This story was published in, “The Boy Scouts Book of Campfire Stories” that was printed in 1921. The title of the story is, “Wild Horse Hunter” by author Zane Grey.
Discussion questions and resources for teachers are located at the bottom.
Wild Horse Hunter
by Zane Grey
Three wild-horse hunters made camp one night beside a little stream in the Sevier Valley, five hundred miles, as a crow flies, from Bostil’s Ford.
These hunters had a poor outfit, excepting, of course, their horses. They were young men, rangy in build, lean and hard from life in the saddle, bronzed like Indians, still-faced, and keen-eyed. Two of them appeared to be tired out, and lagged at the camp-fire duties. When the meager meal was prepared they sat, cross-legged, before a ragged tarpaulin, eating and drinking in silence.
The sky in the west was rosy, slowly darkening. The valley floor billowed away, ridged and cut, growing gray and purple and dark. Walls of stone, pink with the last rays of the setting sun, inclosed the valley, stretching away toward a long, low, black mountain range.
The place was wild, beautiful, open, with something nameless that made the desert different from any other country. It was, perhaps, a loneliness of vast stretches of valley and stone, clear to the eye, even after sunset. That black mountain range, which looked close enough to ride to before dark, was a hundred miles distant.
The shades of night fell swiftly, and it was dark by the time the hunters finished the meal. Then the camp fire had burned low. One of the three dragged branches of dead cedars and replenished the fire. Quickly it flared up, with the white flame and crackle characteristic of dry cedar. The night wind had risen, moaning through the gnarled, stunted cedars near by, and it blew the fragrant wood smoke into the faces of the two hunters, who seemed too tired to move.
“I reckon a pipe would help me make up my mind,” said one.
“Wal, Bill,” replied the other, dryly, “your mind’s made up, else you’d not say smoke.”
“Because there ain’t three pipefuls of thet precious tobacco left.”
“Thet’s one apiece, then. . . . Lin, come an’ smoke the last pipe with us.”
The tallest of the three, he who had brought the firewood, stood in the bright light of the blaze. He looked the born rider, light, lithe, powerful.
“Sure, I’ll smoke,” he replied.
Then, presently, he accepted the pipe tendered him, and, sitting down beside the fire, he composed himself to the enjoyment which his companions evidently considered worthy of a decision they had reached.
“So this smokin’ means you both want to turn back?” queried Lin, his sharp gaze glancing darkly bright in the glow of the fire.
“Yep, we’ll turn back. An’, Gee! the relief I feel!” replied one.
“We’ve been long comin’ to it, Lin, an’ thet was for your sake,” replied the other.
Lin slowly pulled at his pipe and blew out the smoke as if reluctant to part with it. “Let’s go on,” he said, quietly.
“No. I’ve had all I want of chasin’ thet wild stallion,” returned Bill, shortly.
The other spread wide his hands and bent an expostulating look upon the one called Lin. “We’re two hundred miles out,” he said. “There’s only a little flour left in the bag. No coffee! Only a little salt! All the hosses except your big Nagger are played out. We’re already in strange country. An’ you know what we’ve heerd of this an’ all to the south. It’s all cañons, an’ somewheres down there is thet awful cañon none of our people ever seen. But we’ve heerd of it. An awful cut-up country.”
He finished with a conviction that no one could say a word against the common sense of his argument. Lin was silent, as if impressed.
Bill raised a strong, lean, brown hand in a forcible gesture. “We can’t ketch Wildfire!”
That seemed to him, evidently, a more convincing argument than his comrade’s.
“Bill is sure right, if I’m wrong, which I ain’t,” went on the other. “Lin, we’ve trailed thet wild stallion for six weeks. Thet’s the longest chase he ever had. He’s left his old range. He’s cut out his band, an’ left them, one by one. We’ve tried every trick we know on him. An’ he’s too smart for us. There’s a hoss! Why, Lin, we’re all but gone to the dogs chasin’ Wildfire. An’ now I’m done, an’ I’m glad of it.”
There was another short silence, which presently Bill opened his lips to break.
“Lin, it makes me sick to quit. I ain’t denyin’ thet for a long time I’ve had hopes of ketchin’ Wildfire. He’s the grandest hoss I ever laid eyes on. I reckon no man, onless he was an Arab, ever seen as good a one. But now thet’s neither here nor there. . . . We’ve got to hit the back trail.”
“Boys, I reckon I’ll stick to Wildfire’s tracks,” said Lin, in the same quiet tone.
Bill swore at him, and the other hunter grew excited and concerned.
“Lin Slone, are you gone plumb crazy over thet red hoss?”
“I—reckon,” replied Slone. The working of his throat as he swallowed could be plainly seen by his companions.
Bill looked at his ally as if to confirm some sudden understanding between them. They took Slone’s attitude gravely and they wagged their heads doubtfully. . . . It was significant of the nature of riders that they accepted his attitude and had consideration for his feelings. For them the situation subtly changed. For weeks they had been three wild-horse wranglers on a hard chase after a valuable stallion. They had failed to get even close to him. They had gone to the limit of their endurance and of the outfit, and it was time to turn back. But Slone had conceived that strange and rare longing for a horse—a passion understood, if not shared, by all riders. And they knew that he would catch Wildfire or die in the attempt. From that moment their attitude toward Slone changed as subtly as had come the knowledge of his feeling. The gravity and gloom left their faces. It seemed they might have regretted what they had said about the futility of catching Wildfire. They did not want Slone to see or feel the hopelessness of his task.
“I tell you, Lin,” said Bill, “your hoss Nagger’s as good as when we started.”
“Aw, he’s better,” vouchsafed the other rider. “Nagger needed to lose some weight. Lin, have you got an extra set of shoes for him?”
“No full set. Only three left,” replied Lin, soberly.
“Wal, thet’s enough. You can keep Nagger shod. An’ mebbe thet red stallion will get sore feet an’ go lame. Then you’d stand a chance.”
“But Wildfire keeps travelin’ the valleys—the soft ground,” said Slone.
“No matter. He’s leavin’ the country, an’ he’s bound to strike sandstone sooner or later. Then, by gosh! mebbe he’ll wear off them hoofs.”
“Say, can’t he ring bells offen the rocks?” exclaimed Bill.
“Boys, do you think he’s leavin’ the country?” inquired Slone, anxiously.
“Sure he is,” replied Bill. “He ain’t the first stallion I’ve chased off the Sevier range. An’ I know. It’s a stallion thet makes for new country, when you push him hard.”
“Yep, Lin, he’s sure leavin’,” added the other comrade. “Why, he’s traveled a bee line for days! I’ll bet he’s seen us many a time. Wildfire’s about as smart as any man. He was born wild, an’ his dam was born wild, an’ there you have it. The wildest of all wild creatures—a wild stallion, with the intelligence of a man! A grand hoss, Lin, but one thet has killed stallions all over the Sevier range. A wild stallion thet’s a killer! I never liked him for thet. Could he be broke?”
“I’ll break him,” said Lin Slone, grimly. “It’s gettin’ him thet’s the job. I’ve got patience to break a hoss. But patience can’t catch a streak of lightnin’.”
“Nope; you’re right,” replied Bill. “If you have some luck you’ll get him—mebbe. If he wears out his feet, or if you crowd him into a narrow cañon, or run him into a bad place where he can’t get by you. Thet might happen. An’ then, with Nagger, you stand a chance. Did you ever tire thet hoss?”
“An’ how fur did you ever run him without a break? Why, when we ketched thet sorrel last year I rode Nagger myself—thirty miles, most at a hard gallop. An’ he never turned a hair!”
“I’ve beat thet,” replied Lin. “He could run hard fifty miles—mebbe more. Honestly, I never seen him tired yet. If only he was fast!”
“Wal, Nagger ain’t so slow, come to think of thet,” replied Bill, with a grunt. “He’s good enough for you not to want another hoss.”
“Lin, you’re goin’ to wear out Wildfire, an’ then trap him somehow—is thet the plan?” asked the other comrade.
“I haven’t any plan. I’ll just trail him, like a cougar trails a deer.”
“Lin, if Wildfire gives you the slip he’ll have to fly. You’ve got the best eyes for tracks of any wrangler in Utah.”
Slone accepted the compliment with a fleeting, doubtful smile on his dark face. He did not reply, and no more was said by his comrades. They rolled with backs to the fire. Slone put on more wood, for the keen wind was cold and cutting; and then he lay down, his head on his saddle, with a goatskin under him and a saddle blanket over him.
All three were soon asleep. The wind whipped the sand and ashes and smoke over the sleepers. Coyotes barked from near in darkness, and from the valley ridge came the faint mourn of a hunting wolf. The desert night grew darker and colder.
The Stewart brothers were wild-horse hunters for the sake of trades and occasional sales. But Lin Slone never traded nor sold a horse he had captured. The excitement of the game, and the lure of the desert, and the love of a horse were what kept him at the profitless work. His type was rare in the uplands.
These were the early days of the settlement of Utah, and only a few of the hardiest and most adventurous pioneers had penetrated the desert in the southern part of that vast upland. And with them came some of that wild breed of riders to which Slone and the Stewarts belonged. Horses were really more important and necessary than men; and this singular fact gave these lonely riders a calling.
Before the Spaniards came there were no horses in the West. Those explorers left or lost horses all over the southwest. Many of them were Arabian horses of purest blood. American explorers and travelers, at the outset of the nineteenth century, encountered countless droves of wild horses all over the plains. Across the Grand Cañon, however, wild horses were comparatively few in number in the early days; and these had probably come in by way of California.
The Stewarts and Slone had no established mode of catching wild horses. The game had not developed fast enough for that. Every chase of horse or drove was different; and once in many attempts they met with success.
A favorite method originated by the Stewarts was to find a water hole frequented by the band of horses or the stallion wanted, and to build round this hole a corral with an opening for the horses to get in. Then the hunters would watch the trap at night, and if the horses went in to drink, a gate was closed across the opening.
Another method of the Stewarts was to trail a coveted horse up on a mesa or highland, places which seldom had more than one trail of ascent and descent, and there block the escape, and cut lines of cedars, into which the quarry was run till captured. Still another method, discovered by accident, was to shoot a horse lightly in the neck and sting him. This last, called creasing, was seldom successful, and for that matter in any method ten times as many horses were killed as captured.
