LITTLE dew fell on the night of July first; the dawn brightened without mists; a hot sun rose; the short summer of the plateau had begun.
As Hare rose, refreshed and happy from his breakfast, his whistle was cut short by the Indian.
"Ugh!" exclaimed Piute, lifting a dark finger. Black Bolly had thrown her nose-bag and slipped her halter, and she moved toward the opening in the cedars, her head high, her black ears straight up.
"Bolly!" called Mescal. The mare did not stop.
"What the deuce?" Hare ran forward to catch her.
"I never knew Bolly to act that way," said Mescal. "See--she didn't eat half the oats. Well, Bolly--Jack! look at Wolfl"
The white dog had risen and stood warily shifting his nose. He sniffed the wind, turned round and round, and slowly stiffened with his head pointed toward the eastern rise of the plateau.
"Hold, Wolf, hold!" called Mescal, as the dog appeared to be about to dash away.
"Ugh!" grunted Piute.
"Listen, Jack; did you hear?" whispered the girl.
The warm breeze came down in puffs from the crags; it rustled in the cedars and blew fragrant whiffs of camp-fire smoke into his face; and presently it bore a low, prolonged whistle. He had never before heard its like. The sound broke the silence again, clearer, a keen, sharp whistle.
"What is it?" he queried, reaching for his rifle.
"Wild mustangs," said Mescal.
"No," corrected Piute, vehemently shaking his head. "Clea, Clea."
"Jack, he says 'horse, horse.' It's a wild horse."
A third time the whistle rang down from the ridge, splitting the air, strong and trenchant, the fiery, shrill challenge of a stallion.
Black Bolly reared straight up.
Jack ran to the rise of ground above the camp, and looked over the cedars. "Oh!" he cried, and beckoned for Mescal. She ran to him, and Piute, tying Black Bolly, hurried after. "Look! look!" cried Jack. He pointed to a ridge rising to the left of the yellow crags. On the bare summit stood a splendid stallion clearly silhouetted against the ruddy morning sky. He was an iron-gray, wild and proud, with long silver-white mane waving in the wind.
"Silvermane! Silvermane!" exclaimed Mescal.
"What a magnificent animal!" Jack stared at the splendid picture for the moment before the horse moved back along the ridge and disappeared. Other horses, blacks and bays, showed above the sage for a moment, and they, too, passed out of sight.
"He's got some of his band with him," said Jack, thrilled with excitement. "Mescal, they're down off the upper range, and grazing along easy. The wind favors us. That whistle was just plain fight, judging from what Naab told me of wild stallions. He came to the hilltop, and whistled down defiance to any horse, wild or tame, that might be below. I'll slip round through the cedars, and block the trail leading up to the other range, and you and Piute close the gate of our trail at this end. Then send Piute down to tell Naab we've got Silvermane."
Jack chose the lowest edge of the plateau rim where the cedars were thickest for his detour to get behind the wild band; he ran from tree to tree, avoiding the open places, taking advantage of the thickets, keeping away from the ridge. He had never gone so far as the gate, but, knowing where the trail led into a split in the crags, he climbed the slope, and threaded a way over masses of fallen cliff, until he reached the base of the wall. The tracks of the wildhorse band were very fresh and plain in the yellow trail. Four stout posts guarded the opening, and a number of bars lay ready to be pushed into place. He put them up, making a gate ten feet high, an impregnable barrier. This done, he hurried back to camp.
"Jack, Bolly will need more watching to-day than the sheep, unless I let her loose. Why, she pulls and strains so she'll break that halter."
"She wants to go with the band; isn't that it?"
"I don't like to think so. But Father Naab doesn't trust Bolly, though she's the best mustang he ever broke."
"Better keep her in," replied Jack, remembering Naab's warning. "I'll hobble her, so if she does break loose she can't go far."
When Mescal and Jack drove in the sheep that afternoon, rather earlier than usual, Piute had returned with August Naab, Dave, and Billy, a string of mustangs and a pack-train of burros.
