John Brent/Chapter XIX

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John Brent by Theodore Winthrop
Chapter XIX. Faster

Faster[edit]

It came afternoon, as we rode on steadily. The country grew rougher. The horses never flinched, but they sweated freely, and foam from their nostrils flecked their shoulders. By and by, with little pleasant admonitory puffs, a breeze drew down from the glimmering frosty edges of the Sierra and cooled us. Horses and men were cheered and freshened, and lifted anew to their work.

We had seen and heard no life on the desert. Now in the broken country, a cayote or two scuttled away as we passed. Sometimes a lean gray wolf would skulk out of a brake, canter after us a little way, and then squat on his haunches, staring at our strange speed. Flight and chase he could understand, but ours was not flight for safety, or chase for food. Men are queer mysteries to beasts. So our next companions found. Over the edge of a slope, bending away to a valley of dry scanty pasture at the left, a herd of antelopes appeared. They were close to us, within easy revolver shot. They sprang into graceful flight, some score of them, with tails up and black hoofs glancing. Presently, pausing for curiosity, they saw that we fled, not followed, and they in turn became pursuers, careering after us for a mile or more, until our stern business left their gambolling play far behind.

We held steadily for that notch in the blue Sierra. The mountain lines grew sharper; the country where we travelled, rougher, every stride. We came upon a wide tract covered with wild-sage bushes. These delayed and baffled us. It was a pigmy forest of trees, mature and complete, but no higher than the knee. Every dwarfed, stunted, gnarled bush, had the trunk, limbs, twigs, and gray, withered foliage, all in miniature, of some tree, hapless but sturdy, that has had a weather-beaten struggle for life on a storm-threshed crag by the shore, or on a granite side of a mountain, with short allowance of soil to eat and water to drink. Myriads of square miles of that arid region have no important vegetation except this wild-sage, or Artemisia, and a meaner brother, not even good to burn, the greasewood.

One may ride through the tearing thickets of a forest primeval, as one may shoulder through a crowd of civilized barbarians at a spectacle. Our gallop over the top of this pigmy wood was as difficult as to find passage over the heads of the same crowd, tall men and short, men hatted with slouched hats, wash-bowls, and stove-pipes. It was a rough scramble. It checked our speed and chafed our horses. Sometimes we could find natural pathways for a few rods. Then these strayed aside or closed up, and we must plunge straight on. We lost time; moments we lost, more precious than if every one were marked by a drop in a clepsydra, and each drop as it fell changed itself and tinkled in the basin, a priceless pearl.

“It worries me, this delay,” I said to Brent.

“They lost as much — more time than we,” he said.

And he crowded on, more desperately, as a man rides for dearer than life, — as a lover rides for love.

We tore along, breaking through and over the sage-bushes, each man where best he could. Fulano began to show me what leaps were in him. I gave him his head. No bridle would have held him. I kept my mastery by the voice, or rather by the perfect identification of his will with mine. Our minds acted together. “Save strength,” I still warned him, “save strength, my friend, for the mountains and the last leaps!”

A little pathway in the sage-bushes suddenly opened before me, as a lane rifts in the press of hurrying legions ’mid the crush of a city thoroughfare. I dashed on a hundred yards in advance of my comrades.

What was this? The bushes trampled and broken down, just as we in our passage were trampling and breaking them. What?

Hoof-marks in the dust!

“The trail!” I cried, “the trail!”

They sprang toward me. Brent followed the line with his eye. He galloped forward, with a look of triumph.

Suddenly I saw him fling himself half out of his saddle, and clutch at some object. Still going at speed, and holding on by one leg alone, after the Indian fashion for sport or shelter against an arrow or a shot, he picked up something from the bushes, regained his seat, and waved his treasure to us. We ranged up and rode beside him over a gap in the sage.

A lady’s glove! — that was what he had stooped to recover. An old buckskin riding gauntlet, neatly stitched about the wrist, and pinked on the wristlet. A pretty glove, strangely, almost tragically, feminine in this desolation. A well-worn glove, that had seen better days, like its mistress, but never any day so good as this, when it proved to us that we were on the sure path of rescue.

“I take up the gauntlet,” said Brent. “Gare à qui le touche!

We said nothing more; for this unconscious token, this silent cry for help, made the danger seem more closely imminent. We pressed on. No flinching in any of the horses. Where we could, we were going at speed. Where they could, the horses kept side by side, nerving each other. Companionship sustained them in that terrible ride.

And now in front the purple Sierra was growing brown, and rising up a distinct wall, cleft visibly with dell, gully, ravine, and cañon. The saw-teeth of the ridge defined themselves sharply into peak and pinnacle. Broad fields of cool snow gleamed upon the summits.

We were ascending now all the time into subalpine regions. We crossed great sloping savannas, deep in dry, rustling grass, where a nation of cattle might pasture. We plunged through broad wastes of hot sand. We flung ourselves down and up the red sides of water-worn gullies. We took breakneck leaps across dry quebradas in the clay. We clattered across stony arroyos, longing thirstily for the gush of water that had flowed there not many months before.

The trail was everywhere plain. No prairie craft was needed to trace it. Here the chase had gone, but a few hours ago; here, across grassy slopes, trampling the grass as if a mower had passed that way; here, ploughing wearily through the sand; here, treading the red, crumbling clay; here, breaking down the side of a bank; here, leaving a sharp hoof-track in the dry mud of a fled torrent. Everywhere a straight path, pointing for that deepening gap in the Sierra, Luggernel Alley, the only gate of escape.