Lin Slone helped the Stewarts in their own way, but he had no especial liking for their tricks. Perhaps a few remarkable captures of remarkable horses had spoiled Slone. He was always trying what the brothers claimed to be impossible. He was a fearless rider, but he had the fault of saving his mount, and to kill a wild horse was a tragedy for him. He would much rather have hunted alone, and he had been alone on the trail of the stallion Wildfire when the Stewarts had joined him.
Lin Slone awoke next morning and rolled out of his blanket at his usual early hour. But he was not early enough to say good-by to the Stewarts. They were gone.
The fact surprised him and somehow relieved him. They had left him more than his share of the outfit, and perhaps that was why they had slipped off before dawn. They knew him well enough to know that he would not have accepted it. Besides, perhaps they felt a little humiliation at abandoning a chase which he chose to keep up. Anyway, they were gone, apparently without breakfast.
The morning was clear, cool, with the air dark like that before a storm, and in the east, over the steely wall of stone, shone a redness growing brighter.
Slone looked away to the west, down the trail taken by his comrades, but he saw nothing moving against that cedar-dotted waste.
“Good-by,” he said, and he spoke as if he was saying good-by to more than comrades.
“I reckon I won’t see Sevier Village soon again—an’ maybe never,” he soliloquized.
There was no one to regret him, unless it was old Mother Hall, who had been kind to him on those rare occasions when he got out of the wilderness. Still, it was with regret that he gazed away across the red valley to the west. Slone had no home. His father and mother had been lost in the massacre of a wagon train by Indians, and he had been one of the few saved and brought to Salt Lake. That had happened when he was ten years old. His life thereafter had been hard, and but for his sturdy Texas training he might not have survived. The last five years he had been a horse hunter in the wild uplands of Nevada and Utah.
Slone turned his attention to the pack of supplies. The Stewarts had divided the flour and the parched corn equally, and unless he was greatly mistaken they had left him most of the coffee and all of the salt.
“Now I hold that decent of Bill an’ Abe,” said Slone, regretfully. “But I could have got along without it better ‘n they could.”
Then he swiftly set about kindling a fire and getting a meal. In the midst of his task a sudden ruddy brightness fell around him. Lin Slone paused in his work to look up.
The sun had risen over the eastern wall.
“Ah!” he said, and drew a deep breath.
The cold, steely, darkling sweep of desert had been transformed. It was now a world of red earth and gold rocks and purple sage, with everywhere the endless straggling green cedars. A breeze whipped in, making the fire roar softly. The sun felt warm on his cheek. And at the moment he heard the whistle of his horse.
“Good old Nagger!” he said. “I shore won’t have to track you this mornin’.”
Presently he went off into the cedars to find and the mustang that he used to carry a pack. Nagger was grazing in a little open patch among the trees, but the pack horse was missing. Slone seemed to know in what direction to go to find the trail, for he came upon it very soon. The pack horse wore hobbles, but he belonged to the class that could cover a great deal of ground when hobbled. Slone did not expect the horse to go far, considering that the grass thereabouts was good. But in a wild-horse country it was not safe to give any horse a chance. The call of his wild brethren was irresistible. Slone, however, found the mustang standing quietly in a clump of cedars, and, removing the hobbles, he mounted and rode back to camp. Nagger caught sight of him and came at his call.
This horse Nagger appeared as unique in his class as Slone was rare among riders. Nagger seemed of several colors, though black predominated. His coat was shaggy, almost woolly, like that of a sheep. He was huge, raw-boned, knotty, long of body and long of leg, with the head of a war charger. His build did not suggest speed. There appeared to be something slow and ponderous about him, similar to an elephant, with the same suggestion of power and endurance.
Slone discarded the pack saddle and bags. The latter were almost empty. He roped the tarpaulin on the back of the mustang, and, making a small bundle of his few supplies, he tied that to the tarpaulin. His blanket he used for a saddle blanket on Nagger. Of the utensils left by the Stewarts he chose a couple of small iron pans, with long handles. The rest he left. In his saddle bags he had a few extra horseshoes, some nails, bullets for his rifle, and a knife with a heavy blade.
“Not a rich outfit for a far country,” he mused. Slone did not talk very much, and when he did he addressed Nagger and himself simultaneously. Evidently he expected a long chase, one from which he would not return, and light as his outfit was it would grow too heavy.
Then he mounted and rode down the gradual slope, facing the valley and the black, bold, flat mountain to the southeast. Some few hundred yards from camp he halted Nagger and bent over in the saddle to scrutinize the ground.
The clean-cut track of a horse showed in the bare, hard sand. The hoof marks were large, almost oval, perfect in shape, and manifestly they were beautiful to Lin Slone. He gazed at them for a long time, and then he looked across the dotted red valley up to the vast ridgy steppes, toward the black plateau and beyond. It was the look that an Indian gives to a strange country. Then Slone slipped off the saddle and knelt to scrutinize the horse tracks. A little sand had blown into the depressions, and some of it was wet and some of it was dry. He took his time about examining it, and he even tried gently blowing other sand into the tracks, to compare that with what was already there. Finally he stood up and addressed Nagger.
“Reckon we won’t have to argue with Abe an’ Bill this mornin’,” he said, with satisfaction. “Wildfire made that track yesterday, before sunup.”
Thereupon Slone remounted and put Nagger to a trot. The pack horse followed with an alacrity that showed he had no desire for loneliness.
As straight as a bee line Wildfire had left a trail down into the floor of the valley. He had not stopped to graze, and he had not looked for water. Slone had hoped to find a water hole in one of the deep washes in the red earth, but if there had been any water there Wildfire would have scented it. He had not had a drink for three days that Slone knew of. And Nagger had not drunk for forty hours. Slone had a canvas water bag hanging over the pommel, but it was a habit of his to deny himself, as far as possible, till his horse could drink also. Like an Indian, Slone ate and drank but little.
It took four hours of steady trotting to reach the middle and bottom of that wide, flat valley. A network of washes cut up the whole center of it, and they were all as dry as bleached bone. To cross these Slone had only to keep Wildfire’s trail. And it was proof of Nagger’s quality that he did not have to veer from the stallion’s course.
It was hot down in the lowland. The heat struck up, reflected from the sand. But it was a March sun, and no more than pleasant to Slone. The wind rose, however, and blew dust and sand in the faces of horse and rider. Except lizards Slone did not see any living things.
Miles of low greasewood and sparse yellow sage led to the first almost imperceptible rise of the valley floor on that side. The distant cedars beckoned to Slone. He was not patient, because he was on the trail of Wildfire; but, nevertheless, the hours seemed short.
Slone had no past to think about, and the future held nothing except a horse, and so his thoughts revolved the possibilities connected with this chase of Wildfire. The chase was hopeless in such country as he was traversing, and if Wildfire chose to roam around valleys like this one Slone would fail utterly. But the stallion had long ago left his band of horses, and then, one by one his favorite consorts, and now he was alone, headed with unerring instinct for wild, untrammeled ranges. He had been used to the pure, cold water and the succulent grass of the cold desert uplands. Assuredly he would not tarry in such barren lands as these.
For Slone an ever-present and growing fascination lay in Wildfire’s clear, sharply defined tracks. It was as if every hoof mark told him something. Once, far up the interminable ascent, he found on a ridge top tracks showing where Wildfire had halted and turned.
“Ha, Nagger!” cried Slone, exultingly. “Look there! He’s begun facin’ about. He’s wonderin’ if we’re still after him. He’s worried. . . . But we’ll keep out of sight—a day behind.”
When Slone reached the cedars the sun was low down in the west. He looked back across the fifty miles of valley to the colored cliffs and walls. He seemed to be above them now, and the cool air, with tang of cedar and juniper, strengthened the impression that he had climbed high.
A mile or more ahead of him rose a gray cliff with breaks in it and a line of dark cedars or piñons on the level rims. He believed these breaks to be the mouths of cañons, and so it turned out. Wildfire’s trail led into the mouth of a narrow cañon with very steep and high walls. Nagger snorted his perception of water, and the mustang whistled. Wildfire’s tracks led to a point under the wall where a spring gushed forth. There were mountain lion and deer tracks also, as well as those of smaller game.
Slone made camp here. The mustang was tired. But Nagger, upon taking a long drink, rolled in the grass as if he had just begun the trip. After eating, Slone took his rifle and went out to look for deer. But there appeared to be none at hand. He came across many lion tracks, and saw, with apprehension, where one had taken Wildfire’s trail. Wildfire had grazed up the cañon, keeping on and on, and he was likely to go miles in a night. Slone reflected that as small as were his own chances of getting Wildfire, they were still better than those of a mountain lion. Wildfire was the most cunning of all animals—a wild stallion; his speed and endurance were incomparable; his scent as keen as those animals that relied wholly upon scent to warn them of danger; and as for sight, it was Slone’s belief that no hoofed creature, except the mountain sheep used to high altitudes, could see as far as a wild horse.
It bothered Slone a little that he was getting into a lion country. Nagger showed nervousness, something unusual for him. Slone tied both horses with long halters and stationed them on patches of thick grass. Then he put a cedar stump on the fire and went to sleep. Upon awakening and going to the spring he was somewhat chagrined to see that deer had come down to drink early. Evidently they were numerous. A lion country was always a deer country, for the lions followed the deer.
Slone was packed and saddled and on his way before the sun reddened the cañon wall. He walked the horses. From time to time he saw signs of Wildfire’s consistent progress. The cañon narrowed and the walls grew lower and the grass increased. There was a decided ascent all the time. Slone could find no evidence that the cañon had ever been traveled by hunters or Indians. The day was pleasant and warm and still. Every once in a while a little breath of wind would bring a fragrance of cedar and piñon, and a sweet hint of pine and sage. At every turn he looked ahead, expecting to see the green of pine and the gray of sage. Toward the middle of the afternoon, coming to a place where Wildfire had taken to a trot, he put Nagger to that gait, and by sundown had worked up to where the cañon was only a shallow ravine. And finally it turned once more, to lose itself in a level where straggling pines stood high above the cedars, and great, dark-green silver spruces stood above the pines. And here were patches of sage, fresh and pungent, and long reaches of bleached grass. It was the edge of a forest. Wildfire’s trail went on. Slone came at length to a group of pines, and here he found the remains of a camp fire, and some flint arrow-heads. Indians had been in there, probably having come from the opposite direction to Slone’s. This encouraged him, for where Indians could hunt so could he. Soon he was entering a forest where cedars and piñons and pines began to grow thickly. Presently he came upon a faintly defined trail, just a dim, dark line even to an experienced eye. But it was a trail, and Wildfire had taken it.