"Hello, Mescal," cheerily called August, as they came into camp. "Well Jack--bless me! Why, my lad, how fine and brown--and yes, how you've filled out!" He crushed Jack's hand in his broad palm, and his gray eyes beamed. "I've not the gift of revelation--but, Jack, you're going to get well."
"Yes, I--" He had difficulty with his enunciation, but he thumped his breast significantly and smiled.
"Black sage and juniper!" exclaimed August. "In this air if a man doesn't go off quickly with pneumonia, he'll get well. I never had a doubt for you, Jack--and thank God!"
He questioned Piute and Mescal about the sheep, and was greatly pleased with their report. He shook his head when Jack spread out the grizzly-pelt, and asked for the story of the killing. Jack made a poor showing with the tale and slighted his share in it, but Mescal told it as it actually happened. And Naab's great hand resounded from Jack's shoulder. Then, catching sight of the pile of coyote skins under the stone shelf, he gave vent to his surprise and delight. Then he came back to the object of his trip upon the plateau.
"So you've corralled Silvermane? Well, Jack, if he doesn't jump over the cliff he's ours. He can't get off any other way. How many horses with him?"
"We had no chance to count. I saw at least twelve."
"Good! He's out with his picked band. Weren't they all blacks and bays?"
"Jack, the history of that stallion wouldn't make you proud of him. We've corralled him by a lucky chance. If I don't miss my guess he's after Bolly. He has been a lot of trouble to ranchers all the way from the Nevada line across Utah. The stallions he's killed, the mares he's led off! Well, Dave, shall we thirst him out, or line up a long corral?"
"Better have a look around to-morrow," replied Dave. "It'll take a lot of chasing to run him down, but there's not a spring on the bench where we can throw up a trap-corral. We'll have to chase him."
"Mescal, has Bolly been good since Silvermane came down?"
"No, she hasn't," declared Mescal, and told of the circumstance.
"Bolly's all right," said Billy Naab. "Any mustang will do that. Keep her belled and hobbled."
"Silvermane would care a lot about that, if he wanted Bolly, wouldn't he?" queried Dave in quiet scorn. "Keep her roped and haltered, I say."
"Dave's right," said August. "You can't trust a wild mustang any more than a wild horse."
August was right. Black Bolly broke her halter about midnight and escaped into the forest, hobbled as she was. The Indian heard her first, and he awoke August, who aroused the others.
"Don't make any noise," he said, as Jack came up, throwing on his coat. "There's likely to be some fun here presently. Bolly's loose, broke her rope, and I think Silvermane is close. Listen sharp now."
The slight breeze favored them, the camp-fire was dead, and the night was clear and starlit. They had not been quiet many moments when the shrill neigh of a mustang rang out. The Naabs raised themselves and looked at one another in the starlight.
"Now what do you think of that?" whispered Billy.
"No more than I expected. It was Bolly," replied Dave.
"Bolly it was, confound her black hide!" added August. "Now, boys, did she whistle for Silvermane, or to warn him, which?"
"No telling," answered Billy. "Let's lie low, and take a chance on him coming close. It proves one thing--you can't break a wild mare. That spirit may sleep in her blood, maybe for years, but some time it'll answer to--"
"Shut up--listen," interrupted Dave.
Jack strained his hearing, yet caught no sound, except the distant yelp of a coyote. Moments went by.
"There!" whispered Dave.
From the direction of the ridge came the faint rattling of stones.
"They're coming," put in Billy.
Presently sharp clicks preceded the rattles, and the sounds began to merge into a regular rhythmic tramp. It softened at intervals, probably when the horses were under the cedars, and strengthened as they came out on the harder ground of the open.
"I see them," whispered Dave.
A black, undulating line wound out of the cedars, a line of horses approaching with drooping heads, hurrying a little as they neared the spring.
"Twenty-odd, all blacks and bays," said August, "and some of them are mustangs. But where's Silvermane?-- hark!"
