for he was capable of only one thought at a time.

"Dick Worth! Dick Worth!" he screamed.

Then he looked behind. Away to the left he saw two riders pushing through the dawn, détouring. And he laughed, almost gayly.

Another blotch of light, a bigger one, showed in the young day. It was an opened door, and a deep chest gave forth an answer to his cry. Dick Worth stepped from the threshold of his home and ran to the gate to see better this crazy figure which lurched toward him. It was a man on foot, hatless, his face gray like the sky above, hair tousled, eyes glowing red. He stumbled to the fence and leaned there for support, holding something forward, something limp and bloodstained.

"Dick-it's Kelly's money belt-Rhues-he killed him- He shot me-he's got the money-on him-he's swinging off west-two of 'em- Their horses are-all in- He-he shot Kelly because-I wouldn't take-a drink-he-and I need-a-drink-"

He slumped down against the fence.

After an uncertain age VB swam back from that mental vacuity to reality. He saw, first, that the Captain was beside him, standing there breathing loudly, eyes closed, sobbing low at every heave of his lungs.

A quavering moan made its way to the boy's throat and he moved over, reaching out groping arms for the stallion's lowered head.

"Captain!" he moaned. "Oh, boy-it was our last ride-I can never-ask you to carry me-again."

He hugged the face closer to his.

Then he heard a man's voice saying:

"Here, VB, take this-it'll brace you up!"

He turned his face slowly, for the strength that remained was far from certain. His wound was on fire, every nerve of his body laid bare. His will to do began and ended with wanting to hold that horse's head close. He was as a child, stripped of every effect that the experiences of his life could have had. He was weak, broken, unwittingly searching for a way back to strength.

He turned his head halfway and beheld the man stooping beside him who held in his hands a bottle, uncorked, and from it came a strong odor.

The boy dilated his nostrils and drew great breaths laden with the fumes of the stuff. A new life came into his eyes. They shone, they sparkled. Activity came to those bare nerves, and they raised their demands.

He opened his mouth and let the odor he inhaled play across that place in his throat. The smell went on out through his arteries, through his veins, along the nerves to the ends of his being, to the core of his soul! He was down, down in the depths, his very ego crying for the stimulant, for something to help it come back.

He coaxed along that yearning, let it rise to its fullest. Then he raised his eyes to meet the concerned gaze of the other man. And the man saw in those eyes a look that made him sway back, that made him open his lips in surprise.

"To hell with that stuff!" the boy screamed. "To hell with it! To hell-to hell! It belongs there! It-it killed the Captain!"

Tears came with the sobs, and strength to the arms that held the stallion's head; strength that surged through his entire body, stilling those nerves, throttling the crying of his throat. For VB had gone down to his test, his real ordeal, and had found himself not wanting.

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