Slone halted for the night. The air was cold. And the dampness of it gave him an idea there were snow banks somewhere not far distant. The dew was already heavy on the grass. He hobbled the horses and put a bell on Nagger. A bell might frighten lions that had never heard one. Then he built a fire and cooked his meal.
It had been long since he had camped high up among the pines. The sough of the wind pleased him, like music. There had begun to be prospects of pleasant experience along with the toil of chasing Wildfire. He was entering new and strange and beautiful country. How far might the chase take him? He did not care. He was not sleepy, but even if he had been it developed that he must wait till the coyotes ceased their barking round his camp fire. They came so close that he saw their gray shadows in the gloom. But presently they wearied of yelping at him and went away. After that the silence, broken only by the wind as it roared and lulled, seemed beautiful to Slone. He lost completely that sense of vague regret which had remained with him, and he forgot the Stewarts. And suddenly he felt absolutely free, alone, with nothing behind to remember, with wild, thrilling, nameless life before him. Just then the long mourn of a timber wolf wailed in with the wind. Seldom had he heard the cry of one of those night wanderers. There was nothing like it—no sound like it to fix in the lone camper’s heart the great solitude and the wild.
In the early morning when all was gray and the big, dark pines were shadowy specters, Slone was awakened by the cold. His hands were so numb that he had difficulty starting a fire. He stood over the blaze, warming them. The air was nipping, clear and thin, and sweet with frosty fragrance.
Daylight came while he was in the midst of his morning meal. A white frost covered the ground and crackled under his feet as he went out to bring in the horses. He saw fresh deer tracks. Then he went back to camp for his rifle. Keeping a sharp lookout for game, he continued his search for the horses.
The forest was open and parklike. There were no fallen trees or evidences of fire. Presently he came to a wide glade in the midst of which Nagger and the pack mustang were grazing with a herd of deer. The size of the latter amazed Slone. The deer he had hunted back on the Sevier range were much smaller than these. Evidently these were mule deer, closely allied to the elk. They were so tame they stood facing him curiously, with long ears erect. It was sheer murder to kill a deer standing and watching like that, but Slone was out of meat and hungry and facing a long, hard trip. He shot a buck, which leaped spasmodically away, trying to follow the herd, and fell at the edge of the glade. Slone cut out a haunch, and then, catching the horses, he returned to camp, where he packed and saddled, and at once rode out on the dim trail.
The wilderness of the country he was entering was evident in the fact that as he passed the glade where he had shot the deer a few minutes before, there were coyotes quarreling over the carcass.
Slone could see ahead and on each side several hundred yards, and presently he ascertained that the forest floor was not so level as he had supposed. He had entered a valley or was traversing a wide, gently sloping pass. He went through thickets of juniper, and had to go around clumps of quaking asp. The pines grew larger and farther apart. Cedars and piñons had been left behind, and he had met with no silver spruces after leaving camp. Probably that point was the height of a divide. There were banks of snow in some of the hollows on the north side. Evidently the snow had very recently melted, and it was evident also that the depth of snow through here had been fully ten feet, judging from the mutilation of the juniper trees where the deer, standing on the hard, frozen crust, had browsed upon the branches.
The quiet of the forest thrilled Slone. And the only movement was the occasional gray flash of a deer or coyote across a glade. No birds of any species crossed Slone’s sight. He came, presently, upon a lion track in the trail, made probably a day before. Slone grew curious about it, seeing how it held, as he was holding, to Wildfire’s tracks. After a mile or so he made sure the lion had been trailing the stallion, and for a second he felt a cold contraction of his heart. Already he loved Wildfire, and by virtue of all this toil of travel considered the wild horse his property.
“No lion could ever get close to Wildfire,” he soliloquized, with a short laugh. Of that he was absolutely certain.
The sun rose, melting the frost, and a breath of warm air, laden with the scent of pine, moved heavily under the huge, yellow trees. Slone passed a point where the remains of an old camp fire and a pile of deer antlers were further proof that Indians visited this plateau to hunt. From this camp broader, more deeply defined trails led away to the south and east. Slone kept to the east trail, in which Wildfire’s tracks and those of the lion showed clearly. It was about the middle of the forenoon when the tracks of the stallion and lion left the trail to lead up a little draw where grass grew thick. Slone followed, reading the signs of Wildfire’s progress, and the action of his pursuer, as well as if he had seen them. Here the stallion had plowed into a snow bank, eating a hole two feet deep; then he had grazed around a little; then on and on; there his splendid tracks were deep in the soft earth. Slone knew what to expect when the track of the lion veered from those of the horse, and he followed the lion tracks. The ground was soft from the late melting of snow, and Nagger sunk deep. The lion left a plain track. Here he stole steadily along; there he left many tracks at a point where he might have halted to make sure of his scent. He was circling on the trail of the stallion, with cunning intent of ambush. The end of this slow, careful stalk of the lion, as told in his tracks, came upon the edge of a knoll where he had crouched to watch and wait. From this perch he had made a magnificent spring—Slone estimating it to be forty feet—but he had missed the stallion. There were Wildfire’s tracks again, slow and short, and then deep and sharp where in the impetus of fright he had sprung out of reach. A second leap of the lion, and then lessening bounds, and finally an abrupt turn from Wildfire’s trail told the futility of that stalk. Slone made certain that Wildfire was so keen that as he grazed along he had kept to open ground.
Wildfire had run for a mile, then slowed down to a trot, and he had circled to get back to the trail he had left. Slone believed the horse was just so intelligent. At any rate, Wildfire struck the trail again, and turned at right angles to follow it.
Here the forest floor appeared perfectly level. Patches of snow became frequent, and larger as Slone went on. At length the patches closed up, and soon extended as far as he could see. It was soft, affording difficult travel. Slone crossed hundreds of deer tracks, and the trail he was on evidently became a deer runway.
Presently, far down one of the aisles between the great pines Slone saw what appeared to be a yellow cliff, far away. It puzzled him. And as he went on he received the impression that the forest dropped out of sight ahead. Then the trees grew thicker, obstructing his view. Presently the trail became soggy and he had to help his horse. The mustang floundered in the soft snow and earth. Cedars and piñons appeared again, making travel still more laborious.
All at once there came to Slone a strange consciousness of light and wind and space and void. On the instant his horse halted with a snort. Slone quickly looked up. Had he come to the end of the world? An abyss, a cañon, yawned beneath him, beyond all comparison in its greatness. His keen eye, educated to desert distance and dimension swept down and across, taking in the tremendous truth, before it staggered his comprehension. But a second sweeping glance, slower, becoming intoxicated with what it beheld, saw gigantic cliff steppes and yellow slopes dotted with cedars, leading down to clefts filled with purple smoke, and these led on and on to a ragged red world of rock, bare, shining, bold, uplifted in mesa, dome, peak, and crag, clear and strange in the morning light, still and sleeping like death.
This, then, was the great cañon, which had seemed like a hunter’s fable rather than truth. Slone’s sight dimmed, blurring the spectacle, and he found that his eyes had filled with tears. He wiped them away and looked again and again, until he was confounded by the vastness and grandeur and the vague sadness of the scene. Nothing he had ever looked at had affected him like this cañon, although the Stewarts had tried to prepare him for it.
It was the horse hunter’s passion that reminded him of his pursuit. The deer trail led down through a break in the wall. Only a few rods of it could be seen. This trail was passable, even though choked with snow. But the depth beyond this wall seemed to fascinate Slone and hold him back, used as he was to desert trails. Then the clean mark of Wildfire’s hoof brought back the old thrill.
“This place fits you, Wildfire,” muttered Slone, dismounting.
He started down, leading Nagger. The mustang followed. Slone kept to the wall side of the trail, fearing the horses might slip. The snow held firmly at first and Slone had no trouble. The gap in the rim rock widened to a slope thickly grown over with cedars and piñons and manzanita. This growth made the descent more laborious, yet afforded means at least for Slone to go down with less danger. There was no stopping. Once started, the horses had to keep on. Slone saw the impossibility of ever climbing out while that snow was there. The trail zigzagged down and down. Very soon the yellow wall hung tremendously over him, straight up. The snow became thinner and softer. The horses began to slip. They slid on their haunches. Fortunately the slope grew less steep, and Slone could see below where it reached out to comparatively level ground. Still, a mishap might yet occur. Slone kept as close to Nagger as possible, helping him whenever he could do it. The mustang slipped, rolled over, and then slipped past Slone, went down the slope to bring up in a cedar. Slone worked down to him and extricated him. Then the huge Nagger began to slide. Snow and loose rock slid with him, and so did Slone. The little avalanche stopped of its own accord, and then Slone dragged Nagger on down and down, presently to come to the end of the steep descent. Slone looked up to see that he had made short work of a thousand-foot slope. Here cedars and piñons grew thickly enough to make a forest. The snow thinned out to patches, and then failed. But the going remained bad for a while as the horses sank deep in a soft red earth. This eventually grew more solid and finally dry. Slone worked out of the cedars to what appeared a grassy plateau inclosed by the great green and white slope with its yellow wall overhanging, and distant mesas and cliffs. Here his view was restricted. He was down on the first bench of the great cañon. And there was the deer trail, a well-worn path keeping to the edge of the slope. Slone came to a deep cut in the earth, and the trail headed it, where it began at the last descent of the slope. It was the source of a cañon. He could look down to see the bare, worn rock, and a hundred yards from where he stood the earth was washed from its rims and it began to show depth and something of that ragged outline which told of violence of flood. The trail headed many cañons like this, all running down across this bench, disappearing, dropping invisibly. The trail swung to the left under the great slope, and then presently it climbed to a higher bench. Here were brush and grass and huge patches of sage, so pungent that it stung Slone’s nostrils. Then he went down again, this time to come to a clear brook lined by willows. Here the horses drank long and Slone refreshed himself. The sun had grown hot. There was fragrance of flowers he could not see and a low murmur of a waterfall that was likewise invisible. For most of the time his view was shut off, but occasionally he reached a point where through some break he saw towers gleaming red in the sun. A strange place, a place of silence, and smoky veils in the distance. Time passed swiftly. Toward the waning of the afternoon he began to climb what appeared to be a saddle of land, connecting the cañon wall on the left with a great plateau, gold-rimmed and pine-fringed, rising more and more in his way as he advanced. At sunset Slone was more shut in than for several hours. He could tell the time was sunset by the golden light on the cliff wall again overhanging him. The slope was gradual up to this pass to the saddle, and upon coming to a spring and the first pine trees, he decided to halt for camp. The mustang was almost exhausted.