Out among the cedars rose the peculiar halting thump of a hobbled horse trying to cover ground, followed by snorts and crashings of brush and the pound of plunging hoofs. The long black line stopped short and began to stamp. Then into the starlit glade below moved two shadows, the first a great gray horse with snowy mane; the second, a small, shiny, black mustang.
"Silvermane and Bolly!" exclaimed August, "and now she's broken her hobbles."
The stallion, in the fulfilment of a conquest such as had made him king of the wild ranges, was magnificent in action. Wheeling about her, neighing, and plunging, he arched his splendid neck and pushed his head against her. His action was that of a master. Suddenly Black Bolly snorted and whirled down the glade. Silvermane whistled one blast of anger or terror and thundered after her. They vanished in the gloom of the cedars, and the band of frightened horses and mustangs clattered after them.
"It's one on me," remarked Billy. "That little mare played us at the finish. Caught when she was a yearling, broken better than any mustang we ever had, she has helped us run down many a stallion, and now she runs off with that big white-maned brute!"
"They'll make a team, and if they get out of here we'll have to chase them to the Great Salt Basin," replied Dave.
"Mescal, that's a well-behaved mustang of yours," said August; "not only did she break loose, but she whistled an alarm to Silvermane and his band. Well, roll in now, everybody, and sleep."
At breakfast the following day the Naabs fell into a discussion upon the possibility of there being other means of exit from the plateau than the two trails already closed. They had never run any mustangs on the plateau, and in the case of a wild horse like Silvermane, who would take desperate chances, it was advisable to know the ground exactly. Billy and Dave taking their mounts from the sheep-corral, where they had put them up for the night, rode in opposite directions around the rim of the plateau. It was triangular in shape, and some six or seven miles in circumference; and the brothers rode around it in less than an hour.
"Corralled," said Dave, laconically.
"Good! Did you see him? What kind of a bunch has he with him?" asked his father.
"If we get the pick of the lot it will be worth two weeks' work," replied Dave. "I saw him, and Bolly, too. I believe we can catch her easily. She was off from the bunch, and it looks as though the mares were jealous. I think we can run her into a cove under the wall, and get her. Then Mescal can help us run down the stallion. And you can look out on this end for the best level stretch to drop the line of cedars and make our trap."
The brothers, at their father's nod, rode off into the forest. Naab had detained the peon, and now gave him orders and sent him off.
"To-night you can stand on the rim here, and watch him signal across to the top of Echo Cliffs to the Navajos," explained August to Jack. "I've sent for the best breaker of wild mustangs on the desert. Dave can break mustangs, and Piute is very good; but I want the best man in the country, because this is a grand horse, and I intend to give him to you."
"To me!" exclaimed Hare.
"Yes, and if he's broken right at the start, he'll serve you faithfully, and not try to bite your arm off every day, or kick your brains out. No white man can break a wild mustang to the best advantage."
"Why is that?"
"I don't know. To be truthful, I have an idea it's bad temper and lack of patience. Just wait till you see this Navajo go at Silvermane!"
After Mescal and Piute drove down the sheep, Jack accompanied Naab to the corral.
"I've brought up your saddle," said Naab, "and you can put it on any mustang here."
What a pleasure it was to be in the saddle again, and to feel strength to remain there! He rode with August all over the western end of the plateau. They came at length to a strip of ground, higher than the bordering forest, which was comparatively free of cedars and brush; and when August had surveyed it once he slapped his knee with satisfaction.
"Fine, better than I hoped for! This stretch is about a mile long, and narrow at this end. Now, Jack, you see the other side faces the rim, this side the forest, and at the end here is a wall of rock; luckily it curves in a half circle, which will save us work. We'll cut cedars, drag them in line, and make a big corral against the rock. From the opening in the corral we'll build two fences of trees; then we'll chase Silvermane till he's done, run him down into this level, and turn him inside the fence. No horse can break through a close line of cedars. He'll run till he's in the corral, and then we'll rope him."
"Great!" said Jack, all enthusiasm. "But isn't it going to take a lot of work?"
