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The Night Horseman By Max Brand Characters: 12092

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Hank Dwight disappeared from the doorway and the doctor was called from his pondering by the voice of the girl. There was something about that voice which worried Byrne, for it was low and controlled and musical and it did not fit with the nasal harshness of the cattlemen. When she began to speak it was like the beginning of a song. He turned now and found her sitting a tall bay horse, and she led a red-roan mare beside her. When he went out she tossed her reins over the head of her horse and strapped his valise behind her saddle.

"You won't have any trouble with that mare," she assured him, when the time came for mounting. Yet when he approached gingerly he was received with flattened ears and a snort of anger. "Wait," she cried, "the left side, not the right!"

He felt the laughter in her voice, but when he looked he could see no trace of it in her face. He approached from the left side, setting his teeth.

"You observe," he said, "that I take your word at its full value," and placing his foot in the stirrup, he dragged himself gingerly up to the saddle. The mare stood like a rock. Adjusting himself, he wiped a sudden perspiration from his forehead.

"I quite believe," he remarked, "that the animal is of unusual intelligence. All may yet be well!"

"I'm sure of it." said the girl gravely. "Now we're off."

And the horses broke into a dog trot. Now the gait of the red roan mare was a dream of softness, and her flexible ankles gave a play of whole inches to break the jar of every step, the sure sign of the good saddle-horse; but the horse has never been saddled whose trot is really a smooth pace. The hat of Doctor Byrne began to incline towards his right eye and his spectacles towards his left ear. He felt a peculiar lightness in the stomach and heaviness in the heart.

"The t-t-t-trot," he ventured to his companion, "is a d-d-d-dam-"

"Dr. Byrne!" she cried.

"Whoa!" called Doctor Byrne, and drew mightily in upon the reins. The red mare stopped as a ball stops when it meets a stout wall; the doctor sprawled along her neck, clinging with arms and legs. He managed to clamber back into the saddle.

"There are vicious elements in the nature of this brute," he observed to the girl.

"I'm very sorry," she murmured. He cast a sidelong glance but found not the trace of a smile.

"The word upon which I-"

"Stopped?" she suggested.

"Stopped," he agreed, "was not, as you evidently assumed, an oath. On the contrary, I was merely remarking that the trot is a damaging gait, but through an interrupted-er-articulation-"

His eye dared her, but she was utterly grave. He perceived that there was, after all, a certain kinship between this woman of the mountain-desert and the man thereof. Their silences were filled with eloquence.

"We'll try a canter," she suggested, "and I think you'll find that easier."

So she gave the word, and her bay sprang into a lope from a standing start. The red mare did likewise, nearly flinging the doctor over the back of the saddle, but by the grace of God he clutched the pommel in time and was saved. The air caught at his face, they swept out of the town and onto a limitless level stretch.

"Sp-p-p-peed," gasped the doctor, "has never been a p-p-passion with me!"

He noted that she was not moving in the saddle. The horse was like the bottom of a wave swinging violently back and forth. She was the calm crest, swaying slightly and graciously with a motion as smooth as the flowing of water. And she spoke as evenly as if she were sitting in a rocking chair.

"You'll be used to it in a moment," she assured him.

He learned, indeed, that if one pressed the stirrups as the shoulders of the horse swung down and leaned a trifle forward when the shoulders rose again, the motion ceased to be jarring; for she was truly a matchless creature and gaited like one of those fabulous horses of old, sired by the swift western wind. In a little time a certain pride went beating through the veins of the doctor, the air blew more deeply into his lungs, there was a different tang to the wind and a different feel to the sun-a peculiar richness of yellow warmth. And the small head of the horse and the short, sharp, pricking ears tossed continually; and now and then the mare threw her head a bit to one side and glanced back at him with what he felt to be a reassuring air. Life and strength and speed were gripped between his knees-he flashed a glance at the girl.

But she rode with face straightforward and there was that about her which made him turn his eyes suddenly away and look far off. It was a jagged country, for in the brief rainy season there came sudden and terrific downpours which lashed away the soil and scoured the face of the underlying rock, and in a single day might cut a deep arroyo where before had been smooth plain. This was the season of grass, but not the dark, rank green of rich soil and mild air-it was a yellowish green, a colour at once tender and glowing. It spread everywhere across the plains about Elkhead, broken here and there by the projecting boulders which flashed in the sun. So a great battlefield might appear, pockmarked with shell-holes, and all the scars of war freshly cut upon its face. And in truth the mountain desert was like an arena ready to stage a conflict-a titanic arena with space for earth-giants to struggle-and there in the distance were the spectator mountains. High, lean-flanked mountains they were, not clad in forests, but rather bristling with a stubby growth of the few trees which might endure in precarious soil and bitter weather, but now they gathered the dignity of distance about them. The grass of the foothills was a faint green mist about their feet, cloaks of exquisite blue hung around the upper masses, but their heads were naked to the pale skies. And all day long, with deliberate alteration, the garb of the mountains changed. When the sudden morning came they leaped naked upon the eye, and then withdrew, muffling themselves in browns and blues u

ntil at nightfall they covered themselves to the eyes in thickly sheeted purple-Tyrian purple-and prepared for sleep with their heads among the stars.