Thereupon he hobbled the horses in the luxuriant grass round the spring, and then unrolled his pack. Once as dusk came stealing down, while he was eating his meal, Nagger whistled in fright. Slone saw a gray, pantherish form gliding away into the shadows. He took a quick shot at it, but missed.
“It’s a lion country, all right,” he said. And then he set about building a big fire on the other side of the grassy plot, so as to have the horses between fires. He cut all the venison into thin strips, and spent an hour roasting them. Then he lay down to rest, and he said: “Wonder where Wildfire is to-night? Am I closer to him? Where’s he headin’ for?”
The night was warm and still. It was black near the huge cliff, and overhead velvety blue, with stars of white fire. It seemed to him that he had become more thoughtful and observing of the aspects of his wild environment, and he felt a welcome consciousness of loneliness. Then sleep came to him and the night seemed short. In the gray dawn he arose refreshed.
The horses were restive. Nagger snorted a welcome. Evidently they had passed an uneasy night. Slone found lion tracks at the spring and in sandy places. Presently he was on his way up to the notch between the great wall and the plateau. A growth of thick scrub oak made travel difficult. It had not appeared far up to that saddle, but it was far. There were straggling pine trees and huge rocks that obstructed his gaze. But once up he saw that the saddle was only a narrow ridge, curved to slope up on both sides.
Straight before Slone and under him opened the cañon, blazing and glorious along the peaks and ramparts, where the rising sun struck, misty and smoky and shadowy down in those mysterious depths.
It took an effort not to keep on gazing. But Slone turned to the grim business of his pursuit. The trail he saw leading down had been made by Indians. It was used probably once a year by them; and also by wild animals, and it was exceedingly steep and rough. Wildfire had paced to and fro along the narrow ridge of that saddle, making many tracks, before he had headed down again. Slone imagined that the great stallion had been daunted by the tremendous chasm, but had finally faced it, meaning to put this obstacle between him and his pursuers. It never occurred to Slone to attribute less intelligence to Wildfire than that. So, dismounting, Slone took Nagger’s bridle and started down. The mustang with the pack was reluctant. He snorted and whistled and pawed the earth. But he would not be left alone, so he followed.
The trail led down under cedars that fringed a precipice. Slone was aware of this without looking. He attended only to the trail and to his horse. Only an Indian could have picked out that course, and it was cruel to put a horse to it. But Nagger was powerful, sure-footed, and he would go anywhere that Slone led him. Gradually Slone worked down and away from the bulging rim wall. It was hard, rough work, and risky because it could not be accomplished slowly. Brush and rocks, loose shale and weathered slope, long, dusty inclines of yellow earth, and jumbles of stone—these made bad going for miles of slow, zigzag trail down out of the cedars. Then the trail entered what appeared to be a ravine.
That ravine became a cañon. At its head it was a dry wash, full of gravel and rocks. It began to cut deep into the bowels of the earth. It shut out sight of the surrounding walls and peaks. Water appeared from under a cliff and, augmented by other springs, became a brook. Hot, dry, and barren at its beginning, this cleft became cool and shady and luxuriant with grass and flowers and amber moss with silver blossoms. The rocks had changed color from yellow to deep red. Four hours of turning and twisting, endlessly down and down, over bowlders and banks and every conceivable roughness of earth and rock, finished the pack mustang; and Slone mercifully left him in a long reach of cañon where grass and water never failed. In this place Slone halted for the noon hour, letting Nagger have his fill of the rich grazing. Nagger’s three days in grassy upland, despite the continuous travel by day, had improved him. He looked fat, and Slone had not yet caught the horse resting. Nagger was iron to endure. Here Slone left all the outfit except what was on his saddle, and the sack containing the few pounds of meat and supplies, and the two utensils. This sack he tied on the back of his saddle, and resumed his journey.
Presently he came to a place where Wildfire had doubled on his trail and had turned up a side cañon. The climb out was hard on Slone, if not on Nagger. Once up, Slone found himself upon a wide, barren plateau of glaring red rock and clumps of greasewood and cactus. The plateau was miles wide, shut in by great walls and mesas of colored rock. The afternoon sun beat down fiercely. A blast of wind, as if from a furnace, swept across the plateau, and it was laden with red dust. Slone walked here, where he could have ridden. And he made several miles of up-and-down progress over this rough plateau. The great walls of the opposite side of the cañon loomed appreciably closer. What, Slone wondered, was at the bottom of this rent in the earth? The great desert river was down there, of course, but he knew nothing of it. Would that turn back Wildfire? Slone thought grimly how he had always claimed Nagger to be part fish and part bird. Wildfire was not going to escape.
By and by only isolated mescal plants with long, yellow-plumed spears broke the bare monotony of the plateau. And Slone passed from red sand and gravel to a red, soft shale, and from that to hard, red rock. Here Wildfire’s tracks were lost, the first time in seven weeks. But Slone had his direction down that plateau with the cleavage lines of cañons to right and left. At times Slone found a vestige of the old Indian trail, and this made him doubly sure of being right. He did not need to have Wildfire’s tracks. He let Nagger pick the way, and the horse made no mistake in finding the line of least resistance. But that grew harder and harder. This bare rock, like a file, would soon wear Wildfire’s hoofs thin. And Slone rejoiced. Perhaps somewhere down in this awful chasm he and Nagger would have if out with the stallion. Slone began to look far ahead, beginning to believe that he might see Wildfire. Twice he had seen Wildfire, but only at a distance. Then he had resembled a running streak of fire, whence his name, which Slone had given him.
This bare region of rock began to be cut up into gullies. It was necessary to head them or to climb in and out. Miles of travel really meant little progress straight ahead. But Slone kept on. He was hot and Nagger was hot, and that made hard work easier. Sometimes on the wind came a low thunder. Was it a storm or an avalanche slipping or falling water? He could not tell. The sound was significant and haunting.
Of one thing he was sure—that he could not have found his back trail. But he divined he was never to retrace his steps on this journey. The stretch of broken plateau before him grew wilder and bolder of outline, darker in color, weirder in aspect and progress across it grew slower, more dangerous. There were many places Nagger should not have been put to—where a slip meant a broken leg. But Slone could not turn back. And something besides an indomitable spirit kept him going. Again the sound resembling thunder assailed his ears, louder this time. The plateau appeared to be ending in a series of great capes or promontories. Slone feared he would soon come out upon a promontory from which he might see the impossibility of further travel. He felt relieved down in the gullies, where he could not see far. He climbed out of one, presently, from which there extended a narrow ledge with a slant too perilous for any horse. He stepped out upon that with far less confidence than Nagger. To the right was a bulge of low wall, and a few feet to the left a dark precipice. The trail here was faintly outlined, and it was six inches wide and slanting as well. It seemed endless to Slone, that ledge. He looked only down at his feet and listened to Nagger’s steps. The big horse trod carefully, but naturally, and he did not slip. That ledge extended in a long curve, turning slowly away from the precipice, and ascending a little at the further end. Slone drew a deep breath of relief when he led Nagger up on level rock.
Suddenly a strange yet familiar sound halted Slone, as if he had been struck. The wild, shrill, high-pitched, piercing whistle of a stallion! Nagger neighed a blast in reply and pounded the rock with his iron-shod hoofs. With a thrill Slone looked ahead.
There, some few hundred yards distant, on a promontory, stood a red horse.
“It’s Wildfire!” breathed Slone, tensely.
He could not believe his sight. He imagined he was dreaming. But as Nagger stamped and snorted defiance Slone looked with fixed and keen gaze, and knew that beautiful picture was no lie.
Wildfire was as red as fire. His long mane, wild in the wind, was like a whipping, black-streaked flame. Silhouetted there against that cañon background he seemed gigantic, a demon horse, ready to plunge into fiery depths. He was looking back over his shoulder, his head very high, and every line of him was instinct with wildness. Again he sent out that shrill, air-splitting whistle. Slone understood it to be a clarion call to Nagger. If Nagger had been alone Wildfire would have killed him. The red stallion was a killer of horses. All over the Utah ranges he had left the trail of a murderer. Nagger understood this, too, for he whistled back in rage and terror. It took an iron arm to hold him. Then Wildfire plunged, apparently down, and vanished from Slone’s sight.
Slone hurried onward, to be blocked by a huge crack in the rocky plateau. This he had to head. And then another and like obstacle checked his haste to reach that promontory. He was forced to go more slowly. Wildfire had been close only as to sight. And this was the great cañon that dwarfed distance and magnified proximity. Climbing down and up, toiling on, he at last learned patience. He had seen Wildfire at close range. That was enough. So he plodded on, once more returning to careful regard of Nagger. It took an hour of work to reach the point where Wildfire had disappeared.
A promontory indeed it was, overhanging a valley a thousand feet below. A white torrent of a stream wound through it. There were lines of green cottonwoods following the winding course. Then Slone saw Wildfire slowly crossing the flat toward the stream. He had gone down that cliff, which to Slone looked perpendicular.
Wildfire appeared to be walking lame. Slone, making sure of this, suffered a pang. Then, when the significance of such lameness dawned upon him he whooped his wild joy and waved his hat. The red stallion must have heard, for he looked up. Then he went on again and waded into the stream, where he drank long. When he started to cross, the swift current drove him back in several places. The water wreathed white around him. But evidently it was not deep, and finally he crossed. From the other side he looked up again at Nagger and Slone, and, going on, he soon was out of sight in the cottonwoods.