"Rather," said August, dryly. "It'll take a week to cut and drag the cedars, let alone to tire out that wild stallion. When the finish comes you want to be on that ledge where we'll have the corral."
They returned to camp and prepared supper. Mescal and Piute soon arrived, and, later, Dave and Billy on jaded mustangs. Black Bolly limped behind, stretching a long halter, an unhappy mustang with dusty, foam-stained coat and hanging head.
"Not bad," said August, examining the lame leg. "She'll be fit in a few days, long before we need her to help run down Silvermane. Bring the liniment and a cloth, one of you, and put her in the sheep-corral to-night."
Mescal's love for the mustang shone in her eyes while she smoothed out the crumpled mane, and petted the slender neck.
"Bolly, to think you'd do it!" And Bolly dropped her head as though really ashamed.
When darkness fell they gathered on the rim to watch the signals. A fire blazed out of the black void below, and as they waited it brightened and flamed higher.
"Ugh!" said Piute, pointing across to the dark line of cliffs.
"Of course he'd see it first," laughed Naab. "Dave, have you caught it yet? Jack, see if you can make out a fire over on Echo Cliffs."
"No, I don't see any light, except that white star. Have you seen it?"
"Long ago," replied Naab. "Here, sight along my finger, and narrow your eyes down."
"I believe I see it--yes, I'm sure."
"Good. How about you, Mescal?"
"Yes," she replied.
Jack was amused, for Dave insisted that he had been next to the Indian, and Billy claimed priority to all of them. To these men bred on the desert keen sight was preeminently the chief of gifts.
"Jack, look sharp!" said August. "Peon is blanketing his fire. See the flicker? One, two--one, two--one. Now for the answer."
Jack peered out into the shadowy space, star-studded above, ebony below. Far across the depths shone a pinpoint of steady light. The Indian grunted again, August vented his "ha!" and then Jack saw the light blink like a star, go out for a second, and blink again.
"That's what I like to see," said August. "We're answered. Now all's over but the work."
Work it certainly was, as Jack discovered next day. He helped the brothers cut down cedars while August hauled them into line with his roan. What with this labor and the necessary camp duties nearly a week passed, and in the mean time Black Bolly recovered from her lameness.
Twice the workers saw Silvermane standing on open high ridges, restive and suspicious, with his silver mane flying, and his head turned over his shoulder, watching, always watching.
"It'd be worth something to find out how long that stallion could go without water," commented Dave. "But we'll make his tongue hang out to-morrow. It'd serve him right to break him with Black Bolly."
Daylight came warm and misty; veils unrolled from the desert; a purple curtain lifted from the eastern crags; then the red sun burned.
Dave and Billy Naab mounted their mustangs, and each led another mount by a halter.
"We'll go to the ridge, cut Silvermane out of his band and warm him up; then we'll drive him down to this end."
Hare, in his eagerness, found the time very tedious while August delayed about camp, punching new holes in his saddle-girth, shortening his stirrups, and smoothing kinks out of his lasso. At last he saddled the roan, and also Black Bolly. Mescal came out of her tent ready for the chase; she wore a short skirt of buckskin, and leggings of the same material. Her hair, braided, and fastened at the back, was bound by a double band closely fitting her black head. Hare walked, leading two mustangs by the halters, and Naab and Mescal rode, each of them followed by two other spare mounts. August tied three mustangs at one point along the level stretch, and three at another. Then he led Mescal and Jack to the top of the stone wall above the corral, where they had good view of a considerable part of the plateau.
The eastern rise of ground, a sage and juniper slope, was in plain sight. Hare saw a white flash; then Silvermane broke out of the cedars into the sage. One of the brothers raced him half the length of the slope, and then the other coming out headed him off down toward the forest. Soon the pounding of hoofs sounded through the trees nearer and nearer. Silvermane came out straight ahead on the open level. He was running easily.
"He hasn't opened up yet," said August.