Brent’s unerring judgment had divined the course aright. On he led, charging along the trail, as if he were trampling already on the carcasses of the pursued. On he led and we followed, drawing nearer, nearer to our goal.

Our horses suffered bitterly for water. Some five hours we had ridden without a pause. Not one drop or sign of water in all that arid waste. The torrents had poured along the dry watercourses too hastily to let the scanty alders and willows along their line treasure up any sap of growth. The wild-sage bushes had plainly never tasted fluid more plenteous than seldom dewdrops doled out on certain rare festal days, enough to keep their meagre foliage a dusty gray. No pleasant streamlet lurked anywhere under the long dry grass of the savannas. The arroyos were parched and hot as rifts in lava.

It became agonizing to listen to the panting and gasping of our horses. Their eyes grew staring and bloodshot. We suffered, ourselves, hardly less than they. It was cruel to press on. But we must hinder a crueller cruelty. Love against Time, — Vengeance against Time! We must not flinch for any weak humanity to the noble allies that struggled on with us, without one token of resistance.

Fulano suffered least. He turned his brave eye back, and beckoned me with his ear to listen, while he seemed to say: “See, this is my Endurance! I hold my Power ready still to show.”

And he curved his proud neck, shook his mane like a banner, and galloped the grandest of all.

We came to a broad strip of sand, the dry bed of a mountain-torrent. The trail followed up this disappointing path. Heavy ploughing for the tired horses! How would they bear the rough work down the ravine yet to come?

Suddenly our leader pulled up and sprang from the saddle.

“Look!” he cried, “how those fellows spent their time, and saved ours. Thank Heaven for this! We shall save her, surely, now.”

It was water! No need to go back to Pindar to know that it was “the Best.”

They had dug a pit deep in the thirsty sand, and found a lurking river buried there. Nature never questioned what manner of men they were that sought. Murderers flying from vengeance and planning now another villain outrage, — still impartial Nature did not change her laws for them. Sunshine, air, water, life, — these boons of hers, — she gave them freely. That higher boon of death, if they were to receive, it must be from some other power, greater than the undiscriminating force of Nature.

Good luck and good omen, this well of water in the sand! It proved that our chase had suffered as we, and had been delayed as we. Before they had dared to pause and waste priceless moments here, their horses must have been drooping terribly. The pit was nearly five feet deep. A good hour’s work, and no less, had dug it with such tools as they could bring. I almost laughed to think of the two, slowly bailing out the sliding sand with a tin plate, perhaps, and a frying-pan, while a score of miles away upon the desert we three were riding hard upon their tracks to follow them the fleeter for this refreshment they had left. “Sic vos non vobis!” I was ready to say triumphantly; but then I remembered the third figure in their group, — a woman, like a Sibyl, growing calmer as her peril grew, and succor seemed to withdraw. And the pang of this picture crushed back into my heart any thoughts but a mad anxiety and a frenzy to be driving on.

We drank thankfully of this well by the way-side. No gentle beauty hereabouts to enchant us to delay. No grand old tree, the shelter and the landmark of the fountain, proclaiming an oasis near. Nothing but bare, hot sand. But the water was pure, cool, and bright. It had come underground from the Sierra, and still remembered its parent snows. We drank and were grateful, almost to the point of pity. Had we been but avengers, like Armstrong, my friend and I could wellnigh have felt mercy here, and turned back pardoning. But rescue was more imperative than vengeance. Our business tortured us, as with the fanged scourge of Tisiphone, while we dallied. We grudged these moments of refreshment. Before night fell down the west, and night was soon to be climbing up the east, we must overtake, — and then?

I wiped the dust and spume away from Fulano’s nostrils and breathed him a moment. Then I let him drain deep, delicious draughts from the stirrup-cup. He whinnied thanks and undying fealty, — my noble comrade! He drank like a reveller. When I mounted again, he gave a jubilant curvet and bound. My weight was a feather to him. All those leagues of our hard, hot gallop were nothing.

The brown Sierra here was close at hand. Its glittering, icy summits, above the dark and sheeny walls, far above the black phalanxes of clambering pines, stooped forward and hung over us as we rode. We were now at the foot of the range, where it dipped suddenly down upon the plain. The gap, our goal all day, opened before us, grand and terrible. Some giant force had clutched the mountains, and riven them narrowly apart. The wild defile gaped, and then wound away and closed, lost between its mighty walls, a thousand feet high, and bearing two brother pyramids of purple cliffs aloft far above the snow line. A fearful portal into a scene of the throes and agonies of earth! and my excited eyes seemed to read, gilded over its entrance, in the dead gold of that hazy October sunshine, words from Dante’s inscription, —

“Per me si va tra la perduta gente;
Lasciate ogni speranza voi, ch’ entrate!

“Here we are,” said Brent, speaking hardly above his breath. “This is Luggernel Alley at last, thank God! In an hour, if the horses hold out, we shall be at the Springs; that is, if we can go through this breakneck gorge at the same pace. My horse began to flinch a little before the water. Perhaps that will set him up. How are yours?”

“Fulano asserts that he has not begun to show himself yet. I may have to carry you en croupe, before we are done.”

Armstrong said nothing, but pointed impatiently down the defile. The gaunt white horse moved on quicker at this gesture. He seemed a tireless machine, not flesh and blood, — a being like his master, living and acting by the force of a purpose alone.

Our chief led the way into the cañon.