Something of all this came to Doctor Randall Byrne as he rode, for it seemed to him that there was a similarity between these mountains and the girl beside him. She held that keen purity of the upper slopes under the sun, and though she had no artifice or careful wiles to make her strange, there was about her a natural dignity like the mystery of distance. There was a rhythm, too, about that line of peaks against the sky, and the girl had caught it; he watched her sway with the gallop of her horse and felt that though she was so close at hand she was a thousand miles from him. She concealed nothing, and yet he could no more see her naked soul than he could tear the veils of shadow from the mountains. Not that the doctor phrased his emotions in words. He was only conscious of a sense of awe and the necessity of silence.

A strange feeling for the doctor! He came from the region of the mind where that which is not spoken does not exist, and now this girl was carrying him swiftly away from hypotheses, doubts, and polysyllabic speech into the world-of what? The spirit? The doctor did not know. He only felt that he was about to step into the unknown, and it held for him the fascination of the suspended action of a statue. Let it not be thought that he calmly accepted the sheer necessity for silence. He fought against it, but no words came.

It was evening: the rolling hills about them were already dark; only the heads of the mountains took the day; and now they paused at the top of a rise and the girl pointed across the hollow. "There we are," she said. It was a tall clump of trees through which broke the outlines of a two-storied house larger than any the doctor had seen in the mountain-desert; and outside the trees lay long sheds, a great barn, and a wide-spread wilderness of corrals. It struck the doctor with its apparently limitless capacity for housing man and beast. Coming in contrast with the rock-strewn desolation of the plains, this was a great establishment; the doctor had ridden out with a waif of the desert and she had turned into a princess at a stroke. Then, for the first time since they left Elkhead, he remembered with a start that he was to care for a sick man in that house.

"You were to tell me," he said, "something about the sickness of your father-the background behind his condition. But we've both forgotten about it."

"I have been thinking how I could describe it, every moment of the ride," she answered. Then, as the gloom fell more thickly around them every moment, she swerved her horse over to the mare, as if it were necessary that she read the face of the doctor while she spoke.

"Six months ago," she said, "my father was robust and active in spite of his age. He was cheerful, busy, and optimistic. But he fell into a decline. It has not been a sudden sapping of his strength. If it were that I should not worry so much; I'd attribute it to disease. But every day something of vitality goes from him. He is fading almost from hour to hour, as slowly as the hour hand of a clock. You can't notice the change, but every twelve hours the hand makes a complete revolution. It's as if his blood were evaporating and nothing we can do will supply him with fresh strength."

"Is this attended by irritability?"

"He is perfectly calm and seems to have no care for what becomes of him."

"Has he lost interest in the things which formerly attracted and occupied him?"

"Yes, he minds nothing now. He has no care for the condition of the cattle, or for profit or loss in the sales. He has simply stepped out of every employment."

"Ah, a gradual diminution of the faculties of attention."

"In a way, yes. But also he is more alive than he has ever been. He seems to hear with uncanny distinctness, for instance."

The doctor frowned.

"I was inclined to attribute his decline to the operation of old age," he remarked, "but this is unusual. This-er-inner acuteness is accompanied by no particular interest in any one thing?".

As she did not reply for the moment he was about to accept the silence for acquiescence, but then through the dimness he was arrested by the lustre of her eyes, fixed, apparently, far beyond him.

"One thing," she said at length. "Yes, there is one thing in which he retains an interest."

The doctor nodded brightly.

"Good!" he said. "And that-?"

The silence fell again, but this time he was more roused and he fixed his eyes keenly upon her through the gloom. She was deeply troubled; one hand gripped the horn of her saddle strongly; her lips had parted; she was like one who endures inescapable pain. He could not tell whether it was the slight breeze which disturbed her blouse or the rapid panting of her breath.

"Of that," she said, "it is hard to speak-it is useless to speak!"

"Surely not!" protested the doctor. "The cause, my dear madame, though perhaps apparently remote from the immediate issue, is of the utmost significance in diagnosis."

She broke in rapidly: "This is all I can tell you: he is waiting for something which will never come. He has missed something from his life which will never come back into it. Then why should we discuss what it is that he has missed."

"To the critical mind," replied the doctor calmly, and he automatically adjusted his glasses closer to his eyes, "nothing is without significance."

"It is nearly dark!" she exclaimed hurriedly. "Let us ride on."

"First," he suggested, "I must tell you that before I left Elkhead I heard a hint of some remarkable story concerning a man and a horse and a dog. Is there anything-"

But it seemed that she did not hear. He heard a sharp, low exclamation which might have been addressed to her horse, and the next instant she was galloping swiftly down the slope. The doctor followed as fast as he could, jouncing in the saddle until he was quite out of breath.

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