Hare watched the stallion with sheer fascination; He ran seemingly without effort. What a stride he had. how beautifully his silver mane waved in the wind! He veered off to the left, out of sight in the brush, while Dave and Billy galloped up to the spot where August had tied the first three mustangs. Here they dismounted, changed saddles to fresh horses, and were off again.
The chase now was close and all down-hill for the watchers. Silvermane twinkled in and out among the cedars, and suddenly stopped short on the rim. He wheeled and coursed away toward the crags, and vanished. But soon he reappeared, for Billy had cut across and faced him about. Again he struck the level stretch. Dave was there in front of him. He shot away to the left, and flashed through the glades beyond. The brothers saved their steeds, content to keep him cornered in that end of the plateau. Then August spurred his roan into the scene of action. Silvermane came out on the one piece of rising ground beyond the level, and stood looking backward toward the brothers. When the great roan crashed through the thickets into his sight he leaped as if he had been stung, and plunged away.
The Naabs had hemmed him in a triangle, Dave and Billy at the broad end, August at the apex, and now the real race began. August chased him up and down, along the rim, across to the long line of cedars, always in the end heading him for the open stretch. Down this he fled with flying mane, only to be checked by the relentless brothers. To cover this broad end of the open required riding the like of which Hare had never dreamed of. The brothers, taking advantage of the brief periods when the stallion was going toward August, changed their tired mustangs for fresh ones.
"Ho! Mescal!" rolled out August's voice. That was the call for Mescal to put Black Bolly after Silvermane. Her fleetness made the other mustangs seem slow. All in a flash she was round the corral, with Silvermane between her and the long fence of cedars. Uttering a piercing snort of terror the gray stallion lunged out, for the first time panic-stricken, and lengthened his stride in a wonderful way. He raced down the stretch with his head over his shoulder watching the little black. Seeing her gaining, he burst into desperate headlong flight. He saved nothing; he had found his match; he won that first race down the level but it had cost him his best. If he had been fresh he might have left Black Bolly far behind, but now he could not elude her.
August Naab let him run this time, and Silvermane, keeping close to the fence, passed the gate, ran down to the rim, and wheeled. The black mustang was on him again, holding him in close to the fence, driving him back down the stretch.
The brothers remorselessly turned him, and now Mescal, forcing the running, caught him, lashed his haunches with her whip, and drove him into the gate of the corral.
August and his two sons were close behind, and blocked the gate. Silvermane's race was nearly run.
"Hold here, boys," said August. "I'll go in and drive him round and round till he's done, then, when I yell, you stand aside and rope him as he comes out."
Silvermane ran round the corral, tore at the steep scaly walls, fell back and began his weary round again and yet again. Then as sense and courage yielded gradually to unreasoning terror, he ran blindly; every time he passed the guarded gateway his eyes were wilder, and his stride more labored.
"Now!" yelled August Naab.
Mescal drew out of the opening, and Dave and Billy pulled away, one on each side, their lassoes swinging loosely.
Silvermane sprang for the opening with something of his old speed. As he went through, yellow loops flashed in the sun, circling, narrowing, and he seemed to run straight into them. One loop whipped close round his glossy neck; the other caught his head. Dave's mustang staggered under the violent shock, went to his knees, struggled up and held firmly. Bill's mount slid on his haunches and spilled his rider from the saddle. Silvermane seemed to be climbing into the air. Then August Naab, darting through the gate in a cloud of dust, shot his lasso, catching the right foreleg. Silvermane landed hard, his hoofs striking fire from the stones; and for an instant strained in convulsive struggle; then fell heaving and groaning. In a twinkling Billy loosened his lasso over a knot, making of it a halter, and tied the end to a cedar stump.
The Naabs stood back and gazed at their prize.
Silvermane was badly spent; he was wet with foam, but no fleck of blood marred his mane; his superb coat showed scratches, but none cut into the flesh. After a while he rose, panting heavily, and trembling in every muscle. He was a beaten horse; the noble head was bowed; yet he showed no viciousness, only the fear of a trapped animal. He eyed Black Bolly and then the halter, as though he had divined the fatal connection between them.