“How to get down!” muttered Slone.
There was a break in the cliff wall, a bare stone slant where horses had gone down and come up. That was enough for Slone to know. He would have attempted the descent if he were sure no other horse but Wildfire had ever gone down there. But Slone’s hair began to rise stiff on his head. A horse like Wildfire, and mountain sheep and Indian ponies, were all very different from Nagger. The chances were against Nagger.
“Come on, old boy. If I can do it, you can,” he said.
Slone had never seen a trail as perilous as this. He was afraid for his horse. A slip there meant death. The way Nagger trembled in every muscle showed his feelings. But he never flinched. He would follow Slone anywhere, providing Slone rode him or led him. And here, as riding was impossible, Slone went before. If the horse slipped there would be a double tragedy, for Nagger would knock his master off the cliff. Slone set his teeth and stepped down. He did not let Nagger see his fear. He was taking the greatest risk he had ever run.
The break in the wall led to a ledge, and the ledge dropped from step to step, and these had bare, slippery slants between. Nagger was splendid on a bad trail. He had methods peculiar to his huge build and great weight. He crashed down over the stone steps, both front hoofs at once. The slants he slid down on his haunches with his forelegs stiff and the iron shoes scraping. He snorted and heaved and grew wet with sweat. He tossed his head at some of the places. But he never hesitated and it was impossible for him to go slowly. Whenever Slone came to corrugated stretches in the trail he felt grateful. But these were few. The rock was like smooth red iron. Slone had never seen such hard rock. It took him long to realize that it was marble. His heart seemed a tense, painful knot in his breast, as if it could not beat, holding back in the strained suspense. But Nagger never jerked on the bridle. He never faltered. Many times he slipped, often with both front feet, but never with all four feet. So he did not fall. And the red wall began to loom above Sloan. Then suddenly he seemed brought to a point where it was impossible to descend. It was a round bulge, slanting fearfully, with only a few rough surfaces to hold a foot. Wildfire had left a broad, clear-swept mark at that place, and red hairs on some of the sharp points. He had slid down. Below was an offset that fortunately prevented further sliding. Slone started to walk down this place, but when Nagger began to slide Slone had to let go the bridle and jump. Both he and the horse landed safely. Luck was with them. And they went on, down and down, to reach the base of the great wall, scraped and exhausted, wet with sweat, but unhurt. As Slone gazed upward he felt the impossibility of believing what he knew to be true. He hugged and petted the horse. Then he led on to the roaring stream.
It was green water white with foam. Slone waded in and found the water cool and shallow and very swift. He had to hold to Nagger to keep from being swept downstream. They crossed in safety. There in the sand showed Wildfire’s tracks. And here were signs of another Indian camp, half a year old.
The shade of the cotton woods was pleasant. Slone found this valley oppressively hot. There was no wind and the sand blistered his feet through his boots. Wildfire held to the Indian trail that had guided him down into this wilderness of worn rock. And that trail crossed the stream at every turn of the twisting, narrow valley. Slone enjoyed getting into the water. He hung his gun over the pommel and let the water roll him. A dozen times he and Nagger forded the rushing torrent. Then they came to a boxlike closing of the valley to cañon walls, and here the trail evidently followed the stream bed. There was no other way. Slone waded in, and stumbled, rolled, and floated ahead of the sturdy horse. Nagger was wet to his breast, but he did not fall. This gulch seemed full of a hollow rushing roar. It opened out into a wide valley. And Wildfire’s tracks took to the left side and began to climb the slope.
Here the traveling was good, considering what had been passed. Once up out of the valley floor Slone saw Wildfire far ahead, high on the slope. He did not appear to be limping, but he was not going fast. Slone watched as he climbed. What and where would be the end of this chase?
Sometimes Wildfire was plain in his sight for a moment, but usually he was hidden by rocks. The slope was one great talus, a jumble of weathered rock, fallen from what appeared a mountain of red and yellow wall. Here the heat of the sun fell upon him like fire. The rocks were so hot Slone could not touch them with bare hand. The close of the afternoon was approaching, and this slope was interminably long. Still, it was not steep, and the trail was good.
At last from the height of slope Wildfire appeared, looking back and down. Then he was gone. Slone plodded upward. Long before he reached that summit he heard the dull rumble of the river. It grew to be a roar, yet it seemed distant. Would the great desert river stop Wildfire in his flight? Slone doubted it. He surmounted the ridge, to find the cañon opening in a tremendous gap, and to see down, far down, a glittering, sun-blasted slope merging into a deep, black gulch where a red river swept and chafed and roared.
Somehow the river was what he had expected to see. A force that had cut and ground this cañon could have been nothing but a river like that. The trail led down, and Slone had no doubt that it crossed the river and led up out of the cañon. He wanted to stay there and gaze endlessly and listen. At length he began the descent. As he proceeded it seemed that the roar of the river lessened. He could not understand why this was so. It took half an hour to reach the last level, a ghastly, black, and iron-ribbed cañon bed, with the river splitting it. He had not had a glimpse of Wildfire on this side of the divide, but he found his tracks, and they led down off the last level, through a notch in the black bank of marble to a sand bar and the river.
Wildfire had walked straight off the sand into the water. Slone studied the river and shore. The water ran slow, heavily, in sluggish eddies. From far up the cañon came the roar of a rapid, and from below the roar of another, heavier and closer. The river appeared tremendous, in ways Slone felt rather than realized, yet it was not swift. Studying the black, rough wall of rock above him, he saw marks where the river had been sixty feet higher than where he stood on the sand. It was low, then. How lucky for him that he had gotten there before flood season! He believed Wildfire had crossed easily, and he knew Nagger could make it. Then he piled and tied his supplies and weapons high on the saddle, to keep them dry, and looked for a place to take to the water.
Wildfire had sunk deep before reaching the edge. Manifestly he had lunged the last few feet. Slone found a better place, and waded in, urging Nagger. The big horse plunged, almost going under, and began to swim. Slone kept upstream beside him. He found, presently, that the water was thick and made him tired, so it was necessary to grasp a stirrup and be towed. The river appeared only a few hundred feet wide, but probably it was wider than it looked. Nagger labored heavily near the opposite shore; still, he landed safely upon a rocky bank. There were patches of sand in which Wildfire’s tracks showed so fresh that the water had not yet dried out of them.
Slone rested his horse before attempting to climb out of that split in the rock. However, Wildfire had found an easy ascent. On this side of the cañon the bare rock did not predominate. A clear trail led up a dusty, gravelly slope, upon which scant greasewood and cactus appeared. Half an hour’s climbing brought Slone to where he could see that he was entering a vast valley, sloping up and narrowing to a notch in the dark cliffs, above which towered the great red wall and about that the slopes of cedar and the yellow rim rock.
And scarcely a mile distant, bright in the westering sunlight, shone the red stallion, moving slowly.
Slone pressed on steadily. Just before dark he came to an ideal spot to camp. The valley had closed up, so that the lofty walls cast shadows that met. A clump of cottonwoods surrounding a spring, abundance of rich grass, willows and flowers lining the banks, formed an oasis in the bare valley. Slone was tired out from the day of ceaseless toil down and up, and he could scarcely keep his eyes open. But he tried to stay awake. The dead silence of the valley, the dry fragrance, the dreaming walls, the advent of night low down, when up on the ramparts the last red rays of the sun lingered, the strange loneliness—these were sweet and comforting to him.
And that night’s sleep was as a moment. He opened his eyes to see the crags and towers and peaks and domes, and the lofty walls of that vast, broken chaos of cañons across the river. They were now emerging from the misty gray of dawn, growing pink and lilac and purple under the rising sun.
He arose and set about his few tasks, which, being soon finished, allowed him an early start.
Wildfire had grazed along no more than a mile in the lead. Slone looked eagerly up the narrowing cañon, but he was not rewarded by a sight of the stallion. As he progressed up a gradually ascending trail he became aware of the fact that the notch he had long looked up to was where the great red walls closed in and almost met. And the trail zigzagged up this narrow vent, so steep that only a few steps could be taken without rest. Slone toiled up for an hour—an age—till he was wet, burning, choked, with a great weight on his chest. Yet still he was only halfway up that awful break between the walls. Sometimes he could have tossed a stone down upon a part of the trail, only a few rods below, yet many, many weary steps of actual toil. As he got farther up the notch widened. What had been scarcely visible from the valley below was now colossal in actual dimensions. The trail was like a twisted mile of thread between two bulging mountain walls leaning their ledges and fronts over this tilted pass.
Slone rested often. Nagger appreciated this and heaved gratefully at every halt. In this monotonous toil Slone forgot the zest of his pursuit. And when Nagger suddenly snorted in fright Slone was not prepared for what he saw.
Above him ran a low, red wall, around which evidently the trail led. At the curve, which was a promontory, scarcely a hundred feet in an air line above him, he saw something red moving, bobbing, coming out into view. It was a horse.
Wildfire—no farther away than the length of three lassos!
There he stood looking down. He fulfilled all of Slone’s dreams. Only he was bigger. But he was so magnificently proportioned that he did not seem heavy. His coat was shaggy and red. It was not glossy. The color was what made him shine. His mane was like a crest, mounting, then falling low. Slone had never seen so much muscle on a horse. Yet his outline was graceful, beautiful. The head was indeed that of the wildest of all wild creatures—a stallion born wild—and it was beautiful, savage, splendid, everything but noble. Slone thought that if a horse could express hate, surely Wildfire did then. It was certain that he did express curiosity and fury.
Slone shook a gantleted fist at the stallion, as if the horse were human. That was a natural action for a rider of his kind. Wildfire turned away, showed bright against the dark background, and then disappeared.
That was the last Slone saw of Wildfire for three days.
It took all of this day to climb out of the cañon. The second was a slow march of thirty miles into a scrub cedar and piñon forest, through which the great red and yellow walls of the cañon could be seen. That night Slone found a water hole in a rocky pocket and a little grass for Nagger. The third day’s travel consisted of forty miles or more through level pine forest, dry and odorous, but lacking the freshness and beauty of the forest on the north side of the cañon. On this south side a strange feature was that all the water, when there was any, ran away from the rim. Slone camped this night at a muddy pond in the woods, where Wildfire’s tracks showed plainly.
On the following day Slone rode out of the forest into a country of scanty cedars, bleached and stunted, and out of this to the edge of a plateau, from which the shimmering desert flung its vast and desolate distances, forbidding and menacing. This was not the desert upland country of Utah, but a naked and bony world of colored rock and sand—a painted desert of heat and wind and flying sand and waterless wastes and barren ranges. But it did not daunt Slone. For far down on the bare, billowing ridges moved a red speck, at a snail’s pace, a slowly moving dot of color which was Wildfire.
On open ground like this, Nagger, carrying two hundred and fifty pounds, showed his wonderful quality. He did not mind the heat nor the sand nor the glare nor the distance nor his burden. He did not tire. He was an engine of tremendous power.
Slone gained upon Wildfire, and toward evening of that day he reached to within half a mile of the stallion. And he chose to keep that far behind. That night he camped where there was dry grass, but no water.
Next day he followed Wildfire down and down, over the endless swell of rolling red ridges, bare of all but bleached white grass and meager greasewood, always descending in the face of that painted desert of bold and ragged steppes. Slone made fifty miles that day, and gained the valley bed, where a slender stream ran thin and spread over a wide sandy bottom. It was salty water, but it was welcome to both man and beast.
The following day he crossed, and the tracks of Wildfire were still wet on the sand bars. The stallion was slowing down. Slone saw him, limping along, not far in advance. There was a ten-mile stretch of level ground, blown hard as rock, from which the sustenance had been bleached, for not a spear of grass grew there. And following that was a tortuous passage through a weird region of clay dunes, blue and violet and heliotrope and lavender, all worn smooth by rain and wind. Wildfire favored the soft ground now. He had deviated from his straight course. And he was partial to washes and dips in the earth where water might have lodged. And he was not now scornful of a green-scummed water hole with its white margin of alkali. That night Slone made camp with Wildfire in plain sight. The stallion stopped when his pursuers stopped. And he began to graze on the same stretch with Nagger. How strange this seemed to Slone!
Here at this camp was evidence of Indians. Wildfire had swung round to the north in his course. Like any pursued wild animal, he had begun to circle. And he had pointed his nose toward the Utah he had left.
Next morning Wildfire was not in sight, but he had left his tracks in the sand. Slone trailed him with Nagger at a trot. Toward the head of this sandy flat Slone came upon old cornfields, and a broken dam where the water had been stored, and well-defined trails leading away to the right. Somewhere over there in the desert lived Indians. At this point Wildfire abandoned the trail he had followed for many days and cut out more to the north. It took all the morning hours to climb three great steppes and benches that led up to the summit of a mesa, vast in extent. It turned out to be a sandy waste. The wind rose and everywhere were moving sheets of sand, and in the distance circular yellow dust devils, rising high like water spouts, and back down in the sun-scorched valley a sandstorm moved along majestically, burying the desert in its yellow pall.
Then two more days of sand and another day of a slowly rising ground growing from bare to gray and gray to green, and then to the purple of sage and cedar—these three grinding days were toiled out with only one water hole.
And Wildfire was lame and in distress and Nagger was growing gaunt and showing strain; and Slone, haggard and black and worn, plodded miles and miles on foot to save his horse.
Slone felt that it would be futile to put the chase to a test of speed. Nagger could never head that stallion. Slone meant to go on and on, always pushing Wildfire, keeping him tired, wearied, and worrying him, till a section of the country was reached where he could drive Wildfire into some kind of a natural trap. The pursuit seemed endless. Wildfire kept to open country where he could not be surprised.
There came a morning when Slone climbed to a cedared plateau that rose for a whole day’s travel, and then split into a labyrinthine maze of cañons. There were trees, grass, water. It was a high country, cool and wild, like the uplands he had left. For days he camped on Wildfire’s trail, always relentlessly driving him, always watching for the trap he hoped to find. And the red stallion spent much of this time of flight in looking backward. Whenever Slone came in sight of him he had his head over his shoulder, watching. And on the soft ground of these cañons he had begun to recover from his lameness. But this did not worry Slone. Sooner or later Wildfire would go down into a high-walled wash, from which there would be no outlet; or he would wander into a box cañon; or he would climb out on a mesa with no place to descend, unless he passed Slone; or he would get cornered on a soft, steep slope where his hoofs would sink deep and make him slow. The nature of the desert had changed. Slone had entered a wonderful region, the like of which he had not seen—a high plateau criss-crossed in every direction by narrow cañons with red walls a thousand feet high.
And one of the strange turning cañons opened into a vast valley of monuments.
The plateau had weathered and washed away, leaving huge sections of stone walls, all standing isolated, different in size and shape, but all clean-cut, bold, with straight lines. They stood up everywhere, monumental, towering, many-colored, lending a singular and beautiful aspect to the great green and gray valley, billowing away to the north, where dim, broken battlements mounted to the clouds.
The only living thing in Slone’s sight was Wildfire. He shone red down on the green slope.
Slone’s heart swelled. This was the setting for that grand horse—a perfect wild range. But also it seemed the last place where there might be any chance to trap the stallion. Still that did not alter Slone’s purpose, though it lost to him the joy of former hopes. He rode down the slope, out upon the billowing floor of the valley. Wildfire looked back to see his pursuers, and then the solemn stillness broke to a wild, piercing whistle.
Day after day, camping where night found him, Slone followed the stallion, never losing sight of him till darkness had fallen. The valley was immense and the monuments miles apart. But they always seemed close together and near him. The air magnified everything. Slone lost track of time. The strange, solemn, lonely days and the silent, lonely nights, and the endless pursuit, and the wild, weird valley—these completed the work of years on Slone and he became satisfied, unthinking, almost savage.
The toil and privation had worn him down and he was like iron. His garments hung in tatters; his boots were ripped and soleless. Long since his flour had been used up, and all his supplies except the salt. He lived on the meat of rabbits, but they were scarce, and the time came when there were none. Some days he did not eat. Hunger did not make him suffer. He killed a desert bird now and then, and once a wildcat crossing the valley. Eventually he felt his strength diminishing, and then he took to digging out the pack rats and cooking them. But these, too, were scarce. At length starvation faced Slone. But he knew he would not starve. Many times he had been within rifle shot of Wildfire. And the grim, forbidding thought grew upon him that he must kill the stallion. The thought seemed involuntary, but his mind rejected it. Nevertheless, he knew that if he could not catch the stallion he would kill him. That had been the end of many a desperate rider’s pursuit of a coveted horse.
While Slone kept on his merciless pursuit, never letting Wildfire rest by day, time went on just as relentlessly. Spring gave way to early summer. The hot sun bleached the grass; water holes failed out in the valley, and water could be found only in the cañons; and the dry winds began to blow the sand. It was a sandy valley, green and gray only at a distance, and out toward the north there were no monuments, and the slow heave of sand lifted toward the dim walls.
Wildfire worked away from this open valley, back to the south end, where the great monuments loomed, and still farther back, where they grew closer, till at length some of them were joined by weathered ridges to the walls of the surrounding plateau. For all that Slone could see, Wildfire was in perfect condition. But Nagger was not the horse he had been. Slone realized that in one way or another the pursuit was narrowing down to the end.
He found a water hole at the head of a wash in a split in the walls, and here he let Nagger rest and graze one whole day—the first day for a long time that he had not kept the red stallion in sight. That day was marked by the good fortune of killing a rabbit, and while eating it his gloomy, fixed mind admitted that he was starving. He dreaded the next sunrise. But he could not hold it back. There, behind the dark monuments, standing sentinel-like, the sky lightened and reddened and burnt into gold and pink, till out of the golden glare the sun rose glorious. And Slone, facing the league-long shadows of the monuments, rode out again into the silent, solemn day, on his hopeless quest.
For a change Wildfire had climbed high up a slope of talus, through a narrow pass, rounded over with drifting sand. And Slone gazed down into a huge amphitheater full of monuments, like all that strange country. A basin three miles across lay beneath him. Walls and weathered slants of rock and steep slopes of reddish-yellow sand inclosed this oval depression. The floor was white, and it seemed to move gently or radiate with heat waves. Studying it, Slone made out that the motion was caused by wind in long bleached grass. He had crossed small areas of this grass in different parts of the region.
Wildfire’s tracks led down into this basin, and presently Slone, by straining his eyes, made out the red spot that was the stallion.
“He’s lookin’ to quit the country,” soliloquized Slone, as he surveyed the scene.
With keen, slow gaze Slone studied the lay of wall and slope, and when he had circled the huge depression he made sure that Wildfire could not get out except by the narrow pass through which he had gone in. Slone sat astride Nagger in the mouth of this pass—a wash a few yards wide, walled by broken, rough rock on one side and an insurmountable slope on the other.
“If this hole was only little, now,” sighed Slone, as he gazed at the sweeping, shimmering oval floor, “I might have a chance. But down there—we couldn’t get near him.”
There was no water in that dry bowl. Slone reflected on the uselessness of keeping Wildfire down there, because Nagger could not go without water as long as Wildfire. For the first time Slone hesitated. It seemed merciless to Nagger to drive him down into this hot, windy hole. The wind blew from the west, and it swooped up the slope, hot, with the odor of dry, dead grass.
But that hot wind stirred Slone with an idea, and suddenly he was tense, excited, glowing, yet grim and hard.
“Wildfire, I’ll make you run with your namesake in that high grass,” called Slone. The speech was full of bitter failure, of regret, of the hardness of a rider who could not give up the horse to freedom.
Slone meant to ride down there and fire the long grass. In that wind there would indeed be wildfire to race with the red stallion. It would perhaps mean his death; at least it would chase him out of that hole, where to follow him would be useless.
“I’d make you hump now to get away if I could get behind you,” muttered Slone. He saw that if he could fire the grass on the other side the wind of flame would drive Wildfire straight toward him. The slopes and walls narrowed up to the pass, but high grass grew to within a few rods of where Slone stood. But it seemed impossible to get behind Wildfire.
“At night—then—I could get round him,” said Slone, thinking hard and narrowing his gaze to scan the circle of wall and slope. “Why not? . . . No wind at night. That grass would burn slow till mornin’—till the wind came up—an’ it’s been west for days.”
Suddenly Slone began to pound the patient Nagger and to cry out to him in wild exultance.
“Old horse, we’ve got him! We’ve got him! We’ll put a rope on him before this time to-morrow!”
Slone yielded to his strange, wild joy, but it did not last long, soon succeeding to sober, keen thought. He rode down into the bowl a mile, making absolutely certain that Wildfire could not climb out on that side. The far end, beyond the monuments, was a sheer wall of rock. Then he crossed to the left side. Here the sandy slope was almost too steep for even him to go up. And there was grass that would burn. He returned to the pass assured that Wildfire had at last fallen into a trap the like Slone had never dreamed of. The great horse was doomed to run into living flame or the whirling noose of a lasso.
Then Slone reflected. Nagger had that very morning had his fill of good water—the first really satisfying drink for days. If he was rested that day, on the morrow he would be fit for the grueling work possibly in store for him. Slone unsaddled the horse and turned him loose, and with a snort he made down the gentle slope for the grass. Then Slone carried his saddle to a shady spot afforded by a slab of rock and a dwarf cedar, and here he composed himself to rest and watch and think and wait.
Wildfire was plainly in sight no more than two miles away. Gradually he was grazing along toward the monuments and the far end of the great basin. Slone believed, because the place was so large, that Wildfire thought there was a way out on the other side or over the slopes or through the walls. Never before had the farsighted stallion made a mistake. Slone suddenly felt the keen, stabbing fear of an outlet somewhere. But it left him quickly. He had studied those slopes and walls. Wildfire could not get out, except by the pass he had entered, unless he could fly.
Slone lay in the shade, his head propped on his saddle, and while gazing down into the shimmering hollow he began to plan. He calculated that he must be able to carry fire swiftly across the far end of the basin, so that he would not be absent long from the mouth of the pass. Fire was always a difficult matter, since he must depend only on flint and steel. He decided to wait till dark, build a fire with dead cedar sticks, and carry a bundle of them with burning ends. He felt assured that the wind caused by riding would keep them burning. After he had lighted the grass all he had to do was to hurry back to his station and there await developments.
The day passed slowly, and it was hot. The heat-waves rose in dark, wavering lines and veils from the valley. The wind blew almost a gale. Thin, curling sheets of sand blew up over the crests of the slopes, and the sound it made was a soft, silken rustling, very low. The sky was a steely blue above and copper close over the distant walls.
That afternoon, toward the close, Slone ate the last of the meat. At sunset the wind died away and the air cooled. There was a strip of red along the wall of rock and on the tips of the monuments, and it lingered there for long, a strange, bright crown. Nagger was not far away, but Wildfire had disappeared, probably behind one of the monuments.
When twilight fell Slone went down after Nagger and, returning with him, put on bridle and saddle. Then he began to search for suitable sticks of wood. Farther back in the pass he found stunted dead cedars, and from these secured enough for his purpose. He kindled a fire and burned the ends of the sticks into red embers. Making a bundle of these, he put them under his arm, the dull, glowing ends backward, and then mounted his horse.
It was just about dark when he faced down into the valley. When he reached level ground he kept to the edge of the left slope and put Nagger to a good trot. The grass and brush were scant here, and the color of the sand was light, so he had no difficulty in traveling. From time to time his horse went through grass, and its dry, crackling rustle, showing how it would burn, was music to Slone. Gradually the monuments began to loom up, bold and black against the blue sky, with stars seemingly hanging close over them. Slone had calculated that the basin was smaller than it really was, in both length and breadth. This worried him. Wildfire might see or hear or scent him, and make a break back to the pass and thus escape. Slone was glad when the huge, dark monuments were indistinguishable from the black, frowning wall. He had to go slower here, because of the darkness. But at last he reached the slow rise of jumbled rock that evidently marked the extent of weathering on that side. Here he turned to the right and rode out into the valley. The floor was level and thickly overgrown with long, dead grass and dead greasewood, as dry as tinder. It was easy to account for the dryness; neither snow nor rain had visited that valley for many months. Slone whipped one of the sticks in the wind and soon had the smouldering end red and showering sparks. Then he dropped the stick in the grass, with curious intent and a strange feeling of regret.
Instantly the grass blazed with a little sputtering roar. Nagger snorted. “Wildfire!” exclaimed Slone. That word was a favorite one with riders, and now Slone used it both to call out his menace to the stallion and to express his feeling for that blaze, already running wild.
Without looking back, Slone rode across the valley, dropping a glowing stick every quarter of a mile. When he reached the other side there were a dozen fires behind him, burning slowly, with white smoke rising lazily. Then he loped Nagger along the side back to the sandy ascent, and on up to the mouth of the pass. There he searched for tracks. Wildfire had not gone out, and Slone experienced relief and exultation. He took up a position in the middle of the narrowest part of the pass, and there, with Nagger ready for anything, he once more composed himself to watch and wait.
Far across the darkness of the valley, low down, twelve lines of fire, widely separated, crept toward one another. They appeared thin and slow, with only an occasional leaping flame. And some of the black spaces must have been monuments, blotting out the creeping snail lines of red. Slone watched, strangely fascinated.
“What do you think of that?” he said, aloud, and he meant his query for Wildfire.
As he watched the lines perceptibly lengthened and brightened and pale shadows of smoke began to appear. Over at the left of the valley the two brightest fires, the first he had started, crept closer and closer together. They seemed long in covering distance. But not a breath of wind stirred, and besides they really might move swiftly, without looking so to Slone. When the two lines met a sudden and larger blaze rose.
“Ah!” said the rider, and then he watched the other lines creeping together. How slowly fire moved, he thought. The red stallion would have every chance to run between those lines, if he dared. But a wild horse fears nothing like fire. This one would not run the gantlet of flames. Nevertheless Slone felt more and more relieved as the lines closed. The hours of the night dragged past until at length one long, continuous line of fire spread level across the valley, its bright, red line broken only where the monuments of stone were silhouetted against it.
The darkness of the valley changed. The light of the moon changed. The radiance of the stars changed. Either the line of fire was finding denser fuel to consume or it was growing appreciably closer, for the flames began to grow, to leap, and to flare.
Slone strained his ears for the thud of hoofs on sand.
The time seemed endless in its futility of results, but fleeting after it had passed; and he could tell how the hours fled by the ever-recurring need to replenish the little fire he kept burning in the pass.
A broad belt of valley grew bright in the light, and behind it loomed the monuments, weird and dark, with columns of yellow and white smoke wreathing them.
Suddenly Slone’s sensitive ear vibrated to a thrilling sound. He leaned down to place his ear to the sand. Rapid, rhythmic beat of hoofs made him leap to his feet, reaching for his lasso with right hand and a gun with his left.
Nagger lifted his head, sniffed the air, and snorted. Slone peered into the black belt of gloom that lay below him. It would be hard to see a horse there, unless he got high enough to be silhouetted against that line of fire now flaring to the sky. But he heard the beat of hoofs, swift, sharp, louder—louder. The night shadows were deceptive. That wonderful light confused him, made the place unreal. Was he dreaming? Or had the long chase and his privations unhinged his mind? He reached for Nagger. No! The big black was real, alive, quivering, pounding the sand. He scented an enemy.
Once more Slone peered down into the void or what seemed a void. But it, too, had changed, lightened. The whole valley was brightening. Great palls of curling smoke rose white and yellow, to turn back as the monuments met their crests, and then to roll upward, blotting out the stars. It was such a light as he had never seen, except in dreams. Pale moonlight and dimmed starlight and wan dawn all vague and strange and shadowy under the wild and vivid light of burning grass.
In the pale path before Slone, that fanlike slope of sand which opened down into the valley, appeared a swiftly moving black object, like a fleeing phantom. It was a phantom horse. Slone felt that his eyes, deceived by his mind, saw racing images. Many a wild chase he had lived in dreams on some far desert. But what was that beating in his ears—sharp, swift, even, rhythmic? Never had his ears played him false. Never had he heard things in his dreams. That running object was a horse and he was coming like the wind. Slone felt something grip his heart. All the time and endurance and pain and thirst and suspense and longing and hopelessness—the agony of the whole endless chase—closed tight on his heart in that instant.
The running horse halted just in the belt of light cast by the burning grass. There he stood sharply defined, clear as a cameo, not a hundred paces from Slone. It was Wildfire.
Slone uttered an involuntary cry. Thrill on thrill shot through him. Delight and hope and fear and despair claimed him in swift, successive flashes. And then again the ruling passion of a rider held him—the sheer glory of a grand and unattainable horse. For Slone gave up Wildfire in that splendid moment. How had he ever dared to believe he could capture that wild stallion? Slone looked and looked, filling his mind, regretting nothing, sure that the moment was reward for all he had endured.
The weird lights magnified Wildfire and showed him clearly. He seemed gigantic. He shone black against the fire. His head was high, his mane flying. Behind him the fire flared and the valley-wide column of smoke rolled majestically upward, and the great monuments seemed to retreat darkly and mysteriously as the flames advanced beyond them. It was a beautiful, unearthly spectacle, with its silence the strangest feature.
But suddenly Wildfire broke that silence with a whistle which to Slone’s overstrained faculties seemed a blast as piercing as the splitting sound of lightning. And with the whistle Wildfire plunged up toward the pass.
Slone yelled at the top of his lungs and fired his gun before he could terrorize the stallion and drive him back down the slope. Soon Wildfire became again a running black object, and then he disappeared.
The great line of fire had gotten beyond the monuments and now stretched unbroken across the valley from wall to slope. Wildfire could never pierce that line of flames. And now Slone saw, in the paling sky to the east, that dawn was at hand.
Slone looked grimly glad when simultaneously with the first red flash of sunrise a breeze fanned his cheek. All that was needed now was a west wind. And here came the assurance of it.
The valley appeared hazy and smoky, with slow, rolling clouds low down where the line of fire moved. The coming of daylight paled the blaze of the grass, though here and there Slone caught flickering glimpses of dull red flame. The wild stallion kept to the center of the valley, restlessly facing this way and that, but never toward the smoke. Slone made sure that Wildfire gradually gave ground as the line of smoke slowly worked toward him.
Every moment the breeze freshened, grew steadier and stronger, until Slone saw that it began to clear the valley of the low-hanging smoke. There came a time when once more the blazing line extended across from slope to slope.
Wildfire was cornered, trapped. Many times Slone nervously uncoiled and recoiled his lasso. Presently the great chance of his life would come—the hardest and most important throw he would ever have with a rope. He did not miss often, but then he missed sometimes, and here he must be swift and sure. It annoyed him that his hands perspired and trembled and that something weighty seemed to obstruct his breathing. He muttered that he was pretty much worn out, not in the best of condition for a hard fight with a wild horse. Still he would capture Wildfire; his mind was unalterably set there. He anticipated that the stallion would make a final and desperate rush past him; and he had his plan of action all outlined. What worried him was the possibility of Wildfire’s doing some unforeseen feat at the very last. Slone was prepared for hours of strained watching, and then a desperate effort, and then a shock that might kill Wildfire and cripple Nagger, or a long race and fight.
But he soon discovered that he was wrong about the long watch and wait. The wind had grown strong and was driving the fire swiftly. The flames, fanned by the breeze, leaped to a formidable barrier. In less than an hour, though the time seemed only a few moments to the excited Slone, Wildfire had been driven down toward the narrowing neck of the valley, and he had begun to run, to and fro, back and forth. Any moment, then, Slone expected him to grow terrorized and to come tearing up toward the pass.
Wildfire showed evidence of terror, but he did not attempt to make the pass. Instead he went at the right-hand slope of the valley and began to climb. The slope was steep and soft, yet the stallion climbed up and up. The dust flew in clouds; the gravel rolled down, and the sand followed in long streams. Wildfire showed his keenness by zigzagging up the slope.
“Go ahead, you red devil!” yelled Slone. He was much elated. In that soft bank Wildfire would tire out while not hurting himself.
Slone watched the stallion in admiration and pity and exultation. Wildfire did not make much headway, for he slipped back almost as much as he gained. He attempted one place after another where he failed. There was a bank of clay, some few feet high, and he could not round it at either end or surmount it in the middle. Finally he literally pawed and cut a path, much as if he were digging in the sand for water. When he got over that he was not much better off. The slope above was endless and grew steeper, more difficult toward the top. Slone knew absolutely that no horse could climb over it. He grew apprehensive, however, for Wildfire might stick up there on the slope until the line of fire passed. The horse apparently shunned any near proximity to the fire, and performed prodigious efforts to escape.
“He’ll be ridin’ an avalanche pretty soon,” muttered Slone.
Long sheets of sand and gravel slid down to spill thinly over the low bank. Wildfire, now sinking to his knees, worked steadily upward till he had reached a point halfway up the slope, at the head of a long, yellow bank of treacherous-looking sand. Here he was halted by a low bulge, which he might have surmounted had his feet been free. But he stood deep in the sand. For the first time he looked down at the sweeping fire, and then at Slone.
Suddenly the bank of sand began to slide with him. He snorted in fright. The avalanche started slowly and was evidently no mere surface slide. It was deep. It stopped—then started again—and again stopped. Wildfire appeared to be sinking deeper and deeper. His struggles only embedded him more firmly. Then the bank of sand, with an ominous, low roar, began to move once more. This time it slipped swiftly. The dust rose in a cloud, almost obscuring the horse. Long streams of gravel rattled down, and waterfalls of sand waved over the steppes of the slope.
Just as suddenly the avalanche stopped again. Slone saw, from the great oval hole it had left above, that it was indeed deep. That was the reason it did not slide readily. When the dust cleared away Slone saw the stallion, sunk to his flanks in the sand, utterly helpless.
With a wild whoop Slone leaped off Nagger, and, a lasso in each hand, he ran down the long bank. The fire was perhaps a quarter of a mile distant, and, since the grass was thinning out, it was not coming so fast as it had been. The position of the stallion was halfway between the fire and Slone, and a hundred yards up the slope.
Like a madman Slone climbed up through the dragging, loose sand. He was beside himself with a fury of excitement. He fancied his eyes were failing him, that it was not possible the great horse really was up there, helpless in the sand. Yet every huge stride Slone took brought him closer to a fact he could not deny. In his eagerness he slipped, and fell, and crawled, and leaped, until he reached the slide which held Wildfire prisoner.
The stallion might have been fast in quicksand, up to his body, for all the movement he could make. He could move only his head. He held that up, his eyes wild, showing the whites, his foaming mouth wide open, his teeth gleaming. A sound like a scream rent the air. Terrible fear and hate were expressed in that piercing neigh. And shaggy, wet, dusty red, with all of brute savageness in the look and action of his head, he appeared hideous.
As Slone leaped within roping distance the avalanche slipped a foot or two, halted, slipped once more, and slowly started again with that low roar. He did not care whether it slipped or stopped. Like a wolf he leaped closer, whirling his rope. The loop hissed round his head and whistled as he flung it. And when fiercely he jerked back on the rope, the noose closed tight round Wildfire’s neck.
“I—got—a rope—on him!” cried Slone, in hoarse pants.
He stared, unbelieving. It was unreal, that sight—unreal like the slow, grinding movement of the avalanche under him. Wildfire’s head seemed a demon head of hate. It reached out, mouth agape, to bite, to rend. That horrible scream could not be the scream of a horse.
Slone was a wild-horse hunter, a rider, and when that second of incredulity flashed by, then came the moment of triumph. No moment could ever equal that one, when he realized he stood there with a rope around that grand stallion’s neck. All the days and the miles and the toil and the endurance and the hopelessness and the hunger were paid for in that moment. His heart seemed too large for his breast.
“I tracked—you!” he cried, savagely. “I stayed—with you! An’ I got a rope—on you! An’—I’ll ride you—you red devil!”
The passion of the man was intense. That endless, racking pursuit had brought out all the hardness the desert had engendered in him. Almost hate, instead of love, spoke in Slone’s words. He hauled on the lasso, pulling the stallion’s head down and down. The action was the lust of capture as well as the rider’s instinctive motive to make the horse fear him. Life was unquenchably wild and strong in that stallion; it showed in the terror which made him hideous. And man and beast somehow resembled each other in that moment which was inimical to noble life.
The avalanche slipped with little jerks, as if treacherously loosing its hold for a long plunge. The line of fire below ate at the bleached grass and the long column of smoke curled away on the wind.
Slone held the taut lasso with his left hand, and with the right he swung the other rope, catching the noose round Wildfire’s nose. Then letting go of the first rope he hauled on the other, pulling the head of the stallion far down. Hand over hand Slone closed in on the horse. He leaped on Wildfire’s head, pressed it down, and, holding it down on the sand with his knees, with swift fingers he tied the nose in a hackamore—an improvised halter. Then, just as swiftly, he bound his scarf tight round Wildfire’s head, blindfolding him.
“All so easy!” exclaimed Slone, under his breath. “Who would believe it! Is it a dream?”
He rose and let the stallion have a free head.
“Wildfire, I got a rope on you—an’ a hackamore—an’ a blinder,” said Slone. “An’ if I had a bridle I’d put that on you. Who’d ever believe you’d catch yourself, draggin’ in the sand?”
Slone, finding himself falling on the sand, grew alive to the augmented movement of the avalanche. It had begun to slide, to heave and bulge and crack. Dust rose in clouds from all around. The sand appeared to open and let him sink to his knees. The rattle of gravel was drowned in a soft roar. Then he shot down swiftly, holding the lassos, keeping himself erect, and riding as if in a boat. He felt the successive steppes of the slope, and then the long incline below, and then the checking and rising and spreading of the avalanche as it slowed down on the level. All movement then was checked violently. He appeared to be half buried in sand. While he struggled to extricate himself the thick dust blew away and, settled so that he could see. Wildfire lay before him, at the edge of the slide, and now he was not so deeply embedded as he had been up on the slope. He was struggling and probably soon would have been able to get out. The line of fire was close now, but Slone did not fear that.
At his shrill whistle Nagger bounded toward him, obedient, but snorting, with ears laid back. He halted. A second whistle started him again. Slone finally dug himself out of the sand, pulled the lassos out, and ran the length of them toward Nagger. The black showed both fear and fight. His eyes rolled and he half shied away.
“Come on!” called Slone, harshly.
He got a hand on the horse, pulled him round, and, mounting in a flash, wound both lassos round the pommel of the saddle.
“Haul him out, Nagger, old boy!” cried Slone, and he dug spurs into the black.
One plunge of Nagger’s slid the stallion out of the sand. Snorting, wild, blinded, Wildfire got up, shaking in every limb. He could not see his enemies. The blowing smoke, right in his nose, made scent impossible. But in the taut lassos he sensed the direction of his captors. He plunged, rearing at the end of the plunge, and struck out viciously with his hoofs. Slone, quick with spur and bridle, swerved Nagger aside and Wildfire, off his balance, went down with a crash. Slone dragged him, stretched him out, pulled him over twice before he got forefeet planted. Once up, he reared again, screeching his rage, striking wildly with his hoofs. Slone wheeled aside and toppled him over again.
“Wildfire, it’s no fair fight,” he called, grimly. “But you led me a chase. An’ you learn right now I’m boss!”
Questions for Discussion
- “Wild Horse Hunter,” like many works in the Western genre, uses place as a character. What techniques does Grey use to reinforce place as a central part of the story and how does it add to the story?
- This becomes a Man vs. Nature story. What cultural narrative does the story reinforce in relation to how man interacts with nature?
- What purpose did the conversations between Sloan and the Stewart brothers at the begining of the story serve?
- What part, or parts, of the story (if any) didn’t resonate with you as a reader and why?
- Did reading this with a more contemporary lense contribute to how you fealt about the story?
- Write something that uses place as a character. Be sure to utilize some of the techniques that were discussed regarding “Wild Horse Hunter.”
- Cowboy poetry is a long standing tradition. Transform Zane Grey’s story into a piece of poetry that captures the feel Grey was trying to depict in his short story.
- Discuss why you think the use of place as a character is either an effective or ineffective technique in a five part essay. Use examples from “Wild Horse Hunter” to help illustrate your stance.